Is Britain's Health System Really That Bad?

The National Health Service in the United Kingdom has become a punching bag for some critics of proposals to remake the U.S. health care system. Britons are offended by how some U.S. media outlets have singled the British system out for what not to do.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The debate over American health insurance has gone transatlantic in recent days. Critics of President Obama's health care proposals have been attacking health care in Britain. The British government offers health care to everybody. The American conservative media portray it as a nightmare. Never mind that the White House never actually proposed a so-called single payer system like they have in Britain, it's still brought into the American debate. So, this morning, reporter Vicki Barker tells us what the British say.

VICKI BARKER: Until recently, Daniel Hannan was one of the more obscure fixtures in the Conservative political firmament here. He's a European Parliament Member or MEP. Hannan has been sharing his low opinion of his country's National Health Service with Fox television viewers for months. Few here in Britain noticed. But then, the liberal Guardian newspaper, last week, reported the conservative right in America was spreading what the Guardian called half truths and misinformation about the NHS as part of the campaign to defeat President Obama's health care reforms. The resulting back draft of public indignation has swept Mr. Hannan up with it earning him a rebuke from the head of his own opposition Conservative Party.

(Soundbite of bleeping)

Unidentified Man: The "World At One." Today's headlines - David Cameron distances himself from one of his own MEPs who's launched an attack on the NHS on American television.

BARKER: British newspapers have run long articles detailing, point by point, the accusations aired in the U.S. media. Prime Minster Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah quickly signed on to a Twitter campaign praising and defending the NHS. Andrew Burnham, the health minister for Brown's labor government, all but called Hannan a traitor.

Health Minster ANDREW BURNHAM (Department of Labor, Britain): I think it's unpatriotic of him to go on to a foreign television station, a U.S. television station in this case, and misrepresent the NHS.

BARKER: Conservative Party Leader David Cameron insists that the NHS would be the top priority if the Conservatives win the next election.

Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Conservative Party Leader, Britain): 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? I think we've got the right system, and we should stick with it and build on it.

BARKER: Cameron's first child was born with multiple severe birth defects. Gordon Brown's first baby, a girl, lived for only two weeks. One of his young sons had cystic fibrosis. Both men have strong emotional ties to the NHS. Hannan himself has stopped making public statements. He says he has no desire to further inflame the issue and that he has made his own position as clear as it needs to be. The political consensus here is basically this. Britain would love to approach America's success rate in treating cancer, heart attack and stroke. But none of the main parties wants to do that at the expense of sacrificing universal, virtually cost-free health care.

It's the system that put Britain 18th in World Health Organization rankings while the U.S. stands at 37.

Mr. RON LONG(ph): It's a system that is pretty decent.

BARKER: Mailman Ron Long checks in for an appointment at his local NHS clinic. He calls the service…

Mr. LONG: Excellent I think. You want to go see a doctor, you go see a doctor. You ain't gonna pay nothing.

BARKER: He and his wife Tracy(ph) had all three of their children on the National Health Service.

Mr. LONG: You had a midwife and…

Ms. TRACY LONG: Yeah and it's all free.

Mr. LONG: …prenatal clinics and all that.

Ms. LONG: There you get the in-house physician that comes…

Mr. LONG: …comes around the house.

BARKER: Ron has formed his own impression of U.S. health care.

Mr. LONG: From what I've seen on telly, I mean, you know, it just (unintelligible) and ambulances rushing 20 miles instead of five miles because they're the only ones who do free health care. Things like that, you know, scary, I think.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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