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Michelle Kelly-Irving

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An End to the 'Breaking Bad' Era of US Health Care?

Posted: 03/01/2014 10:57

You all know the premise of Breaking Bad: Walter White, on a modest chemistry teacher's salary goes haywire after discovering he has lung cancer. He pays for his health care and supports his family by producing high quality methamphetamine. As great American entertainment, drugs, gore, violence and the (a)moral values of society characterized most episodes.

The series dramatized some shocking truths about the US health care system. And unfortunately in Europe we are headed that way ourselves...

What shocked me watching Breaking Bad was the banal violence within the health care system; the potentially far-reaching (if a wee bit exaggerated) consequences on middle-class families; the extortionate price of treatments in the hundreds-of-thousands of dollars for chemotherapy, surgery, hospitalization, physiotherapy... The series revolved around this topic, with central characters confronted again and again with the domino-effect on their lives when faced with health problems.

None of these issues illustrated in Breaking Bad are exactly headline news. The adverse impact of privatized health care on social health inequalities is well known. What the series highlighted so very clearly is the massive chasm in US society between the very rich and everyone else. A gulf not buffered by social systems like health care provision, but in fact exacerbated by them. It underlined the tight-rope-walk between getting-by, and destitution.

I feel very lucky. I have lived in western European countries, where I never once worried about the direct financial consequences of getting sick. When I or anyone in my life has been ill, the core treatments and care have been provided by the state, and none of us ever gave a second thought to that. The rest, the nice-to-have extras are certainly the privilege of wealthier and more resourceful among us. But, over the last few years fissures and cracks in the provision of universal health care have been appearing in many European countries. In the UK, the National Health Service, a tenet of post-war social democracy, is being dismantled and sold-off. In France, treatments and health care once paid for by the state are being quietly shifted into the private health insurance sphere. More and more exceptions are being made about what is covered under state provisions.

I haven't seen the last series of Breaking Bad, so don't spoil it for me. Here's my imagined Disney-like ending:

Walt uses his hard-earned dirty money to push through a revolutionary health care bill that caters for US residents across the social gradient. Thanks to Walt's persuasiveness, immigration status, income, ethnicity and prior health conditions no longer affect your access to health care, no longer differentiate you from the wealthy in terms of life-expectancy...

Did I guess that right?

What are the upsides to such a lamentable health care system? Surely it shows us Europeans the route worth avoiding if we want to live in a more equal society. So, we need to fight tooth-and-nail to keep our access to health care free at the point of need. This week, in the US, my fairy-tale ending is happening. Thanks to the driving force of political will "Obamacare" has entered into service.

A version of this blogpost originally appeared on Michelle's personal blog "Notes from the research frontier"

 

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