The Alan Katz Health Care Reform Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Hillary Clinton’

Health Care Reform: The Lighter Side

Posted by Alan on March 28, 2010

Don’t get me wrong. Health care reform is a serious issue. But sometimes there are ironies and juxtapositions that just strike me as funny.

Take the Mobius strip that is the individual mandate (lingo for requiring everyone to obtain health care coverage, one of the more controversial elements of the health care reform package President Barack Obama signed into law). Try to follow this one: When then First Lady Hillary Clinton led the charge for health care reform in the 1990s she attempted to force employers to cover all their workers (what’s called an employer mandate). Republicans, marching under the banner of personal responsibility, countered with health care reforms that relied on an individual mandate.

Cut to 2008. Then Senator Barack Obama puts forward a health care reform proposal that includes neither an employer nor an employee mandate (although it did require all children to obtain coverage, which would be what, a kiddie mandate?). Then Senator Hillary Clinton rightly chastises her campaign opponent for being unrealistic. If carriers are to be required to accept all applicants regardless of their pre-existing conditions, then everyone needs to be in the insurance pool. Otherwise the system won’t work. Prices will skyrocket as everyone waits until after they need medical care before they buy health insurance. Nay, nay, says the future President.

Until he becomes President. At which time he makes the individual mandate a central component of his overall health care reform plan. Where do Republicans stand on the individual mandate? Having promoted the idea during the Clinton Administration they now oppose it during the Obama Administration. And the trip around the Mobius strip is complete. (Well almost. With a real Mobius strip you wind up back where you started. If history is any guide, however, it is inevitable that one day the GOP will defend the individual mandate as a true expression of personal responsibility. So it’s only a matter of time until the Mobius journey is complete). Given all this it’s kind of a shame that now Secretary of State Clinton doesn’t get one of the 22 pens used by the President to sign the health care reform bill.

But wait, there’s more. Today’s Republicans are so aghast that yesterday’s Republicans proposal for an individual mandate is now part of President Obama’s health care reform law they’re going to court. Well, not Republicans per se. But 14 states are suing to overturn the new health care reform bill and it just so happens that 13 of the 14 Attorneys General filing the suits are Republicans. (The 14th is a Democrat from Louisiana which. There’s a joke there somewhere, but I’m taking a pass).

As the Christian Science Monitor reports, the suits have two basis. First, that “the new law infringes the liberty of individual state residents to choose for themselves whether to have health insurance. It also says the states themselves are victims of a federal power grab by leaders in Washington” because of changes made to Medicaid.

For now, let’s just focus on the claims about whether the individual mandate is unconstitutional. Because this is where Alice’s looking glass comes returns to center stage. It seems there’s a relatively recent Supreme Court precedent that makes this challenge an uphill climb. The ruling, in which conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy joined the 6-to-3 majority according to the Los Angeles Times held that “Congress could regulate (an item) that was neither bought nor sold on the market ….”

Which puts those two Justices and their colleagues in a bit of pickle. Because in order to rule the health insurance law unconstitutional they will likely need to overturn at least certain aspects of this earlier case, Gonzales vs. Raich. And that is something conservatives would like to avoid as that case was about the legality of growing and selling marijuana for medical purposes, something California law permitted. In ruling that the federal government could prevent a state from regulating transactions that occurred solely within its borders, the Supreme Court found the federal government had broad regulatory powers.

The substance of the case that will determine whether an individual mandate is constitutional is important and will have long-term ramifications for the country. But that’s not amusing. What’s amusing is that the suits put conservative Supreme Court justices between a rock and cloudy place.

Health care reform is a serious issue. But you do have to admit there are times when laughter is a more appropriate reaction than jubilation, anger or fear. Not always, but sometimes.

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

Obama Health Care Reform Strategy Sidesteps Clinton’s Missteps

Posted by Alan on May 13, 2009

The number of mistakes made by the Clinton Administration in pushing for health care reform in 1993 are embarrassingly numerous.  One of the most damning was their heavy handed approach with Congress. Instead of engaging with lawmakers from the beginning, the task force led by then First Lady Hillary Clinton worked behind closed doors. Democratic Congressional Members were pushed out of the loop and expected, I assume, to fall in line with their Democratic President because, well, he was their Democratic President. Oh, and of course because the health care reform package developed by the task force was so obviously wonderful.

