(Note: I originally posted this on Medium)

In the United States, healthcare has been one of the biggest political battles of the decade. As a healthcare worker myself, it’s an issue that strikes close to home. My years of experience caring for people with dementia, traumatic brain injuries, tetraplegia, cancer, and more has given me a firsthand look into what our healthcare system is like at the ground level, and it’s a different world from the vague concepts that politicians volley back and forth at each other.

Healthcare shouldn’t be a messy political fight to begin with: it’s an issue of basic human rights. And what all too often gets lost in these scuffles are the people most in need.

Our police forces, fire departments, libraries, and even our military are all socialist institutions. Few people would argue for the idea of a private fire department that refuses to rescue people from their home because the fire itself is a “pre-existing condition.” So why would we ever frame the issue of healthcare differently, when it’s exactly the same thing?

I’ve watched patients die from preventable conditions because they couldn’t afford treatment. In nursing homes, sick people are warehoused into less-than-adequate conditions, with families forced to pay insane yearly costs of $90,000 a year to put their loved one in a shared room where they and the 30+ other patients on their unit will be taken care of by only two aides. Because of money issues, people lose limbs that they shouldn’t need to lose. Patients decline when they shouldn’t have to. An increasing number of people don’t go to the doctor, even when they develop terrifying symptoms such as mysterious lumps in their throat, because they just can’t afford it.

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Something has to change. Looking at other countries, the practical solution is universal healthcare — preferably a single-payer system.

Though some politicians might argue differently, universal healthcare isn’t a radical idea. The majority of Americans actually support the concept. In the rest of the developed world it isn’t even an argument, it’s a given. Of the 25 wealthiest nations in the world, the United States is the only one that doesn’t have it. The majority of these countries use single-payer. Even countries like the Netherlands — with its “managed chaos” form of healthcare — are still universal.

The United States has the highest health expenditure per capita of any country. With all that money being spent, you’d figure that we’re all super-healthy — but not really.

In the latest survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which assessed 13 developed nations including Norway, Australia, and the U.K., the USA had the lowest life expectancy, the highest rate of infant mortality, and scarily high rates of heart disease and amputation as a result of diabetes. Of all the developed countries in the world, the United States possesses the dubious distinction of having both the most expensive healthcare system in the world — and the least effective.

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In the past year, taxpayers in the United States picked up 65% of this country’s total healthcare coverage, about $2.1 trillion in taxes. Keep in mind, this is what we’re already paying in taxes. On top of that, let’s take into account how much money each of us also spends on our private healthcare plans every month, combined with how much we have to pay on personal procedures that aren’t totally covered by that plan.

But then Canada, which has a single-payer system, pays almost the same amount in tax funded dollars: 70.7%. In other words, the United States already pays the same amount of money that could fund universal healthcare — we just aren’t getting any the benefits. Although Canada’s system certainly has flaws, Canadians still overwhelmingly approve of universal healthcare as a whole, with 94% calling it a source of collective pride.

That’s not all: if we want to get serious about cutting the deficit and don’t want to rip Medicare to shreds, many studies by economists such as Dean Baker have shown how a single-payer healthcare plan would actually be a great solution.

Some point to the idea of “free market healthcare” as an alternative option, but in practice this would price out the poor. This is a very real issue, because if a working class person with a relatively low income — say, a mechanic — comes down with brain cancer, the cost of treatment would greatly exceed their income level, leaving that person the option of either begging their friends for tens of thousands of dollars, or accepting that they have to die without receiving treatment.

In a free market healthcare system, unregulated health insurance companies would be financially rewarded for not accepting sick customers, and punished if they did accept them. Healthcare companies reap profits every month when their customers are healthy, and lose money when their customers are sick. This means that a healthcare company that’s looking to profit will refuse applications from customers who are already sick — in other words, patients with “pre-existing conditions” — exactly the people who need healthcare the most.

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Let’s not forget the pharmaceutical industry, which is a whole other can of worms. The United States is the only developed country in the world that allows drug companies to set their own prices, which is why last year Turing Pharmaceuticals was able to jack up the price of Daraprim from $13.50 a tablet to $750. Unlike other countries, where prices are set as part of a bureaucratic process, the US system opens the door for these companies to step in and maximize profits, as if a lifesaving drug was comparable to a pair of jeans.

But healthcare shouldn’t be about profit. It deserves the same priority in our society that we give to the police, the military, and the fire department, because healthcare isn’t like buying a flat screen TV: people don’t want healthcare services for their enjoyment, they need them, and a person should not be thrown into bankruptcy because on one unlucky day an icicle dropped onto them from a rooftop.

