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JAMA Forum
Affordable Care Act
January 14, 2021

Trade-offs in Public Health Insurance Design

Author Affiliations
  • 1Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
JAMA Health Forum. 2021;2(1):e210030. doi:10.1001/jamahealthforum.2021.0030

The importance of access to health care and the financial protections that insurance should provide have never been more salient, and the potential consequences of the costs and gaps within the patchwork system in the US have never been more dire. Would the US population be better off with a simple, single-payer, uniform Medicare-for-all–type of insurance plan?

Trade-offs abound in policy decisions about health insurance. Although the advantages of moving to such a single-payer plan might be appealing, there are large hidden costs that must be considered.

First, having a single health insurance plan to cover the heterogeneous US population can actually make people worse off than tailoring the generosity of benefits to different people’s needs and preferences. In work I carried out with Mark Shepard, PhD, now at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, and Jonathan Skinner, PhD, at Dartmouth College, we highlight that the costs of having a uniform public insurance benefit have increased dramatically since Medicare’s advent in 1965.

One reason for the sharp increase in the costs of having a uniform public insurance benefit is the dramatic advances in health care within the last half century, with many more intensive—and costly—treatments now available. Providing all the care that might possibly be available is a much more expensive proposition now, necessitating forgoing many other things. A second reason is the substantial growth of income inequality. A person with a high income might be willing to devote resources to expensive care of only minimal health benefit, whereas a person with a lower income may need to devote those same resources to housing or education. A third reason is that, as tax rates have risen, the economic cost of raising funds to cover public insurance programs has become much larger.

All of this means that providing the same public insurance plan to everyone would leave segments of the population worse off. This could be higher-income groups, if the public benefit is limited and they are prohibited from going around it; or lower-income groups, if the benefit is comprehensive and too few resources are left to be devoted elsewhere. An alternative that might be better for everyone would be a basic public health plan available to all coupled with increased spending on other social insurance programs for lower-income groups, with the option to augment those benefits with privately purchased wraparound plans—more like the Medicaid-for-all who want it proposal.

A second factor in evaluating the costs and benefits of having a single plan is the trade-offs that are inherent to insurance plan design. Different people value different features in their health insurance, even if the overall generosity of the plan is held constant. Of course, most would prefer lower costs and broader coverage, all else being equal. Although most want the same care but at a lower price, lower cost sharing means higher premiums, whereas narrower networks can lower premiums.

Amitabh Chandra, PhD, at the Kennedy School and the Business School at Harvard University and I explored the answers given by a nationally representative survey sample about what features in a health insurance plan were most important to those surveyed, focusing on the trade-offs among elements such as lower co-payments, more expansive networks, lower premiums, and more comprehensive coverage. People were remarkably divided in their preferences about those dimensions, and given the option, they would make different choices about their insurance coverage.

The impetus for a single-payer plan is often not only the hope of reducing costs but also the goal of expanding coverage. The same survey suggests that altruistic concern for other individuals’ access to care, encouragingly, cuts across the political aisle. Faith in whether the government or the private sector is best able to effectively provide that care is much more sharply divided.

Another potential drawback of having a single plan is that competition among plans has the potential to drive down costs and accelerate innovation. This requires true competition within the insurer market, as well as among clinicians, hospitals, and other health care facilities, which is not the case in many parts of the country. There is genuine debate to be had about the potential for the introduction of a public option to increase choice and competition to promote higher value.

The costs of a single, expansive public program point to the potential benefits of giving enrollees a choice among insurance options—free or heavily subsidized for lower-income populations—to expand coverage while allowing people to make choices that reflect their priorities and drive value. There is an example along these lines in the Medicare Advantage system already in place, and most patients enrolled in Medicaid receive their insurance through privately managed plans.

None of this is meant to say that the current system is serving the US population well now. Individuals are paying more and getting less than they should—and this is particularly true for vulnerable populations. Instead, acknowledging the societal value of expanding coverage and increasing affordability, as well as the unavoidable trade-offs involved in the design of public programs, would move the country toward implementing a fiscally sustainable, high-value public insurance safety net.

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Article Information

Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License. © 2021 Baicker K. JAMA Health Forum.

Corresponding Author: Katherine Baicker, PhD, Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago, 1307 E 60th St, Chicago, IL 60637 (kbaicker@uchicago.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Dr Baicker reported serving on the board of directors of Eli Lilly and HMS, as a trustee of the Mayo Clinic and NORC, and on advisory panels to the National Institute for Health Care Management and the Congressional Budget Office. No other disclosures were reported.