ACP maps two potential paths to universal health care



The American College of Physicians is recommending either a single-payer system or a public option within a regulated private insurance system to help deliver universal and affordable access to health care for all Americans.

“We came to the conclusion that two directions or approaches could get us to where we need to be,” ACP President Robert McLean, MD, said in an interview. “We need ... a system that provides universal, affordable access to care.”

After examining the evidence, ACP discarded one option: a direct market-based approach.

“Direct market-based approaches won’t work,” Dr. McLean explained. “If you look at where direct marketplace approaches ... have been implemented, they just will not get you to a place where you are going to get universal coverage, portability, essential benefits, and preexisting condition protection and administrative simplification.”

Dr. McLean highlighted two paths that could achieve universal coverage and better access to health care: a single-payer–financed system, or a publicly financed coverage option within a system of regulated private insurance.

It’s the first time ACP has endorsed a single-payer approach. The college supported the public option that wasn’t included as part of the Affordable Care Act. But ACP’s latest publicly financed proposal offers a deeper level of detail on how to make that option work in the context of a private insurance system.

While the health reform conversation may be a political, ACP doesn’t want to make it a partisan one. ACP’s policy recommendations represent a carefully researched series of ideas backed by evidence-based research, Dr. McLean said.

“There is a lot of nuance behind” the two recommendations, he noted, and those nuances are explored in a series of articles and editorials published Jan. 21 in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Sizing up single payer

The ACP acknowledges that for its single-payer system, the transition could be “politically difficult and strain the federal budget,” according to Ryan A. Crowley, senior analyst at ACP, and colleagues in an article outlining the organization’s vision. “Taxes would probably replace premiums, and private insurance would have a reduced role or be eliminated altogether.”

However, the authors note that a single-payer system could be designed to address concerns from a generally skeptical public, such as providing bulk funding or setting minimum standards to guide state operations. It also could include private insurance to provide supplemental coverage.

Even so, “adopting a single-payer system would be highly disruptive and could lead to price controls that would perpetuate flaws in the current Medicare payment system, including the undervaluation of primary care,” Mr. Crowley and colleagues wrote. “If prices are set too low, it could lead to shortages and longer wait times for services. Without sufficient cost controls, however, the cost of a single-payer system could be too high to be feasible.”

Pondering the public option

Given a single-payer plan’s potential challenges, ACP also is endorsing a public option model, which provides the choice of a government-sponsored health insurance plan to compete with existing private insurance options.

“Depending on its structure and implementation, a public choice (or public option) model available to all could help to achieve universal coverage, better access, and improved outcomes without the disruption of a single-payer approach,” the ACP authors noted.

The public option has its own drawbacks, they acknowledge. Those include an inability to achieve better savings on prescription drugs, compared with a single-payer system. The public option approach also doesn’t do away with the current administrative burden, and access issues related to narrow provider networks would persist.

Dr. McLean noted that a more highly regulated insurance market would be needed to help make the public option model work.

“Insurance companies don’t have regulation in a lot of things that they do,” Dr. McLean said. “We see that as quite problematic. They are kind of running amok at this point.”

Expanding the role of primary care

In either reform scenario, primary care would play a much greater role.

“We need to promote primary care,” Dr. McLean said. That includes better incentives to draw physicians to it. “We have to pay them enough,” he added.

The health care models will need to move away from higher pay to specialties for high-cost, high-volume procedural reimbursement. And they’ll need to recognize the need for placing a higher value on the cognitive services provided at the primary care level.

Also in need of change: physicians’ administrative burdens. Reforms need to address the burden created by value-based care and the poor application and misapplication of quality measures.

Migration to a single-payer environment could would make reducing the administrative burden a lot easier, Dr. McLean said. But it also could be done with a public option approach.

That’s where regulators can play a big role in working with insurers to help address administrative burden – streamlining prior authorization of procedures, the types of forms used, and other policies, Dr. McLean explained.

“The number of insurers and their ability to have their own rules and regulations [make it] incredibly complex for patients as well as physicians trying to figure out how to deliver the care that they need,” he noted.

Dr. McLean hopes that the ACP’s papers will spark conversation, particularly among legislators and regulators.

“The bottom line is we cannot afford to not do something bold,” he cautioned. “It is just not working. Our patients deserve better, and we can do better.”

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