‘US is far behind Israel in healthcare reform’

Obama’s recently passed law won’t solve some significant problems, say Jerusalem symposium participants.

June 23, 2010 05:41
3 minute read.
US President Barack Obama signs the health care bi

obama signs bill 311. (photo credit: AP)

Although US and Israeli healthcare policymakers and administrators can learn from each other, Israel’s medical system is considerably ahead of America’s, and President Barack Obama will find implementation of his reform difficult to carry out, according to experts speaking in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

The Brookdale-Myers-JDC Institute invited four American healthcare experts – members of its foreign advisory board – to speak at a symposium on US healthcare reform, along with four Israeli experts. There was broad consensus that the American mostly private system – which consumes 17 percent of the GDP compared to 8% in Israel – has a lot to improve before it reaches the successes of Israel’s universal basket of services, a state-supervised system based on four nonprofit health funds and managed care.

Some 15% of the US population of 317 million has no health insurance, but can get help for acute problems in public hospitals, said Prof. Stuart Altman, who teaches at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management.
“It is not something for us to be proud of,” he added.

The new law passed by Congress earlier this year will make it illegal for private health insurance companies to deny coverage to individual Americans based on their medical condition and those who have no coverage via their employer because they are not working, he said. But there are significant problems it will not resolve, he added.

Israel prohibited discrimination in the provision of care in 1995, with implementation of its largely successful National Health Insurance Law, but Altman said the Israeli model could not be implemented in the US because the population there strongly distrusted government and feared anything that smacked of “socialized medicine.”

The healthcare reform program that failed to be passed under the Clinton administration, he continued, was essentially the system that Israel has had for the last 16 years. At least half of US residents would be happy if the Obama reform could be rescinded, he said, because those with health coverage – especially those over 65 via Medicare – worry that they will have less.

The new law lacks ways of controlling cost or ensuring quality of care, but mostly expands coverage to those who lacked it, said Altman. The reform will cost an additional $300 billion over the next decade, according to estimates.

Health Ministry director-general Dr. Ronni Gamzu said that Israel could learn from the US experience both what not to do, such as having the healthcare system run by private companies and without strong managed care to set limits, and what to do, such as setting pricing for services in a sophisticated way and allocating a budget for change.

Israel is fortunate in having widespread electronic medical records and lacking the jury system to decide malpractice cases, which greatly promotes defensive medicine by physicians as well as unnecessary testing.

University of Michigan pediatrician Prof. Gary Freed worried that with the number of children unchanged from 1950 but representing a smaller proportion of the population, the proportion of money spent on child health would decline as other costs increased.

Spending 17% of the GDP on health doesn’t mean Americans are healthier than Israelis, who spend less than half that share, said Ben-Gurion University health economist Prof. Gabi Bin-Nun. Here, life expectancy is longer and infant mortality is lower than in the US, he said. The US, he added, must cut administrative costs, computerize medical records and minimize defensive medicine and over- and underuse of medical services. Reimbursement systems should reward higher quality and lower costs, Bin-Nun suggested.

A feature on the symposium will appear on the July 14 Health Page.

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