The Alan Katz Health Care Reform Blog

Health Care Reform From One Person's Perspective

Posts Tagged ‘medical cost containment’

Two More Unrelated Health Care Reform Items

Posted by Alan on December 15, 2010

In something as complex and pervasive as, say, changing the entire health insurance industry, the “big” things tend to divert attention from noteworthy items that deserve some attention, too. In my previous post I wrote about the inability of Congress to repeal the 1099 requirement contained in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  As I continue to clean out my (digital) files, there’s a few other items I’ve come across that deserve mentioning.

Anti-Trust Suit:

Back in October, the Justice Department filed suit against Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan claiming the health plan had used its dominant position in the market to force hospitals to charge higher prices to its competitors, a violation of anti-trust laws. According to New York Times, the complaint alleges the “most favored nation” clauses insisted upon by BCBSMi, which “require hospitals to charge other insurers a specified percentage more than they charge Blue Cross — in some cases, 30 to 40 percent more” result in “higher health insurance premiums for consumers and employers.” The clauses also prevent the medical providers from offering any other carrier a better price than they offer to BCBSMi. In exchange for the favorable treatment the suit asserts BCBSMi agreed to pay higher prices themselves.

A spokesman for the health plan was quoted by the New York Times as responding that it was against the insurer’s interests to pay more than they could otherwise negotiate and the “These kinds of low-cost guarantees are widely used in a variety of contracts in a number of industries.”

However the suit turns out, merely bringing the legal action will draw attention to what the Washington Post describes as the “concentration of power that dominant health insurers wield in many parts of the country.”  A study sponsored by the General Accounting Office last year found that the median small group market share of the largest carrier in a state was 47 percent. The dominance of a single insurer varied considerably from state-to-state: in Arizona the largest carrier had a 21 percent market share among small businesses; in Alabama the dominant carrier had a 96 percent share.

A government-run health plan, what was called the “public option” during the health care reform debate,  was President Barack Obama’s attempt to, among other things, provide competition to these dominant carriers. Of course, in bringing competition to Alabama (where arguably it is needed) he was also imposing a government-run plan on Arizona (where it apparently is not needed). Having failed to secure a public health plan in the PPACA, the Obama Administration is now using the courts to bring about greater competition among health insurers.

The courts will determine if what Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan does in its contracts are unfairly (and illegally) anti-competitive.  There’s nothing wrong with the Administration bringing suit to find out. That’s how America’s legal system works. But given a recent insurance industry study disclosing that hospital costs in California rose 159 percent over the past 10 years, in part because of the dominant position some medical providers enjoy in parts of the state, it will be interesting to see if the Administration gets around to exploring the anti-competitive activity that may be involved in their business practices.

Doctor Owned Hospitals

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to create new physician-owned hospitals that bill Medicare for reimbursement. A group of Texas doctors sued to have this provision (Section 6001 of the new health care reform law for those keeping track at home) declared unconstitutional. U.S. District Court Judge Michael Schneider dismissed the suit, but the plaintiffs have pledged to appeal his decision according the Becker’s Hospital Review. The plaintiffs claim the provision, which also limits expansion of existing doctor-owned facilities and freezes the percentage physicians can own of a hospital, is “retroactive in effect.”

It was only last summer when Dr. Atul Gawande, writing in The New Yorker described the impact doctor-owned facilities had on making McAllen, Texas the most expensive town in the country in terms of Medicare spending. His article gained widespread attention and was cited by President Obama during a major speech on to the nation on health care reform. The PPACA attempted to address this cost driver. Doctors are suing to excise that provision. Whether they succeed or not, the law suit will (hopefully) bring additional attention to the advisability of having the those who help determine the amount of demand for care own the source of supplying that care.

And what both these items underscore is the important role courts will play in determining the nature — and affordability — of America’s health care system in the coming years.

Advertisement

Posted in Barack Obama, Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, PPACA | Tagged: , , , , | 18 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 »

Medical Cost Containment Drum Beat Continues

Posted by Alan on March 3, 2010

File this under “Better Late Than Never” but the drum beat aimed at focusing attention on the need to constrain medical costs in America continues.

Earlier this week I wrote about Sacramento Bee columnist Daniel Weintraub’s posting a reality check for California lawmakers that all the insurance carrier bashing they’re enjoying will do little to address the rising cost of health care. That post also reported on Warren Buffet’s advice to the president to do much more to rein in costs.

Then, yesterday, President Obama indicated he’ll be incorporating into the legislation he’ll be proposing later today some of the medical cost cutting ideas put forward by Republicans during last week’s bipartisan health care reform summit.

