William Hsiao knows more about single payer systems than pretty much any other American. What does he think about ‘Medicare for All’?
By Maura Reynolds
POLITICO, November 25, 2019
Plenty of Americans have opinions about single-payer health systems like “Medicare for All,” and some have even studied them closely. But vanishingly few individuals in the world have actually built one from scratch.
One who has is William Hsiao.
A health care economist now retired from Harvard University, Hsiao designed a national health care system for Taiwan in the 1990s, and helped manage that country’s transition from American-style employer-based insurance to a national single-payer system. He has also designed single-payer reform programs for Cyprus, Colombia and China. And not too long ago, after Vermont voted in 2011 to enact a statewide single-payer system, he worked on what would have been called Green Mountain Care, a project that eventually collapsed because of concerns over financing.
This all gives Hsiao a nearly unique vantage point on the current U.S. debate over Medicare for All. And while he’s a fan of single-payer health care, which he thinks leads both to better health and greater efficiency, he’s a pessimist about its chances to take root in the United States.
The reason? It’s not the economics. It’s the politics.
Given the public’s attachment to doctors and concerns about their own health, Hsiao says there’s a powerful “fear factor” associated with any major change — one easy for opponents to exploit, and hard to overcome. Fans of Medicare for All haven’t yet grappled with the heavy lift of educating the public enough to overcome people’s attachment to the status quo, and the powerful forces that can fan their anxieties.
Opponents of change “have done it before,” he says. “They were very effective in using keywords. The American Medical Association used the words ‘socialized medicine.’ People don’t know what that is. Most Americans do not like ‘socialized’ anything. But if you told most Americans that public schools are ‘socialized education,’ they would be really surprised. Fortunately, we had public schools set up before any powerful interest groups were formed.”
Hsiao was born in China, came to live in the United States when he was 12, and eventually became an insurance actuary. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he worked for the Social Security Administration, eventually becoming the deputy chief actuary. In that position, Hsiao worked to implement not only the program’s retirement benefits but also the then-new Medicare and Medicaid health care programs for the elderly and disabled. Hsiao says that work convinced him of the value of social insurance and that government has a critical role in providing safety net programs for its citizens.
In recent years, Hsiao, now 83, has consulted with Sen. Bernie Sanders on his Medicare for All plan, and also supports Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s version. But his reality-check prediction is that it will take two more election cycles, at least, before the political groundwork for Medicare for All will be laid.
With powerful lobbies like insurers, hospitals and drug companies dug in against such plans, he points to two other forces that will need to play key roles: big employers, which he sees as nearing an inflection point where they will insist on a better system; and doctors, who are increasingly being paid as salaried employees, which is changing their views of private insurance. “When the United States has a majority of its doctors being on salary, I predict American doctors will come out and support Medicare for All,” Hsiao said.
Hsiao spoke to Politico senior editor Maura Reynolds from his office in Cambridge, Mass., about what the challenges are, why he believes the change needs to happen, and how we might actually pay for it.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Reynolds: What’s the most important thing that you think proponents of Medicare for All don’t understand about single-payer systems?
Hsiao: The most important thing is that there’s a fear factor, a fear of change. There is a group of people who are opposing Medicare for All, and that includes the private insurance industry, pharmaceutical companies and, of course, some doctors and hospitals. They fear their income may be affected. So, for the common people, the fear is that they don’t understand how it would impact their health care, as well as their health insurance. And for the vested interest groups, they are in fear of their income and revenues.
Reynolds: Aren’t those fears justified?
Hsiao: I think they’re totally unjustified, but there’s a history to it. The last time the United States talked about universal health insurance was under President Truman. Subsequently, President Clinton also tried to propose a plan. And each time, the vested interest groups put on a very effective and powerful campaign to block it by offering common people a great deal of misinformation. In the late 1940s, the American Medical Association led the fight and called universal health insurance “socialized” medicine. And the Clinton plan, there were TV ads that said it would make medical care and claim filing much more complicated. Both of them, those kinds of public campaigns, of course, are untrue.
Reynolds: Is there a case that proponents of single payer should be making to the public that they aren’t making now?
Hsiao: I would actually show film clips from countries that have Medicare for All, like Canada, Taiwan, Germany and other countries. Taiwan educated people first that everyone would be covered by the same health insurance, a comprehensive plan, much better than what most of the people had then. That’s what I think persuaded people.
Reynolds: Many Americans say that they prefer market-based solutions as a lever for public policy, and those can be easier political lifts.
Hsiao: Markets have a serious failure in health care. That’s been proven empirically in the United States and throughout the world. I’ll describe the fundamental failure. You and I, common people, we have a symptom, a headache, a fever. We have pain. We go to a physician for diagnosis and treatment. That’s not like buying a pair of shoes or buying a shirt where the buyer and seller pretty much have an equal position. We go to physicians seeking their expertise. Even if you watch TV ads for drugs, the drug advertisers say, “Talk to your doctor.” That’s because even in their advertisement, they know you would not understand all of the possible effects of that drug.
