Category Archives: public option

Moderate Democrats Health Care Plans Fall Short

Listening to the Democratic debates since they began last year, I have been dumbfounded and angered that so many of the candidates running for President this year believe that some halfway measure to achieve universal coverage for health care is possible, if only voters would vote for them.

With the exception of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the rest of the candidates, those still running, and those who dropped out, advocate a public option or fixing the ACA. (see “Medicare for All and the Democratic Debates”) Their proposals fly in the face of study after study, article after article that firmly states that the only way to provide universal coverage at lower cost, and that will save money is Medicare for All.

They are trying to scare the American people with words like “Socialism” and suggesting that their taxes will go up, or that they will lose their employer-based or private health insurance.

As I have written in the past, there is a concerted effort on the part of the health care industry to defeat Medicare for All/Single Payer, and they have been targeting the Democrats to do so.

An article last Monday in The Hill by Diane Archer, senior adviser at Social Security Works states that twenty-two studies agree that Medicare for All saves money.

According to Ms. Archer, researchers at three University of California campuses examined 22 studies on the projected cost impact for single-payer health insurance in the United States and reported their findings in a recent paper in PLOS Medicine.

Every single study, they found, predicted that it would yield net savings over several years. In fact, it’s the only way to rein in health care spending significantly in the U.S.

In addition, all of the studies, regardless of ideological orientation, showed that long-term cost savings were likely. As reported last year, even the Mercatus Center, a right-wing think tank belonging to the libertarian Koch Brothers, recently found about $2 trillion in net savings over 10 years from a single-payer Medicare for All system. Most importantly, everyone in America would have high-quality health care coverage

The key takeaway from the studies is that Medicare for All is far less costly than our current system largely because it reduces administrative costs.

This is because Administrative savings from Medicare for All would be about $600 billion a year. Savings on prescription drugs would be between $200 billion and $300 billion a year, if we paid about the same price as other wealthy countries pay for their drugs. A Medicare for All system would save still more with implementation of global health care spending budgets.

None of the other Democratic candidates can make that assertion because their plans leave many uninsured and and keep in place the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies to make huge profits from the health of the American people.

While I am no fan of Bernie Sanders as a candidate, and his recent dispute with the Nevada Culinary Union not withstanding, his goal is to cover every American with universal health care. Elizabeth Warren’s plan differs somewhat from Sanders’, but has a more reasonable time frame for implementation.

The inconvenient truth, folks is that Medicare for All will save money, will cover everyone, and will finally bring down the cost of health care so that no one has to go broke paying for it, or decide not to get medical care when needed because they can’t afford it.’

Those of you who are not physicians or in the insurance industry, or the pharmaceutical industry who pontificate on social media that Medicare for All is bad, are only delaying the inevitable. You consultants, analysts, researchers and other auxiliary industries to health care must see the truth staring you in the face. You are on the wrong side of the debate, and on the wrong side of history.

Multiple studies show Medicare for All would be cheaper than public option pushed by moderates | Salon.com

For all those skeptics and naysayers who say we can’t afford single payer, Salon.com has an article from Saturday (see below) that dispels the notion that Medicare for All is too expensive.

Yet, bear in mind, that we are spending billions on two wars, raising the military spending budget, wasting money on a stupid wall that is falling down, and a host of other useless and wasteful spending that is running up the deficit, at the same time health care companies and pharmaceutical companies are raking in huge profits and returning questionable outcomes.

But go ahead, believe the Republican lies, libertarian fantasies  and moderate Democrats wishful thinking about a public option. You only have your health to lose.

Here’s the article:

Yale and Harvard researchers found that Medicare for All reduces costs while public option makes health care more expensive.

Source: Multiple studies show Medicare for All would be cheaper than public option pushed by moderates | Salon.com

American College of Physicians Endorses Single Payer

For all you naysayers in the health care industry, whether you work for insurance companies, drug companies, or are consultants or analysts, the following posts from the Annals of Internal Medicine should convince you that you are on the wrong side of the issue, and that more and more physicians are coming around to the realization that single payer is necessary to improve the American health care system. The first article is authored by a panel, and the second by Woolhandler and Himmelstein.

I have been asking these questions, and many others like them for some time: What gives you the right to deny your fellow Americans universal health care? What right do you have to prevent them from getting lower cost medical care and lower cost drugs? What gives you the right to defend the profiteering in health care that has created a dysfunctional, broken, and wasteful system? The answer to these questions is the same – GREED. and your desire to protect your jobs. Well, according to these articles, you may be coming to the end of the line in that regard.

Here are the articles in full, thanks to Don McCanne:

Annals of Internal Medicine

January 21, 2020

Envisioning a Better U.S. Health Care System for All: A Call to Action by the American College of Physicians

By Robert Doherty, BA; Thomas G. Cooney, MD; Ryan D. Mire, MD; Lee S. Engel, MD; Jason M. Goldman, MD; for the Health and Public Policy Committee and Medical Practice and Quality Committee of the American College of Physicians

U.S. health care costs too much; leaves too many behind without affordable coverage; creates incentives that are misaligned with patients’ interests; undervalues primary care and public health; spends too much on administration at the expense of patient care; fails to invest and support public health approaches to reduce preventable injuries, deaths, diseases, and suffering; and fosters barriers to care for and discrimination against vulnerable individuals.

