The Alan Katz Health Care Reform Blog

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Archive for October, 2009

House Health Care Reform Bill: Some Varied Perspectives

Posted by Alan on October 29, 2009

One person’s socialism is another’s sellout. At least that’s the way it seems to go when it comes to health care reform. And it certainly must appear that way to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who today unveiled the Affordable Health Care for America Act. HR 3926 blends together provisions from the three House Committees that have produced health care reform legislation: the Ways & Means Committee; the Education & Labor Committee; and the Energy & Commerce Committee. The result is not as liberal as some on the left called for and is too radical for those on the right.

As CBS News reported, those on the left are upset that the bill would create a government-run insurance plan that would be required to negotiate rates with providers much as private carriers do. This angers liberals who want the public health plan to set rates that providers would have to accept, much as is done with Medicare and Medicaid.

Meanwhile, back on the Hill, conservatives attacked the House health care reform bill in no uncertain terms. “It will raise the cost of Americans’ health insurance premiums; it will kill jobs with tax hikes and new mandates, and it will cut seniors’ Medicare benefits,” proclaimed House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Is it socialism? A sellout? A good idea or a bad idea? Most readers of this blog can guess my answers (for those interested, my view of it is at the end of this post). Here’s how others are discussing the legislation:

The National Underwriter does a great job of identifying where some of the controversial provisions in the bill can be found. While the publication is a bit too fixated with the number of pages in the House health care reform bill (1,990), it’s still a good starting point for understanding the legislation. And it points out that the bill does nothing to prevent brokers to sell products within the Exchange, so it offers a bit of a reassuring start, too.

The Congressional Budget Office is highly regarded by lawmakers on both side of the partisan divide for its objective analysis of the budget impact of legislation– unless, of course, they don’t like the analysis. The CBO’s analysis of HR 3926 indicates it will reduce the deficit over the next 10 years by $104 billion, insure 96 percent of non-elderly legal residents in the country (18 million people).  The CBO’s director, Douglas Elmendorf, maintains a blog and summarizes the analysis in his post today. he notes that the findings of the CBO are “subject to substantial uncertainty.”

The Christian Science Monitor’s story reports on the how the liberals may call for a floor vote on a more robust public option than is in the bill in order to put Democratic and Republican members on record as to where they stand on a government-run health plan.

The Associated Press focuses on the CBO’s conclusion that the public option might actually cost consumers more than private coverage. It also notes that while Speaker Pelosi compromised on the powers of the government-run health plan to appease the more moderate members of her caucus, many of those moderates remain concerned about the overall cost.

A BusinessWeek article zeroes in on some of the taxes the House health care reform legislation would impose and how they differ from the taxes likely to be in the Senate reform bill.

Reimbursing doctors for providing end-of-life counseling remains in the House health care reform bill. Given that some conservatives described this provision as creating “death panels,” preserving this element of the bill can be viewed as an act of political courage. As I’ve posted before, the death panel claim was more of a cruel hoax on the American people than an insightful read of the legislation. But the passions and paranoia surrounding the provision was so vociferous, the easy course would have been to simply drop it from the bill – as was done in the Senate. The Oregon Congressman, Earl Blumeauer, who championed inclusion of the counseling provision in the health care reform package, says he was motivated by a talk with a Southern Minister who told him ‘It’s very important for those of us in the clergy that this provision be kept, cos’ we see situations where families don’t get the help they need, and we have to try to counsel them through.”

For those interested in reading the bill, here’s a link to HR 3926 – the Affordable Health Care for America Act. As noted, it’s 1990 pages, but there’s a lot of white space on most of the pages.

My take on the House health care reform bill is that it’s not socialism nor a sellout. It is a politically necessary step down a long road. As regular blog reader Alison noted in her comment on an earlier post concerning Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s efforts to forge health care reform legislation that can muster 60 votes in the Senate, “… if you start off extreme then there is more room for negotiation to where he (Senator Reid) most likely anticipates its going anyway. If you give away the farm at first you have nothing left in your hand to negotiate with. I do not believe he anticipated this to fly at all but rather offers it as a calculated starting point.”

Alison’s point applies equally as well to Speaker Pelosi’s health care reform bill.

Health care reform is a process. First there was the pre-legislation discussion of what health care reform should do. Then there were the debates in various committees in which those intentions were put into bill form. Now the leadership of each chamber are blending the work of their committees into single bills. Next will come a conference committee tasked with combining the two bills that emerge from the Senate and the House of Representatives into a single bill. At each step along the way positions harden, the rhetoric (hard to believe it’s possible) becomes even more shrill, and the compromises more plentiful. But at each stage, the final legislation becomes more clear. After all, if the House Leadership is going to push moderate Democrats to vote for a public option of any kind, a vote those moderates will need to defend at election time, they must believe it is going to be a part of the final reform package. (At least those moderate Democrats hope so).

The Affordable Health Care for America Act will look more like whatever finally emerges from Congress than the bills passed by the three House Committees. But it’s not the last word. The blended Senate bill has been described, but not seen. Both the House and Senate proposals will be evolve. We’re several weeks away from seeing the legislation that will emerge from the conference committee.