Leaving aside the lack of wonderfulness in the plan they developed, this approach was nothing short of political malpractice. The president may propose, but it’s Congress that enacts legislation. Any effort to dramatically change something as expensive and personal as health care will generate opposition. Some of that opposition is based on sincere differences of opinion concerning public policy. Some emerges from economic or political agendas threatened by the changes. In either event, it’s important to have a strong base with a unified message to withstand the inevitable attacks. The Clinton Administration’s approach — imposing their viewpoint on Congress — meant they had few supporters when and where they needed them most. The result was a political rout that helped open the way to a Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

Whether based on temperament or wisdom earned at the Clinton presidency’s expense, President Barack Obama and his team are approaching health care reform in a far different manner. Their outreach to Congress has been extraordinary. They are not only working with Congressional leaders to design the plan, but are helping to create a unified message as well.

The Associated Press reported on a meeting today between several Democratic Senators and White House political advisor David Axelrod. Their goal, according to Senator Dick Durbin, was to “coordinate our messaging so we present a health care reform effort that the American people trust.”

The meeting was, in part, a response to advice circulated among Republicans by Dr. Frank Luntz outlining ways to attack the Democratic proposal. Dr. Luntz is a highly regarded GOP consultant and an expert on political messaging, the author of Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. He urged Republicans to be “on the side of reform.” while attacking the Administration’s proposal as leading “to the government setting standards of care, instead of doctors” and “to the government rationing care.”

The 26-page report has caused quite a stir on Capital Hill. Democrats in Congress wanted to make sure they were prepared to withstand the suggested assault. The meeting today with Senators and with House Leaders yesterday were designed to do just that. It was reinforced by a message to the grass roots following President Obama developed during the campaign that now operates as Organizing for America.

What was agreed to was a three-pronged message: medical costs must be lowered, people must have choice in their health care coverage, and care must be affordable for everyone. How these principles are put into action has yet to be determined. No legislation has yet emerged from the numerous Congressional hearings underway.

It’s the lack of explicit information that makes framing the reform effort so important. Until there’s actual legislation to read, all the public has to go on is the general policy positions pronounced by various parties. Eventually, we’ll see a bill, but how the public reacts to it will be influenced to some degree by the spinning that occurs before its release.

By involving Democrats in Congress early in the process of developing the legislative language and working with them to shape a unified message, the Obama Administration is sidestepping one of the most damaging missteps of the Clinton Administration. Ultimately what will matter is the legislation itself. But the mere fact that President Obama and his team are avoiding the mistakes made 16 years ago, is an indication of how different the battle will be this time.

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

News Channels Fail to Explain Clinton Health Care Plan Failure

Posted by Alan on March 11, 2009

With President Barack Obama launching his health care reform initiative last week with a White House summit, the news programs have, not surprisingly, been recalling the last major push for change. For those who missed it, that was in 1993 and 1994. Then President Bill Clinton, who, like President Obama, had campaigned with a pledge to change America’s health system, assigned then First Lady Hillary Clinton to spearhead his Administration’s effort to provide affordable health care for all.

In recalling this recent history the news channels make it sound like the only reason the Clinton effort failed was the opposition of special interests. But for the insurance industry’s Harry and Louise ads, some greedy doctors and uncooperative Republicans, the Clinton Administration’s reforms would have breezed through Congress ushering in a golden era of health care. This is far from what happened.

Yes, special interests campaigned hard against the Clinton reforms, but they had a lot to work with. As I’ve written before, the Clinton effort failed in part because it was fashioned behind closed doors and in part because it wasn’t a very good proposal.  The task force that helped the First Lady draft the proposal excluded input from many in Congress and shunned many stakeholders. So when it emerged from the inner sanctum it  lacked broad buy-in. The take-it-or-leave-it attitude of many in the task force didn’t help matters.

What they proposed was both complex and elegant. They sought to enact “managed competition.”  This approach would have forced most Americans to drop their existing coverage and instead obtain insurance from government run “purchasing pools.” The carriers offering coverage through the pools would offer only plans designed by the managing government agency and would be expected to use their clout to negotiate deep discounts from health care providers. There was a lot more to it — a lot more — but those were two of the key provisions.

