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Health Squeeze: UK’s free health care under threat
In Britain, everyone is entitled to free emergency treatment, including foreigners. Registering with a local doctor requires only proof of identification and residency; no insurance cards, paperwork or bills are needed.
In England, patients are charged a 7.40 pound ($12) prescription fee which covers whatever medicines doctors prescribe, including those for blood pressure, cholesterol, and birth control. Such fees are waived for more than 50 percent of people who need prescriptions, as exemptions cover children, students, pregnant women, the elderly and patients with disabilities or chronic conditions like diabetes or epilepsy.
People on low incomes or who are unemployed are also exempt from the charges, so no one goes bankrupt paying medical bills.
Across Europe, health budgets are coming under pressure from the new age of austerity.
In Spain, the Catalan government introduced a 10 percent budget cut earlier this year, which meant closing or reducing the opening times of 100 outpatient centers. Increased health charges in Italy are now being passed along to patients, who must pay an extra 10 euros ($13) for a medical consultation and another 25 euros ($33) for non-emergency hospital treatment. French officials are cutting some reimbursements for health services and raising taxes on cigarettes and soda to bring in more revenue.
According to the OECD, Britain spends about $3,487 per person on health. That’s far less than the U.S., which spends $7,960, and Norway, which spends $5,352, making it the country that spends the most in Europe.
In crisis-hit Europe, Britain’s healthcare system is suffering some of the most dramatic cuts, raising questions about the sustainability of socialized medicine.
Many doctors warn Britain’s new cost-cutting measures will force stretched hospitals too far.
A report in October from Britain’s health regulator found 20 percent of hospitals are breaking the law by failing to provide minimum standards of care to elderly patients.
Officials on unannounced visits found patients shouting or banging on bedrails to get a nurse’s attention. Some struggled to eat without assistance. At one hospital, inspectors found some patients hadn’t been given water in more than 10 hours.
Another health watchdog accused hospitals of imposing minimum waiting times on patients for elective surgeries, suggesting officials hoped to cut costs as people either decided to pay for private treatment or died on the waiting list.
Still, for basic services like a doctor’s appointment, most family doctors offer same-day services for patients requesting urgent care or non-urgent visits within 10 days. Britain has also made an effort to improve its cancer care and largely upheld its target of getting patients fast treatment, such as breast cancer surgery, within two to four weeks of being diagnosed.
Other goals are proving tougher. People needing non-emergency procedures for cataracts, hip replacements and hernias are supposed to begin treatment within 18 weeks of being referred to specialists by their family doctor. Patient advocates say that while most people are being referred for treatment within that period, an increasing number are facing longer delays.
Sheep farmer Evans said he never considered going for private care since he couldn’t afford it.
“The problem is there will be many more people like me who are suffering and are now being forced to wait quite a long time,” he said.
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