X-ray of hand in OK sign.

This Date in UCSF History: National Health Insurance Ahead?

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Originally authored by Dr. Philip R. Lee — a UCSF professor of social medicine and director of the Institute for Health Policy Studies — and published in Synapse on April 24, 1986.

Twenty years ago, states throughout the country began to implement federal legislation (Title XIX, Social Security Act) establishing a national program for medical care for the poor (Medicaid). In the same year, 1966, the federal Medicare program began providing hospital and medical insurance for the elderly. 

With these two public programs, the public sector began to fill the major gap in private health insurance. 

Private health insurance was largely provided on a group basis, through employment, with employers paying the bulk of premiums. 

In the 1960s and early 1970s the idea that access to health care was a merit good or a right of citizenship was widespread. 

It seemed only a matter of time before the remaining gaps would be filled by universal health insurance, albeit with a mixture of public and private payment mechanisms. 

In the 1970s and early 1980s, as the costs of health care rose rapidly and as efforts to contain costs seemed ineffective, the idea took hold that national health insurance was impossible and that health care was not a merit good. 

Instead, many advocated that health care should be treated like other goods and services, and that price competition and the marketplace should be the primary approach to resolving the problems of costs, access and quality. 

Policies established by Congress and the Reagan Administration have strongly supported this approach. 

Many states, including California, have adopted pro-competitive policies. The results of the recent policy changes have been mixed. 

The rate of increase in health care costs has slowed, hospital admissions have declined, length of hospital stay has been shortened and hospital occupancy has been reduced. All this seems to be for the better, but patients have found themselves discharged from hospitals “sicker and quicker.” 

Posthospital services, described as a “no-care zone” by UCSF Professor Carroll Estes, have been unable to cope adequately with the changes. 

The number of people who are uninsured or underinsured has risen rapidly and local governments, such as San Francisco County, have found themselves obliged to care for increasing numbers of sick, disabled and poor. 

Three future scenarios seem possible given the current environment: 

  • Continued reliance on price competition and the marketplace with the evolution of a “three-tiered” system of care consisting of fee for service, HMOs and public sector. 
  • A variety of incremental strategies to fill the gaps in coverage at the state level through mandated private insurance coverage, state funds to cover the uninsured and an expansion of Medicaid.
  • Publicly funded national health insurance, along the lines of the Canadian model.

Although the odds are against national health insurance, this proposal would provide the most equitable solution to health care access with effective means to control costs while assuring freedom of choice for consumers and providers.

Personally, I believe it is the preferred solution.