The crisis in the nation’s health care system is affecting everyone. People are losing insurance coverage. They wait months to see a provider. They seek basic care in hospital emergency rooms, forgo preventive screenings and suffer from high rates of medical errors, injuries and infections.
Most people agree there’s a significant problem, says Nancy Morris of the nonprofit Maine Health Management Coalition. They don’t agree on the solutions.
“People don’t like information coming down on them,” Morris said in a recent interview. “They want to get their hands around the problem and really understand it.”
Hoping to inform, engage and empower Mainers of all stripes, the Maine Health Management Coalition and several health care groups are starting a statewide book club to consider the ideas of T.R. Reid, author of the 2009 New York Times best-seller, “The Healing of America.”
Local groups will read and discuss the book during October. Libraries and bookstores are getting ready to provide the books and a place to meet. Reid himself will make several appearances here in November — in person in Portland, Augusta and Bangor and by interactive conferencing at more than a dozen public libraries and other sites from Presque Isle to Kittery.
A Times reviewer called Reid’s popular book “important and powerful … a rich tour of health care around the world.” The Daily Kos said, “You don’t necessarily realize it while you’re reading, but you’re taking Comparative Health Economics 101. With a really fun professor.”
The book is laced with humor, poignancy and personal anecdotes describing the author’s health care encounters in developed nations around the world as he seeks treatment for an injured shoulder. He visits doctors in India, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and, yes, Canada. Along the way, he provides readers with the history and evolution of different health care systems, what works and what doesn’t and who makes money and how much.
Reid, a longtime correspondent for the Washington Post and former head of its Tokyo and London bureaus, believes that modern, wealthy, industrialized countries such as the U.S. should provide health coverage to all residents regardless of age, health status, occupation, income, social standing, ethnic background or other variables. He calls this “fairness.” Other countries have made that moral commitment to their people, Reid argues, and Americans must decide whether the wealthiest nation on earth should follow suit.
“Once we settle that point,” he writes in his prologue, “the nations we’ll visit in this book can show us how to manage the mechanics of universal health care. … We don’t need a carbon copy of any particular country’s health care system; rather, we can draw valuable lessons from each of the models described in this book.”
The U.S. spends more per person, by far, on health care than any other nation on earth — about two-and-a-half times as much as the average spent by other industrialized nations. Yet in a 2000 study conducted for the World Health Organization that looked at longevity, infant mortality, social disparities and other measures of health care quality and equity, the U.S. ranked 37th, behind Dominica and Costa Rica and just ahead of Slovenia and Cuba. France, which in 2005 spent 11 percent of its gross domestic product on health care compared to 16.5 percent in the U.S., took the top ranking.
The Maine Health Management Coalition, made up of doctors, hospitals, employers, consumers, insurers and others with vested interests, is one of several groups focused on improving the quality of care delivered in Maine while holding down spending and expanding coverage. The organization’s website, GetBetterMaine.org, publishes quality data on doctors and hospitals to help individuals and employers choose high-performing providers.
Morris said Mainers can join the effort to improve the nation’s health care system by becoming better informed and communicating their thoughts to health care providers, employers, policymakers and others. One way to play a meaningful role in the health care debate, she said, is to pick up and read a copy of “The Healing of America.”
“If we start talking about this, really talking and thinking about it, we can arrive at more thoughtful decisions than if we rely on soundbites,” Morris said.
For Mainers interested in the book group project, the GetBetterMaine website provides contacts for existing book groups, support for starting a new one, a list of stores offering discounts on group orders, a list of participating libraries, some suggested discussion points and information about Reid’s appearances in Maine during the week of Nov. 7.
Reid’s visit to Maine is being sponsored by the Maine Health Management Coalition Foundation, the Daniel Hanley Center for Health Leadership and the Maine Health Access Foundation with support from other groups including the Maine Medical Association, AARP and the Maine Development Foundation.