Can Single-Payer Really Happen?
Healthcare is on the frontlines of legislative debates— the U.S. has the most expensive care and reports the poorest outcomes of all rich democracies (RDs). Several states have proposed legislation to innovate healthcare access and to safeguard against the destruction of the ACA. One “old idea” that recently gained momentum is single-payer, and for New York (NY), it may become a reality, with its fate resting with the new legislature. To date, only one state has briefly “experimented” with single-payer – Vermont, and it failed due to gross underestimation of its costs. In NY, a landmark study that evaluates the viability of NY’s single-payer bill, known as the New York Health Act (NYHA), conducted by RAND, detailed benefits and setbacks of the proposed legislation, and public reaction was mixed. Despite the not so encouraging findings, lessons can still be learned from this report.
Single-payer, coined as “Medicare for all”, is a health insurance system in which a single public agency organizes healthcare financing, ideally covering all types of essential healthcare services. Delivery of care itself, however, would remain largely private in a single-payer system.
Proposals for single-payer in the U.S. are not new. The earliest version came in 1943 by Senators Robert Wagner (D-New York), James Murray (D-Montana), and Representative John Dingell, Sr. (D-Michigan), known as the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill (and subsequently endorsed by President Truman in 1945). The post-World War II bill proposed funding health care through payroll and income taxes. The bill became entangled with the Cold War , was vilified as “socialized medicine” by its opponents, and was discarded. The idea was revived in the 1950s, when it was nearly impossible for an aging population to get private health insurance. The elderly advocated for subsidized coverage since they are no longer able to afford their care, and hospitals advocated for it to ensure that the healthcare services they provide were paid for. The result: Medicare was enacted in 1965— the first form of single-payer insurance in the U.S.
Single-payer is gaining popularity once again. According to a Reuters poll, 70% of Americans support some form of single-payer coverage. Why? First, with the implementation of the ACA, there was a national momentum for states to expand their healthcare coverage. The health exchange created by the ACA made coverage accessible for many middle-income families and individuals. On the Medicaid side, progressive states elected to expand their eligibility coverage for individuals earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level in exchange for a 50% match in federal subsidies, a benefit many states enjoy. The most appealing provision of all is the mandated coverage of pre-existing conditions. With the all Republican take-over of the federal government in 2016, many Americans worried about what would happen to their coverage. Over the next two years, the ACA underwent congressional budget cuts, but despite efforts by Congress and President Trump, the ACA has grown in popularity with the general public.
In NY, the concept of single-payer was first introduced in 1992 by Assembly member Richard Gottfried (NY-D). The goal of NYHA is to provide universal insurance coverage with no cost-sharing for New Yorkers, regardless of legal status, and would cover almost all comprehensive services. Bill proponents expect increased access to care and reduced costs by removing high administrative overhead costs and reducing unjustifiably high prescription drug costs. Much like the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill, NYHA would be funded through payroll and income taxes. Since 2015, the NYHA has passed the Assembly floor four times. Although 31 state senators co-signed the bill, it has been stopped in the Senate by just one vote. This may now change with the Democrats taking back the Senate majority, although the cost may be a deterrent.
Despite the national and legislative enthusiasm, New Yorkers have been skeptical of single-payer reform. According to a 2018 Mercury Public Affairs poll, only 33% support the bill. Over 60%, however, said they would support increased subsidies to assist low and middle-income families. Why the opposition? The number one reason of 66% polled: taxes would pose a high burden.
The RAND study assessed “near-term” and “long-term” impacts of the bill. Overall, it found that single-payer would be viable, but with big caveats. The system would expand health care access, all while generating an estimated $15 billion in net savings (3.1%) on healthcare costs by 2031. Still, near-term are where the problems lie. From the political side, this would require the federal government to issue a waiver to redirect all federal and state funds to NYHA. Just weeks prior to this report, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services called California’s similar proposal “unworkable” and indicated similar waivers would not be approved. On the fiscal side, health care reform comes with a steep price: $139 billion in additional state tax revenue would be needed by 2022, that is 156% more than what is currently being collected. This amount would be amassed through payroll and income tax that would supplant the employer contribution and premiums and out-of-pocket costs. RAND applied a generic tax schedule based on three income brackets. For low-income families, they would be taxed 6.1% of their payroll income and 6.2% for non-payroll income by 2022. For middle-income families, the rates would range from 12.2% to 12.4%, and for high-income, their tax rate would increase up to 18.3% – nearly three times of what they are paying now. Moreover, Medicaid and Essential Plan (i.e. the NY Health Exchange) enrollees would pay more to get healthcare coverage. Assembly member Gottfried praised the study and suggested that they can adjust taxes accordingly so that high income families would pay more in taxes in order to help low and middle-income families afford their care. These tax hikes would exceed the combined costs of what New Yorkers are currently paying in taxes and healthcare benefits—explaining the bill’s unpopularity. Using the RAND report as a guide, it is likely that the state legislature will explore mechanisms to help finance their proposal in the upcoming session.
