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Will We Get a Health Care Bill in 2009?

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It’s decision time. The Congress will or won’t pass a major health care bill during the next few weeks.Will we get health care reform in 2009?Almost certainly not. As I have been saying for months, if we get a bill it will be more a trillion dollar entitlement expansion funded by relatively minor provider cuts and about $500 billion in tax increases.

That is not health care reform.Will we get that trillion-dollar entitlement expansion health care bill?That outcome lies in the coming convergence on Capitol Hill of three extraordinarily powerful, and contradictory, forces.

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Capitol Shortage: Can the Two Democratic Parties Get It Together on Health Reform?

Hcan-june25crowd+dome3 As an exceptionally grumpy American summer grinds to a conclusion, it is apparent that only a bipartisan solution will enable Congress and the Obama Administration to complete health reform.  No, we’re not talking about co-operating with the Republicans. Other than a handful of contrarian Republican moderates on the Senate Finance Committee, at least one of whose votes might be needed for eventual passage, the Republicans are irrelevant to the final outcome.

No, the bipartisan solution we’re talking about is co-operation between the two Democratic parties represented in Congress:  the “Safe-Seat” Democrats- the Pacific Heights/Beverly Hills/Berkeley Hills/Upper West Side/Harlem Democrats and the “Running Scared” Democrats from the western, southern and border states, who actually require independent and some moderate Republican support to get elected.  These parties have very little in common other than the Capital D after their names.  

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Taxing Health Insurance Companies to Pay for Health Care

The Congress has investigated about every conceivable way to tax people to pay for the health care proposals—a millionaire’s tax, bigger taxes on home mortgages and charitable contributions, and a couple of dozen more ideas.

Now Congress looks to be the most interested in taxing insurance companies to pay for a big chunk of their health care proposals. The new taxes would come in two parts––a 35% excise tax on any health benefit cost above an $8,000 single and $21,000 family annual premium as well as a flat $6 billion annual tax on the industry to be allocated among the companies proportionate to their premium.

There is certain logic to this. Taxing high priced benefits could help deflate the health care economy. Taxing all of the health insurance companies that stand to get more than a $1 trillion in new business—most of it in the from new private insurance and Medicaid subsidies and the rest from the consumer’s share of those new private plan premiums—seems fair at one level.

Calling for a tax on that big rich insurance company also sounds a lot better to the politicians than looking voters straight in the eye and raising their taxes directly.Continue reading…

10,000 US physicians have something to say and we’re not wasting time.

Today, as Congress returns to session, all 100 Senators will be listening to physicians on SERMO when they deliver the “US Physician’s Appeal” on Capitol Hill.   Wasting no time, my physician colleagues and I, armed with the over 10,000 signatures will deliver the Appeal directly to lawmakers, requesting them to include us in national health reform strategy.

We are pledging our commitment to true healthcare reform focused on the real sources of spiraling, bureaucratic costs and by doing this on day one of Congress’ return, we are telling them that true healthcare reform will only succeed IF:

  1. Tort and malpractice laws are reformed;
  2. Billing is streamlined and pricing made transparent, ending systemic support of the AMA owned billing codes (CPT Codes);
  3. The insurance industry is reformed; and
  4. Payment systems are simplified so they align with the growing need for preventive medicine.Continue reading…

What Obama Must Demand from Congress on Health Care

Picture 11 Congress returns this week to one of the fiercest and most important debates in recent memory — whether and to what extent the nation will provide health care to all Americans, and how we will reign in the soaring costs of health care overall. But do not expect unusual courage from this Congress in standing up to demagogic lies and money-toting lobbyists. An unusually large portion is facing close races in 2010, both in primaries and in the general election. Republicans have many primary challenges from the right. A record number of Democrats, who took over Congress in 2006, hail from traditionally Republican or swing states and districts.

