The Tough Cost-Benefit Choices Facing Policymakers Regarding Coronavirus

Right now, the United States, like most of the rest of the world, faces two critical, yet diametrically opposed, priorities: Stopping a global pandemic without causing a global economic depression.

Balancing these two priorities presents tough choices—all else equal, revitalizing the economy will exacerbate the pandemic, and fighting the pandemic will worsen economic misery. Yet, as they navigate this Scylla and Charybdis, some policymakers have taken positions contrary to their prior instincts.

In his daily press briefing Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) discussed the false choice between the economy and public health. He made the following assertions:

My mother is not expendable, your mother is not expendable, and our brothers and sisters are not expendable, and we’re not going to accept the premise that human life is disposable, and we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life. The first order of business is to save lives, period. Whatever it costs….

If you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy then it’s no contest. No American is going to say accelerate the economy at the cost of human life because no American is going to say how much a life is worth.

On this count, Cuomo is flat wrong. Entities in both the United States and elsewhere—including within his own state government—put a dollar figure on human life on a regular basis.

Rationing on Cost Grounds Already Happens

Consider the below statement describing the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), a British institution that determines coverage guidelines for the country’s National Health Service (NHS). NICE uses the quality-adjusted life year (QALY) formula, which puts a value on human life and then judges whether a new treatment exceeds its “worth” to society:

As a treatment approaches a cost of £20,000 [about $24,000 at current exchange rates] per QALY gained over existing best practice, NICE will scrutinize it closely. It will consider how robust the analysis relating to its cost- and clinical-effectiveness is, how innovative the treatment is, and other factors. As the cost rises above £30,000 [about $36,000] per QALY, NICE states that ‘an increasingly stronger case for supporting the technology as an effective use of NHS resources’ is necessary.

Entities in the United States undertake similar research. The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) also performs cost-effectiveness research using the QALY metric. The organization’s website notes that “the state of New York has used [ICER] reports as an input into its Medicaid program of negotiating drug prices.” In other words, Cuomo’s own administration places a value on human life when determining what the state’s Medicaid program will and won’t pay for pharmaceuticals.

Cost-Effectiveness Thresholds

Cuomo represents but one example of the contradictions in the current coronavirus debate. Donald Berwick, an official in the Obama administration and recent advisor to the presidential campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), infamously discussed the need to “ration with our eyes open” While many liberals like him have traditionally endorsed rationing health care on cost grounds, few seem willing to prioritize economic growth over fighting the pandemic.

Conversely, conservatives often oppose rationing as an example of government harming the most vulnerable by placing an arbitrary value on human life. Nonetheless, the recent voices wanting to prioritize a return to economic activity over fighting the pandemic have come largely from the right.

The calls to reopen the economy came in part from an Imperial College London study examining outcomes from the pandemic. The paper concluded that an unmitigated epidemic (i.e., one where officials made no attempt to stop the virus’ spread) would cost approximately 2.2 million lives in the United States. Mitigation strategies like social distancing would reduce the virus’ impact and save lives, but would prolong the outbreak—and harm the economy—for more than a year.

The paper’s most interesting nugget lies at its end: “Even if all patients were able to be treated”—meaning hospitals would not get overwhelmed with a surge of patients when the pandemic peaks—“we predict there would still be in the order of…1.1-1.2 million [deaths] in the US.” Based on the Imperial College model, shutting down the economy so as not to let the virus run rampant would save approximately 1 million lives compared to the worst-case scenario.

A Cost of $1 Million Per Estimated Life Saved

Some crude economic math suggests the value a pandemic-inspired economic “pause” might place on human life. Based on a U.S. gross domestic product of approximately $21 trillion, a 5 percent reduction in GDP—which seems realistic, or perhaps even conservative, based on current worldwide projections—would erase roughly $1.05 trillion in economic growth. The Imperial College estimate that mitigation and social distancing measures would save roughly 1 million lives would therefore place the value of each life saved at approximately $1 million.

Of course, these calculations depend in large part on inputs and assumptions—how quickly the virus spreads, whether large numbers of Americans have already become infected asymptomatically, whether already infected individuals gain immunity from future infection, how much the slowdown harms economic growth in both the short and long-term, and many, many more. Other assumptions could yield quite different results.

