Quinn: We Can Afford Universal Health Care

Prepare to be terrorized, shocked, scared out of your wits. No, not by jihadists or dementors (you do read "Harry Potter," right?), but by the evil threat of ... universal health insurance! The more the presidential candidates talk it up, the wilder the warnings against it. Cover everyone? Wreck America? Do you know what care would cost?

But the public knows the American health-care system is breaking up, no matter how much its backers cheer. For starters, there's the 46 million uninsured (projected to rise to 56 million in five years). There's the shock of the underinsured when they learn that their policies exclude a costly procedure they need—forcing them to run up an unpayable bill, beg for charity care or go without. And think of the millions who plan their lives around health insurance—where to work, whether to start a business, when to retire, even whom to marry (there are "benefits" marriages, just as there are "green card" marriages). It shocks the conscience that those who profit from this mess tell us to suck it up.

I do agree that we can't afford to cover everyone under the crazy health-care system we have now. We can't even afford all the people we're covering already, which is why we keep booting them out. But we have an excellent template for universal care right under our noses: good old American Medicare. When you think of reform, think "Medicare for all."

Medicare is what's known as a single-payer system. In the U.S. version, the government pays for health care delivered in the private sector. There's one set of comprehensive benefits, with premiums, co-pays and streamlined paperwork. You can buy private coverage for the extra costs.

Health insurers hate this model, which would end their gravy train. So they're trying to tar single-payer as a kind of medical Voldemort, ready to destroy. Here are some of their canards, and my replies:

Universal coverage costs too much. No—what costs too much is the system we have now. In 2005, the United States spent 15.3 percent of gross domestic product on health care for only some of us. France spent 10.7 percent and covered everyone. The French comparison is good because its system works very much like Medicare-for-all. The other European countries, all with universal coverage, spent less than France.

Why are U.S. costs off the charts? Partly because we don't bargain with providers for a universal price. Partly because of the money that health insurers spend on marketing and screening people in or out. Medicare's overhead is just 1.5 percent, compared with 13 to 16 percent in the private sector. John Sheils of the Lewin Group, a health-care consultant, says that the health insurers' overhead came to $120 billion last year, of which $40 billion was profit. By comparison, it would cost $54 billion to cover all the uninsured.

Eeeek, your taxes would go up! Maybe not, if Sheils is right. Both the Congressional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office have testified that the United States could insure everyone for the money we're spending now. But even if taxes did rise, you might still come out ahead. That's because your Medicare plan would probably cost less than the medical bills and premiums you're paying now.

We get world-class care; don't tamper with it. On average, we don't. International surveys put France in first place. On almost all measures of health care and mortality, we lag behind Canada and Europe. Many individuals do indeed get superior care, but so do people in single-payer countries, and at lower cost.

They have long waiting times. No advanced country has waiting periods for emergency surgery or procedures that are urgently needed. The United States has shorter waits than Canada and England for elective surgery. Still, queues are developing here, at the doctor's door. In a study of five developed countries, the Commonwealth Fund looked at how many sick adults had to wait six days or more for an appointment. By this measure, only Canada's record was worse than ours. But waits depend on how well a system is funded, not with the fact that it's single-payer. Many countries that cover everyone, including France, Belgium, Germany and Japan, report no issue with waits at all.

There's no problem; people get care even if they're uninsured. They don't. They get emergency treatment but little else. As a group, the uninsured are sicker, suffer more from chronic disease and rarely get rehabilitation after an injury or surgery. They also die sooner—knowing that, with insurance, they might have lived.

Right now, Congress is trying to bring 3.3 million uninsured children into the State Children's Health Insurance Program. President George W. Bush says he'll veto the expansion as "the wrong path for our nation." He objects to "government-run health care" (like Medicare?) and says that SCHIP "deprives Americans of ... choice" (like the choice to go uninsured?). Buzzwords like "government run" are supposed to summon up monsters like "socialized medicine" that apparently still lurk under our beds. If these terror tactics work, prepare for another 46 million uninsured.

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