In order to get anything meaningful through this session of Congress, then, the President will have to give congressional Democrats far more leadership and more cover. Doing so is harder now than before the recess, when he was still basking in the afterglow of a honeymoon and 60 percent favorabilities.Yet it’s not too late. Addressing a joint session of Congress next Wednesday is a good idea but Obama can’t rely solely on his exceptional rhetorical skills. He’ll need to twist arms, cajole, force recalcitrant members to join him, threaten retribution if they don’t come along.

Most importantly, he’ll need to be specific about what he wants — especially about three things. I hope says the following next Wednesday, and makes clear to individual members that he means business.

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No Alternative: An Analysis of the GOP Plan

Congressional Republicans have been blasting away all summer at the Democrats’ health reform legislation. But they might face heavy blowback if more Americans took a close look at two ambitious health reform bills sponsored by GOP lawmakers.

While the GOP plans include some worthy ideas, they have fatal policy flaws at their heart, largely related to insurance risk selection. Plus, they’re vulnerable to many of the same big-government political attacks leveled against the Democratic proposals. That may be the reason Republican lawmakers aren’t talking up their plans at the stormy health care town hall meetings they’re hosting across the country.

The two bills – the Patients’ Choice Act (PCA), sponsored by Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and several House Republicans, and the Health Care Freedom Act of 2009 (HCFA), sponsored by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint – have a fair amount in common, though DeMint’s bill is the more conservative and deregulatory of the two.

More surprisingly, each bill shares some features with the Democratic proposals – including health insurance exchanges, subsidies for the uninsured to buy coverage, insurance market reforms, accountable health organizations, and a national rulemaking commission. The sad part of the nasty, mendacious political debate this summer is how little Republicans and Democrats have focused on those big areas of agreement.

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Healthcare Reform: Strangled In Its Bed

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Follow the bouncing ball here: Health care was a mess, cost way too much, sick people getting dropped by insurance companies and left to die and bankrupted and all that. The obvious solution: Go to a single-payer system, or at least to a universal, subsidized, heavily-regulated private system, like all those other countries who pay half as much or less for better results.

But that would never fly, because the health plans are way too big and employ a lot of people, including a zillion lobbyists, so politically, forget it. We’ll back off and cut a deal.

Here’s what the new deal was supposed to be: We’re not going to wipe out the insurance companies. What we’ll do is offer people an alternative insurance plan, a “public option.” It will be cheaper because it will only pay 5% over Medicare rates, but doctors and hospitals will be mandated to take it. And it will also be cheaper because it’s a government offering, so it takes out no profit, and it won’t have to compete with other insurance companies to pay out as little as possible.

Individuals will have to buy insurance, or they will pay a big fine to the IRS. But there will be these “insurance exchanges,” offering lots of plans that will actually compete for the public’s business (instead of the one or two now available in most markets), plus the “public option.” Employers will have to offer plans with “essential benefits,” meaning good coverage of hospitalization, drugs, outpatient care, mental health care, and so forth. Small employers will have to chip in, too, but they get help with the cost. If the employer doesn’t offer a good plan with “essential benefits,” the employee will be able to take the money the employer is chipping in, and buy a good health plan on the “exchange.”

Sounds like a plan. Health plans couldn’t turn anyone down for “pre-existing conditions,” they would have to take everybody. On the other hand, everybody would have to take them, unless the “public option” turns out to be both way cheaper and more reliable.

Of course, along the way, everybody else gets what they want, too, out of this deal. The drug companies, for instance, get told that, no, the government will not negotiate with them for lower prices; any government plan will just pay market prices. And we’ll make it harder, not easier, for generics to compete with brand-name drugs. And no organization, company, or government will be able to re-import drugs from overseas, where they cost much less.

Oh, and of course there will be nothing in the bill to make health plans actually honor their contracts, stop refusing to pay for stuff they agreed to pay for, or stop tossing out people who get really sick and spend too much.

