Paying for Single Payer

For a while now I’ve been saying that one of the questions I have for Bernie Sanders is how he would pay for single payer health insurance – especially in light of the fact that this is what stopped single payer from going forward in his home state of Vermont.

And so I was interested recently to find this paper by Gerald Friedman, Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts which outlined a payment plan for single payer. It’s important to note that the bill Friedman analyzed (HR 676) is authored by Rep. Conyers. Sanders has never endorsed this bill and it differs from the one he introduced in the Senate in 2013. But we’ll get to that later.

One of the assumptions about single payer is that it will save money in administrative costs (Friedman builds that into his calculations). But since it would eliminate the way we currently pay for health insurance (employer/employee payments, a mix of individual payments and government subsidies in the health insurance exchanges and government programs), any proposal for single payer will be required to identify who will pay and how much. Here is Friedman’s proposal for that:

* Existing sources of federal revenues for health care

* Tax of 0.5% on stock trades and 0.01% tax per year to maturity on transactions in bonds, swaps, and trades

* 6% high-income surtax (applies to households with incomes over $225,000)

* 6% tax on unearned income from capital gains, dividends, interest, profits, and rents

* 6% payroll tax on top 60% of income earners (applies to incomes over $53,000, tax paid by employers)

* 3% payroll tax on the bottom 40% of income earners (applies to incomes under $53,000, tax paid by employers)

What this information provides for us is some idea of what such a system would mean – both in terms of the magnitude and the politics. Beyond the 6% surtax on upper incomes and 6% tax on unearned income, employers would be required to take on additional payroll taxes – depending on how much the employee earns, either 3% or 6%. For those who currently pay for part of all of their employees health insurance, they would substitute that expense with the new payroll tax. And for those who haven’t contributed to health insurance, it would entail a new cost.

When it comes to individuals, since the proposal does away with co-payments and deductibles, only those making over $225,000 or benefiting from unearned income (or trading stocks) would have to pay anything for health insurance.

As I noted earlier, this is an analysis of a bill that Sanders has never endorsed. The bill he introduced in 2013 (S 1782) differs mainly in the fact that, while Conyers would set up a national single payer system, Sanders allows for individual systems in each state.

The federal government would collect and distribute all funds to the states for the operation of the state programs to pay for the covered services…

Each state would have the choice to administer its own program or have the federal Board administer it. The state program could negotiate with providers and consult with its advisory boards to allocate funds…State programs could negotiate with providers to pay outpatient facilities and individual practitioners on a capitated, salaried, or other prospective basis or on a fee-for service basis according to a rate schedule.

This summer Sanders said that he was preparing to introduce such legislation in the Senate again sometime soon.

Addressing a rally outside the Capitol to mark the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday announced that he will introduce legislation to provide Medicare-for-all health insurance…

Sanders’ bill, which he said he will soon introduce in the Senate, would set federal guidelines and strong minimum standards for states to administer single-payer health care programs.

In terms of financing, here’s what Sanders has proposed in the past:

(1) a health care income tax, and (2) an income tax surcharge on amounts of modified adjusted gross income exceeding $1 million. Imposes an excise tax on securities transactions and allows an income tax credit for such taxes.

As others have noted, what that comes down to is that this part of his plan remains under construction.

I am curious about why Sanders has never signed on to Conyers’ bill. It would seem that – especially after the failure in Vermont – a national program that has at least the possibility of cost efficiencies could be necessary to make single payer viable.

Overall, there is a lot to like about proposals like this – just as they raise a lot of questions. But given the fact that what derailed single payer in Vermont was the possibility of an 11.5% income tax on all residents, Friedman’s proposal is an improvement – as long as it raises sufficient revenue. Still…these kinds of numbers make it clear that Sanders is right to say that it would take a veritable progressive revolution to make single payer even a remote possibility.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.