The ACP’s Vision of a Better Health Care System for All

The ACP believes the United States can, and must, do better and offers the following 10 vision statements for a better health care system for all.

1. The American College of Physicians envisions a health care system where everyone has coverage for and access to the care they need, at a cost they and the country can afford.

(Nine more vision statements listed.)

The accompanying policy papers offer specific recommendations, supporting rationales, and evidence on ways the United States can move to achieve ACP’s vision.

In “Envisioning a Better Health Care System for All: Coverage and Cost of Care” (1), ACP recommends transitioning to a system of universal coverage through either a single payer system, or a public choice to be offered along with regulated private insurance. Although each approach has advantages and disadvantages, either can achieve ACP’s vision of a health care system where everyone has coverage for and access to the care they need, at a cost they and the country can afford. The evidence suggests that publicly financed and administered plans have the potential to reduce administrative spending and associated burdens on patients and clinicians compared with private insurers. Other approaches were considered by ACP, including market-based approaches, yet ACP found they would fall short of achieving our vision of affordable coverage and access to care for all. The ACP asserts that under a single payer or public option model, payments to physicians and other health professionals, hospitals, and others delivering health care services must be sufficient to ensure access and not perpetuate existing inequities, including the undervaluation of primary and cognitive care.

The ACP proposes that costs be controlled by lowering excessive prices, increasing adoption of global budgets and all-payer rate setting, prioritizing spending and resources, increasing investment in primary care, reducing administrative costs, promoting high-value care, and incorporating comparative effectiveness and cost into clinical guidelines and coverage decisions.

In “Envisioning a Better Health Care System for All: Health Care Delivery and Payment Systems” (2), ACP calls for increasing payments for primary and cognitive care services, redefining the role of performance measures to focus on value to patients, eliminating “check-the-box” reporting of measures, and aligning payment incentives with better outcomes and lower costs. The position paper calls for eliminating unnecessary or inefficient administrative requirements, and redesigning health information technology to better meet the needs of clinicians and patients. The ACP concludes there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reforming delivery and payment systems, and a variety of innovative payment and delivery models should be considered, evaluated, and expanded.

In “Envisioning a Better Health Care System for All: Reducing Barriers to Care and Addressing Social Determinants of Health” (3), ACP calls for ending discrimination and disparities in access and care based on personal characteristics; correcting workforce shortages, including the undersupply of primary care physicians; and understanding and ameliorating social determinants of health. This position paper calls for increased efforts to address urgent public health threats, including injuries and deaths from firearms; environmental hazards; climate change; maternal mortality; substance use disorders; and the health risks associated with nicotine, tobacco use, and electronic nicotine delivery systems.

These are just a partial summary of the recommendations in the 3 position papers; considered together, they offer a comprehensive and interconnected set of policies to guide the way to a better a health care system for all. We urge readers of this call to action to review the 3 papers for a complete understanding of ACP’s recommendations and the evidence in support of them.

The ACP rejects the view that the status quo is acceptable, or that it is too politically difficult to achieve needed change. By articulating a new vision for health care, ACP is showing a willingness to try to achieve a better U.S. health care system for all. We urge others to join us.

https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2759528/envisioning-better-u-s-health-care-system-all-call-action

Better Is Possible: The American College of Physicians’ Vision for the U.S. Health Care System

21 January 2020 Vol: 172, Issue 2_Supplement

The following link provides full free access to nine papers in this special Annals of Internal Medicine/American College of Physicians Supplement on a bold new prescription for the U.S. health care system:

https://annals.org/aim/issue

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Annals of Internal Medicine

January 21, 2020

The American College of Physicians’ Endorsement of Single-Payer Reform: A Sea Change for the Medical Profession

By Steffie Woolhandler, MD, MPH; David U. Himmelstein, MD

For a century, most U.S. medical organizations opposed national health insurance. The endorsement by the American College of Physicians (ACP) of single-payer reform marks a sea change from this unfortunate tradition.

Canada’s generally positive experience is among the strands of evidence underpinning the ACP’s endorsement. A single-payer reform that reduced insurance overhead to 2% (the level for Canada and traditional Medicare) could save more than $200 billion annually. In addition, our multipayer system imposes complexity and expense on providers; the Cleveland Clinic has 210 000 000 different prices. Single-source payment could streamline reimbursement—for example, by replacing per patient hospital payment with global budgets and establishing uniform billing and documentation requirements. Hospitals and doctors could save billions on billing-related costs and repurpose those savings to expand care, making universal, first-dollar coverage affordable.

Achieving universal coverage would be costlier under the “public choice” model the ACP co-endorses along with single payer. Multipayer systems incorporating for-profit insurers have not gleaned large administrative savings. For-profit insurers’ overhead is high everywhere, and the persistence of multiple payers would hinder efforts to streamline providers’ billing-related work.

Moreover, real-world experience with 2 public choice models—Medicare’s Advantage program and the Consumer Oriented and Operated Plans (CO-OPs) under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA)—warns that in health insurance competition, public option good guys finish last.