So the physician holds a superior position in the marketplace. That’s proven. As a result, physicians can charge you any price, particularly if you are in surgery. If you operate on people’s vital organs, like brain, heart, eyes, and even orthopedics — people are willing to go bankrupt to go see a doctor if they need, let’s say, heart surgery. In medicine, actually, there is an opposite effect [from the way the market usually works]: People believe that doctors who charge higher fees must be better. That’s because they don’t understand medicine. So they figure if you can charge higher fees, you must be a better doctor. Those are market failures.
I’ll give you another example. A few decades ago, American doctors who were trying to do the right thing for their patients, for exactly the same service, would charge the poor nothing. If you were rich, they would charge you, let’s say, $8,000 for an operation. If the doctor thinks you are an average earner, he might charge you only $4,000. At the time, this was praised as doctors performing a social service. But that also tells you what kind of market power doctors have over patients. Can you imagine you go to a car dealer; you want to buy a Chevrolet. The Chevrolet dealer sees you as an average citizen and tells you, “That’s $25,000.” For rich people, “That’s $50,000.” You would say, “Wow. There’s something wrong with this market.”
Reynolds: How do you explain the health care industry’s resistance to current measures to increase transparency in pricing?
Hsiao: That’s very unique to the United States. United States has many insurance companies. The insurance companies negotiate with, let’s say, hospitals for the price, for a discount from their list price. By the way, their list price is not based on any facts of the cost; It’s a price that hospitals would like to charge. There’s no cost study to support that price. So if you are an insurance company, you say, “I can bring 50,000 patients to your hospital.” The hospital may give you an 80 percent discount from the list price. If you are representing a company that employs 200 employees and their families, they say, I’ll give you only a 25 percent discount. If you are an insurance company representing only two employees, I may not give you any discount. That’s why the hospitals don’t want to publish their price, because they may have five to 10 different prices, depending on which insurance company negotiates with them and how many insured people they can bring to their hospital.
Reynolds: What’s a better way of setting prices for that hospital?
Hsiao: I would set the price based on the actual cost of the hospital and give them a small margin of profit, so they can have some flexibility to improve and to expand. That’s how Medicare sets its prices.
Reynolds: Right, but many players in health care say Medicare pays far too little — and that if a Medicare for All system were to force doctors and hospitals to accept Medicare prices for everything they do, they’d go out of business. Do you think that’s a fair argument?
Hsiao: No, that’s misinformation. In the United States, in the same community, hospitals have different costs partly because they’re managed differently. Some hospitals are managed well and some hospitals are not managed that well. This was studied three decades ago: In Boston, for example, for a normal baby delivery, the cost and charges could vary three times between hospitals. That’s one other piece of evidence that the market doesn’t work: that in the same community, the price could be varying that much. So those opponents who claim they’re going to lose money, they may be high-cost hospitals. They may be poorly managed or they may be too small to operate. They should have gone out of existence a long time ago.
Reynolds: But hospital closures aren’t a minor problem. There’s real concern about rural hospitals being the first to close, right?
Hsiao: Yes, you should see them differently. Rural hospitals serve a social purpose. But that’s a special category.
Reynolds: One issue any reform faces is that health costs in the U.S. are just far higher than other countries. Why is that?
Hsiao: Efficiency, duplication, very high salaries for some people. Our surgeons, particularly surgeons dealing with vital organs, are making half a million dollars or more every year. Meanwhile, your family doctors and pediatricians are only making $200,000 each year.
Reynolds: And in other countries, is there less disparity between the different levels of—?
Hsiao: Specialties. Yes, there may be a 50 percent differential. Here, we have a differential of 2.5 or 3 times. That’s how the market works. When you’re dealing with people’s vital organs, with people in fear of their lives, you can charge them much higher.
Reynolds: One of the big arguments in the presidential campaign right now is about how the country would actually pay for a universal system. There’s a lot of discussion over whether taxes would increase, particularly for the middle class. There’s less discussion about whether we should retain an employer-based system, and whether employers should contribute. You’ve recently written that the growth of the gig economy, of less formal forms of employment, is also creating problems for the employer-based model. What’s your recommendation for a better financing system for the United States?
Hsiao: I would base the financing of health care on income because, in an advanced economy, some people’s incomes are from lots of things — rent, dividends, interest and capital gains — not just wages. So the first principle is to tax people based on their income. But I support what Senator Warren has proposed, a tax on financial transactions. You add on only a little bit on each financial transaction, [but] you can generate tremendous amounts of income.
