No on Proposition 45

As you know, this blog has been—and remains—on hiatus. I’m playing around with reviving it down the road, but before I could even think that idea through, a California issue has arisen that compels me to write something now. That issue is Proposition 45. There’s a long and storied history in California of great sounding initiatives that harbor devastating impacts. Proposition 45 is one of those and that’s why it needs to be defeated on November 4th.

Proposition 45 is Unnecessary

Proposition 45 supporters claim it will lower costs by simply requiring the California Department of Insurance Commissioner to approve rate and benefit changes to individual and small group medical plans before they take effect. (Large group coverage is exempt and untouched by Proposition 45). Whether this would actually lower rates or not is an open issue. After all, insurance rates are driven by a host of issues—the cost of medical care, new technologies and drugs, an aging population and changing demographics, increasing rates of chronic conditions—none of which are addressed by Proposition 45.

Regardless of its intent, Proposition 45 is late to the lower-premiums party. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the “ACA”), often referred to as ObamaCare, already requires carriers to spend a specified percentage of the premium they take in on medical services and related expenses. This mechanism acts to prevent the price gouging Proposition 45 proponents claim is rampant in the industry.

That Proposition 45 is unnecessary is reason enough to vote no on the initiative. But it’s far worse.

Proposition 45 Gives too Much Power to One Politician

Proposition 45 doesn’t create a single payer system; it creates a single overseer system. By explicitly giving the Insurance Commissioner authority over rates and benefits, Proposition 45 gives this elected official implicit power over everything relating to health plans in California. This includes what treatments carriers cover—or don’t cover, what doctors and hospitals are in—or out—of a carrier’s network, what insurers spend on marketing and distribution, and virtually everything else but what colors are in the carrier’s logo. And a creative Commissioner could probably find a way to control that as well.

The ability to leverage explicit powers to expand control over other items isn’t idle conjecture. I’ve seen it done in other contexts. In fact, I did this kind of thing in another context. When I served on the Santa Monica City Council we used our authority over zoning to extract all sorts of concessions from developers. For example, while we didn’t have explicit authority to require a developer to set up a job training program in the city, leveraging our power over zoning exceptions we got it anyway.

The power given the Insurance Commissioner by Proposition 45 is unprecedented—and dangerous. For example, while the Commissioner oversees insurance companies, HMOs are regulated by the Department of Managed Health Care. Proposition 45, however, allows the Commissioner to overrule a DMHC decision concerning an HMO’s rates. Or benefits. Or network. Or anything else.

Covered California is the state agency running the medical exchange in the state setup pursuant to the ACA. In that role Covered California negotiates with participating carriers over rates and benefits. Under Proposition 45, however, the Commissioner (or, as we’ll see, virtually anyone else) can object to the deals reached by Covered California. The result, discussed below, could be catastrophic for California’s health insurance exchange.

So long as we continue to elect human beings to public office no politician should be given such unbridled power. The temptation to misuse it (even in the name of all that’s good and just) would overpower a saint. And to my knowledge, there are few politicians who have been up for sainthood.

Here’s an interesting fact: every elected California Insurance Commissioner but two have run for higher office. One of the exceptions, Chuck Quackenbush was indicted and resigned the office. The second, the incumbent Dave Jones, simply hasn’t had the time yet. Commissioner Jones will be reelected this Tuesday and is widely assumed to be eyeing a run for Governor, Senator or Attorney General at the next opportunity. The post of Insurance Commissioner is a stepping stone, not a destination.

There’s nothing wrong with political ambition. But it does mean almost every decision made by an office holder is at least partially a political one. The calculus facing an Insurance Commissioner when reviewing a carrier’s rate submission is pretty straightforward. At the next election does the Commissioner want to run ads bragging about the hundreds of millions of dollars they saved voters or does she want to give her opponent ammunition to call her a tool of the evil insurance companies? In the political world, regardless of party affiliation, this choice is as close to a no brainer as politicians are legally allowed to stand. The market isn’t always a perfect pricing mechanism, but it’s far preferable to a political one.

