Medicare is turning 53. Here’s the best way to celebrate

As Medicare turns 53 on Monday, it is time to expand it to all.
As Medicare turns 53 on Monday, it is time to expand it to all. The Herald-Times via AP

Monday is the 53rd birthday of Medicare, the program that added several years to seniors’ lives and elevated millions out of poverty. Many physicians, including my father, fought it tooth and nail, only to find that their incomes grew as their patients’ health improved. Doctors saw that they could practice as they had before, but now get paid for what previously was charity elder care. Their worries about it being socialized medicine ceased.

Medicare is an extremely successful and popular government program, a very good thing for 15 percent of our citizens. As private, for-profit health insurance continues to squeeze enrollees into narrower provider networks and unaffordable cost-sharing, many Americans under 65 are desperate for relief. Most business leaders do not realize that around one-third of every healthcare dollar goes to administration, rather than healthcare. We pay around twice per person what every other country pays for healthcare, the largest share of GDP. Despite being the biggest market, we pay the world’s highest prescription drug prices. Our health outcomes, including life expectancy, rank near the bottom.

Except in the Medicare population. Once people have access to healthcare, their health dramatically improves. Medicare has a secret for the rest of the country: We can expand Medicare to cover everyone, improve it to cover prescription drugs and eliminate deductibles and co-payments, and save money in the process. The secret lies in Medicare’s 2-3 percent administrative overhead, a fraction of private insurance companies’. Politicians commonly campaign on eliminating waste, but their promises rarely materialize. With Improved Medicare for All, we can convert hundreds of billions in administrative waste to actual, life-saving healthcare.

Improving Medicare can be a fairly straightforward process, as described in the House bill HR 676. The taxes to fund it would be less than current healthcare spending for 95 percent of households — a clear win-win for the vast majority of us. Employers would no longer be burdened with providing health insurance and could better compete globally. Everyone truly could choose and keep their doctors, if not their current expensive and restrictive insurance plans.

But as widespread support for Medicare for All has grown, deceptive lookalike proposals have appeared. With names like Medicare Extra for All, Medicare Part E, and Medicare-X, these plans retain private, for-profit insurance companies with their paper-shuffling, treatment denials and cost-sharing. They all threaten real progress in healthcare by preserving the wasteful but profitable status quo.

If those plans prevail, Medicare may not have many more birthdays. The best celebration of Medicare’s 53rd birthday would be to improve it and offer it to everyone. Tell your congressional representatives that’s the birthday gift you want, for yourself, your loved ones, and for the country.

Bohmfalk, a retired neurosurgeon, chairs the Education Committee of Health Care Justice North Carolina, the Charlotte chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program. He may be reached at