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What are the trade-offs in public health insurance design?

March 4, 2021

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Katherine Baicker, Ph.D.
JAMA, March 2, 2021

The importance of access to health care and the financial protections that insurance should provide have never been more salient, and the potential consequences of the costs and gaps within the patchwork system in the US have never been more dire. Would the US population be better off with a simple, single-payer, uniform Medicare-for-all type of insurance plan?

Trade-offs abound in policy decisions about health insurance. Although the advantages of moving to such a single-payer plan might be appealing, there are large hidden costs that must be considered.

First, having a single health insurance plan to cover the heterogeneous US population can actually make people worse off than tailoring the generosity of benefits to different people’s needs and preferences. In work I carried out with Mark Shepard, PhD, now at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, and Jonathan Skinner, PhD, at Dartmouth College, we highlight that the costs of having a uniform public insurance benefit have increased dramatically since Medicare’s advent in 1965.

One reason for the sharp increase in the costs of having a uniform public insurance benefit is the dramatic advances in health care within the last half century, with many more intensive—and costly—treatments now available. Providing all the care that might possibly be available is a much more expensive proposition now, necessitating forgoing many other things. A second reason is the substantial growth of income inequality. A person with a high income might be willing to devote resources to expensive care of only minimal health benefit, whereas a person with a lower income may need to devote those same resources to housing or education. A third reason is that, as tax rates have risen, the economic cost of raising funds to cover public insurance programs has become much larger.

All of this means that providing the same public insurance plan to everyone would leave segments of the population worse off. This could be higher-income groups, if the public benefit is limited and they are prohibited from going around it; or lower-income groups, if the benefit is comprehensive and too few resources are left to be devoted elsewhere. An alternative that might be better for everyone would be a basic public health plan available to all coupled with increased spending on other social insurance programs for lower-income groups, with the option to augment those benefits with privately purchased wraparound plans—more like the Medicaid-for-all who want it proposal.

A second factor in evaluating the costs and benefits of having a single plan is the trade-offs that are inherent to insurance plan design. Different people value different features in their health insurance, even if the overall generosity of the plan is held constant. Of course, most would prefer lower costs and broader coverage, all else being equal. Although most want the same care but at a lower price, lower cost sharing means higher premiums, whereas narrower networks can lower premiums.

Amitabh Chandra, PhD, at the Kennedy School and the Business School at Harvard University and I explored the answers given by a nationally representative survey sample about what features in a health insurance plan were most important to those surveyed, focusing on the trade-offs among elements such as lower co-payments, more expansive networks, lower premiums, and more comprehensive coverage. People were remarkably divided in their preferences about those dimensions, and given the option, they would make different choices about their insurance coverage.

The impetus for a single-payer plan is often not only the hope of reducing costs but also the goal of expanding coverage. The same survey suggests that altruistic concern for other individuals’ access to care, encouragingly, cuts across the political aisle. Faith in whether the government or the private sector is best able to effectively provide that care is much more sharply divided.

Another potential drawback of having a single plan is that competition among plans has the potential to drive down costs and accelerate innovation. This requires true competition within the insurer market, as well as among clinicians, hospitals, and other health care facilities, which is not the case in many parts of the country. There is genuine debate to be had about the potential for the introduction of a public option to increase choice and competition to promote higher value.

The costs of a single, expansive public program point to the potential benefits of giving enrollees a choice among insurance options—free or heavily subsidized for lower-income populations—to expand coverage while allowing people to make choices that reflect their priorities and drive value. There is an example along these lines in the Medicare Advantage system already in place, and most patients enrolled in Medicaid receive their insurance through privately managed plans.

None of this is meant to say that the current system is serving the US population well now. Individuals are paying more and getting less than they should—and this is particularly true for vulnerable populations. Instead, acknowledging the societal value of expanding coverage and increasing affordability, as well as the unavoidable trade-offs involved in the design of public programs, would move the country toward implementing a fiscally sustainable, high-value public insurance safety net.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

This article was selected because it represents the views of a respected and influential academic, Katherine Baicker, PhD, Dean of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. She says that there are large hidden costs in the trade-offs that we would have to accept in adopting a single payer Medicare for All program. We should try to understand what these trade-offs would be and what costs they would entail.

First she contends that covering everyone with the same plan could make them worse off because people have different needs and preferences. But that partially defeats the purpose of insurance which is to spread the risk amongst everyone (though we would add “equitably distributed”). We certainly cannot predict unknown risks in the future, and selectively covering pre-existing disorders also fails to spread the risk. Everyone should be covered for all reasonable services.

She states that the sharp increase in the costs of having a uniform public insurance benefit is due to the dramatic advances in health care, but that is not a unique feature of having a universal program. Everyone should be able to benefit from these advances, and an equitably-funded, universal risk pool makes that possible. Besides much of the increase in costs is due to price increases, and they are better contained in a public system.

She states that the substantial growth in income inequality might influence the willingness to devote resources to expensive care, suggesting that decisions would be based on the ability to pay. But a single payer system would obviate the need for such a two-tiered or multi-tiered system.

She states that higher tax rates would be needed because of the increased economic cost of raising funds to cover a public insurance program, but she doesn’t mention here the offset of a reduction in private spending. Besides, financing the system though progressive taxes is what makes the financing equitable.

She stretches logic when she says that the wealthy might be worse off if the benefits are too limited, while lower-income people might be worse off if comprehensive benefits result in fewer resources that could be devoted elsewhere. But all reasonable health care services would be covered, and the wealthy would be free to purchase whatever services are not included in the comprehensive benefit package. She suggests an alternative of establishing a basic public health plan for all with additional social insurance programs for those with low incomes and privately purchased wraparound plans for the wealthier, but this abandons the concept of single payer Medicare for All while perpetuating many of the deficiencies of the current system. (In my early novice years in health policy, I wrote a proposal for a basic public health plan with options to purchase additional coverage. Fortunately, Claudia Fegan was able to set me straight, and I got to work studying health policy, which I have continued to this day.)

She says that the hope of reducing costs while expanding coverage cuts across the political aisle, but there is a sharp divide in faith in whether the government or the private sector is best able to effectively provide that care. It is surprising to note the number of policy academics who are driven by faith in markets when the objective literature paints a clear advantage for government programs. Think of how many private insurance programs rely on public funds yet manage to divert significant amounts of these funds to their own industry. Sounds like greed-driven faith.

Confirming her belief in private markets versus the government, she touts competition of health plans, when what we need instead is cooperation within the health care delivery system. Single payer Medicare for All would promote the latter.

It is interesting that she closes by stating, “None of this is meant to say that the current system is serving the US population well now” and calls for “implementing a fiscally sustainable, high-value public insurance safety net.” Well, single payer Medicare for All would do that for everyone in a comprehensive system that we could afford as individuals and as a nation.

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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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