Universal Health Care: An Idea Whose Time Came a Long Time Ago

Bill Press had a good opening to his latest column:

As usual, the president said it best: “Millions of our citizens do not have a full measure of opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health care. Millions do not now have protection or security against the economic effects of sickness. The time has arrived for action to help them attain that opportunity and that protection.”

And the president was right. However, that wasn’t Barack Obama in 2009. That was Harry S. Truman, addressing a joint session of Congress, in 1945. Can you believe it? His legislation to provide universal health care failed by only a few votes, and Congress has done nothing about it ever since.

It’s just incredibly frustrating that we’ve basically been stuck in this same holding pattern for over sixty years. But I think it’s important to keep this stuff in mind when people make broad characterological assertions about why the United States doesn’t have a robust social safety net. Truman ran on a platform of single-payer health care in 1948. And he won the election. If we had the kind of political system wherein politicians who win elections then get to enact their agenda — the kind of system that exists in Canada and the UK and most other countries — then we would have had a single-payer system decades and decades ago. The difference is the institutions, not the intrinsic nature of the people.