The Hospital Under Medicare for All

Our goal shouldn’t be to lower hospitals’ prices, but to eliminate them entirely. Medicare for All is the way to achieve that.

Staff in the trauma unit at the John H. Stroger Jr Cook County Hospital try to save the life of a man who was hit by a car November 6, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty

More than 24 million people require hospitalization annually in the United States, and many more see their doctors or other providers, or have tests and procedures, in these institutions. Yet as the health care reform debate heats up, some have painted a grim picture of how hospitals would fare under Medicare for All — predicting slashed budgets, shuttered wards, service cuts, and mass layoffs. Especially for those who rely on hospital care, such claims may sound an alarm.

A recent commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association predicted that Medicare for All would put hospitals deep in the red, forcing them to shed up to 1.5 million jobs. An article in the New York Times last month gave voice to similar concerns that hospitals, especially vulnerable ones, would close “virtually overnight” under Medicare for All, or would abandon “lower-paying services like mental health” altogether.

An editorial from the Washington Post warned that single payer could “shutter smaller or regional facilities whose margins are already low.” Even some progressives have given credence to such claims, predicting — or even calling for — deep reductions in “prices,” i.e., insurance payments to hospitals, under Medicare for All, or under other reforms.

These claims have a common, flawed underpinning. For one thing, they fail to appreciate a key cost baked into the “prices” paid by insurers today: the billing-related cost forced on hospitals by our dysfunctional multi-payer system, and so they discount the potential savings for hospitals under Medicare for All.

More fundamentally, however, the focus on hospital “prices” fails to recognize that a properly structured single-payer reform would not merely change what hospitals are paid, but how they are paid. Indeed, it could move us away from a system where hospitals have prices at all.

Savings in the Short-Run: Covering the Cost of Universalism

Imagine if we funded public schools the way we funded hospitals. Instead of giving schools a lump sum “global” budget to take care of all their students, we required them to issue per-student bills that were to reflect each student’s unique educational needs, and the precise mix of services they received. Assume also that teachers had to issue bills for every episode of instruction provided to each pupil daily, using a complex fee schedule incorporating the length, complexity, and/or intensity of every interaction. Finally, imagine that the tsunami of resultant bills went not just to the local government, but to a welter of different “educational insurance” plans, with varying rules and requirements; that these insurers frequently contested the charges; and that schools were required to collect co-pays and deductibles from parents, which varied depending on how much education a child “consumed” and their particular insurance plan.

Among other issues, the waste would be colossal: large bureaucracies would be needed to issue and process the bills, and the paperwork would suck up large amounts of teachers’ time, taking them away from, say, teaching. That’s exactly what plays out in hospitals. At one large academic medical center, 25 percent of all payments to the hospital for an ER visit were consumed simply by the cost of processing the bill. Overall, approximately one-quarter of American hospitals’ total revenues is consumed by administrative and billing expenses.

In contrast, Canadian and Scottish hospitals receive global lump sum budgets, similar to public schools, which allows them to eschew “per patient” billing altogether, and spend only 12 percent of revenue on administration. Single payer, in other words, could cut US hospitals’ administrative spending by half, an enormous saving since hospital spending accounts for about one-third of our $3.5 trillion health bill.

This has two implications. Because hospitals’ wasteful administrative costs are baked into prices, single payer would allow us to reduce payments to providers without shrinking the resources they have available to take care of patients. More likely, as demand for care rises once everyone is covered and financial barriers to care like co-pays and deductibles are eliminated, hospitals could increase the amount of care they provide within their existing budgets.

Single-payer financing, in other words, can cover the cost of true health care universalism in the short run. And in the long run, it provides a second critical tool to control hospital cost growth.

Savings in the Long Run: Controlled and Equitable Capital Expansion

Let’s return to the public school analogy for a moment. Assume that once schools were done billing, they could retain revenues that exceeded their costs, i.e., they could turn a profit, even if they remained legally not-for-profit. And let’s say that these profits were the source of funds for capital projects: schools could use them (together with private debt) to upgrade their facilities, construct new wings, acquire new technology, or even build whole new schools. Finally, assume that schools competed for students — especially from well-off families — and that some avoided the poor kids.

In this scenario, highly profitable school systems would, predictably, enter a self-perpetuating cycle of expansion, upgrades, more business, more profits, more growth, hence rising operating costs. In contrast, unprofitable schools would fall behind, and could even go bankrupt, resulting in entire districts (especially poor ones) being left without a single school. (Obviously, large inequities exist among schools today — but they would be massively exacerbated by this financing system).

This is, again, a reasonable description of how hospitals are paid. As Public Citizens’ Sidney Wolfe and Physicians for a National Health Program co-founders (and colleagues) Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein argued last year, hospitals’ profits are the source of funds for capital expenditures, like new wings, major new equipment, sumptuous atrium lobbies, or even the construction of new hospitals. Over the long term, this cycle of profit- and debt-funded capital expansion leads to rapidly escalating operating costs, and hence overall health spending, a key reason why US health care spending diverged so sharply from those of other nations in the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1970s, for instance, hospital spending soared, not because people used the hospital more, but because of an enormous expansion in hospital capital.

