Don’t exaggerate the flaws of the US health system for political points

The system of health care in the United States is a mess. It’s profit-driven, costly, damaging for patients, and sloppy. It’s why the president made a good faith effort at reforming access, even though the watered down form of access that eventually reached the public didn’t really address the quality of health care from the other side. I don’t fault individual providers for this — doctors, nurses, specialists, and the like are all trapped within the system. They’re trapped by profit-motivated hospitals, restricted under religious directives in Catholic facilities, and subject to numerous other things that interfere with their ability to focus on medicine and helping patients.

This is a huge problem. I feel extremely passionate about health care reform in the United States, as do many other people, but in the course of that, there’s one thing I’m not going to do: I’m not going to lie about the US health care system. I will freely discuss how terrible it is, but I’m not going to actively make things up in order to score political points. The same holds true, thankfully, of many health care reformers in the US, but I note that the same does not hold true abroad. I am constantly encountering stories that purport to be about the US health care system, but don’t actually bear any resemblance to the reality in the United States.

And this is getting extremely infuriating. Because you really don’t need to lie about or exaggerate the situation in the US in order to get a point across, whether it’s a call for better health care here or a warning about what happens when public health is eroded in other countries. I agree that nations with robust national health care systems would not enjoy becoming like the US, and would suffer greatly if they did — but there’s no need to scaremonger with extremist falsehoods in an attempt to terrify members of the voting and politically active public. We have enough real, legitimate problems on our own.

In some cases, it’s the shocked ‘I went to America and had a health problem and look what happened!‘ story that doesn’t actually resemble the overall state of health care in the United States, and in fact seems suspiciously like an exaggeration of a given situation. If you are in a life-threatening health care crisis, for example, public hospitals are legally obligated to treat you. You won’t actually be left to die in the street after a cycling accident, though yes, you will be hit with a horrific bill and a hospital will cut off services once you’re stabilised if it thinks you can’t or won’t pay it. Likewise, if your injury is not life-threatening, yes, you may have to demonstrate that you can pay out of pocket up front. So why not stick with the story of the actual bill and treatment, or talk about how messed up it is that you have to be on the verge of death to get emergent care if you’re uninsured and unable to pay, instead of lying about the nature of your care?

Or it’s the ‘prescriptions in America cost this much!‘ when in fact, even casual fact checking will identify that this is not the case. Even looking at the retail costs of some medications fingered for these kinds of pieces reveals that they’re outright lies. And believe me, those sticker prices are shocking enough; you don’t need to make up an even higher number to make a situation even worse, or to use weaseling to suggest that pricing is higher — for example, using the price on a three month supply of a drug and implying that this is how much it costs for a one month supply. Do people in the US pay an unconscionable amount on drugs, even when they have insurance? Of course they do! So let’s report on the actual facts instead of some made up scary number.

I see all sorts of ridiculous stories about the state of US health care in circulation, and they make me boil because they’re so patently false and so easily disproved. And that means that people who oppose health care reform or want to dismantle robust public health can get a foothold that will allow them to bolster their own points — ‘if the other side can’t be relied upon to accurately report something, why should you trust them?’ People see a cautionary poster about the perils of adopting a prescription drug system like that used in the United States, think that it’s scary, and then see it easily disproved thirty seconds later — and wonder how much other material provided by health campaigners is actually false as well.

It’s easy to make the United States out as a monster in lots of ways, and it’s a pretty terrible country in a lot of ways — I’m a patriot, not a nationalist, and I believe in the potential of the United States but by no means have any rose-coloured glasses when it comes to the huge problems in this country and the urgent need for reforms. The rest of the world has a lot of reasons to hate us, and numerous perfectly sound reasons for criticism, confusion, and outright mockery. Our health care system is a joke, and we should be talking about that, because if we don’t, we can’t reform it.

By the same token, though, lying about conditions in the United States just makes it easier for conservatives to attack you, because they seize upon the exaggeration and use it to discredit you. So please stop doing it. Because if it irks you when conservatives do (see: oogity boogity abortion propaganda), it should irk you when liberals do it too.

Image: Central DuPad Hospital Active Shooter Exercise, COD Newsroom, Flickr