Then the details start getting sliced up, and things start turning weird. The Blue Dogs in the House get the Commerce Committee to turn out a bill that says, well, actually, hospitals and doctors should not have to take the public option. It should be voluntary, and they should be paid market rates, that is, what they are paid now. So the savings go out the window. The public option, in this version, is not particularly cheaper than the private plans. And anyway, employers with a less than a $500,000 payroll (which is 87% of all the employers in the nation) would be exempt. They wouldn’t have to provide any health care insurance at all. The employees would still have to buy it for themselves, though, or pay a big fine. Of course, they could buy the no-longer-particularly-cheap public option.

Over in the Senate, the key Finance Committee lets it leak that it’s probably dropping not only the public option altogether, but employer mandates, too. Employers won’t have to offer health plans at all, but the employees have to buy them, whether anyone’s offering them a decent plan or not.

Democrat Kent Conrad, on the committee, says nobody will go for a public option plan; instead we’ll try co-ops. This idea would consist of trying to start new not-for-profit insurance companies in every market in the country. Doctors and hospitals would not have to sign up with them. The coops would not have their rates tied to Medicare; they would have to pay market rates. Actually, they would have to pay more than market rates, because the doctors and hospitals in those markets are already signed up with the existing insurers and have plenty of business already, thank you very much. So the new coops would have to bid premium rates to get providers to sign up, or they would have to “rent” them (again at a premium) from their competitors. No big deal, though: If it’s voluntary and paying market rates, the “public option” would have the same problem – high prices, not many providers, so not many customers.

And then Ted Kennedy’s committee turns out a bill that says, well, actually, employers are not really obliged to offer a minimum level of health care insurance – yet the bill keeps the requirement that employees must accept and pay for whatever health care plan their employer offers them, whether it seems an acceptable level of care at an acceptable price or not. So again, savings for the individual go out the window, and now choice of health plans does, too.

If a so-called “reform” bill comes up with these elements – no employer mandate, strong individual mandate, market rates for everything, no real insurance reform – there is no reason to vote for it. It is worse than no bill at all.

That is about what we are facing now.

With nearly 30 years’ experience, Joe Flower has emerged as a premier observer and thought leader on the deep forces changing healthcare in the United States and around the world. As a healthcare speaker, writer, and consultant, he has explored the future of healthcare with clients ranging from the World Health Organization, the Global Business Network, and the U.K. National Health Service, to the majority of state hospital associations in the U.S.  He has written for a number of healthcare publications including, the Healthcare Forum Journal, Physician Executive, and Wired Magazine.  You can find more of Joe’s work at his website, www.imaginewhatif.com, where this post first appeared.

More by the same author:

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Healthcare as a Complex Adaptive System

Will Republicans Be Spoilers Or Problem Solvers on Health Care Reform?

Picture 19 In theory Congress’ return from recess next week could offer a new beginning to the health care reform process, giving everyone a chance to take a deep breath and recalibrate the components of change.

Nine months into the wrangling around a new Administration, the talk-show right has seemingly hijacked the discussion on health
care, Democrats’ signature issue, with the standard tools that demagogues have always used: leveraging popular prejudices with oversimplification, hyperbole, and distortion. The die-hard GOP faithful’s leaders – Gingrich, Palin and others (see this off-the-deep-end speech by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich)) – are of course playing spoilers, independent of the cost. They hope to goad centrist voters into abandoning the Democrats so they can retake power. Witness South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint’s comment, “If we’re able to defeat Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

The problem with this approach is that we’re still early on in our national discussion about change and about health care. An increasing number of Americans may be frustrated with Democrats, but after 10 years of Republican rule, few Americans see them as a party of fresh ideas or having an interest in helping anyone but the wealthy and powerful. Americans may have short memories, but they likely still recall that Republicans were just thrown out for a multitude of significant sins. So if everyone you know sends around Obama-as-Hitler arguments, heckling and hoping the Dems will quickly self-destruct may seem like a reasonable strategy. It is doubtful, however, that the other 75 percent of us buy that thinking.

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Time for a Closer Look (and Lower Costs)

By ROGER COLLIER

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One of the effects of the exaggerations, misinterpretations, distortions, and downright lies about Congressional health care reform proposals—mostly from far-right politicians and their hangers-on—has been to deter more objective analysis.

