In case we’ve forgotten, there is other health news to report besides more cancelled insurance policies, website screw ups, and lagging Obamacare enrollment. Two topics showed up in the press in the last few days reminding us that health reporting is a big universe: One involves an annual check-up on how the US compares healthwise with the rest of the world; and the other looks into the past and shows how quickly a well-meaning law to provide catastrophic drug coverage for seniors turned into a political disaster.

Each year The Commonwealth Fund, a philanthropic organization interested in health (and, full disclosure, a funder of The Second Opinion) surveys eleven countries on healthcare affordability, access and complexity, examining such things as how easy is it to see a specialist or get primary care; how much do citizens have to pay out of pocket; whether people forego care, and how satisfied they are with their countries’ health systems. For the more than ten years that the Fund has conducted these surveys, the US has not stacked up well. This year is no different (to wit, UPI’s headline summarizing the report, “US healthcare: Most expensive, longest waits, most red tape.”).

It was good to see several news outlets pick up Commonwealth’s findings, even if they didn’t report the meaning of the numbers in much depth. Among the points picked up by many outlets:

• More than one-third of American adults went without recommended care, did not see a doctor, or fill prescriptions because of costs. In the United Kingdom only four percent reported these problems.


• In the US, 42 percent paid $1,000 or more out of pocket for medical care because of higher deductibles and other higher cost-sharing, a problem that might get worse as insurers continue to shift more costs to policyholders.

• When it came to paperwork and hassles with insurance companies, 32 percent of Americans had complaints. That compares to 19 percent in the Netherlands and 17 percent in Germany, countries that have competitive insurance markets similar to the US.

• Three-quarters of Americans said their health system must undergo fundamental changes or be rebuilt. In other countries, more than half of respondents had positive views of their systems. In England, for example, 63 percent said the system works well and needs only minor fixes.

• US and Canadian adults were more likely to experience long waits for primary care and high use of emergency rooms compared to other countries.

One story stood out for doing a bit more. In a blog post Thursday, NBC News’s Maggie Fox used the Commonwealth Fund study—as well as another study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association—to challenge a recent assertion by House Majority Leader John Boehner that Obamacare would “destroy the best health care delivery system in the world” (a familiar Republican claim, particularly from early in the debate over the Affordable Care Act, and a claim that too often goes unchallenged by reporters).

“But is it, really?” asked Fox, who went on to cite specifics from the Commonwealth and JAMA studies demonstrating “quite the opposite.” Despite high US spending, now approaching almost 18 percent of GDP, Fox wrote, the US “is not keeping up with the rest of the developed world when it comes to improving people’s health.”

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.