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Costly ‘affordable’ health care

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John Stossel is right. Last week he wrote that the "Healthy Wisconsin" scheme, passed in that state's Senate and offering supposedly "free" socialized health care, is good for America because people apparently need bad examples. As Mr. Stossel says, "We need laboratories of failure to demonstrate what socialism is like. All we have now is Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, the U.S. Post Office, and state motor-vehicle departments. It's not enough. Wisconsin can show the other 49 states what 'universal' [health] coverage is like. I feel bad for the people in Wisconsin... but it's better to experiment with one state than all of America."

More bad examples can be found in Europe. When the topic of health care crops up I always think of my grandfather. He was very old — 91— when he died. In his family, longevity was not uncommon. My grandfather had never been ill. He had never needed medical treatment. Upon reaching his 90s, however, he began to have a prostate problem and had to go to the hospital for surgery. Like all Belgians, throughout his professional life my grandfather had paid wage-related contributions to cover health insurance. As he had never needed much health care, he had been a net contributor to the system. Now was the very first time he was going to claim something back.

My grandfather had his operation in May. In November he was dead. The prostate operation had gone well, but the hospital administered an antibiotic drug that caused complete deafness. Though there were other, but costlier, treatments possible, the hospital gave this drug to the old man. Hospital staff knew about the possible side effect, but it did not strike them as an unreasonable and unjust thing to do. A man who has already had 90 healthy years of his life surely has no right to complain about deafness when some people get more seriously ill or die at far younger ages.

When my grandfather left the hospital, he was completely deaf. But his prostate problem had been cured. According to the clinic, the prostate operation had been highly successful. As far as the Belgian health-care statistics were concerned, my grandfather's treatment raised the quality average. It also had been cheap. Statistics show that Belgium has a high quality of health care that is relatively cheap, available to all the country's inhabitants, and virtually free of charge for the patients. It is the kind of health care that Americans, looking for comparative statistics, would envy. My deaf grandfather, however, lost his will to live. Six months after the operation, he was dead.

His predicament is not unique. Certain medical treatments or drugs are no longer available to Europeans above a certain age. Studies of kidney dialysis, for example, show that more than a fifth of dialysis centers in Europe and almost half of those in England have refused to treat patients over 65 years of age.

My grandfather's deafness was the side effect of an antibiotic that was given to him because of budgetary constraints in a system providing "free" health care. More expensive drugs and treatments with fewer side effects are set aside for younger patients. Political authorities, claiming to be the guardians of solidarity in society, deem it less desirable for a young person to be deaf than for an old one. Hence my grandfather, after having paid heavy wage-related contributions as a young man to fulfill his solidarity with the sick and elderly, had to pay the price of deafness to fulfill his solidarity with the young.

In Europe, old people increasingly receive less care than young people do. In the United States, ironically, the situation is the reverse. Elderly Americans are entitled to universal health coverage via the Medicare program. In America, the bulk of government health-care expenditure goes to those over 65 years old, while in Europe most of the government money is spent on those under 65. If European governments continue this policy, soon euthanasia will be the price that the solidarity principle of the European welfare states imposes on the very old and the very sick. European doctors have already warned about "economic euthanasia."

If Americans need bad examples in order to know what to avoid, then Europe is a good place to learn from. America has now lost one of its states to socialism. In Wisconsin there will soon be grandfathers sharing the fate of my granddad.

Paul Belien is editor of the Brussels Journal and an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute.

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