I’ve always thought that it’s natural for countries to have a competitive spirit. Such competition has the ability to inspire pride and social improvements, and that’s a good thing. But competition doesn't seem to be enough to save our national health care system. When it comes to medicine, the United States falls far behind the pack.
This has become painfully obvious in the wake of the world’s most publicized birth. On Monday, His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge came into the world. The bill for his birth? The Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital, where the Duchess of Cambridge gave birth, charges about $15,000. If that same baby had been born in the United States, the cost of the pregnancy, birth, and newborn care would have been at least double that: $30,000, for a vaginal delivery, and a whopping $50,000 for a C-section. For those who are lucky enough to have it, commercial insurance will, on average, only cover $18,329 and $27,866, respectively, according to a Truven Health Analytics report.
The difference in medical costs provides a stark contrast between our two countries. But the comparison isn’t entirely fair. The Truven report includes the full cost of pregnancy care, in addition to delivery. But if we compare delivery costs, alone, a similar picture emerges. In the United States, delivery costs $7,200 on average, compared to $2,600 in the UK, and $4,000 in Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands, where mothers pay little of the price themselves.
So why the high price? It’s not that Americans have better equipment, receive better treatment, or have better results. It’s actually due to our billing system, where every little detail, from hospital gowns to Tylenol, gets billed to the patient. Other countries' doctors receive a flat fee for the mother’s care.
According to the New York Times, “Only in the United States is pregnancy generally billed item by item, a practice that has spiraled in the past decade .... Charges that 20 years ago were lumped together and covered under the general hospital fee are now broken out, leading to more bills and inflated costs.” According to Maureen Corry, the executive director of Childbirth Connection, a nonprofit that seeks to improve maternity care, “We’ve created incentives that encourage more expensive care, rather than care that is good for the mother.”
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of American maternal health care is that even if both parents have health insurance, many policies do not cover maternity care. That means that the average mother is left to sift through a mess of maternity services that often have no clear prices. What’s more terrifying is that mothers who don't have insurers to haggle on their behalf are left to advocate for themselves, and attempt to negotiate discounts from hospitals and doctors.
Most developed countries avoid high maternity costs and provide comprehensive maternity care because doing so is vital to the health of future generations. Meanwhile, the United States has the highest rate of both infant and maternal death among industrialized nations, and social factors like increased maternal age are driving up hospital costs. American policymakers need to recognize the pressures placed on new mothers, which affect not only the well-being of patients, but the economic health of the nation as a whole, as women find it increasingly difficult to afford to give birth.