By Jonathan Michels, Will Cox, Alankrita Siddula, and Rex Tai
The Guardian, June 6, 2019
This Saturday, nurses, physicians, and medical students plan to walk out of their clinics and on to the streets of Chicago to confront the American Medical Association at the organization’s annual meeting. Health providers know that the outrageous costs and shameful inequality of American medicine are no accident – and that their patients’ lives are at stake.
The AMA claims to represent the interests and values of our nation’s doctors. But it has long been the public relations face of America’s private health insurance system, which treats healthcare as a commodity. This approach has resulted in some of the worst health outcomes in the industrialized world: the highest rate of infant mortality, the highest number of avoidable deaths, and health spending that eats up nearly 18% of America’s GDP.
The AMA is a major reason why 28 million Americans still don’t have health insurance. Despite recent polls showing that a majority of doctors support the single-payer system Medicare for All, which would fully insure all Americans, the AMA is leading the fight against universal coverage.
By money spent, the AMA is the nation’s third largest lobbying organization of the last 20 years, behind only the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Realtors. By deploying powerful lobbying and misleading media campaigns, the AMA has opposed or hijacked nearly every health reform proposal of the last century, from Social Security to Medicare to the Affordable Care Act.
The AMA has also been a relentless opponent of universal healthcare. In 1949, the group waged an unscrupulous war against President Truman’s proposed national health insurance program, spending millions of dollars to have a political-consulting firm mislabel single-payer healthcare as “socialized medicine.” In 1961, the group doubled down on fearmongering when they hired Ronald Reagan to record an advertisement warning Americans that the passage of Medicare, an imperfect but popular health program for seniors, was a “short step to all the rest of socialism.”
The AMA, however, is finding it increasingly difficult to keep healthcare providers and patients scared of single payer.
Despite industry claims that Americans are “satisfied” with their private health plans, insured patients are saddled with exorbitant co-pays, premiums, and deductibles that keep them from actually getting the care they need. A single illness or injury pushes many Americans into bankruptcy. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans borrowed a whopping $88bn last year simply to pay for medical expenses. So much for private insurance.
Most Americans – 70% – now favor the creation of a publicly financed but privately delivered single-payer health insurance program, better known as Improved and Expanded Medicare for All. Americans are desperate for affordable healthcare, a system that prioritizes patients over commerce, centers clinical decisions in the hands of physicians, and results in lower costs and better outcomes.
In February, Representative Pramila Jayapal, along with 106 co-sponsors, unveiled the Medicare for All Act of 2019 (HR 1384), while Senator Bernie Sanders’ revamped Medicare for All Act enjoys support from most of the leading Democratic presidential candidates. Even former President Barack Obama recently admitted that his signature health initiative – the Affordable Care Act – is no substitute for single payer.
Faced with soaring public support for Medicare for All, this past summer the AMA joined the “Partnership for America’s Health Care Future”, a benign-sounding corporate group which represents the pharmaceutical and private insurance industries and aims to “change the conversation around Medicare for All”. In order to protect their own economic interests, the “Partnership” is waging a well-funded campaign to turn elected officials away from single-payer by rallying Democrats around the ACA and preventing the Democratic party from including Medicare for All in its 2020 platform.
The campaign is merely the latest example of how the AMA uses the prestige of its white-coated members to push for market-based health reforms that maintain the status quo of our fractured health system: one in which some Americans have a lot, others have a little, and some are left with absolutely nothing.
Medical students and professionals have had enough. This Saturday’s protest is only one example. Last year, the Medical Student Section of the AMA put pressure on their leadership with a resolution demanding the organization suspend its decades-long opposition to single-payer. Single-payer activism is growing on medical school campuses across the nation, perhaps a preview of what the next generation of doctors will expect.
The public agrees with the evidence that Medicare for All is the answer to our broken health system. Until the AMA’s priorities change, it will remain an obstacle to the good of our patients.
Jonathan Michels is a premedical student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a student board member of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), an organization that advocates for an improved and expanded Medicare for All health system.
Will Cox is a longtime healthcare worker and social justice organizer and serves on the board of the North Carolina chapter of PNHP.
Alankrita Siddula is a medical student at Rush University in Chicago and a member of Students for a National Health Program (SNaHP).
Rex Tai is a medical student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a midwest regional delegate for SNaHP and has a background organizing for criminal justice reform and harm reduction in opioid treatment.