But if these types of calculations, particularly when performed with varying assumptions and inputs, replicate the results of the crude math above, policymakers likely will sit up and take notice. Given that Britain’s National Health Service makes coverage decisions by valuing life as worth tens of thousands of pounds, far less than millions of dollars, it seems contradictory to keep pursuing a pandemic strategy resulting in economic damage many multiples of that amount for every life saved.

Tough Cost-Benefit Analysis

Unfortunately, lawmakers the world over face awful choices, and can merely attempt to select the least-bad option based on the best evidence available to them at the time. Slogans like “Why put your job over your grandmother?” or “If you worry about the virus, just stay home” belie the very real consequences the country could face.

Consider possible scenarios if officials loosen economic restrictions while the pandemic persists. Some individuals with health conditions could face the prospect of returning to work in an environment they find potentially hazardous, or losing their jobs. Individuals who stay home to avoid the virus, yet develop medical conditions unrelated to the virus—a heart attack, for instance—could die due to their inability to access care, as hospitals become swarmed with coronavirus patients. And on and on.

The president said on Tuesday he would like to start reopening the economy by Easter, a timeline that seems highly optimistic, at best. If by that time the situation in New York City deteriorates to something resembling Italy’s coronavirus crisis—and well it could—both the president and the American people may take quite a different view towards reopening the economy immediately. (And governors, who have more direct power over their states, could decide to ignore Trump and keep state-based restrictions on economic activity in place regardless of what he says.)

Nonetheless, everyone understands that the economy cannot remain in suspended animation forever. Hopefully, better data, more rapid viral testing, and the emergence of potential treatments will allow the United States and the world to begin re-establishing some sense of normalcy, at the minimum possible cost to both human life and economic growth.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

No, Bernie Sanders, Single Payer Wouldn’t Eliminate the Coronavirus Outbreak

On Monday evening, Fox News hosted a town hall with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Dearborn, Michigan, ahead of that state’s Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday. The program began with a question about the ongoing coronavirus situation, and how Sanders would respond to the outbreak.

Sanders criticized President Trump’s handling of the outbreak, specifically the contradictions between some of his public statements and those of government scientists. Sanders then pivoted to suggest that a single payer health care system with “free” care would ameliorate Americans’ concerns:

We will talk I am sure about [single payer]. But when I talk about health care being a human right, and all people having health care, the coronavirus crisis makes that abundantly clear as to why it should be. You’ve got millions of people in this country today who may feel that they have a symptom. But you know what? They cannot afford to go to a doctor.

Sanders believes a single payer system that eliminates patient cost-sharing, like Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), would improve access to care. But consider some recent comments made by British Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. At Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, Corbyn raised the same issue Sanders did—patients in his country unable to access care:

Yesterday, our part-time prime minister finally published the steps that his government will take to tackle the outbreak of the disease. The strategy broadly has our support, but a decade of Tory austerity means that our national health service is already struggling to cope. Bed-occupancy levels are at 94% and hundreds of our most vulnerable people are being treated on trolleys in corridors. What additional funding will our overstretched and underfunded NHS be given to deal with this crisis?

Far from acting as the panacea Sanders claimed in his remarks Monday evening, Corbyn believes the NHS will also leave some coronavirus patients untreated.

As this space has previously noted, British patients pay quite a lot for health care—they just pay for it by waiting, as opposed to out-of-pocket costs. A report released last fall concluded that waiting lists in the NHS have risen by 40 percent in the past five years, and now approaches 4.6 million Britons, or nearly 7 percent of the country’s entire population.

As Corbyn noted in his remarks last Wednesday, funding shortfalls mean that British hospitals already face overcrowding pressures under normal circumstances. Two years ago, an outbreak of the flu caused the postponement of nearly 55,000 operations. Emergency room physicians apologized for “Third World conditions of the department due to overcrowding.” Lack of inpatient beds meant ER patients spent hours on gurneys in hallways waiting to get admitted to the hospital, and ambulances spent hours circling hospitals, waiting to drop off their patients.

The NHS’ “winter crisis” occurs regularly when flu cases spike in Britain. And coronavirus—more virulent than the flu, and with no treatments available at present—represents a potential threat orders of magnitude greater than the NHS’s usual capacity problems.

Britain provides health care to its residents with few out-of-pocket charges. But the nearly 4.6 million Britons on waiting lists have no ability to compel the government to treat them promptly. In other words, Sanders’s claims to the contrary, Britain does not make health care “a human right.” Nor would his own bill make health care a legally enforceable right in the United States.