Proposition 45 Will Create Chaos and Confusion

Some 35 other states require state regulators to approve rate changes. None of them, however, have an “intervener” system like that contained in Proposition 45 (or gives such extensive power to a single politician). Proposition 45 enables “consumer advocates,” lawyers and others to object to carriers’ rate actions. Once their intervention is accepted by the Commissioner, these interveners can earn $675 per hour for their efforts. A similar provision in Proposition 103, which dealt with auto and home insurance, has earned the authors of that initiative millions of dollars since its passage. No wonder they included a role for interveners when they drafted Proposition 45.

The extremely lucrative intervener provisions in Proposition 45 are virtually guaranteed to result in costly and frequent objections. Which means rate and benefit changes could be delayed months. Under Proposition 103, the average rate filing subject to intervention takes 343 days … over 11 months. Given that health insurance is not the same as property & casualty coverage this is extremely troubling. Timely decision-making is even more important with medical coverage than homeowner and auto policies.

If anything remotely close to these delays were to result from Proposition 45 the result would be chaos and confusion. Here’s a nightmare to consider: the premium subsidies available individuals in Covered California’s individual exchange is based on the cost of a specific plan (the second lowest cost Silver plan for those interested). What happens if, after this linchpin-product is identified, priced and in place, an intervener objects to its rates? What would the premium subsidy be based on then? What plans would be available in the exchange?  It could, and I believe probably would, take months to decide.  And by then open enrollment in the exchange could be over.

Think of the opportunities for mischief. Want to undermine the ACA? Wait until the last-minute and then object to the plans and rates negotiated by Covered California. No wonder the Board of Covered California have expressed their dismay about the damage Proposition 45 could do to their program.

Broad Opposition to Proposition 45

And the Board of Covered California (who took no formal position in opposition to Proposition 45) are not the only ones concerned about Proposition 45. The roster of Proposition 45 opponents is broad and impressive.

Earlier this week House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi voiced her opposition to Proposition 45.telling the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle, “If I wanted to kill the Affordable Care Act, I would do this.”

Minority Leader Pelosi joins the California Medical Association, the California Hospital Association, the Service Employee International Union of California, the California State Conference of the NAACP, the Small Business Majority, the California Association of Health Plans and a host of others in opposing Proposition 45. Significantly, the vast majority of newspapers in the state are opposing the initiative as well, including the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, U-T San Diego and the San Francisco Chronicle.

As are the major agent and broker organizations: CAHU, NAIFA-California, IIAB-Cal and WIAA have come together to form Agents of Action. This is a grassroots effort to generate 100,000 No votes on Proposition 45. The strategy is by harnessing the efforts of brokers throughout the state to educate and motivate their clients, colleagues, friends and family on why it’s important to defeat Proposition 45. (Full disclosure, I’ve played a leadership role in Agents of Action).

If you’re a broker in California, please check out the web site at www.AgentsOfAction.org, download the tools available to you there and get your network out to the polls on November 4th to vote No on Proposition 45. As Agents of Action emphasizes, Proposition 45 is bad for you and worse for your clients.

Of course, the important thing to do is vote. Too many have given too much for us not to live up to our responsibilities.

And, hey, when you do vote, please vote No on Proposition 45.

Catching Up on Health Care Reform

Hello. It’s been awhile. Hope you’re all well. To all who have inquired, my thanks for your concern, but all’s good. Hectic, but good. Lot’s going on (more on that later) and an awful lot of travel. I’ve had a chance to meet and talk with brokers in various parts of the country, including a few places I’ve never been before or haven’t been to for years: Boise, Omaha, Denver, Nashville. It’s been a great time to learn, recharge and stay a bit too busy to write any meaningful posts. While staying busy appears to be the new constant, I’ll try to find something worthy to share on a more regular basis. For now, however, let’s play some catch-up:

We’ll start with some (relatively) good news. One of the more popular elements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the ability for children up to age 26 to remain on their parents’ medical insurance. The Department of Health and Human Services estimated 1.2 million young adults would take advantage of this opportunity. A story at Kaiser Health News indicates the actual number may be much higher: at least 600,000 young adults have already obtained coverage under their parents’ health plans. While most of the growth has apparently been in self-insured groups, fully insured plans are experiencing the same upsurge in membership. WellPoint, for example, reports adding 280,000 young adult dependents nationwide and the federal government added a similar number (although the article didn’t state what percentage of these were in fully-insured plans).

