Call her Seo-yeon. She’s an infant, cute as could be, and she will be born in the city of Busan, South Korea, in 2030. When she emits her first cry, this statistical abstract will have a life expectancy of about 90. Maddison, on the other hand, born the same year but in, say, Kansas City, will die seven years earlier. The cause of death? Being an American.
Being an American is life- threatening. For various reasons, men and women here don’t live as long as men and women in about two dozen other countries, including the ones we defeated in World War II — Japan, Germany and Italy. Americans have high rates of obesity, drug addiction and car accidents. Moreover, we’re more apt to use guns to settle disputes and not, as we are all told in nursery school, our words. There is yet another reason, and it is mentioned in reports on longevity: the American health-care system. It stinks.
The Lancet, the British medical journal, came up with some longevity projections. In a study published last month, it found that life expectancy is expected to increase in 35 industrialized nations over the next few decades. In South Korea, as in much of the affluent world, if you get sick, you see a doctor. There is no worrying about money, and you cannot go broke on account of illness. You could call this “South Korean exceptionalism,” except that it is America that is exceptional when it comes to health care.
Now we are engaged in a great health-care debate. For reasons having nothing to do with either health or care, the Republican Party, under the indifferent guidance of President Trump, is attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. The president doesn’t know what he is doing because he doesn’t care what he is doing. He just wants to win — or, actually, claim victory. In May 2015, he vowed, “I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.” You don’t hear that now if for no other reason than it seems cuts are coming.
One reason that cute kid in South Korea is going to live longer than that just-as-cute kid in Kansas City is infant mortality. Among the richest countries, the United States has an infant mortality rate of 5.8 per 1,000 births. That’s very low compared with the rate of, say, Afghanistan (112.8) but not so good compared with the rate of Canada (4.6), France (3.3), Britain (4.3), Israel (3.5) or, as you might have guessed, South Korea (3.0). Our infant mortality rate, a function of available health care, ought to be a national embarrassment. Yet, if it has been mentioned in the current health-care debate, I haven’t noticed.
It has been years — maybe going back to Lincoln — since the Republican Party gave much thought to the poor, but this year its indifference has turned to cruelty. Clearly, whatever emerges from the current bill, the poor will not be the beneficiaries. Indeed, according to various accounts, they will suffer. This is particularly poignant because many of them voted for Trump, believing his cockamamie promises and admiring his cock-of-the-walk strut.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) was on to something when he suggested that the poor made dumb choices. His bizarre example was their choosing a cellphone over health insurance. This was Chaffetz at his let-them-eat-cake best since, I bet, he’s emotionally attached to his own cellphone. But he is right about the poor. The electoral choice so many of them made is going to cost them plenty. Trump does not care about them. Let them eat Mar-a-Lago.
Some years ago, T.R. Reid, my former Post colleague, went around the world with a bum shoulder. What would it cost to fix it? he asked in various countries. In all of them — Japan, Britain, Germany, India, Taiwan, France, etc. — he got amazing answers: very little and sometimes nothing. He learned that in almost any affluent nation, health care was guaranteed. Some of these countries have socialized plans, some don’t, but what matters is that they work. None of these plans is perfect, and they are not cheap. But in all of them, health care is a right. You get sick, you get better — often on the house.
Republicans and others who are in anguish over the possibility of socialized medicine ought to have to explain their ideology to a mother with a sick newborn. They ought to have to explain how this nation can debate health care and not mention how abysmal ours is. Finally, they ought to picture themselves explaining to Maddison why she will die sooner than Seo-yeon. It’s because she’s an American.
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