Democratic presidential contender Sen. Kamala Harris wants to “move on” from the current healthcare system in favor of a plan that would roll everyone in the U.S. onto a government plan known as “Medicare for all,” doing away with private health insurance.
As the California Democrat and others in her party make their case, however, they will face considerable opposition not only in the insurance industry, but across the healthcare sector, which would see massive upheaval from the plan. And polling suggests that the public, roughly half of which relies on private insurance, isn’t quite on board.
Drug companies, insurers, doctors, and hospitals have united in recent months to fight national government healthcare. One healthcare industry group, called the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, has launched a five-figure digital ad campaign arguing that “Medicare for all” would cause massive disruption, higher taxes, lower quality care, and less choice for patients. It plans to spend six figures bashing “Medicare for all” over the course of 2019.
“Whether it’s called Medicare for all, single payer, or a public option, one-size-fits-all healthcare will mean all Americans have less choice and control over the doctors, treatments, and coverage,” said Lauren Crawford Shaver, the group’s executive director.
Other candidates for the Democratic nomination, such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, are, like Harris, co-sponsors of the Medicare for All Act, legislation led by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Although it has “Medicare” in the name, the bill would go much further than current Medicare, which covers adults 65 and older and people with disabilities. It would pay for emergency surgery, prescription drugs, mental healthcare, and eye care without a copay.
Children would be enrolled in the government plan soon after the the bill’s passage, and the rest would be gradually phased in after four years. This would mean that roughly half of the U.S. population, the 177 million people in the U.S. covered by private health insurance mostly through work, would be moved onto a government plan. Employers would pay higher taxes rather than pay for private plans.
In defending the need for a government system, Sanders has blasted insurance companies, saying upon unveiling the bill that they “make billions of dollars in profits and make industry CEOs extremely wealthy.”
But healthcare providers, not just insurers, benefit from the current fragmented system, in which insurance is purchased by employers, the government, and individuals. They charge private insurers more to make up for the gap left by patients who are uninsured or are on government programs, which pay less for their services.
If all privately insured individuals were to have Medicare instead, and if it were to pay the same rates it does now, then doctors and hospitals would see big losses caring for patients who moved from private coverage to the government plan. Healthcare providers have said that if taxes don’t go up to pay for the difference, then doctors and hospitals will face pay cuts and layoffs, leading to facility closures and long lines for care.
Hospitals serve as the main employer in many communities. For patients, that would mean losing not only a healthcare plan they might be satisfied with, but also doctors they worked with for years or hospitals they relied on in their communities.
The Medicare for All Act has not been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, but analyses from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the left-leaning Urban Institute found it would raise government spending over a decade by $32.6 trillion.
Overall healthcare spending, though, would actually fall by $2 trillion, as private spending on healthcare would collapse. The cut would be achieved, however, through paying 40 percent less to providers than what they were getting from private insurance.
Another obstacle to “Medicare for all” is the fact that the public isn’t fully convinced by the idea of nixing private insurance, a recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows. Initially, 56 percent of those polled favored the Medicare for All Act, but then when they learned it would do away with private health insurance, the support fell to 37 percent.
Candidates are going to face pushback within their party. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have not embraced government healthcare, instead pushing for adding funding to Obamacare.
But proponents of allowing the government to have a more extensive role in healthcare point out that waste is prevalent in the current system. Patients receive unnecessary medical care, such as repeated tests or surgeries that either don’t make them healthier or even make them worse.
These proponents agree with Harris that health insurance companies are unnecessary. Wendell Potter, an advocate of a government-financed healthcare system and president of the Business Initiative for Health Policy, said in a statement that polling results show the healthcare industry’s misinformation campaign to spread “fear, uncertainty, and doubt” was effective. He said that commercial health insurance companies don’t have an incentive to lower healthcare costs and make sure patients can access care.
Potter, a former health insurance executive, described how the information campaign worked, saying the goal was to “make people believe that private health insurance companies were a necessary part of the healthcare system, and to scare them into thinking that a ‘Medicare for all’ system was expensive and impractical, and that it would cause a significant drop off in the quality of care.”