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Michael Hiltzik: California confronts the complexities of creating a single-payer health care system

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

Doctors and hospitals would be paid rates roughly analogous to Medicare reimbursements, and the program would be expected to negotiate prices with providers and pharmaceutical companies, presumably by offering them access to more than 39 million potential patients.

Wood stressed that the goal of reform is to lower healthcare prices, or at least to slow the rate of growth. Yet that may mean focusing on the wrong challenge.

The mechanics of cost reduction aren't much of a mystery. As several witnesses at the latest hearings observed, the key is reducing unit prices -- lower prices per dose of drug, lower reimbursements for physicians and hospitals, all of which are higher in the U.S. than the average among industrialized countries. It will also help to remove insurance industry profit and overhead (an estimated 15 percent of healthcare spending), not to mention the expenses they impose on billing departments at medical offices and hospitals, from the system.

The real challenge, however, lies in the politics of transitioning to a new healthcare system. Advocates of reform often overlook an important aspect of how Americans view the existing system. Although it's roundly cursed in the abstract, most people are reasonably satisfied with their coverage.

Most people seldom or never have difficult or costly interactions with the healthcare system. Horror stories of treatments denied and astronomical bills charged are legion. But the truth is that annual healthcare spending is very heavily concentrated among a small number of people.

The top 5 percent of spenders account for half of all spending, the top 20 percent of spenders for about 80 percent. The bottom 50 percent of spenders account for less than 10 percent of all spending. (In one study based on 2009 data, the spending figure for this group was less than 3 percent.)

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These are annual figures, so over a lifetime any person may have more contacts with the system. But that may explain why it's hard to persuade Americans to abandon a system many consider to be just good enough for something entirely new, replete with possibilities that it could turn out to be worse.

The nurses association is pegging its reform campaign to the uncertainties built into the existing system. "The experience of most Americans is that they're satisfied with what they're getting, but there's a great deal of anxiety," says Michael Lighty, the group's director of public policy. "The No. 1 experience missing from the American healthcare system is peace of mind. People are not afraid that what they have will be taken away, but that what they have will not be adequate for what they need."

In terms of funding, the idea is for the state to take over the $370 billion to $400 billion a year already spent on healthcare in California. (The higher estimate is from the state Legislative Analyst's Office, the lower from the nurses association.) That includes $200 billion in federal funds, chiefly Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare subsidies; and an additional $150 billion to $200 billion in premiums for employer insurance and private plans and out-of-pocket spending by families.

University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin, the nurses' program consultant, estimates that the program will be about 18 percent cheaper than existing health plans, thanks to administrative savings, lower fees for drugs, physicians, and hospitals, and a step up in preventive services and a step down in unnecessary treatments.

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