Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Has Medicare Extended Life?

Here are some facts that champions of Medicare are either ignorant of or hope you remain ignorant of. They leave the impression that before Medicare (pre-1965), life for "seniors" (hate that term) was unenviable because of lack of access to medical care. Since then, thanks to a government program that really "works," things have turned around.

Leaving aside whether a program with a $37 trillion unfunded liability can be said to be working, look at this:

In 1930 average life expectancy for Americans at age 60 was 74.5 years. (Infant mortality pulls down average life expectancy, hence the measure "at age 60.") In 1960 -- five years before Medicare began -- the average jumped 2.6 years, to 77.1. By 1990 -- 25 years after Medicare began -- it had jumped to 79.7 -- again 2.6 years.

Medicare did not make the upward-sloping life-expectancy curve any steeper!

For historical context, from 1900 to 1960, overall life-expectancy increased 22.4 years, from 47. 3 to 69.7.

I hasten to add that the medical system may be the least important factor in life expectancy, and one must never judge a country's health care by that measure. (Too many other factors -- lifestyle, genetics, culture -- play more important roles.) Nevertheless, it is interesting to know that Medicare did not improve the rate of progress in life expectancy that was occurring before the program started.

(Source: Derived from data presented in Sue A. Blevins, Medicare's Midlife Crisis, Cato Institute, 2001.)


MarkZ said...

Sheldon, we really don't know that for sure. What reason do we have to believe that the slope was going to remain linear in the absence of medicare?

Sheldon Richman said...

I guess you're saying that without Medicare, the slope might have been less steep that previously, flat, or even downward. How likely is that, given what we know about economic progress? It takes a leap of faith to attribute the additional years to Medicare.

D. Saul Weiner said...

Good post. I was talking to someone the other day and mentioned that I didn't think Medicare and Medicaid should exist, among other things. She was convinced that seniors didn't have health care prior to Medicare. And this is a person who is fairly intelligent in most respects. This is the worst part of statism. Rather than wanting to kill these terrible programs, they become indispensable in the minds of the booboisie ... they can't imagine that we could ever live without them.