Medicare for all? Q&A with Ohio’s leading single-payer physician advocate

Close observers of the U.S. health reform debate in recent years know that the proceedings have illustrated why Barack Obama can hardly be called a liberal or a progressive. That’s because the president showed no willingness to advocate for most liberals’ top choice for reorganizing the U.S. health system — a Medicare-for-all, single-payer plan in […]

Close observers of the U.S. health reform debate in recent years know that the proceedings have illustrated why Barack Obama can hardly be called a liberal or a progressive.

That’s because the president showed no willingness to advocate for most liberals’ top choice for reorganizing the U.S. health system — a Medicare-for-all, single-payer plan in which a single government agency handles healthcare financing while doctors largely remain private-sector workers.

So that’s why single-payer advocates are lucky to have Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP), a 17,000-member organization that advocates for single-payer. “Under a single-payer system, all Americans would be covered for all medically necessary services … [and] patients would regain free choice of doctor and hospital,” the group states.

In Ohio, PNHP’s top official is Dr. Johnathan Ross, a Toledo internist who practices and teaches at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center. Ross, who holds a medical degree from Cornell University and a master’s in health policy from the University of Michigan, is a past president of PNHP, having served a one-year term in 2000.

The Paul Krugman look-alike is also somewhat Krugman-like in his writing: He’s penned several editorials for the Toledo Blade and Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer.

PNHP cites a litany of statistics (apparently from its own research, some of which is more than a decade old) to support its case: 31 percent of U.S. health spending goes not to patient care but administrative costs; the U.S. health system is already 60 percent publicly financed with 20 percent paid for by businesses and 20 percent from out-of-pocket costs; and for-profit, investor-owned hospitals score lower in quality but higher in cost on average than their nonprofit counterparts.

Ross spoke with MedCity News about why he believes a health system based on profit will never provide the high quality and low cost the U.S. needs, what he sees as the major weaknesses of Obama’s health reform, and how his up-close experience with an HMO led him to support single-payer.

Q: Talk a little about how your own thinking evolved to support a single-payer health system. Did you previously believe in the structure of the current U.S. system? What caused you to change your mind?
A:  For about 10 years from the mid-1980s onward, my employer, Mercy Health Partners, started and ran a nonprofit HMO. I was asked to be the medical director for the health plan. It was this experience that changed my thinking completely.

I saw up-close the dirty underbelly of the insurance industry. I saw all the shady things health insurers needed to do to stay in business. Essentially, the way to make money in the health insurance business is to avoid sick people who will be costly to insure. Since 5 percent of the patients generate 50 percent of the healthcare costs, it is essential to avoid insuring these sick people if you want to stay profitable. When you see what it takes to be successful as a health insurer, you realize it has nothing to do with high-quality patient care. Our nonprofit HMO had to do the sleazy risk-rating, denials of coverage and limitations on specialist care just like the for-profit insurers if we wanted to stay in business. It was a race to the bottom.

Q: Why do you believe that a profit-based health system can’t solve the problems of access, cost and quality?

A: As long as the profit motive is there, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the healthcare equipment makers, etc. will be seeking profits rather than better health for the American public. Why would any of these industries want us to be healthy?  The drugmakers and equipment makers only make money when we are sick and need to take their medications and use their equipment. The insurers design their premiums to keep a nice percentage of whatever we spend on healthcare. The more we spend, the more they make. Why would they have any interest in controlling the long-term costs of healthcare in this country when they get to keep a percentage of whatever we spend? The unhealthier we are, the more we spend and more they make.

A healthcare system should be designed to improve the health of the public, not to improve the health of corporate bottom lines. When you’re designing something, you should begin with the end in mind.  If we’re designing a health system, is the end we want a fabulously profitable medical-industrial complex, or is it a fabulously healthy country?

Q: Are you generally supportive of the federal health reform law that passed last year? What do you see as its greatest strength and weakness?
A: It’s very hard for me as a single-payer advocate to be completely supportive of the Affordable Care Act, though there are many good things in it. The positives include lots of money for public health, primary care and improving our data systems with electronic health records.

As for the weaknesses, if you had a house with a crumbling foundation, would you put a third floor on it anyway? That’s what the ACA does. It takes our crumbling foundation of a private health insurance system, which leaves people about as covered as an open-back  hospital gown, and adds more of the same — more Medicaid and private insurance without doing anything to reduce the system’s complexity. One of the fundamental flaws of our system is that it is way too complicated. We spend 30 percent of our health dollars on administration and chasing the money because our financing is incredibly complex. We have hundreds of different insurance companies with hundreds of different rules, so the problem with the ACA is it leaves all that complexity in place. Until we simplify the financing, we can’t simplify the system.

Q: I imagine lots of doctors oppose single-payer (whether they admit it or not) because they think it’ll lead to a reduction in their salaries. Do you find that to be true? What’s your response to that complaint?
A: We have good research on how doctors feel about national health insurance. In general, 60 percent of primary care doctors support it. Specialists are less likely to support it, but in a few specialties, such as psychiatry and general surgeons, more than half favor it. Of course, there are some physicians who are very much opposed, like the American Medical Association, but that’ll be true with any reform effort. Even though they complain of being prisoners of the insurance industry, they do not want to give up their golden handcuffs. Many doctors who were opposed to single-payer reform in the past come up to me and say, ‘I’ve been studying this and now I think you’re right. We need an improved Medicare-for-all.’ How could PNHP grow to 17,000 members otherwise? Several of the large physician groups, including the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have come out and said that Medicare-for-all is a reasonable option.

In truth, physician incomes should go up. Everyone will be covered so there will be no bad debt as there is now for patients with no or lousy insurance. Malpractice premiums will fall since about half of our premiums go to cover the care of the injured patient.  Given everyone will be covered, these costs will not need to be part of our premiums.  We would believe that primary care incomes should grow some and the differential between primary care and specialist incomes should narrow somewhat, but overall in our budget calculations we hold caregiver incomes stable.

Single-payer administrative simplicity saves enough money by reducing administrative costs that we can cover everyone comprehensively, with no co-pays or deductibles, give complete choice of hospital and doctor, and still spend no more than we do now. It will free us from the grip of the insurers and the need to do a wallet biopsy looking for the green before we see the patient. We can just be good doctors again.