Posted on December 9, 2004

The Disparate Consensus on Health Care for All


By Steve Lohr
Published: December 6, 2004
The New York Times

N Washington, the phrase “universal coverage” is rarely mentioned as the way to provide health insurance for the 45 million uninsured Americans. It evokes memories of the Clinton administration’s sobering failure to forge a national health care plan. Yet among health care experts there is a surprising consensus that the United States must inevitably adopt some kind of universal coverage.

“Politically, it’s like the electrified third rail on the subway - no one wants to touch it,” said Margaret O’Kane, president of the National Committee on Quality Assurance, an independent group that seeks to improve the quality of health care.

But health care experts contend that the issue must be addressed. Their policy proposals vary widely, and the proponents of universal coverage are as different as Dr. William W. McGuire, chief executive of one of the nation’s largest health insurers, and Dr. David Himmelstein of the Harvard Medical School, who recommends eliminating big insurers like Dr. McGuire’s company, the UnitedHealth Group.

Whatever their differences, they do agree that moving toward universal coverage would surely save lives and maybe dollars as well. A report this year by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences found that the uninsured are sick more often than the insured and likely to die younger, resulting in an estimated 18,000 additional deaths a year.

The uninsured receive medical care, but often when it is most expensive - acute care at hospitals after emergencies instead of regular checkups and other preventive care. And the uninsured pay only 35 percent of their own medical bills, according to the Institute of Medicine report. Most of the rest is paid by taxpayers through subsidies to hospitals and clinics.

Any plan for universal coverage must answer at least three basic questions: Will the move to national coverage follow an incremental, step-by-step path or require drastic change? What role will the government play? What should be covered under a universal system?

Dr. Himmelstein, an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School, advocates a fairly sweeping overhaul of health care in America by moving to a single-payer system run by the government. The nation, he said, can no longer afford the costs of bureaucracy in the American system.

Dr. Himmelstein was a co-author of a study last year, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, that found that administrative costs represented 31 percent of total health care spending in the United States, about double the proportion in Canada, which has a single-payer system.

The culprits, in Dr. Himmelstein’s view, are all the middlemen - chiefly insurers - tussling with doctors, hospitals and nursing homes over bills and reimbursements. “Health care has become a spectator sport with this huge, costly bureaucracy watching over us,” he said.

About one million of the workers in the system, Dr. Himmelstein said, are doing unneeded administrative work that could be eliminated. The savings from moving to a single-payer system, he estimated, would be roughly $375 billion a year. “That allows you to cover everyone,” he said.

The single payer, Dr. Himmelstein suggested, would be a pumped-up Medicare with greater buying power to bargain hard with suppliers like pharmaceutical makers, to control drug costs.

Not surprisingly, Dr. McGuire of UnitedHealth opposes the single-payer formula. “The key issue is not who is paying, but what you are paying for,” he said. “I think we should have mandatory insurance. It should be based on the concept of an essential benefit. Guided by medical science, we should decide what is essential and provide it.”

The essential package, Dr. McGuire said, should cover hospital care. It should also promote healthy lifestyles and cover preventive care so that people with high blood pressure or high cholesterol, for example, would be less likely to develop heart disease, which is not only debilitating for the patient but also costly to treat.

Preventive care need not be expensive, Dr. McGuire said. For example, there are low-cost generic drugs that are equally effective in most cases - statins for lowering cholesterol and beta blockers for high blood pressure - that cost pennies per pill instead of the dollars charged for brand-name drugs still covered by patents.

If a person is employed, his or her employer would have to pay for the essential benefit, according to Dr. Maguire. Self-employed people, or others who are financially able, would pay for their own insurance, and for everyone else, the obligation would fall to the federal government or the states.