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Tag: Policy/Politics

House of Straw or House of Bricks?

Photo for website Feb09 A week ago, before the Massachusetts special election, health reformers felt that their house was almost finished. The edifice of health reform had been built painstakingly using blueprints designed by policy and political experts during the past 10 years. It wasn’t a perfect building — like many construction projects, there were concerns that it would cost too much and wouldn’t be aesthetically pleasing — but most agreed that it would provide shelter for those who had been excluded from health coverage: the uninsured and the medically uninsurable. The imperfections could be fixed later. As many said, this would be the foundation and framework on which an even better health system for the U.S. could be built. And the wolves who had ruthlessly blown down health reform houses in the 1990s and before had been kept at bay.

As the reformers stood on the top floor last week, deciding on the final touch-ups and planning for the housewarming, someone pulled the rug out from under them. The upset election of Scott Brown to fill the late Sen. Kennedy’s seat changed the political calculus. It would not be possible for the Senate to pass a bill including the final modifications, since a unified Republican minority of 41 would be able to block consideration of the bill. It turned out that under the rug was a hole in the floor, and suddenly the reformers were on the next floor down. The reformers might have to leave the top floor unfinished (the modifications that were needed to get House approval), but they could still have a pretty solid building if they could reach agreement.

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The Silver Lining

Brian Klepper Massachusett’s voters’ stunning rejection of Democrat Martha Coakley, in favor of a not-very-impressive Scott Brown, should be exactly the splash of cold water that the Democratic party – and Congress as a whole – needed. The defeat can be understood in two ways: one large and one fairly small.

First, the large one. This will probably send reform back to the drawing board. Health care is too much in crisis and too pressing to be pushed completely off the table until certain issues – including both access AND cost – are addressed.

Second, this election marks the loss of a single critical Senate seat, but it is also very loud warning shot. The mandate received at the end of 2008 was a resounding call to throw out the Republicans who for more than a decade had ridden roughshod over American values. Yesterday, the Democrats, in one of their most secure strongholds, received the same message. Whatever people in DC think, rank-and-file Americans – not those on the right or left, but the swing voters in the middle who actually determine election results – are very unhappy with the gaming that’s been vividly displayed over the last year under the guise of health care reform.

The distaste expressed yesterday probably has little to do with the specific provisions of the bills, except for the largest generalities: that they expand coverage while avoiding a commitment to changes that could significantly reduce cost. But along the way, voters have witnessed — with an immediacy and transparency that has only been available as a result of the Web — lawmaking in its worst tradition. There was the White House’s deal making with powerful corporate interests like the drug manufacturers even before the proceedings began. And the tremendous lobbying contributions by health care and non-health care special interests in exchange for access to the policy-shaping process. Or the outright bribery of specific Senators and Representatives in exchange for votes. Last week’s White House deal with the unions that exempted them from the tax on “Cadillac” health plans until 2018 must have seemed like a perfectly OK arrangement to the people in the center of all this activity, but to normal people who read the paper, it was emblematic of the current modus operandi: If you have power and support the party in power’s muddled agenda, you get a special deal.

The most tempting mistake now for the Democrats would be to dig in. President Obama’s most appealing characteristic — the one that got him elected — was his embrace, his embodiment even, of approaches that would revise the traditional kinds of politics we’ve seen for the last year throughout the health care reform process. Of late, the most telling complaint about this Presidency so far has been disappointment that, once in office, he seemed to cave in so easily.

Undoubtedly, many Republicans are now rejoicing over the Democrats’ loss and the possible defeat of any health care reform legislation. That’s unfortunate. The health care crisis is real and remains unaddressed. The pressures it creates, particularly for powerful interests like business, will force Congress to return to it and develop meaningful solutions. Hopefully (though probably unlikely), Congress and particularly the Democrats, will be chastened and wiser. There’s a big opportunity here to make lemonade.

There is a new, bipartisan movement in Congress, highlighted on NPR two weeks ago, that would revisit the rules around the relationships between special interests and lawmakers. This is an issue that trumps and is more important than all others, because if every policy is ultimately shaped by those with enough money to buy Congress’ favor, then our democracy will be unable to hold.

