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Could Kerrycare kill?

By Jeremy Reynalds
web posted October 18, 2004

Health care is now center stage as we count down the final days to the upcoming general election.

President George W. Bush and his Democratic opponent Sen. John Kerry have dramatically different approaches toward dealing with health care for America. At a recent campaign stop, Bush criticized Kerry's approach to expanding access to health care.

"My opponent's proposal would be the largest expansion of government-run health care ever," Bush said. "His plan would put bureaucrats in charge of dictating coverage, which could ration your care and limit your choice of doctors ... He's putting us on the path to Hillarycare."

In addition, one Washington-based taxpayer advocacy group, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), has estimated the cost for Kerry's plan at $1.5 trillion over 10 years. The candidate's proposal would reportedly hike taxes $969 per taxpayer, or nearly $10,000 over the next decade.

What scares me about "Kerrycare" is its apparent similarity to Britain's notoriously badly run and inefficient National Health Service (NHS).

My last experience with the NHS was four-and-a-half years ago just before my mother's death when I was able to visit her before she died about three weeks later.

This is what I found.

I made my way slowly up the stairs to the second floor of the hospital where my mother was a patient in the geriatric unit. I walked through the ward, passing by a variety of elderly people in various states of apparent mental and physical decay.

While I had been warned that my mother's health was rapidly deteriorating it was still a shock to me when I saw her. She was sleeping but her breathing was heavy and labored. Her hands, lying pathetically at each side of her frail body, were badly swollen. Her once immaculately permed hair fell untidily in all the wrong places.

Being assured by a nurse that it would be okay to wake her up, I went over to mom and gently placed his hand on her shoulder. "Mom, it's me," I said. "Can you wake up?"

The woman stirred, blinked, opened her eyes fully and although a little confused appeared to be pleased to see me.

"How are you?" I asked.

"Not so good," she said in a raspy, wheezing voice, speaking with difficulty. "I ask them to come and they don't. I've got bad phlegm. Can you get me some tissues?"

I took the nurse aside and asked her what exactly was wrong with my mother. She told me that despite running all sorts of tests they didn't exactly know. However, none of the tests explained the physical problems being faced by mom. The nurse pointed out that my mother did have a drug patch attached to her back to help alleviate some of the pain she was experiencing.

After saying goodbye, I left and came back the next day. Mom was sleeping. This time, things were worse than yesterday. When she was woken up, her face was permeated with a blank, vacant stare. She was even unable to recall who had visited her that morning.

Then while I stood in front of her, she said how nice it would be if her son would come to see her. I sighed inwardly and went to see the nurse, who again reiterated that while they didn't know exactly what was wrong with mom, they were still doing all they could to help her. However, mom apparently didn't think so. With that vacant gaze she still kept telling me, (apparently referring to the medical personnel) "I keep calling but they never come."

A tragic and gut wrenching story for me. It was in late February 2000 I visited my mother as she lay in that hospital bed in South England: a "guest" of the country's nationalized health service.

A couple of days later I was back in the United States, so glad that my wife, pastor and a good friend had all told me that I should do whatever it took to pay a visit to my "mum" while I could. The week after my return, life was going on as usual -- except that as you might imagine my mother was never that far from my thoughts.

The following weekend arrived and with it plans for a birthday party for one of my sons, combined with a high school graduation celebration for another and a birthday party for my grand daughter. While it was a happy occasion the joy was tempered by an early morning phone call I received the day of the party.

My mother's hospital had called saying that she was getting steadily worse and it was not anticipated that she would live through the day. When I asked exactly what was wrong they still didn't know. In fact, the response I received was very vague and non-committal.

Later on that day the phone rang. It was a nurse from the hospital in the United Kingdom, saying that she was sad to have to tell me that mom had passed away a couple of hours before.

About 18 months later, I was browsing the international edition of the British newspaper the Daily Express, where there was a scathing editorial about the NHS.

Headlined, "An ailing NHS is bad for patients and nurses," the editorial writer intoned "Basic services in Britain go from bad to worse (There is) more evidence of the catastrophic state into which our health service has fallen." The article detailed the horrendous 36-mile journey that a couple had to travel from their local hospital for an emergency operation to save their premature twins.

As the Express wrote, "Although this was a life-threatening emergency, none of the capital's 20 special care units was able to help and the journey took nearly two hours. It is little short of a miracle that mother and daughters lived to tell the tale."

This latest scandal was on top of additional revelations about the NHS that surfaced in British papers at about the same time my mother passed away. While it was initially amazing to me that doctors had apparently been unable to accurately diagnose my mother's condition, I began to understand a little bit more as I read about the sad state of health care in the UK.

For example. The charges in 2000 against the NHS that unsanitary conditions may have been responsible for as many as 20,000 patients dying in hospitals because of infections they have allegedly picked up while staying in British hospitals.

One letter writer in 2000 to England's Daily Mail newspaper wrote, "We have health warnings on cigarette packets. Perhaps the Chief Medical Officer should consider a similar notice over the entrance to every hospital: ‘Entering here can seriously damage your health.' It may also achieve an effect on hospitals' waiting lists in that only those seriously ill would risk entering with a minor problem, only to end up with a major one, let alone terminal."

An editorial in London's Daily Telegraph newspaper in the same year went even further, calling the National Health Service "one of the worst medical systems in the developed world."

And in a e-mail to me, The London Daily Express's Peter Hitchen agreed, calling my experience "all too common."

Hitchen added, "The neglect of the elderly is widespread, and there have been many allegations that they are, in effect, allowed to starve to death (food is provided but no effort is made to help them eat it).Your general comments on the faults of our system seem justified to me, though I am unsure if the U.S. system is the one I'd choose to replace it."

Well, I for sure don't want to replace our current system of coverage (as troubled as it is) with anything that even vaguely resembles the NHS. That's a nightmare I don't want to think about and you shouldn't either!

Jeremy Reynalds is a freelance writer and the founder and director of Joy Junction, New Mexico's largest emergency homeless shelter. He has a master's degree in communication from the University of New Mexico and is pursuing his PhD in intercultural education at Biola University in Los Angeles. He is married with five children and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work can be viewed here and weekly at www.americasvoices.org. He may be contacted by e-mail at reynalds@joyjunction.org.

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