While single-payer hasn’t had much luck in the U.S., universal care payment methods, including single-payer, have been successful in other RDs. Regardless of each RD’s financing method, there is one consistent feature of success: national political will to implement it. Imagine if the politics of the cold war did not interfere with establishing a national health insurance plan? Would it have been possible to implement a streamlined and efficient plan? If our culture would have capitalized on the Medicare momentum, would we accept a collective sense of community regarding our healthcare? Vermont tried to implement single-payer with little success due to gross budget underestimations and faint national support. The RAND report sheds light on the cost of single-payer and suggests that there needs to be federal political will to support it. Let these findings and other evidence guide lawmakers as the search for a modest solution continues. Perhaps Wagner’s vision may still be a solution.
Sarah Zahakos is working toward a PhD in Health Law, Policy & Management at the Boston University School of Public Health.
AHRQ T32 Research FellowTraining in Health Services Research for Vulnerable PopulationsGrant # 2T32HS022242
Legislator of the Year– Senator John McCain
John McCain has served in the United States Senate for nearly 31 years, and is probably due a lifetime achievement award.Â This award, however, is not for his distinguished service in the US Navy, nor for his many accomplishments over three decades in Congress, nor for the honorable manner in which he ran for and lost the Presidency. Springsteen and U2 don't win lifetime achievement awards because they keep turning out relevant hits and earning new generations of fans. Likewise, Sen. McCain wins this year's award for his ringing call over the summer for Congress to return to regular order, backed up by his courageous break with his party during the Affordable Care Act repeal vote.
In late July, Sen. McCain returned to the the Senate to cast a critical vote to proceed to debate on the Senate's Obamacare repeal legislation. Sen. McCain, who had just disclosed that he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, then offered a passionate plea to his fellow senators:
"I've known and admired men and women in the Senate who played much more than a small role in our history, true statesmen, giants of American politics. They came from both parties, and from various backgrounds. Their ambitions were frequently in conflict. They held different views on the issues of the day. And they often had very serious disagreements about how best to serve the national interest.
"But they knew that however sharp and heartfelt their disputes, however keen their ambitions, they had an obligation to work collaboratively to ensure the Senate discharged its constitutional responsibilities effectively. Our responsibilities are important, vitally important, to the continued success of our Republic. And our arcane rules and customs are deliberately intended to require broad cooperation to function well at all. The most revered members of this institution accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America's problems and to defend her from her adversaries.
"That principled mindset, and the service of our predecessors who possessed it, come to mind when I hear the Senate referred to as the world's greatest deliberative body. I'm not sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today.
"I'm sure it wasn't always deserved in previous eras either. But I'm sure there have been times when it was, and I was privileged to witness some of those occasions.
"Our deliberations today -- not just our debates, but the exercise of all our responsibilities -- authorizing government policies, appropriating the funds to implement them, exercising our advice and consent role â€“ are often lively and interesting. They can be sincere and principled. But they are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember. Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we'd all agree they haven't been overburdened by greatness lately. And right now they aren't producing much for the American people.
"Both sides have let this happen. Let's leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they'll find we all conspired in our decline --either by deliberate actions or neglect. We've all played some role in it. Certainly I have. Sometimes, I've let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.
"Our system doesn't depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections, and gives an order to our individual strivings that has helped make ours the most powerful and prosperous society on earth. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than 'winning.' Even when we must give a little to get a little. Even when our efforts manage just three yards and a cloud of dust, while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to 'triumph.'
"I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don't want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.
"Let's trust each other. Let's return to regular order. We've been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. That's an approach that's been employed by both sides, mandating legislation from the top down, without any support from the other side, with all the parliamentary maneuvers that requires.
"I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered. I will not vote for the bill as it is today. It's a shell of a bill right now. We all know that. I have changes urged by my state's governor that will have to be included to earn my support for final passage of any bill. I know many of you will have to see the bill changed substantially for you to support it.
