Category Archives: Universal Health Care

Single Payer A Bargain

Another shout out to Don McCanne for the following.

On Friday, the Nation published an article by Steffie Woolhandler, David Himmelstein, and Adam Gaffney.

You may recall these folks from my book review, “Health Care Under the Knife,” and it’s conclusion, “Some Final Thoughts on ‘Health Care Under the Knife.'”

Rather than regurgitate it for you, I am letting you read it in its entirety. But before I do, let me bring to your attention, an issue that is flying under the radar and has serious consequences for the country, our rights, and for the future of health care and other social programs.

Those lovable brothers from the Midwest, Charles and David Koch, are funding a group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. One of the goals of ALEC is to call an Article V (of the Constitution, for those of you not familiar with the document) that allows for the creation of a convention in the event the government gets too much power.

I recommend you read up on it because it will radically alter our system of government for the benefit of the corporations and wealthy. Say goodbye to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and direct election of Senators, to name a few goals.

That brings me to a quote I must let you read from a man who has no clue what he is talking about, and is emblematic of the dysfunction of his party. That man is former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, himself a physician who said the following regarding a convention and why he and others feel it is necessary.

“We’re in a battle for the future of our country…We’re either going to become a socialist, Marxist country like western Europe, or we’re going to be free. As far as me and my family and my guns, I’m going to be free.”

In case you missed that, let me repeat it:

“We’re in a battle for the future of our country…We’re either going to become a socialist, Marxist country like western Europe, or we’re going to be free. As far as me and my family and my guns, I’m going to be free.” Violent, ain’t he?

Pray tell, what country in western Europe is Marxist? Last I heard, none. Folks, these guys not only want to take away health care, they are still fighting the Cold War and godless, Marxist Communism.  No, what they are really about is defending a system, both economic and health care-wise, that cannot be sustained.

Here is the article in full:

Last week, Charles Blahous at the Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason University published a study suggesting that Bernie Sanders’s single-payer health-care plan would break the bank. But almost immediately, various observers—including Sanders himself—noted that according to Blahous’s own estimates, single payer would actually save Americans more than $2 trillion over a decade. Blahous doubled down on his argument in The Wall Street Journal, and on Tuesday, The Washington Post’s fact-checker accused Democrats of seizing “on one cherry-picked fact” in Blahous’s report to make it seem like a bargain.
The Post is wrong to call this a “cherry-picked fact”—it’s a central finding of the analysis—but it is probably right that single-payer supporters shouldn’t make too much of Blahous’s findings. After all, his analysis is riddled with errors that actually inflate the cost of single payer for taxpayers.
First, Blahous grossly underestimates the main source of savings from single payer: administrative efficiency. Health economist Austin Frakt aptly demonstrated the “bewildering complexity of health care financing in the United States” in The New York Times last month, citing evidence that billing costs primary-care doctors $100,000 apiece and consumes 25 percent of emergency-room revenues; that billing and administration accounts for one-quarter of US hospital expenditures, twice the level in single-payer nations; and that nearly one-third of all US health spending is eaten up by bureaucracy.
Overall, as two of us documented recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a single-payer system could cut administration by $500 billion annually, and redirect that money to care. Blahous, in contrast, credits single payer with a measly fraction of that—or $70 billion—in administrative savings.
Our profit-driven multi-payer system is the source for this outlandish administrative sprawl. Doctors and hospitals have to negotiate contracts and fight over bills with hundreds of insurance plans with differing payment rates, rules, and requirements. Simplifying the payment system would free up far more money than Blahous estimates to expand and improve coverage.
Next, Blahous lowballs the potential for savings on prescription drugs. He assumes that a single-payer system couldn’t use its negotiating clout to push down drug prices, ignoring the fact that European nations and the US Veterans Affairs system achieve roughly 50 percent discounts relative to the US private sector. (Single payer’s only drug savings, he argues, will come from shifting 15 percent of brand-name prescriptions to generics.) Hence Blahous foresees only $61 billion in drug savings in 2022, even though tough price negotiations would likely achieve threefold higher savings.
Third, Blahous underestimates how much the government is already spending on health care. For instance, he omits the $724 billion that federal agencies are expected to pay for employees’ health benefits over the 10 years covered by his analysis, which would simply be redirected to Medicare for All. He also leaves out the massive savings to state and local governments, which would save nearly $3.6 trillion on employee benefits and another $5.3 trillion on Medicaid and other health programs. Hence, much of the “new money” needed to fund Sanders’s reform is already being collected as taxes.
Yes, there will need to be some new taxes—albeit much less than Blahous estimates. But those new taxes would just replace—not add to—current spending on premiums, co-pays, and deductibles. Additionally, at least some of the new taxes would be virtually invisible. For instance, the $10 trillion that employers would otherwise pay for premiums could instead be collected as payroll taxes. Similarly, Medicare for All would relieve households of the $7.7 trillion they’d pay for premiums and $6.3 trillion in out-of-pocket costs under the current system.
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds here. But at the end of the day, even according to Blahous’s errant projections, Medicare for All would save the average American about $6,000 over a decade. Single payer, in other words, shifts how we pay for health care, but it doesn’t actually increase overall costs—even while providing first-dollar comprehensive coverage to everyone in the nation. The Post’s fact-checker is wrong: Single-payer supporters can and should trumpet this important fact.
Of course, the most important benefits of single payer are altogether invisible in economic analyses like the one performed by Blahous. No matter what injury or illness we faced, we would be forever freed from one great worry: the cost of our care. It’s hard to put a price tag on that kind of freedom. Yet, paradoxically, even the slanted analysis of a libertarian economist provides evidence that it would be fiscally responsible.
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Mad Dog Attacks Public Transport

