While wealthy people around the world generally have better health outcomes than their fellow low-income citizens, the gap in the United States was among the world's largest. Of the 32 rich and middle-income countries studied, only Chile and Portugal had a wider gulf.
The timing of the study is important — it was conducted just before many of the Affordable Care Act's major policies were enacted. A major facet of the ACA was a redistribution of income, a tax on the richest Americans that helped pay to expand health coverage for the country’s poorest, and the study's authors said it suggests that any reduction in coverage could be a step backward, in an area where the United States has been underperforming.
Now the policies that expanded health coverage are on the chopping block. A recent Congressional Budget Office analysis found that the latest version of House Republicans' proposal to replace the ACA would leave 23 million more Americans uninsured than under current law by 2026. Senate Republicans are crafting their own health-care bill.
“Anything, any changes that are made that threaten to undo gains in insurance that have occurred since the Affordable Care Act . . . would risk setting us back in an area where the U.S. is in sore need of improvements,” said Joachim Hero, who recently earned his doctorate in health policy at Harvard University and led the study.
But he and his co-authors caution that there's more to closing the health outcome gap than providing insurance. When the researchers tried to do more of an apples-to-apples comparison by adjusting for whether people had insurance or not when making the cross-country comparison, they found that the disparity was only slightly decreased.
“Insurance is part of the story but not the whole story,” Hero said. “If we really want to bring the U.S. more in line with other high-income countries with regard to health-care disparities, we're going to have to go beyond just achieving full insurance coverage.”
Hero's work found that the disparity between richer and poorer people was not just in their self-reported health; the United States also ranked near the top in the income-based disparity between people who went without needed care because they couldn't afford it. In the Philippines, the gap between the rich and poor skipping care because of cost was the greatest. But the United States was second on the list; 1 in every 5 people in the bottom third of income reported skipping medical treatment because of the cost. In the top third, only 1 in every 25 Americans did.
One of the most surprising things to the researchers was how aware people in the United States were of the lack of access to health care in the country. Two-thirds of respondents in the United States said that there were “many” Americans who do not have the access they need — considerably more than the country next on the list, Poland. At the same time, the United States was on the lower end of the rankings when it came to a question about whether it was “somewhat unfair” or “very unfair” that wealthier people can afford better health care, with only 54 percent of people saying it was not fair for rich people to get better health care.
“The combination of those two things raises this question: Is there a lack of political will to address the issue of disparities in the U.S., relative to countries where we know they do a lot better on this issue?” Hero said.