Doctors Group Welcomes National Debate on ‘Medicare for All’

Doctors group welcomes national debate on ‘Medicare for All’

Nonpartisan physicians group calls single-payer reform ‘the only effective remedy’ for nation’s continuing health care woes and urges focus on facts, not rhetoric

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, January 22, 2016
Contact: Mark Almberg, PNHP communications director, (312) 782-6006, mark@pnhp.org

Physicians for a National Health Program, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of 20,000 doctors who support single-payer national health insurance, released the following statement today by its president, Dr. Robert Zarr, a Washington, D.C., pediatrician.

The national debate on single-payer health reform, or "Medicare for All," that has emerged in the course of the presidential primaries is a welcome development. But unfortunately a number of misrepresentations about single-payer national health insurance – and the prospects for its attainment – have crept into the dialogue and are potentially misleading the public.

Most of these misrepresentations, or myths, have been decisively refuted by peer-reviewed research. They include the following:

Myth: A single-payer system would impose an unacceptable financial burden on U.S. households. Reality: Single payer is the only health reform that pays for itself. By replacing hundreds of insurers and thousands of different private health plans, each with their own marketing, enrollment, billing, utilization review, actuary and other departments, with a single, streamlined, tax-financed nonprofit program, more than $400 billion in health spending would be freed up to guarantee coverage to all of the 30 million people who are currently uninsured and to upgrade the coverage of everyone else, including the tens of millions who are underinsured. Co-pays and deductibles, which have been rapidly rising under the Affordable Care Act, would be eliminated. Further, the single-payer system’s bargaining clout would rein in rising costs for drugs and medical supplies. Lump-sum budgets for hospitals and capital planning would control costs even more.

A recent study shows 95 percent of U.S. households would come out financially ahead under an improved version of Medicare for all. The graduated, progressively structured tax burden would be based on ability to pay, and the heavy cost to average U.S. households of private insurance premiums, co-pays, deductibles, and many currently uncovered services would be eliminated. Patients could go to the doctor or hospital of their choice, and would no longer be restricted to proprietary networks. Multiple studies over a period of several decades, including by the General Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office, show that a single-payer system would provide universal coverage at a much lower cost, per capita, than we are spending now. International experience confirms it. Even our traditional Medicare program, which falls short of a true single-payer system, has much lower overhead than private insurance, and shows that publicly financed programs can deliver affordable, reliable care.

A single-payer system would also greatly diminish the administrative burden on our nation’s physicians and hospitals, freeing up physicians, in particular, to concentrate on doing what they know best: caring for patients.

Covering everyone for all medically necessary care is affordable; keeping the current private-insurance-based system intact is not.

Myth: The U.S. has a privately financed health care system. Reality: About 64 percent of U.S. health spending is currently financed by taxpayers. (Estimates that are lower than this exclude two large sources of taxpayer-funded care: health insurance for government employees and tax subsidies to employers and individuals for purchasing private health plans.) On a per capita basis, the amount of government-funded health care in the U.S. exceeds the health spending of nations with universal health systems, e.g. Canada. We are paying for a national health program, but not getting it.

Myth: A single-payer system would overturn the gains won under the Affordable Care Act and provide inferior coverage to what people have today. Reality: A single-payer system would go far beyond the modest improvements that the ACA made around the edges of our current private-insurance-based system and ensure truly universal care, affordability and health security. For example, H.R. 676, the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, would guarantee coverage for all necessary medical care, including prescription drugs, hospital, surgical, outpatient services, primary and preventive care, emergency services, dental, mental health, home health, physical therapy, rehabilitation (including for substance abuse), vision care and correction, hearing services including hearing aids, chiropractic, durable medical equipment, palliative care, podiatric care, and long-term care. It would eliminate financial barriers to care like co-pays and deductibles and eliminate restrictive networks. It would end the steady erosion of job-based coverage under our current arrangements and disconnect insurance coverage from employment. H.R. 676 currently has 61 sponsors.

Myth: The American people don’t support single payer. Reality: Surveys have repeatedly shown that an improved Medicare for All is the remedy preferred by about two-thirds of the population. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey yielded similar results, showing 58 percent of Americans support Medicare for All. A solid majority of the medical profession favors such an approach, as well, as do more than 600 labor organizations, and many civic and faith-based groups.

Myth: The goal of establishing a single-payer system in the U.S. is unrealistic, or “politically infeasible.” Reality: It’s true that single-payer health reform faces formidable opposition, especially from the private insurance industry, Big Pharma, and other for-profit interests in health care, along with their allies in government. This prompts some people to conclude that single payer is out of reach and therefore not worth fighting for. While such moneyed opposition should not be underestimated, there is no reason why a well-informed and organized public, including the medical profession, cannot prevail over these vested interests. We should not sell the American people short. At earlier points in U.S. history, the abolition of slavery and the attainment of women’s suffrage were considered unrealistic, and yet the movements to achieve these goals were ultimately victorious and we now wonder how those injustices were allowed to stand for so long.

