There are approximately 18 million Americans who purchase health insurance on the so called individual market, on and off the Obamacare exchanges. There are another 14 million or so who could be buying insurance on the individual market, but choose not to buy anything. This puts the total individual market at about 10% of Americans. Half of those are, or are eligible to be, heavily subsided through Obamacare (including those huge deductibles). The other 5% are facing the full brunt of health insurance price increases under Obamacare. Of those, 3% are paying for Obamacare health insurance and getting garbage in return for their money, while the remaining 2% are uninsured.
This is the magnitude of the primary problem we are supposedly trying to solve. The 17% of Americans on Medicare are not upset at Obamacare. The approximately 23% of Americans on, or eligible to be on, Medicaid are not angry at Obamacare either (although the 1% eligible for the Medicaid expansion in states that chose not to expand it, might be angry with their Governors). Some of the 50% or so, who are getting health insurance through their employer, and used to get rather flimsy insurance in the past, may be somewhat disgruntled because the Obamacare imposition of “essential benefits” caused their share of premiums and deductibles to rise, and their ability to choose their doctors to plummet.
This is the secondary problem we are supposedly trying to solve. The American Health Care Act (AHCA) addresses neither problem and exacerbates both.
Three Pronged Care
The proposed GOP solution is “three pronged”. Prong One repeals Obamacare (whatever that means) and replaces it with more widespread, but less generous, subsidies for the individual market and reduces funding for Medicaid, while also reducing Obamacare taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, including taxes slated to increase the longevity of the Medicare trust fund. Prong Two is a flurry of yet to be determined regulatory relief that the Secretary of Health and Human Services will be supposedly providing at his discretion. Prong Three consists of new legislation, which will require the support of at least some Democrats in the Senate, to relax both the definition of Obamacare “essential benefits” and the regulations on health insurance corporations, so cheaper insurance plans can proliferate across the land (as they did before Obamacare).
The most important thing to understand about the Three Pronged Care proposal is that although the CBO can, and did, estimate the effects of the first Prong, nobody can estimate the cumulative results of all three Prongs, because nobody knows what the second Prong is and because it will take an act of God to make the third Prong materialize. Since we are talking about health care, think of this as some sort of orthopedic, cardiac or transplant surgery. First you cut the patient open, then you remove or adjust the offending parts, and then you put in something new and hopefully better. Coming in after a previous surgeon messed things up is obviously harder, but cutting the patient open and walking away until you figure out if you want or are able to do more, is hardly a viable option for the patient, and will likely result in a huge malpractice suit (plus a copious prison sentence) for you.
What if Prong One is as good as it gets?
Unfortunately, this is precisely what Paul Ryan and his ragtag coalition are proposing to do with Prong One, whose sole effect will be to add insult to the Obamacare injury. Once we accept the premise that the Federal government has an obligation to help people get health care, the remaining disagreements are just haggling over price. And once we dismiss highfalutin principled rhetoric, the problem with Prong One is that for most people, in absence of Prongs Two and Three, this is just a stingier version of Obamacare. The GOP argument that two imaginary birds in the bush are better than a real bird in hand flies in the face of millennia of human wisdom. On top of that, there is absolutely nothing in Prong One that even begins to address the fundamental problem in our health care system, which is the unit price of health care services. Therefore, premiums and deductibles will likely continue to rise unabated.
In all fairness though, there is a twisted argument to be made that if you cut subsidies and there is less money available, insurers will work hard to lower the price of their products to match what the “market” can bear. That may be true if the reduction in funds affected the entire market, instead of at most 10% (likely 5%) of it, and the least profitable 10% to boot. In “normal” markets, a non-participation rate of 10% percent is certainly sustainable and actually pretty good for the sellers. That said, smaller health insurance vendors currently specializing in Medicaid managed care could step into this niche and offer a commercial product through their existing underpaid networks. If you’re a physician, this prospect should set your hair on fire.
