Quarter of Legislature Missed California’s Year of Health Care Reform

One day the politicans in Sacramento may pass a budget. Once (if?) that happens, lawmakers will turn their attention to, well, making laws. And some of those laws will impact health care coverage in California.

A lot of progress was made during the Year of Health Care Reform (2007 and a bit of 2008). The debate was intense and comprehensive reform nearly passed. It was approved by the State Assembly and supported by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but defeated in the State Senate. The new debate is likely to start somewhere near where the last one ended.

For many legislators, however, the health care debate will be somewhat a matter of first impression. Of the 11 new Senators, all previously served in the Assembly. And of the 28 new Assembly Members, two have previously served in the Senate. However, four of the new Senators and one of the freshman AssemblyMembers were out of office during at least since 2006. So they missed all the educational opportunities the Year of Health Care Reform offered.

Needless to say there’s a lot of interested parties seeking to bring them up to speed. And California isn’t the only state where newbie lawmakers need to figure out how the current health care system works before they start in on messing with it. One resource they’ll have is the 2009 State Legislators’ Guide to Health Insurance Solutions and Glossary published by the Council for Affordable Health Insurance and the American Legislative Exchange Council. (My thanks to agent Bruce Jugan for bringing this Guide to my attention). CAHI is an insurance industry group so, guess what? Yep, it’s got a spin to it. Meaning few wil agree with everything it says (I don’t).

Nonetheless it’s an interesting overview of health care reform issues at a very high level. The Guide is not state specific, so it won’t fill in the gaps for legislators looking for a refresher course on California’s recent debate, but that lack of specificity is also a plus. The high-level perspective provides a good foundation for understanding the broad outlines of the issue. And the glossary is very handy.

If anyone out there knows of similar guides, but from other perspectives, please send them my way. Understanding the upcoming health care reform debate requires an understanding of how lawmakers think about the issue. And to understand that it can’t hurt to read what they are reading. Or at least, what they should be reading.

Chronic Illness and Rx Expenses Show Difficulty of Reform

There seems to be a growing consensus that meaningful health care reform needs to address the skyrocketing cost of medical care. This doesn’t mean market reforms won’t be central to whatever evolves in Washington, but unlike past efforts, these efforts won’t be the only game in town. Instead what care is delivered, how it’s delivered, and who pays for it will play a leading role in the upcoming drama.

There are some easy ways to restrain health care costs. According to Peter Orszag, then Director of the Congressional Budget Office and now Director of the Office of Management and Budget, 30 percent of medical spending is on “wasteful or low-value services.” Preventing this misspending would save health care system over $600 billion. That’s a meaningful start. Emphasizing preventive care and wellness would also help. So would increasing adoption rates of medical technology. Once you move past this low hanging fruit, however, the issues get more complex and more contentious.

Consider a post today in The American Conscience blog reporting that chronic illness accounts for 75 percent of overall health care spending. According to the post, chronic illness affects 45 percent of the population. Clearly, reducing the incidence and severity of chronic illness will need to be a part of any reform effort. The posting then goes on to recommend eliminating co-pays and co-insurance on prescription drugs. Citing a Journal of Medical Care study, the blog claims $1 spent on prescription drugs for diabetes and cholesterol saves $7.10 and $5.10, respectively, on other medical services. Yet, in part due to the cost sharing required for prescriptions, the incidence of non-adherence to drug regimens is high. And non-adherence, according to a John Hopkins study cited in the post, “increases national health care costs by $100 billion to $300 billion annually.” Consequently, the author calls for reducing or eliminating cost sharing in connection with prescription drugs.

I have no idea if the studies cited in The American Conscience post are valid — the author of the blog doesn’t identify him or herself and the studies sound like what the pharmacy industry would produce. But the underlying point: too many individuals fail to treat their chronic conditions in a cost effective manner, is a legitimate concern. It also highlights the challenge facing lawmakers.

