Here are the reasons that I hear from proponents of a single payer system:
1. It will provide health insurance for everyone and cover all services.
2. Insurance companies will no longer make huge profits and the money saved will cover health insurance for everyone, the national debt, and an Xbox for every fish.
3. It will make the health care system simpler and more efficient and the money saved will provide Guitar Hero III for every non-vertebrae.
4. It's easy to do, just expand Medicare to cover everyone.
1. Health Reform has been working towards preventing the denial of health insurance which is necessary to have a humane society. However, access to health insurance won't solve health care costs that exceed inflation. It won't create more primary care physicians or more care providers. It also won't address the approximstely 33% of the uninsured who make more than $50,000/year and refuse to buy auto insurance, wear motorcycle helmets, and still probably try to smoke on airplanes.
2. With a little extrapolation from this data of the large publicly traded health insurance companies, I see about $12-$15 billion in profits that can be seized. That would cover about 50,000 hip replacements which will probably be needed by the 50 million Baby Boomers or 12,500 very premature babies. In today's health care dollars, that's actually not a lot of money. Health insurance plans have an average profit margin of 3%. Some might argue that we should include money spent on marketing and CEO salaries. However, a single payer system will have to market to explain its system and have expenses developing a large enough system to cover the whole US. If I was feeling really snarky, I would counter that the likely rich benefit packages from unionized government workers would be about the same as large CEO salaries. If I was feeling less snarky, I would point out that $10 million in salaries is 1% of a billion dollar in revenue company so that savings opportunities is closer to 40 more hip replacements.
While ending the existance of evil health plans creates the same delight that one gets when their favorite team beats the New England Patriots, the money would cover the cost increases for the next few years at the most.
3. One claims system, one billing system, one benefit package, and one coverage system is very appealing. I have heard that it would eliminate provider administrative costs by 30%. Oregon had made movements towards consolidating its Medicaid carriers into one carrier per geographic region with this same argument. However, they pulled away because there were not necessarily carriers that could serve all the Medicaid beneficiaries in that region. Some carriers and provider groups that did service a particular county would be eliminated. That approach would award a monopoly to one group. That's the danger of the Highlander (In the end, there can only be one) approach. If one company controls an entire market with no competitors, how do we expect them to behave?
Health care is also very local and segmented both geographically and demographically. The east coast features large academic medical centers while the west coast features the integrated delivery systems while the south has entrants as new as most of its latest round of carpet baggers. In Oregon, you have to cover naturopathic medicine to be competitive while in Boston, you have to include the Partners Health Group.
Some individuals want alternative care covered, some can't afford their diabetic medications unless there is no cost share, and some want the cheapest plan possible and would rather pay 50% when they have to use services. It's not possible to create one universal benefit plan that would meet the needs of everyone and be affordable. Segmentation is a hallmark of successful business ventures. Trying to be all things to all people is a recipe for failure. The banking system and telephone lines lends itself towards a national model. Most other services lend themselves to a state wide model at best.
Creating this simplicity would entail a lot of sacrifice of personal choice. We're not good at sacrificing choice in cell phone plans, let alone health care coverage. Part of growing up as a health care system is figuring out what we really want to be. One universal model is not something that appeals to any characteristic of our nation.
4. The biggest problem is that the only group that is really equipped to offer a universal health plan is Unitedhealth Group. They are the only ones who have the size and scale.
The Medicare program has no experience with any level of sophisticated claims processing, network management, or negotiating for medical services. Network management and even a rudimentery claims processing is necessary for any type of system that pays providers for offering the right level of services and not just lots of services. Their price negotiations involves setting a price and telling people to take it or leave it. The idea that they can negotiate with prescription drug companies on pricing will be undermined by the fact that they have no department that can do it. Currently, they rely on the same companies that private insuracne companies use for prescription drug negotiation. Medicare can barely prevent fraud and abuse let alone managing costs. It has driven disease management programs into bankruptcy.
Someone who provides universal coverage would also need to staff up on customer service and basic communications which are not Medicare's area of expertise. I would offer the image of the DMV running your health plan except that I don't like to drag in the poor DMV. They get picked on enough.
Since Medicare doesn't have the basic expertise, the other option is to contract with private health plans to offer universal coverage. This is called the Medicare Advantage program which has its critics, including President Obama.
The solution: Since I haven't come up with a colonoscopy joke, by my new rule, I have to come up with a solution. Personally, I like Germany's approach. A basic level of services is covered by the government and people can buy private insurance for more coverage. This is basically like our eduction system.