Tag Archives: Medicare for All

A Doctor’s Prescription

As the primary battles heat up, “Medicare for All” (or in Mayor Pete’s more “do-able” formulation “Medicare for All Who Want It”) has become perhaps the hot-button issue.

The Trump Administration continues to wage war on the Affordable Care Act, a/k/a Obamacare–part of Trump’s determination to erase anything and everything Obama accomplished– and thanks to Mitch McConnell’s success in placing partisans on the federal bench, that attack may succeed.

Anyone who follows the news, or has a Facebook feed, knows what we “consumers” think, and polling confirms that large majorities of Americans would welcome some form of national, universal healthcare. But what about doctors? What do medical professionals who have to work within today’s uneven patchwork of a system have to say?

I asked my cousin, the cardiologist whose insights I periodically share.

I encourage you to click through and read his post in its entirety, but I want to share several observations that I found particularly telling. The first is his reminder that we don’t go “shopping” for healthcare the same way we shop for a new pair of shoes.

Although comparison shopping makes sense when we buy a product like an automobile, such market forces do not apply to health care. Negotiation of prices of various treatments is seldom available, especially not for the complex needs of the desperately ill who consume a large share of resources. Multiple private insurance plans obscure this issue even further.

He then cites a recent study that found a significant part of the variation in medical spending–and more than half of all Medicare spending– to be determined by capacity rather than by medical need.

And speaking of cost…

In contrast to the ACA’s requiring private insurers to spend at least 80-85 percent of their revenue on delivery of health care, more than 98 percent of Medicare’s expenditures are so devoted. Estimates vary, but one-quarter to one-third of our current costs are driven by insurance company overhead, profits, and the administrative costs. Roughly half of these costs would be recovered under single-payer and could instead be devoted to the delivery of meaningful health care.

And then there are drug prices.

Drug prices must be controlled:  Acceptable drug lists vary widely among health plans. Negotiated prices depend strongly upon the buyers’ purchasing volume. Only a single-payer system enables the kind of unified bulk purchasing of drugs and medical devices that would give the buyer adequate power. A model for this structure exists today here in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Due to governmental authority to negotiate drug prices for the VA, it pays roughly half the retail price of drugs.

I italicized that last sentence, because it astonished me. No wonder other countries allow government to negotiate drug prices–and we can all guess why Congress expressly forbids our government to do the same.

But what about doctors’ pay? Shouldn’t doctors’ incomes compensate them for those years of medical training and residencies? Wouldn’t we lose medical personnel under a national system?

A recent analysis found that a single-payer model does not lead to a loss in physician income, allowing for care-givers to receive adequate reimbursement of expenses plus fair profits, while ensuring value for taxpayers. Streamlined billing under single payer would also save physicians vast overhead costs, enhanced by reducing the need for the many employees to fulfill the varied requirements and forms of the private insurance companies. Moreover, physicians might best be compensated with regular salary-type payments rather than the current “fee for service” model, which encourages excess medical tests and procedures that drive up costs without providing better outcomes.

And finally, what about private insurance? Opponents of a single-payer system warn that people who love their current coverage (these are people I’ve yet to encounter, but I’ll assume for the sake of argument that someone, somewhere, actually likes Anthem, et al) would lose it. My cousin seems to be recommending Mayor Pete’s “Medicare for All Who Want It” approach. He also makes a point that Kamala Harris made in a recent interview:

The population of the U.S. would likely require additional tiers of care provided by private insurers, which might add extra services to basic care such as private room selections, lower waiting periods for non-urgent problems, elimination of co-pays, long-term care, dental care, etc.

The bottom line: the doctor has diagnosed America’s current approach to healthcare as deathly ill and probably terminal. You can read his prescription in its entirety at the link.

About Those Right-Wing Judges…

As most of you know by now, a conservative judge in Texas struck down the entire Affordable Care Act, ruling it unconstitutional.

The decision is a reminder that when judges are appointed on the basis of party loyalty rather than legal acumen, the results can hurt a lot of innocent people.

Legal scholars who have reviewed the decision believe it is badly flawed and will be overturned, but Daily Kos recently enumerated the consequences should it be upheld.

The most obvious loss would be that part of the law that forbids insurance companies from excluding coverage of pre-existing conditions. But as the author noted, if the law were really to disappear, that’s just a part of what would be lost.

