Last updated on: 3/16/2023 | Author:

History of Universal Health Care

27.5 million non-elderly Americans did not have health insurance in 2021, a decline from 28.9 million uninsured Americans in 2019. The largest group of Americans, almost 155 million non-elderly people, were covered by employer-sponsored health insurance. Less than 1% of Americans over 65 were uninsured, thanks to Medicaid, a government provided insurance for people over 65 years old.

The United States is the only nation among the 37 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations that does not have universal health care either in practice or by constitutional right. Read more background…


Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

The United States already has universal health care for some. The government should expand the system to protect everyone.

A national health insurance is a universal health care that “uses public insurance to pay for private-practice care. Every citizen pays into the national insurance plan. Administrative costs are lower because there is one insurance company. The government also has a lot of leverage to force medical costs down,” according to economic expert Kimberly Amadeo. Canada, Taiwan, and South Korea all have national health insurance. In the United States, Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE function similarly. [178]

Medicare is the “federal health insurance program for: people who are 65 or older, certain younger people with disabilities, [and] people with End-Stage Renal Disease (permanent kidney failure requiring dialysis or a transplant, sometimes called ESRD).” Patients pay a monthly premium for Medicare Part B (general health coverage). The 2023 standard Part B monthly premium is $164.90. Patients also contribute to drug costs via Medicare Part D. Most people do not pay a premium for Medicare Part A (“inpatient hospital stays, care in a skilled nursing facility, hospice care, and some home health care”). More than 65.3 million people were enrolled in Medicare according to Feb. 2023 government data. [180] [181]

Medicaid “provides health coverage to millions of Americans, including eligible low-income adults, children, pregnant women, elderly adults and people with disabilities. Medicaid is administered by states, according to federal requirements. The program is funded jointly by states and the federal government.” More than 84.8 million people were enrolled in Medicaid as of Nov. 2022. [181] [182] [[182] [[[186]

If the government can successfully provide universal health care for 36% to almost 50% of the population, then the government can provide univeral health care for the rest of the population who are just as in need and deserving of leading healthy lives.

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Pro 2

Universal health care would lower costs and prevent medical bankruptcy.

A June 2022 study found the United States could have saved $105.6 billion in COVID-19 (coronavirus) hospitalization costs with single-payer universal health care during the pandemic. That potential savings is on top of the estimated $438 billion the researchers estimated could be saved annually with universal health care in a non-pandemic year. [198]

“Taking into account both the costs of coverage expansion and the savings that would be achieved through the Medicare for All Act, we calculate that a single-payer, universal health-care system is likely to lead to a 13% savings in national health-care expenditure, equivalent to more than US$450 billion annually (based on the value of the US$ in 2017). The entire system could be funded with less financial outlay than is incurred by employers and households paying for health-care premiums combined with existing government allocations. This shift to single-payer health care would provide the greatest relief to lower-income households,” conclude researchers from the Yale School of Public Health and colleagues. [201]

According to the National Bankruptcy Forum, medical debt is the number one reason people file for bankruptcy in the United States. In 2017, about 33% of all Americans with medical bills reported that they “were unable to pay for basic necessities like food, heat, or housing.” If all Americans were provided health care under a single-payer system medical bankruptcy would no longer exist, because the government, not private citizens, would pay all medical bills. [131]

Further, prescription drug costs would drop between 4% and 31%, according to five cost estimates gathered by New York Times reporters. 24% of people taking prescription drugs reported difficulty affording the drugs, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll. 58% of people whose drugs cost more than $100 a month, 49% of people in fair or poor health, 35% of those with annual incomes of less than $40,000, and 35% of those taking four or more drugs monthly all reported affordability issues. [197] [199] [200]

Additionally, 30% of people aged 50 to 64 reported cost issues because they generally take more drugs than younger people but are not old enough to qualify for Medicare drug benefits. With 79% of Americans saying prescription drug costs are “unreasonable,” and 70% reporting lowering prescription drug costs as their highest healthcare priority, lowering the cost of prescription drugs would lead to more drug-compliance and lives not only bettered, but saved as a result. [197] [199] [200]

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Pro 3

Universal health care would improve individual and national health outcomes.

