San Francisco Chronicle
September 24, 2010
What if everyone had Medicare?
By Henry Abrons
The Census Bureau released its annual report on income, poverty and health insurance coverage in the United States earlier this month, and it's no surprise to learn that we're in bad shape. The number of people living in poverty was 43.6 million (14.3 percent), up sharply from 2008, and real per capita income declined 1 percent.
Looking at health insurance, the situation is truly dire. There was a dramatic spike in the uninsured - 4.3 million more, to a record 50.7 million - in spite of the expansion of government health insurance rolls by nearly 6 million.
Those opposing government health insurance should ponder the fact that private health insurance coverage dropped to the lowest level since comparable data were first collected in 1987. On the other hand, those who look to the new health reform law - the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) - for a solution should be deeply disturbed.
PPACA was not designed to provide universal coverage. In fact, if the new law works as planned, in 2019 there will still be 23 million uninsured. Yet the consequence of being uninsured can be lethal: Research published last year shows about 45,000 deaths annually can be linked to lack of coverage. That number is probably more than 50,000 today.
As Don McCanne, senior health policy fellow at Physicians for a National Health Program, has observed, PPACA is an underinsurance program. Employers, seeing little relief, will expand the present trend of shifting more insurance and health care costs onto employees.
Individuals buying plans in the new insurance exchanges (which won't start until 2014) will discover that subsidies are inadequate to avoid financial hardship. Inevitably, they will end up with underinsurance, spotty coverage and high deductibles.
And workers who are unemployed or without employment-based insurance will move into Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California), where providers are reimbursed at such low rates that many will not accept patients.
When Congress passed the new law last spring, it based its decision on a faulty assumption - namely, that the rest of the population will have sustainable private health insurance. But between 2008 and 2009, the number of people covered by private health insurance decreased from 201.0 million to 194.5 million, and the number covered by employment-based health insurance declined from 176.3 million to 169.7 million.
If this trend continues, as it's bound to do under current economic conditions, the ranks of the uninsured will expand and the new law will fall far short of the mark - either the cost will exceed projections, or coverage will be need to be reduced.
The Census Bureau report underscores the urgency of going beyond the Obama administration and swiftly implementing a more fundamental reform - a single-payer national health insurance program - improved Medicare for all.
Improved Medicare-for-all, by replacing our dysfunctional patchwork of private health insurers with a single, streamlined system of financing, would save about $400 billion annually in unnecessary paperwork and bureaucracy. That's enough to cover all of those now uninsured and to provide every person in the United States with quality, comprehensive coverage.
A single-payer plan would also furnish us with effective cost-control tools, like the ability to negotiate fees and purchase medications in bulk. It would permit patients to go to the doctor and hospital of their choice.
Short of a full national plan, some states, like ours, are eyeing a state-based single-payer model. The new health law allows states to experiment with different models of reform, but not until 2017. Congress should move that date forward. There is no time to waste.
(Henry Abrons, M.D., is a member of Physicians for a National Health Program-California - www.pnhpcalifornia.org.)
Comment: Henry Abrons' message is certainly very familiar to supporters of an improved Medicare for all, but we have to keep repeating it over and over until more people start listening.