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Wall Street Journal/photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

Let’s be honest about “socialized medicine”

Jeffrey Denny

Apologies to the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: We are entitled to our own facts, not just our own opinions.

“Overall, Republicans and Democrats are more likely to classify a news statement as factual if it favors their side,” Pew Research Center president Michael Dimock writes.

“Consider the factual statement ‘President Barack Obama was born in the United States.’ Nearly 9 in 10 Democrats (89%) correctly identified it as a factual statement, compared with 63% of Republicans.”

Alternative facts backing predetermined political beliefs are usually mostly irritating and fun for late-night comics to mock.

But confirmation bias can be a life-or-death matter when it comes to reforming our healthcare system, especially for the poorest and sickest in America — right, left or middle — who struggle to get and pay for care.

Some 92% of Americans want our healthcare system fixed, per a USA Today survey and special report in February. Healthcare is a political and policy priority that brings rare unity in our divided country.

Most Democrats (80–90%), and a majority of independents (57–64%), support some form of universal single-payer national health plan, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found, and even 30–40% of Republicans do.

But use the dirty words “socialized medicine,” and the partisan divide becomes a Grand Canyon, with only 17% of Republicans in favor compared with 74% of Democrats and nearly half of independents (45–46%).

I understand why Fox News and alt-right media smear Democrats for backing “socialized medicine.”

And why they cite the gruesome horrors of healthcare in Canada, England and other single-payer systems, where people politely queue for decades praying for a sawbones to relieve them from their gangrenous limbs or even a lozenge to soothe their scratchy Covid-19 throats.

Scaring Americans about European “socialized medicine” helps people who don’t question their unreliable sources reelect Trump. I get the Washington swampy political strategy.

What’s harder to square is when folks are adamantly opposed to Medicare for all, or those who want it, when so many like and benefit from Medicare — either directly because they’re over 65, or indirectly because a parent or other loved one is covered.

Here’s where alternative facts backing predetermined beliefs can hurt people.

I asked an informed moderate Republican friend, “Why shouldn’t everyone have Medicare?” I wondered not because I’m in the tank for Bernie; as a pragmatic Democrat, I worry that Sanders, like Trump, is more promise than delivery. I just wanted to understand my friend’s sensible Republican thinking on Medicare for all or more.

Her mother, nearing 90, who’s been fighting lung cancer for four years yet mostly living her life, has received, easily, $1 million in high quality medical care almost for free, thanks to Medicare.

My mother also received up to $1 million in care that gave her six years of active life since her leukemia diagnosis, until her chemo failed and she succumbed earlier this month. Yet the cost to her family for her remarkable care has been pretty much zero. Again, because of Medicare.

So I wondered, what’s so wrong with every American having the Medicare that kept our mothers alive?

She answered, like many Americans do, that our parents paid into Medicare all their lives, and they’re merely getting what they’re entitled to.

Nooo. Sorry. Not even close.

To be overly simplistic, Medicare currently takes 1.4% of our paychecks. Pre-pandemic, the average American income was $63,000 a year. Over 40 years of work, that’s $36,540 paid into Medicare. The average income in my hometown Toledo, where my mother lived and died, was $35,000, paying less than $20,000 into Medicare. Even with a $100,000 paycheck over 40 years, the Medicare contribution would be just $68,000.

Forget my bad math that ignores inflation, the time value of money, and a number of variables. The nonpartisan Urban Institute and libertarian Cato Institute both have demonstrated that most Americans draw far more from Medicare than we pay in, as a 2013 Politifact analysis walks through. (Same with Social Security, which Medicare is part of.)

The analysis found, for example, a two-income couple earning the average wage of $44,600, and retiring in 2020, would have paid less than $200,000 into Medicare but would draw more than $400,000. And the longer they retired before 2020, the more they would receive for less. If you retired in 1980, you paid $13,000 to receive about $180,000 in Medicare benefits.

“The exhortation that today’s generations are just getting what they are due based on their forced past tax payments is incorrect,” the Cato analyst said. “‘We’ are to get much more under current Social Security laws — to the tune of $21.6 trillion — than we’ll pay into the system. The excess benefits are a ‘return’ on past and current generations’ taxes of $71.3 trillion — and quite a handsome return it is!”

The average hospital stay is $1,000 a day, not including extras like ambulance, procedures and other services that boost the tally into the shocking final bills. The average cost of an ER visit is over $1,400. A friend’s mother’s cancer medication, when the normal chemo failed, was $10,000 a month but free when her oncologist pulled some strings.

Who pays the balance?

We all do. Together, as a country. Spread across all health insurance and taxpayers. That’s socialized medicine. As Karl Marx and Seinfeld’s Kramer described socialism, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Medicare’s socialized medicine not only subsidizes the 50 million Americans over 65 with nearly free healthcare (and financial security), it also protects their families, like mine and my friend’s, who could face medical bankruptcy if not for Medicare.

FYI, same story with Medicaid, which helps more poor Trump-state whites than poor blue-state minorities, contrary to assumption. Explore “Who Receives Medicaid? A State-by-State Breakdown,” and also Forbes’ take-down of “The Republicans’ Irrational Opposition to Medicaid.”

All to say, anyone benefiting from Medicare or Medicaid who attacks
“socialized medicine,” and smears fellow Americans who are open to the idea, risks coming across as the most anti-American hypocrite of all: I’ve got mine, sorry for you.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.

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