Category: Health Tech

Sunday reading-Jon Cohn on French & Dutch health care

Jon Cohn has a long article in the Boston Globe about how the French and Dutch get health care about right at half the American cost with none of that unpleasant Canadian or Britishness that FoxNews loves to complain about. Given that (if we get reform even vaguely right) we’ll look more like Holland or Germany that Canada, it's your essential Sunday reading.

Of course Jon is slightly too nice as ever. One minor point about access to specialty care—it may take longer there than here, slightly. But in the same Commonwealth study Cohn quotes, waiting times for elective surgery were shorter in Germany than they are in the US. And of course no one there gets bankrupted by the cost of medical care.

Biggest and best month ever on THCB

By the time most of you read this, I’ll be heading to England to tell those Limeys how to do healthcare right the American way….or something like that, and then off to China. I’ll be back in Freedonia in about 10 days

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the stellar month we’ve had at THCB. Apart from last October when the election and Google brought lots of people to THCB (particularly to one excellent article by Bob Laszewski on Obama’s health plan) this has been by far our most heavily trafficked month. We’ll end up somewhere around 85,000 visits and 135,000 page views. And the quality of the writing in posts from Jeff Goldsmith, David Kibbe and Brian Klepper, Roger Collier, Michael Millenson, Susannah Fox and many many more, has been excellent. In addition we’ve had lots of controversy notably in Daniel Gilden’s fascinating piece on McAllen and Grand Junction that’s been read and commented on by lots of very very astute people. Then there’s been the campaigns like, and lots of fun back and forth in many many comments.

So many thanks to THCB editor-in-chief John Irvine & associate editor Ian Kibbe for keeping the wheels turning, to all our contributors, to our sponsors/advertisers who enable us to keep the lights on, and of course to all of you for coming and reading and having your say! — Matthew Holt / THCB Publisher

Rantology: Cannon on Freedom or Power?

Ah-ha. Michael Cannon has now replied to me and it basically comes down in his mind to me being a  crypto-fascist Stalinist wanting to break the will of the American people mediated through its representatives, the health care industry lobbyists. His piece is The Ultimate Question: Freedom or Power?

He closes by saying that I could only fix the health care system by getting rid of constitutional democracy. And Michael’s right.

Continue reading…

A little more on insurers, and reform means more of the same

Matthew HoltIn the comments on my piece on Michael Cannon, Michael has replied here and I’ll reply back on Monday), everyone’s favorite insurance broker Nate asked me to describe a bit more the process of a small group buying health insurance. I’m not quite ready to do that yet, but instead I will point you towards this piece I wrote about buying individual insurance in 2006. It’s called A Tale of Two Underwriters and it explains how screwed up the process is.

If you want more, here’s some nitty gritty on the actual process of dealing with the largest online broker which—for those of you interested in small group insurance—told me last year is encouraging employers to give their employees a lump sum and kick them into the individual market. And I guess for those healthy employees that’s good news, and if you’re not…..

Of course that attitude has been taken several steps further by big insurers, notably Aetna which basically dumped all its money losing groups in the early part of this decade by ramping up their prices to the level where they had to drop off. That’s story’s been well told including back in 2004 by me but it got retold this week by ex Cigna & Humana flack Wendell Potter who also explained how rescission works and how smaller groups get kicked off the rolls.

He also explains how damn hard it is to do an apples to apples comparison between plans, and that’s what I was struggling with last week when I wrote this:

Last night I was busy spending two hours of my and my business partner’s time buying health insurance for our massive 4 person company. That means doing a multi-factorial equation between premiums, co-pays, deductibles, out of pocket maximums, & in & out of network costs. It’s no wonder that no one understands their health insurance, especially when still doesn’t bother putting half of the important variables on its front page.

None of this is new news but Potter’s testimony last week (PDF) is a quick and entertaining read that pulls many of these threads together. Potter also made some remarks in an interview with Trudy Lieberman about travel costs at insurers. I too once had a conversation with a former insurance exec who moved to a job with potentially less travel involved. I commiserated with him possibly having to give up super frequent flyer status on the airline of his choice. Oh, he said, I haven’t had that in years. I just used one of the corporate jets!

