More Patients Insured in U.S. and More Can’t Afford Doctors but May-be Americans Don’t Really Want Medicare for All — They Want Japa-nese Health Care and the American College of Physicians

As the Democrat presidential candidates argue about Medicare for All as well as alternate programs I still wonder if Americans really know what they want for a health care plan at all. Rapport of Reuters Health noted that A growing number of Americans find it too expensive to see doctors even though more people have health insurance, a U.S. study suggests. But just wait Bernie Sanders is going to give us all free health care, free education, free everything, which the big businesses will pay for. Really?

Over the past two decades, the proportion of adults without insurance dropped to 14.8% from 16.9%, the study found. But during this same period, the proportion of adults unable to afford doctor visits climbed from 11.4% to 15.7%.

Out-of-pocket costs made doctors too expensive for the uninsured, but costs also kept people with coverage from seeing physicians even when they had chronic medical conditions requiring regular checkups.

“The quality of private health insurance is getting worse, and the cost of healthcare is rising significantly,” said lead study author Dr. Laura Hawks of the Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School in Boston.

“We know that private health insurance plans increasing rely on high premiums, high-deductible health plans . . . high copays and other forms of cost-sharing,” Hawks said by email. “All these create financial barriers.”

For the study, researchers examined survey data collected from 1998 to 2017 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They wanted to see how access to care changed after the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was implemented 2014.

The proportion of adults 18 to 64 years old who couldn’t afford to see a doctor climbed slowly from 1998 to 2009, then rose more rapidly for several years before improving with the passage of the ACA, researchers report in JAMA Internal Medicine. But even after the ACA took effect, the proportion of adults able to afford checkups never returned to 1998 levels.

Affordability worsened across all racial and ethnic groups, and nearly all income groups, the study found.

Among the uninsured, the proportion of adults unable to afford physician visits climbed from 32.9% to 39.6% during the two-decade study period.

For people with health benefits, the proportion unable to pay for doctor visits rose from 7.1% to 11.5%.

The inability to see a doctor because of costs rose for people with many common chronic health problems including heart disease, high cholesterol and alcohol use disorders.

The study didn’t look at how shifts in the affordability of physician checkups might directly affect health outcomes.

One limitation of the analysis is that researchers lacked data on the affordability of prescription medications, which can also impact health as well as how often people need to see doctors.

“We knew that uninsured adults are much more likely than insured adults to avoid seeing a doctor due to cost, and uninsured adults with chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease are much less likely to get regular check-ups,” said Dr. John Ayanian, director of the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study.

Still, the results underscore that the ACA hasn’t insured everyone who needs coverage or made care affordable for all Americans, Ayanian said by email.

This means patients who struggle to pay for checkups need to ask for help.

“For people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease who have difficulty affording their ongoing care, I recommend they speak to their doctor and pharmacist about ways to save costs, including reduced fees for office visits or switching to less expensive generic medications,” Ayanian said. “Community health centers or hospital clinics may also have special programs to provide care for free or reduced fees for lower-income patients who are uninsured or who have high levels of medical debt.”

Japan provides a model for Americans who want a system that covers everyone with no mandate and no new middle-class taxes

Jon Wallker noted that Bernie Sanders has made a habit of pointing out how much less other countries pay for health care. Throughout the Democratic debates, the Vermont senator repeatedly claimed that the United States is “spending twice as much per capita on health care as any other nation.”

Sanders of course doesn’t mention that his plan wouldn’t come anywhere close to cutting our health care spending in half — doing so would require bringing salaries for doctors and hospital workers down to international norms. His omission is no surprise: Too often, American politicians rely on superficial comparisons with other nations to promote their health care agendas. Moderate Democrats often claim Obamacare should resemble the Swiss health care system, though in reality Obamacare lacked all the regulations that make that system function. Conservatives frequently try to scare people by pointing to highly selective stories of wait times in Canada or Britain, while ignoring the infinite wait time caused by not being able to afford care here.

If we look honestly at all the health care systems in the world to find the one which most closely aligns with voters’ desires, we would probably end up with the Japanese model. It is not the system anyone would design from scratch. It is a relatively complex system that evolved over decades to fit the needs, changing dynamics, and political trade-offs of the country. But for that very reason, it might most closely satisfy Americans’ seemingly endlessly contradicting opinions on reform.

Japan has more than 3,000 insurance plans, yet the benefit is not nearly the costly mess it is in the United States.

