Steve Chapman

That discovery indicates our health care system is doing a poor job of preventing shootouts and drunk driving but a good job of healing the sick. All those universal-care systems in Canada and Europe may sound like Health Heaven, but they fall short of our model when it comes to combating life-threatening diseases.

Some of those foreign systems are great, as long as you don't get sick. Samuel Preston and Jessica Ho of the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania examined survival rates for lung, breast, prostate, colon and rectum cancers in 18 countries and found that Americans fared best.

The U.S. also excelled on other measures, such as surviving heart attacks for more than a year. Why? Because our doctors and patients don't take no for an answer. The researchers attribute the results to "wider screening and more aggressive treatment." Another factor is that we get quicker access to new cancer drugs than anyone else.

Critics say all those great medicines and therapies are cold comfort to Americans who lack insurance -- which by any standard is our greatest shortcoming. People without coverage are more likely to do without needed treatment or preventive care and more likely to die from disease or accidents.

But they have it better than you might think. Some 62 percent of uninsured Americans are satisfied with their medical care. That is probably because they get a lot of uncompensated treatment from the most advanced, ambitious and capable medical system in the world.

In Britain, by contrast, having guaranteed access to care doesn't mean you'll actually get it. Twenty percent of British cancer patients who might be cured become incurable while awaiting the treatment they need.

The challenge in this country is to extend coverage to the uninsured without degrading quality for everyone. With a little caution and humility, the president and Congress can find ways to achieve that goal. But first, they need to put down the hammer.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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