Let's dispense with myths about 'Medicare for all'

By Dave Zweifel
The Capital Times,, Feb. 17, 2016

Is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' idea to give Americans "Medicare for all" the bad idea that so many other politicians and media commentators claim it is?

As one who has editorially promoted a national single-payer health care system for the better part of my newspaper career, I suggest that most of the naysayers don't know what they're talking about.

The single-payer idea — and that's what Medicare is for Americans over the age of 65 — has been around since 1948 when Harry Truman was president. Truman viewed it as a needed complement to Franklin D. Roosevelt's social reforms, including the establishment of Social Security.

It's been proposed several times since, but the medical establishment, including the insurance and pharmaceutical powers, has become so entrenched and influential that Congress has never given it serious consideration.

It's curious that opposition to single-payer universal health coverage is a uniquely American malady. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, has had it for decades and Canadians like to point out that not one of their citizens has ever gone bankrupt because he or she got sick. We can't say that in the U.S., where tens of thousands of families have been financially devastated by unconscionably uncovered medical bills. 

Meanwhile, our allies in Europe and other parts of the industrialized world long ago declared health care coverage a right of every one of their citizens. Yet most of our politicians and many citizens continue to demonize the idea. Even Obamacare, which has been a small step toward universal coverage, has been vilified, even though 11 million more people now have health insurance.

The nonpartisan Physicians for a National Health Program, which has been pushing for an American single-payer system for decades, a few weeks ago felt compelled to answer the misrepresentations that have popped up not only among the partisans running for office, but in several of the nation's newspapers whose editorial writers and columnists can't grasp what Sanders is talking about.

First, there's the canard that a single-payer system would cost American families bundles of money. As the physicians point out, in reality single-payer would pay for itself. By replacing hundreds of insurers and thousands of different private health plans, each having their own marketing, enrollment, billing, actuaries and other duplicated services, with a single, streamlined, tax-financed, nonprofit program, more than $400 billion in health spending would be freed up to guarantee coverage to all of the 30 million Americans currently still uninsured and to upgrade the coverage of everyone else, including eliminating deductibles and co-pays.

One study concludes that 95 percent of U.S. households would come out ahead.

There's also the claim that the American people are opposed to single-payer. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that 58 percent of Americans support Medicare for all. That result jibes with other national surveys.

The biggest claim knocking the single-payer idea is that in the United States, it's unrealistic or "politically infeasible." There's no doubt that it would face considerable opposition, particularly from the private insurers, the pharmaceutical cabal, and others who profit handsomely off the current health care system.

But should the prospect of a tough battle to once and for all fix America's health care problems mean that the fight's not worth fighting? If that be the case, we still wouldn't allow women to vote, our elderly would still be living in poverty without a program called Social Security and there would be no Medicare even for folks over 65. They were all difficult fights, all considered unwinnable in their times, but the American people held their elected officials accountable and won those fights.

There's a reason health care costs per capita in the U.S. are nearly double the costs in other developed countries around the world. We've created a system that's inefficient and geared to maximizing profits for layer upon layer of bureaucratic administration.

A single-payer system would fix that. It's not, as so many like to claim, a complicated and expensive alternative, but the exact opposite.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times (Madison, Wis.). Contact him at