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Health care an ailing condition in the U.S.
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A true story about brain surgery
A friend of mine, Mary Ellen, shared her story about a medical condition that she'd suffered from on two continents. Due to a cerebral arterial venous malformation, she had two brain hemorrhages about four years apart.

"In 1989, when I had my first hemorrhage, I was treated at NYU Medical Center in New York City," she says. "I was in intensive care for about three days and then on the ward for about nine days. I was given steroids to reduce the swelling in my brain, and I had one MRI, a couple of CT scans and an angiogram. I had physical therapy while I was on the ward, which amounted to a walk with a therapist once a day in the hallways. My bill for those two weeks was over $80,000, and the bills came in dribs and drabs over the course of six months."

Mind you, the doctors at NYU Medical Center didn't perform any brain surgery. They simply treated the problem with steroids for a little more than a week. She continues:

"In 1993, while living in Sydney, Australia, I had a second hemorrhage and had six and a half hours of brain surgery. I was in the ICU for five days and then on the ward for about nine days. I had one CT scan and one MRI; the machines were just like the ones used in New York."

And this cost how much?

"My Australian surgeon's fee was U.S. $2,000. Because I was American and covered by private health insurance (and not covered under the Australian national health-care plan), I was charged the highest possible rate for my daily stay in the hospital. My total bill, which I got on one piece of paper the day I left Royal North Shore Hospital, was $8,470 in Australian dollars, or about U.S. $6,000."

Mary Ellen called the surgeon in New York to see what he would have charged. He told her his fee would have been $25,000 at a minimum and asked her if the doctors in Australia made any money.

It's obvious they don't make as much money down under as they do over here. But the bigger question is: Are health-care costs in the U.S. hemorrhaging beyond control? Maybe the profit part of the health-care equation plays too big a role in our system. But that is driven by a couple of forces. Mary Ellen explains why the doctors in Australia don't charge as much for their services:

"For one thing, Australians don't sue as often as Americans do -- in fact, it's pretty rare. So doctors' malpractice insurance is much lower. And secondly, university tuition and fees are very, very low compared with ours. If you qualify, by virtue of your score on the national high school 'leaving certification' test, your university costs are limited to room and board and a fee for books. So doctors there aren't saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in school loans that they have to pay back."

Ah. So it's our litigious nature, coupled with soaring college costs, that contribute to our health-care system's ills. Unfortunately, there's no quick cure. And for most Americans, preparing for future health-care costs by saving an extra half-million dollars over the next decade or so isn't a feasible goal.

Hmmm. Maybe retiring in a foreign country isn't such a bad idea.

Longtime financial journalist Barbara Mlotek Whelehan earned a certificate of specialization in financial planning. If you have a comment or suggestion about this column, write to Boomer Bucks.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: July 26, 2006
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