U.S. Health Care Best in Class ... For Foreign Mobsters and Despots

Worldly villains love America’s medical coverage. Where’s that leave the rest of us?

Nurses march while participating in a one-day strike at a hospital in Burlingame, California, December 22, 2011. Nurses are protesting what they call unsafe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios and increases in their health care premiums. (Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

Expense and location are no obstacle when the rich and bellicose seek medical expertise. An iron-fisted president for life, someone of the caliber of Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, is free to consult every ethical physician the world has to offer. Saleh, whose regime is credited with killing 200-plus democracy protestors since last January, was severely burned in a June rocket attack on his compound. The crispy, U.S.-subsidized strongman has chosen New York-Presbyterian hospital, an industry leader in burn treatment and research, as his health haven.

Field Marshall Saleh’s medical holiday is expected to be the first stop on a protracted exile. In a televised farewell address Sunday, Saleh promised to recover from his wounds and return to his countrymen. This vow of return should be taken with a block of salt. Heavily armed factions of Saleh’s countrymen are eager for their president to return home and be shot on sight.

Shah Shanks Redemption: Saleh’s sanctuary in an American medical facility recalls the October 1979 decision of then-President Jimmy Carter to allow the Shah of Iran—a notoriously lax human rights advocate and staunch U.S. ally—to enter the United States for medical treatment. The Shah had been displaced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran. Activated by Carter’s refusal to ship the Shah home for trial, Iranian students occupied the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. The occupiers held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, ensuring that incumbent Carter would lose the 1980 presidential race to Ronald Reagan. As governor of California, Reagan had warned that if Medicare were enacted, “One of these years we will tell our children and our children’s children what it was like in America when men were free.”

In the year of yakuza boss Goto’s transplant, 186 patients on UCLA’s liver waiting list died.

Brute See, Brute Do: Global mob bosses have aped toppled heads of state in dipping into the USA’s curative resources. Between 2000 and 2004, four leaders of Japan’s pervasive yakuza crime families received new livers at Westwood, California’s UCLA Medical Center. All four of these men are currently barred from entering the United States, despite their American livers.

In 2008, the Los Angeles Times described a plaque at the entrance to the UCLA surgery office. The plaque read, "In grateful recognition of the Goto Research Fund established through the generosity of Mr. Tadamasa Goto."

Law enforcement sources identified Mr. Tadamasa Goto as the boss of the innovative Goto-gumi yakuza faction. Goto, according to a recent New Yorker article, was ahead of the yakuza curve in employing murder as a tool of trade against civilians. Less than three months after walking away from UCLA with a fresh liver in 2001, Goto donated $100,000 to the hospital. UCLA pocketed a separate $100,000 donation from one of the other yakuza liver recipients.

In the year of Goto’s transplant, 186 patients on UCLA’s liver waiting list died.

Stats Spank States: In 2000, the last year it produced such rankings, the World Health Organization placed America’s health system at number 37 on the globe. The world’s richest country underperformed behind expected high achievers such as France, Italy, Austria, Japan and Norway. But U.S. medical care was also judged inferior to the norm in Chile, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Colombia, Dominica and Greece. The U.S. standard of service did edge out patient expectations in Croatia. For perspective, in 2000, Croatia was only five years out of a tumultuous civil war.

An updated study, conducted by the Commonwealth Fund in 2010, ranked the U.S. medical-industrial complex last out of seven core countries. Placement was based on health system quality, efficiency, access, equity and healthy lives. In all fairness to the world’s last superpower, the opposition was stacked with freedom-hating socialist states: Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

Money In, More Money In: The 2010 Commonwealth Fund study calculated that the U.S. spent $7,290 per capita on health care for 2007. The Netherlands, in contrast, ranked first in quality while spending $3,837 per person.

Nitpickers, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), love to carp that the United States is the world’s only industrialized nation that does not ensure health-care coverage for all its citizens. OECD statistics from 2009 found that the United States spends a much higher percentage of its gross domestic product on health care than do 29 nations that presume to be America’s peers.

U.S. per-person health-care spending is also far higher than in these presumptive peer nations, which range from France and Germany to the Slovak Republic and Mexico.

Meanwhile, a variously afflicted stream of Americans is taking its medical dollars to Central and South American countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica and Mexico.

High Cost, Low Participation: In 2010, 52 million Americans had no protection against their medical bills. Of those adults who were insured, 73 million had difficulty paying for health care, and 75 million put off needed medical treatment because they didn’t have enough money to pay for food, shelter and doctor.

Negative Images of Medical Tourism: Not every wealthy patient who flocks from abroad to U.S. medical facilities is a criminal or dictator. American Public Media’s Marketplace reports that international patients drop $3 billion a year on medical care in the United States. Around the country, hospitals are in a competition to attract funded foreigners. Miami’s Jackson Memorial, for example, has marketed itself as a one-flight journey for deep-pocket patients from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, a variously afflicted stream of Americans is taking its medical dollars to Central and South American countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica and Mexico. India and Thailand are also popular health-care destinations for America’s underfunded healing-seekers.

In all, an estimated 1 million of America’s ailing souls will seek crucial, often life-or-death, services abroad this year. Their reasons for going are lack of insurance, lower costs, a feeling that the quality of care is comparable to that at home, and anonymity.

Riddle Me This: All of Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s money and connections cannot buy him anonymity. As for U.S. pride in advanced medical technologies and world-class practitioners, is there any reason that America’s best available care should be inaccessible to more than 50 million Americans? No reason whatsoever, other than the manifold millions of dollars America’s medical-industrial complex spends to influence America’s lawmakers.

Here’s a prediction: As long as Congress works for the health-care lobby, and not for the voters who need health care, super villains will be a higher priority than the common good.

Sources: New York Times | U.S. News | Bloomberg | Economix | Washington Post

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