It wasn’t just special interests (which the news channels identify as insurance companies, the business community and some doctors) who thought it was a bad idea poorly executed. So did many Democrats in Congress and liberal think tanks. The Clinton health care reforms were attacked and even ridiculed by, well, most everyone who wasn’t on  the task force. It’s not that these critics didn’t recognize the need for reform. They just believed the Clinton package was bad reform. 

Any proposal seeking massive changes to a system as complex as America’s health care system is going to be controversial. It is also highly likely to be seriously flawed. The purpose of the legislative process is to allow interest groups (special and otherwise) to debate the plan’s details, to identify the flaws, and to the extent possible, fix them.

Given the numerous flaws in the Clinton Administration’s plan and the take-it-or-leave-it attitude of its proponents, Congress decided to leave it. Did special interests play a role? Certainly. (Full disclosure: I testified on behalf of health insurance agents against the Clinton plan  at three Congressional committees hearings in 1993). But to credit its defeat solely to those interests is to overstate their strength and to absolve the authors of too much guilt. They were the ones, after all, who put forward a poorly designed package with a striking lack of political skill. A better plan more ably presented might have passed in 1993. We never got the chance to find out.  

In oversimplifying history, reducing what happened to a tag team bout between Bill and Hillary on one side and Harry and Louise on the other, the news channels are doing the country a disservice. Yes, special interests from across the political spectrum will protect their special interests (that’s why they’re called special interests). But the Obama Administration’s health care reforms will stand or fall on their merits, just as the Clinton Administration’s did.

That’s the way it should be. And that’s the way it should be reported.

Posted in Barack Obama, Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , , | Comments Off on News Channels Fail to Explain Clinton Health Care Plan Failure

2009 versus 1993 Health Care Reform: The Difference is Consensus

Posted by Alan on December 24, 2008

Politically, 2009 and 1993 will share some similarities.  A new Democratic President takes over after years of a Republican White House. The new president will be able to work with a Congress firmly in Democratic control. Both soon-to-be President Barack Obama and then President Bill Clinton entered office during difficult economic times. And as candidates both made health care reform a top issue in their successful campaigns.

But 2009 is far different from 1993 in many ways. Concerning health care reform the political environment are strikingly different.  In 1993 President Clinton asked First Lady Hillary Clinton to take the lead. As I’ve noted previously, her insular and heavy handed approach helped doom that effort. But she had lots of help. There was broad disagreement about the nature of the problem, let alone the solution. Interest groups fought the Clinton Administration reforms vigorously and effectively. Given the lack of consensus and clumsy politics, it’s eventual defeat, in retrospect, seems inevitable. 

In 2009, the political environment will be far different. That there is a crisis in America’s health care system is broadly accepted. Out-of-control medical costs, and the ever increasing health insurance premiums they cause, are harming the financial security of families and the economic viability of companies. Tolerance for the large number of uninsured in the country is near an end.

There’s not only wide agreement that there is a problem, there’s a growing consensus on what the solution might be. The several proposals already circulating in Washington overlap with one another and the approach advocated by Candidate Obama. Interest groups and academics who waged pitched battles in 1983 are finding common ground as 2009 approaches.

This was strikingly clear in a recent broadcast of NPR’s To The Point. Host Warren Olney interviewed representatives from Families USA (generally considered a liberal health care reform advocacy group, America’s Health Insurance Plans (the carrier’s trade association),  the United States Chamber of Commerce and an academic from UC Berkeley. Their perspectives differed, but what was striking was the amount of agreement they expressed. True, there were no representatives of medical care providers on the show, but the common ground expressed by these four may not have been possible in 1993. And, as is usual when Mr. Olney is conducting the interviews, the show was very informative. (I recommend making the time to listen to this episode, entitled “Barack Obama and ‘Universal’ Healthcare Reform“).

