Is there a simple way to get universal healthcare in this country? In a word, yes. Or rather, in two words: moral commitment. If we were to make a moral commitment to what is, after all, only the fair, humane, equitable thing to do, author/reporter T. R. Reid told an audience at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club today, there would be no problem.
Reid, a reporter for the Washington Post, documentary film maker and NPR commentator, was in town to promote his new book, “The Healing of America: A Global Quest for a Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care .” In it he tells the story of his journey around the world in the company of a painful shoulder, consultations about which were his introduction to personal encounters with health care systems of every sort. He also met with government representatives and policy makers across several continents. It is an informative and highly readable (no pun intended, that’s just an appropriate adjective) book.
Reid outlined the four primary models of health care currently in existence on our small planet, each with different versions of who pays and who provides. In Britain’s socialized medicine model, health care is the government’s job and it does both. A “mirror image” of this plan is that put into place in Germany shortly after the country was established in the late 18th century, a “National Health System” in which the providers — doctors, clinics, etc. — are private but the payer — government — is public. Workers are covered through their employers. One advantage to both, Reid points out, is that everyone buys into preventive care. He told of British ads asking passersby if their feet hurt, and urging them to visit a podiatrist right away if so; “It’s free.” Or commercials featuring a coughing “Mum” and giving a phone number to call so a nurse may visit. “It’s free.” Each is aimed at diagnosing other illnesses early, and/or preventing the spread of disease.
The Canadian Medicare (that’s where Lyndon Johnson got the name for our elder care) system now copied by Australia, Taiwan and others would have had Reid waiting an long as a year for consultation and treatment of his shoulder. Although he proclaimed his pain to be a very present issue, it was not seen as an urgent need to the primary care doctor he consulted. It is this often extensive wait for non-urgent care that is most criticized (especially by Americans) about the Canadian system. But Reid got a Canadian answer to that. “We Canadians,” he was told, “don’t mind waiting, as long as rich Canadians have to wait as long as poor Canadians.”
The fourth model cited is the out-of-pocket model, which Reid illustrated with a story of climbing a mountain in Nepal to seek shoulder relief. At the top of the mountain, in an extremely simple one-room building with its four walls painted in four different colors, the doctor explained his payment was generally in whatever the patient could afford. Someone relatively well off might pay in funds, others in whatever they had. Many of the patients could pay only by painting the facility, the doctor said; they seldom had the same color of paint, and thus the many-hued room.
“We have them all,” Reid told a hushed audience: Native Americans and veterans have the British/NHS; over-65, the Canadian Medicare; working people, Germany’s system. But 40+ million Americans have medical care equivalent to Afghanistan or Angola, and tens of thousands of Americans die every year because they cannot afford medical care.
One audience member called Reid on that issue, saying hospitals were required to treat people who came to them, but he was not backing down. True, he replied, if someone is actively dying or about to give birth, hospitals cannot turn him or her away. But for cases (such as one cited at the beginning of The Healing of America) of lupus, or diabetes, or in countless other instances, the inability to pay for necessary care causes ongoing pain and death for thousands.
Other audience questions raised the illegal immigrant issue. In most countries, it simply would not be an issue, he said. Citing Britain as an example, he said “you get (care) whether you’re a citizen or not.” Reid also said the public option is a non-issue elsewhere, because “you don’t need it.” And he threw in another few illustrations that argue for reform: In Britain, you have to cover everyone, you have to pay every claim, and you have to pay every claim fast. In Switzerland, if a claim is not paid within five days, the next month’s premium is free. In Germany you have a choice of well over 100 insurance companies; if you don’t like one, you simply switch to another.
Having set out to answer the question of how other countries provide health care for all of their citizens, Reid said he then turned to the why. Why every other wealthy, industrialized, developed country in the world has universal coverage and the U.S. does not. Others have it, he said, because “they think it’s fairer, equitable, humane, just — and these are moral issues. Health care reflects a country’s moral values.”
It was clear that Reid, like most in his audience, sees the U.S. as having moral values. “If we had the political will,” he commented, “other countries could show us the way.”
But the author was pessimistic about the possibility of universal care coming out of the current reform efforts. Asked how it might somehow come to the U.S., he said it could well be the way Canada’s plan came about; “we might get it state by state.” The Californians listening might have taken heart. Twice that state has passed single payer plans, only to have them vetoed by their governor. Reid suggested that other states might also be ready to implement statewide health coverage.
As to his painful shoulder, its current status was not given. Presumably, it will be necessary to read the book to find out.