David Leonhardt has an insightful article about the implications of rising health care costs. And they're not all bad....

The average cost of a family insurance plan that Americans get through their jobs has risen another 7.7 percent this year, to $11,500, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In only seven years, the cost has doubled, while incomes and company revenue, which pay for health insurance, haven’t risen nearly as much. ...

Living in a society that spends a lot of money on medical care creates real problems, but it also has something in common with getting old. It’s better than the alternative. ...

Most families in the 1950’s paid their medical bills with ease, but they also didn’t expect much in return. After a century of basic health improvements like indoor plumbing and penicillin, many experts thought that human beings were approaching the limits of longevity. “Modern medicine has little to offer for the prevention or treatment of chronic and degenerative diseases,” the biologist René Dubos wrote in the 1960’s.

But then doctors figured out that high blood pressure and high cholesterol caused heart attacks, and they developed new treatments. Oncologists learned how to attack leukemia, enabling most children who receive a diagnosis of it today to triumph over a disease that was almost inevitably fatal a half-century ago. In the last few years, orphan drugs that combat rare diseases and medical devices like the implantable defibrillator have extended lives. Human longevity still hasn’t hit the wall that was feared 50 years ago.

Instead, a baby born in the United States this year will live to age 78 on average, a decade longer than the average baby born in 1950. People who have already made it to their 40’s can now expect to reach age 80. These gains are probably bigger than the ones the British experienced in the entire millennium leading up to 1800. If you think about this as the return on the investments in medicine, the payoff has been fabulous: Would you prefer spending an extra $5,500 on health care every year — or losing 10 years off your lifespan?

Yet we often imagine that the costs and benefits are unrelated, that we can somehow have 2006 health care at 1950 (or even 1999) prices. We think of health care as if it were gasoline, a product whose price and quality have nothing to do with each other.

We spend a lot on health care because extending one's life and health beyond the average is always going to be cutting edge and will require the use of sparse resources, be them equipment or a doctor's skill. As Mr. Leonhardt says at the end of his piece: despite the rising cost of health care, it's money well-spent.



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