Opinion: Defending the NHS

LONDON — Here is the true voice of socialism: "Britain's National Health Service is one of the great achievements of the 20th century."

Oops ... fooled you. It's not really the voice of a socialist but the words of the leader of Britain's Conservative party, David Cameron.

Here are some more of this true blue conservative's words on the subject: "Under a Conservative government, the NHS will remain free at the point of need and available to everyone, regardless of how much money they have in the bank."

Americans, overheated by a severe case of August Health Care Fever, should meditate on those words. They are the true expression of mainstream Conservatism in Britain. Where does Cameron's view come from? Well, unlike virtually any commentator in America — from the all-mouth, no-brain radio shock jocks, to the Ivy League educated columnists at glossy intellectual magazines — Cameron has had actual experience of the NHS.

Here is his story:

Cameron's first child, Ivan, was born with a devastating combination of cerebral palsy and epilepsy. For the six years of his life, the boy was cared for constantly by the NHS. Sorry, Sarah Palin, there was no "death panel" to rule about the child's right to life. He simply received the best care the service could provide.

David Cameron, a graduate of Eton and Oxford, comes from money and has done very well on his own. He is nobody's socialist, but faced with the overwhelming needs of his child, it was the NHS alone that could provide the constant care Ivan needed. When the boy passed away earlier this year, even in his grief Cameron paid special tribute to the NHS caregivers who made his life more bearable.

Cameron's words are absolutely sincere, and from them he gains a great deal of political benefit. With his staunch defense of the service, Cameron has neutralized the one advantage the Labour Party always has over the Conservatives at election time: that it will be the better steward of the NHS.

The simple fact is that the people of this country love the NHS, even when they complain about it. And many of them are getting downright angry about the way its reputation is being dragged through the mud by the revived Know Nothing Movement sweeping across America this summer.

"I'm really getting angry," said Robert Chetwyn. "And I'm sure there are an awful lot of people like me."

Chetwyn's testimony on the NHS is instructive not just because it offers the best rebuttal to the ignorance about rationing care for the elderly that has become a main feature of the health care rants in the U.S., but because Chetwyn only began to use the service in his senior years.

A theater, film and television director, Chetwyn spent most of his adult life getting health care privately. Yes, American readers, despite the terrible one-step from the Gulag socialist NHS, people in Britain have always had the option to buy private health care if they have the money. Chetwyn was very successful and could afford to, so he did. As he recalls, when he turned 65 that insurance became prohibitively expensive. So he dropped his program and started using the NHS with some trepidation.

He had heard horror stories as well. Now in his late '70s and suffering from emphysema he tells this story of an event from two winters ago. "I got a chest infection and then it developed into bronchitis then clearly something much worse."

Chetwyn's partner, Howard Schuman, called their general practitioner's office. The older man was not referred to a death panel; rather the receptionist looked up his chart, noted his long-term chest problem and dispatched one of the doctors associated with the practice to make a house call. This happened within the hour. The doctor offered to treat Chetwyn at home but suggested strongly that he might want to consider going to the hospital, where he could be treated intravenously with antibiotics.

"The doctor said it would get me better quicker," according to the director. "He phoned an ambulance and 10 minutes later I was on my way to the hospital. I was seen immediately."

After six days, Chetwyn was released and receives regular follow-up contact from his general practitioner. "They are constantly in touch with me," he said.

And, of course, no bill was ever presented, by anyone.

This is typical care under the NHS, not an exception, according to Schuman. The men are of an age where health crises are a constant presence in their lives and the lives of their friends. The stories they tell, of cancers successfully treated of pneumonia beaten back, are glowing.

Chetwyn who spent many years commuting to the U.S. for work is frankly puzzled by the incredible arguments going on over health reform. He's old enough to remember life before the NHS, specifically what it was like when it was set up in the late 1940s.

"It was a lot like the U.S. is today in terms of the economic situation," he recalled. "At the end of the war we owed the world so much money because we had borrowed so much to fight the war. We thought we would never get out of the red."

But there was one big difference. "We knew this system was worth having ... and defending."

You can discover more defense of the NHS on Twitter. So many Brits, angered at the misrepresentations of the health service in America, signed up for the "We Love the NHS campaign" yesterday that the site temporarily crashed.