The obvious answer (which Potter has got to now) is that if we are going to have a functioning insurance market we need a defined benefit package with identical co-pays deductibles, et al AND no ability to refuse insurance AND mandatory purchase of insurance (as Charlie Baker points out in his post here yesterday, it doesn’t work if people can opt in and out when they’re sick & healthy) AND a defined & equal total amount (not % of cost) provided by the funding entity (government, employer, consumer) to the consumer so that the consumer can make and apples to apples comparison. Something Enthoven laid out in the NY Times last week, although I don’t see why he’s backed off his 1980s position of putting everyone in the pool the way Zeke Emmanuel/Vic Fuchs want to.

Anyone who says anything different is just covering for the right of unscrupulous insurers to manipulate the market. And there’s lots of them on both sides of that sentence.

Of course, at best we’re instead going to get incremental reform which will not stop the kind of thing Potter’s complaining about.

Why is that? Well in Harpers last month (in a fabulous article about why Obama is the next Herbert Hoover not the next FDR) Kevin Baker writes this:

More frustrating has been the torpor among Obama’s fellow Democrats. One might have assumed that the adrenaline rush of regaining power after decades of conservative hegemony, not to mention relief at surviving the depredations of the Bush years, or losing the vestigial tail of the white Southern branch of the party, would have liberated congressional Democrats to loose a burst of pent-up, imaginative liberal initiatives.

Instead, we have seen a parade of aged satraps from vast, windy places stepping forward to tell us what is off the table. Every week, there is another Max Baucus of Montana, another Kent Conrad of North Dakota, another Ben Nelson of Nebraska, huffing and puffing and harrumphing that we had better forget about single-payer health care, a carbon tax, nationalizing the banks, funding for mass transit, closing tax loopholes for the rich. These are men with tiny constituencies who sat for decades in the Senate without doing or saying anything of note, who acquiesced shamelessly to the worst abuses of the Bush Administration and who come forward now to chide the president for not concentrating enough on reducing the budget deficit, or for “trying to do too much,” as if he were as old and as indolent as they are.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—yet another small gray man from a great big space where the tumbleweeds blow—seems unwilling to make even a symbolic effort at party discipline. Within days of President Obama’s announcing his legislative agenda, the perpetually callow Indiana Senator Evan Bayh came forward to announce the formation of a breakaway caucus of fifteen “moderate” Democrats from the Midwest who sought to help the country make “the changes we need” but “make sure that they’re done in a practical way that will actually work”—a statement that was almost Zen-like in its perfect vacuousness. Even most of the Senate’s more enlightened notables, such as Russ Feingold of Wisconsin or Claire McCaskill of Missouri or Sherrod Brown of Ohio, have had little to contribute beyond some hand-wringing whenever the idea of a carbon tax or any other restrictions on burning coal are proposed.

Of course, when the President decides that we need reform in a bi-partisan 70 vote manner and won’t crack the heads of the “aged satraps from vast, windy places,” we’re just not going to get the kind of insurance reform we need. To do that he has to go on an offensive and connect the dots between the stories on his campaign website and who was in the room at his ABC prime time special.

It was notable that when Ron Williams, CEO of Aetna, was introduced, Obama praised Aetna as a well run company (and in terms of the current market and regulations it is). But he never mentioned the impact of Aetna’s corporate turnaround on those who were thrown off its rolls in the early 2000s.

I happen to think that Aetna could probably perform very well in the kind of regulated market I’d propose, but I’m not sure Aetna shareholders or executives would do quite as well. But to me the defining part of his strategy was that every time Obama talked about taxing rich people he mentioned himself (around $4m from his book) and Charlie Gibson who makes $8m a year. But he never mentioned the fact that Ron Williams was by far the richest and best paid person in the room.