Of course, when it comes to health care reform every silver cloud has a gray lining. The Kaiser Health News article quotes Helen Darling, CEO of the National Business Group on Health, as noting “I don’t think anyone is eager to spend more money. This is not something employers would have done on their own.” She further cites the unfairness of asking employers to cover adult children who may be employed elsewhere. And businesses (and their employees) will pay a bit more due to this expansion of coverage to young adults – about one percent more according to estimates. And while its unclear how many of these individuals would not be able to obtain coverage elsewhere, but the general thinking is that a large majority of these young adults would be uninsured or underinsured, but for this provision of the PPACA.

Next let’s pause to note how rate regulation can be big business for consumer groups. In some states, regulators must approve health plan rate increases before they take effect. In others carriers may need to file their rate changes with regulators, but so long as the rate increases are actuarially sound they move forward. California, where rate increases tend to generate national news, is in the latter camp. The state’s Insurance Commissioner, Dave Jones would like to change that. (Actually he’d like to put health insurance companies out-of-business by implementing a single-payer system, but that’s another matter). However, he and others are pushing to change that. Assembly Bill 52, authored by Assemblymen Mike Feuer and Jared Huffman. This legislation would give the Department of Insurance (which regulates insurers in the state) and the Department of Managed Care (which regulates HMOs) to reject rate or benefit changes the agencies determine to be “excessive, inadequate, or unfairly discriminatory.”

In the findings section of the bill (which are the “whereas” clauses justifying the bill), the legislation cites rising premiums and the need for the state to “have the authority to minimize families’ loss of health insurance coverage as a result of steeply rising premiums costs” are among the problems the bill is intended to address. The solution: give politicians and bureaucrats the power to reject rate increases. No need, apparently, to address the underlying cost of medical care. The assumption seems to be that the way to reduce health care spending is to clamp down on premiums. This, of course, is like saying that the way to attack rising gas prices is to limit what gas stations can charge at the pump. One might conclude that, to be charitable, the legislation is addressing only a part of the problem.

Not only does AB 52 give medical care providers a free pass, it is likely to result in a windfall for the consumers groups supporting its passage. Politico Pulse notes that AB 52 requires insurance companies to pay for costs incurred by groups representing consumers at rate hearings. For groups like Consumer Watchdog this can represent a substantial amount of income. The Politico Pulse post reports that “Under a similar California provision for property and auto insurance, Consumer Watchdog has recouped approximately $7 million in legal fees since 2003”

Then there’s the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals hearing on two Virginia law suits seeking to have the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act declared unconstitutional. A ruling from the three judge panel is expected in July. Much has been made of the fact that two of these three Appeals Court Judges were appointed by President Barack Obama – and the third by President Bill Clinton. While those so inclined are likely to consider this a conspiracy of cable news worthy dissection ad nauseum, it’s important not to make too big a deal about this.

First, courtrooms are not like the floor of Congress: partisan leanings have far less influence there. Second, as the Associated Press article points out, there are 14 judges on the court. Which of them hear a particular appeal is randomly determined by a computer program. There’s nothing sinister about the three judges selected for these appeals being appointed by Democrats, it’s just the way things turned out. No black helicopters are involved. Third, whatever this panel decides will be appealed by whichever side loses. The appeal could go to a hearing before all 14 Appeals Judges in the 4th Circuit or it could go straight to the Supreme Court. Finally, even if the appeals remain at the circuit level for another round, the final decision will be made by the Supreme Court. Everything going on in the lower courts (and there’s a lot of other suits out there needing to go through their appropriate Circuit Courts), is simply prelude. Yes, what the appeals court decide influences the Supreme Court Justices, but in a matter of this magnitude, far less than one might imagine. What happens at the District and Circuit levels is not unimportant, but it’s far from definitive.

While we’re playing catch-up: my previous post noted that Congress was likely to repeal the 1099 provision in the health care reform law. They did and the President Obama signed the law removing the tax reporting requirement from the PPACA. The PPACA no longer impacts 1099 reporting. I know you already knew that, but I wanted to close the loop on this issue. It’s now closed – and repealed.

Finally, a note about broker commissions and the medical loss ratio calculations required by the health care reform law. Where we last left our heroes, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners was debating whether to endorse bi-partisan legislation (HR 1206) that would remove broker compensation from the MLR formula used to determine a health plan’s spending on claims and health quality initiatives. The NAIC task force dealing with this issue wants time to review data being pulled together by the National Association of Health Underwriters, carrier filings and elsewhere.  Pulling together all this information, much of which has never been gathered before and is not maintained in a centralized data base, took a bit longer than initially anticipated. According to Politico Pulse, however,  the task force no”now believes it has all the data it will be able to get.” Which means the task force’s final report on broker commissions and the MLR calculation is now expected by May 27th.

