In an incident recently reported by Vox, a one-year-old named Margot managed to tie a hair around her toe, causing it to swell and bleed. Her parents Bradley and Becky Sroka became concerned when Band-aids didn't suffice, so they sought help. Since it was a Saturday, their pediatrician's office was closed and Bradley's doctor's office said it wasn't equipped to treat the child, so they went to the hospital.
It was nothing serious: A doctor gave them some ointment and the Srokas were in and out in less than 30 minutes. A month later, they received a bill in the mail for $937.
That was within their deductible, meaning they were responsible for the entirety of the cost.
Although such an expense is nothing out of the ordinary, especially for young parents, Vox reports, most Americans couldn't afford it. Only 39 percent of American families said they had the savings to cover a $1,000 emergency, according to a Bankrate survey from earlier this year.
Though the Srokas contested the charges, they have had no luck so far, and are now paying off the bill at about $130 a month.
A recent report from researchers at the Harvard Chan School found that the real reason the U.S. spends so much more on health care than peer countries is inflated prices across the board.
In the U.S., the researchers found, drugs are more expensive, doctors get paid more and hospital services and diagnostic tests cost more. For instance, an MRI costs an average of $1,145 in the U.S., compared with $350 in Australia. A computer tomography scan costs $896 in the U.S. but only $97 in Canada.
Ear drops can cost over $1,000, Vox reports. One mother told the publication she is paying off a $3,100 bill for an X-ray and urine analysis that ultimately determined her nine-year-old son was constipated.
Administrative costs also add up, the Harvard researchers found. Compared to other high-income countries, a lot more money in the U.S. goes to planning, regulating and managing medical services at the administrative level, and patients end up shouldering much of those costs.
"This kind of story is why millions of Americans avoid going to the ER or the doctor completely," Senator Bernie Sanders posted in response to Vox's reporting on Facebook, "because they won't be able to afford it."
Research backs him up: One out of four Americans said they or someone in their family skipped necessary medical care because of the cost, a 2017 Bankrate survey found. And millions wait each year until they get a tax refund to access medical care they had been putting off, the JPMorgan Chase Institute found.
While passing on treatment when an issue arises is bad enough, simply going to the doctor for a physical on a regular basis can save your life, claims surgeon, bestselling author and MacArthur Foundation "genius" Atul Gawande. "Incremental care — regular, ongoing care as opposed to heroic, emergency care," he writes in The New Yorker, "is the greatest source of value in modern medicine."
Both Gawande and Sanders agree that health care should be accessible to everyone. "Enough is enough," writes the senator. "Health care is a right."
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