Pretending Single Payer Health Care Is Easy to Pass Doesn’t Make It Easy

By Jonathan Chait
New York Magazine, Daily Intelligencer, August 16, 2018

The American health care system developed, like a deformed tree, around employer-sponsored insurance as its core feature. This has made it extremely hard to build a single, simple universal system, because it would require moving people out of health care they have into something new, and require turning their premium contributions into taxes.

If you could sit down face to face with every American and calmly talk them through the numbers step by step, you could probably convince them to feeling comfortable giving up employer-sponsored insurance. Since you can’t do that, the only option is passing a bill in a hysterical atmosphere where the insurance industry and conservatives bombard the public with warnings of massive middle-class tax hikes and tens of millions of Americans losing their current insurance to get moved onto a government plan.

If we didn’t have an employer-based system already, it might be politically feasible to build a single-payer system. But the politics of uprooting that deformed tree are extremely imposing. You can read a history of the struggle for universal health care, like Jonathan Cohn’s Sick, or Paul Starr’s Remedy and Reaction, to understand why most liberals (and Democratic elites) believe the growth of the employer system has tragically blocked the political path to single payer.

Those conclusions, built up over decades of experience and polling data, inform the mainstream liberal view of health care. Since it’s just too hard to convince people they’ll be better off paying taxes instead of premiums, and exchanging their current insurance for a government health care plan, the path to universal coverages lies in working around the existing system. Paul Krugman made this case last year, and so did I.

To quote the column of mine… “Yes, in an imaginary, rational world, people could be reassured that Medicare will be as good as what they have, and the taxes will merely replace the premiums they’re already paying. In reality, people are deeply loss-averse and distrustful of politicians.” Krugman doesn’t deny that either. “You’d have to convince most of these people both that they would save more in premiums than they pay in additional taxes, and that their new coverage would be just as good as the old,” he writes… “This might in fact be true, but it would be one heck of a hard sell.”

It’s possible, of course, that this political analysis is wrong, or that it will change one day.

If single-payer advocates can come up with a way to get around the political obstacles in the way of single payer, they should say what they are. (I have seen many such efforts, though none have struck me as persuasive.) More to the point, you’re never going to enact single payer unless you can address the political obstacles.

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Jonathan Chait is correct. The benefits of a well designed, single payer, improved Medicare for all are not in dispute. It is not the policies that are a problem, but rather it is the political obstacles that have prevented us from enacting and implementing such a system.

We are moving again into a debate on the left – the progressives supporting a bona fide single payer Medicare for all system, and the centrists expropriating the Medicare for all rhetoric to support a public option with a Medicare label. The ideologues on the right don’t have to do anything. The left will self-destruct thereby confirming that Chait’s point is correct – the political obstacles are great.

An important point here is that the policy message must remain intact. You do not discard essential policy positions as you sit down to negotiate a compromise, such as supporting the incremental step of enacting a public option with a Medicare label. We did that before.

Although the single payer purists were ejected from the process, the center-left supported a public option, but then in negotiations allowed it to be transformed from a strong public model, as described by Jacob Hacker, into a very weak model even stripped of some of the beneficial features of private commercial insurance just to be sure that it would not be a competitive threat in the private market. Even that was too much, and so the emasculated public option was abandoned. That’s what happens when you compromise on policy.

Incremental steps merely tweak our dysfunctional, inequitable, unaffordable, administratively overburdened system – perpetuating most of the defects that cry out for reform. We basically have the single payer policy right. We do not want to negotiate that away as the center-left did last time.

Although the barriers are political, it is a mistake to make them partisan. That’s obvious when you look at the obstructionism of the Republicans who for years demanded that we replace the Affordable Care Act with their own model that it turns out never really existed. It definitely would be a mistake, as mentioned above, for the Democrats to move forward now with this intra-party divide on single payer Medicare for all versus a Medicare public option for some.

The right understands the well designed single payer model. The recent Mercatus report is an example, even if the single payer concept was modified to try to discredit the concept. They still showed that everyone would be covered with a $2 trillion savings over a decade (though the results would be much more impressive had they accurately analyzed a model such as PNHP’s). Also, in a recent Quote of the Day, two libertarians in separate reports indicated that they too understand the benefits of the single payer model. So we don’t want to change policy, and, on the politics, we want to end partisanship and start communicating better.

But to the really important point in Chait’s article, he says that we are not persuasive in our suggestions on how to get around the political obstacles in the way of single payer. He has a point since we currently do not have a single payer system in spite of a quarter of a century of trying. But what we don’t want to do is to walk away because the political barriers are too great, thereby making that a self-fulfilling prophecy (Chait and Krugman, take note). So how do we get around those barriers?

First, as Chait indicates, is eduction. We must be unrelenting in getting out the word on just what an improved Medicare is all about. As the understanding of the concept increases, coalition and grassroots organizing must be utilized to help spread the word. Polling indicates that these efforts have been effective, but the process is very slow and laborious.

Chait, Krugman and others have acknowledged the clear benefits of the single payer model while they have become somewhat dismissive because of the political challenges. Rather than an expression of pessimism on their part, it seems to me that they are expressing realism with their understanding of how difficult the process is. We certainly understand that as well, as we have lived with this all these years.

Education. Coalitions. Activism. Grassroots organizing. These activities in all of their permutations. Be there and do it. Maybe Chait doesn’t think this is persuasive, but it is what we have, and it can work as those in the civil rights movement have shown us (and Social Security, and Medicare, and the end of the Vietnam war, and so on). We must keep on. As FDR said, “make me do it.”

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