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The Horrors of Socialized Medicine in Austria

Alfred Scharinger
Campaign For LIberty
Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

When I heard President Obama announce that the universal health care system will save us money, I knew I had to speak up. I have the wisdom (my age is over the speed limit), the knowledge, and the experience to speak to this controversial subject. It is imperative that Americans be informed by an independent person with nothing to gain; someone who has actually worked in a government-run healthcare system such as what might soon be forced upon us. Here is the insider’s truth of what going on with any government bureaucracy.

I spent six years working for the Krankenkasse, an Austrian state-operated health care system, which was enough for me to yearn for freedom, even with the uncertainties and risks that come with free choice. During my employment, there were about 900,000 policy holders and about 600 government clerks. After arriving in the USA as a legal immigrant, I went to work for a small insurance agency selling Health, Life and loss-of-income policies.

One day our boss invited us to visit the company headquarters. I expected a huge building like the one in Austria. I could not believe it when we stopped in front of a couple of bungalows and the boss said “this is it.” I knew that our company had about 800,000 policy holders. Was this possible — 70 private workers doing the same work as 600 public clerks in Austria?

Just by chance, I had brought one of my client’s claims forms in hopes of expediting it, and gave it to one of the clerks to process. Two hours later, the same clerk handed me a check. I almost fainted! It would have taken at least five days and three signatures to get a check from the Krankenkasse.

The Horrors of Socialized Medicine in Austria  190110banner4

When I left school I got a job with the Austrian government because my father knew somebody high-up in the bureaucracy. I had to share a desk with another worker and help her with her daily load. I was eager to work, and dug right in, but by 11 AM my desk mate told me to slow down because we had already processed all the forms for that day. This went on for more than a year. I spent most of my time roaming the building, gossiping and sleeping in the archive room.

Since I was a certified public accountant, I was eventually promoted to “Revisor.” Every day I would drop in on some company unannounced to make sure that every worker had insurance coverage. Even if a person only worked for one day, the official paperwork and application had to be sent in. Heavy fines were waiting for the offender. No, this was not the IRS, this was your basic government-run insurance.

Every year the unions would dream up more perks for us. First we got an extra month’s pay in December, and the next year another one in July, so every year we got 14 monthly paychecks. One year we got 15 paychecks because the unions arranged for a policy that paid us ahead of time. Of course we had to show up for work at 7:00 AM every day, but then at 1:00 PM we were done. It took a lot of imagination to fill the empty hours! Despite all of this idle time on our hands, it wasn’t long before we had automatically gotten tenure and could never be fired no matter what.

My brother who still lives in Austria was a big shot in charge of the Austrian Railway System, but was forced into retirement at age 55 to make room for the younger folks, and supposedly to save money. He gets 90% of his former salary, plus unlimited free first class travel for his whole family anywhere in Europe. His pension is twice as much as they pay his replacement, so now it costs the government 50% more than before.

Every three months Austrian doctors get reimbursed for each patient they treated, but the money is the same whether they treat him once or 20 times. Doctors are not permitted to make any important decisions. Instead, they refer patients to the “Chef Arzt” (Chief Doctor). This bureaucrat has the power to say whether you are sick enough to get treatment, medication and compensation for loss of income. And you better look the part of being sick because enforcers were lucking around corners spying on you.

All of the “primars” had another chief, the “Leitende Chef Arzt.” This person was the ultimate authority over life and death. People would tremble with fear when they got a letter from the “primar.” Will he cut my income off? Will he disallow my surgery even though my doctor told me it was necessary? Will I get that new medicine? Will they try and save my leg, or just cut it off? Of course, even his decision was subject to review by a higher level — the primarius of all primars.

When my mother had to see her doctor, she would pack a lunch and stand outside the doctor’s office from dawn until he arrived around 9:00 AM. It did not matter when she arrived; there was already a line. The waiting room was always packed and many times she sat in the office all day. Eventually, I discovered a faster way for my mother to see the doctor. When I joined a local soccer team, a teammate who happened to be a doctor said that there was another entrance to his office, reserved for the VIPs and friends. It was not fair to others, but it solved my mother’s long waits.

