By F. Douglas Stephenson
Informed Comment, July 25, 2022
On July 30. 1965, Congress enacted Medicare under Title XVIII of the Social Security Act to provide health insurance to people age 65 and older, regardless of income or medical history. President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Medicare Act into law and created two new programs, Medicare for those who had reached the social security retirement age of 65 years, and Medicaid for those whose incomes were below specific levels. In the long history of struggles to obtain national health insurance in the USA, this was a momentous act that provided health insurance for people ages 65 and older and the disabled regardless of income or medical history. In the 57 years since, Medicare has become living proof that public, universal health insurance is superior to private insurance in every way. Medicare is more efficient than private health insurance and is administered at a cost of 3 percent to 4 percent, as opposed to private, for-profit health insurance, which has administrative costs above 15 percent.
Medicare’s costs have risen more slowly than those of private health insurance. Medicare provides better access to care, better financial protection and higher patient satisfaction. Although many have negative feelings toward government, and examples of government inefficiency and incompetence exist, the record of private health insurers is far worse. Dozens of financial profiteering scandals have wracked private insurers and HMOs in recent years. Everyone should categorically reject fear tactics about ‘Medicare for All’ that try to frighten seniors and others by telling them they will lose Medicare benefits under a new M4A program, that pointy-headed government bureaucrats will make medical decisions, determine the cost vs benefits of procedures, including age and quality of life considerations and medical personnel will be in short supply.
Beholden members of Congress want to protect the interest of insurance and Pharma — these two industries spent $371 million on lobbying in 2017 alone. Big Pharma, Big Insurance industries have literally bought most of our legislators (both Democrat and Republican). A massive disinformation/fear campaign has promoted the myth that Medicare for All would limit choice of doctors and hospitals, create unsustainable costs, and expansive, uncontrolled bureaucracy. These myths better describe the reality of our present system based on the private insurance industry.
Opposition to Medicare for All is based on irrational fears, folklore/myth and general prejudice against government programs. Fear-mongering about waiting lists, bankrupt doctors and hospitals, and socialism is exactly the same fearful/false rhetoric used in the campaign to block LBJ’s original Medicare program in 1965. The Wall Street Journal then warned about “patient pileups,” and the American Medical Association mounted a campaign featuring Ronald Reagan that smeared Medicare as creeping socialism that would rob Americans’ freedom.
Research in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that administration consumes a total of 31 percent of U.S. health spending, with much of that waste attributable to private insurance company overhead and profit. If the single-payer plan pays health care professionals, hospitals and drug companies at levels comparable to Medicare’s current substantially lower rates, premiums for all individuals and families could be so low that the public plan could consume the market and end private health insurance.
M4A is a solid investment in our country because it promotes a social service for universal access to affordable health insurance for everyone. The USA is a country where health insurance for medical and mental health care is a function of socio-economic status. Everyone knows that this inhumane system should have been corrected long ago, but the death and illness ravages of the pandemic crisis makes it impossible to any longer avoid reality. We must immediately end our moral crime of having the greatest health system in the world, but only for those who can afford it.
LET’S IMPROVE MEDICARE IN 2022
To continue our progress, it’s time to upgrade Medicare by establishing a new improved, 21st century “Medicare for All” health insurance system that covers all age groups, cradle to grave. Newborns will leave the hospital with their new Medicare card, and drop it off years later at life’s end. The U.S. Senate’s new Medicare for All Act of 2022, has been introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders and 14 co-sponsors. In the US House, Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D, WA) and Debbie Dingell, (D., MI) introduced the modern MEDICARE FOR ALL ACT of 2021 (H.R. 1976) i. M4A 2021 is new legislation calling for a single-payer national health program in the United States that addresses decades of health/mental health-related injustices that have been made even more painfully apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The list of features in common between S. 4204, and the most recent House Bill (H.R. 1976) is substantial .Each of these bills provides all residents of the United States and its territories with a nationally consistent comprehensive benefit design, eliminates nearly all copays and deductibles, is funded through an equitable tax model, protects current benefits and services for veterans and Native Americans while also including them in Medicare for All, and dedicates expanded resources towards improving equity and justice in health care/health insurance.
