Tag Archives: Medicare for All

Medicare for All

I’ve been interested to see how frequently the comments to this blog end up discussing (and debating) America’s health care system–even when the ostensible subject of that day’s post is something entirely different.

(As I was typing the phrase “healthcare system,” I was reminded of a graduate student—a hospital administrator—who corrected my use of that term. “America doesn’t have a healhcare system,” he said. “We have a healthcare industry” and it’s not the same thing.)

I often share insights from my cousin, a respected cardiologist who also spent many years teaching medicine. He recently sent me a thoughtful analysis of that healthcare industry, and the prospects for fixing what everyone realizes is unsustainable. I particularly like his introduction to the issue:

When considering the best way to solve our country’s medical care woes, I am reminded of Churchill’s famous statement about democracy as a form of government, in which he stated in effect: It’s a terrible system, but everything else is worse. This same statement might apply to a single payer system in medical care, for it probably beats everything else, as I explain below.

He noted that a truly effective system will require cost controls, including tort reform, the excessively high cost of drugs, inappropriate use of expensive tests and treatments, and several others. He is convinced that these issues can be resolved, and that a single-payer system (for example, “Medicare for All”) is both inevitable and the best solution:

In an article on why a single-payer system would be our best solution, Donald Berwick, MD, former administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and an architect of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), contended that although the ACA has been “a step forward for the country,” it “does not deal with the problem of waste and complexity in the system,” as he feels a single-payer system would. I can personally attest to the complexity of the system with the many headaches provided by a dizzying array of differing insurance forms pertaining to treatments, hospital admissions and a multitude of other issues.

And James Burdick, MD, a transplant surgeon at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of the forthcoming book Talking About SINGLE PAYER!, argued that a single-payer system is “a more economical way to use healthcare resources. You could reduce expenses and still improve quality. That’s a tremendous opportunity that you don’t have in many other fields.” Of course, as he pointed out, this would virtually eliminate the entire commercial insurance industry—with $730 billion in revenues and a workforce of 470,000. (Maybe these same workers could be involved in more productive work such as restoring our nation’s wobbly infrastructure!) But Dr Burdick also maintains that a single payer system would likely restore doctors’ authority. And those who favor this system say that for all practices, administrative costs would plummet because there would be only one set of payment rules and forms, with the result that prior authorizations, narrow networks, and out-of-pocket payments would be eliminated.

He also reports that there is growing physician support for a single-payer system. For example, a 2014 survey of Maine physicians conducted found that nearly 65% of respondents preferred the single-payer option over trying to fix the current system—up from 52% in a 2008 survey.

Interestingly, a majority of the population (51%) now supports Medicare for all, according to a national poll released this past year.

In reality, a government-run single-payer system is the only way to provide effective basic medical health therapy and management, but for those who desire a higher level of care—and can afford it—there should be a private-pay system, contrast with the Canadian system. This would, de facto, constitute a two-tiered system. This might be objectionable to egalitarians that wish to have a “one size fits all” system, but would be the most pragmatic approach.

Usually those against single payer system trot out the usual vague objections that we are becoming “socialistic.” But what about our current Medicare system, is that not socialistic? I might add further that I personally have worked at a VA hospital, and, despite all the current noise, found that once patients were able to access the system, the care is quite good. Its main problem seems to be gaining initial entry into an overburdened system in a timely manner. By contrast, it is highly unlikely that a random assortment of for-profit HMOs would do a better job serving the high-utilization health needs of our veterans.

His conclusion–with which I concur:

Whether we like it or not, basic healthcare is like a utility—something everyone needs, and, in the best interest of our society, everyone should receive. Although there are many variations of the general theme as I have enumerated above, we are moving inevitably toward a single payer system. When it finally arrives, I believe everyone will be relieved, if not pleased, even including the Republicans!

Is the Individual Mandate Constitutional?

The most controversial provision of the Affordable Care Act  is undoubtedly the individual mandate–the requirement that almost everyone carry health insurance.

Why a mandate? As the LA times said, “A mandate is key for reducing the ranks of the uninsured, who often turn to emergency rooms for care, driving up everyone’s costs. Spreading the costs—among healthy and sick—is also the only way to make the reforms work.” Health economists agree–in order for this reform to work, it has to include the mandate. So—It’s necessary, but is it constitutional?

According to most constitutional scholars, yes. Here’s the analysis:

Congress has authority both to regulate commerce among the several states, and to “lay and collect taxes to provide for the general welfare.” The Senate bill requires that citizens purchase qualifying health coverage; if they don’t, they pay a tax penalty. Exemptions are granted for religious objections, financial hardship and a variety of other reasons. The House bill didn’t impose a “mandate” per se, but amended the Internal Revenue Code to levy a “tax on individuals without acceptable health coverage.” Functionally, the two provisions are essentially the same. (Interestingly, opponents concede that Congress could lawfully establish single-payer (Medicare for All, say), and tax us to pay for it.)

In 1944, Supreme Court established that insurance is an economic activity that falls within Congress’ regulatory power. More recently, the Lopez and Gonzales cases clarified how the Court understands “economic” and “non-economic” activities within the context of Commerce Clause. In Lopez, Court held that Congress exceeded its authority by legislating against guns near schools; in Gonzales, it ruled that the act of growing marijuana at home could be regulated by the federal government even though the conduct was not itself economic, because the larger interstate “regulatory scheme would be undercut unless the intrastate activity were regulated.” As one scholar has summarized, “ If health insurance is itself an ‘ingredient’ of interstate commerce and ‘self-evidently’ within Congress’ Commerce Clause authority, the statutory goals for broadening, making more efficient and less costly, and otherwise improving health insurance coverage, fit equally within that authority.

Further, the individual mandate requirement easily qualifies as a ‘necessary and proper’ means of achieving those goals, under the standard first articulated by Chief Justice Marshall [in 1819] and adhered to since: “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.”

The Federalist Society and other opponents of the mandate have argued that refusal to purchase insurance is inactivity, and thus not subject to regulation. How, they ask, can government regulate a decision not to act?  But as judges have noted who upheld the mandate, people who refuse to buy insurance are not doing “nothing.” They are gambling that they won’t need coverage, or they are deciding to self-insure. In either case, they are also deciding to game the system, making the overall program unworkable.

Refusal to purchase health insurance would be analogous to refusal to pay social security and Medicare taxes or, at the state level, refusal to purchase auto insurance.

Most constitutional scholars believe the mandate will be upheld; others–noting the ideological tilt of several of the Justices–are less certain, although they agree that precedents would ordinarily require such a result.

Ironically, since opponents of the mandate are making the case that ONLY a single-payer system is constitutional, a victory for opponents might actually result in the enactment of a single-payer system, since the multiple markets we’ve been operating under are simply not sustainable.

Works for me.