Why not Medicare for all

Local physician talks about the government program’s success on its 50th anniversary

What computer were you using in 1966? Trick question. We didn’t have personal computers back then. Remarkably, during that year, without computers and 11 months after the Medicare bill became law, the government began paying medical bills for 18.9 million seniors.

Medicare turns 50 years old today (July 30) and its benefits to public health have been profound. In 1962, 48 percent of elderly Americans lacked health insurance and often had to forgo necessary treatment. Now, only 2 percent of the elderly lack health insurance. Between 1965 and 1984, life expectancy for 65-year-old Americans improved by 15 percent.

Having universal health insurance is also good for our financial health. The poverty rate for senior citizens was 29 percent in 1965 and it’s only 9 percent today. Meanwhile, for people without Medicare, medical bills are the most common cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States.

When asked, Medicare beneficiaries like Medicare. And it is quite efficient for a government program. Administrative overhead at Medicare is 3 percent, while private insurance companies are said to be five to nine times more expensive.

Of course, Medicare doesn’t cover most of us before we reach the age of 65. Recently, Dr. Linda Fried, dean of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, made a strong argument for extending Medicare to a younger age group with an emphasis on preventative medicine. The core of her argument is that people who arrive at 65 in better health are more likely to stay healthy with better quality of life and lower health care costs after age 65.

Many of us, including thousands of doctors and a majority of Americans in one poll, favor extending Medicare to Americans of all ages. This would be a fair and efficient way to provide the universal health care coverage that prevails in most of the other industrialized countries in the world. Many of those countries spend less on health care and get better health statistics than we do.

The program has evolved and improved along the way, adding home health services, hospice care and prescription drug coverage, just to name a few innovations. And other improvements may be necessary.

Politicians talk about cutting or privatizing Medicare, but I see no reason to jeopardize a program that is this popular, efficient and effective. Medicare needs to be preserved and, where necessary, improved.

As we celebrate Medicare’s 50th birthday this month, we should ask ourselves this: Why not Medicare for all?