The worthiness of the result, as always, will be in the eye of the beholder.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Senator Reid Attempts to Find Middle Ground on Public Option

Posted by Alan on October 27, 2009

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s challenge was to blend the liberal Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions health care reform legislation with the more moderate bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee. One of the most contentious issues concerned the creation of a public insurance plan to compete with private carriers — the Senate HELP Committee called for one; the Senate Finance Committee explicitly rejected the concept.

The problem for Senator Reid was that some members of his caucus were threatening to oppose a bill without a government-run plan while others were making the same threat if the legislation included such a provision. And Senator Reid’s number one priority was to find a compromise that could garner the 60 votes needed to pass a bill in the Senate.

His decision:  include a public option in the blended health care reform legislation he will be bringing to the Senate floor in the next few weeks, but include restrictions on it that, while appealing to moderates, are not enough to turn off liberals.

The legislation is being reviewed by the Congressional Budget Office and is not yet available online. But Senator Reid has announced he will allow states to opt out of participating in the public plan. This approach is very appealing to moderate Democrats such as Senator Tom Carper, who voted against one of the attempts to add a government plan to the Senate Finance bill. According to the National Underwriter, Senator Carper “has been a key advocate of letting states opt out of the public option health program and create their own alternatives to private plans.”

Not all moderates in the Senate are embracing the compromise yet. The Associated Press quote Senators Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson and  Mary Landrieu as all expressing various levels of skepticism. But the White House is on-board with the compromise and will likely bring a great deal of pressure on these moderates to get at least vote in favor of ending the inevitable Republican filibuster on the health care reform legislation. By including an opt-out, these moderates can support the procedural movement and claim they were putting state rights above their opposition to the public option.

The other provision Senator Reid has apparently included in his compromise is that, in the words of Senate Charles Schumer as quoted in the National Underwriter article, “Any public option plan ought to operate on a level playing field with private insurers, and it ought to meet the same state requirements and use similar provider rates.”

How this limitation would be imposed on a government-run plan is, as yet, unknown. But if the public option must play by state-specific rules, it would be a step toward a more level playing field between the public option and private carriers — and certainly closer to the level playing field than is contemplated in the House version of health care reform.

What’s ironic is that, as I’ve written previously, a public option is likely to accomplish its primary public policy goal — reduce medical costs — only if it is allowed advantages in the marketplace such as the power to unilaterally impose reimbursement rates on providers. By restricting it to the same rules and pricing regulations as private carriers might meet, its effectiveness is reduced.

Whether a public health insurance option is part of the reform legislation eventually passed by Congress is far from certain. But Senator Reid’s proposed compromises keeps the possibility alive. At the same time, the restrictions he’s suggesting reduces the impact of the government plan. That’s a reality liberals will not accept willingly.

Senator Reid is doing what Majority Leaders have to do: find the middle ground that can garner the support of 60 Senators. It’s not an easy task. Nor will the result please everyone. It might even please no one.

 

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Health Insurance Profits May Be Small, But Are An Easy Target

Posted by Alan on October 26, 2009

Profits, it seems, is the eye of the beholder. What to one person seems meager appears to the folks next door immorally exorbitant. When it comes to health care reform there are many who perceive the profit margins of health insurance companies are obscene. The politicians and pundits sharing this belief can be viewed with frequency stating their case. It almost seems that they consider the main goal of health care reform as a means of punishing greedy health insurance companies. (That’s not the case, they care about access and affordability, too, but it sometimes does look that way). These are many of the same folks who forget that health insurance premiums are driven by the underlying cost of medical care. It is, after all, so much easier to just attack villains raking in obscene profits than to discuss complex issues like restraining overall health care spending in the country.

A number of sources are beginning to question the math of these carrier critics. The Associated Press, for example, ran a story Sunday noting that health insurance profit margins “typically run about 6 percent, give or take a point or two. That’s anemic compared with other forms of insurance a broad array of industries ….” Among the statistic the Associated Press brings to light:  “Health insurers posted a 2.2 percent profit margin last year, placing them 35th on the Fortune 500 list of top industries. As is typical, other health sectors did much better — drugs and medical products and services were both in the top 10.”

Of course, last year was a bad year for a lot of industries profits, but some did quite well. Tupperware brands had a profit margin of 7.5 percent, Hershey 6.1 percent, and the folks who own KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell earned profits of 8.5 percent.

Another reality check raising doubts on how critics evaluate health insurance profits was published recently by PolitiFact.com. Senator Jay Rockefeller in September claimed “Insurance companies have seen their profits soar by more than 400 percent since 2001,” but the award-winning site, sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times, labels Senator Rockefeller’s charge a half-truth — an in my mind, that’s being kind. The problem with Senator Rockefeller’s statistics is the data is flawed. Senator Rockefeller’s statistics are based on an analysis conducted by Health Care for America Now. They examined profits between 2000 and 2008 of just 10 companies. (Interestingly, Senator Rockefeller cites just the change in profits from 2001-to-2007; if he had used 2008 the rise would have been 249 percent, not the 400 percent he claims).

In analyzing the profits of the big 10 carriers, however, the study ignored increases in profits resulting from carrier consolidation. “When big companies absorb smaller ones, the net effect may be to enlarge the profits of the biggest companies … even as the total size of the health insurance industry — the broader entity that Rockefeller seemed to be referring to — stays roughly the same.” This is more than a little problem as not all those smaller companies are truly “small”  (consider WellPoint’s merger with Anthem). This flaw alone makes any conclusions based on this study open to question.

