Category Archives: Medicare

Medicare Does Not Cover Retirees Overseas

A LinkedIn connection posted the following article yesterday from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), and I thought that since it was a while since I wrote about medical travel issues, that this would be a good topic to discuss. In addition, it occurred to me that in all the talk of Medicare for All, there is no mention of retirees who retire outside of the US being covered by a MFA plan.

So the following article will have two functions: to stimulate interest in the medical travel industry for retirees who aren’t covered presently under Medicare as a new stream of revenue; and secondly, for those advocates of MFA to consider adding a provision in their plans to address this problem.

Here is the article in its’ entirety:

It’s Not an Accident Medicare Doesn’t Cover Retirees Overseas: No One in the Media Supports Free Trade!

Written by Dean Baker

Published: 18 July 2019

The New York Times ran a piece warning retirees thinking of moving overseas that Medicare will not cover their medical expenses in other countries. This is true, but the NYT piece never once pointed out that this is conscious policy, not something that just happened.

Readers of the paper may recall that it reports on trade agreements all the time. These trade agreements cover a wide range of issues, including things like enforcing patent and copyright monopolies and rules on Internet commerce and privacy.

If anyone in the United States in a position of power cared, then it would be possible to include transferring Medicare payments to other countries, to allow people to buy into other nations’ health care system on the list of topics being negotiated. This doesn’t happen because, unlike access to cheap labor for manufactured goods, there is no one in power who wants to make it easier for people in the United States to take advantage of lower cost and more efficient health care systems elsewhere.

While such a policy could potentially save the U.S. government an enormous amount of money on Medicare (costs in other rich countries average less than half as much per person), the health care industry would scream bloody murder if any politician attempted to implement free trade in health care services. “Free trade,” as it is conventionally used in U.S. policy debates, just means removing barriers that protect less educated workers from foreign competition.

The New York Times, like other mainstream publications will not even allow free trade to be discussed in its pages in contexts where it might hurt the interests of the wealthy.

http://cepr.net/blogs/beat-the-press/it-s-not-an-accident-medicare-doesn-t-cover-retirees-overseas-no-one-in-the-media-supports-free-trade?

Medicare for All and the Democratic Debates

See the source image

For those of you who did not watch the two nights Democratic debate, and those like me who did, one thing is clear. Medicare for All is very popular among the audiences who attended, judging by the applause garnered each time a candidate was asked about their plan for providing every American with health care.

On the first night, the moderator asked for a show of hands to the question as to who supported eliminating private insurance, only two candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York mayor Bill de Blasio raised their hands.

The rest of the candidates on the first night supported keeping private insurance or giving people the choice of a public option, and de Blasio and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke sparring over the issue.

This is how some of the candidates responded to the issue:

“I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All,” said Elizabeth Warren

Amy Klobuchar said she preferred a “public option”, “I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years,”

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke allowed that the goal should be “guaranteed, high-quality, universal health care as quickly and surely as possible.” “Our plan says that if you’re uninsured, we enroll you in Medicare,” and called his plan Medicare for America.

On the second night, the same question about abolishing private insurance was asked, and again, only two raised their hands, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who defended the ACA, said that Americans “need to have insurance that is covered, and that they can afford.”

Candidates Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet all gave their views on universal coverage, noting the importance of a transition period, and suggesting that a public option would allow people to buy into Medicare.

While the rest of the candidates from both evenings’ debates were divided against their fellow candidates who supported Medicare for All, those who spoke up for it, Sanders, Warren, Harris and de Blasio, won over the audience in the hall. What remains to be seen is how their ideas are received in the primaries beginning early next year.

According to Bloomberg, (the publication, not the former New York mayor), Medicare for All enjoys broad support: 56% of Americans said they supported such a plan in a January survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. However, when told Medicare for All would eliminate private health insurance, 37% said they favor it while 58% said they oppose the idea.

So, supporters of Medicare for All have their work cut out for them. They need to convince more Americans that sustaining the current system of private insurance, whether they get it from their employers, or they purchase it on their own, is a big part of the problem facing the US health care system.

