PNHP Members Urge Gov. Romney on Single-Payer

November 11, 2005

Physicians for a National Health Program
Massachusetts Chapter
46 Highland Ave.
Cambridge

Governor Mitt Romney
State Capitol
Boston , MA 02133

November 3, 2005

Dear Governor Romney, Speaker DiMasi and Senate President Travaglini:

We urge you to abandon your ill-conceived proposals for health care reform and to adopt, instead, a single payer program of universal coverage for the Commonwealth.

As physicians and health professionals, we witness the heavy toll of unnecessary suffering endured by patients who delay care and even forego vital treatment due to costs. While the uninsured bear the heaviest burden, many with insurance also find care unaffordable due to co-payments, deductibles and restrictions on coverage. Reforms should address the grave problems of both groups.

Your plans to loosen regulations on health insurance, allowing ever-skimpier coverage, would perpetrate a cruel hoax. Such cut-rate policies would cost families thousands of dollars yet offer miserly care and little protection from financial ruin in the face of serious illness. Many who currently enjoy adequate coverage would doubtless be forced into plans with gaping holes and onerous restrictions on choice. If there is one thing worse than being uninsured it's paying dearly for worthless coverage.

Your view that we can achieve universal coverage by forcing people to buy themselves insurance ignores the most basic facts about who is uninsured. Only 12.4% of the 748,000 uninsured in our state are both young enough to qualify for low-premium plans (under age 35) and affluent enough (family incomes greater than 499% of poverty) to readily afford them. Yet even this 12.4% figure may be too high if insurers are allowed to charge higher premiums for persons with health problems; only half of uninsured persons in those age and income categories report that they are in “excellent health” (The statistics in this paragraph were obtained by analyses of data that the Census Bureau collected on Massachusetts residents in March 2005).

Proposals to raid the existing free care pool in order to partially subsidize cut-rate policies would actually worsen the plight of many who are currently uninsured. Under such reforms, patients now eligible for free or low-cost services would often face greater restrictions on care and higher out-of-pocket costs. The only real winners would be the private insurers who would surely gain millions from the sale of near-useless policies.

Replaying Dukakis' failed employer mandate, i.e. making employers pony up more money for coverage, will not lead to universal coverage. As Dukakis found, relentlessly rising health costs quickly stir rebellion among powerful employers, making the program unsustainable.

While we welcome the expansion of Medicaid as a stopgap measure to cover more poor families, we know that this strategy ultimately leads to a dead end. Inevitably, the next economic downturn will bring a flood of additional families pushed onto the Medicaid rolls just as state tax revenues fall. As in the past, Medicaid will be cut when the need is greatest.

In contrast, a single payer reform would create a stable long-term financing mechanism for health care. It could cut costs by streamlining health care paperwork, making universal, comprehensive coverage affordable. The Commonwealth's three largest private insurers spend more than $1.3 billion annually on billing, marketing, high executive salaries and other administrative costs. That's ten times as much overhead per enrollee as Canada 's national health insurance program. And hospitals and doctors spend billions more fighting with insurers over payments for each aspirin tablet, x-ray and doctor's visit. If we cut bureaucracy to Canada 's levels we could save at least 14% of current health expenditures, enough to cover all of the uninsured in Massachusetts and to improve coverage for the rest of our patients as well.

And single payer is popular. Sixty-two percent of Massachusetts doctors support it (according to a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine), joining the Massachusetts Nurses Association and dozens of other labor, seniors and consumer groups.

We recognize that a single payer reform threatens the multi-billion dollar insurance industry, and would force down the high profits enjoyed by drug companies. But such interests must not be placed ahead of the health of the people of Massachusetts . Only a single payer system can assure universal and comprehensive coverage at an affordable price. The people of the Commonwealth deserve no less.

Sincerely,

[This letter was signed by nearly 300 Massachusetts doctors.]

Fact Sheet on the Uninsured and Proposed Health Reforms
Physicians for a National Health Program – Massachusetts Chapter

1- According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which surveyed 3,550 Massachusetts residents in March, 2005: 748,101 Massachusetts residents – 10.6% of the population - were uninsured in 2004. This survey uses in-person interviews with interviewers available for many languages. It is considered the standard national source of data on the uninsured. Politicians' claims that there are fewer uninsured are based on telephone surveys conducted by the state that miss the thousands of uninsured families without telephones (or with only cell phone) and many who do not speak English.

2- According to the Census Bureau data most of the uninsured have low incomes.

17% (126,155 people) had incomes below poverty ($9,310 for a single person)
26% (193,380 people) were near poor (100% -199% of poverty)
18% (136,100 people) were lower middle class (200% -299% of poverty).
10% (73,590 people) had incomes 300% -399% of poverty.
6% (45,016 people) had incomes 400%-499% of poverty
Only 23% (173,858 people) had incomes at least 5 times poverty

Hence, few could afford even the stripped down coverage that has been proposed by Governor Romney and Speaker DiMasi. Given the very high costs of housing and heating in Massachusetts , only people in the top income group could reasonably pay the $2400 annual per person premiums that Governor Romney hopes private insurance plans will agree to offer.

3- Even these income figures overstate the numbers likely to find coverage they can afford. Older persons and those with chronic conditions will surely find premiums far higher than $2400. Only 65,305 (8.7% of the total who are uninsured) of the uninsured are between 18 and 35 years old and have family incomes above five times poverty. Another 27,124 (3.6% of the uninsured) are children living in higher income families. Thus, overall, only 92,429 people (12.3% of the uninsured) are likely to qualify for and be able to afford the low-premium coverage.

4- The Governor's proposed $2400 annual policy is sure to provide only the skimpiest of coverage. At present no such policy is available in Massachusetts and the Governor and Blue Cross have refused to release details about their proposed policy. In New Hampshire (where health costs are lower) a policy costing $2484 is available (through ehealthinsurance.com) for a single 30 year old non-smoking woman, offering the following coverage:

$1000 deductible before insurance pays anything
20% co-payment on covered services for the next $5000
Inpatient mental health – capped at $2500 each year ($10,000 lifetime cap for combined inpatient and outpatient) – patient pays everything else
Outpatient mental health – 50% of charges (including drugs), maximum $40 per day
No coverage at all for: routine preventive or gynecologic exams or maternity care

Such coverage would neither pay for routine preventive care nor protect people from huge unpaid bills if they were to become seriously ill (or even pregnant). In essence, the Governor would require people to pay $2400 per year for virtually worthless coverage.

5- The Governor and legislative leaders falsely imply that many of the uninsured are currently “free riders” on the system. Only the poor and near poor are generally eligible for free care at present. While some of the lower middle class can qualify for partial subsidies from the state's free care pool, they pay a hefty portion out-of-pocket. Many hospitals vigorously pursue payment from uninsured higher-income people, often charging much higher prices than health insurers pay, and referring unpaid bills to collection agencies.