Some will argue that, when it comes to health care, any profits is immoral. Yet profit exists throughout the system: doctors, nurses, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers, and others all make a profit (or at least earn a living) from the medical services and products they provide. There’s nothing special or unique about carrier profits. Except that people like doctors and nurses and don’t like health insurance companies.

Instead of focusing on insurance carrier profits, industry critics would make a more significant contribution to the debate by broadening their inquiry to carriers’ administrative costs. This would lead to a more nuanced discussion on the value of expenses such as disease management, marketing, customer service, technology investments, taxes, regulatory compliance costs and, yes, profits, among other expenses. And it would require a discussion of what is an appropriate level for these non-claim costs. Here, I would suggest, the true measure of excessive costs is a carrier’s ability to bring health plans to the market that consumers buy. Carriers unable to control their administrative costs are unlikely to be able to compete long-term — another, more efficient carrier is likely to emerge and capture market share. (Yes, I know that in some states there simply isn’t enough competition among health insurance carriers for competition to work its magic, but in many states there are — and solutions can be found for where it is inadequate).

My point is not that anyone should feel sorry for the relatively low profit margins earned by health plans. Nor am I suggesting that it is unfair to question how insurance companies operate as part of the health care reform debate.

What I’m asking for is a broader examination into all contributors to the cost of health care in America, including looking at how the dominant fee-for-service method of reimbursing doctors and other medical providers, the  near monopolies enjoyed by some hospital chains in many regions of the country, the disparity between prices drug companies charge in the United States versus oversees, and the how medical malpractice and government regulations add to the cost of health care.

Because at the end of the day health care reform will be judged not by its impact on health insurance company profits, but on whether Americans can afford their health insurance coverage.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , | 9 Comments »

Which Health Care Reform Provisions are Ready for 2010 Debut?

Posted by Alan on October 25, 2009

Most of the major provisions of the health care reform proposals circulating through the halls of Congress won’t take effect until 2013 or later (the major exception being some of the taxes created by the reforms). There’s a huge political problem with that: opponents of the reform will throw every rock, pebble and boulder they can find at the reform package. If voters have to wait three or four years to see any of the benefits of the reforms lawmakers are taking the better part of a year to resolve, they’re going to be sorely disappointed. In fact, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll indicates that nearly half of the respondents expect to see insurance company reforms take effect within a year.

So it’s not surprising Democrats are searching for ways to implement elements of their reform package as soon as possible – preferably before the November 2010 elections. As Carrier Budoff Brown puts it in a posting on Politico.com, “Democrats are pushing Senate leaders and the White House to speed up key benefits in the health reform bill to 2010, eager to give the party something to show taxpayers for their $900 billion investment in an election year.”

What matters, of course, is what parts of the bill are implemented sooner than later. Starting the taxes right away is critical for making the financial numbers work. Yet they are likely to increase medical costs (and, consequently, insurance premiums) in the near term. Some provisions, like requiring carriers to allow families to cover young adults until they reach age 26 offer little downside. The same with creating a fund to cover catastrophic claims of early retirees (those aged 55-through-64) who receive coverage their employer. Requiring health care companies (for example insurers and hospitals) to be more transparent in reporting their costs may embarrass some companies and force them to quickly set up reporting processes, but are won’t harm the system overall. These are some of the items the Politico.com post identifies as under consideration.

What would be damaging is requiring carriers to guarantee issue individual health insurance coverage (accept all applicants regardless of their health conditions) in 2010 while delaying the mandate on individuals to obtain coverage. As I’ve written about frequently, an imbalance between requiring carriers to sell and consumers to buy health insurance will price the cost of health insurance beyond the means of many Americans.

Moving the benefits of health care reform forward makes political sense without abusing common sense. If it’s done the right way. Whether lawmakers will have the patience to find that way, is still uncertain, but they appear to be making the effort.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Time to Focus on the Tough Health Care Reform Questions

Posted by Alan on October 24, 2009

It’s funny what people complain about concerning health care reform. I see people people ridicule the Senate Finance Committee for producing a 1,500 page bill. Or complaining that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are combining the different versions of legislation passed in their respective chambers into consolidated bills behind “closed doors.”

Who cares how long the bill is? Much of the language is boilerplate anyway. The length of the bill reflects the complexity of the issue and the numerous sections of existing law that need to be changed. Complaining about the size of the bill is foolish and immaterial. It doesn’t matter how long a bill is. What matters is what it says.

As for private meetings among lawmakers to help shape the bill, what do people expect? Are Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi supposed to have cameras trailing them as if they were stars of a reality TV show? As the Associated Press reports, these legislative leaders are determining what health care reform bill their caucus members can support and, if not, what changes are needed. These are not discussions best held among politicians playing to the media. And it’s not like the health care reform package is going to be passed in the dark of night when no one is watching. Already there have been weeks of public hearings, days of town hall meetings, and hours of press conferences. The legislation put forward by Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi will be available online, dissected by bloggers, lawyers, and reporters from all political perspectives, and the subject of televised debates in Congress. Everyone will have more than enough opportunity to review – and to attack – whatever is put forward.

