Britons defend system amid U.S. debate

LONDON (AP) — Britons love to mock their National Health Service — just don’t let anyone else poke fun at it.

They particularly resent the British universal health-care system’s being used as a punching bag in the battle against President Barack Obama’s proposed reforms.

Conservatives in the United States have relied on horror stories from Britain’s system to warn Americans that Obama is trying to impose a socialized health-care system that would give the government too much power.

In an interview widely interpreted here as an attack on the U.K., Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa told a local radio station last week that “countries that have government-run health care” would not have given Sen. Edward Kennedy, who suffers from a brain tumor, the same standard of care as in the U.S. because he is too old.

The superheated debate broadened this week to include renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, a British icon who suffers from motor neuron disease. A U.S. newspaper wrote that under the British system, Hawking would be allowed to die — an assertion that Hawking said was absurd.

“I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS,” Hawking said, joining the ranks of those praising Britain’s system.

Britons say the country’s universal health-care system, which provides free medical care, is far fairer than the current American system.

Behind the criticism is a popular British view that American society represents unbridled capitalism run amok, with catastrophic results for people left behind in the boom times such as those of the last two decades.

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, who is usually pro-American, blasted U.S. health care Friday, suggesting the delivery system is fine for the wealthy but not for the poor.

“If you can’t pay, you have a very, very second-rate service, or you can’t get health service at all,” he said.

Britain’s left-leaning government has responded to criticism offering selected statistics that show England outperforming the U.S. in health spending per capita, life expectancy and more.

Newspapers have jumped in, with the Daily Mirror calling the United States “the land of the fee” because of the way patients are forced to pay for medical services.

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