ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
GAITHERSBURG, Md. — Ritchard Jenkins reached into the black computer bag he keeps near his workstation at Graceful Touch Barber and Beauty Salon and rifled through medical papers, pulling out an envelope buried deep at the bottom.
It was an unopened medical bill for $971.78, now 17 months overdue, that he had put out of sight and out of mind. Another unpaid bill from May for $447.13 rested in a nearby drawer. Both are the result of an arthritic knee that needs to be replaced and keeps the 55-year-old master barber in near-constant pain.
He makes numerous phone calls to doctors and insurance companies to discuss his coverage. And just when he thought he couldn’t take any more, he fell down the steps, breaking his right wrist, tearing his rotator cuff and kickstarting a new round of hospital stays, tests — and insurance claims.
“Health care is ridiculous. These politicians really need to step their game up,” Jenkins said recently, using his left hand to hold clippers and a comb because his right remains swollen and partially immobile.
But Jenkins shrugged when asked if Medicare-for-all, the slogan that has dominated early campaigning in the 2020 Democratic primary, was the solution to his and America’s health care woes. He mumbled something about being too young for Medicare and laid bare the disconnect between how voters think and talk about health care and how candidates do.
As the Democratic primary campaign heats up, with the third debate scheduled for Sept. 12, candidates have used the slogan to distinguish themselves as bold progressives, moderate pragmatists or, in some instances, a little of both. The Trump administration has made it a point of attack, vowing to create a better system at lower costs. But interviews with voters and research by health policy experts show that the average voter has little idea of what is meant by the phrase that has already become a campaign signpost.
In its broadest terms, Medicare-for-all is what health care experts call single-payer: A system in which a government entity reimburses doctors and hospitals at a set rate. Many of the world’s most admired health care systems, from France to Israel to Canada, use some version of this approach.
Many health care experts argue that single-payer is the most effective way to deliver medical care to the greatest number of people. But until now, it has been politically unimaginable, taken off the table by most candidates seeking national office.
Health care “is the most important issue” of the election, and “single-payer is the right solution for American health care,” said Dr. Adam Gaffney, president of Physicians for a National Health Program and instructor at Harvard Medical School, who supports calling it Medicare-for-all but acknowledges pitfalls with the framing.
This “is an issue that affects, literally, every single person in this country,” he said. “Even putting the medical issues aside, it’s an economic issue. The way we finance health care promotes economic inequality.”
Medicare-for-all, in the purest sense, largely would replace private health insurance with a single, government-run program covering most everyone. It would be similar to traditional Medicare, the current federal health insurance program for most adults over 65 and young people meeting federal disability requirements, hence the name.
Sounds simple? It’s not.
Medicare was signed into law in 1965 after a 50-year effort to create a national health insurance system covering everyone. Opposition was so fierce that President Franklin Roosevelt excluded health insurance from the Social Security Act of 1935, and 13 years later President Harry S. Truman’s efforts to close what he called “the greatest gap in our social security structure” died in committee. The only way to get the law passed was by limiting coverage to older Americans.
And it’s worked, more or less, because of the government’s ability to set payments to health care providers. Still, high-quality, affordable coverage remains out of reach for many Americans, including many on Medicare. (Medicare covers only a portion of medical expenses, with many people buying supplemental plans to mitigate out-of-pocket costs.)
The Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010 during the Obama administration, was seen by many experts as a once-in-a-generation reform. Some argue it didn’t go far enough to provide every American with quality health insurance at a reasonable price. Others say it proves that the government isn’t the solution.
The fight over whether to expand the government’s health care system to cover all Americans has been part of the national conversation for generations, albeit often on the fringes, and was a topic of debate even before independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, made it his campaign rallying cry during his first Democratic primary presidential campaign in 2016.
In fact, it was the lessons learned during President Bill Clinton’s failed health care reforms in the 1990s that inspired the term Medicare-for-all. The phrase first appeared in the Congressional Record in 2003 on a House bill introduced by former Rep. John Conyers Jr., of Michigan, and again in 2006 when the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, long a proponent of national health insurance, introduced the “Medicare for All Act.”
But it was a former staffer who suggested Kennedy start saying Medicare-for-all instead of single-payer.
“It was too wonky, and no one knew what it meant,” Dr. Philip Caper, a single-payer advocate for nearly 50 years who worked with Kennedy from 1971 to 1976, said during a phone interview from his home in Maine. “I said: What we’re really talking about is expanding Medicare for everybody. I think you should use Medicare-for-all from now on. It’s harder to demonize it … and you don’t have to explain it.”
The senator took his advice, but the bill died in committee.
“This is the first time the notion of Medicare-for-all has really had any political traction” since 1974, Caper said.
It was the subject of the first question asked during the first night of the second Democratic presidential debate in Detroit, where the discussion lasted more than 20 minutes. And a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll showed that 65 percent of voters say they would support a candidate in the Democratic primary who favors Medicare-for-all over preserving and improving current health care laws.
