Sen. Bernie Sanders and other single-payer advocates say Medicare for All would cost the government far less — between $20 trillion and $36 trillion over a decade — by slashing overhead, eliminating out-of-pocket costs and empowering federal officials to bargain directly with hospitals and drugmakers. But the streamlined system would have to care for millions of currently uninsured people at a significant cost to taxpayers, and experts disagree whether it would actually save money in the long run.
Centrist Democrats are pushing narrower plans that would, among other things, expand tax credits for people just above the Obamacare subsidy threshold. Virtually no one is arguing for maintaining the status quo, but that’s precisely what could happen given that congressional gridlock has stymied even popular, and bipartisan, causes like halting surprise medical bills.
“It’s really hard to see anything breaking through, especially when the industry interests and the money they’re willing to spend on lobbying and campaign contributions is just mind-boggling,” said Sabrina Corlette, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. “And, without question, we are on an unsustainable trajectory.”
With Medicare for All and its price tag likely to come up in the next Democratic debate Jan. 14 in Iowa, here are five of the costliest consequences of inaction:
National health spending keeps rising
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates that nationwide health spending will hit $6 trillion a year by 2027 absent any changes in law. That would be nearly a fifth of the economy. In total, the United States is slated to spend about $52 trillion over the coming decade.
The cost drivers include hospitals, physician and clinical services and prescription drugs. Some local health systems have become monopolies that can largely set prices as they please — leading to higher premiums and more out-of-pocket spending for consumers.
“Even the biggest insurance plans are not big enough to bargain down the cost of services, and they don’t have an incentive to,” said Wendell Potter, a former Cigna executive-turned whistleblower and single-payer advocate.
An aging population is driving up Medicare spending, but the rising cost of private insurance is the biggest factor. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found per capita spending for private insurance grew by nearly 53 percent over the last decade, or more than double the hike in per capita Medicare spending.
More people will be uninsured
The Census Bureau reported in September that the number of Americans without insurance grew by 2 million people since 2017 — the first increase in nearly a decade. Even with a healthy economy and low unemployment, more than 27 million people weren’t covered at any point last year. That could grow to 35 million by 2029, per the Congressional Budget Office, under current law.
The number of people enrolling in the Obamacare marketplace has declined, and more people are dropping employer-sponsored insurance due to cost and other concerns.
Part of this is President Donald Trump’s doing — the administration has slashed efforts to push Obamacare enrollment and rolled back the massive marketing effort that the Obama administration rolled out for years.
There are also more than 400,000 additional uninsured children than just two years ago — and 4 million in all — and states that haven’t expanded Medicaid are seeing the biggest spikes.
“What we also miss in the debate is the number of people temporarily uninsured, who miss open enrollment, who are between jobs, who fall through the cracks,” said Adam Gaffney, a Harvard Medical School researcher and the president of Physicians for a National Health Program. “I see people all the time in my practice in that situation who don’t fill prescriptions and experience serious complications.”
Going without insurance hits patients and health care providers: Average hospital spending on care for the uninsured was $13 million in 2018 up roughly 3 percent annually since 2016.
Coverage will be skimpier
As the cost of health care has skyrocketed, insurance companies have squeezed patients, charging higher premiums, deductibles and co-pays, and creating narrow networks of providers and aggressively billing for out-of-network care.
Since 2009, the amount workers have had to pay for health insurance has increased 71 percent, while wages have only risen 26 percent over that time.
More than 80 percent of workers now have to pay a minimum amount out of pocket before insurance kicks in — and the amount of that deductible has doubled over the last 10 years, now standing at an average of $1,655, though many workers have to pay a lot more.
These costs are putting care out of reach for millions.
A new Gallup poll found that a full quarter of adults have put off treatment for a serious medical condition due to the cost — the highest since Gallup began asking the question three decades ago. A full third say they’ve delayed or deferred some kind of health care service over the past year. Another Gallup and West Help survey found that 34 million people know at least one friend or family member who died over the past five years after skipping treatment due to costs.
Needed drugs will become more out of reach
U.S. patients pay vastly more for prescription drugs than people in other developed countries and the disparity is set to grow. The United States spent $1,443 per person on prescription drugs in 2018, while other developed countries fell somewhere between $466 and $939.
In just five years, national spending on prescription drugs increased 25 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office, and CMS expects that increase to “accelerate” over the next several years.
Increasingly, patients are responding by forgoing their medications. Gallup found in November that nearly 23 percent of adults — roughly 58 million people — said they haven’t been able to “pay for needed medicine or drugs that a doctor prescribed” over the past year.
This widespread inability to take needed medication, a government-funded study found last year, is responsible for as much as 10 percent of hospital admissions. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that medication nonadherence accounts for somewhere between $100 and $300 billion in national health spending every year.
Americans will continue to get sicker and die younger
The cost of maintaining the status quo is evident not only in dollars but in human lives.
Life expectancy in the United States has declined over the last three years, even as other developed countries around the world saw improvements.
Though the United States spends nearly twice as much on health care as other high-income countries, there’s been a stark increase in mortality between the ages of 19 and 64, with drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicide and organ diseases driving the trend. It’s cut across race and gender with the worst effects felt in rural areas.
The opioid epidemic only accounts for a fraction of the problem. The National Research Council found that the United States has higher mortality rates from most major causes of death than 16 other high-income countries.
Researchers at USC estimate that if these trends continue, it would take the United States more than a century to reach the average life expectancy levels other countries hit in 2016.