PARIS – What’s the old joke? A conservative is a liberal who has just been mugged? Well, I am a conservative who has just been “mugged” by the socialized French health system, and, to my astonishment, I’m a believer. I have lived in France for nearly 19 years. Until about two years ago I was very cross about the amount I had to pay in taxes and in “social charges,” which finance the medical system, in which a pauper gets about the same medical care as a millionaire.
Let me take you quickly through my experience of being gravely ill in France.
For 20 years or so I had been a gobbler of antacids in one form or another, and in October 1998 I began to have trouble swallowing. I assumed it was an ulcer and took the appropriate medicine, but it didn’t go away. At the end of the year I was referred to a doctor who performed an endoscopy, in which, under anesthetic, a tube is inserted in the throat, allowing the doctor to have a look around and do a biopsy. He found that I had a malignant tumor at the base of my esophagus, where it meets the stomach, that had virtually closed the passage.
The doctor lost no time. He called my local hospital, which fortunately was one of the four in the Paris area that could do the operation that I needed, and reserved me a bed for the next day.
At the hospital, within an hour or two of my arrival, my surgeon, who has the title of professor, as he is head of the department of digestive surgery, paid me a visit. He outlined the operation I would have, and, in answer to my question, said the mortality rate for the kind of cancer that I had was about 85 percent within the first three years. But, he said, “Don’t worry, we’re going to beat it.”
Foolishly, I suppose, I believed him. Now, more than two years later, I still do; he has lots of charisma.
After my operation, which lasted more than 10 hours, I was in the hospital another three weeks, then home, where a nurse came by each day to give me the shots I needed, check and dress my surgical wounds and make sure that I wasn’t losing weight. Then back to the hospital for three days of chemotherapy every three weeks – four treatments in all.
I was operated on in mid-January 1999, went back to work part-time in mid-May, and returned to work full-time in September. (For those of you who are less than enthusiastic at the prospect of going to work in the morning, there is nothing like a serious illness to adjust your outlook.) Why does socialized medicine seem to work in some places and be a disaster elsewhere? Anyone who reads the British press is assaulted daily with tales of how cancer patients have to wait months for an appointment with an oncologist, or a candidate for a hip or knee replacement has to wait years. In France, such delays can be measured in days or, at most, weeks.
Why the difference? Take a deep breath. These are the numbers, provided by the French and British health ministries and translated into dollars (bear in mind that Britain and France have roughly the same populations). French total expenditure on health in 1999 was $109.5 billion. In Britain it was about $78.02 billion. Per capita, it was $1,800 in France and $1,312 in Britain. As a percentage of the gross domestic product, it was 8.5 percent in France and 5.9 percent in Britain.
I should mention that I am not yet out of the woods. My markers, blood tests that indicate the presence of cancer, started to rise last summer, and since the end of September I have again been in chemotherapy. The markers have dropped consistently, showing that the therapy is working. The treatment is debilitating. I expect to resume work part-time from April or May until the summer vacation, and full-time thereafter.
Last summer, I asked a friend of mine, a dean at a medical school in New England, what the cost of my care would have been in the United States. “About $700,000,” she said. I haven’t seen a bill. Well, that is not quite true. I got a bill for 43 francs (about $6.50). I’m not sure what it was for, but I paid it.
I no longer complain about my taxes.
Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune