Smear Britannia: Conservatives open a new front on health care

In their effort to destroy health-care reform in the U.S., conservatives have been heaping lies upon government-run health care in the U.K. Britons would never surrender their National Health System. Once Democrats pass reform here, Americans won

"Over there, over there

Send the word send the word over there

That the Yanks are coming"

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In 1917, as the U.S. entered World War I, George M. Cohan’s words were greeted in Britain as salvific. This time, it’s not the Yanks who are coming, but the Right’s political smears, which now foul the public square over there as well as here. Opening an Atlantic front in their summer campaign of lies, conservative opponents of health-care reform have targeted the British National Health Service as a care-denying, euthanizing, broken-down caricature of "socialized medicine"—a portrait that bears no resemblance to reality or to President Obama’s far more limited proposal for reform.

One comically inept outburst appeared, predictably, in Investor’s Business Daily, which last year manifested its shameless bias and staggering stupidity in writing that "the core of [Barack Obama’s] faith—whether lapsed Muslim, new Christian or some mixture of the two—is African nativism".

This time, IBD's editorial page alleged that the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, confined for life to a wheel chair, "wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless."

The Columbia Journalism Review denounced this "sick, dishonest stuff," as did Hawking himself, a life-long Briton, who noted: "I wouldn’t be alive today without the NHS." (Rather than print a correction, the paper slinked away from its idiocy with this craven half-retraction instead.)

For unadulterated obscenity, however, it’s tough to beat the suggestion of Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley—one of the "reasonable" Republicans allegedly negotiating reform in good faith—that due to his colleague Ted Kennedy’s age, Kennedy would not be given treatment for his brain tumor in countries with "government-run health" like the U.K. It’s bad enough to exploit the illness of the leading champion of health reform to assail that cause. It’s even worse when, as Kennedy has said, the purpose of his—and Obama’s—reform is not to ration care, but "to ensure that someday, when there is a cure for the disease I now have, no American who needs it will be denied it."

Undeterred by facts, the disinformers have taken their fraudulent assault to the airwaves. The oxymoronic Conservatives for Patients' Rights, working with the PR firm that marketed the Swift Boat libels against John Kerry in 2004, have produced a series of fear-mongering TV ads about the British health system. One of them asserts: "If you have cancer in the U.K. you are going to die quicker than in any other country in Europe." The claim is based on flawed data; international trials show British cancer patients do just as well as those in other countries. A British woman who appears in the ads says she was duped into participating. She’s not in favor of dismantling the NHS, she says, but of providing it with more resources.

The deception shouldn’t be surprising. The founder of Conservatives for Patients' Rights is Rick Scott, a man the media too often fails to identify as the former CEO of Columbia Hospital Corporation, a giant HMO. He was forced to resign after FBI agents raided the company, which subsequently paid a $1.7 billion fine—the highest in history— for Medicare fraud. Rick Scott is for patients’ rights like Dick Cheney is for open government.

The mounting falsehoods have annoyed the British. When they launched a "We love the NHS" campaign on Twitter on Aug. 12, it was the most talked about topic on the service and has stayed near the top ever since. What had finally set the British tweeting were attacks on the NHS from one of their own, Daniel Hannan, a Conservative elected to the European Parliament who’s become something of a fixture on (surprise!) Fox News, where he toes the network’s anti-health-reform line.

Hannan was rebuked as "eccentric" by the embarrassed Conservative Leader, David Cameron, who insisted that he himself was "100 percent behind the NHS." The last thing Cameron wants is to revive the impression that Conservatives are hostile to the NHS, an attitude that has doomed the party in past elections.

The British aren’t indignantly championing a system that neglects their needs. As their Department of Health noted, life expectancy in England is a year longer than in the United States and mortality among children from birth to age five is a third lower. In a 2007 survey of health care in five advanced nations—Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Britain, and the United States—the U.S. ranked last. Yet every one of the other countries spends less than we do per capita on health care—in Britain about half as much.

The British would never willingly surrender their NHS. Nor will Americans retreat on health care once reform survives the current perils and passes into law. When families see that their care isn’t rationed and that their coverage can’t be canceled; when costs are brought down; when seniors find that their Medicare is not only safe but strengthened, then the fear-mongers will be punished at the polls. By 2016 at the latest, Republican candidates will be pledging, much like their conservative counterparts in the U.K., not to undermine national health coverage.

Of course, we won’t have a system like the NHS, no matter how relentlessly conservative critics may invoke it. We won’t even get the system Obama first proposed. Instead, we’ll likely end up with a compromise—provided it’s not defeated by a self-righteous reaction from the Left. In the end, I don’t believe it will be. As Sen. Kennedy has argued, the plan can be improved in the years ahead. Bill Clinton agrees: "We need to pass a bill and move this thing forward," he said.

Amid the torrent of falsehoods and the tumult of town halls, there came a twittering of truth from across the Atlantic. The Brits fought back over there. Once Barack Obama and the Democrats win their fight over here—and they will have to fight very hard—our system will still be different from Britain’s. But finally, Americans, too, will have a health-care system we can be proud of.

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