And the beat goes on. CNN has been reporting this week on extraordinary and wasteful costs in America’s health care system. $140 for a single Tylenol pill? $1,000 for a toothbrush anyone?

Some of the unnecessary expenses are mistakes made by the hospital that slip past health insurers’ claim examiners (a Georgia patient billed for 41 bags of IV solutions for an emergency room visit that lasted two hours in which just one bag was used). But some of the outrageous expenses are intentionally designed “to make up for lower payments the government pays through Medicare and Medicaid.”

The CNN report goes on to cite, however, a Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s Health Research Institute finding that $1.2 trillion of health care spending in the United States – roughly half – represents waste. This analysis includes in the definition of waste defensive medicine, preventable hospital readmissions, medical errors, and unnecessary emergency room visits. (The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 30 percent of America’s health care spending is wasted or spent on low-value services using a less broad definition of waste.

There hasn’t been this much talk focused on the need to reduce medical costs since Dr. Atul Gawande wrote about the difference in Medicare spending experienced in two Texas cities, McAllen and El Paso. That was right before attention shifted to the misbehavior of demonstrators during Congressional Town Hall meetings and the debate in Washington pivoted to health insurance reform rather than health care reform. And I am not suggesting that the need to focus on medical cost containment undermine efforts to reform health insurance company behavior where that’s necessary.

Nor am I saying that the health care reform bill the President will put forward today does enough to attack skyrocketing medical care costs. But it will be a start. And it will do more than the proposal he unveiled last week or those previously passed by the Senate and House of Representatives. And that’s a good thing. Let’s just hope it’s the beginning of the effort to reduce health care costs and not the end of it.

Posted in Barack Obama, Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 15 Comments »

Bashing Insurance Companies May Be Fun, But Avoids the Real Issue

Posted by Alan on March 1, 2010

That health insurance carriers were ascending to the throne of political piñata in the health care reform debate has been apparent for some time now. Last July President Barack Obama began referring to health care reform as health insurance reform. A couple of weeks later Speaker Nancy Pelosi described insurance companies as “almost immoral” for opposing the creation of a government-run health plan. That insurance companies were to be cast as the villains was pretty much inevitable. People like and trust hospitals and doctors much more than health insurance carriers. And pharmaceutical companies, while profiting far more from health care than medical carriers are a bit removed from people’s daily experience. The reality is the only group Americans trust less when it comes to health care reform than insurance companies are Republicans in Congress.

Compounding the situation the health insurance industry has had atrocious timing. America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the industry’s trade organization, released a report warning that health care reform plans being considered by Congress would dramatically increase medical insurance premiums for many Americans. The message was hardly welcomed by Congressional Democrats, but what infuriated them was the timing. The Senate Finance Committee was about to vote upon the closest lawmakers had come to a bipartisan agreement (meaning at least one Republican voted for it. The vitriol the report inspired went far beyond its substance.

Then there’s the timing of recent rate increases in the individual health insurance market. While Anthem Blue Cross’ individual market increase first captured the public – and lawmakers’ attention – it’s now clear several carriers have levied double-digit premium increases in multiple states in both the individual and small business market segments. Many political observers believe that these rating actions breathed new life into flagging reform efforts.

But the 24-hour news channels and other media along with their innumerable pundits need fresh meat. Their job is to keep people watching (or reading) so the commercials don’t run together. There’s only so many ways you can use “insurance company” and “venal” in the same story before it gets old. Insurance company bashing will continue, but there are signs that serious attention may be given to aspects of America’s health care system reform beyond insurance markets.

Consider: Daniel Weintraub is one of California’s most respected journalists. In addition to reporting for and providing opinion pieces to the Sacramento Bee he maintains an excellent blog on health care issues, HealthyCal.org. In the past, Mr. Weintraub has been hard on insurance carriers. Nor is he a fan of the health care status quo in this country. So it must have been a surprise to even him when he wrote a post that makes clear that bashing health insurance companies is not the same as enacting meaningful health care reform.

Mr. Weintraub begins his post citing the political travails California insurance companies face in the state today, ranging from separate investigations by Attorney General Jerry Brown and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner to a host of legislative hearings led by lawmakers who, like the Attorney General and Insurance Commissioner, are seeking higher office in this election year.

While noting the entertainment value of this spectacle and recognizing that “it might actually produce information relevant to the health care debate,” Mr. Weintraub makes clear that “health insurance company profits and administrative costs remain a relatively small factor in driving the cost of coverage skyward. The biggest reason that health insurance is getting more expensive,” he continues, ”is that health care is getting more expensive.”

