Time for ‘socialized’ medicine in the US?

(For previous posts on Sicko and the merits of a government-run, universal, single payer health care system, see here and here.)

Michael Moore’s excellent film Sicko has cinematically exposed the deep flaws of the US health system. His film scarcely touches on the awful plight of the 50 million people who have no insurance at all. That would have been bad enough but instead he sought to highlight the plight of those who do have health insurance and think they are secure, but discover to their horror that their insurance companies let them down in their moments of greatest need.

He emphasizes the fact that when you introduce profit-making entities in between the patient and the health care providers, you have guaranteed that attempts will be made to deny health care as much as possible. The insurance companies actually have employees whose task is to dig deep into your past to see if they can find anything, anything at all, that would enable them to invoke the fine print in their policies and deny coverage. Hence many people receive nasty shocks that they are not covered just as they are reeling from the discovery that they have a serious illness.

And this is why in the US you have a system in which the minority who are rich and powerful and influential have access to very good health care because they are in a position to create trouble for the insurance companies, while the vast majority are vulnerable to finding out that getting ill can mean ruin.

One of the curious things about the health care debate in the US is that the opponents of a government-run, single payer, universal health care system try to portray it as this mysterious, unknown, complicated, untried, massively bureaucratic, expensive system that one should not experiment with.

This is ridiculous. It is the system in the US that is mysterious, complicated, massively bureaucratic, and expensive. Government-run, universal, single payer systems are the norm in the developed world and in many countries of the third world. There are any number of working models that have been in existence for over half a century for which cost-benefit analyses exist and the operating structures are well known. It is the US, almost in isolation, that has a bizarre, labyrinthine, bureaucratic, and expensive system.

The basic concept of how single payer health care works is very easy to understand as this wonderful little animation illustrates. What is needed is to select the model that might adapt best to the US and modify it to meet our needs. The only difficulty to doing that would be to combat the vested interests of the health insurance and drug interests who will fight tooth and nail to keep making massive profits off the sickness of people.

Even magazines like BusinessWeek concede that the French system is superior to the US:

In fact, the French system is similar enough to the U.S. model that reforms based on France’s experience might work in America. The French can choose their doctors and see any specialist they want. Doctors in France, many of whom are self- employed, are free to prescribe any care they deem medically necessary. “The French approach suggests it is possible to solve the problem of financing universal coverage…[without] reorganizing the entire system,” says Victor G. Rodwin, professor of health policy and management at New York University.
. . .
France also demonstrates that you can deliver stellar results with this mix of public and private financing. In a recent World Health Organization health-care ranking, France came in first, while the U.S. scored 37th, slightly better than Cuba and one notch above Slovenia. France’s infant death rate is 3.9 per 1,000 live births, compared with 7 in the U.S., and average life expectancy is 79.4 years, two years more than in the U.S. The country has far more hospital beds and doctors per capita than America, and far lower rates of death from diabetes and heart disease. The difference in deaths from respiratory disease, an often preventable form of mortality, is particularly striking: 31.2 per 100,000 people in France, vs. 61.5 per 100,000 in the U.S.

There will still be some bureaucracy because it will be needed to do all the paperwork to run the health care system. But the point is that this bureaucracy is invisible to the patients. As far as the patient is concerned, you go to the doctor and you get treated. That’s it. You do not have to fill in any forms. The paperwork goes on behind the scenes between the government, the drug companies, hospitals, and the health professionals. Even for the doctors the paperwork is simplified because they are now dealing with just a single payer of their services and don’t have to keep track of multiple health insurance companies, each of which has different rules for what they can and cannot do. This is why the entire health system in Canada has fewer workers (scroll down) to serve its population of 27 million than Blue Cross requires to service less than one-tenth that population in New England alone.

But while the surface debate is about policy, the deeper debate is about a fundamental difference in philosophy

At one extreme, there are those who take the view that it is up to each one of us to look after our own interests and feel perfectly comfortable ignoring the needs of others. Such people take the point of view that each person is responsible for their health care. The ‘free market’ should operate and people should shop around for what works for them. If they do not have the means to do so, then that is their own fault or their own tough luck. They have failed to provide for themselves and cannot expect the rest of society to look after them, except for what private charities might provide.

At the other end (which is where I am) are those who feel that when it comes to basic issues like health care, it is the responsibility of every one to look after everyone else. Decent health care is not a commodity like toothpaste to be bought and sold on the market. It is a fundamental right that everyone (especially children and the elderly) is entitled to, irrespective of their ability to pay, and should be seen as a collective social obligation. Most such systems are based on spreading risk over a large number of people and because of that principle, while there are options for people to buy supplemental insurance on the private market, there cannot be an opt out provision, just as there is no opt out for police or fire systems or trash collection or libraries or parks or all the other similar collective systems that we currently have in place.

Those who oppose single payer health care systems try to frighten people with all kinds of bogeymen. The extent to which they are willing to go sometimes reaches levels of downright lunacy. In the wake of the release of Sicko, some have even said, if you can believe it, that adopting a single payer system could result in more terrorism! There are no depths of fear-mongering to which they will not sink.

But the tried and true standby to try and frighten people is the charge that single payer systems equate to ‘socialized medicine’, as if that is an automatic disqualifier.

