Sick Right Here

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Colorado was all over the April 15 Frontline—not that the show was about Colorful Colorado, but our state had a lot to do with the program itself. Denverite T.R. Reid, who lists among his many credits a stint as the Denver Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, wrote and hosted this program, which itself was funded in part by the Colorado Health Foundation and the Colorado Trust. The episode, titled “Sick Around the World” looked at exactly that: what it means to need health care in other wealthy nations, and what the American health care system might learn from them.

This isn’t an easy sell to John Wayne boot-strap America, where so many people talk about a “nanny state” as though it was a ridiculous idea to take care of one another, or at least to have a government help us all accomplish that goal. One of the major points of Reid’s program is to point out how we’re failing ourselves—how we’re allowing corporate medicine to edge out the neediest among us, and destroying the financial well-being of families already facing major medical crises.

In “Sick Around the World,” Reid visits five nations who are more or less on the same socio-economic stage as America: Britain, Japan, Germany, Taiwan, and Switzerland. His point in doing so is that these places all make up the incomplete jigsaw puzzle that is American health care: that our workplace insurance is similar to Germany’s, that our medicare system closely resembles Taiwan’s, and so on. Reid also pointedly asks a representative of each of these nations the same question: “Has anyone in your country ever gone bankrupt due to a medical situation?” And the answers, all of them accompanied by a look of incredulity for even having to ask, is no. Of course not.

This is Reid’s message—that the nationalization of health care not only works in comparable countries globally, but works far better than does the American counterpart. Premiums are kept low (or, in the case of Britain, folded into the national tax); response time varies from workable (again, Britain) to excellent; and care itself, as measured by average lifespan and infant mortality, is still top-notch. Furthermore, these systems boast an approval rating from the public being served that makes American health care look a lot like the Bush administration. Failing, but too proud to change.

A specific strength of “Sick Around the World” is that T.R. Reid takes pains to not just laud these systems, but also to point out where they’re fallible. The British are shown protesting the surreptitious privatization of their long-held national health care system; German doctors speak out about the low wages they’re paid for their work; the two Asian nations are revealed to be running at a deficit (though even if fees were raised to address this, the program points out that the expenditure would remain less than half of American spending in terms of GDP). Reid isn’t suggesting we adopt these other systems, necessarily. Rather, as Taiwan did 20 years earlier, that America examine what’s working and what’s not in other systems, and make changes to our own to better serve the public at large.

Easier said than done, here in America. After all, this is a nation currently vilifying Barak Obama for daring to suggest that people can sometimes cling to the wrong things just because they’re familiar, to the exclusion of all else. So it’s good to see what it means to be “Sick Around the World” because its apparent that some Americans have their heads buried in the sand, and can’t—or won’t—see what it can be like to be sick right here at home. -- Teague Bohlen

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