The post includes a useful pie chart describing national health expenditures as broken down by the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Of the $2.3 trillion on health care Americans spent in 2008, $159 billion (approximately seven percent) “went to private insurers after deducting all the costs they pass through to the doctors, hospitals and other health care providers.” Put another way: “health care costs nearly doubled between 1998 and 2008, increasing by 96 percent. If we had eliminated private insurance companies in 1998, and assuming they provide no benefit in managing costs, health spending still would have increased by 83 percent during that decade.”

None of this means that health insurance companies and their behavior should be ignored nor their misdeeds forgiven. But as Mr. Weintraub notes, “when this election year is over and the current political bash-fest comes to an end, the core costs of health care will still be there, and chances are they will still be rising.”

That a respected journalist is noting that attacks on health insurance companies are diverting attention from other serious issues with America’s health care system is significant. But he’s not alone. According to Politico.com, Warren Buffett is advising President Obama “to scrap the health care bill and start over” because the legislation “does not focus on controlling costs.” (He went on to say that he’d vote for the Senate bill as opposed to maintaining the status quo).

President Obama and his allies will argue that their legislation does attack rising costs – and they have some evidence to back their claim. But few could honestly say it goes far enough. And while good starts are important, the question is whether the Administration and Congress have the political will to follow-up with meaningful cost containment measures.

Attacks on the health insurance industry will continue. Every drama needs a villain and in this particular theater, carriers are the bad guys. But that folks like Mr. Weintraub and Mr. Buffet are calling out politicians for failing to more fully address the most critical issue undermining America’s health care system – runaway medical costs – is an encouraging sign.

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

Big Impact from Small Health Care Reform Initiatives?

Posted by Alan on February 1, 2010

Whether Congress will pass comprehensive health care reform is, shall we say, an “iffy” proposition at this stage. Members of Congress continue to meet, seeking to find a way to pass meaningful reforms through a House increasingly reluctant to support anything expensive and a Senate incapable of shutting off a filibuster. Not surprisingly, observers are looking for clues as to what Plan B … or C, D, E and F … might look like.

According to the Associated Press “President Barack Obama’s modest health care budget may be harbinger of what’s ahead if his overhaul plan dies in Congress.” “Modest” is the correct word. Among the items:

  1. Emergency funds for state Medicaid programs ($25.5 billion) to help handle the influx of program participants as a result of the recession.
  2. $290 million to community health centers, providers to much of the uninsured.
  3. Funds for Medicare to experiment with ways of treating chronic health problems.
  4. Increased funding for comparative effectiveness research to help identify the treatments most effective at addressing costly conditions
  5. A boost to existing efforts to speed adoption of computerized medical records.
  6. increasing anti-fraud personnel and programs within Medicare and Medicaid.

Any and all of these may be useful and necessary. None individually or all of them collectively can be called “comprehensive.” As Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius describes them, the budget is “a platform.” And that is how it should be looked at. If comprehensive health care reform legislation dies in Congress, the game will shift to “small ball” in Washington, D.C. The goal will be to accumulate minor gains through the budget, to advance health care reform through executive orders, and to use existing programs to experiment with ways of improving medical care and reducing health care costs.

Comprehensive health care reform coming out of Washington is still possible, albeit far more unlikely now than just two weeks ago. As a result states are far more likely to move forward with more robust reform legislation than were considered in the past year or so. And Washington will continue to try to improve on the status quo through small efforts aimed at having a substantial cumulative effect. Significantly, because these more restrained proposals are less controversial, there’s a high likelihood at least some of these ideas will become law.

Posted in Barack Obama, Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Medical Cost Savings Experiment Launches

Posted by Alan on January 29, 2010

In Washington, Democrats are contemplating ways to move health care reform forward in a filibuster-sensitive Congress and the White House is pivoting towards emphasizing job creation. Meanwhile, in the real world, Indiana and North Carolina are the site of two pilot projects that could have a significant impact on the quality and cost of medical care.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) announced earlier this week the launch of what Health Data Management describes as “the first large-scale Medicare study of a multi-payer, quality reporting and improvement, and pay-for performance program. Data from Medicare, Medicaid, private insurers and employer-sponsored health plans will be combined with clinical data to test if quality improvement and pay-for-performance programs are more effective in a multi-payer environment.”

In other words, the folks who operate Medicare are testing a method of moving from paying medical providers for what they do to a means of compensating providers for what they accomplish. At the same time the program will “provide participating physicians with better information on the patients they are treating,” according to a press release issued by the CMS. This demonstration project will take place in Indiana.

In North Carolina, meanwhile, CMS is working with a group to test ways of better coordinating care, implementing performance incentives and measuring the quality of care received by low-income Medicare beneficiaries. The test is for model termed “medical home,” which Health Management Data describes as “redesigned practices that are more functional and workflow-friendly” and that “focus on quality, safety and alternative reimbursement methods.” The model also requires extensive use of health information technologies (think e-prescribing, clinical decision support, and electronic health records.)

