When Hillary Clinton was running for President, she set forth a more modest agenda for health care reform than her competitor, Barack Obama. Maybe she understood better, based on her experience, how difficult it is to get a comprehensive bill through Congress in this field.
What is possible now that the President has lost the 60-vote majority in the Senate? I think the thing to remember is that he was having trouble even holding together the 60 votes he used to have. He had to agree to an assortment of give-aways — to Nebraska, to Louisiana, to the labor unions — to get the votes he needed. In part, that proved to be the undoing, as Massachusetts voters watched this sausage being made and sent a message through the election of Scott Brown that they didn’t like what they had been seeing.
Now, it may be that the Republicans will act to kill anything that might come along. I don’t think so. I think they are willing to be part of a bill, but it has to be a bill for which they can claim credit among their constituencies. What might it be?
Insurance reform: People, irrespective of party and political leanings, despise the practices of insurance companies that limit or take away coverage. The use of pre-existing conditions to deny coverage, lifetime limits of coverage, and rescission of policies are nasty and unfair. These practices remain as sources of insecurity among Americans, even those with insurance. There should be near-universal support to change them.
Tort reform: I think that most people feel that, while people should have a right to sue for medical malpractice, the process that exists today is inefficient and arbitrary for both plaintiffs and defendants. Any doctor will tell you that fear of such suits also leads to the practice of defensive medicine, driving up costs for all of society. Tort reform does not require limitations on payments. It could be accomplished with the establishment of specialized courts and procedures that would add greater certainty to outcomes and reduce the tensions and abuses associated with the system. This should not be a partisan issue.
Payment reform: Nobody likes the results of a system that systematically underpays primary care doctors and leads them to a life of 18-minute appointments and a role as triage doctors, a way station to referrals to higher paid specialists. If Congress were to order Medicare and state Medicaid plans to take the lead in establishing reimbursement rates for PCPs that reflected their value to families and patients, we would be on the way to a more rational system of care. Likewise, if physicians were paid for care delivered by telephone and electronically, millions of unnecessary and time-consuming office visits could be eliminated. If these steps were taken for Medicare and Medicaid, private insurers would follow.
Transparency: A national mandate for public disclosure of the rates paid by insurers to providers would help drive greater rationality in payment methodologies in the states. Disclosure of clinical outcomes in clinically important arenas would provide impetus to improvement in patient safety and quality. How can this be a partisan issue?
Now what about access? I fear that expansion of insurance coverage is the third rail in this debate. Why? Because it requires revenue to support the subsidies that would be required, and tax increases are really hard to achieve. The President made this issue more radioactive than necessary by proclaiming at the start that you could get access, choice, and lower costs all in one neatly wrapped package. Everybody in the field knew that you could not. This then resulted in sleight-of-hand revenue measures that became the undoing of the bill as Christmas tree ornaments were added to undo the effect on particular states or interest groups.
As I have stated here, a fair approach to generate the revenues for expanded access is to eliminate or reduce the pre-tax treatment of insurance premiums. Doing so would use the progressive income tax system in a way that would apply a larger percentage of these costs to more wealthy people. Could this approach gain a bi-partisan consensus? It could not gain support even among the Democratic majority, so I am guessing not. And the Republicans seem to express no interest at all in mandates for greater access. Maybe we have to accept as a reality the idea that expanded access is a casualty in this debate. I hope not, but I don’t yet see an answer to this that can get 50 votes, much less 60.