Since 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the public health, economic and moral repercussions of widespread dependence on employer-sponsored insurance, the most common source of coverage for working-age Americans…. Business closures and restrictions led to unemployment for more than 9 million individuals following the emergence of COVID-19. Consequently, many Americans lost their healthcare precisely at a time when COVID-19 sharply heightened the need for medical services,” argue researchers from the Yale School of Public Health and colleagues. The researchers estimated more than 131,000 COVID-19 (coronavirus) deaths and almost 78,000 non-COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented with universal health care in 2020 alone. [198]

Another study finds a change to “single-payer health care would… save more than 68,000 lives and 1.73 million life-years every year compared with the status quo.” [201]

Meanwhile, more people would be able to access much-needed health care. A Jan. 2021 study concludes that universal health care would increase outpatient visits by 7% to 10% and hospital visits by 0% to 3%, which are modest increases when compared to saved and lengthened lives. [202]

Other studies find that universal health coverage is linked to longer life expectancy, lower child mortality rates, higher smoking cessation rates, lower depression rates, and a higher general sense of well-being, with more people reporting being in “excellent health.” Further, universal health care leads to appropriate use of health care facilities, including lower rates of emergency room visits for non-emergencies and a higher use of preventative doctors’ visits to manage chronic conditions. [203] [204] [205]

An American Hospital Association report argues, the “high rate of uninsured [patients] puts stress on the broader health care system. People without insurance put off needed care and rely more heavily on hospital emergency departments, resulting in scarce resources being directed to treat conditions that often could have been prevented or managed in a lower-cost setting. Being uninsured also has serious financial implications for individuals, communities and the health care system.” [205]

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Con 1

Universal health care for everyone in the United States promises only government inefficiency and health care that ignores the realities of the country and the free market.

In addition to providing universal health care for the elderly, low-income individuals, children in need, and military members (and their families), the United States has the Affordable Care Act (the ACA, formerly known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), or Obamacare, which ensures that Americans can access affordable health care. the ACA allows Americans to chose the coverage appropriate to their health conditions and incomes. [187]

Veterans’ Affairs, which serves former military members, is an example of a single-payer health care provider, and one that has repeatedly failed its patients. For example, a computer error at the Spokane VA hospital “failed to deliver more than 11,000 orders for specialty care, lab work and other services – without alerting health care providers the orders had been lost.” [188] [189]

Elizabeth Hovde, Policy Analyst and Director of the Centers for Health Care and Worker Rights, argues, “The VA system is not only costly with inconsistent medical care results, it’s an American example of a single-payer, government-run system. We should run from the attempts in our state to decrease competition in the health care system and increase government dependency, leaving our health care at the mercy of a monopolistic system that does not need to be timely or responsive to patients. Policymakers should give veterans meaningful choices among private providers, clinics and hospitals, so vets can choose their own doctors and directly access quality care that meets their needs. Best of all, when the routine break-downs of a government-run system threaten to harm them again, as happened in Spokane, veterans can take their well-earned health benefit and find help elsewhere.” [188] [189]

Further, the challenges of universal health care implementation are vastly different in the U.S. than in other countries, making the current patchwork of health care options the best fit for the country. As researchers summarize, “Though the majority of post-industrial Westernized nations employ a universal healthcare model, few—if any—of these nations are as geographically large, populous, or ethnically/racially diverse as the U.S. Different regions in the U.S. are defined by distinct cultural identities, citizens have unique religious and political values, and the populace spans the socio–economic spectrum. Moreover, heterogenous climates and population densities confer different health needs and challenges across the U.S. Thus, critics of universal healthcare in the U.S. argue that implementation would not be as feasible—organizationally or financially—as other developed nations.” [190]

And, such a system in the United States would hinder medical innovation and entrepreneurship. “Government control is a large driver of America’s health care problems. Bureaucrats can’t revolutionize health care – only entrepreneurs can. By empowering health care entrepreneurs, we can create an American health care system that is more affordable, accessible, and productive for all,” explains Wayne Winegarden, Senior Fellow in Business and Economics, and Director of the Center for Medical Economics and Innovation at Pacific Research Institute. [190] [191]

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Con 2

Universal health care would raise costs for the federal government and, in turn, taxpayers.

