op-ed

The Flu Is Grinding Down British Healthcare To A Halt

British health officials are in crisis mode.

They just ordered all hospitals to cancel non-urgent surgeries through the end of January — an estimated 55,000 procedures.  At least 20 hospitals have declared that they are unable to adequately care for patients and warned that “safety may be compromised.”

The cause of this panic? Nothing more than the common flu.

The United Kingdom’s government-run, single-payer healthcare system is so inept that something as mundane as flu season can cause a national crisis. Yet, single-payer is exactly what progressive activists all over the United States want to install here.

Founded in 1948, Britain’s National Health Service is falling apart. British patients face 12-hour treatment delays at some of the nation’s hospitals — even though the NHS has canceled tens of thousands of surgeries. One emergency-department doctor recently apologized for “third-world conditions” at his NHS facility.

During the holiday season, nearly 17,000 patients were left sitting in ambulances for a half-hour or more before being brought into an emergency department. An NHS memo leaked earlier in January revealed plans by a major cancer hospital to delay chemotherapy treatments for some patients or reduce the amount of medicine administered. That policy is an attempt to deal with a massive shortage of nurses.

The human costs of the NHS’ blundering are tragic. One Portsmouth resident, 88-year-old Josephine Smalley, died on New Year’s Day after spending five hours in an ambulance and another two waiting on a gurney at Queen Alexandra Hospital.

The next day, an 81-year-old Essex woman called paramedics complaining of chest pain. By the time the ambulance arrived — nearly four hours later — she was dead.

Dr. Nick Scriven of Britain’s Society for Acute Medicine told The Telegraph, “The position at the moment is as bad as I’ve ever known . . . we were at full capacity before the sorts of pressures that we should be able to manage — like a rise in flu — is pushing us over the edge.”

The United States is also experiencing an unusually severe flu season. But, it hasn’t derailed the operation of our healthcare system.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that flu is prevalent in 46 states.  In Arizona, cases are up 758 percent compared to last year. San Diego County has seen flu cases rise eightfold from last year.

Yet this spike in flu cases hasn’t disrupted hip replacements or heart surgeries. American patients haven’t died awaiting ambulances. Nor have they languished on gurneys in hospital hallways.

That’s because America’s private-sector health system doesn’t suffer from the bureaucratic inefficiencies inherent to Britain’s single-payer system. When healthcare resources are delivered via a centrally controlled government program like the NHS, chronic shortages, overcrowding, rationing, and delays are the inevitable result.

Defenders of the British single-payer system are quick to blame the agency’s distress on a lack of funding. But the NHS actually has a bigger budget today than at any time in its history. The agency spends almost $3,000 per Briton. Health spending as a percentage of the British economy has risen from 4.7 percent in 1997 to 7.6 percent in 2015.

Without a competitive market system — one that uses price signals to distribute resources efficiently — even the most generous levels of funding would be hopelessly mismanaged.

Increasingly, Britons are trying to inject a bit more market discipline into their healthcare system. About 10 percent of the population carries private health insurance to cover things the NHS doesn’t, or to secure care in a timelier fashion than the public system allows.

American health care is hardly perfect. But enough market forces are at work to ensure that a spike in a seasonal illness doesn’t grind the entire system to a halt.

That would change if progressives import single-payer to the United States. Sen. Bernie Sanders plans to host an online town hall later in January to tout the supposed benefits of single-payer. He has already convinced one-third of his Senate Democrats to back a bill that would outlaw private insurance and implement single-payer nationwide.

The flu can be nasty, but most patients recover after a few days. But, for nations stricken by single-payer fever, the prognosis often proves terminal.

Sally C. Pipes is President, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her next book, The False Promise of Single-Payer Health Care (Encounter), will be published this spring. Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.

 


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.