Just three months after suffering what many thought was a campaign-ending heart attack, Senator Bernie Sanders is on a roll. According to the latest polls, he leads nominal front-runner Joe Biden in California and is within a percentage point in both Iowa and New Hampshire. On top of all that, his campaign is bringing in record amounts of donor cash in small amounts mainly from individuals.
But what’s good for Sanders isn’t good for the United States. His signature policy proposal, Medicare for All, would destroy America’s world-class healthcare system and make the average U.S. household poorer.
A recent New York Times profile detailed how Sanders first became infatuated with government-run health care in 1987, when he visited Canada to “observe firsthand the government-backed, universal model that he strongly suspected was better.”
In the three decades since, Canada’s version of Medicare for All has steadily crumbled, at great financial and human cost.
Advocates of government-run, single-payer health care argue that the scheme can guarantee universal coverage at costs affordable to taxpayers. But Canada’s experience doesn’t really support that claim. Health spending has climbed 155% since Sanders first visited, after adjusting for inflation. Today, health spending accounts for nearly 12% of Canada’s GDP.
Despite the steady upward march of spending, the quality of Canada’s system has declined. The country has fewer than three hospital beds for every 1,000 people; that puts it in the bottom fifth among OECD nations. Canada has only 16 CT scanners for every 1 million people. That’s a lower rate than countries like Estonia or Lithuania—and less than half that of the United States.
Since Canada’s healthcare system lacks adequate resources, it can’t treat patients in a timely manner. As a result, wait times have skyrocketed. In 2019, Canadians waited a median of 20.9 weeks to receive specialist treatment after getting referred by a general practitioner, according to the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think tank. That’s 124% higher than the median wait in 1993, when Fraser began tracking wait times.
Canadians also wait longer for emergency room treatment than patients in other developed countries. Nearly 30% of Canadians waited four hours or more for treatment in the emergency room, according to a 2016 Commonwealth Fund survey. In Quebec, more than half of patients faced waits in excess of four hours. Just 11% of patients in the United States had to wait that long.
These waits are expensive. The average family of four pays more than $13,000 in taxes just to support the public health insurance system. The Fraser Institute estimates the value of the time Canadians spend waiting at more than $6 billion a year. Those who don’t want to wait have to pay out of pocket for timely care they can’t get at home. From 2013-2017, Canadians spent around $3 billion on healthcare abroad, according to the think tank SecondStreet.org.
Given the waits they face, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Canadians fare worse than Americans on a number of health outcomes. The five-year survival rate for prostate cancer in Canada is just over 91%; it’s 97% in the United States.
These stats don’t appear to have broken through with Senator Sanders. In fact, he proposes nationalizing even more of the healthcare system than Canada does. At present, Canadians have to pay for their own prescription drugs, dental, and vision care. The only healthcare service Sanders doesn’t want to make taxpayers cover is cosmetic surgery.
As a result, Medicare for All’s annual cost exceeds the GDP of India. The plan would cost $32.6 trillion over a decade, according to the Mercatus Center’s Charles Blahous. The left-leaning Urban Institute pegs its cost at $34 trillion.
Sanders admits that funding his plan will require raising taxes, even on middle-class families. But he claims that even with these tax increases, every American will spend less on health care once Medicare for All eliminates premiums and deductibles.
But that’s not true. Under Medicare for All nearly three-quarters of the population would pay more in taxes than they would save from not having to pay for health care, according to the Heritage Foundation. Medicare for All would reduce the average household disposable income by more than $5,600 per year.
We’re not just talking about the rich. A married couple with two children making just $50,000 a year would lose over $1,600 per year under Medicare for All.
Bernie Sanders began 2020 with robust support and a well-funded war chest. If he keeps this up, he’ll have no trouble capturing the Democratic nomination—and potentially the White House. And that would be a fatal threat to our nation’s healthcare system.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and the Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All, (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.