The promise of the public plan is a mirage. Its political brilliance is to use free-market rhetoric (more “choice” and “competition”) to expand government power. But why would a plan tied to Medicare control health spending, when Medicare hasn’t? From 1970 to 2007, Medicare spending per beneficiary rose 9.2 percent annually compared to the 10.4 percent of private insurers — and the small difference partly reflects cost shifting. Congress periodically improves Medicare benefits, and there’s a limit to how much squeezing reimbursement rates can check costs. Doctors and hospitals already complain that low payments limit services or discourage physicians from taking Medicare patients.
Many would say: Whoopee! Get rid of the sinister insurers. Bring on a government single-payer system. But if that’s the agenda, why not debate it directly? It’s not insurers that cause high health costs; they’re simply the middlemen. It’s the fragmented delivery system and open-ended reimbursement. Would strict regulation of doctors, hospitals and patients under a single-payer system provide control? Or would genuine competition among health plans over price and quality work better?
Yes, let’s have a real debate–but as Samuelson says: Fat chance.