The United Kingdom has a National Health Service which covers everyone (although it allows those with private insurance to access care elsewhere). While not perfect – nothing is – and historically underfunded, it is one very reasonable model for how we could ensure access to health care for everyone. It goes back to the post-WW II period, when the British Labor Party made the decision to expand the existing National Health Insurance program to create the NHS through the political process, while in the US the emphasis among unions was to use collective bargaining to get health insurance as a member benefit.
But the NHS, while profoundly supported by the vast majority of British people, has been a target of attacks by Conservative governments since the Thatcher years. One of the big changes was the creation of several regional “trusts”, quasi-public entities that were invested with NHS funds and made responsible for the provision of care in their regions. This was consistent with the Tory assertion (held even more strongly in the US) that the private sector, or as close as they could get politically to the private sector, would be more efficient and effective than a public “bureaucracy”. Success at meeting "targets" (often high production with inadequate resources) could lead a trust to "foundation" status, where they would have even more control.
Many in Britain had their doubts, certainly among those to the left of the Conservatives. There was concern that the trusts might not be responsive to the health care needs of the people and might be more concerned with enhancing their own salaries, perks, and power. Conservatives (small 'c') tend to believe that government bureaucracies are more inefficient; those on the left see more evidence that privatization is much more likely to serve the self-interest of those in control than the interests of those who are supposed to be served.
I recently read the 1996 mystery novel “Quite Ugly One Morning” by the Scottish writer Christopher Brookmyre. One of the major plot lines involves corruption in the Edinburgh-based regional NHS trust. I don’t want to spoil the plot, and I do recommend the book, but the portrayal of self-serving, stealing, and lack of attention to the actual care of the patients of the NHS was scary. Of course, it was a novel; there were not actual patients being harmed by corruption in the actual regional NHS trusts in the actual United Kingdom. After all, I thought, the British don’t do such things. We do, but that is because so much of our system is private and for-profit. Surely the British value the NHS too much for such things to really happen.
Wrong. It appears, however, that this in fact has been happening. In “English hospital report cites ‘appalling’ suffering”, NY Times February 6, 2013, Sarah Lyall describes conditions cited in a government report on Stafford Hospital, operated by the Mid-Staffordshire Trust: “Shockingly bad care and inhumane treatment at a hospital in the Midlands led to hundreds of unnecessary deaths and stripped countless patients of their dignity and self-respect, according to a scathing report published on Wednesday…. The report, which examined conditions at Stafford Hospital in Staffordshire over a 50-month period between 2005 and 2009, cites example after example of horrific treatment: patients left unbathed and lying in their own urine and excrement; patients left so thirsty that they drank water from vases; patients denied medication, pain relief and food by callous and overworked staff members; patients who contracted infections due to filthy conditions; and patients sent home to die after being given the wrong diagnoses.”
HUNDREDS of people. Maybe as many as 1200 people died unnecessarily. And, in the followup of this scandal, there are investigations into at least 14 other trusts, reported across the British press such as this article in the Telegraph, “Head of NHS ignored warning that patients were in danger, alleges whistleblower”. One of these trusts is United Lincolnshire, whose former chief executive has turned whistleblower, accusing the head of the entire NHS, Sir David Nicholson, of ignoring warnings that substandard care was being provided there. The whistleblower, Gary Walker, was fired from his job and paid off to the tune of about a half-million pounds, to keep quiet.
This would be a great example of “life imitating art” if it weren’t for all the people who died or suffered serious morbidity as a result of “…its efforts to balance its books and save $16 million in 2006 and 2007 in order to achieve so-called foundation-trust status, which made it semi-independent of control by the central government, the hospital laid off too many people and focused relentlessly on external objectives rather than patient care,” (NY Times). As further documented in the report, this was essentially “speed up”, a condition familiar to assembly-line workers.
“Speaking in the House of Commons,” the NY Times article goes on, “Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for the way the system had allowed ‘horrific abuse to go unchecked and unchallenged’ for so long. So deeply rooted was the trouble, he said, that ‘we cannot say with confidence that failings of care are limited to one hospital.’” Apparently not, given the accusations at Lincolnshire. However, despite these accusations, and perhaps more damningly, the fact that he was the Chief Executive of the Mid-Staffordshire trust during much of the time that the scandalous activities were occurring there, Nicholson is staying put, and so far the government is backing him. (more coverage in the Mail (Feb 13 and 17).
Well, he is staying put so far, but people in Britain far and wide are calling for his resignation, as well they might. Demonstrations in support of the NHS as a system designed to serve the people, not its administrators, have broken out across Britain; an example is this wonderful “Youtube” video of a “flash mob choir” (!) at King’s Cross railroad station in London singing in support of National Health (h/t Alex Scott-Samuel).
It would be possible to pin these atrocities on the National Health Service, as an example of the failing of socialized medicine, but that would be wrong. It would even be wrong to point out that the problem is chronic under-funding of the NHS. The problem, in fact, is a public good being run for private benefit, for the temptation of even great “autonomy” (read: potential for exploitation) by becoming a “foundation” led to deaths far in excess of the scale fictionally portrayed by Brookmyre in the mid-90s. The NHS does not suffer because it is tasked with providing health care to all of the British people; it suffers when a lack of adequate regulation and supervision allow such abuses to go unchecked.
The British people deserve much better. So, for that matter, do Americans. Let’s listen to the “flash mob choir” again!