How Single Payer Would Make Outbreaks Like Coronavirus Worse

The past several weeks have seen two trends with important implications for health policy: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s burst of momentum following strong political showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire has drawn greater attention to his proposal for single-payer health care, as China struggles to control a coronavirus outbreak that first emerged at the end of last year.

The two events are linked by more than just time. The coronavirus outbreak provides a compelling argument against Sanders’s so-called “Medicare for All” program, which would upend the health-care system’s ability to respond to infectious disease outbreaks.

In an Outbreak, Could You Obtain Care?

For starters, supporters of Sanders’s plan have admitted that under single payer, not all patients seeking care will obtain it. In 2018, People’s Policy Project President Matt Bruenig claimed that while demand for care might rise under single payer, “aggregate health service utilization is ultimately dependent on the capacity to provide services, meaning utilization could hit a hard limit.”

By eliminating virtually all patient payments for their own care, single payer would increase demand for care—demand Bruenig concedes the system likely could not meet, even under normal circumstances. Consider that an outbreak centered more than 6,000 miles from the Pacific coast has already led to a run on respiratory face masks in the United States. During a widespread outbreak on our shores, an influx of both sick and worried-but-well patients could swamp hospitals already facing higher demand for “free” care.

Bureaucrats’ Questionable Spending Priorities

While Sanders’s legislation attempts to provide emergency surge capacity for the health-care system, experience suggests federal officials may not spend this money wisely. Section 601 of the House and Senate single-payer bills include provisions for a “reserve fund” designed to “respond to the costs of treating an epidemic, pandemic, natural disaster, or other such health emergency.” However, neither of the bills include a specific amount for that fund, leaving all decisions for the national health care budget in the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services.

And federal officials demonstrated a questionable sense of policy priorities in the years leading up to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Of the nearly $3 billion from Obamacare’s Prevention and Public Health Fund given to the Centers for Disease Control in the years 2010-2014, only about 6 percent went towards building epidemiology and laboratory capacity. Instead, CDC spent $517.3 million funding grants focused on objectives like “improving neighborhood grocery stores” and “promoting better sidewalks and street lighting.”

Socialized Medicine Brought to Its Knees By…the Flu?

Including a system of global budgets as part of a transition to single payer would leave hospitals with little financial flexibility to cope with a sudden surge of patients. Sanders’s Senate version of single-payer legislation does not include such a payment mechanism, but the House single-payer bill does. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other liberal think-tanks believe the concept, which provides hospitals lump-sum payments to cover the facilities’ entire operating budget, can help reduce health-care costs.

But in its May 2019 report on single payer, the Congressional Budget Office noted that consistently slow growth of global budget payments in Britain’s National Health Service has “created severe financial strains on the health care system.” And how: Rising hospital bed occupancy rates have created longer wait times in emergency rooms, with patients stuck on gurneys for hours. In one example of its annual “winter crisis,” two years ago the NHS postponed 55,000 surgeries due to capacity constraints, with one ER physician apologizing for “Third World conditions of the department due to overcrowding.”

A British health system barely able to cope with a predictable occurrence like a winter flu outbreak seems guaranteed to crumble in the face of a major pandemic. Voters lured by the siren song of socialism should bear that in mind as they ponder news of the coronavirus and Sanders’ “Medicare for All.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

No, $400 in Routine Health Care Costs is Not a Reason to Socialize Medicine

Sometimes, even heated discussions on Twitter can bring both light and heat by illuminating policy discussions. On Wednesday evening, Elizabeth Bruenig wrote a since-deleted tweet, using her transition from a writing position at the Washington Post to one at The New York Times to argue for single-payer health-care system:

Vance made a compelling point on policy, but one that conflated two issues. I wholeheartedly agree with his position on wanting to make coverage portable. But I don’t believe that a movement to de-link health coverage from employment means the government should pay for the health costs of comparatively affluent individuals.

Need for Portability

In her tweet, Bruenig admitted her period of uninsurance came from switching jobs. As a mother of two, including a newborn, Bruenig quite likely—and understandably—arranged some time between her two positions to spend with her young children.

On that front, I agree with both Bruenig and Vance about the good policy reasons to move away from individuals obtaining health coverage from their employers. As I outlined in prior writings, much of the problem of pre-existing conditions comes from our employer-based health insurance system: When you lose your job, you lose your coverage, which causes understandable worry for employees who have pre-existing conditions.

Making health coverage portable would allow individuals to take their insurance from job to job. This change would eliminate the friction people like Bruenig face when they’re between jobs, and greatly reduce (but not eliminate) the problem of pre-existing conditions, because people who develop such conditions during their working careers would own their own coverage, purchased before they became ill. The Trump administration has taken big strides on that front, publishing a regulation that will allow individuals—not their employers—to select and own their own health coverage, while still receiving an employer subsidy to cover some or all of the cost of their premiums.

However, people on the left talk about making health coverage portable not by giving power to individuals but by giving power to government. To borrow a medical metaphor, most liberals and socialists focus on the symptom (pre-existing conditions) rather than the underlying disease (lack of portable insurance). They favor either government regulation regarding pre-existing conditions, which encourages people to wait until they become sick to buy insurance, or in Bruenig’s case, an entirely government-run system.

Affordability for Individuals—And Taxpayers

While I agree with both Bruenig and Vance on the need to improve coverage portability (even if I disagree with the former on the way to go about it), I disagree in this instance about the separate question of who should pay for those costs.

But context matters, and in this case, the context looks quite different. Bruenig’s husband Matt also works; a former attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, he heads the People’s Policy Project, a socialist think-tank. As a result, their family has a second source of income, and another source of employer-based health insurance. (While Bruenig referenced health bills for her children, she didn’t say that her children faced an insurance gap. Given that context, I assume, but do not know for certain, that her husband’s insurance covers her children.)

Consider also the most recent breakdown of IRS tax filing data by income. As of 2017, households with adjusted gross income exceeding $97,870 represented the top quintile (i.e., top 20 percent) of filers, and households with adjusted gross income exceeding $145,135 represented the top 10 percent of filers. Bruenig and her husband almost certainly exceed the threshold to put themselves in the top 20 percent, and quite possibly the top 10 percent as well. Do I believe someone with that kind of income should receive government assistance for health insurance costs? In a word, no.

I haven’t yet completed my tax returns for 2019, but based on my paperwork compiled to date, I expect to declare just over $100,000 in income from my business last year. Of course, because I run my own business, I have to pay my own health insurance premiums. And my age (I’m roughly ten years older than Bruenig) means I pay more in premiums for Obamacare exchange coverage than she would if she bought temporary insurance there—and I do it month after month, not just when I have a gap between jobs.

In short, the Twitter mob calling me an “elite” for my tone and comments about savings ignore the fact that, based upon their station in life, Bruenig and her husband qualify on that front too. Unlike them, however, I don’t believe the federal government has a place subsidizing my insurance costs.

A Question of Priorities

I’ll give the last word to a Democrat: Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer. As I mentioned in my book, in 2009, Hoyer, then as now the House majority leader, took to the House floor to make this compelling statement about entitlement spending and federal priorities:

At some point in time, my friends, we have to buck up our courage and our judgement and say, if we take care of everybody, we won’t be able to take care of those who need us most. That’s my concern. If we take care of everybody, irrespective of their ability to pay for themselves, the Ross Perots of America, frankly, the Steny Hoyers of America, then we will not be able to take care of those most in need in America. [Emphasis added.]

I agree with both Vance and Bruenig on the need to make health coverage more portable. But on the separate question of who pays, and saving scarce taxpayer resources for those who need them most, I stand with Hoyer.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.