By David U. Himmelstein, M.D.; Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., M.P.H.; and Adam Gaffney, M.D., M.P.H.
The Nation, Letters, May 17, 2019
To justify sounding a false alarm that doctors’ opposition will torpedo single-payer health-care reform, Mike Konczal turns to a Koch-brothers-funded analysis that claims Medicare for All would either slash doctors’ income and hospital funding or break the bank [“The Score: $5 Trillion Questions,” May 13].
Konczal credulously adopts the Koch study’s underestimate of single-payer savings on insurance overhead. But more important, he (like that study) ignores overwhelming evidence that single-payer would save doctors and hospitals vast amounts on billing, insurance paperwork, and other wasteful tasks that are required by the current byzantine payment system but would be eliminated under single-payer. For instance, a recent Harvard Business School and Duke University study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the average primary-care doctor at an efficient group practice spent $99,581 (and 243 hours) annually on billing. That’s four times what Canadian doctors spend interacting with insurers.
The $75,000 savings in per-doctor billing costs means doctors’ take-home pay could be stable even if their per-patient revenue goes down. It also means they could use the time they currently spend jousting with insurers to deliver (and bill for) more care.
A similar calculus applies to hospitals. At a six-hospital system in Toronto, the equivalent of just 5.5 full-time employees handle all insurance billing and patient collections. A comparable hospital system in the US employs more than 200 people for those tasks. US hospitals spend one-quarter of their budgets on administration, versus 12 percent in Canada. Streamlining hospital administration by paying hospitals global budgets (the way we currently pay fire departments and Canada pays hospitals) would produce major savings, freeing up vast resources for care. Indiscriminately slashing hospital budgets, by contrast, would be neither necessary nor desirable under Medicare for All reform—and the House and Senate bills propose no such thing.
All told, single-payer could save doctors and hospitals about $225 billion annually on billing and bureaucratic costs (in addition to about $220 billion saved on insurance overhead and tens of billions more from streamlining the billing for nursing homes, home-care agencies, etc., and by lowering drug prices), offsetting the costs of providing first-dollar comprehensive coverage to everyone in the nation. Even though Konczal doesn’t understand that, most doctors do. That (and altruism) explains why single-payer is now doctors’ favorite health-care-reform option and 23,000 have joined Physicians for a National Health Program.
Drs. David U. Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler are co-founders of Physicians for a National Health Program, and Dr. Adam Gaffney is the current president of Physicians for a National Health Program.