Europeans Refuse to Understand American Health Care System

Published December 1, 2007

This autumn in Rome, I debated Italian politicians on national radio, tried to explain our health system to government and industry leaders in Italy, and spoke at a conference at the Vatican about the fundamental values of health care and the common good.

Some takeaways: Europeans truly believe we have a permanent underclass in the United States of 47 million poor citizens who have absolutely no access to health care. They are shocked at how barbaric we are and that any civilized country would tolerate such a thing.

When I tried to explain the facts–through a translator–to an Italian senator on RAI radio, he was incensed.

Hostile Interview

He didn’t want to hear that the percentage of our gross domestic product we spend on public health care–which covers about one-third of our people–equals or exceeds the GDP percentage many European countries spend in total on health care. Or that almost half of our more than $2 trillion in health expenditures are made primarily through these public programs that cover the poor, the aged, the disabled, veterans, and lower-income children.

Nor did he want to hear that many of our uninsured are just temporarily without coverage in a system that ties health insurance to the workplace. Or that the uninsured do get care–albeit in a far-from-ideal system–through hospitals, private physicians, community health centers, charity clinics, and other means. Or that Americans value private coverage, with its broader access to new technologies and medicines and faster access to surgeries and treatments.

It seemed almost as if he wanted people to believe there is nothing at all to be learned from Americans, so as not to crack the veneer of socialized systems.

Common Good

An excellent free-market Italian think tank, the Istituto Bruno Leoni, and its dynamic leaders, Alberto Mingardi and Carlo Stagnaro, arranged the radio interview and a luncheon with government and industry leaders to provide more detail on how the U.S. system works.

Hearing the details of our complex network of private and public programs, and that the uninsured cannot be denied care at hospitals, was news to almost everyone there, who were convinced that Michael Moore was telling the whole truth in his Sicko movie.

The main reason for my trip to Rome was to speak at a conference sponsored by the Michigan-based Acton Institute and the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Health Care at the Pontifical Gregorian University, titled “Health, Technology, and the Common Good.”

I said the common good is achieved when individuals are treated as responsible beings in a moral society that “embraces the truth about the transcendent origin and destiny of the human person,” quoting the Acton Institute’s mission statement. This responsibility extends to our families and communities.

State Takeover

The state purports to assume this role in providing for the common good, but it violates the principle of subsidiarity–the common-sense idea that government should not usurp the proper functions of the individual, the family, and, in the case of medicine, the doctor-patient relationship.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his recent encyclical Deus Caritas Est, “We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principles of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.”

In a state-controlled system, individual responsibility in using health care resources most efficiently is replaced by rationing by the state.

Unique Challenges

Every country’s health care system is unique, and each has its own challenges in moving to an approach that respects and supports the sanctity of the individual. While the United States has many problems, which I described, I believe it is further along this path in supporting individual freedom and rights over health care decisions and destiny than Europe is.

The Acton Institute, its president Fr. Robert Sirico, and the Rome and U.S. Acton teams deserve credit for producing this important conference.

Grace-Marie Turner ([email protected]) is president of the Galen Institute, a think tank based in Alexandria, Virginia.