Has Universal Health Care Arrived… In Iraq?

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Last week the Huffington Post ran a fury-inspiring article about the fact that according to the Iraqi constitution, which was paid for and shepherded by the American taxpayer, Iraqi citizens are guaranteed health care through a single-payer system.

Now, why should such a disclosure inspire fury? Two possible reasons, which probably depend on your political persuasion:

  • You are furious because Iraqis see how sensible universal health care is, while we Americans, with our giant, wealthy and intact country, can’t seem to get it together enough to adopt the policy ourselves.

or

  • You are furious because American blood and treasure should not be supporting evil, commie, Nazi octogenarian-killing policies like universal health care.

The writer of the article, Mark Dorlester, definitely falls into the first group, and makes no bones about it:

“The most senior members of the Republican establishment - and some Democrats like Max Baucus (D-MT) - have gladly spent more taxpayer funds to ensure health care as a Constitutional right in Iraq than they are willing to spend to give you any level of guaranteed coverage.”

We mulled this over for about 30 seconds and quickly realized that regardless of where you stand, this is all much ado about nothing. The Iraqi constitution may guarantee universal health care for its citizens, but it’s not even close to a reality. Iraq is entirely too screwed up to have universal health care. I doubt they even have universal remotes.

I spoke to Richard Garfield, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Nursing, and an adviser during the past 10 years to Iraq’s Ministry of Health. He explained that Iraq’s infrastructure is far too damaged to support universal health care.


“It would take 10 years of peace at least to get there, IF the commitment were there,” he said.

He said the universal health care pledge in the Iraqi constitution is aspirational, and is born out of the fact that prior to 1990, under Saddam Hussein, Iraq enjoyed pretty high-end universal health care, funded by the country’s considerable oil revenue. For a while, that money will probably be spent rebuilding the country.

These days Iraqis who need to see a doctor must pay out of pocket, though it’s not nearly as expensive there as it is here. If they need more extensive treatment they often travel to Jordan. The only thing even close to universal health care in Iraq are the international aid agencies there, which Garfield says are “not particularly useful,” mainly due to the minimal availability of services.

“Security costs are two to three times higher than the program costs [and] international salaries are much higher than national salaries.,” Garfield points out. “The presence of international organizations is generally more symbolic than substantive. There are lots of areas that no foreigners regularly can go to.”

So there you have it: health care in Iraq… currently about as universal as the American variety.

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