AJPH editors define the two sides of the health care reform debate

Editors on the Campaign Trail: Why Bernie Sanders Is Wrong on Health Care (and Hillary Clinton Is Right)

By Roy Grant, MA, Associate Editor, AJPH
American Journal of Public Health, August 2016

The two candidates to the 2016 Democratic Presidential primary, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), both attempt to implement the principle that health care is a basic right, but Sen. Sanders’ advocacy for single-payer health care has dominated the discussion.

On the Republican side, health care has not received much attention, besides attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA). Donald Trump, the presumptive 2016 Republican nominee, proposes increasing competition, block granting Medicaid, and expanding health savings accounts, all Republican boilerplate proposals. In the absence of greater specificity, there is no health care plan to discuss.

Hillary Clinton Is Right on Health Care

Sec. Clinton maintains that attempting to implement single-payer would disrupt our current health care system, repeal the ACA, and plunge the nation back into contentious debate. The ACA expands insurance coverage as it currently exists in the United States, with 66% privately insured (mostly employer-provided) and 34% government insured. A single-payer system would cover the 11% uninsured but replace coverage and potentially disrupt health care for the nearly 90% of insured Americans and effectively repeal much of the ACA.

Sec. Clinton correctly recognizes the success of the ACA. Between October 2013 and early 2016, 20 million previously uninsured adults gained coverage, reducing the uninsured rate from 20.3% to 11.5%. African-Americans, Hispanics, and women made the greatest gains. The first group to benefit from expanded coverage — young adults — now has fewer emergency room visits, which contributes to lower overall health care costs.


The Sanders single-payer program would fulfill the progressive goal of universal health care as a right, if passed by Congress and successfully implemented. The evidence shows insufficient political support to pass single-payer and implementation barriers including tax policy and devolution of health policy to the states. Evidence supports Sec. Clinton’s position that building on the ACA would move us toward universal coverage but maintain progress made by the law. This approach is consistent with the politics of divided government and more likely to succeed.

The difference between the two positions may be viewed as ideology versus realism. Ideology may be more inspirational but is less likely to produce change.


Brown Responds: Why Hillary Clinton Is Wrong and Bernie Sanders Is Right

By Theodore M. Brown, PhD, Associate Editor, AJPH
American Journal of Public Health, August 2016

Refuting “Clinton Is Right: ACA Represents True Progress”

I agree that the ACA has had certain positive results: 20 million previously uninsured adults have achieved coverage; African-Americans, Hispanics, and women have made considerable gains; and young adults now have expanded coverage on their parents’ policies. Several other positive improvements could be added to this list. However, the ACA fails to establish a right to uniformly high-quality health care, crystallizes unequal levels of access for those who get care, leaves out 30 million people altogether, and adds to the excessively complex and costly administrative features of our health system. The ACA also strengthens the role of the commercial insurance industry by sanctioning its inefficient multiplicity of profit-maximizing companies and their high overhead costs, by allowing exorbitant premium charges, deductibles, and out-of-pocket expenditures (especially in policies bought through the health exchanges), and by condoning tough restrictions in the choice of providers (also especially in policies bought through the exchanges). The ACA, in fact, guarantees the commercial insurance industry substantial new business facilitated by government subsidies and exercises very limited control over the rapidly escalating cost of insurance. Moreover, the ACA fails to limit the huge, often unconscionable prices and profits of the pharmaceutical industry.

Refuting “Single-Payer Would Disrupt Health Care Delivery”

Grant doesn’t say so directly, but he seems to endorse Hillary Clinton’s scare tactic scenario. However, I see no plausibility to the projected cascade of negative events. In fact, it was the ACA that had a disastrous rollout, whereas the implementation of “radical” single-payer Medicare in the 60s was remarkably smooth and efficient.5 Moreover, the supposed fear and opposition of the “protected public” (the 90% of Americans who are currently insured) may be minimal or nonexistent. After all, that public has been frustrated and angered by regular increases in premium costs, deepening deductibles, copayments and out-of-pocket costs generally, runaway and often obscene drug prices, the general threat of medical bankruptcy, and a widespread sense of powerlessness. The American public, in fact, does not feel “protected,” and according to a recent tracking poll has clearly indicated strong willingness to opt for single-payer over yet another attempt at the status quo or its incremental extension.6 We can also add to the widespread sense of dissatisfaction with our current system the realization by employees that they would be freed by a universal single-payer system from job lock and by employers that they would have less obligation to underwrite the health care costs of their workers. Who exactly would feel frightening disruption, other than the profit-maximizers of our current system?

Refuting “Building on ACA Is the Only Pragmatic Way”

Here I strongly disagree because attempting to build incrementally on the ACA will simply consolidate and concretize its fundamental flaws and even deepen some. The essential mistake is to believe that incrementalism is the only true path of American political progress. But this belief is belied by the facts of our political history. That’s not how we got Social Security or civil rights legislation.

Health care is a right, and single-payer is the fairest and most cost-effective way to achieve it in practice.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

Although more people than ever now have health insurance, there remain intolerable deficiencies in our health care financing system that clearly demand remedy. Two associate editors of the American Journal of Public Health debate the two approaches to reforming health care: Hillary Clinton’s expansion of ACA, and Bernie Sanders” single payer reform.

The thrust of today’s message is that these are the two legitimate approaches. Some in the media still seem to think that the only two approaches are Clinton’s expansion of ACA and Trump’s repeal and replacement of Obamacare. But as stated above, in the absence of greater specificity, the Republicans have “no health care plan to discuss.” Most of their boilerplate proposals would move us backwards - diminishing access and affordability.

So the real choice is, do we live with the dysfunctional system we have, merely tweaking it with measures such as adding yet one more (public) option to our fragmented system, or do we actually fix it by making health care affordable and accessible for all through single payer?

In arguing for ACA expansion Roy Grant indicates that single payer is inspirational but not pragmatic, whereas Theodore Brown points out that pragmatic incrementalism is not how we got Social Security or civil rights legislation. How can we let the nebulous notion of pragmatic inertia obstruct the inspirational, dynamic reform that we need?