The Alan Katz Health Care Reform Blog

Health Care Reform From One Person's Perspective

Archive for the ‘medical cost containment’ Category

Effort to Eliminate Waste Coming Soon

Posted by Alan on March 1, 2011

It’s not that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act doesn’t contain any provisions aimed at reducing the cost of medical care – it’s that it doesn’t have enough of them. Still, what it has should be acknowledged. For example, Politico Pulse has reported that a unit of Health and Human Services will soon announce a package to incent providers to “disseminate effective practices and foster the spread of new knowledge on patient safety to the hospital community.” According to Spencer Health Strategists, who obtained a copy of a draft memorandum a few weeks back, the goal is to dramatically cut the estimated $50 billion spent each year on preventable hospital readmissions and hospital-acquired conditions.

The grants are designed to get private hospitals to improve patient safety and improve outcomes. Instead of developing new approaches or dictating specific practices, financial incentives will be to encourage hospital-generated innovations and to share best practices.  For example, the Innovation Center within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services within HHS will support “states and large systems to developed networked learning project.” Those networks that achieve specified results will get additional resources to expand their efforts.

This focus on the private sector links the effort to improve safety and reduce readmissions underway within Medicare. According to the memo posted by Spencer Health Strategies, by 2013 six percent of hospital payments from Medicare to providers will be tied to public reporting of errors and the provision of safer, more reliable care ….” Over the next 10 years, $70 billion of Medicare hospital payments will be tied to hospitals’ “delivery of high quality care.” Medicaid will introduce similar provisions.

None of this is “official” yet, but based on the Politico Pulse report, it appears the Obama Administration will be launching this initiative soon. The potential of the program is to save billions of dollars and to do so relatively quickly. Even more significantly, the program could save thousands of lives. There’s a lot wrong with the PPACA, but this is an example of something that it gets right.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, medical cost containment, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Politics, PPACA | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

Rate Regulation Grants Announced by HHS

Posted by Alan on February 27, 2011

Carriers set health insurance premiums based on several criteria. The single biggest component is the expected cost and utilization of medical services. Then there’s the need to cover overhead (such as operations, sales costs, marketing and armies of lawyers to deal with regulation) and profit (or retained earnings for non-profits). Insurers know they don’t operate in a vacuum, however, so they consider the pricing of competitors as well.

What’s a reasonable premium? Arguably it’s one that covers claims, operations, provides a profit, but is still affordable to consumers, at least relative to the pricing of competing carriers. This approach assumes an effective market. Carriers that get greedy (and overcharge) will lose market share to more fairly priced competitors. Those that underprice their plans one year will need to seek large premium increases the following year to make up for losses. At any one time a particular carrier’s pricing may be out-of-whack (to use the technical term), but over time the market is supposed to work things out to keep pricing reasonable.

The market, however, can be messy. A carrier seeking to make up for losses in prior years may need to seek substantial rate increases (think 40-to-50 percent).  Within the walls of the insurance company such increases makes perfect sense. Medical costs and utilization are skyrocketing. Operating efficiencies take time to achieve (without totally degrading customer service). Executives are rarely first in line to reduce their own take-home pay (nor would it amount to a lot if they did). The only way to make up for underpricing errors is to raise rates – a lot.

Outside the bubble that is most corporations, however, double-digit premium increases appear more like highway robbery than a logical business decision. How many items in our economy go up 10, 20, 40 percent of more each year? Year-after-year? Cars don’t. Most food items don’t. Gas prices may skyrocket, but they drop from time-to-time, too. Health insurance premiums seem to be on a one-way trajectory upward. When’s the last time health insurance premiums fell? (1996 is the last time I recall, but I may be missing some other exceptions).

This pricing trend is unsustainable. Some of you may recall the “rule of 72” from your economics (or math) classes. The rule of 72 is a way to estimate how long, given a growth rate, it takes to double a number. Just divide the assumed rate of growth into 72. Invest $100 in an account paying 5 percent interest and your principal will double in roughly 14.4 years (72/5 = 14.4). Increase the cost of health insurance by 10 percent per year and premiums will double in 7.2 years.

So here’s the situation: carriers price their products to cover their costs (both claims and administration), to earn a profit and to be competitive in the marketplace. Consumers see their costs increasing at unacceptable levels. What’s a lawmaker to do?

If that lawmaker believes in markets they let nature take its course. If the lawmaker: 1) believes the market isn’t working; and 2) government needs to step in when markets are broken, you require carriers to get government approval before raising their rates. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act includes provisions to encourage this latter approach. Or as the federal government’s web site puts it, “The affordable Care Act provides new tools and resources to protect consumers and employers from large and unreasonable health insurance premium hikes.”

That encouragement is the reason the Department of Health and Human Services is making $199 million in grant funds available to help states “create or enhance their premium rate review programs.” The goal is to bring greater transparency to the rate making process while assuring that the states are “comprehensively” reviewing carrier’s proposed prices hikes.

The idea is to prevent “unreasonable” rate increases – which begs the question: what’s unreasonable? According to a regulation proposed by HHS, that would be any rate increase of 10% or more in the individual and small group market segments. Maybe. The 10 percent threshold doesn’t determine whether a rate increase in unreasonable, but it would trigger a state review to determine if it is. Carriers would also need to post their justification for such rate increases on the Internet.

Personally, I don’t mind increased transparency in health insurance pricing. As I’ve written before, carriers need to educate consumers and lawmakers about the value they provide. After years of being hammered politicians in both parties and reams of articles about denied or rescinded coverage, the general public would be excused asking “what is it you folks do that’s of any benefit?”