Although no reform achieves perfection, evidence indicates that a well-structured single-payer reform might resolve our nation’s coverage and affordability problems, preserve the choices patients value, and allow doctors to focus on what matters most: caring for our patients.

https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2759531/american-college-physicians-endorsement-single-payer-reform-sea-change-medical

PNHP release:

https://pnhp.org/news/doctors-prescribe-medicare-for-all-single-payer-reform-endorsed-by-americas-largest-medical-specialty-society-and-recommended-in-open-letter-from-thousands-of-physicians/

Here is Don’s Comment:

Welcome to a bright new day in health care reform.

The American College of Physicians (ACP) is the largest physicians’ organization dedicated to patient care (the AMA has traditionally functioned primarily as a physicians’ guild). “ACP recommends transitioning to a system of universal coverage through either a single payer system, or a public choice to be offered along with regulated private insurance.”

ACP has proffered a large volume of material that presents a multitude of problems with our current expensive but underperforming health care system. They present many options for reform that have been under consideration, but, as mentioned, they single out two for their vision of a better U.S. health care system for all: 1) single payer, or 2) a “public choice” with regulated private insurance.

Included in the AIM supplement is an important paper by Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein. They discuss the clear advantages of a Canadian-style single payer model, but they caution us about the deficiencies of the for-profit insurers that we have in the United States, and the failures of our experimentation with public choice models – CO-OPs and Medicare Advantage. (To understand better the problems with a private plan and public choice approach, you should read not only the full Woolhandler/Himmelstein paper at the link above, but also the voluminous material on this topic at pnhp.org.)

There is much more material in this AIM supplement, especially on delivery reform and addressing social determinants of health, but it is important to not get buried under the reams of material such that you might be distracted from the overriding imperative of ACP’s vision for reform – the pressing need to enact and implement the essential infrastructure on which we can build the rest of reform – a single payer national health program.

Still think you know better than the College of Physicians? You still think that physicians will not take Medicare for All because many don’t take traditional Medicare? You think that implementing Medicare for All/Single Payer will be destructive to medical care? Think again.

These physicians are more concerned with provide everyone with health care and not to make huge profits for themselves, insurance companies, drug companies, hospitals, investors, stockholders, and other stakeholders such as you and your employers. You are standing in the way.

Friday Morning Catch-Up

It’s been a while, so I thought I’d play catch-up this morning with some relevant postings from Don McCanne and Joe Paduda.

First up is an article from The New York Times of December 3rd by Margot Sanger-Katz. The article, “Why the Less Disruptive Health Care Option Could Be Plenty Disruptive” explains that moderate Democratic plans for health care that does not fall in line with those proposed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren can be as disruptive as not implementing Medicare for All.

Sanger-Katz writes: “The single-payer health plans proposed by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are often assailed as being too disruptive. A government plan for everyone, the argument goes, would mean that tens of millions of Americans would have to give up health insurance they like.

Democratic presidential candidates with more moderate brands have their own proposal: a “public option” that would preserve the current private insurance market, while giving people the opportunity to choose government insurance.

A public option would be less disruptive than a plan that instantly eliminated private insurance. But a public option that is inexpensive and attractive could shake up the private market and also wind up erasing some current insurance arrangements. Conversely, a public option that is expensive and unattractive might not do much good at all.

A public option would cover a smaller population at first, and might have to negotiate with hospitals for good deals, just as other insurance companies do. In those circumstances, several economists said, the public option might look a lot like existing insurance: pretty expensive, and covering a limited set of doctors and hospitals.”

Next, Health Affairs published an article by Tara Straw, also on December 3rd, that examines how low-income workers fare poorly under the ACA. According to Ms. Straw, “The Affordable Care Act (ACA) extended health coverage to more than 20 million people and strengthened consumer protections for millions more, but it didn’t dramatically change employer-sponsored coverage, the primary source of private health insurance. Employer coverage often works well, allowing many people to enroll in comprehensive health benefits using employer contributions that make premiums affordable. But compared to middle and upper-income employees, low-income workers are often offered less robust coverage, get less employer help with their premiums, and must pay a greater share of their income toward health care costs. Among workers with job-based coverage, those with income below 200 percent of the poverty line spend 14 percent of their income on premiums and out-of-pocket costs, on average. That’s far more than people between 200 and 400 percent of poverty, who spend 7.9 percent of their income, and people over 400 percent of poverty, who spend only 4.5 percent.

Some low-income workers are actually worse off with an offer of employer-sponsored coverage than without one because it locks them out of premium tax credit (PTC) eligibility in the ACA’s health insurance Marketplaces, a prohibition known as the “firewall.”

Under the ACA, the worker’s share of the employee-only premium must not exceed 9.86 percent of family income (in 2019), irrespective of the cost of family coverage, and the plan must cover at least 60 percent of expected medical costs. When an employer’s coverage offer meets that low federal bar, the ACA’s firewall provision makes low-income workers and their family members ineligible to receive a PTC for Marketplace coverage. However, employer coverage that meets the ACA standard may be more expensive and less comprehensive than Marketplace coverage. For example, under the ACA standard, a worker making $18,000 (about 150 percent of poverty) could pay up to nearly $1,800 toward premiums for single coverage in an employer plan. But if allowed to purchase a benchmark Marketplace plan, the worker’s expected contribution, net of the PTC, would be less than $750 (4.15 percent of income in 2019).