My background is in selling health insurance and the politics and substance of health care reform. So I may be misinterpreting the import of these pilot projects, but my take is that they are baby steps down a very significant path: constraining the cost of health care. Most significantly, they are being done by the Obama Administration without the need for further Congressional authorization, without the need for bridging partisan chasms, and without a lot of fuss or bother. The CMS is just doing what the CMS is supposed to do. Their authority? According to the CMS press release,  the demonstrations are authorized by the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003. No new or additional authority required. 

Given the lack of fanfare and attention given to these efforts, this may or may not be a signal that President Barack Obama and his administration are launching a coordinated effort to implement meaningful health care reform on their own as I wrote about earlier this week. I’m not sure it matters, however. The key fact is that these experiments could identify methods of wringing savings from the current health care system without the political sausage making inherent in legislative undertakings. So even while health care reform is at a political standstill, the real work of reform seems to be moving forward.

That’s encouraging.

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

Massachusetts Offers Both Parties a Window of Opportunity for Health Care Reform

Posted by Alan on January 19, 2010

Not that anyone asked, but here’s some free advice to both Democrats and Republicans in Washington: don’t over think what’s happened in Massachusetts. There are as many interpretations of the “meaning,” “message” and “impact” of state Senator Scott Brown’s victory Tuesday night as there are television pundits. And just like paranoids noodling with a conspiracy theory, the facts can be manipulated to prove anything (I’ve heard all of these in the past 24 hours or so): President Barack Obama was too liberal; he tried too hard to be bi-partisan; he didn’t move fast enough on health care reform; he moved too fast on health care reform.

Or that the special election results prove that the Republican strategy of non-cooperation with Democrats is working; that the Republican establishment is out of step with Republican grass roots; that the country is irretrievably locked into blue/red gridlock; that the Republicans are branding themselves up as barriers to progress.

Or that Attorney General Martha Coakley defeat reflects voters feelings about the two candidates; what they think about President Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and/or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; that Republicans are assured of victory in November; that Democrats have had a wakeup call and will rebound; or that the results reflect the skill (or lack thereof) of the candidates and their campaigns.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. One could argue that it means all those things and more. Usually, however, the simplest interpretation is usually closest to the truth: voters rejected Republicans last year because they were fed up with political games, hypocrisy and ineptitude. They are rejecting Democrats this year because they are fed up with political games, hypocrisy and ineptitude. The reality is that both parties have shown a remarkable inability to govern this complicated country let alone unify its diverse political viewpoints.

So instead of wasting time trying to squeeze every nuance out of the Boston-brewed tea leaves, my advice to both parties is to take advantage of the window of opportunity that election created between now and President Obama’s State of the Union Address to reinvent yourselves. Because let’s face it, voters don’t like either Democrats or Republicans. And why should they? Democrats lost sight of the reality that this is a centrist country. And Republicans have lost sight of the need to stand for something besides “we’re not those guys.”

Not surprisingly, given the topic of this blog, I think health care reform provides both parties with the chance to prove they deserve votes for something other than being the best of two evils.

Democrats have to stop acting like every member of their party thinks alike. Liberals seemed to think that with 60 votes in the Senate they’d quickly adopt the Progressive Caucus’ wish list. If they’d looked past their own hubris they’d have noticed that some of the folks in their caucus room were pretty darn moderate – heck, some are downright conservative. And they were elected as Democrats, too. Which means their views and votes are just as “Democratic” as those of liberals.

Given that the liberal agenda was never within reach and now is even more remote, think carefully about what you do next. Pass health care reform through some political legerdemain and you’ll only confirm to independent voters that you’re more interested in political games than acceptable public policy. (And remember, it’s independents that will determine the make-up of Congress. Consider: there are perhaps only 50-75 House seats winnable by either party – most Congressional seats are so solidly in one camp the seats are safe for the party who holds them now, assuming the incumbent avoids scandal or indictment).

Instead of passing health care reform in the next 24 hours, promise to take a step back and reconsider some of its elements. Then streamline the bill down to the essentials. What really matters when it comes to health care reform?

