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Single Payer Overview 2021 & 2022

Summary: The 2021-2022 transition invites contemplation of health reform over the past year and upcoming. We process last year via a perusal of HJM. We offer thoughts on the future. And we solicit comments from you — HJM readers. Email us. We’ll share your musings in early 2022. Meantime, Happy New Year!

Comment by: Jim Kahn

How should we think about the 12 months past and next in the single payer movement? A review of HJM posts since our May launch guided me to key themes from 2021. I provide links to posts and a few other resources in case you want to dig in. Please also read and reflect on what might be in store for 2022. BTW I’m rather fond of alliterative triplets …

2021 – Revelations, Resolve, Resistance

Revelations – What did we learn (or learn again)?

Our system is failing, more clearly than ever:We see it in health, cost, and welfare statistics as well as shocking stories. Lacking insurance is deadly. So is underinsurance: financial barriers such as high deductibles and medication cost-sharing cause deaths, and are rising in ACA plans. Quality of chronic illness care is slipping. Insurance complexity imposes huge care and cost burdens for patients, alongside ever-rising costs for work-based insurance. Medical debt now surpasses all other debts, likely further harming health. Overall, high costs and poor performance: we’ve got nothing to crow about.

The US compares dismally with other wealthy nations: The diverging longevity and cost lines are stunning. Even the US privileged fare worse than average elsewhere, with cross-national mortality differences and racial disparities increasing since 1990. Why? The US underperforms other countries on dozens of health system performance measures, provides worse critical care, charges for medications, and has poor access to mental health care. And although excess mortality drops after age 65, financial barriers are increasing for seniors.

COVID revealed & exacerbated the problems. Millions lost insurance due to layoffs. Among the insured, testing and care costs borne by patients have sometimes been huge, despite promises of protection … even as insurers profited immensely from lower overall care utilization. Pandemic control lags other countries, increasing life expectancy gaps, while vaccine profit margins soar.

Racial disparities in health care are pervasive. There are large racial differences in insurance rates, as well as access and mortality. A universal public program like Medicare lowers disparities. With current insurance patterns, medical debts are more common in Black households. Social stresses exacerbate health differences.

System tweaks accomplish nothing. “Fix the current system” approaches aren’t working. Even a much-hyped Buffett-Bezos-et al work-based insurance scheme bailed. Pay for performance burdens physicians, and its showcase Accountable Care Organizations failed to save money for Medicare. Posting care prices is chaotic and unusable at hospitals and even when patients know prices it doesn’t influence care choices.

A growing profit focus is largely to blame: For-profit ownership of insurers and providers increasingly permeates our system, and even large non-profits focus on financial gain. This produces broad and worrisome distortions of care. Negative consequences are pervasive: providers burn out at higher rates, quality of care suffers, mortality rises. Gaming the rules through aggressive & illegal billing and restructuring businesses shift hundreds of billions from care to investors. This private for-profit threat is massive in Medicare.

Medicare is under attack. Our huge and revered public insurance program is in extremis. Medicare Advantage continues to cost the government more over time in part by skipping out on end-of-life care and imposing financial burdens on sick patients. Reports of excessive and fraudulent billing using risk reporting multiply: cheating, cheating, and cheapness combined with massive overpayment. MA plans suffer from variable mortality rates without disclosure. And now traditional fee-for-service Medicare is profoundly threatened with privatization via Direct Contracting Entities (DCEs), which will import the extractive profit style of Medicare Advantage.

Resolve – How did we demonstrate ongoing broad commitment to single payer?

Counteracting the bad news about our health system are several inspiring nuggets in our battle for single payer.

First, new evidence demonstrated that public insurance works. It provides better access, financial protection, and satisfaction than private insurance. Medicaid improves health and saves money for society. Medicare, as noted above, lessens disparities among US populations over 65 years old and compared with other nations.

Second, public support for single payer remains high. California polls in 2021 indicated >50% – 75% support among voters and key stakeholder groups. Past national polls have been similar.

Third, public discussion about reform retains a robust single payer component. The Healthy California for All Commission, which will report in early 2022, has seen much evidence favoring single payer and has strong commissioner advocates for it. In Washington DC, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) submitted the latest single payer bill, HR 1976 The Medicare for All Act of 2021, with a record 118 co-sponsors.

Finally, the Build Back Better Act, now in final negotiations, though it falls far short of single payer, includes provisions that move in the right direction, most notably Medicare drug benefit price negotiations (for a few drugs) and out-of-pocket limits, a hearing benefit, and better ACA exchange subsidies for the poor in non-Medicaid expansion states.

Resistance – Where did we fight back against anti-reform actions?

The huge threat in 2021 was – and remains – the CMS plan to replace traditional fee-for-service Medicare with mainly for-profit corporate DCEs using various financial designs including full capitation. If they can’t oppose “Medicare for All”, they’ll undermine Medicare. This is a complete shift from ACOs used in traditional Medicare, which although they didn’t work, at least focused on provider (non-investor) organizations and didn’t force enrollees to participate in capitation. DCEs started in the Trump administration, with corrupt corporate influence. Under Biden, the worst version (geographic) has been set aside, but CMS is forging ahead with other DCEs. PNHP, JustCare, and other groups are organizing public awareness and opposition.

Another, less immediate but more direct, threat to single payer is “Medicare Advantage for All”. This is a private insurance structure that will undermine the efficiency and generosity of public financing. We push back here.

2022 – Persistence, Pursuit, Partnership

Where do we expect and want to go in 2022? Please email your ideas and suggestions … which we’ll share.

Persistence – in fighting DCEs and Medicare Advantage. Both undermine our most successful public insurance program for the general population. Learn more about DCEs in particular, since the issue is urgent — and actively support efforts to force CMS to reverse course.

Pursuit – of single payer, of course. We have (at least) one more year of a Democratic Congress. Once work on COVID response and social infrastructure is complete, we can expect Congressional progressives to return to HR 1976, a Senate bill, and associated activities – hearings in DC and elsewhere, discussion of potential state experiments, and policy research.

And we’ll pursue state opportunities. Here in California, that means building on Commission findings and the state single payer bill (currently AB 1400) – publicizing the single payer results, conducting relevant follow-up research, linking community and business organizations, organizing meetings and hearings, discussing and launching strategy.

Partnership – Alliances with other progressive social causes is natural and essential. So is working with the business community, though many in that quarter may need convincing. We’ll write on this issue in 2022.

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