Those who believe government run health care is preferable to being at the mercy of rapacious insurance companies need to focus on what is happening in the UK this week. A new report offers a glimpse of substandard care which may have led to as many as 1,200 premature deaths in just one UK hospital between 2005-2009.
Robert Francis, who authored the 1,700 page report detailing the scandal, offered 290 recommendations to prevent a recurrence of what happened in Stafford Hospital. In a public statement, Francis framed the problem as "a story of appalling and unnecessary suffering of hundreds of people. They were failed by a system which ignored the warning signs and put corporate self-interest and cost control ahead of patients and their safety."
The Stafford scandal has gone all the way to the top of the NHS and beyond. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt described it as "the most shocking betrayal of NHS founding values in its history." After the report was released Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron gave an abject apology in the House of Commons on behalf of the government.
"Hundreds of people suffered from the most appalling neglect and mistreatment. There were patients so desperate for water that they were drinking from dirty flower vases. Many were given the wrong medication, treated roughly or left to wet themselves and lie in urine for days. And relatives were ignored or even reproached when pointing out the most basic things that could have saved their loved ones from horrific pain or even death. We can only begin to imagine the suffering endured by those whose trust in our health service was betrayed at their most vulnerable moment.
While the new report focuses on just one hospital, five others with high death rates are now under investigation for similar claims of neglect.
Uncovering the problems at Stafford took two investigations and years of pushing from victims families. The first investigation took place in 2009 and found "appalling" standards which led to the deaths of between 400 and 1,200 patients over three years. This led to the current full, public inquiry which began in 2010.
More than 100 families have already reached settlements with the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust which runs the hospital. A human rights attorney told ITV News that criminal charges in the case seem unlikely because the problem was "systemic failings from the top down."
Despite the scandal, the NHS Chief Executive who was responsible for Stafford Hospital at the time has refused to resign. He told ITV "we didn't see the kind of suffering you've just described. If I had have seen it, if I had have been aware of it, we'd have acted immediately."
The NHS scandal has potential political impact on this side of the Atlantic as well. Even as the scandal was unfolding in the UK this week, here in the US leading progressive Paul Krugman was joking that the future of Obamacare was "death panels and sales taxes."
Dr. Donald Berwick, who President Obama chose to lead the Medicare and Medicaid services, once praised the NHS as a model for the world. In a speech given on the 60th anniversary of the NHS, he regarded the NHS as greatly superior to the free market system in the United States. As the Stafford Hospital scandal illustrates, asking the government to manage costs rather than private insurers does not guarantee a gentler system or a better outcome for patients.