Obama Administration Showing Flexibility on Public Health Insurance Plan

President Barack Obama wants health care reform. He sincerely believes we need to fix what’s broken in the current system because it is the right thing to do and as a necessary step to get America’s economy moving forward again. He has put forward what elements he wants to see as part of comprehensive reform package, but instead of plopping a finished product in the lap of Congress (as the Clinton Administration did during their botched health care reform effort), he is asking Congress to take the lead in developing legislation (imagine that, letting legislators legislate). He and his allies have made clear they are willing to discuss almost any idea. The mantra they repeat often is that “everything is on the table.”

Almost. President Obama has also repeatedly made clear that acceptable health  care reform must adhere to three core principles. As they are described on his Organizing for Health Care web site, reform must:

  • Reduce Costs — Rising health care costs are crushing the budgets of governments, businesses, individuals and families and they must be brought under control
  • Guarantee Choice — Americans must have the freedom to keep whatever doctor and health care plan they have, or to select a new doctor or health care plan if they choose
  • Ensure Affordable Care for All — All Americans must have quality and affordable health care

Don’t misunderstand. He has clear ideas on how these principles should be achieved, but he is not insisting Congress do things his way, only that they do them.  This approach was clear in President Obama’s Tuesday press conference when he was asked about the health care reform. His response to the first question on health care reform laid out his approach to the issue.

He began by emphasizing the need for reform. “So the notion that somehow we can just keep on doing what we’re doing, and that’s OK, that’s just not true. We have a long-standing critical problem in our health care system that is pulling down our economy. It’s burdening families. It’s burdening businesses. And it is the primary driver of our federal deficits.”

President Obama then focused on the need to control costs. “It means that we look at the kinds of incentives that exist, what our delivery system is like, why it is that some communities are spending 30 percent less than other communities, but getting better health care outcomes, and figuring out how can we make sure that everybody is benefiting from lower costs and better quality by improving practices. It means health  I.T. It means prevention. So all of these things are the starting point, I think, for reform. And I’ve said very clearly, if any bill arrives from Congress that is not controlling costs, that’s not a bill I can support. It’s going to have to control costs. It’s going to have to be paid for.”

President Obama next turned to the need to expand coverage to more Americans. “[W]hile we are in the process of dealing with the cost issue, I think it’s also wise policy and the right thing to do to start providing coverage for people who don’t have health insurance or are underinsured ….”

He then went on to describe the rationale for including a public health plan as one of the health plans available to American consumers. “As one of those options, for us to be able to say, here’s a public option that’s not profit-driven, that can keep down administrative costs, and that provides you good, quality care for a reasonable price as one of the options for you to choose, I think that makes sense.”

The President explicitly rejected the complaints of health insurance carriers who claim a public plan will drive them out of business. “But just conceptually, the notion that all these insurance companies who say they’re giving consumers the best possible deal, if they can’t compete against a public plan as one option, with consumers making the decision what’s the best deal, that defies logic, which is why I think you’ve seen in the polling data overwhelming support for a public plan.”

President Obama’s answer makes sense if the public health plan were just another non-profit competitor. In many parts of America for-profit health insurers compete vigorously with non-profit carriers. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they lose. But the competition between them is fair.

What the president’s answer ignores is the possibility — indeed, the likelihood — that competition between private for-profit and non-profit insurance carriers on one side and a government-run health plan on the other will not be a fair contest. The government, which would both regulates the market and,  under several proposals being promoted in Congress, run the public plan, might tilt the playing field in its own favor (take, for example, the Affordable Health Choices Act introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy and other Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.)

What is nice to see is that President Obama seems to appreciate the balance that must be struck if a public plan is not to undermine the private market. “So there are going to be some ground rules that are going to apply to all insurance companies,” he said. “I take those advocates of the free market to heart when they say that, you know, the free market is innovative and is going to compete on service and is going to compete on, you know, their ability to deliver good care to families. And if that’s the case, then this just becomes one more option.”

Interestingly, the President was not the only Administration member speaking about health care reform on Tuesday. Peter Orszag, the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget appeared on the Diane Rehm show on National Public Radio. In responding to a question about health insurance profits, he observed that “One of the questions that will be in play during the reform process is whether additional competition, for example, through a public plan option, or a co-op or a non-profit, would be beneficial.”  (For those listening to the podcast, this comments begins at about the 29 minute, 18 second mark). He then goes on to say that co-ops could address a lack of competition in “a growing number of local markets.” (emphasis added).

