TOPICS > Health

U.K. Officials Deflect Criticism of Country’s Health System

August 14, 2009 at 1:57 PM EDT
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In the United Kingdom, a debate has erupted over how the government-operated health care system is being portrayed recently in the United States.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the health care debate, take two. It’s about how it has triggered another debate in Great Britain over how its government-operated National Health Service has been portrayed in the U.S.

NewsHour correspondent Simon Marks has that story.

SIMON MARKS: If British public opinion polls are any guide, David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, stands a good chance of being the country’s next prime minister. National elections are due to take place by next spring, and today the man who faces off against the current prime minister, Gordon Brown, was moving to project himself as an ardent defender of Britain’s government-run National Health Service.

DAVID CAMERON, British opposition leader: We’ll invest in it. We’ll expand it. We think it’s a really important and great national institution. The fact that, in this country, you can go to a hospital, you can go to a family doctor, and they don’t ask you how much money is in your bank account or who you are or whether you’re a man or a woman or live in the town or the countryside, it’s one of our great national institutions, and we want to expand it.

SIMON MARKS: Mr. Cameron’s public pronouncements resulted from the British public reaction to this…

DANIEL HANNAN, member, European Parliament: I could tell you horror stories…

SIMON MARKS: … one in a series of U.S. media appearances by Daniel Hannan, who represents Mr. Cameron’s Conservative Party in the European Parliament and who has been ubiquitous this week on conservative cable shows and talk radio slamming the National Health Service.

DANIEL HANNAN: The health care system that we have is a kind of relic of an era in Britain when the state was considered all-powerful and benign, and when we had rationing, and when we had I.D. cards, and when we had mass nationalization. And we’re still stuck with it, because, you know, once you get a system like that…

SEAN HANNITY, anchor, Fox News: Can’t get rid of it.

DANIEL HANNAN: … it’s almost impossible to get rid of.

Brown defends NHS

SIMON MARKS: But while the NHS has not always been entirely beloved by all Britons, the public response to Mr. Hannan's comments mobilized online, via the instant messaging service Twitter. A feed called "welovethenhs" has encouraged thousands of British supporters to credit the system with curing their ills and, in some cases, with saving their lives.

The prime minister, Gordon Brown, and his wife personally contributed to the discussion, using Twitter, saying, in the U.K., the health service is the difference "between life and death."

Sensing that his party was being tied to the losing side of a growing public storm, David Cameron today found himself disowning the views of Daniel Hannan, one of his own lawmakers.

DAVID CAMERON: He does have some quite eccentric views about some things, and political parties always include some people who don't tow the party line on one issue or another issue.

SIMON MARKS: There are other British voices that have been injected into the U.S. debate on health care.

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SIMON MARKS: A lobby group called Conservatives for Patients' Rights produced this video in which some dissatisfied NHS patients critique the service. The National Health Service was founded at the end of the Second World War and established to offer health care to all British citizens, regardless of their age, occupation, or their ability to pay.

Publicly funded doctors and surgeons, who operate within the national health system, are paid their salaries by the government. In Britain, patients are offered full health coverage that is free of charge at the point of service. They pay for the system as part of their national annual taxes.

Some liberals in the United States, like filmmaker Michael Moore, have, in the past, seized on the NHS as a model the U.S. might consider emulating.

NHS as a model for the U.S.

MICHAEL MOORE, filmmaker: This guy broke his ankle. How much will this cost him? He'll have some huge bill when he's done, right?

HOSPITAL WORKER: Here, in the NHS, everything is free.

SIMON MARKS: But the health care reform proposals being debated on Capitol Hill bear almost no resemblance to the British health care system. And while President Obama and many Democrats favor a government-administered insurance plan as one option to compete with private insurers, the majority of the American health care system would remain private.

In the U.K., private health insurance is carried by only around 13 percent of the population. And in an atmosphere in which the National Health Service is considered as British as double-decker buses and fish and chips, one NHS patient who has criticized the service on this side of the Atlantic is telling audiences over there she was duped into appearing on a conservative video.

DAWN BRICKELL, patient, NHS: Obviously, I feel that the NHS let me down, but that doesn't mean that I think that the NHS is a bad thing. I know that it does amazing things, and I know that it's a lifesaver for millions of people.

SIMON MARKS: There have been many debates in the past about funding levels for system and waiting lists that can delay treatment, sometimes for life-threatening ailments. But on Twitter today, one supporter of the system described the health service as "one reason our country is better than theirs," an indication of how embedded the service is in the psyche of the British public.