Democrat Roland Burris, the sudden senator who replaced Barack Obama in that august body, has now joined those who are pledging to filibuster any bill that does not have a “public option” – joining of course those, like Connecticut’s infigurable Joe Lieberman who will filibuster if it does have a “public option.” But the compromise that is brewing may turn all such pledges inside out. The compromise would allow 55 to 65-year-olds to buy into Medicare, while letting under-55s without insurance into the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan, along with mandates to buy in, and subsidies for those who can’t afford it. If this does indeed emerge, liberal Democrats in both houses may have some trouble defining what they mean by the “public option” they are so strongly demangin. Is it a “public option” for 55-and-overs if they can buy into Medicare? Sure sounds like it – a government-run plan that people can buy into, in competition with private plans. Is it a “public option” if the federal Office of Personnel Management runs an exchange called the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP) setting the rules and transparency for private plans, with subsidies and tax credits for those 54 and under who can’t afford a health plan?Sounds close, but not quite. Close enough for confusion, at least.
So maybe the two parties are coming together on health reform after all. Last night we learned that after days of “secret talks” among the “gang of ten” the Democrats have reached agreement to restructure their health care proposal. The changes are significant:
– ditch the already-watered-down public option plan;
– create a new insurance exchange “option” for individuals and small groups consisting of a nonprofit plan as negotiated by the Office of Personnel Management;
– expand Medicare eligibility to cover uninsured individuals aged 55-64.
What does the Democrats’ “public option ultralight” compromise have in common with Republicans’ alternative universe? Well, consider the latter’s proposal to open interstate competition for all health insurers–a move they promise will immediately lower health care costs. Besides being shameless attempts to offer simple solutions to complex problems, the two proposals are guilty of the same fundamental misunderstanding of health insurance. Simply put, they both ignore a critical economic truth of health insurance today: insurers require a provider network of hospitals and doctors or must have market leverage in order to negotiate for lower provider prices and for controls on excessive volume.
So today’s news is that the gang of ten have come up with something. (If you haven’t been following along, the gang of ten are the five “liberal” Democrats and the five DINOs asked by Harry Reid to come up with something to break the deadlock and get some type of compromise that will pass the Senate). More details are here from Brian Beutler at TPM
So it might vanish like a Clinton-era trial balloon, or it might be a stayer, but the core of the new concept is to allow the 55–64 crowd to buy into Medicare, and to ask/allow/mandate a non-profit insurer(s) to provide a substitute public option. Exactly what the second point means is unclear to me. It may turn out to be some collapsing of Kent Conrad’s notion of the cooperative with an extension of the Federal Employees’ Plan (presumably minus the for-profit carriers) and somehow cramming that into the exchange. Of course providing something like the choice among private plans that Federal Employees now get was at the heart of Ron Wyden’s plan. We’ll see if it can last a couple of days scrutiny, or the wrath of the House Democrats.
The Medicare buy-in seems both sensible politics and half-decent policy.
We once thought Democrats would accept tort reform to win Republicans’ support for national health care legislation. Now, however, Democrats have dispensed with bipartisanship. Perhaps they think they can ram health care legislation through without any Republican backing. Perhaps the price required to obtain even a few Republican votes was too high. Perhaps Democrats received too much pressure from the trial bar. Whatever the reason, neither the bill passed by the House nor the bill pending in the Senate contains any of the tort reform provisions Republicans want. To the contrary, the House health care bill is anti-tort reform.
Not only does it reject the entire slate of lawsuit restrictions Representative John Boehner put forward in the Republican alternative to the Democrats’ bill; it contains a provision that will reward states for scrapping damages caps and other tort reforms many already have in place. This provision flew beneath the radar during the House debate, but the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal condemned it after the vote took place. Describing the provision as a “hidden Pelosi tort bomb,” the Journal editors predicted that “[i]f it passes in anything like its current form, we are going to be cleaning up the mess for decades to come.”
Most predictions that the sky will fall are wrong. This one is wrong as well.
The House vote to establish near-universal health-care coverage came at a steep cost to women. That cost, issued as an amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), eliminates abortion coverage by private insurance companies even when women are paying for all or most of the premium.
Stupak’s amendment is a cynical attempt to push an anti-choice agenda that imperils badly needed reform. His amendment restricts women’s access to abortion coverage in the private health insurance market as well as in a “public option,” undermining the ability of women to purchase private health plans that cover abortion. It reaches much further than the Hyde Amendment, which has prohibited public funding of abortion in most instances since 1977.Continue reading…
I was struck during President Obama’s health care speech before Congress several months ago that the reforms he advocates would not go into effect for four years, until 2014. This timetable, too, is written into both the House and Senate versions.
Why the delay? It is hard for me to imagine, even given the federal rulemaking process, that it should take four years to establish an insurance exchange from which people can buy coverage. This is the exchange that would eliminate the nasty practices of insurance companies: Denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions; limiting annual or lifetime payments; and rescission of policies. It is hard for me to imagine, too, why it should take four years to fully deliver targeted subsidies to lower income people so they can afford insurance.
As noted by Princeton Professor Paul Starr in an article in the New York Times earlier this week: “By comparison, when Medicare was enacted in 1965, it went into effect the next year.”
