I have an opinion piece in the Guardian about Trump’s horrendous response to the Covid-19 epidemic — and what underlies it.
Medicare for All has significant advantages, many agree — but given the enormous political obstacles, shouldn’t we be focused on more moderate reforms? I respond to this critique in today’s Health Affairs blog.
One data point worth noting — although Senator Bernie Sanders often notes that there are 87 million people who are uninsured or underinsured, that figure excludes children and seniors. The actual overall number is greater than 100 million — or nearly 1/3 Americans — with deficient helath coverage.
Our open-letter—signed by more than 2,000 physicians—was published today as a full-page ad in the New York Times.
Among the signatories of the letter, which was organized by PNHP, includes leading figures in American medicine, including founder of Partners in Health Dr. Paul Farmer, developer of the defibrillator Dr. Bernard Lown, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine Dr. Marcia Angell, former NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, and many more …
In conjunction with yesterday’s announcement that the American College of Physicians, the largest medical specialty society in the country, had endorsed Medicare-for-All, it is becoming increasingly clear that there has been a turn of the tides in the American medical profession on the single-payer question.
Jonathan Cohn describes these developments in an article in the Huffington Post.
Link to all the signatories: http://www.pnhp.org/2020
Our new research was published in Health Affairs this week. Using national data, we found that patients with VA coverage – which provides medications with no or low copays to veterans – were less likely than those with other forms of insurance to go without needed medications, especially among those with serious chronic diseases. VA coverage also reduced or attenuated racial and income-based disparities in prescription drug access.
We contend that the VA pharmacy benefit should be considered as a model to address the crisis in prescription drug affordability.
The study was covered in STAT: https://www.statnews.com/…/veterans-drugs-cost-patient-ad…/…
Here’s the press release: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/…/pfan-pwv010320.php
And here’s a link to the study itself: http://www.healthaffairs.org/…/a…/10.1377/hlthaff.2019.00481
Our third paper examining how universal coverage affects the society-wide use of healthcare — a question with big implications for predicting the cost of Medicare-for-All — was just published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Co-authored with Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein, this is a review of 13 universal coverage expansions taking place in 11 nations over 8 decades, beginning with the 1938 New Zealand Social Security Act and extending to the 2014 implementation of the ACA. We find that these expansions led to modest, and in some cases no, society-wide increase in utilization, even as they redirected care to those who needed it. Medicare for All is likely more affordable than previously predicted.
Our new study was published yesterday online in the American Journal of Public Health. We analyzed the effects of the 1966 Medicare/Medicaid and the 2014 Affordable Care Act coverage expansions on the utilization of physician services — both visits and procedures. We found that although these coverage expansions redirected care to the newly covered, they did not increase overall society-wide use. Considered together with our study of how these expansions affected hospital utilization (together with other work on the utilization effects of Canadian single-payer, the NHS, and pre-ACA Medicaid expansions), this research suggests that estimates of the cost of coverage expansions may often be in error.
I reviewed Uwe Reinhardt’s last book, discuss his influence, and chart broader changes in the health care debate over the least decade and a half — and talk about what that debate still gets wrong — for the Boston Review.
I wrote about the Trump administration’s nasty “public charge” rule for VICE. In brief, it combines the administration’s xenophobia, anti-working class agenda, and regressive healthcare ideology into one toxic brew.
Last week, colleagues and I published a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine based on analyses of large health surveys conducted around the time of the implementation of Medicare/Medicaid in 1966 and the Affordable Care Act in 2014. Overall, we demonstrated that these expansions led to shifts in hospital utilization towards newly covered populations, but no net overall increase from either coverage expansion—a finding with important ramifications for today’s debate about the cost of universal coverage.
Also this kind shout-out from Rep. Pramila Jayapal!
