California

flying cadeuciiAfter more than a year of conspiratorial planning that would make Francis Underwood proud, California’s trial attorneys got a number assigned to an opaquely worded ballot initiative on Drug and Alcohol Testing of Doctors. Medical Negligence Lawsuits Initiative Statute As a result, “Proposition 46” could give California voters an unwitting hand in doing what this attorney group has been unable to accomplish after 40 years of inept legislative lobbying and dubious court challenges: undermine the state’s Medical Injury and Compensation Reform Act, or MICRA.

MICRA was passed in 1978 by a Democratic-dominated legislature and signed into law by then-governor Jerry Brown in response to the collapse of the state’s medical professional liability insurance market.  MICRA didn’t change the right of injured patients to obtain unlimited economic damages for all medical costs, lost wages and lifetime earnings. What it did was limit was non-economic “pain and suffering” damages to $250,000. Up until 1978, California’s trial attorneys had used this highly speculative class of damages to rake in a third of the multi-million jackpot jury awards. That made California physicians’ malpractice insurance unavailable at any price, leading many doctors to close their practices and leave the state.

That ended with the passage of MICRA. The market stabilized and in the decades that followed, billions in health care savings from lower professional liability costs were passed through to California’s patients.

Early last year, California’s physicians had heard rumors that a ballot initiative to undo MICRA’s non-economic cap was being planned.  Little did they know that California’s trial attorneys would take their cue from political consultant-bully Chris Lehane by opening their campaign with a mass mailing of anti-MICRA cadaver toe tags. That was quickly followed by the neighbors of pediatrician and then California Medical Association President Paul Phinney receiving deceptive postcards implying he was a drug dealer.

Months later, the ballot initiative – that was 100% underwritten by the trial attorneys and their allies at a cost of $2.85 per signature – landed on California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ desk.  The initiative’s authors cleverly disguised its quadrupling of the MICRA cap to more than $1 million (“to account for inflation”) and cynically camouflaged it between two conversation-changers:  1) mandatory physician drug screening and 2) mandatory uploading of the narcotic prescription history of every California patient to an online database. Naturally, Ms. Harris rewarded her trial attorney donors by making a mockery of the state’s single-subject rule and okayed it.

Continue reading “California’s Proposition 46: Trial Attorneys Behaving Badly”

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Among the American public and even some policymakers, it has become conventional wisdom that poverty, a dearth of supermarkets, reduced leisure time, and insufficient exercise are key forces behind the U.S. obesity epidemic.

Conventional wisdom is an unreliable guide, however, and in this case, much of it is wrong: The epidemic actually coincides with a falling share of income spent on food, wider availability of fruits and vegetables, increased leisure time, and more exercise among the general population.

Of course, there are differences between individuals, but we need to explain the change in obesity over time, not why people differ. Some differences in body mass index (BMI) are associated with genetic makeup. But genes haven’t changed in the past 50 years, so differences between individuals don’t explain trends.

Data from a new analysis of this issue indicates that the same argument applies to other characteristics, such as geography. Southern hospitality’s heavy food hasn’t caused the obesity epidemic any more than an active Colorado lifestyle has prevented it. There are differences at a given point in time, but the trend is the same, as shown in the figure below.

Percentage of Population with a BMI Over 25 in California, Colorado, and Mississippi

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SOURCE: Calculations based on Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey; smooth trend adjusted for 2010 demographics.

Increases in obesity have also been surprisingly similar by level of education and by racial/ethnic group, as the following figures show.

Increase in Average BMI Nationwide, by Highest Education Level Achieved

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SOURCE: Calculations based on Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey; smooth trend adjusted for 2010 demographics. Continue reading “What’s Behind the Obesity Epidemic? Easily Accessible Food, and Lots of It”

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Shifting Millennial Attitudes on Obamacare December 2013.
Harvard Institute of Politics. Dec 4th, 2013. Poll

A few observations after 10 weeks of Obamacare implementation.

The Obama administration released the first two months enrollment figures this week. With HealthCare.gov still struggling in November, the enrollment of 137,000 people in the 36 states was expected. The main event for the federal exchanges will play out in December now that most people can navigate it

What I found notable in the report was the lack of robust enrollment in the states. In states where the exchange has been running at least adequately for many weeks now, the enrollment numbers are far from what I would have expected.

California enrolled 107,000 people in private plans in the first two months. But California has cancelled 800,000 current individual health plans effective January 1––all of whom have to buy a new plan by January 1 or become uninsured. The only place those who are subsidy eligible can get a subsidized plan is in the California exchange.

Continue reading “Data Points: More Backroom Chaos and Low State Numbers”

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Healthcare.gov appears to be working much better, at least in enabling individuals to select plans. And some of the state exchange web sites appear to be improving their functionality too. Some have heralded these advances as providing hope that the Exchanges will be able to meet the enrollment projections on which the economics of insurance without medical underwriting in part depend. But do these claims stand up to the cold light of mathematics?  Not very well.

