For the first couple of years I lived in Britain, I was an illegal immigrant from the United States, visaless with an expired passport and looking over my shoulder all the time. Even so, from the very first day I arrived at Victoria Station in London, suffering from bronchitis, I was accepted in the NHS -- the national health scheme, we called it -- no questions asked and no ID required.
After I'd become a legal resident, I asked my doctor why he had taken me, almost literally off the boat, with so little fuss. Weren't foreigners a drain on his time and the National Health Service? He shrugged. "If you come here with a contagious disease, we don't want you infecting the rest of us. So of course we give you medical care. Purely selfish on our part."
For three decades I used and, being of a hypochondriacal nature, exploited the British medical system without paying a farthing except for the taxes taken out of my wages as a working journalist. And that single-payer, socialistic, government-run, bureaucratized, heavily used, nationalized health system served me -- and 50 million others -- very well. In need, I saw many doctors, with no money ever changing hands. There was nothing to sign, hardly any papers to shuffle. My primary-care physician ran his "surgery," his office, with the help of only one receptionist whose job it was to arrange appointments.
My doctor's waiting room in his storefront office was by American standards shockingly casual, even a trifle seedy. In what was then a rigid class society, the waiting room was also a lesson in democracy where duchesses and dustmen, old and young, rich and poor, waited their turn. It wasn't perfect. There was the occasional misdiagnosis, crowded hospital ward, sleepy student nurse. But it worked.
It was all free, including specialists, and I came to believe that healthcare is a right, not an entitlement I had paid for. This "free" part sometimes puzzled my visiting American friends. When they got ill in London, I'd send them to my doctor, who would smile bemusedly when offered money. Did they appreciate this? Hardly. "Your doctors," they'd say, "can't be much good, can they?"
Is this too rosy a picture of single-payer, government-run healthcare? Maybe. Over the years, an underfunded, over-bureaucratized, increasingly privatized NHS has in some areas turned into a shadow of its former vibrant self.
Perhaps I was lucky to arrive so soon after World War II, when a traumatized, bomb-weary public was in no mood to revisit a prewar history of medical deprivation and the humiliation of means testing. Slowly, over time, by argument and debate, a consensus had been achieved, by Conservatives and Labor alike, that, in the words of Edward VIII as Prince of Wales when he first saw the grinding poverty of the unemployed, "something must be done."
Recently, the American Medical Assn. responded with skepticism to President Obama's plea for healthcare reform. In Britain, too, the massed ranks of the medical profession at first fought bitterly against a "socialized" service covering all from cradle to the grave. But Labor's health minister, a firebrand from the mining valleys, Aneurin Bevan, brought them into line with a mixture of enticements and threats.
The NHS was, and is, a classically English compromise, in which individual doctors are independent contractors paid by the government according to the number of their patients. Doctors are free to remove patients from their list, and patients are free to go elsewhere. Once ideology was laid aside and the system got working, it was actually quite simple.
Once launched, in an astonishingly short time, a matter of a year or so, the NHS was accepted by even its worst enemies -- the doctors and the Conservative Party -- as indispensable and a civilized way of dealing with life, illness and death.
Does that sound so awful?