(Bloomberg View) — In matters of public policy, it’s never wise to declare any question dead. The minute you begin to read the funeral rites, it will suddenly rise up out of its coffin, brush itself off, and demand a word with the minister. Thus, I should have known better to think that we were done with the public option. It was not dead. It was never dead. It was just resting quietly and pining for the fjords.
The Democratic National Committee has included the public option and Medicare buy-in as part of its 2016 party platform. This is obviously a sop to the Sanders wing of the party, which never got over its anger about the final shape of Obamacare. And while in general, I think that their demands are pipe dreams, it seems there is a reasonable chance that if Hillary Clinton is elected to the presidency, those people will finally see the dream of the public option made flesh.
Why do I think that? Because there’s a good chance Donald Trump will secure the nomination and lose in a landslide, handing Hillary Clinton the House and the Senate along with the Oval Office. Once she gets in, there will be demands to do something to please the newly energized left wing of the party, and this will look like a good thing to do. Unlike single payer, it will likely be scored by the Congressional Budget Office as cheap, even deficit-reducing. That will make it a more attractive option than anything else she could do on health care.
That means that it’s time to unearth the carton of ancient notes, open the folder marked “Health Care Reform 2010,” and take a look at what the public option would do.
To summarize for those who have forgotten the last exciting round of health care quarrels, a “public option” would be a public insurer that would sell policies on the insurance marketplace alongside for-profit companies. It would be expected to be budget-neutral, which is to say that it would have to cover all its costs — including administrative overhead — through premiums. Nonetheless, its supporters think that it would provide cheaper policies than the for-profits, and while people have long expressed worries that this would crowd other insurers out of the market, if you favor single payer, that’s a feature, not a bug.
However, the hopes for a public option revolution were always a bit overblown. The less wonky supporters of the public option — and that’s most of them — were generally under the impression that private insurers had bloated administrative costs and obscene profits, so that a public insurer which could streamline overhead would easily be able to offer better prices. But while Medicare’s overhead costs are lower than those of private insurers, that doesn’t mean that the public option policies would be cheap. For one thing, one of the reasons that Medicare’s overhead is low is that it doesn’t do annoying things such as sell policies to consumers, who require a lot of expensive hand-holding and bill-collecting. As one of many players in the marketplace, the public option would need to have all those service staff, just like the insurance companies do.
For another thing, there’s a by inadequately policing fraud, which is not necessarily a net savings to the whole system, but does lower the amount captured in that one budget line. Medicare’s overhead—which is expressed as a percentage of total expenses — also looks artificially low because the population it covers is so sick. Expressed as a hard number rather than a ratio, its administrative expenses per enrollee are arguably higher than the private sector’s.
Finally, there’s the matter of efficiency. Medicare has lower overhead because it has a huge number of consumers spread out across 50 states. Normal health insurance policies, unfortunately, are regulated at the state level, which means that the public option would have to write an individual policy for each market, have individual networks of doctors and hospitals, and deal with individual insurance regulators.