An excellent article appeared recently in Dallas News that talked about the health care systems in other Western countries and what America can learn from them to resolve its health care woes. Here is the article for a good read…

Tackling the high cost of health care is politically bruising and difficult work around the world. Among developed countries, only the Norwegians rival our level of spending. The French wrestle with rising costs every year. The Canadians are searching for a better model, and have had their eyes on France. But for all their troubles, the French and the Canadians – two bogeymen in the American reform debate – spend much less and live longer than we Americans.

In the last five years, I’ve spent time reporting on health care in 10 other countries to see what they might offer in the way of suggestions to improve the American way of medicine. No one has a perfect system. No one has a permanent solution. But medical spending can be slowed without sacrificing quality. Some do it with government price controls and government doctors, while some do it with government acting as a referee. Neither approach is fatal to medical quality.

The Swiss, the French and the Canadians all use very different approaches to get at the problem, but they get there. And when all else fails, there’s still medical tourism. You can get heart bypass surgery, with a tour of the Taj Mahal, in India for less than 10 percent of the U.S. cost – plus a year’s supply of pharmaceuticals.

I met Carlo Gislimberti, a New Mexico restaurateur, in New Delhi in 2005 while he was waiting for a coronary bypass at the Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centre. He’d had three heart attacks. He had no health insurance. His Albuquerque hospital wanted $120,000 for the operation.

Escorts did the job for less than $12,000.

“It was an absolutely wonderful experience with wonderful results,” Gislimberti said last week when I called him in Santa Fe.

“There was only one thing – the luxury is not there. But the knowledge, the quality of nursing, it was absolutely beyond belief. … I would still today recommend to all the people in my predicament to go abroad.”

Medical tourism is no longer a quirky answer for the desperate and uninsured. The health-consulting arm of Deloitte estimates 1.6 million Americans will seek medical treatment in another country this year. U.S. health insurers, looking for ways to lower costs, are exploring policies that cover such travel.

Gislimberti, now 64, sold his restaurant and paints for a living. His heart ailments qualified him for disability under Social Security, and last year he was accepted under Medicare. He had a pacemaker installed by his Albuquerque hospital in an operation last May.

One thing he learned: “If you have insurance, this country is the greatest. But it you don’t have insurance, this is a Third World country.”

Another lesson: Price competition is coming. A study by the McKinsey Global Institute consulting group last fall found that Americans pay 50 percent to 60 percent higher charges for pharmaceuticals, health insurance overhead and physician services than anyone else in the world. That could make medical tourism irresistible, and a competitive risk to the U.S. medical establishment.

Switzerland is intriguing because employers have gotten out of the insurance business. The Swiss government mandates personal health insurance. Everyone shops among scores of insurance companies to buy a policy. The insurers must offer everyone a basic policy and can’t exclude anyone. The government offers subsidies to people who can’t afford a policy, and fines people who don’t get one.

Swiss medical fees are set in annual negotiations between health care providers and insurers that must win the approval of the canton parliament. (Insurers and hospital chains do the same thing here, but those negotiations are seldom among equals and don’t have a referee like the canton parliament.)

One result of the Swiss approach is that consumers gravitate toward high-deductible policies – insurance that costs less per month, but takes more out of your wallet when you see a doctor. And because they’re paying for it, the Swiss are more cost-conscious health consumers. The Swiss spend about a third less than Americans for medical care.

France and Canada both have national health insurance. In France, this is like Medicare for all. There’s a gap of 30 percent to 40 percent between what the government insurance covers and what health care costs, so a lively market exists for private, supplemental insurance policies.

Doctors can choose compensation under a government schedule revised every year, or they can charge what they like – and forgo a government pension.

Canadians may, famously, wait for nonurgent treatments and surgeries. But they’re quicker to rally around a public health issue like obesity, because the insurance mechanism is part of the provincial government.

“Our wait lists are coming down, but they’re still substantially more than yours,” said Canadian health economist Steven Lewis. “But your system is twice as expensive. It doesn’t insure 45 million people, it underinsures another 45 million, and overall you have a less healthy population. Is that worth sustaining?”

In the current health care debate in Washington, no one argues that we should throw out the U.S. health care model for an import. There are models closer to home – like Temple’s Scott & White – worth emulating.

But there are plenty of places that spend less for equal or better care. It can be done.

By Jim Landers

Further reading:
Medical tourism
Domestic medical tourism
FREE surgery quote

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