  • Restraining costs. There’s some interesting cost containment ideas buried in the current health care reform proposals. Paring the legislation down to its essentials will allow Democrats to make these ideas more prominent. Add some stronger malpractice reform language for good measure. Sure defensive medicine’s impact on costs is perceived as being far greater than it is, but let’s face it, Democrats have a perception problem. Pushing malpractice reform takes a talking point away from Republicans, shows independents that Democrats can stand up to trial lawyers, and can become a symbol for how serious Dems are to tackle runaway medical costs.
  • Unshackle Consumers with Pre-Existing Conditions. In America today, if you don’t get coverage through your employer and you have an existing medical condition, you’re out of luck. You may want to buy health insurance. You might be able to afford health insurance. But if you don’t already have coverage, you’re not going to get it. And if you do have coverage you’re stuck with it. Carriers can raise the rates, lower the benefits or both and you’ve got nowhere else to go. Most voters know someone in this predicament. Many voters are in it themselves. Require carriers to accept all applicants (what’s called “guarantee issue.”) But do so responsibly. Either require everyone to buy health insurance (called an “individual mandate”) or impose a meaningful penalty for failing to do so. Otherwise, costs will skyrocket as everyone waits until they need coverage before they purchase it – the equivalent of buying auto coverage from the tow truck driver hoisting your car after an accident (what’s called “adverse selection”). The problem is that Republicans have painted individual mandates as the devil’s work, forcing consumers to buy policies they may not want. So let the carriers provide the discipline: if a consumer fails to purchase coverage within a specified period of time after becoming eligible for it (for example by becoming too old to be covered as a dependent on their parent’s policy or losing employer-sponsored coverage) allow carriers to exclude pre-existing conditions for 12 months and to charge a 10 percent higher premium for two years. This makes those who choose to self-insure accountable for their decision while still allowing themselves a path back to responsibility.
  • Reduce the Number of Uninsured and Underinsured. Most Americans acknowledge there’s something wrong with America’s high number of uninsured. Whether the actual number is 47 million uninsured (greater than the population of California) or some lower number, the fact is it’s too many. Those with coverage pay a tax to support the uninsured, estimated at roughly $1,000 per year in higher insurance premiums. So expand Medicaid. Close the doughnut hole in Medicare prescription benefits. Offer subsidies to Americans who cannot afford premiums, but fail to qualify for government programs. Just don’t create new bureaucracies to do it. Voters know new agencies generally do more harm than good. Why feed the suspicion?
  • Reduce the Cost of Health Care Reform. If a reform package sets in motion medical cost containment, makes coverage portable, and reduces the number of uninsured – and that’s about it, the cost will be far less than what’s currently contemplated. Put on the table a tax on the wealthiest Americans (removing the tax cut President George Bush gave those earning more than $1 million per year. Then offer to replace the tax with revenue provisions Republicans offer. If they object to any revenue increases of any kind, then they will have fully embraced their branding as the do nothing party.  That’s a recipe for turning their current momentum into failure.

Which brings me to advice for Republicans. Waving a sheaf of paper at a presidential address on the floor of Congress is not proof of a Republican plan. Introduce a plan that the Republican caucus in both the Senate and the House can support. Submit it to the CBO for scoring. Treat it like a real bill. Demand hearings. Declare it a starting point for negotiations and then set up a time and place for a meeting to negotiate. If Democrats don’t show up Republicans will have enough political fodder to last two, maybe three, election cycles.

Sure, Rush Limbaugh won’t like it. He wants President Obama to fail and wants Republicans to fight every step he tries to take. But independent voters want America to succeed. They don’t care about who gets the credit, but they do care about appropriate progress. And they know achieving this means legislation that both President Obama and Republicans consider acceptable. So put together something that can gain votes beyond a Chamber of Commerce luncheon (see the above for some ideas). Remember, obstinacy is not a rallying cry. And if the GOP is not not careful, someone will remind voters that Republicans controlled Congress and the White House for six years, but never even considered meaningful health care reform. Voters don’t want the wrong health care reform, but that does not mean they don’t want any health care reform. The status quo is imposing hardship on more and more Americans. They need and deserve help. If Republicans want voters to return them to power in 10 months, they need to demonstrate leadership today.

As far as changes go, please get real. Allowing plans to sell across state lines undermines state’s rights. Republicans are for state’s rights, remember? Telling voters in California that policy makers in South Dakota will determine what’s adequate consumers protections when it comes to health insurance is lousy public policy. Republicans should go through their various proposals and cobble together a coherent package. And they should make it clear they want to pass some kind of health care reform. Proclaiming the status quo as adequate is unlikely to fly as a platform for very long.

The Massachusetts Senate race is the story of the week – and then some. Yes, it will have long term political ramifications, but eventually it will be yesterday’s news. Some other issue, scandal, disaster or discovery will take its place. For now, however, Senator-elect Brown’s upset gives both Democrats and Republicans a chance to prove they’re the party of the future, not the party of the left or of no or of, worst of all, the recent past. Whether either will choose to seize the opportunity is anyone’s guess. What’s yours?