Thank you @awgaffney for your important study in the @AnnalsofIM that makes the compelling case that as to why covering everyone is not just the right thing to do — it’s also something we can afford to do. #MedicareforAllhttps://t.co/OTLQzzuFkR
— Rep. Pramila Jayapal (@RepJayapal) July 28, 2019
Our study, comparing hospitalization rates for diabetic ketoacidosis in the US to Manitoba, Canada, was just published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. I have an op-ed up today on the study in the Washington Post.
Diabetic ketoacidosis is a dangerous complication of diabetes that is typically preventable with regular use of insulin.
Among teenagers, we found that the ketoacidosis hospitalization rate was slightly higher in the US compared to Canada. However, as teenagers became young adults, the hospitalization rate soared by 90% in the US, but only rose 23% in Canada. Differences in our health systems – particularly the disruptions in coverage that are common when adolescents become young adults, could help explain this difference.
Andrea Christopher was the co-first author; other co-authors include Alan Katz, Dan Chateau, Chelsey McDougall, David Bor, David Himmelstein, Steffie Woolhandler, and Danny McCormick.
I was a guest on the Fox Business News show “Bulls and Bears,” chatting Medicare-for-All.
Earlier this month, Sarah Kliff published an informative article at Vox on the ways that private health insurance has persevered in nations with universal coverage. On Monday, I had an article in The Nation that made something of a counter-argument: leaving a significant role for private insurance requires that we poke holes in the single-payer public plan, which helps nobody but the corporate insurers.
A question that comes up in discussions of healthcare reform—and the transition to single-payer—is the potential savings via reductions in compensation for physicians’ labor. Some assert that the transition to single-payer would, or should, involve historic reductions in pay. To have an informed discussion, however, we have to first know how much we currently spend on physician salaries.
There are a few different ways to estimate this. According to CMS’s National Health Expenditures (NHE) accounts, spending on “physician and clinical services” was $664.9 billion in 2016, or about 20% of our health spending. 20% is also the figure that health economist Uwe Reinhardt used a while back, presumably using CMS’ figure. According to CMS, that figure includes spending on physician offices and outpatient care centers, but also on independent medical and diagnostic laboratories, which muddies the waters. At the same time, it excludes salaried doctors at hospitals or nursing homes. But importantly, according to Reinhardt, it reflects expenditures on offices and clinics (including practice overhead), not take-home income. Reinhardt states that physician income is about half of this spending, which would be 10% of NHE. For 2016, that would be roughly $330 billion.
Clearly there are several assumptions in that estimate that might make it either too high or too low. An alternative approach is to multiply the number of practicing doctors by their pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 713,800 physician jobs in 2016, while median pay was “equal to or greater than $208,000 per year.” Hence, this pay figure is presumably an underestimate. Additionally, mean pay could be higher than median pay depending on the distribution of salaries. Putting that aside for a moment, multiplying 713,800 by $208,000 gives us $148 billion in physician salaries, or roughly around 5% of 2016 NHE, half that of Reinhardt’s figure. For the reasons stated, however, we should consider this an underestimate.
Dean Baker, in a piece in Politico, takes this same approach, using somewhat higher numbers. He notes that there are more than 900,000 doctors, linking to a figure that puts the number of doctors at 1,045,910 in 2013. However, that sources also notes that there were 148,000 inactive physicians, which would put the number of active physicians slightly shy of 900,000. Although higher than the BLS figure, that’s similar to a figure from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which reports that there were 968,743 “professionally active” physicians in 2018. Baker assumes that doctors are paid around $250,000 a year, on average, based on a figure from Medscape’s 2016 Physician Compensation Report. So, if there are 900,000 doctors paid at $250,000 a year, we have a figure of $225 billion, or a bit less than 7% of 2016 NHE. That figure is about halfway between the NHE/Reinhardt estimate and the estimate using BLS figures. (Note: This is based on Baker’s figures, which for income is from 2016. However, if we use the 2018 KFF figure, 2018 Medscape salary figure, and 2018 NHE, the story doesn’t change much – salaries come to a bit less than 8% of NHE).