Prescription cost sharing has been shown to cut down on their overuse. According to this blogger, however, it also reduces the legitimate use of medication. How can patients be encouraged to seek lower cost, proactive solutions to their health problems without providing an incentive for anyone with a head cold from stocking up on expensive drugs? Finding that balance is a multi-billion dollar dilemma. But any meaningful reform plan is going to have to try.

Health Care Reform 2009: Required Reading

Health care reform will be painful enough without requiring home work, but such is life. Here then is the required reading list for understanding the 2009 health care reform debate, where it’s going, and why.
(Note: a second list of health care reform required reading was added June 2, 2009 and a third list was added on August 11, 2009)

1. Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis by Tom Daschle withScott S. Greenberger and Jeanne M. Lambrew.

Former-Senator Daschle will be leading President Barack Obama’s health care reform effort, both in his position as Secretary of Health and Human Services and as Director of the Office of Health Reform inside the White House. Ms. Lambrew will be serving as Deputy Director of the Office of Health Reform. That there even is an Office of Health Reform highlights the importance of this issue to the incoming administration. That the Director of this office is also a Cabinet Secretary enhances the prestige — and clout — of both the office and its leader.

This makes understanding soon-to-be Secretary Daschle’s outlook on health care reform, well, critical. His book, Critical serves as a blueprint to his thinking.  Although the book was written before the identity of the Democratic nominee would be, Senator Daschle was an early supporter of Senator Barack Obama. It’s not surprising that his proposal ties-in well with the then presidential candidate’s health care reform proposal. Senator Daschle’s book, however, goes further.

Core to his solution for what ails America’s health care system is the creation of a Federal Health Board. Modeled after the Federal Reserve Board, it’s aimed at removing effort to control health care costs one step away from the day-to-day politics of Capitol Hill. “I believe a Federal Health Board should be charged with establish the [health] system’s framework and filling in most of the details. This independent board would be insulated from political pressure and, at the same time, accountable to elected officials and the American people. This would make it capable of making the complex decisions inherent in promoting health system performance. It also would give it the flexibility to make tough changes that have eluded Congress in the past.”

Specifically, Senator Daschle would have the Board set the rules for the national health exchange he would create. Through its own research and helping to prioritize research by other federal agencies, the Board would help promote “high value” medical care by “ranking services and therapies by their health cand cost impacts.” Senator Daschle would also have the board “align incentives with high-quality care.”  This would be done through evaluating new technologies as well as by aligning provider payments made by the federal government with health outcomes, rather than with services delivered. Finally, Senator Daschle would ask the Board to assist in “rationalizing our health-care infrastructure” by issuing an annual report identifying where investments are needed across the country — and where they’re not.

In addition to providing a blue print for the Obama Administration’s future health care reform proposals, Senator Daschle does an exceptional job of describing the history of America’s health care reform efforts from 1914 through the present day. As a participant in much of that history, his review can’t help but reflect his own biases, but Senator Daschle ably places today’s debate in an appropriate context.

What’s most encouraging about Critical is that it signifies a clear understanding of the central role controlling medical costs holds in reforming the system. This doesn’t mean Senator Daschle won’t seek to change the health insurance industry. He calls for expansion of federal programs, including a government program that would insure most individuals and small groups. For insurance agents, what is most disconcerting is that Critical never once mentions the role agents play in the current system nor what role Senator Daschle foresees agents playing in his vision for a future system.

 Nonetheless, Critical is important reading as Washington prepares to address America’s health care challenges.

2. Key Issues in Analyzing Major Health Insurance Proposals, by the Congressional Budget Office, published December 2008.

The Congressional Budget Office provides critical input to lawmakers on the expected impact of their legislative proposals. A negative analysis ruling can — and probably should — kill a bill; a positive one can help build momentum and support. Key Issues is not aimed at instructing members of Congress what to do about health care reform. Instead, it lays out how the CBO intends to evaluate whatever proposals Congress generates. As the report notes, “This document does not provide a comprehensive analysis of any specific proposal; rather, it identifies and discusses many of the critical factors that would affect estimates of various proposals.”