"Why don't we try the old way of legislating in the Senate, the way our rules and customs encourage us to act. If this process ends in failure, which seem likely, then let's return to regular order.
"Let the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee under Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray hold hearings, try to report a bill out of committee with contributions from both sides. Then bring it to the floor for amendment and debate, and see if we can pass something that will be imperfect, full of compromises, and not very pleasing to implacable partisans on either side, but that might provide workable solutions to problems Americans are struggling with today.
"What have we to lose by trying to work together to find those solutions? We're not getting much done apart. I don't think any of us feels very proud of our incapacity. Merely preventing your political opponents from doing what they want isn't the most inspiring work. There's greater satisfaction in respecting our differences, but not letting them prevent agreements that don't require abandonment of core principles, agreements made in good faith that help improve lives and protect the American people.
"The success of the Senate is important to the continued success of America. This country --this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, good and magnificent country -- needs us to help it thrive. That responsibility is more important than any of our personal interests or political affiliations."
A few days later, Sen. McCain carried out his promise to vote against a bill that he continued to see as an "incomplete shell." His vote doomed the effort to "repeal & replace" the Affordable Care Act.
Amazingly, after being elected to Congress as a Reagan Republican, and running as the GOP candidate for President, Sen. McCain now has a higher favorability among Democrats and independents than Republicans. In December 2017, a CCN poll showed 68% of Democrats and 48% of independents had a favorable opinion of the Senator, whereas only 46% of Republicans felt the same. In this toxic political time, some Republicans even whisper that Sen. McCain is a RINO, a "Republican In Name Only," especially after his health care vote in August. That is truly sad.
What is more conservative than demanding Congress, the branch that has the greatest capacity to do good or harm to the Republic, operate by its own time-honored traditions and rules and subject major bills to bi-partisan scrutiny and amendment before passage? Many Republicans railed against these practices when former Democratic Leader Harry Reid recklessly used the "nuclear option" to end most judicial filibusters, and routinely "filled the tree" to prevent consideration of Republican amendments. Yet once the GOP gained control of the Senate, they too placed ideology and winning over creating bipartisan agreement on important issues.
A strong functioning Congress is especially important now.Â President Trump is a small manâ€”seemingly devoid of ideals or morals.Â He cares nothing for policy details, but just his own image and â€œwinningâ€ deals.Â His â€œleadershipâ€ has demoralized executive agency personnel and harmed the nation's image oversees. Senators should try to emulate the legends that went before them--Goldwater, Kennedy, Dirksen, Inouye, Ervin, Taft, Fulbright--and now McCain. The House leadership should be taking the example of Cannon, Rayburn, Martin and O'Neill-- and stop kowtowing to the so-called "Freedom Caucus." Congress needs to pull itself together to first balance, and then cure, Trumpism.
For his bold and timely call for a return to regular order, Dome is pleased to name Senator John McCain our Legislator of the Year.
Finding Equity in Mental Health Reform
Mental health has been a very serious topic in recent years, and one of growing concern in American society. Mental illness among teenagers continues to rise, and so do the costs of mental health treatment. Health care in general is a major and complicated issue in the United States, as Republicans in Congress found in their attempts to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”). In recent decades federal and state legislation have greatly improved access and provided needed consumer protections, but many of the most important protections are in jeopardy. If current Congressional action is any indication, mental health reform may take several steps backward under the new administration.
Mental health reform became a federal issue in 1996 when Congress passed the Mental Health Party Act (“MHP”). It was a weak first attempt at fixing persistent problems in the American health insurance market. Up until the passage of the MHP, insurance providers openly discriminated against mental health claims and treatment. The MHP was the federal government’s attempt to address the disparity between mental health coverage and traditional medical/physical health coverage. However, the original MPH was gutted in Congress before passage, leaving behind a weak law that barely fixed disparities and discrimination in mental health coverage.
During the congressional debates to get the MHP passed, many were concerned about the economic and practical costs of the initiatives to provide equal protections for mental health and medical care. However, the major success of the MHP was that it demonstrated to lawmakers that providing coverage for mental health treatments was not only beneficial, but that it could be done in a cost effective manner.
After the passage of the 1996 Act, the states responded and attempted to bridge some of the gaping holes left by the MHP. In many cases, states created stricter mental health parity laws than the federal government. This sparked a general acceptance and trend toward improving mental health parity. As opposition to mental health parity was drowned out by support for increased regulation and consumer protections, Congress felt encouraged to try their hand again at providing equal treatment for mental and medical health coverage. The 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (“MHPAEA”) was the result of Congress’s second try. The MHPAEA greatly expanded protections for mental health patients and treatment coverage. But alas, there were still major areas in need of reform.
