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Oprah and Australia's 'socialist' health care


Oprah and ObamaOprah is here. With a US TV audience of seven million expected to tune in to discover our beauty rich and rare, what will Australia showcase? Should we highlight this country's external magnificence? Or could now be the time to really show off by exposing the US to our healthcare system?

Thanks to the strength of the Aussie dollar, many tourist operators are doing it tough; all they want for Christmas is for Oprah's visit to usher in a flood of big-spending Midwesterners. But possibly the greatest Christmas present we could give America would be a broken leg or burst appendix for Oprah.

If she — friend of President Obama and host of the highest-rated talk show in US history — were to find herself a customer on the doorstep of Australia's excellent and equitable healthcare system, America's best-known mouth might go home peddling a message that could change the foundations of her society.

As an American, though now permanently resident in Australia, I can't imagine a better gift for my compatriots.

Growing up in the Land of the Not-for-Free and the Home of the You-Must-Be-Brave-Not-To-Have-Health-Insurance, I break out in hives at the whisper of words like pre-existing condition, deductibles and co-pays.

When living in the US, I ended up in hospital from time to time; heck, I even made it there on my honeymoon. As an impoverished (and uninsured) Masters student marrying an even poorer PhD student, we begged for six months to pay off that bill.

Another time, following back surgery but this time insured, I happily handballed the $27,000 tab to my insurance company.

A decade later, while on holiday back in the US, one of our children required an emergency 12-day stay at a San Francisco hospital. The treatment was good — comparable to Australia — but on our way out the door the kind medical staff handed us our discharge letter and a bill for $52,000.

Nowadays, the term 'universal healthcare' is a phrase I speak in revered tones, reluctant to take it for granted. That's because I have lived with the other kind of healthcare, the kind that primarily works for those who are healthy — and lucky.

While in the US several months ago I spoke with an Emergency Department physician. 'I see at least one family a month forced to declare bankruptcy from an unexpected health event like a serious car accident or a heart attack,' he explained. 'And I only work part-time.'

These, he said, are generally people with health insurance. But the current loopholes in policies make a mockery of the term 'coverage'.

In the US, American friends query me about Australia's 'socialist medicine', furrowing their brows and casting suspicious looks Down Under. 'Australia's public health is an excellent and egalitarian system,' I tell my friends, 'And it's keeping our family healthy without putting us on the breadline.'

Unfortunately, years of indoctrination and anti-communist rhetoric in the US mean many Americans now think 'Fidel Castro' whenever shared costs (like universal healthcare) are mentioned. In fact, Cuba's lean health scheme could teach Americans a few things: according to the World Bank, both life expectancy and infant mortality in Cuba are better than in the US at a fraction of the cost.

Thankfully, there has been some movement in America with the passage of Obama's healthcare reform bills in March of this year. These two bills aim to eliminate some of the most egregious policies of the private health industry.

Over the next four years, changes will be phased in to outlaw lifetime dollar limits, pre-existing condition screening and technical loopholes which have allowed companies to wriggle their way out of responsibility when serious illness strikes.

The law will also increase competition as well as providing subsidies for the poor and small companies to purchase insurance. These changes alone will hopefully significantly decrease the number of uninsured in America, putting a dent in the mortality figures related to this problem — a 2009 study estimated that 45,000 deaths a year in the US were associated with lack of health insurance.

The growing private health industry in Australia is often touted as the answer to our over-stretched public system. Is it really the answer we want? Recently our child's school wrote to the parents exhorting us to buy private insurance in case of accidents on campus. They appeal to our risk-averse nature: cover yourself!

But as we rely more on the private system to meet our increasing healthcare needs should we worry that private coverage for a daughter's broken ankle today may evolve into Sorry, but we don't cover pre-existing conditions for a diabetic grandchild in 20 years?

While America has plenty of worthwhile exports, its dysfunctional health system isn't one of them. Australia, on the other hand, has more than just Uluru and the Opera House to commend it.

Even without Oprah breaking a leg, let's hope one message that travels back with her across the Pacific is of the strength and fairness of Australia's public health system. That's one export that Americans are dying to get. 


Susan BiggarSusan Biggar, a Melbourne writer, holds degrees from Duke and Stanford universities in Politics and International Policy. She has written for international development agencies as well as such publications as The Age and The Big Issue.


Topic tags: Susan Biggar, Oprah Winfrey, universal health care



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Existing comments

Well, you nearly got your wish, except the Recording Angel's bolt missed Oprah and winged Hugh Jackman instead. Still, "Even Wolverine Benefits From Australia's Soviet-Style Hospital System" may be a similar publicity boon.

Rod Blaine | 16 December 2010  

Thank you Susan for this salutary reminder that our 'lucky country' is much more than it is most often portrayed.

Patricia Taylor | 16 December 2010  

I just pray that President Obama will succeed with the health care bill surely people of good will should understand and not think of commies under the bed stuff after all it is 2010

irena mangone | 16 December 2010  

Basic attitudes to health care (as distinct from election-time assertions) is the litmus test for the moral decency of political parties. In the USA Obama's efforts to provide a modest improvement is currently being sabotaged by the Republican Party. In Australia we have had a similar history. Whitlam's break-through reform of the 1970s was abolished with a change of government, although a universal system (needing improvement) is no longer publicly opposed by the conservative side of politics.

Bob Corcoran | 16 December 2010  

Yes unfortunately Sue the "rugged individualism" in US history almost seems to imply that if you get sick, it's your fault and this mitigates against any change. I, like you, have experienced both systems and there's no doubt in my mind where I'd rather be. Thank you for the reminder!