Under Senator Sanders’ proposal, and I worked on the cost of it, you can save close to $800 billion a year — $800 billion a year — from inefficiency, from fraud and abuse of claims, and from duplication of services and also, from using your buying power to bargain with pharmaceutical companies for a reasonable price. That $800 billion has to be used partly to pay for the uninsured people and the underinsured people. Even then, every American, on average, could save $1,000 every year. Those are the numbers.
Now, if you tax rich people more, or like Senator Warren proposes, then, of course, rich people would not save [money]. But 90 percent or more of Americans will find they actually can save money from Medicare for All. That point has not been made strongly at all by the proponents of Medicare for All.
Reynolds: You’ve been around these issues for a long time. Do you think that we’re actually at a moment now in the United States where the American public is ready for this kind of sweeping health care change? Or do you think that we’re not there yet?
Hsiao: My honest answer, even though I know that this is recorded, is that I don’t think we are there yet.
Reynolds: Why is that?
Hsiao: We’re not there yet because the common, average American is not educated yet and there is a lot of misinformation being directed at them. And you haven’t even seen the insurance industry and pharmaceutical industry come out yet with really well-organized campaigns against it. The private insurance industry’s annual revenue is $1.3 trillion. The pharmaceutical industry’s annual income is $400 billion.
They only have to use one-thousandth of 1 percent of their revenue to fight [this]. They can elect the key decision-makers in Congress, [the Senate and the House of Representatives], because they can mobilize literally a billion dollars. And those powerful, wealthy, well-organized, vested interest groups have not come out openly yet. That’s the reality of American money, politics.
Reynolds: And you think when those monied interest groups do start fighting, that they will swamp this new interest in Medicare for All?
Hsiao: Yes. Look at what happened with Clinton’s plan. [It was] only the insurance companies who came out in an organized way for the Clinton plan, and the Clinton plan couldn’t even get a hearing before the U.S. Congress. No committee in the U.S. Congress held a hearing about what Clinton proposed. Of course, Hillary Clinton overplanned the Clinton plan. She planned out every detail; she left no decision for congressmen and senators. But still, not even one hearing. However, I do think two elections from now, the United States may see Medicare for All.
Reynolds: Why two elections?
Hsiao: To make a big change like this, you need to educate the public. You need to sharpen the issues and sharpen the key points. Right now, there’s a lot of confusion in the public’s mind and even among the political candidates.
Reynolds: But it sounds like you feel that economically, there really isn’t any question that either single-payer or a public option is the right answer for the United States. The question in your mind is the politics.
Hsiao: I think that most people who specialize in this field, the majority at least, think that single payer is the right solution because it’s much more efficient. You create a unified electronic record that can improve the quality of care and also give patients much better information about their history and their treatments.
I see changes in America. American employers find health insurance, the costs are rising faster than they can afford. As a result, because of the costs of health insurance for their employees, they can’t give them raises. Meanwhile, their employees demand higher cash wages, as well as to keep their health insurance. That can’t last that long.
Reynolds: So do you think that the employers hold the key to solving this problem?
Hsiao: They do. They are silent right now. But if you look at three powerful, big companies — Amazon, JPMorgan, Berkshire Hathaway — they have united together trying to form a health company, trying to innovate to do something. That tells you these corporations find this burden something they cannot continue to afford. That’s one change.
Another change is American doctors are supporting Medicare for All in larger numbers. American doctors today, 47 percent of them are salaried now. They are not in private practice. The doctors who oppose Medicare for All, the older doctors who are in private practice, they like the autonomy of their own office and they also do not want any interference from any semi-government agency. But the salaried doctors today find that the paperwork imposed on them by insurance companies is so horrendous that they cannot really devote enough time to the patients. They are in support of Medicare for All. When the United States has a majority of its doctors being on salary, I predict American doctors will come out and support Medicare for All. The American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association will not be able to say, “We are against it,” like they did before.
Reynolds: Doctors hold the blame for scuttling a national health care system after World War II, but you think that they hold the key to solving that problem when the next generation of physicians is in the majority?
Hsiao: Yes, and that majority is going to emerge in the next five years. Look at the figures. Already 47 percent of American practicing doctors are salaried. And every year that number increases by 1 or 2 percentage points.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
William Hsiao certainly understands the issues, and so we need to listen to him when we try to understand why Americans have not yet met the political threshold required to move Congress to enact the moral imperative of the single payer model of an improved Medicare for All.
Hsiao tells us, “We’re not there yet because the common, average American is not educated yet and there is a lot of misinformation being directed at them.”
Many believe they understand the issues, but when you hear them say that they want the right to keep their private insurance rather than be forced into a government program, it is highly likely that they do not understand the vast superiority of single payer Medicare for All. The fact that simple sound bites can cause too many of them to reject Medicare for All demonstrates that Hsiao is correct; they are not yet adequately educated on the topic.
The rules are still the same. When the policy is right, but the politics are wrong, change the politics. Coalitions. Grass roots organizing. Education. Education. Education.
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