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Aug 17 2009

The health care debate-11: The Brits fight back

(For previous posts on the issue of health care, see here.)

I have written before of my direct personal experience with the British National Health Service (NHS) and can report that it was wonderful, helping me tremendously when I was seriously ill, entirely free of charge.

As people should know, the NHS is a truly socialized medical system in which people are treated free, doctors are government employees, and hospitals are directly run by the government, although there is a private system overlaid on top of it. It is like the VA hospital system in the US. But even though I think that the socialized model of the NHS is admirable, I think it would not be a suitable model for the US and that the single payer systems of France or Canada would be better.

Part of the strategy of the health care reform opponents has been to lie shamelessly about the systems in other countries in order to make the current terrible system in the US look good in comparison. They are helped in this effort by the fact that most people in the US have no idea what people in other countries have and so believe the distortions. In addition, the people in those countries are not bothered to combat this propaganda, even if they have heard of it. After all, what does is matter to them if foreigners malign their health care? Their attitude seems to be that they are quite happy with what they have and if Americans want to continue to wallow in ignorance, let them.

But once in a while, things get taken too far and the attacks o insultingly unfair that the people in those countries get riled up and rise to defend their system. This seems to be happening with the recent attacks on the British NHS.

One of the triggers was a recent editorial in the Investor Business Daily that tried to give support to the hallucinations of the deathers by suggesting that in the NHS people are ranked according to their usefulness when getting treatments. The editorial said:

The U.K.’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) basically figures out who deserves treatment by using a cost-utility analysis based on the “quality adjusted life year.”

One year in perfect health gets you one point. Deductions are taken for blindness, for being in a wheelchair and so on.

The more points you have, the more your life is considered worth saving, and the likelier you are to get care.

In order to drive their point home, the editorial then went on to give what it clearly thought was a killer example of the ghastly results that ensue from such a system.

People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.

It was clear that the writers were under the impression that Hawking, easily the most famous living scientist and the victim of a degenerative motor neurone disease that has steadily eroded his abilities until now he can only move a finger or two, was American and was able to survive and even flourish as a productive scientist because he was being treated in America.

The truth of course is that Hawking is British, was born there, lives there, and has been treated by the NHS all his life so that even now at the age of 67 he continues to work. As Hawking himself responded, “I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS. I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived.”

The ignorance of the editorial writers was greeted with hoots of derision both here and abroad and in response they have removed the offending sentence about Hawking claiming it was only a factual error about citizenship, without acknowledging that what was considered by them to be an example in their favor is actually a counterexample that destroys their case that the NHS is a soulless, uncaring, bean counting system.

Faced with this embarrassment, perhaps the deathers will take a cue from the birthers and challenge Hawking’s British citizenship. After all, has anyone actually seen his original birth certificate? And shouldn’t he also produce documentation that he lives in the UK and was treated by the NHS? The latter might be difficult since that system doesn’t drown sick people with mountains of bills and other paperwork like the private, profit-seeking health insurance industry in the US.

As a result of the Hawking fiasco, more stories about the virtues of the NHS are emerging from people fed up with the lies. Read about how the NHS helped an American living in the UK with his tragic experience when his child was born with serious problems. And here’s another story from someone recounting the way his father’s kidney disease was treated was treated:

The National Health Service paid for the installation of a dialysis machine plus all the necessary plumbing and renovation of a room in his home so that he could use the machine three times a week rather than travel to the hospital in London. The cost was enormous and there is no way my parents could have afforded it. His quality of life for his last years was improved beyond recognition. I don’t recall any bureaucracy or fuss: the entire decision was the doctor’s. After he passed away the NHS paid for the disassembly and removal of everything too. (my emphasis)

And here’s yet another another story about an American woman who was treated first in the US (where her case was dismissed as being purely psychosomatic) and then, since she later became a student in the UK, was correctly diagnosed and treated by the NHS for what turned out to be a serious illness that required chest surgery plus post-operative care. Her father continues:

Recently, we flew back to New York to consult with perhaps the world expert on Myasthenia. After reviewing her symptoms and treatment he declared that the doctors in Scotland were doing all the right things. He then asked how much this cost. He had a bit of a hard time understanding that the cost was exactly zero. By the way, I spent about two months paying various bills associated with that one visit to his office. Quite a contrast I’d say. (my emphasis)

Defenders of the NHS have also taken to Twitter to spread their message.

The British government has been hesitant to vigorously correct the falsehoods that are being spread here:

As myths and half-truths circulate, British diplomats in the US are treading a delicate line in correcting falsehoods while trying to stay out of a vicious domestic dogfight over the future of American health policy.

But others are stepping up:

The degree of misinformation is causing dismay in NHS circles. Andrew Dillon, chief executive of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), pointed out that it was utterly false that [Senator Edward] Kennedy would be left untreated in Britain: “It is neither true nor is it anything you could extrapolate from anything we’ve ever recommended to the NHS.”

Defenders of Britain’s system point out that the UK spends less per head on healthcare but has a higher life expectancy than the US. The World Health Organisation ranks Britain’s healthcare as 18th in the world, while the US is in 37th place. The British Medical Association said a majority of Britain’s doctors have consistently supported public provision of healthcare. A spokeswoman said the association’s 140,000 members were sceptical about the US approach to medicine: “Doctors and the public here are appalled that there are so many people on the US who don’t have proper access to healthcare. It’s something we would find very, very shocking.”

Again, it should be emphasized that the British NHS is far from perfect. But its shortcomings and the complaints about it stem not from the nature of the system itself but the fact that the British government does not put enough money into it. Many people do not realize that the per capita public health expenditure in the UK is less than the US public (not total) health expenditure alone (i.e., what the US government spends just on Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA).

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert and Howard Dean discuss health care

Howard Dean is a good spokesperson for single payer systems and the public option.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'President Obama’s Health Care Plan – Howard Dean
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Stephen Colbert in Iraq

2 comments

  1. 1
    Ross

    Your points about the NHS are well taken, but in fact Stephen Hawking now enjoys the single-payer coverage of the Canadian system, not the British. He recently accepted a distinguished professorship at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

  2. 2
    John Daniel

    I find the propaganda against Healthcare Reform disgusting. Instead of trying to find the best healthcare system for the people of USA, the opposition lie to try to make political hay at the people’s expense.

    It’s a shame.

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