The United States’ healthcare system is a mess, at least if you’re poor. That much is admitted even by Americans. Where they differ is on how much this actually matters.
Not enough, many would say, to justify the expansion of public spending or the size of the government machinery needed to fix it.
Well, no one argues that Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is perfect. It’s run by human beings, for a start, and it’s been a political football from day one. But it does express something profoundly moral about the role of a state, which is lacking in many alternative models. Namely, that someone has a right to healthcare because of their citizenship, not because of their income or whether they are gainfully employed.
I cannot say that these thoughts were uppermost in my mind recently as I lay on a spinal board in my local hospital. The ladder had failed me and so had common sense; gravity had won. An innately cheerful disposition – that, or more likely a morphine high – prevented me from contemplating the potential outcomes of this little adventure too closely at the time, but I’ve thought a lot about them since, as I have hobbled back to health – battered, bruised but fundamentally sound.
The kindness I was shown was exemplary, and some would say unwarranted, given that I was using up NHS resources because of a cavalier attitude to health and safety rather than anything really outside my control. But what is more remarkable is that the same consideration was given to people who would, in the normal way of things, attract a good deal more opprobrium.
The chap in the bed opposite was an alcoholic who’d been drinking all day and was suffering from acute delirium. Behind a curtain was a lady with an unspecified accident, also alcohol-related. But none of us were asked for money, none of us had to worry about whether we’d be able to afford the treatment we required, and all of us knew that whatever lay ahead of us, all the resources of modern medicine would be deployed in our service.
I’m glad about that. And as one of the gainfully employed who has made very few calls on the NHS so far, I’m very happy that my taxes helped pay for the young wastrel in the bed opposite. I hope he sorts his life out. I’m glad he’s been given the chance.
In a coincidence that makes you wonder, Stephen Bates, The Guardian’s former religious affairs correspondent, has just written about his very similar experiences.
“It’s very seasonal in here,” a nurse told him. “In winter we get little old ladies who have fallen over on the ice. And this time of year, it’s middle-aged blokes like you who’ve fallen off ladders.”
Nice to know it’s not just me.