It wasn’t more than a handful of years ago when proponents of healthcare reform would point out that the United States was the only developed nation without a universal healthcare system. Right-wing electoral victories and several IMF interventions later, a number of European nations now keep the United States company on the list of developed nations that privilege healthcare access based on ability to pay rather than need.
Few if any would gasp when told that the most unforgiving attack on universal healthcare has been felt in Greece, a place where democratic norms have been suspended to accommodate the demands of international creditors. Current healthcare spending in Greece is down 25% from what it was in 2009. As the austerity program shutters public hospital wards and clinics, Greeks in need of medical assistance are left to turn to the private healthcare system. With a staggering unemployment rate of 21% and with pensions slashed, this simply isn’t an option, leaving families to seek out charity health services that would otherwise be assisting those in need in the developing world.
This story of decimated healthcare services is repeated to varying degrees of severity across Europe. In Portugal, the IMF and European Union have demanded increased fees placed on the country’s public healthcare system, fees that have priced an increasing number of Portuguese out of those services amid widespread wage cuts. In Spain and the United Kingdom, right-wing governments have taken upon themselves the task of gutting their healthcare systems. The Spanish People’s Party is initiating a nationwide program to cut healthcare spending and subsidies for the elderly in need of medical care. In Britain, the Tories are slashing staff levels in the country’s National Health Service.
This assault upon public healthcare in Europe places the continent on a trajectory toward the model currently maintained by the United States. Whether it’s the United Kingdom, Portugal, Greece or Spain, weakening public healthcare sets the stage for such services to be filled by the private sector. With the British National Health Service facing significant reductions in staffing, users of this health service will rightfully complain about its reduced quality. To this, the free-market fundamentalists in British government will provide a false cure in the form of privatizations.
The sad irony is that in this age of austerity and proverbial belt-tightening, Europe is in the process of shedding the relatively inexpensive public healthcare model for the overpriced American model. The United States overspends on healthcare by 40%, 85% of this overspending is linked to the private insurance system the country has opted for. This figure shouldn’t surprise with private insurance companies posting profits in the billions, none of these profits charged by civil servants in Europe who merely demand a living wage and a respectable pension.
But this profit extracted out of America’s failing healthcare system is the very motivation to slowly creep the U.S. model into Europe. With intact public healthcare systems in Europe, these crucial social services are closed off to exploitation by the market. Dismantle them and suddenly a public good becomes a commodity vulnerable to market speculation and record profits. But it’s difficult for right-wing politicians in Europe to dismantle public healthcare systems that have serviced the public for decades. These systems must first be reduced at their foundation, at their quality of service before the whole structure can be brought down in favor of a for-profit structure.
Those who cherish their public healthcare systems in Europe must not allow themselves to be reduced to inaction by claims that the reforms are modest. True reform would entail the improvement of service, a feat hardly achieved with less nurses, doctors and stocked facilities. Instead, the drive in Europe is to leave public healthcare deformed and mutilated. At this moment, it is the public healthcare model that is in the emergency room. In has already suffered repeated wounds from austerity wielding politicians. If left any longer in their hands, there is little chance universal healthcare can avoid the morgue.