Reporter Megan McArdle noted that there’s one thing you didn’t hear at the first two Democratic presidential debates unless you were listening carefully to what candidates didn’t say: Obamacare is a failure.
The Affordable Care Act barely came up. What candidates wanted to talk about was Medicare-for-all.
That is nothing short of extraordinary. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law the biggest entitlement expansion, and the most significant health-care reform, since the 1960s. You’d think Democrats would be jostling to claim that mantle for themselves. Instead, it was left in a corner, gathering dust, while the candidates moved on to the fashion of the moment.
In fairness, they may have found the garment an uncomfortable fit. The rate of Americans without health-care insurance is now within a percentage point of where it was in the first quarter of 2008, a year before Obama took office. Yet in 2008, the unemployment rate was more than a full percentage point higher than it is now. Given how many people use employer-provided health insurance, the uninsured rate ought to be markedly lower than it was back then.
Overall, the effect of Obamacare seems to be marginal, or perhaps nonexistent.
You can chalk that up to Republican interference since the uninsured rate has risen substantially in the Trump era. But Democrats weren’t really making that argument, perhaps because they realized that a system so vulnerable to Republican interference isn’t really a very good system.
But even before January 2017, Obamacare was failing to deliver on many of its key promises. At its best point, in November 2016, the reduction in the number of the uninsured was less than the architects of Obamacare had expected. And the claims that Obamacare would “bend the cost curve” had proved, let us say, excessively optimistic.
Adjusted for inflation, consumer out-of-pocket expenditures on health care have been roughly flat since 2007. Obamacare didn’t make them go up, but it didn’t really reduce them, either. The rate of growth in health-services spending has risen substantially since 2013 when Obamacare’s main provisions took effect. And since someone has to pay for all that new spending, premiums have also risen at about the same pace as before Obamacare. So much for saving the average American family $2,500 a year!
Meanwhile, the various proposals that were supposed to streamline care and improve incentives have produced fairly underwhelming results. Accountable-care organizations, which aimed to reorient the system around paying for health rather than treatment, have produced, at best, modest benefits. Meanwhile, a much-touted program to reduce hospital readmissions not only failed to save money but may also have led to thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Nine years in, when you total up all the costs and benefits, you end up with . . . a lot of political aggravation for very little progress. No wonder Democrats would rather talk about something else.
And yet, it’s startling that the something else is health care. The U.S. system is a gigantic, expensive mess, but experience indicates that politicians who wade into that mess are apt to emerge covered in toxic sludge, without having made the mess noticeably tidier.
That could be a good argument for Medicare-for-all: The health-care mess has grown so big, so entangled with the detritus from decades of bad policymaking that it can’t be straightened out. The only thing to do is bulldoze the steaming pile of garbage into a hole and start over.
The argument isn’t unreasonable, even if I don’t agree with it. But it is a policy argument, not a political argument. The political argument in favor of launching into another round of health-care reform is, purely and simply, that a certain portion of the Democratic base wants to hear it.
And a fine reason that is in a primary race. But it then comes to the general election, filled with moderate voters who get anxious when people talk about taking away their private health insurance in favor of a government-run program — as Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) have all done. (On Friday, Harris said she misheard a debate question and changed her position, a flip-flop she has tried before.)
More to the point, whatever the merits of Medicare-for-all, the political obstacles to even the comparatively modest reforms of Obamacare very nearly overwhelmed it — and probably cost Democrats their House majority in 2010. And the compromises that Democrats were forced to make to get even that through Congress left them with a badly drafted program that had insufficient popular support — one that was, in other words, almost doomed to fail. At an enormous political cost. It takes either a very brave politician or a very foolish one, to look at the Obamacare debacle and say, “I want to do that again, except much more so.”
Health Care Gets Heated On Night 2 Of The Democratic Presidential Debate
Reporter Shefali Luthra pointed out that on Thursday, the second night of the first Democratic primary debate, 10 presidential hopefuls took the stage and health issues became an early flashpoint. But if you listen to both nights it was embarrassing. These 25 potential candidates could be the answer to the President’s campaign. Some of their ideas are just too expensive and plain dangerous!!
