Commentary: State study of single-payer care wastes $100,000

Studies in California, Colorado and New York would have shown lawmakers the unaffordable costs.

By Sally C. Pipes

Washington is the latest state to contemplate a government takeover of its health care system. The Evergreen State’s legislature just allocated $100,000 for a “study of single-payer and universal coverage health care systems.”

They may as well have lit that money on fire. Several other states have explored implementing single-payer health care within their borders. Each has backed away, after getting a look at the eye-popping price tag and inferior care that such a system would provide.

Washington’s lawmakers could’ve taken a quick trip down I-5, to California for a firsthand look at single-payer’s failures. Last spring, the state senate’s appropriations committee released a study on the Healthy California Act, a bill that would’ve enrolled just about all residents of the Golden State — including those covered by Medicare, the state’s version of Medicaid, employer-sponsored insurance and private individual-market plans — in a state-run single-payer system.

The cost? Some $400 billion — more than twice the state budget.

Proponents of the plan didn’t buy that number, so they commissioned a study of their own. That report pegged its cost at just $331 billion — just slightly less than double the state budget.

State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat, shelved the bill last fall. But the drumbeat for single-payer in California hasn’t ceased. The California Nurses Association is continuing to push the Healthy California Act. Even progressives opposed to the bill maintain that their long-term goal is single-payer. A March report commissioned by Rendon called on the state to work toward “unified public financing” of health care.

Colorado has also considered single-payer. In 2016, the idea’s proponents put the question before voters, as a ballot initiative. Eight in 10 Coloradans rejected it. The nonpartisan Colorado Health Institute estimated that single-payer in Colorado would run an annual deficit of nearly $8 billion within 10 years.

A bid to establish single-payer in New York has been bouncing around its state capitol since 2015. Even its supporters admit that tax revenue in the Empire State would have to more than double to pay for the plan.

A less sympathetic study of New York’s plan, conducted by the Foundation for Research on Economic Opportunity, concluded that it would increase the state’s tax burden fourfold and destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Even Vermont — home of the pied piper of single-payer, Sen. Bernie Sanders — couldn’t find a way to make single-payer viable. A 2014 analysis conducted by the state revealed that single-payer, if established, would cost upward of $4.3 billion in 2017 — an amount equivalent to almost 90 percent of the state’s entire 2015 budget.

Washington’s neighbor to the north offers additional evidence against single-payer. In order to control the costs of its government-run system, Canada forces patients to wait for care. Nationwide, the median wait time for treatment from a specialist after receiving a referral from a general practitioner exceeds 21 weeks. In British Columbia, the median wait is longer than 26 weeks.

Many Canadians are fed up. According to a poll out last month, 76 percent of Canadians — and 80 percent of British Columbians — believe that people should be able to pay for treatment privately if the wait is longer than clinically recommended. Right now, private payment is effectively illegal.

Dr. Brian Day, an orthopedic surgeon from Vancouver, B.C., is trying to change that. He’s suing the provincial government in hopes of securing the right for patients to get quicker treatment by paying for it out of pocket at private clinics. He argues that the current system’s interminable waits infringe upon Canadians’ rights to “life, liberty and security of the person,” as guaranteed by the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Evidence abounds that single-payer delivers subpar care at astronomical cost. Washington’s lawmakers didn’t need to spend $100,000 to find that out; they could have just looked beyond their borders.

Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in health care policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book, “The False Promise of Single-Payer Health Care” (Encounter), was released last month. Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.

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