Why are so many Americans killing themselves?

Man in hospital bed
Kupicoo | Getty Images

Let's start with the good news: a new study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that deaths in the U.S. from heart disease, stroke, and cancer are significantly down since 1969. And the death rate for African Americans and Latinos in the U.S. is also falling.

But now the bad news: a large group of the population is seeing its death rate spike sharply since 1999, and the key causes of those increased deaths are clearly self-imposed; alcohol, drugs, and suicide. And the thing that's really surprising to the experts is that this group is middle-aged whites.

The report was co-authored by Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case. Deaton is also the newly named 2015 Nobel Prize laureate for economics. He sees this spike in deaths as something comparable to the scourge of AIDS and bluntly points out that there are half a million Americans dead who simply should not be. Education seems to be a key factor in this trend. The higher death rates are hitting white people aged 45-54 who either didn't graduate high school or only got as far as a high school diploma. There's also a frightening tie in to increased heroin and prescription opioid overdoses in that age group.

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With great minds like Deaton and a few other top economists still scratching their heads over the root causes of this, I'm going to hold off on offering some thoughts on why this is happening. But with the trend confirmed, it is important to talk about the two key economic ramifications of all of this.

First, it's the latest evidence that no government health coverage program can save people who do not take proper care of themselves. The very low enrollment numbers for Obamacare plans compared to all the official projections proved the same thing. People who aren't going to go to see a doctor until they have to be taken to see one in an ambulance won't sign up for health coverage no matter what laws or fines you impose. And those who dream of a single payer system forget that it's not just the money that keeps self-destructive people from going to the doctor. Sadly this latest report tells us there are more of those kinds of self-destructive people in America than we thought even if we aren't really sure of the reasons why.

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Second, if this trend continues the health care system is likely to become overwhelmed with a massive influx of newly Medicare-eligible Americans in dire need of the most expensive forms of care. That includes emergency surgery, addiction rehab, and mental health treatment. This is more than just a fly in the ointment for those who want the government to have more or complete control of our health care system. The Lord may help those who help themselves, but the government is increasingly putting itself on the hook for paying for those who don't. And unless it gets out of the way of private sector solutions for this disturbing mortality trend, the only government "solutions" to this will be more rationed care and more states acting like California which just last month legalized physician-assisted suicide but blocked terminally ill patients from trying some potentially life-saving drugs.

I hope the experts are able to pinpoint the cause of this death rate surge so the costs of just treating the symptoms don't dominate the health care and political landscape. But if the problem persists, it's important to note a very important dichotomy. The private sector will approach it as something it should try to solve for the "selfish interest" of making a profit. That will be a tough challenge but one that has successfully been met in the past in response to many diseases and health care emergencies of the past. Those reduced cancer, heart disease, and stroke numbers are mostly thanks to constant private sector efforts to come up with new drugs and other treatments. The other choice is to rely on a government that simply doesn't have the same number of incentives to fix the problem.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.