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My Experience With Health Care in Australia

September 16, 2011

Downtown Adelaide, South Australia

While I was in Adelaide in  the spring of 2008, I had to refill my expired  prescription for lisinopril, a common blood pressure medication. I went to a medical clinic in Norwood, on the retail street called The Parade, a street of bistros and   retail stores, to get a new prescription. Since I was not an Australian citizen or legal resident, I had to pay $60 for an office visit. However, I was seen promptly, in contrast to the two to three months I often have to wait in rural Colorado to get an appointment with my prescribing physician.  Prescription in hand,  I then  went to a pharmacy (called a ‘chemist’ ‘ after the British fashion).  The pharmacists/chemists (there were two, a man and a woman) were perturbed when they  asked for  my Australian universal health care card and I explained I didn’t have one. I was  a US citizen in the country on a tourist visa.  “Oh my, then I’m afraid we’ll have to charge you full freight,” the man said. Then, observing my silver hair, he added, “Then you wouldn’t have a seniors discount card, either, would you? I’m so sorry.”

“It’s quite all right,” I said.  “I anticipated this. I didn’t expect to be eligible for any taxpayer-subsidized  discounts.”  After all, I’d never been an Australian taxpayer.

“Very sorry, sir,” the woman said. “I wish there were something we could do, but we can’t. We’ll have to charge you the full price,  the  highest rate.”

The two of them apologized about five times apiece.  With no other customers waiting, they both bustled around to fill my order quickly.

When they presented me  with the bill (and a final apology), it was less than one- third the  cost  of lisinopril  in any US  pharmacy.

During the three months I spent in South Australia, I asked every Aussie I met what they thought of  their universal single-payer health care system (called Medicare but covering everyone, of all ages). I must have asked over two hundred people. I deliberately asked each one what they didn’t  like about it, what was wrong with it, what were the system’s flaws and failings. the conversations were almost all alike:

“Well, it doesn’t cover dental or optical. If you want coverage for those, you have to pay for a private insurance policy.”

Me: “And what else? What’s the worst thing?”

“If you get referred for elective surgery,  they may not be able to get you in right away.  You might have to wait up to a month.”

Me: “For elective surgery?! Is that really the worst flaw in your health care system that you can think of?”

“Well, yes…..”

Again and again,  in my informal interviews, that was the very  worst thing they could think to say about their single-payer universal health care system. Funny how so many countries seem to find workable solutions to problems so many Americans continually claim are intractable and unsolvable.  Their per capita health care costs are about one-half of the those of he US despite having better outcome measures and universal coverage.

My contacts were all within the state of South Australia,  mostly with white middle-class Australians. I had very little contact with the rich and famous , the destitute, or with Aborigines living in isolated towns of the Outback, so you  could say I didn’t interview a representative sample. But white middle class Aussies living in the larger cities are the vast  majority of the Australian population. 

Too bad Australia is notcloser. Then, like Sarah Palin and her family did for years with   “socialist” Canada, I could simply cross the border from the US and get the superior and cheaper health care that isn’t available in the US.


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