Medicare For All: An Update

A little over a year ago, I made my personal case for Medicare For All. In that post, I argued that the American health care system has intolerable financial toxicity on patients and that a transition to a single payer system, such as Medicare For All, was the only feasible way to achieve true universal health care coverage in which a person’s economic status was not the main determinant of the health care they receive.

Since then, Medicare For All has continued to gain momentum with many of the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand explicitly in favor of this approach.

Pramila Jayapal (my very own congressional representative) has released an updated house bill (H.R. 1384, summary here) with 108 cosponsors, to implement Medicare For All. This operates as a companion bill to Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for all bill (S.1804) with 16 cosponsors in the Senate.

As coverage has increased, I’ve seen some important points about Medicare For All go missing from the popular discourse, so I would like to highlight a couple of points here.

What will the quality of coverage be like?

Although I feel that overall “Medicare For All” is a great slogan, it sometimes creates confusion because many assume that this means that the current Medicare plan would simply be extended to all Americans. However, the Jayapal and Sanders bills both outline a heath insurance payment system that is far more generous than current Medicare. For that matter, it’s far more generous that most commercial insurance. We’re talking no copays, no deductibles, unlimited network, vision benefits, dental benefits, and long-term care benefits. For the patient, this means that if the health care is medically indicated there are zero financial barriers to you receiving it.

How are we going to pay for it?

Many commentators have brought up that the budget allocation for a Medicare For All bill, by nature of paying for all Americans’ health care, is quite large. However, when compared to current national health care spending, the increase is marginal. For example, using estimates from The Urban Institute, annual health spending would increase from $2.8 trillion per year to $3.5 trillion per year.

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That additional $500 billion gets 34 million more Americans medical coverage, 75 million more dental coverage, and 167 million more vision coverage. That is in addition to upgrading every American’s health care coverage as described above. There are a variety of ways to pay for this including repealing Trump-era tax cuts ($230 billion per year) and implementing a wealth tax ($275 billion per year). Matt Bruenig has also laid out how to capture current employer health insurance spending through payroll taxes.

Advocacy versus legislative action

It’s worth emphasizing that Medicare For All is still in the advocacy stage, not in the legislative stage. Although a majority of Americans already support Medicare For All, activists and advocates are working to build upon that strong momentum and build enthusiasm amongst legislators who can bring Medicare For All into reality. Not every nitty gritty detail is going to be exactly worked out at this stage and that’s okay. Good quality legislation takes time to build and refine. It often requires ongoing amendment after passage. We as a nation have proven ourselves capable of this in the past and we can continue to be capable of it as long as we remain committed to universal, comprehensive health care coverage that is free at point of service.

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The U.S. government spent 50 million dollars on research which showed that Truvada, an HIV medication, was safe and effective at preventing HIV transmission when taken by people who did not have the infection. As a result, the government received a patent on this application. However, they have never enforced their patent to collect royalties for its use.

Meanwhile, Gilead Pharmaceutical, the corporation that manufactures this drug, charges up to $2000 a month for this treatment. Since they started manufacturing this medication in 2004, they have collected 36.2 billion dollars in revenue from patients and their insurance companies.

Since the government owns the patent, public health experts are arguing that they can and should enforce the patent to require that Gilead lower the price of the drug (a one month supply of which is estimated to cost $6 to manufacture) to promote more widespread availability and reduce healthcare costs. Alternately, the government could collect royalties from the patent and use that money fund other HIV prevention and treatment efforts.

Either way, the government clearly has leverage to make HIV prevention more accessible and affordable and should absolutely use this power.

Read more here.

Care Of Vulnerable Adults: Balancing Independence and Safety

Last night, I watched ProPublica and Frontline’s excellent documentary, Right to Fail, about New York’s struggle to find the balance between independence and safety in the care of people with disabling mental illness.

Finding this balance between independence and safety is something that I struggle with in primary care frequently. Most of the time, you can find a balance by bringing family members into the conversation and focusing on harm reduction and quality of life. But sometimes it’s not enough.

I took care of a gentleman in the emergency department the other day whose blood oxygen was dangerously low because of a condition called aspiration pneumonitis that he got because he was choking on the food that he was eating. He had neck surgery a couple months prior and the muscles that coordinated his swallowing reflex had not fully recovered. I advised him to come into the hospital until his lungs recovered enough that he wouldn’t need supplementary oxygen or we could arrange to have an oxygen tank delivered to his home. I told him I was worried that with prolonged low oxygen levels, his brain, heart, and kidneys may start to be damaged or fail. He declined admission, but couldn’t really repeat back to me an understanding of the risk he was taking by leaving against medical advice. I offered to call a family member on his behalf, but he didn’t want to worry them. I was stuck…

As someone with a strong professional and emotional drive to protect people from physical harm, it hurts me to see people suffering because of a limited capacity to take care of themselves. I often feel the impulse to say, “well let’s just have someone else take care of you.” I’m not alone in that. I think most people, when they seem someone on the street who is clearly unwell and in distress, feel suffering on that person’t behalf.

Many people with disabilities are glad to have assistance when that assistance is provided with compassion not condescension and supports of positive sense of self. I strongly believes that we need much better programs to support people with disabilities to maximize their capacity to live independently. But for those who who expose themselves to significant harm by rejecting assistance while having a questionable capacity to understand the risks and benefits of that decision, it gets difficult.

Institutionalizing someone against their will can be traumatic and harmful and must be a last resort. That being said, I do think it is sometimes the right thing to do, and it needs to be an option on the table.

In summary, 1) watch Right To Fail, 2) support programs that help people with disabilities live independently with dignity, and 3) consider that there are (rare) situations where loss of agency can be a net benefit to an individual with severe mental illness.