If Obama isn’t going to line up some firepower against the insurers to counteract the bribes they’re paying the moderate Democratic senators, then modest incomplete and ineffectual insurance reform is the most we can expect

And as I’ve said many times, in the long run this will be worse for the insurers than comprehensive reform because it will increase the chances that there will be no health insurance business in the long run. When I gave this message to a big meeting of insurers in my Three Inconvenient Truths talk, many of the rank and file came up to me agreeing with what I’d said. The problem is the boardrooms don’t share their view or their long-term outlook. And so if we want to “hope” for “change”, Obama needs to make them. But apparently he won’t.

In which I play Obama, answering Michael Cannon

6a00d8341c909d53ef0105371fd47b970b-320wi Last night I was busy spending two hours of my and my business partner’s time buying health insurance for our massive 4 person company. That means doing a multi-factorial equation between premiums, co-pays, deductibles, out of pocket maximums, & in & out of network costs. It’s no wonder that no one understands their health insurance, especially when still doesn’t bother putting half of the important variables on its front page. But no matter, it will be my pleasure to make Wellpoint or Aetna better off—they’re not having such great years and they can use the money.

But then I noticed from the tweets that Obama was doing a primetime townhall about health care. So having failed to find it on my TV (cos I’m on the west coast and we’re not alive at the same time as you east coasters), I looked on the ABC web site. There I didn’t find the TV version , but I did find what I thought was a most amusing article….and as I went all the way through I noticed that it was by my buddy Michael Cannon…the thinking man’s health care libertarian from Cato.

Obama’s too busy talking mush with the townhall to answer…but I thought I might.

So here’s Michael’s questions, and in italics are my answers

Health Care Reform: Questions for the President

Will Health Care Reform Improve Our Health?


June 24, 2009—

“Health care reform is on life support,” says Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee. And he’s a Democrat.

MH: Not really!  Or at least not in a sane country unless he has the word “Christian” in front of his party label

President Obama has spent months building momentum for health care reform. But when the Congressional Budget Office put the price tag near $2 trillion, it stopped reform dead in its tracks.

What Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., once called “nearly inevitable” now seems much less so — and that’s before supporters have confronted the really tough questions.

Before this debate is over, Obama should answer a few questions about his plans for reform, including:

Mr. President, in your inaugural address and elsewhere, you said you are not interested in ideology, only what works. Economists Helen Levy of the University of Michigan and David Meltzer of the University of Chicago, where you used to teach, have researched what works. They conclude there is “no evidence” that universal health insurance coverage is the best way to improve public health. Before enacting universal coverage, shouldn’t you spend at least some of the $1 billion you dedicated to comparative-effectiveness research to determine whether universal coverage is comparatively effective? Absent such evidence, isn’t pursuing universal coverage by definition an ideological crusade?

MH: Sadly Michael, universal coverage is not about improving public health. If you want to do that, go teach some kids age 1–5 and build some sewage systems. Universal care is about making sure that the costs of health care are fairly distributed. Under the systems you prefer and the one we now have they’re distributed to the poor and sick from the healthy and wealthy—many of whom we both know work in the health care system. But apparently there was NOT ONE MENTION from a questioner of the uninsured or sick people bankrupted by the system in the whole hour. (Update Fri: and the only time the moderator Charlie Gibson mentioned it was when he wondered how rich people like him would get access to a doctor with all these newly insured people wanting care–he spent the whole evening appearing to be a selfish git)

A draft congressional report said that comparative-effectiveness research would “yield significant payoffs” because some treatments “will no longer be prescribed.” Who will decide which treatments will get the axe? Since government pays for half of all treatments, is it plausible to suggest that government will not insert itself into medical decisions? Or is it reasonable for patients to fear that government will deny them care?

MH: Why should patients fear it? We know that less intensive care is better, and cheaper primary care is better than more extensive specialty care. As the taxpayer pays for training doctors and funds most medical facilities why shouldn’t they demand that the resources are better spent?

You recently said the United States spends “almost 50 percent more per person than the next most costly nation. And yet … the quality of our care is often lower, and we aren’t any healthier.” Achieving universal coverage could require us to spend an additional $2 trillion over the next 10 years. If America already spends too much on health care, why are you asking Americans to spend even more?