Both American and British patients end up paying for their care—the former more explicitly, and the latter more implicitly. But the potential queues that will likely materialize at NHS hospitals should the coronavirus spread demonstrate that a single-payer system will not provide a cure-all for American health care.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What John Oliver Didn’t Mention about Single Payer Health Care

During the first episode of this season of “Last Week Tonight,” HBO host John Oliver used his monologue to make the case for the United States to adopt a single-payer health-care system. While Oliver articulated many of the shortcomings of the current system, much of his arguments in favor of a single-payer system missed the mark.

As Oliver noted in his program, whether to adopt single payer represents a debate between the devil one knows and the devil one doesn’t. Skeptics of single payer have the advantage of inertial bias—that is, people may not want to give up what they currently have.

On the other hand, supporters of single payer can characterize the future however they like—even if it doesn’t always line up with the facts. That dynamic has allowed supporters to frame single-payer health-care as “Medicare for All,” even though the legislation introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would abolish the current Medicare program.

In his program, Oliver acknowledged some of the trade-offs associated with a move to a government-financed health-care system. But he also minimized others, and failed to explain some of the fundamental flaws in Sanders’ approach.

Cost Explosion

Oliver’s segment attempted to tackle the three primary critiques of a single-payer system: It will cost too much; lead to lines and waiting lists for care; and undermine individual choice. On the cost front, Oliver noted that estimates will vary as to whether the Sanders bill will lead to an increase in overall health-care spending. After admitting that the bill could either reduce health spending or cost “a f-ck of a lot more,” Oliver basically threw up his hands, calling the exact amount of spending under the new system unknowable.

On this front, Oliver didn’t analyze why health costs would likely rise under single payer. He mentioned (correctly) that Sanders’s bill would essentially abolish all premiums, deductibles, and co-payments for health care in the United States, making the new system much more generous than the current Medicare program, and much more generous than single-payer systems in places like Canada and Great Britain.

But Oliver did not mention four critical words that majorly affect costs: “Induced demand for care.” In other words, because Sanders’ legislation would make all health care “free” to patients, they would demand much more of it. According to the Urban Institute, a liberal think-tank, a single-payer system that eliminated cost-sharing would result in nearly $1 trillion more in health spending per year than a single-payer system that retained a system of co-pays and deductibles roughly equivalent to Obamacare’s Gold health insurance plans.

Along with many liberals, Oliver views eliminating cost-sharing as a feature of Sanders’ single-payer proposal. But at containing the costs of such a system, it represents a major bug—one Oliver never acknowledged.

Waiting Lists

Oliver did concede that waiting lists for care exist in other countries’ single-payer systems. However, he contended that patients wait primarily for non-emergency care, using knee replacements as an example. (Many patients wouldn’t call the concept of waiting nearly 10 months for a knee replacement—the average wait in Canada for an orthopedic procedure—a non-urgent matter.) He also didn’t point out that 4.56 million individuals in Britain—roughly 7 percent of that country’s population—were on waiting lists for care as of last fall, an increase of roughly 40 percent in the past five years.

Oliver’s discussion of waiting lists also missed a critical point: Sanders’s legislation would go further than other countries with single-payer systems, because it would prohibit individuals from purchasing private health insurance. Canadian and British patients who object to government waiting lists can purchase private coverage, and obtain care via that route.

Under Sanders’s proposal, American patients would not have that choice: They could only opt-out of the single payer system by paying for their treatment entirely in cash. Because not even a family making several hundred thousand dollars per year could afford the full costs of a heart transplant or chemotherapy, the vast majority of Americans would have no choice but to wait for care until the government system got around to treating them.

Choice

That brings up Oliver’s discussion of choice, and whether taking choice away matters. He points out—rightly—that many Americans do not have a substantive choice of either insurers or doctors, because their employers control the former, and by definition the latter.

But it doesn’t require the federal government taking over the entire health-care system to solve this problem, and give Americans a true choice among insurance plans and doctors. I have pointed out on many occasions the ways the Trump administration has acted to make coverage more portable, so that individuals, not employers, and not the federal government, choose the coverage options they prefer.

Oliver talks about the choices some patients currently face: whether to seek treatment they cannot pay for, or rationing medicines based on cost grounds. But patients would face similar choices under a government-run system—just for different reasons.

