It was not so long ago that a universal, single-payer health insurance program administered and financed by the federal government looked like a viable policy option. Barack Obama supported a single-payer system on the campaign trail in 2008, and, in the early stages of the subsequent battle over health care reform, both a single-payer framework and a “public option” that would compete with private health insurance were solidly backed by many Democrats and a significant portion of the general population.
But by the final stages of the debate, amidst united Republican opposition, single-payer had largely been excluded as an option by the Administration. What became known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) did not include even a public option. And for the last year, as Republicans attempt to repeal the ACA and hobble it by underfunding, Democrats and health care advocates have rallied behind it. For many, the fact that the ACA represents far less than they had originally wanted has been put aside, with the legislation recast as a victory to be defended.
There is still a vocal group of advocates, however, who believe that the ACA does not go far enough in providing guaranteed access to quality, affordable health care. And indeed, at both the state and national level, there has been a resurgence of interest in moving the United States past the Affordable Care Act and into a single-payer system. Single-payer bills have been introduced at the federal level and in several states; this year, Vermont became the first state to pass a framework bill that could introduce a single-payer system in the next several years.
But these single-payer proponents are finding it hard to recruit those organizations who favor increased access and affordability, but who feel that support for single-payer could make the ACA more vulnerable, and that support for the ACA is obligatory because the legislation constitutes the only “realistic” policy choice. According to advocates who continue to press for a single-payer system, however, the acquiescence of those sympathetic to pro-access arguments has had a significant impact on narrowing the debate over how the health care system in the U.S. should work — and on moving the center of gravity of that debate further to the right.