A recent series on National Public Radio explored health and social programs in Switzerland. The final piece, "In Switzerland, An Easier Path For The Disabled", compares the life of a family in Switzerland who has a 16-year old daughter with autism to the life of a family in Massachusetts that includes two teenage daughters on the autism spectrum.
Switzerland, like many other European countries, has a cradle-to-grave public support system for families. Switzerland has a government-paid disability insurance system that pays for education, behavioral therapy, household help, special equipment and so on. Just as important, social workers and caregivers share responsibility with parents for ensure that children are taken care of through the life span.
The mother in the Swiss family is an ex-patriate American, and she feels very fortunate to live in Switzerland. According to an article that accompanies the broadcast:
But as Tara grew into an adolescent, Wallace [her mother] began to get anxious. She wondered what would happen to Tara after she and her husband died. So Wallace went to see her social worker.
"She said the really key thing to understand is, you don't have to worry," Wallace recalls. "The way the Swiss government approaches this is that every person who is a Swiss citizen has the right to be able to live decently.
"For me, that was just like such a huge wave of relief — to have somebody tell you, you don't ever have to worry about how your child is going to be cared for."
The featured family in Massachusetts, in contrast, feels fortunate that they have the personal resources to provide for their daughters, since there are few public services available - and the state of Massachusetts offers more than many. These parents are also concerned about the future of their children and in response purchased a 10-000 square foot former convent as their home. The long-range plan is to convert it into a group home for their daughters and other disabled adults and staff.
While I admire the creativity of these parents, it just plain depresses me that such heroics are necessary to provide for our children in the United States, while other countries have extensive systems in place to care for people with disabilities. And perhaps just as important, the culture of these counties is based on the premise that of course families shouldn't need to go bankrupt to give their children necessary educational, therapeutic and recreational opportunities.
I know there are folks out there who will shudder at the ills of socialized medicine, but it doesn't seem to me like the free market health system is working for our families. What do you think?