Universal Healthcare: A Necessary Headache

Written by William Chadwick. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on August 10, 2009 with 5 Comments

By Will Chadwick

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 £11bn ($18.4bn) to almost £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.

William Chadwick

William Chadwick

William Chadwick is a young English writer who has recently moved to San Francisco from London. He has worked on-and-off in journalism for almost ten years. He is passionate about the theater, and has directed and written several plays. He is currently trying his hand at teaching English.

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  • Hey Will,

    Great to hear the great ‘outsider’ voice back. Do you have the constant ads for new drugs (“It may kill you but ask your doctor to give you some.”) in the U.K.?

    The worst thing about the American system is that it is for-profit. And, the only way to squeeze out profits is to either increase cost of premiums or cut back on services. No public health system is going to increase rates by up to 20% yearly to make these goals.

    You seen Michael Moore’s movie ‘Sicko’?


  • GenaD

    Speaking of drugs, read this it will make you sick.


  • William Chadwick


    No i haven’t but i have heard it doesn’t pull any punches. I totally agree with you: healthcare needs to be taken out of the hands of private interests.


  • Ralph

    I have often wondered why the word “socialism” causes fear and trembling to many Americans. And I bet most Americans could not explain what they mean by socialism. It basically is a redistribution of wealth. If so, we have many so-called socialistic programs in the U.S. such as our progressive tax system, social security, public housing, unemployment insurance, medicare, etc. I like to think that these programs provide a safety net for the havenots in our society who otherwise would fall through the cracks when unregulated capitalism goes awry. You know the kind that got us into our present financial mess. Looked at this way socialism equals compassion. What’s wrong with that?

  • marc

    Ralph, here’s how that works: In order for the Europeans to not have to foot the bill for the military conduct of the Cold War, US policy makers had to scare the living bejesus out of the domestic population in order to get us to give away our safety net.

    The way this was done was to exploit the post-WWII ideological divisions for all that they were worth. According to Gore Vidal, Truman and Eisenhower knew it was a political manipulation, but apparently Kennedy was the first one to actually believe the bullshit.

    And leveraging on the 1920s era red scares, that were as much anti anarchist as they were anti communist, the notion of a clear and present danger to the American Way Of Life was personified in the form of Socialism.

    Individual liberty was equated with economic liberty, and an ideology arose which reserved justice for the successful.

    Any effort to secure justice for the unsuccessful is deemed socialism, red meat which unifies the Libertarian Party types with the fundie Christians and the corporate welfare queens in the Republican Party to produce the toxic sludge we now see oozing over the political debate, threatening to suck out every last ounce of consensus semantics.