Dear America: Don’t Buy the Single-Payer Snake Oil

Americans have grown infatuated with single-payer health care. Gallup recently found that six in 10 people support replacing Obamacare with a “federally funded health care program providing insurance for all Americans.”

This support is troubling. Single-payer systems are little more than snake oil. Both in the United States and abroad, single-payer has never delivered on its grand promises.

The central feature of single-payer is brutally long wait times. Consider Canada, where I grew up. A patient must wait an average of four-and-a-half months to see a specialist after getting a referral from his general practitioner. In Britain’s National Health Service, one in five cancer patients has to wait at least two months before getting treated. Delays even plague the NHS’s ambulance and ER services.

Single-payer here at home has performed similarly. Multiple investigations have found that patients in the government-run Veterans Health Administration must withstand chronic delays in order to receive treatment. More than half a million veterans have waited more than 30 days for an appointment this year, according to the VA’s own data. More than 30,000 have been waiting for over four months.

And the delays keep getting worse. In 2014, Congress gave the VA $10 billion to create Veterans Choice — a program that would allow veterans to see non-VA doctors if they lived more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or had to wait more than a month for care. But as of May, 70,000 more vets have waited more than 30 days to see a doctor, relative to the same time last year.

These delays aren’t just inconvenient. They can be deadly. One recent report found that as many as 307,000 veterans may have died waiting for the VA to process their requests for care.

Those that did receive treatment from the VA may not have fared much better. According to a new Senate report, the VA inspector general — the agency’s alleged watchdog — hid evidence that showed caretakers prescribing dangerous and sometimes lethal drug dosages to patients.

Unfortunately, the inefficiencies — and consequent deaths — caused by single-payer aren’t unique to the VA. The five-year survival rates for diseases like breast, colon, and prostate cancers are worse in single-payer countries than in the United States, according to a worldwide study authorized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So why has single-payer become so popular lately? A big reason is Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. The self-described Democratic socialist has advocated for “Medicare-for-All,” an initiative that would open up Medicare to all Americans regardless of age or income.

Sanders’ home state of Vermont perfectly demonstrates the perils of single-payer. After spending $2 million and four years studying how such a system would work, researchers came up with a price tag — $4.3 billion a year. That’s just shy of the state’s total budget of $4.9 billion. To cover the difference, lawmakers floated an additional 9 percent tax on residents’ incomes and 11.5 percent on businesses.

These exorbitant taxes would have devastated the local economy. As a result, Gov. Peter Shumlin nixed the idea, noting, “The risk of economic shock is too high.”

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the price tag for a single-payer system covering all 50 states would also be enormous. A study from the liberal Urban Institute calculated that it would cost $32 trillion over 10 years.

The high costs and low-quality care inherent in single-payer are prompting many countries that once championed the scheme to move away from it. Sweden, for instance, now has 600,000 citizens with private insurance, or about 10 percent of the workforce. That’s nearly triple the number from 2006.

It’s understandable that the American public is drawn to the promise of free, universal health care. But single-payer systems crush patients with long waits, high costs and subpar care.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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