The silver lining in yesterday’s election was that it was a mild, if critical, reminder that, whatever DC thinks, America’s center is just as displeased with the current governance as it was with its predecessors. Faced with a much larger rejection in the 1994 elections, President Clinton went on TV, took full responsibility, and then spent his time rebuilding. The good news is that today is a new day, and that, if they’re interested in what’s good for America over the long term rather than simply themselves over the short term, Congress has the ability to start again in ways that could please the American people and actually work to our collective advantage.

Brian Klepper and David C. Kibbe write together about health care technology, market dynamics and reform.

Obama & Company

Millenson_122k_3 The late great newspaper columnist Mike Royko suggested that Chicago’s motto be changed from “Urbs in Horto” (“City in a Garden”) to “Ubi Est Mea” (“Where’s Mine?”). Unfortunately, Barack Obama and his Chicago political brain trust remembered this basic lesson when it came to cutting deals with Congress, but completely forgot it when communicating with actual members of the public on health care reform.

As a result, the fragile flower of reform may not have been completely plucked, but the manure dumped on it in Massachusetts was not meant as fertilizer.

Throughout this process, Obama and his Chicago-bred advisers have been intent on avoiding the mistakes that sunk reform during the Clinton administration. But their diagnosis was flawed. Yes, Bill and Hillary stiff-armed both the special interests and their Republican opponents, falsely believing that public opinion polls showing widespread support immunized them from the insidious need for compromise. But while the Obama administration cut early deals with doctors, hospitals, insurers and the pharmaceutical companies, attempts to bring moderate Republicans into the fold conspicuously failed.Continue reading…

A vote for single payer, austerity-style

I spent summer 1984 in Boston and generally found it an oppressively hot place. I’ve spent a few winter days there and found it an oppressively cold place. I’ve always thought that, given the absence of passport controls, if you lived there and could move to California and didn’t, you were probably crazy. And yesterday the residents of that fair state proved me right.

As I said earlier this week, it now appears that health care reform is dead. I just can’t see a scenario in which there are 60 votes to pass anything. I also don’t see the Dems having the cojones to go to reconciliation or to cram the current Senate bill through the House quickly. Instead (as Bob Laszewski says below) the moderate Dems will run for their lives away from health insurance reform—although I just don’t understand what Bob thinks “reform” would have meant if it had really required 6–10 Republican Senators.

So my prediction is that we end up with nothing.

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Thinking the unthinkable–no Health Care bill?

Matthew Holt

After a resounding Democratic Presidential election win, a terrible recession, and a bruising year of politics, it would be just like America that a crazy election result torpedoes the health care reform bill. It would be the first Republican Senator win in 43 years in Massachusetts, a state that’s bluer than blue, and the actual seat being elected on Tuesday hasn’t been won by a Republican since 1947!

But it’s becoming more and more possible, and the latest polls are all over the map.

Let’s play out what happens if we go back to a 59–41 Senate. The current Senate rules basically allow the minority to shut down proceedings. Harry Reid has in fact performed miracles to keep Lieberman, Nelson and some of the rest on board. Obama, Reid & Pelosi are now working the deal out with the unions and all the rest to make sure that what’s a pretty slim majority in the House will essentially accept the Senate bill—with some sop to the unions on the “Excise tax”. There are some other technicalities about the Exchange et al, but in the end we have a fair idea of what’s going to be the result.

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Why health insurance reform really matters

Just occasionally we get a really heartfelt comment on THCB that is passionate and rational, and reminds us why for all the bile spewed about the topic the essential part of the health care bill—making insurance available to everyone—is really important. This comment from CF Mother was left on my post “Thinking the unthinkable” on Friday. And of course, this could happen to anyone—including you. And frankly the Democrats need to do a better job explaining this—Matthew Holt

Questions for those who do not support health care reform:

Twenty years ago our cheery toddler was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Afraid, we dug into the medical research to understand the disease that threatened his future. We healed through optimism, roused by the news eight days after his diagnosis that the gene that causes CF had been found, opening the door toward a cure. We knew that our heroes, the researchers and his doctors, would continue to find ways to protect his future. We were no longer afraid of CF.

The fear that woke me in the night was of losing our health insurance because our son was on every insurer’s no-fly list. While my husband’s profession was periodically roiled by layoffs, he decided against the security of opening his own firm because the cost of carrying coverage for our eldest son was too high, the thread on which his health care dangled too slight.

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The Union “Cadillac” Tax Sweetheart Deal

Just when you thought you couldn’t be more cynical about the health care bill.

