Talking Politics

How Americans interpreted the Olympic opening ceremony

By Cassie Chambers

Americans watching the Olympic opening ceremony were likely confused about many things in the quintessentially British spectacle. Chief among these was the ceremony's NHS scene. Watching a slew of health care professionals dance around an illuminated NHS sign, Americans couldn't help but picture how the scene would transpose itself across the pond.

Insurance agents would pluck the children from their beds as they decided to retroactively deny care. Doctors would be in the corners receiving couched bribes from pharmaceutical reps. A clock in the middle would show the highest healthcare costs in the world adding up as the scene unfolded.

Not exactly an image to inspire the world.

Most Brits seem perplexed by America's mainly private health care system. They simply don't understand how the US can leave it to individuals and markets to secure this basic human right. Given the poor way this policy structure is playing out—America has 50 million uninsured individuals and the highest health care costs in the world—their confusion is understandable. Attempts to explain the American system by citing a love for individualism, capitalism, and uber-expensive technology only add distance to the vast cross-cultural divide.

There was hope that these two ideas of how to fund healthcare might come to common ground. Obama's reform promised to expand coverage, increase access, and perhaps lead to a system that Americans could be proud of. As an American, I was giddy at the prospect of shaking off the stereotype of us as cold, callous people who care more about our right to have guns than our obligations to collective society.

But there's a problem with this plan. Although the rest of the world doesn't necessarily know it yet, health care reform is only going to make the already-awful situation worse.

By requiring every individual in America to buy private health insurance that is overpriced and under-regulated, the health care bill takes money out of average citizens' pockets and places it in the hands of insurance companies. Additionally, a lack of adequate price controls in the law means that already astronomical costs will increase even further. Throw in the recent Supreme Court decision that states do not have to expand Medicaid—a government program designed to provide coverage for poor people—and you're left with a system that privileges the industry, denies access to the poor, and places an unjustified mandate on the middle class. In short: a system based on true American values.

At this point, there isn't much the US can do to immediately fix our broken health care. Social institutions are path dependent, and it's hard to undo decisions once they're made. So instead of clamouring on about how the US needs a public option for health care—which, by the way, is never going to happen—it's perhaps more useful to warn the UK against following the States down this dark and dangerous path.

As the UK moves towards allowing market forces to play a larger role in its own health system, it's worth keeping the case of the US in mind. Americans never intended to end up with the health system we've got, but we opened the door to market players and now the interests are entrenched. Once markets start driving things, it's hard to take back control.

Watching the opening ceremony, it was hard to understand how a topic that is so divisive in America became a symbol of achievement on a global stage. It was strange to see a nation actually take pride in a government institution. Although I remain perplexed by how our two countries have arrived at such dramatically different conceptions of health care, it was inspiring to see the UK vision on display.

Yet if the UK isn't careful, it might give up this vision for a system with more in common with America's health care: an amazing spectacle, watched by the world, but for all of the wrong reasons. Then, there won't be much to sing or dance about.

WRITTEN BY...