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We Are All Responsible for Making Health Care a Right

To mark the anniversary of Medicare's enactment, a group of physicians including Dr. David Scheiner, formerly President Obama's personal physician, spoke out in support of single-payer health care at the National Press Club.

I am here today because years ago I was practicing medicine in an office on the South Side of Chicago with my partner and friend, Dr. Quentin Young, when a young community organizer came to see me as a patient. I became his personal physician for 22 years and he became president of the United States. I support and admire him and consider him to be the most promising president of my lifetime, which stretches back to 1938. But I respectfully differ with him on his approach to health care reform.

Obama doc-intext
President Barack Obama listens to a question from a guest attending a forum on health care at the White House.

Photo by Pete Souza

I speak to you today as an advocate for the single-payer approach to health reform, an expanded and improved Medicare for all, but I am hoping that President Obama and Congress will hear me also. As some of you may know, I was supposed to be at the recent town hall meeting [organized by ABC News] at the White House where I was to ask a question of the president, but my visit was canceled at the last minute, presumably to prevent the national airing of my views on health reform. Is the single-payer message so dangerous that it cannot even be discussed by Congress and the administration?

Yes, there are parties who stand to lose out under a single-payer program—the private, for-profit health insurance companies and their multimillionaire CEOs in the first place. The head of Aetna, for example, received $18.6 million in compensation last year. That's obscene.

Investor-owned, for-profit hospitals won’t benefit from single-payer either. Neither will the big pharmaceutical companies, who will no longer be able to sell their drugs at such outrageous prices. A single-payer system will be able to buy drugs in bulk and negotiate prices.

Some critics attack single-payer, arguing that under such a program, government bureaucrats will be between the patient and the physician. In the 40 years I have been practicing under Medicare, I have never encountered an instance where Medicare has prevented proper medical care. On the other hand, insurance companies frequently interfere and block appropriate care.

There are multiple problems with the present congressional health reform proposals, but allowing private insurance to continue being involved is the most egregious. The insurance companies actually like many of the proposed reforms, including the requirement that every American purchase insurance or suffer a tax penalty, which would be a windfall to the insurance industry. That alone should be a warning.

I mentioned who will lose out under a single-payer program. But who benefits? The American people. But do they matter? Do we really care about the 50 million without health insurance as long as the rest of us have our own coverage? Do we think about the additional tens of millions who are underinsured, who face economic hardship or bankruptcy when serious illness strikes? Single payer will offer secure, comprehensive and quality care to all.

A single-payer program could be implemented comparatively easily, without disruption, as was the case with traditional Medicare. And there are other advantages: with single payer, we can discontinue Medicaid, which is bankrupting states and treats a large number of individuals as second-class citizens.

This is a moral obligation, and we are all responsible for seeing that health care is a right. That’s the view of Physicians for a National Health Program.

Opponents of single-payer say that if the government pays for health care, the system will deteriorate. But we have two single-payer programs already operating that work superbly—Medicare and the Veterans Administration hospital system. Medicare overhead is 3 percent. Private insurance overhead is five times that. Forty years ago, I worked in a public health service hospital in Boston, which delivered excellent care to all comers. Sadly, the system was closed down.

I grew up as a child during World War II and loved my country then as I do now. I grew up revering the ideals of this country. Although there were unsettling periods, our country remains a beacon of hope for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I believe that quality universal health care falls under these watchwords.

Our nation is at a crossroads. We must not squander the opportunity of this momentous time. We must not give in to the insurance and drug companies and instead do what is right for all Americans. Please, Mr. President and Congress–enact an expanded and improved Medicare for all.


David Scheiner Dr. David Scheiner is a general internist who has been active in clinical practice in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood for 30 years, and a clinical associate of medicine at the University of Chicago since 1996. Dr. Scheiner was President Obama's personal physician from 1987-2009. He is an active member of Physicians for a National Health Program (www.pnhp.org), a nonprofit research and education organization of 16,000 physicians, medical students and health professionals who support single-payer national health insurance.

Interested?  Check out YES! Magazine's ongoing coverage of health care reform and our special issue on providing Health Care for All.

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