This leaves me with a bad feeling. It looks like the Obama team does not want implementation of the health care bill to take place during their first term. Why? Perhaps they know that the cost of the plan is higher than they are saying. Or maybe they know that the options available to consumers will be less attractive than currently portrayed.
President Obama has promised not to sign any health reform legislation that increases the federal deficit. This promise recognized rising public concern about an Argentinean fiscal trend that, unchecked, could leave us with $19 trillion in federal debt in a decade.
Without that pledge, given the current economic climate, health reform would be one dead mackerel.
Some clarifications are essential here. I’m a Democrat and fervent Obama supporter. I voted for him twice (and that was just in the Virginia primary). I’m proud of our President. He has first class economic and healthcare teams. He deserves credit for not postponing health reform. He’s right: it’s simply not tolerable, morally or economically, for a wealthy nation to continue having close to 50 million uninsured people.
Paul Starr and I have been agreeing a lot lately. Not that Paul knows or cares what I think or say, but a while back we both expressed fear that private health plans will end up channeling bad risks into the public option. That time I beat him to the punch (but I happen to know his piece was on the way before I hit “publish” on mine).
This time he was out first. Last Saturday he reminded Democrats that the big deal is not what happens with the public option, but instead what matters is how aggressive and effective Federal regulation of insurance (via the exchanges) will be.
For these reforms to succeed, there needs to be effective regulatory authority to prevent insurers from engaging in abusive practices and subverting the new rules. The bill passed by the House would provide for that authority and lodges it in the federal government, though states could take over the exchanges if they met federal requirements. The Senate bill would leave most of the enforcement as well as the running of the exchanges to the states. Yet many states have a poor record of regulating health insurance, and some would resist passing legislation to conform with the new federal law.
Of course Paul was a major author/player of the Clinton plan in 1993–4, which had it been enacted would have been way more extensive and impactful than the current legislation—and in a good way. I fear that this time his influence will be equally lacking in terms of the end result. Which is a big pity.
I had an interesting call from a member of the legal profession the other day, and it got me thinking about the post-reform prospects for my own particular collection of bete noirs—the insurers who prey on desperate people in the individual market. Yes, you can expect the subject of Mega Life & Health to appear later in this article.
Now some dummies are starting to complain about what, to this point, have been broadly accepted parts of the upcoming reform legislation. Robert Samuelson is a typical advantaged recipient of community-rated insurance yet complains about the same concept being extended outside his community-rated group made up of Washington Post employees. AARP suggests in response that he should be sending (his much younger WaPo colleague) Ezra Klein a check, as Ezra is in effect subsidizing Samuelson’s health insurance.
While the political cognoscenti is struggling with the public option and payment rates to rural hospitals (and other bribes needed for DINO Senators from Nebraska & Louisiana, and the NEDINO one from Connecticut), the real issue of health insurance regulation is getting scant attention. In particular three huge issues remain to be resolved:
There’s a big to-do about whether there are really any cost-saving measures in the House and Senate bill. Most people say that the answers are “no” and “sort of”. There’ll be much more discussion about that on THCB this week, and I suspect the answer will really come down to whether or not pilot programs which have the potential to reduce costs can be both successfully piloted, then extended by CMS and then protected from Blue Dogs, reps from academic medical centers, Republicans saving Medicare and basically everyone in Congress carrying the industry’s water. So “sort of” may well mean no.
But let’s not dwell on that. Instead let’s have some fun. Regular THCB readers will know that AHIP’s Karen Ignagni has told half-truth after half-truth after outright lie to protect the position of her members. All the while somehow holding together a coalition that really should have broken apart long ago (and may yet still do that). And she gets paid very well for that role.
But today in the WaPo she told the truth:
Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, said the Senate bill includes only “pilot programs and timid steps” to reform the health-care delivery system, “given the scope of the cost challenge the nation faces.” Unless lawmakers institute changes across the entire system, Ignagni said in a statement Wednesday, “Health costs will continue to weigh down the economy and place a crushing burden on employers and families.”
Don McCanne (who runs the Quote of the Day service from the PNHP) puts the boot in:
There could not be a more explicit admission that the private insurance industry is not and never has been capable of controlling our very high health care costs. <snip> Karen Ignagni says that the lawmakers must institute the necessary changes across the entire system (because the insurers can’t). Let’s join her in demanding that Congress take the actions necessary, and then thank her for her efforts, as we dismiss her superfluous industry from any further obligations to manage our health care dollars.
And it’s basically true. Health plans have no ability to overall restrict health care costs. And worse, because they’ve been able to charge more to their customers than the increases they’ve received from their suppliers, they do better in a world in which costs go up.
Of course Ignagni knows that gravy train can’t roll on forever, so she’s trying to craft a future in which the health plans can continue to make money, yet not bankrupt their customers outright. Whether it’s good for the rest of us remains a very open question.
Meanwhile, in another example of catching someone saying something that they don’t really understand the meaning of, Uwe Reinhardt busts Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) as saying that not having insurance coverage is rationing and shouldn’t be allowed. Well she may know have thought she was saying that, but that’s what she was saying.