What is truly “unrealistic” is believing that we can provide universal and affordable health care, and control costs, in a system dominated by private insurers and Big Pharma.

We call upon our nation’s lawmakers and the political leaders of all political parties to heed public opinion and to do the right thing by acting swiftly to bring about the only equitable, financially responsible and humane cure for our health care ills: single-payer national health insurance, an expanded and improved Medicare for all.

Physicians for a National Health Program (www.pnhp.org) has been advocating for single-payer national health insurance for three decades. It neither supports nor opposes any candidates for public office.

You can help MVHCA as we work for publicly funded universal health care like the rest of the developed world by donatinghosting a house party, signing up for the newsletter, and attending our monthly meetings. You can also Like us on Facebook, and Follow us on Twitter. Thank you.

Families USA: Forgoing health care because of high out-of-pocket costs

 Families USA recently produced a report showing that many families were forgoing health care because even though they had insurance, the health care was still not affordable. The full report is available here.  These are the main points:

  • Just over one-quarter (25.2 percent) of adults who were insured for a full year went without needed medical care because they could not afford it.
  • Adults with lower to middle incomes were the most likely to forgo needed medical care.
  • Adults with high deductibles were more likely to forgo needed medical care.
  • In 2014, half (50.6 percent) of adults had high deductibles of $1,500 or more, and 30 percent had exceedingly high deductibles of $3,000 or more.

Why are people still struggling with out-of-pocket costs?

  • Premium tax credits are tied to silver plans, which often have cost-sharing that is too high for many consumers to be able to afford.
  • Only a portion of the lower-income consumers who are eligible for subsidies to reduce cost- sharing in silver plans receive substantial help to also reduce their deductibles.
  • Insurers are choosing to design silver plans with upfront cost-sharing that is too high for lower- and middle-income consumers to afford.

Policy Recommendations

  • Health insurers should offer more plans at the silver level that have low or no cost-sharing for primary care, other outpatient services, and prescription drugs.
  • Policymakers at the state and federal levels should require health insurers to sell silver plans with lower cost-sharing for primary care, other outpatient services, and prescription drugs.
  • At the federal level, Congress should: Provide cost-sharing reduction subsidies to middle-income consumers (above 250% FPL) and increase the generosity of this help.
  • At the state level, lawmakers can also strengthen financial assistance.

Don McCanne MD, of Physicians for a National Health Program, comments on this report:

Today Families USA released their report that confirms, once again, that many adults insured with high-deductible health plans are likely to forgo needed medical care, especially if they have lower to middle incomes. So what are their recommendations?

In order to remove financial barriers to care, they recommend that more plans offered at the silver level - the benchmark plans -  have lower or no cost-sharing for primary care, other outpatient services, and prescription drugs. This has the advantage of increasing access to primary care services, which most agree would significantly improve the performance of our health care system.

The problem is that the barely affordable silver plans must have an actuarial value of 70 percent (the patient pays 30 percent of health care costs, up to a given maximum). Higher deductibles are used in most of these plans in order to meet this actuarial value. But in a report that Families USA released last year, they explain that if the deductibles and copayments were reduced to more affordable levels, then the required 30 percent of out-of-pocket costs must be shifted to more expensive services.

So this scheme would help the majority who simply need primary care services, but it would make care less affordable, even catastrophic, for those who have greater health care needs. As long as our benchmark plans are set at an actuarial value of 70 percent, this trade-off cannot be avoided.

Families USA also suggests the obvious. We should increase federal and/or state subsidies for both the purchase of plans and for cost sharing for low and middle income individuals and families.

But if you are going to make care affordable for everyone, why continue with this highly inefficient, administratively complex system that wastes so many of our health care dollars. Surely by now Families USA should acknowledge that our dysfunctional system should be replaced by a much more efficient single payer national health program - an improved Medicare for all. We’ve experimented extensively with their preferred model, and it didn’t work.

You can help MVHCA as we work for single payer health care by donatinghosting a house party, signing up for the newsletter, and attending our monthly meetings. You can also Like us on Facebook, and Follow us on Twitter. Thank you.

What Happened in Vermont: Implications of the Pullback from Single Payer (Part 2)

 Commentary by Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., M.P.H., and David U. Himmelstein, M.D. of PNHP:

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s Dec. 17, 2014, announcement that he would not press forward with Vermont’s Green Mountain Care (GMC) reform arose from political calculus rather than fiscal necessity. GMC had veered away from a true single payer design over the past three years, forfeiting some potential cost savings. Yet even the diluted plan on the table before Shumlin’s announcement would probably have lowered total health spending in Vermont, while covering all of the state’s uninsured.

