Sunday, June 1, 2008

Socialized Medicine Saved My Vacation

I didn’t plan on getting a first-hand look at Norway’s healthcare system my first day on vacation, but that’s what happened after my traveling companion tripped on a circular stairway and pulled a ligament on our first night in Oslo. (And no, alcohol was not involved -- but shopping and jet lag definitely were factors).

My friend was naturally upset, not only from pain but also at the prospect of having ruined our vacation. I was naturally concerned as I watched her ankle first turn a shade of green, then purple, that I didn’t know possible for human flesh this side of gangrene. This was a serious injury, I knew, and it required professional medical care.

We taxied to a “legevakta” -- an accident-emergency clinic. Start to finish, door-to-door, the entire process took two hours. That included getting checked in, waiting for the doctor, X-rays, treatment, getting a prescription filled, and the taxi back to our hotel. The doctor was very professional and patient; she gave us thorough instructions on followup care, gave my friend a set of crutches and a prescription for pain and inflammation, the clinic called us a cab, and we were on our way. The fee for all of this wonderful service?


This was stunning, since in every other regard, Norway is extremely expensive. Outrageously expensive. My salad at lunch was $30. You could easily drop $50 on a 15-minute cab ride. Heck, it costs $1 to use the public toilet at the warf. But for X-rays, medical treatment, a set of crutches, and an ace bandage, we were charged nothing. In fact, the doctor casually told us we could drop the crutches off at another clinic in Bergen (our next vacation stop), if we happen to be near one.

As for the prescription, it cost just $6 for 21 tablets.

This is amazing to me, since the entire experience would have been so much more expensive and traumatic in the U.S. I’ve been to ER’s and the doc-in-a-box in Nashville, and I’ve never been in and out in two hours. I’m also charged for every single thing: crutches, ace bandage, even the freaking bag of ice --plus another $30 for medication.

While it may be a factor, I don’t think this awesome free healthcare is the main reason everything else here is so expensive. I blame our sucky U.S. dollar for most of that, and also the fact that so much of what one buys in Norway must be imported from elsewhere. Scandinavia has always been extremely expensive (the rule of thumb that the further south in Europe one travels, the less expensive it gets, is still true). Locals I've talked to say they pay into the system with their taxes and that makes healthcare more equitable and affordable for everyone, not just the wealthy. This just makes sense. Whether you have cancer or just a sprained ankle, no one should have to forego healthcare because they can’t afford it.

America, get with the program. Figure it out, already. The system we have is just insane, and it’s entirely unworkable. It’s never made sense to me that the profit motive is institutionally part of our healthcare system. No one should profit off of someone else’s need for medical treatment. That’s just wrong. And more importantly: it isn’t working!

It’s time to change what isn’t working for something that does work. Socialized medicine has been proven to work, and in so many other places around the world, too. Plus, it saved my vacation.