Opinion

Does universal healthcare make everyone's life better?

Kathy Lavidge argues that access to healthcare affects aspects of life far beyond the medical.


I have lived in England, which has universal healthcare, for 14 years, and I have become a firm believer in the benefits universal access to healthcare brings to all -- even those who do not need or intend to use it. 

In the UK, healthcare is a universal right: You will be treated the same way whether you are working for a corporation or are a self-employed dance teacher; whether you are retired, or have just been made redundant. In England, if you need healthcare, you get it -- at no cost. There are no forms to fill out and no insurance claims to file or fight over. If the ambulance is called, no one is going to ask to see your health insurance card before they put you in the vehicle, nor will they detour away from the closest hospital to find the one that takes “charity” cases.

In a nutshell, the primary benefit of universal healthcare is that it improves the quality of life for everyone. 

• No one in England remains in a job they absolutely hate because they are afraid of losing healthcare insurance for themselves or a family member.
• No one stays in a job because they have a “pre-existing” condition and know they will never be covered again. 
• No one has to worry about having to mortgage their house to pay the hospital, doctor, or pharmacy while they are waiting for repayment from the insurance company, which may never come.
• No one has to worry because they have a significant illness and their insurance company has told them they have reached the maximum payout under their policy.
• No one has to become frantic when an uninsured relative gets into an accident, and assets saved for a well-planned retirement are put at risk in order to assure care for the injured individual.
• No one has to fear a true accident occurring on their property and finding out that the lawyers plan to file a big lawsuit because the injured party does not have health insurance.
• No one worries that the last six months of their life will deplete their family’s savings, forcing them to choose whether or not to pay for treatments. 
• No one worries that parents too young to qualify for Medicare will become a financial burden if they become ill.
• No one has to decide that that lump can wait to be checked or that blood in their stool is not really “too serious” -- only to have it truly become too serious.
• No one is frantic when a child is born with a serious, but treatable, defect because there is no insurance to cover the hospitals and doctors.

In the United States today, it is a very lucky family, indeed, that could not relate to one of the possible fears listed above.

What does universal access to healthcare here in England do for me when it eliminates these anxieties? It makes my quality of life significantly more pleasant. One significant “edge” in life goes away. It just does not exist. Each person I come across, every day, whether in person, on the phone, or passing by me in his or her car, I know has access to healthcare. They know they have access to healthcare. And, the result is a better quality of life for me. How does that benefit me? It makes my everyday dealings with people more pleasant, less stressful. Life is fairer...and better. 

Today, in America, it feels like the population is divided in two. The division is not the Republicans and the Democrats. It is not the educated and the undereducated. It is not the wealthy and the poor. It is those with access to adequate healthcare and those without it. It generates a “haves and have nots” culture that is more profoundly felt than any ideological division.

Those without access to healthcare live with a level of fear about their futures that cannot even be fathomed by others. Everything is at risk if someone they love becomes seriously hurt or ill. Those without health insurance are America’s “second class” citizens, regardless of education, age, gender, race, or religious convictions. They are at the bottom of the totem pole, and they know it. 

Imagine taking away those levels of worry in the United States. Imagine knowing that the people who touch your life are going to be cared for: that great kid down the block who just graduated from State U and then finds out he has Hodgkin’s lymphoma; or that young man who mows your lawn, who accidentally gets a deep gouge in his leg when he empties the mower into the compost heap; or your daughter’s amazing piano teacher who says she is a little worried about a mole that has appeared on her back; or anyone in a world of wonderful, caring people, who today either cannot get or cannot afford healthcare. Life would just be better in that world. You would know that they, like you, are cared for and worthy of receiving care.

My husband and I are planning to return to live in the States in the next year. I am concerned that when I return I will run into the unpleasantness of the “haves and have nots” of healthcare. I don’t want to feel that every day someone whose life touches mine may be angry/fearful/scared/frustrated/petrified because they lack access to healthcare. 

I am not suggesting how to create universal healthcare access in the United States. That is for the policy experts to figure out. And I am not advocating providing universal discretionary services, such as cosmetic surgery, which do not maintain and save lives. I also acknowledge that America has the best healthcare in the world, for those who can afford it. And, I know the English system is not perfect. For example, it has long queues for non-urgent procedures, like knee replacements. My point is that these are issues of execution.

I am just trying to keep us focused on the real goal: access to healthcare for everyone. Why? Because it will make everyone’s life better.