The budgetary impact of any health care reform proposal will be critical to its eventual success. The CBO document lays out in significant detail how it will go about measuring that impact. In doing so, the CBO provides a host of statistics, graphs and data that will be bandied about during the debate.

As if all this wasn’t enough to make Key Issues  a must read, Peter Orszag was Director of the CBO when the report was prepared. Mr. Orszag will be Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama White House. In that role, he will have a great deal to say about the financial impact of various reform plans. Given his involvement, it’s not unfair to expect the Administration’s analysis to closely mirror the Congressional analysis described in Key Issues.

3.  Roadmap for Implementing Value Driven Healthcare in the Traditional Medicare Fee-for-Service Program,” by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

The upcoming reform debate will be peppered with calls for “transparency,” paying for “value, not services” and for making commercial coverage as cost effective as Medicare. So it makes sense to see what the folks who run Medicare are thinking about concerning these issues. This report is CMS’ effort to help lawmakers “create rationale approaches to lessen healthcare cost growth and to identify and encourage care delivery patterns that are not only high quality, but also cost-efficient.”  The report describes the programs and demonstration projects already put in place by CMS to “foster joint clinical and financial accountability in the healthcare system.”

The CMS report is a tougher read than the other’s on this list. But given that any reform proposal will need to tackle skyrocketing medical costs, the report is worth the time.

I’ll add to this list in later posts, but these three items are a good place to start. And remember, if you think the reading list for health care reform is bad, just wait until you see the final exam.

Coming Soon: A Down Payment on Health Care Reform

The battle over the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP) was one of the most emotional battles of between Congress and the White House during the Bush Administration’s waining years. Twice, bi-partisan majorities of Congress passed the reauthorization legislation. Twice President George Bush vetoed the bill. Although the votes for an override were available in the Senate, it narrowly lost in the House. That’s now about to change. Congress is working hard to have a reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP) ready for the new president’s signature as soon as possible — it will be tough, but possibly even on inauguration day.

SCHIP provides health insurance for children in households that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but are unable to afford private coverage. States administer the program and, within federal guidelines, may adjust eligibility. They also pay a significant portion of the program’s cost. Currently, about six million children are covered in the popular program.

Congress twice voted to expand the SCHIP program in late 2007, but could not muster enough votes in the House of Representatives to overcome President George Bush’s vetoes. That was then. Now Democrats have stronger majoirites in both the House and Senate. Even more significantly, President-elect Barack Obama is a supporter of the expansion.

According to the Associated Press, discussions on how to approach the SCHIP reauthorization have been underway in Washington.  Although there was some thought of including SCHIP expansion in the forthcoming economic stimulus package, the decision seems to have been made to move forward with the stand-alone bill. While not promising to have the legislation ready for signature on inauguration day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised “we’ll be done soon,” according to AP.

The first test for the SCHIP reauthorization will be in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Committee’s chair, Congressman Henry Waxman, called passing the legislation a “down payment on national health insurance.”

Passage of the SCHIP reauthorization would be more than a symbolic breaking with the past. The current recession is placing greater demands on safety net programs like SCHIP. In addition, states pay a significant portion of the coverage provided by SCHIP (from  17 percent to 35 percent depending on the state). Knowing where the program stands — and how much funding they can expect — is of critical importance to state lawmakers struggling with their own hemorrhaging budgets.

How Congress will pay for expanding the program still needs to be worked out. In 2007 the legislation included a 61-cent per pack tax on cigarettes. This was expected to allow the program to insure as many as 10 million children.

SCHIP is a critical component of the patchwork quilt that is America’s health care system. A majority of both Democrats and Republicans agreed it should have happened over a year ago. That it took a new Congress and a new President to get the job done demonstrates how hard achieving comprehensive and meaningful health care reform will be. But to use Congressman Waxman’s terminology, it’s a down payment well worth making.