LONDON — Britain's health care service says it is sick of being lied about.
Pilloried by right-wing critics of President Barack Obama's health care plan, Britain's National Health Service, known here as the NHS, is fighting back.
"People have been saying some untruths in the States," a spokesman for Britain Department of Health said in a telephone interview. "There's been all these ridiculous claims made by the American health lobby about Obama's health care plan ... and they've used the NHS as an example. A lot of it has been untrue."
He spoke anonymously in line with department policy.
A particularly outlandish example of a U.S. editorial, printed in the Investor's Business Daily, claimed that renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, who is disabled, "wouldn't have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless."
Hawking, who was born and lives in Britain, personally debunked the claim. "I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS," he told The Guardian newspaper. Investor's Business Daily has since corrected the editorial.
As the debate over how best to look after American patients rages on, Britain's socialized health care system has increasingly found itself being drawn into the argument. Critics of the Obama administration's plan to overhaul US health care say the president is seeking to model the U.S. system on that of Britain or Canada – places they paint as countries where patients linger for months on waiting lists and are forbidden from paying for their own medication.
A Republican National Committee ad said that in the U.K. "individuals lose their right to make their own health care choices." Another ad launched earlier this month by the anti-tax group Club for Growth claimed that government bureaucrats in Britain had calculated six months of life to be worth $22,750. "Under their socialized system, if your treatment costs more, you're out of luck," the ad says, as footage of an elderly man weeping at a woman's bedside alternate with clips of the Union Jack and Big Ben.
The online attacks on Britain's health care system have been paired with strident criticism from Republican lawmakers.
In an interview widely interpreted here as an attack on the U.K., Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa told a local radio station last week that "countries that have government-run health care" would not have given Sen. Edward Kennedy, who suffers from a brain tumor, the same standard of care as in the U.S. because he is too old. Another Republican, Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia, said that the U.K. and Canada "don't have the appreciation of life as we do in our society, evidently."
The criticism, widely covered in the U.K. media, has clearly stung Britain's left-leaning Labour government. The Department of Health took the unusual step of contacting The Associated Press and e-mailing it a three-page rebuttal to what it said were misconceptions about the NHS being bandied about in the U.S. media – each one followed with the words: "Not true."
At the top of the list was the idea that a patient in his late 70s would not be treated for a brain tumor because he was too old – a transparent reference to Grassley's comments about Kennedy.
And what of Republicans' claim that British patients are robbed of their medical choices? False again, the department said.
"Everyone who is cared for by the NHS in England has formal rights to make choices about the service that they receive," it said in its rebuttal.
Then followed a fact sheet comparing selected statistics such as health spending per capita, infant mortality, life expectancy, and more. Each one showed England outperforming its trans-Atlantic counterpart.
The British government offers health care for free at the point of need, a service pioneered by Labour in 1948. In the six decades since, its promise of universal medical care, from cradle to grave, is taken for granted by Britons to such an extent that politicians – even fiscal conservatives – are loath to attack it.
But the NHS faces significant challenges, not least a multibillion pound (dollar) deficit predicted to open up over the next five years. It has its critics too, particularly cancer patients who complain that the government refuses to cover costlier drugs, leaving those who need expensive treatments to pay for them out of pocket.
Nevertheless, many in the British press bristled at the criticism from America's right wing.
"How dare the Republicans bad-mouth our free health care system?" Guardian columnist Michele Hanson wrote Wednesday. "If I'd been born in the U.S., I'd probably be dead by now."