Fri, Apr 14, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Richest Americans live a lot longer than poorer ones

Researchers found that average life expectancy has decreased in several disadvantaged demographics as a widening income gap, lack of adequate health insurance and mass imprisonment have all contributed to an increasing health divergence

By Jessica Glenza  /  The Guardian, NEW YORK

Illustration: Mountain People

You cannot buy time -— except, it seems, in the US.

Increasing inequality means wealthy Americans can now expect to live up to 15 years longer than their poor counterparts, reports in the British medical journal the Lancet have found.

Researchers said these disparities appear to be worsened by the US health system itself, which relies on for-profit insurance companies and is the most expensive in the world.

Their conclusion? Treat healthcare as a human right.

“Healthcare is not a commodity,” US Senator Bernie Sanders wrote in an opinion article introducing the issue of the journal, which is devoted to inequality in US healthcare. “The goal of a healthcare system should be to keep people well, not to make stockholders rich. The USA has the most expensive, bureaucratic, wasteful, and ineffective healthcare system in the world.”

Sanders, like authors of the lead report, called for single-payer health insurance, or what Americans might know as “Medicare for all,” a reference to an existing public health program for older Americans.

“Making sure that every citizen has the right to childcare, healthcare, a college education, and secure retirement is not a radical idea. It is as American as apple pie,” he said.

The Lancet studies looked at how the US health system affects inequality and structural racism, and how mass incarceration and the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as “Obamacare,” have changed public health.

Among the studies’ key findings: The richest 1 percent live up to 15 years longer than the poorest 1 percent; the same gap in life expectancy widened in recent decades, making poverty a powerful indicator for death; more than one-third of low-income Americans avoid medical care because of costs (compared to 7 percent in Canada and 1 percent in the UK); the poorest fifth of Americans pay twice as much for healthcare as a share of income (6 percent for the poor, versus 3.2 percent for the rich); and life expectancy would have grown 51.1 percent more from 1983 to 2005 had mass incarceration not accelerated in the mid-1980s.

The poorest Americans have suffered in particular, with life expectancies falling in some groups even while medicine has advanced.

For example, researchers reported that the poorest fifth of women born between 1930 and 1960 statistically lived four years less than Americans in the top fifth of the socioeconomic spectrum.

All of these health outcomes arrive in the context of widening general inequality. The share of total income going to the top 1 percent of earners has more than doubled since 1970, making the US more unequal than all but three developed countries: Chile, Mexico and Turkey.


At the same time, the ACA brought relief to many. The number of Americans without insurance dropped from 48.6 million in 2010 to 28.6 million in 2015. The number of Americans who struggle with medical bills dropped from 41 percent to 35 percent in 2014.

Further, accounting for current public health insurance programs, military healthcare, the portion of local and state budgets used to purchase private health insurance for workers and subsidies to employers to buy workers health insurance, researchers believe as much as 65 percent of health insurance nationally is already paid for by taxpayers.

The conclusions come at a tumultuous time for US healthcare.

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