Video: High demand overwhelms free health clinic

updated 8/14/2009 6:14:48 PM ET 2009-08-14T22:14:48

Britons love to mock their creaky National Health Service — but they don't want anyone else poking fun at it.

They particularly don't want right-wing Americans to use Britain's universal health care system as a punching bag in their battle against President Barack Obama's proposed reforms.

Conservatives in the United States are using horror stories about Britain's system to warn Americans that Obama is trying to impose a socialized system that would give the government too much power, but Britons are digging in their heels, saying their system should be praised, not demonized.

Even the usually pro-American business secretary, Peter Mandelson, blasted the American health care system Friday during a robust defense of Britain's NHS.

He called the NHS "one of our greatest achievements" and said the U.S. system is fine for the rich but not for the poor.

"If you can't pay, you have a very, very second-rate service or you can't get health service at all," Mandelson said.

Brits circling the wagons
Newspapers have jumped in, with the Daily Mirror calling the United States "the land of the fee" because of the way patients are forced to pay for medical services.

And Dr. Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the British Medical Association, warned Friday that Britain must be careful not to let America's "market-style philosophy" take hold at the NHS.

The critiques of the U.S. system gain strength from a popular British view that American society represents unbridled capitalism run amok, with catastrophic results for people left behind in the boom times that characterized much of the past two decades.

Distorted portrayals abound on both sides of the Atlantic.

While Americans take potshots at the British system, many editors, commentators and politicians here do not seem aware that the U.S. government offers Medicare, Medicaid and other programs to help poor and elderly people get treatment.

And the U.S. conservative criticism of British health care — amplified in paid advertising and on right-leaning TV channels like Fox News — has caused Britain's leading politicians to engage in a somewhat ungainly competition to see who can offer the most forceful backing of the NHS.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown touched off the free-for-all with a tweet praising the NHS for fending off pain and suffering. Opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron weighed in Friday, vowing his party would make the system better if it wins the next election.

Who's who in the health care debate"We are the party of the NHS, we back it, we are going to expand it, we have ring-fenced it and said that it will get more money under a Conservative government, and it is our number one mission to improve it," Cameron said.

Cameron and Brown have seen the NHS system up close: both have lost young children in tragic circumstances.

The NHS, one of the world's largest publicly funded health services, was set up in 1949 with the intention of providing everyone with access to health care regardless of their ability to pay. A number of other countries have similar systems.

Although the U.S. criticism has been heartily rejected, Britons often complain about poor service and long waits for specialist care. Politicians are routinely peppered with complaints about the quality of care, but the idea that medical treatment is a human right that must be available to all is deeply embedded in the national psyche.

Generations of Britons have grown up with universal coverage and although about 12 percent of the population has private insurance, the vast majority of people still rely on the system to provide them with emergency care, surgery, and access to a family doctor. Even those who complain about the NHS say they want it to be improved, not dismantled or transformed into a US-style, profit-oriented system.

"The NHS is still something that needs to be protected," said Kathryn Wilson, an information technology consultant. "By allowing private companies to put their finger in the money pie that's not what they're doing. The NHS has many faults but health care is a basic right and shouldn't be an arena for private companies to make profit. The U.S. is showing us the way it could go. We should be warned."

Debate extends to Hawking
The superheated debate over health care has broadened to included renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, a British icon who suffers from motor neuron disease. A U.S. newspaper wrote that under the British system Hawking would be allowed to die — an assertion that Hawking said was absurd.

"I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS," Hawking said.

Even British health campaigner Kate Spall — who criticizes NHS failings in U.S. television ads produced by Conservatives for Patients' Rights, a lobby group that opposes Obama's plans — declared that the group had misled her and was distorting her true views.

Spall's mother died of kidney cancer while waiting for treatment, but she said she is still a supporter of the NHS.

"There are failings in the system but I'm not anti-NHS at all," she said.

Despite the widespread show of public support in recent days, the NHS has been struggling to cope with rising medical costs, and there are fears it could be overwhelmed if swine flu cases surge this winter.

Doctors and nurses warn that the organization faces a 15 billion pound ($24 billion) deficit, and NHS hospitals are often overcrowded, dirty and understaffed.

Many people have to wait weeks or months for medical care despite government promises to shorten waiting lists.

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