The National Health Service has become the butt of increasingly outlandish political attacks in the US as Republicans
and conservative campaigners rail against Britain's "socialist" system
as part of a tussle to defeat Barack Obama's proposals for broader
government involvement in healthcare.
Top-ranking Republicans have joined bloggers and well-funded free market organisations in scorning the NHS for its waiting lists and for "rationing" the availability of expensive treatments.
myths and half-truths circulate, British diplomats in the US are
treading a delicate line in correcting falsehoods while trying to stay
out of a vicious domestic dogfight over the future of American health
Slickly produced television advertisements trumpet the
alleged failures of the NHS's 61-year tradition of tax-funded
healthcare. To the dismay of British healthcare professionals, US
critics have accused the service of putting an "Orwellian" financial
cap on the value on human life, of allowing elderly people to die
untreated and, in one case, for driving a despairing dental patient to
mend his teeth with superglue.
Having seen his approval ratings
drop, Obama is seeking to counter this conservative onslaught by taking
his message to the public, with a "town hall" meeting yesterday at a
school in New Hampshire.
Last week, the most senior Republican on
the Senate finance committee, Chuck Grassley, took NHS-baiting to a
newly emotive level by claiming that his ailing Democratic colleague,
Edward Kennedy, would be left to die untreated from a brain tumour in
Britain on the grounds that he would be considered too old to deserve
"I don't know for sure," said Grassley. "But I've
heard several senators say that Ted Kennedy with a brain tumour, being
77 years old as opposed to being 37 years old, if he were in England,
would not be treated for his disease, because end of life – when you
get to be 77, your life is considered less valuable under those
The degree of misinformation is causing dismay in NHS
circles. Andrew Dillon, chief executive of the National Institute for
Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), pointed out that it was utterly
false that Kennedy would be left untreated in Britain: "It is neither
true nor is it anything you could extrapolate from anything we've ever
recommended to the NHS."
Others in the US have accused Obama of
trying to set up "death panels" to decide who should live and who
should die, along the lines of Nice, which determines the
cost-effectiveness of NHS drugs.
One right-leaning group,
Conservatives for Patients' Rights, lists horror stories about British
care on its website. An email widely circulated among US voters, of
uncertain origin, claims that anyone over 59 in Britain is ineligible
for treatment for heart disease.
The British embassy in
Washington is quietly trying to counter inaccuracies. A spokesman said:
"We're keeping a close eye on things and where there's a factually
wrong statement, we will take the opportunity to correct people in
private. That said, we don't want to get involved in a domestic debate."
$1.2m television advertising campaign bankrolled by the conservative
Club for Growth displays images of the union flag and Big Ben while
intoning a figure of $22,750. A voiceover says: "In England, government
health officials have decided that's how much six months of life is
worth. If a medical treatment costs more, you're out of luck."
number is based on a ratio of £30,000 a year used by Nice in its
assessment of whether drugs provide value for money. Dillon said this
was one of many variables in determining cost-effectiveness of
medicines. He said of his body's portrayal in the US: "It's very
disappointing and it's not, obviously, the way in which Nice describes
itself or the way in which we're perceived in the UK even among those
who are disappointed or upset by our decisions."
Murdoch's Fox News channel, the conservative commentator Sean Hannity
recently alighted upon the case of Gordon Cook, a security manager from
Merseyside, who used superglue to stick a loose crown into his gum
because he was unable to find an NHS dentist. The cautionary tale,
which was based on a Daily Mail report from 2006, prompted Hannity to
warn his viewers: "If the Democrats have their way, get your superglue
The broader tone of the US healthcare debate has become
increasingly bitter. The former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin
last week described president Obama's proposals as "evil", while the
radio presenter Rush Limbaugh has compared a logo used for the White
House's reform plans to a Nazi swastika. Hecklers have disrupted town
hall meetings called to discuss the health reform plans.
Levinthal, a spokesman for the nonpartisan Centre for Responsive
Politics, said the sheer scale of the issue, which will affect the
entire trajectory of US medical care, was arousing passions: "It's no
surprise you have factions from every political stripe attempting to
influence the debate and some of those groups are certainly playing to
the deepest fears of Americans. There's been a great deal of documented
disinformation propagated throughout the country."Defenders of
Britain's system point out that the UK spends less per head on
healthcare but has a higher life expectancy than the US. The World
Health Organisation ranks Britain's healthcare as 18th in the world,
while the US is in 37th place. The British Medical Association said a
majority of Britain's doctors have consistently supported public
provision of healthcare. A spokeswoman said the association's 140,000
members were sceptical about the US approach to medicine: "Doctors and
the public here are appalled that there are so many people on the US
who don't have proper access to healthcare. It's something we would
find very, very shocking."