Debunking Some Health Care "Urban Myths"

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  • 11/05/2007
Like they say, everything you read in the newspaper is true except for those things you know about personally. This isn't always how urban myths begin -- but is certainly one of the most potent ways they are perpetuated.

Three of the most common "urban myths" of American health care (courtesy of folks like Michael Moore, Paul Krugman, et. al.) are that (1) the infant mortality rate in the US "proves" the total inadequacy of our system, (2) there are 47 million uninsured Americans -- proving the inequity of our system, and (3) We spend "too much" on health care -- proving the wastefulness of our system.

As the Ol Perfessor used to say, "Let's look at the numbers."

1. Infant Mortality

According to N. Gergory Mankiw, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, "The United States has lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality than Canada, which has national health insurance." This fact, according to Mankiw, is often taken as evidence for the inadequacy of the U.S. health system. But a recent study by June and Dave O'Neill, economists at Baruch College, from whom these numbers come, shows that the difference in health outcomes has more to do with broader social forces.

According to Manikow, "Americans are more likely than Canadians to die by accident or by homicide. For men in their 20s, mortality rates are more than 50 percent higher in the United States than in Canada, but the O'Neills show that accidents and homicides account for most of that gap. Maybe these differences have lessons for traffic laws and gun control, but they teach nothing about the U.S. system of health care.

Americans are also more likely to be obese, leading to heart disease and other medical problems. Among Americans, 31 percent of men and 33 percent of women have a body mass index of at least 30, the dividing line between overweight and obese, versus 17 percent of men and 19 percent of women in Canada. Research by the Harvard economists David Cutler, Ed Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro concludes that the growing obesity problem in the United States is largely attributable to its ability to supply high-calorie foods inexpensively.

Infant mortality rates also reflect broader social trends, including the prevalence of infants with low birth weight, which is correlated with teenage motherhood. Whatever its merits, a Canadian-style system of national health insurance is unlikely to change the sexual mores of American youths"

2- 47 Million Uninsured

This number from the Census Bureau is often cited as evidence that the health system is failing for many families. Yet, as Mankiw observes, "by masking tremendous heterogeneity in personal circumstances, the figure exaggerates the magnitude of the problem."

The 47 million includes about 10 million residents who are not U.S. citizens. Many are illegal immigrants. Even with national health insurance, they would probably not be covered.

The "Big Number" also includes millions of the poor who are eligible for Medicaid but have not yet applied. Per Mankiw, "they are uninsured in name only."

And about a quarter of the uninsured have been offered employer-provided insurance but declined coverage.

3- We spend "too much" on health care

In 1950, Americans spent about 5 percent of their income on health care. Today the share is about 16 percent. Mankiw believes that "many pundits take the increasing cost as evidence that the system is too expensive.But increasing expenditures could just as well be a symptom of success."

And he hits a homerun with a clear. concise, and uncomplicated explanation. "The reason Americans spend more than their grandparents did is not waste, fraud and abuse, but advances in medical technology and growth in incomes. Medical science has consistently found new ways to extend and improve lives. Wonderful as they are, they do not come cheap."

Consider the question posed by economists Charles Jones of the University of California and Robert Hall of Stanford: "As we grow older and richer, which is more valuable: a third car, yet another television, more clothing - or an extra year of life?"

Perhaps this should be added as a question to the next spate of Presidential debates?

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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