Silly Season: Monty Python Policy Making

Editor’s Note: Ian Morrison today makes his first contribution to THCB. Ian was President of Institute for the Future where I learned my health care consulting trade in the 1990s. A more amusing boss one couldn’t have hoped to have and he never minded me (or half of health care) shamelessly stealing his jokes–although his Scottish brogue always gave them a zing none of us can quite match. Ian’s now a full time speaker/writer/futurist and he gave THCB his view of the health care debate, interpreted logically through the lens of Monty Python’s Flying Circus–Matthew Holt

Now we are down to the really fun part of healthcare reform, when they actually write the final bill and figure out ways to pay for it.  And to honor the 40th Anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus’s debut, Congress and the Administration have entered the silly season where final policy is turned into law.

I love the American healthcare system, not because it is the best in the world, but it is the funniest. The laughs keep coming.  Here are a couple of my latest favorites.

Taxing Cadillac Plans.

Many in the administration subscribe to the notion that we should tax, so-called, “Cadillac plans” as a way of raising money to pay for expanded coverage, and to discourage the sale of excessively expensive insurance.  Economist types like this kind of stuff.  And it allows you to tax those bastards at Goldman Sachs, right?  Well, it turns out that the reason Goldman Sachs have expensive benefits is that a) they are in New York, which has expensive healthcare delivery, and, b) they have little or no cost-sharing because they (presumably) don’t believe in “skin in the game” or capitalism.  Then Axelrod reminds everyone in the White House that the people with the richest health benefits in America (apart from the bankrupt automaker workers who actually make Cadillacs) are school teachers and firefighters.  Brilliant.   The economists are trying to nail Goldman Sachs bankers and it turns out, that the ones who would be punished by the tax are the hard-pressed schoolteachers of the Bronx and all New York firefighters.  So the public employees unions come out swinging: “unfair, not right, we fought for these benefits, and we will actually turn up at Congressional elections in 2010, when all the Twitter crowd stay home watching Rachel Maddow on election day, and never even get off the couch.”  Maybe, we should exempt the Unions… some say. OK, then there is a bit of problem because a lot of the revenue to pay for the coverage comes from the assumptions on revenue from the tax on rich plans, most of which are union plans.

Oh Shi*, now what?  OK, why don’t we just have a Goldman Sachs only excessive health benefits tax?

Have you ever dealt with Goldman Sachs?

Here’s how the conversation would go with a Goldman Sachs banker whose benefits you are going to tax:

Goldman Sachs Benefits Manager to Goldman Sachs Banker:  “ Congress has passed an excise tax on expensive benefit plans, and because we are self-insured we are having to pass this tax on to you, so there will be a deduction in your paycheck”

Banker to Benefits Manager:  “No it doesn’t work that way here. I am too valuable. I need to be grossed

Benefits manager to Banker:  “What does that mean?”

Banker to Benefits Manager: “ Well, highly compensated people like me, when faced with an excise tax
imposed on the company, with the intent of discouraging excess compensation that may end up in a net reduction in my pay, under those circumstances, we highly compensated people normally would get grossed up to make us whole again.”

Benefits Manager to Banker:  “Do you need an assistant?”

I am self-employed, nobody’s grossing me up.  But, Goldman bankers would get grossed up.  That’s the way they roll.  It sucks to be you and me.

Tax the Evil Insurers

Great new idea.

For profit health insurers are evil, right?  …..Check.

Non Profit Accountable Care Organizations like Kaiser and Group Health are good guys , right? …..Check.

So tax commercial insurers and give the Accountable Care Organizations a break to encourage the formation of Accountable Care Organizations, right?

No, actually we are going to do it the other way around.

The current proposals impose a tax on fully insured products, there is no tax on the self-funded part of the market, and here’s the really good part, most for profit commercial insurers are heavily concentrated in the self-insured part of the market  and most non-profits insurers and accountable care organizations are disproportionately (or in the case of Kaiser, almost exclusively) in fully insured arrangements.

What this means is that the very things you are trying to encourage are undermined.  Industry estimates are that the effect of the tax is a 2-3% rate advantage to the self-funded plans over the fully insured plans causing a cavalry charge to self-funding.

(For example, Kaiser who has 3% of all commercially insured lives in the country, would pay 8% of the tax). The next effect, as Alain Enthoven and others have pointed out, will be to further pump up fee for service incentives, and hurt the small group and individual market which has the most problem paying for health insurance. Perfect.

It’s not like it’s too difficult to treat self-funded and fully insured exactly the same using premium equivalents.  Indeed, in other provisions of the Baucus bill in terms of clawbacks of fees for subsidized workers, the bill treats employers the same way whether they are self-insured or not.

Monty Python couldn’t make this up.

We know you should be treated the same, and we are treating you the same, over here, but we are not treating you the same when it comes to the tax, because we want to give fee-for service commercial ASO business a 2-3% rate advantage over Accountable Care Organizations so that we encourage the formation of Accountable Care Organizations.  Splendid.

It is straight out of the famous Piranha Brothers sketch, where an underling in the Piranha Brothers London gang (modeled on the notoriously violent London East End Kray Twins) when asked if he was bitter that the two gang leaders Doug and Dinsdale Piranha had nailed his head to a coffee table, declared:

“ I deserved it.  Doug and Dinsdale are lovely blokes.  They’re cruel but they’re fair.”

Expect a little more of the “cruel but fair” policymaking as the silly season moves ahead.

Ian Morrison is an author, consultant and futurist in Menlo Park, California.

5 replies »

  1. The gang at Monty Python could not have concocted a crazier health system than the American system as it currently exists: we provide people access to health care by selling them health insurance through private companies whose sole purpose is to make money by denying health care, thereby negating the purpose of the insurance.

  2. I’ll go you one better, the 40% surtax is absurd and will not generate the expected revenue, there is no question.
    But how about the convoluted thinking that bribing seniors with $250 in lieu of a Social Security increase will have them support reforms or making a deal with the AMA to not cut Medicare reimbursement as required by a 1997 law in return for support of reform?
    The docs are making a deal with the devil OR there is no real reform, because if there was it ain’t a good deal for the docs. I’m betting on the docs.
    Oh, wait I forgot it is health INSURANCE reform now.
    Keep up with the practical view of health care reform based on 48 years in the business at

  3. MarkS, not a bad idea, except that you’d need to tax capital gains at the old rate as well or you’d see compensation gravitate even more heavily from salary/bonus to stock options. If you squeeze the balloon from one side it just pushes out somewhere else.
    Ultimately, the culture itself will have to be reformed, not just some tax or health insurance policy.

  4. How about just reinstating the tax cuts for high income people and add on a little extra tax for those earing over a million a year. Call it the Goldman tax and make it 90% like it was in the good old days. That’s one way for us to get our money back and pay for health care for everyone in the process.

  5. How about just paying more taxes in this country like the rest of the planet to pay for health insurance and insuring everybody. No big deal. Problem solved. We pay for it one way or the other. People in the U.S. pay too little taxes. Period. Americans want all the benefits and a good life, but do not want to pay for it.
    In fact, most people would pay more taxes for health insurance. See this link:
    “The telephone survey of 3,003 U.S. adults conducted by Thomson Reuters found 63 percent willing to pay for healthcare reform, though most also said they are happy with their own doctors, insurance plans and out-of-pocket costs.”