It’s The Zip Code, Stupid!

February 26th, 2018 by Tom Lynch

“Sixty-percent of life expectancy, which has gone down two years in a row, is determined by where you live, 30% by your genetic code and 10% by the clinical care you get. Zip code matters more than genetic code.”

That was the sobering message delivered by AETNA CEO Mark Bertolini during an interview on CBS this morning. And he’s right. A May 2017 study from JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that geography is the biggest X-Factor in today’s American Hellzapoppin version of health care. The study analyzed every US county using data from deidentified death records from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), and population counts from the US Census Bureau, NCHS, and the Human Mortality Databas and found striking differences in life expectancy. The gap between counties from lowest to highest life expectancy at birth was 20.1 years.

And, surpirse, surprise, it turns out if you live in a wealthy county with excellent access to high level health care, like Summit County, Colorado (life expectancy: 86.83), you’re likely to live about 15 years longer than if you live, say, in Humphries County, Mississippi, where life expectancy at birth is 71.9 years.  So, yes, Zip Code matters. According to the study:

In this population-based analysis, inequalities in life expectancy among counties are large and growing, and much of the variation in life expectancy can be explained by differences in socioeconomic and race/ethnicity factors, behavioral and metabolic risk factors, and health care factors.

On the whole, though, US life expectancy at birth increased by 5.3 years for both men and women — from 73.8 years to 79.1 years — between 1980 and 2014. But the county-by-county magnitude of the increase was determined by where one lives. That is, wealthy counties showed significantly greater increases in life expectancy than poor counties.

What is even more alarming is that some counties have experienced declines in life expectancy since 1980.

The JAMA study is another view from a different angle of inequality in America. According to Bertolini, CVS’s pending acquisition of AETNA, the third largest health insurer in the nation, will be a positive step in leveling the health care field when fully rolled out. He believes CVS’s 10,000 stores will evolve into much more than the Minute Clinics a lot of them are now. Time will tell, but CVS may be on to something here. In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Ezekiel Emanuel pointed out that since 1981:

The population has increased by 40 percent, but hospitalizations have decreased by more than 10 percent. There is now a lower rate of hospitalizations than in 1946. As a result, the number of hospitals has declined to 5,534 this year from 6,933 in 1981.

People are apparently trying their mightiest to get health care anywhere except a hospital. According to Ezekiel, hospitals now seem less therapeutic; more life-threatening. Also, and this is where CVS is heading, complex care can now be provided somewhere else.

Another red flag from Mark Bertolini’s CBS interview was his reference to life expectancy dropping two years in a row. He’s right about that, too. In 2015 and 2016, life expectancy declined by a statistically significant 0.2 and 0.1 years, respectively.¹ Until now, life expectancy in America hadn’t declined since 1993.

All this is happening while our modern-day Tower of Babel – the US government – remains unwilling, unable, or both, to do anything constructive to improve the situation. Our more than 30-year health care train wreck needs serious attention, not partisan bloviation. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, ” That is a situation up with which we must no longer put.”

The men and women of Humphries County deserve nothing less.


¹ 2015’s drop was originally put at 0.1 year by the CDC, but was revised to 0.2 years after Medicare data were re-evaluated.