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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Why not single-payer food, shelter?

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a health care

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a health care bill news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 13, 2017. Credit: Bloomberg/Andrew Harrer

There is a broad consensus in the United States that federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program should ensure people have food. While there are Americans who oppose such programs, most of us agree that no one should go hungry.  

But I have never heard an American politician argue that food consumption by all Americans, no matter how hardworking or rich, should be limited to what the government provides. No lawmaker ever says, "Food is a human right, not a privilege. Everybody deserves the same access to the same quality and quantity of food, distributed through a single-payer system in which the federal government provides all the beans and butter, and private payment is outlawed."

Ditto shelter. The United States uses housing complexes and rental vouchers to try to put roofs over people's heads. But I have never heard an American politician argue that the shelter of all Americans, no matter how hard-working or rich they are, should be limited to what the government housing complex or rental voucher provides. No lawmaker ever says, "Shelter is a human right, not a privilege. Everybody deserves the same access to the same quantity and quality of shelter, and the only way to guarantee that is a single-payer system in which the federal government provides all the bedrooms and bathrooms, and private payment is outlawed.

Such rules, applied to food or shelter, are essentially communism.

So why, with health care, do so many of the leading Democratic presidential candidates argue that private insurance ought to be banned and everybody ought to be limited to getting health care of the same quality and quantity and speed, provided by the government, and why do so few people point out that it would be unworkable and an unprecedented attack on American values?

Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris love to point out that America pays twice as much as Israel, the Netherlands, Britain, Australia, Denmark and New Zealand for health care. Then they argue that we should outlaw private health insurance and be like those wonderful countries. But those countries all have private supplementary health care insurance people can purchase to get faster and better services than their governments provide.

Canada is practically the only major nation that does not allow such insurance coverage for essential procedures, and Canada has notoriously long wait times, particularly for "elective" surgeries like knee replacements.

Few health care experts believe most American hospitals could stay in business if they were reimbursed for every patient at Medicare rates. Few health care experts think our health care system could survive the huge utilization rush caused by giving everyone free and unlimited services without slashing the pay of health care workers.

And it is impossible to imagine a United States where we, beyond agreeing to provide everyone with the minimum they need, which fits with this nation's values, would ban everyone from paying for the maximum they desire and have earned. Limiting Americans to only what the government is willing and able to provide would make no more sense with "Medicare for all" than it would with food stamps or housing complexes.

The only top-rank Democratic candidate who opposes banning private insurance is former Vice President Joe Biden, and that's likely one reason he still leads in the polls. Warren and Harris are both better candidates against President Donald Trump, but they'll never win by backing a health care policy that is both unworkable and un-American.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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