Still, Caper said, for such a shift to work, there would be a huge need to educate the public and grow a large, active constituency around Medicare-for-all. Elected officials “hate the political pain” that often accompanies large-scale change, he said.
Plenty of people are arguing against Medicare-for-all, urging program reforms but not restructuring. Dozens of health care business groups created the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future to eschew “one-size-fits-all health care … whether it’s called Medicare for all, buy-in, or a public option.” And though the American Medical Association is not listed as a member on the alliance’s website, its president said recently that it too believes in a “pluralistic system.”
“Rather than disrupt what we have now, let’s build up on the progress of it,” said Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the AMA. “Ninety percent of folks have health insurance. It really is about the 10 percent of folks who don’t.”
Making national health insurance a reality would mean redesigning the country’s health care payment infrastructure. It would involve going from a diffuse network that includes private insurers for those who can afford it and public services for a limited number of those who can’t into a single government-administered system. The role of insurance companies would be vastly reduced. By one estimate, as many 2 million people who are paid to process insurance claims or argue about them would lose their jobs.
Would people get to keep their doctors? Unclear. Would prescription drug costs decrease? Uncertain. Would wait times increase? Unknown. Copays? No, depending on the plan. Increase in taxes? Almost certainly, but again, it depends.
Because the current system doesn’t cover everyone, the government would have to raise money (that is, taxes) to pay for a national health care system. Economists and health experts agree that this would cost significantly more than the $3.5 trillion the nation currently spends on health care, about a third of which is spent on private insurance. And a substantial sum of the nation’s health care costs goes to administering and processing insurance claims.
They disagree on who would get taxed or how much and over whether the trade-off — higher taxes in exchange for limited to no copays, premiums or deductibles — would be worth it. Some experts argue that creating a national health care system would cost the country an additional $32 trillion. Others say it would eventually save $12.5 trillion. Determining who’s right, and by how much, depends on the design of the system which remains a heavily debated point of contention.
“When you say Medicare-for-all, there are eight different flavors,” with each dependent on each presidential candidate’s platform, said John McDonough, a professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health who was instrumental in both Massachusetts’ universal health care plan and the Affordable Care Act. “It’s an advertising slogan; it’s not a scientific concept.”
A Kaiser Family Foundation report from July found that about three-fourths of the country supports expanding public health insurance programs, including allowing those 55 to 64 to buy into Medicare.
But the report showed that how politicians talk about the issue matters, with 63 percent responding favorably to the terms “Medicare-for-all” and “universal health coverage.” Those positive feelings begin dissipating when it’s called a “single-payer national health insurance system,” dropping to 49 percent. They essentially evaporate if it means eliminating private insurance, increasing taxes or disrupting the current Medicare system, with about 60 percent opposing a national health care plan.
“The problem is: What is Medicare-for-all?” asked Ashley Kirzinger, associate director for the Kaiser Family Foundation’s public opinion and survey research team, which has been polling on the topic since Sanders’ 2016 campaign pushed it into the mainstream. “It’s not Medicare and lots of times it’s not for all, so it’s a little bit of a misnomer.”
Core dimensions of health policy — cost, access, quality and equity — vary wildly depending on factors such as income, geography, race, gender, ethnicity and job type, McDonough said, adding that creating a formula to improve everyone’s health care is “very hard. When you make changes, you will improve it for many but diminish it for others.”
All 20 Democratic candidates say health care is a human right, and universal coverage has been a cornerstone of the Democratic Party’s platform. But universal coverage and Medicare-for-all can be achieved in very different ways — one can include keeping private insurance and the other, in the strictest sense, doesn’t — and are not necessarily synonymous.
Candidates’ health care platforms exist on a spectrum from least to most disruptive, with some calling for building on the current system while others champion its complete dismantling.
Twelve support Medicare-for-all — or something like it — with some, such as Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, opposing a single-payer system while trading in the brand recognition that is Medicare-for-all with their respective slogans “Medicare for America” and “Medicare for all who want it.”
The candidates views are not fixed. Some have occupied several positions at once or adjusted their plans to be more mainstream.
Three of the six senators in the race co-sponsored the bill written by Sanders to establish a national Medicare-for-all health insurance program. And until recently he remained the consistent single-payer stalwart, committed to the bill as written. But he, too, reportedly announced compromises for union workers that would allow any employer savings under Medicare-for-all to be passed along to workers in money or other benefits. Others, however, have flirted with — or flat-out embraced — maintaining private insurance.
And Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who calls her plan Medicare-for-all though it includes a mix of public and private insurance, co-sponsored the Sanders bill. She also co-sponsored four other bills along the ideological spectrum currently before Congress.
Then there are candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney who say Medicare-for-all is too controversial and costly an experiment. Universal coverage can be reached without completely upending the system, they contend.
