More physicians backing national coverage -- study

Psychiatrists, emergency physicians and pediatricians showed some of the strongest support for government-organized health insurance.

By Doug Trapp — Posted April 21, 2008

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More physicians in 2007 supported the creation of government-financed national health insurance than in 2002, according to a new poll. However, physician organizations said that can't be equated with support for single-payer health care.

Fifty-nine percent of 2,193 physicians surveyed last year backed the creation of "national health insurance" with a main goal of "financing health care for all U.S. citizens." That's an increase of 10 percentage points since 2002, according to the survey, published in the April 1 Annals of Internal Medicine. Fifty-five percent of physicians supported "achieving coverage through more incremental reform," a question that was not asked in 2002.

"Across the board, more physicians feel that our fragmented and for-profit insurance system is obstructing good patient care, and a majority now support national insurance as the remedy," said survey co-author Ronald T. Ackerman, MD, MPH, associate director of the Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research at Indiana University. The article also was co-authored by Aaron Carroll, MD, director of the center and a board member for Physicians for a National Health Program, a single-payer advocacy organization that was not involved in the study.

However, it's difficult to draw conclusions from the survey because of possible confusion over its terminology, said Edward L. Langston, MD, chair of the AMA Board of Trustees. "The study does not define national health insurance or incremental reform, both of which can be interpreted in a variety of ways," he said.

The AMA supports covering the uninsured, in part, through providing tax credits or vouchers to individuals and families, based on income, to help them buy health insurance. The Association also advocates for expansion of health plan choices, more unified regulation of health insurance, guaranteed policy renewals, an individual insurance mandate for those earning more than 500% of the federal poverty level, and subsidies for high-risk enrollees.

Views vary by specialty

The survey indicates that 83% of psychiatrists -- the highest percentage among polled specialists -- support national health insurance. That figure is up from 64% in 2002. This has a lot to do with their frustration with insurance companies' limits on psychiatric care and the administrative burden that comes with serving a multitude of health plans, said Nada Stotland, MD, MPH, president-elect of the American Psychiatric Assn. "Psychiatry seems to be more heavily managed than other specialties."

Also, psychiatrists tend to be more liberal than other medical specialists and therefore more likely to favor government intervention in health care, Dr. Stotland said. Psychiatrists might not receive the pay they want through a government plan, but they could influence that through the democratic process and have the benefit of dealing with only one payer, she said.

Support for national health insurance remained steady among pediatricians: 65% supported it in 2007, compared with 64% in 2002. However, E. Stephen Edwards, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, agreed with Dr. Langston that the poll's terminology was open for interpretation by various respondents. "I think that the [survey's] question in some ways is a little bit misleading," he said.

The pediatrician results probably reflect a combination of support for a single-payer system for everyone and for a national health program to cover all children the way Medicare covers the elderly and disabled, Dr. Edwards said. The AAP supports the MediKids Health Insurance Act of 2007, introduced by Rep. Pete Stark (D, Calif.), Dr. Edwards said. It would create a Medicare-like program to cover all U.S. citizens younger than 23, with coverage phased in over five years.

Dr. Edwards said the AAP is in the middle of a member survey on support for single-payer health care right now. The results should be released by the fall.

The American Psychiatric Assn. also intends to gauge member support for single-payer health care before voting on an official APA position as the next U.S. president comes into office, Dr. Stotland said.

Last December, the American College of Physicians endorsed single-payer health care as one of two preferred health reform options. The other is a public-private system that guarantees access to health coverage and subsidizes the coverage of lower-income Americans.

Just 30% of radiologists surveyed supported national insurance, the lowest of any group.

"There really is no way the [American College of Radiology] could say with any certainty why the doctors who were surveyed responded positively or negatively regarding national health insurance," said ACR spokesman Shawn Farley.

Government-financed health care is part of the solution, but not the entire solution, said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans. AHIP has endorsed covering the uninsured through tax credits and expansion of government health programs.

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Growing support

Physician support for creating national health insurance increased in almost every specialty included in a recent poll of doctors by Indiana University researchers. The survey defined the principal goal of national health insurance as arranging "health care financing for all U.S. citizens."

Physicians who support "government legislation to establish national health insurance" 2002 2007
All specialties 49% 59%
Psychiatry 64% 83%
Pediatric subspecialties 71% 71%
Emergency medicine 53% 69%
Pediatrics 64% 65%
Internal medicine 56% 64%
Medical subspecialties 50% 63%
Pathology n/a 60%
Family medicine 44% 60%
Ob-gyn 48% 58%
General surgery 52% 55%
Surgical subspecialties 37% 45%
Anesthesiology 35% 39%
Radiology n/a 30%

Note: Pathologists and radiologists were not included in the 2002 survey.

Source: "Support for National Health Insurance among U.S. Physicians: 5 Years Later," Annals of Internal Medicine, April 1

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