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Oprah and Australia's 'socialist' health care

  • 16 December 2010

Oprah 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.