Baucus Health Care Reform Plan an Interesting Start

Comprehensive national health care reform is coming. The only question is when and what wil it look like. There will be many reform plans put forward during this process. Some will have more substance than others. Some will be more credible than others. Some may even be practical. And a few might make America’s health care system better, not worse, than it is today.

One thing we know pretty much for certain is that a true single payer system is not coming any time soon. President-elect Barack Obama made comprehensive health care reform a central theme to his campaign. it clear throughout his campaign that he saw an important role for the private sector in the country’s future health care system. The Democratic National Platform made this approach explicit. (Irrelevant factoid: this post could well be the one and only time you ever read anyone referring to a party platform — until 2012).

What’s less certain is whether health care reform will be taken up by the Obama White House and/or Congress in the first few months of the new Administration. There are certainly a lot of influential lawmakers seeking to make health care reform an initial priority, including Senator Max Baucus, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Senator Ted Kennedy, Chair of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. There’s more already entered in this particular derby and many more to come.

Senator Baucus’ health care reform plan is interesting for several reasons. First, any reform package will need to pass through his Finance Committee. Whether it’s his bill or another’s, Senator Baucus will have the ability to influence the final package. Understanding his starting point, consequently, takes on special significance.

Second, Senator Baucus’ plan, which he notes is not intended to be a legislative proposal, but rather a blueprint describing his vision for health care reform, devotes considerable attention to the need to reduce the underlying cost of medical care at great length. Even his discussion of wellness, preventive care, transparency, and reducing waste — standard components of any credible reform plan — goes well beyond the normal discussion. Most significantly, he goes beyond the low hanging fruit to address more controversial approaches. For example, he calls for financial incentives for primary care providers in the Medicare system and suggests funding them by reducing payments to specialists. He also endorses using medicare to test other primary care models especially those that “promote comprehensive care management and coordination, particularly for the chronically ill.”

Third, while the market reforms included in Senator Baucus’ plan should be no surprise to anyone who listened to Senator Obama during the presidential campaign, it does provide more specificity than was offered during the election. So while it contains the expected laundry list of proposals (tax credits, guarantee issue, etc.) it’s the additional details he provides that are significant.

For example, most insurance agents who read this blog will want to know what role, if any, they will have in the government-run Health Insurance Exchange Senator Baucus would create to compete with private sector offerings. A hint is all he provides, but it’s an encouraging one. In the discussion of the proposed purchasing pool, the document states “Plans participating in the Exchange would be subject to oversight by states with regard to consumer protections (e.g., grievance procedures, external review, oversight of agent practices and training, market conduct). ” italics added.

States are to regulate agent practices in connection with the pool. That must mean Senator Baucus envisions some role for agents in connection with the pool. As noted, it’s only a hint, but it’s a welcome one.

During the debate over Assembly Bill X1-1 earlier this year, carriers and agents were able to insert language in the legislation to allow, but not require, agents to sell products offered through the purchasing pool it would have created. Whether agents can educate lawmakers at the national level that the services we provide are worth including and protecting in whatever reforms eventually emerge will be challenging. But it appears Senator Baucus, at least, is open to the idea. And the experience agents have gained in California and elsewhere should aid in this effort.

No one, not even Senator Baucus, assumes his blueprint will be adopted as is. There will be a long and contentious health care reform debate before any kind of consensus emerges. Senator Baucus’ proposal is an important contribution to the stew of ideas that is simmering in the nation’s Capital. It’s an interesting start. But only a start.

Health Care Reform Bills: Coming Soon to a Nation’s Capital Near You

President-elect Barack Obama won’t take the oath of office for more than two months, but the drive for health care reform is about to get under way. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Ted Kennedy has been working from his home, where he’s fighting brain cancer, seeking to pull together a consensus bill. Meanwhile, Senator Max Baucus, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee introduced his health care reform plan today.

Senator Baucus’ Finance Committee and Senator Kennedy’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee share jurisdiction over this issue. According to Politico, the staffs of the two committees have been meeting with stakeholders since the summer and the two committee chairs have been in contact. The details of Senator Kennedy’s plan have not yet been released.

Senator Baucus’ health care reform plan contains several elements that align with the reforms President-elect Obama called for during the campaign. These include the creation of government-run “exchanges” to allow Americans to shop for coverage from multiple carriers and a requirement that carriers accept all applicants regardless of pre-existing health problems. Significantly, Senator Baucus goes a step further and would require all Americans to purchase coverage “once affordable options are available.”

