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Analysis: The view from Down Under.
SYDNEY, Australia — Here’s a damning statistic: Australia spends 8.7 percent of its GDP on health care and covers everyone, irrespective of their employment status. The U.S., meanwhile, spends 16 percent of its GDP on health care — far more than any other industrialized country — yet 47 million of its citizens lack health insurance while millions more are underinsured.
Critics of nationalized health care paint systems such as Australia’s as anything but healthy or caring, with putrid public hospitals that offer little more certainty than a long waiting list. This is a point not lost on Australians, with the topic of hospital waiting lists a perennial hot-button topic at election time.
Meantime, here’s a view of America from Down Under: The U.S. health care debate is at best bemusing to watch, with all those exasperated Americans working up a head of steam in shout fests called “town halls meetings,” most of which resemble a bar room brawl minus the blood.
Yes, Australia’s universal health care is a long way from Nirvana. Indeed, it underperforms the U.S. in some key respects. Yet, lawmakers of all persuasions tamper with it at their peril because they know that most Australians would rather die than give it up. The great strength of the Australian system is affordability and access. In the U.S., publicly funded health care is confined to those over 65 and the very poor, with the remainder purchasing private insurance if they can (usually through their employer). Great swathes of low-income Americans fail to visit a physician or obtain needed prescriptions or tests because of the potential cost.
Australia’s Medicare program offers cradle-to-grave health care for everyone. It covers most or all of the cost for physician consultations, as well as specialists’ fees and X-rays and pathology tests. Treatment in public hospitals is free. However, about 40 percent of Australians choose to purchase private insurance, making them eligible for treatment in more exclusive, privately-run hospitals.
Of course, the U.S. system is not without its strengths — most notably, far shorter waiting times for elective surgery. A 2001 survey found that 63 percent of Americans waited less than a month, and only 5 percent waited more than 4 months. By comparison, 23 percent of Australians waited more than 4 months.