Another point that is forgotten in the debate is the fact that what is being proposed is not a government takeover of health care, but rather a transition from a broken system to a government financed system of health care. Candidates who support this should explain the difference, and not be led into the trap set by debate moderators or interviews of calling Medicare for All, government-run health care.

It must be made clear that the providing of care will remain private, but that paying for it will not. Sanders’ stump speech line about going to any doctor sounds reminiscent of President Obama’s promise that you can keep your doctor under the ACA, but the reality was far from that.

But the takeaway from the debates indicates that the campaign will be a long and hard fought one, and that Democrats must be very clear what it is they actually want to do on health care, know how to pay for it, and sell it as the best solution to our dysfunctional health care system, or as author Marianne Williamson called it, a sickness system.

Because already, the Orangutan has pounced on one issue raised in the debate, the support by all candidates for providing medical care to undocumented immigrants. In today’s charged political climate where racism has raised its ugly head, and nationalism is on the march, such ideas can be disastrous, especially if rejected by swing voters and independents.

Time and the primaries will tell.

ACOs Do Not Improve Spending or Quality

Thank to Dr. McCanne, I am re-posting the following article from the Annals of Internal Medicine that was published Tuesday. I have written before about MSSPs, so I thought it would be a respite from talking about single payer.

Here is the article in its entirety:

Annals of Internal Medicine
June 18, 2019
Performance in the Medicare Shared Savings Program After Accounting for Nonrandom Exit: An Instrumental Variable Analysis
By Adam A. Markovitz, BS; John M. Hollingsworth, MD, MS; John Z. Ayanian, MD, MPP; Edward C. Norton, PhD; Phyllis L. Yan, MS; Andrew M. Ryan, PhD

Abstract

Background:
Accountable care organizations (ACOs) in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) are associated with modest savings. However, prior research may overstate this effect if high-cost clinicians exit ACOs.

Objective:
To evaluate the effect of the MSSP on spending and quality while accounting for clinicians’ nonrandom exit.

Design:
Similar to prior MSSP analyses, this study compared MSSP ACO participants versus control beneficiaries using adjusted longitudinal models that accounted for secular trends, market factors, and beneficiary characteristics. To further account for selection effects, the share of nearby clinicians in the MSSP was used as an instrumental variable. Hip fracture served as a falsification outcome. The authors also tested for compositional changes among MSSP participants.

Setting:
Fee-for-service Medicare, 2008 through 2014.

Patients:
A 20% sample (97 204 192 beneficiary-quarters).

Measurements:
Total spending, 4 quality indicators, and hospitalization for hip fracture.

Results:
In adjusted longitudinal models, the MSSP was associated with spending reductions (change, −$118 [95% CI, −$151 to −$85] per beneficiary-quarter) and improvements in all 4 quality indicators. In instrumental variable models, the MSSP was not associated with spending (change, $5 [CI, −$51 to $62] per beneficiary-quarter) or quality. In falsification tests, the MSSP was associated with hip fracture in the adjusted model (−0.24 hospitalizations for hip fracture [CI, −0.32 to −0.16 hospitalizations] per 1000 beneficiary-quarters) but not in the instrumental variable model (0.05 hospitalizations [CI, −0.10 to 0.20 hospitalizations] per 1000 beneficiary-quarters). Compositional changes were driven by high-cost clinicians exiting ACOs: High-cost clinicians (99th percentile) had a 30.4% chance of exiting the MSSP, compared with a 13.8% chance among median-cost clinicians (50th percentile).

Limitation:
The study used an observational design and administrative data.

Conclusion:
After adjustment for clinicians’ nonrandom exit, the MSSP was not associated with improvements in spending or quality. Selection effects — including exit of high-cost clinicians — may drive estimates of savings in the MSSP.

Primary Funding Source:
Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and National Institute on Aging.

In addition, here is an article from The Incidental Economist of June 17th on the same subject:

The Incidental Economist
June 17, 2019
Spending Reductions in the Medicare Shared Savings Program: Selection or Savings?
By J. Michael McWilliams, MD, PhD, Alan M. Zaslavsky, PhD, Bruce E. Landon, MD, MBA, and Michael E. Chernew, PhD.

