A visit to Northern Irelandby Denise Early on Dec. 19, 2011, under Health
After spending a day in Dublin to recover from jet lag, I took a train up to Belfast, Northern Ireland to see a younger friend, Siobhan (pronounced “shavaun”) and her husband and two kids. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom (along with England, Scotland, and Wales) and has the National Health Service which covers all citizens, no matter what age they are.
The National Health Service provides medical care to all UK citizens, and people don’t get bills for services they receive. None. Nada. According to Siobhan’s husband, Niall, who works for Invest Northern Ireland, everyone in Northern Ireland now gets their prescriptions covered 100%, which is quite a generous (and expensive) benefit. Older people in Northern Ireland also get a free telephone line and help with their heating bills.
Siobhan works for AgeNI, which is a bit like the AARP in the United States. This organization advocates for older citizens, but it also contracts with the government to provide certain services for older people.
I met with the CEO of AgeNI, Anne O’Reilly, to ask her about how older people are cared for in Norther Ireland. I learned that the ongoing recession is putting a lot of pressure on the government to look at ways to cut out some of the free services and pass on costs to citizens. It sounded a lot like the ongoing debate in the United States, and we talked about how our systems compare. Ms O’Reilly said that some proposals would reduce government costs by creating private insurance that would cover some part of peoples’ medical costs.
Changes being discussed for the United Kingdom health care system sounded a lot like the American system – except that the UK will never move to for-profit health care like we have in the US. That would be expensive and politically unpopular. But it sounds like more costs might be put onto patients in the future because the government can’t afford the current all-inclusive system.
Ms. O’Reilly talked about the challenge of the growing population over 80 years of age because these folks require more medical care and more services. She quoted figures for costs related to the older population in Northern Ireland: The average cost of care for people below 79 years old is about $5,300 per year. The average goes up to nearly $19,000 per person over 80. In the US, Medicare spends $9,000 per year per beneficiary, which is 70% more than UK costs for those under 79.
So the UK needs to move a bit towards the American system where people need to cough up more money for their medical care. But that means going from $0 to… some number that might be reasonable. In the US, our political leaders are talking about going from an average of $6,000 per year cost to seniors to double or triple that number.
I know. I know. The UK system is socialist and terrible…. but it seems like it could be tweaked to save the government some money and not break the wallets of its senior citizens. In the US, I wonder how much more our senior citizens (I mean, older people) can afford to pay out of pocket for their care.