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Tag: The Supreme Court Challenge

What to Do on the Day After ObamaCare

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of the administration’s health law, aka ObamaCare. Opponents are giddy with the possibility that the law might be struck down.

But what then? Millions of uninsured, both those who choose not to purchase coverage and those who can’t due to pre-existing conditions, will still be with us. The rising costs and inefficient delivery of health care will still be with us.

The country can have a vibrant market for individual health insurance. Insurance proper is what pays for unplanned large expenses, not for regular, predictable expenses. Insurance policies should be “guaranteed renewable”: The policy should include a right to purchase insurance in the future, no matter if you get sick. And insurance should follow you from job to job, and if you move across state lines.

Why don’t we have such markets? Because the government has regulated them out of existence.

Most pathologies in the current system are creatures of previous laws and regulations. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli explained as much in his opening statement to the Supreme Court: “The individual market does not provide affordable health insurance,” he noted, “because the multibillion dollar subsidies that are available” for the “employer market are not available in the individual market.”

Start with the tax deduction employers can take for their contributions to group health-insurance policies—but which they cannot take for making contributions to employees for individual, portable insurance policies. This is why you have insurance only so long as you stay with one employer, and why you face pre-existing conditions exclusions if you change jobs.

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Much Ado About Broccoli

As the Supreme Court debates the boundaries of government’s role in mandating the purchase of insurance, the discussion continues on whether the public or private sector is best positioned to drive market reforms necessary to meet our goals of lower costs and higher quality. As the son of a Phi Beta Kappa neo con who believes government should be the size of a sand gnat and as the husband to a British citizen who loves national healthcare and was born through a midwife, I often find myself lost in a political no man’s land with volleys being exchanged from the right and left.  To complicate Thanksgiving dinner further, thirty years of healthcare consulting, including a three-year stint in Europe, hospitalization for pneumonia in the NHS and a tour of duty as a senior executive for a national insurer has left me with my own conflicted convictions about  how we might fix our broken system.

On the eve of the Supreme Court determining the fate of PPACA, strong opinions are in full bloom like cherry blossoms along the Mall.  In his particularly sharp remarks to government attorneys, Justice Kennedy, considered a swing vote by many, cautioned that Congressional intervention to mandate citizens the “duty ( to buy coverage) to act “ was a slippery slope that sets dangerous precedent and impinges on individual rights. Justice Roberts added, “And here the government is saying that the Federal Government has a duty to tell the individual citizen that it must act … That changes the relationship of the Federal Government to the individual in the very fundamental way.”

Justice Scalia was quick to wade in after Justice Roberts questioning, ” what would be next in the role of the government dictating to its citizens ( if the mandate were to be upheld). “I will tell you the next something else (we will next tell Americans to do) is exercise, because we know that lack exercise contributes to illness.” It seems that this debate is indeed creating odd bedfellows as civil liberties advocates are joining conservatives in warning that the next thing the government will be telling people is that they cannot drink sugary soft drinks or that they have to eat broccoli.  It is hard to find a time when a conservative Justice and the ACLU share a common opinion about anything.

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The Supreme Court on Moral Hazard

I have had to take some time off for the funeral of someone very near to me, so I have not had a chance to comment on the Supreme Court hearings. Nor do I have much time to do so now. But I would like to comment on Justice Alito’s line of questioning about burial insurance. His questioning was in response to one argument used to justify the purchase mandate, namely that sick individuals will receive medical care at someone else’s expense and therefore there is an economic justification for mandating the purchase of health insurance in order to prevent free riding. Alito noted that individuals who did not provide for their own burials will still be buried at taxpayer expense. This is another form of free riding. If the Supreme Court were to uphold mandatory purchase of health insurance, could Congress not also mandate purchase of burial insurance?

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli seemed surprised by Alito’s questions and did not provide a good answer. Yet these questions strike at the heart of the case and at deeper economic issues. There is a direct analogy between the market for burials and the market for healthcare. Just as some patients free ride off of the generosity of others, some deceased do the same thing. By extension, any time that a good is provided at a price below cost, whether by the government, a charity, or any other organization for that matter, we can expect a certain degree of moral hazard behavior. Some individuals who ought to purchase the good themselves will instead free ride on the generosity of others.

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Be Careful What You Wish For

As the Supreme Court considers the testimony presented at the recent hearings over the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Patient Protection and Accountable Care Act, the debate continues to escalate over the role that individuals, business and the government should play in the “commerce of health care.”