Tom Lynch of LynchRyan’s Workers’ Comp Insider blog, wrote an article this morning that follows on the heels of my post from yesterday about the Justice Department not defending portion of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

According to Tom, the GOP finally figured out how to fight the ACA, and he discusses three events beginning with February of last year in which the GOP-led Congress attacked the ACA. The three events are:

February 2017 – tax cut law that zeroed out the penalty for not having insurance.

February 2018 – getting 20 states to sue the federal government and contend that repeal of the penalty obviates the individual mandate making the entirety of the ACA unconstitutional.

And just last month, as I wrote yesterday, got the Justice Department to not defend the government in the suit.

Tom continues to say that if the 20 states win, pre-existing conditions, which the ACA protects, goes out the window. There are about 133 million Americans under the age of 65 who fall into that category. I am one of them.

Insurance companies are not happy either, Tom reports, and the trade association for the health insurance companies, America’s Health Insurance Plans, supports the provision under the ACA, and is quoted thus: “Removing those provisions will result in renewed uncertainty in the individual market, create a patchwork of requirements in the states, cause rates to go even higher for older Americans and sicker patients, and make it challenging to introduce products and rates for 2019,” according to a statement released by AHIP.

Finally, Tom asks the question — what happens if the 20 states win their suit? His answer, the 1.25 million Americans with Type 1 diabetes are waiting for an answer.

Yet, they and others don’t really have to wait for an answer, because the answer is staring us right in the face, but we refuse to see it, or even acknowledge its presence. Instead, we keep doing the same things over and over again, thinking the free market has the answer.

That is patently not true. A real, comprehensive, universal single payer system or an improved Medicare for All system that does not force those who are ill and don’t have a lot of money to pay for parts of the coverage, either the medical portion, or the 20% not now covered by Medicare, is the answer. Anything less is just a dog chasing a bus, catching that bus, and the dog and bus getting hurt.

Universal Health Care in Reach? Not So Fast

The magazine, The Economist, published a ten-page special report in their April 28th edition on universal health care worldwide.

The report, which one social media commenter said was a perfect example of title and context differentiation, and gave no data or reason why health care was closer to being universal, is an example of a neoliberal publication going out on a limb with an issue vital to all human beings, and giving it short-shrift.

