By George Erickson
Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, Jan. 17, 2014
U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, known as the “conscience of the Senate,” wrote that he spent 85 percent of his time fighting Republican attacks on working families. Were he still alive, Wellstone would be fighting for the thousands who die or are driven into bankruptcy every year because they lack health coverage. He’d be fighting insurance companies that sponsor deceitful ads like the Harry-and-Louise videos of the ’90s that torpedoed President Bill Clinton’s health program. And he’d be thrilled that the Affordable Care Act includes a provision that allows states to create a single-payer system.
Why are so many afraid of a single-payer program that would save them money and provide better care? Why do they cling to a for-profit system that leaves 47 million Americans with no insurance and millions more with substandard coverage that lets insurance companies choose which procedures to allow and which to deny?
Here’s why: Health is a lucrative business. Medicare, a single-payer system that lets you choose your doctor, has low overhead costs of about 3 percent. In comparison, our much-vaunted private system admits to spending an average of 20 percent of your premium dollar on what it chooses to call “operating costs.”
Those who run Medicare receive modest salaries; but in 2002, Norman Payson, the CEO of Oxford Health Plans, took home $76 million; Leonard Schaeffer, the CEO of WellPoint, received $21 million; and D. Mark Weinberg of WellPoint was forced to make do with a mere $14 million. That’s per year!
They don’t seem to care that the U.S. ranks 33rd in health care. They don’t seem to care we have a higher infant mortality rate than single-payer countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and Sweden.
In contrast to our for-profit system, where insurance company employees are rewarded for finding loopholes that permit the denial of coverage, single-payer systems exist to deliver health care, not deny it.
Instead we are burdened with a system that works well for members of Congress and those who can afford deluxe coverage. For most of us, such coverage is just a dream, however. Sixty percent of all personal bankruptcy filings involve unaffordable health care costs.
And what about big pharma? In single-payer countries, identical medications cost half as much as here. Could our drug costs be high because there is no competition? Could it be because drug companies spend millions on ads to persuade us to get our doctors to prescribe this drug or that? In just the second quarter of 2009, the medical-services industries spent more than $133 million on lobbying. That’s in just three months, or about $250,000 per legislator.
How can we believe conservative lies about Canadian care after learning that Canadians, when asked to name the greatest Canadian, gave that honor not to Alexander Mackenzie (Canada’s Lewis and Clark) or to one of their national leaders, but to Tommy Douglas, the father of the Canadian health care system?
Why should we trust Republicans who claim to support improving the current system? These are the people who opposed Social Security, minimum wages, unions, women’s rights and bank regulation. Why should we trust the Republicans who tried to kill the Senate health bill with more than 360 amendments?
Finally, why aren’t we rushing to establish a system that has proven efficient, effective and even-handed in countries with single-payer plans that broaden coverage while lowering costs?
Well, now we can — and Vermont is leading the way by using authority granted under the Affordable Care Act to start a single-payer system. As Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote, “The quickest route to a national health care program will be when individual states … demonstrate that universal and nonprofit health care works, and that it is the cost-effective and moral thing to do.”
The rich don’t care, and neither do many of our legislators. Call and email them in support of the Affordable Care Act’s single-payer option. Watch how they vote — and remember it at the next election. That’s what Sen. Wellstone would want you to do.
George Erickson of Eveleth is a member of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists and of the Thorium Energy Alliance. He’s also a past vice president of the American Humanist Association and the author of four books.