These frivolous attacks on the health care reform process are more an expression of frustration than a substantive problem with reform. That frustration stems from the reality that those making these charges are losing on the public policy issues. Seeing health care reform move in a direction they oppose, they are driven to throw every pebble they can find to slow down or derail the legislation. Ridiculing the Senate Finance Committee for generating a 1,500 bill may make them feel better in some way, but it doesn’t help their cause.

Many of the faulty ideas circulating around Washington today stem from a misunderstanding of health insurance and/or economics. These are the issues critics should be raising.

Issues like the need to balance a mandate on carriers to sell coverage to all applicants regardless of health conditions (“guarantee issue” with a requirement that all Americans purchase coverage (an “individual mandate.”)  An imbalance between guarantee issue and an individual mandate will lead to disastrous results. The tough issue is making the balance affordable – a topic that is worthy of substantial discussion.

Another example: opinion leaders need educating concerning what drives health insurance premiums. Jonathan Alter is a bright man and his columns in Newsweek are usually well reasoned, even if his conclusions are controversial. Mr. Alter’s recent comments on health insurance premiums, however, reveals an unconscionable and surprising naiveté. “The key to a political victory on health care,” he writes, “isn’t just passing a bill, it’s controlling insurance premiums. After much-ballyhooed reform, Massachusetts failed to restrain premiums, which are set to increase another 10 percent next year. If the same thing happens nationally after Obama signs a bill, Americans will take it out on Democrats. So assuring that premiums don’t skyrocket should be the No. 1 priority as committee chairs get down to the short strokes.” Mr. Alter’s solution is a government-run health plan and/or caps on premiums.

If health insurance premiums were set arbitrarily, Mr. Alter’s suggestions might have merit. But health insurance premiums reflect medical trend. Here’s some uncomfortable facts (based upon this inflation calculator):

  • It takes $1,820 in 2009 to buy what $1,000 purchased in 1989 after adjusting for retail price inflation.
  • $1,000 in wages in 1989 have grown to $1,805 today based on wage inflation.
  • However, it now takes $2,623 to pay for the same medical costs that $1,000 would have purchased twenty years ago.

The kind of public option being considered by Congress is not going to reduce medical costs. Only if a public plan can unilaterally impose reimbursement rates on medical providers will costs come down. Of course, if a government-run plan has the authority to set reimbursement rates there’s no future for private carriers. So if the public option is going to be designed in a way that eliminates private carriers, the logical solution is to skip the transition period and jump right into a completely government-insured system. Now that’s a weighty subject deserving attention and concern – a heck of a lot more concern than how lawmakers negotiate).

A cap on insurance premiums won’t directly effect medical costs either. (One might argue they could indirectly bend the cost curve if medical providers knew the carriers couldn’t pay more for their services, but caps are a messy way to achieve this speculative results). Premium caps – like any wage and price controls – are a feel good solution (who doesn’t like bashing insurance companies?) that accomplishes virtually nothing of substance.

Let’s face it, the insurance industry’s inept behavior (both politically and many of their business practices) make them a too easy target. Watching politicians and pundits bash insurance carriers is like watching high-tech hunters take down Bambi’s mom – it’s hardly a fair fight. It’s also immaterial to making America’s health care system work. If critics – and columnists – want to provide a meaningful public service, they should take a pass on the easy stuff (the number of pages in a bill or uninformed attacks on carriers) and raise tough issues like what it will take to address medical costs.

It’s harder to contribute to a debate than to snipe, but the time has come for heavy lifting.

Posted in Health Care Reform | 9 Comments »

Health Care Reform Means Changes for Brokers, Not Elimination

Posted by Alan on October 20, 2009

There’s a big difference between bending and breaking; between change and destruction. This is especially important to keep in mind when talking about the impact health care reform will have on insurance brokers. Some commentators, like John Goodman, president of the National Center for Policy Analysis, are quite emphatic in their doom and gloom. In an interview published in HIU magazine, Dr. Goodman states “Under any sort of exchange that’s being envisioned by Congress or the White House, there will be no broker.”

I disagree. As I wrote several months ago, my take is that “brokers will continue to be a part of whatever new health care system emerges.” My confidence rests partly on the herculean efforts made by the National Association of Health Underwriters and other broker organizations to include specific language in several of the bills moving through Congress that explicitly permit brokers to sell products offered in an exchange. But more importantly, I believe that even after the exchanges are up and running (probably in 2013) individuals and small business owners will still need the services of independent brokers.

Whether this need for brokers will survive health care reform will be determined to a large degree by two factors: the nature of the exchange(s) created; and the viability of the individual market. While it’s (unfortunately) easy to imagine an exchange that eliminates the need for brokers, the exchanges most like to emerge from the debate in Congress are widely expected to be much more benign. In my previous post I articulated a “Theory of Disintermediation.” This theory hold that “whether the Internet will eliminate distribution intermediaries depends on the interplay of six factors of the product or service being sold, specifically how:

  1. complex the product or service is to consumers
  2. frequently the product or service is purchased
  3. personal and critical the product or service is to consumers
  4. expensive is the product or service
  5. much on-site service is required to install or use the product or service
  6. easily a description of the product or service can be digitized.”

