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Projected costs of single payer in the United States

January 15, 2020

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Christopher Cai, Jackson Runte, Isabel Ostrer, Kacey Berry, Ninez Ponce, Michael Rodriguez, Stefano Bertozzi, Justin S. White, James G. Kahn
PLOS Medicine, January 15, 2020


Background: The United States is the only high-income nation without universal, government-funded or -mandated health insurance employing a unified payment system. The US multi-payer system leaves residents uninsured or underinsured, despite overall healthcare costs far above other nations. Single-payer (often referred to as Medicare for All), a proposed policy solution since 1990, is receiving renewed press attention and popular support. Our review seeks to assess the projected cost impact of a single-payer approach.

Methods and findings: We conducted our literature search between June 1 and December 31, 2018, without start date restriction for included studies. We surveyed an expert panel and searched PubMed, Google, Google Scholar, and preexisting lists for formal economic studies of the projected costs of single-payer plans for the US or for individual states. Reviewer pairs extracted data on methods and findings using a template. We quantified changes in total costs standardized to percentage of contemporaneous healthcare spending. Additionally, we quantified cost changes by subtype, such as costs due to increased healthcare utilization and savings due to simplified payment administration, lower drug costs, and other factors. We further examined how modeling assumptions affected results. Our search yielded economic analyses of the cost of 22 single-payer plans over the past 30 years. Exclusions were due to inadequate technical data or assuming a substantial ongoing role for private insurers. We found that 19 (86%) of the analyses predicted net savings (median net result was a savings of 3.46% of total costs) in the first year of program operation and 20 (91%) predicted savings over several years; anticipated growth rates would result in long-term net savings for all plans. The largest source of savings was simplified payment administration (median 8.8%), and the best predictors of net savings were the magnitude of utilization increase, and savings on administration and drug costs (R2 of 0.035, 0.43, and 0.62, respectively). Only drug cost savings remained significant in multivariate analysis. Included studies were heterogeneous in methods, which precluded us from conducting a formal meta-analysis.

Conclusions: In this systematic review, we found a high degree of analytic consensus for the fiscal feasibility of a single-payer approach in the US. Actual costs will depend on plan features and implementation. Future research should refine estimates of the effects of coverage expansion on utilization, evaluate provider administrative costs in varied existing single-payer systems, analyze implementation options, and evaluate US-based single-payer programs, as available.

What do these findings mean?

  • There is near-consensus in these analyses that single-payer would reduce health expenditures while providing high-quality insurance to all US residents.
  • To achieve net savings, single-payer plans rely on simplified billing and negotiated drug price reductions, as well as global budgets to control spending growth over time.

https://doi.org… OR https://journals.plos.org…

Single Payer Systems Likely to Save Money in U.S., Analysis Finds; Lower administrative and drug costs would be main drivers of cost savings

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), January 15, 2020

A single payer healthcare system would save money over time, likely even during the first year of operation, according to nearly two dozen analyses of national and statewide single payer proposals made over the past 30 years.

The study, published Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, in PLOS Medicine, comes as California Gov. Gavin Newsom has created a state commission to find ways to achieve universal coverage, possibly through a single payer system, and as the Democratic presidential candidates are debating “Medicare for All” proposals on the national stage.

The US spends more on healthcare than any other country, yet is one of only a few developed nations that does not provide universal coverage. Under proposed single payer bills, such as “Medicare for All”, a unified public financing system would replace private insurance, similar to the healthcare system in Canada and many other wealthy nations.

To estimate what would happen if the United States adopted a single payer system, researchers from UCSF, UCLA and UC Berkeley examined 22 economic analyses by government, business and academic organizations of national and state-level single payer plans, including proposals made in Massachusetts, California, Maryland, Vermont, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York and Oregon.

These analyses were used by policy makers to evaluate the proposals, estimating savings the plans would create through simplified billing and lower drug costs while also taking into account increases in health spending that would arise as newly insured people sought healthcare.

The researchers found that 19 of the 22 models predicted net savings in the first year after implementation, averaging 3.5 percent of total healthcare spending.

The researchers were able to estimate longer-term savings by using cost projections made in 10 of the models, which looked as far as 11 years into the future. These studies assumed that savings would grow over time, as the increases in healthcare utilization by the newly insured leveled off, and the global budgets adopted by single payer systems helped to constrain costs. By the tenth year, all modeled single payer systems would save money, even those that projected costs would initially increase.

“Even though they start with different single designs and modeling assumptions, the vast majority of these studies all come to the same conclusion,” said James G. Kahn, MD, MPH, a professor in the UCSF Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, and a member of the Philip R. Lee Health Policy Institute. “This suggests that fears that a single-payer system would increase costs are likely misplaced.”

Savings from simplified payment administration and reductions in drug prices and other efficiencies ranged from 3 to 27 percent, with the largest savings found in plans that lowered drug costs.

Higher initial costs were associated with plans that had low co-pays or none at all, offered rich benefits, or that did not expect savings from lower drug and medical equipment costs.

The models were created by analysts from different political perspectives, and they provided a range of cost estimates in the first year of operation, from 7 percent higher to 15 percent lower.

The researchers found that the economic models that were supported by left-leaning funders or that were done by academics found slightly larger net savings. But analyses supported by more conservative funders or performed outside of academia still predicted single payer systems would yield savings.

“This means that across the political spectrum, there is near consensus among these economists that a single-payer system would save money,” said Christopher Cai, a third-year medical student at UCSF and the study’s first author. “Replacing private insurance with a public system is essential to achieving these savings.”

Authors: Christopher Cai, Jackson Runte, Isabel Ostrer, Kacey Berry, Justin White, PhD, and James G. Kahn, MD, MPH, of the UCSF School of Medicine; Ninez Ponce, PhD, MPP, of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health; Michael Rodriguez, MD, MPH, of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA; Stefano Bertozzi, MD, PhD, of the UC Berkley School of Public Health.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

What does the literature on modeling of single payer financing of health care tell us? As this systematic review confirms, “There is near-consensus in these analyses that single-payer would reduce health expenditures while providing high-quality insurance to all US residents.”

All models that qualified for the study would reduce health care spending after the transitional startup, and most of them would reduce spending even during the startup interval. Clearly the single payer model would work for all of us, and it would be more affordable than if we maintained the deficient status quo.

PLOS Medicine is an Open Access publication and thus there is no paywall for downloading this 18 page report. You should do so and share it widely so that other academics and activists can use it to refute the false claim that we cannot afford single payer Medicare for All. We can, and we must.

Stay informed! Visit www.pnhp.org/qotd to sign up for daily email updates.

About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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