Of particular importance to the current and future state of mental health reform though, came two short years after the passage of the MHPAEA - the ACA. Passed in 2010, the ACA combined with the MHPAEA brought sweeping reform for mental health coverage. Mental health coverage falls under the Essential Health Benefits mandate requiring every insurance provider to provide consumers with mental health coverage. Coupled with the MHPAEA, which requires any insurance provider to treat mental and medical claims equally, mental health coverage is now equal in the eyes of the law to medical coverage.
Since the passage of the ACA though, the practical impact of the reforms have resulted in more covert discrimination of mental health claims that are chipping away at important health care resources that are increasingly vital in American society. Despite laws requiring equal treatment, insurance providers decline mental health claims at higher rates than medical claims. Additionally, insurance providers also make it hard for mental health treatment providers to get paid thereby limiting the physical amount of help available.
The ACA made significant gains in mental health reform, however the lack of practical results has preserved mental health reform as a serious issue of concern. Recently, Congress enacted the 21st Century Cures Act (“Cures Act”), which addresses many pressing concerns that were not covered under the ACA. Most notably, the new act uses modern ideas to address mental illness concerns and substance abuse issues. However, a major concern with the Cures Act is that despite its passage, the House must choose to fund it. Otherwise, all the legislative action prescribed by the new federal law is moot.
Unfortunately, many are speculating that Congress and the Administration will be at odds over the budget putting federal funds for mental health in jeopardy. This is especially so given the fight over funds for various Republican and Presidential pet projects. For example, the President is strongly urging the Republican controlled Congress to allocate funding for his pet project, the border wall between the United States and Mexico. However, House Speaker Paul Ryan and many Republican representatives are more interested in changing funding allocations for health care in an attempt to bounce back after the humiliation of their previous attempt at altering the ACA.
If the recent efforts to "repeal and replace" the ACA was any indication of what the future holds for mental health reform, then America will take a step backward leaving millions without coverage thereby exacerbating an already growing problem. The House passed AHCA attempted to gut the ACA, and would have remove the individual mandate and significantly altered the Essential Health Benefits requirement. Under the AHCA, Ryan tried to remove the requirement that Medicaid and Medicare must follow the Essential Health Benefit mandate, which would effectively prevent millions of the most vulnerable in society from accessing affordable mental health resources.
The fate of mental health coverage and treatment access in many ways is tied to the continued success and longevity of the ACA and funding options for current mental health legislation. To remove the current federal mental health protections, as was proposed in the AHCA, would set progress back and make it nearly impossible for millions to have access to affordable mental health treatments. As the need for mental health treatments and resources grows, we as a nation should not be removing protections and federal funding for progressive initiatives. We should continue to follow the path of the Cures Act and further pursue these initiatives. In order for mental health treatment to be improved subsidies need to be provided for mental health treatment providers (such as psychologists) to incentivize them to open practices and facilities in critical shortage areas. Additionally, federal and state regulations need to address the manner in which insurance providers treat mental health providers.
The current legal framework as a whole is very fair, but needs stricter enforcement on the ground. What use are laws and protections if no one is incentivized to follow them? Of the greatest important, however, is that future laws and regulations intending to improve the state of mental health coverage need to stop attempting to create equality between mental health and medical treatment. Medical and surgical procedures are inherently different than mental health procedures and thus legal equity is needed in order to improve access and provide needed consumer protections.
With Obamacare in peril, the Governors Speak Out
Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), I did not have health insurance. My home state Florida did not mandate health insurance coverage for residents and my undergraduate university did not require me to have health insurance. In essence, I was a typical American in my early 20s. I did not think I needed health insurance, was not required to carry it, and could not afford it. Cost was the greatest factor: I did not have any income and Florida did not expand Medicaid. To my surprise, the ACA allowed me to have affordable health insurance for the first time as an adult. Now Congress is contemplating major changes to the ACA (or commonly called Obamacare), causing some governors, such as Charlie Baker (R-Massachusetts), to weigh in on the proposals. Despite the recent successful House repeal and replacement of the ACA, the Senate is now struggling to find a path forward under the budget reconciliation rules.