Medicare-for-all, a recent universal health care proposal championed by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), would cost an estimated $30 to $40 trillion over ten years. The cost would be the largest single increase to the federal budget ever. [192]

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that by 2030 federal health care subsidies will increase by $1.5 to $3.0 trillion. The CBO concludes, “Because the single-payer options that CBO examined would greatly increase federal subsidies for health care, the government would need to implement new financing mechanisms—such as raising existing taxes or introducing new ones, reducing certain spending, or issuing federal debt. As an example, if the government required employers to make contributions toward the cost of health insurance under a single-payer system that would be similar to their contributions under current law, it would have to impose new taxes.” [193]

Despite claims by many, the cost of Medicare for All, or any other universal health care option, could not be financed solely by increased taxes on the wealthy. “[T]axes on the middle class would have to rise in order to pay for it. Those taxes could be imposed directly on workers, indirectly through taxes on employers or consumption, or through a combination of direct or indirect taxes. There is simply not enough available revenue from high earners and businesses to cover the full cost of eliminating premiums, ending all cost-sharing, and expanding coverage to all Americans and for (virtually) all health services,” says the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. [195]

An analysis of the Sanders plan “estimates that the average annual cost of the plan would be approximately $2.5 trillion per year creating an average of over a $1 trillion per year financing shortfall. To fund the program, payroll and income taxes would have to increase from a combined 8.4 percent in the Sanders plan to 20 percent while also retaining all remaining tax increases on capital gains, increased marginal tax rates, the estate tax and eliminating tax expenditures…. Overall, over 70 percent of working privately insured households would pay more under a fully funded single payer plan than they do for health insurance today.” [196]

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Con 3

Universal health care would increase wait times for basic care and make Americans’ health worse.

The Congressional Budget Office explains, “A single-payer system with little cost sharing for medical services would lead to increased demand for care in the United States because more people would have health insurance and because those already covered would use more services. The extent to which the supply of care would be adequate to meet that increased demand would depend on various factors, such as the payment rates for providers and any measures taken to increase supply. If coverage was nearly universal, cost sharing was very limited, and the payment rates were reduced compared with current law, the demand for medical care would probably exceed the supply of care–with increased wait times for appointments or elective surgeries, greater wait times at doctors’ offices and other facilities, or the need to travel greater distances to receive medical care. Some demand for care might be unmet.” [207]

As an example of lengthy wait times associated with universal coverage, in 2017 Canadians were on waiting lists for an estimated 1,040,791 procedures, and the median wait time for arthroplastic surgery was 20–52 weeks. Similarly, average waiting time for elective hospital-based care in the United Kingdom is 46 days, while some patients wait over a year. Increased wait times in the U.S. would likely occur—at least in the short term—as a result of a steep rise in the number of primary and emergency care visits (due to eliminating the financial barrier to seek care), as well as general wastefulness, inefficiency, and disorganization that is often associated with bureaucratic, government-run agencies. [17] [190]

Joshua W. Axene of Axene Health Partners, LLC “wonder[s] if Americans really could function under a system that is budget based and would likely have increased waiting times. In America we have created a healthcare culture that pays providers predominantly on a Fee for Service basis (FFS) and allows people to get what they want, when they want it and generally from whoever they want. American healthcare culture always wants the best thing available and has a ‘more is better’ mentality. Under a government sponsored socialized healthcare system, choice would become more limited, timing mandated, and supply and demand would be controlled through the constraints of a healthcare budget…. As much as Americans believe that they are crockpots and can be patient, we are more like microwaves and want things fast and on our own terms. Extended waiting lines will not work in the American system and would decrease the quality of our system as a whole.” [206]

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Did You Know?
1. 27.5 million non-elderly Americans did not have health insurance in 2021, a decline from 28.9 million uninsured Americans in 2019. [162] [163]
2. Researchers estimated more than 131,000 COVID-19 (coronavirus) deaths and almost 78,000 non-COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented with universal health care in 2020 alone. [172]
3. 88% of Democrats and 59% of Independents agreed that "it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage," while only 28% of Republicans agreed. [175]
4. The United States is the only nation among the 37 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations that does not have universal health care either in practice or by constitutional right. [119]
5. U.S. health care spending rose 2.7% in 2021 to a total of $4.3 trillion nationally and accounted for 18.3% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP). [164] [165] [166]


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