U.S. Health Care Could Be More Like Denmark’s

Steffie Woolhandler

Steffie Woolhandler

New York Times, October 20, 2015
by Steffie Woolhandler, co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program.

The United States isn’t Denmark, but it can, like Scandinavia, implement changes to its health care system that save money, cover everyone and help us live longer.

In the 1950s, U.S. health statistics were world class: infant mortality rate among the lowest, life expectancy among the highest, and health costs about average. One by one, other nations — not just Denmark and Sweden, but Australia, Britain, Canada and Taiwan, to name a few — adopted national health programs. By the end of the 20th century, the U.S. was the lone hold out for private, for-profit health insurance, and its health statistics lagged behind dozens of countries. Meanwhile, costs soared to twice the average in other wealthy nations.

For Americans, national health insurance would mean comprehensive coverage, a free choice from a smorgasbord of any doctor or hospital and lower costs. Other countries have seen huge savings by evicting private insurers and the reams of expensive paperwork they inflict on doctors and hospitals. Aetna keeps 19 cents of every premium dollar for overhead and profit, leaving only 81 cents for care. And U.S. hospitals devote 25.3 percent of total revenue to administration, reflecting the high cost of collecting patient copayments and deductibles, and fighting with insurers.

Obamacare will direct an additional $850 billion in public funds to private insurers, and boost insurance overhead by $273.6 billion. Yet it will leave 26 million uninsured and similar numbers with such skimpy coverage that a major illness would bankrupt them. Most Americans have coverage that limits their choice of doctors and hospitals, and inflicts steep financial penalties when they stray "out-of-network" by accident or necessity.