NY Times Marvels At Rwanda's 'National Health Care'

Forget Canada. If you’re fed up with America’s health care system, flee to…Rwanda.

In a June 14 New York Times article titled “A Dirt-Poor Nation, With a Health Plan,” reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. celebrated the African nation’s “national health insurance” that covers “92 percent of the population with just $2 premiums.” McNeil used this statistic to criticize American coverage, but buried facts that showed Rwanda’s health system offers little to envy.

“Sunny Ntayomba, an editorial writer for The New Times, a newspaper based in the capital, Kigali, is aware of the paradox: his nation, one of the world’s poorest, insures more of its citizens than the world’s richest does,” McNeil wrote.

“He met an American college student passing through last year, and found it ‘absurd, ridiculous, that I have health insurance and she didn’t,’ he said, adding: ‘And if she got sick, her parents might go bankrupt. The saddest thing was the way she shrugged her shoulders and just hoped not to fall sick.’”

McNeil promoted Rwanda’s health care system by noting that the system “covers the basics. The most common causes of death – diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria, malnutrition, infected cuts – are treated” and stated that since the insurance program was rolled out, “average life expectancy has risen to 52 from 48.”

However, McNeil buried the negative aspects, such as a waiting list for surgeries, which are similar to other universal health care systems around the world, deeper in the story.

“General surgery is done, but waits can be weeks long,” he acknowledged. “A few lucky patients needing advanced surgery may be treated free by teams of visiting doctors from the United States, Cuba, Australia, and elsewhere, but those doctors are not always around. Occasionally, the Health Ministry will pay for a patient to go to Kenya, South Africa, or even India for treatment.”

Still, McNeil waited until 17 paragraphs into his story to answer the ultimate question on this seemingly magical health care system: how any nation can offer “so much” care for $2 per year?

“The answer: It can’t. Not without outside help.”

Not only does Rwanda’s “national” coverage not actually cover more than the very basics in care. McNeil explained how various U.S. and foreign aid agencies such as Partners in Health, Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and Access Project, provide funds for the health system. Additionally, McNeil noted that Rwanda’s total health expenditures are $307 million a year with 53 percent coming from foreign donors, with the United States being the largest donor.

Nevertheless, McNeil doesn’t pass up an opportunity to take a closing shot at the U.S health system:

“Still, Dr. Binagwaho said, Rwanda can offer the United States one lesson about health insurance: ‘Solidarity—you cannot feel happy as a society if you don’t organize yourself so that people won’t die of poverty.’”

McNeil did not mention that while Rwanda’s average life expectancy is 52 years, the average life expectancy in America is 78. To McNeil’s credit, he avoided the myth that 47 million Americans are uninsured, which most in the media perpetuate. He did, however, use another common media argument that compared the United States with a country that is home to far fewer people. By contrast, the United States has the same number of uninsured non-citizens (9.7 million) as Rwanda’s total population.

Yet all of this begs the question: if the media got the health reform it so steadfastly championed, why are they still writing stories criticizing the U.S health care system?

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