There is one point about a single-payer health-care system on which Dr. Oliver Fein and I agree — there’s not enough of a definition for the public to make an assessment about what a single-payer health-care system really is. In a recent MinnPost piece [“Medicare 2.0: Doctors group urges health care for all,” by Casey Selix], Fein, president of Physicians for a National Health Care Program, provides a set of six principles that “really define what single-payer is.” Indeed they do. But when one examines logically the six principles Fein lays out, one realizes that as well-intentioned as is his desire for universal health care, the single-payer model can’t get us there, it actually inhibits improved health care — and, ironically, to establish a manufactured “right” to health care a single-payer system destroys the unalienable right of individuals to make their own health-care decisions.

Let’s look at Fein’s principles in detail, contrasting them with a free-market health-care system, keeping in mind that the health care system we have today is NOT a free-market system but a heavily regulated managed-care system — single-payer-lite.

Fein’s principles Nos. 1, 2 and 3 define the classic trade-off among access, quality, cost. His first principle of a single-payer system is “automatic enrollment, which would lead to universal coverage.” His second principle is that “benefits ought to be really comprehensive … going from prevention, doctor, hospital, pharmaceuticals, to dental, metal health — all medically necessary services.” Principle three is that “these things should be publically financed.”

Every system — whether a manufacturing system, a sales system, the education system or the health care system — has the same three (and only three) outputs and addresses the same three questions: “How many of what kind at what cost? In health care, those three questions are expressed, “What quality of care (kind) can we provide at what cost to how many people?” Trade-offs are necessary to achieve the optimum (not perfect) system.

In a free-market health-care system, the optimum solution is determined by the pricing mechanism and individual choice. Each of the three variables is truly variable — that is given a market where physicians determine service and price and the individual is responsible for his care costs, a person might choose to have his annual check-up done by a local clinic rather than the Mayo Clinic. Given his family history, his doctor might decide he needs a specific procedure at a different interval than “the average patient.” It is these kinds of individual decisions made by millions of individuals that create an optimum health care system.

‘Variables’ aren’t variable
In Fein’s single-payer model, the “variables” are not variable at all. One of the three variables is fixed (universal coverage); consequently, the other two must be consciously managed from outside the system. Everyone cannot receive comprehensive health care (however “comprehensive” is defined) except at very high cost (or with very high taxes). If costs are fixed (as they must be at some level) then all that remains to be managed is the definition of “comprehensive.” That is why the Obama health plan calls for creation of a third-party board to determine the cost-effectiveness of specific medical treatment for specific classes of people and decide if the treatment will be covered. “Comprehensive” medical care means “quality” medical care is what government says it is, not necessarily what the patient wants.

Whereas in a free-market system millions of medical decisions are made with immediate cost and quality information available to doctors and patients, in a single-payer system, health-care decisions are governed by a relative few individuals necessarily making aggregate assumptions about individual patient situations because they cannot possibly have instant access to data required to make a decision about any individual patient.

That would be “you.”

Trade-offs among access, quality and cost in a health-care system are inevitable even if Fein does not acknowledge them. In a single-payer system with universal coverage, at some point, someone other than you and your doctor will be making decisions that materially dictate and limit treatment options available to you and your family.

Fein’s principle No. 4 is that single-payer eliminates “administrative waste” that results from having multiple payers. His principle No. 5 is that single-payer maximizes choice compared to “our present private insurance system.” Before we can discuss those two principles it is necessary to debunk the misconception Fein implies — that our “present private insurance system” is equivalent to “free-market health care” and that the present managed-care system is the same as a “private health insurance system.”

In free market, patients control the money
In a free-market health-care system, patients control the money that is spent on their health care. That money might be theirs, it might come from an insurance settlement, it might be a health-care voucher by a government program, but in each case, the patient decides how his money will be spent. In turn, in a free-market system, doctors determine what services they will provide and at what price. Doctors compete for individual patients on price and quality of care. Finally, in a free-market health-care system, insurance companies offer policies that meet the differing resources and tolerance for risk of individual consumers. They also have control of products and price. Insurance companies compete for customers based on price and comprehensiveness of coverage.

