Medicare, an effective program, turns 46

By Ann Settgast, M.D.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis), July 30, 2011

Whether the debt ceiling is raised or not in the days ahead, Minnesotans and the nation have reason to celebrate this weekend. Saturday marked Medicare's 46th birthday.

While we have a long way to go before our health care system works well for all patients, this anniversary gives us an opportunity to reflect on what we've done right.

Surprisingly, Medicare was born out of bitter controversy in 1965. It was condemned by some as "socialized medicine," a threat to basic freedoms. As a physician, I'm embarrassed to say organized medicine was among its key opponents. It all seems silly today.

Since its inception, Medicare has afforded hundreds of millions of Americans access to high-quality health care. It has reduced poverty among seniors and improved the financial security of their families. It has become one of the most popular government programs in history.

Current political discourse is centered on spending cuts, including Medicare. But covering Americans via Medicare saves money. No, that is not a typo.

Medicare boasts far lower administrative costs than the leanest private insurance company. While it is true that Medicare spending has risen dramatically over time, its growth is far less than that of the private sector.

And remember that Medicare pays for the care of our sickest and oldest, while private insurers foot the bill for the young and healthier.

In fact, uninsured Americans in their late 50s and early 60s routinely delay needed care, only to become expensive Medicare recipients once they reach 65.

Medicare is not the cause of health care inflation; rather, it is a victim of our country's sky-rocketing health care costs. Cuts to Medicare will not control these costs.

Rather, they will reduce access to care by the nation's elderly, worsen their health status, and increase financial hardship among already-struggling Americans.

Not only is Medicare less expensive than private insurance, it provides superior service. An example is the free choice of doctor granted to patients under Medicare -- a basic freedom many privately insured Americans are currently denied.

As a practicing internist, I can attest to the lower "hassle factor" doctors incur when dealing with Medicare rather than interacting with multiple private payers, each requiring different rules and regulations. Expecting us to treat patients differently because they have different or no insurance contradicts our professional responsibility.

Medicare is far from perfect, and it has some serious limitations. But for this weekend, let's celebrate a government program that actually works incredibly well. Americans are proud of Medicare. It should be strengthened, expanded and improved to include all of us. A sustainable Medicare-for-all system is the reform our nation needs.

Ann Settgast, M.D., is a primary care doctor practicing in the Twin Cities. She co-chairs the Minnesota chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program.