Both Edges of Public Health Insurance Are Sharp

One of the more devisive issues emerging in the current health care reform debate concerns whether or not a government-run plan should compete with private carriers for individual and small group customers. President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress have spoken forcefully in favor of this approach. Republicans have argued just as strongly against it. The role of government — should it be solely a regulator or serve as both regulator and competitor — is high on the list of issues most likely to frustrate a bipartisan solution.

I’ve written previously about the dangers of the hybrid approach, how it is likely to lead to a tilted playing field that benefits the public entry to the detriment and potential destruction of private offerings. But there are other points of view, several of them. For example, Princeton Professor Uwe Reinhardt, posting on the New York Time’s Economix articulates several reasons why the public might embrace a government competitor.

Professor Reinhardt notes that recent behavior by private health insurers has shaken public confidence in the industry. He also cites the double whammy of families facing lay0ffs in the current economic downturn and, as a result of our current employer-centric system, losing their subsidized coverage at the same time.

The long-term confidence elderly Americans have put in government-run Medicare plans, even over those of competing private health plans offering richer benefits.

But his strongest arguments in favor of a “Medicare for all,” public insurance program is its ability to beat down rising health care costs. “The providers of health care and health care products, to whom ‘national health care spending’ represents ‘national health care incomes,’ fear the market power that a public health plan might bring to the demand (payment)side of the health sector,” he writes.

Using its buying power, Professor Reinhardt expresses hope the public plan “might significantly bend down the lush, currently projected, long-run growth path of America’s health spending .”  Of course, it’s driving down the cost for enrollees in the public program at the expense of those in private plans that is of great concern to those who want to maintain a competitive system.

It’s the two-edged nature of a hybrid system that is most troublesome — and dangerous. As many of those who have commented on my previous post note, the key to meaningful health care reform is to focus on bringing down costs. Well, as Professor Reinhardt points out, Medicare-for-all can do that. But if the price of that cost control is the destruction of private insurance, why not just turn to a single-payer system in the first place? Well, of course, there’s huge problems with that approach, too, including the danger of runaway taxes.

Is there a middle ground?  Professor Reinhardt claims that an “all-American compromise that could give most sides in this fray much (but not all) of what they ask for” is possible and he promises to outline that compromise in a future post. Until he or someone else does, the debate over which side of the sword we want to face as a nation will, rightfully, be front and center.