The Japanese health care system is based on employer- or union-provided insurance, just like the American one. People not covered by employer insurance are covered by government plans. Seniors basically have their own special coverage. The poor and disabled have special subsidies. Cumulatively, Japan has over 3,000 insurance plans, yet the benefit is not nearly the costly mess it is in the United States.

The thousands of plans in the U.S. individually negotiate with thousands of providers for millions of different prices. This drives up prices and creates massive administrative waste. In Japan, everything is highly standardized by the federal government. All plans need to cover the same set of benefits, reimburse providers the same amounts, use the same forms, and so on. Japanese employers can provide extra benefits on top of the standard baseline and what you pay depends partly on your employer’s risk pool, like in the U.S., but overall the difference between the plans is minor. As a result, Japan’s administrative spending is below that of many single-payer countries like Canada.

In practice, the Japanese system doesn’t seem much different than single-payer systems: In Japan, large companies set money aside in special accounts, and the government then tells them how to pay hospitals. In single-payer systems, large companies have to give money to a special government account, which then gives it to hospitals. However, the difference has real political implications.

Rhetorically, American politics is weirdly obsessed with people “losing their employer health insurance,” but we rarely ever talk about how insurance changes almost every year, usually for the worse: higher deductibles, new narrower networks, more co-pays, and so on. Only 44% of Americans say they would prefer a system mostly run by the government and 68% have a favorable view of employer coverage. Yet, at the same time, insurance regulations the government puts on employer coverage are very popular.

This employer coverage also solves the funding problem which plagues reform efforts. Americans don’t seem to understand or simply don’t care just how much they indirectly pay for employer insurance. The type of broad new taxes needed to pay for Medicare for All tend to be very unpopular. Even with very favorable wording, polling by YouGov found just 32% supported paying for Medicare for All with a tax on income over $29,000. (Proponents of M4A claim the net savings from no premiums or coinsurance would outweigh the cost of new taxes.) Even in deep blue Vermont, once local Democrats saw the size of the taxes needed to replace employer premiums — an 11.5% payroll tax and a new income tax of up to 9.5% — they declared their single-payer plan politically infeasible.

The same poll found a per-employee fee proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren to get around this anti-tax problem polls better, with 50% yes and 31% no. Yet what is consistently even more popular is just mandating all employers provide quality insurance, like Japan does. That polls at 69% support.

The Japanese model also provides a solution for Americans’ seemingly conflicting desires for a system that features no new middle-class taxes, no individual mandate, and yet covers everyone. In Japan, people without employer insurance need to buy coverage from their local government. Premiums are subsidized for those with lower incomes. If you don’t pay for insurance, though, there is no direct penalty, except when you do reenter the system you can be made to pay back premiums. Basically, if there is some small group of recalcitrants who want to try to avoid health insurance altogether, just let them and charge them when they do seek treatment.

There are two main ways Japan controls cost. The first is standardized cost-sharing. There are no deductibles, but people have a 30% coinsurance up to a monthly limit. There is no gatekeeping or preauthorization, but if you go to a specialist without a referral, you need to pay extra. Cost-sharing is one mechanism Americans have already come to accept for decades.

The other main tool is the that government aggressively sets low uniform prices with doctors, hospitals, and drug makers. This is why it works. This is also the part of the Japanese system which would generate the greatest industry opposition in the United States — as would Medicare for All for the same reasons. And even a decent Medicare buy-in would likely end up a de facto benchmark rate for providers.

All adopting a Japanese type of system would require is for the U.S. to take what it is currently doing and heavily standardize it. The biggest change would be scrapping the individual non-employer-based market to put everyone on a government plan, but the individual market is the least popular part of our system anyway. The majority of people with employer insurance would still have their same “private coverage,” with the same branding, but now cheaper and better. It would be the least disruptive system to copy, and it even has a precedent here. Hawaii has mandated every employer provide standardized, affordable, high-quality insurance since 1974, thanks to a special waiver from federal laws that prevent other states from copying Hawaii’s model.

The price of the lack of disruption, though, is not addressing many of the financing fairness issues we rarely talk about. Companies with younger workers would still pay less than companies with older workers. People living in high-cost localities would still pay higher premiums than people in low-cost areas. The overall funding would remain roughly as regressive as it currently is.