This is an very significant statement. The health insurance co-ops being discussed in Washington are not government-run. The government provides seed money, either in the form of grants or loans, but once it’s up and running, the co-op is owned and operated by its members. They would be community based and would have to abide by the health insurance laws of their state.  Here is a senior official of the Obama Administration, one of its leading voices on health care reform, describing health insurance co-ops as comparable to a government-run public plan when it comes to providing competition.

Taken together, the President and his OMB Director are saying:

  • Competition in the health insurance marketplace should be preserved as it is beneficial.
  • The purpose of a public health plan is to increase competition in the health insurance marketplace.
  • Health insurance co-ops increase competition as much as a government-run plan.

For those who care about fair competition, please note that it is far more likely co-ops will compete on a level playing field than a government-run plan would — especially if co-ops are concentrated in local markets that need a new competitor.

None of this is to say that a government-run health plan will not be part of the final health care reform package. It does, however, underscore the point I tried to make in my previous post: the final outcome of the health care reform debate is far from settled. The Obama Administration is showing flexibility — and will need to in order to get comprehensive legislation passed. Now is not the time to panic. Now is the time to get involved.

Health Care Reform Is Coming. Don’t Panic.

The legislative process is like Kabuki Theater. Very stylized. Clear-cut characters. Starts off slow, proceeds through several acts, ends fast and furious. The Congressional tussle over health care reform is no exception. We have the champions of the left and right pounding across the stage, striking poses, shouting out their predictable lines, scaring the bejeebies (whatever they are) out of the audience (otherwise known as constituents) and generally creating high drama. This is important work as it gives the 24 hour news stations something to talk about and this, in turn, keeps the commercials from running together in an endless loop of paid messages for help fighting the IRS, encouragement to ask your doctor about the benefits of an unhealthy number of medications, easy ways to get low cost loans and willing buyers of your excess gold jewelry.

At the same time we have numerous audience members who are quickly losing whatever bejeebies they might possess. If you are among the 470,000 Americans employed by the health insurance industry, for instance or among the tens of thousands of health insurance brokers in this country, you might feel like people are out to get you. Good catch because people are out to get you. Don’t feel too bad, though, you’re not alone. They’re also out to get doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and a host of others. 

Every health care reform idea on the table is scary to someone. Government-run plans, exchanges, mandates to sell coverage, mandates to buy coverage, taxes, cost containment. The list of proposals go on endlessly. Everybody with a stake in health care (which is everybody) has something to lose from some these reforms and someone is out there working hard to make sure these stakeholders lose it. In the health care reform everyone is an archer and everyone is a target.

So as someone with a stake in the system, but who has also spent more time than sane people should involved in politics and the legislative process, I would like to offer some simple advice to my fellow targets:

         Don’t Panic.

Don’t get comfortable, but don’t panic.

The good news is the health care reform most likely to emerge from Congress will be far more moderate than the proposals whipping around the Capital hallways today imply. This is theater — and it’s politics. Everyone in Washington is busy staking out negotiating positions, trying to score points, and auditioning for an appearance on CNN, Fox or MSNBC. Which means what they say matters, but not as much as they’d like to think it does.

In negotiations you expect to compromise so you start off asking for more than you expect to get. Every eight year old discussing bed time knows this. So do politicians. What we’re seeing at this point is primarily Democrats and Republicans anchoring their positions. In Kabuki Theater, actors will strike stances that identify their role in the story. In Congressional theater, this role is played by lawmakers. 

Which leads us to the effort of scoring points. Nothing revs up the base like lambasting opponents. The number of people who make a living by keeping a significant portion of the American population seething is significant and appalling. These people (and I use the term loosely) paint the world in terms of good and evil, black and white, us and them. Anyone who disagrees with “us” is a traitor, a fool, a liar or all of the above. They care less about moving the country forward than in adding to their power or their bank account. (Have you ever noticed how often their diatribes are followed by an appeal for cash or an advertisement?) These blowhards replace bombast for thought. They have honed the cheap shot and the stiletto implication into art forms. Fortunately there’s a cozy spot in Hell reserved for them where they’ll have to listen to themselves blather for eternity. Until then, we’re the ones stuck in their noisy hurricanes of malicious hot air. 

The subset of these sub-humans who hold public office will be especially prominent during this portion of the legislative process. Ignore them. Like the extreme positions taken by negotiators, the extreme rhetoric spouting from these Katrinas of politics are designed to rile you up, get your money and generate news clippings, not educate or move the debate forward.

