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Angelina Jolie's Dad Needs To Learn More About New Zealand Health Care!

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Overnight, American actor Jon Voight, the father of actress Angelina Jolie, condemned New Zealand's health care system (amongst others) at an anti-universal health care protest in Washington DC.

According to a report carried in today's Herald on Sunday, Voight, an Oscar winning actor stated, "We would be no better off than the European countries and Canada and New Zealand who suffer greatly from a poor healthcare system. Their rationing system creates many deaths."

As a former health sector bureaucrat, I did gain an insight into how the system works. Yes, our system is premised upon rationing. While I am uneasy about rationing, per se, it is an acceptable price to pay for not having a free market system.

Voight's remarks were just the latest to be uttered in the campaign against President Barack Obama's proposals to reform America's ramshackle, free market health system.. If anything, America has the developed world's most complicated and costly health system with only the very poor eligible for any form of federal government assistance. Otherwise, the vast bulk of Americans have to take out medical insurance for themselves and their families. In a majority of cases, employers provide health care coverage for their workers too, but if people move between jobs or lose them, this does affect their coverage.

President Obama is just the latest Democratic Party leader to take on this issue. Ever since 1948, all Democrat presidents (from Harry Truman on down) have tried and failed to institute health care reform. The powerful American medical insurance industry has held sway over successive generations of members of Congress. Their lobbying power has been unrivalled in terms of being able to fund the campaigns of most Congressional Republicans and a good number of right-wing Democrats. These two Congressional political factions have coalesced together in the past to defeat health care reform with the most recent instance being in 1994 when Bill Clinton's health plan was defeated.

Indeed, the private medical lobby have utilised the mass media with propaganda campaigns designed to scare ordinary Americans into thinking that any form of publicly financed health care is tantamount to socialism. Hence, any proposals for public funding of health care in America have met with stiff resistance from a population who have long been conditioned to think like this. Yet Americans also know the private cost of not having any form of state financed health care provision. Insurance premiums have skyrocketed to the point where over 45 million ordinary Americans (even those on middle class salaries) can't afford health care. There have been horror stories surrounding coverage being withdrawn from people who have long-term health conditions but yet don't earn a low enough income to qualify for the Federal Government's Medicaid programme. To qualify for Medicaid people must be in receipt of social security benefits. For older people, though, the story is different in that Medicare takes care of most of the health costs of those claiming a US Government pension. Even so, this programme doesn't extend (so far as I understand it) to people who receive their retirement income from private sources.

As you can see, there are huge gaps in health care coverage in America. President Obama's plan aims to plug some of them through mandating that all Americans purchase medical insurance at the risk of being fined. This sounds a very punitive and self-defeating measure if you ask me. Still, to ease the burden, all health care insurers will be asked to pool together in order to reduce premiums so as to make them affordable. Extra tax credits will also be made available to help individuals and families purchase health insurance.

As a last resort (and this is the nub of the issue for the American right) a publicly funded insurance pool will be set up to help drive competition and insure those who can least afford it. This move has been viewed as socialistic by universal health care opponents. Republicans and their private health insurance allies have been pushing this argument during the current campaign against health care reform.

Sadly, the scare campaign seems to be working with a growing number of ordinary Americans. Despite their private concern over how to meet their family health bills, they have latched on (yet again) to the false arguments being propagated by opponents like Jon Voight, as reflected in poll after poll. However, Congressional Democrats have continued to be brave enough to stay together and pass health care reform through the House of Representatives. One last obstacle remains, though, in the form of the Senate where there is a slender Democrat majority. For this reason, any hope of enacting health care reform might end there for Obama.

Despite the reservations I expressed at the beginning of this blog, the benefits of public health care clearly outweigh any disadvantages. To those who may be reading this (especially in the US) may I say that I can go and see my doctor (on the same day, if need be) for a low fee. If I needed to go to hospital or receive other specialist treatment, I don't have to think about how I'm going to pay for it. I've already covered that cost (as have other citizens) through taxes. While our New Zealand system may seem a bureaucratic jumble at times, at least (when compared with the US) there is an element of democratic control exerted through elected health boards and ultimately our Minister of Health is accountable for system performance through our Parliament. Our health system is one of the least costly in the OECD and our health statistics (across a wide range of measures) are comparatively better. For example, infant mortality rates in the US are the highest in the Western world while those recorded in New Zealand, Britain and Europe are amongst the lowest (and Voight has the cheek to talk about rationing creating many deaths). Yes, it is true that we ration, especially when it comes to surgery and other high level health interventions. Conversely, our politicians do set targets for our system to meet in respect of the numbers of people to be treated and the times they must wait. In the American free market system, there is no equivalent of this.

Above all else, that's why I favour (as do most New Zealanders) the maintenance of a largely public health system, financed through government taxes. I would like to close this blog by recollecting a conversation I had with an American exchange student recently. She was a student in one of my politics classes at the University of Otago. She needed to have her teeth done. Although she had medical insurance to meet her bills here, she found that the bill charged by our publicly funded dental school was far lower than any she would have received back home. She told me about the experiences of her family who, despite being middle class, were still swamped with huge health bills. Now, she wants to switch colleges and move to Oregon, a state that has a degree of universal health care coverage while she completes her undergraduate education. And she also revealed that she was thinking of coming to New Zealand to undertake postgraduate study.

There are many Americans like her who have come to appreciate the first class service given by our health system. Perhaps Jon Voight might like to visit and see for himself.


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