health care

Labour to Brits: You Don’t Want to End Up Like the Americans, Do You?

Photo: Peter Summers/Getty Images

American voters reliably rate health care as one of their top concerns. You don’t have to look much further than Twitter to understand, at a basic level, why the polling’s so consistent; on the platform, photos of astronomical bills for childbirths, insulin, cancer treatments, and more frequently go viral. American health-care woes are now so infamous that they may influence the outcome of the U.K.’s general election. The opposition Labour Party is warning voters that the ruling Conservative Party is prepared to transform the socialized National Health Service into an “American-style” health care system.

One viral video, filmed by a Labour-friendly news outlet, shows Brits reacting in horror to average American medical bills:

(One small correction to the video: Unless an employer claims a religious exemption, contraceptive pills and devices are usually covered by private insurers without co-pay. That means most American women aren’t paying hundreds of dollars for their IUDs — unless they ask for anesthesia during insertion, which isn’t covered by insurance.)

Labour officials, like party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and activists have also gestured toward the U.S. as a health-care model to fear;

Tory politicians haven’t proposed the full privatization of the NHS, at least not in public. Doing so would be politically catastrophic: The NHS is one of the most popular institutions in British public life. Instead, they’ve implemented policies that are starving the system of the funds it needs to function. Austerity has dramatically reduced funding for public health, and experts say the system is struggling to absorb the blow. Wait times for care have increased, leading to overcrowding in hospitals and to a ballooning national wait list for nonurgent but necessary care. The BBC reported in 2018 that the number of district nurses — often the front line of preventative care — had been cut by 28 percent over the last five years, a trend that pushes people into emergency rooms already stretched to capacity. With public hospitals thus weakened, rates of surgeries in private hospitals have increased. That’s great news for private contractors, who get paid by the NHS to carry out operations that public hospitals are now too understaffed and overwhelmed to perform, but it says nothing good about the overall state of the NHS.

Other red flags swing in the wind. Though Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists that the privatization of NHS services, and the status of British drug pricing, is “not on the table” during on-going trade talks with the U.S., Labour says otherwise. The Guardian reported in late November that leaked papers obtained by Labour show that “senior UK and US trade officials discussed the NHS, drug patents, the pharmaceutical industry, health insurance and medical devices as part of the post-Brexit trade deal.” Drug prices are currently much lower in the U.K. than they are in the U.S. But British and American officials discussed the possibility of lengthening drug patents, which tends to drive up prices; a pricing expert who viewed the documents told The Guardian that the U.S. “just wants to raise drug prices. They want drugs used in Britain to cost much more.”

Tory officials have yet to agree to U.S. demands. Maybe they never will. But their relatively close relationship with the Trump administration, coupled with their slow destruction of the NHS, hands Labour a strong line of attack. What sane person would want to introduce American values to British health care? Compared to American women, British mothers are more likely to survive childbirth, and the British live longer than Americans overall. The average British voter has never had to fight a private insurer over the cost of an MRI, or a surgery, or a medication. There is no British version of Nicole Holt-Smith, who carries the ashes of her dead son when she protests the cost of the insulin he could not afford. The U.S. shouldn’t be a role model but a cautionary tale — for the British, and for everyone else, too.

American Health Care Is a Global Cautionary Tale