Living with American health care

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: Democracy here in the U.S. can be a messy business. The health care reform debate is but the latest example. Today President Obama held a televised ceremony to sign the health care overhaul bill into law. Mr. Obama told lawmakers and others at the White House that the bill marked the start of a new season for the country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Here in this country we shape our own destiny. That is what we do. That is who we are. That is what makes us the United States of America. And we have now just enshrined, as soon as I sign this bill, the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care. And it is an extraordinary achievement that has happened because of all of you and all the advocates all across the country. So thank you. Thank you. God bless you and may God bless the United States of America.

WERMAN: The rest of the world has been watching closely and we've been bringing you a variety of international perspectives on the U.S. health care debate. Today we get that from Justin Webb. He was based in the U.S. for the BBC for eight years before moving back to Britain last year. Webb now anchors the BBC's main morning news radio broadcast, the Today Programme.

JUSTIN WEBB: The big picture viewed from here in Europe is that America has taken a really important step, not towards a British style NHS, but a step in the direction of every American has a right having some kind of health coverage. And that to really the rest of the rich world to be honest, but certainly to Europe, just looks to most people including senior conservatives here in the U.K., and I was talking to one the other day, it just looks like America joining the normal world as it were.

WERMAN: And for you Justin, issues of health care came right into the spotlight of your life just before Christmas in 2008. You were living in Washington at the time and your son Sam got ill. What happened?

WEBB: He was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, which is a horrible life-threatening illness. It's not brought on by any kind of lifestyle thing, it's an auto-immune disease actually that just comes in youngsters and lots of people will know people with it if not have experience of it themselves. And it was fascinating for us once we sort of got over the shock and the sadness about it all, to see how the American health care system coped and then really not much more than six months later to move back to Britain and see how the British system coped. And as you'd expect there are strengths in each. I think in a way, people in each country don't fully understand the strengths of the other country. That's what I brought away from this. So in the United States we were very well treated. Sam was wonderfully well treated. He had access to fantastic medicine and fantastic technology as an insulin pump that was made available very quickly under the American system. Now there are all sorts of co-pays and things, it's not as if it was free and our insurance certainly paid a lot of money, but we were well insured, so everything went rather well. So that was the situation in America. We came back to Britain and lo and behold everything's free. You know, the test strips, a lot of people with Type II diabetes will know what I'm talking about now. There's test strips that you test your blood with. You go to a British doctor and you say I'd like some more please and they say yes, how many? And they just give them to you. To be honest, it was an extraordinary sort of change. I was really used to the American system where everything is accounted for and paid for by someone and quite often by you. So here in Britain all these thing are handed out, but, although the medicine is just as good, and there's no question in my mind that Sam is as well treated as he is here in America, I have to say that the technology, in particular that pump that pumps insulin into him is a very state of the art thing. It is not, at the moment, available in the U.K., the particular pump that Sam uses. And that is, at least in part because, the pump makers can make money in America and they can't make it under the British NHS.

WERMAN: I'm wondering when you went back to the U.K., how much health care actually kind of showed up in your calculations about getting back to the U.K .and finding something that was perhaps better?

WEBB: Well that's an interesting thing. We would not have moved back here for the health care. There's no question at all that we were perfectly happy in America and we were well insured and had no prospect of losing it. But I have to say that my son would be in the category of those people who would go along to a health insurer in years to come, and he wants to be a film director in Hollywood at the moment, he's 10 years old so he can still have those dreams, what would he do for health insurance had the Obama bill not passed? Now of course, American health insurance companies would have turned him down because he has a serious pre-existing condition. If that genuinely does change, which it seems that it is going to now, then that for someone like my son, is a major plus. It means that for him there is a possibility of working on either side of the Atlantic. Of course it just means for American as well, and for everyone who has a pre-existing condition, it's a greater freedom for that group of people.

WERMAN: The BBC's Justin Webb, thanks very much for sharing your views and experiences with us. I greatly appreciate it.

WEBB: Pleasure. Nice to talk to you.