Fresh off his resounding victory in the West Virginia primary, Senator Bernie Sanders has intimated that he has no intent of dropping out of the race any time soon, even though he trails his rival Hillary Clinton significantly in pledged delegates. One of the cornerstones of the Sanders campaign has been his health care plan, which would replace the entirety of the current health care system with a more generous version of Medicare. His campaign has claimed the plan would cost a little more than $13.8 trillion over the next decade, and he has proposed to fund these new expenditures with a clutch of tax increases, many of them levied on higher-income households. At the time, analysts at Cato and elsewhere expressed skepticism that the cost estimates touted by the campaign accurately accounted for all the increases in federal health expenditures the plan would require, and incorporated costs savings estimates that were overly optimistic. Now, a new study from the left-leaning Urban Institute corroborates many of these concerns, finding that Berniecare would cost twice as much as the $13.8 trillion price tag touted by the Sanders campaign.
The authors from the Urban Institute estimate that Berniecare would increase federal expenditures by $32 trillion, 233 percent, over the next decade. The $15 trillion in additional taxes proposed by Sanders would fail to even cover half of the health care proposal’s price tag, leaving a funding gap of $16.6 trillion. In the first year, federal spending would increase by $2.34 trillion. To give some context, total national health expenditures in the United States were $3 trillion in 2014.
Sanders was initially able to restrict most of the tax increases needed to higher-income households through income-based premiums, significantly increasing taxes on capital gains and dividends, and hiking marginal tax rates on high earners. Sanders cannot squeeze blood from the same stone twice, and there’s likely not much more he could do to propose higher taxes on these households, which means if he were to actually have to find ways to finance Berniecare, he’d have to turn to large tax increases on the middle class.
There are different reasons Berniecare would increase federal health spending so significantly. The most straightforward is that it would replace all other forms of health care, from employer sponsored insurance to state and local programs, with one federal program. The second factor is that the actual program would be significantly more generous than Medicare (and the European health systems Sanders so often praises), while also removing even cursory cost-sharing requirements. In addition, this proposal would add new benefits, like a comprehensive long-term services and support (LTSS) component that the Urban Institute estimates would cost $308 billion in its first year and $4.14 trillion over the next decade. These estimates focus on annual cash flows over a relatively short time period, so the study doesn’t delve into the longer-term sustainability issues that might develop from this new component, although they do note that “after this 10-year window, we would anticipate that costs would grow faster than in previous years as baby boomers reach age 80 and older, when rates of severe disability and LTSS use are much higher. Revenues would correspondingly need to grow rapidly over the ensuing 20 years.”
Even at twice the initial price tag claimed by the Sanders campaign, these cost estimates from the Urban Institute might actually underestimate the total costs. As they point out, the authors do not incorporate estimates for the higher utilization of health care services that would almost certainly occur when people move from the current system to the generous, first-dollar coverage in the more generous version of Medicare they would have under this proposal. They also chose not to incorporate higher provider payment rates for acute care services that might be necessary, and include “assumptions about reductions in drug prices [that] are particularly aggressive and may fall well short of political feasibility.”
Berniecare would increase federal government spending by $32 trillion over the next decade, more than twice as much as the revenue from the trillions in taxes Sanders has proposed. And this might not be underselling the actual price tag, and only considers the cash flow issues in the short-term. There could be even greater sustainability problems over a longer time horizon. One thing is for certain the plan would require even more trillions in additional tax hikes.