The real action on health care reform is taking place in the nooks and crannies of Washington where moderates dwell. For example, keep your eye on the Senate Finance Committee. They seem to be trying to find solutions the nation can afford and that might actually work. Track the movements of moderates in the Senate, too. Senators Olympia Snow and Susan Collins are the two trendsetters on the amazing-shrinking-group of GOP moderates. On the Democratic side of the Senate moderates gather weekly in a self-described  Working Group. (Insert your own snide comment here).

The fact is, in Washington moderates win. The system is designed this way. It may not seem like it, but that’s the way it usually goes. This is the point articulately made by Jay Cost in his HorseRaceBlog over at RealClearPolitics.com. In two postings (Part 1 and Part 2) he lays out the pivot points in the legislative process and applies them specifically to the current health care reform debate. (My thanks to John Nelson for sending these my way). What he shows is that the true partisans are merely the fodder necessary to get to the number of votes needed to turn legislation into law. These pivot points vary depending on the political context.

Need to overcome a filibuster? The most powerful Senator is not the true believers who immediately vote yes or no, but the Senator who represents the 60th vote for cloture. Only that Senator can move the bill forward. The rest simply set the stage. When it comes to health care reform, watch the moderates. They are the key actors in this play because it is from among their group, along with critical  negotiators like Senators Max Baucus and Charles Grassley, from which the decisive votes will come. 

With 17 votes (maybe 18 now that Senator Arlen Specter is a Democrat) the moderate Democrats in the Senate will determine the final shape of healthcare reform. They are the ones the partisans on both sides are already seeking to persuade or, failing that, threaten (good news for television and radio stations in their states looking to sell advertising time). If these partisans are serious about passing something, however, that something will need to earn the votes of these moderates. Keep in mind, Democrats have a large majority in both chambers of Congress, but they got it by appealing broadly to the electorate. Democrats rarely are genetically incapable of group thought even when there’s just a few of them. Put 60 into one room (say, the floor of the Senate) and the chances of agreement on anything controversial is reduced to a theoretical nil.

What all this means is that the partisan posturing of the current debate is simply sound and fury signifying the hopes and aspirations of sincere partisans and cynical pot stirrers (which is which is sometimes hard to tell, but there is a difference — only the latter are despicable). Eventually the play will reach its final act. At this point the moderates take center stage and with their arrival the odds of disappointed extremists on both sides  increases(disappointing extremists is, after all, what moderates d0).

This doesn’t mean they will come up with the perfect health care reform plan. If you care about the issue you need to make your voice heard. Moderates are capable of making bad policy — and whether the truck that runs you over is driven by a true partisan or a moderate doesn’t really matter, it still hurts. Moderates are more likely, however to produce reforms that are closer to something reasonable than might seem possible appear today.

In the meantime, let the loud and boisterous actors strike their poses. It’s all part of the play.

More Health Care Reform Proposals Added to the Mix

So many health care reform proposals are flying around the nation’s capital it’s nearly time to bring in the air traffic controllers. There are draft bills, option papers, proposals, outlines, and about any other kind of document you can name whirling around like jets over O’Hare.

Michael Johnson of Blue Shield of California and I gave a presentation on health care reform Wednesday to a group of health insurance brokers. We were reading up on one of the latest ideas issued a few hours earlier literally minutes before the panel got underway. It’s only going to get worse as some stake out (somewhat extreme) negotiating positions while others offer up potential compromises.

Here’s some of the more recent health care reform proposals to be launched — or about to be:

