Friday, July 24, 2009

American health care: the view from expatriate who came home

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by Roger J. Newell

As the health care reform debate revs up, the vested interests in the status quo warn against any alterations that might damage "the world's best health care system." In the 1980s I was a temporary resident in Great Britain, first as a graduate student, later as a pastor.

I'll never forget feeling anxious about how I would survive the "socialized" medicine against which I had been repeatedly warned. What I discovered instead was an absence of the anxieties that American families continue to endure 20 years later: worries over losing coverage or being able to afford quality care when it's urgent.

These nagging dreads were simply nonexistent among the people with whom I was now living and serving. Of course they had concerns about health, but they were of an entirely different order.

What helps me explain the difference to Americans who have not lived in Europe is an analogy with the public school system. Setting aside for the moment the important debates about funding and the possibilities of private options, the fact remains that Americans simply assume their kids will attend school through high school as a universal entitlement of democracy. We can't imagine any child being denied an education because of a parent's misfortune in losing his or her job for whatever reason. The British (along with the rest of Europe) regard health care the way we regard education.

Gradually, however, I saw something deeper at work in a society where everyone had a right to health care. I witnessed how the privilege of universal health care had awakened a common sense of duty toward my neighbor and mutual respect for one another, causing a tangible awareness that everyone was treated with a fundamental equality, not as an abstract motto repeated on patriotic occasions but as practical as walking into the local doctor's office or hospital when you or a family member were ill. In other words, my personal self-worth was bound together with a respect for my neighbor's worth (and health) as well.

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