Beyond Obamacare: Universalism and Health Care in the Twenty-first Century
By A. W. Gaffney
New Politics, Summer 2014
Among those working towards more fundamental health care change (for instance, as I’ll discuss below, a single-payer system), an assessment of the overall impact of the ACA is a frequent cause for disagreement. Is the law a (possibly wobbly) step in the right direction to be embraced and expanded, a harmful compromise to be denounced and discarded, or something in between? My own sense here is that global assessments are problematic and not that helpful: the massive law does many different things for many different people, and so is better dissected (and criticized) with respect to its specific effects and shortcomings rather than rejected or championed en toto.
Now if eliminating the problem of uninsurance was our only goal, it seems that the ACA would be at least be a clear step in the right direction. Unfortunately, however, there is another phenomenon that has been evolving for some time, that the ACA neither created nor fixed but to some extent codifies, and which confers a highly inegalitarian element to our health care system: underinsurance. Underinsurance is often defined as having insurance but still having substantial out-of-pocket costs for medical care (i.e. greater than 10 percent of family income after premiums); it’s clearly a growing problem, and it is by no means eliminated by the ACA. The plans on the exchanges, for instance, incorporate high levels of cost sharing, or copays, deductibles, and coinsurance. They are graded into four metallic tiers based on their actuarial value (i.e. the percent of your health care expenses that insurance covers), beginning at a paltry 60 percent for the “bronze plans.” Putting aside the deeply inegalitarian concept of dividing a population into different grades of metal (the allusion to Plato’s Republic has somehow not yet been made), such plans fulfill the long-held concern of health policy “experts” that patients need more “skin in the game” (i.e. cost exposure), such that they don’t whimsically procure medically unnecessarily procedures and diagnostic studies. Families will be subject to as much as $12,700 annually in additional out-of-pocket costs for health care (after premiums are paid) to keep the dreaded “moral hazard” of “free care” at bay.
Putting aside what happens to the level of strictly defined “underinsurance,” I would argue that there is a larger problem on the rise, which one might call “malinsurance,” namely insurance that compromises the physical and economic health of the bearer. Malinsurance encompasses an even broader scope of problematic insurance plans: insurance where the price of the premiums impinges on a reasonable standard of living; insurance with unequal and inferior coverage of services, drugs, or procedures; insurance with “cost sharing” that forces individuals to decide between health care and other necessities; insurance with inadequate and inequitable access to providers or facilities; and insurance that insufficiently protects against financial strain in the case of illness.
Today, many (if not most) of us could in some ways be considered underinsured, while most (or maybe all) of us might be considered malinsured. This will, unfortunately, remain the case in coming years, even with the full and unimpeded enforcement of the ACA.
Moving Forward: A Single-Payer Solution?
A “single-payer system” is probably the best-studied alternative for the United States. Conceptually, it is quite simple: national health insurance, with a single entity (the government) providing health insurance for the country. Its core principles (as generally agreed upon within the single-payer movement) can be briefly summarized. First, everyone in the country would be covered by national health insurance. Second, the system wouldn’t impose “cost sharing,” so health care would be free at the point of care, with underinsurance thereby eliminated (assuming an adequate level of funding). Third, it would drastically reduce spending on health care administration and bureaucracy through elimination of the fragmented multi-payer system, and also through the global budgeting of hospitals. It would also contain costs through health care capital planning, and through other measures like direct negotiations with pharmaceutical companies over drug prices. Putting this together, a single-payer system would constitute a markedly egalitarian turn in American health care. Access to health care would be made not only universal but also equal, with free choice of provider and hospital to everyone in the country, provided as a right.
The confluence of several of the following dynamics (and many others) may, for instance, create a political opening for such a project in the coming years.
First, dissatisfaction with our health care system will almost certainly rise, which I think will occur as we become more and more a “copay country,” with high-deductible, high-premium, and narrow-network health plans becoming the new normal. One could imagine considerable public outrage and mobilization against this new commodified status quo, just as there was against corporatized HMOs in the 1990s.
Second, though politics at the federal level may remain inhospitable to the cause for some time, single-payer campaigns at the state government level may provide an opening for the construction of more limited single-payer state systems, while also providing an opportunity for grassroots organizing and movement building that would, in turn, strengthen the larger national campaign.
Third, support for a single-payer system among physicians (which already has majority support in some polls) might be translated into more vocal outrage in coming years. In particular, as patients pay more and more out-of-pocket at the time of care, physicians will increasingly be forced into the role of “merchants of health,” basing medical decisions not only on clinical evidence, but on their patients’ income and wealth. I believe—and deeply hope—that such class-based medicine will be rejected by the profession.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, a broader mobilization against the politics of inequality now seems to be in the making. As it is perceived that the excessive costs of American health care are actually contributing to the problem of inequality—for instance, insofar as high premiums indirectly reduce income or as cost sharing directly consumes a greater portion of already stagnant wages—one can imagine that the drive for a single-payer system might become closely linked with a much larger, and more powerful, political mobilization.
By Don McCanne, MD
As A. W. Gaffney points out in this article, underinsurance or “malinsurance” may drive us to demand single payer as we mobilize against the politics of inequality. The entire article is well worth downloading and reading when you have a free moment.
Note on word usage: Gaffney’s neologism, “malinsurance,” is sometimes used to refer to medical malpractice insurance. To avoid confusion, we should continue to use the already established term, “underinsurance,” as the label for the rapidly expanding menace of inadequate health care coverage.