  1.  The web site The Hill is reporting that moderates in the House of Representatives from both sides of the aisle are meeting in private to fashioning a compromise package. Among those meeting are part of the GOP’s “Tuesday Group,” the New Democratic Coalition and the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition. Fearing retribution from party leaders, neither side is offering the names of participants. The meetings are significant not just because they are likely to produce yet another health care reform package. The negotiations also underscore the reality that while the media tends to portray both Democrats and Republicans as monolithic parties of extreme ideologies, there are a significant number of lawmakers who eschew the hardline ideology of their colleagues and search for pragmatic solutions.
  2. Former Senate majority leaders unveiled a health care reform plan they hope will provide a middle ground in debate. The plan was developed by Republican former Senators Howard Baker and Bob Dole along with Democratic former Senators Tom Daschle and George Michell. (Former Senator Mitchell is credited by the Boston Globe with having contributed to the document, although it is signed by only Senators Baker, Daschle and Dole). It weaves around the middle on a number of issues, although it does lean to the left. For example, while the proposal does not call for a creation of a federal government-run health plan it would permit states to create them. It also calls for taxing the value of health plans an employee receives to the extent it exceeds the cost of coverage provided to members of Congress. According to the Boston Globe this would amount about $5,000 for an individual and $13, 000 for a family.
  3. The House Republican leadership unveiled their health care reform plan on Wednesday, too. Among other features it would allow states, small businesses and other group to come together into “pools” to offer low cost health plans that, at a minimum, is provided in a majoirty of states. It also would offer lower-income Americans refundable tax credits they could use to purchase coverage and would make individual health insurance premiums tax deductible. It does not require consumers to buy coverage, but the GOP plan would encourage states “to create a Universal Access Program by establishing and/or reforming existing programs to guarantee all Americans, regardless of pre-existing conditions or past illnesses … access to affordable coverage.” Development of the GOP plan was led by Representative Roy Blunt.
  4. Last week the Chairs of the three House committees with jurisdiction on health care reform released a framework for reform. The Tri-Committee Health Reform Draft Proposal, put forward by House of Representative Chairs Charles Rangel of the Ways and Means Committee, Henry Waxman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and George Miller of the Education and Labor Committee outlines the key provisions of a unified Democratic reform package. The framework calls for creation of a government-run health plan to compete with private carriers, requires all Americans to obtain coverage (with exemptions in cases of financial hardship), requires most employers to either provide coverage or pay a fee, and provides subsidies for Americans households with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

There will be many more proposals coming soon. As it is relatively early in the legislative process, most will stake out relatively pure ideological positions. Neither party has an incentive to offer compromise solutions yet. So House Democrats, along with Senator Edward Kennedy and his Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, will anchor the left and the GOP Leadership and conservative Senators will anchor the right. As in most negotiations, the goal is to establish a starting position so far to one extreme or the other that the middle shifts in their direction.  

There will be some pragmatic proposals put forward as well. The most anticipated is that expected to be coming soon from the Senate Finance Committee. It’s Chair, Max Baucus, and its Ranking Member, Charles Grassley, seem to be sincere in their efforts to put forward a bi-partisan solution. In the meantime, President Barack Obama will keep up a drumbeat in support of getting comprehensive health care reform legislation through Congress before the end of the year. Although the White House continues to let Congress take the lead in fashioning the final reform package, the Obama Administration is beginning to get more engaged in the legislative process.

What the final health care reform legislation will look like is, as yet, unknown. It may resemble one of the ideas already put forward. Or perhaps something new to the mix will gain momentum. I’m betting that something will pass this year. The process of getting to one bill will be messy, but eventually, a consensus will form.

Not yet, but eventually.

Dr. Gawande’s Radio Interview

There’s a chicken and egg aspect to health care reform which often frustrates lawmakers and policy makers. To achieve universal coverage the cost of health insurance must be affordable. To make coverage affordable you need universal coverage. So which comes first?

My take is that affordability has to come first. You cannot require people to buy something they cannot afford. When a pen is out of ink, all the regulations in the world won’t fill it again. This means the government has to make coverage affordable, most likely through subsidies of some kind. Subsidies are expensive And the budget, already groaning under the weight of the recession, two wars, an economic stimulus package, existing entitlements, and much, much more. Congress will be hard pressed to find the funds needed to provide the premium support required to get close to universal coverage.

Consequently, affordability needs to come first. This explains, in part, Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orszag’s consistent focus on the as much as $700 billion in medical spending each year that goes towards services which do not improve health outcomes.  He began pushing lawmakers on this issue when he was Director of the Congressional Budget Office and he continues in his new role at the OMB.

The opportunity for health care reform to reign in medical costs received a substantial boost recently with the publication of an article in The New Yorker by Dr. Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon who is also a staff writer for the magazine. Titled “The Cost Conundrum,” the article described Dr. Gawande’s exploration of medical practices in McAllen, Texas. That community spends more per person on health care than anywhere in the country with the exception of Miami, Florida which has higher labor and other costs. McAllen’s spending is twice that of nearby El Paso, Texas, even though the two areas have similar demographics and similar outcomes. The explanation, Dr. Gawande discovers, is the entrepreneurial culture of the community’s physicians. They maximize their incomes, but fail improving the health of their patients.

The article has been cited by President Barack Obama (who, it is said, has made the piece required reading for his staff), members of Congress, pundits and policy wonks. Few magazine articles have had comparable impact on the health care reform debate.

Those wanting to learn more about what he discovered in McAllen will enjoy an interview with Dr. Gawande  on Public Radio’s Fresh Air. During the nearly 30 minute segment, the doctor expands on his article providing insights from his own practice.

