UnitedHealth Group CEO David Wichmann has reason to fear. He earned $17.4 million dollars last year. He also holds $202 million in the Minnetonka company's stock. If America gets its wish, all that money may soon be at risk.
The latest polling shows that 56 percent of Americans now favor “Medicare for All,” with sound reason. Other countries with similar plans -- like Canada and most of Europe – see their health costs plummet, while things like life expectancy rise.
The idea is rather simple: Instead of paying for insurance through work or on your own, that payment is shifted to taxes. In return, a government program similar to Medicare covers everyone.
But this also means cutting out the middleman. That would be David Wichmann. As shepherd of the nation's largest health insurer, he extracted $17 billion in profits last year as the system's paperwork guy.
Believe it or not, he's a lot less efficient than the government. As a general rule, administrative overhead for private insurers runs six to eight times higher than Medicare. If we want to save money, we do not want David Wichmann involved.
So it will come as no surprise he slammed the alarm button in a conference call to investors this week. He said Medicare for All would will “destabilize the nation’s health system... And the inherent cost burden would surely have a severe impact on the economy and jobs — all without fundamentally increasing access to care.”
This came shortly after a United employee leaked video of another executive, Steve Nelson, telling workers the company was quietly attempting to sabotage the movement.
Health insurance, of course, has already been destabilized for decades. Look at any graph charting premium hikes over the years, and it looks like a fighter jet during an emergency takeoff.
Meanwhile, President Trump is in court as we speak, hoping to get Obamacare overturned. If he's successful, tens of millions of people will lose their insurance. Two years after his election, he still has no backup plan.
That leaves Americans spending one of every five dollars on health care, the highest ratio in the world. The bigger problem is we're buying a shack in South St. Paul for the price of a lakeside mansion in Wayzata. According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. system ranks an embarrassing 37th in the world, barely eking past Slovenia and Cuba.
This may be why health insurers bottom-feed with airlines in consumer satisfaction surveys. The denials, interminable waits on hold, the fine print that never seems to go in your favor – these are not the ingredients to bake adoring fans.
By contrast, it's easy to see why Medicare for All's popularity is rising. Even among Republicans, support is closing in on 50 percent. That's likely because Medicare has been around since 1965. According to Gallup, those whose coverage comes from the government – military members, vets, seniors – are happier with their health care than those of us struggling with private insurance. And it's hard to demonize something we've already come to appreciate.
Since Bernie Sanders' proposal is merely the opening bell to debate, there's no way of knowing what a specific law would look like, or how much we might reduce our servitude to the Medical Industrial Complex. But Canadians pay about half what we do –and get higher life expectancy, with lower infant mortality. A conservative research center at George Mason University estimates the U.S. would save $2 trillion in the first 10 years.
It would also kill many of those punishing practices of U.S. medicine. For starters, everybody's covered, meaning you're no longer at risk of life-crushing debt should you become sick after you've lost your job.
Doctors would also lower their costs, since they now spend four times the money Canadian physicians do in battling insurers.
Prescription prices would also drop. According to Reuters, we currently pay three times what the British do for the world's 20 most popular drugs. When Turing cranked the price of its parasitic infection medicine from $13 to $750 a pill, the English were paying just 66 cents. That's because they're covered by a single insurer. If drug companies won't negotiate a reasonable price, they risk getting locked out of the entire country.
Under present U.S. law, Medicare is actually barred by Congress from negotiating prices, leaving little doubt whose team they're playing for. (Hint: Not yours.)
There are downsides, naturally. In both Britain and Canada, things like non-emergency surgery can take months to arrange. Yet this kind of rationing already takes place in the U.S. by default. Surveys show that 60 percent of Americans already delay care because they simply can't afford it.
It's hard to say if Medicare for All will ever become law. Though most Democratic presidential candidates support it, fence-sitters like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar have yet to summon their courage. Expect Republicans to arrive with a chorus of outrage.
As we learned from Obamacare, shooting down someone else's plan as “socialism,” “a government takeover,” etc., etc., is a lot easier than putting forth a plan of your own. Obamacare only became popular after Republicans proposed a plan of their own, taking away protections for preexisting conditions and tossing millions from their coverage. They now refuse to try again until after the next election. They'd prefer you vote before you see the details.
In the meantime, men like David Wichmann will be sounding the trumpets of impending doom. The rest of the world already knows they don't need him. It must be scary realizing that we might discover this too.