Healthcare reform means not only health insurance for every American (although it certainly means that), and it doesn’t only mean providing a single-payer, public option (although it absolutely means that)—it also means getting the soaring costs of American healthcare under control.
Health care in the U.S. is the most expensive in the world. Are we the healthiest people in the world, then? I can almost hear your derisive snort of laughter. No, of course we’re not.
This adds up to precisely one inescapable conclusion: something is really wrong here.
In McAllen, Texas—a small town with the distinction of being one of the most expensive healthcare markets in the world—Atul Gawande tries to figure out what that is.
It is spring in McAllen, Texas. The morning sun is warm. The streets are lined with palm trees and pickup trucks. McAllen is in Hidalgo County, which has the lowest household income in the country, but it’s a border town, and a thriving foreign-trade zone has kept the unemployment rate below ten per cent. McAllen calls itself the Square Dance Capital of the World. “Lonesome Dove” was set around here.
McAllen has another distinction, too: it is one of the most expensive health-care markets in the country. Only Miami—which has much higher labor and living costs—spends more per person on health care. In 2006, Medicare spent fifteen thousand dollars per enrollee here, almost twice the national average. The income per capita is twelve thousand dollars. In other words, Medicare spends three thousand dollars more per person here than the average person earns.
The explosive trend in American medical costs seems to have occurred here in an especially intense form. Our country’s health care is by far the most expensive in the world. In Washington, the aim of health-care reform is not just to extend medical coverage to everybody but also to bring costs under control. Spending on doctors, hospitals, drugs, and the like now consumes more than one of every six dollars we earn. The financial burden has damaged the global competitiveness of American businesses and bankrupted millions of families, even those with insurance. It’s also devouring our government. “The greatest threat to America’s fiscal health is not Social Security,” President Barack Obama said in a March speech at the White House. “It’s not the investments that we’ve made to rescue our economy during this crisis. By a wide margin, the biggest threat to our nation’s balance sheet is the skyrocketing cost of health care. It’s not even close.”
The question we’re now frantically grappling with is how this came to be, and what can be done about it. McAllen, Texas, the most expensive town in the most expensive country for health care in the world, seemed a good place to look for some answers.