Consensus in December 2008 does not guarantee a smooth and easy process to enacting comprehensive health care reform in 2009. The debate will be vigorous and heated. There will be winners and losers — and the losers will not take their lumps quietly. But unlike in 1993, when the top priority of many stakeholders was to stop health care reform, in 2009 their approach will be to help develop the right reform. Now that is a big difference.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Health Plans, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Dashcle Appointment Puts Obama Health Care Reform on Fast Track

Posted by Alan on December 11, 2008

In case there was any doubt, President-elect Barack Obama made clear today that reforming the nation’s health care system will be an early priority for his Administration.  Hhealth care reform won’t wait while President Obama first focuses on fixing the country’s economic mess, but will instead be an integral part part of that effort. As he said during a press conference announcing the creation of a White House Office of Health Reform, to be led by his nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, former Senator Tom Daschle, “If we want to overcome our economic challenges, we must also finally address our health care challenge.” (Here’s a  video of the press conference — the comment is made at roughly the 2:40 mark).

The need to move quickly on health care reform was a central theme of the press conference. After reciting the usual litiany of the current health system’s shortcomings, President-elect Obama said, “We’re on an unsustainable course. The time has come, this year, in this Administration to modernize our health care system for the 21st century, to reduce costs for families and businesses and to finally provide affordable, accessible health care for every single American.” (This statement begins at about the 1:40 mark).

He then directly tied health care reform to addressing the current financial meltdown.  “Now, some may ask, ‘How at this time of economic challenge we can afford to invest in reforming our health care system’. And I ask a different question: ‘How can we afford not to?'” (About the 2:00 mark).

The creation of a White House Office of Health Reform, and the appointment of Senator-soon-to-be-Secretary Daschle as it’s Director is especially telling. By placing the locus of health care reform inside the White House, President-elect Obama elevates the importance of achieving meaningful change. By placing the leadership of the Office in the hands of his HHS Secretary he makes it easier for his Administration to speak — and negotiate — with one voice. By making that HHS Secretary Senator Daschle he assures the reform effort will move forward in a nuanced fashion, sensitive to the legislative process. 

This approach stands in stark contrast to the Clinton Administration’s health care reform initiative.  That fiasco, led by then First Lady Hillary Clinton, was a textbook example of insularity and insensitivity to political realities. It discouraged vigorous debate and excluded Congressional input.

Senator Daschle, who led Democrats for 10 of his 18 years in the Senate and who served in the House for eight years, will take a far different approach. First, he can’t help but reach out to members of Congress — it’s in his DNA. Second, at the press conference he pledged to work with “people from across the country to find a path forward that makes health care in this country as affordable and available as it is innovative.” As a member of the Obama Transition Team he is already coordinating thousands of small meetings across the country on the topic to bring the American people “into this conversation” in order to make “an open and inclusive process that goes from the grass roots up.”  (Beginning at the 7:10 mark).

Senator Daschle is no newcomer to the health care reform debate. He’s studied, and written about, the issue as a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. He is co-author of Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis along with Dr. Jeanne Lambrew, who President-elect Obama named today as the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Health Reform.  Their prescription for reform is not dissimilar from that put forward by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus which, in turn, reflects many of the principles put forward by candidate Barack Obama during the presidential election.

During the press conference, both President-elect Obama and Senator Daschle emphasized the many problems apparent in today’s health care system. This shouldn’t be a surprise. When rallying the nation to change a complex and critical component of government service reminding voters of its flaws and the need for reform is standard practice.

It would have been nice, however, if a bit niaive, to hope they would have noted, even in passing, that much of the current system works and is worth preserving. Such a statement would have been as refreshing as it would have been unexpected. And it might even have underscored the new kind of politics President-elect Obama promises to bring to Washington. 

Posted in Barack Obama, Health Care, Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Obama Must Do Better on Health Care Reform

Posted by Alan on October 31, 2008

In his stump speech, during the presidential debates, highlighted in his 30 minute commercial, Senator Barack Obama has made clear that, were he elected president, health care reform will be near the top of his priorities. It’s viewed as a critical component in fixing the nation’s faltering economy, ranking alongside energy independence and a middle class tax cut at the top of his domestic agenda.

Senator Obama’s commitment to the issue is more than ideological, although he does see health care coverage as a right of all Americans. It is also highly personal. Senator Obama described the roots of his committment to health care reform in Sarasota, Florida yesterday this way: “And as somebody who watched his own mother lying on a hospital bed at the end of her life because they had cancer. The insurance companies were saying this was a pre-existing condition, maybe we don’t have to pay for your treatment, I know what it’s like to see a loved one suffer not just because they’re sick but because of a broken health care system.”

