‘Obamacare’ and the healthy uses of applied Christianity

It will be interesting to see what happens to ‘Obamacare’ in the US, recently upheld by court order, and the closest US citizens have come to the universal state funded health care common in other western nations.

Here in New Zealand, we have had universal state-funded health care since 1938. It was part of a package of social welfare initiatives introduced that year by the Labour government of Michael Joseph Savage. There was a storm of protest from opposition parties; but the morality, as far as Savage and his cabinet were concerned, was clear. He summed it up in two words during parliamentary debate – ‘applied Christianity’

Michael Joseph Savage

The 1938 Social Security Act offered support for those dispossessed through no fault of their own. It joined an effort to house people and public works schemes that provided employment and infrastructure for a nation.

This was not to create lifestyle choices for the lazy. The problem, back then, was that New Zealand had been prostrated by war, depression and penury; and for a people whose morale had been pulverised by a generation of misfortune, the new face of government in the form of Savage – kind, avuncular, caring – was a gift from heaven.  Savage and his cabinet were not going to let the people suffer when government had the means to help them get back on their feet.  He was determined to get his 1938 welfare legislation through, even deferring life-saving surgery for himself that year to make sure it happened. There were reasons why Savage’s portrait hung on the wall in many households alongside that of Christ. When Savage died in early 1940, the nation went into mourning.

New Zealand has had universal public health care – tweaked and re-jigged, but broadly there – ever since. The only serious effort to dislodge it came in 1992 when the Finance Minister of the day issued what she called the ‘Mother of all Budgets’. Among its provisions was a charge against patients for use of public hospitals. This was presented as ‘partial cost recovery’, which did nothing to allay the popular impression of a punitive state skewering sick people a second time if they used the service they had already paid for via tax.

The lesson was clear. To New Zealanders, universal health-care was a right. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


15 thoughts on “‘Obamacare’ and the healthy uses of applied Christianity

  1. Okay so I normally don’t give my opinion on this sort of stuff, but I do believe Obamacare is a step in the right direction for medical care. As someone who would’ve never been able to get insurance because of “preexisting medical conditions,” it’s nice to know that issue no longer exists and I can get healthcare, especially since I have to get two or three health examinations a year, more than a normal person.

    1. There’s certainly no question that in New Zealand the state system has enabled people with pre-existing conditions to ge treatment that insurers (which we also have) wouldn’t touch – often, after a long wait period. But treatment nonetheless.

  2. This should be a fundamental right for all people everywhere. Here in the UK our NHS is creaking under the strain of under investment but it’s still an absolute marvel. I find it mind boggling that the US has taken so long to get to this start point.

    1. The NZ system has had cutbacks and under-investment too, for a long time – predictably, perhaps, as medical costs go up and the system starts to creak under the strain of population scales and demographics that did not exist when it was first thought of. But when you think about it, it IS indeed marvellous.

  3. I certainly see universal health care as an economic public good. The same as I see education. Australia is similar, I think, to New Zealand. I won’t say it is the same, as it is some years since I lived in New Zealand and I don’t remember the details of health care in New Zealand. I do remember they were keen on morphein as a pain killer!

    I have for years failed to understand the health system in the USA. I don’t understand the funding of their education system either, other than it seems designed to ensure the poor stay poor by way of limiting their educational opportunities.

  4. As I am from the US, I am for Obamacare. I was an RN for thirty two years and I witnessed first hand how broken our system is and all the children and adults who fell through the cracks. It feels like only the rich and the ones with insurance get the needed care. I for one would like to our healthcare and insurance companies be overhauled.

  5. Oh, dear. Should I bite? I’ll put forth a contrary view. America is still discussing what constitutes a “right” in the context of health care. That universal healthcare is still being debated (and that debate has not ended, despite the passage of Obamacare) reflects the fact that many Americans do not believe that the right to healthcare exists, especially at the expense of taxpayers. There is a streak of individualism in America that seems difficult for many “enlightened” people from other nations to understand. Indeed, the “enlightened” progressives of our own society can’t seem to realize this cultural characteristic exists. But it is alive and well in what is mockingly referred to as “flyover country” here the states, that is, anyplace between the west and east coasts. I said that debate has not ended; recent polls here indicate that the majority of Americans disagree with Obamacare. Certain aspects are acceptable to most folks, including eliminating the existing precondition clauses, but the majority balk at being told they must purchase health insurance.

    There are other, perfectly valid reasons why Obamacare is a disaster in the making. First, there isn’t a government program that actually works. Why on earth would anyone think that putting a government bureaucrat in charge of healthcare will result in people getting care? The current system of government-provided healthcare (Medicare, for seniors, and Medicaid, for the poor) is rife with mismanagement and fraud. Second, the costs are unknown, but anticipated to be unbearable. Even without this new government-funded program, it is expected that our social welfare systems will be bankrupt within two decades. We can’t afford to pay for this expansion. Obamacare will add 25 million people to Medicaid rolls. I see that the entire population of New Zealand is less than 5 million. People may differ on what constitutes a “right” but this debate boils down to a simple question: Who will pay?

    1. If NZ can manage with only 5 million, and Australa can do it it with 21 million, why is it the USA with a much larger tax paying population, can’t manage a simple public good?

      1. Good question! The ‘how do we pay’ issue is given perspective when we realise that New Zealand brought the system in on a population of just 1.1 million. The question was raised at the time, and a serious one for Savage’s government. But history gives the answer. In 1938, New Zealand’s per-capita GDP was the highest in the world. That changed later – but the systems were kept in place. Changes were made, some of them dramatically paring back; but we still have relatively good public health care, on a population of some 4.43 million Kiwis living locally. The 2012-13 health budget is $NZ14.12 billion. GDP in the year to 31 December was $204.5 billion. Yes, there are issues, but the history to date shows that the health contribution has been manageable for New Zealand, even on a four-fold increase in population and a rise in the individual cost of treatment.

  6. Yes, I think it’s vital. I know some people think welfare benefits make people feckless and that might be true where unemployment benefit is concerned but not health care. People can’t help getting ill.

  7. I think the furor over Obamacare shows just how disfunctional our politics are here in the US at the moment. My friends who are doctors — and some who are nurses — think it’s beyond horrible, police state stuff. Me, I’m not sure it matters where their paycheck comes from. As for insurance companies, I wonder if anyone has ever linked the rise in health care costs in the US — about 1000% since the early ’70s — to the availability of group health insurance? Most doctors here charge according to what the insurance companies will pay, not what the patients can afford. This never seemed to square with what I learned about price-setting in the marketplace in Econ 101; in effect, what’s happened is that our insurance companies have priced health care out of reach of individuals.

  8. I do not “share” many blog posts on my Facebook page but your post so illustrated the lunacy surrounding healthcare in United States that I couldn’t resist. Predictably, no one commented, which is as I suspected, for your post makes clear the reasoning behind universal healthcare.

    The United States has lost its sense of itself is my belief. First, Americans need to remember the definition of government versus the definition of business. Then, we can determine the role of government in our lives, and when we do, we will do within the context of inalienable rights that we once held as “self-evident.”

    Excellent post, Matthew.


    1. Thank you! In general, I have always thought that kindness, caring ad a genuine concern for others would go a long way towards solving many of the world’s problems (and not just healthcare matters). Savage led the way here, 75 years ago.

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