Years later in the 1990’s, during one of my visits to Austria, my brother took me with him when he visited the government dental clinic. Little had changed. The Zahn Arzt, which translates to “Tooth Doctor,” was a friend of my brother. We were invited to wait inside the laboratory and of course, I could see a dozen people outside sitting on a bench. One by one the dentist would call them in, poke around their mouth a bit, and say, “it needs to be pulled.” He then got a syringe filled with Novocain, shoved the needle up into the gum, without any preparation or pre-numbing, then sent the patient to wait outside. No wonder people go to a private dentist if they can afford it!

Many services that Americans consider standard were not available through the Krankenkasse. For crowns and bridges or well-fitting dentures, you had to pay out of your own pocket. Most medicine, except aspirin, was not covered. Hospitals had 10 to 20 beds in one room with one or two nurses attending. If this was unacceptable, there were always private and semi-private rooms available for the paying patients. But who could pay for such luxuries when the Austrian government took more than 50% of your paycheck? Then again, if you knew the right doctor, who was friendly with one of the “primars,” you might be sent to one of the many Kuranstalt (Spas) for three to four weeks with full pay.

The freebies could not last forever. Eventually it became clear that the money deducted from citizen’s paychecks failed to cover the government’s overhead. The obvious solution was to introduce a National Sales Tax. It started at 8% and the last time I checked, it was over 20%. The government was clever, they hid it in the price paid. When you buy goods or services in Europe, the price that is posted includes this tax. By now, people have long forgotten why gasoline prices are so high. That is why it costs over $2.00 a liter, which comes out to over $7.50 a gallon. And you thought three dollars was high!

The same is true in Canada, where I lived for six years — $2.00 a liter for gasoline. Have you ever tried to buy cigarettes or booze in Canada? The stores are government-run, so that bottle of Smirnoff that would sell for $17.00 in the USA runs $40.00 or more. And yet some nations are trying to adopt the Canadian system. Now, how’s that for irony?

Not much has changed in Austria since I left to seek freedom for myself and my family. The horror stories about Austria’s healthcare system have not gone away. I have visited my homeland many times and I am still in touch with some friends. One of them is now the leading Primarius in upper Austria. He has tried to reform the system for years, but last year he said he had given up and was just there to get his paycheck and retire. You cannot fight an entrenched bureaucratic system. That is why it is imperative that we prevent this travesty from happening in the United States.

Most of my school friends have long since died except for two who live in the USA. My friend in Canada died while waiting two years for a heart bypass operation. How and why most of my friends in Europe died is a story in itself, but certainly the system had a lot to do with it. The last 2 years I spent in and out of the hospitals and went through 6 surgeries. I can only say there is no finer health care than right here in the good old USA. Insured or not first they take care of you and then they make the financial arrangements. There are many agencies set up to lend a helping hand. If people are dying on the street, as Harry Reed claims, why is everybody trying to get in by hook or crook? I ask myself why am I still alive? And the answer I think is that I have at least one more task to do on this earth — to make as many people as possible aware of what is coming. Fight with all your might to keep the only sane country in this world from being sucked up by the ideology of a few uninformed, misguided souls! Avoid it at all costs!

Almost every single European leader in 1930’s promised more freedom, prosperity, equality for all, a house and a car for everybody, free health care, etc., etc. I know, I was there. I saw and heard the cheering crowds and smiling faces; only a few years later I saw the tears, the wailing and hopelessness. But there would be no free, democratic Europe if it weren’t for the citizens of the good old USA rising up, sacrificing over 500,000 lives to free these countries from tyranny.

There is no other country that would or could save the world from dictatorship. Government take-over of our lives does not come overnight, it seeps in and spreads like a cancer without you realizing it. They will never give up, but will introduce the same ideas over and over again under different names and forms. We need to be forever vigilant and forget party and race or color differences.

Thank God I was living in America during my recent illness. I had the finest doctors and hospitals in the world, which allowed me to live long enough to talk about my past experiences in America. When I compare the care I received in Europe with what is available in Europe, it leads me to one conclusion: government-run insurance can never, ever be as good or cost-effective as that provided by the private sector.

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