October 17, 2017

LEE | The Fundamental Deficit

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Last week, I felt a thrust on my bottom left wisdom tooth. It was initially a slight ache that I simply ignored, only to find that the throbbing and discomfort expanded more and more. When I developed a twinge that was too much to bear, I finally considered visiting Cornell Health, but I quickly remembered that my $2,712 Student Health Plan does not cover dental costs. That’s because this year, I had opted not to spend the extra $278 on Cornell’s dental plan insurance, knowing that last year I hadn’t used a penny of any health plan and had essentially wasted $3,000.

The Cornell Student Health Plan, administered by Aetna, is mandatory for all international students due to U.S. immigration and Cornell requirements. Even a basic primary care visit costs $25 copay per visit, a burden on  college students already on financial aid or loan programs. Luckily for me, I had brought wisdom toothache painkillers from home, so I was able to gradually feel better.

But I can just imagine how many other Cornellians or any other college student or person may have had to go through a similar or worse situation. It may have been a toothache for me, but for others it could have been prolonged coughing or even a fracture. Afraid of the high cost of medications or hospital visits, these people may have disregarded their condition, only making their situation worse.

As a Korean citizen, I had never truly appreciated how great the health care system is back home. There are many aspects that I believe the United States is great for — a higher education system that fosters critical thinking, a society that promotes open discussion and constructive criticism, an attempt to preserve the American Dream — but public health is not one of them.

Of the 35 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, the U.S. has the lowest public coverage rate at 34.5 percent, far below the next lowest in ranking, Greece, who is at 79 percent. The United States does in fact have an additional private health coverage rate of 60 percent, meaning that almost the entire population has health insurance, whether public or private. Nevertheless, the U.S. is the only OECD country with more than 50 percent of its primary health care being covered by private insurance companies.

In 2012, public health expenditure for the United States was $4,160, compared to $1,248 for South Koreans. While maintaining universal health care, Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland are among countries with the lowest public spending on health care. What’s more, public health expenditure accounts for about 4 percent of South Korea’s GDP while it is more than 8 percent of the US GDP. Not only is American health insurance not all-inclusive, it isn’t even cost-effective.

As I write this, I can already imagine receiving dreadful comments telling me to go back to my country and that I don’t belong here. But the point of bringing up my perspective on health care is neither because I’m some expert in this field or because I can’t stand living in the States. What I simply cannot understand is why health is not considered a basic universal right. I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact that a person’s wellbeing is in the hands of a private company and often dependent upon the organization one works for. In a developed country like the United States, I would expect citizens’ health to be a top priority and an integral allocation of taxpayer money.

There certainly are downsides to universal health insurance. Korea has the highest number of doctors’ consultations in the OECD, while the U.S. isn’t on the rankings. I’ve heard anecdotes of people taking their children to the doctor for the smallest illnesses since the cost per visit is so low, which may have exacerbated the need for physicians to work long hours, ultimately jeopardizing their own health.

But I believe the benefits of universal health care surely outweigh the drawbacks. When 45,000 deaths per year are attributed to lacking health insurance, it only makes sense for the government to provide improved and cost-effective public health care by better allocating taxes for the health of its people. Healthier citizens constitute a more equitable and productive society. With successful universal health care models readily available among developed countries, the time is now for a better health system for U.S. citizens.
DongYeon (Margaret) Lee is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at margaretlee@cornellsun.com. Here, There and Everywhere appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.