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What Britons Think Of The National Health Service


President Trump sparked anger in Britain this month when he tweeted that the country's National Health Service is, quote, "going broke and not working." British officials responded with polls showing most Britons love the NHS. They just want its funding improved. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from London.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) When they say cut back...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We say fight back.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: These are the street protests President Trump was tweeting about. Thousands of Britons have been marching to demand more funding for their state-funded health system, which guarantees care for all. Trump accused it of providing really bad and nonpersonal medical care.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, government spending on the National Health Service has grown but at a slower pace. That means drugs are being rationed. Tens of thousands of operations have been postponed this winter. Wait times at the emergency room are up, says Richard Murray, policy director at The King's Fund, a health care think tank.

RICHARD MURRAY: If the ER is really busy, it makes the ambulances queue outside the front door - not great. And in some cases, the hospital's simply full.

FRAYER: But Trump's tweet offended many. The U.K. health secretary tweeted back, pointing out America has 28 million people with no coverage at all. The NHS spends less than half of what Americans spend per person on health care. And yet life expectancy is higher here. Defense of the NHS runs straight across the British political spectrum, Murray says.

MURRAY: You wouldn't find a single leading politician on either the left wing - the Labour Party - or the right wing in the Conservative Party that would talk about privatizing the NHS. That would be electoral poison.

FRAYER: The National Health Service polls better than the Queen. A lawmaker once said the NHS is the closest thing the English people have to a religion. It featured big in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics...


FRAYER: ...With doctors dancing to swing music and hospital beds arranged to spell out the letters NHS in aerial views from above.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Please welcome Erich McElroy.


FRAYER: Erich McElroy is stand-up comic originally from Seattle. He's been in the U.K nearly two decades and now lives in suburban South London with his wife, two kids and a new puppy. He likes to tell jokes about the first time he saw a doctor here.

ERICH MCELROY: So I went there with an American expectation where you have to pay and have to put, you know, credit card first, basically, or your insurance paperwork first. And then I saw a doctor - gave me a couple of pills. And he sent me on my way.

FRAYER: You were like, where's the cash register?

MCELROY: Yeah. So I went back to the same receptionist. And I was like, what do I do now? And she said, you go home. And that was it. And I was like, this is amazing.

FRAYER: British health care is funded through payroll taxes, not at the point of service. Erich doesn't have to worry about needing health care through an employer.

MCELROY: Yes. It's not spa care, but it's care.

FRAYER: What would happen if you had to move back to the States?

MCELROY: We don't know what we would do, you know? Or I'd have to get a real job again, which would be awful (laughter).


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This new health service will be organized on a national scale.

FRAYER: The NHS was founded 70 years ago.

ROBERTA BIVINS: The war was barely over, you know? The rubble was still smoking.

FRAYER: Historian Roberta Bivins, another American expat who has been in the U.K. for decades, says after the pain of World War II, Britons wanted health care for all. And they're still very protective of that today.

BIVINS: People here are very, very uncomfortable with the idea that companies should profit out of someone getting sick. In the U.S., of course, we're much more comfortable with the idea that the market will provide services.

FRAYER: Erich, the comedian, says there is one thing he would change. His comedy routine includes another joke about what happened after he had minor surgery here.

MCELROY: The first thing they gave me after I came out of surgery was a fish pie, which I say in the routine - that it put me back in the hospital because it was disgusting - because, you know, they might give us health care, but the food is still terrible in this country.

FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.