Romania's 20-Year Nightmare: Unraveling Socialized Health Care

In my other life in Communist Romania, I managed a large intelligence organization that, among other tasks, was charged with keeping alive a nationalized health care system which in the end bankrupted the country and generated popular contempt. That system, very similar to the Affordable Health Care for America Act, was a bureaucratic nightmare. And it still is a nightmare in the former Soviet empire.

A European Union report on post-Communist Romania's "Health Care System in Transition" stated that this system "devastated the country," whose infant mortality rate (20.2 per 1,000) was among the highest in Europe and whose death rate was 70% higher that the EU average.[i] The world's leading general medical journal, The Lancet, reported that even twenty years after the Soviet Union collapsed, "life expectancy at birth is 66 years for Russians; 16 years less than for people in Japan and 14 less than the European Union average."[ii]

My past experience gave me reason to believe that the recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to keep the Affordable Health Care for America Act alive constituted a much needed wake-up call for our conservative movement. Since 2009, when the Democratic Party began surreptitiously nationalizing the U.S. health care system, our conservative movement has done nothing but weep and wail and wait for God in heaven and the Supreme Court on earth to save America from such a calamity.

It is time for us to paddle our own canoe. The first three words in the U.S. Constitution are "We the people." So let us have "we the people" decide what kind of health care we want, because our tax money is paying for it. In order to make responsible decisions in the November election, "we the people" need to know the truth: the United States is today rated No. 1 in the world when it comes to medical responsiveness and quality of health care, and there is no reason to rush to change our system overnight.

In the U.S., the doctor is king. This is crucial for saving people's lives. If the doctor thinks there is something wrong with his patient, he can immediately start all kinds of diagnostic tests, get the results as soon as possible, and start treatment immediately. Yet in Great Britain, where the nationalized health care system is managed by bureaucrats, a patient has to wait some 18 weeks for an MRI.

In the U.S., a person can be scheduled for surgery the next day, but in Canada's nationalized health care system, one has to wait months for a surgery. In the U.S., a doctor's ability to act quickly without having to wait for bureaucratic approvals can make the difference between life and death.

The Nobel Prize for medicine tells the rest of the story. During the last century, the United States' free market medical care system was rewarded with 72 Nobel prizes. The Soviet Union, which invented the nationalized health care system, won none. Zero. (Tsarist Russia did get one Nobel Prize for medicine in 1904, for Pavlov's conditional reflex theory.)

Another truth: the U.S. health care system can and should be improved, but in 2008 and 2009 the country was going through the second-worst economic crisis in its history, and improving the economy should have been the most immediate task. When the Democratic Party came to power, however, it had been so infected by Marxism that it started its reign by nationalizing our health care system. This has always been the first thing Marxist rulers do whenever they take over.

Health care is vital to everyone, and wherever the Marxists have been able to seize the political reins they have begun consolidating their rule by nationalizing the health care system. In 1948, after Romania’s Marxist leaders assembled that country’s first Marxist government, they proudly proclaimed that they were getting rid of the old “capitalist” health system that cared only for the rich, and were replacing it with a "socialist system" that "would provide health care to every Romanian.” No one there knew what that "socialist system" looked like, but its populist appeal made it sound good, and most Romanians cheered. I did too, and I paid a heavy price for that.

One more truth: the U.S. has gradually evolved from a country using black slave labor into a country that freely elected a black American as president. The "Affordable Health Care for America Act," however, was imposed on the country overnight, the same way the Marxist health care system was imposed on Romania. It is the devil who is always in a hurry. According to the U.S. Senate Historical Office, the Affordable Health Care for America Act was the second bill in history that the Senate approved on Christmas Eve. The first was in 1895, when the Senate passed a bill regarding the employment of former Confederate soldiers. That was a real Christmas present. The 2009 bill was a gift from the devil, and it was passed secretly, at the witching hour of midnight.

America's health care system represents one-sixth of the economy. The total U.S. gross domestic product is $14.1 trillion, and one-sixth means about $2.35 trillion. Considering that the length of a dollar bill is 6.4 inches, a trillion dollar bills laid end to end would make a chain 96,906,565.66 miles long -- extending almost 4 million miles beyond the sun.[iii] This unimaginably immense amount of tax money was paid by "we the people," who should at the very least have been given a say about how it was to be spent.

“We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it,” said Nancy Pelosi, at that time speaker of the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, talking to the 2010 Legislative Conference for the National Association of Counties. That was a first in U.S. history. That would have been the norm in the old Eastern Europe, whose Marxist governments were always clouded in secrecy.

A few years after Romania was blessed with a nationalized health care system managed by bureaucrats instead of doctors, the country's hospitals became so badly degraded that there were frequent cases where two people had to be put in the same bed. Sauve qui peut became the catchword of the privileged Marxist nomenklatura, which took its own health care out of the hands of the hospitals destined to serve “the idiots,” as Romania's president Nicolae Ceausescu called his people. The Communist Party seized the Helias, a hospital built by a Western foundation, and ordained that it exclusively serve the needs of the party nomenklatura. The Securitate, Romania’s version of the KGB, took over a private hospital (named for a Dr. Dimitrie Gerota) and transformed it into a medical center (renamed Dr. Victor Babes) exclusively destined to serve its personnel. So did the Ministry of Defense. In the 1970s, I myself even built a hospital for my foreign intelligence service, the DIE. The hospital had no name and it was hidden away in the Băneasa Forest near Bucharest, to be protected from the eyes of the “idiots.”

