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 Costs of “Free” Health Care

Libertarian columnist P.J. O’Rourke once famously claimed that “If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free.” A left-of-center think-tank recently confirmed O’Rourke’s assertion. In analyzing several health care proposals, the Urban Institute demonstrated how eliminating patient cost-sharing from a single-payer system would raise total health care spending by nearly $1 trillion per year.

Those estimates have particular resonance given the recent release of a health care “plan” (such as it is) by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Warren’s policy proposals contain myriad gimmicks and rosy scenarios, all designed to hide the obvious fact that one cannot impose a $30 trillion-plus program on the federal government without asking middle-class families to paya lot—for its cost.

The Urban Institute estimates show that a single-payer plan maintaining some forms of patient cost-sharing (i.e., deductibles, co-payments, etc.) seems far more feasible—or less unfeasible—than the approach of Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who promise unlimited “free” health care for everyone. Mind you, I would still oppose such a plan—for its limits on patient choice, economically damaging tax increases, and likelihood of government rationing—but at least it would have the advantage of being mathematically possible. Not so with Sanders’ and Warren’s current approach.

Option 1: An Obamacare-Like Single-Payer Plan

In the October policy paper, several Urban researchers examined the financial effects of various health coverage proposals, including two hypothetical single-payer systems. The first single-payer system would cover all individuals legally present in the United States. Urban modeled this system to cover all benefits required under Obamacare, and fund 80 percent of Americans’ expected health costs per year, equivalent to a Gold plan on the Obamacare exchanges. Americans would still pay the other 20 percent of health spending out-of-pocket.

This proposed “lite” single-payer system would still require massive tax increases—from $1.4-$1.5 trillion per year. But it would actually reduce total health spending by an estimated $209.5 billion compared to the status quo.

This single-payer system generates calculated savings because Urban assumed the plan would pay doctors current rates under the Medicare program, and pay hospitals 115 percent of current Medicare rates. Because Medicare pays medical providers less than private insurers, moving all patients to these lower rates would reduce doctors’ and hospitals’ pay—which could lead to pay and job cuts for health professionals. But in the Urban researchers’ estimates, it would lower health spending overall.

Option 2: ‘Free’ Health Care Costs a Lot of Money

Compare these outcomes to a proposal closely modeled on the single-payer legislation supported by Sanders and Warren. Unlike the first proposal, this “enhanced” single-payer system would cover “all medically necessary care,” with “no premiums or cost-sharing requirements.” It would also enroll all U.S. residents, including an estimated 10.8 million illegally present foreign citizens.

The Urban researchers found that the single-payer plan with no cost-sharing would raise total health spending by $719.7 billion compared to the status quo. Compared to the “single-payer lite” plan, which provides benefits roughly equivalent to Obamacare, eliminating cost-sharing and covering foreign citizens would raise total health spending by $929.2 billion. Moreover, the plan with no cost-sharing requires a tax increase nearly double that of the “single-payer lite” plan—a whopping $2.7-$2.8 trillion per year.

The Urban Institute estimates confirm that making all health care “free,” as Sanders and Warren propose, would cause an enormous increase in the demand for care. This would overwhelm any potential savings from lower payments to doctors and hospitals, meaning the health sector would face a double-whammy, of getting paid less to do more work. These estimates also could underestimate the growth in health spending, because Urban’s researchers did not assume a rise in medical tourism or immigration when calculating the increase in demand for “free” health care.

Socialists’ ‘Solution’: Hold Costs Down by Rationing

Socialist supporters of Sanders’ plan attacked these estimates, claiming that the Urban Institute failed to consider that a single-payer system would ration access to “free” health care. The People’s Policy Project called Urban’s estimates of increased demand “ridiculous,” in part 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.”

Its position echoes that of the socialist magazine Jacobin, which in response to a single-payer study by the Mercatus Center last year admitted that “aggregate health service utilization is ultimately dependent on the capacity to provide services, meaning utilization could hit a hard limit.”

An increase in health spending of nearly $1 trillion per year, and increased waiting times and rationed access to care: either or both of those scenarios represent the costs of “free” health care, based on the words of leftists themselves. The prospect of either scenario should make Americans reject this socialist approach.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.