Was Charlie Gard’s healthcare really free for his parents Christopher Gard and Constance Yates?

Whether you support or oppose Obamacare, few would dispute that at least some changes are needed.  Many conservatives would like to repeal and replace it with a more free-market-oriented system.  Many liberals, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, would like to move to a single-payer or completely government-run healthcare system.

“Free” healthcare for all sounds great, right?  But before we jump on board, we should take a look at those healthcare entities that are currently government run to see how we might fare under such a system.

One of the most well-known government-run healthcare systems is Great Britain’s National Health Service.  The most recent internationally known patient of the NHS was Charlie Gard.  Charlie was born with a rare genetic disease, mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome.  The London hospital caring for Charlie determined that no further treatment would help him and that his life support should be turned off.  His parents wanted to take him to the United States to try an experimental treatment at Columbia University.  But the London hospital said no, and the British courts backed the hospital’s decision.  Even if the courts had decided in favor of the parents, the doctors at Columbia University determined it would have been too late for the experimental treatment to help by the time the case made it all the way through the Court of Appeals, the British Supreme Court, and the European Court of Human Rights.  The final wishes of Charlie’s parents — to allow Charlie to die at home so they could spend a few more days with their son before his life support was removed — were also denied by the British system.

Whether you believe Charlie Gard’s parents should have been able to take their son to another hospital in another country for experimental treatment or you believe ending Charlie’s life was in his best interest, you cannot deny that the decision on what to do for Charlie Gard was made entirely by the British healthcare system, with little to no input from his parents.  That is what happens when your “free” healthcare is provided by the government.  The government is paying the bills, so the government is also making your healthcare decisions.

Sweden is another country with a largely government-run healthcare system.  It’s also a country presidential candidate Bernie Sanders often held up, along with other Scandinavian countries, as a model for the United States to follow.  Zach Maher, a freelance writer and former staff member of the New York Review of Books, wrote a recent article for The Wall Street Journal about his niece’s experience with the Swedish healthcare system.  “Six months ago, my two-year-old niece broke her leg.  The physician who treated the girl told my brother-in-law that his daughter would be given a full-body CT scan.  The doctor insisted that the procedure was mandatory, but not for any medical reason.  Rather, the Swedish social-services administration requires such scans to look for evidence of child abuse.  While the doctor did note that the broken leg was the result of an accident, he told my brother-in-law the matter was ‘out of [his] hands.’”

The family refused to submit the child to the scan, citing the medical risks of exposing the two-year-old to anesthesia and radiation.  Instead of understanding their concerns, the Swedish government bureaucracy investigated the parents as suspected child abusers, inspecting their home, interviewing them multiple times, and interviewing their friends and neighbors.  Ultimately, Swedish social services found no grounds to continue the investigation, but not without first scaring the parents into believing their children might be removed from their home, simply for trying to protect their daughter from medically unnecessary tests.  This incident also highlights the fact that the doctor had no discretion to determine whether he felt the parents should be suspected of abusing their child.  In fact, the doctor had declared it was an accident.  But an injury to a child, no matter the cause, requires the healthcare system in Sweden to default to the belief that the parents are guilty of child abuse until proven innocent.

Finally, we should look at the government-run healthcare system that already exists here in the United States: the Veterans Affairs medical system.  The VA’s inefficiencies and long wait times for appointments have been well documented in the last few years.  In 2014, the Veterans Choice and Accountability Act was adopted to try to improve the system, providing an additional $16 billion, including $2.5 billion to hire more doctors, nurses, and other staff.  But an investigation by National Public Radio found “The VA has about the same number of new hires as the VA would have been projected to hire without the additional $2.5 billion; the new hires weren’t sent to VA hospitals with the longest wait times; and the VA medical centers that got new hires were not more likely to see improved wait times.”

“Free” healthcare may sound enticing. But remember that with “free” government-run healthcare, the government is paying the bills, so the government is also making healthcare decisions for you and your family.  The government may be making decisions for your doctor as well, in some cases.  And finally, the one government-run healthcare system we do have now in the United States — the VA — is certainly not one that should be replicated for all in its current state.

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