So if the states ask tough questions and make carriers justify their increases, I’m fine with it. A second set of objective eyes couldn’t hurt and as I’ve noted in an earlier post, the resulting dialogue could be a way to educate the public about how rates are driven by the cost of medical care. But what we’re likely to see is an increasing number of states deciding their regulators need to sign off on any rate increase (some states already do this).

Inserting politics into the premium setting process distorts an already messy process. What politicians (or their appointees) are going to sign off on a significant rate increase – even an objectively necessary substantial premium hike – in the middle of an election season? Rates are already impacted by the underwriting cycle, now they are to be beholden to election cycles? The calculation for a politician is simple: if they allow a substantial rate increase they anger voters; if they deny it they upset an insurance carrier. Sure they could try to explain to their constituents why the rate hike was needed. But that’s hard work. It’s far easier to just say no.

Nor are public officials likely to link medical cost increases to premium hikes. Far easier to attribute increasing costs to greedy insurance executives than doctors or hospitals. Nor is there anything regulators with the authority to reject premium increases can do about increases to medical costs. The PPACA does not give states the power to tell doctors what they should charge for a given procedure. Anyone who has read this blog for long knows I’m not a fan of a single payer health care system. I do respect, however, the honesty of single payer advocates who recognize that their approach is about controlling the cost of health care at its source – what doctors and hospitals charge for care.

Advocates of increased government involvement in rate setting believe it will help lower costs. And there’s no requirement that states seek approval powers over premiums to qualify for the grants. But some (I’m looking at you California) no doubt will.

There are cost containment provisions in the PPACA. Certainly not enough, but they’re there. Rate regulation, and encouraging states to establish themselves as the final arbiters of what rate increases are permissible, is not one of them.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, medical cost containment, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Politics, PPACA | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Requirement that Carriers Justify Double-Digit Rate Increases a Teachable Moment?

Posted by Alan on December 27, 2010

Reasonableness, like a host of other things, can be in the eye of the beholder. Regulating reasonableness, consequently, is nothing like a science. Yet the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires health insurance carriers to disclose their reasons for “unreasonable premium increases.” The Department of Health and Human Services has issued a preliminary version of the regulation aimed at determining how and where this rate increase disclosure will take place.

The draft regulation, which is open to comment and subject to change, requires carriers to publicly disclose any individual or small group rate increases higher than 10 percent. While double-digit increases will not be automatically considered unreasonable, they will trigger a review by state or federal regulators to determine if they’re justified. States will get the first shot at scrutinizing the rate hikes. Only if HHS determines a state lacks the ability to do a thorough actuarial review of premium increases will federal regulators step in. States are eligible for federal grants to bolster their review capabilities and 45 states have taken advantage of the program to date.

Over time this 10 percent threshold could be adjusted on a state-by-state basis according to the National Underwriter. “After 2011, a state-specific threshold would be set for the disclosure of rate increases, using data that reflect each state’s cost trends.”

HHS has the authority to require disclosure of large group rate increases, but chose not to do so.. They’re asking for comments on the advisability of seeking disclosure of large group claims, but according to the National Underwriter, regulators are concerned that doing so would not align with current practices. 43 states, however, already review — and some can deny — rate increases on individual and small group medical insurance coverage. Significantly, neither the regulation nor the PPACA gives HHS the power to deny rate increases. If they determine a premium hike sought by a carrier is unjustified it will post that finding on a government website, but the increase will still be permitted (again, unless a state regulator prevents it). 

The mechanics of the rate review are described in the proposed regulation. To oversimplify, if its desired rate increase is over 10 percent or greater, the carrier will need to notify HHS and post its justification on the insurer’s web site. In evaluating the increase HHS will consider whether:

  1. “the rate increase results in a projected future loss ratio below the Federal medical loss ratio (MLR) standard
  2. “one or more of the assumptions on which the rate increase is based are not supported by substantial evidence.
  3. the choice of assumptions or combination of assumptions on which the rate increase is based is unreasonable.”

The timing of the rate increase is determined by state law, so HHS’ review cannot delay implementation of the rate change. What it will do, however, is require disclosure of a great deal of information, bringing an unprecedented amount of transparency to the rate setting process.

Transparency is one of the reasons Consumers Union praises the draft regulation. According to Kansas City InfoZine, its spokesperson, DeAnn Friedholm, cited two benefits the group expects the premium regulations to deliver: “First, it provides a strong incentive for insurers to do a thorough review of their justifications before asking for big rate increases. And second, it will help consumers better understand why their rates are going up and they can decide to look for better plans.”

Which could lead to an interesting result. As the Consumer Union notes, the regulation could “help consumers better understand why their rates are going up .…” And the scrutiny on carriers explanation for increases will be intense. Which makes the posting of the reasons behind the price hikes a powerful  “teachable moment.”

Carriers can use the disclosure to tell a detailed explanation for their actions. For example, in California, hospital rates increased by 150% between 2000 and 2009. Carriers can, and should, get creative in presenting how this medical trend drives premium increases. The question is whether carriers, their actuaries and their attorneys have the skill and willingness to take advantage of this opportunity to present the full story behind skyrocketing insurance costs. Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield provides an example of a meaningful explanation for premium hikes. They even explain the impact of deductible leverage, which is no mean feat.

Regence is providing a general explanation of how pricing works, something other carriers will need to do as well. However, when justifying specific rate increases, Regence and others should go further, naming names. A hospital increases their reimbursement rates by 10%? Name the hospital. A pharmaceutical manufacturer introduces a new drug that costs 20% more than the effective medicine it replaces? Name the drug and the manufacturer.

