Afraid of 'socialized' medicine? We've had it for decades

Herald-leader columnistAugust 21, 2009 

There's a fascinating audio clip on YouTube. It's from a 1961 phonograph record in which a politically ambitious entertainer named Ronald Reagan tries his best to scare people about "socialized medicine."

The threat he warns about is legislation to create the program we now know as Medicare.

So here we are, nearly a half-century later, with talk radio entertainers and some Republican politicians trying their best to scare people about "socialized medicine."

They see a threat in almost any meaningful reform of America's inadequate health care insurance system.

Some of their scare tactics, such as baseless claims about plans for "death panels," are truly outrageous. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin might actually believe some of the crazy things she says, but other GOP leaders who lend legitimacy to such hogwash are simply seeking political advantage. They seem to have no interest in improving health care; only in seeing President Barack Obama fail.

What makes the recent tone of the national health care debate so ridiculous is that Americans have had "socialized medicine" for decades, and it has worked pretty well.

The popular Medicare program that Reagan warned against — and later tried to deny he ever opposed — covers 43 million people who are disabled or age 65 and older. Then there's government health care for veterans and insurance for public employees. Members of Congress have especially good government health care plans.

My biggest fear about health care reform is that we won't get any. My biggest concern about Obama's approach is that it isn't ambitious enough, especially now that he seems willing to give up on a government insurance option.

There are many improvements that can be made in our current system with electronic medical records and various cost-containment strategies. But I think the long-term solution is some form of single-payer health insurance involving privately delivered medical care — like Medicare.

Why wouldn't it work to open Medicare, or something like it, to more people? That could provide a safety net. Then, individuals or groups could buy supplemental private insurance if they wanted more coverage and could afford it, as Medicare recipients often do.

Every major industrialized nation except ours has some form of universal health care. Are the "socialized medicine" systems in Canada, Australia, Britain and other European nations perfect? Of course not.

But here's what you see in the United States that you don't see in those countries: millions of people with no health care coverage. That includes nearly 600,000 Kentuckians, or 14 percent of the state's population, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Here's what else you don't see in those countries: Millions more people who are scared of losing health insurance coverage if they get sick or lose their job. People who can't get coverage because of "pre-existing" conditions. And people who see their life savings depleted because they get sick.

You also don't see businesses struggling to pay spiraling health care costs for employees and retirees while trying to compete in an increasingly global economy with foreign businesses that don't bear such burdens.

Talk show entertainers and Republican partisans have done an effective job of whipping up the frightened, ill-informed citizens we see at public meetings and protests across the country.

But if they want to rant about "socialized medicine," they should put their money where their mouths are.

Members of Congress who oppose a government health insurance option for citizens should give up their own government coverage. Let them try to buy a similar plan in the private market.

Then they, the media hacks and other self-described "freedom-loving conservatives" should march down to their local Medicare office and renounce their "socialized medicine" benefits, now and in the future.

Yes, I know. Fat chance.

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