Nearly all European countries have a universal health care system. Though some people refer to it as Europe's "free health care" system, in reality, it's not really free. While each country has its own variation, the common denominator is that everyone pays for health care as a society - intending to minimize the overall expense and spread around the cost and risk so that an unlucky few are not bankrupted by medical costs. This also ensures that those living in poverty can get the care they might not otherwise be able to afford.

For instance, in the United Kingdom, the National Health Service provides health care from cradle to grave, paid for by employers and employees, who contribute directly from their earnings. The creation of this service came after World War II. As one English doctor explained it, before the war, it was pay or die. But after the continent was devastated by war, Europeans decided to rebuild their society by casting aside a laissez-faire system in favor of health care for all.

In Italy, the amount residents pay into the national health care system depends on their income. Though my Italian friends tell me that the standard of care is generally good, they also complain about long wait times to get appointments for tests. They also cite issues with hospital conditions - while some boast the latest medical equipment and serve four-star meals, others struggle to maintain hygienic conditions.

One benefit of a universal system is that everyone is taken care of - including foreigners. So if you get sick or injured while traveling, you will receive treatment, no questions asked.

So what should you do if you need medical attention in Europe? For run-of-the-mill health problems, try a pharmacy first (usually marked with a green cross). European pharmacists can diagnose and prescribe remedies for many simple problems, such as sore throats, fevers, stomach issues, sinus problems, insomnia, blisters, rashes or muscle, joint and back pain. Most cities have at least a few 24-hour pharmacies.

For accidents or life-threatening emergencies, go to a hospital. In most countries, you can call 1-1-2, the European Union's universal emergency number for ambulance, fire department or police. Most countries also have a 9-1-1 equivalent that works as well. Or you can ask a hotelier, restaurant host, or whoever's around to call an ambulance or taxi for you.

In nonemergency situations, clinics are a good place to seek treatment or get routine tests done. Clinics in Europe operate just like those in the United States: You'll sign in with a receptionist, answer a few questions, then take a seat and wait for a nurse or doctor. To locate a doctor, clinic or hospital, ask around at places that are accustomed to dealing with Americans on the road, such as tourist offices and large hotels.

A visit to the emergency room or clinic may be free, or there may be a fee (usually nominal by our standards; more if a hospital stay or surgery is involved). If there's a charge - and it still can be substantial - you probably will have to pay out of pocket, even if your insurance company provides international coverage. Make sure you get a copy of your bill so that when you return home, you can file a claim for reimbursement. If you purchased travel insurance to serve as your primary medical coverage, call the company as soon as possible to report the injury. It can usually work with the hospital directly to get your bills paid.

Luckily, I've never been seriously injured while traveling in Europe. But I hear countless tales about travelers needing medical treatment. One person told me about how she sprained her ankle during a visit to Denmark. She was X-rayed, bandaged and given a pair of crutches to use. The hospital did not ask her to pay a dime - only to return the crutches before she left Denmark.

Recently, a staff member's infant son developed a lung infection while the family was in Avignon, France. After being rushed to the doctor, he was hospitalized for several days and received excellent care before being released and cleared to fly home. As my staff member put it, "Anyone who says socialized medical care is subpar hasn't seen it in action." No system is perfect. But perhaps if more Americans actually experienced universal health care, they could begin to see the benefits it can have on society.

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and radio. "Rick Steves' Europe" airs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays on WVIZ Channel 25, and "Travel With Rick Steves" is broadcast at 1 p.m. Saturdays on WCPN FM/90.3. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com or write to him at Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

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DOMINIC BONUCCELLI

For run-of-the-mill ailments, a trip to a pharmacy may be all you need, as pharmacists in Europe generally are able to diagnose and prescribe medication.

One benefit of a universal system is that everyone is taken care of - including foreigners. So if you get sick or injured while traveling, you will receive treatment, no questions asked.

Bullet Points for Legislators

  • Single Payer saves money.  For the past 20 years, states have commissioned studies on different types of health care systems.   In EVERY case, single payer was shown to be the only way to cover everyone and the only system that saved money and controlled costs.

  • Publicly financed does not mean government run health care.  YOU have publicly finance health coverage, but the government does not make decisions regarding your health care.

  • Cost conscious patients often don't get the care they need.   Most decisions are made by the doctor in concert with the patient, but the patient relies on the doctor's knowledge to make a decision.  Expensive tests and treatments cannot be ordered by the patient, only the doctor.

  • Lifestyle choices are not what is fueling high costs in health care.   The United States ranks low in general health indicators, but high in good health habits.  We smoke less, drink less and consume less animal fat that many other countries with better health indicators and much lower health care costs.

  • Businesses can accurately determine their health care costs and are not subject to unanticipated large premium increases.

  • It will reduce labor costs due to a more efficient way of financing health care, eliminating much wasteful administration.

  • Workers' Compensation costs will be reduced, likely by half, due to the fact that everyone has health coverage and there is no need for the medical portion.

  • It reduces the need for part time employees and provides easier recruiting.  There are no pre-existing conditions or Cobra issues.

  • Eliminates the oversight of health benefits and bargaining health coverage with employees.

  • It creates healthier personnel and more stable employees, reduces absenteeism and eliminates employer health coverage complaints.

  • It reduces employee health related debt and personal bankruptcies.

  • It frees up family income that can be spent on other goods and services, thus stimulating the economy.

Tips for Writing Letters to Editor

Follow guidelines for your local paper (word count, submission instructions, etc.)

Frame your letter in relation to a recent news item Use state specific data whenever possible (let us know if you need help finding some!)

Address counter arguments

Be aware of your audience and emphasize how Medicare for All is good for ALL residents of the state

Criticize other positions, not people Include your credentials (especially if you work in the healthcare field)

Avoid jargon and abbreviations

Don’t overload on statistics and minor details

Cover only one or two points in a single letter

Avoid rambling and vagueness

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