Socialized Medicine Works for the Military

In the Navy, Christopher J. Brownfield was a patient under socialized health care and lived to tell the tale. He explains why the public option for health care is good enough for the military—and America.

“Socialized medicine” is the straw man that’s killing the public option for health care in America, but why? Is it that Republicans truly fear socialism as the greatest evil that mankind has faced in our long climb from the swamp to the stars, or is it something more pragmatic and banal?

Perhaps “socialized medicine” is killing the public option because Democrats seriously hope that government can solve all of America’s health-care problems, when at best government is only part of a complex solution. If Americans are to find common ground on public health care, we must be able to come to grips with these hopes and fears.

I was a patient under socialized health care—and I lived to tell the tale. The care I received was part of the standard benefits for all active-duty personnel who serve in the armed services of the United States.

Nary a single member of Congress, from sea to shining sea, is proposing a bill with “socialized” anything. So what’s the real problem?

My journey with socialized medicine started in 1997 when I joined the Navy. Those were the good old days, when the ship’s doc handed out free cough syrup and 800-milligram tablets of Motrin like they were candy (we called it Vitamin M). We shopped at the “commissary” for subsidized groceries in our gated socialized community of freedom-loving, red meat-eating, modern day warriors; our “public option” for health care seemed to work just fine.

Did anyone warn the military about the evils of its socialist ways? Or were we too preoccupied with the real sacrifices that our servicemen willingly made for the benefit of others in society to demonize the socialized nature of their health care?

Socialized military medicine is good enough for my comrades in arms, and it’s good enough for the rest of America. That being said, socialized medicine is irrelevant to this debate, because nary a single member of Congress, from sea to shining sea, is proposing a bill with “socialized” anything. So what’s the real problem?

In a completely free market, private insurance companies would not be willing to insure active-duty personnel at an affordable price; their chances of being sent to Iraq and injured are simply too high to justify the downside risk of the policies. This is a classic example of a market failure where the government has intervened successfully by providing a “public option” to the troops. The market may work fine for most cases, but there are special cases where government intervention can help by filling in the gaps.

The controversy comes when the government threatens to compete with private insurers in the broader market, potentially distorting prices through unfair competition. This could become a classic example of government failure, where too much intervention can cause the market to stop functioning.

Specifically, a public option with unfair subsidies would distort the market in the health industry and destroy the incentives for profits. And contrary to popular opinion, profits are not evil. Profits are good incentives for the kinds of innovation that have led to vastly improved medicines and longer, more fulfilling lives for people around the world. To me, this march of human progress with America in the lead is worth paying a premium over what we should expect to pay for basic medical needs. And yes, that means that some CEOs will make a lot more money than I will. In the long run, humanity will be better off when innovation is driven by real incentives instead of tax dollars.

In short, America needs to balance the competing interests of profits, innovation, and human health. But how can we achieve this balance when there are existing market failures and probable government failures? The answer lies in considering the third sector of economics, which most American economists have forgotten.

Civil economy, a concept better understood in Europe, deals with a third sector beyond the market and beyond the government. In this sector, civil society champions the shared values of a nation in a way that can fill the gaps where both government and the market tend to fail. Civil society includes NGOs, watchdog groups, and ad hoc coalitions with nonpartisan mandates to help resolve society’s problems.

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In America’s present health-care dilemma, civil society should formally assume responsibility for monitoring and reporting on the balance of profits, innovation, and human health. By considering the broad interests of all Americans, from the homeless to the CEOs, only civil society can keep the system honest by ensuring a level playing field where the government genuinely competes, where innovation continues, and where obscene profits are driven out by transparency and freedom of choice.

America has had enough of this Socialist vs. Reactionary nonsense. We don’t need to denigrate the honest entrepreneurs of America, and we don’t need to rename every commissary the Freedom Food Shop, either.

President Obama needs to recognize the Republicans’ legitimate concerns over government failure and formally invite civil society to assume its crucial balancing role. Republicans need to have a bit more empathy; if the troops, who traditionally lean in their political direction, can put others in society before themselves, then why can’t America as a whole follow their lead? There are genuine market failures in America when it comes to lack of universal access and transitional coverage. These uncorrected market failures curtail the freedoms of the poor, who become bogged down by their health problems and lose their opportunities to follow the American Dream. A measured reform with a public option and planned oversight by civil society can correct these market and government failures and help our nation to grow stronger.

Christopher Brownfield drove nuclear submarines before volunteering for duty in Iraq. In Baghdad, he worked as a liaison between the State Department, coalition militaries, and the Iraqi government. He is studying international energy policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has written a book, My Nuclear Family: Growing Up With Energy & Violence.