Again from Health Affairs, comes the following on national health spending in 2018:

Abstract

US health care spending increased 4.6 percent to reach $3.6 trillion in 2018, a faster growth rate than the rate of 4.2 percent in 2017 but the same rate as in 2016. The share of the economy devoted to health care spending declined to 17.7 percent in 2018, compared to 17.9 percent in 2017. The 0.4-percentage-point acceleration in overall growth in 2018 was driven by faster growth in both private health insurance and Medicare, which were influenced by the reinstatement of the health insurance tax. For personal health care spending (which accounted for 84 percent of national health care spending), growth in 2018 remained unchanged from 2017 at 4.1 percent. The total number of uninsured people increased by 1.0 million for the second year in a row, to reach 30.7 million in 2018.”

Additionally, CMS published the National Health Expenditure Fact Sheet (NHE).

Next, Christopher Cai and James Kahn wrote in Health Affairs that Medicare for All would improve hospital financing. According to Cai and Kahn, “Hospitals account for more than one trillion dollars of health expenditures annually, and analysts have raised concerns that a shift to single payer, or Medicare for All, might adversely affect hospital care. A common narrative has emerged in the popular press and in medical journals, suggesting that Medicare for All would decrease reimbursements and force hospitals, particularly rural hospitals, to cut back on much needed services or even close altogether. These concerns have received increased attention with Elizabeth Warren’s recently released financial proposal for Medicare for All. Understandably, these points have raised concern about the feasibility of Medicare for All. But is this narrative evidence based?

Their conclusion states that “Under single payer, patients could choose any doctor and hospital, everyone would be insured, and bureaucratic burdens would be greatly diminished. Furthermore, under global budgeting, payment levels would be monitored and adjusted over time by a panel of health care experts.

And lastly, here is a post from Joe Paduda of a Gallop poll that says Americans can’t afford healthcare, According to Joe, Gallup reported that quarter of Americans have put off treatment for serious medical conditions because they can’t afford it.

These are the reasons they can’t afford it:

  • US physicians make twice what docs in other countries do
  • Drug costs are much higher here than elsewhere
  • Hospitals are making bank
  • Administrative costs are twice what they are in other developed countries.

Physician incomes by specialty exceed $400,000. No wonder Americans can’t afford health care. The doctors are making more than they are.

So, the future of health care as we know it looks very bleak from these and other experts on the matter. It would be criminal for any rational person to not explore the Medicare for All/ single Payer option, rather than to continue to prop up a market-based system that is out of control and getting worse every year.

But so long as many Americans claim they like their private health insurance, whether it is from their employer or they purchase it directly from an insurance carrier, the fact remains that no other solution will fix the problems other than Medicare for All.

All Americans need to realize this before it is too late.

Seven Years Good Luck

Despite LinkedIn’s algorithm to the contrary, today is the seventh anniversary of this blog. It was seven years ago that I began to write about Medical Travel and Workers’ Comp.

And although it has morphed into a blog about health care issues, and more recently, about Medicare for All, it is an accomplishment that it has lasted this long.

As I am sure happens to many a blogger or writer, one runs out of things to say, so they fall back on re-posting what others have written to keep themselves in the game. Such has been my experience of late.

This is no accident. Having been diagnosed with ESRD, and attending to the protocols involved with receiving treatment and dealing with it on a daily basis, I have had to slow down the pace of writing, concentrated on other issues, or just took a break from it by not working on it period.

However, with the Democratic primary campaign heading towards its next phase, I thought it would be a good idea to review the positions of each of the major candidates now debating regarding health care for Americans.

This review is a follow-up to previous posts on this blog about the Democratic debates and Medicare for All, namely Medicare for All and the Democratic Debates and The Debate Continues.

Since then, I have concentrated on posts that single out aspects of some of the candidates positions on providing health care to more people, but each and every article posted has shown that those positions will not lead to the outcome that will provide universal health care to all Americans.

So, here are the plans for health care of each of the candidates currently still debating:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: https://www.npr.org/2019/09/10/758172208/health-care-see-where-the-2020-democratic-candidates-stand

Since August, five of the last eight posts I wrote addressed some aspect of why those advocating a public option or keeping private insurance are wrong, and why we have not had universal health care.

The New York Times, as part of a series of articles published in their Sunday magazine about the year 1619, included an article as to why universal health care has been rejected in the US.

The article, Why doesn’t the United States have universal health care? The answer has everything to do with Race, traces the opposition to universal health care to after the Civil War, when the South was devastated, and the Freedmen’s Bureau addressed the smallpox virus that was spreading across the South. It was argued then by white legislators that it would breed dependence.

But, other articles posted since August, have criticized calls for a public option, such as the article, Public Option A Bad Policy, which was re-posted from The Nation earlier this month.