In fact, two key features of the current Senate and House bills—the insurance exchange structure, and the controversial public plan option—need much closer examination, and possibly considerable revision.

FIRST, the insurance exchange structure. It’s a reasonable concept: if insurers were to compete via an exchange for individual and small group business, they would offer highly competitive rates to attract as much business as possible.

Unfortunately, as a Health Affairs blog piece by the former managers of the PacAdvantage exchange makes clear, it isn’t as simple as that. PacAdvantage, which served some 150,000 California small business employees, ultimately collapsed and closed its doors in 2006, a victim of adverse selection. As the PacAdvantage managers explain, having insurers also marketing directly to small groups allowed them to cherry pick the best risks, leaving the less-good risks in the exchange. As adverse selection continued its work, the exchange went into a death spiral with worsening exchange risk leading to higher rates, leading to the least-bad risks leaving the exchange, leading to even higher exchange rates, and so on.

The obvious way to avoid this problem in national reform is to require that ALL individuals and ALL small group employees be included in each regional exchange. Unfortunately, health reforming politicians have adopted “you’ll be able to retain your existing coverage” as part of their reform pitch. It’s understandable, since forcing groups to switch to an exchange is not going to help the prospects of legislation that’s already in trouble, but it instantly opens the door to cherry-picking by insurers, with the prospect of failure of every exchange.

Is there a solution? Rather than imposing an additional mandate on businesses, current bills could be modified to require that all insurers participate in the exchange, and that their exchange rates be no higher than those offered directly to any insured group, thereby forcing insurers to treat exchange and non-exchange insureds as part of the same pool and avoiding the adverse selection effect.

SECOND, the public plan option. So far, the political controversy has focused on the obvious arguments for and against the public plan: it would force insurers to offer better rates, but it could push millions of Americans out of private coverage into a government program.

A close look at data from Medicare Advantage, in which private plans compete with the traditional government option, indicates that both arguments are questionable.

MA’s private coverage alternative is indeed more costly than traditional Medicare, by some 13 percent—more than $11 billion in 2009. However, most of the difference is due to the additional benefits offered. The private plans’ 2009 base bids to CMS—excluding the cost of additional benefits—averaged 102 percent of FFS rates, with HMO and PPO bids averaging just 99 percent of FFS.

These base bid rates include profit and administrative costs, in contrast to the FFS rates which exclude both administration and financing costs. Even the most conservative estimate of these additional costs would put fully-loaded FFS rates above those of the average private plan.

The comparison of Medicare FFS and MA plans is further skewed by the MA bid process. Not only do the ridiculously high “county benchmarks” used in payment setting favor high bids, but the payment formula (which discounts the difference between the base bid and the benchmark, but not the base bid itself) encourages excessive loading of profit and administration into the base bid. In other words, in a more rationally designed competitive environment, average private plan costs should be significantly below those of traditional Medicare.

In terms of the current Senate Health and House bills, with proposed payment rates higher than Medicare, the public plan looks even less competitive.  While there would undoubtedly be some who would opt for a government program over a private plan, the vast majority are likely to choose the lower cost option, with the public plan more likely to increase health care costs than decrease them.

Are there compromises that might satisfy liberal politicians’ desires for a public plan? One possibility is to build a “trigger” into the bills that would allow creation of public plans only where private plans fail to meet cost control benchmarks.

Another possibility is to build on the existing public plan for the non-elderly: Medicaid. Congressional committees are already proposing Medicaid expansions, while simultaneously proposing subsidies to make exchange participation more affordable for non-Medicaid eligibles, leading to an anomalous situation in which one family may receive free Medicaid coverage, while a second family whose income is only a few dollars greater is forced to pay a significant part of the exchange premium in order to comply with an individual coverage mandate.

A less costly and unfair approach might be to allow individuals to buy-in to Medicaid. Since average per capita Medicaid costs are approximately $2000, compared with estimated subsidy costs of close to $4000 (based on CBO estimates, in 2009 dollars), this would eliminate both the anomaly and the need for subsidies, with a potential dramatic reduction in the ten-year cost of reform of some $770 billion.

