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It is hard to see how the health care plan the President released this week changes anything.

There is nothing new in it save a health insurance rate regulatory board that is an awkward political proposal at best. What powers would it really have and how would it operate in conjunction with the states already
charged with insurance company oversight are just two of the first questions it does not answer.

Fundamentally, what good would insurance rate regulation do if the President’s plan has only tepid cost containment built into it in the first place?

There are not the votes in the House right now to pass this new proposal—or the Senate bill. There are not likely even the votes in the Senate under a 51-vote rule for the President’s new plan.

That could change if the President scores a game changer on Thursday at Blair House that finally moves the polls from the 40% approval rating Democrats have had on health care to something over 50%.

Continue reading “The President’s Health Care Plan”

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Wellpoint is getting killed in the press over a “39%” rate increase for their individual health insurance block in California.

HHS Secretary Sebelius has pointed to the Wellpoint individual rate increases demanding an explanation. The President even brought it up in his interview on Sunday. At a time Democrats are fond of calling insurance executives “villains” this story just adds more fuel to the fire.

No less than five reporters  called me the day the story broke asking me to explain it all.

Falling back on my industry experience it is probable:

  • The “39%” headline is anecdotally the biggest increase the press has found—the average is probably less albeit in the high 20% range.
  • This is likely driven by a combination of increasing medical cost trend, a bad economy, and anti-selection as healthier people disproportionately drop their coverage leaving a sicker group in the pool.
  • The rate increase is probably “defensible,” at least actuarially, based upon the actual experience in that block.

When the day is done this probably says more about why systemic health care reform is so critical than about any one company’s behavior. Last week we heard national health care spending skyrocketed to 17.3% of the economy. This is a real life example of what that macroeconomic statistic really means.

Continue reading “Wellpoint and Their “39%” Rate Increase”

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Our nation’s Founders created a pretty good system of government by starting from what they wanted to achieve, exemplified by the Bill of Rights, so perhaps we would be wise to base health care reform on a similar footing.  Instead, Congress is doing its usual muddled process to produce legislation that is likely to make no one very happy, but at least tries to minimize the number of people made very unhappy.  As is too often the case, it is easier to create straw men to attack than to address the real problems. Insurance companies seem to be everyone’s favorite target to demonize, but the “evil” health insurance industry is like the various other players in the health care system: responding to the numerous and often perverse incentives in the current system.  There are bad things done to people by insurance companies — as there are done by doctors, hospitals, government, and just about every other player in the health care system.  There are both angels and demons working in health care, but mostly it is just normal people.  Perhaps ninety-nine percent of the people working in the health care system try to do right by the people they serve, but “doing right” may not mean the same thing to different people.

Continue reading “A Bill of Rights for Health Care Reform”

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Pity poor Senator Harry Reid. Not only is he facing an uphill reelection fight in Nevada, but as Majority Leader, he must reconcile the health care reform bills from the Finance and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees so as to attract sixty Senate votes. He’s guaranteed support from the more partisan Democrats, but to attract Democratic and one or two Republican centrists without losing liberals, he has to find ways to deal with two huge problems with the bills—and one giant red herring.

The giant red herring is the public option, THE big stumbling block for reform, mostly thanks to the efforts of lazy-thinking doctrinaire politicians of both parties—especially in the House. (Yes, Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Boehner, I mean you.) The reality is that for a public option to provide an adequate network, its payments to hospitals and physicians must be at least at Medicare levels. As experience with Medicare Advantage shows, this means its costs will be close to those of private coverage or higher, especially if it adopts Medicare’s uncontrolled fee-for-service structure and attracts the least utilization-conscious providers and patients.  All this makes nonsense of liberal claims that the public option is necessary to control costs, and equally, of conservative allegations that it will destroy the insurance industry—and leaves Senator Reid’s “opt-out” solution looking merely perverse.

Continue reading “Senate Health Care Reform: Two Huge Problems, One Giant Red Herring”

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Picture 31

The power of Twitter is real kids, and not for what you think. Used properly Twitter is an information filter. Exhibit A is what happened to the Von Schwebers who run PHARMASurveyor. They were a huge part of the Tools Panel which featured interoperation among 8 members of the Health 2.0 Accelerator at Health 2.0 a couple of weeks back. Then last week they were at an AHRQ conference on Drug Interactions when this happened. Erick von Schweber’s email picks up the story ..

The Chief Medical Officer of Express Scripts is doing his talk, about halfway through, and then tells this rather academic audience of scientists and researchers that there’s something new they need to attend to. It’s called Health 2.0, he says, and he puts up a PowerPoint slide with screen captures from WebMD, HealthVault, Healthline, DoubleCheckMD, etc. Then he tells the audience that the prior week he saw tweets about something new in the space, so he checked it out. He says this is the next major leap ahead in drug safety. So up comes a series of four slides, all screen grabs of PharmaSURVEYOR. And he calls us the Accelerator and explains what we do, disclaiming that he had no knowledge that we’d be there at the conference (I had moderated that morning’s session on making DDI evidence more relevant to patients and physicians; Hansten and Horn were my speakers, the guys who introduced the term “drug interaction” in the mid-sixties). He tells the audience that they must go to PharmaSURVEYOR as well as begin thinking in terms of consumer generated healthcare.