Prior studies suggest that accountable care organizations (ACOs) in the MSSP have achieved modest, growing savings. In a recent study in Annals of Internal Medicine, Markovitz et al. conclude that savings from the MSSP are illusory, an artifact of risk selection behaviors by ACOs such as “pruning” primary care physicians (PCPs) with high-cost patients. Their conclusions appear to contradict previous findings that characteristics of ACO patients changed minimally over time relative to local control groups.

Conclusion

Monitoring ACOs will be essential, particularly as incentives for selection are strengthened as regional spending rates become increasingly important in determining benchmarks. Although there has likely been some gaming, the evidence to date — including the study by Markovitz et al. — provides no clear evidence of a costly problem and suggests that ACOs have achieved very small, but real, savings. Causal inference is hard but necessary to inform policy. When conclusions differ, opportunities arise to understand methodological differences and to clarify their implications for policy.

And finally, Don McCanne’s comment:

This important study in the highly reputable Annals of Internal Medicine concludes that accountable care organizations (ACOs) participating in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) did not show any improvement in spending or quality when adjustments were made for selection effects, especially the non-random exit of high-cost clinicians (“I’m worth the extra money, and if you’re gonna cut my fees, I’m outta here.”)

The conclusions were immediately challenged by others in the policy community who have previously published studies indicating that “ACOs have achieved very small, but real, savings,” albeit admitting that “there has likely been some gaming.” And the savings were, indeed, very small. Others have suggested that the very small savings did not take into consideration the significant increase in provider administrative costs for technological equipment and personnel to run the ACOs, and certainly did not consider other unintended consequences such as the tragic increase in physician burnout.

Another problem with the infatuation for ACOs is that politicians and the policy community are insisting that we continue with this experiment in spite of the disappointing results to date. That simply postpones the adoption of truly effective policies, such as those in a single payer Medicare for All program, that would actually improve quality while greatly reducing administrative waste. The tragedy is that this also perpetuates uninsurance, underinsurance, and personal financial hardship from medical bills.

People are suffering and dying while the policy community continues to diddle with ACOs and other injudicious policy inventions. Enough! It’s long past time to reduce suffering and save lives! Single Payer Medicare for All!

(Yes, I’m angry, but even more I’m terribly anguished over the health care injustices that we continue to tolerate through our collective inaction.)

See, we can’t get away from Medicare for All after all.

 

From Monopolies to Monopsony

Axios yesterday reported that the US health care system is made up of mostly monopolies, and that the industry is dominated by a small number of companies, according to an article by Sam Baker. And this, critics say, drives up prices for everyone.

The following chart highlights the combined market share of the two largest companies in the selected health care sectors.

Da

Data: Open Markets Institute; Chart: Axios Visuals

Because the US spends more than any other industrialized nation for health care, because our prices are higher, the monopolies that support those high prices could undermine both the liberal and conservative dreams of a more efficient system, according to Baker.

Here is the big picture, according to Baker:

  • Hospital systems continue to merge with each other and gobble up doctors’ practices, which lets them charge more for the care they provide.
  • Insurers and pharmacy benefit managers are also merging, and are now on track to bring in more revenue than the tech industry;s biggest powerhouses.

The trend towards concentration, Baker wrote, extends throughout the system, even into sectors that most patients never directly interact with, according to the data from the Open Markets Institute and shared with Axios first.

Returning to the chart above, let’s look at the suppliers for hospitals:

  • One company controls 64% of the market for syringes. Just 3 companies control the market for IV solution, and two companies make 47% of the hospital beds.
  • The biggest sector is syringes, with $3.8 billion in annual revenue. In a system that is already not very competitive, OMI found, each step without competition feeds into the next one.

Open Markets policy director, Phil Longman stated that, “America’s health care crisis is brought to you by monopoly.”

A particular example, and one that I am familiar with, is Dialysis:

  • Dialysis clinics bring in about $25 billion per year in revenue, and two companies, Fresenius (my clinic) and DaVita — control 92% of the market.
  • Fresenius is the leader, with almost 50% market share.
  • The manufacture of dialysis supplies is also concentrated around two companies, one of which is Fresenius, as my delivery truck and boxes and other materials can attest to. In this, they control 33% of that market.