Stay tuned.

And thanks again for staying tuned to this blog.  I look forward to continuing the dialogue with all of you.

California Hospital Charges Increase 150% in 10 Years

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act does a great deal to address insurance industry practices. The new health care reform law, however, has been rightly criticized as failing to directly and forcefully attack rising medical costs, the primary driver of insurance premiums. Yes, the new law establishes.

The PPACA has a number of pilot projects, demonstration programs, and studies buried in its provisions that could, in time, lower overall cost spending. And supporters of the bill will argue that the Medical Loss Ratio provision is aimed at keeping down the cost of coverage. (Ironically, the MLR limits may have the unintended consequence of raising insurance costs. Administrative costs are usually fixed and independent of the premium paid. The cost to have a claims representative process a claim is the same whether the coverage cost $1,000 or $3,000 per year. But the $1,000 policy makes only $200 available for administrative expenses under the medical loss ratio calculation; the $3,000 plan makes $600 available. In other words, because the MLR rules apply percentages, carriers have an incentive to eliminate low-cost plans).

Carriers need to educate lawmakers and the public about the elements that go into a premium rate. Yes, profit and overhead are a part of the cost. But the biggest driver of health insurance premiums is the underlying cost of medical care. And the carrier community may have begun this educational process.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade association, released a study showing that, in California, hospital charges increased 150 percent between 2000 and 2009. The Sacramento Bee, quotes AHIP spokesperson Robert Zirkelbach as observing “What this data shows is that there needs to be much greater focus on the underlying cost of medical care that is driving those premium increases. At some point, people will have to address these underlying cost drivers if health care costs are going to come down.” In other words, you’ve taken your shot at the insurers, now, if you’re serious about reducing costs, let’s look at the hospitals.

Interestingly the AHIP report acknowledges that hospitals and other providers of medical care need to make up for underpayments by government health programs. In California, between 2000 and 2009, hospitals charges to health plans rose by 159 percent. This is more than twice the rate of increase for Medicare and eight times the increase hospitals received for Medi-Cal – the state’s version of Medicaid.

Needless to say the hospitals didn’t appreciate AHIP pointing this out. “It’s really tough for a pot to call a kettle black,” the Sacramento Bee reports Scott Seamons, the regional vice president for the Hospital Council of Northern and Central California. I don’t know if Mr. Seamons intended to acknowledge that hospitals are at least as much at fault for rising insurance premiums as carriers, but if the insurance companies are the pot and the hospitals the kettle, that is what he’s saying. If so, that would be a refreshing dose of frankness to the dialogue. Meanwhile, consumer groups, not unexpectedly, accused the AHIP of trying to shift the blame for rising premiums. Apparently they can’t accept that anything other than insurer greed and profiteering drives insurance premiums. Any correlation with hospital charges or medical inflation are merely accidental.

All of this rhetoric and accusing is standard issue among advocacy groups and trade associations. And if all that comes out of the report are fingers among these usual suspects pointing at the usual places, then this report will have done little good. If, however, the study represents the beginning of a concerted effort to bring to the public’s attention what drives their insurance premiums; if it leads lawmakers to ask “why” hospitals needed a 159 percent rate increase over 10 years; if it gets people thinking about the monopoly position some hospital chains enjoy – and employ – in parts of the state, that’s something altogether different. Because if these possibilities become reality, the AHIP report may be seen as an important start to what will be a long, but critical, educational effort.

Governor Schwarzenegger Signs California Health Benefit Exchange Legislation

California became the first state to enact legislation creating an exchange under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on September 30th when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law AB 1602 (authored by Assembly Speaker John Perez) and SB 900 (by Senator Elaine Alquist). The two bills create the California Health benefit Exchange. In signing the bills Governor Schwarzenegger stated “Choice and competition have the power to improve health care quality and reduce health care costs for California consumers. With the California Health Benefit Exchange, we will be able to create a competitive marketplace where consumers can choose among qualified health plans – all without relying on the state’s General Fund.”