Polling shows even Democratic voters rank lowering drug prices, lowering what people pay, and ending surprise billing as bigger priorities than Medicare for All. And it is not clear people who claim they favor Medicare for All actually want the level of change it would cause. Polling shows 68% of Democrats incorrectly believe that under Medicare for All people would be allowed to keep their employer coverage, and 61% of Democrats believe the employers/individuals would continue to pay premiums, according to a poll this year by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Meanwhile, moderate Democrats like Joe Biden are offering voters more layers of complexity instead of simple solutions. Instead of just directly mandating all employer coverage be as good and affordable as his proposed public option, Biden simply allows every worker to run the complicated cost calculations themselves to decide if their employer plan is a worse deal for them than the public option. While Japan automatically ensures your coverage is good, Biden makes that task a yearly burden for employees — which is deeply problematic since only 4% of Americans understand basic insurance terms.

It is possible adopting a Japanese-style health care system might even be the fastest way to Medicare for All. South Korea created universal health care via a system very similar to Japan in 1989 and then in 2000 decided to move to a true single-payer system. Of course “have the federal government set prices, heavily regulate employer insurance so it acts basically like Medicare, and making buying subsidized Medicare quasi-optional for everyone else,” isn’t the catchiest slogan. So, it is unlikely voters will ever hear about a path that could give them what they seem to want championed.

ACP Backs Single-Payer Healthcare

Alicia Ault noted that The American College of Physicians (ACP) is backing both a single-payer system and a public option that retains private insurance as the best ways to ensure that all Americans have healthcare.

The ACP’s endorsement comes as part of a broad proposal to overhaul the US healthcare system, published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Rather than continue to react to others’ proposals, the ACP decided, “we are going to stick our necks out and put forward what we think is a better way,” Bob Doherty, ACP senior vice president for governmental affairs and public policy, told Medscape Medical News. 

It is a break from previous ACP policy — which never explicitly backed single payer — and with other physician organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians, both of which have declined to back a single-payer healthcare system.

The ACP’s board of regents endorsed the overhaul proposal in November, and Doherty said he was confident that it had the backing of the majority of the organization’s 159,000 internists and medical students.

Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) applauded the ACP’s policy shift.

“For a century, most US medical organizations opposed national health insurance,” PNHP cofounders Steffie Woolhandler, MD, and David Himmelstein, MD, write in an Annals editorial. “The endorsement by the American College of Physicians (ACP) of single-payer reform marks a sea change from this unfortunate tradition,” they say.

No Political Endorsement

The ACP timed its announcement to come just before the first major presidential primary contests in Iowa (February 3) and New Hampshire (February 11), but the organization is not backing any candidate’s healthcare proposal.

“We know that election years, particularly presidential election years, create an opportunity to engage in discussion about the future of public policy,” Doherty said, adding that healthcare, and in particular affordability, rank among voters’ top concerns.

After examining health systems in a dozen countries and reviewing policies that have been proposed for the United States, the ACP decided that both single payer and a public option would increase universal coverage, one of the ACP’s long-stated policy goals.

“For us to say single payer is the only way to achieve universal coverage is just not consistent with the evidence,” Doherty said. The coverage goal can also be achieved with a public option, “provided that you had enough marketplace regulation of private insurance that would be competing with the public program,” and if there was automatic enrollment for people who did not have private insurance, Doherty said.

Negotiate Payment Rates

Unlike Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s plan to pay for her Medicare for All plan by pegging physician and hospital pay to Medicare rates, the ACP said that would not work.  

“There would have to be a process to negotiate for established rates that would be sufficient to ensure that physicians would participate in the program,” Doherty said.

As part of its multipronged overhaul, the ACP is also proposing an elimination of copays and deductibles for high-value services such as primary care, and also for patients with chronic diseases.

A renewed emphasis on primary care would create savings, the ACP posited in its call to action and the four papers outlining its positions on how to overhaul the health system.

“We believe that American health care costs too much; leaves too many behind without affordable coverage; creates incentives that are misaligned with patients’ interests; undervalues primary care and under invests in public health; spending too much on administration at the expense of patient care; and fosters barriers to care for and discrimination against vulnerable individuals,” said ACP President Robert M. McLean, MD, MACP, in a statement.

I believe that the ACP has some interesting reasonable solutions as well as my opinion that President Obama and his experts came up with a great plan except for financial sustainability. As a country we have to realize that any sustainable program will be costly and the cost will be shared by all. Do we all really want Bernie or Elizabeth to be our presidents to drive our country to the edge and convert to socialism? Wake up America!

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