A record 5.6 million patients in the United Kingdom are currently on waiting lists for hospital care. That’s equivalent to nearly one in 10 Britons.
Of that group, about 300,000 have been waiting at least one year for treatment.
Those who can afford to are increasingly paying out of pocket for private care. More than 20% of British residents are doing so, according to recent polling.
Britain’s National Health Service has long been a source of pride for the country. The organizers of the 2012 London Olympics made the NHS a focus of the Games’ Opening Ceremony. But the country’s publicly funded healthcare system is failing to provide high-quality, accessible care. Its failures should serve as a warning for progressives who want to institute Medicare for All here in the United States.
Lengthy wait times are plaguing Brits with all sorts of health conditions. Thousands of people have been waiting over a year for eye surgeries. Patients with suspicious lesions or debilitating back pain wait months before they can even see a doctor. One NHS dentist told a man with a decaying tooth that he wouldn’t be able to extract it for three years.
People with mental health conditions are struggling, too. About 8 million English patients cannot access mental health treatment because the government doesn’t “consider them sick enough to qualify,” according to reporting from The Guardian.
Many of the 5.6 million patients on Britain’s waitlists are self-medicating, unfortunately. For example, opioid use has jumped 40% among patients waiting for hip and knee surgeries. Many will require “expert support to successfully overcome their dependency,” mental health expert Ian Hamilton argued in The Independent.
Even cancer patients face life-threatening waits. Nearly 330,000 people with cancer waited too long for treatment between March 2020 and February 2021, based on NHS targets. One analysis from the U.K. charity Macmillan found that healthcare workers would need to operate at “110% capacity” for more than a year to clear the cancer treatment backlog.
Officials expect things will get worse before they get better. U.K. Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid recently said that the number of people waiting for hospital care could jump to a staggering 13 million by fall 2022. No. 10 Downing Street said that it would take 40 billion pounds over 10 years to eliminate the waiting lists. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed raising taxes to their highest peacetime level in British history.
These waits for care are nothing new. In November 2019, two months before COVID-19 hit Britain’s shores, more than 4.4 million people were waiting for hospital care. Nearly one in four cancer patients was waiting more than two months to commence treatment.
Progressives in the United States seem to think Medicare for All will be different—that it won’t force American patients to wait like those in Great Britain do. But in some ways, the scheme favored by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is even more radical than the United Kingdom’s system.
British patients can pay for private care. Jayapal, Sanders, and company want to ban private insurance coverage altogether.
Democrats don’t have the votes to install Medicare for All now. So they’re advancing a piecemeal approach through their $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill, which would lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60; add dental, vision, and hearing benefits to Medicare; draw millions more people into a new Medicaid-like “public option” program; and make the generous subsidies for exchange coverage enacted earlier this year permanent.
Each change is popular on its own. Sixty percent of Republicans and 87% of Democrats support expanding eligibility for Medicare and Medicaid, according to a September poll.
But together, these changes are significant steps toward a government takeover of the health insurance system. And if that happens, millions of Americans will find themselves waiting for care, just like their peers across the Atlantic.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All, Encounter Books, January 2020. Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.