Caper, the single-payer evangelist who helped popularize the term, said presidential candidates “water it down” and “confuse the issue” by suggesting Medicare-for-all can include commercial insurance.
To him it’s simple: The mission of commercial insurance is to make money while Medicare’s mission is to facilitate care for people. “That’s a fundamental difference,” he said.
Some voters remain unmoved, convinced that the health care debate is little more than meaningless campaign rhetoric.
“Politicians have no clue what it’s like out here,” said Margaret Coates, who, for more than two decades, worked in medical billing for providers and insurers.
Medicare is expensive and confusing, she said, and so is trying to buy health insurance. About two years before she turned 65, Coates said the government began inundating her with a dizzying array of information about Medicare.
“I did not know how expensive these plans were until I reached Medicare age,” she said, sitting in the magazine section of the Gaithersburg library, where signs posted against the back wall ask, “Are you eligible for help with Medicare costs?”
The need for help is widespread. Medicare covers about 80 percent of the costs of doctor visits and outpatient services; most seniors buy insurance to cover some or all of the remainder.
Coates’ 28-year-old daughter, a cosmetologist, has had her own health care struggles. Last year, she paid more in federal taxes for not having insurance, a penalty that costs at least about $700 per adult. (The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 eliminated penalties for taxes filed in April 2020.) To avoid another penalty, she took on the cheapest insurance she could find at a cost of about $120 a month. With a $3,000 annual deductible, she has had to turn to her parents for help with medical bills.
“Everyone is up there cheering and happy because you have medical insurance,” Coates said. “But no one is saying what happens after you get it.”
Much of the conversation about the costs associated with Medicare-for-all include trillion-dollar figures, which does little to explain how it would affect taxpayers’ wallets. What resonates most with voters are not big aggregate numbers, but people’s out-of-pocket costs, said Kenneth Thorpe, an Emory University health policy researcher who worked as a legislative consultant to Vermont during its failed effort to create a single-payer system.
“We spent two years doing estimates, saying if we ran [health care] through the state, what would the state have to raise in taxes?” The answer, he said: Almost a 20 percent increase in payroll and income taxes. Creating a single-payer plan that would have covered everyone in Vermont would have forced some small businesses to close and put some people out of work.
In the end, he said the trade-off — increase taxes to expand coverage and decrease health care costs — wasn’t worth it, so “they dropped it, one of the most liberal states in the country.”
Charles Blahous, a senior research strategist at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and a former trustee of the Medicare and Social Security programs, said it would be an “analytical mistake to say we’re paying for this in other ways.” Because, he continued, “even if you make a very aggressive assumption for substantial administrative cost savings and substantial drug cost savings. It would still be the case that national spending would be higher.”
About 81 percent of Democrats and left-leaning independents say the federal government has a responsibility to ensure health insurance for all Americans, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. The opposite is true of Republicans and right-leaning voters, 77 percent of whom say this is not the government’s responsibility.
Anger over the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which made health care more accessible and affordable for millions of Americans without coverage (though, critics say, not affordable and accessible enough), helped give rise to the Tea Party. Republicans made repealing President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation central to their party’s effort until the 2018 midterm elections, when voters turned out en masse demanding that key provisions be retained.
Still, the Trump administration said replacing the ACA is key, backing a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the law and proposing rules allowing individuals to purchase short-term insurance, small businesses to join forces to offer employees health plans, and employers more flexibility in how they fund health insurance.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar reiterated the administration’s objective of “choice and competition” during a July speech before an advocacy group whose mission is to improve private health insurance options for Medicare beneficiaries while taking aim at the Medicare-for-all debate. He criticized “a total government takeover” as a “reckless” idea.
Taking a seat at an empty barber chair at Graceful Touch, Antonio Dickerson shakes his head in disgust at the idea of government working to improve life for people like him.
“Absolutely not,” said the 50-year-old, rubbing a scar on his shin, a reminder of health care interactions that have left him with a heavy dose of skepticism that Medicare-for-all — or essentially any government action — will result in meaningful reform.
He watched Jenkins, his friend and co-worker, return to work instead of recuperating after surgery because he can’t afford the supplemental coverage that would allow him to take more time to heal.
He watched his grandmother die two weeks after being released from the hospital, saying her insurer would no longer cover the cost of her care.
He watched one nurse’s shift end — and begin again — as he waited, uninsured, in an emergency room for hours, blood oozing from an open wound on his shin that eventually required 32 stitches.
“If you don’t have any money, get to the back to the line,” he said asking if those in the barbershop had ever seen “John Q,” a 2002 movie starring Denzel Washington about a husband and father whose son needs a life-saving operation but insurance won’t cover it.
Washington’s character takes the emergency room hostage, forcing the hospital and doctors to perform his son’s heart transplant.
That, said Dickerson, is “a very understandable situation.”