THE BLOG
09/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Life, Liberty and Happiness: If This is Socialized Healthcare, Sign Me Up!

By Laurie Penny

My partner suffers from a joint disorder which requires regular operations, paid for by the British NHS. His most recent procedure was performed without anaesthetic by a drunken surgeon wielding a rusty hacksaw. As I forced a mouldy rag between his teeth to stop him screaming, an official wearing Nazi insignia burst in and informed us that limbs were not considered an NHS spending priority, so dirty chisels were employed to remove both his legs and one of his arms. My partner is now a triple amputee, and I am forced to prostitute myself for heroin to numb the pain of living in an Orwellian super-state. God save the Queen.

This decidedly made-up story is hardly more ridiculous than the lies that Republicans have been peddling about the NHS all week. To set a few spluttering records straight: patients over 59 are not denied heart surgery; Professor Sir Stephen Hawking has come forward to say that he would not be alive without the NHS; and Republican hysteria over 'death panels' reflects more accurately the situation in the United States than in Britain. On both sides of the Atlantic, lofty officials get to choose how best to allocate a finite amount of healthcare funding -- the difference is that the NHS bases decisions on its analysis of how best to deliver equitable healthcare for all, rather than basing decisions on the interests of its shareholders.

Brits all over the world have been stepping forward to defend the NHS, with 'WeLoveTheNHS' becoming a trending topic on Twitter this week, surely the ultimate signifier of public passion. The British are proud of our healthcare system, and even members of the right-wing Conservative party have pledged to defend it, knowing that without promising to uphold socialized healthcare their chances of election success would vanish.

What President Obama is proposing is not a simple transposition of the NHS setup, although it will make for a fairer system if it passes Congress. He is right not to base his plan on the British system: the NHS has its flaws; it's not a simple case of NHS good, Medicare bad. The reality, as ever, is much more complex, and is being obscured by half-truths, frothing right-wing paranoia and outright lies.

My partner's illness, however, is real -- so let me tell you what really happens.

Whenever he needs an operation, my partner receives top-quality care from our local hospital -- eventually. Because his debilitating, agonizing condition is not life-threatening, he normally has to wait several months for the free operations, and the process of consultation and aftercare varies on a sliding scale from risible to non-existent.

On the other hand, his disability makes him unfit for most work, and were we US citizens my meagre half-salary would doubtless put us amongst the 43 million Americans with no health care cover at all. We can and do complain about the NHS -- being British, it's one of our favourite hobbies -- but the specialist painkillers he needs to get through his worst days are free, and they will remain free for the rest of his life.

It isn't easy for my partner, being 25 years old and facing a lifetime of pain and limited mobility. He worries about his future; I worry, among other things, that any children we decide to have will inherit his condition. But one thing we never have to worry about is being able to afford those vital operations, or the medication that keeps him stable.

Moreover, if I were to fall pregnant tomorrow, even on my low-income I would be treated to regular check-ups, help to quit smoking with free NHS classes, ante-and-post natal care, and food vouchers so that I could afford to drink milk, eat vegetables and take supplements to safeguard my health and the health of the foetus. By contrast, staggering inequalities in the US health care system mean that the United States has the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world.

I'm proud to live in a country with 'socialized' healthcare. For all its faults, its shoddy waiting lists and its dreadful dental care, the NHS system erases health inequalities and relieves millions of people, rich and poor, from the burden of constant anxiety about medical bills and sudden sickness. Even more importantly, it creates the progressive impression that the physical and mental health of the nation is the collective responsibility of all its citizens. In the process, without making a fuss about it, the British NHS truly upholds the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. If that's socialism, then sign me up.

Laurie Penny is a columnist for the British progressive website LabourList.