Universal coverage

In his “The Great American Health Care Divide,” Brad DeLong laments the great ideological divide that has so long prevented this great country from developing a coherent national health policy.

I am glad to have Brad’s company, because I have whined about the same divide for several decades now, as evidenced by my “Turning Our Gaze from Bread and Circus Games,” penned in 1995 and “Is there hope for the uninsured?

Finally, after a nice visit with my friends at the Cato Institute and reading the often amazing commentary on John Goodman’s NCPA blog , I was moved to pen a post on The New York Times blog Economix entitled “Social Solidarity vs. Rugged Individualism.” It was inspired by the often hysterical description of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as a government takeover of U.S. health care or a trampling on the freedom of Americans, as in mandating individuals to have minimally adequate health insurance, lest they become freeloaders on the system.

The basic idea of my proposal is simple.

In 2009, Paul Starr had warned Democrats of a potential voter backlash against the individual mandate and proposed instead a nudging arrangement. Uninsured Americans would be auto-enrolled into health plan, if they chose not to select one, but could opt out of it with the proviso that for the next five years they could then not buy insurance through the insurance exchanges established by the ACA at community-rated premiums, and potentially with federal subsidies.

My proposal is to make that a lifetime exclusion. An individual would have to choose one or the other system by age 25. Should individuals opting out fall seriously ill and not have the means to pay for their care, we would not let them die, of course, but to the extent possible we would cover their full bill – possibly at charges — by expropriating any assets they might have and garnishing any income above the federal poverty level they subsequently might earn. Something like that.

As Jay Gaskill’s somewhat opaque reaction in “RUGGED INDIVIDUALLISM is NOT the Essential Value of Freedom” suggests, people who oppose the ACA as trampling on their freedom are not comfortable with my prescription, which does not at all surprise me.

Continue reading “A Health Plan for Rugged Individualists”

Share on Twitter

In 1883, the authoritarian imperial government of Prince Otto von Bismarck – who famously declared, “It is not by speeches and majority votes that the great issues of our time will be decided…but by blood and iron” – established national health insurance for Germany.

The rationale for national health insurance is as clear now as it was to Bismarck 130 years ago. A country’s success – whether measured by the glory of its Kaiser, the expansion of its territory, the security of its borders, or the well-being of its population – rests on the health of its people.

Serious illness can strike anyone, and seriously ill people, as a rule, do not earn much money. The longer the seriously ill are untreated, the more costly their eventual treatment and maintenance become.

Private savings, as a rule, can pay the costs of treatment only for the thrifty and the well-off. So, unless we adopt the view that those without ample savings who fall seriously ill should quickly die (and so decrease the surplus population), a country with national health insurance will be a wealthier and more successful country. These arguments were entirely convincing to Bismarck. They are equally convincing today.

On January 1, 2014, the United States will partly implement a law – the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – that will not establish national health insurance, but that will, according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office, reduce by almost one-half the number of people in the US without health insurance. Back in 2009, President Barack Obama could have proposed a program as comprehensive as the one initiated by Bismarck. Such a program could have allowed, encouraged, and made it affordable for uninsured Americans to obtain health insurance similar to what members of Congress have; or it simply could have expanded the existing Medicare system for those over 65 to cover all Americans.

Instead, Obama put his weight behind the complicated ACA. The reason, as it was explained to me back in 2009, was that the core of the ACA was identical to the plan that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had proposed and signed into law in that state in 2006: “ObamaCare” would be “RomneyCare” with a new coat of paint. With Romney the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for the 2012 presidential election, few Republicans would be able to vote against what was their candidate’s signature legislative initiative as governor.

Thus, the US Congress, it was supposed, would enact the ACA with healthy and bipartisan majorities, and Obama would demonstrate that he could transcend Washington’s partisan gridlock.

Continue reading “The Great American Health Care Divide”

Share on Twitter

It was one of the most notorious quotes that emerged from the battle over the Affordable Care Act.

We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it. – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, March 9, 2010.

The line was taken out-of-context, as Pelosi’s office has continued to protest. But more than three years after her quote — and nearly three years after the ACA passed Congress — Pelosi’s accidental gaffe seems pretty apropos.

The law continues to delight supporters with what they see as positive surprises; for example, some backers say Obamacare deserves credit for the unexpected slowdown in national health spending. But critics warn that the law’s perverse effects on premiums are just beginning to be felt.

And there still are “vast parts of the bill you never hear about,” notes Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington & Lee. “I wonder if they’re [even] being implemented.”

Jost and a half-dozen other health policy experts spoke with me, ahead of Obamacare’s third birthday on Saturday, to discuss how the law’s been implemented and what lawmakers could have done better.

Continue reading “Five Things Obamacare Got Right-and What Experts Would Fix”

Share on Twitter

“Your baby did not die for nothing,” Rebekah said, looking up at the monitor so Kim would not see her tears. “Your baby was a messenger to us.”

