By Victor R. Fuchs, Ph.D.
JAMA, June 12, 2020
To simply return to the prepandemic health care system during a presidential election year would be a mistake. This is a time to think more boldly about the future of the US health care system. The health care system is dysfunctional for many individuals in the US; it is too costly, too unequal, and too uncertain in its eligibility and coverage, with an increasing number of uninsured. However, designing and implementing a better health care system will not be easy. In exploring the challenges and difficulties ahead, it is useful to distinguish between those that are primarily technical issues (although these are not exempt from politics) and those that are political obstacles to significant reform.
The technical issues involve 2 main issues: how to raise the nearly $4 trillion each year to pay for US health care; and how to organize and deliver the care and compensate those who provide it.
An important goal of health care reform should be to replace the current byzantine system of premiums, taxes, tax exemptions, deductions, subsidies, and out-of-pocket payments with a much simpler system of financing health care. An equally important goal is to replace the current multiplicity of public and private health insurance programs with 1 universal program that covers everyone from birth to death. Because the US health care system is so large, it would probably be necessary to approach these goals in stages. It is important, however, to realize that the complexity of the current system is one of the main reasons it is so costly, with high administrative expenses.
A few countries find it more feasible to achieve universal coverage through compulsory health insurance administered by insurance companies under close regulation and supervision by the government. The intent and effect of such programs is similar to that achieved by tax-supported public insurance. For historical and political reasons, the US might prefer this approach in contrast to a so-called single-payer system. Regardless of approach, universal systems have proven to be the best way to ensure that everyone has access to care without bankrupting individuals or governments.
Most health policy experts agree that the prepandemic health care system was inefficient. However, there is no consensus as to what delivery system would be better for the US diversity of health plans. The competition among the plans will have several advantages if the plans follow a few general principles. First, the health plans should be private. Government-run health care would not work well for the US for its entire population. Over the past decade, Medicare has become increasingly privatized, with about 35% of its recipients enrolled in private insurance plans. Second, public insurance would pay for everyone to be enrolled in a health plan of their choice, with open enrollment every year for anyone who wants to change plans. Third, the plans would receive a risk-adjusted capitation fee to compensate plans for the differences in the expected use of enrolled populations.
Capitation reimbursement provides incentives to use resources efficiently, unlike fee-for-service reimbursement that provides incentives for overuse. This is not just a theoretical proposition. The Kaiser Permanente Health Plan has been paid per capita for more than 50 years and has seen its enrollment increase to 12 million patients, one-third more than in the Veterans Health Administration care system. Fourth, within that general framework, each health plan should be free to deploy resources as they deem best. Some plans might want to pay physicians a fixed salary; others might want to have productivity incentives for their physicians. Some plans might choose to deploy many nurse practitioners and physician assistants, others might not. Most plans would probably want to emphasize primary care, reserving specialists and subspecialists for patients who need their attention.
Physician-led health plans that receive risk-adjusted capitation payment are in the best position to allocate resources more efficiently and effectively according to judgments about benefits and costs.
Changes in the health care system have always been opposed by many. As Machiavelli observed, proposals for a new order face strong opposition from those who benefit from the old order. This group includes high-income patients who prefer a health care system that caters to their interests and values.
The cost of this system, more than $11 000 per person per year, is tolerable for those with high incomes, but oppressive to most individuals in the US and ruinous for many, leading to missed medicines and bankruptcy.
High-income individuals also prefer US health care research that emphasizes product improvement and ignores cost of care.
Opposition to change will also come from the manufacturers of drugs, devices, and equipment who have made large profits under the old system, and from some physician specialists who have made large incomes.
Most voters do not have high incomes, but another major obstacle is distrust of the government by many in the general population. That sentiment may still be true but may change as current events unfold.
Distrust of the government is difficult to dispel, but it is possible to do so as President Roosevelt proved with his New Deal reforms in the 1930s. Even though it has seemed that major reform of health care would only occur in the wake of a major war, a depression, or large-scale civil unrest that changed the political balance, it now appears that the COVID-19 pandemic may provide the dynamic for major political change. If that occurs, major health care reform will be more attainable.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
For decades, Victor Fuchs has been telling us, “National health insurance will probably come to the United States after a major change in the political climate — the kind of change that often accompanies a war, a depression, or large-scale civil unrest.” He now says, “Even though it has seemed that major reform of health care would only occur in the wake of a major war, a depression, or large-scale civil unrest that changed the political balance, it now appears that the COVID-19 pandemic may provide the dynamic for major political change.”
In the past he has supported government vouchers to purchase private health plans. He apparently still supports competition of private health plans as in the Medicare Advantage program, though he does state, “an important goal is to replace the current multiplicity of public and private health insurance programs with 1 universal program that covers everyone from birth to death,” presumably considering traditional Medicare plus Medicare Advantage health plans to be “1 universal program.” He singles out Kaiser Permanente as an example of a private health plan – a delivery system that would be included in a single payer Medicare for All program anyway.
It looks like we are very close to agreement on the restructuring of the financing system for health care. And we do indeed have a major change in the political climate with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences. Though some are looking for a rapid end to the pandemic and a quick economic recovery, that is not going to happen. As the reality that we are in this for the long haul sinks in, the nation should be ready to move forward with single payer Medicare for All – a stable health care financing system that can withstand war, depression, large-scale civil unrest, or even a catastrophic pandemic.
Stay informed! Visit www.pnhp.org/qotd to sign up for daily email updates.