How Much Would Universal Healthcare Cost?

Universal health care would cost $70 Billion for 2009 if enacted using a market-based approach, but this cost will grow rapidly if overall health care inflation is not tamed.

How much would health coverage for all uninsured Americans really cost? Critics maintain that covering all Americans would break the US budget (which is already overstretched), while advocates maintain that covering all Americans can be done affordably. But how much would universal coverage really cost?

The Commonwealth Fund provides a great summary of the costs of proposals under consideration, including Medicare for all, a Building Blocks extension of the current system, and other proposals. Proponents of universal Medicare claim that it will save the US $58 Billion in 2010, since Medicare operates more efficiently than private insurers [1]. Providing universal coverage through incremental changes could cost anywhere between $48B and $120B, according to analyses by the Urban Institute and the Lewin Group, a private health care consultancy. And while Medicare for all would lower total health care spending, it would raise the Federal government’s share of spending by almost $200 Billion per year.

With numbers all over the map, is it possible to come up with a plausible estimate for comparison purposes? Sites like ehealthinsurance.com now make it much easier to get estimates for insurance coverage. Using this data, we can estimate how much basic health insurance coverage would cost for the 45 million uninsured Americans. The experience of Massachusetts, which has implemented universal health care, can also be used to project an estimate for the rest of the country. Since Massachusetts’ health care costs are above US average, this provides a high-side estimate.

Using market insurance quotes, the cost of providing a health insurance with a $1000 deductible and prescription coverage would amount to $2500 per person annually, or roughly $115B per year [2]. This calculation uses different insurance rates for different age groups among the uninsured, based on this demographic breakdown of the uninsured provided by the Kaiser Foundation. In Massachusetts’ experience, covering each uninsured individual costs roughly $3400 per year. Covering all 45 million uninsured Americans at this rate would cost $150 Billion per year.

The midpoint of these estimates is around $130 Billion per year. To get a final estimate, money currently spent on uncompensated care must be subtracted out, since there is no uncompensated care in a universal health care system. Approximately $58 Billion will be spent on uncompensated care in 2009 [3], and subtracting this figure out leaves roughly $70 Billion in annual expenditure required for universal health care.

While $70 Billion per year sounds like a lot of money, it’s actually less than many estimates. It looks increasingly likely that some kind of health care reform will be passed in 2009, and that money will be found to pay for it for the moment. The bigger question is, how will it be paid for tomorrow? Unless health care cost growth is pulled into line with inflation, no one has that answer.

[1] Medicare doesn’t have to perform medical underwriting, and it doesn’t have to spend money on advertising, sales, or shareholder dividends, so its overhead should be lower than private competitors, if it can maintain efficiency. Critics counter that Medicare suffers from high fraud rates precisely because it is a government bureaucracy without competition to force it to raise efficiency and tighten controls.

[2] Here is the rough cost estimate for each demographic group, taken from quotes on ehealthinsurance.com:

0-19: $100/month  (20% of all uninsured)

20-29: $150/month (29% of all uninsured)

30-44: $200/month (27% of all uninsured)

45-64: $400/month (24% of all uninsured)

Using these numbers, we calculate a weighted average cost per person of $213 per month, or $2556 per year. That’s $115 Billion for 45 million people.

[3] In 2004, uncompensated care expense was estimated at $40.7 Billion. Since health care spending (in nominal dollars) has grown at 7.5% per year during this decade, the adjusted number for 2009 is approximately $58 Billion. This assumes that uncompensated care is growing in line with health care costs as a whole.

Healthcare Bubble

Dot com bubble. Real estate bubble. Commodities bubble. Healthcare bubble? How can the US healthcare system be a bubble when tens of millions are uninsured and more people fall through the cracks daily? The media, public, and politicians alike have been more concerned with the inadequacies of the system than with its rapid growth. US healthcare spending has grown enormously, exceeding the rate of inflation for decades to become the largest sector of the US economy. The United States now spends over 16% of its GDP on healthcare, almost double the average for developed nations.

Perhaps Americans just demand the best and priciest healthcare, with the most modern technology and treatments. Other insurance prices are on a steep rise, including home, accidental and auto insurance. If Americans paid for healthcare themselves, this would simply represent a rational spending choice. But the federal government now incurs 60% of all healthcare spending, meaning that taxpayers, and not individuals, pay for most of our healthcare. Medicare, Medicaid, and other direct government healthcare accounts for 46% of healthcare spending, while tax breaks on healthcare subsidize another 10-15% of healthcare spending [1].

At current growth rates, government healthcare spending will exceed the entire Federal budget by 2050 [2]. Total spending on healthcare will near one-third of GDP by 2030. It’s unlikely that the US can devote 1/3rd of all productive capacity to healthcare without crippling other sectors of the economy and reducing overall economic growth. The healthcare bubble thus dwarfs all previous bubbles in size, since the technology, real estate, and energy sectors are all so much smaller.

How will the bubble pop, and what will its effects be? Since most healthcare spending is federal, the bubble will pop when the government can no longer afford its healthcare outlays. The US has been able to borrow freely by issuing debt for many decades, but this will eventually end once our debt exceeds GDP. With the current downturn, government debt may actually exceed GDP by 2015 [3]. Thus the reckoning may come sooner than many expect.

Will healthcare reform contain costs and deflate the bubble gradually? Most reform plans focus more on increased coverage than on cost control, so they may exacerbate the problem. Eventually the hard choices will have to be made, and they will include some combination of reducing Medicare benefits, cutting provider reimbursements, openly rationing government health care, and limiting the tax break on health insurance. I just hope that some of the hard choices are made before we are collectively up against a fiscal wall.

[1] $200 Billion in taxes are foregone as a result of the employer-based healthcare tax deduction, equivalent to 10% of all healthcare spending. When this subsidy is included the government’s share of healthcare spending rises to 56%. This analysis does not include the exemptions on property taxes and sales taxes that healthcare providers receive; adding these subsidies in would likely drive the government’s share of health care spending over 60%.

[2] The CBO predicts that Medicare and Medicaid will account for 14% of GDP by 2050. This figure doesn’t include healthcare spending through the VA system, SCHIP program, and other federal healthcare programs, which total $100 Billion in spending today. If these programs also grow commensurately, total government spending may near 18% of GDP in 2050, roughly equivalent to total government revenue.

[3] This projection of public debt growth shows that US government debt will exceed gdp by 2050. This only takes into account debt held by the public, however. Gross government debt is already above 65% of GDP, and may grow to 75% by the end of 2010 as a result of the recession and stimulus spending. With deficits of $500B+ per year possible for several year, US total government debt could exceed gdp in less than 10 years.