Video: The high cost of health care

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/31/2006 7:24:48 PM ET 2006-02-01T00:24:48

Harborview, Seattle's county hospital, illustrates many of the problems facing America's health care system. The emergency room is packed — patients are on beds in the hallways.

Those who are not so sick can wait up to 12 hours, according to administrator Johnese Spisso.

“Particularly if we are at peak census, which we typically are every day,” he says.

Dr. Michael Copas, the chief of emergency services, says in the past few years the makeup of the patient population has shifted dramatically.

“We have people who own small businesses, people who are single parents and people who would have qualified for some sort of help in a catastrophe, but no longer qualify for that,” Copas says.

Yolanda Alcorn, who has chronic health problems, makes just enough at her job to disqualify her from Medicaid.

“I was battling back and forth,” Alcorn says. “Should I just quit my job, you know, so that I can have the medical I need to survive or what?”

Taxpayers pick up the bill for $93 million a year in charity care.

Here in Seattle, with a strong economy, 11 percent of the population has no health insurance, compared with almost 16 percent nationwide. But the strain on the health system is not just from people with no insurance.

Cheryl DeLuna and her husband, Juan, own a restaurant and have health insurance. But at age 39 he suffered a brain aneurysm, and the cost of his care exceeded the policy's limits in a few days.

“We never thought that anything would happen,” Cheryl DeLuna says. “We were in good health.”

But with so many Americans either uninsured or underinsured, experts predict the pressure on facilities like Harborview will only increase.

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