Oliver acknowledged the likelihood of waiting lists under a single-payer system, as have other supporters. For instance, the head of the People’s Policy Project has argued that costs won’t rise under single payer because “there is still a hard limit to just how much health care can be performed because there are only so many doctors and only so many facilities.” In other words, people will seek care, but not be able to obtain it.

In such circumstances, people won’t have a “choice” at all. Because they cannot purchase private insurance to cover treatments the government plan does not, they can either wait for care or they can…wait for care. That’s not just not giving patients choices, it’s harming patients by prohibiting them from buying the insurance they want to buy with their own money.

Towards the end of the segment, Oliver revealed his own bias against giving American patients any choices. After a clip of former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s claim that “I trust Americans to make that right choice” on health care, Oliver responded to laughs: “Okay, well, hold on there. You trust Americans to make the right choice? You know Americans choose to drink Bud Light, right?”

Even as he tries to rebut conservative claims that single-payer would undermine Americans’ choices, Oliver admits that he doesn’t really want to give Americans a choice at all. He would rather use government to impose his beliefs on others, and force them to comply.

At minimum, Oliver’s program acknowledged the very real trade-offs associated with a single-payer health-care system. But had he explained those trade-offs fully, the American people would understand why single payer would result in adverse consequences to both our health-care system and our economy as a whole.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

Unanswered Questions on Single Payer

This month’s Democratic presidential debate will likely see a continued focus on the single-payer health care proposal endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. But for all the general discussion — and pointed controversy — over single payer at prior debates, many unanswered questions remain. The moderators should ask Sanders and Warren about the specific details of their legislation, such as:

►Section 901(A) of the bill states that “no benefits shall be available under Title XVIII of the Social Security Act” — i.e., Medicare. And an analyst with the liberal Urban Institute has said that “you can call (the bill) many things — from ambitious to unrealistic. But please don’t call it Medicare.” Why do you insist on calling your proposal “Medicare for All” when it would bear little resemblance to the Medicare program and, in fact, would abolish it outright?

►You have claimed that single payer will make health care a human right. But the bill itself does not guarantee access to a doctor — it only guarantees that patients will have their care paid for if they can find a doctor or hospital willing to treat them. In fact, in 2005, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that “access to a waiting list is not access to health care,” because patients in that country’s single-payer system could not access care in a timely fashion. Why are you promising the American people access to care when your bill falls short of that promise?

►The Urban Institute estimated that a similar single-payer plan would raise national health care spending by $719.7 billion a year, because abolishing cost-sharing (e.g., deductibles, copayments, etc.) will increase demand for care. But the People’s Policy Project called Urban’s estimates “ridiculous,” because “there is still a hard limit to just how much health care can be performed because there are only so many doctors.” Which position do you agree with — the Urban Institute’s belief that individuals consuming more “free” health care will cause spending to rise, or the position that spending will not increase because at least some people who demand care will not be able to obtain it?

►Countries like Canada and Great Britain, both of which have single-payer health care systems, permit individuals to purchase private insurance if they wish — and many Canadians and Brits choose to do so. Why would you go beyond Canada, Britain and other countries to make private health insurance “unlawful” — and do you believe taking away individuals’ private insurance can pass constitutional muster with the Supreme Court?

►Four years ago, your Senate colleague Robert Menendez, D-N.J., was indicted for accepting nearly $1 million in gifts and favors from a Florida ophthalmologist. Menendez had tried to help that ophthalmologist — who was eventually convicted on 67 counts of defrauding Medicare — in a billing dispute with federal officials. Given this ethically questionable conduct by one of your own colleagues regarding the Medicare program, why does your legislation include no new provisions fighting fraud or corruption, even as it vastly expands the federal government’s power and scope?

►You have criticized President Donald Trump for his supposed attempts to “sabotage” the exchanges created under President Barack Obama’s health care law. How, then, would you stop a future Republican president from sabotaging a single-payer system when your legislation would vest more authority in the federal government than President Trump has?

Once Warren and Sanders finish answering these questions, the American people will likely recognize that, the senators’ claims to the contrary notwithstanding, single payer doesn’t represent a good answer for our health care system at all.

This post was originally published at USA Today.

How Socialized Medicine Will Lead to Waits for Care

Recently, a liberal think-tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP), issued a policy paper that promised “the truth” on waiting times in government-run health systems. If you want the truth about the issue, however, you’ll have to wait a long time for it if you choose to rely on CAP’s disingenuous analysis.

