So maybe the two parties are coming together on health reform after all. Last night we learned that after days of “secret talks” among the “gang of ten” the Democrats have reached agreement to restructure their health care proposal. The changes are significant:
– ditch the already-watered-down public option plan;
– create a new insurance exchange “option” for individuals and small groups consisting of a nonprofit plan as negotiated by the Office of Personnel Management;
– expand Medicare eligibility to cover uninsured individuals aged 55-64.
What does the Democrats’ “public option ultralight” compromise have in common with Republicans’ alternative universe? Well, consider the latter’s proposal to open interstate competition for all health insurers–a move they promise will immediately lower health care costs. Besides being shameless attempts to offer simple solutions to complex problems, the two proposals are guilty of the same fundamental misunderstanding of health insurance. Simply put, they both ignore a critical economic truth of health insurance today: insurers require a provider network of hospitals and doctors or must have market leverage in order to negotiate for lower provider prices and for controls on excessive volume.
How, then, would a nonprofit insurer not presently competing in one of the concentrated markets succeed in putting competitive pressure on the incumbents? As one insurance industry observer put it,
So, Kaiser Permanente, which operates with highly organized and capital intensive networks in its markets, would now come into a state where it has no networks and offer a plan? Blue Cross of Nebraska might offer an individual and small group plan in Rhode Island? Tufts Health Plan out of Boston might offer a plan in Oregon?
Based upon what network of providers in those places where they do not now do business?
Likewise, in expanding Medicare, the Dems are taking a page out of the Republican playbook. For the last several weeks, Senate Republicans have been loudly touting the benefits of Medicare. By their lights, not only does the program produce unmatched (and untouchable) health care services in terms of quality of care and beneficiary satisfaction, but any cost-cutting constitutes a betrayal of our commitment to seniors. As far as one can tell, the expansion proposal will do just that: offer the now-sacrosanct program to a few million almost-seniors. As to the other 20 million citizens, forced to shop for insurance through an exchange flawed by inadequate competition and inadequate subsidies? Well, maybe the Democrats will borrow the rhetoric of Republican National Chairman Michael Steele: this is no time for a “government-run health-care experiment.”
Professor Thomas (Tim) Greaney is the Chester A. Myers Professor of Law and the Director, Center for Health Law Studies, St. Louis University School of Law. A frequent contributor toHealth Reform Watch, he is a nationally recognized expert on health care law; Thomas Greaney has spent the last two decades examining the evolution of the health care industry. His bio may be accessed here; his recent testimony to the Senate on “Competition in the Health Care Marketplace” may be found here