Is Single-Payer Healthcare Feasible?

Marissa Huberty

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On October 1st, DFL Senator John Marty and GOP Senator Scott Jensen came together to debate single-payer healthcare. Mike Keefer of Blue Cross Blue Shield introduced the pair, and he openly admitted that, given his career, he isn’t too keen on the idea of a single-payer healthcare system. He described both Marty and Jensen as “principled” men. Marty has been in the Senate for over three decades, and he advocated for a single-payer system before it became popular. Jensen is vice chair of the Health and Human Services Committee in the Senate and a former primary care physician. Keefer opened by saying that both politicians agree the US needs a reform in its healthcare policies, but it soon became apparent that their similarities end there.

Moderator Larry Jacobs directed the first question to Marty, who passionately explained that America still has millions of people who can’t afford any health insurance. Plenty of others do have coverage but can’t afford their copays and other costs. His plan is to implement a universal healthcare system that covers everyone for all their needs – including eye care, chemical dependency, and other overlooked areas. Everybody would pay into the system according to their ability, and everybody would use and benefit from it. His plan would be far more comprehensive than Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which didn’t even cover dental.

One area where Jensen agreed with Marty is that we do need a core healthcare package available to all citizens. In that regard, he said we’ve moved beyond the question “Is healthcare a privilege or a right?” However, Jensen is highly skeptical of the feasibility and affordability of creating a completely universal healthcare plan. In trying to fund transportation, education, and other areas, it simply isn’t doable. We have a collective moral imperative, yet we cannot just “give everything to everyone regardless of cost.”

Jensen outlined those costs in detail. In Minnesota, we spend $50 billion on healthcare annually – including what comes from the government and what comes from citizens. To illustrate his point, he explained that California had recently looked into switching to single-payer and discovered it would cost $400 billion to do so. Economists had also estimated that, if California were to go through with the plan, the inflation rate would spike to 25-30%. If California had backed away from the table, there was no reason to believe the entire country could make it work.

The moderator seemed to take Jensen’s side in this, pointing out another case to Marty. In 2011, Vermont passed the nation’s first single-payer healthcare law, but by 2014, the state realized it would have to increase taxes and could not afford the new plan. The single-payer system would cost nearly as much as the entire budget for the state.

Marty wasn’t deterred by this. Admitting that he hadn’t yet gotten economists’ official estimate on the cost of his proposed plan, he nevertheless declared that single-payer would be less expensive that multi-payer when we account for how much we’d be cutting on administrative costs.

To cap off his argument, Jensen emphasized that we need to define what we really need; we don’t need everything. Canada, despite having a “universal” healthcare system, doesn’t cover vision, dental, or prescription drug care. The Canadian government only pays 70% toward its single-payer system, and the US pays 50%, so why are we made out to be so terrible?

In the packed auditorium audience, Jensen received a brief round of applause for one of his points, but there were still plenty of head shakes and mumbled dissents. Regardless of whether any changes are made to our healthcare system, it’s clear that this is an issue many Americans are still passionate about.