Democrats’ Aim Should Be Universal Coverage – Improving the ACA is the Right Vehicle

Democrats’ Aim Should Be Universal Coverage – Improving the ACA is the Right Vehicle

I get why the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is obsessed with enacting Medicare-for-All as the vehicle to universal coverage. I do. There’s no question that if we got it right, it would be both far more equitable and cost-effective than the present chaotic patchwork of a “system” that we’re currently lumbered with. I was raised in England and I know what a blessing the National Health Service has been, warts and all, in providing first class health care to everyone and without driving any of anybody into bankruptcy.

I also understand only too well the frustration of forever being told that it simply can’t be done, that the odds are stacked against it. How do we know unless we try, right?

Nevertheless, reality must intrude. First, as we have already seen with the few states that have tried to add a public option to their ACA markets that the health care industry will wage total war on any suggestion of even a modest expansion of of a public health care option. And when I say the health industry, we’re talking the insurance companies, the hospital industry, the pharmaceutical industry and much of the medical profession, particularly specialists, surgeons and the hospitals each of whom gain the most from the present lack of price controls on any but Medicare patients, and who will fight tooth and nail to keep it that way. Added to the health industry’s implacable opposition will be the Republican Party and the entire right-wing universe complete with relentless fear mongering and lies. And they will have a powerful issue that lends itself to demagoguery. Socialized medicine! Egads!! The fact that they’ve called the ACA, modest insurance reform at best, the same thing will of course be lost in the din.

Second, a total reform of the entire US health care system, one that dwarfs the enactment of the ACA, will require the support of most Americans, 180 million of whom currently have employer-provided health insurance which most of them believe is just fine, thank you very much. And Democrats would be asking them to give that up and see their taxes increase to boot – a hard sell even though insurance premiums will go away. All of this on the promise that expanding Medicare to include everybody, entirely rationale but something we’ve never tried before, would be better. And then there’s the seniors who are currently well satisfied with their Medicare and will be scared into believing (by you know who – see above) that somehow they will lose much of what they have if their health care is folded into a national scheme for the whole population.

In short it will not merely be an uphill struggle to enact Medicare-for-all but the policy equivalent of free climbing Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and to believe otherwise is delusional.

But there are other ways to universal coverage. In fact there are many models among developed countries that have achieved and did so with a system that incorporates private insurance albeit heavily regulated. Switzerland is one, for example. Check this link to the non-partisan Commonwealth Fund for a thumbnail sketch of the Swiss system and that of other developed nations from whose systems we can draw lessons .

Which brings us to the Affordable Care Act. Like all compromises on huge and complex pieces of legislation, the ACA is manifestly imperfect and in need of substntial improvement, for example by vastly reducing out-of-pocket expenses and greatly expanding the income cut off to receive premium subsidies. Yet the law has significantly increased the number of people with health insurance whilst proving unexpectedly resilient in surviving GOP efforts to repeal it and the Trump administration’s attempts to weaken it. If Democrats win the White House and Congress in 2020, they have an opportunity to undo all the damage of the Trump era and to make the ACA a far bigger success in providing affordable health coverage to a vulnerable population.

As well, Democrats have other costly priorities to address such as climate change and relieving our kids of the huge debt burden of college loans, to name but two. A full throated battle for a single payer health system will suck all the political oxygen out of the air and leave us with little energy to seriously tackle those issues. And that would be a tragedy.

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