With all eyes fixed on the growing deadlock in Washington, D.C., the biggest health-care story of 1994 may be emerging a continent away. In California, a sweeping, Canadian-style "single payer" initiative that gathered more than 1 million signatures has qualified for the November ballot. More breathtaking than anything the Clintons dare propose, the California initiative will be a battleground to test both the "health-care crisis" mentality and the voters' eagerness to have a government takeover of health care.
The initiative's ballot qualification coincided with the launching of a national effort by single-payer advocates that features TV spots and full-page newspaper ads. If this long-shot initiative somehow passes in November, Congress and the president may well change their minds about the political feasibility of a federal takeover of the complete health-care system, without the patina of private insurance. The initiative would abolish private health insurance in California and replace it with a state-run "time tested single payer system" to be known as the "California Health Security System."
It is not necessary to reopen the arguments about the performance of Canada's single-payer system (waiting lists, rationing, fudged cost numbers, and so forth) to get at the defects of this initiative, because the most dramatic feature of the measure is not the single-payer system itself but the creation of an elected state health commissioner with immense, even ominous, powers. To label this prospective officer a "health czar" would be an understatement. The health commissioner would have complete authority, with little legislative oversight, to control the estimated $108-billion budget the system would set up (twice the size of California's present state budget). The health commissioner would be granted "any and all powers necessary to implement this Act."
"These broad powers include," the initiative continues, "the power to set rates and promulgate generally binding regulation on any and all matters relating to the implementation of this Act and its purposes." The commissioner will determine how many doctors there shall be, in what specialties, and where they are located. Section 25275 (b) sets as goals "achieving the number, geographic, discipline and specialty distribution of professional providers...needed by the state" and "adjusting, over a period of years to be determined by the Commissioner, the number, geographic and specialty distribution of professional providers to staff underserved areas and communities."
These and other coercive measures can be enforced through the
global budgeting and price-fixing powers of the health
commissioner, whose powers over the prospective $108-billion
health-care budget would be far greater than the governor's powers
over the regular $50-billion state budget. The global budgeting
power extends not only to operating expenditures for each category
of medical specialty but to capital budgets as well. No medical
facility may make a capital improvement or establish a new
procedure worth more than $500,000 without approval from the health
commissioner. The commissioner would regulate the development and
implementation of new technology through these capital
The health commisioner's office would be complemented by a phalanx of regional administrators and regional consumer advocates, an expert Health Care Policy Advisory Board, and an ostensibly grass-roots Health Care Consumer Council that would really serve as the political base for the elected commissioner. The system would be funded through a new payroll tax, a personal income-tax surcharge, and a $1.00-a-pack levy on cigarettes. These new taxes would amount to about $48 billion; the balance of the health budget would come from consolidating existing federal and state health programs such as Medicare Part B and Medicaid. Global budgets, price controls, a constitutional declaration that health care is a "right," and a generous list of benefits, including mental-health and drug treatment, are all part of the package.
A consortium of left-leaning organizations, including labor, churches, seniors, nurses, a few doctors and pharmacists, Naderite consumer groups, and even the California Teachers Association, is backing the initiative. Out-of-state money has gone to support the California initiative, including $25,000 from a New York City hospital workers' union. Labor union financial support--estimated at more than $500,000 for the signature-gathering drive--was crucial.
But the prime mover behind the effort is Neighbor-to-Neighbor, a
activist group formed in the 1980s to agitate about Central America. With the waning of the Cold War and the ferment over Nicaragua and El Salvador subsiding, Neighbor-to-Neighbor needed to find a new issue. It settled on health care. One goal is to reinvigorate the fortunes of a single-payer plan on the national level. "Our hope is to provide ballast to the left of Clinton," says Glen Schneider, executive director of Neighbor-to-Neighbor. "This will be a real wake-up call. This will start a true health-care debate with the real options front and center."
The grand strategy of the initiative is clear: bash insurance companies. "If we cut out the insurance industry," says Schneider, "there will be plenty of money for everybody." The initiative's backers assert that a state takeover would save as much as $20 billion a year in administrative costs. These savings would enable the extension of coverage to California's uninsured population, which they claim to be as large as 6 million. Insurance companies, they say, eat up as much as 27 cents of every heath-care dollar in overhead and administrative costs (and high CEO salaries, they usually mention), while Medicare--their chosen comparison--takes only about 2.5 cents of every dollar for administration. The initiative would supposedly cap administrative costs for its system at 4 percent.
Comparing insurance administrative costs--whatever the true figure is (insurance groups claim lower administrative costs than government)--with Medicare administrative costs is a clear case of comparing rotten apples to oranges. One ironic reason that Medicare's administrative cost is so seemingly low is that it has been completely unsuccessful at any kind of cost control. The cost of Medicare has risen at double-digit rates for all but two years. That's one reason why the program, originally estimated to cost just $12 billion in 1990, cost $107 billion instead. With soaring expenditures, administrative costs are bound to be a small ratio, especially since Medicare is essentially a check-writing program and doesn't face the same kind of underwriting and other costs that private insurers do. (See "The Medicare Monster," January 1993.)
Holding up Medicare as the model of administrative efficiency is not the only whopper the backers of the initiative tell. Consider this passage from the preamble to the initiative: "Since people always need health care services, prices for those services often do not respond to normal supply-and-demand market forces.... Price control is therefore necessary to achieve cost control and to make quality health care accessible to all." Such a claim would be dismissed with a hoot if it named a necessity such as food, housing, or clothing instead of health care. Perhaps it is a measure of how mysterious health care has become in the public mind after 30-plus years of heavy government distortion of the medical marketplace that such a claim can be made without a blush.
Donald Cohen, another Neighbor-to-Neighbor spokesman, goes even further: "Single-payer has been portrayed as Big Government, but it is a very free-market, pro-competition system." Although Cohen admits there won't be price competition, "there will continue to be competition in quality of care."
It is not necessary to unpack a homily about "price competition" being at the heart of the very idea of a competitive marketplace to explode this soothing claim. The details of the initiative turn out on close inspection to refute the claims of its supporters. Backers attempt to allay potential fears by claiming that people will still be able to choose their own doctor and that health care will remain predominantly private, including even fee-for-service medicine.
But the initiative provides that the health commissioner may
require all fee-for-service care to be coordinated through a
designated primary care giver. To get around the problem of
fee-for-service doctors adopting assembly-line practices such as
are common in Japan (where doctors may see dozens of patients a day
in visits that last about two minutes), the
initiative gives the health commissioner power to set "a limit on the aggregate annual payments to an individual professional provider."
What this really means--besides a way to set pay scales for the medical profession--is that many ill consumers will find "The Doctor Is Out" signs as physicians achieve their quotas and take extended holidays. Although the initiative's backers claim that medicine will remain private and competitive (on non-price grounds), there is extensive anti-private and anti-profit bias built into the initiative. All capital improvements made through the system's capital-improvements account "shall remain the property of the state of California," thereby giving the system the means slowly to take over private hospitals and clinics. Public health facilities are given priority for capital spending for the first three years of the system, and preferential treatment for "academic medical centers" is built into the initiative.