Exchanges are likely to simplify health insurance policies and bring some standardization to marketing material and the like. However, consumers are still going to have to make a decision concerning an expensive, complex product they infrequently purchase which is critical to their health and financial security. For small business owners the need for independent expertise will be even greater: they are making a decision that effects not only their own families, but those of their workers. That’s a responsibility most employers will feel reluctant to make without expert support.

Whether individual coverage remains viable is still uncertain. The danger is that while Congress will require carriers to sell coverage to all applicants, they won’t require all Americans to purchase coverage. The result is the equivalent of allowing motorists to buy auto insurance after they’ve had an accident. Few consumers would voluntarily buy such coverage until they need it. The result would be price increases previously only experienced in states like New York where this dynamic has resulted in a costly health insurance surcharge.

This may be naive and wishful thinking, but I do think there’s enough common sense in Congress to recognize the need to require all residents to obtain coverage before they show up at the doctors office or hospital. The American people seem to recognize this. A recent ABC/Washington Post public opinion poll shows a majority of those surveyed support requiring everyone to buy health insurance. Indeed, if subsidies are offered to low-income households, support for an individual mandate rises to 71 percent. So the political wind is there to help Congress create a fair and workable approach to this issue. And that, in turn, would go a long way to keeping the individual market viable.

So if brokers are likely to be part of the new world of health insurance does that mean it will be business as usual for us?

No.

The value brokers bring to the products we sell is likely to evolve. So will the way we’re paid. For example, helping consumers find the plans that best fit their unique needs will remain at the forefront of what we do. The reforms will make that part of the job easier. The reforms will make after sale service a bit more complicated as a new layer or two of bureaucracy gets added to the mix. (Only someone working in Washington DC will claim that adding a government agency, like an exchange, to the mix will reduce problems or make resolving them easier).

These are mere tweaks in the average broker’s day. The biggest, most fundamental change brokers will face is how they are compensated. First, brokers will likely be paid less per sale. Requiring everyone to purchase coverage is a two-edged sword. It dramatically increases the number of consumers buying health insurance. It also creates tremendous pressure to keep premiums low. Distribution costs are generally the second largest budget line for carriers trailing only claims costs. With everyone having to buy, reducing broker compensation for each sale is all but inevitable. This doesn’t mean producers won’t be able to do well under the new system. They’ll just have to do more. Given that 30 percent or more of the individual cases they work on today are rejected by carriers, reforms which assure all applicants are accepted will go a long way to offsetting this per sale reduction.

The second impact of reform is likely to be the end of the commission system. At the risk of being flamed by brokers reading this blog, paying us a percentage of premiums makes little sense now and will make even less sense going forward. The reality is that the cost and rewards associated with making a sale don’t relate to the premiums paid by the consumer. The biggest driver of health insurance premiums is the underlying cost of medical care and these cost increase far faster than general inflation. It’s not uncommon for medical trend increase at twice the rate of rent, supplies, phones, and other costs associated with running an agency. Linking broker pay increases to medical trend is a historical, but no longer logical, practice.

No one likes to talk about how they’re paid and the public policy issues involved. When’s the last time you heard a doctor publicly criticize the fee-for-service model – you know, the one that rewards them for maximizing the number of tests and treatments a patient receives without regard for the outcomes of those treatments? But to think that policymakers and carriers aren’t aware of this disconnect between how broker compensation is calculated and their actual costs.

Yet broker cannot work for free – nor should they. In the current system, carriers charge consumers for the brokers compensation and pass this revenue through to to the broker. It’s an efficient method and is likely to continue, but instead of commissions, brokers are likely to receive a flat fee per month per member. There may be regular adjustments made to the level of this fee to account for inflation, but it will be independent of the underlying premium.

Additionally, we’re likely to see the emergence of consultants in the individual and small group market segments. Instead of being paid through the carrier, these entrepreneurs will charge consumers directly. This is a less efficient method –- and is currently illegal in many states. But laws can be changed and the context for a new approach to producer compensation will be strong. We shouldn’t be surprised if new systems emerge.

And many consumers may find this pay for services system appealing. When California ran a health plan in the 1990s it imposed on a five percent of premium surcharge on small business owners wanting to work with a broker. Over 65 percent of the employers enrolling in the state plan paid the surcharge.

I believe Dr. Goodman’s warning that health care reform will do away with brokers is overstated.  And brokers need to remember, just because someone – even someone as bright and respected as Dr. Goodman – claims the sky is falling, doesn’t mean it is falling. It could just be changing.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Insurance Agents, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 18 Comments »

AHIP Report Puts Health Care Reform Surcharge In Spotlight

Posted by Alan on October 13, 2009

America’s Health Insurance Plans have struck a nerve. The carrier’s industry association issued a report warning  that Congress is heading for a set reforms that could dramatically increase the cost of health insurance coverage for American consumers. The study, prepared by PriceWaterhouseCoopers warns that various taxes and fees, combined with a weakening of provisions requiring all Americans to purchase coverage, will raise premiums paid by a family in 2013 by $1,700 more than they would pay without the reform. Premiums for a single person would go up by $600 more than would otherwise be the case.