This combination of ideology, politics and the personal will assure that health care reform would be taken up early in an Obama Administration. Given his passion for the issue, the state of the economy and the real need to address serious problems in the current health care system, the odds are extremely high a comprehensive reform package will emerge sometime in his first term. Whether these reforms will be similar to what Senator Obama describes on the campaign trail, however, is, fortunately, both uncertain and unlikely.

One reason is because Senator Obama’s health care reform plan is seriously flawed. To cite just one example, a core attribute of his proposal is to require carriers to except all applicants for coverage without regard to their medical condition. As he put it in Sarasota, “… when I am president, we will end discrimination by insurance companies to the sick and those who need care the most.” This is a noble purpose, but if done wrong, it can lead to a health care reform surcharge that would increase the number of uninsured in the country while increasing costs in the system. The “wrong” way is require carriers to sell coverage without requiring consumers to purchase it. This, in essence, is how non-employer sponsored coverage works in New York and New Jersey. Average premiums in those states are more than twice what they are in California

The need for matching mandates, was integral to Senator Hillary Clinton’s health care reform plan. She perceived it more as a means to universal coverage, but also acknowledged that “adverse selection” is a real, proven phenomena. Imagine the premiums auto insurance companies would need to charge if drivers could wait until after an accident to buy automobile insurance. That is adverse selection and it is exactly what Senator Obama is proposing.

Another reason Senator Obama’s health care reform proposalis unlikely to survive the legislative process intact is it will need to compete with a host of other plans. Senator Ron Wyden (a Democrat) and Senator Bob Bennett (a Republican) have brought together a bipartisan coalition of Senators behind the “Healthy Americans Act.” Then there’s the proposal by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, Director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the National Institute of Health, who proposes a voucher system financed by a Value Added Tax and shares some elements of the Wyden-Bennett proposal. Senator Ed Kennedy is talking to Senators and policy mavens from across the political spectrum to develop a reform package he hopes to introduce in January. Republicans, too, have a host of ideas for reforming the nation’s health care system. Some might even look similar to the health care reform package advocated by Senator John McCain during this presidential campaign.

In short, there will be no dirth of ideas when Washington begins to address health care reform in 2009. Hopefully a coherent, workable plan will arise from this stew of policies and concepts. Senator Obama speaks of being open to other approaches. As he put it when speaking at a Families USA forum in January 2007, “… affordable, universal health care for every single American must not be a question of whether, it must be a question of how. We have the ideas, we have the resources, and we will have universal health care in this country by the end of the next president’s first term.”

As president, Senator Obama would do well to remember these words. There will be pressure to pass something and pass something quickly. The “First 100 Days” nonsense will be pushed forward as his only window for pushing through comprehensive reform. This is silly. It’s far more important to get health care reform done right than according to an arbitrary timetable.

Instead of rushing reform, President Obama should demand that all the “hows” be on the table. He should require participants to leave their egos and pride of authorship at the door. He should demand an honest appraisal and accounting of both what’s working and what’s not working in the current system. He should set forth the principles he expects to achieve in the process. Then and only then should the hard work of building a new, better system, one that will provide “affordable, universal health care for every single American” begin.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics, Presidential Election | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Single Payer Losing Ground

Posted by Alan on September 5, 2008

This should be the best of times for advocates of a single payer health care system in America. The environment for radical change has never been better. After years of hammering at problems in the current system, there is general agreement on the need for substantial change. When asked what single issue will most impact their vote for president, a substantial number of voters have consistently cited health care according to the Kaiser Health Tracking Polls. For example, in the August 2008 survey, 16% cited health care as their determinative issue, ranking this concern behind only the Economy (49%), Iraq (25%) and and Gas Prices 18%). Significantly, health care reform is a critical part of the economy and 24% of the respondents said paying for health care and health insurance was a serious problem. 

Meanwhile, legislation to create a single payer system has been introduced in Congress and several states. In California, the Legislature passed a bill to create a state-run health plan:(Senate Bill 840 by Senator Sheila Kuehl. (It currently is awaiting a veto by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Given all this momentum for radical change, you would think a government-run system would be a major issue in the presidential campaign, yet it’s not. Clearly, Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee is not going to support a single payer system. What’s significant, however, is that Democrats are not advocating this approach either. Neither the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama. nor his chief rival through the primary season, Senator Hillary Clinton, called for a government takeover of America’s health care system. Even the Democratic Party platform rejects a single payer system.