The CAP report cherry-picks facts to try to make an argument that a single-payer health-care system won’t result in rationing of health care. Unfortunately, however, even supporters of single payer have admitted that government-run care will increase waiting times for care.

Misleading Analysis

CAP’s paper starts out by criticizing President Trump and other conservative groups, who have asserted that a single-payer system would lead to “massive wait times for treatments and destroy access to quality care,” as Trump stated in his recent executive order on Medicare. CAP calls these assertions “false,” and then claims:

Patients in peer nations generally have similar or shorter wait times than patients in the United States for a variety of services, refuting the argument that universal coverage would necessarily result in longer wait times in the future. [Emphasis added.]

The above sentence, like the rest of the paper, uses clever semantic wordplay to obscure the issue. CAP claims that universal coverage wouldn’t necessarily result in longer wait times, but Trump and the right-leaning groups have criticized one specific form of universal coverage—single payer, in which the government serves as the sole funder of health care. (CAP repeats those misleading tactics by referencing the impact of prior coverage expansions in the United States, many of which used private insurers and none of which directly equate to a universal, government-funded health system.)

Of the paper’s four “peer nations” with universal coverage systems—Australia, France, Germany, and Sweden—only Australia and Sweden have government-run insurance plans. By contrast, France and Germany rely on private insurers to implement their universal coverage systems.

While it includes other systems without single-payer coverage in its analysis, CAP specifically excludes Britain’s National Health Service, known for its waiting times and rationed access to care. CAP claimed to omit the NHS in its analysis because “no candidate currently running for president is proposing nationalizing health care providers” a la the British model—a true enough statement, but a self-serving one.

If CAP included non-government-funded systems in its analysis, it certainly should have included the government-funded NHS. That it did not suggests the analysts wanted to “rig” the paper’s outcomes by relying solely on favorable examples.

Biggest Waiting Times to the North

The CAP paper’s most deliberate omission comes in the form of our neighbor to the north: Canada. The paper examined four metrics of access to care, based on data from an analysis by the (liberal) Commonwealth Fund of 11 countries’ health systems. Given the shabby results Canada’s health system showed on health care access, it seems little wonder that the leftists at CAP failed to disclose these poor outcomes in their paper:

  • Patients who reported they saw a doctor or nurse on the same or next day the last time they needed care: Canada ranked in a tie for last, with 43% agreeing. (The United States had 51% who agreed.)
  • Doctors who reported that patients often experience difficulty getting specialized tests like CT or MRI scans: Canada ranked third from last, with 40% agreeing. (The United States had 29% who agreed.)
  • Patients who reported they waited two months or longer for a specialist appointment: Canada ranked last, with 30% agreeing. (The United States had only 6% who agreed.)
  • Patients who reported they waited four months or longer for elective surgery: Canada ranked last, with 18% agreeing. (The United States had only 4% who agreed.)

As I discuss in my book, Canada’s health system suffers from myriad access problems, based on other metrics from Commonwealth Fund studies that CAP chose not to mention in their paper:

  • The second-lowest percentage of patients (34%) who said it was easy to receive after-hours care without going to the emergency room;
  • The lowest percentage of patients (59%) who said they often or always receive an answer the same day when calling the doctor’s office about a medical issue;
  • The highest percentage of patients (41%) using the emergency room; and
  • The highest percentage of patients (29%) waiting four or more hours in the emergency room.

With results like that, little wonder that the liberals at CAP didn’t want to highlight what single-payer health care would do to our health system.

Socialists Admit Care Rationing Ahead

That said, some socialist supporters of single payer have conceded that the new system will limit access to care. As I noted last year, the socialist magazine Jacobin said the following about one analysis of single payer:

[The study] assumes utilization of health services will increase by 11 percent, but aggregate health service utilization is ultimately dependent on the capacity to provide services, meaning utilization could hit a hard limit below the level [the study] projects.

Translation: People will demand additional care under single payer, but there won’t be enough doctors and hospitals to meet the demand, therefore resulting in waiting times and rationed access to care.