Covered are all medically necessary services, including primary care, medically approved diet and nutrition services, inpatient care, outpatient care, emergency care, prescription drugs, durable medical equipment, hearing services, long term care, palliative care, podiatric care, mental health services, dentistry, oral surgery, eye care, chiropractic, and substance abuse treatment. Patients have their choice of physicians, mental health and other providers, hospitals, clinics, and practices.
Co-pays and deductibles paid at health professionals offices are ended because payment for health insurance is fully pre-paid directly into Medicare, much like Social Security, and covered at first dollar amounts. This means the obsolete 80%/20% payment split between private health insurance companies and Medicare is eliminated, with Medicare for All now covering 100%.
All citizens are guaranteed insurance for professional health care while achieving significant overall savings compared to our existing system by lowering administrative costs, controlling the prices of prescription drugs and fees for physicians, mental health and other health care professionals, hospitals, reducing unnecessary treatments and expanding preventive care.
INSURANCE FOR HEALTH CARE ESTABLISHED AS A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT
Good health care would be established as a basic human right, as in almost all other advanced countries. Nobody would have to forego needed treatments because they didn’t have insurance or they couldn’t afford high insurance premiums and copays. Nobody would have to fear a financial disaster because they faced a health care crisis in their family. Virtually all families would end up financially better off and most businesses would also experience cost savings under Medicare for All compared to what they pay now to cover their employees.
HOW TO FINANCE IMPROVED MEDICARE
We finance our new Medicare for All by slashing administrative waste and eliminating profiteering by the private health insurance industry. The new system would be funded in part by the savings obtained from replacing today’s welter of inefficient, profit-oriented, private insurance companies, and the system-wide administrative waste they generate, with a single streamlined, nonprofit public payer health insurance system. Such savings, estimated in 2017 to be about $500 billion annually, would be redirected to patient care for all. With the advantage of risk insurance pooling that includes everyone, all beneficiaries are eligible for the same health insurance benefits, and the cost of providing those benefits is largely financed by broad-based revenue sources (e.g., progressive income or payroll taxes), completely separating enrollee health status from financing of the programs’ benefits.
Existing tax revenue would fund much of the system. According to a 2016 study in the American Journal of Public Health, tax-funded expenditures already account for about two-thirds of U.S. health spending. That revenue would be retained and supplemented by modest progressive taxes based on ability to pay, taxes that would typically be fully offset by ending today’s very high premiums paid to the for-profit private insurance industry and out-of-pocket expenses for care. The vast majority of U.S. households, one study says 95 percent, would come out financially ahead. The system would reap savings by dealing with drug and medical supply companies for lower prices. It also saves money by giving hospitals annual lump-sum (“global”) budgets to run their operations.
More than two dozen independent analyses of federal and state single-payer legislation by agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office, the General Accountability Office, the Lewin Group, and Mathematica Policy Research Group have found that the administrative savings and other efficiencies of a single-payer program would provide more than enough resources to provide first-dollar coverage to everyone in the country with no increase in overall U.S. health spending.
WHAT MEDICARE IS – AND IS NOT
Often the public is confused and fearful when the “socialized medicine” label is conflated with single-payer, Medicare-for-all, which simply is “socialized health insurance.” Whatever the pros/cons of socialized medicine, Medicare for All is not socialized medicine. Socialized medicine is a system in which doctors and hospitals work for and draw salaries from the government. Health-care professionals in the U.S. Veterans Administration and the armed services are paid this way. The good health systems in Great Britain and in Spain are other examples.
Most European countries, Canada, Australia and Japan have socialized health insurance, but not socialized medicine. The government pays for care that is delivered in the private (mostly not-for-profit) sector. This is similar to how Medicare works in this country. Physicians and other health professionals are in private practice and are paid on a fee-for-service basis from government funds. The government does not own or manage medical or mental health practices or hospitals.
PRIVATIZATION OF HEALTH INSURANCE
The U.S. subscribes to a private business model for health insurance that defines insurers as commercial entities. Private health insurers also maximize profits by limiting benefits or by not covering people with health problems. Like all businesses, their goal is to make money. Under this business model of health insurance, the greed of casual inhumanity is built in and the common good of the citizens and nation is ignored. Excluding many in the middle class, the poor, the aged, the disabled and the mentally ill is sound business practice policy since it maximizes profit.