The problem is not capital expansion per se (nobody wants dilapidated hospitals), but inequitable and unregulated capital expansion tethered to profitability, rather than community health needs. Today, hospitals in well-served areas often relentlessly expand and upgrade, even as needed hospitals shutter in poorer areas, as seen with the recent epidemic of rural hospital closures. This system of hospital capital financing leads to what British general practitioner and epidemiologist Julian Tudor Hart called the “inverse care law,”: the “availability of good medical care,” as he put it, “tends to vary inversely with the need for it in the population served.”

Moreover, unconstrained capital investments can sometimes actually lead to worse care. For complex procedures like transplants, hospitals that treat only a small number of patients cannot develop (or maintain) the expertise needed to achieve the best outcomes.

Bloated costs, in other words, go hand in hand with inequity, and can even compromise quality. The solution is simple. Under Physicians for a National Health Program’s single-payer proposal, similar to the House Medicare for All bill recently launched by Representative Pramila Jayapal, hospitals’ global budgets could only be spent on operating costs. None of the budget could be retained as “operating margins” (i.e., profits), or spent on expansion. Instead, a separate, dedicated stream of federal funds would pay for hospital capital expansion, based on community need and not profitability, as is done in many countries.

Such policy tools are essential to control costs and ensure an equitable and efficient distribution of health care resources moving forward. Achieving this, though, means a paradigm shift in our conceptualization of health care “prices.”

Beyond “Prices”: Reimagining Hospitals as Social Institutions

A decade ago, the mainstream health care discourse was dominated by a concern that people were using too much hospital care: reducing costly ER visits and hospitalizations by the uninsured — by giving them a primary care doctor — was commonly cited as a justification for the Affordable Care Act. But that framing was simply false. Uninsured people actually use the hospital less (and the ER no more) than those with good coverage, while Americans overall actually use the hospital less than people in most other OECD nations.

Analysts then concluded that if the quantity of care we use isn’t the problem, high prices must be the explanation for our high health care costs. Consequently, in more recent years, mainstream health care discourse has swung behind an emphasis on lowering health care “prices,” whether by market mechanisms or regulation.

This shift is mostly a step in the right direction. But a simplistic conceptualization of “prices” will, invariably, fail us too.

There are three problems with centering our health care reform efforts on the “prices” paid by insurers.1 First, health care “prices” lump together a wide variety of items. As I’ve argued, insurance payments to hospitals pay for things we care about deeply (i.e., the delivery of quality hospital care), things we couldn’t care less about (i.e., the cost of processing hospitals bill), and things that are often valuable but need to be controlled in an equitable fashion (i.e., capital expansion). Single payer uniquely allows us to extract administrative waste — and thereby cover the cost of providing more care to the previously uninsured and underinsured — while controlling capital spending and directing the investments to what’s needed rather than what’s profitable.

If instead, as some propose, we were to indiscriminately slash hospital “prices” (while retaining current financing mechanisms), we would have no control over where the axe would fall. Hospitals would drop unprofitable service lines like mental health and intensify efforts to avoid unprofitable patients (e.g., the homeless); staffing ratios might rise; attacks on labor would likely intensify, even as executive pay and spending on advertising was maintained — or even increased! And in such a system, of course, unprofitable hospitals would still shutter.

The second problem is more epistemological. Quite simply, hospitals shouldn’t have prices, any more than public schools, parks, or libraries. For one thing, the very meaning of per-user “prices” in social institutions is murky. We could attempt to attribute the costs of maintaining Central Park to distinct visitors, I suppose, based on how long they spent lounging on the Great Lawn, whether they circle the reservoir once or twice, whether or not they ask for directions from park staff, and so forth. But it would be a very crude, and perhaps intrinsically fraudulent, effort. Regardless, it would necessitate a major diversion of park resources into a bookkeeping apparatus with zero social value.

Per-patient hospital bills may be somewhat more meaningful, but at the end of the day, a hospitalization, like a park visit or a year in school, is not analogous to mass-produced commodities churned out on assembly lines. A hospitalization for pneumonia may involve a few doses of intravenous antibiotics followed by discharge home after one or two nights, or it may lead to months in the ICU, requiring the services of nearly every specialist in the hospital. What is the meaning of the price of pneumonia?

The third problem with focusing on prices, however, is the most serious. It is not merely that the administrative effort needed to bill individual users of a park, school, or hospital is extravagantly wasteful, or that these prices have questionable meaning and validity. More fundamentally, allowing social institutions to bill individual users, and then use the resultant profits to expand and grow and modernize, invariably means that these institutions have their quality, technological prowess, and beauty — indeed their very existence — determined by profitability, by the logic of the market.

And they are too important for that.