Dr. Gawande has made a valuable contribution to the health care reform debate by shedding light on the correlation between community medical practices, health care costs, and health outcomes. For anyone interested in health care reform, his Fresh Air interview is well worth the investment of time.

CBO Analysis Highlights Difficulty of Affordable Universal Coverage

Among the duties of the Congressional Budget Office is determining the financial impact of legislation proposed by lawmakers. Their highly credible analyses is given great credence within Congress. Which means today’s preliminary report on the health care reform package crafted by Senator Edward Kennedy and other members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is especially important.

The CBO Preliminary Analysis of the Affordable Health Choices Act, released on Monday, underscores the challenge Congress faces in attempting to insure the uninsured without breaking the federal budget. Before discussing the finding, it is important to note: this is a preliminary analysis of draft legislation. The CBO analysis focused on “major provisions on health insurance coverage,” leaving several important elements out of their review. There are elements of the draft bill that have not yet been modeled, for example, allowing children through age 26 to be considered dependents on their parents’ policies. There are a host of other caveats involved. So it is best to treat the findings of this report as broad and directional.

Considering the sincere commitment Senator Kennedy and his allies have for universal coverage, the direction of the Congressional Budget Office’s conclusions must be disappointing.

Without intervention, the CBO estimates that by 2019 approximately 228 Americans under the age of 65 will have health care coverage, but from 50-to-54 million people — about 19 percent of this population — will not. If the HELP Committee’s health care reform package were enacted, the CBO estimates the percentage of uninsured would fall to 13 percent of the non-elderly population would still be without coverage — approximately 36 or 37 million.

The net increase to the federal budget for covering these 13-to-18 million Americans would be $1.o trillion between 2010 and 2019, most resulting from the subsidies the legislation would offer to individuals earning up to 500 percent of the federal poverty level purchasing coverage through a government-run Exchange.

In the CBO Director’s blog posting on the analysis, Director Douglas Elmendorf points out that while the study estimates that 39 million Americans would obtain coverage through the Exchange, “the number of people who had coverage through an employer would decline by about 15 million (or roughly 10 percent).” He pegs the net decrease in the nation’s uninsured at about 16-to-17 million people.

No one claims comprehensive health care reform will be easy. The Affordable Health Choices Act is only one reform package on the table. And, as Politico.com reports, the White House made clear it is not the Obama Administration’s plan.  The CBO preliminary analysis on the draft legislation developed by the Senate HELP Committee makes clear just how difficult — and expensive — it will be.  Will the CBO report convince lawmakers to scale back their ambitions for government’s involvement in America’s health care. Perhaps, but I wouldn’t count on it. Health care reform is as much about ideology as pragmatism. 

The CBO study should embolden Congressional moderates, however, to stand firm for comprehensive reform that neither breaks the budget of the federal government nor American families.

No One Defends the Status Quo. Nonetheless …

Health care reform is not for the weak willed. Just ask President Barack Obama. As Congress continues to draft legislation the President is expending his political capital to mobilize supporters of his reform package while at the same time seeking to soften the opposition. As tough as the task lawmakers face, President Obama’s is in many ways the more challenging.

Consider President Obama’s appearance today before the American Medical Association. According to the Associated Press, when he sympathized with the doctors on the need to address malpractice reform he was cheered. When he told them he did not oppose capping malpractice judgements as the way of accomplishing this, some booed. That the President brought up malpractice at all was enough to mobilize trial lawyers. The president of their primary lobbying organization, the American Association for Justice, issued a statement denying that defensive medicine leads to higher health costs, according to the Associated Press.

Then of course there’s the opposition from the insurance industry and others concerning the creation of a government-run health plan to compete with private carriers. Yes, compromises are being put forward to find common ground on this issue. Meanwhile, however,  there’s former-Governor Mitt Romney’s claiming on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday declaring that public plans are “a Trojan horse … a way of getting government into the insurance business so they can take over health care.”

Or take the Republican attack on the Administration for creating a working group to study the effectiveness of various medical treatments. Representative Tom Price, a former surgeon, accused the President of “seeking a government takeover’ of health care.” The committee, he claimed would turn into rationing boards that would instruct doctors what services they could — and could not — provide their patients.