True health insurance (as opposed to prepaid medical care) has little to do with access to actual medical treatment. Health insurance, like any other insurance product, is concerned with asset protection. The purpose of health insurance is turning unpredictable and unaffordable expense into predictable, affordable expense. Insurance companies offer a variety of policies at different premium levels and deductibles that consumers will buy depending on their needs, resources and tolerance for risk.

In today’s prepaid managed-care system, insurance companies control (via government regulation) which services will be covered and how much physicians will be paid for those services. Even Fein acknowledges that in today’s regulated environment consumer choices are limited. Because a single entity controls both demand and supply of health care, there is no competitive pricing mechanism and consequently no accurate regulator on prices. Cost can’t be controlled if there is no mechanism for determining price and demand at a price.

Three outputs, three questions
Recall that any system has the same three outputs and addresses the same three questions — “How many of what kind at what cost? In a private health-insurance system, those three questions are expressed as “How many policies can be written, covering which situations at what cost?” In the current system, by law, “covering what situation” is mandated. Minnesota has more than 60 insurance mandates requiring specific coverage, for example. When one variable is fixed, the other two must be consciously managed from outside the system. Hence, on top of necessary administrative costs, we get unnecessary administrative costs imposed by regulation.

Because a third party, government, has fixed the extent of coverage, private companies are limited as to the policies they can provide and the price at which they can provide them. To keep costs down, they must either limit service provided or reduce payments to service providers. That does not change with the advent of a single-payer system. A single-payer system is not essentially different from the managed-care system we have today. The only difference is eliminating the regulated private health-care insurers and replacing them with a regimented bureaucracy.

That brings us back to Fein’s single-payer health care principles Nos. 4 and 5: eliminating administrative waste and maximizing choice.

I’ll forgo arguing with Fein’s statistics on administration costs other than to say determining administrative cost depends a lot on what is included as “administration” and what isn’t, and Fein’s numbers are based on some fairly biased assumptions — as would be my assumptions to the contrary. However, the fundamental irony, as the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner points out, is that folks like Fein praise one of the greatest failings of socialized medicine, lack of administration, as if it were a virtue.

Administration is key
Economist Tyler Cowen notes administrative costs like monitoring, marketing and overhead costs of private insurance companies are what enable those companies to offer coverage for expensive medical treatments. Competing insurance companies spend money evaluating claims and setting pricing structures so that there is an accurate measure of what coverage actually costs relative to need. Without that review mechanism, it is impossible to limit health-care costs without reducing service. Without the consulting function of insurance agents, individuals will either buy more coverage than they need and pay more for it than they should, or find themselves underinsured and taking on more financial risk than warranted.

Tanner adds, “If European health-care systems appear to have lower administrative costs, it is because, rather than scrutinizing claims, they limit the overall amount they will spend on medical services. Of course, that just means they shift costs to patients who either must pay for medical services themselves, or deal with the costs of waiting.” Going back to the access, quality, cost triumvirate, if claims are not reviewed then cost must be shifted or care limited, or “administrative saving” or the consequences of lax oversight must be passed to taxpayers.

In his principle No. 5, as he did with the definition of “comprehensive,” Fein obscures the concept of “choice” in health care. “The program in the country with the most choice is Medicare,” he writes. “You have the choice of physician, a choice of hospital; so, again, single payer would lead to increased choice.”

Indeed, as Fein envisions single-payer, it would lead to increased choice compared to today’s system. But remember, the system we have today is not a free market system, which by definition requires that patients control their health care dollars and choose their own physicians and by extension hospitals and other treatment facilities. The system we have today, thanks to government regulation, is a managed care system where different costs for “in-network” and “out-of-network” care are unavoidable because doctors are competing for pools of patients provided by health plans based on how little reimbursement they will take; doctors are not competing for patients based on value to the patient.

However, what Fein calls “choice” turns out to be anything but, as his principle No. 6 illustrates.

In his sixth principle, Fein again tries to reassure with the idea that a single-payer system really delivers health care through a “nonprofit, privately controlled system.” Doctors, he says, “would not be employed by the government; hospitals would not be owned by the government. What you would have is public financing and collection of money by the single payer, but the private delivery system would continue.”

