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British unite to defend national health system

Sat., Aug. 15, 2009, midnight

LONDON – Castigating their public health care system may be a national pastime for the British, but it’s not one they care to share with Americans.

In fact, Britain’s oft-maligned National Health Service on Friday was on the receiving end of an outpouring of love and affection it hasn’t felt in years, owing to a growing backlash against what many here see as lies and calumnies being spread about the NHS by conservative critics of President Barack Obama’s health care reform plan in the U.S.

Those critics have branded the NHS as “evil” and “Orwellian,” an example of socialized medicine to be avoided at all costs. They blast the system, which offers free health care to all, as an expensive failure that denies new drugs to cancer victims, blocks elderly people from certain kinds of treatment and puts a low value on human life.

But such allegations have angered many Britons who this week hit back in the blogosphere, in print and over the airwaves to defend one of their country’s most jealously guarded institutions from an unexpected attack from across the pond.

Ordinary people have piped up with stories of excellent care given by committed doctors and nurses.

A Twitter campaign to rally support for the NHS has attracted so many thousands of messages that the newly launched “welovetheNHS” site crashed earlier this week. Among the contributors: Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who felt moved to “tweet” his encouragement while vacationing in Scotland.

The NHS “often makes the difference between pain and comfort, despair and hope, life and death,” Brown wrote, adding: “Thanks for always being there.”

The groundswell of reaction against U.S. criticism of the NHS has offered a rare show of unity in a country whose people are both puzzled and outraged over why their system, along with Canada’s, has been cast as the boogeyman in the American health care debate.

Not that the British believe their system to be perfect. Before the pendulum swung the other way this week, complaints about waiting lists for hip replacements, the risk of infection by “superbugs” in public hospitals and poor bedside manners of health care personnel were the norm.

But such grumblings were considered a domestic affair. A smear campaign in another country, based on misinformation and falsehoods, is simply not cricket, the British say. “We’re OK to have a fair analysis of the NHS, but let’s have it fair,” Andy Burnham, Britain’s health secretary, told the BBC on Friday.

The left-leaning Guardian newspaper devoted an entire page to debunking some of the more scandalous accusations circulating in the U.S., including the claim from Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, that fellow Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., wouldn’t receive treatment in Britain for his brain tumor because of his age.

The right-wing tabloid the Sun, meanwhile, ran a scathing commentary headlined, “Why Yanks must stop bashing the NHS.”

The severely disabled scientist Stephen Hawking declared, “I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS,” rebutting claims by Investor’s Business Daily that he “wouldn’t have a chance” of survival in his homeland because of treatment rationing.

The passion roused by the controversy is further testament to how strongly people here feel about the NHS, regarded as perhaps the greatest triumph of Britain’s welfare state since its launch in 1948, when the country was struggling to keep body and soul together in the aftermath of World War II.

The service treats 1 million patients every 36 hours, employs 1.5 million people and operates with a budget of about $169 billion, according to official statistics.

Accusations of inefficiency and waste have dogged the NHS for years, leading a growing number of Britons to buy private insurance as a substitute or fallback.

But so unassailable a place does the NHS occupy in the national imagination that Britain’s political parties dare speak only of reforming and strengthening the system; any talk of abolishing it is political suicide.

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