On Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a 30-page report analyzing a single-payer health insurance plan. While the publication explained some policy considerations behind such a massive change to America’s health care market, it included precious few specifics about such a change—like what it would cost.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), perhaps single payer’s biggest supporter, serves as the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. If he asked the budget scorekeepers to analyze his legislation in full to determine what it would cost, and how to go about paying for the spending, CBO would give it high-priority treatment.
But to the best of this observer’s knowledge, that hasn’t happened. Might that be because the senator does not want to know—or, more specifically, does not want the public to know—the dirty secrets behind his proposed health-care takeover?
The CBO report examined single payer as an academic policy exercise, running through various options for establishing and operating such a mechanism. In the span of roughly thirty pages, the report used the word “would” 245 times and “could” 209 times, outlining various hypothetical scenarios.
That said, CBO did highlight several potential implications of a single-payer system for both the demand and supply of care. For instance, “free” health care could lead to major increases in demand that the government system could not meet:
An expansion of insurance coverage under a single-payer system would increase the demand for care and put pressure on the available supply of care. People who are currently uninsured would receive coverage, and some people who are currently insured could receive additional benefits under the single-payer system, depending on its design. Whether the supply of providers would be adequate to meet the greater demand would depend on various components of the system, such as provider payment rates. If the number of providers was not sufficient to meet demand, patients might face increased wait times and reduced access to care.
The report noted that in the United Kingdom, a system of global budgets—a concept included in the House’s single-payer legislation—has led to massive strains on the health-care system. Because payments to hospitals have not kept up with inflation, hospitals have had to reduce the available supply of care, leading to annual “winter crises” within the National Health Service:
In England, the global budget is allocated to approximately 200 local organizations that are responsible for paying for health care. Since 2010, the global budget in England has grown by about 1 percent annually in real (inflation-adjusted) terms, compared with an average real growth of about 4 percent previously. The relatively slow growth in the global budget since 2010 has created severe financial strains on the health care system. Provider payment rates have been reduced, many providers have incurred financial deficits, and wait times for receiving care have increased.
While cutting payments to hospitals could cause pain in the short term, CBO noted that reducing reimbursement levels could also have consequences in the long term, dissuading people from taking up medicine to permanently reduce the capacity of America’s health-care market:
Changes in provider payment rates under the single-payer system could have longer-term effects on the supply of providers. If the average provider payment rate under a single-payer system was significantly lower than it currently is, fewer people might decide to enter the medical profession in the future. The number of hospitals and other health care facilities might also decline as a result of closures, and there might be less investment in new and existing facilities. That decline could lead to a shortage of providers, longer wait times, and changes in the quality of care, especially if patient demand increased substantially because many previously uninsured people received coverage and if previously insured people received more generous benefits.
That said, because the report did not analyze a specific legislative proposal, its proverbial “On the one hand, on the other hand” approach generates a distinctly muted tone.
Tax Increases Ahead
To give some perspective, the report spent a whopping two pages discussing “How Would a Single Payer System Be Financed?” (Seriously.) This raises the obvious question: If single-payer advocates think their bill would improve the lives of ordinary Americans, because the middle class would save so much money by not having to pay insurance premiums, wouldn’t they want the Congressional Budget Office to fully analyze how much money people would save?
During his Fox News town hall debate last month, Sanders claimed a large show of support from blue-collar residents of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for single payer. The ostensible support might have something to do with Sanders’ claim during the town hall that “the overwhelming majority of people are going to end up paying less for health care because they’re not paying premiums, co-payments, and deductibles.”
Where have we heard that kind of rhetoric before? Oh yeah—I remember:
At least one analysis has already discounted the accuracy of Sanders’ claims about people paying less. In scrutinizing Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign plan, Emory University economist Kenneth Thorpe concluded that the plan had a $10 trillion—yes, that’s $10 trillion—hole in its financing mechanism.
Filling that hole with tax increases meant that 71 percent of households would pay more under single payer than under the status quo, because taxes would have to go up by an average of 20 percentage points. Worse yet, 85 percent of Medicaid households—that is, people with the lowest incomes—would pay more, because a single-payer system would have to rely on regressive payroll taxes, which hit the poor hardest, to fund socialized medicine.
Put Up or Shut Up, Bernie
If Sanders really wants to prove the accuracy of his statement at the Fox News town hall, he should 1) ask CBO to score his bill, 2) release specific tax increases to pay for the spending in the bill, and 3) ask CBO to analyze the number of households that would pay more, and pay less, under the bill and all its funding mechanisms.
That said, I’m not holding my breath. A full, public, and honest accounting of single payer, and how to pay for it, would expose the game of three-card monty that underpins Sanders’ rhetoric. But conservatives should keep pushing for Sanders to request that score from CBO—better yet, they should request it themselves.