Carriers could – and should – get even more specific. If the hospital initially sought a 20% increase the insurer should note it’s success in reducing the increase. After all, the beneficiaries of carriers’ successful negotiations with providers are consumers. As I’ve noted previously, health insurers need to do a better job justifying their role in the system. Most health insurance executives would justify their enterprise’s contribution to the system as lowering the cost of health care. Yet with every rate increase they undermine this argument by offering the broad excuse that premiums are rising due to increases in “medical inflation.” Well, now they have the forum and the reason to be specific about what — and who — is driving that inflation.

Who knows, some day regulators may decide to ask medical providers if their charges are reasonable. Until then, there’s no reason carriers can’t ask that question – publicly and loudly. As long as transparency is coming to rate setting, the bright light of disclosure may as well shine on as many parts of the system as possible.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Health Plans, Healthcare Reform, medical cost containment, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, PPACA | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

A Few More Unrelated Health Care Reform Items

Posted by Alan on December 23, 2010

There’s always something happening related to health care reform in general and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in particular. As I continue my year end “clean-up” here’s some short takes on some of the more noteworthy events and ideas I’ve come across lately.

The AMA and the Individual Mandate:
The American Medical Association is of two minds when it comes to requiring everyone to obtain health care coverage  This individual mandate is at the heart of many of the law suits seeking to overturn the PPACA in court. During the health reform debate they supported this requirement. As reported over at the HealthAffairs blog, during their recent interim House of Delegates meeting the AMA voted to reverse this position. Only after “desperate scrambling by AMA leaders” the House voted to refer the issue to the AMA Board of Trustees and to hold a vote concerning their their position on the individual mandate when the House reconvenes again in June.

Both votes were close and reveal a deep schism within the AMA. Like the Wright on Health blog where I came across this item, I don’t believe the result will actually split the AMA, but if the organization abandons its support for the individual mandate it would be a serious political blow to the Obama Administration.

The PPACA and Medicare:
President Barack Obama and his allies argue that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will strengthen Medicare even though the health care reform package cuts about $500 billion from the federal health program over the next 10 years. The Associated Press did an interesting fact check that sheds some light on the PPACA’s impact on Medicare. The bottom line: unless there are offsetting cost reductions in Medicare, the cuts to the program required by the PPACA will simply need to be replenished by other sources. While the Associated Press’ Q&A points out another example of the financial gimmickry so common in Washington, it also highlights the need to reform Medicare, especially in terms of reining in medical spending. The PPACA creates some pilot projects and the like to do just that. Whether they will generate the savings necessary in time is the $500 billion question.

And for a lighter look at Medicare, feel free to check out “The New Medicare Drug Card” brought to you by the Onion.

Speaking of Controlling Medical Costs:
Health insurance premiums reflect the cost of health care. This is a fact that many lawmakers seems unable to grasp. Perhaps its a gap in their education or, at the risk of being appropriately cynical, perhaps it’s because it is easier – and better politics – to beat up on insurance companies than it is to take on hospitals and doctors.

One way to reduce costs is to reduce needless care. As David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times earlier this year, the potential savings from eliminating unnecessary medical treatment is huge, both in terms of dollars and in lives. Mr. Leonhardt, who writes the Economic Scene column for the paper, identifies three steps necessary to earn these savings: 1) “learning more about when treatments work and when the don’t;” 2) “give patients the available facts about treatments;” and 3) “changing the economics of medicine to reward better care rather than simply more care.”

What’s especially interesting, and especially for those who believe the PPACA does nothing to restrain health care costs, is Mr. Leonhardt’s point that the new health care reform law makes a good start down this path. As he makes clear, the PPACA doesn’t go as far as is needed, but it lays the groundwork for much of the hard work yet to come.

Physician Owned Surgery Centers:
Here’s a not surprising headline: “Doctors with ownership in surgery center operate more often: U-M study.” Shocking, no? The University of Michigan study shows the financial incentives gained by doctors when they have a financial stake in a a surgery center. One possible explanation the researchers mention for this is “that these physicians may be lowering their thresholds for treating patients with … common outpatient procedures.” Those financial incentives can be hefty, amounting to what the authors call a “triple dip.” Doctors with a stake in a surgery center “collect a professional fee for the services provided … share in their facility’s profits and [in] the increased value of their investment.”

Writing in Health Affairs, the data showed that “owners operated on an average of twice as many patients as non-owners” and their caseloads increased more rapidly and dramatically. Significantly, the study reports that doctors have a stake in 83 percent of surgery centers in the United States. To be fair, these out-patient centers often charge less for comparable treatments than hospitals do. But if they double the number of surgeries, how much do they really contribute to constraining health care costs?

The “Best of” CBO’s Health Care Reform Reports:
The Congressional Budget Office occupies a unique position in the legislative process. In a hyper-partisan Congress, they are an island of non-partisanship. (Of course, partisans in both parties only admit this when what the CBO reports supports their position, but that’s politics). This is not to say that the CBO is always right or that they’re not constrained by the questions asked or the data they are provided. But at the end of the day, when it comes to reliable information and analysis, there are few places better to turn to than the Congressional Budget Office.

When it comes to health care reform the CBO was instrumental in providing meaningful input to the debate. And now those reports – and other health care related studies – are compiled in a greatest hits collection entitled “Selected CBO Publications Related to Health Care Legislation, 2009-2010.” The information contained in this 364-page compendium is invaluable. But what will be even more fun five or 10 years from now will to look back on the CBO’s projections and see how rarely the world world abides by the predictions of even well-informed and well-intentioned economists.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, medical cost containment, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Politics, PPACA | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

California Hospital Charges Increase 150% in 10 Years

Posted by Alan on December 12, 2010

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act does a great deal to address insurance industry practices. The new health care reform law, however, has been rightly criticized as failing to directly and forcefully attack rising medical costs, the primary driver of insurance premiums. Yes, the new law establishes.

