ACP Backs Single-Payer Healthcare

Alicia Ault

January 21, 2020

The American College of Physicians (ACP) is backing both a single-payer system and a public option that retains private insurance as the best ways to ensure that all Americans have healthcare.

The ACP's endorsement comes as part of a broad proposal to overhaul the US healthcare system, published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Rather than continue to react to others' proposals, the ACP decided, "we are going to stick our necks out and put forward what we think is a better way," Bob Doherty, ACP senior vice president for governmental affairs and public policy, told Medscape Medical News

It is a break from previous ACP policy — which never explicitly backed single payer — and with other physician organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians, both of which have declined to back a single-payer healthcare system.

The ACP's board of regents endorsed the overhaul proposal in November, and Doherty said he was confident that it had the backing of the majority of the organization's 159,000 internists and medical students.

Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) applauded the ACP's policy shift.

"For a century, most US medical organizations opposed national health insurance," PNHP cofounders Steffie Woolhandler, MD, and David Himmelstein, MD, write in an Annals editorial. "The endorsement by the American College of Physicians (ACP) of single-payer reform marks a sea change from this unfortunate tradition," they say.

No Political Endorsement

The ACP timed its announcement to come just before the first major presidential primary contests in Iowa (February 3) and New Hampshire (February 11), but the organization is not backing any candidate's healthcare proposal.

"We know that election years, particularly presidential election years, create an opportunity to engage in discussion about the future of public policy," Doherty said, adding that healthcare, and in particular affordability, rank among voters' top concerns.

After examining health systems in a dozen countries and reviewing policies that have been proposed for the United States, the ACP decided that both single payer and a public option would increase universal coverage, one of the ACP's long-stated policy goals.

"For us to say single payer is the only way to achieve universal coverage is just not consistent with the evidence," Doherty said. The coverage goal can also be achieved with a public option, "provided that you had enough marketplace regulation of private insurance that would be competing with the public program," and if there was automatic enrollment for people who did not have private insurance, Doherty said.

Negotiate Payment Rates

Unlike Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren's plan to pay for her Medicare for All plan by pegging physician and hospital pay to Medicare rates, the ACP said that would not work.  

"There would have to be a process to negotiate for established rates that would be sufficient to ensure that physicians would participate in the program," Doherty said.

As part of its multipronged overhaul, the ACP is also proposing an elimination of copays and deductibles for high-value services such as primary care, and also for patients with chronic diseases.

A renewed emphasis on primary care would create savings, the ACP posited in its call to action and the four papers outlining its positions on how to overhaul the health system.

 "We believe that American health care costs too much; leaves too many behind without affordable coverage; creates incentives that are misaligned with patients' interests; undervalues primary care and under invests in public health; spending too much on administration at the expense of patient care; and fosters barriers to care for and discrimination against vulnerable individuals," said ACP President Robert M. McLean, MD, MACP, in a statement.

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