Bad Samaritans

Tyler Cowen links to an article that essentially reduces to the finding that people experiencing medical emergencies cannot count on the kindness of strangers. In that spirit, I'd like to tell you a short story about single-payer health care.

I think people have the general impression that single payer health care is just like other health care, only the government foots the bill. Unfortunately, that's not quite right. Under such regimes, we routinely discover regulatory quirks that impose strict limits on the quantity and quality of care. This is the reality of government medicine. I don't make these stories up - believe me, I very much wish they had never happened to me in the first place. But facts are facts, and this is one such factual story.

Once, when I was attempting to use an insulin pump, I went for a four-mile run. As per the recommendation, I shut the insulin pump down to prevent a hypoglycemic event, but I didn't seem to have timed it correctly because at about the 2-mile mark, I felt myself going low. Unfotunately, I did not have any glucose tablets with me at the time, so I was in a bit of a pickle. No glucose, no phone, no money, and far from home.

Luckily, I was running through the University of Ottawa's campus. I reasoned that there must be a medical clinic nearby. I was right. In a few short minutes, I had managed to find a student medical clinic, and I walked right in.

I told the receptionist what the issue was. I explained that I'm not a student, but I happened to be running and noticed that I went hypoglycemic. I needed some glucose in order to bring my blood sugar back up so that I could walk back to my starting point, where my wife would be waiting to pick me up.

Keep in mind that in Canada, health care is supposedly "universal."

The first thing I was told was that they could not admit me into the clinic because I was not a student of the university. After some hypoglycemia-induced panic, I managed to explain that all I really needed was some sugar. I didn't need treatment, I just needed, you know, some glucose tablets. Four would do.

But the nurses, and later the doctor, explained that in order to give me something for my emergency medical condition, they would first have to admit me to the clinic. And they couldn't do that, because I wasn't a university student.

I don't remember exactly what happened next. Forgive me, I was hypoglycemic. At any rate, eventually one of the nurses or secretaries offered to give me a bottle of orange juice - not as a medical treatment, but just as, you know, a gift between friends. I profusely thanked her and sipped a measured portion of juice to treat my low. The crisis was averted.

Meanwhile, the medical staff looked on, "unable" to help, but unwilling to let me just go. I think someone loaned me their personal cell phone so that I could call my wife to pick me up from the clinic. It took some time, but eventually that's what happened.