Excerpt: 'The Healing of America,' by T.R. Reid

This is supposed to end the argument. The contention is that the United States, with its commitment to free markets and low taxes, could never rely on big-government socialism the way other countries do. Americans have learned in school that the private sector can handle things better and more efficiently than government ever could. In U.S. policy debates, the term "socialized medicine" has been a powerful political weapon—even though nobody can quite define what it means. The term was popularized by a public relations firm working for the American Medical Association in 1947 to disparage President Truman's proposal for a national health care system. It was a label, at the dawn of the cold war, meant to suggest that anybody advocating universal access to health care must be a communist. And the phrase has retained its political power for six decades.

There are two basic flaws, though, in this argument.

1. Most national health care systems are not "socialized." As we'll see, many foreign countries provide universal health care of high quality at reasonable cost using private doctors, private hospitals, and private insurance plans. Some countries offering universal coverage have a smaller government role than the United States does. Americans switch to government-run Medicare when they turn sixty-five; in Germany and Switzerland, seniors stick with their private insurers no matter how old they are. Even where government plays a large role, doctors' offices are operated as private businesses. As we'll see in chapter 7, my doctor in London, Dr. Ahmed Badat, was nobody's socialist; he was a fiercely entrepreneurial capitalist who regularly found ways to enhance his income within the National Health Service. Many countries have privately owned hospitals, some run by charities, some for profit; Japan has more for-profit hospitals than the United States. In short, the universal health care systems in developed countries around the world are not nearly as "socialized" as the health insurance industry and the American Medical Association want you to think.

2. "Socialized medicine" may be a scary term, but in practice, Americans rather like government-run medicine. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is one of the world's purest models of socialized medicine at work. In the Medicare system, covering about 44 million elderly or disabled Americans, the federal government makes the rules and pays the bills. And yet both of these "socialized" health care systems are enormously popular with the people who use them and consistently rate high in surveys of patient satisfaction. That's why President Obama has consistently promised to save both government-run systems, no matter what other changes he makes in health care.

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