The five-person Board created by the legislation are tasked with creating an exchange to present health plan options to individuals and small businesses beginning January 1, 2014. Concurrent with Governor Schwarzenegger’s signing of the bills, the Obama Administration announced a $1 million grant to the state “to fund the costs of preliminary planning efforts related to the development of the Exchange.” Further federal funds are expected to become available to the California Health Benefit Exchange in 2011. After 2014 the Exchange is designed to be supported entirely from fees paid by health plans and insurers, meaning no general revenues will be allocated to the entity.

Some carriers supported the legislation; others urged the Governor to veto it. The concern of many opponents was the power given to the Exchange’s Board to exclude accept or exclude carriers from the Exchange. The fear, which is demonstrated on a weekly basis by local, state and federal agencies every day, is that the Board will use the carrot of being included in the Exchange as a lever to dictate what insurers do (and what plans they offer) outside the Exchange. Giving this power to an independent Board (one that is exempt from significant oversight by the legislative or executive branches of government) is seen as a threat to the private marketplace.

Supporters argue that this power is essential if the Exchange to going to fulfill the desired (and desirable) goal of negotiating lower health insurance premiums for consumers and businesses buying through the Exchange.

Brokers have had another concern about AB 1602 and SB 900. The federal health care reform envision exchanges that include “navigators” to help consumers and business owners explore their health insurance options. However, the PPACA leaves it to states to define the actual specifics of the navigator role. Will they simply be a “help desk” answering questions about how to use the exchanges or will they be actively engaged in providing advice and guidance on which plan a consumer or business should select? The California laws leaves these details to the Exchange Board. What’s of concern, however, is that language that would have required the California Exchange’s navigators to be licensed was removed from the now-signed legislation shortly before it was passed by the Legislature.

And there’s a sentence in Governor Schwarzenegger’s press release touting his signing of AB 1602 and SB 900 that is at both once reassuring and of great concern. “The Exchange will work in partnership with agents and brokers, community organizations and other “navigators” to help consumers make informed decisions based on the price, quality and value.” While it’s reassuring the Schwarzenegger Administration recognizes that agents and brokers need to be involved with the Exchange, it’s of concern that they consider licensed professionals to be on an equal footing with unlicensed community organizations and others.

What will be important for the California Association of Health Underwriters, the leading organization representing independent producers, and other agent groups to work through with the Legislature and the Exchange Board is that there is a difference between licensed, regulated brokers and others. Each can play a role. When it comes to publicizing the Exchange and providing general advice about how to use it, non-licensed individuals and entities can play an important and valuable role. Helping consumers select the health plan that best suits their unique needs and then providing ongoing service to purchasers once they’ve obtained coverage, however, is best performed by licensed and regulated professionals.

The statement in the Governor’s press release is consistent with this division of labor, but only because it lacks details. Follow-up legislation and explicit regulations will be needed to assure consumers have access to qualified professionals. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners sees a continued role for brokers as an essential consumer protection. In a resolution adopted during their August 2010 meeting, the NAIC noted that “employers and consumers will need professional guidance even more in the future” as a result of health care reform. 

While Governor Schwarzenegger’s signing of AB 1602 and SB 900 directly impacts only Californians, other states are likely to study these bills as they contemplate the design of their own exchanges – another reason why legislation to clarify brokers’ role in the state’s Exchange should be introduced and enacted quickly in the next legislative session. So this California development could have repercussions across the country.

In some of the comments posted on this blog, some have suggested that Democratic states are likely to create anti-broker exchanges while more Republican states will create broker-friendly ones. This view, however, ignores the facts that Republican’s health care reform proposals are as those of Democrats to increase health care costs while undermining brokers’ role in the system. Consider Republican support for mandating carriers to offer health insurance coverage to all applicants (“guarantee issue”) and their opposition to requiring all consumers to purchase coverage (an “individual mandate”)  No surer recipe for skyrocketing health insurance costs exists than imposing guarantee issue without an individual mandate. Assuming lawmakers will do the right thing just because of the political party they are in is naive. What’s required is a strong political and educational push by people who understand the current system, who sees its flaws, and have practical and meaningful ideas on how to fix it. Put another way, brokers must stay involved and engaged regardless of which political party holds the majority of seats in their state’s legislatures.

Fortunately, there’s still time (even in California) to make a difference. As noted, CAHU is already working on needed changes to AB 1602 and SB 900. Meanwhile, the National Association of Health Underwriters is deeply involved in working with state legislatures and insurance commissioners to help them develop exchanges that implement the letter and spirit of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act while preserving consumers’ access to qualified, professional producers.

In any change of the consequence and complexity presented by health care reform there will be advances and setbacks. The nice thing about politics and legislation is there’s always another election and another legislative session coming up. The key is to avoid giving in to despair with each setback, but rather to persevere until one achieves the next advance.

California Exchange Legislation Greatly Flawed and Should be Vetoed

How states implement exchanges will have a tremendous impact on the efficacy of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. States can create exchanges that educate consumers, bring them innovative products, increase choice in the marketplace and encourage competition. On the other hand exchanges can be designed to drive consumers to handpicked carriers, stifle innovation, strangle competition, and reduce choice. Fashioning smart exchanges (that would be the first type mentioned) won’t be easy. Fortunately, states have time to get it right.

Which makes the California Legislature’s decision to create an exchange that will do more harm than good even more dismaying. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will need to decide whether to sign into law AB 1602 and SB 900 or veto the bills by September 30th (they can become law without his signature if he takes no action by that date). He should veto the bills and require the legislature to start over. There’s time and the need for a more thoughtful approach to California’s health insurance exchange.

AB 1602, authored by Assembly Speaker John Perez and SB 900, authored by Elaine Alquist, invests in a five member board the authority to create and operate the California Health benefit Exchange. The legislation law was supported by a broad coalition including Health Access, AARP, Blue Shield of California, Kaiser Permanente, Consumer’s Union and the SEIU. As originally drafted the legislation raised concerns, but took a more reasonable approach.

They were amended, however, in the last days before the California Legislature adjourned, in ways that will ultimately harm California consumers. The exchange board was given broad authority to set its own budget, sign contracts and create rules and regulations behind closed doors and without oversight. These concerns that are front-and-center in the efforts of the California Association of Health Underwriter’s and others to persuade Governor Schwarzenegger to veto AB 1602 and SB 900.

Other problems with the legislation is the empowerment of Navigators to assist consumers enrolling through the exchange. These individuals could wield great influence on individual’s purchasing decisions, but they are not required to be licensed. In addition, many are concerned that the exchange board could prevent independent brokers from participating in the exchange. Changes made at the last minute changed the legislation in ways that seem to run counter to a resolution recently enacted by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners which which calls on policy makers to “acknowledge the critical role of producers” and to include a role for them within exchanges.

Lawmakers need to determine the role of exchanges and strike a careful balance. Exchanges are generally regarded as a tool for simplifying the health insurance market. But simplify too much and through bureaucratic fiat as opposed to market demand, and the result will inevitably stifle innovation, depriving consumers of access to new and better plan designs.

Consider what would have happened had a five member board been empowered to determine product designs 10 years ago. Would they have created HSAs, one of today’s fastest growing types of health plans? Doubtful. And if they even considered the concept the decision would probably have been made on political grounds as much as economic ones. Would they have introduced value-based plans that reward consumers for visiting their doctors and taking healthy actions? Highly unlikely. (Full disclosure here, one of my consulting clients is SeeChange Health, a new insurance company that recently began offering just such value-based plans in parts of California).

AB 1602 and SB 900 empower the board of the Health Benefit Exchange a great deal of power to determine not just the types of plans offered within the exchange and which carriers can offer them, but also a tremendous amount of influence over what happens outside the exchange. One tremendous lever they’ll have to do so is their ability to determine, without public scrutiny or review, which insurers may participate in the exchange. They also have the ability to adopt major changes governing insurance coverage without public comment or legislative oversight.

Much has been written about how signing AB 1602 and SB 900 could be an an important part of Governor Schwarzenegger’s his legacy. Much has been written about how vetoing the exchange bills would reflect far better on the Governor’s service. Given his desire to fix what he frequently called “California’s broken health care system” the Governor no doubt would like to sign the legislation. And there’s nothing inherently wrong in giving the exchange board the ability to negotiate with carriers on behalf of those enrolling for coverage through the exchange. But those powers must be delegated in an appropriate way with an eye enhancing choice and innovation. AB 1602 and SB 900 fail to accomplish this.

