The Cost of Emergency Care in Surf City: Is America’s system the best?

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

“America has the best health care system in the world.”

That’s what we’re often told by the faithful followers of the “free market” economy whenever health care reform advocates call for a single payer health care system in America like the one that exists in Canada or a government run “socialized” system like Norway has.

My recently turned 90-year-old father has been in good health for most of his life. Although he became more fragile in recent years, he still walks around the block almost every day. He also pushes the shopping cart when we go shopping at the local grocery store where he is famous for buying more tapioca pudding than any other customer.

But things can happen at any age and the resulting medical costs could give you a stroke if you had to pay them out of your own pocket all at once. Of course, health care insurance premiums for you and your family may also cost thousands of dollars per year.

A lot of your month premiums goes to pay for treatment at the hospitals that health insurance companies own. Those “managed care facilities” are  part of a complex corporate maze of privately owned “non-profit” and for profit businesses that earn huge bonus paychecks for the CEOs who run the so-called best health care system in the world ($10 million in 2008 for Tenet CEO Trevor Fetter, for example).

On several occasions in recent years I had a close look at those hospital costs first hand when my father had health emergencies and went to the Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley for treatment.

In July, in one case, I found him unable to keep his balance and had to help him sit back down in his chair.

I called 911 and the city’s Fire-Med paramedics took him to the emergency room. A cat scan revealed that my father suffered no brain damage from what may have been a “mini” stroke. The doctor said to watch him and call 911 if it happened again. We went home and he has been fine since then.

My father’s insurance deductable (with supplemental insurance) was $50 for the hospital visit and $50 for the paramedics who picked him up. We also pay $60 a year to be in the city’s Fire-Med program insurance program, which pays paramedic costs for members of the household if they don’t have insurance or their insurance won’t.

Here are the actual costs of my father’s treatment that day:

Emergency Services (paramedics): $2,983
CT Scan: $398
EKG/ECG: $942.00
Laboratory: $970
Medical/surgical supplies: $85
Radiology – Diagnostic $391
Total charges: $5,769

An article by U.S. News & World Report says that the typical American couple (my father is single) 65 and over—without chronic medical problems—will need $197,000 (with Medicare and without supplemental insurance) just to pay out of pocket medical costs, including premiums, for the remainder of their lives.

Another study cited in the article estimates medical costs after retirement at $240,000. Another cited study says that couples over 65 (in 2009) “will need $210,000 to have a 50% chance of affording their retirement health expenses and $338,000 to have a 90% chance of being able to pay all their medical expenses.”

At a time when the entire world is in economic crisis, the United States spends far more per capita on health care than any other country and has far less to show for it than other countries, including Canada, with real or so-called socialized medicine.

According to a recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), as of 2008, the U.S. spent $7,538 per capita in private and public funds combined, compared to 5,003 for Norway (which, unlike Canada, actually does have socialized health care), and $4079 for Canada (which has a single-payer health care system), $4,063 for the Netherlands, $3,696 for France and $3,129 for Great Britain.

Altogether, “Americans spend more than twice as much as relatively rich European countries such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom,” the report says.

America and 32 other countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America were examined for health care costs and quality.

The report found that most of those countries paid for the majority of their health care costs through taxes or social security payments—though private insurance often played a “significant but secondary role.” Only in Mexico and America did government play a smaller health care role than the private sector, the study found, at 46.5 percent compared to an average of 72.8 percent in the other countries.

Despite spending much more, Americans get much less for their money, the study showed, including on average fewer doctors, fewer nurses, fewer hospital beds, greater infant mortality and a shorter life span.

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