Just a few months ago, it looked as though changes to the ACA were inevitable given the unified Republican control of Congress and the Administration. Despite seven years of discussion of repeal, and more recently the repeal and replace vote, the future is still uncertain. Members of Congress who attended town hall meetings during the 4th of July break heard from many constituents who are deeply concerned with loss of coverage. Former House Speaker John Boehner recently said that Congress would not repeal and replace, but instead “fix” Obamacare. And now, the Senate is spinning its wheels.
The much-awaited House bill, the American Healthcare Act (the “AHCA”), was the first attempt at replacing the ACA. The AHCA would repeal tax penalties for people without health insurance, reduce federal insurance standards, cut subsidies for buying private insurance and establish new limits on spending for Medicaid. In their first attempt, Republicans failed to get their bill to reach the House floor for a vote. In spite of this defeat, the Trump Administration placed renewed pressure on Congress to revise the ACA. Ultimately, the House was able to pass the bill in its second try by adding $8 billion to help cover insurance costs for people with pre-existing conditions. However, the Senate cannot pass the House bill because Majority Leader McConnell must accommodate Republican senators from states that have expanded Medicaid under the ACA. These senators, with a statewide constituency, must consider what their state governors have to say on revisions to the ACA.
Congress' ACA replacement process included a request to the 50 governors for information. In response, Massachusetts Governor Baker sent a letter on the ACA’s impact on Massachusetts. Some commentators believe Governor Baker’s letter could carry extra weight because of his Republican party affiliation and his past work experience as chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care gives his suggestions and concerns greater authority.
In his letter, Governor Baker discussed the importance of the health sector to the Massachusetts economy; $19.77 billion, making it one of the leading industries in the state. Governor Baker also noted that the ACA was modeled after the Massachusetts system, which was intended to provide close to universal coverage for residents. Massachusetts has the highest percentage of insured residents in the U.S.— 96.4%. Just under 60% of the insured are covered through the employer-sponsored insurance market.
Governor Baker argued that lawmakers should not repeal the ACA, but revise it. One area in need of repair is the ability of individuals with employer provided insurance to switch to tax-payer subsidized health insurance; something half a million Massachusetts residents have done since 2011. As a result, Medicaid now accounts for close to 40% of the state’s budget. Since 2012, the percentage of Massachusetts residents on commercial insurance decreased by 7% while Medicaid enrollment increased by 7% and now insures 28% of the population. The original Massachusetts program did not allow this transfer, but the State was forced to comply with the introduction of the ACA. Now, this particular aspect of the ACA was straining the Massachusetts system and needed to be revised. Although Governor Baker offered reforms, he argued for maintaining several aspects of the law, such as the mandate requiring all residents to carry health insurance, which would allow stability within high-risk pools for insuring people who are sick.
The Governor continues to push the goal of universal health care coverage, but recognized such a goal was in jeopardy because of certain Congressional proposals. For instance, the letter expressed concern over a shift to block grants for Medicaid funding to the states. The Governor argues that a shift to block grants (or “per capita caps for Medicaid) would “remove flexibility from states” as the result of lower federal funding. Under current law, the federal government and state governments share in the financing and administration of Medicaid. According to the Congressional Budget Office, states typically pay health care providers for services to enrollees, and the federal government reimburses states for a percentage of their expenditures. Furthermore, all federal reimbursement for medical services is “open-ended” in other words, if a state spends more because enrollment increases or costs per enrollee rise, additional the federal government matches. Currently, Massachusetts is a 50/50 state, meaning that the federal government and Massachusetts divide the cost of providing health care for Medicaid recipients.
Despite Governor Baker position, the House passed AHCA creates a per capita-based cap on Medicaid payments for medical assistance. The per-capita caps would establish a limit on the amount of reimbursement the federal government provides to states. For instance, if a state spent more than the federally established limit on reimbursements, the federal government would not match the additional costs. The AHCA would punish Massachusetts low income residents and threaten the stability of the MassHealth system. Consequently, the changes to federal grants of funds could impact the Commonwealth’s goal of universal healthcare.
Today, Governor Baker—joined with nine other governors, including Gov. Sandoval (R-Nevada) and Gov. Kasich (R-Ohio) —sent another letter to the Senate urging it to correct the ACA's weaknesses without repealing the law or gutting Medicaid. The Governors wrote, "lasting reforms can only be achieved in an open, bipartisan fashion." The governors also called on the Senate to heed U.S. Sen. John McCain's, R-Arizona, impassioned plea to return to "regular order" and not continue the recent practice of hyper partisanship.
The governors are speaking; the question remains whether Congress is listening.
Juan Garay graduated from Boston University School of Law in 2017.