The AHIP report examined the impact of four provisions of the Senate Finance Committee bill. These are:

  • Requirements on carriers to sell coverage coupled with “weak coverage requirements” on consumers along with rating reforms
  • Taxes on so-called “Cadillac plans”
  • Cost-shifting resulting from $400 billion in cuts to Medicare
  • Taxes on insurance companies, medical device manufacturers and other health care sectors

Significantly, the study did not consider other proposals in the reform legislation that might reduce the cost of medical coverage. Even so, what the report has to say about current medical cost trends and these four elements of the reform package is important to understand.

According to PriceWaterhouseCooper, health care costs in America are expected to “grow over the next decade by approximately 6 percent per year under current law, which is more than double the expected growth in the Consumer Price Index of approximately 2.5 percent per year.” This means the cost of private health insurance coverage is expected to increase by 26 percent between 2009 and 2013 and 50 percent between 2009 and 2016. If the four provisions it reviewed are implemented, however, health insurance premiums would increase by 40 percent between 2009 and 2013 and by 73 percent between now and 2016. Meaning the average cost for single coverage, $4,800 today is expected to increase to $5,800 in 2013 under current law, but to $6,400 in 2013 given these reforms. And instead of costing $6,900 in 2016, the average single policy would cost $7,900. These are average increases. The impact by market segment is even greater:

  • 49% increase for the non-group (individual) market\
  • 28% increase for small employers (those firms with fewer than 50 employees)
  • 11% increase for large employers with insured coverage
  • 9% increase for self-insured employers.

Again, the impact of other provisions of the Senate Finance Committee’s proposal might reduce this trend, but there’s two conclusions that can be drawn from the report:

First, the status quo is unsustainable. Any system in which the cost of a service increases year-over-year-over-year by more than twice general inflation will eventually become unaffordable. Change is needed.

Second, key elements of the reform package expected to be passed by the Senate Finance Committee today will increase costs significantly beyond the already unacceptable trends.

Not surprisingly, proponents of reform have vociferously attacked the AHIP study. The White House described the report as “Distorted and flawed.” An AARP spokesman called it “Fundamentally dishonest.” Senator Jay Rockefeller described AHIP’s publication of the study as “The misleading and harmful claims made by the profit-driven insurance companies are politicking for corporate gain at its worst.” (That AHIP also represents numerous non-profit health plans has apparently escaped the Senator’s notice).

The harsh tone of the attacks on AHIP and its report reveals correlates with the significance of the study’s conclusions. Supporters of reform had long claimed it would reduce the cost of health care for most Americans or, at the very least “bend the cost curve.” For voters happy with their current coverage this is a critical message. They generally support health care reform, but that support could waiver if the cost to them personally is too high. And AHIP is now demonstrating what the cost to these individuals is in dollars and sense. That could undermine support for reform just as the legislation heads for a crucial stage: consideration and a vote in the next few weeks by the Senate and the House of Representatives.

In the next few days, critics will undermine points in the study. The tax on high-end plans may drive consumers to less rich benefit packages, reducing their premiums. The Medicare cuts could eliminate waste and, consequently, avoid shifting additional costs to individuals with private insurance. The taxes on medical suppliers will be passed through to consumers, but spread over a broader population as more Americans obtain health insurance coverage.

But if nothing else the study will bring highlight an important reality: a requirement on carriers to sell coverage that is not tied to a strong, enforced requirement for consumers to buy coverage will dramatically increase insurance premiums. The Congressional Budget Office concludes the Senate Finance Bill will increase the number of Americans with insurance from 83 percent today to approximately 94 percent. Karen Ignagni, AHIP’s president, says “You really have to have a coverage level in the high 90s to make this work.”

You don’t need high priced analysts to recognize that mandates to buy and to sell coverage need to be balanced. New York and New Jersey currently require health plans to guarantee issue coverage, but has no requirement that their citizens purchase insurance. Not surprisingly, premiums for individual health insurance coverage is two-to-three times what it is in California. The difference is a health reform surcharge paid for by the residents of those states.

But the example of New York and New Jersey isn’t even necessary: common sense shows the impracticality of an unbalanced approach. Imagine if consumers could put off buying auto insurance until the tow truck arrives at the scene of their accident. Auto insurance costs would skyrocket. What would fire insurance cost if it could be purchased after the flames are extinguished?

American consumers will do the math. If the penalty for purchasing coverage is the equivalent of one month’s premium (which is roughly what the Senate Finance Committee is proposing) every month they go without coverage (minus the first month) is money saved. When they face medical charges greater than the penalty, they’ll buy it. Once they’re treated, they’ll drop the coverage. The result will be a surcharge on all those with health insurance coverage.

Passage of the Senate Finance Committee legislation is not the end of the health care reform debate. It’s merely a milestone – and important one, but in the end, just a milestone. As the reforms move forward, lawmakers will need to face up to the need for balanced reforms.  That will require making tough decisions, such as telling their constituents they must have coverage. But health care reform, if it’s to be done right, takes both common sense and political courage.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 25 Comments »

Health Insurance Exchanges are No Miracle Cure

Posted by Alan on October 6, 2009

That health care reform would include an insurance exchange has been all but a given for months. Democrats and Republicans alike are enamored with the idea of creating a marketplace in which individuals, small business and maybe larger enterprises could shop for health insurance. There are differing opinions as to whether these exchanges simply help purchasers compare plans on an apples-to-apples basis by presenting benefits and rates in a common format and language (along with providing common enrollment forms and the like) or whether they should also negotiate benefit and pricing with carriers and help users select and purchase coverage. What is rarely brought up is that exchanges are effective only if they are innocuous or cheat.