A second article, Private Insurance Failure to Lead to Medicare for All, re-printed from The New York Times two weeks ago, was written by a former CEO of a health insurance company, and currently professor of health care finance at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

His observations about where private insurance is leading us should be read by those who are supporting candidates who advocate keeping private insurance.

Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) president Adam Gaffney, in Boston Review, put it simply: “It’s the financing, stupid.

Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, writing in The Guardian four days ago, stated that Medicare for All would cut taxes for most Americans, and that not only would universal healthcare reduce taxes for most people, it would also lead to the biggest take-home pay raise in a generation for most workers.

This is something that Elizabeth Warren has not been able to address in the debates, instead talking about how it will lower costs for people. She has not been wrong in doing so, because if the average family pays $5,000 in taxes and has medical costs twice that, moving to a single payer system will save them money, even if their taxes were to increase by a small percentage. Their medical bills would fall far below the $10,000 level. However, Warren will be releasing a plan to pay for it.

Saez and Zucman, in a chapter in their book, The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay, called private insurance a poll tax.

According to Saez and Zucman,

“…private insurance premiums are akin to a huge private tax. Although most workers get insurance through their employers – and thus employers nominally foot the bill – the premiums are a labor cost as much as payroll taxes are. Just like payroll taxes, premiums are ultimately borne by employees. The only difference is they are even more regressive than payroll taxes, because the premiums are unrelated to earnings. They are equal to a fixed amount per employee (and only depend on age and family coverage), just like a poll tax. The secretary literally pays the same dollar amount as an executive.”

Listening to the candidates other than Sanders and Warren, they would rather keep the status quo so that stakeholders can profit from the dysfunction in the system than address the problem of health care head-on.

It is as if we said we wanted to go to the Moon, but opted to go part of the way, saying we will get there someday, but not now, as it is too expensive, people like looking at the Moon without knowing there are men up there and spacecraft parts, and that we shouldn’t mess with it until we clean up down here.

It is better to advocate going all the way, then not at all. If you fail, then you know you must do it again until you get what you want. Thus, was the case with passing the ACA. It did not happen overnight.

This video, from a president who knew how to speak in complete and intelligible sentences, illustrated what it took to get Medicare and Medicaid passed.

Just like President Kennedy’s call to go to the Moon in the 1960s, so too did he call for universal health care as far back as 1962 when he made this speech in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

We cannot afford to do anything less, because the stakes are that important. Medicare for All must be the one and only goal. Anything else is a half-measure destined to fail.

Public Option A Bad Policy

I’m back!

In case you missed me, I have been busy with personal matters and preparing for a trip out of town. Now that I am back, I have decided to pick up where I left off, and re-post an article from The Nation by Himmelstein and Woolhander on why private insurance or the public option is a bad policy choice. This article comes courtesy of Don McCanne, so thanks go to him.

Here is the entire article:

