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Celebrate Medicare’s Anniversary By Improving & Expanding To All

Just because the Republican Party pretends to hate the Affordable Care Act, that doesn’t mean progressives should pretend it’s a great law. ‘Obamacare is a win for the 1 percent,’ writes Kolhatkar, ‘and a loss for the rest of us.’ (Photo: National Nurses United/flickr/cc)

Today, July 30, marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Medicare program into law. Dr. Robert Zarr, president of Physicians for a National Health Program, is among those speaking in Washington this morning at a “Medicare turns 50” rally in the Upper Senate Park and, later in the afternoon, at a congressional briefing hosted by Rep. John Conyers Jr.

Medicare, one of our nation’s most valuable and beloved social programs, turns 50 today.

This landmark program, which currently provides guaranteed health coverage to 55 million Americans – people age 65 and older, along with younger people with long-term disabilities – has opened doors to health care that were previously shut, relieving human suffering and saving many lives.

No less important, Medicare has provided a much greater measure of financial security to our nation’s seniors and their families than they had prior to its enactment. It has significantly reduced poverty and diminished income- and racially-based disparities in care and medical outcomes.

Medicare was originally conceived as a first step toward covering everyone in our society under a national health insurance program. We need to fulfill Medicare’s promise. We need an improved Medicare for All, a national single-payer health care system, to efficiently and equitably cover everyone in the United States.

Today the original Medicare program stands like a rock in a troubled sea of waste, inefficiency and profiteering in the rest of our health care system, dominated as it is by big private insurers whose paramount goal is to maximize their bottom lines.

Commercial insurers increase their bottom lines by enrolling the healthy, avoiding the sick, denying claims, increasing premiums, and erecting barriers to care like co-pays, high deductibles, bureaucratic thickets, and narrow networks.

These same corporate insurers are working feverishly to privatize traditional Medicare through private Medicare Advantage plans and other schemes. They get extra payments from the public program’s coffers – to the tune of $34.1 billion in overpayments in 2012 alone. Such private plans are producing handsome insurer profits, fueling mega-mergers among the largest commercial insurance firms.

Some lawmakers and candidates for public office have called for the outright demolition of Medicare. One idea is to hand vouchers to seniors to buy private health insurance from a marketplace (ironically similar to how insurance “exchanges” authorize taxpayer dollars to subsidize private insurance premiums under the Affordable Care Act). Such a step would be catastrophic for our nation’s patients.

In contrast to the privatized Medicare Advantage plans, which spend about 14 percent on overhead and restrict patients to proprietary networks, traditional Medicare spends only about 2 percent on overhead and allows patients to go to any doctor and hospital of their choice.

The original program has also demonstrated that it is much better at controlling costs than private insurance firms.

Given its existing strengths, traditional Medicare can serve as a useful model for more fundamental health reform, in contrast to the private-insurance-based Affordable Care Act.

Original Medicare is not without its problems, of course. Its benefits package should be richer. It lacks authority to negotiate lower prices with drug companies. In recent years it has been burdened with excessive and unnecessary red tape.

But the best way to remedy these problems — and to bring down skyrocketing health care costs at the same time — is to improve the program and, most important, to expand it to cover every person in the United States.

By replacing our inefficient, crazy-quilt of private health insurers with a streamlined, publicly financed single-payer program, we would reap $400 billion yearly in savings, enough to provide high-quality, first-dollar coverage to all without an additional penny in overall U.S. health spending.

The American people desperately need a universal health system that delivers comprehensive, equitable, compassionate and high-quality care, with free choice of provider and no financial barriers to access. Polls have repeatedly shown an improved Medicare for all, which meets these criteria, is the remedy preferred by a solid majority of the public and the medical profession.

On Medicare’s golden anniversary, we pledge to step up our work for the only equitable, financially responsible and humane cure for our health care ills: single-payer national health insurance, an expanded and improved Medicare for all.

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