In a similar vein, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyle and other GOP Senators introduced “The Preserving Access to Targeted, Individualized, and Effective New Treatments and Services (PATIENTS) Act. The legislation’s sponsors claim it is targeted at “comparative effectiveness research” which they claim is “commonly used in ‘socialized health care systems,” according to The Hill’s Blog. To its advocates, comparative effectiveness research holds the promise of eliminating much of the $700 billion in unnecessary medical spending incurred each year. It would also go a long way toward eliminating the disparity in spending profiled by Dr. Atul Gawande in his much discussed New Yorker article. Opponents do not address the difficulty in making politically free determination of what treatment is effective or not. Instead they attack it as empowering the government to determin who lives and who does not, even though current instances of comparative effectiveness programs in the United States are highly regarded by doctors, patients and others.

No one is defending the status quo. Not surprising since most people believe it is seriously broken. President Obama has rightfully framed the health care reform debate as an integral part of his economic recovery efforts. The reality is that American businesses are hamstrung by an often dysfunctional system. It’s equally true that hundreds of billions of dollars are wasted each year on defensive medicine, ineffective treatment and overpriced prescriptions.

The critical political puzzle facing President Obama is whether he can marshal the votes necessary to force through health care reform that causes pain to so many interests while improving on the status quo. He has some advantages other presidents have not shared. There is widespread agreement the status quo is unacceptable. He is extremely popular. His party holds significant majorities in both the House and Senate.

And did I mention the widespread agreement that the status quo is unacceptable? Because it is worth repeating. Opponents to reform have an advantage. They can zero in on one or two items they dislike knowing others will be attacking the package in other weak spots. To prevent the death of reform by a thousand cuts the Administration will need to fend off all of these attacks. Not an easy task. Among other tactics, it will require developing compromises that address opponents’ reasonable concerns without watering down the entire package so much it fails to improve on the current system.

That’s why health care reform is not for the weak willed.

Could Co-ops Provide Competition Where It’s Needed?

Based on what was being said on the Sunday talk shows today, the justification for creating a government-run health plan to compete with private carriers seems to be expanding. One of the fresh arguments does not seem to carry much weight, but the other might.

Some are claiming that consumers need to know they can buy the same health plan anywhere in the country. By having a public plan offering coverage nationally they would be able to change jobs, move to a different state and still keep their current coverage. Accepting that this would be a nice situation, it certainly isn’t a strong reason for a public plan given the risk that step entails. As I’ve posted before, the temptation to tip the playing field in favor of government programs is too tempting for lawmakers. Already on the table is allowing tax credits to make premiums more affordable eligible only for coverage purchased through an Exchange, for example.

The simple fact is, without a level playing field a government-run plan will eventually — not the first year, maybe not the fifth, but eventually — drive private carriers out of the market. If that’s what Congress and the Obama Administration want to do, they should just say so and try to make it happen. But if they are sincere about preserving private options for Americans, then they need to tread carefully. Creating a public plan just so consumers can keep the exact same plan when they move to a new state is simply not worth the danger.

The second justification is an amplification of the original rational for a public plan: that it would encourage competition in the market. On CNN’s State of the Union, this morning, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius brought up the lack of competition in her home state, Kansas (until her confirmation as Secretary, she was Governor of Kansas). And it is true that in some states a single carrier will have 60 percent or higher market share for medical policies sold to individuals and small businesses. In those states, additional competition should be beneficial.

Yet in other states competition is far more robust. In California, for example, there are several carriers competiting for individual and small group coverage. None, I believe, have more than 45 percent and at least three have more than 20 percent. A government venture is, arguably, unnecessary here.

If competition is sufficient in some states, but lacking in others, perhaps a national solution isn’t required. Instead, allowing the solution should be fashioned at a more local level. Senator Kent Conrad’s compromise proposal could be adapted to do just that. Senator Conrad is calling for the creation of non-profit health insurance co-operatives, much like what exists in some areas for electricity. They would be owned by local residents and businesses. They would compete under the exact same rules as private carriers. The government’s only role would be to provide seed money to get them launched. These co-ops could bring competition to places where it currently doesn’t exist. In an area where one carrier controls more than 50 percent of the market, for example, the government could assist in creating a health insurance co-operative — or several of them.

The health care reform debate is getting closer to the nitty-gritty stage every week. President Barack Obama is urging Congress to put a bill on his desk this year and Congressional Leaders are working hard to make that happen. To pass anything, let alone pass it quickly, controverseys like government-run will need to be resolved. Liberal Democrats are insisting it must be included in the final health care reform package. Republicans, including those who broke with their party to pass the Administration’s stimulus package, are adamantly opposed to it.  As the Associated Press reports Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as saying, “I think that, for virtually every Republican, a government plan is a nonstarter.” Some  moderate Democrats are opposed to the idea, too.

