Monday, October 22, 2018

"Single Payer", "Medicare for All": Good ideas and about time!

The call for a universal health care system in the US is probably greater than it ever has been. While, of course, the Republicans, whose only firm position is completely kowtowing to billionaires and major corporations, are opposed to it, many Democrats have signed on to the “Improved and Expanded Medicare for All” bill in Congress (120 at last count). Democrats running across the country have been calling for “single payer” as well as “Medicare for All”, from outspoken Democratic socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in NY (and of course Bernie Sanders) to moderate Democrats running in states and districts that Trump won. They correctly see this as an issue that cuts across traditional liberal-conservative lines, and even racial lines, and may be their path to victory.

Many Republicans (although not the Republican congressional leadership) are reading the same tea leaves, and are hedging, trying to say that they favor the things that people like about the ACA (most important, the protection against insurers denying coverage for pre-existing conditions). Of course this often requires major dissembling for those who, like our Arizona GOP candidate for Senate Martha McSally, voted to gut the ACA, and even Texas senator Ted Cruz who authored the “Cruz Amendment” that would strip virtually all protections for people under ACA. President Trump, never one for nuance, has no difficulty having it both ways: he calls for the repeal of ACA while insisting that his health care plan will protect people’s ability to have health insurance, pre-existing conditions or not (it won’t).

It is in this context that the recent Sunday NY Times’ Magazine article by Elisabeth Rosenthal and Shefali Luthra, ‘“Don’t get too excited” about Medicare for All’ becomes important. For starters, “Don’t get too excited” is not necessarily the opinion of the authors but a quotation from Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN). Rep. Cooper was responding to the surprise of one of his Nashville constituents, Dr. Carol Paris, President of the leading physician advocacy group for single payer, Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), that he had signed onto the Medicare for All bill. Nonetheless, the article does raise many cautions about the movement to single payer or Medicare for All, mainly about different interpretations of the meanings of this by different advocates, and incomplete and sometimes inaccurate understanding of them by regular people. The most important thing about it, however, is that it had to be written at all because there is such a movement; long-time activists, including PNHP physicians, remember that it was not too long ago that such an idea was poo-pooed, dismissed. Not now.

Clearly, the quantum step forward was the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. The establishment pundits of both parties were shocked at how popular and successful this old Jewish socialist from Vermont (ok, originally Brooklyn) was across the country. He didn’t win the Democratic nomination, true, but he might have won the general election against Trump. Certainly, his straight talk and the fact that he directly addressed the felt needs of regular people was the main reason for his popularity, and people’s fears about their health risks and costs were central to this (see A majority of Americans are worried about health care costs -- and a majority of Congress doesn't care, October 16, 2018). Bernie had advocated for single payer for decades, as had great leaders before him including the late Representative Ron Dellums of California (see Ron Dellums: Loss of a great leader and a job for the rest of us, July 31, 2018), but the visibility of his presidential campaign skyrocketed the visibility of single payer.

Rosenthal and Luthra utilize a good bit of ink describing what single payer is --the government is the only payer for health care, rather than multiple private insurers; Canada is the best example of this, and Britain has a government-owned national health service. They also note that Medicare for All means exactly that, that everyone, not just those over 65 and the blind and disabled, would be in the Medicare program. Of course, since Medicare is a single payer program, it would be single payer. They describe the misconceptions people have (“would I be able to keep my present plan?”), and also talk about other countries, such as France and Germany, that have universal health care without a single payer but with a heavily-regulated marketplace. They observe that partialist solutions do not generate the enthusiasm of single payer, but that the latter would be the hardest and thus (perhaps) most difficult to institute. Among the concerns they note are the displacement of insurance company employees and the decrease in doctors’ income.

But these are the most important points.
  1.       Our health care system is not working. Our life expectancy is much lower than other developed countries, about 43rd, and a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine covers work that projects that it will drop another 21 places by 2040, to 64! Other measures of access to care and quality of care are comparably poor. Yes, there are heroic and wonderful things that medical care can do for people, but if these are not accessible to everyone, and if the cost of them precludes spending on even basic care for everyone, it is not working.
  2.   Our health care system is incredibly costly. By far, we spend more, overall, as % of GDP, and per capita, than any country in the world, as illustrated by the graph from the Kaiser Family Foundation. It is more than twice as much as most of the developed countries, all of which have far better health status.
  3. Profit is the problem. Specifically, corporate profit made from providing health care services (or, in the case of insurance companies, not providing health care). This is how we manage to do both #1 and #2 – because the functional goal of the US health system is not to increase the population’s health but to make as much money as possible for insurers, hospitals, drug companies, and providers.

These are the core issues that need to be addressed, and what sets the US apart from all other developed countries. Yes, Canada has a single payer system such as we might have with Medicare for All (and they even call it Medicare). Britain has a National Health Service, with most hospital and health care facilities owned by, and some doctors employed by, the government. Britain, however, allows private insurance for those who can afford it, Canada does not. France and Germany and Switzerland have multiple insurers, but they are not unfettered to maximize profit by denying care. In Switzerland, for example, insurers have to be non-profit, have to offer the same benefits, and have to charge the same amount. They compete on quality of service! Can you imagine that here?

So, while Rosenthal and Luthra repeat the idea that single payer, although the most enthusiasm-generating, would involve the biggest change, it is also, in another sense, the least complicated. Trying to get to a system like that that evolved in these other countries over decades will be more complicated to understand and to implement. Many of the suggestions for incrementalism (“Medicare for More”, “public option”) will not solve the problems we have because they do not include everybody, and because they do not eliminate the incentive for making money on the back of denying care that is the core flaw in our current situation.

“Medicare for All” and “single payer” are popular among people because their core meaning is understandable, and they would address the needs that they have.

  • ·        Everybody in, nobody out!
  • ·        No profiteering!

Simple message. Needed solution.

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