He cautions people to think about both the costs and benefits of single payer; it’s not a panacea. “There aren’t going to be free $100 bills on the sidewalk if we move to single payer,” he said.
He also predicts that, if single payer did bring drug costs down, there might be less venture-capital money chasing drug development, which might mean fewer blockbuster cures down the line. And yes, he added, “you would lose some hospitals for sure.”
Amitabh Chandra, the director of health-policy research at Harvard University, doesn’t think it would be so bad if hospitals shut down—as long as they’re little-used, underperforming hospitals. Things like telemedicine or ambulatory surgical centers might replace hospital stays, he suspects. And longer waits might not, from an economist’s perspective, be the worst thing, either. That would be a way of rationing care, and we’re going to desperately need some sort of rationing. Otherwise “Medicare for all” would be very expensive and would probably necessitate a large tax increase. (A few years ago, Vermont’s plan for single payer fell apart because it was too costly.)
If the United States decided not to go that route, Chandra says, we would be looking at something more like “Medicaid for all.” Medicaid, the health-insurance program for the poor, is a much leaner program than Medicare. Not all doctors take it, and it limits the drugs and treatments its beneficiaries can get. This could work, in Chandra’s view, but many Americans would find it stingy compared to their employers’ ultra-luxe PPO plans. “Americans would say, ‘I like my super-generous, employer-provided insurance. Why did you take it away from me?’” he said.
Indeed, that’s the real hurdle to setting up single payer, says Tim Jost, emeritus professor at the Washington and Lee University School of Law. Between “80 to 85 percent of Americans are already covered by health insurance, and most of them are happy with what they’ve got.” It’s true that single payer would help extend coverage to those who are currently uninsured. But policy makers could already do that by simply expanding Medicaid or providing larger subsidies to low-income Americans.
Under single payer, employers would stop covering part of their employees’ insurance premiums, as they do now, and people would likely see their taxes rise. “As people started to see it, they would get scared,” Jost said. And that’s before you factor in how negatively Republican groups would likely paint single payer in TV ads and Congressional hearings. (Remember death panels?) It would just be a very hard sell to the American public.
“As someone who is very supportive of the Democratic party,” Jost said, “I hope the Democrats don’t decide to jump off the cliff of embracing single payer.”