Inadequate healthcare has killed more Americans than Covid-19

Worse than a pandemic every year.
Worse than a pandemic every year.
Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
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In 2020, there were about about 400,000 Covid-19 related deaths in the US, more than in any other country. Yet something else kills even more Americans, every year: inadequate healthcare.

According to a study published today in The Lancet, a UK medical journal, there were 461,000 so-called “missing Americans” in 2018. That means that if the US had a life expectancy equal to the average of countries of comparable wealth (in the study, the group is identified as G7 countries: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, and US), its population would be nearly half a million more.

It’s not a new phenomenon. The US has trailed the rest of the advanced world in life expectancy since the 1980s, and it’s now 3.4 years shorter than the average of other G7 countries in 2018, the last year for which international data is available. On average, in 2018, people in G7 countries had a life expectancy of 81.9 years, while in the US (prior to Covid-19) it was 78.5 years. In 2018 in Japan, the G7 country with the highest life expectancy, it was 84.2 years.

Altogether, since 1980, there were over 9 million excess deaths among Americans.

Steffie Woolhandler, a professor of public health at the City University of New York and the lead author of the report, says the cause of the discrepancy between the US and comparable countries isn’t the result of recent developments but the product of the past four decades.

The report’s primary objective was to assess the impact of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the researchers were able to identify quantifiable negative impacts, including 700,000 additional uninsured children, and a reduction of 20% in front-line health workers due to federal budget cuts.

However, the 39-pages report emphasizes that the poor state of American health is the result of a cumulative series of political choices. In the 1980s, says Woolhandler, US president Ronald Reagan introduced a new policy approach that drastically reduced the resources allocated to disadvantaged groups first from the New Deal and then from 1960s Great Society policy.

This resulted in reduced access to healthcare services, increased costs, and decreased positive outcomes. Woolhandler notes that while access to healthcare is key for higher life expectancy and overall health, those outcomes are also fundamentally affected by the overall welfare policy and a general lack of social support.