Mitchell’s Musings 5-21-2018: Single Payer

19 May 2018 2:14 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 5-21-2018: Single Payer

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

California will have its primary election in early June. In fact, because many Californians now vote by mail, that election is already in progress. California has a nonpartisan “top-2” primary system at the state level, thanks to voter-approved ballot propositions. Only presidential primaries retain the traditional partisan system.

All political parties hate top-2. The two major parties hate it because in districts where they have low representation, their candidates may be excluded from the general election. You might have two Democrats facing off, for example, in districts where Republicans have low representation, if a Republican does not at least come in second in the primary. The same is true – in reverse – in heavily Republican areas. Minor third parties don’t like the top-2 system because they will almost never have a candidate in the general election. But apparently voters do like the system.

Although the examples above refer to “districts,” when you take California as a whole, it has become in total a giant district in which Republicans are marginalized. The California Secretary of State’s latest estimates indicate that the proportion of registered voters who are Republicans is now only slightly above the proportion with no party affiliation. That is, “no party” may soon become the second largest party in California.[1] No statewide offices are held by Republicans in California.

In the current gubernatorial race, there are four major Democrats, three of which currently hold statewide office and one of which is a former mayor of Los Angeles. The major Republicans are in fact minor political figures. One is a businessman (John Cox) who can self-finance a campaign but who has no political experience. The other is member of the state assembly from Orange County (Travis Allen).

Polls indicate that one Democrat, Lieutenant Governor and former mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom, is substantially ahead of the other candidates and will finish first in the primary. So the question is whether the candidate who comes in second will be a Republican or one of the other three Democrats (former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, State Treasurer John Chiang, and State Superintendent of Schools Delaine Eastin). If it is a Democrat, the general election race could be substantive in terms of issues debated. If it is a Republican, the Democratic frontrunner will likely just coast to victory without much of a contest.[2] That is what happened four years ago when the incumbent Democrat, Jerry Brown (now termed out) ended up running against a minor Republican.[3] If a Democrat comes in second, the goal of that candidate will be to pick up Republican voters who will have to choose between two Democrats.

The polls are quite fuzzy about who will come in second in the upcoming June primary. But if it is a Democrat, it appears that the likely second-ranked candidate will be the former mayor of Los Angeles. One of the issues that would then come up is a favorite among liberal Democrats, single payer health insurance. Newsom, at this stage, says he is for it. But he waffles about the timing and the details. Villaraigosa points to the complications and basically tilts toward infeasibility any time soon. What I would expect in a Newsom-Villaraigosa contest, if it occurs, is that Newsom would play down the complications and emphasize his conceptual support. Villaraigosa would need to appeal to independent centrists and to Republicans in the general election; he would be more emphatic about infeasibility. If a Republican comes in second – and that would likely be Cox – there would be a simple division. Newsom would say he is for single payer; Cox would be against it.

Usually, when single payer is discussed, the emphasis is on funding. But there is often a focus on the budgetary cost to the government rather than the overall cost of the program, including insurance premiums. In effect, going to single payer means that insurance premiums would be relabeled as taxes that would be paid to the single government-run insurer. But the many existing government programs such as Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California) which receive federal funding would have to be folded into the single plan. That redirection of funds would require an agreement with Washington which is not likely under the present administration. And expansion of the program to universal coverage would presumably cost something. Proponents of single payer tend to assume that having one insurer would increase efficiency and decrease the cost of administration, thus providing the funds needed for the added coverage.

Let’s put aside the funding aspect and look at political feasibility. And let’s even put aside the lack of feasibility of getting an agreement from Washington. There remains a neglected element, path dependency. While – as proponents of single payer often point out – the rest of the developed world has single payer and seems to spend less per capita on health than the U.S., the question for the U.S. (or California) is how you get from the current longstanding (entrenched) program to single payer.

