In 1945 British Health Minister Aneurin Bevan formulated a plan that would give all U.K. citizens, whether taxpayers or not, access to the same standard of medical treatment. Bevan explained the National Health Service very simply as being based on “the collective principle … that ... no society can legitimately call itself civilized if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.”
Living in California on an unpredictable freelancer’s income, I’ve been denied medical aid multiple times because of my lack of means, most notably when I caught MRSA — otherwise known as a staph infection — which manifested itself as a 104-degree fever and large, painful boils and abscesses all over my body. My roommate reluctantly drove me to an emergency room and dropped me off with instructions not to give them my Social Security number. They found me anyway and billed me $4,000 for lancing the boils and sewing them up, giving me a couple of Vicodins and sending me home with a prescription for Bactrim — which, thankfully, meant I didn’t die or have to get intravenous drips of vancomycin at a cost of several thousand dollars over the course of many months. An inoculation for MRSA does not exist, but if it did, doubtless I would mainline it into my neck.
I do not have a particularly high opinion of the U.S. health care system. I do not think it is civilized, humane or compassionate. I think it is the disgusting product of a capitalist society that places profit above people and I find it hard to comprehend how anyone could think it a good idea to allow a privileged few to profit off the pain and discomfort of the American people. I do not value highly the principle of choice in health care — as if choosing one’s family doctor is akin to choosing between Humboldt Fog or manchego in the cheese aisle at Whole Foods — nor do I think choice and its evil twin, competition, create higher standards in the medical field. Instead I believe that it creates hierarchies of treatment, offering substandard options to those who either cannot afford it or require more care because of illness. On the other hand, the free market economy means that the healthy must part with their money too — hence ridiculously high premiums, an increase in unnecessary interventions during childbirth and the growing presence of naturopathic, holistic quacks who stand to profit from the current craze of not vaccinating one’s child.
When it comes to my 1-year-old son, I follow my British roots and adhere to the NHS vaccination schedule, which advocates pretty much all the vaccines that the Centers for Disease Control recommends but at a slightly slower pace. The U.S. schedule appears unnecessarily brutal on babies, who already have a tough first year of life learning how to fart, burp, grow teeth, walk and figure out which tails to pull. Vaccines are important and lifesaving enough to consider carefully, and an upside of the current debate over the anti-vaxxer movement is that it has made people start to ask questions of procedures we normally take for granted, assuming that our medical professionals have our best interests at heart.
Of course, Americans already know that the government, insurance companies and the health care industry do not necessarily have your best interests at heart. We know that the government will allow you to rip right through your savings and lose your home in order to pay outrageous medical bills (PDF) or face bankruptcy. We know that the Food and Drug Administration is a complex, bureaucratic and deeply controversial organization making decisions that are baffling even to those with decent science knowledge. We know that pharmaceutical and research companies will be protected when they patent lifesaving treatment and research, claiming they need to turn a profit to cover their expenses and fund the next round of research. We know that this is the same medical industry that used people of color as guinea pigs at the turn of the century, told trusting pregnant women to swallow a pill to alleviate morning sickness even after refusing to approve its safety for wider use and made prison inmates and the mentally ill sick in order to experiment on them.
I live in California, in the heart of the anti-vaxxer movement. Most of my friends here don’t vaccinate, not for any religious or scientific reason but rather for a deep-seated, almost primal distrust of medicine, doctors and chemicals. I find their reasoning deeply concerning, because it has the potential to affect my health and my son’s. But the U.S. government has set itself up for this kind of grass-roots rebellion. If the anti-vaxxer movement is not really about Jenny McCarthy and aborted fetus cells and thimerosol and autism but about choice, autonomy over one’s body and the corrupt history of the medical and pharmaceutical industries, then it makes perfect sense. And while I wish people would vaccinate their kids, I wish even harder that they would take all the energy and conviction they have against vaccines and turn that toward the real target: our immensely screwed-up American health care system and the government that continues to prevent any meaningful change.