Requiring everyone to purchase coverage was a contentious issue during President-elect Obama’s hotly contested primary fight against Senator Hillary Clinton. She was for a mandate to buy; he opposed it. As has been previously noted, a requirement to sell insurance without a requirement to buy results in higher premiums. Senator Baucus apparently agrees noting that the uninsured incur medical costs that are then shifted to those with insurance. By bringing everyone into the system, Senator Baucus believes the average cost of insuring each American will be reduced. By including an alternative for those who cannot afford coverage he avoids one of the most vociferous objections to requiring consumers to buy coverage.

Senator Baucus’ health care reform plan would also allow those between the ages of 55-and-64 to purchase Medicare if they lack access to public insurance programs or a group health plan. According to the New York Times, four million people in this age group are currently uninsured. He would expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to include children in families at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($44,000 for a family of three) and he would lift the ban preventing legal immigrants to enroll in SCHIP until they’ve been in the country for five years. Like President-elect Obama, Senator Baucus supports tax credits for small businesses that provide health insurance coverage and for individuals and families, below 400 percent of the federal poverty level, who purchase their own coverage.

We haven’t heard from the Republican side of the aisle on this issue yet, but it shouldn’t be long now. There proposals will likely be more market oriented and less far reaching.

The key question is whether lawmakers in Washington have the bandwidth to fashion a comprehensive health care plan while simultaneously dealing with a crashing economy, a host of international issues and energy policy. Personally I think they’ll make the time. Health care reform is too entwined with people’s sense of financial and is too much a part of the economy to be put off. As I’ve written before, if health care reform is positioned not as a cost item, but as in investment in the nation’s infrastructure, it becomes very compatible with other economic stimulus efforts.

On the other hand, it is interesting that Senator Baucus, the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has apparently left out the funding mechanism for his reform package. That in itself is a telling reminder of how difficult achieving meaningful reform in today’s economic climate will be. That it is difficult, however, does not mean it’s impossible.

Note: I haven’t been able to find

President Obama and Health Care Reform Expectations

Senator Barack Obama remains a Senator for another 77 days. Then he becomes President of the United States. His is a remarkable story heightened by his ability to both symoblize and articulate hope. The challenges he will face upon assuming office are daunting, to say the least. Then there’s the expectations.

Every political campaign is about expectations. Candidates make promises because voters want to know what to expect. Democrats and Republicans, Mavericks and Insiders, they all make promises, which means they all create expectations. In this election, both candidates raised expectations that the nation’s “broken health care system” would, at least, be fixed.

I believe there will be comprehensive national health care reform in the next four years. There’s clearly pent-up demand in Congress for change. A bi-partisan group of Senators led by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Bob Bennett already have introduced a comprehensive health care reform package, the “Healthy Americans Act.” Senator Edward Kennedy is looking to cap his historic tenure in Congress with health care reform. While battling brain cancer he and his aides have been meeting (both personally and by video conference) lawmakers and advocacy groups to create a framework for health care reform. Many in Washington believe that the Clinton Administration squandered a unique opportunity for reforms that would have greatly benefited the nation over the past 14 years. They do not intend to let another chance go by.

Health Access outlined several reasons for progressives to be optimistic that meaningful reform is coming from Washington, D.C. They note the starring role health care reform played in Senator Obama’s campaign and the Obama/Biden ticket’s endorsement of Health Care for America Now!’s principles. They point out Senator Obama’s resounding victory will give him the political muscle, and his campaign theme and image gives him the credibility, to push through meaningful reforms.

I believe Health Access’ analysis is correct. There’s another reason health care reform is likely: the Obama Administration will take a far different approach than that taken by the Clinton Administration in 1993. They’ll learn from President Clinton’s mistakes. They’ll be far more inclusive and more accepting of input from Congress. They’ll be more willing to compromise on specifics to achieve their principles.  President Obama will bring to health care reform the same superb organization and discipline he brought to his campaign. All of this bodes well for some kind of significant reform coming out of Washington in the next four years.

