New 2,273-Page Regulation From Medicare Illustrates The Problems With Single Payer

New 2,273-Page Regulation From Medicare Illustrates The Problems With Single Payer

Would a centralized federal bureaucracy ensure that all the country’s medical providers get paid the right amount under single payer? Almost surely not.
Christopher Jacobs
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What do provisions in a federal regulation, released on a sleepy Friday in August, have to do with the raging debate regarding single-payer health care? As it turns out, plenty.

By definition, single-payer health care assumes that one payer will finance all the care provided by the nation’s doctors, hospitals, and other medical providers. But this premise comes with an important corollary: Funding all medical providers’ care through a single source means that source—the federal government—must pay those providers the right amount. Paying providers too much wastes taxpayer resources; paying them too little could cause them to close.

Would a centralized federal bureaucracy ensure that all the country’s medical providers get paid the right amount under single payer? Suffice it to say that this conservative harbors significant doubts, and not just because the United States has a larger and more diverse population than European countries with socialized medicine systems.

The Rural Wage Index and MRI Counting

Consider, for instance, the regulation governing Medicare inpatient hospital payments for 2020, which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released on Friday, August 2. That 2,273-page regulation—no, that’s not a typo—included major changes to Medicare payment policies.

Most notably, the final rule changed the Medicare hospital wage index. For years, hospitals in rural areas have complained that the current wage index exacerbates wage disparities, under-paying hospitals in low-wage and rural areas, while over-paying hospitals elsewhere. According to CMS, the final rule increased the wage index for many rural hospitals, while slightly reducing payment rates to other hospitals, because CMS must implement the change in a budget-neutral manner.

Consider also a comment made several years ago by Donald Berwick, former CMS administrator and a strong advocate of single-payer health care. In a 1993 interview, Berwick said that “I want to see that in the city of San Diego or Seattle there are exactly as many MRI units as needed when operating at full capacity. Not less and not more.”

Implicit in Berwick’s comment: The notion that the “correct” number of MRI units in San Diego or Seattle is a knowable number. Berwick, like other single-payer supporters, believes that an omniscient bureaucracy can determine the “correct” allocation of each and every medical good and service—from the number of MRI units in San Diego, to the correct payment for an ear infection in Seattle, and on and on.

‘Little Intellectual Elite’

I don’t know whether the wage index change represents a more accurate way of calculating hospital payments, although I suspect it will make some hospitals’ payments more accurate, and some less accurate. But I don’t presume to know the financial situations of each of the United States’ thousands of hospitals, let alone believe I can calculate the change’s effects for each of them.

Conversely, liberals have the arrogance, even hubris, to believe that a massive—not to mention costly—federal bureaucracy can track and micro-manage the health care system to near-perfection. Remember, this is the same federal government that but a few years ago couldn’t build a website for Obamacare. As Ronald Reagan famously said in his “A Time for Choosing” speech 45 years ago:

This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can govern ourselves.

Berwick, and his fellow single-payer supporters want to place our health care system in the care of that intellectual elite—although, given the size of our health care system, the bureaucracy needed to control it may prove far from “little.” (But hey, they’re from the government and they’re here to help.)

Invitation to Corruption

Further solidifying power in Washington probably won’t make health-care payments any more accurate, given the inherent shortcomings of managing such a sprawling health system. However, it would certainly increase the influence of “The Swamp,” as medical providers engage in additional lobbying—or outright corruption—to win reimbursement increases from the federal government.

Four years ago, federal prosecutors obtained an indictment of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on bribery charges, for accepting campaign contributions and other gifts from Miami physician Salomon Melgen. Among other things, Menendez repeatedly contacted Medicare officials and asked them to stop seeking $9 million in repayments from Melgen, who was eventually convicted on 67 counts of Medicare fraud.

A U.S. senator receiving nearly $1 million in gifts from a Medicare fraudster seems shocking enough. But increasing the federal government’s influence over health policy will make scenarios like this even more likely—and will make things like hospitals’ yearslong lobbying over the wage index seem like small potatoes.

In “Federalist 51,” James Madison famously wrote that “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Single-payer supporters’ obsession over the former, to the exclusion of the latter, bodes ill for any supposed “efficiency gains” resulting from single payer—to say nothing of the integrity of our government.

Chris Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, and author of the forthcoming book, "The Case Against Single Payer." He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.
Photo White House / Sheleah Craighead

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