Most Americans probably don’t know that we have substantially lower life-expectancy and higher infant-mortality figures than other advanced countries. It would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that this poor performance is entirely the result of a defective health care system; social factors, notably America’s high poverty rate, surely play a role. Still, it seems puzzling that we spend so much, with so little return. A 2003 study published in Health Affairs (one of whose authors is my Princeton colleague Uwe Reinhardt) tried to resolve that puzzle by comparing a number of measures of health services across the advanced world. What the authors found was that the United States scores high on high-tech services – we have lots of M.R.I.’s – but on more prosaic measures, like the number of doctors’ visits and number of days spent in hospitals, America is only average, or even below average. There’s also direct evidence that identical procedures cost far more in the U.S. than in other advanced countries. The authors concluded that Americans spend far more on health care than their counterparts abroad – but they don’t actually receive more care. The title of their article? "It’s the Prices, Stupid."
So we’ve created a vast and hugely expensive insurance bureaucracy that accomplishes nothing. The resources spent by private insurers don’t reduce overall costs; they simply shift those costs to other people and institutions. It’s perverse but true that this system, which insures only 85 percent of the population, costs much more than we would pay for a system that covered everyone.