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) opened the debate calling health care a “human right” — which was echoed by several other candidates — and saying “we have to pass a ‘Medicare for All,’ single-payer system” — which was not.
Just as on Wednesday night, moderators asked candidates who would support abolishing private insurance under a single-payer system. Again, only two candidates — this time Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris — raised their hands.
Former Vice President Joe Biden also jumped on health care, saying Americans “need to have insurance that is covered, and that they can afford.”
But he offered a different view of how to achieve the goal, saying the fastest way would be to “build on Obamacare. To build on what we did.” He also drew a line in the sand, promising to oppose any Democrat or Republican who tried to take down Obamacare.
Candidates including South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet offered their takes on universal coverage, each underscoring the importance of a transition from the current system and suggesting that a public option approach, something that would allow people to buy into a program like Medicare, would offer a “glide path” to the ultimate goal of universal coverage. Gillibrand noted that she ran on such a proposal in 2005. (This is true.)
Meanwhile, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper used the issue of Medicare for All to say that it is important to not allow Republicans to paint the Democratic Party as socialist but also to claim his own successes in implementing coverage expansions to reach “near-universal coverage” in Colorado. PolitiFact examined this claim and found it Mostly True.
“You don’t need big government to do big things. I know that because I’m the one person up here who’s actually done the big progressive things everyone else is talking about,” he said.
But still, while candidates were quick to make their differences clear, not all of their claims fully stood up to scrutiny.
Fact-checking some of those remarks.
Sanders: “President Trump, you’re not standing up for working families when you try to throw 32 million people off the health care that they have.”
This is one of Sanders’ favorite lines, but it falls short of giving the full story of the Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. We rated a similar claim Half True.
I’ll write more about half-truths next week.
Scrapping the Affordable Care Act was a key campaign promise for President Donald Trump. In 2017, as the Republican-led Congress struggled to deliver, Trump tweeted “Republicans should just REPEAL failing Obamacare now and work on a new health care plan that will start from a clean slate.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that would lead to 32 million more people without insurance by 2026. But some portion of that 32 million would have chosen not to buy insurance due to the end of the individual mandate, which would happen under repeal. (It happened anyway when the 2017 tax law repealed the fine for the individual mandate.)
In the end, the full repeal didn’t happen. Instead, Trump was only able to zero out the fines for people who didn’t have insurance. Coverage has eroded. The latest survey shows about 1.3 million people have lost insurance since Trump took office.
Bennet, meanwhile, used his time to attack Medicare for All on a feasibility standpoint.
Bennet: “Bernie mentioned the taxes that we would have to pay — because of those taxes, Vermont rejected Medicare for All.”
This is true, although it could use some context.
Vermont’s effort to pass a state-based single-payer health plan — which the state legislature approved in 2011 — officially fell flat in December 2014. Financing the plan ultimately would have required an 11.5% payroll tax on all employers, plus raising the income tax by as much as 9.5%. The governor at the time, Democrat Peter Shumlin, declared this politically untenable.
That said, some analysts suggest other political factors may have played a role, too — for instance, the fallout after the state launched its Affordable Care Act health insurance website, which faced technical difficulties.
Nationally, when voters are told Medicare for All could result in higher taxes, support declines.
And a point was made by author Marianne Williamson about the nation’s high burden of chronic disease.
Williamson: “So many Americans have unnecessary chronic illnesses — so many more compared to other countries.”
There is evidence for this, at least for older Americans.
A November 2014 study by the Commonwealth Fund found that 68% of Americans 65 and older had two or more chronic conditions, and an additional 20% had one chronic condition.
No other country studied — the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria or Canada — had a higher rate of older residents with at least two chronic conditions. The percentages ranged from 33% in the United Kingdom to 56% in Canada.
An earlier study published in the journal Health Affairs in 2007 found that “for many of the most costly chronic conditions, diagnosed disease prevalence and treatment rates were higher in the United States than in a sample of European countries in 2004.”
‘Medicare For All’ Is The New Standard For 2020 Democrats
In 2008, single-payer health care was a fringe idea. Now, its opponents are the ones who have to explain themselves.
Jeffrey Young pointed out that the last time there was a competitive race to be the Democratic presidential nominee, in 2008, just one candidate called for the creation of a national, single-payer health care program that would replace the private health insurance system: then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).
