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Transatlantic Blog

Socialized medicine created a ‘humanitarian crisis’ in the NHS?

For months, the UK’s National Health Service has set new records of delay, overcrowding, and denial of service. Within just hours of each other this week, national leaders on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean – the U.S. and the UK – both cited the NHS as a looming disaster. During Wednesday’s Parliament question and answer session with Prime Minister Theresa May, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn recited anecdotes of declining service, and his followers tweeted that “only Labour can be trusted to protect the NHS.” That came one day after Senators Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders debated healthcare reform for two hours on CNN. Sen. Cruz warned viewers about the dangers of European national healthcare systems, while Sen. Sanders lauded interventionist economic policies that treated health care as a “right.”

Some Christian organizations share Sanders’ passion for welfare state healthcare policies, despite their record in the UK and on the continent, claiming they are most in accordance with Jesus’ teachings. Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good asserts that the Roman Catholic Church views government as “best suited to serve the public interest and promote the common good,” especially regarding health care, because “Catholic social teaching has traditionally been suspicious of market ideology for its emphasis on profit and self-interest.” Jim Wallis’ Sojourners and many liberal mainline Protestant organizations come to a similar assessment of their own faith traditions. For instance, many leaders within the nation’s second-largest Protestant church, the United Methodist church, support single-payer healthcare, which they describe as “Jesus' mandate.”

The exact contours of the national insurance policy supported by the Second Person of the Trinity are open to debate.

The exact contours of the national insurance policy supported by the Second Person of the Trinity are open to debate. But increasingly, notions that the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has failed the British people are not. Before advancing such a system, people of faith will want to inspect the fruits it has produced.

A humanitarian crisis

In January, Prime Minister May denied claims by the British Red Cross that NHS care amounted to a “humanitarian crisis” due to a combination of long waits for service, crowded lobbies, and understaffed facilities.

The NHS has missed its goal of a four-hour wait time – from the moment a patient enters an accident and emergency (A&E) department to hospital admission or discharge – every month since July 2015. Unable to meet their chosen benchmark, Health Minister Jeremy Hunt responded by suggesting the government lift the four-hour target for most patients.

Long stays in crowded emergency rooms are not limited to the UK. Across the Atlantic, a report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information found that 10 percent of Canadians had to wait 28 hours to get a hospital bed in 2014.

By contrast, the average wait time in the United States was just over two hours in 2010-2011, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  

The waits are necessitated by finite resources being stretched to their limits. Hospitals should be at no more than 85 percent capacity to minimize the chance of infection or readmission. But 137 of the nation’s 152 hospital trusts have surpassed that benchmark since December. The situation has gotten so bad that hospitals now have “corridor nurses” to comfort patients as they lie on gurneys waiting to be treated.

Meanwhile, patients who would like to leave the hospital cannot do so. More than 193,000 people experienced delayed transfer of care – that is, they are ready and able to leave the hospital but stay put due to administrative roadblocks, often because there is no vacancy in a medical facility that would better meet their needs. (Even that high number may exclude as many as two-thirds of such cases, according to a new study.)

Government officials say the NHS is experiencing unprecedented demand – a common problem in nationalized systems, whether in healthcare or any other good. By providing a service with seemingly no direct cost to consumers, statist economic policies stimulate demand without any concurrent increase in supply. They discourage responsible stewardship by removing natural restraints on overuse. Government-sanctioned rationing inevitably follows in an effort to restrain ever-increasing costs.

Here, the NHS has proven no exception. After canceling a record number of urgent surgeries in November, NHS officials announced they had canceled all non-urgent surgeries between December 16 and January 16. In Kent, the moratorium has been extended until April. Nationally, the NHS has announced it will not approve hip replacement surgery unless the patient suffers so badly that she cannot sleep through the night.

Just throwing more money at the problem is not the answer. It is true that the British government has suffered from “health care tourism” – foreigners receiving medical treatment in the UK without paying, or often receiving, a bill. However, that costs British taxpayers between £200 million and £2 billion annually, while inflation-adjusted spending on the NHS has increased more than 1,000 percent over the last 50 years.

But an increased economic burden is not the highest cost of the present healthcare system.

Lives lost

The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which co-sponsored Acton's "Crisis of Liberty in the West" conference in London, released a 176-page report in December detailing how the UK could enjoy “Universal Healthcare Without the NHS.” After comparing the UK – not to the United States, but to other nations with a similar national health system – the IEA found that the NHS comes out as “an international laggard … on a par with the Czech Republic and Slovenia.”

This has more dire consequences than embarrassment. The report found, “[I]f the UK’s breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer and bowel cancer patients were treated … in Germany, more than 12,000 lives would be saved, and if they were treated in Belgium, more than 14,000 lives would be saved.”

The IEA does not advocate that the UK adopt a carbon copy of any other nation’s healthcare system – especially that of the United States. However, its proposals include allowing greater patient choice over insurance coverage and providers, ending government bailouts for healthcare providers, and converting hospital trusts to Foundation Trusts.

Those seeking to advance the common good in the healthcare debate will profit from a careful reading of the report’s contents and prescriptions. Understanding the consequences of a national/socialized system may keep faithful people from embracing a system that promises universal healthcare in theory but delivers the implosion of the healthcare system.

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Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.