Debating the Pros and Cons of Medicare for All

by This post first appeared on The Health Policy Exchange
Published on Oct 27, 2020

Although neither of the major party nominees for U.S. President in November support a "Medicare for All" style single-payer health insurance program, this issue emerged during the Democratic primary debates as one option for extending coverage to the uninsured and reducing health care administrative costs. The Georgetown Health Policy Journal Club recently discussed two editorials in the October 1 issue of American Family Physician that offered contrasting answers to the question: "Would Medicare for All Be the Most Beneficial Health Care System for Family Physicians and Patients?"

In "Yes: Improved Medicare for All Would Rescue an American Health Care System in Crisis," Dr. Ed Weisbart argued that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the shortcomings in an employer-based health insurance system with an patchwork public insurance safety net. He pointed out that 93% of U.S. primary care physicians accept Medicare, and Medicare enrollment has been associated with improvements in age-specific mortality relative to peer nations. In addition, Dr. Weisbart suggested that implementing an expanded version of Medicare with more comprehensive coverage for the entire population would lead to large administrative cost savings, reduce documentation burden, and potentially increase primary care physician satisfaction by eliminating the moral injury associated with being unable to help patients who cannot afford care.

In "No: Medicare for All Would Cause Chaos and Fail to Control Health Care Costs," Dr. Richard Young countered that "expansion of Medicare ... would not address the deeper problems in our health care system." At current payment rates, implementation of Medicare for All could cause substantial financial difficulties for hospitals. Absent new legislation to allow the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to negotiate drug prices and consider costs in coverage determinations, he pointed out, expanding Medicare would further inflate the already staggering U.S. health care bill. Dr. Young argued that regardless of their financing mechanisms, other countries with universal coverage have lower costs primarily because their citizens are willing to sacrifice - whether that means practicing within strict budget limits (e.g., fewer cancer screenings, more conservative prescribing of statins) or declining to cover some beneficial but very expensive therapies. Finally, he observed that

many of the things that frustrate family physicians about the current [U.S. health care] system originated with Medicare: the devaluation of primary care services; the relative overpayment for specialist care; the inability to bill for helping patients with more than two or three concerns in one visit; the requirement for face-to-face services (before the coronavirus disease 2019 exceptions took effect); the refusal to pay family physicians for clinic and hospital work on the same day; and the lack of incentives for full-scope family medicine.

A 2019 RAND study estimated that total national health expenditures under a Medicare for All plan would increase by only 1.8%, from $3.82 to $3.89 trillion annually. However, the federal government's direct share of health care spending would rise by 220%, from $1.1 to $3.5 trillion, an increase that would have represented more than half of 2019 federal expenditures and exceeded the $2 trillion plus CARES Act economic relief package passed earlier this year.

We also discussed less ambitious (and, possibly, more politically palatable) proposals for extending coverage that build on the framework of the Affordable Care Act, such as adding a publicly administered insurance option to increase competition (and lower premium costs) in the state health marketplaces. Former Vice President Biden has expressed support for "Medicare for More," extending Medicare eligibility to persons age 60 to 64 and possibly allowing younger adults without affordable insurance options to "buy in" to the program. The upcoming Presidential and Congressional elections will clearly play a critical role in determining if our country moves in that direction.