UK Debate Shows Single Payer’s Shortcomings

This week’s debate featuring candidates for the highest office in the land showed all the problems with single-payer health care. Except the debate took place in Britain, not the United States.

During Tuesday’s debate between the current British prime minister, Conservative Boris Johnson, and the man who wants to replace him, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, both agreed that Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) currently provides poor care to patients. That surprising consensus in an otherwise-contentious debate illustrates why the United States shouldn’t import Britain’s poor quality of care to our shores.

‘Make Sure Nobody Else Goes Through This Pain’

The debate featured a question by a hospital-based physician, who said he “see[s] firsthand the unsustainable pressure on the NHS—elderly patients stuck on trollies in corridors, unacceptably long waiting times for operations.” He asked how the health service can meet future demands, when it arguably doesn’t meet the current patients’ needs.

After calling the NHS a “wonderful and brilliant institution,” Labour’s Corbyn then recounted a heart-rending tale of how it let down one patient just this week:

Yesterday, a woman—friend of mine—died at 6:30 yesterday morning from secondary breast cancer. The day before, she’d gone to hospital, at the recommendation of her GP [general practitioner], in order to get urgent treatment. She waited eight hours. The nurses that were trying to help her were unable to get anyone to see her because they were under such strain and stress. And so she recorded a video saying, ‘Please, in my memory—make sure nobody else goes through this pain.’

Corbyn then concluded by calling for increased spending, claiming that the NHS stands as “one of the most civilized things about this country.” His friend might have objected to that characterization—but thanks to the NHS, she never lived to see Corbyn make his comment.

Waiting Times

Johnson likewise pledged additional funding, but the effects of choices made in the last several years have affected NHS. In a May report, Congressional Budget Office analysts stated that “the relatively slow growth in [payments to hospitals] since 2010 ha[ve] created severe financial strains on the [British] health care system. Provider payment rates have been reduced, many providers have incurred financial deficits, and wait times for receiving care have increased.”

While Corbyn’s comments brought home the personal impact of the NHS’ failures, data compiled by the House of Commons Library (Britain’s version of the Congressional Research Service) demonstrates that stories like the one Corbyn recounted have become far too common.

Charts like those below need very little explanation. A roughly five-fold increase in the number of patients waiting more than four hours in emergency rooms since 2011:

A nearly five-fold increase in the number of patients waiting on trollies in emergency rooms for hours after their doctors decided to admit them as inpatients:

A 40 percent increase in the number of people on the NHS waiting list, such that it now totals 4.56 million people, or nearly 7 percent of the entire British population of approximately 67.5 million:

A majority of NHS trusts breaking the target that a patient should wait “only” 18 weeks (i.e., four and a half months) for treatment led by a consultant (i.e., a medical specialist):

More than three-quarters of NHS trusts breaking the target that patients should receive their first treatment for “urgent” cancer within 62 days (i.e., two months) of their GP referral:

All this poor performance—people waiting and waiting for care—comes as the number of doctors and nurses within the NHS has increased over the past decade (and in the case of physicians, has increased by nearly 20 percent).

Fundamental Dilemma

Johnson and Corbyn can pledge all the additional money for the NHS they want. Their promises won’t solve the health service’s fundamental problem—and may end up bankrupting Britain in the process.

Britain’s pledge of an NHS “free at the point of use” creates the problem. People who believe they can receive “free” care over-consume it, with the types of rationing and wait times seen in the past several years the inevitable consequence.

Voters in the United States who tuned into Wednesday’s Democratic debate to see the candidates talk single payer should have spent their time watching Tuesday night’s prime ministerial debate instead. Few who watched that event would come away thinking that single payer would represent anything less than an unmitigated disaster for the American health care.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.