HEALTH PLANS: From the AHIP fields (Ignagni loves Shalala and vice versa–Newt’s just watching!)

AHIP’s annual conference last week, and Karen Ignagni was recently spotted in USA Today slagging off Michael Moore as part of that newspaper’s “fair and balanced” look at the topic, and telling yet more lies about “Canadians coming to the US for health care.” Apparently her research team doesn’t subscribe to Health Affairs. I meanwhile was at Meditech having way more fun (more about that anon). But an anonymous THCB reader did indeed make it to Vegas. And considering AHIP’s somewhat risky current political tactics, I’d think Vegas was an appropriate place for them to have the show! Here’s his report:

The AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans) conference was everything that you would expect from a group of health insurance executives and the people who want to sell them stuff. Held at the posh Wynn resort in Las Vegas, it brought together the who’s who in health insurance, although fewer CEO-level folks than the World Health Care Congress. Unlike HIMSS, which is both much larger and pushing to include payers, purchasers and health information exchanges, AHIP doesn’t seem to be pushing such democratization. This is the business of health insurance.

Of course the triple 800-pound-gorillas in the room were the release of Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” the public awareness that CDHP wasn’t panning out to be the panacea that it was positioned to be, and the Democratic takeover of Congress.

Karen Ignagni, AHIP’s fearless leader, opened the conference with a less than rousing invitation for the assembled attendees to pat themselves on the back for all of the good work that they are doing to improve healthcare…and to consider themselves among “the patriots” on July 4. Maybe it was the early hour, but I believe that I counted exactly twelve people clapping.

Ignagni introduced her “close personal friend” former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala (under President Clinton) and current president of University of Miami. I think that Shalala was chosen as a way of demonstrating that AHIP has connections with Democrats as well as Republicans. Shalala told the audience to support AHIP because Ignagni is among the most connected people in Washington on health issues…and – again to a smattering of applause – echoed the sentiment that those in the audience were somehow “patriots” in the cause of improving healthcare. Shalala continued about her co-chairmanship (with Senator Bob Dole) of the commission looking into the mistreatment of troops at Walter Reed. It’s a very difficult problem because there are very few experts on the military health system. But, she told us, that it was an example of a single payer, government run system…and look, look…at all of the problems, especially in transitions of care (that I’m sure have nothing to do with the rivalries that exist between military branches and are all about the MHS being “single payer” and government run). She went on to speak about how unlikely it was that there would be transformational change anytime soon because while there is widespread agreement that healthcare needs reform that there is not widespread agreement on how to fix it. We could expect incrementalism or worse, and that she (and the Clintons) had mis-read the public’s desire for change in 1993. (Ed’s note: It appears that the time and options Shalala has acquired on the United HealthGroup board have softened her liberal credentials somewhat!)

Next up was Newt Gingrich, who began by recommending Nicholas Sarcozy’s new book and focused on the new French President’s admission that the French people need to “work harder”. He said that he might run for President but was waiting for the current group of those “interviewing” for the position to narrow a bit. He declared the Medicare drug benefit and the sign-up process a success because of the power of consumer choice. Using a metaphor he dubbed “Medi-Cruise” for government run or single payer healthcare, he likened the ability of senior citizens to navigate the complexities of choosing vacation cruises with their abilities to choose optimal drug benefits. Seniors – according to Newt – did a much better job of choosing a benefit than if the government had chosen a one-size-fits-all benefit: Just imagine if the government chose your cruise for you – “Medi-Cruise”…and if everyone was forced to have the same-type room! As if a cruise – paid for on a voluntary basis by people themselves and health benefits – necessary and paid for by the government – are the same thing. Gingrich – on a positive note – said that the National Health Information Network (including digitization of individual providers) should be viewed on the same importance and scale as the national highway projects under Eisenhower. He rationalized this huge government project because it was for national security. He also focused on ferreting out fraud and abuse instead of making wholesale rate cuts. Ultimately, Gingrich is among those who believe that transparency of cost and quality information and consumer incentives will make healthcare a functioning market. He expects consumers to lead transformative changes in healthcare. There was no mention of the recent CDHP story in the WSJ.

Possibly fearing disruption or protest, Q&A at both sessions was short, seemed tense, and required clear identification by name and affiliation…not unreasonable…I had the feeling that any overtly accusatory questioner would be cut off, ushered out, and pilloried by the crowd. Ignagni seemed loaded for bear.


Next was Craig Barret of Intel, who I’ve heard give basically the same speech too many times.

I was not able to attend “The Governator’s” closing session, but my
colleague said that he opened charismatically and then settled into
reading the script that he was given (basically the details of his
plan). The big applause was about rejecting a single payer system. Mitt
Romney was a keynote speaker last year.

All of the usual exhibitors attended the conference, with Intuit
actually able to show a partially working demo version of its personal
healthcare management software. There were a lot of vendors selling to
other vendors. I saw Bank of America and other financial services
firms. Booth prices were up considerably and several vendors scaled
back their booth size in accordance. Some were grumbling about the
seeming random assignment of booths. I didn’t discover an overflow room
of vendor booths until the second day. Can’t imagine that they felt
like they got their money’s worth.

In summary, AHIP was about preaching to the choir. There was much
murmuring among attendees about the inevitable obsolescence of health
plans as they exist today, although no session that I attended
addressed this directly. They seem to have faith that Ignagni and AHIP
have the political power to hold off reform in healthcare that
adversely impacts health plans. And Ignagni – to her credit – seems to
have the connections to deliver for her constituents.

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