The health care system in America has been the subject of contentious and politically toxic debate for as long as anyone can remember. It wasn’t that long ago, though, (the late 1800s, to be precise) that the idea of protecting individuals from the calamity of unexpected injury or illness first became a part of our collective experience here in the United States. From there, it would take the worldwide calamity of the great depression to prompt the formation of what we’d recognize today as individual health insurance plans.
In the intervening years, we’ve seen repeated attempts by successive Presidential administrations to advance the cause of health care reform in America, with all but a few ending in failure. Meanwhile, the rest of the industrialized world seems to have figured out various workable schemes to make universal health care a reality within their own borders. The question that Americans have to face, then, is not if we’ll be able to fix our ailing health care system, but why we haven’t already done it.
The concepts of self-reliance and individualism have long been staples of the idealized American ethos. That’s a big part of why any universal health care plan that has ever been proposed in the U.S. has immediately been derided as a form of socialism. As a concept, socialism is anathema to the American ideal, and as such, the term is used as an insult – an albatross around the neck of whatever cause it is attached to. Still, even after the sweeping changes to the American health care system ushered in by the 2008 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (and the more recent attempts to sabotage it), more than 12% of American adults still lack health care coverage, and that number seems to be rising.
The funny thing is, some of the most popular government programs ever enacted in America all have their roots in the socialist policies of European democracies, even if the general population doesn’t seem to realize it. Social Security, for example, is supported by a large majority of Americans, and it has socialism’s root word right in its name. A more relevant example, though, is the Medicare system, which is extremely similar to the single-payer health care systems found in places like Canada and the U.K. and which enjoys widespread approval across the political spectrum. That popularity is a big reason why many of the current federal health care reform proposals call themselves medicare-for-all schemes, but with politicians on the right already playing the socialism card, they are all but dead in the water.
The good news for Americans, if there is any, is that there’s already a perfectly functional example that we can follow in providing universal health care without violating our historical (if paradoxical) distaste for socialism. That example exists in Australia, which has about as self-reliant and individualistic culture as you’re likely to find outside of the United States. Their health care system, (also known as Medicare), provides universal health care coverage to every citizen and permanent resident in the country – augmented by a robust private insurance market for those wishing to purchase additional coverage. It’s not all that dissimilar from the approach that the PPACA sought through its individual mandate and tax penalties for not buying coverage. The big difference? Political will.
If it’s possible to sum up America’s real problem when it comes to health care in a word, it’s misinformation. Worst of all, misinformation seems to be the stock-in-trade of the very politicians that are in a position to fix our health care system in the first place. If recent events are any indicator, though, we may be on the verge of seeing a wave of public healthcare reform demand that politicians will ignore at their own peril. In the final analysis, that public pressure is what is really needed to break the logjam and create a lasting change. We have the blueprints to follow, and it’s up to us to decide when we will get to work.