If you didn’t hear about the social and medical catastrophe that occurred at Stafford Hospital, in the English Midlands—a disaster that claimed some 1,200 lives—then you must have been following the U.S. news media. The Stafford experience should be a nightmarish wake-up call for Americans, and a crushingly definitive argument in the nation’s debate over healthcare.
In 2008, an inquiry began at Stafford following horrendous charges of the abuse and neglect of patients. Victims were routinely left without food and water, becoming so desperate that some drank from flower vases. Dressings were not changed, nor wastes cleaned up. Patients regularly received the wrong medication, or none at all. I quote the Daily Telegraph’s Laura Donnelly: “[O]n the wards, patients—most of them elderly—were left in agony and screaming for pain relief, as their loved ones desperately begged for help.” If we compare the actual number of patient deaths at Stafford with what might have been expected in a properly functioning facility, we find a surplus of around 1,200 over several years. Nor was this a case of overwhelmed staff struggling heroically against crushing pressures. Doctors and, especially, nurses demonstrated an horrific callousness to the situations they were witnessing—or perpetrating.
After a lightning-fast emergency inquiry—which lasted a mere five years—a final report appeared in 2013, confirming most allegations.
There’s no reason to believe that the doctors or nurses of mid-Staffordshire were singularly evil or callous. Rather, their actions and inactions demonstrated the consequences of a national healthcare system. Such a system can never be adequately funded, as its demands will always be subject to rival political and bureaucratic interests. Resources are diverted to support administrative structures and bureaucratic bloat. For the burgeoning class of managers, the highest value is cost-cutting, while avoiding conflict with staff and unions.
In such a setting, patient care is severely rationed, as staff face ever more stressful situations, and at least some take out their grievances on patients. Cultures of violence and abuse first become commonplace, and then the norm: There are no rewards for behaving decently, and no penalties for acting like a monster. Any nurse or staff member inclined to blow the whistle on the accumulating horrors faces persecution or active violence. The only concern is meeting quotas, targets, and demands—for instance, over the time that patients spend in emergency rooms. The rest of the hospital can—pretty literally—go hang.
So dreadful things happened in Stafford. But why should that matter to me? Personally, I have no plans to visit England, ever, and if I did, and got sick, I would be sure to be airlifted out to an advanced country.
The problem is that Stafford is coming to us, in the form of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare. Whatever its goals—and let us, for the sake of argument, pretend that they were noble and well intentioned—the consequences will be disastrous. Within a decade or less, the new legal setup will so maim the private insurance industry that it can no longer operate, while private employers will abandon en masse the task of healthcare provision for their employees. Formally or otherwise, the government will have no alternative but to implement some kind of single-payer system, modeled on the triumphant glories of Britain’s National Health Service, the NHS.
Which gets us back to the question of news coverage. Back in 2007, the ineffable Michael Moore released his film Sicko, which was not, as the title might suggest, autobiographical. Rather, it was a blanket condemnation of the U.S. healthcare system, and an uncritical encomium of the rival approaches of Britain, France, and—no, seriously—Cuba. In each, we were told, nationalized healthcare systems work beautifully, fairly, and cheaply, and only the selfish greed of American doctors and insurance companies prevent that inconvenient truth from being publicized to struggling Americans.
Moore did not invent this rhetorical model, but it perfectly epitomized the ideological values underlying subsequent liberal campaigns. If you wanted some form of national healthcare system, then you highlighted and grossly exaggerated flaws in the American model, while ignoring the horrors of its rivals. To attack the NHS is to criticize idealism, egalitarianism, and, yes, core liberal values. The media certainly did not address anything like Stafford, except in passing. We will wait in vain for a movie of the week about this atrocity.
American media silence over Stafford was not a matter of conscious conspiracy; it reflected denial, a refusal to confront politically ruinous facts. In such a setting, editors and journalists reverted to simple blind faith. Yes, ObamaCare loves me: Michael Moore tells me so.