Recall back when Obama was first running for president and promised voters that they could keep their old plan under what became “Obamacare.” Of course, that promise was vague on what it was that you could keep, since any major change in the overall healthcare system inevitably would lead to changes in “your” plan. But aside from that qualification, the promise could be made because Obamacare was built on the existing system with its multiplicity of plans: employer-based, individual, public, etc. It was an add-on. Obamacare was basically expansion of the individual market (via the exchanges) and Medicaid along with an employer-based mandate.

Going to single payer means scrapping almost everything we now have and starting something new. You couldn’t promise voters that they could keep their old plans; the old plans would disappear. Just to get a sense of what that would mean in California, I prowled around the web and came up with a listing of all the providers operating in California as of 2016 (the latest data available). You can find that list of 106 (!) providers in the Appendix. Some of these providers have only minor representation in California. But 57 of them cover at least 10,000 individuals and involve 99.7% of the total. If we go to a higher hurdle, say, at least 100,000 covered individuals, we still involve 97.2% of the total with 33 insurers. If we go to a hurdle of at least 1 million, we go to 70.7% of the total coverage with 7 plans.

There are a lot of insurers out there, but not so many when you raise the hurdle for number of people insured. Still, it is important to note that big insurers, such as Blue Shield or Kaiser, in fact offer multiple plans. There is not just one Blue Shield plan; varying options are available to individuals and employers. All the commercial insurers, except for the very smallest, are likely to resent being put out of business in California, which is what single payer would do. And the few big ones in the state could easily organize to finance a considerable opposition campaign against single payer.

Moreover, it would not be possible for proponents to make even the qualified Obama promise that you could keep your old plan. Thus, an opposition campaign could count on drumming up considerable voter fear of losing their existing coverage for something unknown. Maybe you as a voter are not totally happy with your existing plan. The notion applies here that the devil you know is likely to outweigh what you don’t know.

In short, the political problem is not just one of an unfriendly regime in Washington. Perhaps there will be regime change in Washington someday. But there still would be plenty of opposition locally in California to single payer, even if – in the abstract – there appears to be voter support for the concept.[4] Polls on the subject tend to focus on cost, taxes, and budgets. A more important approach would be to ask the simple question: Would you favor single payer if you couldn’t keep your existing plan? I suspect abstract support for single payer would drop significantly if that question were asked.

Countries around the world that have some version of single payer didn’t implement it after they had created a long-entrenched alternative. It’s another case of American exceptionalism.



California Health Insurance Providers & Number of Covered Persons (Public and Private): 2016

{Due to technical problems, the Appendix cannot be displayed. To see it, go to:}



[1] California has a minor American Independent Party and some voters apparently mistakenly join it thinking they are registering themselves as independents. See: and Thus, it is possible, if you add some incorrectly-registered American Independent members, that Republicans already represent a smaller group than intended no-party independents. Registration data are at

[2] Newsom admits to preferring that a Republican win the number 2 slot. Republicans also hope for a number 2, not because they expect to win the governorship, but because it would encourage their members to turn out in down-ticket races, notably in some potential congressional swing districts that could affect who controls the House of Representatives. President Trump has endorsed Cox.

[3] One of the quirks of the top-2 system is that even if a candidate receives an absolute majority in the primary, the top two candidates still go to the general election. Other nonpartisan primaries – including those found in local elections in California - typically determine the final winner if one candidate receives over 50% of the vote. In 2014, Brown received an absolute majority in the primary, but still had to face his rival, Neel Kashkari, in the general election. (Kashkari was a former U.S. Treasury official who is now president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.)

[4]  Fifty-six percent of voters in California reportedly support abstract single payer.

Employment Policy Research Network (A member-driven project of the Labor and Employment Relations Association)

121 Labor and Employment Relations Bldg.


121 LER Building

504 East Armory Ave.

Champaign, IL 61820


The EPRN began with generous grants from the Rockefeller, Russell Sage, and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundations


Powered by Wild Apricot. Try our all-in-one platform for easy membership management