MH: Ah we agree. All the money should come from the current system, even if it means reducing the incomes of pundits, bloggers and those who sponsor them, and a few people in the system. Sadly the politics of the US means that apparently Obama can’t say that

You have said, “Making health care affordable for all Americans will cost somewhere on the order of $1 trillion.” Precise dollar figures aside, isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

MH: Well for a start it’s not $1 trillion, it’s $100 billion a year which these days will barely buy you 6 months invasion of a small country. Which we do without debate on a regular basis it seems. And if we take the money from somewhere else we’re spending the money in health care, it shouldn’t cost more. Ah ha, cant be done because well see last answer

Last year, you told a competitiveness summit that rising health care costs are “a major anchor on the ability of American business to compete.” In May, you wrote, “Getting spiraling health care costs under control is essential to … making our businesses more competitive.” The head of your Council of Economic Advisors says such claims are “schlocky.” Who is right: you or your top economist?

MH: Obama is. I just spent 2 hours figuring out a mess of health insurance decisions that not one of my international competitors has to do. Multiply that out by every business in America, and don’t bother adding the fact that what we actually pay for health care is more than double per head what everyone else does. We’re both political scientists so we know that economists don’t know squat.

You recently told an audience, “No matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise to the American people. … If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.” The Associated Press subsequently reported, “White House officials suggest the president’s rhetoric shouldn’t be taken literally.” You then clarified, “What I’m saying is the government is not going to make you change plans under health reform.” Would your reforms encourage employers to drop their health plans?

MH: So? If employers do drop coverage as there are only 3 or 4 health plans in most markets, it would still be the same plan that the citizen would get to buy if they wanted to keep it and the costs would be subsidized for the poor. But don’t worry too much Michael. Americans hate their health plans. For some strange reason though they apparently like their doctors. Of course the AMA tells them they do

You found $600 billion worth of inefficiencies that you want to cut from Medicare and Medicaid. If government health programs generate that much waste, why do you want to create another?

MH: You’re saying all government programs are the same? That means the US Marine Corps and the Iraqi volunteer EDF (or whatever it’s called) are the same. I could start a government program that saved $600b very easily in Medicare & Medicaid. I might make a few enemies

You and your advisors argue that Medicare creates misaligned financial incentives that discourage preventive care, comparative-effectiveness research, electronic medical records, and efforts to reduce medical errors. Medicare’s payment system is the product of the political process. What gives you faith that the political process can devise less-perverse financial incentives this time?

MH: See my above answer, oh and abolish the Senate

You claim a new government program would create “a better range of choices, make the health care market more competitive, and keep insurance companies honest.” Since when is having the government enter a market the remedy for insufficient competition? Should the government have launched its own software company to compete with Microsoft? Are there better ways to create more choices and more competition?

MH: Hmm…the government did launch its own software “company”, which was way better & cheaper than the private sector competition, and made the government agency that used it provide the “best care anywhere”—demonstrably superior to privately provided care.  And it was so good that the monopolists at Microsoft stole its name and never paid compensation! Or did you miss Vista in your health care system and software market analysis?

When government entered the markets for workers compensation insurance, crop and flood insurance, and disaster insurance, it often completely crowded out private options. Do you expect a new government health insurance program would do the same?

MH: I hope so because the current private options are lousy at keeping down health care costs, or satisfying their customers. Oops, Obama can’t say that, can he.

You have said there are “legitimate concerns” that the government might give its new health plan an unfair advantage through taxpayer subsidies or by “printing money.” How do you propose to prevent this Congress and future Congresses from creating any unfair advantages?

MH: I don’t know but I’ll make a deal. I’ll promise my health plan wont have use an unfair advantage if you promise that AHIP’s members will stop lobbying Congress to rip-off the taxpayer. This wonderful chart shows that the likelihood of being against the public plan is directly proportional to the bribes paid to Senators by insurance companies.

President Obama needs to address questions these directly. The health of millions depends on his answers.

MH: No it doesn’t. The health of Americans depends on a bunch of stuff. The wealth of a few millions who get royally screwed by the current system does depend on reform. The current system is aided and abetted by its defenders like Cato and others who advocate “solutions” that are not only unworkable but also politically un-feasible. Their only role is to be spoilers to keep the status quo in place.

