Healthcare providers and insurers are gearing up to oppose Medicare for All. No surprise there. Insurers can’t look kindly on legislation that would put them out of business. And providers are deathly afraid of losing the high rates from private insurers that cross-subsidize government-funded patients.
But at the same time as they mobilize to defeat M4A, shouldn’t they be outlining what they support?
Here’s what M4A advocates want to achieve. The first is universal coverage. Sadly, we’re again moving away from this basic human right due to actions by the Trump administration to undermine the Affordable Care Act. They want lower prices. Insurance premiums for employers and out-of-pocket expenses for individuals and families continue to rise faster than wages or economic growth.
Finally, they want an end to the frustration engendered by a system that erects roadblocks between physicians and patients. These range from insurer rules requiring prior authorization to seemingly arbitrary limits on what doctors can perform or prescribe.
Is M4A the only way to solve these problems? Of course not. When it comes to covering the uninsured, the ACA worked just fine. Massachusetts, the first state to implement an ACA-like program, had an uninsured rate of 2.5% in 2017. That’s not the 0% of most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, but pretty close.
Politics are at the root of the ACA’s failures—not its Rube Goldberg design. The Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion. And when the GOP-controlled Congress eliminated the individual mandate, key to making rates on the exchanges affordable, it reduced sign-ups, raised premiums and stopped the expansion dead in its tracks.
How about service prices? M4A would set prices at Medicare rates, which are well below private insurance rates but higher than Medicaid rates (both Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program are eliminated in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ M4A bill). But that’s not where most of its savings come from.
According to a sympathetic analysis from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, half of M4A’s savings come from reducing provider and insurer administrative overhead. Another quarter comes from lower drug prices.
But these are one-time savings that will do little to stop the upward spiral of hospital and physician costs, which account for two-thirds of all spending. That’s where we get to the third issue supposedly addressed by M4A: the administrative hassles and limits imposed on obtaining care.
These aren’t eliminated by an expanded public system. They simply transfer the policing of waste, fraud and abuse from private hands to public hands and change the motivation from padding profits to protecting taxpayers. In the past, Medicare has done a better job than private payers for one simple reason: it can impose price controls. Providers have responded by shifting much of the shortfall to their private-paying patients.
There are alternatives for achieving M4A’s goals. They include private companies offering exchange policies with well-defined coverage rules and strict limits on out-of-pocket costs; all-payer rate-setting or global budgets to slow the rate of price increases; merging Medicaid with Medicare (leaving long-term services and supports to the states), which would give private employers and families rate and tax relief; and establishing all-stakeholder oversight councils to develop medically appropriate utilization rules.
There’s more. The point is that in the post-Trump era, the U.S. will once again begin moving toward a healthcare system that is universal and affordable with high-quality care for everyone.
A multipayer approach could be like Germany and Switzerland, which rely on private insurers that are regulated to a much greater extent than currently exists in the U.S. Or it will be a single-payer system like Canada, Great Britain or France. Each delivers better results at a lower cost than the U.S.
I’m agnostic on which way to go. I’m still waiting for providers and insurers to articulate their vision.