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Health of the state.

If I were a decent American conservative, rather than a psoriatic Scotch-Irish Catholic depressive, I would probably not take great pleasure in reading what British writers had to say about American habits and customs. All the same, I am about to gatecrash the Great Obama Healthcare Debate, not least because I have recently survived surgery at a National Health Service hospital and may have some insights to share.

First, a bit of background. On the evening of Dec. 2, 1992, I was in the ballroom of the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C. at the 25th anniversary dinner of the American Spectator, when all of a sudden my heart started to race and I began to pour with sweat.

Somehow I made it to the lobby, where I collapsed. A pretty girl from reception cradled my head in her lap and loosened my tie. Next thing I knew, two paramedics were strapping me to a stretcher and jogging me to an ambulance.

As we sped through the gleaming Washington night, one of the men, a Hispanic with a thick accent, asked me several times for my social security number. "Hey, Jose," said his companion after a while, "leave the guy alone. Can't you see he's an alien?"

They took me to George Washington Hospital. It was ER heaven. I was tested for every disease known to man and discharged at about 3 o'clock in the morning with a clean bill of health. (On the diagnosis sheet, they wrote that I had "fainted.")

At the hospital checkout, I asked the big woman in charge whether they sold cigarettes. "No, sir, we do not," she said. I sensed she was not going to be easy to charm. "That will be $1,082.49, sir," she said. I smiled. "Oh, that. I'll let you have my insurance details later."

"No, sir. We need a credit card now,"

"Look," I said, "a couple of years ago my boy was treated for a concussion in Albuquerque, at a rather better appointed hospital than this, and there was absolutely no question of my handing over money for the treatment. They took my insurance details and settled the bill with the insurance company."

"Sure, sir," she said. "That was Albuquerque. This is Washington. Here you pay." I knew when I was beaten, and handed over my plastic.

The treatment I received was worth every penny, and fortunately I had a million quid's worth of cover back at the Howard Johnson. The American healthcare system works, and works well, but not for everyone. That's why some of us aliens--especially those like me who have family in America--rather like the look of some of Barack Obama's proposals.

"Socialized medicine" might bring life expectancy in the U.S. up to Western European levels. But it might also turn Americans into vassals of a welfare state. No one knows. In Britain we have managed to live with socialized medicine since the war, and it is not doing as much harm as some right-wing American ideologues may suppose, or as much good as some American liberals like to hope.

Take my experience. Last month I had surgery, a hemorrhoidectomy, on the NHS. So far as I know, the "procedure" itself went well, but the rest of the day didn't. Following the operation, I spent about seven hours in a recovery ward waiting to be seen by a doctor. None came.

Eventually I managed to speak to a junior doctor by telephone. I asked him the sorts of questions you might expect someone in my uncomfortable, delicate, unseemly, and humiliating position to ask. I am pretty sure the fellow did not know much more about this field of medicine than I do and that he was winging it.

I left the hospital with a plastic bag containing painkillers, a sickly laxative, some antibiotics, and the instruction to see my GP if there was an emergency.

That was it. I was on my own. From diagnosis to operation, my treatment had taken almost five months. I can't imagine that it would have taken much more than a fortnight if I'd used private medicine.

So: not a brilliant experience.

Whatever it's shortcomings, however, millions of Britons are grateful to the NHS, and with good reason. It kills people, of course, but what health system does not? And it acts as the enabling arms of the secular state, handing out condoms to any teenager smart enough to walk as far as the local medical center. But it looks after most of us from cradle to grave and does so pretty well.

Karl Rove will think the NHS socialist, but then he thought Saddam Hussein was a Nazi. In truth, the NHS is no more socialist than, for example, the New York Sanitation Department or the 82nd Airborne. All three are public services.

Here's the bottom line, though: if you want the best healthcare, just as if you want the best education, you have to pay for it.
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Title Annotation:health care
Author:Reid, Stuart
Publication:The American Conservative
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 1, 2009
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