Roger Collier was formerly CEO of a national health care consulting firm. His experience includes the design and implementation of innovative health care programs for HMOs, health insurers, and state and federal agencies. He is editor of Health Care Reform Update.

More on health care reform by this author:

Innovation and Absence of Evidence vs. Evidence of Absence

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Jon Gabel from the National Opinion Research Center has an excellent op-ed piece in today’s New York Times. The basic argument is summarized in his conclusion:

“The Congressional Budget Office’s integrity is beyond questioning. But the record shows that it has substantially overestimated the cost of health care reform three times out of three. As Congress now works on its greatest push for reform in generations, the budget office needs to revise the methods it uses to make predictions about costs.”

Far from being an arcane methodological debate, CBO’s approach has profound consequences for health care reform and for the long-term health and economic conditions of the country. As Gabel puts it:

“The budget office’s cautious methods may have unintended consequences in the current health care reform effort. By underestimating the savings that can come from improved Medicare payment procedures and other cost-control initiatives, the budget office leads Congress to think that politically unpopular cost-cutting initiatives will have, at best, only modest effects. This, in turn, forces Congress to believe it can pay for reform only by raising taxes, which then makes reform legislation more difficult to pass.”

The reason that CBO has underestimated savings from past reforms of Medicare is that it makes the assumption that — without convincing empirical evidence of an initiative’s cost impact — it basically “scores” it as delivering zero savings. No doubt that CBO is consistent and conservative, but that doesn’t necessarily produce the most accurate budgetary forecast.

Perhaps more so than any other area in the federal budget, there are an enormous number of unknowns in health care. CBO has historically built its model on the premise that absence of evidence equates with evidence of absence.

But there is a major distinction. “Evidence of absence” means that we have an empirical reason to believe that there is no effect of an intervention (in this case on cost). In that case, it makes sense to score zero savings.

In contrast, “absence of evidence” simply means that we do not have sufficient evidence that an intervention produces any effect.  The problem is that, by definition, any true “innovation” (defined by Merriam-Webster as “the introduction of something new”) has no evidence. Which is to say: CBO has effectively ruled out scoring savings for true innovation.

Perhaps some would argue that’s an overstatement in that we certainly commonly use the term innovation to describe something that has been around long enough to be tested. Yes and no. There’s no doubt that new and innovation are relative terms, but there are still important reasons why that approach for CBO remains flawed.

First, evaluation takes time. To design a study, appropriately manage it, collect and analyze data, submit to peer review, and publish often takes many years.

Second, the level of evidence that CBO typically requires takes A LOT of time.

Third, innovation often comes from combining different initiatives and strategies that create a combined effect greater than the sum of their parts. Information therapy, patient decision aids, comparative effectiveness research, and other delivery system reforms may have a powerful impact when thoughtfully and appropriately combined together.

Fourth, the pace of innovation and the greatest innovative impacts can be dramatically robust. There is no way, in its current model, for CBO to capture those things that will have the most important effects on the federal health budget.

Like Jon Gabel, I don’t question the CBO’s integrity or analytical capacity, but I do believe that its methodological approach requires amendment. As I have written before, we — as health services researchers (and I admit to being one myself) — need to maintain our analytical rigor while being as creative in our research methods as the innovators are at innovating.

We should not shy away from the empirical idiosyncrasies that innovative care delivery initiatives create. Rather, we should rise to the challenge by employing a broader set of research and analytical skills to tackle these compelling research questions about new innovations. Indeed, the new care delivery strategies create opportunities for health services researchers to develop their own innovative research techniques.

I hope that health services researchers out there are up to that challenge.

If we aren’t, we will continue to create perverse public policy incentives.

Joshua Seidman is the president of of the Center for Information Therapy that aims to provide the timely prescription and availability of evidence-based health information to meet individuals’ specific needs and support sound decision making.  He frequently blogs for THCB and the Center for Information Therapy Blog, where this post first appeared.

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