Lest one consider this admission an anomaly, the People’s Policy Project called a recent Urban Institute study estimating the costs of single payer “ridiculous” and “unserious,” in large part because of its “comical assumption” about increased demand for care: “There is still a hard limit to just how much health care can be performed because there are only so many doctors and only so many facilities.” Again, socialists claim that single payer won’t bust the budget, in large part because people who seek care will not be able to obtain it.

With analysts from the right and the socialist left both admitting that single payer will lead to rationed health care, CAP can continue to claim that waiting times won’t increase. But the best response to their cherry-picked and misleading analysis comes in the form of an old phrase: Who are you going to believe—me, or your lying eyes?

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The “Other” Election Debate about Single-Payer Health Care

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: There’s a national election going on, and single-payer health care is one of the prime points of contention. It’s not what you think.

Voters in Great Britain head to the polls on Dec. 12 in the country’s third general election in just more than four years. The ongoing Brexit debate, about whether or how Britain will leave the European Union, necessitated the early election. With his Brexit agreement with the European Union bogged down in Parliament, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson felt the need to go to the country, to obtain a mandate to push the deal through.

But health care has also taken a prime place in the campaign. The Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, have raised the specter of the Conservatives “putting the National Health Service up for sale” to reach a post-Brexit trade agreement with the United States.

The issue of the NHS’s status in a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement came up during President Trump’s state visit to Britain in June. In a press conference with then-Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump originally said “everything with a trade deal is on the table,” only to walk those comments back one day later. With the president due back in London on Tuesday for a NATO summit, and Labour trailing in the polls only a week before election day, Corbyn will doubtless make the issue a focal point of Trump’s visit.

Drug Pricing Issues

Last week, a series of government documents leaked that summarized preliminary trade discussions between American and British negotiators. Corbyn waved around heavily edited versions of the documents at his first debate with Johnson earlier this month. Government officials had redacted large swathes of the documents, to preserve the sensitive nature of the trade talks, but those discussions escaped into public view via the unauthorized leak.

The leaked documents confirm that drug pricing remains a prime point of contention regarding a U.S.-U.K. trade deal. One document, summarizing a series of meetings held in July, includes a lengthy section entitled “Intellectual Property: Patents and Pharmaceuticals.”

Britain’s Channel Four reported in October that two linked issues drive the talks. First, American negotiators prefer the United States’s longer period of data exclusivity as part of any Anglo-American trade agreement. This policy would seek to preserve incentives for innovation, allowing manufacturers to maintain their exclusive intellectual property for longer periods of time.

Britain Wants to Keep Rationing Health Care

Second, the American side “want[s] to remove the UK’s ability to block American drugs not deemed ‘value for money.’” The BBC notes that Britain’s National Health Service relies on the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) “on what offers the best benefits for patients balanced against value for money:”

The NICE regime, introduced 20 years ago, is seen as a great success in helping the NHS strike realistic pricing deals. A recent deal for the cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi was hailed by health leaders in England as a big win for the system, with the American manufacturer Vertex, having initially refused to bring down its price, eventually signing up.

However, the BBC neglected to mention that, as part of its “negotiations” with the manufacturer Vertex, NICE denied thousands of British patients access to Orkambi for more than three years, because the drug exceeded cost limits set by the government body.

It seems somewhat ironic that in October, a spokesman for Britain’s Department for International Trade told Channel Four that the British government “could not agree to any proposals on medicines pricing” that would “reduce clinician and patient choice.” For the past three years, patients had no choice for accessing Orkambi—bureaucrats called the drug too expensive, therefore British cystic fibrosis patients could not receive it.

End Foreign Freeloading

Britain’s drug pricing policies cost American and British patients alike. British patients pay when they cannot get access to treatments the government deems too expensive, and their health suffers as a result. And American patients pay when Britain, like other European nations, free rides on American innovation—allowing U.S. consumers to pay far more for pharmaceuticals, absorbing a disproportionate share of drugs’ research and development costs.

U.S. House Speaker Pelosi and others have suggested importing socialist-style price controls to the United States to “solve” the free-rider problem—a variation of the “If you can’t beat them, join them” approach. But a better solution would involve American negotiators taking up the issue of foreign freeloading with other governments as part of trade talks—the exact policy pursued as part of the U.S.-U.K. discussions.

Trump’s visit to London so close to Britain’s election has prompted speculation about its political ramifications. Johnson has warned Trump not to endorse his re-election bid, fearing it may only encourage Britons to vote for his Labour opponents instead.

