This campaign season, political attack ads are filling the airwaves with ominous warnings against a government-run “single-payer” health care system. As the funereal music escalates, it’s worth taking a step back and remembering that similar rhetoric abounded in the 1960s as Congress considered, then passed, a controversial government-run health care program.
That program is Medicare. Since its 1965 enactment it has provided medical coverage to millions of senior citizens. Currently, it serves close to 60 million Americans. Minnesota has about 414,000 enrollees in the program. If you have elderly relatives, they’re almost certainly covered by Medicare.
It’s hard to argue with Medicare’s success given the relief that most people feel when they turn 65 and become eligible for its far-less-expensive coverage. There’s also widespread political agreement that the program should be protected, with every election marked by Republicans and Democrats vying to be Medicare’s staunchest defenders.
Certainly, the most dire predictions about the program voiced in the 1960s — Ronald Reagan was among its best-known critics — haven’t been borne out. Before he became California’s governor, Reagan grimly predicted that passing a program like Medicare would be a fast, slippery slope to socialism. “You and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”
That background should serve as the proverbial grain of salt when attack ads air. Of course, the debate this election year is not about Medicare’s existence or the coverage it provides seniors. Instead, it’s about whether this popular, well-run program could help younger Americans access quality, affordable coverage.
There are a variety of ways to do this, which is why it’s so unfortunate that the current political narrative dwells on the most disruptive and unlikely-to-pass-Congress version. That proposal, which is sometimes dubbed “single-payer” or “Medicare-for-All,’’ would enroll all Americans in Medicare or a program like it. While Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is this reform’s best-known proponent, Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, who is also a candidate for state attorney general, is the lead author on the U.S. House’s version of this reform.
This measure is far from the only way to leverage Medicare, however. There are numerous bills introduced by congressional Democrats that propose more doable alternatives. Two bills would lower Medicare’s eligibility age to either 50 or 55, allowing early retirees and others with health problems to buy into the program.
Three other bills would allow individuals of any age, as well as employers, to buy coverage through Medicare. Another bill proposes allowing individuals to buy into another of the nation’s big public health programs — Medicaid. Medicaid serves the poor, the elderly and disabled. Minnesota congressman and DFL gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz is a cosponsor of the U.S. House’s Medicaid buy-in bill, H.R. 4129.
None of these other proposals are getting the airing they deserve — mainly because of fearmongering about Sanders’ single-payer proposal. That’s a shame. Despite all the grim warnings about Medicare, Americans have found a lot to like about this once-controversial, government-run program through the years. The same would likely hold true if they took a closer look at the variety of options that could be built upon Medicare’s proven foundation.