The Obama Administration will face two challenges in fulfilling the health care reform expectations. First is the complex nature of the problem. A great deal of the upcoming debate will be spent on market reforms (should insurers be required to sell coverage to all applicants?) and access (should all Americans be required to have health care coverage?). These questions alone have brought down many a reform proposal. Yet they’re the relatively easy challenges. Too little attention will be spent on the most vexing problem facing every health care system in the world: the skyrocketing cost of medical care.

Someone has to pay for health care and there are only three sources: taxes, premiums or charity (some people pick up the tab for other people). Medical care inflation historically outpaces general inflation and there’s no reason to believe that will change. Which means it’s only a matter of time before the burden of paying for care crushes every and all of those sources.

This isn’t news. Last year the Henrey J. Kaiser Family Foundation released a study, Health Care Costs: A Primer, that put the discrepancy between inflation rates in perspective. There have been sporadic attempts in Washington to draw attention to the cost issue. In November 2007 the Congressional Budget Office identified the need for policy makers to focus on restraining health care costs. There are a lot of suggestions for controlling medical cost problem floating around. Few of them are easy to implement, especially since numerous interest groups will work hard to defend their current share of the health care dollar. And in the end, for better or worse, health care reform comes down to dollars.

Which leads to the second problem facing President Obama’s health care reform efforts. The nation’s economic house is in disorder. Can the nation afford expensive health care reform during a time of financial crisis?

Well, it depends. If health care reform is viewed as a line item expense on the government’s ledger, the answer is no. Even a liberal Congress is going to be hesitant to run up ever greater deficits by increasing government spending. And it’s not yet clear this Congress will be more liberal than the last. After all, a lot of its newer members came from relatively conservative districts or states. Especially when it comes to budget matters like deficits and taxes, the new Congress may have swing toward the middle.

But spending money on the health care system need not be viewed as a simple expense. By repositioning health care reform as part of a public works-like stimulus package the huge costs involved may be more palatable to the public and fiscal hawks in Washington. President-elect Obama has already declared his desire to increase spending on the nation’s infrastructure in order to create jobs and bolster the economy. Infrastructure is usually defined as roads, bridges and buildings. That doesn’t mean the definition can’t be expanded to encompass the health of its work force. In this context, health care reform is not a cost, it’s an investment.

President-elect Obama has promised voters health care reform during his first term. Upon taking office, however, he’ll face wars abroad and economic crisis at home. Dealing with the latter does not require him to ignore the former issue. By positioning health care reform as part of his plan to rebuild America, he might actually be able to fulfill the great expectations he’s created.

Roundup: McCain and Obama Health Plans

As a quick search will reveal, I’ve expressed my vieaw of the presidential candidates’ health care reform plans in several posts over the past few months. Put simply, my belief is that the proposals by Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama are both grievously flawed. The winner on November 4th would be far better served repositioning their ideas as a statement of philosophy, principles and concepts rather than a blue print for change. The incoming president should then start with a blank slate and come up with something that might actually to more good than harm.

But that’s just my take on their plans. I thought it might be interesting to pull together in one post links to what others are saying about the plans. I’ve tried to find opinions and blogs from across the political and policy spectrums, but if you think I missed an important perspective, please let me know by writing a comment and providing links of your own.

To get things started, here’s a quick comparison of the McCain and Obama health care reform plans. The Commonwealth Fund offers a more detailed review.

  • John Goodman takes both plans to task (my thanks to Ron Masters for bringing this one to my attention).
  • This post on the Harvard Kennedy School’s site, describes all things wonderful about Senator Obama’s proposal.
  • The PatientAssistanceblog finds things to like in Senator McCain’s plan.
  • The American magazineaccuses Senator Obama of seeking to end private health insurance.
  • The Lewin Group prices out the costs of both plans (such estimates should be taken with huge quantities of salt as another, equally respected group can come up with far different results. It’s sort of similar to why polls differ to much. It’s all in the assumptions.)
  • The Physicians for a National Health Program are advocates of a single-payer health care system. They don’t like either proposal.
  • Voters desire for significant health care reform is noted over at MedPage Today.
  • Richard Locker of the Commercial Appeal (a paper in Memphis) agrees with me that the candidate’s proposals are merely starting points expressing their attitudes toward health care reform. He also explains why many think substantial change is unlikely to emerge from Washington any time soon.

This is far from being an exhaustive list. I’ll probably add more between now and election day and, again, I hope you’ll add to the list by leaving a comment, too.