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Health Care Olympics – Norway vs. USA (Originally Published 8/28/2009)

Posted in Culture and Diversity, Health Care, and Socialism

It is frustrating to hear simplistic comparisons such as, “Norway spends less on health care than we do and it’s all free there and they live longer than we do too!” Well, let’s peel that onion down a few layers and see if there are any other differences between Norway and the United States that might explain differences in health care costs and longevity.

Norway’s population is about 4.7 million compared to 307 million in the US, and ours is growing three times as fast. The Atlanta metropolitan area has more people than Norway. Norway citizens are 90% Norwegian, a people with a reputation for hardiness, and Norwegians are pretty scarce in the USA except perhaps in Minnesota. I have an impression that centennial birthday celebrants I read about in The Lutheran Magazine are often Scandinavians living in Minnesota so I wouldn’t be surprised if Norwegians who have moved to the US live longer than the ones who have stayed in Norway. What would that say about our health care system?

There are other differences. They are a little wealthier and have less income disparity than we have. Their GDP per capita is $55,000 compared to $47,000 in the US. The poorest 10% of their households have 3.9% of the income (2% in the US) and the richest 10% of their households have 23.4% of the income (30% in the US). Norway apparently doesn’t publish a so called “poverty line” to serve as a benchmark or trigger point for government aid. We have an arbitrarily established “poverty line” that labels 12% of our population as “poor.” Wonder how that makes them feel. Also, I wonder how it makes the people just above that line feel.

There are other differences. We have 2.5 times the immigration, not counting illegals, and our frequency of AIDS is six times as high. I don’t believe health care system shortcomings can be blamed for our AIDS problem. Norwegians (in Norway) do live longer than we do on average: 79.95 years vs. 78.11 years. That is insignificant given all the other differences.

They spend more on education than we do: 7.2% of GDP vs. 5.3% of GDP. It may be even bigger than that if they spend more of their education money on math and science and grammar and economics and less on sports facilities, field trips, school buses, and extracurricular activities. On health care, they spend about 7.4% of GDP compared to 13% in the US. I’d really like to know how that health care dollar breaks down in both countries. How much goes to physicians and how much to insurance claims processing centers, for example. And how is the accounting done? How are costs allocated?

Such comparisons are very complex and difficult. In the absence of considerable data mining and analysis, comparisons are usually meaningless. We have a lot to be thankful for in the United States, including the Norwegians who have moved here. But we do have challenges, some natural and some self-imposed, that prevent us from passing a bill in congress and suddenly being like Norway or any of those other small, relatively homogeneous and wealthy European countries. We need to work on our own systemic problems without beating ourselves up over how much we spend on health care compared to such countries.

And, by the way, in case these statistics tempt you to relocate to Norway, be aware of the “country’s carefully regulated effort to allow only selected migrants to be admitted, together with its commitment to ensuring social equality for those who arrive.”

The data I am quoting and the quotation about immigration came from these websites:

For a great read on early Norwegians settling in the United States, check out Giants in The Earth, a novel originally published in Norwegian. It was assigned reading for Lutheran seminarians at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.