This time around, “Medicare for All” is the standard against which all the Democratic candidates’ plans are measured. There’s also a very real chance that, for the first time since Harry Truman, Democrats will nominate a presidential candidate who actively supports the creation of a universal, national health care system.
During Kucinich’s long-shot bid against leading contenders like then-Sens. John Edwards (N.C.), Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), his opponents barely felt the need to counter his single-payer position. It was seen as too much, too fast, too disruptive and too expensive. Edwards, Clinton, and Obama all instead promoted plans reliant on private insurers. In 2010, President Obama enacted those principles in the form of the Affordable Care Act.
That split still exists, with current Democratic presidential hopefuls like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and former Vice President Joe Biden as the proponents of a more cautious, incremental approach to achieving universal coverage and lower health care costs.
But as the two nights of presidential debates between the 2020 candidates illustrated, it’s Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his sweeping Medicare for All plan that is now the benchmark for progressive health care reform. It’s appropriate, considering that Sanders’ serious challenge to Clinton in 2016 moved the notion of single-payer health care into the Democratic mainstream.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) acknowledged as much in her response to a question about health care on Wednesday: “I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All,” she said.
The case Sanders made for Medicare for All is essentially the same Kucinich made years ago during his presidential campaign, the difference being that Sanders has earned the right to have his ideas taken seriously, and did a lot of the work to force those ideas into the mainstream.
“The function of health care today from the insurance and drug company perspective is not to provide quality care to all in a cost-effective way. The function of the health care system today is to make billions in profits for the insurance companies,” Sanders said Thursday. “We will have Medicare for All when tens of millions of people are prepared to stand up and tell the insurance companies and the drug companies that their say is gone, that health care is a human right, not something to make huge profits on.”
Among the Democratic candidates, Warren, and Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.) are co-sponsors of Sanders’ bill and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), Tim Ryan (Ohio) and Eric Swalwell (Calif.) are co-sponsors of a similar House bill introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).
Biden is a leading representative of the other side of this debate, which also is appropriate. The White House in which he served carried out the biggest expansion of the health care safety net since Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives, which included the creation of Medicare and Medicaid.
And while the Affordable Care Act was nowhere near as far-reaching as single-payer would be, the changes it brought created widespread anxiety among those who already had health coverage, a political dynamic that dogged Obama’s White House.
Like other moderates including Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Biden insisted he supported universal coverage even while opposing Sanders’ Medicare for All plan, and suggested another path.
“The quickest, fastest way to do it is built on Obamacare, to build on what we did,” Biden said Thursday, highlighting his preference for a public option that would be available to everyone in lieu of private insurance.
It was Klobuchar who articulated the political argument that replacing the entire current coverage system with a wholly public one would be disruptive. “I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years, which is what this bill says,” she said Wednesday.
Although just four of the 20 candidates raised their hands when asked if they supported eliminating private health insurance during the two debates ― Sanders, Warren, Harris and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio ― the very fact that this was the question shows how much has changed since Kucinich’s opponents could safely brush off the notion of single-payer without alienating Democratic primary election voters. (Harris later recanted her answer, claiming to have misunderstood the question.)
Medicare for All proponents learned from the GOP’s relentless attacks on the Affordable Care Act that even incremental change will bring accusations of rampant socialism, so they might as well go for the whole thing.
The question that was seemingly designed to expose the differences in their points of view had the effect of highlighting how much broad agreement there is within the Democratic Party about what to do about high health care costs and people who are uninsured or under-insured.
It’s also a bit of an odd litmus test in the context of other nations’ universal health care programs, which are meant to be the models for plans like Medicare for All. Private insurance even exists as a supplement to public programs in countries like the United Kingdom and Canada.
Even so, while the question of whether private coverage can coexist with broadened public plans in the United States is a genuine sticking point among Democrats, the responses from the candidates who addressed the issue Wednesday and Thursday nights also highlighted their apparently universal conviction that the federal government should play a much larger role in providing health coverage.
In 2008, the top candidates all supported what’s now considered the moderate position, which was some form of government-run public option as an alternative to private insurance. Centrist Democrats in Congress killed that part of the Affordable Care Act, and Obama went along with it. This year, the public option is the bare minimum.