In sum, then, it would appear that physician salaries account for somewhere between 5 – 10 % of healthcare spending. Let’s assume it is Reinhardt’s 10%, so as to err on the side of greater potential savings via reduced pay. As he notes, that would mean that if we were to dramatically slash physician pay in a historically unprecedented fashion — say by 20% — US healthcare spending would fall by a grand total of 2%. Reinhardt argued that in return for that 2% reduction in healthcare spending we would have a “wholly demoralized medical profession,” and so considered this approach a “poor strategy.”
Others may disagree. Yet regardless of one’s opinion on what physician pay should be, these numbers demonstrate that it is by no means necessary to reduce physician reimbursement, much less slash it, to make single-payer affordable. After all, even a historic reduction in physician salaries would produce only a 2% reduction in health spending. Such a pay cut would presumably coincide with a modest increase in utilization under single-payer, which would mean more work for less pay. It’s hard to see how this wouldn’t alienate the medical profession and turn them against single-payer, possibly dooming its prospects.
It is probably for this reason that major transitions to public universal healthcare systems in history—i.e. US Medicare, the Canadian universal healthcare system, and the United Kingdom’s National Health Service—did not reduce compensation for healthcare workers’ labor.1 We should consider the wisdom of that approach today as we get into the nitty gritty of designing the American single-payer system.2,3,4
1. As an article in the Independent notes, Nye Bevan “was pragmatic enough to know that he could not run the NHS without consultants, doctors and nurses.” He made concessions to the doctors and increased the nurses’ pay.
2. As a side-note, reducing economic inequality absolutely must be a priority. To accomplish that, however, I would argue that we should pursue progressive taxes—including on unearned income from wealth—as opposed to specifically targeting the wages of well-paid healthcare workers, particularly given that pursuing the latter could potentially scuttle the passage of single-payer healthcare, a reform that itself would do a great deal to reduce inequality.
3. Keep in mind I am referring to take home reimbursement, not overall reimbursement. By reducing provider-side administrative costs, which a single-payer system will accomplish, physician fees can fall somewhat without reducing payment for labor. After all, some fee reduction will be the way that provider-side administrative savings are realized. Matt Bruenig argues that the provider rate cuts assumed in the Mercatus Center single-payer report could probably be wholly accounted for by administrative savings. I’m also not referring to for-profit physician-owned hospitals or other for-profit healthcare delivery businesses, which should not be allowed in the system—I’m speaking about compensation for labor. Finally, there should certainly be attenuation in pay disparities, but basically everybody already agrees on that. After all, simply moving to a single rates system will mean equalizing pay for providers who care for richer and poorer patient populations.
4. Obviously, reimbursement will not (and practically cannot) stay exactly the same—I’m speaking about avoiding large changes. Making healthcare professionals education tuition-free can help ease the transition for doctors who do less well.
I reviewed David Quammen’s fascinating exploration of the discovery of “horizontal gene transfer” for the New Republic, and discuss its implication for so-called “three parent babies” conceived with DNA from three individuals.
Steffie Woolhandler, David Himmelstein, and I have a response to the Mercatus Center single-payer study, and the subsequent WaPo “fact check, up today at The Nation.
Not that anybody was asking for it, but I organized my healthcare writing in the last few years by topic for those new to healthcare activism looking for some background reading (obviously there’s much more out there from many others — maybe at some point I’ll put together an annotated bibliography of work I’ve found useful.
1. Single-Payer: What it is, why we need it, and why other reforms fall short
Gaffney A. Health Insurance Reform in the United States – What, How, and Why? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 2018;37:188-95.
Gaffney A, Berger ZD. The collapse of Trumpcare and the rise of single payer. British Medical Journal Opinion, October 17, 2017.
