Just under two years ago, I left my beloved Georgetown to spend a year studying at the London School of Economics. I immersed myself in local culture whenever I could, drinking tea instead of coffee and hitting the pub for the conclusion of any activity whatsoever. But during my nine months in Britain, I also got to try something most temporary residents don't get to experience: the full range of the British health care system. Ambulances, hospitals, and doctors visits. Like a dinner buffet, I sampled the full offerings of the National Health Service. At times, I felt like an anonymous patient, a product on an assembly line. I'd show up for my appointment, my name would appear on a scrolling ticker, and I'd head into Exam Room #3. Eight minutes later, I'd emerge with some sort of prescription having convinced the doctor that "inhaling steam and menthol" would not cure my 3-week cold. I was a little resentful, but it was difficult to hold the grudge when my prescription cost only $7.
A few months later, I revisited the NHS. After eating a Salmonella-laced kebab in Amsterdam and a healthy incubation period of a week or so, I... exhibited symptoms of illness. I toughed it out for a few days, ceased eating and drinking, and contemplated my own death in a foreign country (dramatic, I know). I visited the NHS website and read through the FAQs: "How do I know if I need to visit the emergency room? Still not sure? Call this number." I called the number. I went to the emergency room.
I prepared myself for hours of waiting and came prepared with necessary distractions: a book, my Ipod, my lap top, and a toothbrush. But they went to waste. I was seen almost immediately and swept away to a back room where I was attended to by a young Irish doctor whom, in my delirium, I immediately developed a crush on. Without the hoopla of insurance paperwork, they took my blood right away and even came back for a second test. In two hours, I was done and cabbing my way back home feeling assured that I would live for a bit longer.
I had some negative experiences with health care in Britain, but on the whole, I am so thankful for the care I received when I needed it most (I won't even touch on the ambulance incident). The anxiety of "how will I pay" never entered my mind. This beats the fear that resonates in so many Americans when they consider their own health care, or lack thereof.
Britain's NHS isn't perfect, but with all it's flaws, it's a better service than offered in the U.S. (of course, with the option of private). Sarah Lyall expresses my sentiment more completely in her article from The New York Times "Health Care in Britain: Expat Goes for a Checkup."
To opponents of forms of socialized health care, I'll say this: I've never met a poor (or moderately poor) Libertarian.
Further interesting reading on health care: "Health Care's Generation Gap" by Richard Dooling.