As leaders debate ways to reform healthcare, politicians repeatedly tell a worried public that Britain will not turn the National Health Service into an ‘American-style’ private system.

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

Two years ago, Britons were outraged when U.S. politicians like Sarah Palin, in the debate over healthcare reform, turned this country’s National Health Service into a public whipping boy, denouncing it as “evil,” “Orwellian” and generally the enemy of everything good and true.

It’s time for some payback.

Britain is now embroiled in a healthcare argument of its own, prompted by a proposed shake-up of the NHS. And the phrase on everyone’s lips is “American-style,” which may not be as catchy as the “death panels” that Palin attributed to socialized medicine but which, over here, inspires pretty much the same kind of terror.

Ask a Briton to describe “American-style” healthcare, and you’ll hear a catalog of horrors that include grossly expensive and unnecessary medical procedures and a privatized system that favors the rich. For a people accustomed to free healthcare for all, regardless of income, the fact that millions of their cousins across the Atlantic have no insurance and can’t afford decent treatment is a farce as well as a tragedy.

But critics here warn that a similarly bleak future may await Britain if a government plan to put more power in the hands of doctors and introduce more competition into the NHS succeeds — privatization by stealth, they say.

So frightening is the Yankee example that any British politician who values his job has to explicitly disavow it as a possible outcome. Twice.

“We will not be selling off the NHS, we will not be moving towards an insurance scheme, we will not introduce an American-style private system,” Prime Minister David Cameron emphatically told a group of healthcare workers in a nationally televised address last week.

In case they didn’t hear it the first time, Cameron repeated the dreaded “A”-word in a list of five guarantees he offered the British people at the end of his speech.

“If you’re worried that we’re going to sell off the NHS or create some American-style private system, we will not do that,” he said. “In this country we have the most wonderful, precious institution and also precious idea that whenever you’re ill … you can walk into a hospital or a surgery and get treated for free, no questions asked, no cash asked. It is the idea at the heart of the NHS, and it will stay. I will never put that at risk.”

Cameron’s eagerly declared devotion to the NHS illustrates the totemic role it plays in British society, an institution so cherished that some describe it as the closest thing here to a truly national religion. Created in 1948, as the country struggled to rise from the ashes of World War II, the NHS is widely hailed as the welfare state’s biggest triumph.

Since then, it has bloomed into a behemoth that gobbles up nearly $170 billion a year in taxpayer money — an amount set to grow along with Britain’s aging population — and is one of the nation’s largest employers.

Governments of all stripes have taken office pledging to reform the system, to streamline it and make it more efficient, but none has fully succeeded, knowing that they tinker with the NHS at their peril. The current Conservative Party-led coalition, which has embarked on the most radical public spending cuts in a generation, has promised not to take a penny from the health service.

To each other, Britons love to complain about the NHS, retailing gruesome tales of substandard care, of long waiting lists for simple operations like hip replacements, of snotty surgeons and naughty nurses. But when Americans began citing the NHS as the epitome of socialized medicine gone wrong, people here bristled.

Fear that Britain is becoming more like the U.S. extends beyond healthcare. “American-style” is also the epithet of choice to describe the direction of Britain’s higher-education system.

To make up for lost state funding, many public universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, have decided to take advantage of a new law allowing them to charge students a maximum of $14,750 in annual tuition, nearly triple the current price tag. Shelling out huge sums for college may be part of the American way, but Britons don’t like it.

Last week, well-known philosopher A.C. Grayling caused a stir by announcing the creation of a private university, featuring top British and U.S. academics, that will charge nearly $30,000 a year.

There have also been demonstrations over the proposed NHS overhaul. Britons are so uneasy about the changes that a sheepish Cameron was forced to put them on hold and ordered his ministers to go on a two-month listening tour to hear out voters.

“We recognize that many people have had concerns about what we were doing,” Cameron said. “This has been a genuine chance for people … to work together to strengthen the institution we all love and hold dear.”

The results of the review, and the government’s expected concessions, are to be unveiled this week.

The changes will be debated in the public arena and fought over in Parliament. Doctors’ groups will no doubt say one thing, patients’ advocates another. In the end, lawmakers will probably approve a messy healthcare compromise that will anger many and please few.

Which just goes to show that maybe Britain and America aren’t so different after all.

5 Comments

  1. Scott on June 14, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    “Eats up $170 billion”?
    Offer that deal to america and it would be a godsend!
    I think predicted low quality medicare is budgeted at 2 trillion right now?
    Tell you what, if the cure for cancer were herpes, who in their right mind would say “I’d rather die”?
    What I mean is: If the solution to your huge problem is a lesser evil but still allows for more happiness, who would say no?



  2. Bill M on June 14, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    As a British nurse, living and working in Canada I have real life experience of two “brands” of nationalised, free Healthcare. In both countries the system is cherished by everyone, rich and poor, as something to be truly proud of. And I know that the current strife Cameron is experiencing is a symptom of that; he has a parlimentary majority but now knows that he’d never get away with changing the NHS in any meaningful way, not just because he’d lose the next election but because a good chunk of his own party members and conservative constituents wouldn’t stand for it.
    The NHS isn’t perfect, I know, there are faults, some of them inefficiencies, some of them underfunding. But for Palin or Ryan to claim that these imperfections are enough to discount the possibility of a truly US healthcare system in the FDR vein, while her countrymen die of treatable diseases or are shackled by outrageous inflated healthcare and pharmaceutical debt, is absurd. Dressing up this grossly Anti-American nonsense as constitutional is just bizarre and Palin, Ryan and many other Republicans should give some serious thought to how their opinions and their personas will be viewed in the years to come as they will not be able to keep the status quo indefinately. Change is coming.



    • JPE927 on June 15, 2011 at 10:28 am

      Well said Bill!
      I would rather live under the British or Canadian healthcare system any day rather the corrupt one we have here in the US!

      Yes, change is coming and soon!



  3. Chris Hagel on June 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    I am in contact here in the US frequently with people of other nations. They would never exchange their health care system for ours.
    One guy said even most upper middle class and wealthy people comprehend the idea of health care as a public necessity/service and human right, not a commodity and privilege.
    A Canadian student taking a summer course at a university in Nassau County, NY last summer (’10) said she just doesn’t understand how any one in this country could be against this (HR 676).

    This criminal corporate health insurance industry/big pharma syndicate has most of our politicians in their pocket. These politicians are indifferent to this health insurance non-system which links health care to employment (if you’re lucky to get somewhat adequate coverage or work for a big company) and the physical and mental pain, and death it is causing people.
    They (the politicians) scream “Big government, big government!” when Obama care and especially Medicare for all are mentioned. Yet it’s not too big of a government for them to work in and get about 75 % of their health insurance paid for with our taxes. (Taxes from millions of struggling people who are squeaking by paying for their own health insurance, or having to do without.) Yeah, life is beautiful for them and it’s not big government in this case.
    That 25 % they have to pay is easy-street for them to pay with their salaries.
    As a gesture of cutting our huge national deficit why don’t they pay for 100 % of their own health insurance?

    They exhibit a lot of the features of a sociopath and I’m really not kidding. Search sociopath and you’ll see they fit most of the definitions.

    However, I know too, that people are catching on to this ponzi scheme; that they’re not going to be 21st century serfs of what’s becoming an American style fascist state.



  4. Gary Wheeler on June 22, 2011 at 12:18 am

    The fact that there are people in the U.S. (usually well-off) that think that medical care is a privilege and not a right makes me ashamed to be an American. America=freedom of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.