Can HR 3200 Be Fixed?

Health care reform looks like it’s stalled. And rightly so, based on the provisions of the House Democrats’ health care reform bill. The grossly misnamed America’s Affordable Health Choices Act (HR 3200) combines the worst of all possible worlds: high taxpayer costs, big increases in federal deficits, and disincentives for businesses to hire, while leaving up to twenty million individuals still uninsured and doing little or nothing to control runaway national health care expenditures.

Although the bill would make health care coverage available to many of the millions who currently cannot afford it, its provisions will potentially add some $200 billion a year to federal expenditures, make only miniscule reductions in Medicare cost trends, and impose play-or-pay provisions and a new surtax that could hurt smaller businesses just as they try to recover from the recession.

So, is there anything that can be done to fix HR 3200 so that it would provide affordable universal health care coverage without increasing federal deficits or halting the recovery from the recession?

The answer is that major changes—some paralleling those in the Wyden-Bennett Healthy Americans Act—are needed in four areas of the bill, those relating to the proposed insurance exchanges, the individual mandate, Medicare, and costs and financing.

The proposed insurance exchanges should be redesigned to maximize the size of the resultant pools and to achieve the benefits of price-competition. Insurers should be required to offer “best value” to the exchanges—with exchange participation a requirement for selling any insurance—to discourage “cherry picking” outside the exchanges through direct marketing to selected employers. Basic coverage should be set by a board independent of Congress to minimize the impact of provider lobbying. Insurers, in turn, should be protected from extreme adverse selection, through exchange-sponsored reinsurance or risk-adjustment. A public plan option should be implemented only in states where insurers fail to control the premium rates offered through the exchange.

The individual mandate should be changed from an after-the-fact penalty for non-insurance—an approach likely to result in both litigation and cheating—to advance selection from a choice of an ERISA-compliant employer plan, participation in an exchange, or a buy-in to a low-cost option tied to Medicaid (the existing public plan). Those failing to make a selection—expected to be primarily the young and healthy—would be automatically enrolled in the low-cost option. Premium collection would be simplified by combining it with income tax withholding, as proposed by the Wyden-Bennett bill. Lower-income individuals’ payments would be partially offset by tax credits or subsidies, but these should be tied to the low-cost option buy-in rate in order to reduce costs to the federal government.

Medicare payment policy responsibility should be transferred to a board independent of Congress—as proposed by White House Budget Director Peter Orszag, with the grudging concurrence of some Democrats—with payment policy authority covering both rates and controls over some of the more egregious provider profit-maximizing practices.

Federal costs and financing needs should be considerably less onerous with these changes, although allowing buy-in to a low-cost option tied to Medicaid implies more demand for already limited resources, so that higher payment rates for scarce providers may be necessary (as provided for in the present version of HR 3200). Although the concept of the play-or-pay mandate is fair in requiring all employers to contribute to the cost of coverage, the “pay” levy should be lower for small businesses. At the same time, two funding sources previously rejected by House Democrats should be tapped: employer-paid benefits above those guaranteed as “basic benefits” and available through the exchanges should be taxed, thereby also discouraging excessive demands for care, while “unhealthy consumption” should be restrained by taxes on certain soft drinks and candy and by higher levies on tobacco and alcohol.

Together these changes would rearrange and simplify the health care landscape, making affordable coverage more truly available while bending the cost curve. Universal coverage would be assured since anyone not making an insurance selection would be automatically enrolled in the low-cost option. Issues of payment-avoidance or penalties for non-compliance would not arise, since coverage payment would be part of regular withholding. Major employers’ self-funded arrangements would be left in place, while other employers and their employees would have a new range of competitive options. Market competition would be maximized by the insurance exchanges’ large pools and limitations on cherry-picking and adverse selection. Consumer responsibility would be encouraged by the requirement to make choices of coverage to meet individual needs. Medicare payments and non-Medicare benefits would be freed from political interference. Costs would be more fairly distributed between employers, individuals, and government—without increasing the federal deficit or undercutting businesses’ ability to recover from the recession.

Is it likely to happen? Probably not, any more than the provisions of the Wyden-Bennett bill are likely to be adopted. And the result that we will have to face? A choice between unaffordable “reform” that sabotages the economy, and no reform at all.

Roger Collier was formerly CEO of a national health care consulting firm. His experience includes the design and implementation of innovative health care programs for HMOs, health insurers, and state and federal agencies. He is editor of Health Care REFORM UPDATE.

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