The PPACA has a number of pilot projects, demonstration programs, and studies buried in its provisions that could, in time, lower overall cost spending. And supporters of the bill will argue that the Medical Loss Ratio provision is aimed at keeping down the cost of coverage. (Ironically, the MLR limits may have the unintended consequence of raising insurance costs. Administrative costs are usually fixed and independent of the premium paid. The cost to have a claims representative process a claim is the same whether the coverage cost $1,000 or $3,000 per year. But the $1,000 policy makes only $200 available for administrative expenses under the medical loss ratio calculation; the $3,000 plan makes $600 available. In other words, because the MLR rules apply percentages, carriers have an incentive to eliminate low-cost plans).

Carriers need to educate lawmakers and the public about the elements that go into a premium rate. Yes, profit and overhead are a part of the cost. But the biggest driver of health insurance premiums is the underlying cost of medical care. And the carrier community may have begun this educational process.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade association, released a study showing that, in California, hospital charges increased 150 percent between 2000 and 2009. The Sacramento Bee, quotes AHIP spokesperson Robert Zirkelbach as observing “What this data shows is that there needs to be much greater focus on the underlying cost of medical care that is driving those premium increases. At some point, people will have to address these underlying cost drivers if health care costs are going to come down.” In other words, you’ve taken your shot at the insurers, now, if you’re serious about reducing costs, let’s look at the hospitals.

Interestingly the AHIP report acknowledges that hospitals and other providers of medical care need to make up for underpayments by government health programs. In California, between 2000 and 2009, hospitals charges to health plans rose by 159 percent. This is more than twice the rate of increase for Medicare and eight times the increase hospitals received for Medi-Cal – the state’s version of Medicaid.

Needless to say the hospitals didn’t appreciate AHIP pointing this out. “It’s really tough for a pot to call a kettle black,” the Sacramento Bee reports Scott Seamons, the regional vice president for the Hospital Council of Northern and Central California. I don’t know if Mr. Seamons intended to acknowledge that hospitals are at least as much at fault for rising insurance premiums as carriers, but if the insurance companies are the pot and the hospitals the kettle, that is what he’s saying. If so, that would be a refreshing dose of frankness to the dialogue. Meanwhile, consumer groups, not unexpectedly, accused the AHIP of trying to shift the blame for rising premiums. Apparently they can’t accept that anything other than insurer greed and profiteering drives insurance premiums. Any correlation with hospital charges or medical inflation are merely accidental.

All of this rhetoric and accusing is standard issue among advocacy groups and trade associations. And if all that comes out of the report are fingers among these usual suspects pointing at the usual places, then this report will have done little good. If, however, the study represents the beginning of a concerted effort to bring to the public’s attention what drives their insurance premiums; if it leads lawmakers to ask “why” hospitals needed a 159 percent rate increase over 10 years; if it gets people thinking about the monopoly position some hospital chains enjoy – and employ – in parts of the state, that’s something altogether different. Because if these possibilities become reality, the AHIP report may be seen as an important start to what will be a long, but critical, educational effort.

Posted in California Health Care Reform, Health Care Reform, Health Plans, Healthcare Reform, medical cost containment, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, PPACA | Tagged: , , , , , , | 14 Comments »

Addressing Medical Costs

Posted by Alan on October 26, 2010

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has lots of what can objectively be called “patient protections” – at least if one defines “health insurance policyholders” as patients. There’s restrictions on rescissions, increased policy transparency, improved preventive coverage, etc. And there are provisions aimed at addressing the cost of coverage: the medical loss ratio requirement and a host of pilot projects (I’ve promised a list of these and I’ll deliver a post on these cost containment items when I have the time to dig into the deeper crevices of the legislation).  But most objective observers – and quite a few of the more biased ones – will agree that the PPACA focuses more on health insurance reform than health care reform.

Yet making health care (not just health insurance, but medical services) more affordable was a major impetus for reform. The failure to boldly and visibly address this issue is one reason so many Americans are disappointed with the new health care reform law. Not surprising then that the itch, having failed to be scratched, is gaining increased attention. Alex MacGillis, in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, discusses the perceived failure of the PPACA to address “the price problem. He describes how the law focused on reducing the amount of unnecessary care that is delivered as opposed to directly dealing with the price of medical services.  And ends with the thought that “there may be support for tougher action on high prices once the principle of universal health coverage is established.”

Meanwhile, at the Brookings Institute’s Engelberg Center for Health Reform, a report entitled “Bending the Curve Through Health Reform Implementation” has been released. The report was written by a bi-partisan group that includes former WellPoint CEO Leonard Schaeffer. They offered three opportunities created by the PPACA:

  1. Speed payment reforms away from tradition volume-based payment system to better align them with quality and efficiency.
  2. Implement the insurance reforms in the PPACA, including the exchanges, to reward Americans when they choose higher quality care at lower premiums
  3. Reform coverage to empower Americans to save money and obtain other benefits when they make decisions that improve their health and reduce costs.

The report analyzes which of the numerous actions they call for can be done administratively under the new health care reform law and which would require additional legislation. The recommendations contained in the report are important and useful. Even more important than the specifics, however, is the non-partisan context they create on the issue of restraining skyrocketing medical costs.

When a new Congress reconvenes there’s going to be an initial flurry of political maneuvering to repeal, refine and/or gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. As I wrote in my last post, this is both a necessary and inevitable process. The news shows, like moths, will be drawn to where the most light and heat exists. And there will be plenty of heat. Hopefully, while the partisan battle rages, a few lawmakers will find the space to focus on meaningful public policy to move forward with initiatives that have the potential to meaningfully reduce the cost of medical care.

