Why does the U.S. spend more for health care than other wealthy countries? Simple answer: Our prices are higher

April 12, 2018

wealthy countries health care spending

American consumers spend almost twice as much for health care as their counterparts in other wealthy countries.

Why? A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds a simple but hardly surprising answer: The costs of seeing your doctor, undergoing a procedure or taking a pharmaceutical drug are substantially higher in the United States than in other rich nations.

“The narrative that has come up, that has developed, is that America spends so much more because Americans demand more health care,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor of health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The Washington Post.

The reality: Americans’ use of health care isn’t much different from consumers in other countries. But we pay much higher prices.

The study compared health care spending in the United States with that in the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Australia, Japan, Sweden, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Denmark from 2013 to 2016. Researchers looked at nearly 100 measures of care.

They found that administrative costs were 8 percent of health care spending in the U.S. vs. an average of 3 percent among wealthy countries. Non-specialist physicians are paid on average $220,000 per year in the U.S., double what physicians earned in the other wealthy countries.

Pharmaceutical spending in 2016 averaged $1,443 per person in the U.S. Sweden came in No. 2 at $939 per person.

Administrative costs were 8 percent of health care spending in the U.S. vs. an average of 3 percent among wealthy countries.

Yes, but are Americans healthier?

Maybe. Maybe not. Proportionately, the U.S. had the second lowest number of smokers. That’s the good news.

Meanwhile, the U.S. had the highest percentage of obese adults. Life expectancy in the U.S. was the lowest at 78.8 years (versus 81.7 years, which was the average for all 11 countries).

The study does not offer specific solutions, but the authors suggest that their findings should inform elected leaders as they tackle health care policy decisions.

What about you? How have you been affected by high health care costs? What is your solution? Share your thoughts with Voices for Affordable Health.