Now it just so happens that the Chief Scientist of Express Scripts but not the Chief Medical Officer had been to Health 2.0 and (I assume) seen the Tools panel demonstrations. But, and this will amaze no one, busy executives at big corporations don’t always immediately communicate all of their learnings with each other. So how did the Chief Medical Officer find out? He probably saw a re-tweet of the #health2con hash tag. That, ladies’n’genelmen, is how our kids is learning these days.

And do you want to see the incredible tools panel from Health 2.0 which contained both the accelerator integration project (in two parts), the debut of Keas, and Eliza showing the first Health 2.0 marriage? Funny you should ask.

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Barack Obama_addresses_joint_session_of_congress_2-24-09As Senate and House Committee versions of health reform move toward unified legislation and floor votes, the most complex political challenge is how to resolve the “public option” controversy. While one would have thought weightier issues such as the shape of Medicare reform, the taxation required to support coverage subsidies, or the presence or absence of mandates would have been pivotal in this debate, the seemingly peripheral issue of a Medicare-like “public option” might be the hill on which health reform dies.

The reasons are almost completely political. The Democratic base wants to end private health insurance. Single payer advocates view the public option as a down payment on an entirely public health financing system. Public option advocates believe that the plan’s bargaining power will drive private insurers out of business. (I’ve argued in a previous blog posting that, without fully understanding what they are doing, these single payer advocates are probably right.) Continue reading “Hiding In Plain Sight: Using Medicare To Solve The ‘Public Option’ Conundrum”

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So far, Congress’ response to the health care crisis has been alarmingly disappointing in three ways. First, by willingly accepting enormous sums from health care special interests, our representatives have obligated themselves to their benefactors’ interests rather than to those of the American people. More than 3,330 health care lobbyists – six for every member of Congress – contributed more than one-quarter of a billion dollars in the first and second quarters of 2009. A nearly equal amount has been contributed on this issue from non-health care organizations. This exchange of money prompted a Public Citizen lobbyist to comment, “A person can reach no other conclusion than this is a quid pro quo [this for that] activity.”

Second, by carefully avoiding reforms of the practices that drive health care’s enormous cost growth, Congress pretends to make meaningful change where little is contemplated. For example, current proposals would not rebuild our failing primary care capabilities, which other developed nations depend upon to maintain healthy people at half the cost of our specialist-dominated approach. They fail to advance the easy availability and understandability of information about care quality and costs, so purchasers still cannot identify which professionals and organizations are high or low performers, essential to allowing health care to finally work as a market. They do little to simplify the onerous burden associated with the administration of billing and collections. The proposals continue to favor fee-for-service reimbursement, which rewards the delivery of more products and services, independent of their appropriateness, rather than rewarding results. Policy makers overlook the importance of bipartisan proposals like the Wyden-Bennett Healthy Americans Act that uses the tax system to incentivize consumers to make wiser insurance purchases. And they all but ignore our unpredictable medical malpractice system, which nearly all doctors and hospital executives tell us unjustly encourages them to practice defensively.

Most distressing, the processes affecting health care reflect all policy-making. By allowing special interests to shape critically important policies, Congress no longer is able to address any of our most important national problems in the common interest – e.g., energy, the environment, education, poverty, productivity.

Over the last four years, a growing percentage of individual and corporate purchasers has become unable to afford coverage, and enrollment in commercial health plans has eroded substantially. Fewer enrollees mean fewer premium dollars available to buy health care products and services. With diminished revenues, the industry is unilaterally advocating for universal coverage. This would provide robust new revenues. But they are opposing changes to the medical profiteering practices that result in excessive costs, and which often are the foundation of their current business models. And these two elements form the troublesome core of the current proposals.

Each proposal so far contemplates additional cost. But we shouldn’t have to spend more to fix health care. Within the industry’s professional community, most experts agree that as much as one-third of all health care spending is wasted, meaning that a portion of at least $800 billion a year could be recovered. There is no mystery about where the most blatant waste is throughout the system, or how to restructure health care business practices to significantly reduce that waste.

Make no mistake. A failure to immediately address the deep drivers of the crisis will force the nation to pay a high price and then revisit the same issues in the near future. It is critical to restructure health care now, without delay, but in ways that serve the interests of the nation, not a particular industry.

Congress ultimately must be accountable to the American people. The American people must prevail on Congress to revise the current proposals, build on the lessons gleaned throughout the industry over the last 25 years, and directly address the structural flaws in our current system. True, most health industry groups will resist these efforts over the short term, but the result would be a more stable and sustainable health system, health care economy and national economy, outcomes that would benefit America’s people, its businesses and even its health care sector.

Finally, the American people should demand that Congress revisit and revise the conflicted lobbying practices that have so corroded policymaking on virtually every important issue. Doing so would revitalize the American people’s confidence in Congress, and would re-empower it to create thoughtful, innovative solutions to our national problems.

Brian Klepper is a health care analyst and industry advisor. David C. Kibbe is a family physician and a technology consultant to the industry. Robert Laszewski is a former senior health insurance executive and a health policy analyst. Alain Enthoven is Professor of Management (Emeritus) at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

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