Every Democratic frontrunner in the 2020 election has some sort of universal health care plan akin to Medicare for All. While all of their plans answer a real question — how to fix a health insurance system that is expensive, confusing, and mired in bureaucracy — they differ in many ways. Meanwhile, pundits and moderate politicians have called single payer unrealistic and expensive, while arguing that many people really like their private insurance and don’t want to be kicked off of it. Others worry about what it would do to the private health care system, which would be gutted. But the costs of considering single payer are too big to ignore.
Today, individually insured middle class families spend about 15.5 percent of their income on health care — not counting what their employees cover in premiums before their pay even hits their paycheck. Meanwhile, the wealthiest Americans actually receive such great tax exemptions for their health care spending that they receive a surplus of .1 percent to .9 percent on top of their income.
“Overall health expenditures throughout the whole economy will go down, due to the efficiencies of a single payer system,” says Matt Bruenig, lawyer, policy analyst, and founder of the People’s Policy Project, a think tank that studies single-payer healthcare. “And the distribution of those expenditures and who pays for those expenditures will be shifted up the income ladder. Middle class families can expect at least thousands of dollars of savings a year from not having to pay premiums or co-pays,” he says.
Today, families that make about $60,000 a year spend about $10,000 of their pay on health care. Under universal health care, they would pay less than $1,000 in taxes and no longer have to pay deductibles, deal with surprise billing, or contend with the fact that a major medical event could bankrupt them.
Aside from costs, there are more reasons our current healthcare system is failing families. For example, even someone on employer-sponsored health insurance who might like their health insurance has a one in four chance of getting kicked off of it over the course of any given year. And given that today the average worker has about 11 jobs from age 18 to 50, per Bruenig, health insurance turnover is all but inevitable for the modern worker.
The numbers on insurance turnover are alarming, starting with the fact that about 28 million Americans have no insurance at all. All of these people likely got kicked off of their insurance: the 3.7 million people who turned 65 in 2017, the 22 million people who were fired in 2018, the 40.1 million people who quit their jobs in 2018, and the employees who work at 15 percent of companies with employer-sponsored health insurance that switched carriers, the latter of which changes the providers that employees can see and causes a lot of paperwork. Then one must consider the 1.5 million people who got divorced in 2015 and 7.4 million people who moved states and the 35 percent of people on Medicaid had their income increase to the point where they were too well off for Medicaid but not well off enough to afford other insurance plans.
Beyond that, insurers are constantly changing what providers they work with, which means the doctor that someone sees in April might not be on their plan three months later. Employees and families often feel stuck to their jobs that may have a bad work-life balance, pay poorly, or otherwise not be a good fit because the costs of trying to get on another health care plan or the risks of leaving a job due to the health care plan it offers are far too high when kids are in the mix.
“Having consistency is key, even for people who have jobs,” says Bruenig. “That job will only last so long before they’re off to another one. They could get fired, the company could close down. Being in the labor force and having the security that [your insurance will] follow you no matter which job you go to is useful,” says Bruenig.
It’s especially useful for parents, who have more than their own health to worry about. And even people who have health insurance through their private plan or employer go bankrupt with alarming frequency. Out of pocket spending for people with employer-provided health insurance has increased by more than 50 percent in the last 10 years; half of all insurance policy holders have a deductible of at least $1,000; and most deductibles for families near $3,000. When more than 40 percent of Americans say they cannot afford an emergency expense of $400 or more, it’s a wonder to think how they could ever meet that deductible before their health insurance coverage kicks in. About one in four Americans in a 2015 poll said they could not afford medical bills, and another poll showed that half of those polled had received a medical bill that they could not afford to pay. Medical debt affects 79 million Americans, or about half of working-age people.
Two thirds of people who file for bankruptcy say that their inability to pay their medical bills is why they are doing so. These are often people who are insured. These are people who should be protected. They pay into an insurance program — sometimes 20 percent of their income — in order to protect them and their families from this, but insurance companies do not protect them.
One reason is that in medical emergencies, ambulances often take people to the nearest possible hospital. That hospital might not be in their network. Or it might be, but the attending doctor might not be in their network. When the bill comes due, Americans are gutted. That would never happen under a single payer system.