Our American political servants who mindlessly approved the 2,000-plus pages of the Affordable Health Care for America Act also scrambled for cover. All, from those working in Congress to those working in White House, granted themselves American versions of Helias and Gerota. None of them wanted to put his life in the hands of a nationalized health care system run by bureaucrats. Some 1,200 companies that had given grants to the Democratic Party and  labor unions representing 543,812 workers also received waivers from part of the health care reform law.

I have written elsewhere -- but it is worth repeating -- about another disastrous consequence of a health care system run by bureaucrats: baksheesh. People in the U.S. are not used to having to pay bribes to get things done. In Communist Romania, however, baksheesh was the only way to get an appointment with a reliable doctor or a clean bed in a hospital. In 2008 The Lancet reported that in Russia each doctor and nurse still had "his or her little tax," and that "they all prefer cash in envelopes, of course." Nurses took 50 rubles to empty a bedpan and 200 rubles to give an enema. Operations started at 300 rubles, but "the sky's the limit."[iv] In the U.S., baksheesh might not start out as such blatant bribes, but bribery is sure to soon become the rule in one way or another. In France, for instance, the government bureaucracy recently introduced a €1 franchise on every medical consultation, described as a contribution au remboursement de la dette sociale (contribution to the repayment of the social debt). That was followed by an €18 franchise on "costly" medical procedures. Now the French patients are learning that if they discreetly slip an envelope with cash into the pocket of the doctor's white lab coat hanging in his office, they will get more "attention." A little extra attention may be vital in such a government-run health care system, where doctors are obliged by law to see sixty to seventy patients a day.

One of the greatest myths about Marxism is the supposed virtue of equality for all. If only everybody could have the same of everything, the world would be an earthly paradise. All Marxists believe that only the state can create that paradise. That utopian ideal has now captured people's imagination in the United States as well. I spent many years in the inner sanctum of a Marxist government that was preaching this utopian ideal of equality, and I learned for a fact that it is nothing but science fiction. Lies. Dust in people's eyes. I have co-written a whole book about that, which may soon appear on the market. But pictures are often better than words. My fellow Romanians, who paid with 1,104 lives to free themselves from their Marxist paradise, have provided us with some painfully vivid pictures: a 2007 movie called The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which won more than twenty international prizes.

There is no better way to visualize the eventual disaster that a nationalized health care system can generate than to watch The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. This movie was inspired by the heartbreaking true story of Constantin Nica, a real retired Romanian engineer who had the misfortune of growing old in a country that still maintained a nightmarish government health care bureaucracy twenty years after its last Communist dictator was gunned down by his own people.

The movie's script follows the fictional Mr. Lazarescu as a Romanian government ambulance shuttles him from one government-owned hospital to the next. At the first three hospitals, although the doctors determine that he does need surgery, the government bureaucracy refuses to take him in because he is too old and does not have enough money to give baksheesh to the hospital personnel. Mr. Lazarescu stubbornly refuses to give up, but at the fourth hospital, the evil bureaucrats win -- he dies after a delayed and botched surgery. (The real Mr. Nica was in fact dumped by an ambulance onto a park bench and left there to die.) Mr. Lazarescu's real enemy was not his illness, but the uncaring and authoritarian attitude so deeply ingrained in bureaucratic practice. The whole movie is so realistic that even The New York Times -- a strong supporter of government-run health care -- had to admit that the movie "absorbs you into its world".[v]

I strongly suggest our conservative movement use The Death of Mr. Lazarescu as an instrument of election campaigning. Let’s show this movie all over the country, at conservative conventions, at major campaign meetings. It might be an expensive proposition, but it would cost infinitely less than fixing the long-term damage that could be caused by another four years of Democratic Party efforts to "socialize" the United States. This movie perfectly illustrates the long-range effect of having a country run by bureaucrats, not by "we the people."

American filmmaker Michael Moore glorified British nationalized health care in his 2007 documentary Sicko, which premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and received a 15-minute standing ovation from 2,000 people. In February 2012, however, British prime minister David Cameron announced that his government would reprivatize the country's nationalized health care system. For over 40 years the people of Great Britain have, over and over, watched their own The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. It worked there. It should work here.

[i] "Romania: Health Care System in Transition," European Observatory on Health Care System, 2000, p.4.

[ii] Helen Womak, "RUssia's next president needs to tackle health care reforms," The Lancet, Volume 371, Issue 9614, pages 711-714, March 1, 2008.

[iii] Ross Kaminsky, “What Will Obama’s Plans Cost the Nation?” Human Events, March 17, 2008, p. 1.

[iv] Helen Womack, "Russia's next president needs to tackle health care reforms," The Lancet, Volume 371, Issue 9614, Pages 711-714, March 1, 2008.

[v] Stephen Holden, " The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," The New York Times, January 2, 2008.