Of course, what’s significant about the Massachusetts special election is not what I think it should mean, but what the actual impact it has on health care reform. Which I’ll be writing about as soon as the crystal ball clears a bit.

Posted in Barack Obama, Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 29 Comments »

Health Care Reform’s Likely Outcome: Worse Than Promised; Not as Bad as Feared

Posted by Alan on November 20, 2009

As the Senate begins their effort to pass health care reform anxiety levels are, quite naturally and rightly rising. Health care is highly personal. For those of us working within the current framework, having politicians mess with our livelihood is a stressful to say the least. That these politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) seem to care less about the substance of the reform and more about how they appeal to their electoral base does nothing to reduce that stress.

Of course, what we’re reacting to at this stage is not the final reform legislation. The House and Senate proposals foreshadow what Congress will eventually pass (if it passes anything). The actual legislation is still to come. Put another way, we know the basic outline, but the devil resides in a suburb of the details. As I pointed out in my previous post, however, the real drafting of health care reform legislation hasn’t started yet. With the Senate taking up the issue we’re seeing the end of the legislative phase in which the parameters are defined. It’s in the upcoming conference committee that will define health care reform 2009-style (or, more likely, early 2010).

Concerning that prior post, Ron Masters, a friend and frequent reader/commenter of this blog, took me to task for writing too kindly about the current House and Senate versions of health care reform. “I’m surprised that you seem to feel that either of these bills are any good,” he write. This after a litany of shortcomings concerning the current administration, the ability of government to deliver much of anything, and the foolishness of imposing taxes and creating new entitlements in the midst of the current economic mess. And he makes some fair points.

He’s not alone. I’ve heard from a lot of brokers, readers and others who are convinced the coming health care reform will be a disaster leading to ruin and damnation for the country. I disagree. Here’s why.

As any reader of this blog knows, I don’t buy into the premises of those at the extreme. Not all government programs are good, but some are. Not all taxes are bad, but some are. Change is important, but getting change right is more important. Defending the status quo just because it is the status quo is indefensible. In other words, I’m comfortable with the gray shades of reality and uncomfortable with the black-and-whites of true believers.

I’m also comfortable with the government doing stupid things now and then. No party and no administration has a monopoly on such foolishness. (Nor has any party or administration failed to achieve some truly noble accomplishments). What’s more, no administration lasts forever. Whatever health care reform passes in the next few months will be administered by a parade of future administrations and modified by Congresses yet to-be-elected. Many people have a tendency to believe whatever Congress passes and how the current administration implements it will remain unchanged forever. It won’t. Medicare was vilified as socialistic and a fast slide toward America’s ruin when it was being created. Things didn’t work out that way. The program has survived for nearly 45 years under the administrations of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush-the-first, Clinton and Bush-the-second. Yes, it is a far from perfect program and faces significant challenges. Still, it works, it’s evolved and it will continue to do so. And the country has survived.

Another reason I’m not outright opposed to health care reform is because I believe expanding access to health insurance is critically important. It is well understood that everyone in America has access to health care. But it is also well documented that people with health insurance live healthier, longer lives. A recent study by researchers at Harvard Medical School confirmed an earlier study from the 1980’s that “uninsurance is associated with mortality.” That’s an awkward way of stating a well-accepted truism: being uninsured can be hazardous to your health.

Expanding coverage, however, is expensive. The more people who have coverage the more people who will incur medical expenses. That is after all, the whole idea and a desirable outcome. It’s also an expensive outcome. In my mind, it’s a price worth paying. Especially considering the potential return on this investment.

Those with insurance are already making heavy payments to pay for care received by the uninsured according to a study by Families USA. In 2008, the study reports, nearly $43 billion of health care the uninsured received from hospitals, doctors and other providers went unpaid. This uncompensated care results in higher premiums for those with coverage. In 2008 this hidden tax increased premiums $368 for single coverage and $1,017 for family coverage. Given the recession, this amount has no doubt gone up. Increasing the number of Americans with insurance should reduce this burden.

Early identification of potential health conditions before they blossom into serious diseases can generate tremendous economic benefits, although these savings are rarely considered in a cost-benefit analysis. Every dollar invested in preventing and treating heart attacks generates $7 in increased productivity, according to a study by United BioSource Corporation.

In other words, it’s not just the reform bills being considered in Washington that are expensive. So is the status quo. Health care costs are crippling businesses, bankrupting families and state governments, enabling fraud and abuse, increasing taxes, and failing to deliver on many of its promises. Change is inevitable – and it’s coming.