The Nation
October 7, 2019
The ‘Public Option’ on Health Care Is a Poison Pill
Some Democratic candidates are pushing it as a free-choice version of Medicare for All. That’s good rhetoric but bad policy.
By David U. Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler
Health care reform has been the most hotly contested issue in the Democratic presidential debates. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been pushing a single-payer Medicare for All plan, under which a public insurer would cover everyone. They would ban private insurance, except for items not covered by the public plan, such as cosmetic surgery or private rooms in hospitals. The other Democratic contenders favor a “public option” reform that would introduce a Medicare-like public insurer but would allow private insurers to operate as well. They tout this approach as a less traumatic route to universal coverage that would preserve a free choice of insurers for people happy with their plans. And some public option backers go further, claiming that the system would painlessly transition to single payer as the public plan outperforms the private insurers.
That’s comforting rhetoric. But the case for a public option rests on faulty economic logic and naive assumptions about how private insurance actually works. Private insurers have proved endlessly creative at gaming the system to avoid fair competition, and they have used their immense lobbying clout to undermine regulators’ efforts to rein in their abuses. That’s enabled them to siphon hundreds of billions of dollars out of the health care system each year for their own profits and overhead costs while forcing doctors and hospitals to waste billions more on billing-related paperwork.
Those dollars have to come from somewhere. If private insurers required their customers to pay the full costs of private plans, they wouldn’t be able to compete with a public plan like the traditional Medicare program, whose overhead costs are far lower. But this is not the case: In fact, taxpayers—including those not enrolled in a private plan—pick up the tab for much of private insurers’ profligacy. And the high cost of keeping private insurance alive would make it prohibitively expensive to cover the 30 million uninsured in the United States and to upgrade coverage for the tens of millions with inadequate plans.
Public option proposals come in three main varieties:
§  A simple buy-in. Some proposals, including those by Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, would offer a Medicare-like public plan for sale alongside private plans on the insurance exchanges now available under the Affordable Care Act. These buy-in reforms would minimize the need for new taxes, since most enrollees would be charged premiums. But tens of millions would remain uninsured or with coverage so skimpy, they still couldn’t afford care.
§  Pay or play. This variant (similar to the plan advanced by the Center for American Progress and endorsed by Beto O’Rourke) would offer employers a choice between purchasing private insurance or paying a steep payroll tax (about 8 percent). Anyone lacking employer-paid private coverage would be automatically enrolled in the public plan. The public option would be a good deal for employers who would otherwise have to pay more than 8 percent of their payroll for private coverage—for example, employers with older or mostly female workers (who tend to use more care and incur high premiums) or with lots of low-wage workers (for whom 8 percent of payroll is a relatively small sum). But many firms employing mostly young, male, or highly paid workers (e.g., finance and tech) would likely stay with a private insurer.
§  Medicare Advantage for All. The public option approach favored by Kamala Harris would mimic the current Medicare Advantage program. Medicare Advantage plans are commercial managed care products currently offered by private insurers to seniors. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency that administers Medicare, collects the taxes that pay for the program and passes the funds ($233 billion in 2018) along to the insurance companies. Under this approach, the public option would operate alongside the private Medicare Advantage plans and compete with them, as the traditional fully public Medicare program currently does.
No working models of the buy-in or pay-or-play public option variants currently exist in the United States or elsewhere. But decades of experience with Medicare Advantage offer lessons about that program and how private insurers capture profits for themselves and push losses onto their public rival—strategies that allow them to win the competition while driving up everyone’s costs.
IN US HEALTH INSURANCE, GOOD GUYS FINISH LAST
A public option plan that facilitates enrollees’ genuine access to health care can’t compete with private insurers that avoid the expensively ill and obstruct access to care. Despite having overhead costs almost seven times that of traditional Medicare (13.7 versus 2 percent), Medicare Advantage plans have grown rapidly. They now cover more than one-third of Medicare beneficiaries, up from 13 percent in 2005. Greed has trumped efficiency, and the efforts of regulators to level the playing field have been overwhelmed by insurers’ profit-driven schemes to tilt it.
Private insurers employ a dizzying array of profit-enhancing schemes that would be out of bounds for a public plan. These schemes, which continually evolve in response to regulators’ efforts to counter them, boil down to four strategies that are legal, in addition to occasional outright fraud.
§  Obstructing expensive care. Plans try to attract profitable, low-needs enrollees by assuring convenient and affordable access to routine care for minor problems. Simultaneously, they erect barriers to expensive services that threaten profits—for example, prior authorization requirements, high co-payments, narrow networks, and drug formulary restrictions that penalize the unprofitably ill. While the fully public Medicare program contracts with any willing provider, many private insurers exclude (for example) cystic fibrosis specialists, and few Medicare Advantage plans cover care at cancer centers like Memorial Sloan Kettering. Moreover, private insurers’ drug formularies often put all of the drugs—even cheap generics—needed by those with diabetes, schizophrenia, or HIV in a high co-payment tier.
Insurers whose first reaction to a big bill is “claim denied” discourage many patients from pursuing their claims. And as discussed below, if hassling over claims drives some enrollees away, even better: The sickest will be the most hassled and therefore the most likely to switch to a competitor.
§  Cherry-picking and lemon-dropping, or selectively enrolling people who need little care and disenrolling the unprofitably ill. A relatively small number of very sick patients account for the vast majority of medical costs each year. A plan that dodges even a few of these high-needs patients wins, while a competing plan that welcomes all comers loses.
In the employer market, cherry-picking is easy: Private insurers offer attractive premiums to businesses with young, healthy workers and exorbitant rates to those with older, sicker employees. As a letter this summer to The New York Times put it, like casinos, health insurers are profitable because they know the odds of every bet they place—and the house always wins.
The CMS, in theory, requires Medicare Advantage plans to take all comers and prohibits them from forcing people out when they get sick. But regulators’ efforts to enforce these requirements have been overwhelmed by insurers’ chicanery. To avoid the sick, private insurers manipulate provider networks and drug formulary designs. Despite the ban on forcing enrollees out, patients needing high-cost services like dialysis or nursing home care have switched in droves from private plans to traditional, fully public Medicare. And as a last resort, Medicare Advantage plans will stop offering coverage in a county where they’ve accumulated too many unprofitable enrollees, akin to a casino ejecting players who are beating the house.
Finally, Medicare Advantage plans cherry-pick through targeted marketing schemes. In the past, this has meant sign-up dinners in restaurants difficult to access for people who use wheelchairs or offering free fitness center memberships, a perk that appeals mainly to the healthiest seniors. But higher-tech approaches are just around the corner. Will Oscar, the health insurer founded by Jared Kushner’s brother—with Google’s parent company as a significant investor—resist the temptation to use Google’s trove of personal data to target enrollment ads toward profitable enrollees like tennis enthusiasts and avoid purchasers of plus-size clothing or people who have searched online for fertility treatments?
§  Upcoding, or making enrollees look sicker on paper than they really are to inflate risk-adjusted premiums. To counter cherry-picking, the CMS pays Medicare Advantage plans higher premiums for enrollees with more (and more serious) diagnoses. For instance, a Medicare Advantage plan can collect hundreds of dollars more each month from the government by labeling an enrollee’s temporary sadness as “major depression” or calling trivial knee pain “degenerative arthritis.” By applying serious-sounding diagnoses to minor illnesses, Medicare Advantage plans artificially inflate the premiums they collect from taxpayers by billions of dollars while adding little or nothing to their expenditures for care.
