We also sent our intrepid intern (dressed as a pill) out to the Macyâ€™s Thanksgiving Day Parade to ask average citizens the same question.
Here's a link to our podcast:
The answer is that the only difference is a rhetorical one.
But in the United Kingdom â€“ thereâ€™s a tragic difference, NHS â€œgovernment careâ€ isnâ€™t universal at all when it comes to the ability of a physician to prescribe the most effective medicine for a patient â€“ because they canâ€™t choose from a â€œuniverseâ€ of treatments.
Consider these paragraphs this from todayâ€™s New York Times:
Paying Patients Test British Health Care System
LONDON â€” Created 60 years ago as a cornerstone of the British welfare state, the National Health Service is devoted to the principle of free medical care for everyone. But recently it has been wrestling with a problem its founders never anticipated: how to handle patients with complex illnesses who want to pay for parts of their treatment while receiving the rest free from the health service.
Although the government is reluctant to discuss the issue, hopscotching back and forth between private and public care has long been standard here for those who can afford it. But a few recent cases have exposed fundamental contradictions between policy and practice in the system, and tested its founding philosophy to its very limits.
One such case was Debbie Hirstâ€™s. Her breast cancer had metastasized, and the health service would not provide her with Avastin, a drug that is widely used in the United States and Europe to keep such cancers at bay. So, with her oncologistâ€™s support, she decided last year to try to pay the $120,000 cost herself, while continuing with the rest of her publicly financed treatment.
By December, she had raised $20,000 and was preparing to sell her house to raise more. But then the government, which had tacitly allowed such arrangements before, put its foot down. Mrs. Hirst heard the news from her doctor.
â€œHe looked at me and said: â€˜Iâ€™m so sorry, Debbie. Iâ€™ve had my wrists slapped from the people upstairs, and I can no longer offer you that service,â€™ â€ Mrs. Hirst said in an interview. â€œI said, â€˜Where does that leave me?â€™ He said, â€˜If you pay for Avastin, youâ€™ll have to pay for everythingâ€™ â€ -- in other words, for all her cancer treatment, far more than she could afford.
Officials said that allowing Mrs. Hirst and others like her to pay for extra drugs to supplement government care would violate the philosophy of the health service by giving richer patients an unfair advantage over poorer ones.
Patients â€œcannot, in one episode of treatment, be treated on the N.H.S. and then allowed, as part of the same episode and the same treatment, to pay money for more drugs,â€ the health secretary, Alan Johnson, told Parliament.
But Mrs. Hirst, 57, whose cancer was diagnosed in 1999, went to the news media, and so did other patients in similar situations. And it became clear that theirs were not isolated cases. In fact, patients, doctors and officials across the health care system widely acknowledge that patients suffering from every imaginable complaint regularly pay for some parts of their treatment while receiving the rest free.
â€œOf course itâ€™s going on in the N.H.S. all the time, but a lot of it is hidden â€” itâ€™s not explicit,â€ said Dr. Paul Charlson, a general practitioner in Yorkshire and a member of Doctors for Reform, a group that is highly critical of the health service. Last year, he was a co-author of a paper laying out examples of how patients with the initiative and the money dip in and out of the system, in effect buying upgrades to their basic free medical care.
â€œPeople swap from public to private sector all the time, and theyâ€™re topping up for virtually everything,â€ Dr. Charlson said in an interview. For instance, he said, a patient put on a five-month waiting list to see an orthopedic surgeon may pay $250 for a private consultation, and then switch back to the health service for the actual operation from the same doctor.
â€œOr theyâ€™ll buy an M.R.I. scan because the wait is so long, and then take the results back to the N.H.S.,â€ Dr. Charlson said.
In his paper, he also wrote about a 46-year-old woman with breast cancer who paid $250 for a second opinion when the health service refused to provide her with one; an elderly man who spent thousands of dollars on a new hearing aid instead of enduring a yearlong wait on the health service; and a 29-year-old woman who, with her doctorâ€™s blessing, bought a three-month supply of Tarceva, a drug to treat pancreatic cancer, for more than $6,000 on the Internet because she could not get it through the N.H.S.
Asked why these were different from cases like Mrs. Hirstâ€™s, a spokeswoman for the health service said no officials were available to comment.
Karol Sikora, a professor of cancer medicine at the Imperial College School of Medicine and one of Dr. Charlsonâ€™s co-authors, said that co-payments were particularly prevalent in cancer care. Armed with information from the Internet and patientsâ€™ networks, cancer patients are increasingly likely to demand, and pay for, cutting-edge drugs that the health service considers too expensive to be cost-effective.
â€œYou have a population that is informed and consumerist about how it behaves about health care information, and an N.H.S. that can no longer afford to pay for everything for everybody,â€ he said.
In any case, he said, the health service is riddled with inequities. Some drugs are available in some parts of the country but not in others. Waiting lists for treatment vary wildly from place to place. Some regions spend $280 per capita on cancer care, Professor Sikora said, while others spend just $90.
But in a final irony, Mrs. Hirst was told early this month that her cancer had spread and that her condition had deteriorated so much that she could have the Avastin after all â€” paid for by the health service. In other words, a system that forbade her to buy the medicine earlier was now saying that she was so sick she could have it at public expense.
Mrs. Hirst is pleased, but up to a point. Avastin is not a cure, but a way to extend her life, perhaps only by several months, and she has missed valuable time. â€œIt may be too bloody late,â€ she said.
Hereâ€™s a link to the complete article:
As our presidential candidates talk about health care reform here at home, letâ€™s hold their feet to the fire over what â€œgovernment careâ€ really means.