Healthcare, babies and the national debt: The real cost

By Jonathan D. Walker, M.D.
Frost Illustrated (Fort Wayne, Ind.), Aug. 24, 2011

The term “infant mortality rate” is a measure of the number of babies that die under one year of age per 1,000 live births. It is a useful indicator of how effective a healthcare system is—the lower the number, the fewer babies die.

Although there are a lot of people who feel the U.S. has the best healthcare system in the world, according to the Center for Disease Control, the United States actually ranks 29th in the world for infant mortality. And it gets worse. Infant mortality for African Americans is consistently more than twice that for white Americans—infant mortality among African Americans in 2007 was 13.3 deaths per 1,000 live births compared to a rate for non-Hispanic whites of 5.6.

There are a lot of reasons why this disparity exists—it happens to be a very complex issue. One big factor is simply the lack of access to appropriate healthcare. Healthy babies need healthy mothers, and the process starts well before a woman gets pregnant. But, that process can’t happen if you don’t have insurance and can’t afford to see a doctor.

Every other developed country in the world has decided that people should be able to get the care they need when they need it, and without having to worry about going bankrupt. In America, the healthcare system has ended up protecting the interests of for-profit companies over the needs of individuals and, as a result, people are left without access to care. And, the problem is spreading—even people with insurance are finding that their copays and deductibles are becoming so expensive that they put off needed care because they can’t afford it.

And, now we have the debt crisis, and a lot of politicians who want to simply cut back on spending without thinking about the consequences. Unfortunately, this means that there will be less money available to solve problems like our higher infant mortality rate. And, that means that not only will babies continue to die, but people who need all types of medical care will only show up sicker and in worse shape, which means it will cost us even more to take care of them.

Those politicians don’t seem to get the fact that when you cut back on healthcare, not only do you hurt people, but you also make it more expensive for everybody else.

Instead of blindly cutting back on spending, we should start by making sure that everyone gets the care they need. Then we could sit down as a society and begin to control the free-for-all that exists amongst the for-profit companies that are fighting to get healthcare dollars while people suffer.

Every other developed country has figured this out, and their babies live. But, we seem to be incapable of trying to learn from them—powerful vested interests want us to think that any way besides our way must be wrong.

An entire world of solutions is out there, but in America, lobbyists and politicians can literally stop the debate with irrelevant accusations of “socialized medicine” or “government takeover of healthcare.” So we all end up paying more for healthcare and more people are afraid to go to the doctor because they can’t afford it.

If we could say that we actually had the best results in the world, perhaps this would be tolerable. Unfortunately, the real result is that the youngest, sickest and poorest of us will be hurt, and we will all pay the rising cost of treating the ones that survive. It means that babies—and especially African American babies— will be dying because no one wants to look at the obvious solutions that are all around us.

Dr. Walker is a local physician and member of Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan.