Friday, January 17, 2020

Why can't the US have health coverage for everyone? We CAN!

Every other wealthy country in the world has long since figured out how to provide health coverage to its entire population. Every one. And yet this is still controversial in the United States, as continues to be illustrated by the recent Democratic debates.

Every one of those Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries has better health outcomes than the US as result of covering everyone. The health outcomes are not always terrific, but better, as a population, than ours. There are two components to how healthcare is provided; one is how it is distributed (very inequitably in the US and much more equitably in the other countries) and how well it is funded. The second might depend upon a nation’s resources, the first upon its values. Some of these other countries should, and could, increase their health funding (e.g., Canada) but the fact remains that they are doing better because they distribute it better. And, even when well-funded, a national health plan costs less – far less, in every other country – than we spend in the US.

So we have the money, and we are ostensibly spending it on health care. Indeed, if we count not only the direct public expenditures by governments (federal, state, local) for their employees and for Medicare and Medicaid and S-CHIP and other programs, but also the income foregone by government because the health insurance premiums paid by employers (although not by employees) are tax-exempt, it is about 60% of our health expenditures. In other words the US spends more PUBLIC money than other countries spend altogether. Another way of thinking about it is that we are paying for a national health program but not getting it.

So why does this continue to be controversial? Why do the majority of Democratic presidential candidates not support it? Why do there continue to be questions from moderators at the last debate asking Sen. Sanders how much it would cost and how it would be paid for? One possible answer is that these candidates and questioners are ignorant of the facts, and ignore those repeated time and time again by both Sen. Sanders and Sen. Warren, explaining that we are already spending more than it would cost for Medicare for All. The other possibility is that it is part of a concerted campaign to obfuscate and lie about the issue to protect wealthy and powerful interests.

Let us start with the first. Maybe they are just ignorant of the facts, or maybe they are too stupid to understand them (I doubt that). Sanders responded to a questioner that the cost of a national health insurance system, Medicare for All, that covers everyone in the US for everything (including things that we don’t get now with most health insurances, like hearing aids and glasses ), with no out-of-pocket costs for co-pays or deductibles, will cost less than we are currently spending. This is made possible by re-directing those dollars currently being ostensibly spent on health care and actually spending them on health care, rather than on administrative costs and profit for health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and some big health care providers. A new article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, “Health Care Administrative Costs in the United States and Canada,

2017” by Himmelstein, Campbell, and Woolhandler (Ann Intern Med. doi:10.7326/M19-2818, online publication January 7, 2020), shows that:

U.S. insurers and providers spent $812 billion on administration, amounting to $2497 per capita (34.2% of national health expenditures) versus $551 per capita (17.0%) in Canada: $844 versus $146 on insurers' overhead; $933 versus $196 for hospital administration; $255 versus $123 for nursing home, home care, and hospice administration; and $465 versus $87 for physicians' insurance-related costs.

This represents 31% of all US health care costs, twice the rate of administrative costs in Canada. Since they excluded some areas that are accounted for differently in Canada, it is likely an underestimate. They add that “Of the 3.2-percentage point increase in administration's share of U.S. health expenditures since 1999, 2.4 percentage points was due to growth in private insurers' overhead, mostly because of high overhead in their Medicare and Medicaid managed-care plans.” These are the Medicare (and Medicaid) managed-care plans that the Trump administration lauds as the best part of Medicare, as I noted in a quote from CMS administrator Seema Verma in “Scamming Medicare: It's the providers and insurers, not the patients!” on December 22, 2019. Another very recent piece, a systematic review of studies on the cost and financing of single-payer health care in the US, “Projected costs of single-payer healthcare financing in the United States: A systematic review of economic analyses” published in PLOS One by Cai, et al. “found a high degree of analytic consensus for the fiscal feasibility of a single-payer approach in the US.” (PLOS Medicine | January 15, 2020).

So the other explanation, the more likely explanation since these people are not, in fact, stupid and probably not at this point ignorant, is willfully ignoring the facts because they threaten a status quo that is extremely lucrative for a lot of big companies, insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies especially, and a lot of big providers, hospitals and health systems. (This includes those that are ostensibly “non-profit”, which means that they don’t pay shareholders – and don’t pay taxes! – but doesn’t keep them from making lots of money which they invest back into the services that will make them more money – e.g., orthopedics, cardiology, cancer, ICUs -- rather than those the community as a whole really needs but are not money makers – e.g., mental health, primary care, etc. -- and paying their C-suite executives salaries in the millions!) These companies are absolutely not interested in losing this money, and they are big contributors to politicians.

This is abetted, indeed stimulated, by a tremendous disinformation campaign by insurance companies, following upon the model developed by car companies and cigarette manufacturers. The most obvious is the perversion of the language of “choice”, exposed by former health insurance executive Wendell Potter in the New York Times on January 14, 2020. When they say “choice” they mean choice of insurance plan. In addition to the fact that most Americans are limited to a choice between one or two plans that their employer offers, people don’t care about choosing their insurance company (“I’m an Aetna guy!” “I love CIGNA!”); they care about choosing their doctors and other providers and hospitals – the very things that the private health insurance industry restricts!

But could we not, somehow, keep private insurance as an option, as suggested by most of the Democratic candidates and pundits? A qualified yes. In countries that do this, say Switzerland, there are private insurance companies but they are highly regulated. ALL have to provide the SAME coverage and ALL have to charge the SAME price. How do they compete? Wait for it -- on customer service!! Are US insurance companies ready to do this?

To a disturbing degree, people are swayed by these lies. Sometimes you hear the myth that goes something like “Americans don’t have a sense of social responsibility like people in ‘X’ do”, but they do. As Cai points out, “Public support for provision of universal health coverage through a plan like Medicare for All is as high as 70%, but falls when costs are emphasized,” even though almost all Americans would pay less for much more – and critically, all Americans would be covered. What is unacceptable is that the “responsible” media and (hopefully, if we’re going to vote for them) “responsible” politicians, in the debates and in their coverage, repeat these lies.

We also sometimes hear the question “what will all those people who work for insurance companies do if they are closed down?” It is a legitimate one, and one for which the Medicare for All bills prescribe retraining, but the real issue is why is this asked only for this industry and never about workers who lose their jobs because companies relocate their manufacturing and services overseas? Why is the cost never an issue when we are talking about military expenditures (not for pay for personnel, no, but for incredibly expensive and profitable armaments), but only when we are talking about people’s health?

Americans as a whole pay a huge amount for health care, in premiums paid by individuals and their employers, in tax dollars for Medicare and Medicaid, and in out-of-pocket co-pays, deductibles, and huge drug costs. What we get are some people with good coverage, most people with mediocre coverage, and a lot of people with poor or no coverage. Every "scandal" about someone getting a $100,000 bill from an out-of-network doctor at an in-network hospital, about a $30,000 / month medication, about denial of necessary care, is not fluke but a built-in part of our crazy non-system.  Medicare for All, as in the Sanders Senate bill (S.1129) and the Jayapal House bill (HR.1384) will cover EVERYONE for EVERYTHING.

Let’s do it. Now. And let’s have our media and politicians stop repeating the insurance-company funded lies about it.

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