Throughout the report, The Economist mentions the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as the Gates Foundation as international organizations involved with public health in developing countries. The report contains statistics on the percentage of people in certain countries who do not have insurance, and other statistics to paint a bleak picture of health care in developing countries.

What the report fails to do is mention that it is exactly the World Bank, the IMF, international financial organizations, philanthropies like the Gates and other foundations, and the WHO, that have been responsible for preventing these countries from improving their health care systems.

Chapter Nine of the Waitzkin, et al., book previously reviewed in this blog, discusses in detail how these institutions influenced health care around the world for the benefit of multinational corporations in the developed world, and to the detriment of the health care in the Global South.

In particular, the WHO, which began in 1948 as a sub-organization of the United Nations, lost considerable funding due to ideological opposition to several programs operated by sub-organizations of the UN, and because the Reagan administration withheld annual dues. The UN began experiencing increasing budgetary shortfalls, which was passed onto organizations like the WHO.

But to the rescue, came the World Bank, and with this influx of private funds, the agenda of WHO changed to match that of the World Bank, international financial institutions and trade agreements. It was in the interest of these entities that health care be carried out in a vertical, top-down approach that left out key parts of the health care services needed in developing countries, namely surgery and concentrated on addressing infectious diseases like AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.

But there is another reason why public health in developing countries is in such a dismal state, and it has to do with the debt crisis these nations and others were subjected to by the nations of the Global North and the World Bank, IMF and international financial institutions.

According to the blog, One.org, “Developing countries spent years repaying billions of dollars in loans, many of which had been accumulated during the Cold War under corrupt regimes. Years later, these debts became a serious barrier to poverty reduction and economic development in many poor countries. Governments began taking on new loans to repay old ones and many countries ended up spending more each year to service debt payments than they did on health and education combined.

After many years of activism on the part of advocates for the poor and other activists, the nations of the Global North, through such organizations as the G8, the IMF and World Bank, decide to abolish debts worth billions of dollars owed by developing countries. Yet, despite this action, data in the World Bank’s global development finance 2012 report shows total external debt stocks owed by developing countries increased by $437 billion over 12 months to stand at $4 trillion at the end of 2010, the latest period of available data, according to the Guardian.

Third world debt was a serious issue when I was in college studying international relations and foreign policy, and I was aware of the efforts to reduce or eliminate this debt, so when I read in The Economist that the World Bank and WHO are engaged in public health issues around the world, I have to ask myself how is it possible that the very institutions responsible for the state of affairs experienced in developing countries as pertains to health care, are the very same institutions undoing the wreckage they created. Or at least not in ways that are advantageous to the citizens of those countries.

Instead of the vertical, top-down orientation these institutions are engaged in, a broad, horizontal orientation needs to be implemented that will radically alter the health care systems of these countries and provide all of their people with truly universal health care.

Lastly, The Economist looks at the US, and rightly points to our stubborn adherence to individualism and even quotes Republican congressman, Jason Chaffetz, who said, “Americans have choices.And they’ve got to make a choice. And so maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love, and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care.”

Many Republicans, like Rep. Chaffetz, says The Economist, believe health care is not a right but something people choose to buy (or not) in a marketplace.  I can tell you, dear readers, I did not choose to have End-Stage Renal Disease, nor did I choose to be long-term unemployed (that is due to neoliberal economic policies and to the financial meltdown caused by the very institutions that have a negative impact on universal health care), so Rep. Chaffetz and his Republican colleagues are wrong. And besides, you can’t buy health, as we all get sick and we all die. What you buy is a policy, but policies are not the same as care.

One other reason The Economist cites for the US being an outlier in providing universal care is resistance to reform by powerful interest groups.

I don’t believe this report did anything to move the debate forward towards universal health care, either here in the US, or around the world. It really did not cover any new ground, and its prediction for health care universally achieved is either wishful thinking or a delusion. Either way, until the economic order changes, nothing in health care will.