This Is Why Universal Coverage Is a Religion — and Not about Compassion or Saving Lives

I was invited to participate in an email/online/sorta exchange for the Washington Post yesterday.  Unfortunately, the effort was spiked after just a few rounds of emails.  But rather than let my participation go to waste, I thought I’d post one exchange that I think highlights why I’m not just being colorful when I describe supporters of universal health insurance coverage as the Church of Universal Coverage.  I could summarize the exchange, but I’m lazy.  So I’ll just copy and paste.

I wrote:

All the interest groups are meeting with all the right politicians and making all the right noises, thus the Church of Universal Coverage says the stars have aligned for fundamental reform… Everyone is at the table right now because no one wants to be on the menu.  But when the Democratic leadership makes its intentions clear, today’s love-fest will turn into a bloodbath.

Andres Martinez of the New America Foundation (who owes me a taco al pastor) responded:

I am a proud member of the church, Michael.  As New America’s own recent study on the urgency of reform – which reads like a strong courtroom closing argument – noted, how can the world’s most prosperous nation afford to have tens of thousands of its citizens die each year because they lacked access to health care?  Health care reform is a moral imperative, so your reference to a church (um, even if sarcastic) is appropriate…

I replied:

The Institute of Medicine estimates that every year, about 20,000 Americans die because they lacked health insurance, but as many as 100,000 die from preventable medical errors.  What moral code compels the Church of Universal Coverage to solve the first problem before addressing the second?

Elise Gould of the Economic Policy Institute (whose working paper, “Who is Adversely Affected by Limiting the Tax Exclusion of Employment-Based Premiums?”, I am keen to read) chimed in:

In an answer to Michael’s post about the deaths caused by lacking health insurance as compared to those from preventable medical errors, I’d argue that it’s much easier to solve the second when you have people in a common system (i.e., solving the first).

Me again:

To say that universal coverage will make it easier to reduce medical errors is pure fantasy.

The principal reason we have too many medical errors is that fee-for-service payment dominates America’s health care sector, and fee-for-service rewards medical errors and punishes efforts at error reduction.  The reason fee-for-service dominates is government.  Medicare – the single-largest purchaser in the world – pays largely on that basis.  Ditto Medicaid.  And the federal tax code encourages fee-for-service by insulating consumers from the cost of their health coverage.  If you think it’s hard for government to change payment systems now, just wait until universal coverage gives government even more control over payment systems and makes even more providers dependent on those decisions for even more of their income.  (As an aside, when consumers control their health care dollars and choose their health plans, they can change payment systems in a heartbeat.)

This is why universal coverage is a religion: supporters believe that universal coverage has magical, supernatural powers to suspend political reality and the laws of economics.  I do not exaggerate.  See here and here.

Health care reform is a moral imperative.  But universal coverage is not a moral imperative, nor is it about compassion or saving lives.

For those who are interested, the Anti-Universal Coverage Club is still accepting new members.