Responding to a budget preparation request I made recently, Santa Monica’s Director of Finance has calculated that universal single-payer healthcare would save the City six million dollars a year in employee health-benefit costs.
Disclosure: I’m a long-time advocate of universal single-payer healthcare, who led the City Council to endorse both the California and federal single-payer bills currently under consideration. Then, two weeks ago, struggling with a Santa Monica budget short on revenues and long on rising costs, I asked Finance Director Carol Swindell to calculate possible savings to city government if single-payer were enacted in California.
Swindell’s blockbuster response, delivered to the Council last Friday, quantifies the stunning potential savings to the public of a proposed health plan that removes insurance middlemen and administrative costs. The single-payer system would incur $21.8 million in annual expenditures, wrote Swindell. Projected medical costs for FY 2008-09 for the same salary level were $27.8 million, which indicates an estimated savings of $6.0 million over current medical, dental, and vision costs.
Santa Monica’s calculations used information from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, and were based on the provisions of California Senate Bill 810 (Leno), which proposes a statewide universal single-payer healthcare system similar to the federal bill, HR 676 (Conyers). Swindell points out that the switch from private to single-payer healthcare would likely have no impact on City employees, given the City’s existing coverage. For many other local workers, though, including those lacking employer-paid health benefits, universal single-payer would provide more complete coverage. Santa Monica, as reported in our city’s recently adopted Creative Capital policy plan, has an uncommonly high number of artists, writers, and other creative workers, who tend to freelance or work part time, often leaving them underinsured for healthcare, if not completely unprotected.
I have to admit I was not surprised at the magnitude of the six million dollar savings. All along, we’ve known that for-profit insurance inevitably adds massive administrative overhead to our current healthcare system. Those six million dollars could be going to schools, police, fire, social services, or parks, instead of to corporate profits.
The importance of extending full healthcare to everyone, under a universal single-payer health plan, is even more significant than the cost savings.In this recession, people losing jobs are also losing medical care, for themselves and their families. We already had almost 50 million uninsured in the United States, and as recent concerns over swine flu illustrate, those without health care increase the epidemic risks for all of us.
The banner of universal single-payer healthcare, everyone in, no one left out, is widely carried. I’ve worked with the California Nurses Association, Progressive Democrats of America, Physicians for a National Health Program, and other advocates. Last summer, at the Democratic National Convention, I met with U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-MI), principal author of HR 676, the United States National Health Insurance Act.
Santa Monica’s own Congressman Henry Waxman was at one time a co-author of HR 676, but it is now uncertain whether single-payer advocates will be at the table during hearings held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which Waxman chairs. Conyers is outraged.
“Henry Waxman, my brilliant friend, open up your door,” Conyers demanded at a Public Citizen dinner in Washington last week. Conyers understands the politics of the situation, but it’s another thing to say we don’t want to hear the most popular bill. Conyers went on to explain, “ I’ve got 79 co-sponsors. Seventy-nine men and women saying let’s get this thing on. We’ve got 300 to 400 unions. We’ve had three polls. The American people have spoken.”
With Santa Monica already on the record endorsing both the state and national universal single-payer healthcare bills, and armed with the documentation of potential six million dollar savings for our city alone, I have to agree. Healthcare reform is overdue, and now is the time to restructure the system to make it truly work, not settle for inadequate half-measures.
I’ve asked Representative Waxman’s office to schedule a face-to-face meeting for me with the Congressman and local doctors from the L.A. chapter of the California Physicians Alliance. Meanwhile, universal single-payer advocates from Santa Monica organized a visible and vocal presence at a UCLA Health Care Reform Forum this week.
Local doctors, wearing iconic white coats, planned to ask: “Why is single-payer not at the table?” according to Santa Monica doctor Matt Hendrickson. “The UCLA forum has no speakers representing single payer,” he points out.
Despite widespread public support for universal single-payer healthcare, the political influence of insurance companies and the healthcare industry continues to suppress discussion at the highest policy-making levels. How are you going to have a transformational health care program, that has been vaunted and touted for so long, if you take the most popular remedy for it off the table to begin the negotiations?, asked Conyers at that Washington dinner. You won’t get it.
Like many others, I remain committed to the full course of reforming healthcare with true universal single-payer, not just promises from insurance executives to reduce costs, or the wishy-washy so-called public option that leaves intact the private insurance system with all its wasteful overhead. If you want to cure an infection, you prescribe the full course of penicillin – you don’t risk doing more harm than good with just half a dose.
Looking hopefully at the six million dollars in Santa Monica city healthcare costs that could be saved under single-payer, I know this is our moment to create a new healthcare system that not only means better care for everyone, but frees funding for other worthy local purposes. We need to make sure we’re heard in Washington: We want health care that works, and we want our money to go to community needs, not corporate profits.