Commenting on an article on reddit.com, I recently got into an argument with someone about healthcare and more specifically the role of private healthcare. The article was this NY times piece that talks about how US hospitals provide a range of benefits for wealthier ‘clients’ (at significant additional cost of course). These benefits can be anything from nicer rooms to gourmet food and access to business centers.
My first reaction to the piece was, what I expect, the desired response – indignation. In a country like the US where there are countless healthcare horror stories (the story of a carpenter having to choose which fingers to reattach as covered in Sicko is particularly famous), this seems outrageous. How can some people not afford access to healthcare at all, and yet others are paying huge sums to stay in private rooms and eat soft cheeses?
I believe in my case, this sense of indignation was particularly strong because I come from one of the many non-US developed countries in the world with a basic but functioning universal healthcare system. No one avoids going to hospital for fear of being bankrupted by the cost. No one has to make horrible decisions about which appendages to reattach. The only major drawback in most universal healthcare systems is procedures that are non-life threatening can have significant wait times.
A good example of this is getting surgery to repair an ACL. You can get it done through the public health system (Medicare in Australia), free of charge – or close to free. However, because you are not going to die from a ruptured ACL, you are likely to have to wait for 1-2 years to get that surgery done through Medicare. If, on the other hand, you have something like $5,000-$10,000 you can have it done next week.
As you may have observed from this example though, this sounds very close to what I was getting all indignant about in the first place – wealthy people buying access to better healthcare. In fact, in most universal healthcare systems, including Australia’s, the wealthy do have the option to pay more to receive access to better care and/or skip to the front of the queue. In reality, the NY Times article could easily have been talking about Australian hospitals. What is more, the ability of richer patients to pay for better service is often viewed as necessary for the system in Australia – the extra money paid by wealthy patients helps to fund the system for others. So why does it feel different?
After several days of mentally dissecting this issue I think I have come to a conclusion as to why the NY Times story got such a reaction out of me and yet I had a generally positive impression of the private health system in Australia. The key difference (at least in my mind) is the extent of the privatization of the healthcare system. In the US, healthcare has been privatized to such an extent that some people have been priced out of the market completely. When this is contrasted with the opposite end of the spectrum – private rooms, nicer robes, lobster stuffed with tacos – it highlights that the problem with the system is not an overall lack of resources, but that those resources are being allocated in such a way that some people do not get access.
Contrast this to the existence of private health systems in countries with universal healthcare. Even though some patients are able to access better facilities (and potentially doctors), everyone has access to a (generally) good level of healthcare, regardless of wealth or insurance policy. Because of this, the fact that some people can pay extra for nicer rooms seems much less important. The system has enough resources for everyone – so it is not perceived as resources being taken from poorer patients.
However, it is worth asking the question of whether this is right or simply a convenient piece of logic.
To assess the morality of the wealthy having the ability to purchase better healthcare services, we have to recognize the two main constraints on a healthcare system. The first constraint is the supply of personnel, equipment and medical supplies. The second constraint is the supply of money. These constraints are not unrelated. An endless supply of money will not help if there is a shortage in equipment/personnel at a given point in time. But money can help to increase the supply of these things in the future.
If we accept the premise that wealthy patients benefit healthcare systems by adding additional money into the system, going back to the constraints above, we can see that essentially this is a short term sacrifice for a longer term gain. Assuming that the demand for healthcare will always exceed supply, wealthy patients skipping to the front of the queue will take resources away from poorer patients in the present. They occupy beds, take time away from doctors and require access to equipment just like any other patient. However, they also pay money into the system that allows future patients to access treatment they might not otherwise have had access to.
Here is where it gets a bit murkier. If we are saying that payments from wealthy patients are needed for the system to function in the future, are we not then implying that the system is underfunded? Why can that money not come from other sources such as higher tax rates or lower spending in other areas of the budget? The problem with that line of thinking is that in any realistic government budget, there will always be room for additional healthcare funding. No government is ever likely to fund a healthcare system to the point that everyone gets the best possible treatment instantaneously. So even in a much better funded public health system than currently exists in most countries, additional funds provided by wealthy patients will still allow for better treatment of other patients in the future.
All this does not mean we have to like the US model of healthcare where money plays far too big a role for the comfort of many. Denying patient access to healthcare (or bankrupting them for emergency care) in a modern developed country is a deplorable situation. But my overall conclusion is that it is best to focus your indignation on the real issues with the system – the excessive insurance premiums, the tying of affordable insurance to employment, the huge markups charged by many hospitals and the unnecessary expensive treatments added to patients bills.
As outrageous as it seems to picture wealthy patients receiving lavish treatment in private rooms while others are avoiding necessary treatment for fear of the cost, it is not the real issue. In fact it is probably providing a net benefit in a deeply flawed system.
 Those that know me will find this very unsurprising
 This cost, it should be noted, is still a fraction of the $55,000+ my health insurance company paid for that procedure in the US.
 If that was the case, you would also have idle resources for much of the year