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Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate in Milwaukee on Thursday, February 11. (Photo: AP)

In Fact, Argue Experts, Sanders' Medicare-for-All Numbers "Do Add Up"

"It's indisputable that single-payer systems in other countries cover everyone for virtually everything, and at much lower cost than our health care system," PNHP co-founder says

Nadia Prupis

During Thursday night's Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton criticized Bernie Sanders' proposal for a "Medicare for All" healthcare program, stating, "the numbers just don't add up."

"A respected health economist said that these plans would cost a trillion dollars more a year," Clinton said, likely referring to a recent analysis by Emory University professor Kenneth Thorpe, who helped craft a single-payer healthcare system in Sanders' home state of Vermont, which said Sanders' proposal was off by an extra $1.1 trillion annually.

"So if you're having Medicare for all, single-payer, you need to level with people about what they will have at the end of the process you are proposing," Clinton said. "And based on every analysis that I can find by people who are sympathetic to the goal, the numbers don't add up, and many people will actually be worse off than they are right now."

But according to other healthcare experts, both Clinton and Thorpe are working with false calculations.

Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a professor in public health at City University of New York at Hunter College and co-founder of the advocacy group Physicians for a National Health Program, said Friday that the "numbers on single-payer do, in fact, add up."

"It's indisputable that single-payer systems in other countries cover everyone for virtually everything, and at much lower cost than our health care system," Woolhandler said. "Experience in countries with single-payer systems, such as Canada, Scotland, and Taiwan, proves that we can have more, better and cheaper care."

For example, "if the U.S. moved to a single-payer system as efficient as Canada's, we'd save $430 billion on useless paperwork and insurance companies' outrageous profits, more than enough to cover the 31 million Americans who remain uninsured, and to eliminate co-payments and deductibles for everyone," she said.

In January, Woolhandler and her colleague Dr. David Himmelstein authored a response to Thorpe's analysis that found it to be based on "several incorrect, and occasionally outlandish, assumptions," including "administrative savings of only 4.7 percent of expenditures" and "huge increases in the utilization of care, increases far beyond those that were seen when national health insurance was implemented in Canada, and much larger than is possible given the supply of doctors and hospital beds."

"Moreover, it is at odds with analyses of the costs of single-payer programs that he produced in the past, which projected large savings from such reform," the professors wrote.

Woolhandler said Friday, "A single-payer system could save even more money by bargaining with drug companies for discounts on drugs. Other countries get discounts of about 50 percent, and as the biggest customer we could have the bargaining power to get similar savings...Finally, single-payer systems have been better at controlling costs over the long-haul."

"Our medical arms race—with hospitals competing to offer expensive high tech care, even when they don't do enough to be good at it—has driven up costs and compromised the quality of care. In contrast, single-payer nations have used thoughtful health planning, to invest in expensive high tech care where it's needed, not just where it's redundant but profitable," she said.

During Thursday's debate, Sanders rejected the argument that his plan was "unachievable."

"Every major country on earth, whether it’s the UK, whether it’s France, whether it’s Canada, has managed to provide healthcare to all people as a right and they are spending significantly less per capita on healthcare than we are," he said. "So I do not accept the belief that the United States of America can’t do that."

"Please do not tell me that in this country, if—and here's the if—we have the courage to take on the drug companies, and have the courage to take on the insurance companies, and the medical equipment suppliers, if we do that, yes, we can guarantee health care to all people in a much more cost effective way," he said.

The charge that the numbers for a sweeping healthcare reform plan "don't add up" is one that Clinton herself has been hit with in the past, regarding the Health Security Act—dubbed 'Hillarycare'—introduced in 1993 under President Bill Clinton's administration.


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