The simple appeal of single-payer

Sarah Kliff reports at Vox on the surprising popularity of single-payer healthcare even among Trump voters. When she asked a group of Trump supporters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, whether they wished we had a single-payer system like Canada’s, “[h]alf of the hands shot up.”

In one sense, this shouldn’t be all that surprising. Though often written off as a fringe fantasy, single-payer healthcare consistently polls well, drawing support even among Republicans. There is an element of the idea that has universal appeal.

But yet, the popularity among conservative voters is curious.  Kliff says fairness and consistency are two key draws of single-payer.   “The voters I’ve interviewed like the idea of everybody getting equal treatment, no matter where they live or how much they earn,” she reports.

That’s undoubtedly part of it. But I suspect something even more basic and practical accounts for single-payer’s enduring appeal. And that, simply, is its simplicity. People want out of the exhausting bureaucracy and byzantine complexity that is the American healthcare system. Our system is a confounding ad hoc kludge-on-kludge concoction of a public-private partnership layered on top of public programs grafted on to a tax-preferred fringe benefit.

When it comes to reform, relief from uninsurance and rising costs is just the beginning. People also want deeper relief from the sheer taxing ordeal of American healthcare: the churn between fragmented programs, the stress of navigating provider networks, the uphill futility of doing battle with insurance companies. When people look to government to reform healthcare, they aren’t just looking for help financing it—they want government to take on the stress and headache of navigating the entire system. Government should be a healthcare agent, not just a benefactor.

We often think about the size of government as a philosophical and horizontal continuum: how much space is government occupying? How much private industry is it regulating or displacing? But the individual experience may be much different. Individual Americans experience big government in a much more practical, vertical sense: how deeply are government systems imposing on my life for the worse? What costs—through taxation of either my income or my time and mental bandwidth—are government programs assessing me?

For most people, single-payer healthcare doesn’t inherently offend these anti-big government sentiments. Government absorbing the insurance system would ultimately streamline the healthcare financing experience for patients. The administration of healthcare financing would be synergized down to a single point: the federal government. That makes things a whole lot simpler for patients.

And because everyone would draw benefits from single-payer, they wouldn’t necessarily resent government spending on healthcare as a giveaway to someone else. For instance, Medicare enrollees, having paid in to the system over their lifetimes, want to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” Because they have paid taxes in exchange for clear and visible benefits, Medicare beneficiaries don’t experience government-run health insurance as “big government.” Neither would enrollees covered by a broader single-payer system.

Strangely enough, it’s possible for individuals to experience a centrist program like Obamacare as “big government” in a way that they might not experience a typically left-wing program like single-payer. Obamacare provided much-needed relief on the basics of health insurance by guaranteeing access to it and subsidizing the cost. But it has done little to ease broader stresses endemic to our healthcare system. Indeed, Obamacare adds more complexity, with means-tested benefits for private insurance for some, and expanded public insurance for others. Either way, it’s a government program that requires consumers to make complex choices, figure out their own eligibility, and weigh different networks, premiums, and deductibles against each other.

The appeal of single-payer as the next order of health reform is that it would lift this burden off the individual. Single-payer would certainly be highly disruptive (perhaps existentially) for industry stakeholders. But for the day-to-day lives of actual people, it would be liberating.

Of course, our politics is skewed to avoid “big government” as business and industry experience it. My own suspicion is that, regardless of the theoretical benefits of single-payer (of which there are many), we are too far down the road of our own ramshackle system to tear it up and start over wholesale. Those with a stake in the current system would undoubtedly mobilize to defeat single-payer—especially once it comes time to dole out the massive tax increases needed to pay for it.

Where single-payer becomes possible, however, is in a crisis. And Republicans are courting just such a disaster by working to sabotage Obamacare. As David Leonhardt of the New York Times puts it, “if voters like government-provided health care and Republicans are going to undermine private markets, what should Democrats do? When they are next in charge, they should expand government health care.”

But even if single-payer comes to naught in the United States, the source of its appeal should guide the future of our public policy. Twenty-first century life imposes too many burdens and complexities on people. Maybe they just want government to lift some off of their backs.