If anyone needed additional proof that a public system is the best way to deliver health care to Israelis, they could find it in the global spread of the novel coronavirus. The contrast between the dysfunction of the American health system and the relatively rapid response of Israel’s public system is striking.
The United States, which has many of the world’s best epidemiologists and physicians, was unable to identify, prevent and halt the epidemic. It only woke up after communities were infected by people they cannot trace.
The notion that people suspected of being infected with corona would have to pay for testing and treatment out of their own pockets is virtually inconceivable to Israelis, but that’s the reality in the United States, at least in the first weeks of the outbreak. In Israel, health care is seen as a basic right, not a consumer good, and the government is considered responsible for the health of its citizens.
Because Israel’s health care system is centralized, decisions can be made and implemented quickly. One example of this was the establishment by the Magen David Adom emergency medical service of a dedicated hotline to answer questions about the new coronavirus and, if needed, send paramedics to patients’ homes to test for the virus. That service can help to curb the spread of the virus by keeping possible carriers away from hospitals and doctors’ offices.
As a result of the fundamental belief in universal health care – which is expressed in the 1995 National Health Insurance Law, one of the most socially conscious pieces of legislation on the books – the number of people in Israel who are uninsured or have fallen through the cracks in the system, is negligible. They are the same people who in some other countries would be lost in the shuffle during an epidemic.
In the United States, tens of millions of people simply don’t have access to decent medical care, including testing for the coronavirus. In the case of such a highly infectious virus, the problem isn’t only that of the individual. It becomes an entire nation’s problem.
But Israel cannot rest on its laurels. The system is efficient and effective, but it’s being stretched to its limits in terms of both human resources and physical infrastructure. The stage of halting the spread of the disease will be followed by the treatment stage. That phase holds the greatest challenge.
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The next government must learn from the new coronavirus epidemic the lesson of the importance of making the public health care system stronger and the payoff delivered by these investments.