For-profit health care gains as Americans lose lives

You may not be able to get your flu shot this year. The needed supply of the vaccine is low, that everyone can agree on. However, the reason why flu shots are going to be

You may not be able to get your flu shot this year. The needed supply of the vaccine is low, that everyone can agree on. However, the reason why flu shots are going to be scarce while Viagra is readily available is another part of the great American health care debate.

There is a school of thought that believes market forces should regulate health care as they are allowed to regulate other businesses. If health care is run on a business model, then we will get the best health care at the lowest cost through competition. However, it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way.

Former Philadelphia Inquirer investigative reporters Donald Bartlett and James Steele have written a new book called “Critical Condition: How Health Care in America Became Big Business – and Bad Medicine.” Bartlett and Steele take on the idea that running health care as a profit based business has been good for the United States. They claim that since the country switched to a for-profit system spending on health care has risen from 10.6 to almost 16 percent. Unfortunately, this has not brought with it a rise in the quality of the health of Americans.

The key is what we mean by access to health care, and what is implied by a for- profit system. I do not claim to be an expert in economics, but I know enough to figure out the realities of the money trail and the power of marketing. Viagra earns its maker, Pfizer, more than $1 billion a year in profits.

Surely erectile dysfunction has been a problem for a number of men and Viagra and drugs like it may have improved the quality of life for some couples. But ask yourself a question: If the flu vaccine brought in the same profits that Viagra does, do you think the supply would run low? Profit is, in general, a value neutral thing. However, when it is allowed to make decisions about health care, profit can steer us wrong.

Health care is not an option, nor is it a luxury. The older we get the more likely we are to need prescriptions and hospitals. These days, older Americans are more affected than ever by the rising cost of the care they need. It could affect the little old lady that has lived in your neighborhood for 47 years who is probably on a fixed income, and any rise in the cost of drugs or doctors hurts her where she is vulnerable.

Not only are older Americans at risk to rising health care costs, they are now facing the possibility that their pensions will be reduced or even lost. Some workers have their pension in shares of their company. If the company fails, the workers can lose their pensions. This just happened to the employees of Marsh & McLennan, a large insurance brokerage firm. If health care is costing more and your fixed income is less than it was, the outcome is evident.

Of the 45 million Americans who lack insurance, eight million are children. Four out of five uninsured Americans are members of the working poor. No matter how you cut it, for profit health care is not working. Twenty years ago, citizens of the United States had one of the longest average lifespans on the planet. Today, American women rank 19th in the world in terms of total lifespan while American men rank 28th.

On the other hand, drug companies report profits that are eight times higher than the median for the rest of the Fortune 500 industries. Profits are up but quality of life is down. As long as profits drive health care in the United States, things are unlikely to change.

William Lodge can be reached at

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