The average American middle class family spends about 15-20 percent of their income on health care each year. That would shrink to just around 5 percent under many versions of the payment plan, with out-of -pocket costs completely eliminated from the equation and no deductible to discourage families from getting the medical help they need. They could continue to see the providers they like without worrying that their provider will stop working with their insurer. People don’t like to wade through the bureaucracy of their employer sponsored or private insurance plans: they like their doctors. They like having relationships with them. They like to be able to see them without being surprise billed or being told their insurance only covers half of their visits.
But what about business? What single payer would do to the overall economy is hard to say. Retirement portfolios would surely be affected by the change. The stock market would be affected. People in the health insurance industry could lose their jobs. But many of the companies, which still sell medications and medical tech, would survive, even if the scope of their business would radically change. And for businesses that spend money to insure their employees, there would either be a slight reduction in the cost of business or very little change in cost at all, says Bruenig.
Today, businesses, which help insure 155 million Americans, spend about $1 trillion in premiums to the private health insurance industry. That actually probably wouldn’t change under a single payer system, per Bruenig.
“The question of the bottom line for businesses, money wise, is a little bit uncertain. But the idea is not to necessarily save them money — it’s more of a question of flexibility. The objective savings that employers would realize in terms of not having to hire staff to talk to insurers and enroll people in insurance go down a lot. But in general, we want to keep them [paying into the system] instead of trying to shift them off to some other person.”
That’s how employer-sponsored insurance basically works today. What many people don’t realize is that part of the premiums that employers pay for their employees is set aside as part of their salary when they are hired. So, per Bruenig, if someone makes $50,000 a year, that means that about $15,000 on average is set aside from the employer perspective (that employees don’t know about) to pay into the health insurance system while employees cover about 30 percent of that premium cost through their paycheck, not including deductibles and out-of-pocket costs.
While that wouldn’t change under Medicare for All, instead of paying premiums to private insurers, employers would pay those premiums to the government. In the meantime, their costs associated with HR, payroll, and the time spent poring over health care plans would be eliminated.
There are a few ways this can be handled: one is called a ‘maintenance of effort approach,’ which is where employers pay what they were paying under private insurance to the government every year, accounting for inflation.
Another oft-cited method of payment is through an increase in the payroll tax — a tax employers already pay — to the government to help fund government-sponsored health care. Other plans include making the federal income tax more progressive and raising the marginal tax rate to 70 percent to those who make more than $10 million a year and establishing an extreme wealth tax like that proposed by Elizabeth Warren.
Estimates show that Bernie Sanders’ Medicare For All plan would save $5.1 trillion of taxpayer and business money over a decade, while cutting out-of-pocket spending on health care. While total health care spending will indeed need to increase as more people will be covered by health care, the overall savings in expenses would bring that cost back down so much that the government only needs to raise about 1 trillion dollars to fund Medicare for All when met with taxpayer money and private business investment.
But the reasons that it would help employers often go beyond the strictly financial, much how the reasons of universal health care being so great for families go beyond the financial benefits as well.
“In the current system, mandates trigger based on if someone is a full time employee. To the extent that that goes way, you would expect that you won’t have a big employer making sure people only work 29 hours so that [they don’t get benefits.],” argues Bruenig. “Essentially, those “cliffs,” where if you take one extra step, and work 30 hours [instead of 29], the cost goes way up at the margin. Those would get eliminated, and would give businesses more flexibility, and would seemingly help workers at the same time who might want more hours.”
Families could switch jobs without worrying about what they would do during a probationary period at their new job before their health benefits kick in, and people with chronic medical conditions wouldn’t have to spend hours a day on the phone haggling with their health insurance providers to get essential services covered by them. From a cost perspective, yes, a single payer system is cheaper than what we operate today. But from a time-saved perspective, from worrying-about-money-perspective, and from a can-I-take-my-kid-to-the-pediatrician? perspective, this works better. The time spent poring over confusing health care documents? Gone. Deductibles? Gone. What’s simpler is simpler — and for businesses and families, a seamless single-payer-system would lessen a lot of headaches and prevent a lot of pain.