Fifty years ago this month, at the 1968 meeting of the American Medical Association, a fourth-year medical student named Peter Schnall seized the microphone and scolded several hundred of the most prestigious, highly educated white men in America.
“Organized medicine has never felt responsible and accountable to the American people for its actions and continues to deny them any significant voice in determining the nature of services offered to them,” Schnall chastised the group.
“Shut up!” yelled the doctors, who were accustomed to being treated with respect and deference, not with outrage and indignation.
Schnall’s outburst, coordinated by members of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and the Medical Committee for Human Rights, aimed to be a wake-up call to an institution that was highly successful at protecting physicians’ “interests against encroachment” but failed to meet the public health and human needs of patients by opposing both civil rights and the expansion of safety-net health programs.
At a time when Jim Crow racism harmed the health of millions of African-Americans in the South, the AMA repeatedly rebuffed requests from the National Medical Association, an organization that represents African-American physicians, to work together to end racial health disparities.
Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the AMA allowed local medical societies to discriminate against physicians and patients of color. The AMA also mobilized attacks against major social programs intended to benefit all Americans, from Social Security to Medicare and Medicaid. In 1948, the AMA leadership spent millions on a campaign to characterize President Truman’s popular universal health care plan as “socialized medicine.”
Today, in the midst of a revived Poor People’s Campaign, physicians and medical students are again pressuring the AMA to be more responsive to the needs of the nation’s uninsured and underinsured. At the AMA’s House of Delegates annual meeting in Chicago this weekend, its Medical Student Section will ask the AMA to end its decades-long opposition to a single-payer health insurance program, a system better known as Medicare for All that would be publicly financed but privately delivered. Why bother? For better or for worse, the AMA sets the agenda for American health policy.
It is clear to medical students that no matter how well they are trained, far too many Americans will remain sick and poor under market-based medicine.
Our wildly inefficient system is currently dominated by private insurance companies, a health care model spearheaded by the AMA. It produces some of the worst health outcomes in the industrialized world — the U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate and the highest number of avoidable deaths — and devours an ever-increasing share of our economy, with health spending accounting for a whopping 17.9 percent of our gross domestic product. Despite the improvements of the Affordable Care Act, 28 million Americans remain uninsured, without access to primary care that could prevent costly and life-threatening diseases. Those fortunate enough to have insurance face prohibitively expensive co-pays, premiums, and deductibles that limit access to care, and medical expenses are a leading cause of bankruptcy.
Contrary to the AMA’s assertions, a single-payer system would give health care providers more autonomy because their clinical decisions wouldn’t be second-guessed by insurance companies. Patients would have free choice of any doctor, allowing providers to compete based on quality of care. Physicians would spend less time on administrative responsibilities like paperwork and billing, and more time seeing patients, which boosts both their work satisfaction and income. In fact, when Canada implemented its single-payer program, physicians enjoyed long-term salary increases.
The AMA’s opposition to Medicare for All puts the organization at odds with the public and with America’s doctors. Sixty percent of Americans believe the federal government has a responsibility to provide health coverage for all; 51 percent specifically support the creation of a single-payer health system, as does the majority (56 percent) of practicing physicians. The single-payer bill in the House of Representatives, H.R. 676, now has a record 122 co-sponsors; in the Senate, Bernie Sanders introduced his updated Medicare for All Act in 2017 with a record 16 Senate co-sponsors, including most of the leading Democratic contenders for president in 2020.
In the AMA’s evaluation of these and other health system reform proposals, it asserts that a national health program could lead to a concentration of market power in the hands of the government, limiting patient choice and physician autonomy: “Reform proposals should balance fairly the market power between payers and physicians or be opposed.”
Although the AMA’s membership has steadily declined since the 1950s, it remains the most powerful doctors group in the country. The growing Medicare for All campaign is unlikely to be won without its support.
Will the AMA choose to move toward guaranteeing health care as a human right or continue down the wrong side of history by linking patients’ health to the vagaries of the private insurance market?
The activists who staged the protest at the AMA meeting in 1968 hoped that the organization would finally recognize health as a human right. It didn’t. A lot has changed in the ensuing 50 years. It’s time the AMA does, too.
Jonathan Michels is a premedical student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Robertha Barnes is an MS/MD student at SUNY Upstate Medical University. Sydney Russell Leed is an MD/MPH student at SUNY Upstate Medical University. All are board members of Physicians for a National Health Program, an organization that advocates for an improved and expanded Medicare for All health system.