America Needs a Single Payer Health Care System

Even if Obama’s overhaul works as planned, there will still be 23 million Americans lacking health insurance in 2019.

By Kay Tillow for

More than a year after President Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law, our nation’s health care delivery and coverage remain the disgrace of the industrialized world. There are more than 50 million uninsured Americans. Even if the health care overhaul works as planned, 23 million Americans will still lack health insurance in 2019.

The new norm is underinsurance. About 40 percent of us go without needed care because we can’t afford it. The health care law won’t change that, even once it’s completely phased in. Our plague of medical bankruptcies will continue too.

For unions, bargaining for health care is getting tougher as employers demand cuts and shift more costs to workers. Negotiations over better health coverage will become almost impossible when the excise tax on health benefits begins in 2018.

Many who saw the reform bill as “the best we could get” are disappointed that support for it hasn’t grown. The truth is that most people agree on the reform law. They love the parts that block insurance companies from denying coverage and care. They hate the parts that give away our tax dollars to insurance companies. They hate the mandate that will force everyone to buy insurance from the very companies whose profit motive is the source of most of our health care system’s problems. They hate the escalating costs of insurance and care.

Only a single payer system can bring us the parts we love and do away with the parts we hate. It would essentially expand Medicare coverage to all Americans, providing 100 percent guaranteed coverage regardless of employment status or pre-existing conditions. That may sound expensive, but it’s not. The “potential savings on paperwork, more than $400 billion per year, are enough to provide comprehensive coverage to everyone without paying any more than we already do,” according to Physicians for a National Health Program.

Every pro-patient measure in the law brings an ugly backlash from insurance companies, because they want to remain in the driver’s seat. For example, the act says children who have been sick can’t be denied coverage. Insurers have responded by refusing to sell child-only policies. The act says there must be minimal standards of coverage. Yet hundreds of companies have obtained waivers after threatening to drop coverage altogether.

The legislation is designed to expand Medicaid as the main way for states to cover more people. It prohibits states from dumping people currently covered. Yet with state budgets in crisis, Medicaid is under the knife. Arizona plans on dumping 250,000. Many states propose increasing patient co-pays, thus damaging the ability of patients to find doctors and fatally undermining rural hospitals.

Some assert that healthcare reform just isn’t working. Yet. Give it 10 years, and all will be fixed.

But our new health law is anchored on the private insurance industry–and that’s its fatal flaw. The insurers inflict enormous and unnecessary administrative costs on our system. This amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars every year and condemns us to spend about double, per capita, what other nations spend on health care.

Health care advocates must move beyond the health care reform law. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has reintroduced H.R. 676, the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, which would bring all medically necessary care to everyone while assuring choice of physician. The bill is based on sound single-payer policy and progressive public funding.

If every other industrialized nation can make health care a human right, we can do it too. Our challenge is to pass effective legislation despite the powerful private health insurance companies and other corporations whose influence often trumps democracy.

First, we must have a powerful movement. We can’t build it around a shriveled dream. Only single payer, with its bolder promise of social justice, can inspire that movement.

Kay Tillow is the coordinator of the All Unions Committee for Single Payer Health Care, which builds union support for H.R. 676. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.


  1. Healthcare IT System on April 26, 2011 at 6:48 am

    I like your post… :-)

  2. Konnie on November 29, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    can anyone answer the following questions:
    1. how many americans are already enrolled in Medicare/yrly budget
    2. how many americans are already enrolled in Medicaid/yrly budget
    3. how many americans are already covered by TRICARE/yrly budget
    4. how many americans are already covered by the Veterans Administration/yrly budget
    5. how many americans are already receiving some form of charity
    assistance/estimate of costs

    How much would the government SAVE by eliminating all of those forms of tax payer funded programs and replacing them with single payer?

    In actuality the only ones moving to single payer would be the unemployed not covered by the programs above and the employed covered by employer provided insurance. doesn’t sound like a big
    leap to me. so called Obama care is still profit based replying on Big Insurance and not negotiating with Big Pharma. They win. NOT US.

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