The Single Payer Fantasy

  • by: Peter Pitts |
  • 03/08/2016
From today’s edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer --

Single-payer health care unworkable, too costly

In an attempt to halt Bernie Sanders’ rise in the polls, Hillary Clinton is waging a campaign against his single-payer health plan. Remarkably, one of Clinton’s main criticisms is that Sanders’ scheme would undermine the cause of federally controlled health care by giving too much power to the states. Yes, we must be in an election year.

As Clinton has put it, Sanders “wants to roll Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Affordable Care Act program, and private health insurance into a national system and turn it over to the states to administer.”

The real problem with a single-payer system, however, is much simpler: The approach has failed everywhere it has been tried — from Europe to Canada to Sanders’ own state of Vermont. In almost every instance, government-run health care has suppressed medical innovation and made it harder for patients to get the treatment they need at a price they can afford.

Both candidates ought to be discussing practical ways to fix our health system’s most serious flaw — too much government intervention. Instead, they’re quibbling over the many faults of a single-payer program that would dramatically lower the quality of care for all Americans.

While he has yet to provide many serious details, Sanders’ proposal creates a single-payer health program that would “cover the entire continuum of health care,” from inpatient care to hearing, vision, and oral health.

Sanders tends to frame his plan as a way to “join every other major industrialized nation on Earth and guarantee health care to all citizens.” But one need only look at these other nations to understand why Sanders’ vision is a step in the wrong direction. As anyone who has ever stood in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles can understand, government-run systems are invariably wracked by inefficiencies. When it comes to health care, one size doesn’t fit all.

For instance, Canadian patients hoping to see a specialist physician can expect to wait more than 18 weeks. An MRI scan in that country takes more than 10 weeks. Waiting times have grown so long in Sweden’s single-payer system that one in 10 citizens has opted for private coverage.

In order to contain health costs, Sanders promises to “stand up to drug companies and negotiate fair prices for the American people.” But again, the disastrous effects of drug price controls have been clearly demonstrated throughout Europe.

To take one example, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) consistently denies patients access to the most up-to-date treatments if they are deemed too expensive by regulators. These decisions often lead to avoidable suffering for those in need of care. Last summer, in fact, British health administrators refused to pay for a breakthrough ovarian cancer drug until patients had undergone three rounds of chemotherapy.

Drug price controls also come at the expense of medical innovation, as they weaken the incentive for pharmaceutical firms to invest in research and development. In the 1970s, four European countries invented 55 percent of the world’s new drugs. Decades of increasing price controls in Europe pushed drug development efforts — representing hundreds of billions of dollars of investment and economic activity — to the United States. Between 2000 and 2010, those four countries accounted for a third of pharmaceutical innovation, while the U.S. share rose to 57 percent.

The nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research cautions that “cutting \[drug\] prices by 40 to 50 percent in the U.S. will lead to between 30 to 60 percent fewer R&D projects being undertaken.” Less research means fewer new medicines and fewer lives saved.

Then there’s the issue of cost. Sanders estimates his plan will cost the country a whopping $1.38 trillion a year — money he intends to raise through a variety of tax hikes. As Sanders knows, this is precisely the strategy that failed in his home state in 2014.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin had planned to pay for a statewide single-payer system through significant tax increases. After realizing how expensive the program would be, Shumlin abandoned it, admitting that “the potential economic disruption and risks would be too great to small businesses, working families, and the state’s economy.”

Even in liberal Vermont, 64 percent of residents supported Shumlin’s conclusion that a government-run health system comes at too high a price. Yet, single-payer health care now dominates the conversation between the leading Democratic candidates. As the policy has no history of success and poses immense risk to our health sector, what is there to debate?

Peter J. Pitts is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a former Food and Drug Administration associate commissioner.  

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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