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Column: Book on health care an eye-opener

FARGO, N.D. -- Attitudes about the new health care reform law have been colored by political persuasion, antigovernment passions and economic status. When that happens, fact and truth are the losers.

I'm not sure what to make of the sweeping reform. Unlike so many of the critics or admirers of "Obamacare," I'm not smart enough to conclude the law is either disaster or God-send. But, also unlike most of those oh-so-certain folks, I've read the bill and countless analyses and summaries penned by health experts, political ideologues, think tankers and others. There is no consensus. And an honest perusal of criticism or praise has to consider the source.

That being said, I recommend for anyone -- no matter one's opinion of reform -- T.R. Reid's book "The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care." It was written before the debate heated up in Congress. Reid, a veteran Washington Post reporter, visited wealthy, industrialized, freemarket democracies like our own. His findings are startling, not only in comparisons of health systems to the U.S. system, but also in putting the lie to myths about health care in other nations.

Reid didn't just dash in and dash out of a country and then write a story. His was a long-term project. He and his family actually lived in most of the nations he wanted to learn about. They were subject to the health care systems in several countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Japan and Canada. So rather than look at their systems as an outsider, he and his family were participants.

Again and again he found access to good health care was better than in the U.S. Again and again he found most countries spent less money as a percentage of domestic spending and got better outcomes than in the U.S. Again and again he found foreign systems less expensive because they did not rely entirely on an expensive layer of for-profit insurers, but instead used government pay mechanisms in concert with private sector doctors and hospitals.

No system Reid examined was perfect. No country was entirely satisfied with its system, and calls for reforms and adjustment were universal. But none of those nations wanted to scrap its system in favor of U.S.-style health care. The U.S. system was the example used in those nations as the worst among developed democracies.

Reid also explodes myths used by opponents of U.S. reform. Among them: "It's all socialized medicine." Not true. Some foreign systems that work better than ours are more privatized than ours.

"They ration care; there are waiting lists." The claim runs counter to the facts, Reid says. In many nations, patients have quicker access than Americans do. And unlike Americans who are locked into specific insurance plans, people in Germany and Switzerland can choose any private plan they want, and switch when they want. In France and Japan, they don't get a choice of insurance company but have total choice of providers anywhere in the country.

There's a lot more. Reid's overall conclusion is that international models in whole or part could work in the U.S. That is, if Americans would concede that by most objective international measures, our system is not the best in the world.

Reach Forum Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at The Forum and Daily Globe are both owned by Forum Communications Co.