By innocuous I mean they serve simply as a data resource, providing consumers basic information in a common format and using a common terminology. Don’t get me wrong. This would be an extremely valuable service. Numerous brokers provide this kind of information today, but they’re hamstrung by the differing language and descriptions used by carriers. By forcing health plans to adopt a shared language, consumers would enjoy greater clarity when determining what plan to buy.

By cheating I mean that the playing field needs to be tilted in the favor of the exchange or it will not either deliver the intended value or last very long. That’s not the point of an op-ed in the New York Times by Cappy McGarr, who helped launch Texas’ version of a purchasing pool back in 1993, but it’s a fair conclusion. (Note: you may need to register with the New York Times web site to view the article, but registration is free. And my thanks to reader Nosedoc for bringing this opinion piece to my attention).  Mr. McGarr describes the failure of purchasing pools to take hold last decade in Texas, California, North Carolina and Florida. He blames their failure on cherry picking by private carriers outside the exchange, claiming these carriers signed up “all the small businesses with generally healthy employees and offload(ed) the bad risk … onto the exchange.”

From what I saw of the California version of a purchasing pool, Mr. McGarr claim is accurate in defining the problem, but wrong in describing the cause. California’s purchasing pool (called the Health Insurance Plan of California, or HIPC) did attract groups with higher claims. But this wasn’t the result of carriers directing expensive insureds to the pools as claimed by Mr. McGarr. Instead it was the direct result of a decision taken by the HIPC’s administrators.

Outside the HIPC, private carriers were required to accept all small groups applying for coverage, but could adjust rates up or down 10 percent based on a group’s risk profile. Virtually all of them did. The HIPC could have used this legal rating band, but its leadership chose not to do so. (The members and staff of the agency responsible for the HIPC were bright, well intentioned individuals, but they were reacting, at least in part, to public policy concerns, not a business needs). This meant low risk groups found the market outside more attractive and high risk groups found the offerings within the HIPC more attractive. The result is neither sinister nor should it be unexpected.

When competing against the private market, exchanges will have other disadvantages. For example, government agencies must hold open and public meetings. This is a good thing, the government shouldn’t operate behind closed doors. But it’s also a cumbersome process. Businesses need to adjust quickly to changing circumstances, move quickly to seize unexpected opportunities and to avoid unanticipated dangers. Government enterprises are restricted in their ability to take fast action; private companies are not.

So how can exchanges compete with a vibrant market beyond their jurisdiction? One way is to give the exchanges advantages over the private market; the other is to hobble the private market. For example, the legislation making its way through Congress offers premium subsidies to lower income Americans. yet those subsidies can only be used within the exchange. Why? If coverage outside the exchange meets the definition of acceptable coverage, shouldn’t consumers have the choice to use their subsidies on whatever plan they determine best fits their needs? Lawmakers claim to support consumer choice, but here’s an example of where members of both parties are willing to restrict that choice. Other methods of tilting the playing field? Force carriers to participate in the exchange. Limit what they can do with their non-exchange products.

Mr. McGarr’s suggested solution is to require private carriers to accept all applicants (an idea nearly everyone, including the private carriers agrees upon) and to prevent them from adjusting rates based on health status. He notes, however, that enforcement will be challenging and then makes an interesting proposal: instead of creating exchanges to foster competition, create a public plan.

As regular readers know, I’m not a fan of public plans. But it is interesting to think about the trade-off. If a public plan was required to play by the same rules as private carriers (no fair simply reimbursing providers a percentage of Medicare rates) and be self-sufficient, would that be worse than creating exchanges that lawmakers will find ways of benefitting through a tilted playing field?  After all, if exchanges are to have a significant impact on the cost of health insurance, they will need to negotiate rates with doctors and hospitals. But that’s not what they do. It is, however, what public plans do.

Not that we have a choice, but if we did, which would you choose? An exchange? Or a public plan?

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 12 Comments »

It’s Time for President Obama to Define Health Care Reform

Posted by Alan on October 5, 2009

Now comes the fun part. With the Senate Finance Committee poised to pass its version of comprehensive health care reform we get to one of the more difficult segments of the Kabuki dance: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid must now reconcile the bills passed by multiple committees into a blended proposal. Which means the time is right for President Barack Obama to publicly define what, exactly, is “Obamacare”.

First some background. In the House, different versions of health care reform legislation have been passed by the House Ways & Means, Energy & Commerce, and Education & Labor committees. To be more precise, while the legislation moved forward by Ways & Means and Education & Labor were very similar, moderate Democratic members on the Energy & Commerce committee gained significant changes in that committee’s version. Speaker Pelosi will now combine the three versions into a “Manger’s Bill.” This is the version that will be debated and voted upon by the full House.

What’s makes Speaker Pelosi’s mash-up of the House Committee’s health care reform bills important is that any changes must be imposed upon it. Her version of the bill is the “default” position. From a legislative process perspective, this puts those seeking changes to the legislative language at a disadvantage.

