Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

U.S. shutdown over public health care! Really?

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BRISBANE -- Like the rest of the western world, Australia spent much of the week staring gape-mouthed at America, wondering as we went to bed Wednesday if one of the world's wealthiest nations would welch on its debts.

By Thursday morning, we and the Sydney stock market were greatly cheered by the agreement to raise the debt ceiling beyond $16.7 trillion.

It didn't escape the notice of many ordinary Australians that the reason America was prepared to shut down the government, send hundreds of thousands of civil servants home and threaten to send western economies deeper into the arms of the global financial crisis is that millions of Americans don't like the idea of a strong public health system.

Why they don't is a question only they can answer, and few Australians would question the wisdom of a people who created one of the globe's most successful democracies, which has shaped much of the 20th century.

But we still greet with genuine puzzlement those horror stories of ordinary working Americans left bankrupt after falling ill, wondering if they are more urban myth than ugly reality.

For if you suffer a serious illness in Australia, the nation effectively gathers around your bed and whispers: "Don't worry about the money, you just concentrate on getting better.''

We are a nation embracing the free market with arguably more fervour than America. We've recently elected a centre-right federal government. Small government and limited intervention in the lives of the individual is the mantra of most of our state governments.

But when it comes to the public health system, to use a local expression, "we don't muck around.''

Everyone chips in and few complain about the need to. And, yes, it is not a perfect system. Waiting lists for non-urgent surgical procedures can be long and few could stomach the madness of a "base hospital" emergency room on a Saturday night, where injured (often drunk) youths wait hours for treatment. And it's true this collectivist approach to public health costs the nation a fortune.

When the modern system kicked off in 1975, ushered in by a left-leaning Labor government, it was quickly apparent what a financial burden the taxpayer was saddled with.

More than 3,500 government staff suddenly appeared and more than 80 offices opened as this massive government intrusion into private lives lumbered into life.

Today, most Australians pay to fuel the beast, which grows ever more hungry as the population ages.

Public health works hand in hand with a private system and millions of Australians elect to take private health insurance to ensure a room in a private hospital and a doctor of their choice.

But our public system, compared with any other nation on Earth, is superb.

Even Australians who would bitterly contest that assertion follow a golden rule when holidaying overseas -- "when in pain, get on a plane.''

Fall ill in a foreign country and you will instinctively follow parental instructions to commandeer the nearest plane, train or automobile with one instruction -- "take me to the great southern land.''

My brother, diagnosed with cancer in January 2010 while working in southeast Asia, was on a Boeing 747 within 24 hours of receiving the grim news.

While cancer eventually beat him in November 2011, he often marvelled at the level of care provided by the state, to the point of wondering why anyone bothered with private health coverage.

From home visits by palliative-care teams to offers of grief counselling, the nation willingly picked up much of the tab while he struggled manfully to beat off a vicious attacker.

Ideologies, capitalist or socialist, have a wondrous capacity to melt into irrelevance when you're eyeball to eyeball with the grim reaper. Allowing the state to wave a bill in the face of a person who lies dying is an obscenity no civilized country should allow.


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.



Obama is talking nonpartisanship but he's going to use the shutdown as a weapon, William Saletan writes at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2013 A13

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