One can only hope.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, medical cost containment, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Politics, PPACA | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Coming Soon: The Inevitable Revision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

Posted by Alan on October 23, 2010

Health care reform legislation may have been signed into law on March 23, 2010, but the issue is not going away. Anyone watching the election campaigns playing out across the country can attest to that. Republicans have made the  “repeal and replace” of health care reform a key promise in their "A Pledge to America" campaign document. While some Democratic candidates are touting their support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, others are bragging about their opposition to it. And others, like West Virginia Governor and Senate candidate Joe Manchin have talked about “repealing the things that are bad in the bill.”

Then there’s the impact on polling. Now, some readers of this blog get vehemently angry that Congress and President Barack Obama would dare pass legislation opposed by the public. I disagree. Political leaders have a job to lead, to make tough choices, to examine the facts, their constituents’ interests and then to cast their votes in accordance with their beliefs and conscience. I do not think politicians who flip-flop in whatever direction the polls show is popular at the moment are worth a lot. If politicians are simply to reflect the majority of opinion we could replace Congress with online survey software and be done with it. Also, consider this: if politicians only voted as the polls dictate there would have been no Civil Rights Act in 1964. American troops would have been out of Iraq during the Bush Administration. Whether liberal or conservative, there are numerous examples of legislation passing in spite of polls showing a majority of Americans opposing the new law that you are likely to applaud – and decry.

Nonetheless, polls do and should be a factor in the deliberations of politicians. They indicate when problems have reached a critical point where a solution is demanded. And they can serve to help shape and influence the likely outcome. Some polls of late have shown that a plurality of Americans – and perhaps more important given that election day is near at hand, likely voters – have an unfavorable opinion of the PPACA. But if polling is to influence decision making, then it’s important to dive a bit deeper into the numbers.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll shows why. This survey shows that only 15 percent of likely voters support leaving the new health care reform law as is while 85 percent want the PPACA changed in some manner. However, that 85 percent is far from monolithic. 37 percent of likely voters surveyed said they wanted to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act completely. Another 10 percent wanted changes to the law that would narrow its scope, but did not call for repeal. And 36 percent, a nearly identical number to those supporting repeal, want the law expanded. I couldn’t find a copy of the poll itself, but I assume this latter group includes those who support a single payer system or at least a public option, who want greater regulation on insurance carriers and/or who want greater cost controls included in the legislation. However, one could easily assume a single payer advocate, for example, might simply state they want the new law repealed.

My point here is that advocates on the right and the left will be seeking changes to the PPACA. The basic law may have passed in 2010, but it will evolve over the next few years. Some of the likely battles:

  • Repealing the requirement that businesses issue 1099s to any corporation or individual to which they pay $600 in a year. Democrats and Republicans alike support changing this provision. Whether it’s repealed or greatly revised is the only open question. Similarly, requirements for including health insurance premiums paid on behalf of employees on W-2s (which is optional in 2011) create a burden on businesses, especially small ones, that will necessitate changes.
  • There will be an effort to revive the idea of creating public run health plans (the so-called “public option”). Given the firestorm of opposition to the federal government expanding its role in America’s health care system, however, I don’t see the votes being there for this approach – especially in a Congress with small majorities in each House.
  • I expect, although it may be more of a hope, that there will be a push to allow premium subsidies to Americans earning less than 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level to use those subsidies outside the exchanges being set up under the PPACA. This would allow those receiving the premium support greater choice and force the exchanges to compete with the outside market on a more level playing field. The exchanges are unlikely to go away: both Democrats and Republicans support them. But taking away arbitrary advantages will result in greater and more fair competition in the marketplace. Let the best offerings win.
  • There will be proposals to do away with the mandate that all Americans obtain health care coverage. While there are law suits seeking this result, I personally don’t think they’ll prevail. But Republicans (and some Democrats) will see a benefit to championing the repeal of an individual mandate. Neither party, however, is likely to seek a repeal of the requirement that carriers accept all applicants, regardless of their health conditions. As I’ve written before, a mandate on carriers to sell health insurance absent a mandate on individuals to buy imposes a horrific surcharge on health insurance premiums. I would hope this effort fails, but fortunately, if it succeeds, there are other ways to reduce the inevitable adverse selection that would follow (impose limited open enrollment periods, increase premiums or impose pre-existing conditions when consumers buy coverage after going uninsured for a specified period of time, etc.)
  • And maybe Congress and the Administration will focus attention on the biggest driver of increasing medical insurance premiums – the skyrocketing cost of medical care. The PPACA has some meaningful cost containment ideas hidden away in its 300,000+ words, more than the new health care reform is given credit for  (the topic of a future post). But even so, there’s a lot more to do. Lawmakers know they need to confront this issue eventually. Eventually they will.

We all have a tendency to draw straight lines from current data. That’s how bubbles happen. Stocks are going up and they’ll continue to do so. Gold is at a record high it’ll continue going higher. Tulip prices are skyrocketing and they’ll do so forever.

The same phenomenon occurs in connection to laws and regulations. A law passes and humans have a tendency to accept that that’s that. Now that the law is in cement nothing will change. But laws evolve. They are molded by regulators. They are shaped by the people who live under them. And sooner or later they are revised by the legislative body that passed the new law in the first place.

When thinking about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, intense revision was, and is, inevitable. No law seeking to reshape America’s health care system would get it right on the first try. Politicians may proclaim “Mission Accomplished” when speaking of legislation (and wars), but the reality is the goal is never achieved perfectly and refinement is always needed Usually there’s a passage of some time before the first attempt to address a problem and subsequent efforts. Changes to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are likely to start much sooner. I’m thinking early January 2011.