Gaffney AW, Verhoef PA, Hall JB. POINT: Should Pulmonary/ICU Physicians Support Single-payer Health-care Reform? Yes. Chest. 2016;150(1):9-11.
“Single-Payer or Bust,” Dissent, Spring 2018
“The Failure of Obamacare and a Revision of the Single-Payer Proposal after a Quarter-Century of Struggle,” with David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhander, Healthcare Under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Health, edited by Howard Waitzkin (Monthly Review Press, 2018).
“The West Virginia teachers’ strike is over. But the fight for healthcare isn’t,” Guardian, March 7, 2018.
“Why are Democratic party thinktanks still not backing universal healthcare?,” Guardian, February 25, 2018.
“Single-payer won’t pass now. But its popularity proves our morals are changing,” Washington Post, September 13, 2017
“Medicare-for-All Should be a Litmus Test,” Jacobin, August 10, 2017.
“The Case Against the Public Option,” Jacobin, July 19, 2017.
“The Washington Post is Selling Snake Oil,” Jacobin, June 19, 2017.
“How Liberals Tried to Kill the Dream of Single-Payer,” New Republic, March 8, 2016.
“Lessons from Vermont,” Jacobin, January 8, 2015.
2. The Affordable Care Act: Achievements, shortcomings, and repeal efforts
Gaffney A, McCormick D. The Affordable Care Act: implications for health-care equity. The Lancet; 389:1442-52.
Gaffney A, Berger ZD, Jha S. Should US doctors mourn for Obamacare? British Medical Journal 2017;356.
“Obamacare Lives,” Jacobin, October 16, 2017.
“After Trumpcare,” Jacobin, July 30, 2017.
“Trumpcare is like a vampire, set on sinking its teeth into the poor,” Guardian June 23, 2017.
“The US Healthcare System is at a dramatic fork in the road,” Guardian May 25, 2017.
“Trumpcare is dead. May it forever stay in its shallow grave,” Guardian March 27, 2017.
“Five Lessons From Trumpcare’s Collapse,” Jacobin, March 27, 2017.
“Republicans call kicking millions off their healthcare ‘freedom’? That’s perverse,” Guardian, March 14, 2017.
“Why Trumpcare Will Only Make the Rich Richer,” Fortune, March 9, 2017.
“Obamacare’s Original Sin,” Jacobin, February 15, 2017.
“Healthcare in the Age of Trump,” Jacobin, November 11, 2016.
“Obama on Obamacare,” Jacobin, July 26, 2016.
“What Obamacare Can’t Do,” Jacobin, February 11, 2016.
“From Exchange to Egalité,” Jacobin, June 18, 2015.
3. Health and Inequality
A two-part essay for LARB provides something of a survey of ideas about the relationships between health and inequality; the first focuses on class, the second on race:
a. “Is the Path to Racial Health Equity Paved with “Reparations”? The Politics of Health, Part II,” Los Angeles Review of Books, March 7, 2016 (review of Dayna Bowen Matthew’s Just Medicine and Damon Tweedy’s Black Man in a White Coat).
b. “The Politics of Health,” Los Angeles Review of Books, October 26, 2015 (review of Beyond Obamacare by James House).
“The Devastating Effects of Dental Inequality in America,” New Republic, May 25, 2017 (review of Mary Otto’s Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America).
“How Class Kills,” Jacobin, November 8, 2015.
4. Pharmaceutical Policy: The BMJ paper provides an overview of the failings of the status quo together with a comprehensive proposal of how to fix it; the WaPo article gives the tl;dr on the proposal.
Gaffney A, Lexchin J., and the US/Canadian Pharmaceutical Working Group. Healing an ailing pharmaceutical system: prescription for reform for United States and Canada. The British Medical Journal. 2018;361.
“Trump’s plan won’t lower prescription drug prices. Ours would.” Washington Post, May 23, 2018 (PostEverything)
“Do We Need Pfizer,” Jacobin, February 26, 2018.