The 2008 Democratic National Platform, Renewing America’s Promise, gives its approach to heath care reform considerable prominence. Here’s some meaningful excerpts from the document:

“Democrats are united around a commitment that every American man, woman and child be guaranteed affordable, comprehensive healthcare.”

Our vision includes: Covering All Americans and Providing Real Choices of Affordable Health Insurance Options.  Families and individuals should have the option of keeping the coverage they have or choosing from a wide array of health insurance plans, including many private health insurance options and a public plan. Coverage should be made affordable for all Americans with subsidies provided through tax credits and other means.”

Shared Responsibility. health care should be a shared responsibility between employers, workers, insurers, providers and government. All Americans should have coverage they can afford; employers should have incentives to provide coverage to their workers; insurers and providers should ensure high quality affordable care; and the government should ensure that health insurance is affordable and provides meaningful coverage. As affordable coverage is made available, individuals should purchase health insurance and take steps to lead healthy lives.”

Meaningful Benefits. Families should have health insurance coverage similar to what Members of Congress enjoy.”

This is not the language of single payer advocates. Yes, the Democrats call for coverage for all Americans that is “similar to what Members of Congress enjoy.” And they want to protect Americans from “the burden of skyrocketing premiums, unaffordable deductibles or benefit limits that leave them at financial risk when they become sick.” So we’re not talking about a “hands-off” approach here.

But we’re also not talking about a single payer system. Advocates of SB 840 claim as one of its chief benefits the elimination of health insurers and HMOs. That’s a long way from the platform’s call for “keeping private health insurance options” available.

There will be robust debate in Washington concerning health care reform. As I’ve written previously, a bipartisan coalition of Senators is waiting for the new president with their own health care reform package. Single Payer advocates are not going away. They will throw their proposals into the mix, but this won’t change the reality: the Democratic nominee and his party’s platform have rejected the single payer approach.

So here’s the question: if single payer advocates can’t win when the political stars are so strongly aligned in their favor, will they ever win?

My take is that the stars are realigning in such a way to make the answer a resounding “no.” Over the next two-to-four years there is a real possibility that Congress and the new president will pass meaningful, comprehensive health care reform. That’s another two-to-four years in which the cracks in existing single payer systems around the world will deepen, broaden and become more apparent. Faced with a new alternative to what will increasingly be seen as a nonviable approach at hand being rolled out, single payer advocates won’t go away, but they won’t be successful either.

Posted in Arnold Schwarzenegger, California Health Care Reform, Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics, Presidential Election, Single Payer | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Individual Health Insurance to Get Federal Scrutiny

Posted by Alan on March 17, 2008

Over 17 million Americans purchase health insurance for themselves and their families. Of the 47 million Americans uninsured during any year, academics project that six-to-twelve million could afford coverage, but either cannot obtain it due to their health conditions or choose not to purchase insurance. For argument’s sake, let’s say the market for self-purchased policies — generally referred to as individual coverage or, sometimes individual and family coverage — is around 20 million Americans.

That’s a substantial market. For years, however, it was mostly ignored. To be sure, consumer affairs and financial writers would publish their annual article on how to buy health insurance you’re self-employed. And health insurance agents certainly talk about the product. But for most people, the difference between individual and group coverage was of no interest. It was all “health insurance.”

That’s changing. First, because Senator John McCain and others, mostly Republican lawmakers, want to shift the nation’s health care system from one built around employers to one centered on individuals. Senator McCain’s health care reform plan calls for allowing “individuals to get insurance through any organization or association that they choose: employers, individual purchases, churches, professional association, and so forth.”

The second reason for greater attention being focused on individual insurance is the result of how some insurance companies have reacted to current market realities.  Since purchasing health insurance is voluntary, insurance companies need to protect themselves from those waiting until they’ve got claims in hand before buying. This means they require a health history from all applicants and accept only those posing an “acceptable risk.” In other contexts this behavior is understandable. No one expects auto insurance companies to sell coverage after an accident. No one expects insurers to sell a fire insurance policy after the house has burned down. Yet, surprisingly, many consumers — and policy makers — seem to believe that requiring insurers to sell medical coverage to individuals who have already scheduled their surgery is both financially and morally sound.

