Health Care Systems Are Expensive. Deal With It.

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How much would a single-payer universal health care system cost in the United States? You don’t need to do anything very complicated to get a ballpark figure. Here’s the arithmetic:

  • Total spending on health care in the US is $3.2 trillion
  • Of that, $1.5 trillion is already funded by federal and state programs. That leaves additional required spending of $1.7 trillion.
  • A universal system will still require some copays and other out-of pocket expenses. Figure $200 billion or so. That leaves $1.5 trillion

So that’s it. A universal health care system in the US would require about $1.5 trillion in additional government spending. If you want to make heroic assumptions about how much a single-payer would save, go ahead. But nobody serious is going to buy it. If we’re lucky, a good single-payer system would slow the growth of health care costs over the long term, but it’s vanishingly unlikely to actually cut current costs.

There was a lot of surprise today about an estimate that a single-payer plan for California would have a net additional cost of about $200 billion. But California has 12 percent of the nation’s population, and 12 percent of $1.5 trillion is $180 billion. So that estimate is right in the ballpark of what you should expect. Short of some kind of legislative miracle, there’s really no way around this. Health care is expensive.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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