Though most upcoding stays within the letter of the law and merely stretches medical terminology, the CMS’s (rare) audits of enrollees’ charts indicate that Medicare Advantage plans are collecting $10 billion annually from taxpayers for entirely fabricated diagnoses. And that’s only a small fraction of their overall take from upcoding. Private insurers keep most of this pilfered money for their profits and overhead, but they use a portion to fund added benefits (for example, eyeglasses or slightly lower co-payments for routine care) that attract new enrollees and help private plans to seemingly outcompete traditional Medicare.
§  Lobbying to get excessive payments and thwart regulators. Congress has mandated that the CMS overpay Medicare Advantage plans by 2 percent (and even more where medical costs are lower than average). On top of that, Seema Verma, Trump’s CMS administrator, has taken steps that will increase premiums significantly and award unjustified “quality bonuses,” ignoring advice from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission that payments be trimmed because the government is already overpaying the private plans. And she has ordered changes to the CMS’s Medicare website to trumpet the benefits of Medicare Advantage enrollment.
In sum, a public option insurer that, like traditional Medicare, doesn’t try to dodge unprofitable enrollees would be saddled with more than its share of sick, expensive patients and would become a de facto high-cost, high-risk pool. The CMS’s decades-long efforts to level the playing field have been thwarted by insurers’ upcoding, belying their promises of fair competition. And insurance companies have used their political muscle to sustain and increase their competitive advantage over traditional Medicare. The result: The public plan (and the taxpayers) absorbs the losses while private insurers skim off profits, an imbalance so big that private plans can outcompete a public plan despite squandering vast sums on overhead costs, CEO salaries, and shareholder profits.
SINGLE PAYER WOULD SAVE, PUBLIC OPTION WON’T
This year alone, private insurers will take in $252 billion more than they pay out, equivalent to 12 percent of their premiums. A single-payer system with overhead costs comparable to Medicare’s (2 percent) could save about $220 billion of that money. A public option would save far less—possibly zero, if much of the new public coverage is channeled through Medicare Advantage plans, whose overhead, at 13.7 percent, is even higher than the average commercial insurer.
Moreover, a public option would save little or nothing on hospitals’ and doctors’ sky-high billing and administrative costs. In a single-payer system, hospitals and other health facilities could be funded via global, lump-sum budgets—similar to the way cities pay fire departments—eliminating the need to attribute costs to individual patients and collect payments from them and their insurers. That global budget payment strategy has cut administrative costs at hospitals in Canada and Scotland to half the US level. The persistence of multiple payers would preclude such administrative streamlining, even if all of the payers are charged the same rates. (Under Maryland’s mislabeled global budget system, the state’s hospitals charge uniform rates but continue to bill per patient; our research indicates that their administrative costs haven’t fallen at all, according to their official cost reports.)
Similarly, for physicians and other practitioners, the complexity involved in billing multiple payers, dealing with multiple drug formularies and referral networks, collecting co-payments and deductibles, and obtaining referrals and prior authorizations drives up office overhead costs and documentation burdens.
The excess overhead inherent to multipayer systems imposes a hidden surcharge on the fees that doctors and hospitals must charge all patients—not just those covered by private insurance. All told, a public option reform would sacrifice about $350 billion annually of single payer’s potential savings on providers’ overhead costs, over and above the $220 billion in savings it could sacrifice annually on insurers’ overhead.
Finally, a public option would undermine the rational health planning that is key to the long-term savings under single payer. Each dollar that a hospital invests in new buildings or equipment increases its operating costs by 20 to 25 cents in every subsequent year. At present, hospitals that garner profits (or “surpluses” for nonprofits) have the capital to expand money-making services and buy high-tech gadgets, whether they’re needed or not, while neglecting vital but unprofitable services. For instance, hospitals around the country have invested in proton-beam-radiation therapy centers that cost hundreds of millions of dollars apiece. (Oklahoma City alone now has two.) Yet there’s little evidence that those machines are any better for most uses than their far cheaper alternatives. Similarly, hospitals have rushed to open invasive cardiology and orthopedic surgery programs, often close to existing ones. These duplicative investments raise costs and probably compromise quality.
Meanwhile, primary care and mental health services have languished, and rural hospitals and other cash-strapped facilities that provide much-needed care spiral toward closure. As in Canada and several European nations, a single-payer system could fund new hospital investments through government grants based on an explicit assessment of needs, instead of counting on private hospitals to use their profits wisely. That strategy has helped other nations direct investments to areas and services with the greatest need and to avoid funding wasteful or redundant facilities. Public option proposals would perpetuate current payment strategies that distort investment and raise long-term costs.
Because a public option would leave the current dysfunctional payment approach in place, it would sacrifice most of the savings available via single-payer reform. The bottom line is that a public option would either cost much more or deliver much less than single payer.
WHY NOT IMPORT GERMAN, SWISS, OR DUTCH HEALTH CARE?
Public option proponents often cite Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands as exemplars of how private insurers can coexist with thriving public health care systems. But they ignore the vast differences between those nations’ private insurers and ours.
The nonprofit German “sickness funds,” which cover 89 percent of the population (only wealthy Germans are allowed to purchase coverage from for-profit insurers), are jointly managed by employers and unions—a far cry from our employer-based coverage. The government mandates identical premium rates for all the sickness funds, takes money from those with low-risk enrollees and subsidizes others with older and sicker ones, and directly pays for most hospital construction. All sickness funds offer identical benefit packages, pay the same fees, and cover care from any doctor or hospital.
Although the details differ, a similarly stringent regulatory regime applies in Switzerland, whose system descended from Otto von Bismarck’s original German model, and as in Germany, the government funds most hospital construction. While for-profit insurers can sell supplemental coverage, only nonprofits are allowed to offer the mandated benefit package.
Since 2006, the Netherlands has been transitioning from the German-style universal coverage system to a more market-oriented approach championed by corporate leaders. However, the government pays directly for all long-term care, and a strong ethos of justice and equality has pressured both public and private actors to avoid any erosion of social solidarity. The Netherlands has long enjoyed ready access to care, and its system hasn’t descended (yet) into an American-style abyss. But under the new regime, hospital administrative costs have risen nearly to US levels, overall health costs have increased rapidly, doctors complain of unsustainable administrative burdens, and even in such a small nation, tens of thousands of people are uninsured. Insurers spend massively on marketing and advertising, and private insurers’ overhead costs average 13 percent of their premiums. Moreover, the United States and the Netherlands aren’t the only places where for-profit insurers’ overhead costs are high: They average 12.4 percent in Switzerland, 20.9 percent in Germany, and 26.2 percent in the United Kingdom.
Transforming the immensely powerful, profit-driven insurance companies of the United States into benign nonprofit insurers in the Swiss or German mold would be as heavy a lift as adopting Medicare for All. Nor can we count on the cultural restraints that have thus far softened the Dutch insurers’ rapacious tendencies and prevented a reversal of that country’s long-standing health care successes.
A final point: While allowing private insurers to compete with a public plan amounts to a poison pill, the same isn’t true for supplemental private plans that are allowed to cover only those items excluded from the public benefit package. While Canada bans the sale of private coverage that duplicates the public plan’s benefits, it has always allowed supplemental coverage, and that hasn’t sabotaged its system.
The efficiencies of a single-payer system would make universal coverage affordable and give everyone in the United States their free choice of doctors and hospitals. But that goal will remain out of reach if private insurers are allowed to continue gaming the system. Preserving the choice of insurer for some would perpetuate the affordability crisis that has bedeviled the US health care system for generations. Proponents of the public option portray it as a nondisruptive, free-choice version of single payer. That may be good campaign rhetoric, but it’s terrible policy.
David U. Himmelstein, MD and Steffie Woolhandler, MD, MPH are Distinguished Professors of Public Health at the City University of New York at Hunter College and are co-founders of Physicians for a National Health Program.

