07/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Junior Medicare and Insurance for All

Progressive people are for something called a "public plan" if they cannot get a single payer health insurance. It is hard to come up with a more boring label and one that is half as counterproductive. For most people "public plan" means nothing; to others it does sound like some kind of socialized medicine (which they consider an anathema). Democrats have long been lacking in the labeling department, despite the fact that George Lackoff has repeatedly shown in various works how much difference it makes what you call things. It is enough to see how much trouble the Democrats got with their idea to reinstate a meaningful estate tax once the GOP started calling it a "death tax," to realize that public discourse is deeply affected by labels.

The progressive idea, that people should have choice between purchasing private health insurance and insurance that will be provided by the government, is a sound one. But let's call the government option Junior Medicare -- because it will provide Medicare-like insurance for those who are too young to enroll in the existing Medicare program.

Medicare, for those few who are not in the know, is quite popular. A 2007 poll that asked respondents about their views on the country's health insurance system found that 65 percent believed the United States should adopt a universal health insurance program in which everyone is covered under a program like Medicare that is run by the government and financed by taxpayers. Ergo those who favor a public plan should build on the popularity of Medicare and the many similarities between it and the new suggested plan. Call it Junior Medicare.

And while we are talking about labels, let's stop making it sound as if the main purpose of the new health plan is to cover the uninsured, a change that will impose considerable costs on others and must be covered by raising taxes and/or diluting benefits. The goal of the new plan is to ensure that everybody is covered.

You may say that this is a distinction without a difference; once the uninsured are covered, everybody will be. Not so fast. A very large number of Americans who are currently covered need to be reminded that they can be turned into the uninsured all too quickly. They can lose their insurance if they lose their jobs, or if their company goes belly up or it decides to curtail the benefits it pays for. Ergo, having a plan that promises that everybody is covered, one way or another, is a great boon not only for the uninsured but also for most if not all of us. It is not only for those out in the cold but for all who are close to the door, and most of us are closer to it than we realize.
I am opposed to making things look like what they are not, even if such mislabeling would help us gain a major, much overdue reform. However, the public plan is akin to Medicare, and the new plan does aim to cover one and all. We hence can have our cake and eat it too: label the new plan in ways that are likely to win it the wide public support it deserves, and -- call it the way it is, speaking the truth: Junior Medicare for all who wish it and need it.

**I will respond to the comments of those persons who are willing to identify themselves, because I hold this as essential for a civilized dialogue.

Amitai Etzioni is University Professor at The George Washington University and author of The New Golden Rule. For more information, visit his website: or email him at