Is British-Style Health Care The Answer?

Mary Brewis, receiving care from a private nurse.
Mary Brewis has been battling colon cancer for 6 years.

She's still alive because of the care she got under Britain's National Health System, and more recently, in spite of that same system's bureaucratic rules.

"I really thought it would care for me from cradle to grave," Brewis said.

Like everyone here - Brewis is automatically covered by public health insurance.

"All that treatment, the surgery, and the consulting and the hospital stays - you didn't put out money for that?" asked CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer.

"No, no," Brewis said. 'That was all on the National Health."

The NHS was set up 60 years ago to guarantee that everyone in the United Kingdom would have health care, but over the years complaints have grown over long waits and poor service.

Under fierce pressure to improve - the NHS annual budget was tripled over the past decade. Now, Britain spends just over $2,700 per person on health care, compared to an average $6,700 in the U.S. And a recent survey shows 90 percent of British patients rated their NHS care as good to excellent.

But it's not perfect, as Brewis discovered when the cancer spread to her lungs, and the NHS said it wouldn't pay for an experimental drug to shrink her tumors.

"You get people who are desperate for the best drug that is available worldwide," said Michael Summers, the vice-chairman of the Patients Association. "But the government body has said, 'Hey, look, we can't always afford these drugs.' Because it might extend your life by six months, but is it going to save your life? This sort of attitude can creep in. It is most unfortunate and heart rending."

Brewis has lost two appeals so far, and had to borrow money to pay almost $2,000 a week for the drug - and a private nurse.

"The time that I have left with my family is very, very precious, and what makes it very difficult is that we are now, as a couple, as a family, are spending virtually all our time trying to fight this bureaucracy," Brewis said.

Dr. Karol Sikora, a British cancer specialist, became the unknowing poster boy for a series of ads made by a U.S. lobby group opposed to public health insurance. In fact, Dr. Sikora does believe in Britain's universal public system, but he says it can be wasteful, inefficient and unfair.

"If I could chose one system today, I would chose the British system over the American, if I was an average American," Sikora said. "Having said that, I think there is a huge opportunity for the Obama administration to design something that is completely novel."

Sikora advocates a mixture of public and private insurance - the competition acting to ensure efficiency and make sure cost-cutting doesn't deny patients like Brewis innovative drugs.

"I just, I feel I have a right to live as long as I can possibly live," Brewis said. "Everybody does. Nobody should be allowed to say that somebody has lived long enough and they can't live any longer."

No one would argue with that - the constant challenge is to deliver on a limited budget.

  • Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."