Drop in Life Expectancy Shows Health Care Failure

Recently released government research on the health of the American people brought the nation some troubling information -- our life expectancy, which many proudly assumed was steadily climbing, is actually declining in many parts of the country.

This was especially true for women, the reports revealed. Women in 180 counties across the country can expect to live 1.3 fewer years than their life expectancy as recently as 1999. That same 1.3-year drop occurred for men, too, but only in 11 counties. Most of the counties that saw the declines, as one would expect, are populated by poor people.

What troubled the researchers was the newness of this phenomenon. Americans in all walks of life have experienced longer life expectancies for the past several decades. From 1969 to 1999, for example, life expectancy for men increased steadily from 66.9 years to 74.1, and for women it rose from 73.5 years to 79.6.

Interestingly, while our life expectancies continued to climb, we were never higher than 11th best in the world. And now, we've dropped to an unremarkable 42nd.

According to numbers from the Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics, a baby born in the U.S. (factoring in both boys and girls) will live an average of 77.9 years. A kid born in England can expect to live about a year longer. Meanwhile, the German baby's life expectancy is 79 while a Norwegian child can expect to live 79.7 years.

Our neighbors to the north, Canada, have a life expectancy of 80.3 years and the Australians, Swedes and Swiss are even better at 80.6. Japan beats them all with a life expectancy of 81.4 years.

U.S. medical officials have dozens of answers for all this, ranging from Americans' propensity to smoke to their lack of exercise while eating too much. But Germany, for one, isn't exactly noted for its puritanical lifestyle.

The real reason is one that the defenders of the U.S. health system, if it deserves to be called that, refuse to admit: We're letting too many Americans go without adequate health care.

A telling report came just last month from the Congressional Budget Office. In yet another report on life expectancy in the United States, the CBO stated:

"In 1980, life expectancy at birth was 2.8 years more for the highest socioeconomic group than for the lowest. By 2000, that gap had risen to 4.5 years."

And by all indications it has widened further in the eight years since.

The reality in America, where more than 47 million citizens are without health care coverage, is that the poor and now even a substantial number of middle-class folks don't get the health care they need when they need it. Americans ought to be ashamed, yet the country's leaders refuse to act because the entrenched special interests have been able to use their economic clout to resist a true national health insurance plan.

It's interesting that the Canadians, who are often derided by U.S. medical "experts" for their single-payer system, which "makes people wait" for certain procedures, can expect to live nearly three years longer than we U.S. citizens. And notice that the others who outlive us -- the Brits, the Germans, the Swedes and the Swiss -- make sure that everyone receives medical coverage.

There should no longer be a debate. Health coverage produces healthier citizens. It's time for the U.S. to stop tinkering around the edges, putting Band-Aids on a broken system, and face reality. We need -- no, we deserve -- a universal, single-payer health care system -- now.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.

(c) 2008 Capital Newspapers

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