Healthcare. Now. 

President-Elect Barack Obama came forward last week to introduce his economic team and let everyone know that a stimulus package is coming. A big stimulus package.

Just how big isn’t entirely clear yet. Nor do we know all the things it will try to do.

So, Mr. President-Elect, allow me to raise my hand and request a kind of stimulus most of us really need: a new healthcare system.

I know a lot of people are going to tell you that fixing the screaming red garbage disposal that Americans used to think of as “the best healthcare system in the world” will be too expensive and too hard to tackle, given the general meltdown of our economic system. They’ll suggest you put healthcare on a backburner.

And they’ll be wrong.

If you want to know just how bad healthcare has gotten in this country, get a load of this: Indianapolis’ own Wellpoint, the health insurance giant, is testing a program that will pay for patients to travel to India for elective surgery, with no out-of-pocket medical costs and free travel for both the patient and a companion.

Maybe you want to take two aspirin and read that again.

The reason Wellpoint is willing to do this is because it will actually save them money. For example, a knee surgery that could cost between $70,000 and $80,000 in the United States is performed in India for $8,000 to $10,000.

But if you think this means you’ll be given a stick to bite on in some fly-infested tent in the middle of nowhere, think again. Patients who travel to India will be treated by English-speaking doctors in hospitals that comply with American Medical Association guidelines and are accredited by the Joint Commission International. According to a story in the New York Times, Dr. Razia Hashmi, chief medical officer for national accounts for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which is affiliated with Wellpoint, says it’s actually turned out to be easier to evaluate the quality of medical care abroad than in the States. “There’s a lot more willingness to share data about complication rates, the total number of procedures and outcomes…We’re able to get detail per hospital and per physician.”

So not only is healthcare cheaper in India – the quality is as good, maybe better.

But, you ask, what does this have to do with stimulating the economy?

We have the most expensive healthcare system in the world. And it’s getting more expensive all the time. The Washington Post reports that over the past five years, health insurance premiums have risen 5.5 times faster on average than inflation. This is 2.3 times faster than business income and four times faster than workers’ earnings. This is a big reason why wages and salaries have been flat-lining in this country since 1979. The average family of four pays $29,000 a year for healthcare when you figure taxes, lower wages and out-of-pocket medical expenses into the calculation.

Yet another study shows that the average American household spends about 20 percent of its annual income on healthcare.

Imagine the difference it would make if you had a major share of this money to spend on other things, or invest, or, heaven help us, save. It makes that stimulus check you got in the mail last summer look paltry by comparison.

Though there are different theories about what our economy needs, there is general agreement that the problems are so vast that dancing around the edges won’t work. This, in other words, is a time for bold action. And while the idea of going farther into debt is scary, it’s clear that there really is no alternative.

But that’s also why we need to get healthcare on track. Now. It is estimated that as much as 20 to 30 percent of what we’re spending on healthcare — $500 billion — is wasted, as patients find themselves paying for poorly monitored forms of care that, in many cases, put them in jeopardy. Between 50,000 and 100,000 patients die each year from preventable medical errors.

So Mr. President-Elect, if you want to jump-start our economy, make healthcare Job 1. It’ll put money in peoples’ pockets, and provide all of us with a newfound sense of personal security. This will be something we can see and feel in our lives, and in the lives of our loved ones.

It’s either that, or hoping for an aisle seat on the next flight to Mumbai.

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David Hoppe

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