Posted in Barack Obama, Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, medical cost containment, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Politics, PPACA | Tagged: , , , , | 23 Comments »

The CMA, California’s 5th Assembly District and the Future of Health Care Reform

Posted by Alan on March 20, 2010

[Full Disclosure: This post is about the 5th Assembly District. The leading Democrat in the race, Larry Miles, is a Trustee on the San Juan School Board, an attorney, mediator and my close friend for over 35 years. I’m actively supporting his campaign.]

Regardless of whether health care reform passes the House of Representatives this weekend, a great deal of how health care reform takes shape going forward will be determined by the states. If national reform fails, state legislators, who for the most part have been holding back to see what emerges from Washington, will attack the problems inherent in the status quo with a vengeance. If Congress enacts President Barack Obama’s health care reform package, the terms of the new law creates substantial responsibilities on the states to implement many of its provisions.

In short, the health care reform debate won’t be over any time soon. It’s center of gravity will, however, shift somewhat toward the states. Special interests have recognized this coming reality and some are doing something about it.

Take physician groups, specifically, the California Medical Association. Even the most ardent supporters of the health care reform bill before Congress will concede it deals more with health insurance reform rather than medical cost containment. True, the legislation being considered by Congress has some cost reducing provisions and lays the groundwork for still more, but it also contains many elements likely to increase the cost of medical insurance. Having addressed the easy part of reform (changing how carriers do business) lawmakers will eventually have to tackle the hard, complex and politically charged work of constraining medical costs.

For now, however, President Obama’s health care reform package asks little sacrifice of doctors. And that’s just the way the American Medical Association and its affiliates like it. The Medical Associations exist, after all, to look after the financial interests of doctors as their focus on medical liability reform, medical physician payment reform, balance billing issues and the like makes clear. They are a political organization looking out for the best and specific interests of its membership. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s what special interests groups are supposed to do.

What’s happening in the 5th Assembly District here in California illustrates just how serious the California Medical Association takes this role. There the CMA has recruited a candidate and is now seeking to buy the seat on his behalf. Thus the candidacy of Dr. Richard Pan in the 5th AD. (The 5th AD stretches from east Sacramento to Folsom).

Dr. Pan is by all accounts an outstanding pediatrician and a fine, decent person. Whether he had any political ambitions before the CMA came calling is unknown. He certainly cannot claim to be a community-generated candidate nor boast of much grass roots support in the district. In the financing period that ended December 31, 2009 (the last reporting period available) over 95 percent of Dr. Pan’s campaign contributions came from outside the 5th Assembly District. Even more revealing: over 95 percent of those campaign dollars came from the California Medical Association, other medical PACs, doctors, dentists and other members of the medical industrial complex. Calling Dr. Pan’s support from within the district “thin” would be an understatement.

But the CMA doesn’t care. They are not concerned with the interests of the residents of the 5th Assembly District. They want one of their own in the state legislature – one of their own who can look out for the interests of the California Medical Association.

In addition to pouring money into the campaign, the CMA has provided Dr. Pan with a campaign manager enamored with the Karl Rove school of politics, Josh Pulliam. Mr. Pulliam is well known for hardball tactics of the devious kind. He’s a brawler both in the political arena and beyond (Mr. Pulliam, is the alleged instigator of a melee at a Cubs-Dodgers baseball game involving players and fans when he reached into the Dodger bullpen and grabbed catcher Chad Kreuter’s cap). In fact, Dr. Pan has already had to apologize for Mr. Pulliam’s Liz Cheney-esque campaign attack on Larry Miles, the front runner in the Democratic primary. (Mr. Pulliam, like Ms. Cheney, fails to understand the role lawyers play in America’s system of justice).

The CMA’s concerns are not limited to the 5th Assembly District of course. In 2009 the California Medical Association Small Contributor Committee contributed over $925,000 to lawmakers and candidates. And this is just from one of their PACs. Nor does this total include contributions from their allies in the medical-industrial complex including contributions made by individual doctors, county medical associations and the like at the CMA’s request.

Nor is the substantial political spending by the CMA anything new. A recent report published by California’s Fair Political Practice Commission shows that, between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2009, the CMA has spent over $9 million to influence elections (including ballot measures and giving money to political parties) and spent another nearly $14 million on lobbying activity to help shape legislation.

There’s nothing immoral with the CMA and like-minded attempting to foist Dr. Pan on the residents of the 5th Assembly District. They’re playing by the rules of the game. Nor is there anything wrong with the CMA spending large amounts on campaigns. It’s their money and again, they’re playing by the rules. While obnoxious, there’s nothing illegal with Mr. Pulliam’s hardball election tactics either. Politics is, after all, a contact sport. That the CMA and Mr. Pulliam are running Dr. Pan against a good friend of mine is just one of those things. May the best candidate win.

Nor is the CMA alone among interest groups concerned about how health care reform plays out. Others are spending tremendous amounts of money to influence elections and legislation, too.

What’s significant about the CMA’s efforts (and the efforts of other special interest groups) is what it says about the important role state legislatures will play in determining how national health care reform (assuming there is national reform) is implemented and how future health care reform efforts play out. Washington will still matter. Regulations will be developed there. Follow-on legislation will be voted upon there. But the role played by state lawmakers and regulators will be increasing The California Medical Association and their allies recognizes this. That’s why they want Dr. Pan in the State Assembly. They know one vote, one voice in the legislature, can make a difference.

Whether the CMA-led medical-industrial complex can purchase the 5th Assembly District for Dr. Pan is far from certain. The frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Larry Mile, has built his campaign with a strong and broad foundation of local support. Significantly, Mr. Miles has won two elections in a school district that covers some 75 percent of the Assembly District. Then there’s the general election. Democrats only recently have come to outnumber Republicans in the District (and roughly 20 percent of registered voters are in neither party). But what’s significant is not whether the CMA wins. What’s significant is the money, resources and political capital they are spending to try.

