he economy may be growing and the stock market booming, but Americans are dying younger — living shorter lives than previous generations and dying earlier than their counterparts around the world.
It is easy to place the blame squarely on our nation’s opioid epidemic, but if we do that we miss seeing the abysmal new life expectancy data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for what they are — an indictment of the American health care system.
According to the CDC, the average life expectancy at birth in the U.S. fell by 0.1 years, to 78.6, in 2016, following a similar drop in 2015. This is the first time in 50 years that life expectancy has fallen for two years running. In 25 other developed countries, life expectancy in 2015 averaged 81.8 years.
There’s no question that a big culprit is the opioid epidemic, which contributed significantly to an increase in death rates for Americans aged 15 to 64 years. At first glance, substance abuse would seem more a social and economic problem than one of health care, and there is no question that socioeconomics are a major player in causing the so-called deaths of despair associated with substance abuse.
But, we cannot let our health care system off too easily.
The epidemic of drug abuse and overdose deaths has not affected other developed countries the way it has ours. With 4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for 27 percent of the world’s overdose deaths. The European Union, with a population of 507 million, reported 6,800 overdose deaths in 2014, compared to 47,055 in the U.S. That disparity exists even though many other developed countries have faced even greater economic challenges than we have. In 2016, France and Spain had unemployment rates of 10.1 and 19.6 percent, respectively, compared to 4.9 percent in the U.S.
Why has it been it so much worse here? One reason is that the U.S. doesn’t have strong social safety nets that buffer the effects of recessions and job loss as other nations do. Another reason is the way the U.S. health care system functions.
The profitability of drugs in the United States, a result of sky-high and skyrocketing drug prices, has made the aggressive marketing and sale of new prescription opioids an almost irresistible temptation for American pharmaceutical companies. Bombarded by clever advertising, U.S. physicians have, in turn, become quicker on the draw in prescribing opioids than physicians in other developed nations. The role of pharma is most clearly illustrated in the case of Purdue Pharma, which has been sued thousands of times over OxyContin, a prescription painkiller. The company settled one case for $600 million after the federal government accused it of making false claims about the drug’s risk of addiction and denying its potential to be abused. A raft of new suits by cities and states claiming that drug companies have profited from a product they knew to be dangerous are now pending.
The opioid epidemic is not the only area in which the U.S. health system lags. In 2015, life expectancy at age 65 in the U.S. ranked 26th among the 37 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes most developed nations. It is widely accepted that the accessibility and quality of medical services strongly affect life expectancy among the elderly and elderly Americans fall behind their counterparts overseas when it comes to being able to get and afford the health care they need.
This may seem surprising given that Americans over 65 enjoy universal health insurance coverage under Medicare. But as valuable as Medicare is, it provides far less protection against the cost of illness, and far less access to services, than do most other Western countries. In a recent cross-national survey, U.S. seniors were more likely to report having three or more chronic illnesses than their counterparts in 10 other high-income countries. At the same time, they were four times more likely than seniors in countries such as Norway and England to skip care because of costs. Medicare, it turns out, is not very good insurance compared to what’s available in most of the western world.
We are the wealthiest nation on earth, but far from the healthiest, and things are getting worse, not better. The CDC report is yet another call to action for fundamental health system change that should include, among other things, reforming our pharmaceutical markets and making good health insurance available to all Americans. These need to be urgent priorities in 2018 for a government that should care as much about the health of Americans as their wealth.
David Blumenthal, M.D., is president of the Commonwealth Fund.