As many as 17 million people could lose their coverage in a single year. The 15 million people covered under Medicaid expansion could lose their coverage. The improvements to Medicare that have saved the program billions of dollars—and reduced prescription drug costs for seniors—would be erased. Young people wouldn’t be able to stay on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26. The ban on annual and lifetime caps would be gone, and medical bankruptcies would escalate. Having lady parts would again cost women more than men, and being over age 50 would cost everyone more again. Limits on out-of-pocket costs would be gone. The tax credits that 9 million people are receiving to help them pay premiums would be gone.

The post focused on the political fallout of the threatened losses. (Even Republicans concede that the issue hurts them.) But the real lessons aren’t partisan.

There are two obvious “take-aways” here.

First is the incredible amount of damage that can be done by elevating ideologues to the bench. This sort of “smash and burn” judging is a direct result of viewing the federal courts as a partisan political prize rather than a constitutional safeguard to be protected by the appointment of dispassionate, knowledgable and qualified legal scholars.

The second is equally obvious. As important as the ACA is, as much of a step forward that it represents, it falls far short of what Americans need and most other wealthy countries have long had. Not only is it vulnerable to the sort of judicial assassination we’ve just experienced, it is simply insufficient.

It would be poetic justice–not to mention actual justice–if this effort by a radical judge prompted Congress to pass Medicare for All, or at least a “public option” allowing citizens of all ages to “opt in” to the program.

Religion, Social Justice And Medicare For All

These are difficult days for genuinely religious folks–the ones who understand their theologies to require ethical and loving behaviors.

The 2016 election highlighted the glaring hypocrisies of Evangelical Trump supporters; more recently, it’s Catholics who are cringing. In Pennsylvania, a grand jury found the Church had concealed 70 years of sexual abuse by over 300 priests. Here in Indianapolis, the administration of a Catholic high school learned that a longtime, much-loved guidance counselor is in a same-sex marriage, and demanded that she divorce her wife or resign.

Not exactly ethical or loving behaviors.

On the other hand, dozens of local Catholics, including alumni of that high school, are publicly and vigorously supporting the counselor, and others are prominent advocates for social justice, and for programs to help the poor.

Local Catholics are also prominent advocates of establishing a “Medicare for All” chapter in Indianapolis.

In an essay for the National Catholic Reporter, law professor Fran Quigley argues eloquently that faith communities–including his– need to make a moral case for universal health care.

Mark Trover of Indiana had a job and access to health insurance, but the premiums and co-pays were too high for him to afford. A doctor had prescribed medicine for his dangerously high blood pressure, but the cost was high and Trover stopped filling the prescription — right up until the time he suffered a stroke that left him permanently disabled.

Karyn Wofford of Georgia has type 1 diabetes, and has often been forced to ration the insulin she needs to survive. The cost of the medicine has risen over 1,000 percent in recent years, and the 29 year-old knows there are many other Americans who have suffered and even died from diabetic ketoacidosis because they could not afford the medicine. “Having access to diabetic supplies and insulin, to feel okay when I wake up in the morning — that’s my dream,” she wrote for the T1 International blog.

These stories represent the status quo of U.S. health care. Even after the Affordable Care Act, there are over 28 million people in our country living completely without health coverage, a group disproportionately made up of people of color. Among those who do have insurance coverage, nearly a third are enrolled in high-deductible insurance plans that can force them to skip filling prescriptions or go without other necessary care.

These stories–and the millions of Americans who have similar ones–are shameful reminders that the United States lags behind virtually all other industrialized countries when it comes to the health of our citizens. Ironically, we are far more religious than citizens of countries that run circles around us when it comes to health care.

As Fran documents, however, religious leaders are finally mobilizing:

In response to the mean-spirited and fiscally self-sabotaging efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year, faith groups raised their collective voice, and to great effect. Dozens of denominations and organizations from a wide range of faith traditions issued joint statements, mobilized their members, and conducted a dramatic Capitol Hill vigil. They brought a morally powerful foundation to the resistance to Affordable Care Act repeal efforts.

As a March 2017 letter signed by leaders of 40 faith organizations said, “The scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as well as the sacred teachings of other faiths, understand that addressing the general welfare of the nation includes giving particular attention to people experiencing poverty or sickness.”

That shared mandate compelled us as people of faith to act to preserve the Affordable Care Act, which has expanded care to millions of Americans who needed it. Now, those same sacred teachings require us to speak out with just as much urgency to fully repair the gaps left behind even after the act is preserved.

All major religious traditions recognize a responsibility to provide for the poor and the sick–and while the ACA is an important step in the right direction, it falls far short of being universal. What is needed is a single-payer system like those in other first-world countries.