What then does this monopolization mean for both sides of the health care debate?

This level of concentration can pose a problem for both liberals and conservatives, argues Longman.

  • Conservatives, for example, wanted to shift dialysis away from VA facilities and let veterans use private care instead.
  • Especially in sparsely populated areas, there’s an argument that such an arrangement would be more efficient, Longman said — but without actual competition in the private market, the VA just ends up paying more.
  • But by the same token, large hospital systems dominate some regions entirely. They’re not only the only source of care for miles, but also the largest employer and thus an important political constituency.
  • And that could make it hard for Democrats to follow through on big payment cuts in an expanded public program or “Medicare for All.”
  • “What are the chances the taxpayers get a good price if we don’t fix the monopoly problem?

Here’s a thought. Let there be more competition, but let the financing and paying be done by one entity — the government. In other words, let the providing of care be carried out by many companies, hospitals, etc., but make the financing of health care and the payments for it the responsibility of the government through an improved Medicare for All.

Medicare already pays out to the existing hospitals and providers, irregardless if they are concentrated, and has for some time, so expanding Medicare to all should be the same.

Yet, until the monopoly problem is solved, nothing will change.

Voters Tuning Out of Health Care Debates

Axios reported yesterday that American voters are tuning out of the health care debates dominating Washington, the presidential campaign, and the politically active talking about Medicare for All and other proposals, according to an article by Drew Altman.

Axios conducted six focus groups in three states, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania. It was facilitated by the Kaiser Family Foundation’s director of Polling and Survey Research. The focus groups consisted of independent, Republican, and Democratic voters in several swing states and districts.

They were only aware of candidates’ and elected officials’ proposals on health care, but they did not see them as relevant to their struggles to pay medical bills or navigating the health care system.

Each of the six focus groups had between 8 and 10 people who are regular voters and said that health care will be an important issue for them in the 2020 election for President.

Here are the takeaways from the focus groups:

  • These voters are not tuned into the details — or even the broad outlines — of the health policy debates going on in Washington and the campaign, even though they say health care will be at least somewhat important to their vote.
  • Many had never heard the term “Medicare for all,” and very few had heard about Medicare or Medicaid buy-in proposals, or Medicaid and Affordable Care Act state block grant plans like the one included in President Trump’s proposed budget.
  • When asked what they knew about Medicare for all, few offered any description beyond “everyone gets Medicare,” and almost no one associated the term with a single-payer system or national health plan.
  • When asked about ACA repeal, participants almost universally felt that Republicans did not have a plan to replace the law.
  • When voters in the groups were read even basic descriptions of some proposals to expand government coverage, many thought they sounded complicated and like a lot of red tape.
  • They also worried about how such plans might strain the current system and threaten their own ability to keep seeing providers they like and trust.

Most of the voters in these groups did not see any of the current proposals from either side of the aisle as solutions to their top problems: namely paying for care or navigating the insurance system and red tape.

The debates on health care have gotten too far into the weeds and are too complex and complicated for the average voter to understand, let alone follow at this early stage of the presidential campaign.

The debate will become more meaningful, the article contends, when they see stark differences between the health plan of the Democratic nominee and Trump. This way, they will be able to focus more on what those differences mean for themselves and the country.

Here is the comment posted in response by Don McCanne:

Although we should be cautious about trying to draw Great Truths from half a dozen focus groups, we should be concerned about what these groups revealed about their understanding of the basis of the problems that they experience with our health care system.

They see problems with navigating the health care system and with paying their medical bills. But when offered solutions for these problems they show little understanding of even basic health policy, and they seem to be influenced more by political memes expressing a distrust of government, complexity of public solutions, and government interference with their interactions with the health care system.

A particularly important example of this is, “When asked what they knew about Medicare for all… almost no one associated the term with a single-payer system or national health plan.”