Some states, such as New York and New Jersey, require insurers to guarantee issue coverage to all applicants regardless of their health condition. Consumers in New York and New Jersey also pay premiums costing on average twice as much as those in Californians. But some carriers went beyond screening out high risks at the time they applied for coverage and instead sought to terminate the coverage when they used their insurance. The aggressive rescission practices of these carriers earned insurers tremendous criticism and ill-will.

The convergence of these two factors: the presumptive Republican presidential nominee seeking to expand the individual market and abusive rescissions by some carriers can have but one result: a Congressional inquiry. Democratic House Committee Chairmen John Dingell, Henry Waxman, and Frank Pallone have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the state of the individual health insurance market. They have also asked the GAO to look into the operation of state high risk pools which offer coverage to those unable to obtain private insurance.

In making their request, the Congressmen stated “The individual market for health insurance coverage is seriously flawed. Many people who need insurance and apply for it are denied coverage in the individual market or are offered insurance coverage that turns out to be inadequate or it is too expensive or both.” If this sounds like they already know what the GAO investigation will uncover, well, they do.

This makes the results from this Congressional involvement relatively easy to predict. Insurance company CEOs will be required to testify under oath concerning their rescission practices. The Committees will determine that the current individual marketplace underserves consumers by excluding those with existing medical conditions. And while the high risk pools are serving an important purpose, the committees will determine their coverage is too barebones and too expensive.

Next will come a call for guarantee issue in the individual marketplace and, if Congress is serious about real reform, that will mean a call for requiring that all Americans obtain coverage. And that, in turn, means a health care reform package similar to what’s being put forward by Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — and it might even be acceptable to a President McCain.

Of course, just because what’s coming is predictable doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It just means change is coming, regardless of who is elected president.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Health Plans, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Senator Invites Carriers to Help with Health Care Reform

Posted by Alan on March 12, 2008

A coalition of Senators is waiting to help the next president forge a bi-partisan coalition on health care reform. A leader of the group, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, spoke before the America’s Health Insurance Plans 2008 National Policy Forum on March 5th and urged health plans to join the effort, not to fight it.

The 12 Senators, six Democrats and six Republicans, have their own health care reform proposal before Congress, the Healthy Americans Act. None of the Senators support every element of the package. But the mere existence of a bi-partisan coalition surrounding health care reform will give the next president a boost in developing a compromise plan.

In Senator Wyden’s address to AHIP, he said the “success of health care reform hinges to a great extent on how your profession responds to the efforts of a new president and a new Congress.” He warned, however, that if medical carriers spend “millions of dollars fighting to preserve the status quo, you may delay reform for awhile but you will increase the likelihood of a government run health system with no role for the private sector.”

In urging the insurance industry to become a part of fashioning a solution, Senator Wyden noted that in a market in which 20 percent of Americans are uninsured, carriers need to be good avoiding risk. As Senator Wyden put it, “If you don’t excel at shedding risk, you are going to enroll too many people who need too much care.  Enrolling too many people who need too much care means that your costs are going to go through the roof.  When your costs soar this way, the healthy people that you do business with are going to start looking for another insurer whose costs aren’t going through the stratosphere.  In other words they’re going to look for another insurer who does a better job of shedding risk.”

This, according to Senator Wyden, is part of the reason the current health care system is broken. Another reason is that health care in the United States is tied to the employer/employee relationship, which the Senator noted hasn’t changed much since 1948. “But economic challenges for business and workers today are very different then they were in 1948,” he noted.  “Sixty years ago employers weren’t operating in a global marketplace and employees who went to work at twenty stuck around long enough to get a gold watch and a steak dinner for retirement.  Employers need cost-containment and workers need quality health care within a system that is portable – where they can truly take their insurance from job to job.”

As an alternative, Senator Wyden suggested carriers consider a new approach in which “everyone who’s not in the military or on Medicare, has a basic private health insurance policy. Private insurance companies are on the same footing – each must take all comers. Competition would be based on price, benefit and quality.”

