RAND exploration of single payer alternatives

Exploring Single-Payer Alternatives for Health Care Reform

By Jodi L. Liu
Pardee RAND Graduate School Dissertation, May 2016


The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has reduced the number of uninsured and established new cost containment initiatives. However, interest in more comprehensive health care reform such as a single-payer system has persisted. Definitions of single-payer systems are heterogeneous, and estimates of the effects on spending vary. The objectives of this dissertation were to understand single-payer proposals and to estimate health care spending under single-payer alternatives in the United States.

Single-payer proposals are wide-ranging reform efforts spanning financing and delivery, but vary in the provisions. I modeled two sets of national scenarios – one labeled comprehensive and the other catastrophic – and compared insurance coverage and spending relative to the ACA in 2017. First, I estimated the effects of utilization and financing changes, and then I added the effects of “other savings and costs” relating to administration, drug and provider prices, and implementation.

Due to coverage of all legal residents and low cost sharing and prior to adjusting for other savings and costs, the comprehensive scenario increased national health care expenditures by $435 billion and federal expenditures by $1 trillion relative to the ACA. The range of the net effect of the other savings and costs in the literature was $1.5 trillion in savings to $140 billion in costs, with a mean estimate of $556 billion in savings. If this mean estimate was applied to the comprehensive scenario, national expenditures would be $121 billion lower but federal expenditures would still be $446 billion higher relative to the ACA. The catastrophic scenario also covered all legal residents but increased overall cost sharing, resulting in a reduction in national expenditures by $211 billion and federal expenditures by $40 billion even before adjusting for other savings and costs. Average household spending on health care in both sets of scenarios could be more progressive by income than spending under the ACA.

I also developed an interactive, web-based cost tool that allows the savings and cost assumptions to be adjusted by any user. As the debate on how to finance health care for all Americans continues, this study provides increased transparency about economic evaluations of health care reform.

Full Dissertation (Free download - 157 pages):



By Don McCanne, M.D.

For her doctorate dissertation at Pardee RAND Graduate School, Jodi Liu has produced a superb paper on single payer reform. Single payer supporters will want to download this paper, and I’ll explain why.

There remains some confusion as to the precise definition of single payer, and she shows us why by presenting the variations in twenty-five specific proposals, including, of course, the Proposal of the Physicians' Working Group for Single-Payer National Health Insurance - the 2003 version by Woolhandler, Himmelstein, Since PNHP supports a relatively precise, comprehensive model of single payer, many of the models she discusses we would not label as single payer, though we can see why others would (Vermont H 202 as an example). Because of this variation in design, it is difficult to state precisely what impact a generic single payer program would have. Each one is different.

She selects two sharply contrasting versions for specific analyses of health care spending: a comprehensive single payer proposal, the American Health Security Act (S 1782) of Sen Bernie Sanders and Rep Jim McDermott, and the Health-Insurance Solution, a “single payer” plan of catastrophic health insurance as proposed by Kip Hagopian and Dana Goldman. Although you can learn much on how not to design a single payer system from her analysis of the Hagopian/Goldman model, here we’ll mention only her findings on the Sanders/McDermott model since it is fairly similar to the PNHP proposal.

She first determines the increased spending that would occur by covering everyone with comprehensive benefits (actuarial value 98 percent). She then determines the effect of other savings and costs that are supported by published policy studies, such as the reduction in administrative waste and the greater value obtained through monopsonistic health care purchasing.

It will come as no surprise that her estimate of the mean net savings in national health expenditures would be about $121 billion under this proposal. The federal portion of spending would be about $446 billion higher than under ACA, but that is actually desirable because the proposed federal taxes would be more equitable that the fragmented funding system we have under ACA. She points out that the mean estimate of savings resulting from the other savings and costs according to the policy literature would be about $550 billion, but the range of the estimate would be between a savings of $1.5 trillion to increased costs of $114 billion. The wide variation in the interpretation of the policy literature explains to some extent the reason why various analysts have come up with very different results when analyzing single payer models.

People frequently ask what it would cost them if we had a single payer system, and they want to compare that to their current insurance premium. There are far too many variables to answer that without having a final markup of single payer legislation, plus most people do not realize how much they are paying for health care besides their insurance premiums and cost sharing, especially considering that over 60 percent of health care spending is paid through our tax system.

But people can get a good idea of average percent in personal savings by checking Figure C.2 in the Appendix of this paper. It shows that both the comprehensive base proposal (Sanders/McDermott) and the comprehensive alternative proposal (John Conyers HR 676) would provide significant savings for everyone except those over 1000 percent of the federal poverty level ($253,000 for a family of four).

Another great feature of this study is that the author has created an interactive Cost Tool which is “to improve the transparency of the estimates by disaggregating the effects and allow users to view, in real time, the results of adjusting the assumptions underlying the effects.” Although there still may be differences in opinions about the impact given to the various adjustments, it does bring us closer to understanding the overall financial impact of single payer reform. Although the Tool is not yet up on the Internet, in a personal communication Jodi Liu says that she hopes to have it available soon.

At any rate, this study shows once again that a well designed, comprehensive single payer system really would provide health care for everyone without increasing health care spending over the current level under ACA, based on the mean estimate of the financial impact of single payer.

So, again, download this paper now. It will be very helpful in your future advocacy for single payer.