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British Hospital Carnage a Window into US Future

Britain was rocked this week by one of the biggest scandals in the recent history of its health system—and it just might be a taste of things to come in the U.S.

The scandal surrounds a recent hospital report’s findings that Stafford Hospital in Staffordshire ignored even the most basic standards of treatment to disastrous, and disgusting, effect. The NYT has more:

The report, which examined conditions…over a 50-month period between 2005 and 2009, cites example after example of horrific treatment: patients left unbathed and lying in their own urine and excrement; patients left so thirsty that they drank water from vases; patients denied medication, pain relief and food by callous and overworked staff members; patients who contracted infections due to filthy conditions; and patients sent home to die after being given the wrong diagnoses.

As the piece goes on to explain, the hospital’s actions sprung from its single-minded pursuit of cost control. It drastically reduced its operating budget in hopes of qualifying for foundation-trust status, a legal category that would grant it more freedom from central government control. It’s a textbook case of how structural incentives in government-dominated health care systems can lead to terrible outcomes.

Blue model partisans claim that the American health care system is one of the worst in the world in terms of bang for the buck. Many single-payer systems are indeed cheaper than ours, but this is only half the story, and this new report suggests that the other half of the story—quality of care—isn’t always as rosy as official metrics show. And while the American system as it currently exists has plenty of problems, including hospitals and elder care facilities where treatment is scandalously bad, increasing government control of the system is unlikely to make things better.

Expect problems like this to crop up in the U.S. as Obamacare moves us further down the road of wonk-based health care, with well-intentioned, top-down reforms that sow chaos across a complex system.

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