No issue affecting taxes so clearly divides the two parties in the U.S. election as healthcare. The two parties, in their platforms, describe very different approaches to healthcare economics. Both use political plastic surgery to cover up ugly truths.
The stakes are huge. Americans spend $2.64 per person for healthcare for each purchasing power equivalent dollar spent by the 33 other countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD data shows the U.S. spends $8,233 per capita compared with an average of $3,118 in the other 33 countries.
A growing share of federal tax dollars, in direct spending and in tax breaks, is going to U.S. healthcare as the population ages, even though about one in six Americans lacks health insurance.
America‘s healthcare system, more accurately described as a non-system sick care system, totaled 17.6 percent of the economy in 2010, compared to an average of 9.2 percent in the other 33 countries, as the OECD data shows.
In the United States, total public and private cost of healthcare is significantly greater than the total of corporate and individual income taxes, as well as payroll taxes. For each dollar paid in all three of those taxes in 2010, healthcare came to $1.29.
If we just lowered our costs to those of France, which has universal care in what is widely regarded as one of the best systems if not the best, it would save almost as much money as Americans paid in individual income taxes in 2010. The French spend 6 percentage points less of their economy on healthcare. In the United States, the individual income tax in 2010 came to 6.3 percent of the U. S. economy, the lowest since Truman was president.
Take a look at your pay stub to get an idea of the kind of money being spent on a system that fosters bankruptcy, bedevils small business and ranks 31st among the 34 OECD countries in preventing premature death.
The Republicans say the federal government is “structurally and financially broken” and that “three programs – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – account for over 40 percent of total spending,” which is “harming job creation and growth, (while) projections of future spending growth are nothing short of catastrophic, both economically and socially.”
The Republicans promise to “empower millions of seniors to control their personal healthcare decisions,” a vow immediately followed by a promise to cut federal spending.
The clearest explanation of what that would mean comes from Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee. Before he started obfuscating, Ryan laid out his plans in detail. He boasted that by changing Medicare from a plan that provides treatment for every older American into one that gives seniors a fixed sum to buy their own health insurance, taxpayers would save through 2084 the present equivalent of $4.9 trillion.
What Ryan did not mention is that his plan would also mean $8 of increased private spending by seniors and the disabled for each tax dollar saved.
We know how Ryan’s plan would raise total costs because David Rosnick and Dean Baker, economists at the Center for Economic Policy and Research which promotes government policies that it says would benefit workers and the poor, used the same formula that Ryan (or his staff) applied to the same Congressional Budget Office data, but on private medical care spending. Ryan’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Beyond the fact that it makes no sense to spend $8 to save $1, older people do not have the money. A tenth of Americans age 75 and older live below the official poverty line. Another 24 percent have only saved a tad more.
Every indicator shows that Americans have not enough for their old age and that a shrinking number have pensions while the Republicans now in charge of the party want to cut Social Security benefits, if not kill the program.
So why would any Americans under age 55, whose healthcare benefits Ryan wants to cut when they reach 65, think they can afford to spend $8 to save $1? Recently Ryan has softened his plan to let those who wish stay in traditional Medicare. Since anyone not rich who can count would stick with Medicare, Ryan’s promised taxpayer savings would never materialize.
Alan Grayson, the combative one-term Democratic representative from Florida, got it right when he said on the House floor in 2009: “The Republican plan – don’t get sick and if you do get sick die quickly.”
The Democratic platform calls for universal healthcare. “We will end the outrage of unaffordable, unavailable healthcare,” they say, though after six decades that party promise remains unfulfilled.
President Barack Obama‘s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will enable those with pre-existing conditions and twenty-somethings without work to get health insurance. But the plan does nothing to address the larger economic problem. American healthcare costs too much and needs replacement, not a nip and tuck.
Portugal, with half the income per person as America, provides universal healthcare. Cuba, the CIA tells us, ranks 40th in infant mortality, while the United States is nine steps lower at 49th, an astonishing fact given U.S. spending compared to the poverty induced by Castro’s collectivist economic policies.
Just as Republicans are trying to limit the franchise, so are they trying to limit who gets healthcare. The Democrats are better only because they recognize that universal care can be cheaper while removing an annoying and costly distraction from business.
Death and taxes will always be with us. What we need is to spend less on taxes while doing the best we can to stave off death.
This opinion piece originally appeared at Reuters.com
Photo credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite