Healthcare Reform: Strangled In Its Bed


Follow the bouncing ball here: Health care was a mess, cost way too much, sick people getting dropped by insurance companies and left to die and bankrupted and all that. The obvious solution: Go to a single-payer system, or at least to a universal, subsidized, heavily-regulated private system, like all those other countries who pay half as much or less for better results.

But that would never fly, because the health plans are way too big and employ a lot of people, including a zillion lobbyists, so politically, forget it. We’ll back off and cut a deal.

Here’s what the new deal was supposed to be: We’re not going to wipe out the insurance companies. What we’ll do is offer people an alternative insurance plan, a “public option.” It will be cheaper because it will only pay 5% over Medicare rates, but doctors and hospitals will be mandated to take it. And it will also be cheaper because it’s a government offering, so it takes out no profit, and it won’t have to compete with other insurance companies to pay out as little as possible.

Individuals will have to buy insurance, or they will pay a big fine to the IRS. But there will be these “insurance exchanges,” offering lots of plans that will actually compete for the public’s business (instead of the one or two now available in most markets), plus the “public option.” Employers will have to offer plans with “essential benefits,” meaning good coverage of hospitalization, drugs, outpatient care, mental health care, and so forth. Small employers will have to chip in, too, but they get help with the cost. If the employer doesn’t offer a good plan with “essential benefits,” the employee will be able to take the money the employer is chipping in, and buy a good health plan on the “exchange.”

Sounds like a plan. Health plans couldn’t turn anyone down for “pre-existing conditions,” they would have to take everybody. On the other hand, everybody would have to take them, unless the “public option” turns out to be both way cheaper and more reliable.

Of course, along the way, everybody else gets what they want, too, out of this deal. The drug companies, for instance, get told that, no, the government will not negotiate with them for lower prices; any government plan will just pay market prices. And we’ll make it harder, not easier, for generics to compete with brand-name drugs. And no organization, company, or government will be able to re-import drugs from overseas, where they cost much less.

Oh, and of course there will be nothing in the bill to make health plans actually honor their contracts, stop refusing to pay for stuff they agreed to pay for, or stop tossing out people who get really sick and spend too much.

Then the details start getting sliced up, and things start turning weird. The Blue Dogs in the House get the Commerce Committee to turn out a bill that says, well, actually, hospitals and doctors should not have to take the public option. It should be voluntary, and they should be paid market rates, that is, what they are paid now. So the savings go out the window. The public option, in this version, is not particularly cheaper than the private plans. And anyway, employers with a less than a $500,000 payroll (which is 87% of all the employers in the nation) would be exempt. They wouldn’t have to provide any health care insurance at all. The employees would still have to buy it for themselves, though, or pay a big fine. Of course, they could buy the no-longer-particularly-cheap public option.

Over in the Senate, the key Finance Committee lets it leak that it’s probably dropping not only the public option altogether, but employer mandates, too. Employers won’t have to offer health plans at all, but the employees have to buy them, whether anyone’s offering them a decent plan or not.

Democrat Kent Conrad, on the committee, says nobody will go for a public option plan; instead we’ll try co-ops. This idea would consist of trying to start new not-for-profit insurance companies in every market in the country. Doctors and hospitals would not have to sign up with them. The coops would not have their rates tied to Medicare; they would have to pay market rates. Actually, they would have to pay more than market rates, because the doctors and hospitals in those markets are already signed up with the existing insurers and have plenty of business already, thank you very much. So the new coops would have to bid premium rates to get providers to sign up, or they would have to “rent” them (again at a premium) from their competitors. No big deal, though: If it’s voluntary and paying market rates, the “public option” would have the same problem – high prices, not many providers, so not many customers.

And then Ted Kennedy’s committee turns out a bill that says, well, actually, employers are not really obliged to offer a minimum level of health care insurance – yet the bill keeps the requirement that employees must accept and pay for whatever health care plan their employer offers them, whether it seems an acceptable level of care at an acceptable price or not. So again, savings for the individual go out the window, and now choice of health plans does, too.

If a so-called “reform” bill comes up with these elements – no employer mandate, strong individual mandate, market rates for everything, no real insurance reform – there is no reason to vote for it. It is worse than no bill at all.

That is about what we are facing now.

With nearly 30 years’ experience, Joe Flower has emerged as a premier observer and thought leader on the deep forces changing healthcare in the United States and around the world. As a healthcare speaker, writer, and consultant, he has explored the future of healthcare with clients ranging from the World Health Organization, the Global Business Network, and the U.K. National Health Service, to the majority of state hospital associations in the U.S.  He has written for a number of healthcare publications including, the Healthcare Forum Journal, Physician Executive, and Wired Magazine.  You can find more of Joe’s work at his website, www.imaginewhatif.com, where this post first appeared.

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3 replies »

  1. Either Obama is right and he can truly cut $500 billion of waste, fraud and abuse out of the Medicare budget or Medicare dependent seniors must die when $500 billion is cut from muscle and bone because there really wasn’t that much fat.

  2. On FOX news it showed that the projected cost is $6B per year. The US Census estimates there are 227,719,424 citizens over the age of 18. That computes to $26 per person per year! how is it going to cost me 13% of my income?

  3. Crap.
    I mean the picture you’ve painted – not your actual writing.
    And when I say “crap,” I mean “dammit!”
    Well said, and frustrating as hell.