Legislation packaged as “Expanded and Improved Medicare for All” has over 120 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives and support from a growing number of senators, reflecting polls that show a majority of Americans support a single-payer system.

But the will of the people does not always translate into changed policies, especially when heavily financed lobbyists and campaign contributors from insurance and pharmaceutical companies block the path. That is where the faith community comes in. The economic argument in favor of a single-payer, universal health care system is undeniably powerful, but the moral case for health care as a human right is even stronger. The faith community stands in the ideal place to advance that moral argument.

I encourage those reading this to click through and read the article in its entirety, or even one of my earlier posts, which comes to the same conclusion. I especially encourage you to attend the inaugural meeting of the Medicare for All Group next Thursday, August 23d, to be held at 6:30 at Indianapolis’ First Friends Church.

This effort is a timely reminder that sincere “people of faith”–all faiths–are working for social justice. They don’t make as much noise as the theocrats and hypocrites, and they aren’t as newsworthy, but these efforts remind us that there are also a lot of good people in those pews.

Anticipating Unanticipated Consequences

These are horrific political times. It’s hard not to be depressed–every day, it seems, we wake up to a new assault on what we thought were American values, new evidence of deplorable behaviors and attitudes we thought we’d left behind, new efforts to roll back hard-won progress.

But.

We need to remind ourselves that the turbulence and upheaval we see around us is not a new phenomenon. Times of social transition are typically unsettled and contentious. (Think of the Sixties, not to mention the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War…). The question is: what comes next? What are we transitioning to? 

My own prediction–based on history and a lot of hope–is that the election of Trump will prove to be a turning point, that the resistance and increased activism we are already seeing will grow more pronounced, and the political pendulum will swing back toward sanity and concern for the common good. The problem is, in the meantime, Trump and the Congressional GOP are doing incalculable damage to the environment, to the rule of law, to the economy and to America’s place in the world.

Yesterday, McConnell finally unveiled the Senate’s Trumpcare bill, and it is even worse than the House version; it proposes to take health care from millions of struggling Americans in order to give a huge tax break to the rich.

Despicable as it is, I’m not the only person who sees potential for eventual progress lurking in short-term disaster. Take Ezra Klein’s recent article for Vox, “Republicans are about to make Medicare-for-All Much More Likely.”

On Friday, McConnell reportedly “delivered a private warning to his Senate Republicans: If they failed to pass legislation unwinding the Affordable Care Act, Democrats could regain power and establish a single-payer health-care system.”

History may record a certain irony if this is the argument McConnell uses to successfully destroy Obamacare. In recent conversations with Democrats and industry observers, I’ve become convinced that just the opposite is true: If Republicans unwind Obamacare and pass their bill, then Democrats are much likelier to establish a single-payer health care system — or at least the beginnings of one — when they regain power.

And if the GOP successfully unwinds Obamacare, the Democrats are far more likely to regain power in 2018. As Klein says,

The political fallout from passing the American Health Care Act — which even Donald Trump is reportedly calling “mean” — will also be immense. In passing a bill that polls at 20 percent even before taking insurance away from anyone, Republicans will give Democrats a driving issue in 2018 and beyond — and next time Democrats have power, they’ll have to deliver on their promises to voters. Much as repeal and replace powered the GOP since 2010 and dominated their agenda as soon as they won back the White House, if the American Health Care Act passes, “Medicare for all” will power the Democratic Party after 2017.

The bubble that Congressional Republicans occupy has become so divorced from the reality of American life and opinion–so in thrall to a (shrinking) base that is itself divorced from reality–that they no longer connect with most Americans. And presumably, the Democrats will have learned some important lessons from their experience with the ACA.

If Republicans wipe out the Affordable Care Act and de-insure tens of millions of people, they will prove a few things to Democrats. First, including private insurers and conservative ideas in a health reform plan doesn’t offer a scintilla of political protection, much less Republican support. Second, sweeping health reform can be passed quickly, with only 51 votes in the Senate, and with no support from major industry actors. Third, it’s easier to defend popular government programs that people already understand and appreciate, like Medicaid and Medicare, than to defend complex public-private partnerships, like Obamacare’s exchanges….

Obamacare was the test of the incrementalist theory, and, politically, at least, it’s failed. Democrats built a law to appeal to moderate Republicans that incorporated key ideas from Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts reforms, and it nevertheless became the single most polarizing initiative of Obama’s presidency. All the work Democrats did to build support from the health care industry has proven to be worth precious little as Republicans push their repeal plan forward. And the complex public-private design of the Affordable Care Act left the system dependent on the business decisions of private insurers and left Democrats trying to explain away premium increases they don’t control. The result is a Democratic Party moving left, and fast, on health care.

