WASHINGTON (CN) – Republicans escalated the health-care debate on Thursday, inviting panelists critical of the single-payer systems in Canada and the United Kingdom to “examine the consequences of the Democrats’ health-care proposal” — though the White House has not proposed a single-payer program. “It is easier to attack a straw man than a real one,” Henry Aaron from the Brookings Institute said in an interview. “No one in the administration or in Congress is proposing single-payer.”
The panel, which was convened before the House Republican Health Care Solutions Group to examine consequences of the Democrats’ health-care proposal, took turns swiping at single-payer. It was composed of a Canadian who had to come to the United States for a medical procedure, a British doctor, the leader of an organization that helps Canadians find medical help in the United States, and an advocate of small businesses.
A single-payer system typically pays all medical bills from one government fund.
Despite disagreements on how to change the U.S. health-care system, there is far-reaching consensus that the system is broken. One-sixth of Americans are uninsured and the United States spends twice what other industrialized nations pay for health care.
The United States is the only industrialized country without a program that resembles a single-payer system.
Three of the five congressional committees charged with working on health-care reform have passed legislation out of committee, and a fourth, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is expected to complete its mark-up of the bill this week.
President Barack Obama has said he is not in favor of a single-payer system.
“There are countries where a single-payer system may be working,” Obama said in a speech last month. “But I believe that it is important for us to build on our traditions here in the United States.”
Obama favors creation of a public option, which he says will compete with private insurance companies – “to keep them honest” – to cover every American. He wants to change the incentives that he says equate expensive care with better care.
When asked afterward why the hearing centered upon rejecting a single-payer plan, though that has not been proposed in Congress, Texas Republican Rep. Michael Burgess said that the plan will “devolve into a single-payer system” because of the inequities between the proposed government plan and private insurers.
Alice Rivlin from the Brookings Institute disagreed.
“I think talking about a single-payer plan is just an effort to scare the public into believing that Obama is proposing one,” she said in an interview.
Richard Baker, who helps Canadians find medical care in the United States, described the system in Canada, where he says there is a cap on the supply of money regardless of how many patients come in. People can’t get care when the money runs out, he said.
He said the funding differs by province. For example, some provinces have a larger selection of cancer drugs than others. One province only has one cancer drug to choose from, he said. He called the United States “Canada’s health care system of last resort.”
Shona Robertson-Holmes, a Canadian patient who sought treatment in the United States, wondered what would happen if single-payer health care were adopted in the United States and “Americans … needed a place to run.” She said that two prematurely born Canadian babies were sent to the United States because “there were no facilities available to them” in Canada.
Baker, from North American Surgery, told of one of his clients, a Canadian woman scheduled for surgery to for an artery that was 99 percent blocked. He said her surgery was canceled because there was no empty bed in the hospital to accommodate her for recovery. He said the woman was sent to the United States for treatment, where doctors told her she had been “hanging by a thread.” When she returned to Canada and demanded reimbursement, the government dismissed the claim as elective surgery.
Entrepreneurship Council representative Dr. Karol Sikora, who phoned in from the United Kingdom, suggested that adopting a single-payer system would not address the rising cost of health care.
“Medical costs are spiraling out of control in every health-care environment,” he argued.
He said the single-payer system provides no competition and therefore “no incentive for efficiency and evolution.”
Many believe that unless the legislation that passes out of Congress is bipartisan, it will not have staying power. Aaron from the Brookings Institution said that there is hope for a weak bipartisan bill.
“Look for a fallback that Democrats can tout as a successful first step and Republicans can claim saved the nation from socialism,” he said.