Ideally, the entire purpose of government in the type of democratic society that we have today is to serve the needs of the people. As a healthcare worker, I can’t possibly see how this principle doesn’t apply to health. I’ve been there when people died, seen people suffer when they shouldn’t have had to, all while corporations mark down record profits from the suffering of human beings. So yes, I do believe that “healthcare is a right, not a privilege,” and I’m not alone. The evidence shows that the various universal healthcare systems that exist in every other developed country are both less expensive and more effective than what we have in the United States.

Again, this shouldn’t be a political battle. It’s an issue of basic human rights. So when will we get with the program? Hopefully soon.
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37 thoughts on “Why the United States Should Have Universal Healthcare

  1. I don’t understand the mechanisms and marketplaces well enough to suggest a solution. I do know that no one should be denied access to healthcare because they can’t afford it or the insurance to pay for it.

    • Agreed, and I think that’s really the one ethical tenet that should inform healthcare: as long as lower income people aren’t blocked out of healthcare because they can’t afford it, then the discussion should be open as to what forms of healthcare might work, whether old ideas or new ideas. I lean toward single-payer, but the “managed chaos” system of the Netherlands also accomplishes this.

  2. I’m from Canada, but I’ve seen a number of posts about the healthcare system in the States. I read an article in Time Magazine featuring the expenses of an emergency room visit for something as simple as a broken bone and the fee was staggering. What you’ve suggested makes sense to me. No one, under any circumstance, should be denied health care, you’re correct. Now getting anyone to listen and take action, that’s another thing entirely. This is an incredible article. Well done.

    • Thank you, and yes, some of the healthcare horror stories in this country are pretty terrifying. Again, there’s no moral reason that income level should be something that prevents the every day person from accessing basic healthcare without destroying their life savings, putting them into debt, and so on. Thank you for your comment!

    • Agreed completely. The entire idea of “profiting” off of people’s medical treatments seems like something out of a dark satire, you know? Almost on the same level as “We’re going to tax the air you breathe,” except even THAT seems less sinister.

  3. I really enjoyed the article to enhance discussions on the topic 🙂 Having been with private insurance until divorce and then forced to go on medicaid after an illness took me out of work last year, I can’t find the heart to agree with the idea of universal healthcare anymore. The system is so bad that I am left to my own resources for healthcare and it has created chronic stress. I think there is an ideal here that I like about universal healthcare but the devil is in the details. My poem, Come Boss, deals with how one is treated in a government run system. Just about a year ago I worked at a DOE site. But I now have tasted for the first time the ‘other side’. Just like veterans care, it is a mess. But that is one program to watch to see how the government would run a universal healthcare system.

    • Tammy, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I read Come Boss a few minutes ago, and it’s brilliant stuff, skilled writing, very thought provoking.

      I’m sorry to hear about your situation. Medicaid and Medicare are messy systems, but my research had led me to believe that a lot of the terrible complications in them are side effects of the messiness of private healthcare companies and wealth/income being a factor in healthcare treatment — or rather, the dispersion that private healthcare creates between different income classes. Because Medicaid isn’t of use to wealthier classes, it means that payment rates are low, and this results in situations where physicians refuse to see Medicaid patients, as well as other complications that many have experienced.

      I do see your point here, however, which is valid: massive federal government programs do tend to have problems, because they’re too big. I don’t think healthcare would be different in this regard. The question then, ethically, is what the alternative is: because free market healthcare DOES price out the poor, and ranks people’s “worth” according to income level. To me, this makes free market an unacceptable option. On the other hand, there are systems like that in the Netherlands, which strike something of a compromise.

      It’s a terribly complicated issue, but as a whole, I do think universal single-payer healthcare, while not perfect, offers less defects than other approaches. Thanks for offering your insights here, it’s appreciated.

      • Nicholas, I will read up on the system in the Netherlands and thank you for the compliment! I know there are many factors initially unforeseen in the healthcare debate and creating a roundtable, so to speak, of multi agency representatives from national and local levels as well as surveys from differing economic populations are all efforts for progress if given the proper timeframe to identify and hammer out issues. Despite the problems with Obamacare, one (of many) good things that came out of it is the fact that things can change. For the first time in history the pre-existing clauses were eliminated. And children are rightfully able to continue on their parents healthcare during their transition into adulthood. Things can change. I’m looking forward to evaluating different idea’s and concepts in our progress as a nation. And I agree, we are not there yet but we do need to keep moving forward 🙂

  4. “Again, this shouldn’t be a political battle. It’s an issue of basic human rights. So when will we get with the program? Hopefully soon.”