This is the underlying approach established by the Healthy Americans Act. In asking his audience to consider supporting the legislation, he cited six reasons why health plans would benefit from this alternative system:

  1. Bringing the 47 million uninsured into the system would greatly expand the private insurance market.
  2. There would be “no competitive disadvantage for carriers doing the right thing” and, with a risk sharing mechanism as part of the package, there would be no need to specialize in risk avoidance.
  3. The legislation supports increased information and transparency in the health marketplace.
  4. By focusing on wellness and preventive programs, carriers would be selling a product people want more of.
  5. Carriers “wouldn’t be the political football any longer.”
  6. More attention could be given to cost containment issues such as reducing needless medical errors.

He concluded his speech with a plea to carriers to be a part of the solution. “I want to ask you to become a part of the Senate’s bipartisan effort to fix American health care. Both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate want to work with you to get health care right in 2009.”

My take on all this is that the stars may be aligning for a health care reform effort that is more consultative than adversarial. Senator Barack Obama has certainly spoken of the need to have everyone, including carriers at the table. Senator Hillary Clinton has also spoken of leading a more open process than she did during her husband’s Administration. Significantly, Senator John Edwards, who promised to exclude the health insurance industry from participating in the health care reform debate, is out of the race.

I also think a move away from employer-provided coverage is likely to be a strong current in future health care reform discussions. Senator John McCain favors this approach as does the bi-partisan coalition of Senators backing the Healthy Americans Act. The business community would love to be relieved of the burden of shouldering the nation’s health care system. In speeches I began giving in 2006 I predicted that health care coverage might follow the path of pensions. Instead of companies running pension plans they moved to simply administering — and contributing to — their employee’s individual retirement plans. Similarly, employers could administer — and contribute to — employee’s individual health plans. Even though the Democratic presidential candidates still embrace an employer-centric system, the support fora more individual-centric model is gaining momentum..

For health plans this could be good news. They would remain a core part of the nation’s health care system. While the nature of their competition would change, it would still likely be a vibrant, primarily private, market.

The role of health insurance agents could change far more dramatically. If consumers are pushed into exchanges, connectors or purchasing pools, the system administrators might assume they can play the role of agents. It will be important for agents to make sure Americans continue to have access to independent advocates and consultants — in other words, to professional insurance agents. That won’t be easy. Many lawmakers — and even more of their staffs — have never worked with an agent and don’t understand the value we bring to the system.

Senator Wyden and others, however, have expressed a willingness to listen to others. That’s an opportunity agents need to seize. Fortunately agents have a compelling story to tell. 

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

Congressional Health Care Reform Plan Waiting for New President

Posted by Alan on February 27, 2008

During their Ohio debate Tuesday night, Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama spent the opening 16 minutes diving deep into the minutia of their health care reform plans. The public has heard the debate many times before. One might be forgiven for believing the differences actually matter. They don’t.

The reality is that health care reform will be a top priority for either of these candidates should they gain the White House. What plan eventually emerges will be negotiated, compromised and updated so much and so often, it may bear little resemblance to the proposals Senators Clinton and Obama have put on the table. And that’s fine. No one has the secret formula. Crafting the best health care platform for America should involve a great many people not yet heard from.

Then there’s the health care reform proposal already waiting for the new president. Sponsored by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Bob Bennett, the Healthy Americans Act is the most bi-partisan and prominent bill stewing in the current Congress — or any recent one, for that matter.  Supported by a dozen senators, six from each party, in many ways it goes much further than the plans being promoted by the Democratic presidential candidates. And compared to Senator John McCain’s market-based reform plan, it’s downright radical.

Twelve percent of the Senate is a long way from a majority. But it’s a start. Even Senators Wyden and Bennett don’t agree with every aspect of their bill. The plan requires all Americans to buy coverage. It does away with the preferential tax treatment of employer-based coverage, forcing individuals to purchase their own coverage through regional purchasing pools. While it’s not a single-payer system, those pools do mean multiple governmental agencies will be running the show.

The Healthy Americans Act is, as it stands, seriously flawed. But that’s not the point. The details of this legislation don’t matter any more than the specifics of the candidate’s proposals. What matters is the existence of a bi-partisan coalition of Senators waiting for a president who is serious about building a consensus to appear on the scene. That’s fertile ground for a serious debate and equally serious negotiations about a complex and vital issue. And that’s good news.

Posted in Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics, Presidential Election | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »