‘Single-Payer’ Debated: What Does That Mean?
By Julie Rovner
Fri, Jan 22 2016
Health care has emerged as one of the flash points in the Democratic presidential race.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has been a longtime supporter of a concept he calls “Medicare for All,” a health system that falls under the heading of “single-payer.”
Sanders released more details about his proposal shortly before the Democratic debate in South Carolina Sunday night. “What a Medicare-for-All program does is finally provide in this country health care for every man, woman and child as a right,” he said in Charleston.
Sanders’ main rival for the nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has criticized the plan for raising taxes on the middle class and said it is politically unattainable. “I don’t want to see us start over again with a contentious debate” about health care, she said Sunday night.
Some of the details of Sanders’ plan are still to be released. But his proposal has renewed questions about what a single-payer health care system is and how it works. Here are some quick answers.
What Is Single-Payer?
Single-payer refers to a system in which one entity (usually the government) pays all the medical bills for a specific population. And usually (though again, not always) that entity sets the prices for medical procedures.
Single-payer is NOT the same thing as socialized medicine. In a truly socialized medicine system, the government not only pays the bills but owns the health care facilities and employs the professionals who work there.
The Veterans Health Administration (VA) is an example of a socialized health system run by the government. It owns the hospitals and clinics and pays the doctors, nurses and other health providers.
Medicare, on the other hand, is a single-payer system in which the federal government pays the bills for those who qualify, but hospitals and other providers remain private.
Which Countries Have Single-Payer Health Systems?
Fewer than many people think. Most European countries either never had or no longer have single-payer systems. “Most are basically what we call social insurance systems,” said Gerard Anderson, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who has studied international health systems. Social insurance programs ensure that almost everyone is covered. They are taxpayer-funded but are not necessarily run by the government.