US health care a sick joke that’s coming to Australia


Michael Moore 'Sicko' film poster

Everyone knows that the health care system in the United States is an hilarious joke at the expense of poor people. The terrifying inequities that play out in surgeries across the country has been documented in the films Sicko (2007), Escape Fire (2012), and all over the internet (search 'health care horror stories' on any American masthead’s site). Nothing new. 

The constant pressure the Australian Federal Government has been pitting against our own universal health care, though, seems new and raises some disturbing questions. Why would any fair minded political leader want to emulate a brutalising system? It seems like class warfare dolled up as fiscal responsibility. 

Anyone who was born (or naturalised) in Australia after 1984 has enjoyed universal health care their whole (Australian) life. Universal health care is, philosophically, a fair concession to the shocking materiality of life: I didn’t ask to be born, specifically not in a body that requires a decent amount of upkeep to carry on. 

And while it’s not perfect in Australia, universal health care offers the promise that while some people’s bodies require more medical care than others, this is not the basis for discrimination nor an unequal distribution of fiscal responsibility. While there are strategies for pursuing 'wellness' – you know, drink four litres of water a day, half a glass of wine, eat red meat, no, don’t eat red meat – no one should be rewarded for the fact that their mother was able to properly nourish them during infancy, or that no-one has decided to run them over just yet. 

A population’s health is largely in the hands of the state and culture, and universal health care is a material extension of this truth. Good health benefits us all, and thus is everyone’s responsibility.

In trying to understand why anyone who is not simply a monster would wish to erode the basic dignity of health, it’s important to remove maliciousness from the equation. The outcome of privatised healthcare is, of course, brutal. But to believe that a person who has found a way to intellectually compartmentalise literal human suffering completely lacks compassion would infer that they are evil. Evil is intrinsic, evil has no human remedy. Evil can’t be reasoned with. Which means that a person is not responsible for the evil they commit. 

But what could reasonably motivate a person who, in attaining the life and health required to make political arguments in the first place and is therefore a beneficiary of adequate health care, to believe that other people are not entitled to their health? 

It is not really the budget deficit, is it? The one that all economists say is negligible. The one that also allows for the military’s acquisition 58 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters at a cost of $12 billion. The emphasis on a budget 'crisis', and naming low-income earners as those who are responsible and will have to bear the brunt of it, is an example of inane populism. Certain ideologues regard this as reasonable, part of a system that requires the poor to be dependent the labour provided them by the very wealthy.

Without universal health care – in America – the main way of accessing basic health care is by having a 'good' job. So if you’re not independently wealthy, your employer, rather than the state or the collective, is effectively your barrier to health. Do we really trust the market so much as to place in its hands the bodies of workers? And how free can any person be if they are indentured to their job?

There is a vested interest in dismantling the protections on health care for poor people. It effectively pushes them into forms of work that benefit capitalists. And this type of labour, and what it requires of people psychically – working full-time, for a lifetime, for another person’s wealth – is to derive their ideas about their selves and their autonomy through work, and not in spite of it. 

The orthodoxy of the market says that it’s not enough to be alive and contributing to whatever your community is; you have to pay for the privilege. In rent, in acquiring objects, health care, in unwittingly contributing to the demise of the environment. So if we’re going to live until we are 150 – as Joe Hockey reckons – we’d better figure out if this is indeed the model of being alive we should aspire to.  

Ellena Savage

Ellena Savage is the editor of The Lifted Brow, commissioning editor at Spook Magazine, and a graduate student in creative writing.



Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Michael Moore, Sicko, health care, Joe Hockey, Tony Abbott, class warfare, capitalism, Sussan



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Existing comments

I'll make no bones about it - great article by Ellena and choice of illustration by editors of ES. As a matter of fact, I spent some time today in a pathology waiting room and I thought I saw the guy in the middle there. I would have said "Hello, Michael."

Pam | 22 January 2015  

A good article as far as it goes but health care isn't fully addressed unless you include the very specific roles of US and US-styled health insurance companies. Unfortunately, it makes our currently projected future look even more bleak.

Margaret | 22 January 2015  

Wow! Strong stuff.

Frank | 23 January 2015  

Ellena, you have nailed it. The best article I have seen on the philosophy of why we need universal health care. I agree its hard to believe that we have a government that would purchase jet fighters while asking the community to pay for Health Care.I would consider universal healh care a core element of any society. The problem, of course, is that the economy is now ruling society.

Andrew Teece | 23 January 2015  

The same rationale - why should the poor benefit? - as that for de-regulating university fees.

Peter Horan | 23 January 2015  

Undoubtedly, the need to address the ever increasing cost of Australia's excellent universal health care system is real. However, rather than victimise it with unfair, ideologically driven compromises, why would this government not increase the medicare levy? That seems simple enough. Or is it simplistic?

Caroline | 23 January 2015  

I confess I share Ellena's mystification as to why so many conservatives in Australia want to copy America's models (and mistakes) to the letter. And usually years after they've done it (and often 10 years after it has already proven to have been a failure, even a disaster). And what is the attraction of copying so many things from the most dysfunctional Western society on Earth? The logic defies me.

Paul | 23 January 2015  

The American healthcare setup as described by Ellena is both deeply entrenched and ideologically supported. That sort of hyper conservative economic philosophy, so much a part of the mainstream of the Republican Party, who attacked what they termed as "Obama care" - an attempt to alleviate the plight of the poorest, uninsured Americans - is already pretty much part and parcel of the more conservative element in our Liberal Party, which has the whip hand in Canberra. As in the USA, there are interested parties here, such as the private health care funds and private hospitals. Conservative think tanks and commentators are also prepared to lend a hand. When I hear talk of "private-public partnerships" in health care I think of (a) cuts to public hospital funding (b) a nice little earner for private hospitals. It is interesting, in the current Queensland election, the LNP here have dissociated themselves from the current Federal government's approach to Medicare and promised more funding for the public health system, which, despite the Patel scandal, is uniformly good. Australian voters, by and large, are well behind both Medicare and the public health system. They need to make that clear at the federal level.

Edward Fido | 24 January 2015  

This government is so far right it is scary. They are detrimental to the health of this nation.

charlie | 28 January 2015  

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