Most industry experts agree that PPACA is first about insurance reform and the expansion of coverage to some 30m Americans; yet,  detractors have criticized the legislation for failing to incorporate any elements that would serve as a catalyst for reducing costs, improving quality and restructuring a misaligned system that has been paid to treat illness rather than prevent it.

In the last two years, hundreds of millions of private and public dollars have been invested as stakeholders adjust to an uncertain but radically changing delivery system.  States are in various stages of constructing purchasing exchanges.  Physicians and specialists are choosing to consolidate, often with hospitals leading the process to create integrated delivery systems and restore the role of coordinated care through Patient Centered Medical Homes and Accountable Care Organizations.  Employers are waiting and watching — seeking greater regulatory clarity while slowly complying with a chronological time-line of new rules and expanded coverage requirements.

Municipal, state and national budget deficits continue to loom large. As Europe battles over mounting sovereign debt and the suffocating burden of  generous public pension and healthcare entitlements,  flash points are erupting across the USA as municipal, government and collectively bargained workers brace to defend retiree benefits in the face of legislative efforts to more aggressively reduce public spending. The Federal government is at a tipping point. Facing a $38T net present deficit in its funding for Medicare and $15T of public debt, PPACA was scored by the CBO as reducing $140B of public debt by 2020.  To achieve this, the government needed to drive $940B of taxes, assessments and spending cuts and fall within estimates of the number of newly insureds likely to qualify for Federal subsidies offered through public exchanges.  The promise of PPACA was to reduce the deficit, not further contribute to it.Continue reading…

If the Supreme Court Rules Against the Obama Administration …

If the Court throws out both the “individual mandate” (the rule requiring that virtually all Americans buy insurance, or pay a fine), and the provision that insurers must cover all applicants, and cannot charge higher premiums, even if a new customer has just been diagnosed with cancer?  This might sound like the end of reform, but in fact, many of the most valuable reforms in the legislation would almost certainly still stand–including those that will change the way we pay for care, reducing costs, while lifting quality. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), hospitals will continue to find ways to reduce preventable errors–or face financial penaltie.. Doctors who succeed in managing chronic diseases, keeping their patients out of the hospital, will receive rewards. Medical students willing to practice in underserved areas “Where No One Else Will Go” will receive scholarships, and their ranks will grow. New funding will double the capacity of Community Health Centers that can provide medical homes for many who now receive their care in an ER. Reform will go forward.

There is, of course, the possibility that the court could declare the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, but this seems extraordinarily unlikely. Too many planks in the law already are being implemented, and patients are benefiting.  As Henry J. Aaron pointed out in an earlier post on this blog, overturning the law would be an “Rx for Chaos.”

Still, even if the judges “only” throw out  the mandate and the requirement that insurers cover everyone, the results will be, as former Obama administration adviser  Ezekiel Emanuel recently put it in a New York Times opinion piece “less than optimal.” (Unlike Rahm Emanuel, Zeke is known for understatement.)

Under this scenario, premiums for those who do buy insurance would climb because, without the mandate, insurers could no longer count on millions of new, healthy customers.  Instead of “the 32 million Americans predicted to gain coverage under the health insurance reform act, only around 16 million Americans would gain coverage,” observes Emanuel.

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No, Overturning ACA Would not Smooth the Way to Single-Payer Care

This morning’s post by Matt Yglesias notes a fairly obvious but important issue that bears attention.

The comportment of conservative Supreme Court justices in oral argument leads many people to seriously consider what would happen if ACA is crippled or struck down. (Like Jonathan Cohn, Henry Aaron, David Cutler, Charles Fried, and Jonathan Chait, I was appalled by the oral argument. You can read my column at healthinsurance.org for more on that subject.)

Several commentators assert, or at least have mused, that overturning ACA might improve the prospects for a single-payer system. It’s easy to see why one might think so. Single-payer is less vulnerable to the commerce-clause challenge that bedevils the mandate. Outright failure of ACA would discredit bipartisan, market-based strategies within many core Democratic groups. The political and organizational simplicity of single-payer is appealing, too. Killing ACA heightens the contradictions of our fragmented and costly health care financing system, while taking off the political table some of the most workable strategies for incremental reform. Absent a serious and workable alternative, Medicare for all might look surprisingly attractive some years from now.

Still… I just don’t see it.

