The NHS’s Winter Crisis Is a Red Flag for Americans Enticed by Single-Payer

The winter flu season has plunged Britain’s government-run National Health Service into a full-blown crisis. Medical professionals are struggling to cope with an influx of patients. One doctor described his workplace as “an absolute war zone” and the “worst hospital conditions in my memory.”

This is hardly the first time that flu season — an utterly predictable event — has pushed the 70-year-old NHS to the brink of collapse. The chronic failures of Britain’s state-run system should disabuse Americans of the notion that more government control is the answer to our healthcare problems.

Long waits are inherent in any healthcare system dominated by the state. When governments make care “free,” they remove any financial incentive for patients to moderate their consumption of care. To keep a lid on costs, governments restrict the supply of care — by limiting funding for the construction and maintenance of clinics, restricting access to cutting-edge treatment and technology, and skimping on staff.

The ensuing shortages of hospital beds, MRI machines, and doctors inevitably lead to treatment delays for patients.

Consider, for instance, the long wait times in emergency departments. The NHS’s goal is to treat 95 percent of patients within four hours of their arrival.

But the organization is falling far short of that target. In November, emergency departments saw only 87.6 percent of patients within four hours. That’s the worst November performance on record.

Soon, patients may have to wait even longer. During an event to tout her plan for reforming the NHS earlier this month, Prime Minister Theresa May admitted that the NHS has “been slipping against the targets” and signaled that her government might reset “proper targets for the future.”

In other words, officials have resigned themselves to missing the four-hour deadline. So they may just extend the deadline rather than improve care.

The NHS has also historically struggled to keep its facilities adequately staffed. The organization is currently short some 100,000 doctors, nurses, and other staff. Doctors and other health professionals say that the prime minister’s new plan to shore up the NHS, which would infuse the system with 20 billion pounds over 10 years, will not solve the agency’s problems because it doesn’t address the system’s staff shortages.

The lack of healthcare personnel and bed-space has forced NHS bureaucrats to repeatedly postpone operations. Last winter, the NHS canceled 50,000 non-emergency surgeries to divert resources to flu patients. During the first week of 2019, about 12,000 patients languished at least 30 minutes in the backs of ambulances while waiting to be admitted to emergency departments.

The NHS’s dysfunction has severely harmed Britons. Nearly 30,000 patients died last year while awaiting treatment. The sickest Brits are seven times more likely to die than the sickest Americans, according to research from University College London and Columbia University.

Despite the abject failure of the United Kingdom’s government-run health system, support for single-payer is growing in the United States. Over 70 percent of Americans favor a “Medicare for All” system, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Most of the frontrunners for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination — including Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren — have endorsed legislation introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders that would outlaw private insurance in the United States and dump all Americans into a government-run health plan.

More than 70 House Democrats have joined a Medicare for All Caucus co-chaired by Rep. Pramila Jayapal — and more than half of the party’s House delegation has co-sponsored legislation similar to Sanders’s.

That’s more radical than the United Kingdom’s healthcare system, which does allow people to carry private insurance coverage; about 12 percent of Brits are enrolled in private plans.

Medicare for All would result in the same kind of rationing that plagues the NHS. By sharply reducing payments to doctors, the government would discourage America’s best and brightest from entering the medical profession — and push doctors unenthused by a massive pay cut into early retirement. Lower payments for hospitals would discourage the construction of new clinics — or the maintenance of existing ones.

All that would shrink the supply of health care. And by making treatments and services appear “free” to patients, the government would greatly boost demand for care.

The imbalance between supply and demand would lead to long waits and rationing for everything from emergency care to surgery.

American health care has its problems. But a government takeover will not solve them. The U.S. healthcare system needs more competition — more providers, hospitals, and insurers vying to meet the needs of patients — not less.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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