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Where the health care debate seems bizarre

Europeans live longer, shake heads over US attitudes toward universal health care.

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (left) and the wife of Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Sarah, visit Maggie's Cancer Caring Centre in west London on April 1, 2009. (Leon Neal/Pool/Reuters)

LONDON — In America, the health care debate is about to come to a boil. President Barack Obama has put pressure on both houses of Congress to pass versions of his flagship domestic legislative program prior to their August recess.

Good luck.

Opponents are filling the airwaves with the usual litany of lies, damned lies and statistics about socialized medicine and the twin nightmare of bureaucratically rationed health care and high taxes amongst allies like Britain, France and Germany.

So here is a brief overview of health care in some of Europe's biggest economies :

Britain's National Health Service is paid for out of a social security tax. Services are free at the point of provision. No co-pay, no reimbursement. The budget last year was 90 billion pounds (about $148 billion). That makes the average cost per person about 1,500 pounds ($2,463).

The NHS is big — huge, in fact. With 1.5 million employees it is one of the largest employers in the world. Only China's People's Liberation Army, India's state railways and good old Wal-Mart employ more folks. Sixty percent of the NHS budget goes toward salaries.

The French system is run on a compulsory purchase of insurance through the workplace. The insurance cost is based on how much a worker earns. Low-income workers pay nothing. The average contribution per person is about $4,000. The government sets fees for services and negotiates the price of drugs with pharmaceutical companies.

Service is not free at the point of provision. But reimbursement for costs is swift and in the case of catastrophic illness all fees are waived. People are free to purchase supplementary insurance from private companies.

With a compulsory insurance plan, as in France, German care is universal and equitable. Germans pay approximately 14.3 percent of their earnings to buy this insurance. As in France, people are free to buy supplementary private health insurance.

Each system is unique (as are all the systems around Europe) but they have two things in common that make them different from the United States: Coverage is universal and the cost of care as a percentage of GDP is significantly less.

For Europeans — even those who would label themselves conservatives — American attitudes to setting up a universal health care system with strong state participation and management seem bizarre. The peace of mind that comes from knowing that in an emergency you will be taken care of and you won't be financially ruined has no price. Why resist it?

Beccy Ashton, policy adviser at health care think tank The King's Fund, worked for more than half a decade in the U.S. She explains the difference this way: "In Europe healthcare is regarded as a human right. In America, people think of it as a commodity that you buy."

If you look at how the Big Three's health systems came into being you realize changing American attitudes may be difficult.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/health/090721/comparing-healthcare-us-germany-france