Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

13.4: Problems of Health Care in the United States

  • Page ID
  • Learning Objectives

    1. Summarize the problems associated with the model of private insurance that characterizes the US health system.
    2. Explain how and why mistakes and infections occur in hospitals.
    3. Describe any two other problems in US health care other than the lack of health insurance.

    As the continuing debate over health care in the United States reminds us, the practice of medicine raises many important issues about its cost and quality. We now turn to some of these issues.

    Private Health Insurance and the Lack of Insurance

    Medicine in the United States is big business. Expenditures for health care, health research, and other health items and services have risen sharply in recent decades, having increased tenfold since 1980, and now costs the nation more than $2.6 trillion annually (see Figure 13.6 “US Health-Care Expenditure, 1980–2010 (in Billions of Dollars)”). This translates to the largest figure per capita in the industrial world. Despite this expenditure, the United States lags behind many other industrial nations in several important health indicators, as we have already seen. Why is this so?

    Figure 13.6 US Health-Care Expenditure, 1980–2010 (in Billions of Dollars)


    Source: Data from US Census Bureau. (2010). Statistical abstract of the United States: 2010. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

    An important reason is the US system of private health insurance. As discussed earlier, other Western nations have national systems of health care and health insurance. In stark contrast to these nations, the United States relies largely on a direct-fee system, in which patients under 65 (those 65 and older are covered by Medicare) are expected to pay for medical costs themselves, aided by private health insurance, usually through one’s employer. Table 13.4 “Health Insurance Coverage in the United States, 2010” shows the percentages of Americans who have health insurance from different sources or who are not insured at all. (All figures are from the period before the implementation of the major health-care reform package was passed by the federal government in early 2010.) Adding together the top two figures in the table, 54 percent of Americans have private insurance, either through their employers or from their own resources. About 29 percent have some form of public insurance (Medicaid, Medicare, other public), and 16 percent are uninsured. This final percentage amounts to almost 50 million Americans, including 8 million children, who lack health insurance.

    Table 13.4 Health Insurance Coverage in the United States, 2010

    Source of coverage Percentage of people with this coverage
    Employer 49%
    Individual 5%
    Medicaid 16%
    Medicare 12%
    Other public 1%
    Uninsured 16%

    Source: Data from Kaiser Family Foundation. (2012). Kaiser state health facts. Retrieved from

    Their lack of health insurance has deadly consequences because they are less likely to receive preventive health care and care for various conditions and illnesses. For example, because uninsured Americans are less likely than those with private insurance to receive cancer screenings, they are more likely to be diagnosed with more advanced cancer rather than an earlier stage of cancer (Halpern et al., 2008). It is estimated that 45,000 people die each year because they do not have health insurance (Wilper et al., 2009). The Note 13.22 “Applying Social Research” box discusses a very informative real-life experiment on the difference that health insurance makes for people’s health.

    Applying Social Research

    Experimental Evidence on the Importance of Health Insurance

    As the text discusses, studies show that Americans without health insurance are at greater risk for a variety of illnesses and life-threatening conditions. Although this research evidence is compelling, uninsured Americans may differ from insured Americans in other ways that also put their health at risk. For example, perhaps people who do not buy health insurance may be less concerned about their health and thus less likely to take good care of themselves. Because many studies have not controlled for all such differences, experimental evidence would be more conclusive (see Chapter 1 “Understanding Social Problems”).

    For this reason, the results of a fascinating real-life experiment in Oregon were very significant. In 2008, Oregon decided to expand its Medicaid coverage. Because it could not accommodate all the poor Oregonians who were otherwise uninsured, it had them apply for Medicaid by lottery. Researchers then compared the subsequent health of the Oregonians who ended up on Medicaid with that of Oregonians who remained uninsured. Because the two groups resulted from random assignment (the lottery), it is reasonable to conclude that any later differences between them must have stemmed from the presence or absence of Medicaid coverage.

    Although this study is ongoing, initial results obtained a year after it began showed that Medicaid coverage had already made quite a difference. Compared to the uninsured “control” group, the newly insured Oregonians rated themselves happier and in better health and reported fewer sick days from work. They were also 50 percent more likely to have seen a primary care doctor in the year since they received coverage, and women were 60 percent more likely to have had a mammogram. In another effect, they were much less likely to report having had to borrow money or not pay other bills because of medical expenses.

    A news report summarized these benefits of the new Medicaid coverage: “[The researchers] found that Medicaid’s impact on health, happiness, and general well-being is enormous, and delivered at relatively low cost: Low-income Oregonians whose names were selected by lottery to apply for Medicaid availed themselves of more treatment and preventive care than those who remained excluded from government health insurance. After a year with insurance, the Medicaid lottery winners were happier, healthier, and under less financial strain.”

    Because of this study’s experimental design, it “represents the best evidence we’ve got,” according to the news report, of the benefits of health insurance coverage. As researchers continue to study the two groups in the years ahead and begin to collect data on blood pressure, cardiovascular health, and other objective indicators of health, they will add to our knowledge of the effects of health insurance coverage.

    Sources: Baicker & Finkelstein, 2011; Fisman, 2011

    Although 29 percent of Americans do have public insurance, this percentage and the coverage provided by this insurance do not begin to match the coverage enjoyed by the rest of the industrial world. Although Medicare pays some medical costs for the elderly, we saw in Chapter 6 “Aging and Ageism” that its coverage is hardly adequate, as many people must pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in premiums, deductibles, coinsurance, and copayments. The other government program, Medicaid, pays some health-care costs for the poor, but many low-income families are not poor enough to receive Medicaid. Eligibility standards for Medicaid vary from one state to another, and a family poor enough in one state to receive Medicaid might not be considered poor enough in another state. The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), begun in 1997 for children from low-income families, has helped somewhat, but it, too, fails to cover many low-income children. Largely for these reasons, about two-thirds of uninsured Americans come from low-income families.

    Not surprisingly, the 16 percent uninsured rate varies by race and ethnicity (see Figure 13.7 “Race, Ethnicity, and Lack of Health Insurance, 2008 (Percentage of People under Age 65 with No Insurance)”). Among people under 65 and thus not eligible for Medicare, the uninsured rate rises to almost 22 percent of the African American population and 32 percent of the Latino population. Moreover, 45 percent of adults under 65 who live in official poverty lack health insurance, compared to only 6 percent of higher-income adults (those with incomes higher than four times the poverty level). Almost one-fifth of poor children have no health insurance, compared to only 3 percent of children in higher-income families (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2012). As discussed earlier, the lack of health insurance among the poor and people of color is a significant reason for their poorer health.

    Figure 13.7 Race, Ethnicity, and Lack of Health Insurance, 2008 (Percentage of People under Age 65 with No Insurance)


    Source: Data from Kaiser Family Foundation. (2012). Kaiser state health facts. Retrieved from