Dead Wait

June 23, 2009

Dead Wait


Reform: As Americans debate who’s in control of their health care system, a lot of Britons aren’t concerned about how the argument turns out. They’re too busy trying to get a hospital room before it’s too late.

IBD Exclusive Series: Government-Run Healthcare: A Prescription For Failure

In Great Britain, where the government’s in charge of health care, as many as 1 million people are waiting to get into hospitals at any given time, says the National Center for Policy Analysis.

In Canada, another country where the government metes out care, roughly 900,000 are waiting for hospital beds, the Fraser Institute reports. The New Zealand government says that 90,000 are on hospital waiting lists there.

“Those people constitute only 1% to 2% of the population in those countries,” says NCPA President John Goodman, “but keep in mind that only about 15% of the population actually enters a hospital each year. Many of the people waiting are waiting in pain. Many are risking their lives by waiting. And there is no market mechanism in these countries to get care to people who need it first.”

President Obama told the American Medical Association last week that “there are countries where a single-payer system works pretty well,” then said that those who say that he’s “trying to bring about government-run health care” are “not telling the truth.”

Critics of Obama’s public-option plan, in which the federal government offers taxpayer-subsidized medical insurance, believe that such a system will eventually crush the private insurance market. That would leave the federal government as the only provider of coverage and in full control of the health care system.

It’ll be a while before we know who’s telling the truth. But by the time the issue is settled, millions in those countries “where a single-payer system works pretty well” will have died or needlessly suffered waiting to be admitted into a hospital.

Yet we are constantly told that it’s America’s health care system that is substandard. A recent Reuters story that said “the U.S. system consistently ranks worse than other developed countries on many key measures” is typical of the noncritical reporting that convinces the public that American medical care is in shambles.

This is why a national columnist such as Marie Cocco can write without challenge that we have “a system that pretty much everyone believes is crumbling to the point of collapse.”

The perception, though, is easily crushed by the asking of a single question: “If you needed the best health care in the world, where would you go to get it?”

The facts say:

• Survival rates in the U.S. for common cancers are higher, and in some cases much higher, than in Europe and Canada.

• Americans have better access to treatment for chronic diseases than patients in other developed nations and spend less time waiting for care than Canadians and Britons.

• Americans have more access to new medical technologies than Canadians and United Kingdom residents, and are responsible for most health care innovations.

• Americans are more satisfied with their care than their counterparts in nations with socialized medicine.

The argument that American health care is lacking is usually based on rankings compiled by the World Health Organization, which places the U.S. 37th out of 191 nations in its “World Health Report.” It’s a mistake, though, to put much into the WHO’s grades.

“They are not,” says one expert, “an objective measure of the relative performance of national health care systems.”

That expert, Glen Whitman, an associate professor of economics at California State University, Northridge, has looked at the WHO rankings and found that they “depend crucially on a number of underlying assumptions — some of them logically incoherent, some characterized by substantial uncertainty, and some rooted in ideological beliefs and values that not everyone shares.”

No one has a right to health care. Attempts to provide such a right have produced regimes that in reality are far uglier than the American system is perceived to be. Systems will continue to grow worse until policymakers acknowledge that health care is a personal responsibility and grant patients what they should already have: full authority over the decisions that affect their health.


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