EU Health Care Works

After personal experiences in three EU countries, the verdict is in; It’s time for the United States Congress to get over the lie

As President Barack Obama pointed out in his health care speech last week, there are a lot of lies being told about his health insurance reform plan.

But he didn’t even mention the biggest lie – that universal health care in European democracies doesn’t work. The truth is that universal health care has been tested for decades, and it does work. I’m alive to tell the story.

A little over a year and a half ago, I was hit by a car in Brussels, Belgium. I was knocked out cold, bleeding, lying by the side of the road. But then the local ambulance service scraped me up off the pavement and took me to the University of Brussels Hospital. Over the next 18 hours, they saved my life. Eight days later, I flew back to the U.S. for a second operation at the University of Maryland to repair my broken leg.

Today, I can walk, drive, and dance (unfortunately, not any better than I could before). And my American health insurance company, CareFirst, paid less to put me back together in Brussels than if I’d been hit by a car on Route 1 in my hometown of College Park.

That’s the personal reason I support President Obama’s health insurance reform plan. Comprehensive, national care worked for me and continues to work for middle-class families across Europe.

All the micro debates in Washington this summer – about Congressional Budget Office estimates, Medicare reimbursement rates, the structure of a public option, bending cost curves – are just that, micro debates. They are real matters, but they are not the core issue.

It’s easy to find people who wanted elective surgery in Canada or the United Kingdom, who ended up buying faster service at home or in the U.S. In fact, on a recent trip to Europe, I dined with a British investor who said he buys private insurance, just as he could in the U.S., so he doesn’t have to wait for elective surgery. But he couldn’t understand why President Obama’s political opponents kept trashing Britain’s National Health Service.

He said he gets most of his health care there – from private doctors and nonprofit hospitals, just like in Maryland. And the doctor who did his surgery under private health insurance was the same doctor who would have done it in the National Health Service plan. He just paid extra, he told me, for convenient scheduling, not for better quality care.

Obviously, the rich and the powerful will always get special deals for themselves – even in Communist countries. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. The drug companies, the doctors, the hospitals and the insurance companies will always fight for their own advantages – now and after President Obama’s insurance reform is passed. There is no perfect solution on this earth.

But decades ago, countries such as Belgium figured out that health care is better for more people – and cheaper – if it is comprehensive. And it’s not just Belgium. I’ve made two other unplanned tests of European health care.

One day in Frankfurt on business, I bit into a sandwich and broke a tooth. I asked the hotel concierge if there was a dentist nearby. She directed me to a private dentist’s office about three blocks away. I walked in, explained my problem and my American citizenship – and waited about five minutes to see the dentist.

When she finished putting in a temporary filling, I asked how much I owed. She said she had no idea how the finances would be handled and that I should just talk with the receptionist, which I did. She looked at a price list from her drawer and told me that for foreigners, not in Germany’s universal health insurance system, the cost would be 40 euros – about $55.

On another trip, this time in London, I wasn’t feeling well, so I asked the hotel receptionist how I could find a doctor. Her boss decided to call an ambulance, which arrived in about 10 minutes. It took me to the nearest National Health Service office (of “socialist” reputation).

They did exactly what they would have done at Laurel Hospital in Maryland: gave me raft of tests, told me to stay the night, and released me the next morning, once they determined it was a false alarm. A few weeks later, I got a bill for $700, a lot less than it would have cost me – or my insurance company – in the U.S.

What President Obama has proposed has been tested over decades, and it works. I’ve tested it myself in three countries.

Presidents Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton tried to get all Americans the good medical care that I got in Belgium, Germany, and the U.K.  In the U.S., Republican politicians defeated their efforts and are trying to defeat President Obama’s initiative. But with strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, there’s only one real question: Will a few Democrats in Congress let Republican politicians do it again?

I hope not.

 

Sen. Jim Rosapepe, U.S. Ambassador to Romania from1998 to 2001, is a member of the Health Subcommittee of the Maryland State Senate. This article originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun on Sept. 17 and appears here with permission of the author. 

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