Americans believe in second chances. Mitt Romney will get his if the Supreme Court rules to throw out part, or all, of the president’s federal health insurance law. Should Romney propose replacing it with a federal version of the Massachusetts health law or a federal mega-bill that mandates a one-size-fits-all free-market solution?
The question is now central to the election — the high court has made that certain — and eclipsed in importance only by the debate over jobs and the economy.
President Obama may cite Romney’s Massachusetts reform as an inspiration for his own efforts, but there are profound differences between the laws — the size and reach, financing, the underlying philosophy. Romney sought an open marketplace for individuals to purchase benefit plans ranging from catastrophic to generous. Romney’s successor, Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, has obscured those differences by taking a big-government approach to implementation, drastically limiting choices and mandating minimum coverage levels beyond private-market norms.
Even with weak implementation, the Massachusetts law has yielded some positive results, including broadening insurance coverage, especially for minorities, and decreasing premiums for individual purchasers of insurance.
Are the House and Senate giving us a false choice for how to control health care costs in Massachusetts? Aren’t there other options?
A few major themes have emerged from the two payment reform proposals and highlight the fact that they fail to align incentives for patients to be more involved in the purchase of their health insurance and their health care.
For example, even with full transparency of cost and quality (which is a huge lift on its own) for many patients, high-cost still correlates with higher quality in medicine. A recent report from Attorney General Coakley proved this theory wrong, but simply providing patients with cost data without placing the right incentives in their health plan to choose the low-cost high-quality provider will result in many selecting the most expensive care. As a result, these proposals will fall short of sustainably bending the cost curve.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney has taken considerable heat during the Republican primaries for the health-care legislation that passed while he was in office.
Sadly, election-year politics have overshadowed the real lessons of Massachusetts’ experiment.
The core question then-Gov. Romney was trying to answer was this: Should Massachusetts continue to pay hospitals more than $1 billion a year to care for the poor, or should it create a way for individuals to purchase their own insurance?
Romney’s original proposal was simple: Stop subsidizing expensive hospital care and instead require all residents to carry at least catastrophic insurance. Anything beyond that would be a matter of individual choice. The idea was to prevent taxpayers from having to pick up the tab for people unable or unwilling to pay for their own medical care.
To facilitate reform, Romney’s plan established a central agency, an “exchange,” where individuals could buy health insurance directly.
Though the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature amended Romney’s proposal, the new law, if properly implemented, could have made the health-care market far more customer-focused.
But that didn’t happen. Just months after the law was passed Romney’s successor, Democrat Deval Patrick, became responsible for implementing the 2006 law. Since then, almost every key bureaucratic decision has leaned toward government control and away from individual decision-making and the market.
For example, the exchange’s idea of “minimum coverage” is equal to some of the most generous plans in other states. Additionally, roughly 40 percent of the people in the exchange pay no monthly premium for insurance, while small businesses have been hit with a variety of onerous requirements. Instead of creating a market with many choices, insurance has been over-standardized and the number of available plans limited, curbing innovation in plan design.