Here’s the headline:

A close look at the numbers shows that the pace of enrollments from here to the close of open enrollment needed to meet projections is high in every state, even those touted as successful, and almost impossibly high in many.  Given the incredibly slow start in most jurisdictions, it will not just take a little pickup over the next few months to achieve the projected and needed number of persons in the Exchanges. It will take a miraculous last minute stampede. Since miracles seldom occur,  the result may be two different stories of the Affordable Care Act: a few states in which the Exchanges proved from the start to be a somewhat stable mechanism for providing health insurance without medical underwriting but a significant number of other states in which the results for at least the first year represent a large failure.

Recent News

News appears to be breaking out
that the federal exchanges enrolled about 100,000 in November.  This is being heralded as somewhat of a success compared to the 26,000 who enrolled in October. And, of course, enrollment figures from healthcare.gov are difficult to assess due to the actual and feared dysfunctionality of the web site. But one way to look at this is to consider what has to happen between December 1, 2013, and March 23, 2014, the close of open enrollment to make projections. The states that are dependent on healthcare.gov need about 4.84 million enrollees by the end of that period if the nation is to meet the goal of having 7 million enrolled in the Exchanges by the close of open enrollment.  If, right now, there are about 126,000 enrollees in those states, we are just 2.5% of the way there.

The pace of enrollment on healthcare.gov will need to increase by a factor of about 20 in order to meet goal.  In absolute terms, healthcare.gov needs to be enrolling about 42,000 people per day. And while perhaps not every single one of those people need to enroll for the system to succeed, the 7 million enrollment goal isn’t just a mere wish. There are, as I and many others have noted potentially serious consequences to the stability of insurance markets if the figures fall well short, even in several states.

Continue reading “In Which Your Author Does the Math”

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“Well, Facebook Wasn’t Built In a Day.” – Unnamed Exchange Developer.

More than 4.8 million users visited Healthcare.gov for the grand opening of the federal health insurance marketplace on Tuesday, according to officials.

It didn’t go quite as planners had hoped. In fact, if there was an unofficial word of the day, it was glitch.

Many users of Healthcare.gov reported long delays and difficulty accessing the federal insurance marketplace,  experiencing “glitches” ranging from error messages to blank pages.  The problems were repeated at state-run exchanges around the country to varying degree, from California to New York.

Pundits like Wonkblog’s Ezra Klein were quick to point out that the political victory the GOP might have gained from the uncertain start was largely lost in the uproar in Washington over the government shutdown, which dominated news reports.

At least one frustrated user chronicled the experience (see related post ‘Descent into Madness: One Man’s Visit to Healthcare.gov, October 1st ). Others took to Twitter to express their outrage or show off their savage or finely-tuned senses of humor.

Users of the federal exchange reported problems including error messages (see above), funky dropdown menu behavior, page freezes, blips, broken links and long page load times — generally either a sign of high volume or inelegantly designed databases.

HHS officials declined to reveal how many people signed up for new insurance plans overall, leading some theorists to speculate that not very many people were able to make it through the process successfully. In point of fact, there were suspiciously few reports of users successfully completing the registration process at all, probably not a very good sign and possibly an indication of a disaster. Continue reading “Reports Suggest Exchange Numbers Are Very Low”

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Back in 2010 — before two elections, before the Supreme Court ruled, before the word “crisis” stopped following the words “California budget” — Kim Belshé settled on a guiding principle: “2014 is tomorrow.”

And now, it almost is.

The Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate takes effect in less than 100 days. The nation’s health insurance exchanges go live next week.

And for nearly a year, Belshé — secretary of the Health and Human Services Agency under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — was at the center of California’s efforts to begin implementing those Obamacare provisions and many others.

I interviewed Belshé, Schwarzenegger, and nearly a dozen other ex-officials and experts about whether California’s quest to lead the nation on ACA implementation actually paid off — and what it brought the state.

Why California? Why Not?

Every expert suggested that the ACA’s rapid implementation in California could be traced back to Schwarzenegger’s efforts in 2007 and 2008 to enact universal health care.

(And in some cases, even older efforts at reform. “We learned a lot from the 1990s,” says Belshé, noting that failed attempts to create purchasing cooperatives in California helped set the foundation for designing insurance exchanges more than a decade later.)

Although the Schwarzenegger plan ultimately failed, many of its components — from big elements like the exchanges to smaller pieces like guaranteed issue — ended up in the ACA. And because state leaders had already done much of the foundational work, they were better positioned to speedily roll out the national law.

Daniel Zingale, senior vice president of the California Endowment, says that Schwarzenegger’s efforts were a preview of the national ACA battle to come — which meant that many stakeholders in California had already made peace with the law’s key provisions by 2010.

“We’d had our big fights over the individual mandate here” in 2007 and 2008, says Zingale, a former health care aide to Schwarzenegger. “Democrats and labor groups had been through it [and] were ok with it.”

“But the nation hadn’t been through that yet.”

Still, California’s support for Obamacare was hardly assured. As late as January 2010, Schwarzenegger wavered on the ACA — but by April that year, he was the first Republican governor (and one of the first governors in the nation) to throw his support behind the law and begin crafting a framework for implementation.

“It gave us a bit of a head start,” Belshé acknowledges.