Background

Decades of exemplary grassroots organizing (and strong labor union support) in Vermont put single payer on the agenda. During Shumlin’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, he promised to implement a single payer reform, which was a factor in the Progressive Party’s decision not to field a candidate. But the details of Shumlin’s plan weren’t fleshed out during the campaign.
 
After his victory, Shumlin and the legislature commissioned economist William Hsiao to study options for health reform in Vermont, including single payer. Rejecting a fully public single-payer plan, Hsiao instead proposed a “public-private hybrid” model and projected $580 million in savings, including large administrative cost savings, in the program’s first year.

Spurred by Hsiao’s positive projections, in 2011 the legislature passed a health reform law that laid out plans for implementing the Affordable Care Act in the short term, and called for a later transition to a single payer GMC plan. But while the law gave a detailed prescription for implementing the ACA (including construction of an exchange whose final cost was about $250 million), the sections on single payer were vague, and punted decisions on critical issues to the GMC Board to be appointed by the governor. That board would determine whether critical services like long-term care would be covered; the amount of copayments; how hospitals and doctors would be paid; and whether capital funds would be folded into operating budgets or allocated through separate capital grant (the sine qua non of effective health planning). Critically, the bill included no plan for funding the single payer program.

An early signal of trouble was Shumlin’s appointment of Anya Rader Wallack to chair the new GMC board. Wallack had deep ties to the private insurance industry, having held key positions (including the presidency) at the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation. That foundation played a central role in designing and pushing for Massachusetts’ 2006 Romneycare reform, and subsequently issued a series of glowing evaluations of Romneycare that helped buttress the case for replicating its structure in the ACA.

From the outset, Shumlin and the GMC Board embraced an Accountable Care Organization payment strategy that would enroll most Vermonters in large hospital-based, HMO-like organizations that would be overseen by a “designated entity” – presumably Blue Cross. To-date, ACOs have shown little or no overall cost savings, have increased administrative costs, and have driven hospitals to merge and gobble up physician practices. The consolidation of ownership triggered by ACO incentives has raised concern that regionally dominant ACOs will use their market power to drive up costs. In Vermont, Dartmouth Hitchcock and the University of Vermont’s Fletcher Allen system dominate the market, and have initiated a for-profit, joint venture ACO.
 
The GMC Board’s design incorporated several other features that increased the administrative complexity, and hence administrative costs of the proposed reform. The plan never envisioned including all Vermonters in a single plan, instead retaining multiple payers. Hence, hospitals, physicians’ offices, and nursing homes would still have had to contend with multiple payers, forcing them to maintain the complex cost-tracking and billing apparatus that drives up providers’ administrative costs. It proposed continuing to pay hospitals and other institutional providers on a per-patient basis, rather than through global budgets, similarly perpetuating the expensive billing apparatus that siphons funds from care. And hospitals would have continued to rely on surpluses from day-to-day operations as their main source of capital funds for modernization and expansion. This undermines health planning and raises bureaucratic costs by forcing hospital administrators to undertake the additional work needed to identify and pursue profit opportunities.

Some of this complexity was forced on Vermont by federal statutes that may preclude folding Medicare and the military’s Tricare program into a state single payer plan, and restrict states’ ability to outlaw private employer-provided coverage that duplicates the public plan. But the decisions to abandon lump-sum hospital payment, and separate grants for capital were the GMC Board’s choices.

The End Game of Vermont’s Reform

Vermont’s November 2014 gubernatorial election had very low voter turnout, a circumstance that generally favors the right. Gov. Shumlin – who had hedged on health reform during the campaign – eked out a narrow plurality, leaving the state legislature to decide between him and the Republican candidate and greatly weakening Shumlin’s position. A month later, while awaiting the legislature’s decision (they elected him to a third term on January 9), Shumlin announced his pullback from reform.

Shortly thereafter, he released the GMC Board’s detailed cost projections which he said had convinced him not to go ahead. The Board estimated zero administrative savings from its proposed plan. It also projected zero savings on drugs and medical devices, tacitly acknowledging that GMC wouldn’t use bargaining clout to rein in prices, and ignoring the fact that Quebec, its neighbor to the North, has gotten big discounts.

The Board’s cost estimates also incorporated an old (too high) estimate of the number of uninsured Vermonters, inflating the projected increase in utilization and cost. Finally, it assumed that doctors would expand their work hours (and incomes) to care for the newly insured, rather than maintaining their current work hours by seeing their other patients a little less frequently – as happened with the implementation of single payer coverage in Quebec.

