The European Advantage
At an American dinner table, no topic is more divisive than Europe. To those on the left of the dinner table, our allies across the Atlantic are models for the future—illustrating everything that is right and whole about western society. To those on the right, Europe is nothing more than a collective body of socialist countries that make its citizens wait a very long time to visit a doctor. During my third visit to Europe, which included stops in France, Belgium and The Netherlands, it became increasingly clear to me that our allies are advancing humanity at a rate that should alarm all Americans.
While the Affordable Care Act has provided approximately 14 million Americans with affordable healthcare, consider the first country I visited, France, and its World Health Organization ranking as “the best overall healthcare in the world.” The French government is responsible for the financial management and operations of the country’s health insurance, and thus covers approximately 70% of all health expenditures including 100% of costly procedures and long-term care. Initially, France’s universal healthcare only covered those who contributed to the country’s social security program, but coverage has since been extended to all legal residents of France, contributor or not. France spends 11.5% of GDP on healthcare, a rate lower than the U.S., yet only 3.7% of hospital costs are reimbursed through private insurance. With an average lifespan of 81 years, France is doing well at a lower cost than the richest nation in the world.
Comparably, the Commonwealth Fund ranks the United States last in quality of healthcare to similar countries. In addition, the United States has the highest or near highest prevalence of homicide, disability, injuries, heart disease and much more. 17.2% of our GDP goes to healthcare costs and a huge portion of our hospital systems are in the private sector. What exactly does this all mean? It means we are inefficiently spending more on healthcare while receiving less care and of lesser quality than some of our European counterparts.
Not only does France have a more sustainable and quality healthcare system but it also has a nourished infrastructure. Imagine having access to a high-speed train that can travel at speeds of 300 kilometers an hour that can transport you all over the United States and into Canada and Mexico with little interruption. In 1996, a joint effort between several European countries gave rise to the high-speed rail that transports Europeans between France, Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands at an affordable price and very quickly. While one does need a passport to travel on this high-speed train, conductors merely glance over passports while attempting to enter the United States in any fashion demands arduous paperwork, numerous checkpoints and painstakingly long lines. This type of multinational cooperation is in no way superfluous and adds to an ecosystem of goodwill that is unfortunately foreign to many Americans.
Even Belgium, which to the unfocused eye appears more impoverished than its sister countries, has a relatively low unemployment rate and has a powerful globalized economy with high exports in machinery and raw materials. My stop in Brussels was initially met with skepticism and disappointment, but upon discovering a working class social gathering along a riverfront, my doubts were swept away and my opinion shifted.
Amsterdam, the final stop in my European adventure, was difficult to say goodbye (or tot zien to Amsterdammers) to. An immensely colorful city harboring free expression, multiculturalism, holistic lifestyles and the ability to experiment with drugs without prosecution, Amsterdam is every bit as humanistic and enlightened as the patrons to the left of your dinner table proclaim. Its narrow streets and dense population may not be for everyone, but its certainly a bright star on the world stage.
When Apple comes out with a new product all of its competitors strive to meet or exceed the features of the new device, so why is it foreign to expect the same for American healthcare or infrastructure? Why isn’t our country trying to produce a more outstanding healthcare system and infrastructure than Europe? It’s in our best interest to lure the brightest minds into the red, white and blue, and we’re only going to do that with a competitive standard of living that sets a precedent globally.
Damon Fillman is a Staff Associate for the AAUP-AFT at Rutgers University in New Jersey . Follow him on Twitter @DamonFillman