Even “backwards” Saudi Arabia has better healthcare programs than the U.S.

The landmark healthcare reform legislation passed by the U.S. Congress on Sunday promises to be the beginning of further reforms in the healthcare industry that guarantees that an additional 32 million Americans will receive affordable medical care by 2019 regardless of their income.

The Democrats, however, continue to be hammered for this “un-American”
and “socialist” approach to healthcare. It’s ludicrous to suggest for even a moment that legislation designed to guarantee all Americans health coverage under government supervision is the road to socialism.

Clearly the existing free-enterprise system in which health insurance companies have complete control is not working. Yet many Americans rather see their neighbors suffer than have the government put in place a sensible and equitable program.

Most Europeans, who enjoy the benefits of nationalized healthcare and view it as their right, look at these overwrought, emotional arguments against government-supervised healthcare with disbelief.

Although criticism of Saudi Arabia’s “backwardness” from certain quarters is loud and persistent, the Kingdom has a distinct edge over the United States: Mandated healthcare for all residents.

And by residents, I just don’t mean Saudis, but expatriate workers that number at least 6 million.

Although we don’t call it nationalized or socialized healthcare, the Saudi Ministry of Health, and to a lesser extent the Ministry of Defense and Aviation, the Ministry of Interior and the National Guard provide primary healthcare at about 2,000 medical facilities throughout the country. In addition, preventive care and
rehabilitation also is provided.

Consider this: A Saudi living below the poverty level and suffering from terminal cancer will receive around the clock care no matter what stage of the illness. If the patient lives in Jeddah but needs treatment in Riyadh, not only is there a bed available to him, but he is entitled free transportation via aircraft to Riyadh and is permitted to have a relative accompany him. Lodging for the relative
will be provided as part of the coverage. Further, there are no cost-sharing requirements for the patient or his family.

What Western insurance company provides such benefits?

As a Saudi citizen and an international university student I enjoy an embarrassment of riches in healthcare coverage that no American can possibly dream. I have full coverage, like any Saudi, under the Ministry of Health. While studying abroad I have full medical coverage under the Ministry of Higher Education. As an international student and legal resident of the United Kingdom I am covered by Britain’s National Health Service. International university students employed by the National Guard have additional coverage.

Expatriate workers are protected as well. All Saudi employers are mandated by
the government to provide medical insurance to its foreign employees and their dependents.

The Saudi government sets aside 11 percent of its total budget for healthcare. The healthcare budget is obviously funded from government revenue but not by taxing its citizens. Naturally, U.S. taxpayer costs to fund President Obama’s healthcare reform package remains a major theme among Republicans. Granted, I don’t pay a single Saudi Riyal for my health coverage, but the U.S. government’s own Congressional Budget Office estimates that when the key aspects of the law take full effect in 2019, the overall cost to the U.S. taxpayer for healthcare will be only about $25 billion more than if no healthcare reform was enacted. Further, healthcare costs to individual families could fall as much as
30 percent, according to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office.

For all the shouting, handwringing and boorish behavior from American conservatives who complain that the new healthcare law curbs Americans’ freedoms, they’ve seem to have forgotten the Four Freedoms championed by their own president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 69 years ago: In addition to the U.S. Constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and religion, there is the fundamental right of freedom from
want and freedom from fear.

American conservatives have already stripped much of the West of freedom from fear by whipping up hysteria over imagine threats of communism, socialism and fascism creeping in democratic societies. And now they are ignoring the fundamental right that any person regardless of their station in life is entitled to healthcare.  Roosevelt may have had poverty on his mind when he articulated America’s right to freedom from want in his 1941 State of the Union address, but in the 21st century affordable healthcare deserves the same consideration as
freedom from hunger.

As a Saudi woman, it would be intellectually dishonest for me to deny that Americans enjoy almost limitless freedoms while I still can’t drive a car or get an education or job without my guardian’s permission. Even the British, who complain often about their Big Brother government, marvel at the purity of freedom that Americans enjoy.  Yet the temper tantrums displayed by the mob at the U.S. Capitol last weekend as the healthcare reform bill was debated and
ultimately passed, illustrates a breathtaking example of selfishness and lack of understanding of just how the rest of the world admires the U.S. government for its willingness to reform itself.

Next week I will walk into a Saudi government hospital without an appointment, consult with my doctor after only a few minutes’ wait, and receive treatment without ever opening my wallet. I have it pretty good. Can the millions of employed Americans who have no health insurance say the same?

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About Sabria Jawhar

Sabria Jawhar is a Saudi columnist and reporter for the Jeddah-based English-language daily newspaper Saudi Gazette. She currently lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom, where she is a PhD student at the University of Newcastle. She is considered one of the leading female journalists in Saudi Arabia, where she covered breaking news events at a time when such news coverage was open only to men. Her news beats included the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior. In the summer of 2005, she earned a Fellowship at the prestigious Korean Press Foundation and Yonsei Communication Research Institute in Seoul, South Korea. In 2007 she was a panelist in the United Nations 15th International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East in Tokyo, Japan. She earned her bachelor’s of arts degree in English language and literature at the King Abdul Aziz University and a master’s degree in applied linguistics at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah. Her column archives can be found at her website http://www.saudiwriter.blogspot.com/

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