And every Democratic candidate’s proposals are a far, far cry from the policies President Donald Trump and the Republican Party seek, which amount to dramatically reducing access to health care, especially for people with low incomes.
Likewise in contrast to Trump, all 10 Democrats who appeared at Thursday’s debate endorsed allowing undocumented immigrants access to federal health care programs, which would mark a major shift in government policy. Under current law, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for all forms of federal assistance except limited, emergency benefits.
Just nine years ago, the Democrats who wrote the Affordable Care Act included specific provisions denying undocumented immigrants access to the health insurance policies sold on the law’s exchange marketplaces, even if they want to spend their own money on them.
Medicare for All proponents views the reticence of the candidates who haven’t joined their side as a lack of courage. They also learned from the GOP’s relentless attacks on the Affordable Care Act that even incremental change will bring accusations of rampant socialism, so they might as well go for the whole thing.
“There are a lot of politicians who say, ‘Oh, it’s just not possible. We just can’t do it,’” Warren said Wednesday. “What they’re really telling you is they just won’t fight for it.”
Health care may or may not be a determining factor in which of these candidates walks away with the Democratic nomination. Also unknown is whether Democratic voters’ uneven support for Medicare for All will benefit the more moderate candidates, or whether the progressive message of universal health care and better coverage will appeal to primary voters.
Both camps may actually benefit from the public’s vague understanding of what Medicare for All is and what it would do compared to less ambitious approaches like shoring up the Affordable Care Act and adding a public option.
For moderate candidates like Biden, support for greater access to government benefits may be enough to satisfy all but the most ardent single-payer supporters. But voters who are uncertain about the prospect of upending the entire health coverage system with Medicare for All may also be unconcerned about candidates like Sanders because they don’t realize how much change his plan would bring.
The debates didn’t shed much light on the answers to those questions. Voters will get their first chance to weigh in by February when the Iowa caucuses begin and campaign season kicks into high gear.
Remember that last we talked; the Medicare Bill was passed and signed by President Johnson. Next, I reviewed the main provisions starting with Title XVIII, Part A.
Now on to Title XVIII, Part B: Supplementary Medical Insurance (SMI). This provided that all persons over sixty-five were eligible for participation in this program on a voluntary basis, without the requirement that they had earlier paid into the Social Security program. Benefits included physicians’ services at any location and home health services of up to one hundred visits per year. Coverage also included the costs of diagnostic tests, radiotherapy, ambulance services, and various medical supplies and appliances certified as necessary by the patient’s physician. Subscribers were at first required to pay one-half the monthly premium, with the government underwriting the other half. After July 1973 premium increases levied on subscribers were limited to “the percentage by Social Security cash benefits had been increased since the last…premium adjustment.” Each enrollee was subject to a front-end deductible ($50 per year originally, $100 in 1997). After having met this payment, patients were responsible for a coinsurance of 20 percentage of the remaining “reasonable” charges. Limits were set on the amount of psychiatric care and routine physical examinations. Among the exclusions were eye refraction and other preventive services, such as immunizations and hearing aids. The cost of drugs was also totally excluded. Similar financing arrangements as prevailed for Part A coverage were put in place for Part B for the payment of benefits. Premium payments were placed in a trust fund, which made disbursements to private insurance companies—carriers—who reimbursed providers on a “reasonable cost” or, in the case of physicians, “reasonable charge” basis. Physicians were permitted to “extra bill” patients if they regarded the fee schedule established by the carriers as insufficient payment. (William Shonick, Government and Health Services: Government’s Rule in the Development of U.S. Health Services, 1930-1980, New York, Oxford University Press, 1995. pp 285-91.)
Note that Medicare has further discounted physician fees, which makes it difficult to run a practice based on Medicare reimbursement. We need to remember this when we discuss the new healthcare system, Medicare for All, which almost all of the Democratic presidential candidates propose. Realize also, that not one of those candidates knows anything about Medicare and what Medicare for All really means in its application. Be very careful all you voters!!!
And next on to Title XIX: Medicaid.
And a Happy Fourth of July to All. Remember why we celebrate this day and enjoy our Freedom!