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September 22, 2013
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Publisher's Notebook: Got a better health care plan than Obamacare?

By now most of you know that I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, which is why I ask so many dumb questions.

In fact, I’ve made a pretty good career out of asking dumb questions. Some call it journalism.

That’s why I had no problem asking Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer why health care costs so much more in the United States than in any other country.

Dr. Dannenhoffer is CEO of Architrave, a company that pretty much manages the health care of Douglas County residents enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan. He is a really smart guy who knows the health care business better than most.

As it turned out, my question wasn’t as dumb as it sounded because there was no simple answer (most dumb questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” or sometimes complete silence).

Besides, if there were a simple answer there would be a simple solution. And as we all know, there is no simple solution for our rising medical costs, which consume roughly 18 percent of America’s gross domestic spending.

From what I’ve been able to determine, Americans are charged more for drugs and medical care because … well … we can pay more. That’s the theory, anyway.

Those who charge us twice what they would charge someone in another country for the same exact pill or procedure assume Americans earn more, but the math doesn’t work. Americans don’t earn that much more. If they did, 30 million more Americans would probably have some form of insurance today. I read somewhere that a colonoscopy in Australia costs $655 on average.

That same colonoscopy costs $1,100 here and I suspect they feel exactly the same, at least until the bill comes.

Last week we published a story about a couple who crashed their motorcycle last Memorial Day weekend and are struggling to pay medical bills totaling $350,000 — $100,000 more than the median price of a three-bedroom house! For that kind of money I’d want a brand-new body, complete with hair and six-pack abs.

According to a 2009 study, the average American spent $7,538 annually on health care. The next highest median cost was in Norway at $5,000 and Switzerland at $4,600. We don’t earn 50 percent more than Norwegians do, nor twice as much as the Swiss.

And before you suggest that they pay a lot more in taxes to support nationalized health care in those countries, they don’t. We pay a lot of taxes for health care in this country, too. But only 28 percent of Americans benefit from the $2.5 TRILLION our government spends on health care each year. As you can imagine, there is a lot of waste, inefficiency and outright fraud imbedded in those costs. That’s why some don’t trust any government health care plan.

The reality is that we’re charged twice as much for a hip replacement or a pill because — except for Medicare — we don’t have any buying leverage. In countries where they have nationalized medicine they have some serious buying power (think Costco or Wal-Mart).

“If you want to do business with us Mr. Artificial Hip Company Representative, this is what we are willing to pay. If you don’t want it, we’ll buy our hips from your competitor. I’m sure he’ll want exclusive rights to the 30 million people who need hips.”

You would think that a nation that spends 50 percent more on health care than, say Norway, would be 50 percent healthier. You would probably be wrong. Despite all that money we’re not that healthy. According to the World Health Organization, Americans lead other high-income countries in several chronic diseases. Mostly due to “higher body mass,” which I suppose is a nice way of saying we’re too fat.

A study by a health system think tank called The Commonwealth Fund recently found that geography matters and that there are some wide differences within states by income. “If all states could reach the benchmarks set by leading states (and Oregon is a “lagging” and not “leading” health care state, according to the study), an estimated 86,000 fewer people would die prematurely and tens of millions more adults and children would receive timely preventative care.”

The study found that if Oregon’s health care levels were improved to the same levels as the best-performing states (Hawaii, Wisconsin, Vermont, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Connecticut), 348,589 more Oregonians would be insured and more than 50,000 children would receive timely preventive care.

If Dr. Dannenhoffer, a pediatrician, had a wish, it would be for all Douglas County children to receive quality medical and dental care by the time they reach kindergarten.

It doesn’t take the sharpest knife in the drawer to understand how far we need to go in order to realize that dream. The question isn’t whether our health care system is broken. The evidence is all around us and it’s overwhelming.

Even I can see that.

The reasons are many and not so easily addressed. But those who now seek to destroy the president’s health care plan would be better served persuading Americans that they have a better plan. One that will allow every child to begin kindergarten with white, cavity-free teeth and a healthy and nourished body.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher of The News-Review. He can be reached at 541-957-4263 or jackerman@nrtoday.com.

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The News-Review Updated Sep 23, 2013 11:31AM Published Sep 23, 2013 01:53PM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.