Why does the US still have privatized health care?

30 July 2023
Why does the US still have privatized health care?

Private versus Public: A Healthcare Conundrum

When it comes to healthcare systems, it seems the world divides distinctly into two distinct camps. One treads the path of public healthcare, believing in access to health services for all, with the government as the primary payer. The other, where the US has notably staked its claim, is the territory of privatized healthcare. For those staring across the pond wondering "whyyy?", let's dig right in and dissect this issue like a pre-med student faced with her first cadaver.

The Origins of Privatization: A Short Excursion into the Past

It all started back at the time when 'duck and cover' was a legit safety drill and poodle skirts were all the rage. Yep, it was the 1950s, when the U.S. healthcare system took a sharp turn toward privatization. Due to a confluence of several factors during World War II - from wage freezes to a growing economy - employer-sponsored insurance plans began to become the order of the day. These private healthcare plans were attractive deal sweeteners for employers, and thus began America's enduring love affair with privatized health insurance.

The Capitalist Creed: Competition Breeds Excellence

The proponents of privatization passionately argue that competition breeds excellence. The rivalry among healthcare providers and insurance companies keeps them on their toes, forcing them to continually strive for better services at more competitive prices. Moreover, the reward of profit fuels innovation and high-quality care. But alas, reality often plays spoilsport with these lofty theories.

The Flipside: The Dark Underside of Privatization

While competition ought to keep companies on their toes, reality seems to be tripping them up on their own shoe laces. The US has the highest health expenditure per capita globally but doesn't particularly shine when it comes to health outcomes. Hospitals more resemble luxury hotels, complete with concierge service and gourmet food, while tens of millions of Americans live without health insurance. Patients often face monumental bills for fairly routine procedures. The logic of the free market appears to have been lost in translation, morphing into a scenario where high prices no longer guarantee world-class quality.

The Million Dollar Equation: Does Privatization = Better Healthcare?

Not necessarily. According to a plethora of research and comparisons with other developed countries, privatization hasn't necessarily lifted the US healthcare system onto a golden pedestal. Other developed nations that have public healthcare systems often outperform the US in a variety of health parameters despite spending considerably less. Japan and South Korea are prime examples of this, boasting impressive life expectancies and health outcomes despite spending significantly less on healthcare than the US.

Lessons from Across the Pond: A Look at the National Health Service

Here in the UK where I reside, the National Health Service is considered one of the nation's proudest achievements. Everyone has access to healthcare, irrespective of their financial circumstances. Sure, the system has its criticisms – longer waiting times, limited choice of doctors – but everyone gets treated eventually. A fact exemplified during the COVID-19 pandemic when regardless of the severity of illness, everyone unconditionally received treatment – even our Prime Minister.

So, Why Does the US Still Have Privatized Healthcare?

Now we circle back to our initial question: why does the US maintain a privatized healthcare system? The reasons are complex and intertwined. A first glance may pin the faults on capitalism but closer scrutiny reveals a more nuanced picture. It’s tied to political ideologies, historical factors, a strong belief in personal freedom and responsibility, and fear of governmental control. But change is hard to implement when the status quo is deeply entrenched. The Affordable Care Act or Obamacare challenged the system, and it lives on (albeit in a battered state), showing that change is possible even if it comes slowly. However, given the sheer complexity of the issue, any shift would need to be carefully planned and executed.

In the end, it's clear that the US healthcare system is a bewildering labyrinth of contradictions. It harbours brilliance and innovation while simultaneously tolerating stark disparity and hardship. For those of us who don't inhabit the Land of the Free, the system can seem hard to comprehend or justify. But then again, "It's a free country" is more than just an offhanded expression in America. It's deeply symbolic of the core values held by its citizenry, quite possibly playing a role in persisting with a system that seems alien to the rest of the world.