As I have said before, there wasn’t a lot of hope the same administration that ignored the rule of law in granting unions priority over Chrysler bondholders was going to offend them on the “Cadillac” tax.

We’ve seen the “Louisiana purchase” giving Senator Landrieu hundreds of millions for her vote, only to be upstaged by Ben Nelson’s Medicaid deal for Nebraska. Then the Democratic leadership claimed the $250 billion Medicare physician fee problem didn’t have anything to do with health care reform. Add to that a “robust” Medicare commission that can’t touch doctor or hospital costs. Or, how about six years of benefits under the bill and ten years of taxes. Or, counting $70 billion from the new long-term care program as offsetting revenue to help pay for it.

Now, the unions and public employees are going to be exempt from the “Cadillac” excise tax on high cost plans until 2018.It will be interesting to see how proponents, or should I say apologists, for this health care effort spin the latest. I would just ask that you please, please, please, not call this mess health care reform.

There is an important election on Tuesday in the Bay State that looks to be
focused on the Democratic health care effort. This kind of stunt may just be enough to push it over the edge.

Is it 2013 (or 2014) Yet?

By JD KLEINKE

Nope, it’s only 2010 – a new year to be sure, as evidenced by stabilizing home prices and normalizing presidential approval ratings.  But you can stop holding your organization’s breath, slow down the conversion of that emergency room to a primary care clinic, and forget coming clean with your health insurer about your actual medical conditions.  Health “reform” won’t be here until 2014, if the Senate bill – passed just as Santa Claus was loading up his own sled with presents – prevails in the legislative horse-trading that begins this week.

Or it could be here as early as 2013, if we give way to the reckless abandon of the House bill.  In either case, fear not: full implementation of The Plan does not occur until well after the end of the world, according to the Mayan calendar.  If this is a government take-over of health care, taking their sweet time may prove to be a brilliant poker strategy.Continue reading…

Health Care Reform and the Art of Partisan Politics

The last time the US Senate held a vote on Christmas eve, it was 1895. In that one, lawmakers said it was OK for former Confederate army soldiers to serve in the military. The vote was hailed as a milestone in the slow national reconciliation following the Civil War.

No one was talking about national reconciliation following last week’s Christmas Eve Senate vote on health care reform. A bill was passed with unanimous support by Democrats, against the wishes of 40 resolute, disdainful Republicans.

The vote—and the long, vitriolic “debate” that preceded it—obliterated any remaining vestiges of collegiality and bipartisanship in the chamber…not to mention turning off those who see the issue to be complex and worthy of careful thought.

After struggling for decades to implement modest, incremental improvements to the nation’s fractured health insurance system, the Dems decided this was their best chance to do it up right. They weren’t going blow it, no matter what. So they cobbled together 60 votes–securing the last one in a particularly tawdry cash deal with a Senator from Nebraska–and then hunkered down.

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A Special Edition of Health Wonk Review

American Health Care Reform:
Observations From Health Care Analysts
Edited by Brian Klepper

Here we are, with the first edition of Health Wonk Review (HWR) in a new decade. It is a pregnant moment, as reconciliation begins between the House and Senate health care reform bills, when the best health wonks are weighing in on how we arrived here and what it will probably mean to have a few key successes and some very significant failures at a time when most everyone in the country who doesn’t have power yearns for real solutions. Joe Paduda summed it up very nicely on Managed Care Matters, “…after all this, we’re going to end up with a bill that won’t work – it will not appreciably reduce health care costs today, tomorrow, ever.” Alas, the result is much more a reflection of what America has become than what health care is about.

And so, I have exercised my editor’s prerogative, and veered away from HWR’s standard format to focus this edition on the best, recent health writing I’m aware of, rather than just summarize the writings of submitters. Please indulge me as I have passed over some strong pieces in favor of a smaller, more selective number of consistently very thoughtful, insightful and meaty writers.

I’m hoping this selection will satisfy readers interested in deeply provocative discussions of the most pressing issues at hand, particularly around reform. There’s a lot to chew on here, and I’d urge each of you to curl up on a cold afternoon and read through every one of these columns.

A Face Full of All That Other Mud

Let’s begin with J. D. Kleinke’s thoughtful meditation on yesterday’s Health Care Blog, Is It 2013 (or 2014) Yet?, on the horrific compromises made in the name, not of problem solving, but of ideology. Referring to the watered down Senate bill, he notes that it

“has been so stripped of government management options and control that it is best characterized as the exact opposite of a government takeover. Rather, the bill now on trajectory to become The Plan is – paradoxically – a privatization of the public health problem of the uninsured, a corporatization rather than nationalization of health care’s rotting safety net.”