This is how a friend who specializes in high-risk obstetrics attempts to comfort a grieving patient when she delivers a stillborn baby, as portrayed in my novel Catching Babies.

This bedside homily is small succor in the face of unspeakable devastation. But the idea that one family’s heartbreak will contribute to medical research and in some remote but real way help spare families in the future is often the only comfort an OB/GYN or nurse-midwife has to offer.

Which is all the more reason to celebrate this week’s tremendous news about HIV: this time, the messenger baby lived.

According to reports, an infant was born in Mississippi with the virus that causes AIDS, given aggressive doses of the anti-viral medications known to contain — not cure — the disease, and is now disease-free at two-and-half years old. It is the second known “cure” of an HIV-positive patient, and there are no words to describe how exhilarating it feels to read or type those words for anyone who came of age during, or lost friends to, the ugly and terrifying scourge of AIDS.

So take a moment to savor it. A baby with HIV has been cured. No viral load. Disease-free. Yes!

Continue reading “HIV Messenger Baby”

Share on Twitter


I’m a health care expert who follows health reform closely, so when I’m confused about something I know most people are.

When Massachusetts passed the universal coverage law in 2006 I didn’t understand exactly what the Connector was supposed to do. If they had called it a health insurance store or marketplace or comparison site I would have grasped the concept better. Once it’s explained it’s obvious, but why use the word “connector” in the first place?

The federal Affordable Care Act makes matters even worse. It calls these things health insurance “exchanges.”

That word has the wrong connotations. When I hear the word “exchange” I think of a stock exchange. That’s not somewhere I go to buy or compare products or services to use. Others think of “exchange” as what they do when they made a purchase that was the wrong size or received a gift they didn’t like.

Even for health wonks that fully grasp the concept, the word “exchange” is confusing, because the term is also used in the context of health information exchanges, which are used to exchange clinical data. I often hear people asking about the impact of the “exchange” –without specifying “insurance exchange” or “information exchange,” and I have to ask them which they mean.

There’s a simple solution to this: let’s dump the word “exchange” and use a term that’s more understandable and appropriate. How about:

  • Store
  • Marketplace
  • Comparison site
  • Supermarket

David E. Williams is co-founder of MedPharma Partners LLC, strategy consultant in technology enabled health care services, pharma, biotech, and medical devices. Formerly with BCG and LEK. He writes regularly at Health Business Blog, where this post first appeared.

Share on Twitter

The Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will likely be handed down on the last day of this year’s term. If the Court finds that the ACA—either in whole or in part—violates the Constitution, the health care industry will be shaken to its core. And, no matter what legal justification the Court uses to invalidate the ACA, the structure of constitutional law will be severely undercut. The resulting medical and legal chaos will be expensive, divisive, and completely unnecessary. Nothing in the text, history or structure of the Constitution warrants the Court overturning Congress’s effort to address our national health care problems.

For the health care industry, a decision striking down the entire ACA would be an absolute disaster. Physicians, hospitals, and private companies have been shifting how they practice medicine in anticipation of the ACA’s implementation. They’ve been creating accountable care organizations,[1] envisioning a significant reduction in uncompensated care, and enjoying increased Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement in primary care settings.[2] That will all vanish if the ACA is struck down. Moreover, seniors will pay more for prescription drugs and young adults will be taken off their parents’ insurance. The private insurance industry, which has seen its market shrink significantly over the last decade,[3] will see a real chance to reverse that trend disappear. According to one estimate, if the ACA is overturned, insurers may lose over $1 trillion in revenues between 2013 and 2020.[4]

Continue reading “Health Care and Constitutional Chaos”

Share on Twitter

Before long the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the health care reform law, a decision that will have tremendous policy ramifications and could reshape the presidential election.

But even if the court overturns the Affordable Care Act, as some observers predict, that won’t change the reality that our country’s health care system is seriously broken. In short, regardless of what the court says, people will still be getting sick, costs will keep rising and too many people will be uninsured. And our federal budget will never be sustainable if we can’t bring health care costs under control.

The Democratic Party and progressives invested a huge amount of political capital in getting Congress to pass the ACA in 2010. The act was not perfect, but it did provide a start to the many years of work needed to create a sustainable health care system. In speeches, Republicans and conservatives acknowledge that our health care system is unsustainable and have spoken of a need to “replace”; however, in the two years since the ACA passed, they have failed to be clear about what they actually favor.

As we look to what we’re actually going to do about the problem, what’s clear is that progressives and conservatives both need to move beyond their familiar positions to find a new kind of deal. This seems politically impossible before November, but politicians on both sides would do themselves – and the country – a big favor if they quietly started devising a solution that everyone can live with, even if neither side gets everything it wants.

For progressives, universal coverage has always been the Holy Grail and dream deferred, not just of health policy, but of all social policy. I don’t think conservatives have a health policy interest that is so clear and heartfelt as universal coverage is for progressives, but if I had to take a stab, I think it is their belief that people don’t have enough “skin in the game” and are therefore wasteful of other people’s money.

