Democrats mislead voters by appropriating the name of a popular program they actually seek to abolish.
While most of Washington has been obsessed with the Mueller report, serious foreign policy issues are coming to the forefront in these two countries. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains. Photos: Getty
More than 100 House Democrats have endorsed Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s Medicare for All Act of 2019. Fourteen Democratic senators have co-sponsored a similar bill from Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The title is deeply misleading. It implies that the current Medicare system would be extended to all Americans. In fact, Medicare for All differs from Medicare in fundamental ways—with much broader coverage, no cost sharing, and fewer choices of health-care plans. While America needs a debate about health care, it should be based on an accurate description of the alternatives.
Medicare for All would cover a panoply of dental, vision and mental-health services not covered by Medicare. Under the latest version of the House bill, the federal government would also pay for all long-term nursing and home care—estimated by the Urban Institute to cost roughly $3 trillion over the next decade.
The program would replace Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, as well as all employer-sponsored insurance and direct individual insurance (including the ObamaCare exchanges). It would cover not only uninsured American citizens but every U.S. resident—potentially including illegal as well as legal immigrants.
Despite this substantial expansion of coverage, Medicare for All would not require beneficiaries to contribute premiums, deductibles or copayments. By contrast, most parts of Medicare require some form of cost sharing by patients. Medicare Part B, for outpatient medical expenses, has a standard premium of $1,626 a year with an annual deductible of $185, plus a 20% copayment, according to the official Medicare website.
Because of the broad coverage of services and patients without cost sharing, Medicare for All would entail dramatically higher federal spending on health care than Medicare and other programs. There have been several estimates of the incremental cost over 10 years of Mr. Sanders’s 2016 proposal, which did not include long-term care—$27.3 trillion by the Center for Health and Economy, $28 trillion to $32 trillion by former Social Security and Medicare trustee Charles Blahous, and $24.7 trillion by Emory Professor Kenneth Thorpe. The Urban Institute estimate, which included long-term care, was $32 trillion over 10 years.
Proponents counter that the proposal would reduce federal health-care spending in three main ways—lower drug prices through government negotiations, lower reimbursement rates for medical services, and lower administrative costs by eliminating insurance companies. They also argue the proposal would increase federal tax revenue by repealing the deduction for employer-provided insurance. But these four factors are already built into the previous estimates. However you cut it, Medicare for All would inevitably lead to massive tax increases.
Neither the House nor the Senate bill includes much detail on financing higher federal spending. Mr. Sanders’s staff released a paper in April with revenue options—imposing a premium tax on employers and employees, increasing the top income-tax rate, imposing a wealth tax, closing tax loopholes and so on. But the paper does not address the budget implications of these options or the challenges of getting them through Congress.
Medicare for All would also replace Medicare’s current method of paying fees for services to every hospital, nursing home and other institutional provider. Instead, a new federal board would set an annual budget for each provider, which would receive one lump sum for current operations and another for capital expenditures. That board would be expressly forbidden by current Medicare for All bills from using quality metrics—which would be necessary to prevent providers from skimping on quality with lump-sum payments.
All this would force a radical change in the current business models of most hospitals and other Medicare providers. Although they would generally have discretion over how to spend their lump-sum payments, they could not use them to make “profit or net revenues.” Yet each provider would bear the risk if these payments were insufficient to cover actual costs. Many hospitals would limit the volume or scope of their services until they were sure they would break even for the year.
Finally, Medicare for All would eliminate the plan choices Medicare now allows. Elderly Americans don’t have to get outpatient or drug coverage from the government. Some opt to stay with their employer plans and others choose private providers through Medicare Advantage. Medicare for All would prohibit any insurer or employer from privately offering any services covered by this legislation—which means essentially all medical services.
Medicare for All allows even less in the way of plan choice than other single-payer systems. In the United Kingdom, patients may purchase private insurance for medical services even if they are available through the National Health Service. Canada does not cover dental, vision or long-term care, so two-thirds of Canadians purchase these services through private health insurance.
In the coming debate over health care, the label “Medicare” should be reserved for proposals that are built on the existing structure of this successful program. Whatever else “Medicare for All” may be, it isn’t Medicare.