Some doctors are warming to single-payer medicine


When the American Medical Association – one of the nation’s most powerful health care groups – met in Chicago this June, its medical student caucus seized an opportunity for change.

Though they had tried for years to advance a resolution calling on the organization to drop its decades-long opposition to single-payer health care, this was the first time it got a full hearing. The debate grew heated – older physicians warned their pay would decrease, calling younger advocates naive to single-payer’s consequences. But this time, by the meeting’s end, the AMA’s older members had agreed to at least study the possibility of changing its stance.

“We believe health care is a human right, maybe more so than past generations,” said Brad Zehr, MD, a pathology resident at Ohio State University, who was part of the debate. “There’s a generational shift happening, where we see universal health care as a requirement.”

The ins and outs of the AMA’s policymaking may sound like inside baseball. But this year’s youth uprising at the nexus of the medical establishment speaks to a cultural shift in the medical profession, and one with big political implications.

Amid Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act, an increasing number of Democrats – both candidates and Congress members – are putting forth proposals that would vastly increase the government’s role in running the health system. These include single-payer, Medicare-for-all, or an option for anyone to buy in to the Medicare program. At least 70 House Democrats have signed on to the new “Medicare-for-all” caucus.

Organized medicine, and previous generations of doctors, had for the most part staunchly opposed any such plan. The AMA has thwarted public health insurance proposals since the 1930s and long been considered one of the policy’s most powerful opponents.

But the battle lines are shifting as younger doctors flip their views, a change that will likely assume greater significance as the next generation of physicians takes on leadership roles. The AMA did not make anyone available for comment.

Many younger physicians are “accepting of single-payer,” said Christian Pean, MD, a third-year orthopedic surgery resident at New York University.

In prior generations, “intelligent, motivated, quantitative” students pursued medicine, both for the income and because of the workplace independence – running practices with minimal government interference, said Steven Schroeder, MD, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

In his 50 years of teaching, students’ attitudes have changed, he said. “The ‘Oh, keep government out of my work’ feeling is not as strong as it was with maybe older cohorts,” said Dr. Schroeder. “Students come in saying, ‘We want to make a difference through social justice. That’s why we’re here.’ ”

Though single-payer health care long has been dismissed as a left-wing pipe dream, polling suggests a slim majority of Americans now support the idea – though it is not clear people know what the term means.

A full single-payer system means everyone gets coverage from the same insurance plan, usually sponsored by the government. “Medicare for all,” a phrase that gained currency with the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), means everyone gets Medicare, but, depending on the proposal, it may or may not allow private insurers to offer Medicare as well. (Sen. Sanders’ plan, which eliminates deductibles and expands benefits, would get rid of private insurers.)


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