The American Way: Socialised Medicine or Universal Health Care?

In a nutshell, socialized medicine is a uniquely American pejorative term for any kind of system where the government operates health care facilities and employs health care professionals. The archetypal example is the British National Health Service but the term could equally be used to describe the health services of France, Canada or Australia. American right-wing politicians and others of a similar mindset tend to use it to make a link with “socialism” which is by definition un-american and a bad thing. Interestingly, the idea that free, universal entitlement to a range of healthcare is a bad thing is a concept found only in the United States. 

As a result many Americans associate a government-funded health scheme with a lack of choice, rationing of care, intrusive government control and low medical standards but having been born and cared for by such a system throughout my life, I can’t say I have found it so. When I had to have a complicated operation on my nose a few years ago, I was seen the country’s top ear nose and throat consultant and had my operation at the wonderful Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge. I paid, not a penny. That isn’t to say I don’t use private medicine, I do and my dentist is also a private practitioner but I trust the NHS to provide not only the basics like vaccines and immunisation programmes but complex surgery as well.

The quality of such services varies throughout the world but I don’t think the people of the UK including those of the political Right would be without it. Even Mrs. Thatcher famously said “the NHS is safe in my hands”. Mind you had she tried to dismantle it, she would have been out of power in a heartbeat.

At what point I wondered did this distinctly American allergy to free, universal healthcare come about? After all, Theodore Roosevelt proposed universal health care funded by a national insurance scheme and during the 1930’s and Franklin Roosevelt supported the idea whilst in office. As late as 1948, President Harry S. Truman proposed a national health service for the US but backed down in the face of the claim by the American Medical Association that he was about to impose “a monstrosity of Bolshevik bureaucracy” on Americans.

AMA publicists worked overtime to convince Americans in the throws of Red paranoia that such a system of health care [of all things] was a step on the road to communism. They even invented a phony quote from Lenin proclaiming that “socialized medicine is the keystone to the arch of the Socialist State.” The same pamphlets smeared supporters of Truman’s “compulsory health insurance” plan by connecting them to the Communist Party. In those fearful times, they managed to kill the proposal stone dead.

After the second world war, the AMA looked across the Atlantic and saw the development of the British National Health Service. They did not like what they saw. We mustn’t forget that during the depression years, the AMA did everything in its power to prevent American family doctors providing free or cheap medical aid to independent health organisations set up to help poor people. They were finally taken to court and found guilty of violating the Sherman Antitrust Law. This ruling was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1943 [see  American Medical Association V United States, 317 US 519].

Throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s Doctor’s wives all across America organised coffee mornings encouraging friends and acquaintances to write to their congressmen opposing any kind of government-funded health scheme. They lobbied politicians across the land and encouraged emerging politicians like Ronald Regan to back them. Regan even recorded an LP laying out the arguments as to why “socialized medicine” was so bad. National health insurance he claimed would destroy “the sacred relationship between doctor and patient,” and even “the sanctity of human personality.” Doctors would be “regimented and made subordinate to the bureaucrat, and the people forced by law to accept such medical care as could be provided by a politically appointed bureaucrat.” Thank you John Conaston of Truthout for uncovering that little gem. 

Free, universal health care was unlikely to happen during the 1950’s because the Eisenhower administration was profoundly right-wing and unlikely to engage in any activity which would extend the range of services provided by the government. They had their own priorities like the Cold War with the Soviet Union and a hot war in Korea.

During the Clinton administration, Hilary Clinton tried valiantly to develop a groundswell of support for enhancing the American health car system but was defeated by AMA lobbyists and a vitriolic campaign against her.

“Even before debate began in Congress, a powerful coalition had been cobbled together to fight Clintoncare, as opponents labeled it – congressional Republicans, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Business Roundtable, the Christian Coalition, the conservative radio talk show network. Those groups spent between $100 million and $ 300 million to defeat it. And the battle was fought like a presidential campaign – with a TV advertising campaign, a network of field operatives and public relations experts to lobby members of Congress back in their districts.” So said Rob Christensen in hos book, “Who killed health care reform? Answer: Everyone,News & Observer, June 19, 1996.

Everyone? No not everyone, just those who had something to lose from the status quo or those who could derive a political advantage from Clinton-bashing.

It looked like things would finally change when Barak Obama came to power but the 2009 Affordable Health Care of American Act is not programmed to be enacted until 2014 by which time he is likely to be out of office, judging by his standing in the opinion polls… So for the forseeable future, the United States is likely to remain a country where the poor and vulnerable will receive poor [or non-existant] medical care beacuse they cannot afford quality private medicine.

The cold war is over, Capitalism is triumphant but the United States is still stalked by the ghost of communism in the guise of free health care, which in most of the rest of the developed world is considered a right of all citizens and the duty of most governments to provide it.


About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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