On Monday evening, Fox News hosted a town hall with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Dearborn, Michigan, ahead of that state’s Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday. The program began with a question about the ongoing coronavirus situation, and how Sanders would respond to the outbreak.
Sanders criticized President Trump’s handling of the outbreak, specifically the contradictions between some of his public statements and those of government scientists. Sanders then pivoted to suggest that a single payer health care system with “free” care would ameliorate Americans’ concerns:
We will talk I am sure about [single payer]. But when I talk about health care being a human right, and all people having health care, the coronavirus crisis makes that abundantly clear as to why it should be. You’ve got millions of people in this country today who may feel that they have a symptom. But you know what? They cannot afford to go to a doctor.
Sanders believes a single payer system that eliminates patient cost-sharing, like Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), would improve access to care. But consider some recent comments made by British Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. At Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, Corbyn raised the same issue Sanders did—patients in his country unable to access care:
Yesterday, our part-time prime minister finally published the steps that his government will take to tackle the outbreak of the disease. The strategy broadly has our support, but a decade of Tory austerity means that our national health service is already struggling to cope. Bed-occupancy levels are at 94% and hundreds of our most vulnerable people are being treated on trolleys in corridors. What additional funding will our overstretched and underfunded NHS be given to deal with this crisis?
Far from acting as the panacea Sanders claimed in his remarks Monday evening, Corbyn believes the NHS will also leave some coronavirus patients untreated.
As this space has previously noted, British patients pay quite a lot for health care—they just pay for it by waiting, as opposed to out-of-pocket costs. A report released last fall concluded that waiting lists in the NHS have risen by 40 percent in the past five years, and now approaches 4.6 million Britons, or nearly 7 percent of the country’s entire population.
As Corbyn noted in his remarks last Wednesday, funding shortfalls mean that British hospitals already face overcrowding pressures under normal circumstances. Two years ago, an outbreak of the flu caused the postponement of nearly 55,000 operations. Emergency room physicians apologized for “Third World conditions of the department due to overcrowding.” Lack of inpatient beds meant ER patients spent hours on gurneys in hallways waiting to get admitted to the hospital, and ambulances spent hours circling hospitals, waiting to drop off their patients.
The NHS’ “winter crisis” occurs regularly when flu cases spike in Britain. And coronavirus—more virulent than the flu, and with no treatments available at present—represents a potential threat orders of magnitude greater than the NHS’s usual capacity problems.
Britain provides health care to its residents with few out-of-pocket charges. But the nearly 4.6 million Britons on waiting lists have no ability to compel the government to treat them promptly. In other words, Sanders’s claims to the contrary, Britain does not make health care “a human right.” Nor would his own bill make health care a legally enforceable right in the United States.
Both American and British patients end up paying for their care—the former more explicitly, and the latter more implicitly. But the potential queues that will likely materialize at NHS hospitals should the coronavirus spread demonstrate that a single-payer system will not provide a cure-all for American health care.