To understand the dangers of a government takeover of health care, America should study Britain’s system, which exemplifies the shortcomings of heavily regulated, nationalized health care. A recent report by Robin Harris of the Heritage Foundation outlines the deterioration of Britain’s health care system due to years of liberal health policy marked by heavy concentration of power, higher taxes and the proliferation of rules and restrictions by the National Health Service (NHS).

The NHS is Britain’s government-run health care system. It acts as a single-payer system which originated with the nationalization of thousands of Britain’s hospitals. According to Harris, this “centralized, single-payer health service, free at the point of consumption, was an ideal prescription for waste, rationing by queues, and inordinate public expenditure.”

The woes caused by the NHS are multitudinous. As a result of the long waits to receive care, patients have instead begun to purchase treatment themselves, even going abroad to receive care. Access and quality of care are low, and rationing of services has led to discrimination against the elderly. As with any government-run system, more wealthy citizens have a higher level of mobility within the system, and are more able to obtain a higher quality of care than others. It is thus that the NHS has led to increased inequality in care received by Britons.

Since 1997, Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both significantly increased NHS spending. However, according to Harris, health care has not significantly improved due to the spending splurge, and Britain remains well behind other European nations in measures of quality of care. Clearly, the NHS is a failing institution that has sacrificed the health and the quality of care received by the people it serves.

The British health care system should serve as a bleak warning for lawmakers pursuing health care reform. Though congressional Democrats’ proposed legislation would not impose the same structure of government-run health care as the NHS, the concentration of control over health benefits and regulatory restrictions on the kinds of insurance Americans could have would put America on a glide path to a system of national health insurance, with many of the characteristics of the NHS. A public option, whether explicit or not, would create an unlevel playing field for insurers which could ultimately put private insurers out of business. Even without a public option, government regulation of premiums, insurers’ medical loss ratios, and detailed health benefits packages would give Washington the ability to manipulate the private insurance industry as it desired. Increased federal power would put decision-making into the hands of politicians, rather than the patients and doctors with whom it belongs.

Government control of health care can be avoided with true reform. Without true reform, and the progressive growth of government control will entail longterm costs. Market inefficiencies ensue, resulting in less innovation, a decreased focus on increasing value, fewer consumer choices and control over health providers, waste, and even political manipulation of the system. European Parliament member Daniel Hannan remarked that the “US would be making a bad mistake if it adopted the failed model of the U.K. National Health Service.” Policymakers should heed his advice.

Co-authored by Rick Sherwood.