Expand Medicare to improve access and reduce costs

By Thomas Meisenhelder
San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sun, Aug. 22, 2014

On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the nation’s most successful medical care program, Medicare. This year marks the 49th anniversary of our commitment to provide good, accessible health care to those over 65. This program has been hugely successful and now covers 98 percent of the country’s senior citizens. Medicare costs rise more slowly than other health care costs and seniors with Medicare are more satisfied with their health care than those with private insurance.

We all know from the experience of our own families that Medicare has been a savior for ourselves and our loved ones. It is a resource we count on to preserve our economic and physical health. We should provide this resource to everyone.

It is no secret that the United States is the only developed country that has a health care system totally in the hands of private corporations that see health as a commodity to be sold for a profit. While the Affordable Care Act does expand coverage to perhaps 20 million more people, it does not cover everyone and it does not address the power of corporate interests or the related issues of rising health care costs and quality of care. Indeed, it mandates that people buy insurance from the private insurance industry.

Extending Medicare to all would provide good, accessible health care to all of us and lower costs to both individuals and their employers. We would bring to an end our disgraceful two-tiered system where the rich and well-off can access the latest treatments and technologies but the rest of us, especially lower income groups, suffer from no health care at all or care only in overcrowded and under-resourced clinics and emergency rooms. In addition, it would allow everyone freedom of choice when it comes to picking physicians and other providers. And, it would mean that we keep our health care coverage even if we lose our job.

Most likely, “Medicare for all” would also improve the quality of health care in the United States, moving us up to European levels of health as well as improving our satisfaction with the medical care we receive.

Research shows that “Medicare for all” would save nearly $600 billion in health care costs. These figures suggest that these savings would fund the expansion of Medicare coverage, improved benefits, and even allow the elimination of premiums and co-payments (with money left over to, for instance, pay down the national debt).

Substantial savings would come from reducing the obscene $476 billion in administrative costs billed by the notoriously inefficient private insurance industry. Medicare has merely 3 percent in administrative costs compared to 20 percent in private insurance firms.

Another $116 billion in savings would come by way of the new “Medicare for all” system’s size and the power it would have to negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry. This bargaining power would surely enable a reduction in drug prices to the much lower levels experienced (through similar policies) in Europe.

Adequate funding could come from increased efficiencies in the health care sector and the replacement of employer contributions to private insurers with a (in most cases) lower payroll tax. Additional funding could come from a reformed, simpler, and more just income tax system and, if needed, a financial transactions tax on Wall Street.

Let’s celebrate the 49th anniversary of Medicare by calling on our representatives in Congress to support HR 676, the “Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act,” which would provide Medicare coverage for all while also saving the economy $592 billion.

Thomas Meisenhelder is professor emeritus of sociology at Cal State San Bernardino.