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Don't Diss Single Payer Health Care If You Haven't Tried It

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At a recent dinner party in Los Angeles, guests were discussing my native country, England, and a lady blurted out that nothing could be worse than being treated in a British hospital. I was rather astonished at this statement, having been cared for very well throughout my childhood and early adult life by the National Health Service, while this person had never actually received its treatment.

Not that this kind of prejudice is new to me. I hear such comments all the time, and when I do, I feel a sudden defensiveness for the country I chose to leave, but also I feel pity--pity for this lady who has never known the peace of mind and pride that come with knowing that medical treatment is freely available, to everybody, whatever their circumstances; pity for someone who does not know the freedom of being able to quit a job without worrying about how to pay for health care; pity for a person who does not know what it is like to go to a doctor and have the first question be, "what's wrong?" instead of, "who's your insurance carrier?"

One could brush off this lady's prejudice as ignorant chauvinism -- cemented by decades of brainwashing by vested interests -- except that now there is a very real possibility of health care reform, and the option of single payer has been deemed "off the table." Single payer advocates have fought hard for months for a place at the "table;" finally, belatedly, this Wednesday, they will get one, 11th hour, Congressional hearing.

Now, does this mean the British (or any other single payer) system is perfect? No, far from it. It has many problems. And of course there are medical horror stories that critics can use to support the argument that nationalized health care does not work. But for every one of these stories, there is an equally horrific one in the US, with the major difference being that here the sufferer usually has the added horror of huge medical bills. It was recently reported that 60 percent of personal bankruptcies in the US in 2007 were caused by medical costs. This would be considered insanity in the Old Country.

Still, this is not to say that the British-style single payer system is the correct remedy for what ails the US system. Medicine, after all, is not just science but culture. And the cautious and more basic approach of the NHS (less tests, less elective surgeries, less technology, less drugs, less fancy medical facilities, more prevention) might be better suited to Britons than Americans. (Brits, by the way, have the option of private medical care if they want it.)

But, at least let single payer get a proper hearing and, if you have never been treated by the NHS, please do not diss a fundamentally decent health care system.