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The Lies Opponents of Single-Payer Health Care Just Keep Telling

Everything they say is wrong with universal health care is really what’s wrong with America’s

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Craig Axford | United States

Another day, another article by an opponent of universal health care publishing lies about Canada’s single-payer health system. That’s right, lies. There’s no point anymore in giving the people that publish these articles the benefit of the doubt given both the evidence and people’s experiences with the health care systems they are attacking are so radically different from what they describe.

There’s a list of talking points critics of programs like single-payer work from. I’m sure at some point they were written down somewhere, but by now everyone on both sides of the universal health care debate can recite them from memory: single-payer is expensive, there are long wait times, patients are denied their choice of doctor, and of course people suffer and die needlessly as a result of one or more of the above problems.

In an article appearing in The Hill on July 28, Dr. Dean Waldman follows the talking points to the letter. He offers us a list of assertions, but no data to back any of them up. He makes a number of claims about the Canadian and British health care systems without once telling us how they compare either in terms of cost or outcomes to the US system, all the while implying the US system is far superior to both. My family’s experience is limited to the US and Canadian systems so I won’t spend much time on the UK’s National Health Service other than to cite some data.

No health care system is perfect. By its very nature health care delivery involves difficult choices. These choices are often forced upon health care providers and insurers (whether the insurer is the state or a for-profit company) under very difficult circumstances. If you’re looking for situations where the outcome was less than ideal, or even tragic, you can find examples in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms around the world.

But if you’re going to use these examples to tear down a country’s entire health care system and to hold your own up as superior at the same time, intellectual honesty demands that you show the examples you are using occur with less frequency in your own system than in the system you’re attacking. So, for example, you don’t allege one problem with the Canadian health care system is a lack of patient choice without also showing that there is a greater degree of choice under the American model. If it turns out there is less choice in the US than in Canada, you have to admit that the Canadians have at least done a better job of providing choice to patients than the US.

The same is true when it comes to cost. Telling people over and over again that single-payer is too expensive without providing any comparisons to the cost borne by consumers and society as a whole under the American model is being dishonest.

Dr. Waldman, like so many before him, makes a number of assertions without providing his readers with any comparative data. He claims, “The British and the Canadians pay a very high cost for their systems, and not only in monetary terms. Single-payer health care systems take away individual choice, they discourage life-saving research and innovations, and they exchange quality of care for a balanced budget.”

It’s worth noting here that the first sentence and the second appear to contradict each other. On the one hand “The British and the Canadians pay a very high cost of their systems” in, among other things, dollars, but on the other “they exchange quality of care for a balanced budget.” Either the government in these countries is spending a lot on healthcare or they are skimping on it to avoid deficit spending. Which is it?

Regardless, both in Canada and in the UK the amount of money spent per capita on health care is far below what Americans spend on it. In Canada’s case that was $4,752 in 2016. In the UK the amount was $4,192 for the same year. Dr. Waldman rightly points out that in the United States that amount is over $10,000 annually, but his failure to provide any context is troubling given he wrongly implies healthcare is incredibly costly in both Canada and the United Kingdom. Indeed, Dr. Waldman goes so far as to claim the single-payer system being advocated by Senator Bernie Sanders would cost a whopping $18 trillion, or roughly 90% of the total current US economy. Given Canada currently spends more than 50% less than the US per capita, that’s an obvious falsehood.

Source: Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker

Dr. Waldman and other critics of universal health care programs would likely respond that it is precisely this lack of spending that is the problem. Setting aside the fact that such an argument directly contradicts their claim that universal health care programs are too expensive, this objection raises the important question of what the citizens of countries like Canada and the UK are getting for their roughly $4 — $5,000 in per capita health care spending when compared to the average American’s more than $10,000 investment in the same product.

Given Dr. Waldman’s unsupported assertion that “There is death-by-queueing in single-payer systems, where sick persons die from treatable conditions because they could not get care in time and succumb ‘waiting in line’ for care,” we would expect to find that Americans spend less of their lives suffering from disability and disease than Canadians, the British, or others living under the heavy hand of government-run healthcare systems. But instead, the US leads the developed world by a wide margin when it comes to the number of years lost to disability or premature death.

Source: Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker “Disability adjusted life years (DALYs) are a measure of disease burden and the rate per 100,000 shows the total number of years lost to disability and premature death.”

Dr. Waldman works for the Texas Public Policy FoundationBy itself, this is an unremarkable fact, but one has to wonder if being from Texas is the reason he’s not so keen on drawing attention to the shortcomings of America’s healthcare when compared to other nations. Texas has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world. According to an NBC News story on the crisis in Texas, “Texas’ maternal mortality rates are 35.8 per 100,000 live births as of 2014, according to a study in Obstetrics and Gynecology. By comparison, the maternal mortality in Japan was 5 per 100,000 live births, according to UNICEF’s 2015 data. In Poland, it was just 3.”

What about life expectancy? Given Americans are spending so much on healthcare relative to everybody else, surely they get a few extra years for it. Nope. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as of 2017 life expectancy in Canada was 81.9 years, in the UK it was 81.2, and in the United States it was 78.6. In fact, Chile and Costa Rica had higher life expectancies than the United States.

Finally, a note about choice. My wife and I have lived in Canada for seven of the last eight years and will be returning within days of this article. During our time in Canada, we’ve had several direct encounters with the health care system and have gotten to know a number of Canadians that have been dealing with it their entire lives.

Because my wife has type 1 diabetes, finding and keeping affordable healthcare in the United States was always a struggle. Group insurance through an employer was the best option, but this meant that every year as her employer signed on to a new plan she often had to find a new doctor because her old one was not part of the new insurer’s network.

As the name implies, single-payer means there’s one insurer for everyone. No doctor is outside a Canadian province’s network. If a Canadian travels to a new province, agreements between provincial governments guarantee coverage will be maintained. The only reason a doctor might turn someone away is because he/she is no longer accepting new patients.

My wife has been able to find a specialist she likes in Canada. There’s absolutely no danger that at the first of the year British Columbia is going to decide to drop her doctor from their network because every doctor is paid through the same network. In other words, Canadians have by far greater choice than Americans. Americans insured through their employer have no say in who the insurance carrier will be from year-to-year and the pool of doctors inside any given insurer’s network will always be smaller than the total number of doctors available. It is simply false to speak of American healthcare as an example of choice in this context.

Healthcare delivery always involves tough choices. Triage requires individual doctors and entire healthcare systems to prioritize the treatment patients will receive according to the staff and other resources available and the demands being placed upon the system on any given day. That’s true in every country in the world.

But Dr. Waldman and other critics of universal coverage are simply wrong when they say that countries like Canada and the UK are doing a poorer job of handling these choices than the United States. The statistics don’t support their claims and haven’t for quite a while. The fact that Dr. Waldman failed to provide data for Canada or the UK in his article should make clear he knew the data didn’t support his argument.

Speaking from personal experience I can say without hesitation that the cost to us of the Canadian system has consistently been very small relative to what we spent on healthcare in the US. Test results have been available to us within 24 hours every time and our treatment at doctor’s offices and hospitals have been excellent. In the US, getting test results required a return visit to the doctor’s office which usually meant another bill. The amount taken out of our pay-checks in the United States to cover our personal portion of the monthly insurance costs would have paid for roughly 6 months of premiums in British Columbia.

It’s time Americans stop listening to the critics of universal healthcare and start looking at the data. By every measure the American health care system is failing to deliver the kind of care so much spending should guarantee every single citizen. When it comes to health care the United States lives in one very big glass house. It should stop throwing stones at other countries and start taking a good hard look in the mirror.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on Medium.com

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