    Indeed, I couldn’t agree more. I found this well-written as always, and highly informative. Thank you for sharing, man. Like you said, I cannot, for the life of me, understand why the US isn’t adapting a universal healthcare system. Other than the millions or trillions of dollars they’re robbing of us annually, I see no other reason for this. This is saddening and utterly sickening. 😦

    • Thanks Dustin, and I’m glad we agree on this. It truly is a saddening topic, but one of the most important ones of the present day: I hate watching the political-minded accusations that get volleyed back and forth. To me, it really seems like a necessary path to pursue. Especially considering that, for all intents and purposes, we’re already paying for it!

      • I am glad we agree on this important issue, as well. Oh yes, it is certainly a necessary path to pursue, and to me, this shouldn’t really be a political issue. Not in the way they handle it, at least.

  5. Politicians who don’t wish for universal healthcare should be attacked by their opponents n it all the time, it is a moral issue and making money off of it is shocking, sadly here in the UK hospitals are taken over by trusts, try and turn hospitals into businesses and then the tax payer ends up funding them again due to them being run poorly. The cost of car parking to see patients is stupidly high. Our healthcare system is a black hole for money to be fair but that is only because we have incompetent people running it, but that seems to be the same for most people in a position of power.

    • Agreed completely, at this point it seems to me that political arguments should be framed more along the lines of “what form of universal healthcare should we take?” as opposed to “should we have it?”

      I’ve heard and read a lot about the problems in the UK system. The exorbitant car parking is truly horrific; I’ve read some figures that hospital trusts in the UK make £3 million a year in car parking fees.

      • The whole system is run like a business, that’s where it fails, having business people running it badly for stupidly exorbitant wages and bringing in more managers doesn’t solve the problem, the people at the top need to work fr the good of the healthcare profession and not to their own ends. I wonder how much of that £3 million goes on bonuses for those running the trusts….

  6. As soon as you turn basic human needs into a for profit business basic human needs go down the drain. I don’t know what that isn’t obvious to people, nor do I understand why the economic mistakes that we made as a nation in the 1980’s remain uncorrected. Thank you for this post.

  7. Very well done. The ACA has moved us down a path and is working pretty well, but it could use several improvements. Yet, even with those improvements, it will still fall short of universal coverage. The World Health Organization ranked us #1 in cost, but 38th in quality. You cite many of the reasons. And, people forget that CFOs were clamoring for change before the ACA.

    Unfortunately, we have a Healthcare Industrial Complex and a highly politicized issue that stand in the way of doing this. The pharma industry charges more for drugs here, because they are restricted from pricing R&D in other countries. In other words, Americans bear the brunt of that cost.

    But, one thing we need to be mindful of is regardless of the system, we have upward cost pressures on demand. We are the most obese country in the world and are aging. We are train wrecks waiting to happen. Plus, we are over- medicated thanks to Rx marketing. Universal coverage will get people to the doctor sooner rather later. Thanks again for doing this.

    • Thank you, Keith. Yes, the pharmaceutical industry is indeed a whole other cluster of problems, and if there’s one positive impact I see from the whole Turing Pharmaceuticals business, it’s that it has raised more awareness about how corrupted that industry really is.

      That is also a good point, regarding upward cost pressures. It seems to me that much of the problem is systemic, resulting from the constant push for profit at the expense of human health: junk food, pushing of pharmaceuticals, and so on. Thank you for offering your thoughts!

      • Nicholas, thanks for your response. It is systemic and marketing oriented to make that profit. Pharma invents diseases so that you can take their drug every day for the rest of your life. Curing things makes less profit. Also, our food industry adds so much sugar to hook us on their product to eat more per serving and buy two bags instead of one. So, we end up fatter and diabetic. And, hospitals over test and over prescribe. Plus, they want to admit us even when we are not sick from the ER. As one doctor said on “60 Minutes” the last place you should be is a hospital if you are not sick. Again, well done, Keith

  8. Great article! I really like your analogy, “…because healthcare isn’t like buying a flat screen TV: people don’t want healthcare services for their enjoyment, they need them,” really a great comparison!

  9. The notion of for-profit healthcare is not only immoral, it’s reprehensible. Healthcare execs receive millions of dollars in compensation, the one for whom I worked made $36M a year back in 2006. I can think of no one worth that kind of money. And don’t even get me started on Big Pharma. 😬

    • Totally agreed; it’s unbelievable how these big corporations profit off of people’s suffering, and big pharma is even more disgusting. And as you say, just the sheer notion of “for-profit healthcare” is reprehensible to begin with.

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