But even the GMC Board’s inflated cost estimates indicate that universal coverage under its quasi-single payer plan would cost somewhat less overall than the current system. The voluminous Board report includes detailed tabulations of new costs to the state treasury under the proposed reform. But the report scrupulously avoids providing any figures for the impact of reform on the total cost of health care (public and private) in the state. Economist Gerald Friedman has estimated these overall impacts using the report’s data, previous estimates of health expenditures in Vermont, and CMS figures on Medicare spending and expected health care inflation under the ACA. He estimates that even the diluted reform proposed by the GMC Board would cut overall health spending in Vermont by about $500 million annually.

So why did Gov. Shumlin declare the reform unaffordable? Many have noted that the $2.5 billion in new state expenditures required under the reform would nearly double the state’s previous budget. But these numbers are meaningless absent an accounting of the savings Vermont households would realize by avoiding private insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs. As detailed above, these savings would more than offset the new taxes.

But although the total costs of care would have fallen even under the GMC plan, some – mostly higher-income, healthy Vermonters whose taxes would go up the most – would have paid more. Although the GMC tax plan was far from progressive, it was far less regressive than the current pattern of health care funding in the state. The GMC Board estimated that most of the 340,214 families earning less than $150,000 annually would have gained, while most of the 24,102 families above that income level would have lost. Overall, employers’ costs would have risen by $109 million – with many small businesses experiencing cost increases, a political sore point.

Conclusion

It’s a misnomer to label Vermont’s Green Mountain Care plan “single payer.” It was hemmed in by federal restrictions that precluded including 100 percent of Vermonters in one plan, and its designers further compromised on features needed to maximize administrative savings and bargaining clout with drug firms, and improve health planning.

But even the watered-down plan that emerged could have covered the uninsured, improved coverage for many who currently face high out-of-pocket costs, and actually reduced total health spending in the state – albeit far less than under a true single payer plan. A true single payer plan would have made covering long-term care affordable, and allowed the elimination of all copayments and deductibles.

Vermont’s experience holds important lessons for single payer advocates.

1. Effective grassroots organizing makes a difference. It got real health care reform on the political radar screen in Vermont, and can get it back on the radar there and elsewhere. Indeed, single payer forces in Vermont are already rallying to reverse Shumlin’s decision. The virtues, value, and simplicity of a single payer approach have broad popular appeal.

2. Federal restrictions impose significant compromises on state-level single payer plans. For this, as well as other reasons, organizing for single-payer state plans and organizing for national legislation are not competing strategies, but complementary ones. The ultimate goal for both is a single, inclusive program for the entire nation.

3. As single payer work advances, we need to anticipate that corporate opposition will mobilize – often behind the scenes. The only effective antidote is continued grassroots mobilization. Delayed implementation and punting key decision to the future opens the door for corporate influence and smear campaigns.

4. Beware of “experts” with a track record unsympathetic to single payer. Economic projections are always based on assumptions, which are often highly political.

5. Even when we don’t get the whole pie, demanding it often yields a significant piece. Although a major single payer effort was stymied in Vermont, it achieved substantial progress. It’s no accident that Vermont’s uninsurance rate has come down to 3 percent; that virtually all children in that state are covered; that its Medicaid program is among the best; that its hospitals have come under tighter fiscal regulation; and that single payer remains in the limelight there. Even as he backed off from single payer for now, the governor promised to press for future health reform.

Dr. Steffie Woolhandler and Dr. David U. Himmelstein are internists, professors at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health at Hunter College, and lecturers at Harvard Medical School. They co-founded Physicians for a National Health Program.

Get involved today with the Oregon campaign for publicly funded universal health care.  Attend our the Rally on the Capitol Steps on February 11, and attend our monthly meetings.

Doctors Actually Want Single Payer Healthcare

Doctor Carol Paris, psychiatrist and member of Physicians for a National Health Program, joins us to discuss why a single payer national healthcare system would be preferable to the current system. Become a member & Support TDPS: http://www.davidpakman.com/membership If you liked this clip of The David Pakman Show, please do us a big favor and share it with your friends...

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What the Election Means for Reform, Especially Single Payer

Posted by Don McCanne MD on Wednesday, Nov 5, 2014
For the PNHP Blog

New Republic’s Senior Editor Jonathan Cohn, an astute and very well-informed observer of the health care reform scene, provides us with a quite plausible response of the new Republican majority in the next session of Congress. They will likely fulfill their promise to introduce legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), though knowing that the effort will end with either a filibuster or a presidential veto. The real action will take place over individual provisions of ACA.

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Based on the simplistic messages that carried the election, it is obvious that we have a formidable task ahead of us. Our messages are not simple, but they need to be clear. Everyone can have affordable, high quality health care, but we do not have that with ACA nor would we with the anticipated Republican actions. We have to let people know.

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