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Brexit, and spectre of NHS US sell-off

Americanised healthcare in the UK – after our exit from the EU – would only benefit global corporations, write Roy Trevelion and Susanna Mitchell

16 May, 2019

A demonstration in 2008 against the arrival of UnitedHealth in Camden. Below: Susanna Mitchell and Roy Trevelion

There is much talk at the moment about the prospect of Brexit resulting in a trade deal with the US which will sell off our NHS to American private healthcare providers.

This fear has also been expressed by Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth. But it is critical to understand this “sell-off deal” has been under way for a long time and is fast gaining momentum.

The driver of the “sell-off deal” is Simon Stevens, who in 2014 was appointed head of NHS England, the body that controls all NHS spending. Before this, Stevens had been vice-president and CEO of the mammoth American healthcare corporation the UnitedHealth Group.

Stevens has proceeded to “Americanise” the service through his subsequent NHS policy, based on a privatisation strategy he had outlined at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2012.

From first to last, his NHS policy – the Five Year Forward View, the Sustainability and Transformation Plans and Accountable Care Organisations (renamed Integrated Care Programmes) that back it up, and now the 10-year Long Term Plan – have worked to import the US model into the UK.

Unsurprisingly, the UnitedHealth Group will make major gains from this transformation. It is now the largest healthcare company in the world, with a 2018 revenue of $226.2 billion. It has many secondary companies that serve more than a hundred-million people globally.

Over the years it has been prosecuted for fraud and bad faith practices. This included limiting insurance payments to doctors, and not stating its true financial results in reports to shareholders.

One of its fastest growing subsidiaries is Optum (formerly UnitedHealth UK). This is a leading information technology- enabled health services business. In February 2015, it was one of the commercial organisations approved by NHS England as “Lead Providers” to carry out the financial work of GPs.

It is now firmly positioned in the system and ready to take away more public money.
The healthcare system in the United States is hugely more costly, and outstandingly less effective than that in the UK. In terms of funding and wellbeing, there is no rational argument for imposing it on our NHS. The only benefit it brings is increased profits for shareholders in the commercial healthcare sector.

To take three examples, first comparing cost:

On average, other wealthy developed countries spend about half as much per person on health as the US – in the US $10,224 compared to $4,246 in the UK. In 2017 the US federal government spent 7.9 per cent of GDP directly or indirectly on healthcare; however in total, taking into account private expenditure, the US spent a vast $3.5trillion or 18 per cent of GDP. This private sector spending is triple that of comparable countries. This structure excludes many citizens from affordable health­care. Appallingly, one in four adults skipped a medical treatment in 2017 due to an inability to pay.

Secondly, from the point of view of efficacy and wellbeing, statistics are also devastating. The US has the lowest life expectancy at birth among comparable countries (US 78.6, UK 81.2). Statistics show that life expectancy for both men and women has increased more slowly in the US. It comes 12th in the global life expectancy table.

Thirdly, the US maternal mortality rate is truly shocking. It stands at 20.7 per 100,000 live births, the worst among all developed countries.

In the UK the rate stands at 8.9 per 100,000.

Deaths for African-American women are three to four times higher than for white women.

The infant mortality rate is also worse. The US rate is 5.79 deaths per 1,000 live births. The UK rate is 3.8 deaths per 1,000 live births.

It is clear that if we follow the American model of healthcare it can only reduce wellbeing in the UK. Simon Stevens’ “sell-off deal” simply increases the wealth of global corporations (such as the Mayo Clinic, which has recently opened in London).

It is time that this fact was “called out” loudly and clearly. All possible measures must be taken to prevent the continuing imposition of this ineffec­tive and costly system.

• Susanna Mitchell and Roy Trevelion are members of the Socialist Health Association.

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