[Note: As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Larry is a long-time friend. I’ve contributed to his campaign (as has the California Association of Health Underwriters PAC).  Those readers of this blog wishing to join me in supporting Larry can do so at his web site or through ActBlue.]

Posted in medical cost containment, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Health Care Reform 2009 Style

Posted by Alan on December 29, 2009

When it comes to health care reform 2009 has been an interesting year. And while comprehensive health care reform legislation will not be arriving on President Barack Obama’s desk this year, it is all but certain that will happen early in 2010. Getting to this penultimate moment has, to put it mildly, taken some doing. And the process says a lot about America and its leaders.

Health Care Reform Activity

President Obama had made clear throughout his campaign for the presidency that health care reform would be a top priority of his new administration. He lost no time making his promise real after his inauguration. Expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan, a proposal twice vetoed by then President George Bush, along with significant funding for medical technology, were a part of Administration’s economic stimulus package.

President Obama’s health care reform efforts took a serious blow in February when former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was forced to withdraw his nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services and as Director of the White House Office on Health Reform due to problems with his past tax returns. Senator Daschle is a political pragmatist who is highly regarded by lawmakers from both parties. Would the health care reform debate have been more civil had Senator Daschle led the White House reform effort? We’ll never know. What we do know is that civility quickly left the room as the House and Senate Committees with jurisdiction on the matter began their deliberations. The health care reform debate was passionate, raucous and partisan to the extreme. Neither party and no ideology is blameless for this descent into the dark side of politics. Both have benefited from it (although none as much as the 24 hour cable news channels) and both have sullied their standing with the public as a result.

Given what’s at stake when 1/6th of the nation’s economy is subjected to the legislative process, there may have been no avoiding an ugly health care reform debate. President Obama made clear in a speech in February that he wanted health care reform passed quickly. Many Republicans (and their talk show host allies) made it clear they’d rather see no health care reform rather than anything along the lines being proposed by – or that would politically benefit – President Obama. Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means, House Education and Labor and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committees pushed through liberal bills; anchors on the left in anticipation of the negotiations to follow. The resulting climate promoted intense partisanship.

Eventually more conservative Democrats forced the House Energy and Commerce Committee to slow done and moderate the legislation, although what they passed would still be considered “liberal” by most definitions.  All the House bills passed out of the committees without a single Republican vote. Meanwhile Senator Max Baucus was trying to fashion legislation that might gain the support of at least three GOP members of the Senate Finance Committee. (He would eventually manage to get the support of only one GOP Senator).

The difficulty of finding common ground between liberals and conservatives on health care reform was made abundantly clear during the summer of 2009. The disruption of lawmaker’s town hall meetings were reminiscent of the anti-Viet Nam War protests of the 1960’s. (I suppose it’s ironic that many of those shutting down the town hall meetings had participated in the anti-war protests more than 40 years earlier). The passion and concern of the health care reform protests were as sincere as some of the rhetoric and actions were unfortunate and despicable (death threats and swastikas are inherently contemptible and disgraceful). The protests did assure, however, that Republicans would remain united against the kind of reforms being pushed by the Administration.

Reform was being pushed by the White House even if the Administration was declining to define reform. Instead the White House broadly described the key elements they’d like to see in a reform bill. President Obama’s three core principles for health care reform called for reducing costs, guaranteeing choice and ensuring quality care for all. He would later add other conditions (e.g., reform could not add to the deficit), but the details of the bill were being hashed out in Congress by Democratic lawmakers. The result, much to the chagrin of liberals, was that over time the legislation became increasingly moderate culminating in the legislation passed out of the Senate Finance Committee with the support of only one Republican, Senator Olympia Snowe.

With all the committees of jurisdiction having staked out their positions it was time for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to pull together the pieces into bills that could pass their respective chambers. Speaker Pelosi succeeded first with the House passing a health care reform in November. The price of passage was high: liberals had to accept language dealing with abortions that sparked outrage in the pro-choice community.  It took the Senate more than a month to follow suit, but eventually they did. Now it’s up to a conference committee to pull the pieces together into one bill that can pass both the House and the Senate. Not an easy task, but with the finish line in sight it’s very doubtful lawmakers will falter now.

The Public Policy Dimension

While the activity swirling around health care reform has been … interesting, the evolution of the substance of the legislation has been even more fascinating. Not all that long ago liberal lawmakers were claiming a health care reform bill lacking a government-run health plan was no health care reform at all. They seemed to believe that a public health plan was the magic wand that would remake America’s health care system into something fair, competitive and wonderful. Or maybe they just thought the public option was a way station on the path to their promised land: a single payer system. While the House bill would create a new government health plan, the Senate legislation rejected the public option. While liberals outside of Congress continue to attack reform without a public option, liberals lawmakers seem to accept the inevitable. What emerges from the conference committee will no doubt lack a public option and liberal lawmakers will still support the reform package.

While liberals were losing a public option an unlikely coalition of conservatives and liberals were also watering down a requirement that all Americans purchase coverage. Conservatives dislike the idea as a restriction on the freedom of people to have their health care reform subsidized by higher health insurance premiums for everyone else. Liberals don’t like it because, apparently, the result is a windfall for evil health insurance companies. (OK, they offer more substantive public policy arguments against the individual mandate, but the rhetoric focuses on freedom and windfalls). Never mind that requiring health plans to sell coverage without requiring individuals to buy coverage before they incur claims is a recipe for higher insurance costs or that many states require drivers to buy auto insurance. As the legislation has moved through Congress the penalty for failing to purchase coverage has drifted toward a slap on the wrist end of the spectrum.

