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