Comment: Covid is refuting the case for Medicare for All

Medicare didn’t improve outcomes for seniors during the pandemic; it won’t for the rest of us.

By Sally Pipes / For The Herald

Medicare for All just won’t die. More than 100 House Democrats have signed onto new legislation that, if passed, would outlaw all private insurance and put all Americans on a federally run insurance plan within two years.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., says Medicare for All is the “solution” to the covid-19 crisis and will improve access to quality care in the long run. Health care is a human right, she says.

She could hardly be more wrong. A complete government takeover of the U.S. health insurance system would deprive Americans of the private coverage the vast majority of them like; and force them to endure long waits for subpar care in exchange.

Jayapal believes the disparate impact of covid-19 on low-income Americans — many of whom lack comprehensive coverage and are in poor health — is proof of the need for Medicare for All.

Low-income people have indeed suffered disproportionately amid the pandemic. It would seem intuitive that a guarantee of government health coverage would help them. But look at the outcomes posted by patients on Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor. Nationwide, Medicaid covers more than 70 million people.

In 2008, Oregon expanded its Medicaid program by lottery. About 6,000 people received coverage through the program and a little fewer than 6,000 people did not receive coverage. It was a natural experiment that allowed researchers to evaluate the impact of Medicaid on a person’s health.

They found that Medicaid “generated no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes” for the program’s beneficiaries, compared to those with no insurance at all.

Another population hit hard by covid-19 is seniors. They’re also already covered by public insurance, in the form of Medicare. The fact that they had government coverage had little bearing on their susceptibility to the virus.

The transition to a single-payer system would most directly impact the majority of Americans with private insurance; a group that, by and large, is happy with the health insurance status quo. According to a recent Gallup poll, 63 percent of these Americans are generally satisfied with their health coverage. That figure actually increased last year during the pandemic.

Medicare for All’s champions are fond of pointing out that a majority, albeit a slight one, of Americans supports the idea and has for several years, according to polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation. But they change their minds once they learn more about it. Just 13 percent support Medicare for All if it means abolishing private insurance, according to a Hill-HarrisX survey.

The public is right to be skeptical of a government takeover of health insurance. Single-payer health care has yielded tragic results everywhere it’s been tried.

In the United Kingdom’s government-run, universal coverage system, life-threatening wait times and rationing of care were routine even before covid-19. They got significantly worse during the pandemic.

In my native Canada, patients seeking specialty treatment face a median wait of nearly 23 weeks for care from a specialist after a referral from their general practitioner. Early in the pandemic, Canadian hospitals had to postpone more than 350,000 surgeries, procedures and consultations. It’ll take months — and cost more than $1 billion — to clear that backlog.

Such waits and rationing are bad enough. But Jayapal and company envision spending north of $3 trillion a year on Medicare for All. That’s not much less than the government takes in taxes each year; in total. Even if the federal government were to double what it takes in individual and corporate income taxes, it would still be short what it needs to pay for Medicare for All.

Supporters of the House’s new Medicare for All bill insist that vovid-19 has added urgency to their cause. In reality, the pandemic has left our country less willing — and far less able — to endure the hardship that inevitably accompanies single-payer.

Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and the Thomas W. Smith fellow in health care policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is “False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All,” (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.

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