By Robert H. Frank
The New York Times, July 7, 2017
Lingering uncertainty about the fate of the Affordable Care Act has spurred the California legislature to consider adoption of a statewide single-payer health care system.
Sometimes described as Medicare for all, single-payer is a system in which a public agency handles health care financing while the delivery of care remains largely in private hands.
Discussions of the California measure have stalled, however, in the wake of preliminary estimates pegging the cost of the program as greater than the entire state government budget. Similar cost concerns derailed single-payer proposals in Colorado and Vermont.
Voters need to understand that this cost objection is specious. That’s because, as experience in many countries has demonstrated, the total cost of providing health coverage under the single-payer approach is actually substantially lower than under the current system in the United States. It is a bedrock economic principle that if we can find a way to do something more efficiently, it’s possible for everyone to come out ahead.
By analogy, suppose that your state’s government took over road maintenance from the county governments within it, in the process reducing total maintenance costs by 30 percent. Your state taxes would obviously have to go up under this arrangement.
But if roads would be as well maintained as before, would that be a reason to oppose the move? Clearly not, since the resulting cost savings would reduce your county taxes by more than your state taxes went up. Likewise, it makes no sense to oppose single-payer on the grounds that it would require additional tax revenue. In each case, the resulting gains in efficiency would leave you with greater effective purchasing power than before.
Total costs are lower under single-payer systems for several reasons. One is that administrative costs average only about 2 percent of total expenses under a single-payer program like Medicare, less than one-sixth the corresponding percentage for many private insurers. Single-payer systems also spend virtually nothing on competitive advertising, which can account for more than 15 percent of total expenses for private insurers.
The most important source of cost savings under single-payer is that large government entities are able to negotiate much more favorable terms with service providers. In 2012, for example, the average cost of coronary bypass surgery was more than $73,000 in the United States but less than $23,000 in France.
Despite this evidence, respected commentators continue to cite costs as a reason to doubt that single-payer can succeed in the United States. A recent Washington Post editorial, for example, ominously predicted that budget realities would dampen enthusiasm for single-payer, noting that the per capita expenditures under existing single-payer programs in the United States were much higher than those in other countries.
But this comparison is misleading. In most other countries, single-payer covers the whole population, most of which has only minimal health needs. In contrast, single-payer components of the United States system disproportionately cover population subgroups with the heaviest medical needs: older people (Medicare), the poor and disabled (Medicaid) and returned service personnel (Department of Veterans Affairs).
In short, the evidence is clear that single-payer delivers quality care at significantly lower cost than the current American hybrid system. It thus makes no sense to reject single-payer on the grounds that it would require higher tax revenues. That’s true, of course, but it’s an irrelevant objection.
In addition to being far cheaper, single-payer would also defuse the powerful political objections to the Affordable Care Act’s participation mandate. Polls consistently show that large majorities want people with pre-existing conditions to be able to obtain health coverage at affordable rates. But that goal cannot be achieved unless healthy people are required to join the insured pool. Officials in the Obama administration tried, largely in vain, to explain why the program’s insurance exchanges would collapse in the absence of the participation mandate.
But the logic of the underlying argument is actually very simple. Most people seem able to grasp it if you ask them what would happen if the government required companies to sell fire insurance at affordable rates to people whose houses had already burned down.
No home insurer could remain in business if each policy it sold required it to replace a house costing several hundred thousand dollars. Similarly, no health insurer could remain in business if each of its policy holders generated many thousands of dollars in health care reimbursements each month.
That’s why the lack of a mandate in the alternative plans under consideration means that millions of people with pre-existing conditions will become uninsurable if repeal efforts are successful. An underappreciated advantage of the single-payer approach is that it sidesteps the mandate objection by paying to cover everyone out of tax revenue.
Of course, having to pay taxes is itself a mandate of a sort, but it’s one the electorate has largely come to terms with. Apart from fringe groups that denounce all taxation as theft, most people understand that our entire system would collapse if tax payments were purely voluntary.
The Affordable Care Act is an inefficient system that was adopted only because its architects believed, plausibly, that the more efficient single-payer approach would not be politically achievable in 2009. But single-payer now enjoys significantly higher support than it did then, and is actually strongly favored by voters in some states.
Solid majorities nationwide now favor expansion of the existing single-payer elements of our current system, such as Medicare and Medicaid. Medicaid cuts proposed in Congress have been roundly criticized. Perhaps it’s time to go further: Individual states and, eventually, the entire country, can save money and improve services by embracing single-payer health care.