But on policy, the United States absolutely should work to stop foreign free-riding over pharmaceutical prices. Moreover, we would do the British people no small favor if, in the process of ending that free-riding, we could stop that country’s health care system from denying patients access to life-saving treatments that a government board deems too costly.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

UK Debate Shows Single Payer’s Shortcomings

This week’s debate featuring candidates for the highest office in the land showed all the problems with single-payer health care. Except the debate took place in Britain, not the United States.

During Tuesday’s debate between the current British prime minister, Conservative Boris Johnson, and the man who wants to replace him, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, both agreed that Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) currently provides poor care to patients. That surprising consensus in an otherwise-contentious debate illustrates why the United States shouldn’t import Britain’s poor quality of care to our shores.

‘Make Sure Nobody Else Goes Through This Pain’

The debate featured a question by a hospital-based physician, who said he “see[s] firsthand the unsustainable pressure on the NHS—elderly patients stuck on trollies in corridors, unacceptably long waiting times for operations.” He asked how the health service can meet future demands, when it arguably doesn’t meet the current patients’ needs.

After calling the NHS a “wonderful and brilliant institution,” Labour’s Corbyn then recounted a heart-rending tale of how it let down one patient just this week:

Yesterday, a woman—friend of mine—died at 6:30 yesterday morning from secondary breast cancer. The day before, she’d gone to hospital, at the recommendation of her GP [general practitioner], in order to get urgent treatment. She waited eight hours. The nurses that were trying to help her were unable to get anyone to see her because they were under such strain and stress. And so she recorded a video saying, ‘Please, in my memory—make sure nobody else goes through this pain.’

Corbyn then concluded by calling for increased spending, claiming that the NHS stands as “one of the most civilized things about this country.” His friend might have objected to that characterization—but thanks to the NHS, she never lived to see Corbyn make his comment.

Waiting Times

Johnson likewise pledged additional funding, but the effects of choices made in the last several years have affected NHS. In a May report, Congressional Budget Office analysts stated that “the relatively slow growth in [payments to hospitals] since 2010 ha[ve] created severe financial strains on the [British] health care system. Provider payment rates have been reduced, many providers have incurred financial deficits, and wait times for receiving care have increased.”

While Corbyn’s comments brought home the personal impact of the NHS’ failures, data compiled by the House of Commons Library (Britain’s version of the Congressional Research Service) demonstrates that stories like the one Corbyn recounted have become far too common.

Charts like those below need very little explanation. A roughly five-fold increase in the number of patients waiting more than four hours in emergency rooms since 2011:

A nearly five-fold increase in the number of patients waiting on trollies in emergency rooms for hours after their doctors decided to admit them as inpatients:

A 40 percent increase in the number of people on the NHS waiting list, such that it now totals 4.56 million people, or nearly 7 percent of the entire British population of approximately 67.5 million:

A majority of NHS trusts breaking the target that a patient should wait “only” 18 weeks (i.e., four and a half months) for treatment led by a consultant (i.e., a medical specialist):

More than three-quarters of NHS trusts breaking the target that patients should receive their first treatment for “urgent” cancer within 62 days (i.e., two months) of their GP referral:

All this poor performance—people waiting and waiting for care—comes as the number of doctors and nurses within the NHS has increased over the past decade (and in the case of physicians, has increased by nearly 20 percent).

Fundamental Dilemma

Johnson and Corbyn can pledge all the additional money for the NHS they want. Their promises won’t solve the health service’s fundamental problem—and may end up bankrupting Britain in the process.

Britain’s pledge of an NHS “free at the point of use” creates the problem. People who believe they can receive “free” care over-consume it, with the types of rationing and wait times seen in the past several years the inevitable consequence.

Voters in the United States who tuned into Wednesday’s Democratic debate to see the candidates talk single payer should have spent their time watching Tuesday night’s prime ministerial debate instead. Few who watched that event would come away thinking that single payer would represent anything less than an unmitigated disaster for the American health care.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Analyzing the Gimmicks in Warren’s Health Care Plan

Six weeks ago, this publication published “Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan…For Avoiding Your Health Care Questions.” That plan came to fruition last Friday, when Warren released a paper (and two accompanying analyses) claiming that she can fund her single-payer health care program without raising taxes on the middle class.

