If there was ever any doubt about the dangers of single-payer health care, the United Kingdom’s experience with COVID-19 should settle the matter.
Weeks after the pandemic’s peak, the nation’s government-run health system, the National Health Service, is still subjecting patients to life-threatening treatment delays. By the NHS’s own admission, the backlog for hospital care could exceed 10 million this year.
As the United Kingdom’s example makes clear, embracing socialized medicine here in the United States isn’t just wrongheaded—it’s dangerous.
The coronavirus pandemic has given Americans a rare taste of what it’s like to wait for care. In order to keep capacity and personal protective equipment free for a potential surge of COVID-19 patients, many U.S. hospitals have canceled elective procedures.
Of course, “elective” can be a subjective term. Many American patients are putting off treatment for cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and other chronic conditions in order to avoid potential exposure to the virus and do their part to preserve healthcare resources for those afflicted with COVID-19. In places that have relaxed stay-at-home orders, people are starting to head back to the clinic to get the care they need.
The United Kingdom delayed “elective” care because of COVID-19, too. But in its case, the pandemic just became the latest excuse for rationining care.
Pre-pandemic, in 2019, more than 86,000 operations were canceled for non-clinical reasons at NHS facilities. The number of emergency-room patients waiting 12 hours or more for admission to the hospital doubled between 2018 and 2019.
The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated Great Britan’s longstanding healthcare crisis. Sadly, it’s the sickest Britons who have paid the highest price.
Last month, The Guardian shared the story of an English man who sought care for a then-undiagnosed medical condition at an NHS hospital in Leeds this March. That facility, which had suspended many services as a result of the pandemic, denied him an MRI. When he finally received a scan in early June, doctors found an aggressive form of cancer that had likely progressed significantly in the intervening months.
Hall’s story is hardly unique. Between March and April, when Britain’s outbreak peaked, the number of people waiting six weeks or more for a non-COVID-19 test grew fivefold.
Given the importance of early detection in treating so many diseases, these long waits for screening will almost certainly result in needless death.
Even now, months after COVID-19 cases peaked in the United Kingdom, the NHS continues to put lives in danger by delaying essential care. At the beginning of this month, an estimated 2.4 million patients were still waiting for cancer treatment, tests, and screening. All told, nearly one in six U.K. residents will be on a hospital waiting list of some sort by year’s end.
The lesson to take from the United Kingdom’s experience couldn’t be clearer. When the government is in charge of funding the healthcare system, rationing, shortages, and treatment delays are impossible to avoid. This is true even during relatively calm periods. During an emergency like COVID-19, the burden faced by patients subject to socialized medicine is simply grotesque.
It’s hard to look at the British National Health Service without feeling despair and sympathy for its patients. And as a consequence, it’s equally hard to understand why so many Democrats want to bring single-payer health care to the United States.