Ian | 16 December 2010  

"America's best-known mouth might go home peddling a message', writes Susan Biggar, and the article's link repeats this offensive description. Oh, Eureka Street, you've done it again.

Rodney Stinson | 16 December 2010  

It never ceases to amaze me that the US has, with all its wealth, not seen the wisdom and humanity of 'the social contract' at work in Australia/NZ, Canada, UK and most of Western Europe. America seems to be hypnotised anew by the likes of Fox Channel's Beck, Tea Party's Palin & Co who regard taxation of theft and the just distribution of wealth as an assault upon their God given rights. Perhaps these people might also believe the assertions of the John Birch Society that Dwight Eisenhower was, from his first conscious moments, a convinced Communist! Michael Moore in his doco 'Capitalism. A Love Story,' shows rare footage of FDR finishing up his State of the Union address just before his death in 1945. The President called for a second bill of rights to be added to the Constitution, incorporating pretty well everything we take for granted in 'the Social Contract.' Moore notes two things, FDR's plea was not put into law in the US but, paradoxically, its provisions were written into the post war constitutions of Germany and Japan by the victors led by the USA!

David Timbs | 16 December 2010  

Perhaps someone could email this article to President Obama and to Oprah. Thank you Susan.

Joyce Parkes | 16 December 2010  

Never mind about their health care, just praise the Lord she's gone back. Talk about mass hysteria!!!

folkie | 16 December 2010  

As a recent recipient of a hip replacement as a public patient, courtesy of my 30 years of tax paying, and the contributions of fellow tax payers, is great to acknowledge what we have. The services of an esteemed surgeon, and five days, well cared for in a public hospital cost me nought in hand. It is tax money working well! We must be ever vigilant to protect the social equity of our cultural philosophy. Now, if we could just have a shift away from elitist educational practices to truly free public education we might really get the ball rolling in this country. As a Whitlam educated professional, who had NO chance without his foresighted educational policies, i can only urge - All first university degrees should be free for Australian students. An enlightened society - just think of the possibilities!

Bronte Bushe' | 16 December 2010  

I note the problems with health insurance in the US and the fine health care that our hospital personnel provide despite the constant pressure to do more with inadequate resources. I am surprised that this article does not recognise that the US health insurance problems are the not reflected here largely due to a heritage of mutual societies and considerable tax incentives to take out private health insurance. What may take us to the US problems is the reduction in affordability due to current government policy of curtailing subsidies. As it becomes less affordable companies will pursue scale and cost savings and that will result in consolidation and takeover of smaller not for profits. Then we will be in the 4-pillar banking world and subject to constant pencil sharpening in the interests of shareholders. The pubic system is not improving and is not ready for those who will leave health insurance. Then what will it either experience be like... more like the US, I suggest? It is our private health insurance subsidisation has saved us from this spiral. I am a director of a not-for-profit fund and admit my bias but this is my genuine concern. I have no confidence that tax savings from reducing subsidisation will be applied to bring the public health resources to an adequate level and that encourages comoanies that want scale and savings to reduce beenfits.

gerald miller | 16 December 2010  

Sue, in general I heartily agree with you. However, the Australian system is far from perfect, and not as good as it should be. For the money we pay in one form or another it ought to be better , and especially more equitable. Medicare was flawed from the beginning in allowing too much freedom of very cheap or free access for consultations, with GP or specialist ( and as a result we `consult` far more than other OECD countries)with therefore not enough money available for public hospital acute care and even more so for public elective surgery...both of which should be much better served than they are. The way Medicare works also means that there are aribitrary unintended and undeserved beneficiaries, especially procedural clinicians who are paid ( heavily subsidised by the tax-payer)far more than they are worth, and frequently outrageous sums of money.

Eugene | 16 December 2010  

Susan's article about the US health-care system is correct. My operation in the US cost me $38,000 for 6 days stay in hospital in 2009 which I am slowly paying off. I could not afford the premiums. I was living in the US at the time and followed the Congressional committee proceedings with interest when Obama's proposed health reforms was discussed. The health insurance industry is powerful with its myriad of paid lobbyists on capitol hill. The Republicans are going to try to repeal Obama's health reforms as unconstitutional when they take over the Congress from January 2011.

Terry Steve | 16 December 2010  

I wish more people could see that whilst not perfect, our system of health care is soooo much better than many countries'. Whislt we may have to wait for elective surgery and we do wait in casualty queues, we do eventually get seen and not turned away becaus we have no coverage. Long Live Medicare!

Sue Kealy | 16 December 2010  

As a citizen of the US and a proud Principal of Susan during her elementary school career I am excited. She has "hit the nail on the head." You would be surprised how often our media, especially FOX News, uses Australia Canada and other enlighted nations as examples of poor health systems. We NEED to hear from Susan and others who have experienced health services in your country and here in the USA. Personally I have seen the difference between here and England. I am ashamed of our system. Thank you Susan and Eureka

Charles Lavaroni | 17 December 2010  

I have a habit of disagreeing with many of the articles published in Eureka Street because of their almost continual left wing bias. However, on this article I am in full agreement. Congratulations.

John Tobin | 17 December 2010  

Loved the article. As an American, I totally agree.

ann goheen | 20 December 2010  

Lol "soviet style health care in Australia " what is it with Americans we are not commies we are smart to have universal health care health care should be a right like it is here not bankrupting family's because of copret greed it is sad and pathetic that people die in the US because they can't afford health care and any American that is against it shows the lack of education they have so pleas don't embarrass your self and your country by saying universal health care been do or communist because it's not its just smart

Malcolm | 24 February 2015  

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