Socialized Medicine Through the Eyes of a Recipient

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WASHINGTON--President Obama's public health plan, if passed by Congress, would drive America inevitably towards a single-payer system in which all health-care payments are made by "the government," that is, the taxpayers.

My family and I, originally from England, have experienced the single-payer system first-hand. Our experience teaches that it would radically change the standard of American medicine-for the worse.

In last night's town hall meeting at the White House, Mr. Obama explained that the government should be able to design a system with a public plan that keeps costs down, "in which people still have choices of doctors and choices of plans that make sure the necessary treatment is provided."

But Mr. Obama neglects the example of Medicare. Before Medicare began in 1967, seniors had wide choices of health plans, but many private plans went out of business because they could not compete with the government-subsidized plan.

Now Medicare is in long-term deficit. The Medicare Board of Trustees' 2009 report shows that transfers to Medicare from general tax revenues will be the largest single source of income to the program within the next five years. In 2009 income to the Hospital Insurance portion of Medicare will fall short of spending by more than $20 billion.

Doctors are less willing to take Medicare patients because of low government reimbursement rates, leading to longer waiting times for seniors. So seniors have a single-payer system with high costs and paltry service-not one that, in the president's words, provides "good, quality care for a reasonable price."

Why should another public plan be more successful than Medicare? In England long waits and poor service were the norm due to the rationing mechanisms of the National Health Service, Britain's nationalized single-payer plan adopted in 1948, a prime example of socialized medicine. No one expected better. I never thought to ask for anesthesia when the dentist was drilling my teeth.

One casualty of socialized medicine would be malpractice suits, whereby patients who receive negligent care can recover real damages and punitive monetary awards. Socialized medicine requires abolishing medical liability, because standards of care are so low that they fall below current standards for medical practice.

Socialized medicine works if you're healthy, but if not, it's a different matter. Take my Uncle Clive. He got sick, and socialized medicine killed him. Uncle Clive was allergic to penicillin but the doctor gave him a shot of it-soon after he had told my Aunt Mina that my uncle was on the road to recovery. When my uncle died, there were no lawsuits.

Or, consider my grandmother, who had the misfortune to have a stroke on a Friday. I took her to Edgeware General Hospital, later closed down, and asked when the doctor would see her. They told me that the doctor would come on Tuesday. I asked if I could pay someone to see Grandma over the weekend, but the answer was that no one was there to be paid.

The elderly are most likely to lose from rationed care. My father, a highway planner in England, was instructed to consider deaths of retired people in road accidents as "benefits," because their "consumption" was likely to exceed their "production."

Medical tests that are routine in America are postponed in Britain, and people don't seem to mind. My sister Leonora called me to say that her newborn baby might have spina bifida and that she had an appointment to see the specialist in six weeks. I asked why she couldn't get the answer sooner, and she replied that this was the first appointment available. I asked why she couldn't see a private doctor, and she said it wasn't fair to "jump the queue" and bypass the National Health Service.

The standard of care often depends on whom you know. The term "socialized medicine" sounds idealistic, as though everyone gets treated exactly the same. But under socialized medicine, the best doctors see individuals with connections.

Take my brother's son, who was born with hemophilia, where the blood lacks a clotting agent called factor VIII. He receives regular injections of factor VIII, which is derived from human blood and therefore, despite sterilization, potentially tainted with hepatitis A and parvo-virus.

In 1996 the family learned that a synthetic form of factor VIII was available, free of illness, called recombinant factor VIII, which was not being used for my nephew and many other children due to cost. It took an article in the Independent newspaper written by a friendly journalist to get the National Health Service policy changed and all the children given the recombinant factor VIII.

Socialized medicine is not insulated from growth, and between 1997 and 2007 U.K health care spending has increased by 114%, compared with 99% for America. The rising costs of our system can be dealt with in non-socialist ways, such as encouraging people to shop around and become aware of costs of care. The price of Lasik eye surgery and cosmetic surgery, not covered by insurance, have been steadily falling.

With the examples of Medicare and Britain's NHS, it's astounding that anyone would recommend a single-payer government plan for the United States. How about a year in Britain for our senators and representatives before they cast their final votes?




Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @FurchtgottRoth.   

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