By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 13, 2009 9:56 AM
LONDON, Aug. 12 -- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy would be refused treatment for his brain tumor in England -- at least according to one of the allegations lobbed at Britain's state-funded health-care service recently by critics of President Obama's proposed health-care reforms. Such claims have irked British health officials, who say they are misleading, exaggerated and sometimes just plain wrong.
Complaining about Britain's National Health Service (NHS) is a popular pastime here. The waiting times for specialist treatment are too long, Britons say, or the risk of picking up an infection in an unclean hospital ward is too high. At the same time, they consider such griping their particular preserve. Indeed, it has been said that the National Health Service is the nearest thing the British have to a religion, which helps explain why outsiders pointing out flaws in the system is bound to ruffle feathers, especially if some of their assertions are far-fetched.
Hamish Meldrum, the chairman of the British Medical Association, said in a statement Wednesday that he has been dismayed by the "jaw-droppingly untruthful attacks" by some American critics.
One of the most surprising of these was the rumor -- given an airing by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and now its senior Republican member -- that Kennedy, 77, a Democrat from Massachusetts, would not receive treatment for his brain tumor if he were in England because he is too old.
"That's just wrong," a British Health Department spokesman said. "The NHS in England provides health services on the basis of clinical need, irrespective of age or ability to pay."
Zack Cooper, a researcher in health policy at the London School of Economics, agreed that the Kennedy claim was "nonsense," but said that "both countries have a tendency to look at worst aspects of each other." The fault-finding was a "two-way street," he said, and not always relevant.
Comparing the failings of the U.S. and British systems is like "comparing apples to oranges," Cooper said. "Very few people in the U.S. are vying for a national health-care service like they have here. Americans want to run the private system better. The problems in each are different."
But people compare them, anyway. In one recent U.S. advertising campaign, backed by the Club for Growth, a Washington-based fiscally conservative group, the number $22,750 flashes on the screen underneath two photos -- one of Big Ben and another of a woman lying in a hospital bed.
The voiceover says: "In England, government health officials decided that's how much six months of life is worth. Under their socialized system, if a medical treatment costs more, you're out of luck. That's wrong for America."
Those comments are "untrue or misinformed," said Andrew Dillon, chief executive of Britain's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, often called NICE, in a statement. NICE assesses the benefits of drugs and other treatments in relation to their costs, generally recommending a ratio of up to £30,000 or $49,605 per drug or treatment for every extra year of quality life anticipated. (Patients who have the money can buy more expensive drugs privately.)
"We don't put a limit on the amount the NHS can spend on an individual patient," Dillon said.
In an example of the National Health Service providing ammunition for Obama's critics, a video by Conservatives for Patients' Rights, a U.S. pressure group, features case studies of people who live in countries with publicly funded health care.
Kate Spall, a British woman featured in the video whose mother died of cancer after her treatment was delayed, said in an interview that she was "surprised to see my comments used for a political campaign."
She then added: "I still absolutely agree with a universal health-care system, yet as cancer patients, you want to be in America. I guess the devil is in the details."