Continue reading “A Health Care Setup Both Sides Could Live With”

Share on Twitter

Most people regard health care reform in America as thoroughly bungled. The proverbial train left the station weak and wheezing, was pushed off the rails by hooligans and is about to crumple in an inglorious heap in the ditch. Only about 20% say the reform hits the sweet spot, with the rest convinced it went too far or didn’t go far enough.

To review the most recent pilings-on: in a time of huge Federal deficits, we get depressing predictions that the PPACA will do little or nothing to slow the growth of health care costs. Only a year after passage of what was supposed to be comprehensive reform, Democrats acknowledge that Medicare and Medicaid spending remain out of control and propose new cuts in the hundreds of billions. In the span of four months, Republicans switched from posing as aggrieved defenders of Medicare spending, to proposing to slash it and leave seniors to absorb the spillover. Medicaid funding is probably even more precarious, since fewer Medicaid recipients vote.

To add injury to injury, the Supreme court may rule to invalidate the entire law, or perhaps just the mandate to purchase insurance, thereby removing the most hated part of the law, but eliminating the “universal” part of universal coverage and inviting an actuarial death spiral. Oh, and the few reforms that look like they might bring costs down, like the IPAB board in Medicare and the minimum medical expense ratio for insurers, are under threat of being watered down. A year after legislation has been passed that will transform nearly a fifth of the American economy, to the casual observer it looks like nothing much has happened and nothing in the future is secure, especially anything that the big industry players don’t like.

In light of this and more, pessimism is understandable, but what we are witnessing in these turns of events is not mere politically-driven chaos. There is good reason to think that events are unfolding more or less in line with a staged strategy for deep reform that emerged out of the experience in Massachusetts. The strategy is essentially this: enact universal coverage first to precipitate a sense of crisis. This will lead to deep reform on the problem that exacerbates all other problems: the cost of health care. Readers of this blog need little reminding that these costs are twice as high as in any other nation. Continue reading “It’s All Going According to Plan”

Share on Twitter
MASTHEAD STUFF

MATTHEW HOLT
Founder & Publisher

JOHN IRVINE
Executive Editor

JONATHAN HALVORSON
Editor

JOE FLOWER
Contributing Editor

MICHAEL MILLENSON
Contributing Editor

ALEX EPSTEIN
Director of Digital Media

MICHELLE NOTEBOOM Business Development

MUNIA MITRA, MD
Clinical Medicine

Vikram Khanna
Editor-At-Large, Wellness

THCB FROM A-Z

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER
@THCBStaff

WHERE IN THE WORLD WE ARE

The Health Care Blog (THCB) is based in San Francisco. We were founded in 2004 by Matthew Holt and John Irvine.

MEDIA REQUESTS

Interview Requests + Bookings. We like to talk. E-mail us.

BLOGGING
Yes. We're looking for bloggers. Send us your posts.

STORY TIPS
Breaking health care story? Drop us an e-mail.

CROSSPOSTS

We frequently accept crossposts from smaller blogs and major U.S. and International publications. You'll need syndication rights. Email a link to your submission.

WHAT WE'RE LOOKING FOR

Op-eds. Crossposts. Columns. Great ideas for improving the health care system. Pitches for healthcare-focused startups and business.Write ups of original research. Reviews of new healthcare products and startups. Data-driven analysis of health care trends. Policy proposals. E-mail us a copy of your piece in the body of your email or as a Google Doc. No phone calls please!

THCB PRESS

Healthcare focused e-books and videos for distribution via THCB and other channels like Amazon and Smashwords. Want to get involved? Send us a note telling us what you have in mind. Proposals should be no more than one page in length.

HEALTH SYSTEM $#@!!!
If you've healthcare professional or consumer and have had a recent experience with the U.S. health care system, either for good or bad, that you want the world to know about, tell us about it. Have a good health care story you think we should know about? Send story ideas and tips to editor@thehealthcareblog.com.

REPRINTS Questions on reprints, permissions and syndication to ad_sales@thehealthcareblog.com.

WHAT WE COVER

HEALTHCARE, GENERAL

Affordable Care Act
Business of Health Care
National health policy
Life on the front lines
Practice management
Hospital managment
Health plans
Prevention
Specialty practice
Oncology
Cardiology
Geriatrics
ENT
Emergency Medicine
Radiology
Nursing
Quality, Costs
Residency
Research
Medical education
Med School
CMS
CDC
HHS
FDA
Public Health
Wellness

HIT TOPICS
Apple
Analytics
athenahealth
Electronic medical records
EPIC
Design
Accountable care organizations
Meaningful use
Interoperability
Online Communities
Open Source
Privacy
Usability
Samsung
Social media
Tips and Tricks
Wearables
Workflow
Exchanges

EVENTS

TedMed
HIMSS South x South West
Health 2.0
WHCC
AHIP
AHIMA
Log in - Powered by WordPress.