Health Care in the UK: An Astonishing Example of Communitarian Justice

By Gareth Higgins 07-14-2009

Sometime in the spring of 1974, my world was somewhat disturbed by the event of my conception, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. When this became obvious to my parents, they went to see a doctor, employed by the UK National Health Service. They saw the doctor quite a few times. They got ready.

The doctor's fee to them? Nothing.

My mum spent a few days in the hospital in January 1975, including a monumental and pretty heroic 24-hour labor. She was attended to by the doctor she had come to know well and by excellent nursing staff; my dad was there for the duration.

The hospital's fee to them? Nothing.

When I was 7 years old, I had my tonsils removed due to the fact that my doctor thought it would help with a recurring sinus problem. Two nights in the hospital. Very dry throat. Large-scale Boba Fett 'Star Wars' toy arrived to make me feel better. It worked.

What it cost my parents? Nothing.

Throughout my childhood, prescriptions cost me the equivalent of around $10, the same as any prescription for any medicine did in Northern Ireland until recently. In fairness, I have to acknowledge that the price has changed in the last year.

It's been cut in half. And starting January 2010, medical prescriptions in Northern Ireland will be entirely free.

Of course it isn't strictly true to say that 'my parents paid nothing' for my health care. They paid taxes -- taxes that in the UK amount to nothing on the equivalent of the first $10,500 of income. Above this level average earners pay 22 percent; in practice, this is favorably comparable to U.S. federal income tax rates. (Frankly, the total amount I have paid in taxes in my adult life may amount to less than one typical, private industry, major medical intervention in the U.S.)

This is what funds the UK National Health Service. This is what made it possible for my parents to have three children cared for through pregnancy, labor, birth, and throughout our lives. This is what salaries my doctor. This is what paid for the attempts to save my grandmother's life from breast cancer, covering two mastectomies and long hospital stays. This is what has paid for all of my sister's diabetes medicine and hospital care for over 20 years. This is what paid for another family member to have an electronic breathing apparatus at home when his asthma sometimes became so severe he needed extra support.

This is why no one in the UK ever has to go bankrupt due to medical bills. This is why no one in the UK has to choose which part of their body to care for. This is why no one in the UK has to stay in a job they hate because they're afraid of getting sick. This is why no one has to hide details from their doctors in case a pre-existing condition became the reason an insurance provider refused to provide insurance. In my book, that would suggest the insurance provider probably should call its business something else. No one in the UK ever worries about how they are going to provide for their own or their family's health. This, to me, is an astonishing example of communitarian justice, the highest ethic of humanity: when people care for their fellow people, with no concern for individual reward. And this is why, if I require major medical intervention in the future, instead of receiving it in the United States where I now live, work, and hope to contribute as a grateful immigrant, I may have to go back home.

Gareth HigginsGareth Higgins is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at and co-presents "The Film Talk" podcast with Jett Loe at

To learn more about health-care reform, click here to visit Sojourners' Health-Care Resources Web page.

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