Where was the real talk about lowering health care costs this election?

Diabetes medication ready to be donated to refugees in Syria (File photo)
Diabetes medication ready to be donated to refugees in Syria (File photo)

Traveling abroad with my delicate tummy, I went with the expectation of getting sick.

My doctor had warned me to expect a bout of traveler’s diarrhea from eating unfamiliar foods. After paying $100 to a medical travel consultant to prescribe antibiotics, I paid another $20 to actually get the meds.

Turned out my insurance didn’t think the consultation “medically necessary,” so it wasn’t covered. Fortunately, the prescription passed their unfathomable criteria, so I only paid for a fraction of that. Of course, a few weeks into traveling, I got sick. After a week of popping the meds that cost $120 to get, I was still sick.

As a last ditch effort, I visited a Thai pharmacy down the street from my hostel. The pharmacist gave me a free consultation and a different, $2 prescription – loperamide, a synthetic opiate used to slow down intestinal movements.

Skeptical that something so cheap and easily acquired could work, I took the meds out of sheer desperation. My relief and indignation were palpable by the end of the day when my fragile little belly finally calmed its bathroom-splitting roar.

There are so many things wrong with my American experience of health care compared to what it’s like abroad. But for the sake of time and sanity, let’s just talk about the cost of medication.

Drug companies charge absurd prices for products in America, and our government policies let them do it. One example of this is the act President George W. Bush signed into effect in 2003 with the creation of Medicare Part D.

On the surface, Medicare Part D is great. It provides prescription coverage for the elderly and people with disabilities who use Medicare. On the super steep downside, it also forbids Medicare from negotiating prices with drug companies.

Why? According to Ron Pollack, executive director of a nonpartisan health care watchdog group called Families USA, “The key goal was to make sure there’d be no interference in the drug companies’ ability to charge high prices and to continue to increase those prices.”

What the people who wrote the act did not care about was how Medicare could save beneficiaries and taxpayers billions of dollars. For example, in the U.S., a monthly supply of the cholesterol-lowering drug Crestor costs $86.40 with rebate. In Germany, the same prescription costs $40.50. In short, America pays double what Germany pays for the same drug. Medicare spent $2.2 billion on this one drug in 2013. What would that number have been if Medicare were allowed to negotiate the cost down to what Germany pays?

Both political parties are guilty of glaring omissions about the need to reduce the cost of health care.

While many other countries have single-payer systems and other cost-controlling regulations that empower price bargaining, the U.S. does not. As a consumer of 20% of all health care spending in America, Medicare is the closest thing our country has to a single-payer system. Yet, the politicians who signed Medicare Part D decided to cripple that power. As a result, beneficiaries and taxpayers pay seriously inflated costs for standard medications like Crestor, a multibillion dollar expense that could be roughly halved.

For all the talk in the media about “Obamacare” and its burden upon taxpayers, almost no one is talking about lowering the cost of health care, through Medicare or otherwise.

The lack of conversation was agonizingly apparent during the presidential debates. Clinton fully supported the Affordable Care Act, yet she said nothing about how taxpayers can cover the absurd cost of health care. Meanwhile, Trump naturally supports keeping government out of private enterprise and would balk at the thought of allowing a large government program like Medicare any sway. Yet, Republicans — who supposedly regard consumers as the rightful regulators of the free market — deny Medicare the consumer-purchasing power it deserves as an annual spender of over $600 billion.

Both political parties are guilty of glaring omissions about the need to reduce the cost of health care.

My personal experience at home compared to abroad shows a handful of problems with how health care plays out in America. The high cost of medications is just one of them, and the way Medicare is designed to keep those costs high is just one part of that problem.

As overwhelming and complex as these issues may seem, they are not inevitable! Other countries that pay less for health care manage to be healthier than America with longer life expectancies. America spent $9,403 for health care per person in 2014 for a life expectancy of 79 years the following year. Meanwhile, Germany paid $5,411 per capita for a life expectancy of 81 years. France paid even less — $4,959 for 82 years.

So, whatever the outcome of this election, do not accept the political premise that high health care costs aren’t even worth talking about. They are man-made artifices, and what is done by man can be undone by citizens.

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