And this: “…people…have been using the health care reform stage to act out their bigger grievances, philosophical angst, and political frustrations…Something as literally critical to all of our lives as our health care system – regardless of which way an eventual bill goes (including the remote but real possibility of it just going away) – deserves better than a face full of all that other mud.”

Reform Based On The Principles of Competition

On The Health Affairs Blog (12/22/09), Alain Enthoven rebuts Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article that compares the health care bills’ pilot programs to those of the Agricultural Extension service that “sparked the agricultural revolution that so benefited the US economy in the first half of the 20th century. “

Both Enthoven and Gawande are icons, and justifiably so for their insights into how health care does and should work. Gawande’s June, 2009 piece, The Cost Conundrum, on health care profiteering in McAllen, Tx, was a sensation in DC, and became required reading for White House staffers looking forward to reforms that could impact the kinds of circumstances Gawande recounted so eloquently.

But in this piece, many of us thought his thesis was a stretch, and Dr. Enthoven lays out the case. One of his conclusions: that we need a commitment to structural reforms, rather than just more experimentation.

“If America wants 1,000 pilot projects to blossom and grow into significant improvements in health care delivery, it must reform its system based on the principles of competition and wide, responsible, informed, individual consumer choice of health plans. Experience shows that people will join if they get to keep the savings.”

The Nearly Trillion-Dollar Lake Mead of Money

In There Be Dragons, The Fiscal Risk of Premium Subsidies in Health Reform (12/14/09), Jeff Goldsmith, with unfailing attention to detail, takes us through a variety of health care principles to explain why 1) the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) attempts to model the impacts of subsidies on the private health coverage market are, at best, shots in the dark, and 2) its probably not wise to bet on our political system’s ability to say “no.”

He concludes, “All in all, the fiscal risks from an open-ended new entitlement to premium subsidies are likely to be significantly larger than CBO estimates. Instead of neat economic models with ten variables, we need something closer to chaos theory to explain how the nearly trillion-dollar Lake Mead of money will behave when we completely re-engineer its flow pattern…Behavioral economists would add that anxious health insurance and provider executives would behave differently, perhaps, than entirely rational actors, and act aggressively to preserve their franchises and operating margins. I wouldn’t bet the farm on moderation of present cost and rate trends. All the big risks are on the upside.”

The Medical Cost Tidal Wave

In a simple but straightforward column (12/22/09) on the health plan’s blog, Bruce Bullen, the Interim CEO at Harvard Pilgrim, explains how the structural provisions of the Senate’s final health reform bill will worsen current health care cost trends, which have been more than 4 times general inflation over the last decade.

“… expansion of eligibility and other reforms are largely delayed to 2014, but changes having the effect of increasing health insurance premiums will take effect prior to 2014. Before seeing any material benefits of reform, some will see their Medicare payroll tax rate increase, many fully insured subscribers will, beginning in 2011, see the effects of the health insurance premium tax, and everyone in the commercial market will see the cost-shifting effects of Medicare payment reductions and the tax on drug and medical device manufacturers. Medicare Advantage plan enrollees will also see sharp increases in premiums. Since there is no significant cost containment in the bill, these increases will occur on top of normal medical trend. And because the universal requirement to purchase coverage is weak, adverse selection will further increase costs starting in 2014.”

He concludes, “We can focus on insurance reform all we want, but the medical cost tidal wave continues.”

The Unintended Consequences of Hopelessly Complex and Poorly Thought-Out Laws and Regulations

At the Disease Management Care Blog (12/27/09), Jaan Siderov explicates the seemingly straightforward provision of the Senate bill that would require commercial insurers to “rebate” any excess profitability, if they have a medical loss ratio lower than 80%-85%. The rub lies in the definitions of medical costs and administrative costs, and what is contained in each. Under the Senate’s Management Amendment, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) would be charged with defining each term. But so far,

“the NAIC has not done well [clarifying] if the costs of wellness, prevention, care management, or patient-centered medical home support programs are costs that are assigned to the medical costs that make up the medical loss ratio or if they are administrative costs.”

It remains to be seen whether a compromise plan will correct this kind of confusion.

The Evidence In a typically pithy and to-the-point read (12/31/09), Roy Poses crystallizes what many of us have thought about the national squashing of the US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines for breast cancer screening. Here’s a quote:

“…after 30 years and 8 trials, we still have no convincing evidence that mammographic screening for 40-49 year old women saves lives (which is different from reducing deaths due to breast cancer), or reduces morbidity, improves function, or improves quality of life in the screened population.  In the absence of such evidence, how can anyone fault the USPSTF for recommending (not that women not be screened), but that decisions to screen individual people should be based on considered discussion between them and their physicians?”

Dr. Poses calls for better clinical and comparative effectiveness research, another area given short shrift in the current reform proposals.

Who’s Kidding Who

In a policy environment in which half-truths and whoppers are the coin of the realm, nobody pours on the cold water of reality better than Bob Laszewski at Health Policy and Marketplace Review A former Liberty Mutual health insurance executive, Bob’s deep health finance experience has been refined by his long standing in the DC community as a health policy advisor. Throughout the reform process, Bob has written often, and his insights are always to the point. Take, for example, this simple observation from a 12/19/09 post, Coal in Your Christmas Stocking?

“…the Democrats [will] face four health insurance renewal cycles and two elections between 2010 and 2014 when the benefits of the health care bill would finally become effective. That’s four years of new taxes and continuing big health insurance rate increases before voters see any big benefits from what looks like will be a very unpopular bill.”

As I understand it, Bob’s blog is the most widely-read source for DC health wonk types. There’s a good reason for that.

Later

In Health Reform – When Will The Next Shoe Drop (12/22/09) at Managed Care Matters, Joe Paduda lays out an enticing scenario for straightforward, important changes that can’t happen when 60 votes are required, but are eminently doable if the goal is 51. He writes:

“I’d look for a requirement that the Feds negotiate drug prices for Medicare and lower payments for Medicare Advantage plans to start…And it won’t stop there. There is a large and growing concern about the cost of entitlement programs and Part D is particularly problematic. By attacking drug costs and thereby reducing Medicare’s future liability, liberal Democrats will make it very tough for their opponents to use the ‘big spender’ attack angle in November.”

Two On What To Expect

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, one of our most gifted, industrious and grounded health care prognosticators, has a broad-reaching summary of the certain trends – employee cost-sharing, employer ‘nudging’ of employees toward wellness, health information technology becoming more mainstream among physicians, participatory medicine/online health tools – that will remain in play in “What to Expect When You’re Expecting…Health Reform on Health Populi. She says,

“With the US still in recession, the issue of managing costs will be Job #1 in health care for institutional and business stakeholders, from health plans and employers to pharma and medical device companies.”

Matthew Holt, a Founder of Health Wonk Review as well as The Health Care Blog, and one of the most incisive, if irreverent, health care commentators writing today, suggests five major trends. He wonders how the changes brought about in policy will take shape in the market, and how changes in the political winds will affect the ability to continue reforms. He thinks that HHS’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT’s transformation initiatives will have a profound impact on everyone in health care – “’It’s clear that we are not going to simply see mass adoption of the mainstream EMR vendors’ products.” – and that patients are beginning to expect more access to information, especially their own. And that quality of care, especially at the end of life, is finally becoming a concrete, mainstream issue.

The Verdict

Each of these voices describes different facets of a complex process. These are some of the most experienced and prominent health care authorities working today, and they don’t hesitate to conceal their disappointment at what is passing for reform.

It is not enough to dismiss this Congressional health care reform process as just another example of sausage-making. As David Kibbe, Alain Enthoven, Bob Laszewski and I discussed here, America’s health care industry has placed the national economic security in deep peril. An important goal, a commitment to structural changes that can significantly reduce the one-third or more of health care cost that is waste, now appears to have been squandered by a system that welcomes influence over policy in exchange for special interest financial contributions.

It is unlikely that meaningful health care change will be forthcoming after this process. The forces of special interest influences are vigilant.

Nor will the problems that were on the table now disappear just because they’ve been ignored. They’ll fester and worsen until business rises up in revolt to force the issue, or necessity overwhelms the capacity of lobbying to drive public policy. Unfortunately, the process of getting to that inevitable terrible moment won’t be pretty or pleasant.

Brian Klepper is a health care analyst and commentator based in Atlantic Beach, FL.

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