The Queen's Health Care

May 14, 2009 3:57 pm ET — Melinda Warner

"The right to healthcare is as fundamental as the right to education; the question is not whether but how that right is respected."

Despite Recurring Arguments To The Contrary, The Health Care Systems In Great Britain And Canada Are Not Despised By Every Citizen

As the health care debate continues, the false cries of "socialized medicine" and misleading jibes about a "government takeover" of health care are increasingly repeated by those opposed to the President's commitment to providing a public plan option to help the millions of uninsured Americans purchase coverage.

In addition to the ads falsely telling viewers that Obama's health care reform will lead to excessive government control, Rick Scott's Conservatives for Patients' Rights (CPR) is airing ads filled with patients telling their personal horrific experiences with the health care systems in Great Britain and Canada.  But he is not exposing the satisfaction many citizens of those countries have regarding the health care they receive. 

Maria Margaronis, a contributing editor at The Nation, wrote a frank piece on the state of health care in Great Britain, saying: "When I talk to American friends about what we have here--especially those who live without decent insurance--they stare in disbelief. Don't be put off by the horror stories. Yes, the NHS sometimes fails people. It needs reform, and money. But most of the time it does a fantastic job--and it does it for everyone."

Like most British people, I have a love-hate relationship with the NHS, which definitely has its problems. There can be long waiting times for diagnosis and surgery; there is the so-called "post-code lottery," which means that treatment (especially cancer treatment) varies a lot depending on where you live. The bureaucracy's complexity is legendary. Expensive and potentially life saving or life extending drugs are not available to everyone who needs them. Hospitals are understaffed; MRSA infections are an ongoing issue.

But in the 14 years we've lived in London, members of my family have had, without a single bill: two hospital births, one attended by midwives in a birthing pool, the other requiring weekly scans by a top fetal medicine specialist; child development checks and vaccinations; lithotripsy for kidney stones; a tonsillectomy; physiotherapy for a broken arm; annual consultations for a chronic chest condition; and countless GP appointments for minor ailments in and out of hours, as well as free medicines and eye exams for the children. The practitioners and staff we have dealt with have been, almost without exception, professional, dedicated, overworked, and very kind. (I'll never forget the vigilant theatre nurse who watched our daughter wake up from a general anaesthetic.) The doctors we see often roll their eyes at the frustrations of the system, but they also know how to get the best from it for their patients. I have never once felt that cost was a factor in the treatments we were offered--though I know this might be different in some cases. Given the choice between an NHS teaching hospital and one that's run for profit, I know which I'd choose every time.

British politicians and commentators endlessly debate the future of the health service, which celebrated its 60th birthday last year: how to finance and manage it, how to make it more responsive to patients, how to pay for new generation medicines and techniques and meet the needs of an aging population. But even the Tory leader (and probable next prime minister) David Cameron has pledged to keep it free at the point of use. (His severely disabled son, who died earlier this year, was cared for by the service.) The right to healthcare is as fundamental as the right to education; the question is not whether but how that right is respected. When I talk to American friends about what we have here--especially those who live without decent insurance--they stare in disbelief. Don't be put off by the horror stories. Yes, the NHS sometimes fails people. It needs reform, and money. But most of the time it does a fantastic job--and it does it for everyone.

In an open letter to President Obama, Michael McBane of the Canadian Health Coalition (CHC) wrote that Canada spends 5% less on health care than the U.S. and its citizens live three years longer.

Mr. President, we know that you are deeply concerned about the 46 million Americans who have no medical coverage. We're proud to say that Canada covers every Canadian citizen. Canadians live 3 years longer than Americans, and our infant mortality rate is 20% lower. Canada spends 10% of its GDP on health care, compared to 15.3% in the United States, yet we generally get more services. Economically, Canada's public health system dramatically reduces costs for business, particularly the hard-hit manufacturing sectors, because of higher prices and administrative costs in the primarily private U.S. system.

 Canadians recognize our system can always be improved, but they overwhelmingly want public sector improvements, not for-profit private companies taking our scarce health care dollars. Our two countries need to stand together to strengthen public health care across the border and to protect the right to public health care from financially motivated doctors and insurance companies.

The health care system in America needs to be reformed, no question.  But it is a waste of time for groups like CPR to continually bring up incomplete pictures of what health care is like in other countries. 

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