The Disaster of ‘Medicare for All’

Stethoscope on a printed sheet of paper

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, recently made headlines for criticizing the “Medicare for all” proposal popular among Democratic presidential candidates. In an interview with Vice, Reid said that the proposal would be problematic in the 2020 election. “How are you going to get it passed?” he asked.

But Reid’s sensibility isn’t shared by the Democratic electorate. A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll out this week found that nearly two-thirds of Democratic primary voters would be more likely to support a presidential candidate who favors “Medicare for all” than one who wants to build on the Affordable Care Act.

This is a mistake. The high costs and low-quality care that accompany “Medicare for all” are unlikely to be popular with general election voters.

“Medicare for all” would reduce access to care, even as it mandates that all Americans submit to government-sponsored insurance coverage. It envisions paying doctors and hospitals at Medicare’s current rates, which are estimated to be about 40% lower than those paid by private insurance. Right now, nearly one-quarter of America’s rural hospitals are at high risk of closing due to financial problems. If hospitals like these are forced to take a 40% cut, many will be forced to close. Doctors, facing a similar pay cut, will likely retire early.

This would surely create a massive shortage.

Giving everyone ostensibly “free” health care would also lead to new demand for care. Combine hospital closures and physician retirements with increased demand, and “patients might face increased wait times and reduced access to care,” as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office puts it.

Just look at the extraordinary wait times in Canada, whose system bans private coverage for anything medically necessary and bears a close resemblance to “Medicare for all.” Patients wait a median of 19.8 weeks to receive treatment by a specialist after referral from a general practitioner. In 2018, the average Canadian family of four paid up to $13,311 in taxes for their supposedly “free” healthcare system.

Senator Reid isn’t the only prominent Democrat to express skepticism about “Medicare for all.” David Axelrod, former senior White House adviser for President Obama, recently argued that the plan wouldn’t pass even if Democrats take both chambers of Congress, as well as the White House.

“Americans don’t generally want to destroy the private health care system,” Axelrod said. Will Democrats heed the counsel of two of their more successful political hands? Only time will tell.

Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is The False Promise of Single-Payer Health Care (Encounter). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.