My Turn: There are echoes of U.K. in U.S. debate over universal health care

For the Monitor
Published: 7/18/2019 9:45:20 AM

Fifty years ago, when I arrived in this country as a permanent resident, I was prepared for changes. Frequent prior visits on business had shown me that there were more differences than could be accounted for by George Bernard Shaw’s quip that we were “two countries divided by a common language.”

I had already met yet another of these differences when I was offered the job that was now bringing me here: “The company will, of course, provide full health insurance” was stated as part of the deal.

In Britain, we had already enjoyed 20 years of the National Health Service. It was an accepted part of our lives and, although periodic adjustments might be necessary, it was not going away, nor was anyone suggesting that it should.

Today, from what I gather from siblings and others, the NHS remains the unchallenged deliverer of health care for all. Of course there are complaints: shortage of ER beds, long waiting times for non-emergency surgery – all of them the result of underfunding.

But politicians have always and everywhere been strong on making promises and tightwads when it comes to paying the bills.

Most people are prepared to put up with any delays and inconveniences of the system. The few who feel strongly enough and are rich enough to do something about it are free to purchase private care.

Back in 1946, when the NHS was first voted on in Parliament, I was a teenaged schoolboy, old enough to be interested in what was going on, though not old enough to play a direct political part. Probably it was the first time that politics had engaged my attention. I was fascinated by the public disagreements and the over-the-top rhetoric that were engaging the passions of both the general population and the institutions that had seemed to be a part of the stable backbone of society.

Doctors and hospital management were passionate in their opposition to much of what was being proposed. From what was reported of their arguments one would imagine that hospitals were going to become dosshouses for the homeless and doctors would soon be begging on the streets.

Predictions were also made that the coming system would be grossly abused by its patrons. Doctors’ surgeries would be swamped by ne’er-do-wells seeking a day off work by pleading unjustified sickness, and dentists would face a massive influx of patients, each seeking a complete set of false teeth.

What seemed to me particularly nasty was the abuse directed at Aneurin Bevan, the minister of health. Was it truly so great an insult to “decent society” that the person introducing the new health care system came from the coal mines of Wales rather than the playing fields of Eton?

Today in this country there are plenty of examples of the shortcomings of our present health care system (or lack of system). Two of the most egregious are the uncontrolled pricing of medications and after-the-fact billing for “out of plan” procedures. Looming over all are the problems of insurance costs and coverage.

How can one plan for future coverage when one’s future health issues are unknown? Is it worthwhile to pay a little less for an insurance plan only to discover later that an unanticipated illness or accident is not covered by the plan?

Looking toward a brighter future, the arguments rage around the existing Affordable Care Act and the projected variants of some proposed form of “health care for all.” Thankfully, the rhetoric is not as inflammatory as that which convulsed the U.K. 70-plus years ago.

I haven’t heard too many people say that health care is a privilege available only to those who deserve and can afford it, though the availability of Medicaid is a vexed question in many states. On the other hand, some are saying that health care for all is unaffordable or involves too much government intrusion or too little choice.

The experience of the U.K., the rest of Europe and Canada, as well as Japan, would seem to be sufficient counters to such arguments. In addition, there are also the home-grown examples of Medicare and the VA, both of which are well-liked by those they serve.

One can hope that serious discussion of the real issues will lead public opinion and our Washington representatives to come to a consensus that some form of universal health care is desirable and attainable in the near future.

(The Rev. Les Norman, retired UCC minister, lives in New London.)




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