By George S. McGovern
Sunday, September 13, 2009; B05
For many years, a handful of American political leaders -- including the late senator Ted Kennedy and now President Obama -- have been trying to gain passage of comprehensive health care for all Americans. As far back as President Harry S. Truman, they have urged Congress to act on this national need. In a presentation before a joint session of Congress last week, Obama offered his view of the best way forward.
But what seems missing in the current battle is a single proposal that everyone can understand and that does not lend itself to demagoguery. If we want comprehensive health care for all our citizens, we can achieve it with a single sentence: Congress hereby extends Medicare to all Americans.
Those of us over 65 have been enjoying this program for years. I go to the doctor or hospital of my choice, and my taxes pay all the bills. It's wonderful. But I would have appreciated it even more if my wife and children and I had had such health-care coverage when we were younger. I want every American, from birth to death, to get the kind of health care I now receive. Removing the payments now going to the insurance corporations would considerably offset the tax increase necessary to cover all Americans.
I don't feel as though the government is meddling in my life when it pays my doctor and hospital fees. There are some things the government does that I don't like -- most notably getting us into needless wars that cost many times what health care for all Americans would cost. Investing in the health of our citizens will enhance the well-being and security of the nation.
We know that Medicare has worked well for half a century for those of us over 65. Why does it become "socialized medicine" when we extend it to younger Americans?
Taking such a shortsighted view would leave nearly 50 million Americans without health insurance and without the means to buy it. It would leave other Americans struggling to pay the rising cost of insurance premiums. These private insurance plans are frequently terminated if the holder contracts a serious long-term ailment. And some people lose their insurance if they lose their jobs or if the plant where they work moves to another location -- perhaps overseas.
We recently bailed out the finance houses and banks to the tune of $700 billion. A country that can afford such an outlay while paying for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can afford to do what every other advanced democracy has done: underwrite quality health care for all its citizens.
If Medicare needs a few modifications in order to serve all Americans, we can make such adjustments now or later. But let's make sure Congress has an up or down vote on Medicare for all before it adjourns this year. Let's not waste time trying to reinvent the wheel. We all know what Medicare is. Do we want health care for all, or only for those over 65?
If the roll is called and it goes against those of us who favor national health care, so be it. If it is approved, the entire nation can applaud.
Many people familiar with politics in America will tell you that this idea can't pass Congress, in part because the insurance lobby is too powerful for lawmakers to resist.
As matters now stand, the insurance companies claim $450 billion a year of our health-care dollars. They will fight hard to hold on to this bonanza. This is a major reason Americans pay more for health care per capita than any other people in the world. The insurance executives didn't cry "socialism" when their buddies in banking and finance were bailed out. But to them it is socialism if the government underwrites the cost of health care.
Consider the campaign funds given to the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over health-care legislation. Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, a Democrat, and his political action committee have received nearly $4 million from the health-care lobby since 2003. The ranking Republican, Charles Grassley of Iowa, has received more than $2 million. It's a mistake for one politician to judge the personal motives of another. But Sens. Baucus and Grassley are firm opponents of the single-payer system, as are other highly placed members of Congress who have been generously rewarded by the insurance lobby.
In the past, doctors and their national association opposed Medicare and efforts to extend such benefits. But in recent years, many doctors have changed their views.
In December 2007, the 124,000-member American College of Physicians endorsed for the first time a single-payer national health insurance program. And a March 2008 study by Indiana University -- the largest survey ever of doctors' opinions on financing health-care reform -- concluded that 59 percent of doctors support national health insurance.
To have the doctors with us favoring government health insurance is good news. As Obama said: "We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it."
George S. McGovern, a former senator from South Dakota, was the Democratic nominee for president in 1972.