Too many in Washington believe (or at least claim to believe) that reforming the health insurance industry will reduce the cost of coverage. Far from it. The bills being considered in Congress will cause premiums to increase. Until Congress tackles the underlying causes of skyrocketing medical costs, health insurance coverage will become increasingly unaffordable. The House and Senate health care reform bills do have more cost containment provisions than is generally acknowledged. Could they be stronger and more ambitious? Yes. Are obvious cost containment opportunities missing (e.g., malpractice reform?) Yes. But they’re there. And future efforts to restrain medical costs will benefit from the seeds planted in the current reform debate.

Which brings us, I suppose, to the key question: are the House and Senate health care reform bills good? No, not really. They’re too heavy handed, using an axe when a scalpel is required. As noted, their cost containment provisions are weaker than the American people deserve. The bills reflect a misunderstanding of how health insurance works and about what drives premiums. The costs for the program are no doubt understated (few initiatives of this magnitude, whether attempted by government or business, come in under budget).

If either the House or Senate bills were the final legislation I’d be more concerned than I am now (and, for the record, I am concerned). But neither HR 3962 nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s proposal are going to be enacted, not as currently written. I believe the conference committee will need to make significant changes in order to get the votes needed for passage – if that’s even possible.

There are plenty of substantive problems with these health care reform proposals. To make matters worse, their backers and opponents are knowingly overpromising or attempting to frighten the public. Democrats claim their reforms will reduce overall health care costs, lower premiums and reduce the deficit. Wrong on all counts. Republicans claim it will destroy American businesses, annihilate Medicare, create death panels and bankrupt the country. Just as wrong.

We’ve seen this script before concerning Medicare, Iraq, and a host of other issues. Partisans on one side over promise, their opponents dredge up scenarios of doom. That both sides are equally guilty makes it no more acceptable or welcome. But it is what it is.

The main point of my previous post, and of this one, is that if reform passes, it will not be as bad as feared nor as good as promised. It will be refined sooner (by regulation) and later (by future legislation). The fight for a better health care system will continue. Only the status quo will have changed. The need to improve on it will remain.

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

Comprehensive Health Care Reform Not Very Comprehensive

Posted by Alan on November 4, 2009

Once upon a time it looked like Congress and the White House would deliver meaningful, comprehensive health care reform to the American people. They certainly started down that path. The talk was of “bending the cost curve.” And of tackling issues like medical malpractice. There was even promises being made of moving toward comparative effectiveness programs and away from the costly fee-for-service provider reimbursement model of today.

Those were the days, but they’re over now. Whether as a result of the August Town Hall ruckuses, lawmaker’s ignorance, or general cynicism, those ideas are pretty much a thing of the past. Yes, there are modest efforts in the current Congressional bills to control costs. But to call them modest is kind. Politicians and pundits. will claim that what’s moving through Congress will make health care coverage more affordable and relieve the burden of medical costs on American families, but few actually believe it.

Over the past few months, the focus of health care reform has shifted to health insurance reform. And while some changes in the way health care coverage is marketed and administered are necessary, those changes will do little if anything to bring down the cost of care. On the contrary, some of the proposals being considered will, it is generally accepted, increase insurance premiums.

This shift by lawmakers from comprehensive health care reform to simply addressing marketing and distribution reform is, to say the least, disappointing. It also shows the challenge in accomplishing major change in Washington. The partisan divide is deep and cynical. The extremes within each party are in ascendancy, making compromise – the life-blood of the legislative process – all but impossible.

So instead of passing real reform, changes to the system that would restrain medical cost increases, the goal seems to have shifted to passing something – passing anything – on which the “health care reform” label can be hung. The result will do little to increase the affordability of insurance coverage or to restrain medical cost inflation. Lawmakers choose to ignore this reality – and to distract attention from it by keeping the focus on whether Congress will create a publicly run plan to compete with private carriers.

Yes, health care reform is hard while taking on the insurance companies is easy. And, as I’ve mentioned, there are some industry practices that need reforming. Given the political realities in Washington it may be that health insurance reform is all that lawmakers are capable of delivering any time soon. 

The shame of it all is that the current health care system is unable to meet America’s needs. The status quo, most objective observers from across the political spectrum agree, is unacceptable. America is the only developed nation in which medical costs bankrupts families. The cost of medical care is overwhelming state governments, threatening their ability to deliver other necessary services. Medical cost inflation is outpacing growth in wages and general inflation, resulting in increasing numbers of families and businesses being priced out of health care coverage.

Meaningful, comprehensive health care reform is critically needed. It’s what the American people desire. But Congress and the White House seem unable to deliver. The fault is not solely with the Democrats nor solely with the Republicans. This is a bi-partisan failure. And hiding behind health insurance reform won’t change that reality.