This lack of sophistication leaves them unaware that the government Medicare program is far more deserving of our trust than the private insurers (“surprise medical bills” anyone?), that a government program that includes everyone though a publicly funded universal risk pool is far less complex than a multitude of private insurers with various complex rules for accessing and paying for care, and that a single payer system interferes less since the patient has free choices in health care whereas the private plans are more restrictive of benefits while limiting coverage to their contracted provider lists (a minute fraction of the physicians and hospitals available throughout the nation).

Health policy is complicated, but the message for single payer Medicare for All need not be: enrollment for life, free choice of physicians and hospitals and other health care professionals and institutions, and automatic payment by our own public program. The focus groups already understand that the Republicans do not have a replacement plan, but what they do not understand is that only the single payer model of Medicare for All meets these goals whereas the ACA/public option Medicare for Some often leaves them exposed to the access and affordability issues they already face.

Again, single payer Medicare for All means:

  • Never have to change insurers
  • Free choice always of doctors and hospitals
  • No medical bills since care has been prepaid through our taxes.

None of these are features of either the Republican proposals or the Democratic ACA/public option proposals. It’s a simple message. Let’s do our best to see that the American voter understands it.

The Free Market Utopian Fantasy

Whenever the subject of what to do about the cost of health care arises on the social media site, LinkedIn, invariably there is someone who attempts to deflect the discussion away from the logical solution of Medicare for All/Single Payer, to what I am calling the Free Market Utopian Fantasy.

Those of you who read my post, “Health Care Is Not a Market”, will understand that when it comes to health care, the rules of the market do not apply. That is why I have called the attitude and comments made by these individuals, the Free Market Utopian Fantasy. Because the free market in health care is a fantasy. It is usually the expression of economic libertarianism coming from the right-wing propaganda machine.

Simply put, the Free Market Utopian Fantasy states that if we only had a truly free market health care system, costs would regulate themselves through competition, as in other areas of the free market.

In fact, one observer recently said the following in a thread on LI: “This would not be the case IF there were created and implemented an ORDERLY market for health care services based upon free market enterprise principles whereby ALL costs are transparent to ALL parties.”

An orderly market? Are you serious? More of the same BS from the Free Market Utopians.

Then there is the idea that consumers, read that as patients, must educate themselves as to the best choice. Choice? When you are dying of a heart attack? Choice, when you only have a short time to live due to a serious illness like Cancer or Diabetes?

Folks, we are not talking about choosing between buying steak or chicken. This is not choosing to go to Italy next summer or to the Caribbean. We are talking about life and death. And the only choice is to do what will save your life, not choose between colors on a swatch.

This Free Market Utopian Fantasy has infected so many people in the health care industry, and they are trying to prevent the American people from receiving the same quality of care at lower cost than all the other Western and other nations already do for their people.

They claim that we can’t afford to do it. I ask, can we afford not to?

They cite statistics about Medicare like some cite similar statistics about Social Security, but they are wrong then, and they are wrong about Medicare for All, because it will be expanded to cover everyone and everything, not requiring separate insurance for things like vision and dental care, mental health, and long-term care.

Here is what one person said in the same thread cited above:

“We can barely afford Medicare for the 60 million current Medicare recipients. Adding another 270 million recipients would bankrupt the nation in short order. Latest data (2017) on Medicare shows an annual cost of $700 billion, and projections show the Medicare Trust Fund will be insolvent in 2026 – and by the way, Medicare actually only covers about half of the real cost because the rest is covered by supplementary insurances that have to be bought by the patient. If you assume that Medicare expansion was at the same cost rate as current Medicare, Medicare for all would cost at least $3.15 trillion in 2017 dollars. Total 2019 federal government revenue is estimated at $6.5 trillion, and estimated Medicare for all costs for 2019 would be $3.5 trillion. It is simply not feasible.”

Boy, they really know how to BS their way to keeping us the only Western nation that does not have universal health care. What they don’t realize is, there won’t be any private insurance, because it is private insurance that drives up the cost of health care with administrative costs and waste,

Well, it is high time we call BS on all of them, and their Free Market Utopian Fantasy. Until we stop listening to these folks who are protecting their careers and profits, no American will never have to worry if they or a loved one gets sick and cannot afford the needed medical care without going bankrupt or dying without ever receiving the care they so desperately need. I said as much in my other post, “By What Right”, where I took these folks to task for preventing the enactment of MFA/Single Payer.

These Free Market Utopians are not doing anyone any favors. They are only hurting millions of Americans, born or not-yet-born who will someday need a truly comprehensive, universal health care system, and it won’t be there thanks to them and their associates.

Medicare for All and Its Rivals | Annals of Internal Medicine | American College of Physicians

Richard’s Note: A shout-out to Don McCanne for posting this today from the Annals of Internal Medicine, which is providing the full article for free. The authors, Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein, both MDs, should be familiar to readers as two of the authors I covered in my review of the Waitzkin, et al. book, Health Care Under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Health. In the spirit of the AIM, I am posting the entire article below with link to the original. It is that important.

Medicare for All and Its Rivals: New Offshoots of Old Health Policy Roots

The leading option for health reform in the United States would leave 36.2 million persons
uninsured in 2027 while costs would balloon to nearly $6 trillion (1). That option is called the
status quo. Other reasons why temporizing is a poor choice include the country’s decreasing life
expectancy, the widening mortality gap between the rich and the poor, and rising deductibles
and drug prices. Even insured persons fear medical bills, commercial pressures permeate
examination rooms, and physicians are burning out.
In response to these health policy failures, many Democrats now advocate single-payer,
Medicare-for-All reform, which until recently was a political nonstarter. Others are wary of
frontally assaulting insurers and the pharmaceutical industry and advocate public-option plans
or defending the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). Meanwhile, the Trump
administration seeks to turbocharge market forces through deregulation and funneling more
government funds through private insurers. Here, we highlight the probable effects of these
proposals on how many persons would be covered, the comprehensiveness of coverage, and
national health expenditures (Table).

Table. Characteristics of Major Health Reform Proposals as of March 2019

Medicare for All

Medicare-for-All proposals are descendents of the 1948 Wagner–Murray–Dingell national health
insurance bill and Edward Kennedy and Martha Griffiths’ 1971 single-payer plan (2). They would
replace the current welter of public and private plans with a single, tax-funded insurer covering
all U.S. residents. The benefit package would be comprehensive, providing first-dollar coverage
for all medically necessary care and medications. The single-payer plan would use its
purchasing power to negotiate for lower drug prices and pay hospitals lump-sum global
operating budgets (similar to how fire departments are funded). Physicians would be paid
according to a simplified fee schedule or receive salaries from hospitals or group practices.
Similar payment strategies in Canada and other nations have made universal coverage
affordable even as physicians’ incomes have risen. These countries have realized savings in
national health expenditures by dramatically reducing insurers’ overhead and providers’ billing-
related documentation and transaction costs, which currently consume nearly one third of U.S.
health care spending (3). The payment schemes in the House of Representatives’ Medicare-for-
All bill closely resemble those in Canada. The companion Senate bill incorporates some of
Medicare’s current value-based payment mechanisms, which would attenuate administrative
savings. Most analysts, including some who are critical of Medicare for All, project that such a
reform would garner hundreds of billions of dollars in administrative and drug savings (4) that
would counterbalance the costs of utilization increases from expanded and upgraded coverage.
Reductions in premiums and out-of-pocket costs would fully offset the expense of new taxes
implemented to fund the reform.

 