Senator Conrad’s co-op idea may provide the needed common ground. Moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins noted, according to the Associated Press article, that the co-ops are “far preferable to the government-run plan that has been discussed by the administration. We need to better understand how it would work. But it’s certainly better than a Washington-run plan.”

The idea of a government-run plan is not the only controversey that will need to be addressed to pass comprhensive reform. But it is an obstacle. And it can serve as a template for resolving other issues. Replace targeted solutions for national ones where the problems are not national in scope. Helping health insurance co-operatives get launched in areas where there is no competition could solve local problems without creating a national one.

Public Health Plans and Level Playing Fields

Whether comprehensive health care reform should include a government-run health plan is receiving a lot of attention of late. As well it should. Several issues before Congress have the potential of creating substantial, negative unintended consequences, but few as much as a pubic health insurance plan.

Advocates of government-run plans insist, as The Huffington Post reports President Obama did at a town hall meeting in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Thursday, that “If the private insurance companies have to compete with a public option, it will keep them honest and it will help keep their prices down.”

However, as I’ve written before, a government health plan can have severe consequences to private carriers. Current government programs like Medicaid and Medicare pay doctors and hospitals less than their actual costs. They make up the difference by increasing what they charge private health plans. But Medicaid and Medicare don’t compete directly with private carriers. The government-run health plan advocated by President Barack Obama and many Democrats would. The cost shift their would result in an ever increasing pricing gap betweent he public plan and private carriers. Eventually private carriers would become uncompetitive and leave the market.

President Obama hears these concerns, but rejects them. In Wisconsin, The Huffington Post reports him as saying, “So, what you’ve heard is some folks on the other side saying, I’m opposed to a public option because that’s going to lead to government running your health care system. Now, I don’t know how clearly I can say this, but let me try to repeat it. If you’ve got health insurance that you’re happy with through the private sector, then we’re not going to force you to do anything.”

People can keep their private coverage if they want. Well, maybe. If the public plan behaves like Medicare, then this argument becomes a bit disingenuous. Medicare pays roughly 19 percent less than the actual cost care. Senator Edward Kennedy has proposed a public plan that pays providers 10 percent more than Medicare. This underpayment would force even more dollars to be shifted to private insurance companies. Not a recipi for those private plans you have the right to stay in to last very long.

President Obama is optimisitc a compromise can that avoids this inevitable result can be found. “And I think that we can come up with a sensible, commonsense way that’s not disruptive, that still has room for insurance companies and the private sector, but that does not put people in the position where they are potentially bankrupt every time they get sick.” Maybe he can. If so, it would be nice for him to describe what this compromise might look like.

Senator Kent Conrad a proposal that might work. He calls for creating non-profit, co-ops, owned and operated by local residents and small businesses. They would receive federal dollars to get launched, but otherwise would receive no favored treatment and would have to be self-supporting.  However, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opposes such an approach according to the New York Times’The Caucus blog. At the same time, however,  Speaker Pelosi claims to want a public health plan to compete fairly in the marketplace. “It should be actuarially sound. It should be administrative and self-sufficient. It should be a real competitor with the private sector and not have an unfair advantage. When you say the words public option if that is the term about we will be using, you have to say right next to it, level playing field.”

The interesting conundrum this raises is, if a public plan is going to be just another option competing on a level playing field, why create it? Yet if it is given an artificial advantage it distorts the market in harmful ways. If a goal is to preserve the private market, this is problematic.

One option being discussed, according to the New York Times, is to introduce a public plan only “if people were not able to get insurance through private companies. This approach, called a trigger on Capitol Hill ….”  At least this approach makes some sense. If the private market in an area is dominated by one carrier, the government would introduce competition.  Competition does keep the participants honest. If it’s lacking in a community, a case can be made that the government can and should provide it.

Whether this limitation on public plans would satisfy its advocates or its opponents is yet to be determined. What is clear is that we’ll be hearing a great deal more about public plans, level playing fields and fair competition in the months ahead. Whether what eventually emerges is compatible with any of these concepts remains to be seen.

Senator Conrad’s Public Health Plan Compromise

For many Democrats, the benefits of a government-run health plan competing with private carriers in the individual and small group health insurance markets is simple: provide more choice to consumers and keep health insurance companies honest. Republicans and some moderate Democrats see the idea as the first giant step toward a government takeover of health care coverage fearing that a public plan would have an unfair advantage that would soon drive private carriers out of business. Both sides are gearing up for a tough and bruising battle over the issue. There will be many differences that will be hard to bridge during the health care reform debate. Whether the government should participate in the health insurance marketplace is, for now at least, the leading candidate to derail comprehensive reform.

