Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Steps toward a solution: Time to put Single Payer back "on the table"

During the health reform debate, one option we were assured was never seriously “on the table” was “single payer”, or Medicare for All. President Obama, who as a senator had indicated his support for this solution, backed away from it as fast as he could. In this he was undoubtedly encouraged by his many advisors, who have also encouraged bank bailouts, “compromise” on the debt ceiling, etc. (see June 18, 2009,“No Single Payer”: Sebelius – making policy for the powerful).  This is not to say that there were not supporters of single payer within government; there were and are. HR 676, “The Improved and Expanded Medicare for All” act, principally sponsored by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, had nearly 100 co-sponsors in the House. Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont introduced a single-payer bill  in the Senate. Vermont, in fact, has become the first state to move toward a form of single payer on a statewide basis.

As anyone who has been reading this blog for any amount of time knows, I am a strong advocate of single payer. (A few of the many MSJ references: April 28, 2011 Perception and reality of economic inequality; July 22, 2010, Improving quality and access still requires coverage for all;  April 10, 2009, Does the nation need a clear policy on a right to basic health care?).

My reasons for support of single payer are several:
  1. It covers everyone. No one is left out. There is no complex system of “these people get coverage this way, those people get coverage that way, and those people (too bad) are left out altogether.”

  2. It provides a uniform benefit package. Everyone can get the care that they need, without concern about whether they are covered. In our current system, even many people who are insured have inadequate coverage. In addition, to the extent that the society decides to limit access to unproven or detrimental (see #5 below) or even “too expensive” care, no one gets it.

  3. It saves money. Off the top, it saves the profit being taken out of the system by insurance companies and other for-profit businesses. It saves even more money by eliminating all that being spent by those companies to deny care claims and by providers of care to try to get paid (see A Modest Proposal: Bribe the Insurance Companies, August 23, 2009).

  4. It puts us all in it together. This is a core method of ensuring social justice. The more educated and empowered among us will work to make sure that they get good care, and this benefits everyone.

  5. It provides the basis for ensuring quality, by having a degree of control over what gets reimbursed, and therefore what gets done. It may not ensure quality by itself, but it is almost a necessary component.

In 1964, President Johnson signed the Medicare Bill in Independence, MO, giving cards #1 and #2 to former President Harry Truman, who had fought for national health insurance in the late 1940s and lost, and his wife Bess.Forty-seven years later, Medicare has proven its importance in providing a single-payer program for seniors. It is the largest payer in the country, and the rates that it pays for services determine those paid by other insurers. While expanding Medicare to everyone should be the centerpiece of health policy, it has instead become the target of proposals to cut coverage to those who already receive it, particularly from the right. This has led to a lot of bad ideas from politicians such as Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (see Medicare: We need to expand it, not cut it!, July 1, 2011).

The “poster child” for a single payer system is Canada, which has had it since the early 1970s. Based on the principle of social solidarity, not often apparent in the US, the Canadian federal government set the criteria for the program (which is also called “Medicare”) and the individual provinces set the specific terms and fund it. There is local (provincial) autonomy within the boundaries established by the federal government (see December 14, 2009, Tommy Douglas and the Canadian Health System;  May 27, 2010, Universal Coverage and Primary Care: The US needs both). Several recent articles have addressed the degree to which changes in the primary care system to create “medical homes” in Ontario, Canada’s largest province, have enhanced the quality of patient care, access of patients, lowered cost, and increased the income of primary care physicians (see Rosser et al, “Progress of Ontario's Family Health Team model: a patient-centered medical home” [1]). It is critical to note that this Family Health Team program was really only possible on such a scale because Ontario, like the rest of the country, has a single-payer system.

The importance of increasing, or at least not decreasing, the income of primary care physicians relative to other specialist, has been addressed in several other posts. What about all physicians, as a group? The AMA and other physician groups were, after all, largely responsible for the defeat of Truman’s national health insurance program and were major opponents of the US Medicare and Medicaid programs. Surveys by Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP, see especially “Single Payer National Health Insurance”) have shown increasing support for single payer among the physician community, with universal health coverage being supported by a majority of US doctors in 20 (Support for national health insurance among US physicians: 5 years later[2]).

A new study may help to persuade physicians that single-payer systems are actually in their financial interest. Writing in August 2011 in Health Affairs, Morra and colleagues report that “US Physician Practices Versus Canadians: Spending Nearly Four Times As Much Money Interacting With Payers[3] (hyperlink to abstract). The title basically says it all. While both Canadian and US physicians spent time (translated into money!) interacting with insurers, the single payer in Canada and hundreds of payers in the US, about patient benefits and payment, the staff of US physicians spent 10 times the amount of time in such activities as did their Canadian counterparts. The authors estimate the cost to US physicians at $82,975 per physician per year, nearly 4 times the $22,205 cost to Ontario physicians. In addition, these costs fall disproportionately highly on small physician practices, which are more likely to be primary care. They conclude that “If US physicians had administrative costs similar to those of Ontario physicians, the total savings would be approximately $27.6 billion per year.”

From a financial point of view, we have an apparent dilemma in the US. The cost of Medicare is very high and creates financial threats to the economy. The reimbursement from Medicare to providers is often too low to make them a desirable payer. But there is a solution. It involves getting control over costs. First, do not pay for harmful or questionable interventions, do not pay major markups to generate excessive profit for private companies, and use the large scale of government purchasing to get good prices for drugs, unlike the boondoggle of Medicare Part D, the prescription drug program in which Medicare pays retail prices to pharmaceutical companies.

The solution is also to emphasize more primary care and prevention (October 18, 2010 Lower Costs in Grand Junction: More Primary Care, Less High Tech). The next steps will be harder, for they will involve making difficult decisions about the cost/benefit ratios of different types of care, particularly as the availability of new, expensive, high-tech interventions provide allure, if not always results.

The way not to do this is for policies restricting access for a part of the population (working and poor people) to be made by another part of the population (big businesses, politicians, and lobbyists) who will not be affected by those decisions. A single-payer system in which we are all covered by the same benefits does not automatically save money, but at least makes it possible.

[1]; Rosser WW et al, “Progress of Ontario's Family Health Team model: a patient-centered medical home”, Ann Fam Med. 2011 Mar-Apr;9(2):165-71.
[2]Carroll A, Ackerman R “Support for national health insurance among US physicians: 5 years laterAnn Int Med 1Apr2008;148(7):566-7.
[3] Morra D, et al, “US Physician Practices Versus Canadians: Spending Nearly Four Times As Much Money Interacting With Payers”, Health Affairs August 2011 vol. 30 no. 8 1443-1450.

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