“How ADHD Was Sold,” New Republic, September 23, 2016 (review of ADHD Nation: Children, Doctors, Big Pharma, and the Making of an American Epidemic, by Alan Schwarz).
“The Dawn of Antidepressants,” New Republic, June 16, 2016 (review of Ordinarily Well: The Case for Antidepresssants by Peter Kramer).
“Socialize the EpiPen,” Jacobin, September 2, 2016.
“Your Wallet or Your Life,” Jacobin, September 22, 2015.
5. Healthcare in history
To Heal Humankind: The Right to Health in History (New York, NY: Routledge, 2017).
“Just Another Business,” Jacobin, October 21, 2015 (review of Cinemax’s The Knick).
“Baltimore’s secret history of death,” Salon, May 6, 2015.
6. Healthcare Abroad: I mostly write about healthcare in the US, but occasionally in the international context, with a special interest in the attack on universal healthcare in Europe. The chapter below written with Carles Muntaner provides an overview of the effects on austerity for Spain, the UK, and Greece.
“Health and Austerity,” with Carles Muntaner, Healthcare Under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Health, edited by Howard Waitzkin (Monthly Review Press, 2018).
“Need Surgery, Will Travel,” New Republic, January 13, 2016 (review of Outpatients by Sasha Issenberg).
“Saving the NHS,” April 26, 2016.
Single-payer cost estimates are in the news this week. A key issue in estimating the cost of single-payer is how it will increase healthcare utilization. Increased utilization, it’s worth pointing out, is basically the only way that single-payer adds to overall healthcare spending. Now some increase is clearly expected and desirable – after all, we’re providing insurance to the uninsured and eliminating copays and deductibles for the rest. However, as David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler and others have argued, there are supply limits – the system can only provide so much care.
In any event, utilization increases are typically presented as abstract figures. For instance, the recently released Mercatus Center study estimates an 11.3% increase in utilization (for 2019), whereas the Urban Institute estimates a 16.9% increase (averaged over 2017-2026).
It’s helpful to put those percentages in the context of actual services provided, as Himmelstein and Woolhandler sometimes do, because they translate into a concrete increase in the number of doctors’ visits, nights in the hospital, ER visits, etc. I offer some rough estimates of these changes below, with the assumption that the average increase in utilization affects all services equally. So, for instance, using Urban Institute estimates, 16.6% more utilization translates into 185 million more visits to the doctor and nearly 4 million more therapeutic surgeries a year.
|Current utilization (millions)||Change in utilization
|Urban Institute||Mercatus Center
|Therapeutic surgical procedures
Are those numbers realistic? For the moment I won’t editorialize on this, but it’s worth keeping these figures in mind as cost estimates of single-payer are released and debated in coming days.
* There were 990,808 doctor office visits in 2015 per NAMCS. However, data on visits to hospital outpatient departments (OPD) has not been released by NAMCS since 2011. In that year, OPD visits were 12.7% office visits. I inflated the office visits figure by this percentage, assuming that the proportion had not changed.
I wrote a tl; dr on our drug proposal published last week in BMJ for PostEverything.
Our comprehensive drug reform proposal, “Healing an Ailing Pharmaceutical System,”was published today in the British Medical Journal.
The proposal comes from the US/Canadian Pharmaceutical Working Group, a panel of physicians, scholars, and advocates from both nations that was convened by PNHP. It was launched this morning at a press release at the National Press Club, and was webcast. We were joined (via a recorded video message) by Representative Keith Ellison and Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. Steffie Woolhandler, co-founder of PNHP, moderated, and Sid Wolfe of Public Citizen, Ken Zinn of National Nurses United, and Alex Lawson of Social Security Works attended and spoke. Video to follow!
Some additional links:
I recently joined Andy Slavitt and Jon Favreau on Crooked Conversation for a discussion on the healthcare debate and the way forward to Medicare-for-All.