Early retirement is un-American

By Richard Davis
The Brattleboro Reformer, May 9, 2012

A sensible person might think that promoting a health care system that covers everyone with a basic benefits package that everyone can afford would be an easy sell. In some parts of the world entire populations have seen the wisdom of universal health care, but not here. It's about politics and it's about preserving the free market at all costs, even if people die in the process.

This is nothing new. Many of us have been talking about this for more decades than we wish to reveal. So when I come across a new way of looking at things -- something I haven't seen or heard -- I feel compelled to share it with others.

There is a retired doctor in California, Don McCanne, who sends out a daily e-mail, Quote of the Day, which is usually a reference to a professional paper or media story that points out the need for a single payer system in this country. McCanne is tireless in his efforts and I often pass on his missives to friends and colleagues.

Last week one of McCanne's pieces grabbed me. It resulted in an epiphany of sorts. It seemed so obvious, yet I have not heard of anyone making this point. It was in the form of a letter written to him by Dr. Khati Hendry who works in the single payer health system of British Columbia as a family physician at the Rosedale Medical Associates.

This is what Hendry had to say: "One of the things that really impressed me when I first moved from the U.S. to practice in Canada seven years ago -- I started seeing all these patients who were retiring way before age 65. What was up? They didn't all seem independently wealthy. Some were taking up other avocations, running B&Bs, but others were, well, just retired. Of course the big difference is that they don't have to take into account health insurance. They are covered working, retired, laid-off, in transition, in school, married, single, rich, poor -- you understand completely. What a difference it makes to a life when you don't have the angst of health financial disaster looming, and you can make your decisions on all the other things important to you."

Imagine living in a country where you don't have to be a slave to people who provide you with health insurance. We have heard the stories about people who keep a job they hate just because the health insurance benefits are good. It creates a lot of unhappy people, can be the indirect cause of domestic violence and no doubt causes a lot of stress-induced disease.

Too many Americans who are over 50 but under 65 may be in a financial position to think about retiring from a job they have held for 20 or more years. They sit down to run the numbers and they quickly become depressed.

If they give up their job and their insurance benefits they will have to pay anywhere from $10-$20,000 a year for adequate health insurance coverage. That means that if they are 55 and are worn out from years of working, they would have to set aside an additional $100,000-$200,000 just to pay for health insurance until they are eligible for Medicare.

Even when they turn 65 they will still have health insurance bills to deal with. Medicare Part A is free, part B costs about $100 a month and if they want to be covered by the 20 percent not covered by Medicare they need to pay an additional $150-$200 a month for a Medigap policy. If they are on medications, the total yearly health care tab for a post-65 retirement could be $4,000-$5,000 a year. This is a uniquely American phenomenon.

I suspect that this situation may be why some smart Americans choose to retire to countries where they have universal health care. They become health care ex-pats so they can afford to enjoy their lives and have a functional retirement.

The next time you hear someone trash the health reform efforts in this country, show them the paragraph by Dr. Hendry. Maybe a light will go on and, just maybe, you will have given someone a reason to become a supporter of American universal health care.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse and executive director of Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health. He writes from Guilford, Vt.