By the Editorial Board
The Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.), Aug. 2, 2015
Happy anniversary, Medicare. Like that Italian actress starring in the new James Bond movie, you’re looking good at 50.
It’s hard to believe that before this program went into effect, Ronald Reagan said that if it weren’t stopped, “one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”
Yet America did not end, and we did not all become slaves. Instead, what we have is a triumph for the notion of active government. Before Medicare, about half of Americans over age 65 had no health insurance. Now, fifty years later, almost all of them do.
The program has simultaneously reduced deaths, hospital stays and costs, according to a new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association — a health care hat trick that a top researcher at Yale called “jaw-dropping.”
Is this a perfect program? No. It could be improved. But Medicare has undeniably made us a more civilized nation, where old people don’t die in pain without needed care. It’s even become a model for private insurers, helping the whole health care system find better ways of providing treatment.
So there’s a much larger lesson in this 50th anniversary, in how to solve major problems in our country: That even with higher taxes, a government program can be an advance of the collective welfare. Of course Medicare will need adjustments to stay in good financial health. But its spending per beneficiary has consistently grown more slowly than private insurance premiums, and its administrative costs are substantially lower.
The Affordable Care Act’s cost controls have also improved Medicare’s financial outlook. What would really torpedo the program’s finances is a repeal of Obamacare, as Republicans have called for, time and time again.
Instead, we should be expanding this success story far beyond the elderly. “Medicare for all,” the same concept as Canada’s single payer system, would be a more sensible answer than Obamacare, and is probably where we are headed in the end.
After all, under the Affordable Care Act, tens of millions of people will remain under-insured, and the U.S. still spends far more per capita on health care than any other nation. That’s why Medicare should be expanded to cover all Americans, as Sen. Bernie Sanders has called for.
Having a single payer system would dramatically reduce costs by eliminating overhead and insurance company profits. And why should access to quality healthcare depend on who your boss is?
A single payer system was scrapped from the Obamacare policy debates because it was viewed as a political impossibility. Yet just over 50 percent of Americans say they still support the idea, including one-quarter of Republicans, according to a new poll.
Some Republican leaders, like Colin Powell, were early supporters of the concept. Others, like Sen. Marco Rubio, argue a single payer system “would completely eviscerate the quality of our health care.”
But if Medicare at 50 is any evidence, it’s likely to do the exact opposite.