Today we still have tens of millions of individuals without insurance, many more who are underinsured, many who have impaired access to their physicians because of insurer network restrictions, many who face financial hardship when health needs arise, and an outrageously expensive system due to the profound administrative waste of the insurers and the burden they place on the health care delivery system when immense profit is required. With millions losing their jobs due to Covid-19, the dangers of connecting health insurance to employment are painfully clear. Health insurance must NOT be tied to employment.
Almost none of these problems would exist if the government, instead of the private insurers, served us as the health insurance financing authority. It is inhumane to allow consumer-directed, moral-hazard based private health policies to erect barriers to health care for millions of citizens with minimal or modest resources.
We now have several decades of experience with the conversion of health/mental health care into a business. Our health care is being rationed, with care guidelines determined by profitability and secrecy decided in private Wall Street corporate boardrooms. To realize large profits demanded by Wall Street investors, our health system must attract the healthy and turn away the sick, disabled, the poor, many of the old, and the mentally ill.
To maintain corporate control of U.S. health care insurance, our system is privatized and unregulated. Private, big insurance companies are in the business of making money, not providing health care, and when they undertake the latter, it is likely not to be in the best interests of patients or to be efficient. Administrative costs (and immense profiteering ) are greater in the private health care insurance system, and even Medicare itself is weakened by having to work through the private system.
The country’s largest health insurer, UnitedHealth Group, reported its profits were $6.7bn in the second quarter of 2020 compared with $3.4bn in last year’s. Anthem’s profits rose to $2.3bn from $1.1bn for the same three-month period in 2019. Humana reported its earnings rose to $1.8bn, compared with $940m in 2019. Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., a longtime advocate of single-payer healthcare and a professor at Cuny Hunter College, said in normal circumstances she considered the billions insurance companies collect a “scandal”.
“It is particularly glaring and inappropriate in a pandemic,” said Woolhandler, a co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program.
POLITICIANS FOLLOW 1 % DONORS DEMANDS
President Biden and many Democrats have spent their careers defending the financial sector, including big insurance and big pharma, whose leading policy is to maintain and further privatize basic health care financing and infrastructure. Distinguished classical economist Michael Hudson notes that, “Biden’s long political career has been right-wing. He’s the senator from Delaware, the country’s most pro-corporate state – which is why most U.S. corporations are incorporated there. As such, he represents the banking and credit-card industry. He sponsored the regressive bankruptcy “reform” written and put into his hands by the credit-card companies. As a budget hawk, he’s rejected Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), and also “Medicare for all” as if it is too expensive for the government to afford – thereby making the private sector afford to pay 18% of US GDP for health-insurance monopolies, far more than any other country. That means blocking governments from providing basic services at cost or on a subsidized basis – education, health care/health insurance, roads and communications. Privatized and financialized economies are high-cost.”
Although health insurance affordability for the majority of US citizens remains a very large problem, Pres. Biden’s latest health insurance plan wants to shift many more dollars into private, Wall Street insurance industry hands. The takeover of health insurance by private Wall Street entities continues apace as Democrats/Biden propose to increase taxes and give it to the private profit insurance industry – the source of our profound administrative waste, along with the costly administrative burdens they place on the delivery system. Profiteering continues unabated as private insurance sells us services we don’t need/want , such as deductibles and other cost sharing, maintenance of narrow networks, requiring prior authorization with increased administrative costs, excessive ongoing paperwork/documentation requirements, all while avoiding paying for surprise bills and other denied benefits.
SUPPORT MEDICARE — A SOLID INVESTMENT IN OUR COUNTRY
Let’s never forget that Universal Medicare for All is a solid investment in the citizens of our country. This investment simply promotes a social service for universal access to affordable health care insurance for all. Aren’t we a society that cares enough to see that everyone receive the health care they need? That’s the basic point of Medicare for All, and it’s certainly the right thing to do now with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nobel Prize recipient Bernard Lown, M.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health summed it up nicely: “One may only hope that Winston Churchill’s quip will soon be realized: ‘You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.’ The United States has tried any number of bad solutions for providing its people with health care/insurance. Long overdue is the recognition that medicine is a necessary social service that should be accessible to all citizens.”
Join the majority of Americans who support improved Medicare for All. Ask your legislator to celebrate Medicare’s 57th birthday by supporting legislation in the House (H.R. 1976) and Senate (S. 4204) that would establish this badly needed reform.
F. Douglas Stephenson, LCSW, is a retired psychotherapist and former instructor of social work in the University of Florida Department of Psychiatry. He is a member of Physicians for a National Health Program.