Other issues have taken interesting turns as well. Reimbursing doctors for counseling to seniors concerning living wills and the like was removed from the bill once the discussions were labeled “death panels.” What taxes will be imposed to pay for health care reform is still uncertain. Anti-abortion advocates have done a masterful job of inserting abortion into the debate. Both the House and Senate bills contained provisions that could “bend the cost curve” (which is apparently the new articulation of what was once called cost containment). If all the cost cutting provisions in the current bills were moved into separate legislation it would actually look like a serious effort. Mixed in with the health insurance reform dominating the current versions, however, the provisions appear weak and almost an afterthought.

Health Care Reform 2009: The Human Factor

So what to make of health care reform 2009 style?

First, that the legislative process is messy and can be downright uninspiring. Second, that tackling an issue as important and complicated as health care reform cannot overcome the need for partisans of both parties to put aside the public good for their political stratagems. Third, that the health care reform package that finally passes will be far more moderate than might have been apparent earlier this year. Fourth, criticism that Congress is moving too fast on reform are really complaints that Congress is not doing what critics leveling this charge want them to do. The health care reform bill that will find its way to President Obama’s desk in 2010 will be over a year in the making. Longer if you count the debate on health care held during the 2008 presidential election. Longer still if you include the previous health care reform efforts undertaken over the past several decades.

We elect politicians to hold office because they promise to address problems. No one has ever won a campaign on the promise to do nothing if elected. In 2008 Democrats won, and won handily, in part on a promise to solve the problems posed by America’s current health care system. They are fulfilling that promise. In the process they will create new problems.

Because the fact is we humans rarely solve problems. Instead we tend to replace existing problems with new ones. And if the 2009 health care reform process has taught us anything, it’s that the people who make up the Administration and Congress (and the general public) are only human. Anyone looking at the health care reform package emerging from Congress would find evidence of that reality.

Posted in Barack Obama, Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, medical cost containment, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Affordability and America’s Healthy Future Act

Posted by Alan on September 21, 2009

In yesterday’s post answering questions about Senator Max Baucus’ health care reform proposal, I inadvertently overlooked a question posed by JimK. He points out the proposed health care reform legislation provides a tax credit to those earning up to 300% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), but questions whether the Chairman’s Mark mandates people pay 13 percent of their income in premium as alleged on Countdown with Keith Olbermann.  Here’s how (I think) Mr. Olbermann’s math works.

Under the America’s Healthy Future Act every citizen would be required to purchase health insurance coverage. As JimK notes, subsidies would be available to help those earning less than 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Level  purchased coverage through the exchange. (Subsidies are apparently not available to those purchasing coverage in the traditional market). These premium subsidies are available on a sliding scale. Those households at the poverty level would be required to contribute three percent of the income toward their health insurance premiums; households at 300 percent of the poverty level would contribute 13 percent. (Chairman’s Mark page 21, page 24 of the PDF)

The FPL is adjusted annually. In 2009 the federal poverty level is $10,830 for an individual and $22,050 for a family of four. If the Baucus health care reform plan was in-force today, individuals earning 100 percent of the FPL would pay $325 toward their medical premium; a family of four with household income of 100 percent of the FPL would pay $662. Individuals at 300% of the Federal Poverty Level ($32,490) could pay $4,224 for medical coverage while our hypothetical family of four (earning $66,150 annually),could pay as much as $8,600.

There are two things to keep in mind concerning this aspect of the Senate Finance reform plan. First, these are preimum subsidies. Consumers could pay thousands of additional dollars — and a greater percentage of their income —  for out-of-pocket expenses.

Second, once household income exceeds 300 percent of the FPL no premium subsidy is provided. In 2009, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, “average annual (health insurance) premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance are $4,824 for single coverage and $13,375 for family coverage.” Granted, coverage obtained through the work place is usually much more expensive than insurance purchased on one’s own. Finding an average price for policies purchased on one’s own is a bit harder. eHealthinsurance, based on the carriers they represent and consumers purchasing through their site, found the median premium for individual health insurance was $1,584; for families it was $3,948 (the numerical averages were higher: $1,932 and $4,596 respectively). eHealthinsurance reports the average deductible for the individual plans it sold was $2,326 while it was $3,129 for family coverage)

For an individual earning $35,000 (323 percent of the Federal Poverty Level) and ineligible for a subsidy, the median premium ($1,584) represent 4.5 percent of household income; the average premium ($1,932) comes to 5.5 percent. For a family of four earning $70,000 (317 percent of FPL) their $3,948 median premium amounts to slightly more than 5.5 percent of household income; the average premium ($4,596) represents 6.6 percent of their income.  Again, this is before any out-of-pocket medical expenses are paid.

Which raises the question: assuming the eHealthinsurance rates are roughly equivalent to the cost of coverage available after health care reform, will coverage be affordable? If Americans must purchase health insurance it’s only fair that the cost for this coverage is within their means.

It’s likely Senator Baucus set the subsidy levels based on what the cost of this premium support would be on the federal budget. He determined this is the level of support the country can afford to provide consumers. But can consumers afford these costs? For a family of four with income of $70,000, paying nearly $4,000 in premium plus potentially several thousand more in out-of-pocket medical expenses is a significant burden. The problem is, going without coverage could be much more damaging to their finances — and to their health.

Balancing personal responsibility with the cost of coverage to families and impact of premium support on the federal budget is both a financial and a moral challenge. It requires lawmakers — and voters — to make tough choices. It also shows that the effort to restrain medical costs must be pursued just as rigorously, if not more so, than increasing access. Otherwise health care reform could result in insurance coverage and financial hardship for all.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, medical cost containment, Politics | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »