Tag: Policy/Politics

Wellpoint: just incompetent?

I’m viewing the latest rumblings in the US health care debate from the confines of a clear but cold Britain, where the big news is that the country is joining the PIGS in entering economic meltdown—or at least being a lot more broke than it thought it was. (PIGS are Portugal, Greece, Ireland & Spain, not farm animals). And yet it appears that health reform is making if not a comeback then at least vigorous palpitations. The reason for this seems to be the strength that the Anthem Blue Cross/Wellpoint premium rises have imbued into the Administration.

Those of you reading THCB over the years will know that I think the individual insurance market is doomed to fail and should be replaced. It has its apologists; for example Cato’s Michael Cannon here criticizes Paul Krugman who explained last Friday why the individual market goes into a death spiral. Michael claims that Mark Pauly’s research shows that the individual market works. What Pauly’s work (and I despair at having to read it again, so this is from memory) tends to show is that insurers are incompetent at charging sick people to the full extent that they cost them, but do charge them roughly three times what they charge healthy people. Pauly also said in Health Affairs that the individual market works pretty well for 80% of the people in it, but he seems to think that screwing the remaining 20% is OK. Coming from a tenured Ivy league professor who’s probably never had to buy health insurance in his life, that was pretty rich. But apparently Wellpoint’s latest performance shows that it’s not OK for much of the other 80% either—hence their dropping out, leading to Krugman’s death spiral.Continue reading…

Apparently the public perceives a problem

I think health care reform is dead. And the proposed reform was relatively inconsequential anyway, as it would have left in place Medicare as is, Medicaid as is but bigger, employment-based health insurance, and fee-for-service medicine. And with Scotty Brown winning in Massachusetts, and harsh political winds stripping off the Blue Dog votes from the House Democratic majority, it seems that there’s no hope. In that context Obama’s not entirely spirited defense and offer to have a parlay on TV in a couple of weeks doesn’t sound like a recipe for action.

But apparently the public is less happy with nothing than it might appear are politicians. Today’s Washington Post/ABC Poll claims that two-thirds of the population think that we should keep trying—including 56% of the independents who the Dems feared they had lost and even a sizable minority of those claiming to be from the do-nothing party.


Will this poll make any difference? I doubt it, but stranger things have happened. And it does confirm that although Americans may not like the bill or agree on any solution, they know that the health care system is a big problem.

President Obama on Bipartisanship

As in, he spent a large part of his briefing in the White House press room talking about the fate of the health care reform bill. Here’s what he had to say about the summit with Republican and Democratic leaders, that’s still two weeks away:

Bipartisanship depends on a willingness among both Democrats and Republicans to put aside matters of party for the good of the country. I won’t hesitate to embrace a good idea from my friends in the minority party, but I also won’t hesitate to condemn what I consider to be obstinacy that’s rooted not in substantive disagreements but in political expedience.

To read the rest of President Obama’s thought on the current state of the health care reform debate, see the transcript, here.

Wellpoint’s wasted opportunity

Sometimes with something so egregious gets written that, even if it’s in the Wall Street Journal, you have to notice it. Angela Braly, the CEO of Wellpoint—compensation a hair under $10m in 2009—ought to be happy, even though Joseph Rago in the WSJ is surprised about that. It looks like the health reform bill which put much of Wellpoint’s highly profitable individual and small group business at risk is dead, and this week Wellpoint started putting up rates between 35% and 80% in the California market (where it’s Anthem Blue Cross).

But the WSJ quotes her as calling health reform a “wasted opportunity”. Funnily enough Wellpoint and the trade association it funds, AHIP, were on both sides of the debate. Pushing Congress to give it 30 million more customers as part of the bill, and then surreptitiously funding the Chamber of Commerce to oppose health reform (and putting pressure on the Blue Dogs, and the DINOs in the Senate) when some of the terms of the House Bill started to look less favorable (85% Med loss ratios limits among them).

I’d had some semi-decent hopes for Braly and her team.

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Plan B

Robert Laszewski

With word that the House is likely to take up the repeal of the health insurance industry anti-trust exemption it  is now clear the Democratic leadership has begun Plan B.

It is also clear that this is much more a part of a political Kabuki dance then any substantive effort at even piecemeal health care reform.

The House probably has the votes to pass the repeal. The Senate does not. I doubt that even all of the 59 Senate Democrats will vote for it if and when it does come up on the floor of the Senate.

The base of the Democratic Party, as well as many “progressive” Dems in the House and Senate, are rabidly mad about not being able to ram their health care bill through. That is why you continue to hear all of the talk about reconciliation options even though there is no chance such a scheme would pass either the House or Senate.

But what to do? The apparent answer is to bring up a few smaller health care bills the Democratic leadership views as popular back home and expect the Republicans will vote against them. Right now health care is a big negative issue for the Dems given the unpopularity of their effort to date. But if they can be seen trying to pass a few smaller measures “we can all agree on” only to be thwarted by Republican opposition their hope is they can turn the table on this issue to their advantage—well before they get to November.>

Interesting politics but no hope for any real progress while these games play out.


When the Democrats say they believe they can still pass a health care bill are they bluffing? That’s my opinion.

Here is a first rate story from Politico on their options and the dismal political reality each faces.

American Healthcare: Caught in a Bad Romance


“I want your Ugly.  I want your Disease
I want your Everything, as long as it’s Free.”

—America’s leading contemporary philosopher, Stefani Germanotta (aka Lady Gaga)

Insight comes from unlikely sources. Lady Gaga nailed the health reform dilemma. We have a healthcare delivery system that is an orgy of profligacy and excess that offers the false promise of making ugliness, disease and death all optional. And, we the public love all of it, as long as it’s free, at least to us as individuals. We want high tech, high quality, high expectations met, highly trained professionals delivering high standards, paid by someone else. And the magic fairy that will pay for all of this? Health insurance. Give everyone an insurance card and they can have their everything and it will be free, or close to it.

But wait, isn’t the cost of insurance tied to the costs of care? Doesn’t the sum of all healthcare costs for a covered population (plus administrative costs) divided by the number of people equal the premium. Doesn’t the premium come out of my pocket as taxpayer, employee or individual? How can I have everything, as long as it’s free?

Short answer is: you can’t.

We are caught in a Bad Romance with healthcare.

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Coming Short with Thinking

I am mad at congress.

I don’t care if they are Democrats or Republicans, I am sick of healthcare being treated as a political football. How much more of a crisis do we need before we actually start working on a solution? Why does each party have to sit on its side of the aisle shooting spitballs at the other? Each side has its pet issues that are tied to contributors, supporters, and lobbyists. Each side will work to see the other side fail even if the other side is right. Each side seems unable to do anything unless there is political value in it. Power is more important than service, and power is a short-term project.

The real problem is that congress is thinking of short-term political gain while sabotaging the long-term. It’s like the publicly traded company that works to maximize quarterly profits even if it damages the corporation in the long run. Our society thinks in the short not in the long, and our congressmen are doing so in a way that harms all of us.Continue reading…

Todd Park speaks: Free the data!

Todd Park is definitely one of health care IT’s good guys. Todd was the brains (though not the mouth!) behind athenahealth. After he left athenahealth, he spent a year back in California doing angel investing (Ventana among others) and being a dad. But despite his desire to stay on the west coast, he was dragged into the vortex known as Washington DC, and for the last 5 months he’s been the (first) CTO of HHS. (By the way, he cashed out his investments, and politely turned down my proposal to “care for” his cash while he was being a public servant!)

Todd gave the keynote yesterday at the Health IT Summit for Government Leaders. He describes his job as unlocking HHS’ “inner mojo” in terms of data use and technology innovation. So what are the big deals he sees? These are my notes on his fast talking!

1) HITECH/ARRA is not about for paying for software. Its purpose is to incentivize “meaningful use”. He wants to make sure that people understand that the NHIN (National Health Information Network) is not a thing. It’s a set of policies and services that people can use to make health data work over the Internet. It is NOT a parallel network. And at the end of the day, what’s going to make this work is the private sector — including vendors modifying their products to match these policies.

2) Leveraging the power of HHS data for public good. The amount of data HHS has is “ridiculous”. It has a set of sets of data. Todd is a paid up member of Tim Berners-Lee “free the data” club. They’re adding all kinds of data sets to including every grant, patent et al licensed/paid for by HHS. Todd calls this “data liberation”. They’re also creating community health maps where data on community health performance can be mashed up with other types of maps (real estate, job listings, et al). In addition, they’re doing “smart targeting” — an attempt to combine findings from different/disparate data sets without waiting to do the big database integration. He’s hoping to use techniques that the intelligence community uses to link, say, emails and bank wires, to similarly track, say, disease outbreaks, drug interactions, etc.

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Uwe and Heritage agree: we need a tax-funded universal pool

When you’re at a party and someone explains to you that they just read a great article in the NY Times explaining why Peggy Noonan doesn’t understand basic math, and you know that they’re referring to Uwe Reinhardt, then you’re over-wonked. That’s surely my condition

Here’s what Uwe said—you can’t just ban medical underwriting as Noonan suggested, because the individual insurance market will collapse. Both the history of New Jersey (and Washington state) in the 1990s, and in current Massachusetts where people can buy insurance or pay a lesser fine, show that healthy people won’t buy insurance until they need it.

The answer is to force everyone into a universal insurance pool

But of course, that means younger and healthier people will likely pay more. For the good folks from Heritage writing on the WSJ Opinion page this is an outrage. Using their complex model they came up with the amazing analysis that if you give uninsured younger people with no health condition the choice of paying a smaller fine or a higher premium—surprise surprise—most will pay the fine. And of course that’s exactly what’s happened in Massachusetts.

The problem is of course that most younger people who have no insurance are in low wage jobs, They therefore place a much higher value on receiving money now than forgoing it to later stave of a potential risk of catastrophe from having no insurance

So we deal with this in a very sensible way in the rest of society’s transactions.

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Panicky People Make Bad Decisions : Salvaging Health Reform after Scott Brown

Jeff goldsmith

The shocking surrender of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat to an insurgent Republican state legislator, Scott Brown, has imperiled President Obama’s health reform initiative. The Massachusetts “massacre” has unleashed a tidal wave of second guessing from Democratic pundits. Obama, the left argues angrily, got what he deserved for trying to find a bipartisan solution to health reform, for abandoning the beloved “public option” and snuggling up to the corporations they wanted to punish. If only he’d remained pure to their ideals, Martha Coakley would be a Senator and he’d have a bill on his desk by the end of the week. General Custer could not have gotten worse advice.

It’s possible that the loss of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat might end up saving both health reform and the Obama Presidency. The President seems to understand what happened in Massachusetts better than his more ideological brethren. Disarmingly, he argued the day after Brown’s victory that it was produced by the same popular anger as his own election, though it’s worth noting an important qualitative difference. The 2008 election coincided with a full blown market panic, which the President’s calm and policies helped quell; What he is now facing is much closer to voter despair, as the domestic economy digests a huge overhang of debt, and unemployment lingers above the toxic 10% level.

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