March 22, 2010
Is health care spending a black hole?
By Randolph Brandt
One of the “givens” in the late health-care reform debate was broad acceptance that spending for health care eats up a tremendous portion of the nation’s GDP – now about 16 percent – and promises to consume more and more of the nation’s productivity over the next decades.
Indeed, part of health-care reform was framed as a means of slowing this otherwise inexorable progression, and that’s probably good.
Despite our Rep. Paul Ryan’s scary charts, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office made a clear case for how health-care reform will save more government expense than it costs over the next couple decades.
But, let’s say, that turns out not to be the case, and somehow it winds up costing more.
What’s wrong with a country spending a larger portion of its GDP on health care for its citizens? Is it worse, for example, than spending more of our GDP on, say, more cars, or more refrigerators or more televisions or cell phones, especially since so many of those products are now made overseas?
It’s not like the money spent here on health care just goes away.
For one thing, the investment presumably makes our people healthier. As anybody who’s ever gone to work with a head cold already knows, you’re not very productive, innovative or effective when you’re sick.
When you’re very sick – or even disabled by an otherwise preventable chronic illness – it gets even worse. Your productivity then falls to zero.
When he was home secretary of Great Britain in the early 20th century, Winston Churchill famously said that the best investment a country could make was putting milk into babies. It ensured a healthier, more productive generation, capable of working harder to create a better future for everyone.
A sickly, unhealthy generation could only do less. (Fortunately the ‘milk-into-babies’ generation was strong enough to help us beat Hitler.)
It’s hard to figure how putting milk into babies is akin to pouring it down the sink.
Nor is it any easier to figure how spending money on health care is pouring dollars down the sink.
Typically, the local hospital is one of the community’s largest employers. Often, it is the largest. It pays very high salaries and wages to doctors, to nurses, to highly trained technicians – not exactly dead-end jobs at the local fast-food joint.
And it’s not like these good jobs can be exported overseas; they need to remain right here, making our local communities and their people better, stronger.
Indeed, it’s the other way around. We actually import people for the privilege of studying and working in health care here.
Intelligent, capable people from around the world study years for these jobs, helping to maintain this country’s premier position as the world’s destination for advanced study in the field of medicine. Similarly, it ensures the nation’s first-place status among all countries for advanced medical research and development, with Wisconsin very much in the forefront in that regard.
The health-care reform bill is about to bring better health care to 30-40 million people, likely even more. To do that, we’re going to need to train thousands, probably tens of thousands more doctors, nurses, medical technicians, office administrators, support staff, researchers, drug-developers, scientists … the ripple effect for our economy will be nothing less than enormous.
Americans value life so much, we even put it in the Constitution, as in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
It’s sometimes said that other societies value life less, though I don’t necessarily believe that. It’s enough to know that we value life a lot.
So, we’re willing to invest in it.
From now on, when I see comparison GDP figures from different countries, I’m not going to ask why we seem to spend so much more for health care for our citizens; I’m going to ask why others invest so much less.
Randolph D. Brandt is the retired editor of the Journal Times.