Will socialized medicine wreck cancer treatment?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 28 2007 6:56 PM

Would Universal Health Care Wreck Cancer Treatment?

Betsy McCaughey says so, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey 
Click image to expand.
Former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey

Amid the partisan cavils against expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program and within the broader debate over health-care reform, free-market conservatives intone darkly about the evils of socialized medicine. What, precisely, are these evils? Apart from citing some delays experienced abroad in the scheduling of nonemergency surgeries, opponents seldom say. That's beginning to change, however. In op-ed pieces that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on two consecutive days earlier this month, two conservative commentators— John Stossel of ABC News and Betsy McCaughey, former lieutenant governor of New York, and current Hudson Institute fellow and chairman of the Committee To Reduce Infection Deaths —argued that government-funded medicine would eliminate the advantage Americans currently enjoy relative to citizens of other countries when it comes to surviving cancer.

American medicine is indeed superior to other countries when it comes to treating most cancers. "I have had lots of people ask me for help in finding hospitals and doctors, particularly for cancer," Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani has said.

I've had lots of people ask me that. And I've had some people from Europe ask me that, to get help to come into an American hospital. I've never had anybody ask me for help to get into a Cuban hospital or a Canadian hospital or an English hospital. They all want to come to America.

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It's a fair point. Granted, nobody seeking entrance to a Cuban, Canadian, or English hospital would likely seek help from an American politician. But there's a reason that foreign potentates turn up at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center on a regular basis. The international nature of the medical-student body at Harvard and Johns Hopkins is not a figment of your imagination. The United States is pre-eminent in the treatment of cancer and in most other high-end medicine, too. Michael Moore's stubborn refusal to acknowledge this fairly obvious reality undermines his argument for national health care in Sicko.

But if the United States can take pride in better cancer survival rates than in the socialized nations of Western Europe, does it follow that adopting some version of the socialized medicine practiced there would wreck that advantage? To Stossel, the answer is so obviously "yes" that he doesn't bother to argue the point. McCaughey, however, devotes her entire column to making this case. As with (subscription required) her famous New Republic takedown of Hillarycare, McCaughey's argument outruns the facts.

"The evidence shows," McCaughey writes,

that universal health coverage does not improve survival rates for cancer patients. Despite the large number of uninsured, cancer patients in the U.S. are most likely to be screened regularly, have the fastest access to treatment once they are diagnosed with the disease, and can get new, effective drugs long before they're available in most other countries.