It's a common talking point in some political circles to refer to the quest for government-provided universal health coverage as "socialized medicine." This rhetorical scare tactic is designed to conjure up images of communism and restrictions of freedoms. Yet this doesn't hold up to scrutiny considering how many European democracies have forms of universal health care. These countries understand what some Americans seem slow to grasp – that taking care of people is what governments are supposed to do.
Our founders understood this well enough to include "promoting the general welfare" as one of the main functions of government in the preamble of our Constitution. Far from being a cunning socialist plot, ensuring that people who are sick, suffering, or dying can see a doctor is a good thing.
A hospitalized patient I saw recently provides an excellent example of the potential benefit universal access to care can provide. For privacy reasons, let's call him John Smith. John is a kind gentleman, and a caring husband, and father to a 15-year-old daughter. He suffers from high blood pressure and uncontrolled diabetes. Like nearly 1 in 10 Americans (9.2% in 2019), he is uninsured. As a result, his medical conditions have taken a huge toll on his quality of life. His diabetes has gotten so bad that the resulting foot ulcers forced doctors to amputate half of each of his feet. He used to work in maintenance, construction, and any other job he could find to keep his family afloat. He tried to return to work after the amputations, but his physical limitations caused him to become unemployable.
Without health insurance or a job, he struggled to manage his medical conditions, leading eventually to full kidney failure. His wife left her job to take over as the rock of the family. John relies on her to drive him to doctor appointments and dialysis three times a week, which Medicare now partly subsidizes. However, the other medical bills continue to pile up.
John's situation demonstrates how disease not only hurts individuals, but their families, communities, and the economy, as well. Things should have never gotten this bad! Had John been able to access consistent medical care through universal insurance coverage, his diabetes could have been managed before it progressed to such a detrimental state.
This insight supports the underlying rationale for universal health coverage. Economically, taxpayers are now paying far more for John's dialysis and hospitalizations than they would have paid for his care at an earlier stage of his disease. John and his wife would still be in the workforce and contributing back to the economy. In the long term, there are clear economic benefits to universal health coverage.
The humanitarian argument is perhaps the most convincing. Our value shouldn't depend on our level of income or employment status. Rather, human life is sacred and has an intrinsic value of its own. In a country as well off as ours, it is morally inexcusable to allow people to suffer and die needlessly. Access to health care is a fundamental human right. Human rights and promotion of the general welfare are the domain of government.
Those who use the phrase "socialized medicine" to stir up fears of rationing care ignore the reality that, in a country where one of the leading causes of personal bankruptcy is medical costs, our care is already rationed. While the fine details will need to be sorted out, universal access to health care is a good thing overall.
Drew Sanderson is a medical student in the Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio. As a medical student, he has a particular interest in health care reform and addressing issues of health care inaccessibility. Through his writing he hopes to contribute to the dialogue about health care reform occurring throughout the country from the medical trainee perspective.
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