“I have been in contact with a lot of Democrats in Congress,” says Yale’s Jacob Hacker, who is influential in liberal health policy circles, “and I am confident that the modal policy approach has shifted pretty strongly toward a more direct, public-option strategy, if not ‘Medicare for all.’”

As bleak as our current political environment is, Klein and others see Ryan, McConnell and our clueless President unwittingly sowing the seeds of fairer and more cost-effective policies.

The accuracy of that prediction, of course, depends upon the strength, savvy and persistence of the Resistance.

It’s Not Just Complicated…

Trump generated a lot of well-deserved criticism–not to mention sarcasm–for his recent expression of surprise at the complexity of health policy, saying “Who knew it was so complicated?” The universal response was “Apparently, everyone but you!”

Which brings us to the bill currently before Congress.

Virtually every headline about Paul Ryan’s proposed ACA replacement has been negative: NBC’s said bluntly “Experts: The GOP Healthcare Plan Just Won’t Work.”

While their objections vary depending on their ideological goals, the newly introduced American Health Care Act (AHCA) is facing an unrelenting wave of criticism. Some experts warn that the bill is flawed in ways that could unravel the individual insurance market.

Among other problems, the article pointed out that the bill is almost certain to reduce overall coverage and result in deductibles increasing. It will also phase out Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Older, sicker and lower-income patients will be the bigger losers.

The headline of the Washington Post’s Plum Line was equally direct: “The New Republican Health-Care Plan is Awe-Inpiringly Awful.”  

Noting that Trump had campaigned on a promise to replace the ACA with “something terrific,” Paul Waldman, who authors the Plum Line, observed that the bill is

so far from terrific that there doesn’t seem to be anyone other than House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) himself who thinks this bill isn’t a disaster. It’s being attacked not just from the left but from the right as well. Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, two groups that exist to browbeat Republicans into upholding hard-right principles, have just come out against it.

Waldman marveled that

House Republicans have accomplished something remarkable: They have written a bill that would make every problem they’ve complained about much, much worse. If there’s any saving grace, it’s that almost no one will be happy about it, except for the wealthy people to whom it gives a gigantic tax cut.

So… Republicans are going to drastically reduce the number of Americans with health insurance while increasing costs pretty much across the board:  individuals, state governments and the federal government will all pay more. According to insurance experts, the bill will also do enormous damage to the insurance market. The GOP is evidently willing to inflict all that pain in order to give rich people a tax cut.

The problems with the bill range from the ludicrous to the outrageous, and you can all decide for yourselves which parts you find more horrific or ridiculous, but as a number of observers have pointed out, the promises of a genuine Republican replacement for Obamacare were always impossible to keep.

Today’s GOP is an increasingly uncomfortable amalgam of true believers who oppose the very notion that government has an obligation to provide access to health insurance, and who are working frantically to eliminate Medicare and Medicaid, and the party’s realists, who know that taking health insurance away from Americans who finally have been able to access it–not to mention Medicare recipients– is political suicide.

That’s a political fence that can’t be straddled.

What Ryan and his minions are trying to do is square the circle: drastically reduce coverage while pretending they are doing no such thing.

Some day–if and when sanity and a modicum of honesty return to American government– the United States will join virtually every other first-world country and provide universal coverage. I’ve previously posted about the multiple benefits and clear superiority of Medicare for All.

In 2006, the Economist—hardly a leftwing publication—had this to say about the U.S. healthcare system:

“America’s health care system is unlike any other. The United States spends 16% of its GDP on health, around twice the rich country average, equivalent to $6,280 for every American each year. Yet it is the only rich country that does not guarantee universal health coverage. Thanks to an accident of history, most Americans receive health insurance through their employer, with the government picking up the bill for the poor (through Medicaid) and the elderly (through Medicare).

[…]

In the longer term, America, like this adamantly pro-market newspaper, may have no choice other than to accept a more overtly European-style system.”

Obamacare was a step in the right direction, but America still spends more per person on healthcare than any other country–and we still rank 37th in outcomes. (If our infant mortality rate was as good as Cuba’s—Cuba’s!—we would save the lives of an additional 2,212 babies every year.)

Other countries have opted for more efficient–and more humane– national systems.

In 2017 America, we are still arguing over whether healthcare should be viewed as a right (or at least a utility), or whether we should continue to treat it as a consumer product, available to those who can afford it and “tough luck” to those who can’t.

That circle can’t be squared.