Single-payer health care is back in the news. Activists in Colorado just secured enough signatures to put single-payer on the state ballot next fall. Last month, a state legislator from Philadelphia introduced legislation that would, if passed, install single-payer in Pennsylvania.
And then there’s Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) who has promised to push for a nationwide, Medicare-for-all system if he wins the White House. “It’s time for a single-payer health care system in America,” Sanders recently announced on Twitter.
There is indeed a lot to learn from foreign, government-run single-payer systems — just not what Sanders and others might like to hear. From Canada to the United Kingdom and even Scandinavia, single-payer systems have proven cripplingly expensive even as they limit patients’ ability to access quality care.
Consider Canada’s true single-payer system. Patients must wait an average of more than two months to see a specialist after getting a referral from their general practitioner, according to the Fraser Institute, a nonpartisan Canadian think tank. Patients can expect to wait another 9.8 weeks, on average, before receiving the treatment they need from that specialist.
Overall, Canadians now wait even longer than last year — and 97 percent longer than they did in 1993.
Access to care is so poor, in fact, that 52,000 Canadians flee to the United States each year for medical attention. They refuse to wait in line for care as their health deteriorates.
The situation is no better under Great Britain’s mainly government-run health system.
As of this summer, 3.4 million Brits were stuck on waiting lists — a 36 percent uptick since 2010. Last year, about a million people had to wait more than four months to get treatment. Almost 300,000 waited at least six months.
As with most centrally-controlled bureaucracies, the British health system is inefficient. According to a recent government report, the country’s National Health Service is plagued by problems like neglect, incorrectly-administered medications and inadequate care for the dying. In some cases, the report concluded that the treatment of patients was “appalling.” Last month, more than 40,000 young doctors threatened an all-out strike over their hours.
As for Scandinavia, patients there would likely advise Sanders to reject socialized medicine.
In recent years, Swedish residents have gravitated toward private insurance to avoid the rationed care and long wait times common in the country’s single-payer system. Today, roughly one in 10 Swedes — more than half a million people — has a private health insurance policy.
As the Swedish economist Nima Sanandaji recently explained, the country’s socialist experiment has proven “such a colossal failure that few even in the left today view the memory as something positive.”
Of course, Sanders needn’t look abroad to see how socialized medicine fails patients. Just last year, his home state of Vermont abandoned an attempt to launch a statewide single-payer system. The reason? As Gov. Peter Shumlin — who supported it — explained, “The cost of that plan turned out to be enormous.”
The same would be true of the “Medicare-for-All” policy that Sanders continues to tout. According to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the senator’s proposal would require roughly $15 trillion in new federal spending over 10 years.
Single-payer in America isn’t that far-fetched. According to a December Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 58 percent of Americans support a Medicare-for-all system.
What’s more, UnitedHealth — the largest insurer in the country — recently announced that it may pull out of Obamacare’s exchanges in 2017. Others may follow suit, now that Congress has approved a budget measure that cuts federal payments to insurers originally promised by Obama-care. That may cause even more insurers to lose money on the exchanges.
If they respond to those losses by opting out of the exchanges, then Obamacare would collapse — and single-payer advocates would have an opening to push for Medicare-for-all as a replacement government-run system that denies patients access to high-quality health care. Embracing such failed health policies would cause nothing but harm for Americans.