On Jan. 23, Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., hosted an online town hall to promote “Medicare for All.” Over 1 million people tuned in to watch Vermont’s junior senator tout his single-payer plan, which he promised would “guarantee care for all Americans.”
His pledge is about as sound as a Venezuelan bolivar. Socialized medicine inevitably leads to deadly rationing. Americans need look no further than the United Kingdom to see why single-payer is an awful idea.
The government-run National Health Service, established in 1948, is currently experiencing a nationwide crisis. Earlier this month, the NHS postponed over 50,000 non-urgent surgeries until at least February. Even after delaying the operations, many hospitals were still filled to capacity. Patients were forced to wait for hours in emergency wards.
Doctors warned the overcrowding had reached “third world” conditions. At least 20 hospitals declared themselves on “black alert,” which means they were unable to provide routine care or guarantee patient safety.
The reason for this health care fiasco? The flu season has been a bit nastier than anticipated.
Here in the United States, it’s laughable to think the flu could gum up the entire health system. But in the United Kingdom’s single-payer system, it’s no surprise.
Single-payer systems control costs by paying doctors a pittance. The low salaries discourage people from pursuing careers in medicine. The average starting salary for British nurses, for instance, is just under $22,000. That’s one-third the average starting pay for an American nurse.
The pay for salaried British general practitioners runs from just over $80,000 to just under $121,000. In the United States, the average salary for a primary care physician is $217,000.
Meanwhile, patients face no co-pays or other forms of cost-sharing. Since health care is “free,” at least at the point of sale, people visit the doctor whenever they feel the least bit ill.
This combination of high demand for medical services and low supply of physicians and nurses leads to chronic delays. In December, nearly one-third of NHS regional divisions reported they were either “experiencing major pressures” or were “unable to deliver comprehensive care” altogether. That left countless patients waiting for beds to open up. Some patients were even stranded on stretchers in hallways.
Even before the flu struck, long wait times were the norm in the United Kingdom. Over 2 million people waited more than four hours in emergency wards last fiscal year, according to NHS data. By 2020, that figure could climb to 3.7 million patients, according to a recent analysis by the British Medical Association.
Senior patients seeking emergency care are particularly vulnerable to NHS negligence. The number of seniors who waited at least 12 hours in emergency wards more than doubled during the last two fiscal years.
Emergency ward delays leave patients in considerable pain and often lead to complications or even death. One patient in western England recently died from cardiac arrest — after waiting 35 hours on a stretcher for a bed to open up.
Patients seeking non-emergency treatment also face ridiculously long waits. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of patients who waited more than 18 weeks for non-emergency treatment rose 163% in England.
How did the NHS react to this explosion in wait times? Surely, administrators redoubled their efforts to speed up procedures, right?
On the contrary, they simply gave up. Last year, the NHS simply scrapped its goal of performing non-emergency surgeries within 18 weeks. The change gave hospitals more leeway to delay operations like knee and hip replacements, gallstone removals, and hernia repairs.
The NHS has also abandoned its efforts to treat people in cheaper, more convenient settings. It has closed about 40% of walk-in clinics since 2010. The dwindling number of clinics means people with minor injuries and illnesses often seek care at hospitals — which further overwhelms NHS emergency services.
Britons openly admit the NHS is in dire straits. The British Red Cross declared the NHS situation a “humanitarian crisis.” The president of the Royal College of Medicine recently said the emergency care system was “on its knees.”
The United Kingdom’s long wait times debunk the myth that single-payer provides high-quality, universal health care. Americans must not fall prey to Sen. Sanders’ siren song.