Both her opponents in the Democratic presidential primary and conservative commentators immediately criticized Warren’s plan for the gimmicks and assumptions used to arrive at her estimate. Her paper claims she can reduce the 10-year cost of single payer—the amount of new federal revenues needed to fund the program, over and above the dollars already spent on health care (e.g., existing federal spending on Medicare, Medicaid, etc.)—from $34 trillion in an October Urban Institute estimate to only $20.5 trillion. On top of this 40 percent reduction in the cost of single payer, Warren claims she can raise the $20.5 trillion without a middle-class tax increase.

Meet the Radical Technocrat Helping Democrats Sell Single-Payer

If anyone had doubts about the radical nature of Democrats’ health care agenda, they needn’t look further than the second name on the witness list for this Wednesday’s House Ways and Means Committee hearing on single-payer health care: Donald Berwick of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

If that name sounds familiar, it should. In summer 2010, right after Obamacare’s passage, President Obama gave Berwick a controversial recess appointment to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Democrats refused to consider Berwick’s nomination despite controlling 59 votes in the Senate at the time, and he had to resign as CMS administrator at the end of his recess appointment in late 2011.

Berwick’s History of Radical Writings

Even a cursory review of Berwick’s writings explains why Obama’s only option was to push him through with a recess appointment, and why Democrats refused to give Berwick so much as a nomination hearing. As someone who read just about everything he wrote until his nomination—thousands of pages of journal articles, books, and speeches—I know the radical nature of Berwick’s thinking all too well. He believes passionately in a society ruled by a technocratic elite, thinking that a core group of government planners can run the country’s health care system better than individual doctors and patients.

Here is what this doctor believes in, in his own words:

  • Socialized Medicine: “Cynics beware: I am romantic about the National Health Service; I love it. All I need to do to rediscover the romance is to look at health care in my own country.”
  • Control by Elites: “I cannot believe that the individual health care consumer can enforce through choice the proper configurations of a system as massive and complex as health care. That is for leaders to do.”
  • Wealth Redistribution: “Any health care funding plan that is just, equitable, civilized, and humane must—must—redistribute wealth from the richer among us to the poorer and less fortunate.”
  • Shutting Medical Facilities: “Reduce the total supply of high-technology medical and surgical care and consolidate high-technology services into regional and community-wide centers … Most metropolitan areas in the United States should reduce the number of centers engaging in cardiac surgery, high-risk obstetrics, neonatal intensive care, organ transplantation, tertiary cancer care, high-level trauma care, and high-technology imaging.”
  • End of Life Care: “Most people who have serious pain do not need advanced methods; they just need the morphine and counseling that have been available for centuries.”
  • Cost-Effectiveness Rationing of Care: “The decision is not whether or not we will ration care—the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open.”
  • Doctors Putting “The System” over their Patients: “Doctors and other clinicians should be advocates for patients or the populations they service but should refrain from manipulating the system to obtain benefits for them to the substantial disadvantage of others.”
  • Standardized “Cookbook Medicine”: “I would place a commitment to excellence—standardization to the best-known method—above clinician autonomy as a rule for care.”

For those who want a fuller picture of Berwick’s views, in 2010-11 I compiled a nearly 30-page dossier featuring excerpts of his beliefs, based on my comprehensive review of his prior writings and speeches. That document is now available online here, and below.

Where’s the Political Accountability?

Some of Berwick’s greatest admiration is saved for Britain’s National Health Service on the grounds that it was ultimately politically accountable to patients. For instance, Berwick said his “rationing with our eyes open” quote was “distorted,” claiming that

Someone, like your health insurance company, is going to limit what you can get. That’s the way it’s set up. The government, unlike many private health insurance plans, is working in the daylight. That’s a strength.

When running for governor of Massachusetts in 2013, Berwick claimed he “regrets listening to White House orders to avoid reaching out to congressional Republicans.” But that doesn’t absolve the fact that Berwick went to great lengths to avoid the political accountability he previously claimed to embrace.

It also doesn’t answer the significant questions about why Obama waited until after Obamacare’s enactment to nominate Berwick—deliberately keeping the public in the dark about the radical nature of the person he wanted to administer vast swathes of the law.

Thankfully, however, Wednesday’s hearing provides a case of “better late than never.” Republicans will finally get a chance to ask Berwick about the extreme views expressed in his writings. They will also be able to raise questions about why Democrats decided to give him an official platform to talk about single payer (and who knows what else).

This post was originally published at The Federalist.