Sicko 2: The Destruction of Britain’s Health Service

Lying back in a hospital ward, the procedure done and successful, a cup of tea going down nicely with the last of the morphine, you are a spectator to the best. By the best, I mean a glimpse of society with none of the dogmatic histrionics of a media and political class determined to change the way we think. That is the worst. By the best I mean, unforgettably, the spectacle of the miners of Murton, County Durham, emerging from the mist of a cold March morning, with the women marching first, going back to the pit. No matter their defeat by superior forces, they were the best.

In a hospital ward, the best is more likely mundane, with people working routinely, listening, responding, reassuring. Their vocabulary is not corporate-speak. Their “productivity” is not a device of profit. Their commitment has no bottom line, and their camaraderie is like a presence; and you become part of it. The common thread is humanity and caring. How exotic that sounds. Turn on the ward’s television and there is a weird otherworld of “news”, with famous dullards spinning the latest destruction of society.

There is the mad Blair calling for an attack on Iran and the education secretary Ed Balls peddling his dodgy diplomas, and prime minister Gordon Brown, fresh from entertaining Rupert Murdoch and Alan Greenspan, announcing his “return of liberty” along with his latest “reforms” that are malignancies on the one institution that embodies liberty in Britain: the National Health Service. None of them has the slightest connection with the people running my ward. The divide in modern Britain is between a society represented by those who keep the Health Service going, and its mutation epitomized by Blair’s and Brown’s Labour government.

In Michael Moore’s SiCKO, the socialist Tony Benn predicts a revolution in Britain if the NHS is abolished. But Britain’s Health Service is being destroyed by attrition, and if the latest “reforms” are not stopped, it will be too late to erect barricades. On 5 October, the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, approved a list of fourteen companies that will advise on and take over the “commissioning” of NHS services. They will be given influence, if not eventually control, over which treatments patients receive and who provides them. They are assured multimillions in profits.

They include the US companies UnitedHealth, Aetna and Humana. These totalitarian organizations have been repeatedly fined for their notorious role in the American health-care system. Last year, UnitedHealth’s chief executive, William McGuire, who was paid $125m a year, resigned following a share-option scandal. In September, the company agreed to pay out $20m in fines “for failures in processing claims and responding to patient complaints.” Aetna has had to pay $120m in damages after a California jury found it guilty of “malice, oppression and fraud.” In SiCKO, a medical reviewer for Humana is shown testifying to Congress that she caused the death of a man by denying him care in order to save the company money. Every year, some 18,000 Americans die because they are denied health care or they cannot afford it.

These companies are the Labour government’s friends. Simon Stevens, Blair’s former health policy adviser, is now a CEO at UnitedHealth. Julian Le Grand, writing in the Guardian as a distinguished professor, gives his learned approval to the “reforms” — he, too, was Blair’s adviser.

In Manchester, other “reforms” are well on the way to destroying NHS services for the mentally ill. William Scott committed suicide after losing the support of an NHS worker who had cared for him for eight years. What all this means is that the NHS is being softened up for privatization by stealth. This is the undeclared policy of the Brown government, whose rapacious actions abroad are mirrored at home. It was Brown as treasurer who promoted the disastrous “private finance initiative” as a device to build new hospitals, while handing huge profits to favored companies. As a result, the NHS is being bled by £700m a year. This has caused a wholly unnecessary “financial crisis” that is the catch-22 rationale for allowing more profiteers to take over what was a former Labour government’s greatest achievement. Will we allow them to get away with it?

John Pilger is an internationally renowned investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker. His latest film is The War on Democracy. His most recent book is Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire (2006). Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

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  1. Susan Rosenthal said on November 7th, 2007 at 4:28am #

    The Canadian medical system has also been handed, piece-by-piece, to private industry under the guise of “health-care reform.”

    In 1997, the government declared, “Promoting Canadian companies as global health-keepers is the main objective driving the strategies and plans of the government for the medical devices, pharmaceutical and health-services sector.”

    In a nation that boasts annual billion-dollar budget surpluses, the public medical system has been underfunded to the point of crisis, then denigrated for its inadequacies. The private sector is proclaimed the only possible savior, and opponents are ridiculed as old-fashioned and sentimental. When the market fails to deliver, the public is told to adapt to the new reality.

    To support this process, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that, “The Canada Health Act does not promise that any Canadian will receive funding for all medically required treatment.”

    Thousands of hospital nursing jobs have been eliminated at the same time that average hospital stays have been cut, so that fewer nurses care for much sicker patients.

    Families stagger under the burden of sick, injured and frail relatives who were previously cared for in hospital, rehabilitation and chronic-care facilities. In-home nursing care is scarce or pricey.

    The closure of hospital out-patient clinics has overburdened family doctors. By 2006, fewer than 10 percent of Ontario GPs were accepting new patients. a 2007 survey found that more than two million adult Canadians could not find a family doctor.

    In 2005, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that lack of timely access to treatment in Quebec was serious enough that the province could no longer prohibit private funding for medically necessary services. Similar legal challenges are expected in the other provinces, as private medical facilities are pushing for the “right” to service those who can pay to go to the front of the line.

    Ironically, while Americans long for a Canadian-style medical system, that system is disintegrating under the pressure of market forces.

    This material is taken from “Sick and Sicker: Two Models of Medical Rationing”