In the first place, I am confident that a smart and determined conservative judiciary would entertain new constitutional challenges to a single-payer system. Such a system would end or would damage much of the private insurance industry. It would reorder relations between the states and the federal government. It would upend self-insurance arrangements under ERISA, and more. If you believe ACA’s 2,700 pages was long and complicated, wait until you see the junk DNA that would accompany a politically and administratively viable single-payer bill. That’s fertile legal ground for opponents, even absent the current political polarization of the federal judiciary.

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What If the Supreme Court …

Consider these two scenarios.

What if the Supreme Court:

1). Strikes down the requirement that everyone buy insurance, or pay a penalty (a.k.a. “the individual mandate”), but leaves in place the rule that insurers are required to insure everyone — including those who are suffering from a preexisting condition?

or 2). Throws out both the individual mandate and the provision which says that insurers cannot either deny coverage , or charge higher premiums, if someone is already sick?

Begin with the first scenario: you are not forced to buy insurance, but when you get sick, insurers will be forced to cover you, charging the same rates they charge healthy people in your community (a.k.a. “community rating”).

What would happen?

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What If We End Up with a Health Care System Like the One they Have In New Jersey?

What would individual health insurance cost if the court strikes the mandate down and still requires insurers to cover everyone?

With the Supreme Court justices sounding like they might strike the mandate down, this is a question I’ve been getting a lot lately.

I have pointed to New Jersey as a real life example of what can happen when insurance reforms take place but there is no incentive for consumers to buy it until the day they need it.

In 1992, New Jersey passed health insurance reform that required insurance carriers to either offer individual health insurance on a guaranteed issue basis or pay an assessment to carriers that did. Other elements of the legislation were:

  • Guaranteed coverage and renewability for all eligible people regardless of their health status. A pre-existing condition exclusion does allow insurers to limit coverage during the first 12 months (a limitation which is not contained in the Affordable Care Act).
  • Guaranteed renewal of policies, provided (1) the insured does not become eligible for coverage under a group plan; (2) premiums are paid in a timely fashion; and (3) no fraud is committed by the insured.
  • Community rating of the premiums, with variation allowed only for family status (single, adult plus child, husband and wife, and family). (The Affordable Care Act allows rate variations of up to three times from young to old.)
  • Standardized insurance plans, referred to as Plans A, B, C, and D (indemnity options) and a single HMO plan.

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The Slippery Slope

There is no doubt that a state can constitutionally require citizens to have health insurance. Why, then, is the Supreme Court fussing over the constitutionality of the individual mandate provision of the Affordable Care Act?

The answer is simple. States have plenary authority to legislate on matters of public policy. The national government, however, is a government of limited powers. It cannot constitutionally act unless the Constitution authorizes it to do so. The central question in the case now pending before the Supreme Court is whether the Constitution grants Congress the authority to require individuals to have health insurance. Opponents of the law argue that it exceeds the legitimate authority of the national government.

The government defends the constitutionality of the individual mandate on the basis of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which provides in Article I, Section 8, that Congress shall have the power “to regulate Commerce … among the several States.”

Over time, the Supreme Court has held that under this provision Congress can constitutionally regulate activity if, in the aggregate, it has “a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce.” Moreover, as Justice Rehnquist explained in 1995, the Court’s role in determining the constitutionality of federal legislation under the Commerce Clause is limited to deciding whether Congress “had a rational basis … for concluding that a regulated activity sufficiently affected interstate commerce” to merit federal action.

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Scrapping Obamacare Would Be an Rx for Chaos

Sharp questioning in oral arguments before the Supreme Court raised serious questions about whether the “individual mandate” — the requirement that people carry health insurance — will survive.

At issue is Obamacare’s central requirement that every American buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Critics say this is an unprecedented expansion of federal power — that if the government can force people to buy insurance, it can force them to buy anything.

Supporters, including me, say the mandate is just a logical extension of federal authority to regulate this market — a market that everyone eventually participates in at one time or another. We also know that if the mandate is struck down chaos is inescapable.

Under one scenario, the court would invalidate the requirement while leaving the law’s many other rules and regulations in place.

In that event, insurance companies would have to insure anyone who asked for coverage — but they would be barred from charging premiums equal to a best guess of what the new customers will cost.

Limiting how much insurers charge can work, but only if the mandate is in place — if everyone, the healthy as well as the sick, has to have insurance. It can’t work if people can go without insurance until they get sick and only then call up their friendly insurance broker and say “Cover me.”

So, Congress would have to do something. But what? One option would be to repeal the parts of the law that the Supreme Court left standing. Finding the votes to repeal the health reform is unlikely, as the next Congress is almost certain to be closely divided.

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