Sort of like General Motors, I guess.

Choice, but not much of a choice
What Fein doesn’t make clear is that while patients in a single-payer system might choose from among private doctors and private hospitals, there will be little difference among doctors and hospitals in the procedures and treatments they are allowed to perform. There is a big difference between choosing among McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway (a free market) and “choosing” any (but only) McDonald’s. Again, in a single-payer system at some level, medical choices for the individual must be made by a third party based on aggregate rather than individual considerations — you just can’t get “a flame-broil Whopper Jr. for a buck” at Subway.

A second point Fein ignores in his choice argument is that with a single-payer system there is little to no motivation to innovate. Using Fein’s Medicare analogy, the single-payer determines both service descriptions and reimbursement rates. Innovations, by the definition of “innovation,” are not in the system. Medical innovations by their nature are, in initial stages, very expensive, and until perfected, produce unpredictable results. Where is the motivation to innovate if a) one must buck the system at one’s own expense to put the procedure on the service schedule, and b) one will be able to price the innovation to compensate for developing it.

Removing the profit motive stifles innovation; that reduces choice, it does not increase it.

Concluding, Fein provides us with the single-payer analogy of Medicare for all. “So what we talk about is Medicare 2.0,” he writes, “an expanded program of Medicare for all and an improved program that deals with many of these other programs. That would be the way a single-payer program would operate in the United States.”

OK, let’s assume Medicare provides “comprehensive” medical care at affordable cost (a debatable point). Why is that so? It is because the private health-care market picks up the tab for subsidized, below-market Medicare patient care; non-Medicare patients pay much more for the same services. When you extend Medicare to everyone, who is left to pick up the slack?

The dirty little secret today is that increasing numbers of physicians are simply not taking new Medicare patients. They continue to provide care as their patients age into Medicare, but the reimbursement rates for Medicare are so low that private physicians simply cannot afford to take on new Medicare patients. We’re not talking the ever-available criticism of “greed.” We are talking government reimbursements that are so low that they do not cover the cost of treatment and overhead, let alone any expectation of profit.

This situation points out another consequence of a single-payer system that Fein ignores: A Medicare-for-all scenario necessarily requires a nonvoluntary requirement on physicians to provide care irrespective of their own interests. The individual sovereignty of health-care providers, an unalienable right, must be sacrificed for the manufactured “right to health care.” As must the patient’s unalienable right to make his own health-care decisions.

Trade-offs would be imposed from on high
In his MinnPost interview, Fein has given us a clear picture of a single-payer system. What he has not offered is the trade-offs such a system must necessarily impose from on high by boards and bureaucrats, unlike in a free-market health care system where trade-offs are determined by individuals and their doctors. A single-payer system is a classic example of the dichotomy between freedom and perfection: A free society can never be perfect; a perfect society can never be free. The ultimate trade-off offered by a single-payment health care system is between the unfulfillable promise of perfection and the frustration of imperfection engendered by individual freedom.

In a true free-market system, not the heavily regulated managed-care health-care system we have today, individuals and their doctors decide how trade-offs will be made based on their individual situations. In a single-payer system, third-party government boards must necessarily make cost-based decisions about individual medical care based only on aggregate data. A free-market health-care system encourages innovation because innovators reap the rewards of their effort; a single-payer system discourages innovation because the system doesn’t know how to value innovation. A free-market health-care system establishes an optimum (not perfect) relationship among access, quality and cost; a single-payer system providing universal coverage distorts market signals by the necessity to system control costs, and consequently misallocates costs and redefines “quality.”

Ultimately the question that the public must answer vis-à-vis single payer health care is “Who do you want making decisions about health care for you and your family — you and your doctor, or somebody else?

Craig Westover, a senior policy fellow with the Minnesota Free Market Institute, is a contributing columnist to the Pioneer Press Opinion Page and a contributor to MinnPost.

This piece originally appeared at MinnPost.Com — COMMUNITY VOICES | THU, JUN 25 2009 7:00 AM