KFF Health Tracking Poll – September 2019: Health Care Policy In Congress And On The Campaign Trail | The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

This month’s poll probes Democrats’ views about the general approaches to expanding health coverage and lowering costs put forward by the candidates; the public’s health care prio…

Source: KFF Health Tracking Poll – September 2019: Health Care Policy In Congress And On The Campaign Trail | The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

 

Comment by Don McCanne
According to this new poll, Democrats support Medicare-for-all (“a national health plan”), Independents are split, and Republicans are opposed. Also, Democrats and Independents both support a public option (“a government-administered health plan”), and Republicans are split. However, the public is confused as to whether Medicare-for-all and a public option are similar or different, and half have not heard much about Medicare-for-all and even more have not heard much about a public option.
It seems as if individuals do have an opinion on Medicare-for-all and on a public option even though many are confused as to what they are. The fact that the pollsters referred to one as “a national health plan” and the other as “a government-administered health plan” likely leaves many of those polled with little understanding of the refinements distinguishing the two models.
Features that people might be interested in include the following:
Everyone is automatically covered for life
Affordability is assured through equitable taxes based on ability to pay
Financial barriers such as high deductibles are eliminated
Choices of physicians and hospitals are assured through elimination of insurer networks
Hundreds of billions of dollars in administrative waste is recovered
Of course, these are features of the single payer model of Medicare for all and none would apply by merely adding a public option to our fragmented financing system of a multitude of public and private insurance programs.
When will the pollsters finally ask the following questions?
Should everyone be covered or just some of us?
Should insurance be automatic forever or should it depend on life circumstances?
Should payments into the system be made affordable based on income, or should many be left out because they can’t afford the premiums?
Should high deductibles and surprise medical bills be used to deprive individuals of health care that they should have?
Should patients have choices of their physicians and hospitals or shall we continue to allow private insurers to restrict choices to their networks?
Should we continue to tolerate wasting about half a trillion dollars in administrative excesses, or should we redirect those funds that so that we can pay for care for those currently uninsured or underinsured?
In other words, do we want a health care system that we can afford that takes care of all of us, or do we want to merely add a public option and a couple of tweaks to ACA that leaves our overpriced, highly dysfunctional system in place? People really need to understand the differences between Medicare-for-all (single payer version) and a public option. Let’s see that they do.