Continue reading “Did We Get It Right? A Behind the Scenes Look at California’s Healthcare Strategy”

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As states race to implement health reform, California doesn’t want to settle for second.

“We don’t want to be a pace car state” when it comes to implementing health reform, state HHS Secretary Diana Dooley told Politico back in January 2011. “We want to be the lead car.”

It’s a metaphor that California leaders have returned to time and again. And to their credit, they’ve often succeeded.

While other states waffled, Golden State officials quickly embraced key Obamacare provisions like expanding Medicaid and creating insurance pools for individuals with pre-existing conditions.

At the same time, lawmakers crafted legislation intended to conform California’s health insurance plans to new standards under the Affordable Care Act.

And Covered California, the state’s health insurance exchange, also has drawn national attention for its speedy implementation. Among the 17 states that opted to run their own exchanges, California has “certainly [been] in the lead on getting their health plan information out … and getting the contracts signed,” Rachel Dolan, who monitors exchange activity for State Refor(u)m, a project of the National Academy of State Health Policy, said.

But the driving metaphor only extends so far.

“I don’t think it’s a race,” Dolan added, cautioning that each state might take unique approaches to exchange implementation — and objectively judging those individual strategies is impossible.

And a more essential issue might be getting lost, amid the growing number of questions over which state exchanges will be open for business on Oct. 1.

“Lots of people are asking about readiness,” said Caroline Pearson, who leads Avalere Health’s efforts to track health reform implementation. “But no one is asking about whether it matters.”

Where the States Stand on Readiness
The sprint to get the exchanges off the ground — which for some states didn’t really begin in earnest until after the Supreme Court’s June 2012 decision to uphold the ACA — has led to repeated delays and ongoing concerns.

Continue reading “The Exchanges Won’t Be Ready in Time. And it Probably Won’t Matter.”

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I have to say I was surprised with the press reports last week that there wasn’t “rate shock” in California when the California exchange offered preliminary information about their new plans and rates.

At least one prominent health actuarial group had predicted a 30% baseline increase in costs for California’s new health insurance exchange plans under the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare”).

As the director of the California exchange put it, “These rates are way below the worst-case gloom-and-doom scenarios we have heard.”

But a few days later there is lots more information coming out and it would appear we have a case of apples to oranges to grapefruit. And, we have a pretty good case of rate shock.

First, the exchange officials pointed out that we have to be careful to compare apples to apples when looking at 2013 rates and comparing them to the 2014 exchange rates because the 2014 exchange plans have far more generous benefits.

Yes we do, particularly when the California exchange forces us to give up our apple and buy a more expensive orange.

One of the reasons health insurance in the exchange will cost a lot more in most states is because the new health law outlaws many of the existing plans now being offered and requires only those much richer plans to be sold.

Are people going to get more coverage for their money? Yes. Do they want more coverage if the premium costs for those plans is a lot higher? Likely yes if taxpayers are paying for most of it. If not, clearly they didn’t want to pay for it before. Come January, lots of California consumers in the small group and individual market are going to get a letter from their existing insurer telling them their current plan is no longer available and the cost of the new required plans will be a lot more.

Simply, the new law is taking plan design choices away instead of letting the consumer decide what is good for them. Does that matter in California?

Continue reading “Rate Shock and Awe in California”

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If it is done right, the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) may well promise uninsured Americans a lot more than cheap, reliable medical care. It can also open the door to the democratic empowerment of millions of poor people, who are often alienated from much of the nation’s civic life, by strengthening the organizations that give them a voice.

This year more than 30 million uninsured Americans are to begin signing up for Obamacare, but the vast majority of those eligible for either the expanded Medicaid program, or for subsidized private health insurance through state health exchanges, have no idea how to enroll. Surveys and focus groups have found that up to three-quarters of Americans who might directly benefit from the program are skeptical that the law can provide high-quality insurance coverage at a price they can afford.

Continue reading “Obamacare’s Other Benefit”

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So far California has received $910 million in federal grants to launch its new health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).

The California exchange, “Covered California,” has so far awarded a $183 million contract to Accenture to build the website, enrollment, and eligibility system and another $174 million to operate the exchange for four years.

The state will also spend $250 million on a two-year marketing campaign. By comparison California Senator Barbara Boxer spent $28 million on her 2010 statewide reelection campaign while her challenger spent another $22 million.

The most recent installment of the $910 million in federal money was a $674 million grant. The exchange’s executive director noted that was less than the $706 million he had asked for. “The feds reduced the 2014 potential payment for outreach and enrollment by about $30 million,” he said. “But we think we have enough resources on hand to do the biggest outreach that I have ever seen.”

Continue reading “A $910 Million Price Tag For California Exchange: A Dark Omen of Things to Come”

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Matthew Holt
Founder & Publisher

John Irvine
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Jonathan Halvorson
Editor

Alex Epstein
Director of Digital Media

Munia Mitra, MD
Chief Medical Officer

Vikram Khanna
Editor-At-Large, Wellness

Joe Flower
Contributing Editor

Michael Millenson
Contributing Editor

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