Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Health Reform for Beginners: The Difference Between Socialized Medicine, Single-Payer Health Care, and What We'll Be Getting

Socialized medicine is a system in which the government owns the means of providing medicine. Britain is an example of socialized system, as, in America, is the Veterans Health Administration. In a socialized system, the government employs the doctors and nurses, builds and owns the hospitals, and bargains for and purchases the technology. I have literally never heard a proposal for converting America to a socialized system of medicine. And I know a lot of liberals.

Single-payer health care is not socialized medicine. It's a system in which one institution purchases all, or in reality, most, of the care. But the payer does not own the doctors or the hospitals or the nurses or the MRI scanners. Medicare is an example of a mostly single-payer system, as is France. Both of these systems have private insurers to choose from, but the government is the dominant purchaser. (As an aside here, unlike in socialized medicine, "single-payer health care" has nothing in particular to do with the government. The state might be the single payer. But if Aetna managed to wrest 100 percent of the health insurance market, then it would be the single payer. The term refers to market share, not federal control.)

Meanwhile, what we're actually going to get is not socialized medicine or single-payer health care. It's a hybrid system. Private insurers, hopefully competing with a public option. Private doctors and private hospitals. Government regulation and subsidies. It's going to be complicated and messy and inefficient and hopeful and the product of a strange mix of corporate preferences and public compassion and latent populism. It will, in other words, be a uniquely American system, and hard to describe with a single epithet.


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