PIPES: Britain Offers A Cautionary Tale For ‘Medicare For All’

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Sally Pipes Sally C. Pipes is President and CEO of the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is “The Top Ten Myths of American Health Care: A Citizen’s Guide” Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.
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King Charles III’s coronation wasn’t the only historic event Great Britain marked this year. The country’s revered National Health Service is celebrating this summer the 75th anniversary of its founding.

It’s a birthday Americans should take note of. The NHS has been an inspiration to generations of American leftists, who have been pining for socialized medicine for years. But Britain’s healthcare system is stumbling through old age, unable to meet the needs of doctors and patients, who are being forced to endure monthslong waits for subpar care. It’s no model for the United States.

Launched in the aftermath of the Second World War, the NHS had a decent run providing brief courses of treatment at a time when life expectancies were shorter, populations younger, and medical options fewer.

But it’s floundering today. As of May, a record-high 7.47 million people in England were on NHS waiting lists to receive care. That number has been going up for the past 15 years — and has skyrocketed by nearly 3 million just since January 2021.

Once a patient is on a waitlist, it can take months to get treatment. As of May, over 3 million patients have been waiting for more than 18 weeks. An additional 385,000 had been waiting for more than a year. That’s more people waiting a year-plus for care than the population of Cleveland.

Even patients facing critical health issues must take their place in this slow-moving queue. As of early this year, nearly half of all cancer patients had failed to receive treatment within two months of an “urgent” referral.

Worse, the official statistics substantially understate the number of those waiting in need. That’s because NHS eligibility criteria for treatment are very strict. For example, a knee or hip joint may have to degrade past the point of debilitating pain before a patient can get in the NHS line for a replacement.

Emergency care response times are equally grim. The English 999 emergency line — their version of 911 — divides callers into four categories of need. The good news, so to speak, is that if your life is in immediate danger due to respiratory or cardiac arrest, the average wait time for help as of June 2023 was a little over eight minutes — one minute longer than the country’s official target.

But those in England who suffered a stroke or other Category 2 emergency in June 2023 could expect to wait an average of nearly 37 minutes before help arrived. That’s well above the 18-minute target that’s been in force since 2018. It’s even higher than the new 30-minute target that’s been set for this year and next.

People suffering from a Category 3 emergency — say, an “uncomplicated diabetic issue” requiring transport to a medical facility — wait an average of over two hours for an ambulance.

All this waiting leads directly to worse health outcomes. In 2021, over 100,000 people died while awaiting treatment in England. A study of 18 comparably wealthy countries around the world found that the United Kingdom ranks 15th in breast cancer five-year survival rates, 17th for both lung and stomach cancer, and dead last for colon cancer. Of 19 similarly wealthy countries, Britain ranked 17th in life expectancy.

Britons are losing their patience. More than half the population is dissatisfied with the NHS — the highest level since polling began 40 years ago. More and more people are turning to supplemental private health insurance. Thirteen percent of Britons have paid for some private health services in the past year. Google searches for “private healthcare” in Great Britain are at an all time high.

The issues with the NHS aren’t unique — they’re the norm in countries where the government dominates the healthcare market. In Canada, where private insurance is banned for anything considered “medically necessary,” the median wait to receive treatment from a specialist exceeds six months. In Spain, nearly 800,000 people were on waiting lists for surgery as of the end of last year.

The term in American English for “NHS” is “Medicare for All.” The 75-year-old calamity across the pond demonstrates why we shouldn’t want such a system here.

Sally C. Pipes is President, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All (Encounter 2020). 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.