Close to Home: A vacation sample of Italian health care

As seasoned travelers, my wife, Diane, and I always had great empathy for people who have had their long- awaited vacations interrupted or cut short by an illness or an accident. But we never allowed for the possibility that it might happen to us one day.

Just a few weeks ago, after three marvelous weeks in Italy, that dreaded day arrived. Our bella vacanza became un viaggio all’ospedale. Diane had to be hospitalized in the Alto Adige region due to a recurrence of an illness for which she was hospitalized here a little more than a year ago.

We arrived at Ospedale di Bressanone with considerable trepidation. Our fears were somewhat allayed when the intake clerk only needed Diane’s driver’s license to check her in, and in less than five minutes she was in triage in a private room. In a blink of an eye, we were immersed in one of the best medical systems in the world.

In Italy, health care is a right. The national health service, known as Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, or SSN, guarantees universal care that is almost free at the point of service. It’s important to note that there are private hospitals in Italy — mostly in the more prosperous north — that offer more privacy and shorter wait times for nonessential care. Citizens can access these facilities for an annual fee that is roughly equivalent to the cost of a few patient co-pays in the United States. But no Italian citizen can opt out of SSN. Everyone is in the pool, as it were. In short, Italy utilizes a hybrid system of public and private health care that does, in fact, offer choices to the citizens of that country.

Diane’s Italian hospital stay — three nights and four days, a regimen of intravenous fluids, ultrasound and no medications — was nearly identical to her experience here. The bill in Santa Rosa, mostly covered by our expensive insurance, totaled more than $46,000. In Italy, we paid less than $5,300. And this was in a private hospital. I’m certain the bill would have been even lower if she had been treated in a public hospital.

It is well known that the United States spends far more per capita on health care than any other developed country in the world. In fact, we spend more than double the average of those countries and almost three times what Italy spends. We also have the highest percentage of people not covered by any kind of health plan.

The Affordable Care Act was an imperfect step in the right direction, but Republicans in Washington have made it their primary political goal to overturn it. If that happens, the ranks of the uninsured will swell dramatically.

The cost of health care in the United States was a huge factor for an Italian friend who lives here but recently opted to fly home to Italy to have surgery. Her family’s health insurance here is in that horrific category known as “catastrophic” — a term that never would be connected to health insurance in any other developed country — which means it is affordable but extremely limited in what it covers. It was far cheaper for her to make the long flight across the Atlantic than to have the surgery here. How is this acceptable in the richest country in the world?

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