Two Memes that Undercut Medicare-for-All: Managed Care and Competition

From our friends at PNHP-

By Don McCanne, MD

The dream of expanding Medicare to cover all of us has failed to materialize in a large part because of the nation’s obsession with marketplace concepts of health care financing. On the supply side, health care providers are responding to financial incentives that maximize their revenue. On the demand side, patient-consumers are responding to financial incentives that minimize their out-of-pocket spending. In both instances, health care access is compromised - in managed care by erecting structural barriers to care (“managing” the care), and in competition by erecting financial barriers to care (buying competitively-priced plans with lower premiums that have higher deductibles and other cost sharing).

Where did this obsession come from? Gilens and Page have shown that the very wealthy and large business interests have control over major legislation. These interests benefit from marketplace approaches to health care through investments in for-profit insurance companies and in health care delivery organizations, including for-profit hospitals. In contrast, their tax burden in publicly-financed health programs is greater when taxes are progressive. Also many other important government programs are financed through progressive taxes, so the moneyed interests benefit by privatizing government functions to the maximum extent possible.

These interests, along with ideologues, have made a meme of the concept that private markets are always more efficient than massive government bureaucracies, when the evidence is almost always to the contrary. Unfortunately, much of the media have accepted this meme as a given. Since everyone “knows,” based on a lifetime of exposure to these memes, that the private sector can always do it better, they are quite willing to support private solutions to problems such as the financing of health care.

Whenever proposals such as expanding Medicare come up, the insurance industry pulls the puppet strings in Congress, and the public is reminded how well UnitedHealth and the other for-profit insurers are doing in creating private products that have lower out-of-pocket costs than Medicare (not mentioning that they are doing that with one-third of the overpayments they receive while keeping the other two thirds for profits and to pay for the excessive administrative services that they are selling us - a bad deal for taxpayers).

So those who support the intrusive managed care organizations and who support shifting more costs directly to patients under the false banner of marketplace competition (see Kenneth Arrow) have been effective in suppressing any serious consideration of improving Medicare and expanding it to cover everyone. As long as the public continues to buy their meme, there is little likelihood of change.

We need to continue to inform the public on the legitimate findings of health policy science (national health programs that include everyone while providing higher quality at a lower cost), but that is a daunting task considering how difficult it is to communicate complex policies to a population blunted by unfounded memes.