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

Obama: Don’t Bet Against Health Care Reform This Year

Posted by Alan on July 17, 2009

A few hours ago I wrote about how President Barack Obama was ratcheting up the heat and pressure on Congress to pass comprehensive health care reform in August. Today he turned down the heat a bit, but kept the pressure on. In a skillful speech he laid out to the American people the benefits they will gain from health care reform, described the substantial areas of agreement already achieved by negotiators, reinforced his reasons for seeking reform, and pledged that reform will be enacted this year.

Some highlights from his speech.

Existing common ground: “We’re now at a point where most everyone agrees we need that we need to invest in preventive and wellness programs that save us money and help [us] lead healthier lives.We have an agreement on the need to simplify the insurance forms and paperwork that patients have to fill out every time they go to a hospital or see a doctor. We have an agreement on the need to reform our health insurance system so that if you lose your job, change your job or start a small business. you can still get affordable health insurance. We have an agreement on the need to prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to Americans with pre-existing medical conditions. And we have agreement on the need for a health insurance exchange, a marketplace where people can compare prices and quality and choose the health care plan that best suits their needs.”

On the benefits reform: “This is what health insurance reform will mean for the average American. It will mean lower costs, more choices and coverage you can count on. It will save you and your family money. You won’t have to worry about being priced out of the market. You won’t have to worry about one illness leading to your family going into financial ruin. Americans will have coverage that finally has stability and security. And Americans who don’t have health insurance will finally have affordable quality options.”

Impact on the deficit: “Health insurance reform cannot add to our deficit over the next decade. And I mean it.”

On cost containment: “Our proposal would change incentives so that providers will give patients the best care, not just the most expensive care, which will mean big savings over time. This is what we mean when we say that we need ‘delivery system reform.’ I’ve proposed to Congress .. that an independent group of doctors and medical experts will oversee long term cost saving measures. Every year there’s a new report that details how much waste and inefficiency there is in Medicare, how best practices are not always used, and how many billions of dollars could be saved. Unfortunately, this report ends up sitting on a shelf. And what we want to do is force Congress to make sure that they are acting on these recommendations to bend the cost curve each and every year.”

What’s at stake and the timing of reform: “Now is not the time to slow down. And now is certainly not the time to lose heart. Make no mistake, if we step back from this challenge at this moment we are consigning our children to a future of skyrocketing premiums and crushing deficits. There is no argument about that. If we don’t achieve health care reform we cannot control the costs of Medicare and Medicaid and we can not control our long term debt and our long term deficits … If we don’t get health care reform done now then no one’s health insurance is going to be secure because you’re going to continue to see premiums going up at astronomical rates,  out-of-pocket costs going up at astronomical rates and people who lose their job or have a pre-existing medical condition or changing their jobs finding themselves in a situation where they cannot get health care. And that is not a future that I accept for the United States of America. And that’s why those who are betting against this happening this year are badly mistaken. We are going to get this done. We will reform health care. It will happen this year.”

A few observations:

The President referred to his effort as “health insurance reform” on more than one occasion. Every drama needs a bad guy. With hospitals and doctors supporting key elements of reform, prepare for a lot of the rhetoric to turn against the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

President Obama did not mention the month of August even once. As I wrote earlier today, he had been hammering at Congress to pass legislation next month. If the House and Senate were each to pass legislation that quickly it would still need to go to a conference committee, which means final passage would still be in the Fall. By emphasizing when the bill will get to his desk (“this year”) as opposed to when milestones are achieved in Congress, he shifts attention away from the inside baseball of the legislative schedule and returns it to the benefits of reform (“It will save you and your family money.”). That’s smart politics – it focuses on the benefits, not the features, and avoids appearing like he’s jamming reform through an unwilling Congress.

In his list of areas of agreement, the President included Exchanges, but did not mention a government-run health plan. Exchanges, as noted in a previous post, Exchanges can be a force for good or for not so good. Watching what kind of exchange emerges from the debate will be important. One should not read too much into his failure to mention public plans. He was simply being accurate – there’s no consensus on them. This doesn’t mean he’s giving up on the idea, just that the issue is still open.

President Obama also did not use his statement to threaten Republicans with an expedited process that would prevent them from filibustering on health care reform. This public restraint contrasts with the comments of his top aides. Coupled with his recent meetings with Senate moderates it indicates the Administration has not completely given up on the finding common ground critical for a bi-partisan solution.

The Obama Administration is deep into campaign mode on the health care reform issue. As he proved over the past two-plus years, it’s risky to bet against Barack Obama in a campaign. As the man said, “We are going to get this done. We will reform health care. It will happen this year.” If there’s any way to deliver on this promise, President Obama will find it.

Posted in Barack Obama, Health Care Reform, Healthcare Reform, Politics | Tagged: , , | 15 Comments »