That plan—a single-payer, “Medicare for all” option in which taxpayers contribute to a national health-insurance program—remains something of a third rail in Washington, and it’s opposed by more than a third of the U.S. population. The opposition is, in part, rooted in the economy: It’d necessitate raising taxes or adding significantly to the deficit. And there’s philosophical opposition, too. Some Americans simply don’t think they should have to pay more to ensure coverage for their fellow citizens, while others are wary of how foreign the system would be. Before I enlisted, it never occurred to me that universal health care, let alone socialized medicine in any form, was a desirable option in the United States. Government health care in any form seemed oppressive to me, a limit on my freedom. But I found that, in many ways, the opposite was true. While any type of universal health-care system would have economic consequences, the associated gains—no longer worrying about coverage loss after a job change, for example, or feeling stressed about finding in-network doctors—for me outweigh that burden.
As a 2016 RAND Corporation study suggested, the U.S. government is capable of providing medical care that’s on par or better than many private alternatives. While it is something of a sport both within the military and among veterans to complain about the care they receive—and the system has seen its fair share of problems and failures—surveys show that in recent years, they are happier with their care than civilians with private providers.
Some critics argue that government-run health care is inefficient, pointing to long wait times at veterans’ hospitals. But, again, compared with the private sector, the waits may not be all that bad. If Anthem, Cigna, or another large U.S. health-insurance company were subject to the same level of congressional scrutiny as the military’s systems, I’m not sure they’d fare much better.
The VA is maligned for its failures because, in the eyes of many Americans, it should be held to a high standard as the care provider for men and women who have put their bodies on the line for their country. But the medical needs for which I’ve sought aid through the VA and military systems haven’t been extraordinary—only the cost and access to care have been.
During my Army service, I did my job, lived my life, and didn’t think twice about premiums, deductibles, or annual limits. Treatment was seamless, automatic, and focused on helping me perform my duties as a soldier.
When I broke my thumb while playing in my unit’s annual turkey bowl in South Korea—a decidedly non-mission-essential endeavor—X-rays, physical therapy, and an on-base orthopedic specialist were provided. So was my time off from work to make my appointments: To the Army, soldiers’ return to duty as quickly as possible is so important that they are often reprimanded by superiors if they miss scheduled appointments. A year later, after I’d changed stations to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, I sliced open my leg in a hiking accident. After driving myself to the emergency room of Madigan Army Medical Center on base, I limped through the doors, got some stitches, and received easily accessible follow-up treatment. My unit’s embedded physician’s assistant worked out of an on-base clinic three blocks from my motor pool.
The rationale behind this type of care is clear: The Army understands that healthy soldiers are more effective soldiers. A national health-care system that treats all citizens this way may offer similar benefits. Chief among them is what I discovered earlier this year with the help of a Google search, when I realized I could get care when I needed it: a better quality of life.