Michael F. Cannon is director of health policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and coauthor of Healthy Competition: What’s Holding Back Health Care and How to Free It.

Matthew Holt is a vicious blogger who wouldn’t mind being President for a day or two but not without the ability to break Congress to his will in the first ten minutes.

More bad press for Insurers. Will anyone care?

Jon Cohn notes that Wendell Potter, a former PR executive with Cigna and Humana. will be appearing before a Senate Commerce Committee today. Note the word “former”.

Trudy Lieberman has an interview with Potter where he repeats what we already know:

Lieberman: How do companies manipulate the medical loss ratio?Potter: They look at expensive claims of workers in small businesses who are insured by the company, and the claims of people in the individual market. If an employer-customer has an employee or two who has a chronic illness or needs expensive care, the claims for the employee will likely trigger a review. Common industry practice is to increase premiums so high that when such accounts come up for renewal, the employer has no choice but to reduce benefits, shop for another carrier, or stop offering benefits entirely. More and more have opted for the last alternative.

Continue reading…

The bleedingly obvious

It makes no sense for small businesses to provide health insurance to employees. This testimony from a small business owner to the House Tri-committee yesterday shows it. (Same is true for all employers but none save Ron Wyden dare say that).

Health insurance should be paid for by some form of taxation (VAT, income tax or payroll tax) that is in  proportion to businesses and individuals profitability/income, and small businesses (and big ones) should be left to do whatever it is they do. I cannot fathom how NFIB manages to convince its members otherwise, but it does appear that there’s a crack in that dike with various small business groups coming out in support for real health reform.

Having said that, I don’t think there’s too much likelihood that a typical low wage business will get much help anytime soon.

A Declaration of Health Data Rights

THCB & Health 2.0 are happy to be a small part of a very important declaration, made today by a mix of patients, physicians, technologists and concerned citizens. It’s a Declaration of Health Data Rights, and it’s extremely important because access to usable data is a very pressing problem in the health care system, and one that we have the opportunity to solve if we bake the concept into regulation and practice now, as electronic health data becomes more pervasive. Here’s the declaration:

In an era when technology allows personal health information to be more easily stored, updated, accessed and exchanged, the following rights should be self-evident and inalienable. We the people:

  • Have the right to our own health data
  • Have the right to know the source of each health data element
  • Have the right to take possession of a complete copy of our individual health data, without delay, at minimal or no cost; If data exist in computable form, they must be made available in that form
  • Have the right to share our health data with others as we see fit
These principles express basic human rights as well as essential elements of health care that is participatory, appropriate and in the interests of each patient. No law or policy should abridge these rights.

More information about how you can support this declaration, how it was created, a FAQ and what you can do to get involved is all at

Ezra says pusillanimousity has won

Now he’s no longer a young punk but an insider of the first order Ezra Klein has come up trumps and got an early copy of the latest Senate Finance committee legislation/trial balloon. It’s not going to make the left happy. In order to ratchet down from the $1.3 billion CBO said that their earlier version was going to cost, the Committee has basically taken out the public plan option, cut back the amount of subsidies, and are relying on what looks like an increasingly unenforceable individual mandate.

Now admittedly this is where I said Obama would end up more than 18 months ago. But, given that with the recession we really had a chance to do something here, this is very very weak.

I got a call from Organizing for America (Obama’s grass roots organization) asking me to support the reform bill the other day. This one is barely worth passing. We might be better off leaving the system and having a proper collapse before we start again in the next recession (which at the rate we’re going might be this one).

It’s looking increasingly like the Democrats on the Committee got rolled, and didn’t even care about that. Perhaps they felt that the risk of passage of something significant was greater than the risk of a quick loss of legislation that no one could get behind anyway.

I’m not allowed to call the Democrats a certain word beginning with P any more (even if John Stewart uses it all the time). But I can call them pusillanimous. And in your treat for the evening, here’s Marina from HotForWords to explain what that means.