Britain’s universal health care system is ailing

Can a relatively low-tax country run a high-quality, taxpayer-funded health service that’s free to all? Britain’s National Health Service suggests the answer is no.

The NHS is good at some things but bad, bordering on disastrous, at others. Its great virtue is truly universal coverage — and by international standards, it is also cheap to run. But it’s perpetually short of money, and the service is erratic. Today the NHS is yet again dealing with a financial crisis and a surge of complaints.

Prime Minister Theresa May has had to apologize for a winter breakdown that has seen operations postponed and emergency-room waiting times rise well over the promised four-hour maximum. That comes a year after the British Red Cross declared the service was on the verge of a “humanitarian crisis.”

The NHS’ problems — too many patients and not enough staff — aren’t seasonal. Many years of meager funding are taking their toll. The U.K. has fewer doctors, CT scanners and MRI units per capita than most other E.U. countries. Other universal-coverage systems score better on avoidable deaths, cancer survival, innovation and other measures.

Granted, more money by itself won’t cure the system. One official called the NHS a “bottomless pit.” Even so, bearing in mind how little the NHS costs, more money is surely part of the answer, as long as it’s combined with further efforts to run the system more efficiently.

The public’s devotion to the principle underlying the NHS is undiminished: The British see health care as a right. Increasingly, though, they are also demanding higher standards of care. Taxpayers must either dig deeper to maintain the current service — deeper still to improve it — or else accept that the NHS will continue to disappoint.

– Star Tribune

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