Free healthcare in Denmark seems to be a hot topic from the lips of Bernie Sanders to the news these days, so I thought I’d write a post from the front lines about this much lauded free Danish healthcare.
First, let’s get one thing straight. Free healthcare in Denmark is not free. Danish healthcare is an 8% line item deduction of gross pay. Free healthcare in Denmark does not cover physicals, vision or dental care, and mental health services are only partially covered and only in certain situations. Prescriptions are full price until a personal annual threshold is reached, then they are progressively discounted as the spend increases. My first asthma prescription this year cost me around $200, and I paid $35 just yesterday for prescription strength B-12 tablets. In nearly six years, I’ve never had my total yearly prescription cost in Denmark come in below that of my $10 – $20 US co-pay.
I pay roughly six times as much for my free healthcare in Denmark as I did for my employer-sponsored plan in the US, and it covers far less. But that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is to tell you what it’s like to live with free healthcare in Denmark.
Free Healthcare in Denmark: My First-Hand Experience
When I first came to Denmark, I lived in a large town in Jutland and I’ve written some not so favorable things about my healthcare experiences there. My favorite one was the time I called my doctor because I’d suddenly developed floaters in my eye, which could indicate a detaching retina and need for urgent care, but she just asked me if I was sure it wasn’t just some dirt in my eye. I still have the floaters, so I’m pretty sure it wasn’t dirt ; -)
During that time, I also developed a skin condition, which she’d diagnosed as rosacea. I couldn’t find a single description online that matched my symptoms, so I was skeptical, but I’m not one to trust Google over a doctor, so I accepted her diagnosis.
Then I moved to Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city and things vastly improved. My GP is wonderful! Seriously, I cannot say enough good things about this guy. As soon as I told him I’ve been a strict vegetarian for years, he identified my skin condition as a B-12 deficiency, not rosacea. He ordered a blood test to confirm his diagnosis, B-12 injections and tablets, and follow-up tests over the next six months to make sure my levels were back to normal. He was incredibly supportive and helpful in getting me back on track when my company hired a sociopath as my direct boss and the harassment became too much for me to handle. And for the first time in my life, my asthma is well-managed.
I’m angry that my first doctor didn’t take the time to make a proper diagnosis. Prolonged B-12 deficiency can cause irreversible damage, and I was deficient for at least a couple of years before moving to Aarhus. I shudder to think what would’ve happened if she’d still been my doctor when the sociopath joined my department.
There are bad doctors everywhere. And despite my initial impressions of free healthcare in Denmark based on my first experiences in semi-rural Jutland, my experience was more indicative of that particular doctor than of the system. Aside from my 8% payroll deduction, and the cost of the injectable B-12, I’ve paid nothing for the services of my GP.
So what happens when you need to see a specialist?
Robert has had a painful ganglion cyst on his wrist for awhile, it’s been getting bigger and more painful, so he finally decided to do something about it. Our awesome GP was the first port of call. He referred Robert on December 2 to an orthopedic surgeon specializing in surgery of the hand and lower arm, whom he saw on December 17. The surgeon decided it would be best to remove the cyst under a local anesthetic, and scheduled surgery for January 25th.
On the day of surgery, the surgeon determined that the cyst was too deep to be removed under a local anesthetic, and they rescheduled the surgery to February 24.
It took 15 days from GP referral to specialist visit, then another 39 days to the first surgery date, and another 30 to the second surgery date. The surgeries could’ve been scheduled about a week earlier in each instance, but the timing wasn’t convenient. Based on the first available surgery dates, it would’ve taken approximately two months from Robert’s first GP visit to the day of surgery. I know a lot of people worry that government run healthcare in the US would result in massive waiting lists and delays, but I think two months from start to finish is a reasonable timeframe for non-essential surgery in any system.
We had very positive surgery day experience. Aside from the half hour or so he was in the operating room, I was with Robert the entire time, including when the anesthesiologist was administering the nerve block. The hospital staff were so nice, making sure I had somewhere to sit, cracking jokes, telling us about the types of surgeries they do in the clinic, and speaking English to make sure I understood everything. When Robert’s surgery was finished, they brought me to him right away. Of course it’s their job to make sure he was comfortable and relaxed, but they went above and beyond what was expected and required.
The Danish healthcare experience in general is very casual. My doctor wears jeans and Chuck Taylors to the office and I call him by his first name. They’re not so bogged down in insurance regulations and fear of malpractice suits that they forget how comforting it is to have a familiar face with you while they’re poking you with IV catheters, etc. Surgery in the US usually comes with several prescription painkillers and antibiotics, but the only thing prescribed here was ibuprofen, if needed. It wasn’t.
Our out of pocket cost for Robert’s GP appointment, specialist visit, and surgery is zip, zero, zilch, nada! It’s all covered by our 8% healthcare contribution.
So, which system is better… the US or Denmark?
Do I prefer my free Danish healthcare to my US plan? Apples and oranges. My US plan was cheaper and had offered more coverage, but I also recognize that I worked for a huge company and that my coverage was the exception rather than the rule. Which I prefer is neither here nor there anyway, I live in Denmark. This is the system I have, and irrespective of cost, which is out of my control, I’m happy with the services Robert and I receive in Aarhus. And being self-employed, having a national healthcare plan gives me one less thing to worry about.
It is possible to get private insurance in Denmark, which allows you to jump the queue if you need to see a specialist with a long waiting list, enables you to be treated in a private hospital, and covers things like mental health services. I had this coverage before I resigned from my job last summer, and aside from the mental health services, which I needed because of the sociopath that happened on their watch, I never used it.
So free healthcare in Denmark isn’t actually free, but it is accessible to all, and the standard of care can be very high. Is this the right system for the US? Not my call.
What do you think? Tell me in the comments :)