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A large employer ‘frames’ the Medicare-for-all debate


 

The labor unions and consumer groups that have long endorsed a single-payer health system hope that the embrace of it by employers such as Mr. Master marks another turning point for the movement.

Supporters of the concept say the health system overall would see savings from a coordinated effort to bring down prices and the elimination of many administrative costs or insurance company profits.

“It’s critical for our success to engage employers, particularly because our current system is hurting employers almost as much as it is patients,” said Melinda St. Louis, campaign director of Medicare-for-all at Public Citizen, a consumer-rights group based in Washington.

Mr. Master, a former Washington lawyer, worked on Democratic Sen. George McGovern’s presidential campaign before returning to Pennsylvania in 1973 to take over his father’s company, which made rigid paper boxes. In 1980, he founded MCS, which pioneered the popular front-loading picture frame and steamless fog-free mirrors for bathrooms. The company has grown into a $250 million corporation.

Mr. Master frequently travels to Washington and around the country to talk with business leaders as he seeks to build political support for a single-payer health system.

In the past 4 years, he has produced several documentary videos on the topic. In 2018, he formed the Business Initiative for Health Policy, a nonprofit group of business leaders, economists, and health policy experts trying to explain the financial benefits of a single-payer system.

Dan Wolf, CEO of Cape Air, a Hyannis, Mass.–based regional airline that employs 800 people calls himself “a free-market guy.” But he also supports Medicare-for-all. He said Mr. Master helps turn the political argument over single-payer into a practical one.

“It’s about good business sense and about caring for his employees and their well-being,” he said, adding that employers should no longer be straddled with the cost and complexity of health care.

“It makes no more sense for an airline to understand health policy for the bulk of its workers than for a health facility to have to supply all the air transportation for its employees,” he said.

Employers also are an important voice in the debate because 156 million Americans get employer-paid health care, making it by far the single-largest form of coverage.

Mr. Master said his company has tried various methods to control costs with little success, including high deductibles, narrow networks of providers and wellness plans that emphasize preventive medicine.

Insurers who are supposed to negotiate lower rates from hospitals and doctors have failed, he added, and too many premium dollars go to covering administrative costs. Only by having the federal government set rates can the United States control costs of drugs, hospitals, and other health services, he said.

“Insurance companies are not watching the store and don’t have incentives to hold down costs in the current system,” he said.

Glad the boss is trying to make a difference

What’s left of MCS in Pennsylvania is a spacious corporate office building housing administrative staff, designers, and a giant distribution center piled high with carton boxes from floor to ceiling.

MCS pays an average of $1,260 per month for each employee’s health care, up from $716 in 2009, the company said. In recent years, the company has reduced out-of-pocket costs for employees by covering most of their deductibles.

Medicare-for-all would require several new taxes to raise money, but Mr. Master said such a plan would mean savings for his company and employees.

MCS employees largely support Mr. Master’s attempt to fix the health system even if they are not all on board with a Medicare-for-all approach, according to interviews with several workers in Easton.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Faith Wildrick, a shipper at MCS who has worked for the company 26 years. “If the other countries are doing it and it is working for them, why can’t it work for us?”

Ms. Wildrick said that even with insurance her family struggles with health costs as her husband, Bill, a former MCS employee, deals with liver disease and needs many diagnostic tests and prescription medications. Their annual deductible has swung from $4,000 several years ago to $500 this year as the company has worked to lower employees’ out-of-pocket costs.

“I’m really glad someone is fighting for this and trying to make a difference,” said Ms. Wildrick.

Jessica Ehrhardt, the human resources manager at MCS, said the effort to reduce employees’ out-of-pocket health costs means the company must pay higher health costs. That results in less money for salary increases and other benefits, she added.

Asked about Medicare-for-all, Ms. Ehrhardt said, “It’s a drastic solution, but something needs to happen.”

For too long, Mr. Master said, the push for a single-payer health system has been about ideology.

“The movement has been about making health care a human right and that we have a right to universal health care,” he said. “What I am saying is this is prudent for our economy and am trying to make the business and economic case.”

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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