Anthony Weiner’s single-payer plan is progressive, but not single-payer

Weiner dissecting a page from the city budget. (Reid Pillifant)
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Advocates for a single-payer health care plan see plenty of reasons to like Anthony Weiner's proposed overhaul of the city's health system. They just think it's mislabeled.

"Well as I understand his proposal, it's not what I would call a single-payer proposal, but it has some useful elements," said David Himmelstein, a professor of public health at Hunter College, and a co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program.

Weiner has made health care the key component of his mayoral campaign so far, pledging to implement a single-payer plan like the one he loudly argued for during the national debate over health care back in 2009.

Back then, Weiner seemed motivated primarily by a desire for national publicity, actually delivering a message on health care that served him well politically but was at odds with the president's agenda and that of more serious Democratic advocates of universal health care in Congress. 

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While Weiner clearly sees a political opportunity in health care reform now as well, he is at least advocating something that, as mayor, he'd theoretically have a chance of putting into practice.

"Single-payer health care is on the ballot," Weiner proclaimed in the subject line of a fund-raising email last month, a few days after Weiner devoted his first big policy speech to his health care plan, at an event his campaign dubbed "Big Thought Thursday."

A subsequent email to a list of Hillary Clinton's 2008 alumni asked, "Will you help Anthony stand up for single-payer health care?"

Weiner's basic idea is to convene a task force of city department heads and nonprofit leaders to design an overhaul of the city's health care system, in order to consolidate the nearly $16 billion the city spends each year on health care into a single system overseen by a deputy mayor for health care innovation. 

"We should make New York City the single-payer laboratory for the rest of the country," he said at his policy speech.

By his own admission, the plan is a rough sketch, with details to be filled in by the task force. 

But the crux of the idea is that municipal workers and retirees could be united under a single health insurance plan, overseen by the city, which could also cover undocumented immigrants not covered by President Obama's new health reforms, with an eye toward one day opening the city's plan to all New Yorkers.

That's something advocates of universal health care would certainly regard as progress, even if it's not anything they'd recognize as single-payer.

"Single-payer really means there's just one payer left in the health care system," said Himmelstein. "You can't really do that as the mayor of New York, because Medicare would still exist and private employers, private plans would still exist, so there would still be multiple payers. But I think having a large public plan that encompasses a large piece of the market makes a lot of sense."

Asked by WNYC's Brian Lehrer on July 3 whether the plan could accurately be billed as single-payer, Weiner responded by talking generally about the inefficiencies in the current model, and then said, "I guess the best way to look at this is, this is for city workers, for the uninsured, for retirees, this would be Medicare for all New Yorkers who are eligible. But I'm also going to try to expand this to cover the undocumented who are not going to be covered under Obamacare who are going to cost us a great deal of money if we don't cover them."

Health care reformers say the potential benefits of Weiner's plan are great, with the possibility of expanding coverage to more New Yorkers, while reducing the profit-making role of insurance companies and utilizing the city's leverage to reduce rates and drive down premiums.

"His thinking on health coverage is certainly in the right place," said Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, who has repeatedly sponsored bills in Albany to create a statewide single-payer system (and who has not endorsed anyone for mayor). "And part of that thinking is the notion that a publicly run plan with as broad a base as possible can do a much better job than relying on insurance companies as a middle man."

But the potential implementation could be difficult.

Himmelstein said insurance companies would "fight tooth and nail to stop this from happening," since any talk of containing costs is essentially "cost-containment from their hide."

Weiner has been dismissive of that kind of opposition.

In his speech, Weiner said the city could leverage its power within the existing private insurance structure, or that it could wholly control the plan, or a hybrid option, with the city contracting an insurance company for administrative costs, like Medicare and Medicaid do. But he made clear that he wasn't at all concerned with preserving their profits in the current system.

"It's not my burden as the mayor of the city of New York to protect that," he said. "My burden as the mayor of the city of New York is to get reasonable costs for high-quality care." The first line of his fund-raising email touting single-payer read as follows: "If you are a health insurance executive, you may want to stop reading right here."

He has also struck a combative posture with regard to municipal unions, who he has suggested should pay 10 percent of their own premiums (25 percent for smokers). Weiner has framed the contributions as way of reducing costs and saving the city money that might then be put toward new union contracts that include raises. But the unions, which are some of the most politically powerful in the city, might prefer the raises without the new system, or the added contributions.

"The experience of doing this in other contexts has been challenging because the employees are not always happy to move into whatever plan the city might set up," said Dr. Sherry Glied, a professor at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health and a former Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services under President Obama.

(Himmelstein and Gottfried both suggested Weiner's fixed-rate contribution was less desirable than a system that spreads the costs, since Weiner's proposal would extract roughly the same contribution payment from, say, a highly paid CUNY chancellor as it would an administrative assistant or bus driver, who earns significantly less.)

Asked about the need for state or federal support, Weiner, referring to his proposed task force, said "there is no one who is sitting at that table who really needs to get a go-ahead from the state or federal government."

But any attempts to extend his proposals beyond municipal workers, toward a more robust public plan that would be open to all New York City residents—something more akin to a single-payer system or a public option—would have to navigate a thicket of state and federal regulations.

Covering the undocumented population also presents its own set of problems, since undocumented immigrants are expressly barred from receiving any of the federal subsidies that generally apply to other low-income populations.

Medicaid and Medicare are largely covered by state and federal requirements, with Maryland as the only state that currently enjoys a federal waiver to negotiate its own rates (a waiver the state is fighting to preserve). 

"I think if there's going to be a single-payer system, given the way that health care is regulated in our country, it will have to be at a state level at the least, or at the federal level," said Glied, who suggested the city's efforts might be better focused on enrolling the uninsured in the national reforms set to take effect next year. "It would just be very difficult to manage it, given the governance structure of health insurance and health care delivery, at a city level."