“Medicare-for-More” Public Options

Public-option proposals, which would allow some persons to buy in to a public insurance plan,
might be labeled “Medicare for More.” Republicans Senator Jacob Javits and Representative John
Lindsay first advanced similar proposals in the early 1960s as rivals to a proposed fully public
Medicare program for seniors. This approach resurfaced during the early 1970s as Javits’
universal coverage alternative to Kennedy’s single-payer plan and gained favor with some
Democrats during the 2009 ACA debate.
Policymakers are floating several public-option variants, most of which would offer a public plan
alongside private plans on the ACA’s insurance exchanges. Although a few of these variants
would allow persons to buy in to Medicaid, most envision a new plan that would pay Medicare
rates and use providers who participate in Medicare. Positive features of these reforms include
offering additional insurance choices and minimizing the need for new taxes because enrollees
would pay premiums to cover the new costs. However, these plans would cover only a fraction
of uninsured persons, few of whom could afford the premiums (5); do little to improve the
comprehensiveness of existing coverage; and modestly increase national health expenditures.
The Medicaid public-option variant, which many states might reject, would probably dilute
these effects.
Medicare for America, the strongest version of a public-option plan, would automatically enroll
anyone not covered by their employer (including current Medicare, Medicaid, and Children’s
Health Insurance Program enrollees) in a new Medicare Part E plan. It would upgrade
Medicare’s benefits, although copayments and deductibles (capped at $3500) would remain.
The program would subsidize premiums for those whose income is up to 600% of the poverty
level, and employers could enroll employees in the program by paying 8% of their annual
payroll. The new plan would use Medicare’s payment strategies and include private Medicare
Advantage (MA) plans (which inflate Medicare’s costs [6]) and accountable care organizations.
Medicare for America would greatly expand coverage and upgrade its comprehensiveness but
at considerable cost. As with other public-options reforms, it would retain multiple payers and
therefore sacrifice much of the administrative savings available under single-payer plans.
Physicians and hospitals would have to maintain the expensive bureaucracies needed to
attribute costs and charges to individual patients, bill insurers, and collect copayments. Savings
on insurers’ overhead would also be less than those under single-payer plans. Overhead is only
2% in traditional Medicare (and 1.6% in Canada’s single-payer program [7]) but averages 13.7%
in MA plans (8) and would continue to do so under public-option proposals. Furthermore, as in
the MA program, private insurers would inflate taxpayers’ costs by upcoding as well as cherry-
picking and enacting network restrictions that shunt unprofitable patients to the public-option
plan. This strategy would turn the latter plan into a de facto high-risk pool.

The Trump Administration White Paper and Budget Proposal

Unlike these proposals, reforms under the Trump administration have moved to shrink the
government’s role in health care by relaxing ACA insurance regulations; green-lighting states’
Medicaid cuts; redirecting U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs funds to private care; and
strengthening the hand of private MA plans by easing network-adequacy standards, increasing
Medicare’s payments to these plans, and marketing to seniors on behalf of MA plans. A recent
administration white paper (9) presents the administration’s plan going forward: Spur the
growth of high-deductible coverage, eliminate coverage mandates, open the border to foreign
medical graduates, and override states’ “any-willing-provider” regulations and certificate-of-
need laws that constrain hospital expansion. The president’s recently released budget proposal
calls for cuts of $1.5 trillion in Medicaid funding and $818 billion in Medicare provider payments
over the next 10 years.
Thus far, the effects of the president’s actions—withdrawing coverage from some Medicaid
enrollees and downgrading the comprehensiveness of some private insurance—have been
modest. His plans would probably swell the ranks of uninsured persons and hollow out
coverage for many who retain coverage, shifting costs from the government and employers to
individual patients. The effect on overall national health expenditures is unclear: Cuts to
Medicaid, Medicare, and the comprehensiveness of insurance might decrease expenditures;
however, deregulating providers and insurers would probably increase them.
In 1971, a total of 5 years after the advent of Medicare and Medicaid, exploding costs and
persistent problems with access and quality triggered a roiling debate over single-payer plans.
As support for Kennedy’s plan grew, moderate Republicans offered a public-option alternative,
1 of several proposals promising broadened coverage on terms friendlier to private insurers.
Kennedy derided these proposals by stating, “It calms down the flame, but it really doesn’t meet
the need” (10). President Nixon’s pro market HMO strategy—a close analogue of the modern-
day accountable care strategy—ultimately won out, although his proposals for coverage
mandates, insurance exchanges, and premium subsidies for low-income persons did not reach
fruition until passage of the ACA.
Five years into the ACA era, there is consensus that the health care status quo spawned by
Nixon’s vision is unsustainable. President Trump would veer further down the market path.
Public-option supporters hope to expand coverage while avoiding insurers’ wrath. Medicare-
for-All proponents aspire to decouple care from commerce.