The same blending process is underway in the Senate. There the task is even harder. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed a liberal version of health care reform; the Senate Finance Committee’s plan is much more moderate. The gap between them is far greater than that between the three House committee’s bills. The Associated Press describes Senator Reid’s efforts to blend two disparate health care reform bills as “mission seemingly impossible.” Given the differences in the how the two Committees addressed costs, taxes, whether there should be a government-run plan, the obligation of employers to provide coverage and other controversial items, “seemingly impossible” may be an understatement.

Unless President Obama dives deeper into the details than has publicly been the case. The White House has been engaged in Congressional health care reform negotiations for some time. According to news reports, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, formerly part of the House Leadership, has been the Administration’s point person in these discussions. Until recently, President Obama has been willing to let Congress thrash out the thorny issues related to health care reform, setting forth broad principles. Beginning last month the president has offered more specifics, but hardly enough to clearly define what his version of health care reform looks like. At least not publicly.

With all the Congressional committees having taken a position, the time has come to get specific. Yes, the White House could leave it to Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid to fashion compromises that can pass their respective chambers, but that only postpones the Administration’s day of reckoning. For after the House and Senate passes their differing versions of reform, a conference committee (made up of both Senators and Representatives) will convene to fashion the final bill. If President Obama waits until the conference committee convenes to publicly engage in the nitty-gritty of reform, it could be too late. Legislators will have been forced to make numerous politically challenging votes. The political payback if the White House then makes those votes unnecessary would be … ugly.

President Obama needs to make his health care reform vision known now, before those votes. He needs to say “this is acceptable;” “this is not.”  He needs to spend his political capital to define Obamacare, to give lawmakers the cover they need to make tough votes, and to rally his considerable grassroots organization behind specific legislation.

Publicly defining what he wants in the bill is a huge political risk for President Obama. His positions will anger some supporters and give opponents mounds of ammunition to use against him. Whatever changes Congress makes to the president’s reform plan will be described by the jabbering cable network pundits as a defeat for the Administration. If he accepts those changes he’ll be accused of weakness and flip-flopping. (One of the most insightful columnists around, Richard Reeves recently explained the value and wisdom of political leaders capable of changing their minds).

But the greater risk to the Administration is failing to achieve meaningful health care reform. And if health care reform does pass, the messiness of the process will be soon forgotten. The odds of President Obama getting a health care reform bill sent to his desk increases exponentially if Congress – and the public – have a clear understanding of the Administration’s legislative ambitions.

The policy and political pieces are all on the table. Selecting from among the various provisions contained in the five variations of health care reform passed by Congressional committees won’t be an easy, but it is necessary. President Obama wanted Congress to participate in the reform process. They have. Now it’s his turn.

Posted in Barack Obama, Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Cantwell Amendment Another Handoff to States

Posted by Alan on October 2, 2009

As the Senate Finance Committee concludes its mark-up of health care reform legislation an interesting dynamic is emerging: Senators are increasingly turning to the states to address some of the more pressing challenges the reform effort is designed to address.

Yesterday I wrote about a compromise being circulated by moderate Senator Tom Carper. The Carper Compromise would allow states to create government-run insurance programs, networks of co-ops or the like. That proposal has yet to be brought to the Senate Finance Committee and may not be. Instead, it could be offered later in the process as the Senate seeks to bridge the gap between the Finance Committee’s bill and legislation passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – which calls for a robust government-run plan.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee has adopted a proposal offered by Senator Maria Cantwell. which gives states the option “to negotiate with insurance companies for lower rates on health coverage policies for those living barely above the poverty line and provides federal dollars to pay for it,” according to the McClatchy news service. The Cantwell Amendment is modeled after a program currently in operation in Senator Cantwell’s home state of Washington and would benefit families between 133 percent and 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (up to $21,660 for individuals and $44,100 for a family of four). Senator Cantwell staff claims such plans could cover up to 30 million of the nation’s uninsured according to the Associated Press. This, of course, assumes that state’s out-reach efforts are successful in bringing those eligible for such a program into the system. There are millions of individuals eligible for existing programs like Medicaid and children health programs who remain unenrolled across the country.

Senator Cantwell’s amendment is not an alternative to the public option, the issue most dramatically dividing Democratic liberals from their moderate and conservative colleagues in Congress. Bridging that gap will require something along the lines of the Carper Compromise. (This doesn’t mean Senator Cantwell’s proposal wasn’t controversial. It was adopted on a 12-11 vote with Democrat Blanche Lincoln joining all 10 Republican members of the panel in voting against it).  What inclusion of the Cantwell Amendment in the Senate Finance Committee’s legislation does underscore is the likelihood Congress will be giving states a central role to play in making health care reform real.

The benefits of this approach include keeping health care decisions closer to consumers and allowing for different approaches to meet the differing needs of the states. One of the downsides to relying on states, however, is that it eliminates savings that might have been achieved by more uniform, national standards and regulations.

Another outcome of shifting responsibility and power to the states under health care reform: even after Congress completes its work, intense legislative battles will remain. Only the venue will move from Washington, D.C. to a state capital near you.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics, State Health Care Reform | Tagged: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

 
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