Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday a plan to “guarantee health care to all New Yorkers.” Responding to what he described as Washington’s failure to achieve single-payer health insurance, the mayor laid out a “transformative” plan to provide free, comprehensive primary and specialized care to 600,000 New Yorkers, including 300,000 illegal immigrants. “We are saying the word ‘guarantee’ because we can make it happen,” he announced, pledging to put $100 million toward the new initiative.
If spending an additional $100 million is all it takes to pay the health costs of a half-million people, you may wonder why New York City Health + Hospitals (HHC) is going broke spending $8 billion annually to treat 1.1 million people. The answer: Mayor de Blasio is not really proposing anything new; nor is he planning to expand services or care to anyone currently ineligible. All of New York City’s uninsured—including illegal aliens—can go to city hospitals and receive treatment on demand. The mayor is trying to do what some of his predecessors attempted—shift patients away from the emergency room and into primary care, or clinics. In 1995, for instance, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani empaneled a group of experts to address the future of the city’s public hospitals. The panel concluded, in the words of a Newsday editorial, that “for patients, emphasis would be on primary care instead of hurried emergency-room sessions and days of hospitalization.”
The tendency of a segment of the population to avoid the health-care system until a critical moment, relying in effect on emergency rooms for primary care, has been the knottiest problem in public health for decades. Letting simple problems fester makes them more expensive to treat. Using ERs designed to handle resource-intensive trauma situations for basic medical problems is inefficient and wasteful. The city has spent lots of money trying to convince poor, often dysfunctional people to develop regular medical habits by signing up for Medicaid and getting a primary-care doctor.
De Blasio makes it sound as though illegal immigrants have not been able to get health care until now. But in 2009, Alan Aviles, then the city’s hospitals chief, spoke of “hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds that cover the costs of serving uninsured patients including undocumented immigrants.” Aviles said that the city was renowned for its “significant innovations in expanding access to care for immigrants, including our financial assistance policies that provide deeply discounted fees for the uninsured, our comprehensive communications assistance for limited English proficiency patients, and our strictly enforced confidentiality policies that afford new immigrants a sense of security in accessing needed care.”
In 2013, Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx announced a new “Integrated Wellness Program” targeting seriously mentally ill people with chronic health problems—the same population that tends to be uninsured, to neglect their own care, and to wind up in the emergency room when their diabetes or cardiovascular disease catches up with them. “At Lincoln, we aim to establish best practices that combine physical and mental health—two services which have historically been treated separately,” said Milton Nuñez, then as now Lincoln’s director—words not much different from what Chirlane McCray said at Tuesday’s “revolutionary” press conference.
HHC director Mitchell Katz practically admitted that the mayor’s announcement of guaranteed health care for all is just fanfare, amounting to more “enabling services” for already-existing programs. Asked if uninsured people—largely illegal immigrants—can get primary care now, Katz explained, “you can definitely walk into any emergency room, you can go to a clinic, but what is missing is the good customer service to ensure that you get an available appointment. . . . that’s what we’re missing and the mayor is providing.”
Dividing $100 million by 600,000 people comes to about $170 per person—perhaps enough money to cover one annual wellness visit to a nurse-practitioner, assuming no lab work, prescriptions, or illnesses. Clearly, the money that the mayor is assigning to this new initiative is intended for outreach—to convince people to go to the city’s already-burdened public clinics instead of waiting until they get sick enough to need an emergency room. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but as a transformative, revolutionary program, it resembles telling people to call the Housing Authority if they need an apartment and then pretending that the housing crisis has been solved. Mayor de Blasio is an expert at unveiling cloud-castles and proclaiming himself a master builder. His “health care for all” effort seems little different.