It is a tribute to the success of the propaganda model that simply the word ‘socialism’ strikes such fear in so many people in the US. But the fact is that the word is ill-defined in this context. There are some health care systems where the hospitals are actually run by the government, and the health care professionals are government employees. This is perhaps closest to what might be meant by ‘socialized medicine’ and is close to what England has with its National Health Service. Then there is the French system where things are a mix of public and private, and the government mainly acts as the sole entity financing the system, collecting money in the form of taxes and using that to pay for services.

If the scaremongers want to invoke the word ‘socialized’ so broadly as to mean the spreading of the risk across the whole population, then that is no strange concept to the US because then socialism is already rampant in the US.

Sometimes US ‘socialism’ occurs a highly distorted form, where the risks are spread around to everyone but the benefits accrue to a wealthy few. Consider for example the FDIC insurance that banks carry. Every person is underwriting that insurance through our taxes, but it benefits the banks and those who have money to deposit. The past US government bailouts of the auto and airline industries when they were in trouble are examples where the costs and risks are borne by all of us, but the benefits accrued to a select few. The savings and loan debacle of the 1980s was again an instance of the risks and costs being ‘socialized’ (i.e., spread over the entire population), irrespective of whether people had money in the savings and loans institutions or not.

The better form of ‘socialized’ services is where everyone pays for services and everyone also benefits, such as is currently the case in the US with ‘socialized’ fire departments, ‘socialized’ police departments, ‘socialized’ parks, ‘socialized’ libraries, ‘socialized’ trash collection, ‘socialized’ hurricane and weather forecasting, ‘socialized’ air traffic control, ‘socialized’ roads, the list goes on endlessly. All these function on the assumption that there are certain things which are a collective good, and that we all should contribute to their maintenance so that we benefit as needed. ‘Socialized’ medicine should be seen as a natural addition to such existing ‘socialized’ public services, not some strange alien concept.

No health system is perfect. There will always be people who suffer and die because of the lack of equipment or drugs or incompetence. But no one should suffer and die because of the lack of ability to pay or because of bureaucratic hurdles erected in their path in order that some people can make a profit.

In the next post in this series on Thursday, I will look at the “But I’m ok, aren’t I?” attitude that opposes change in the health care system because the speaker thinks that he or she is secure now.

POST SCRIPT: Health care industry contributions to candidates

Michael Moore is helping us keep tabs on how the health care industry is contributing money to presidential candidates of both parties.

Of course, the industry is doing this purely out of a sense of public service and for the sake of supporting democracy, and not to bribe the candidates to make sure that a government run, single payer, health care system is never seriously considered, whoever happens to win.


  1. Anonymous says

    Mano --

    I must say that, having been a skeptic about “socialized medicine” for a long time, your posts and links have really changed my opinion. I had always pictured “single-payer” to mean a complete governmental takeover -- similar to the UK. But after reading this and doing some other research, it does seem to be a very effective way of combining private and public services.

    Also, I had never heard of the police/fire services argument until recently. Even though I’ve previously found Michael Moore’s style to be off-putting, I watched Moore use this example on the Daily Show and found it to be profound.

    Please forgive the anonymous post.

  2. says

    I still think of it as a “rock and a hard place problem.” First off, I don’t think either system is going to be able to effectively reduce health care spending or even make it that much more efficient. I have several reasons for thinking this.

    About 85% of health outcomes depend on the culture and 15% of the health system (Sagan L , 1987, The Health of Nations, The Cause of Sickness and Well-Being, Basic Books, and Satcher, D, and Pamies, R ,2006, Multicultural Medicine and Health Differences, McGraw-Hill). Also, the number one obstacle to good health outcomes is poor patient compliance and awareness of healthy habits (2007 Quality of Care Survey, American College of Physician Executives).

    I would argue that French culture, on the whole, supports a healthier lifestyle than American culture, which makes a single payer system more affordable. Still, they constantly run a deficit with their national welfare programs on the whole and have significantly higher tax rates to support all of this. Similarly, their economy has been significantly more stagnant than ours over the past couple of decades, and I wonder if that’s impacted by their higher taxes (French entrepreneurs are constantly moving out of the country). Lastly, by having some much service available at little-to-no cost, it seems like France has become a nation of hypochondriacs (French doctors are notorious for overprescribing antibiotics).

    Given that American culture is noticeably unhealthy, I doubt the effectiveness of either a single-payer system or a market-driven solution without some massive cultural overhaul.

    Since market-driven solutions have the potential to give me greater choice and have the added bonus of not raising my taxes (which I think are too high as is), I tend to favor those, though I still think they’re far from good.

  3. says

    Oh, also to the point about police and fire services. Yes, they are ‘socialized.’ I have no real problem with that, for the record. It’s worth noting however, that it’s not at all difficult to cite many examples of incompetence, corruption, waste and so on in these organizations, especially here in Cleveland.

  4. Matt says

    If it is moral to force people to be charitable or pay for other people’s health needs then it is moral.

    End of story.

    So if it is moral, then it is moral, which means I, or any other person without the money, may force any other person to be charitable towards us or pay for our doctors.

  5. peter lafond says

    If we can build nuclear bombs to the point we can kill the whole planet forever in about an hour, then we can build a health care system. It is a simple matter of common sense- hate people or help people.

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