Sunday Dialogue: The Future of Medicare

The New York Times, February 23, 2013

Readers weigh in on problems with the health care program:

Canada’s Medicare program — phased in at the same time as the American version — shows how we can make Medicare simpler and thriftier, while simultaneously upgrading its coverage. Canada’s program covers all Canadians (not just the elderly) under a single public program in each province, and bans co-payments and deductibles.

Patients can choose any doctor and hospital. Cutting out private insurers and the complexity and fragmentation they impose has simplified paperwork for patients, doctors and hospitals. Administrative costs are roughly half United States levels, saving more than $1,000 per capita.

Over all, Medicare spending on the elderly has grown three times faster in the United States than in Canada since 1980, while life expectancy (for the elderly, as for all age groups) has grown faster in Canada. If American Medicare costs had risen at Canadian rates, we’d have saved more than $2 trillion by now, and Medicare’s trust fund would show a healthy surplus.

STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER
DAVID U. HIMMELSTEIN
New York, Feb. 20, 2013

The writers, internists and professors at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, co-founded Physicians for a National Health Program.

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Medicare is headed for bankruptcy because it depends largely on open-ended fee-for-service payment of almost any services providers choose to deliver, at prices mainly determined by the providers. Compounding the problem, most providers act like independent businesses seeking to increase their income, regardless of whether they are for-profit or investor-owned.

An effective Medicare fix would require a new payment system that prospectively pays providers for comprehensive care at a rate set by a single public payer. It would also need a not-for-profit medical care system based on multispecialty doctor groups that pay physicians by salary, thus minimizing incentives to deliver duplicative or unnecessary care.

The new system would have to be mandatory for all citizens, including legislators, and it would have to be financed by a progressive, earmarked health care tax.

Obviously, such reform would be slow and difficult, but so would any other change that threatened vested interests. All reform will depend on an aroused public opinion.

ARNOLD S. RELMAN
Tucson, Feb. 21, 2013

The writer is professor emeritus of medicine and social medicine at Harvard Medical School and a former editor in chief of The New England Journal of Medicine.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/opinion/sunday/sunday-dialogue-the-fut…

At a time when Congress and the Obama administration are contemplating a reduction in Medicare spending as a means of paring down our national budget deficit, it is important to remind the nation of the beneficial changes that we could be making to the Medicare program that would bring affordable, high quality care to everyone under a single payer Medicare budget that we could afford. The messages of Steffie Woolhandler, David Himmelstein and Arnold Relman need to drown out the messages of those who would send Medicare down the wrong path.