Thursday, March 18, 2010

Does universal healthcare work in Italy?

With the firestorm surrounding the healthcare debate in the United States right now, it might be interesting to take a look at a country where universal healthcare already exists, to let you make up your own mind about whether Obama's initiative is legitimate.

In Italy, healthcare is free. Anyone in need (not only Italian citizens) can go to a hospital and receive free care. This, of course, means that the lines at hospitals are unbearably long, and that the system, like many of its kind in Italy, is far from efficient. It also means that Italians must pay higher taxes to support the system. However, there is a basic, undeniable right to healthcare, a fact in which most Italians take a lot of pride.

Private insurance companies and healthcare also exist, and once in a blue moon an employer will offer private insurance. Many agree that the private doctors and clinics give higher quality care than the public hospitals and clinics, however this is not given. Since this is a very expensive route to take, as you would have to pay insurance fees on top of national healthcare taxes, it is not very common.

The fact is that, Italy being Italy, most people have a preferred doctor, who may be a friend of the family (or who becomes one after an appointment!), that usually does not charge much. A free pack of medicine here, a quick check-up there, it is taken for granted that care and treatment come first, money later. It's a cultural hierarchy of importance that does not value money over all else.

Italy's healthcare is perfect. The frustrating inefficiency in hospitals is on par with the inefficiency in other aspects of Italy (e.g. the Poste Italiane, a.k.a. eighth circle of hell), but the notion that healthcare is a right, not a privilege, is something that I think many Americans should think long and hard about. Maybe it's for this that the Italian healthcare system was rated 2nd in the world by the World Health Organization, while the United States' was 37th.

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