The priority is still to save Obamacare

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
SouthCoastToday, September 16, 2017

Before supporters of universal health coverage get all wrapped up debating a single-payer system, they need to focus on a dire threat to the Affordable Care Act likely to come up for a vote in the Senate before the end of the month.

The latest repeal bill is an offering from Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., that would tear apart the existing system and replace it with a block grant to the states. Block grants — flows of money for broad purposes with few strings attached — are a patented way to evade hard policy choices. All the tough decisions are kicked down to state capitals, usually with too little money to achieve the ends the block grant is supposed to realize.

This is a matter of urgency because the authority the Senate has to pass Obamacare repeal with just 51 votes expires on Sept. 30. So if the bill comes up, it would likely hit the floor in the last week of this month. All who care about the expansion of health care coverage need to focus their energies on defeating this latest attack on Obamacare. However we eventually arrive at universal coverage, which we must, it will be far easier to get there by building on the ACA.

And assuming the latest repeal effort fails, last week’s push for a single-payer system could come to be seen as a useful initiative provided that “Medicare for All,” as its supporters like to call it, is treated as a goal, not a litmus test. Defining the left pole of the health care debate is helpful, in part because it shows how fundamentally moderate Obamacare is. It is not, as many conservatives have claimed, anything close to a socialist scheme.

And for those whose objective is single-payer, there are many options available that could gradually open the way for it. As Medicare for All’s leading advocate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., noted in an underappreciated tweet in July: “In the short-term, to improve the Affordable Care Act, we should have a public option in 50 states and lower the Medicare age to 55.” Many progressives and moderates who favor universal coverage but are not yet sold on single-payer would embrace options of this sort. Such measures would help a lot of people immediately and make any move to single-payer less disruptive.…

This column by E.J. Dionne is important because it represents the current most prevalent view on health care reform, written by an intelligent, highly respected journalist with great credibility and uncompromising ethics. We need to listen to him.

The more immediate issue that Dionne discusses is the cruel Graham/Cassidy proposal that would take health care away from millions of people. Since action on this bill is imminent, he calls for focusing our energies on defeating it. He is right. The bill needs to be defeated.

The larger issue here is that he demonstrates where the progressive/liberal camp is headed on long term reform. He describes single payer Medicare for all as the left pole of the health care debate, showing “how fundamentally moderate Obamacare is” in comparison. He then mentions what we are hearing from a multitude of reform advocates – that “there are many options available.” He then dials in on the dual option that has now become so prevalent in the national reform dialogue: “we should have a public option in 50 states and lower the Medicare age to 55,” even quoting Bernie Sanders as the authoritative source for this concept.

It has been repeated so many times that a Medicare buy-in and a public option will lead to single payer that it has become a meme. Everyone knows it’s true, well… just because it is.

A Medicare buy-in would have almost no resemblance to the existing traditional Medicare program. It is much more likely that private plans similar to Medicare Advantage plans would be modified to fit a new market, though difficulties would remain in risk pool management, reinsurance, benefit design, and other features that would require the support of Congress, much as they are now supporting the Medicare Advantage plans to give them an advantage over the traditional Medicare program.

A public option would have basically the same problems – creating a plan which will be public in name only but structured like private plans, except that it would be stripped of essential features to avoid giving it an “unfair” advantage over competing private plans. In fact, this is what Congress did with the public option that was part of the Affordable Care Act before it was pulled from the legislation because of Joe Lieberman’s tantrum.

If we follow either or both of these routes we will end up not only with inferior plans but also with none of the efficiencies or benefits of a single payer system. That will then be used as “proof” that single payer cannot work in the United States. Any further transition to single payer would be aborted.

But then there will be other ways we can do it. We’ll just have to turn everything over to the private insurers, except for high risk patients whose care we taxpayers will have to fund. Then we will have the hybrid system which our progressive friends are clamoring for.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but it could happen unless we mobilize the masses.

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