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Editor’s View: ‘Free’ – at the point of what, exactly?

Politicians of all persuasions are happy to splash the cash on the NHS - but that sham is over
Health Insurance & Protection Editor David Sawers

Strange word, isn’t it? “Free”. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

But it isn’t.

Not when it comes to healthcare in any case. In the UK, healthcare is free “at the point of use” (or abuse/over-use/mis-use).

“Free” sounds cuddly, life-enhancing and, well, just brilliant.

But it isn’t.

And as we muddle through to a mid-December General Election, we’ll find out – yet again – why that’s the case.

There will be the inevitable NHS “winter crisis”, which means that old folk will have to wait for hours and hours at A&E after slipping on ice, probably waiting for that crutch that nobody wanted to take back when I had to use it and that I had little choice but to leave, sadly, at a bus stop in Camberwell, South London.

But there is an election on the way and politicians of all stripes are chucking money – not theirs, but ours – around with little meaningful purpose.

Simply tax-grabbing and splurging on “free” public services – healthcare, transport, education – is the bedrock of modern politics.

However, it’s not just that; it’s arrogant and it’s grabby.

Back-of-a-fag-packet “free broadband for all”, “free” social care and “free” education pronouncements are reckless.

From Labour, last week, it was a promise of “free” broadband for all. Last month, the party pledged “free” personal care for all, while this week it’s “free” dental check-ups for all.

That’s all on top of Labour’s existing pledge to introduce a “National Education System” that would, yes of course it would, be “free” for all.

Here isn’t the place to have undergraduate debates over the impossibility of “freedom” in a proposed command-and-control economy and it has all been pre-manifesto stuff, of course.

But the splurging on public services – including healthcare – being promised by all political parties smacks of desperation and inevitable future U-turns. Remember the LibDem spectacular car crash over university fees?

As politicians of all persuasions try to outbid each other by pledging more and more money to a healthcare system which is ancient – noble in principle, yes – but creaking at the seams, perfectly healthy blokes are wandering around in hospitals, trying to give crutches back to bemused admin staff while folk that need certain drugs aren’t “allowed” them because of financial constraints.

That isn’t “free” healthcare. That’s rationed healthcare.

Rationing is fine; of course it is. There isn’t an endless supply of dosh for everything.

But as December’s General Election looms, there are lots of promises of jam tomorrow, from all sides.

When it comes to healthcare funding, “mine is bigger than yours” doesn’t really quite cut it. Especially when it fails to rise to the occasion.

The system is broken. Chucking money at it just makes it fatter.

So how to disrupt a British electorate, bombarded with adulatory NHS messaging through Olympics opening ceremonies to mainstream TV drama and news? It’s impossible, perhaps.

Surely, though, the great British electorate could be persuaded that this isn’t the only way of doing things. Can’t they see that the US isn’t the only model to copy? Why not look at other models of healthcare delivery? What about co-payments? Or shared responsibility?

What about Canada? Or Qatar? Or The Netherlands? Or Norway?

They’re hardly pre-historic when it comes to healthcare. In many ways, they’ve got it sussed.

But in some ways, the UK is defiantly stuck in the mud.

There is less than a month to go until the General Election and both major political parties will say they are “the party of the NHS”.

Sadder still, they’ll also try to outspend each other with money that isn’t theirs, wasting it on a system that is broken and that most developed nations regard as simply, well, more strange than it is “free”.