During the Feb. 7 Democratic presidential debate, former Vice President Joe Biden once again questioned the price tag of "Medicare for All," the single-payer health care proposal championed by one of his key rivals, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Biden argued that the plan was fiscally irresponsible and would require raising middle-class taxes. Specifically, he claimed, the plan "would cost more than the entire federal budget that we spend now."
Medicare for All's price — and whether it's worth it — is a subject of fierce discussion among Democratic presidential candidates. But we had never heard this figure before. It caught our attention, so we decided to dig in.
Biden's campaign directed us to the 2018 federal budget, which totaled $4.1 trillion. It compared that amount with the estimated cost of Sanders' single-payer proposal: between $30 trillion and $40 trillion over a decade. The math, they said, shows Medicare for All would cost more than the national budget.
But it turns out, based on the numbers and interviews with independent experts, Biden's comparison of Medicare for All's price to total federal spending misses the mark because the calculation is flawed. The numbers
Sanders has said publicly that economists estimate Medicare for All would cost somewhere between $30 trillion and $40 trillion over 10 years. Research by the nonpartisan Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, puts the figure in the $32 trillion to $34 trillion range.
We pointed out to Biden's campaign that comparing 10-year spending estimates to one-year budgets is like comparing apples to oranges. The campaign suggested that if you take 10 times the current federal budget, you get a figure smaller than the estimated cost of Medicare for All over that 10-year window.
That calculation would lead you to multiply $4.1 trillion by 10 to get $41.1 trillion. That result is close to the high mark Sanders set for his program's cost but well above the $34 trillion that Urban researchers projected.
Still, that's not the correct way to formulate a comparison, experts say. "That's not good math," said Marc Goldwein, the senior vice president and senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "That's taking a 2018 number and multiplying it by 10, whereas the $34 trillion is a 10-year number that assumes a lot of growth." Related Stories
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