August 10, 2009
In belated response to Stephen Jones and Rebecca Bowe’s incisive article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian about the push for universal healthcare, I feel, coming from a country where we already have it, like I should weigh in.
The most frightening thing about the SF Bay Guardian’s article was the leak from a high-level congressional staff member indicating “many lawmakers won’t back a single-payer system in part because they ‘don’t want to have to respond to being accused of being a socialist by the right wing.’” If that is the kind of petty personal-political impediment to the kind of healthcare system this country needs, then we are all doomed.
If single-payer, or any other ‘universal’ healthcare system is to be implemented in this country, people on both sides of the operating table need to put aside such small-minded and selfish fears and make the first incision. I applaud the efforts of those who are pushing for universal healthcare: it is something long overdue in a country as developed and as important as the United States.
In England we have the National Health Service (NHS): a directive pushed through by a very belligerent socialist Labour Party Minister in the 1950s in the wake of World War II. It is by no means perfect, and yes, there are often long waiting lists for non-emergency elective procedures.
Every week there is a story in some newspaper about someone who has died, or is going to die, due to not being given the necessary available treatment in time. But newspapers don’t write about success stories unless they involve someone’s pet rescuing them from a fire or a collapsed house. It just doesn’t make good news. So we don’t know how many people every day are helped or even saved by the universal health care system every year in England, but I can guarantee is it a very large number.
What we do know is what a headache for the government the NHS is. Whichever party is in power, the perceived failure to streamline the NHS and make it more effective and efficient is always a stick with which the opposition and the dissenters relentlessly beat the government. It is a constant and throbbing headache, which bleeds billions of pounds out of the national budget every year.
Attempts to centralize all the NHS’s data onto one giant computer system and network have proved costly and near-futile, almost bankrupting two of the specialist Japanese software companies involved, both of whom have pulled out. Parts of the project are up to five years behind schedule, and the cost has risen from Â£11bn ($18.4bn) to almost Â£20bn ($33.5bn).
People whisper in hushed tones about how it’s not safe to have everyone’s personal data accessible on one massive database. Others argue the money would be better spent on hiring more doctors and nurses and providing them with better training. But, in the long run, it just might help patients and their doctors out.
Nevertheless, there must be something good coming of England trying to be the first country in the world to connect up its health systems. The Guardian newspaper in England recently reported, “President Obama has committed $19.2bn for a joined-up system in the US. The Americans appear to think it is worth striving for aims similar to those in the NHS project.” Maybe there is more movement in the right direction than we think, however slow it might feel.
Sometimes when a patient with a broken limb is brought into a hospital, the doctor has to break the bone again in order for them to heal and knit again in the right way. Otherwise the bone would set in the shape that they broke, leaving the patient with a permanently distorted arm or leg.
The healthcare system is like that: continuation along the same lines will only leave us with a broken, limping healthcare support network, at risk from outside factors such as privatization, bureaucracy and poor coverage. Universal healthcare would not, of course, be immune to the first two diseases, but at least it would be reaching out to as many people as possible, not just as many as can afford it.
Adopting a universal (or as close as possible) healthcare system would be a painful process, and would require a lot of rethinking and restructuring. We need to re-break the arm so it can set in the right way – able to support and care for all of us whether our needs, and indeed our wallets, are great or small.