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The Brits want to mend their universal health care system, not discard it

REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Demonstrators holding banners during a protest march highlighting opposition to the government's health policy, in central London.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Great Britain over the past two decades, including long stretches overseeing the health needs of an elderly aunt during the final years of her life.

Although I’m sure there are some people in Britain who would like to see their National Health Service (NHS) abolished for a fully privatized system, I haven’t met any of them. Everyone I’ve talked to about the NHS — of all political persuasions — seems quite fond and proud of their cradle-to-grave medical coverage, despite the occasional whinging about having an appointment canceled at the last minute or about enduring a multi-month wait for an elective surgery.

So, I wasn’t surprised by the Brits’ swift and angry reaction on social media and elsewhere yesterday to this ill-advised Twitter-swipe at the NHS by President Trump:

Misinterpreting the message

That’s an erroneous — and perhaps willful — misinterpretation of why the marchers were protesting in London last weekend, as British journalist James Ball explains in a commentary published online Monday in the Guardian newspaper.

“The first thing that Americans should know about the National Health Service is that it’s free at the point of use to anyone who needs it,” Ball writes. “You don’t have to fill out much paperwork, and you get no bills, whether you go to see your family doctor, or go to hospital. No one in the UK goes bankrupt through medical costs, no one needs to delay medical treatment until they can afford it, and virtually no one is uninsured.”

Ball, along with other Brits, is under no illusion that the NHS is perfect. But they want to see the system better funded and improved, not dismantled and privatized.

Last weekend’s protesters were marching “to try to protect an institution they care about a great deal,” says Ball. 

In fact, the NHS is one of the most popular institutions in the U.K., and nurses and doctors are the two most trusted professions in the country (followed by teachers, professors, scientists and judges).

Room for improvement

Again, that doesn’t mean the Brits view the NHS through rose-colored glasses. They know there’s plenty of room for improvement.

“The NHS performs roughly mid-table in terms of bang for its buck: some countries spending roughly the same on health get considerably better outcomes, others get much worse,” Ball reports. 

“One country the UK outstrips by a huge amount, though, is the US,” he adds. “According to data gathered by the [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development], the average UK spend per head on healthcare is $4,192 (£2,989) — and it has a life expectancy of 81.6 years. The US spends more than twice this amount, $9,892 — far more than any other country in the world — and yet life expectancy is far lower.”

Great Britain’s health secretary, Jeremy Hunt  — who is widely blamed, along with his Conservative Party, for underfunding the NHS — agrees, as his Twitter response to Trump shows:

Increasing pressures

Both the U.S. and the UK health care systems are under great strain, but the British system, unlike its American counterpart, provides an important safety net. I saw that net up close when I was taking care of my aunt, and I — and she — found it remarkably helpful, reassuring and compassionate

Yes, the net is getting frayed, but the Brits want it mended, not thrown away. That was why the protesters marched over the weekend.

“The UK is facing the same challenges as many other developed countries: as people live longer and have fewer children, the population is aging, and older people are requiring much more and more expensive care than they used to, increasing pressures on the system,” explains Ball. “The government — motivated by a political “austerity” agenda to cut public spending — have not increased NHS funding to keep up with these pressures, leaving the service stretched thin, a situation brought to a head by an unusually severe flu season.”

“Do remember, though, that NHS funding could be increased by 50% and UK government spending from health would still only just be hitting US levels — this is not a system that is intrinsically broken, just one that’s underfunded,” he adds. “To look for a fundamentally broken healthcare system, Trump need not look very far: he presides over one — and the only actions Republicans have taken during the first year of Trump’s presidency have made that bad system worse.”

FMI: You can read Ball’s commentary on the Guardian’s website.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/06/2018 - 11:12 pm.

    Does the UK funding

    Include the amount citizens pay for private insurance and for the amount private clinics or hospitals spend? The U.S. also has a safety net as no one can be turned away from a hospital ER no matter what their bank balance. The U.S. also doesn’t tax it’s citizens 40-50% of their yearly earnings to pay for the free health care, but we could do that as soon as we go to single payer.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/08/2018 - 01:34 am.

      The U.S. emergency rooms are not free, contrary to right-wing myth. They end up losing money when patients give false names and addresses or declare bankruptcy, but they DO try to collect money from uninsured patients, and the prices can be exorbitant. This treatment is emergency and out-patient treatment only. If your headache turns out to be a stroke, they will stabilize you, but they will also send a bill, and they will not provide rehab.

      The British system is free at point of service for everyone. Tourists receive emergency care, as in American hospitals, but they are not charged. (I know some people who have experienced this.) Residents of the UK are eligible for treatment for everything from birth to terminal illness–the British invented hospices.

      Only the wealthy “go private.”

      What the article does not mention is that the crisis is mainly in England, where the Tories are in the majority and are in a “privatize everything” mood, not in Scotland or Wales, where more leftist parties dominate locally.

      I think what really frosts right-wingers about universal health care are the following points:

      1. They think that taxes are the worst thing that can happen to a human being.

      2. Deep down, they believe that the wealthy are better-quality people than the poor, so they hate the idea that rich people and poor people are treated on the same first-come, first-served basis.

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