The “Other” Election Debate about Single-Payer Health Care

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: There’s a national election going on, and single-payer health care is one of the prime points of contention. It’s not what you think.

Voters in Great Britain head to the polls on Dec. 12 in the country’s third general election in just more than four years. The ongoing Brexit debate, about whether or how Britain will leave the European Union, necessitated the early election. With his Brexit agreement with the European Union bogged down in Parliament, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson felt the need to go to the country, to obtain a mandate to push the deal through.

But health care has also taken a prime place in the campaign. The Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, have raised the specter of the Conservatives “putting the National Health Service up for sale” to reach a post-Brexit trade agreement with the United States.

The issue of the NHS’s status in a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement came up during President Trump’s state visit to Britain in June. In a press conference with then-Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump originally said “everything with a trade deal is on the table,” only to walk those comments back one day later. With the president due back in London on Tuesday for a NATO summit, and Labour trailing in the polls only a week before election day, Corbyn will doubtless make the issue a focal point of Trump’s visit.

Drug Pricing Issues

Last week, a series of government documents leaked that summarized preliminary trade discussions between American and British negotiators. Corbyn waved around heavily edited versions of the documents at his first debate with Johnson earlier this month. Government officials had redacted large swathes of the documents, to preserve the sensitive nature of the trade talks, but those discussions escaped into public view via the unauthorized leak.

The leaked documents confirm that drug pricing remains a prime point of contention regarding a U.S.-U.K. trade deal. One document, summarizing a series of meetings held in July, includes a lengthy section entitled “Intellectual Property: Patents and Pharmaceuticals.”

Britain’s Channel Four reported in October that two linked issues drive the talks. First, American negotiators prefer the United States’s longer period of data exclusivity as part of any Anglo-American trade agreement. This policy would seek to preserve incentives for innovation, allowing manufacturers to maintain their exclusive intellectual property for longer periods of time.

Britain Wants to Keep Rationing Health Care

Second, the American side “want[s] to remove the UK’s ability to block American drugs not deemed ‘value for money.’” The BBC notes that Britain’s National Health Service relies on the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) “on what offers the best benefits for patients balanced against value for money:”

The NICE regime, introduced 20 years ago, is seen as a great success in helping the NHS strike realistic pricing deals. A recent deal for the cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi was hailed by health leaders in England as a big win for the system, with the American manufacturer Vertex, having initially refused to bring down its price, eventually signing up.

However, the BBC neglected to mention that, as part of its “negotiations” with the manufacturer Vertex, NICE denied thousands of British patients access to Orkambi for more than three years, because the drug exceeded cost limits set by the government body.

It seems somewhat ironic that in October, a spokesman for Britain’s Department for International Trade told Channel Four that the British government “could not agree to any proposals on medicines pricing” that would “reduce clinician and patient choice.” For the past three years, patients had no choice for accessing Orkambi—bureaucrats called the drug too expensive, therefore British cystic fibrosis patients could not receive it.

End Foreign Freeloading

Britain’s drug pricing policies cost American and British patients alike. British patients pay when they cannot get access to treatments the government deems too expensive, and their health suffers as a result. And American patients pay when Britain, like other European nations, free rides on American innovation—allowing U.S. consumers to pay far more for pharmaceuticals, absorbing a disproportionate share of drugs’ research and development costs.

U.S. House Speaker Pelosi and others have suggested importing socialist-style price controls to the United States to “solve” the free-rider problem—a variation of the “If you can’t beat them, join them” approach. But a better solution would involve American negotiators taking up the issue of foreign freeloading with other governments as part of trade talks—the exact policy pursued as part of the U.S.-U.K. discussions.

Trump’s visit to London so close to Britain’s election has prompted speculation about its political ramifications. Johnson has warned Trump not to endorse his re-election bid, fearing it may only encourage Britons to vote for his Labour opponents instead.

But on policy, the United States absolutely should work to stop foreign free-riding over pharmaceutical prices. Moreover, we would do the British people no small favor if, in the process of ending that free-riding, we could stop that country’s health care system from denying patients access to life-saving treatments that a government board deems too costly.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.