Medicare for all would save lives and money

By Margaret Flowers
The Wichita Eagle, Tue, Sep. 27, 2011

There's been quite a bit of talk lately about the contribution of health care costs to our national deficit, and understandably so.

When compared with health care in other advanced nations, the United States excels in only one area — the amount of money spent per capita annually. Despite our high spending, we leave about a third of our population either uncovered or underinsured and thus vulnerable to unneeded suffering and medical bankruptcy.

Our health outcomes are relatively poor, placing us 37th in the world, and we rank the highest in preventable deaths — more than 100,000 preventable deaths per year — when compared with other advanced nations. It's clear we are getting poor value in return for our health care dollar.

Health care costs, which are rising 2.5 percent faster than our gross domestic product, are a leading driver of our financial deficit. In fact, if our health care costs were comparable to those of other industrial nations, which provide nearly universal health care with better outcomes, we would have a budget surplus.
Regrettably, the new federal health law, the Affordable Care Act, lacks proven cost controls and is predicted to cause U.S. health care costs to rise faster than if there had been no reform at all. It will also leave at least 23 million uninsured through 2019.

Given our high health care costs, some members of the new "super-committee" in Washington, D.C., may attempt to reduce the deficit by cutting our public health insurance programs, Medicaid and Medicare. However, doing so would be a mistake, because it would increase poverty, worsen health outcomes and increase costs.

How so? Since its enactment 46 years ago, Medicare has substantially lowered poverty and sickness among the elderly, helping not only seniors but also their families. And Medicare's cost of health care per beneficiary is rising more slowly than for those with private health insurance.

Medicaid and Medicare have not caused our rising health care costs, but are victims of our fragmented, market-based model of health care financing. And shifting more of the cost of health care from the taxpayer to the patient through higher co-pays and deductibles, for example, will only hurt the vulnerable and will not slow rising costs.

The only effective remedy is to jettison the costly and wasteful system of using big private health insurers as middlemen and to adopt a publicly financed and independently delivered Medicare for all. This is commonly known as a "single- payer" system.

An improved Medicare-for-all system has myriad benefits, including free choice of physician and hospital; administrative savings of about $400 billion per year, which is enough to provide comprehensive high-quality health care to all who are uninsured and underinsured; the ability to negotiate lower prices for drugs; the elimination of bankruptcy and foreclosure due to medical debt; a reduced health care cost burden on businesses; and the stimulation of the economy because families will have more money for discretionary spending.

An improved Medicare for all will save lives and money. It will place our nation on the path of becoming one of the best health systems in the world — something of which we can all be proud.

Margaret Flowers, a Maryland pediatrician, is congressional fellow at Physicians for a National Health Program. She will speak at 7 p.m. today at the Murdock Theatre, 536 N. Broadway. Admission is free.

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