The Free Market Delusion
At some point we will need to collectively disabuse ourselves of the notion that a market in health care insurance could be created without abolishing the provision of health insurance benefits through employment. I know everybody is talking about Flo and the little lizard selling health insurance on TV as the ultimate solution to health care affordability, but that is nothing short of demagoguery. First, practically all auto insurance is business to consumer (B2C), while health insurance is overwhelmingly business to business (B2B). I suggest you try buying a cow from a feedlot and see for yourself how much negotiating power your consumer status bestows on you in a B2B market. If you want to try a free market solution for health insurance, you would need to do more than just kick a few poor people off their subsidies. You would need to kick 150 million people off their employer health insurance plans. Good luck with that.
I have to admit that there is something compelling about the conservative vision of a portable health insurance product that people buy and carry with them wherever they go. Obviously health insurance that is intended to serve people from cradle to grave cannot be a game of Russian roulette with covered benefits, or as Mr. Ryan refers to it, “patient-centered” insurance. Equally obvious is the fact that State and Federal governments will still have to honor their obligation to help those who can’t afford to purchase insurance for a predefined set of “essential benefits” on their own. Will such semi-free health insurance market deliver the health care affordability we seek? Not likely. The deceptively simple truth is that you cannot successfully tackle the pricing failure in the health insurance market without first taking an axe to our dysfunctional health care delivery system.
The Three Prong Shuffle
Obamacare not only failed to put a dent in health care delivery prices, but arguably made things worse by actively encouraging system consolidation. Under the best case scenario, a heavily modified GOP Prong One plan (e.g. higher tax credits, lower tax cuts for the rich, more money for Medicaid), will not change the Obamacare trajectory one bit and will not provide meaningful relief to people hurt by Obamacare. All this tinkering and re-tinkering with an insignificant portion of the health insurance market is like obsessively unclogging the kitchen sink on the Titanic. The sketchy descriptions of Prong Three, the free market prong, are just too ridiculous to consider at this point, but Prong Two, the regulatory prong, has great potential. After reading the manager’s amendment to the Ryan Make America Poor Again plan, I would like to offer my own citizen’s amendment.
New Prong One: Swallow hard and let the AHCA die a merciful death. Extend some temporary relief to the 5% hurt by Obamacare. Give Secretary Price a chance to affect regulatory changes first. Medicare is the de-facto price setter for health care services. The Secretary can affect changes to Medicare fee schedules and payment models that will quickly ripple through the commercial sector. I would start with the RUC and hike the relative value of comprehensive primary care. I would create a monthly CPT code that can accommodate subscription based primary care (not quite what the Direct Primary Care lobby wants, but darn close). And I would engage in a long string of multi-payer initiatives to accelerate dissemination of measures to control unit prices, while leaving behind the naïve and failed attempts to cut utilization.
New Prong Two: This is not a purely health care prong, but it is necessary because this is the only way to fix health care in America. Get those tax cuts done, renegotiate trade agreements, fix the education system, get infrastructure projects going, get manufacturing back, drain the swamp, and create lots of opportunities. Introduce specific pieces of legislation along the way to negotiate drug prices, break health system monopolies or at least encourage independent, small and more cost-effective practices to thrive. Keep up a brisk regulatory and deregulatory program to curtail the flow of billions of health care dollars to opportunistic corporations that do not provide care or any other benefits for patients. Think creatively about connecting health insurers’ participation in State/Federal programs to affordability in the individual market (at the very least make it count in Medicaid RFPs).
New Prong Three: If all goes well, we can finally do away with Obamacare, which should become automatically obsolete if Prongs One and Two are executed successfully (otherwise Obamacare will be the least of our problems). If the economy catches fire and more people have good paying jobs, and health care unit prices are at the very least contained, fewer people will need subsidies or Medicaid welfare. Make a note to schedule a symbolic full repeal and replace on January 21st 2020. I am certain it will pass with strong bi-partisan support.
Will Washington DC put the horses in front of the cart for a change? Not by choice. However, the good news is that all of a sudden Prong One seems to be on life-support in the House and dead on arrival in the Senate. The excellent news is that President Trump made another promise: “We will take care of our people or I’m not signing it” (it being Prong One, whatever it ends up being, if it ends up being). The disastrous news is that no self-respecting Democrat will engage in any effort to help the President help the American people. That would be too much to ask of our elected representatives.