Crib Sheet: Universal Health Care
Debunking five of the right’s favorite myths.
Crib Sheet, Tyler Zimmer, Vanderbilt University, Jan. 12, 2006
Debunking five of the right’s favorite myths.
By Tyler Zimmer, Vanderbilt University
There are numerous pathologies (such as a fear of increasing the size of the federal government) in the American political climate that prevented Universal Health Care (UHC) from succeeding. For many, blind faith in the free market and the sentiment that "private is always more efficient than public" is the motivation for dismissing such a sweeping reform initiative.
The trouble with UHC isn’t that it’s politically infeasible, financially ruinous, or inefficient, because none of the above is true. The largest impediment to implementing UHC is that it has yet to receive a fair trial in this country.
There are over 40 million people in the U.S. who do not have any health insurance. For a country touted as the most powerful in the world, that figure is appalling. Ensuring that every individual has free access to health care should be an imperative of any fair and just society. Health care, contrary to what those on the right would argue, is not simply a commodity to be bought and sold according to the market, but rather it is a basic human need. As such, it should not be limited to only those who are able to pay for it. Even some conservatives will reluctantly sympathize with the spirit of social justice inherent in UHC, but skepticism about the political and financial feasibility of UHC frequently color their arguments against it.
So, let’s debunk five myths about UHC.
Myth #1: It would be too expensive
Rather than cost more money, UHC would actually reduce the cost of health care. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that UHC could save up to $14 billion annually by spreading the risk evenly over the entire population, eliminating deductibles and co-pays and making preventive medicine available to the poor and uninsured. The federal government already subsidizes private health insurance in the form of tax deductions. Private insurance companies also spend billions on administration and overhead, advertising, and determining and inspecting patient eligibility, all while trying to make a profit. UHC would not be burdened with some of those costs, like advertising, and unlike private business, it could run at a loss and still be viable. The pressures of profitability would no longer close the door for millions of Americans and drive up costs. As a result, Americans would effectively pay less for health insurance than they do now, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Myth #2: It would require a HUGE, inefficient bureaucracy
The current system is already a HUGE, inefficient bureaucracy! As previously mentioned, much of the unnecessary overhead and micromanaging in the system now could be eliminated if UHC were implemented. For example, the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in determining patient eligibility would be completely unnecessary if everyone were eligible and covered. Insurance companies spend an estimated 25 cents of every dollar on administration. Canada, which already has a comprehensive UHC in place and still manages to pay 70 percent less per citizen on health care, spends about the equivalent of about 12 cents of every dollar on administration.
Myth #3: It would restrict patient choice
How can we even begin to talk about choice when 40 million Americans don’t even have any health insurance at all? "Choice" really isn’t an appropriate topic for those who can’t afford health care. Many of the chronically sick are simply denied coverage by private insurance companies because they aren’t good financial investments. The concept of choice probably doesn’t resonate much for people in this situation, either. But even for those who are insured under the current system, HMOs and insurance companies alike restrict patients to a strict list of complying physicians. UHC wouldn’t directly dictate what doctor you have to see in order to get treatment, and would thus enable more choice in selecting a physician than the current system would for many, if not most, Americans.
Myth #4: It would be a socialist seizure of the medical industry
It would be nothing of the sort. Socialized medicine would entail hospitals and doctors becoming employees of the state. UHC only provides funding for people’s health care, but doesn’t provide the health care itself. The only difference is that health care insurance plans would be funded by the state. Hospitals, physicians, and other health care employees would all remain part of the private sector. Competition between doctors and hospitals would not be eliminated. Although using the "s" word in attacking UHC has proven effective in frightening the populace, UHC would be no more socialist than Medicare and arguably less so than public education. Granted the far-right would gladly see both of those programs destroyed, but the overwhelming majority of Americans would not.
Myth #5: UHC would impede economic growth
An added benefit of UHC would be that private business would no longer have to worry about health care benefits and employees wouldn’t have to remain in unpleasant jobs just to keep their benefits. Benefits wouldn’t interfere with wage increases and employers would have more financial mobility. The recent problems General Motors has been having with maintaining health benefits for its workers while trying to remain financially afloat have been well documented. GM estimates that health care benefits account for nearly $1,500 of the price of every car they build and sell. Many other companies are switching to "temporary" or outsourced jobs in order to avoid paying benefits. Not only would UHC relieve businesses of having the burden of providing health insurance for their workers, but the workers would also be unconditionally covered regardless of where they work.
Given that worker mobility has increased tremendously in the last 100 years, and that the number of jobs held by the average worker in his or her lifetime is considerably higher (about 9 to 10 jobs per lifetime), people are frequently between or changing jobs. UHC would work well with the high turnover rate in many jobs by maintaining coverage even during periods of temporary unemployment.
Rather than tolerating a system which is set up to make as much money as possible instead of guaranteeing health care coverage for the highest number of people possible, Americans should seriously consider UHC. We should be disgusted with the injustice of a system devised to insure precisely the people who don’t need it (those who are healthy and can afford it) and turn away those who do (the poor and chronically sick).
Until we devise a system which enables every member of society to gain equal access to quality health care, our claim to be the greatest country in the world will perpetually ring hollow.
Tyler Zimmer is commentary editor of the Vanderbilt Orbis.