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Critics Use Bernie Sanders’s Heart Attack to Smear Medicare for All

Opponents of single-payer argue that Sanders “would be dead” under his proposed health plan.

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event at Plymouth State University on September 29, 2019, in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

After presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders suffered a heart attack last week, he used the experience to explain why he is pushing so hard for his Medicare for All plan. Sanders’s plan would expand and improve Medicare so it covers the whole country with no fees, co-pays or deductibles.

“I am more determined than ever to fight alongside you to make health care a human right,” he said in a tweet.

Yet many critics of single-payer healthcare took a cynical approach and used Sanders’s misfortune to spread blatant lies about his health care plan. The most common smears suggested Sanders “would be dead” now if his health care proposal were law or if he lived in Canada, which offers its own Medicare for All system.

“Has the appropriate amount of time passed since [Sanders’s] heart-attack scare to point out the truth that he would be dead if he had the health care plan he wants to force on Americans?” asked Graham Allen, a conservative pundit at Blaze TV , on Twitter.

The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), which operates a right-wing medical journal known for advocating pseudo-science, used the issue to revive conspiracies about public health care and so-called “death panels.” (The “death panels” scare originated as a misinterpretation of the Affordable Care Act based on a misreading of Dr. Zeke Emanuel’s writings on end-of-life resource allocation in times of scarcity.)

“Bernie’s fans might ask whether this should apply to their favored candidate — or to themselves and their loved ones. Medicare for All will clearly reallocate resources now used for the elderly,” said Jane Orient, the group’s executive director, in an email sent to press outlets.

In the past, AAPS has promoted harmful falsehoods about AIDS, homosexuality and the climate crisis, among other issues. Its journal’s latest issue is devoted entirely to smearing Medicare for All, which it falsely claims will result in “Medicare for Nobody.”

Misrepresenting Canada’s System

Other critics claimed Sanders would still be waiting for treatment or worse if he was in Canada, citing waiting times for non-emergency stent placements.

“Under socialized medicine, Bernie would have waited weeks instead of a day,” a Front Page Mag column opined. “Medicare-for-All will kill you.”

The claim that Sanders would have been worse off with Medicare for All — or in Canada, in particular — was disputed by experts and physicians who spoke to Truthout about Sanders’s treatment.

“These claims are just ludicrous,” said Dr. Adam Gaffney, president of Physicians for a National Health Plan, in an interview with Truthout. “He would be treated with the same doctors, same pharmaceuticals, same procedures, … but it would be an improved Medicare, with no co-pays. Medicare for All would improve care for seniors, full stop.”

According to Canadian physician Dr. Michael Klein, of the University of British Columbia and the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, the claims about how Sanders would hypothetically be treated in Canada are flat-out lies.

“As both an American and a Canadian physician who has practiced on both sides of the border, I confirm that in Canada patients with chest pain are immediately seen and treated free of any cost to the patient in any Canadian hospital,” said Klein in an interview with Truthout. “This approach is true for any acute condition that threatens survival. Had Sanders presented in Canada with the same symptoms, he would have received the same care in the same rapid time frame. Claims to the contrary represent deliberate disinformation.”

Klein, father of best-selling author Naomi Klein, published his first book, Dissident Doctor: My Life Catching Babies and Challenging the Medical Status Quo, in March 2019.

Joel Lexchin, an emergency physician from the University Health Network in Toronto, told Truthout, “If Bernie Sanders walked into the emergency department where I worked with symptoms of a heart attack, he’d be getting treated within half an hour and not pay anything.”

Indeed, while the Canadian health system is far from perfect, it produces better health outcomes than the United States, which is ranked last (11 of 11) in a study of health care in 11 wealthy nations done by the Commonwealth Fund in 2017.

“Despite having the most expensive health care, the United States ranks last overall among the 11 countries on measures of health system equity, access, administrative efficiency, care delivery, and health care outcomes,” the study concluded. “The U.S. has the highest costs and lowest overall performance of the nations in the study, which included Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.”

The U.S. has ranked last in every one of six similar reports, the Commonwealth Fund study found. Canada does have longer wait times than the U.S. to see certain specialists, but the waiting times for emergency care are comparable to the United States. In general, countries with a single-payer health system have better health outcomes, universal insurance and pay considerably less than Americans. Wait times are triaged by medical priority in every country.

Sowing Fear Among Elderly Population

The argument that Medicare for All is inherently bad for current Medicare recipients is a scare tactic used by the for-profit health industry and politicians in both parties who oppose the policy. Making the elderly wrongly fearful of the policy is, as a recent Third Way poll commissioned by presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden showed, a potentially effective — although cynical and completely misleading — way to convince Democratic voters to shun an otherwise popular proposal.

Dr. Sarah Giles, an emergency room physician and lecturer at the University of Ottawa, told Truthout that Canada’s single-payer system is “inherently good for the elderly.”

“It means that elderly people don’t have to choose between going to the doctor and paying their rent,” she said. “It means that Canadians, unlike scores of Americans, do not go bankrupt from medical expenses. It means that a patient could roll up to the hospital in a car, be seen in the [Emergency Room], admitted, have two stents placed, and leave the hospital without a bill,” Giles said.

What would happen if Sanders lived in Canada and had a heart attack in a very remote part of his home province?

“We’d send a plane to retrieve him and bring him to the nearest center of cardiac excellence,” Giles said. “Bill to the user for that? Also zero.”

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