The Commodification of Health Care and the Search for a Universal Health Program in the United States

Oct 11, 2012, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Howard Waitzkin, MD, PhD, is senior fellow at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico, as well as distinguished professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology, and clinical professor in the Department of Medicine. He is an alumnus of the RWJF Clinical Scholars Program. Waitzkin recently received the American Sociology Association Medical Sociology Section's 2012 Eliot Freidson Outstanding Publication Award for his new book, Medicine and Public Health at the End of Empire, from which the following blog post draws.

For better or worse, we treat health care in the United States as a commodity. We buy and sell it, and would-be patients who don’t have enough money to buy it must either rely on limited public assistance or go without care. In very real terms, it’s not just health care that we have turned into a commodity, it’s health itself, so it should come as no surprise that poor Americans die sooner than affluent ones, by an average of close to five years.

I observed this dynamic up close for the first time about 40 years ago, while working as a primary care practitioner in the clinic system of the United Farm Workers (UFW) Union in the 1970s (which, for a time, my mentors in the RWJF Clinical Scholars Program viewed as my required activity in clinical medicine). As I treated hard-working patients living in unhealthy circumstances, it was easy to conclude that one does not need to travel outside the United States to find the so-called “Third World.” As I observed with many of the patients I treated while working with the UFW, the living conditions of the poor contribute to ill health.

Shortly after the military coup in Chile that occurred on September 11, 1973, while researching an article on the health consequences of the military dictatorship that later appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, I discovered the work that President Salvador Allende had accomplished in the field of social medicine. In 1939, three decades before he became Chile’s democratically elected President, Allende wrote La Realidad Médico-Social Chilena (The Chilean Medico-Social Reality), in which he presented an analysis of the relationships among social structure, disease and suffering.  The book conceptualized illness as a disturbance of the individual fostered by deprived social conditions. Breaking new ground in Latin America at the time, Allende­—himself a pathologist—described the “living conditions of the working classes” that generated illness, with emphasis on the social conditions of underdevelopment, international dependency, and the effects of foreign debt and the work process. Growing out of those conditions, in his description, were a number of specific health problems, including maternal and infant mortality, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted and other communicable diseases, emotional disturbances, and occupational illnesses.

Making the case that improved living conditions exerted a more profound impact on population health than medical advances, Allende described the responsiveness of tuberculosis to economic advances rather than treatment innovations, the role of housing density in the causation of infectious diseases, and the adverse effects of the pharmaceutical industry’s financial practices (for instance, Allende offered the earliest known account of the differences between generic and brand-name pricing of essential medications). In this context, Allende also put his finger on a dynamic that has come to trouble physicians, patients, and policy makers worldwide during recent years, writing colorfully that a “problem in relation to the pharmaceutical specialties is...the excessive and charlatan propaganda attributing qualities and curative powers which are far from their real ones.”

After his election to Chile’s presidency in 1970, Allende began to move health care toward a universal model, while at the same time initiating a variety of public health initiatives, such as establishing maternity clinics in rural areas, imposing new health and safety requirements on mining companies, improving sanitation and housing in low-income areas, and more. But Allende’s nationalization of several industries dominated by North American interests, despite the compensation provided to those corporations, earned him powerful enemies, and a U.S.-supported military coup drove him from power three years into his administration, ending his efforts to improve Chileans’ health.

In Central and South America, the part of the world where I’ve focused much of my research, the United States and various international financial institutions have worked to support health care systems structured along the for-profit model. The World Bank, for example, worked to foster health care systems that served the objectives of private capital accumulation in less developed nations, with the inevitable result that health and health care became a commodity. Commodification burdens poor people's health in many ways, and the adverse impacts of corporatized health care have spread throughout the world.

One irony, however, is that some less developed countries have found ways to uncouple health from wealth. But it hasn’t come easily. In recent years, the commodification of health in Latin America has receded somewhat, particularly in the wake of the worldwide economic crisis and widespread protests that have followed. Regimes that previously embraced corporate interests have grown weak and largely have disappeared, replaced by elected governments that have refused to accept the historical patterns of economic empire that fostered exploitation and poverty around the world. National and local leaders have entered into novel coalitions that have given rise to a new era of social medicine in Latin America.

In the 1990s, for example, El Salvador saw sustained efforts to resist efforts by the World Bank and the ruling right-wing political party to privatize public hospitals. Strikes by health care workers at affected hospitals spread elsewhere, leading to a commitment from the government that it would abandon the privatization push. When the government subsequently began contracting out hospital services to private entities, more strikes followed. Eventually, the World Bank flinched, backing away from a privatization requirement in a loan it was extending to the country, and efforts to expand public-sector health care are again under way.

Popular efforts to accomplish similar objectives have taken root in a number of Latin American nations, and the idea of universal health care has even taken root right here in the United States. It was a key part of the agenda on which Barack Obama rode to victory in the 2008 Democratic election. However, the principle of universal access to health services through a strengthened public sector largely disappeared from the health care reform bill he eventually signed into law.

As many critics have pointed out, Obamacare, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), uses public-sector funds and mandatory patient-generated premiums to buy insurance coverage from the private, for-profit insurance industry. This approach ultimately will provide coverage for only about half of the uninsured, with costs that will continue to rise over time due to the administrative waste inherent in private insurance. In addition, Obamacare will provide yet another enormous public subsidy for the private insurance industry, despite its dismal historical record. Ironically PPACA closely resembles the “neoliberal” health reforms promoted previously by the World Bank in Latin America and other regions, for instance the widely criticized reform that began in Colombia during 1994.

This paradoxical situation becomes quite striking because Medicare offered a model for a successful system. Medicare provides universal access to publicly financed services with low levels of administrative waste and more effective cost control than seen under private insurance. Although Medicare retains various flaws, these flaws are far less critical than the continued commodification of health as preserved under Obamacare. The Obama administration could have proposed an expansion of Medicare for the entire population of the United States. Obama himself favored this type of “single payer” approach while he was a state legislator in Illinois but later changed his views when he began to accept large financial contributions from the private insurance industry.

Despite widespread support from professionals (see for instance Physicians for a National Health Program) and the general public (see for instance Health Care Now), “opinion leaders” like those who lead the RWJF have declined to advocate for the particular model of universal health care embodied in the Medicare for All approach. At the risk of appearing to bite the hand that feeds (which actually feeds only to a very minor extent), let me say that one of my major disappointments in the RWJF during its more than 40 years of trying to improve access to affordable health care is that its leaders consistently have declined to advocate for a coherent, unified model for a national health program.

The simple truth is that the United States remains the only economically advanced country without a viable national program that ensures access to needed care for all. As a result health care—and health—remain a commodity for sale. Until we in the United States decide to de-commodify our health care and health by implementing a universal, single, publicly financed, national health program such as Medicare for All, we will remain in our current state of ethical underdevelopment.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.