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Commentary: Single-payer essential to controlling health-care costs

By David Woods One hears these days mutterings by disaffected Americans that if Donald Trump becomes president, they will pack their bags and leave for Canada. One assumes, of course, that no wall will be built along the border to thwart their exit.

By David Woods

One hears these days mutterings by disaffected Americans that if Donald Trump becomes president, they will pack their bags and leave for Canada. One assumes, of course, that no wall will be built along the border to thwart their exit.

I made the reverse trip. Having emigrated from Britain to Canada, where I became the editor in chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, I opted to come to the United States in 1988 for personal reasons.

But I was also taken with American rugged individualism and a health-care system focused on market forces and competition. I wrote articles for the Economist Intelligence Unit and other periodicals on the wonders of the American system. In print, I debated longtime advocates of single-payer national health insurance, extolling the virtues of the health-care market that others abhorred.

Gradually, though, I too began to have doubts about market-driven health care. Over the 25 years that I've lived on the U.S. side of the border, I've come to the view that the American health-care system - which still leaves 11 percent of the population uninsured, despite the Affordable Care Act - is inferior to the health systems in Canada and the United Kingdom.

One of the ACA's architects, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, describes the U.S. health system as a "terribly complex, blatantly unjust, outrageously expensive, grossly inefficient, error-prone system." Unfortunately, that's still true, six years after the ACA's passage.

The reform didn't address the fundamental problem in U.S. health care: It's more about profit than patients.

Controlling health-care costs is essential to the long-term financial health of the United States. A single-payer system would make truly universal coverage affordable, costing no more than we already spend on health care. Of the $3.1 trillion the United States will spend on health care this year, 63 percent is taxpayer-financed, funding Medicare, Medicaid, and Veterans Affairs, along with private coverage for government employees and tax subsidies for employers.

Because of its fragmented, profit-driven system, the United States spends 18.1 percent of gross domestic product on health care, compared with about 8 percent in Britain and 11 percent in Canada. Much of U.S. health spending is simply wasted. For example, 25.3 percent of hospital expenditures go to administrative costs, compared with 12.4 percent in Canada, where there is a single payer in each province and hospitals are mainly funded on a global or lump-sum basis.

Canadians also save money by training a higher percentage of primary-care doctors relative to specialists, negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, and prohibiting drug companies from advertising directly to consumers. These measures would save Americans billions annually. Americans spend $1,010 per capita on pharmaceuticals; Swedes spend less than half that, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The reason? Sweden doesn't pay the list price.

Lobbying and influence-peddling by the pharmaceutical and insurance industries keeps the United States from adopting a single-payer health system. Several presidential candidates this season seemed completely under their hypnotic sway. The private insurance industry brazenly tells me, now a U.S. voter, which doctors I can see, charges me astronomical premiums, not to mention co-pays and deductibles, and then wants me to believe that having publicly funded health care that would allow me to go to any doctor in the United States without a $5,000 deductible would be "socialism."

And don't believe the widely held U.S. notion that Canadians suffer long waits for care. That's a canard. We are not going to cut U.S. health spending to Canadian levels. With our much higher level of spending, waits would not be an issue, even with the population aging. Japan and many countries in Europe already have higher percentages of elderly citizens than the graying of the baby boomers is projected to produce.

In his book In Search of the Perfect Health System, British economist Mark Britnell notes that the British love their single-payer National Health Service because of its fairness; it's available to everyone. He even quotes a former U.K. finance minister who said that the NHS is the closest thing the English have to a religion. Their single-payer system keeps quality indexes up and costs down for the population at large. This enables the British to invest additional funds in education and economic stimulation, areas that also contribute to health and well-being.

The United States should take a lesson from the example of nations with single-payer systems. They offer a measure of hope and optimism that high-quality health care can be the right of all Americans, if they demand it.

David Woods is a former editor in chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.