Senate Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, is seeking to prevent that from happening. According to the Associated Press, Senator Conrad is floating a compromise that would allow residents and small businesses in an area to crate non-profit health care cooperatives to offer health insurance. The idea is designed to appeal to Democrats based on the assumption that the co-ops would increase consumer choice and keep carriers honest. Because the co-ops would need to be self-supporting (the only government funding would be seed money designed to get them up and running) they would not have the unfair advantage against private health plans Republicans (and the insurance industry) fear.

The idea is getting a warm reception on Capital Hill. Senator Max Baucus, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said “the idea could be key to a bipartisan health bill,” according to the Associated Press. The AP quoted the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Charles Grassley, as saying “It’s got possibilities.”

Details concerning Senator Conrad’s compromise still need to be worked out. As those details emerge the proposal may serve as common ground for lawmakers working toward a bipartisan reform package. But those details have to satisfy some wary legislators. Reuters, for example, notes Senator Grassley’s insistence that “”any federal money used to set up what likely would be state and regional health cooperatives would have to be in the form of loans and that the government should have no role in their operation.” Meanwhile CNN describes the initial concern of Democratic Senator Charles Schumer that “co-ops might struggle to compete with big health-insurance companies and therefore would not help drive down costs.” However, Senator Schumer also said “he would see if they could craft a workable plan.”

Similar cooperatives have been set up to provide electrical services in rural areas. Would the concept would nationally for health insurance? That’s uncertain. Would health insurance co-ops serve the needs of Democrats without fulfilling the fears of Republicans?  Also uncertain.

In getting both sides to consider a middle way, however, Senator Conrad has made an important contribution to the health care reform effort.

Kennedy Health Care Reform Bill Launches New Phase of Debate

The health care reform debate moved to a new phase Senator Edward Kennedy and his fellow Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) introduced sweeping legislation. Senator Kennedy is Chair of the ccommittee. What is significant is not what is in the bill — it’s general outline has been known for awhile — but the publication of the bill itself. It marks the beginning of the move from discussions on generalities to negotiations on specifics.

The HELP Committee Legislation is entitled the “Affordable  Health Choices Act.” (Virtually every piece of health care reform legislation will include the word “choice” as the lack of choice — see as evidence The Patients’ Choice Act four Republican lawmakers are planning to introduce. The reason is that many in Washington believe opponents framing of the Clinton Administration’s health care reform plan as limiting choice was a leading contributor to it’s downfall.) The HELP Committee press release proclaims the legislation “reduces health care costs, allows Americans to keep the coverage they have if they want it, and makes health insurance affordable to those who do not have it today.”

That remains to be seen. The 615 page draft health care reform bill covers a lot of territory and it will take some time to sort through its many provisions. A quick skim, however, indicates that it generally hews to the outlines Senator Kennedy has been talking about in recent days. It would create state gateways through which individuals and some businesses could purchase coverage and a government-run carrier would compete with private carriers  Individuals earning up to 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Level ($16,245 for an individual in 2009) will be eligible for Medicaid. Insurance premiums for those earning up to 500 percent of the federal poverty level (currently $110,250 for a family of four) so their payments do not exceed 10 percent of their gross adjusted income.

At this stage, the details actually are not all that important. Discussions among the HELP Committee’s Democrats and Republicans continue (now those would be interesting to watch). And several other bills by different committees in both the House and the Senate are due. All will wind up in the sausage making process. What any one draft contains is not necessarily what will emerge at the end.

For now, Senator Kennedy is anchoring the left in the debate. (Anchoring a position is done by both liberals and conservatives. It is a negotiating tool in which the anchor calls for extreme provisions in the hopes of having any compromise which emerges from moving too far toward the other side). I don’t mean this cynically. Senator Kennedy is no doubt sincere in supporting the provisions of his committee’s legislation. However, he is a practical policitian and knows compromise is inevitable. Being the first Congressional committee to issue a draft, there is no need for him to introduce a watered down bill. After all, he would be foolish to negotiate with himself. Better to stake out his ideal position and see what the other committees produce.

A public hearing on the HELP Committee bill is scheduled for June 11, 2009 and the committee will begin editing the bill at a June 16, 2009 meeting. The Democrat’s press release emphasized that negotiations with GOP members of the committee are ongoing so it will be interesting to see what changes emerge  once mark-up begins.

All this is important and interesting. But again, the details of the Affordable Health Choices Act are less important than the existence of the Affordable Health Choices Act. A new phase of the journey toward comprehensive health care reform has begun. The debate continues.