All states need to be moving forward with creating their exchanges soon. It will take time to establish these operations, staff them and get them ready for business. However, lawmakers should also take the time necessary to get the legislation right. California lawmakers, in accepting last minute changes without public hearings, failed to do so. Starting over in January will still give them plenty of time to develop an exchange for the nation’s largest state that not only accomplishes the goals of such exchanges, but does so in a way that will nurture innovation over time.

What if California Had Passed Health Care Reform?

California lawmakers recently passed a budget that, at least on paper, may, perhaps close the $42 billion shortfall the state faces in this and the next fiscal year. The budget was due before July 2008. So it was a bit less than eight months overdue. One of the methods required to close the gap was to reduce funding to some of the state’s neediest citizens.

Lawmakers inability to find a budget compromise in a timely fashion and in such a cruel fashion speaks volumes about a dangerous and dysfunctional political system. It brings into question whether California lawmakers can be trusted with something as critical to its citizens as the nature of its health care system, which would have happened had California enacted Assembly Bill X1-1 last year. Given the state’s current economic and political problems, what would have happened had health care reform passed in early 2009?

ABX1-1, you may recall, passed the Assembly, was supported by the Governor, but was defeated in the Senate early last year. A major reason for its demise was a Legislative Analyst’s Office Report on ABX1-1 that raised serious concerns about the state’s ability to implement the reform package within the $14 billion price tag touted by its supporters, primarily Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. then Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and then President Pro Tem Don Perata. Using what it considered to be optimistic assumptions of the bill’s sponsors, the LAO concluded the plan would be running a deficit of $300 million. Using more conservative (and what the LAO called, more realistic assumptions), it estimated the health care plan would be running a deficit of $1.5 billion in it’s fifth year and have run up a cumulative deficit of $4 billion during it’s first half-decade of operation.

Supporters of the health care reform bill protested that the LAO report underestimated savings from fixing the state’s broken health care system. They relied on a study conducted by professor Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that demonstrated the reform package was a net financial plus for the state.

Yet the Gruber report made some questionable assumptions. The LAO report noted, for example, that the Gruber model “is not designed to estimate the effects of an economic slowdown on population responses” to the various elements of the reform.”  Translation:  if the economy tanks the Gruber analysis doesn’t work. That’s because, according to the LAO report, ABX1-1’s proponents assumed then current growth rates would continue over time. “For example, the cost of expanding Medi-Cal to adults was grown at the projected growth rate for current Medi-Cal expenses, while the wage-based employer fee was projected to grow at the projected growth rate for wages.”

But tank the economy did (and has). Time and again, the LAO report, delivered to the Legislature on January 22, 2008, warned against the danger of mis-predicting the future. “California is subject periodically to slowdowns in economic activity. During these times, unemployment often increases. This reduces the number of Californians with access to employer-provided healthcare. A recession similar to the one California experienced in the early 1990s could result in hundreds of thousands of Californians losing access to employer-provided health care, thereby increasing the costs for the [health care reform] plan.”

Statistics published by the California Economic Development Department puts this into context. In January 2008, when the LAO report was published, the state’s unemployment rate had been below six percent for three years, dipping below five percent in 2006. This compares to the state’s unemployment rate during the 1990s recession of more than nine percent during most of 1992 and 1993, peaking during several months at 9.9 percent. California’s current unemployment, at least during January 2009, was 10.1 percent. The worst case scenario the LAO warned against has arrived.

I don’t bring all this up to deny the need for substantial health care reform. For the state and national economies to recover sooner-than-later, substantial changes to the health care system are necessary. In times of economic dislocation like we are experiencing now, the human need for change in health care is especially acute and poignant. Unemployment is about more than data and statistics, it’s about neighbors and families in pain.

Nor am I raising this issue to gloat over the failure of ABX1-1. A number of the reforms contained in that legislation would have significantly improved California’s health care system.

These statistics, however, point to several truths:

  1. Predicting the future is hard, if not impossible. Any reform package has to make assumptions about the economic environment years from now. And most likely, those estimates will be wrong.
  2. Meaningful health care reform must come from the federal government — state’s simply aren’t equipped to deal with it. This isn’t to say there aren’t good ideas emerging from the states. But they lack the tools needed to deal with unexpected problems. As California has ably demonstrated, states do a poor job of facing economic challenges. They can’t deficit spend. The federal government has a tough time influencing the economy; states simply can’t.

Think about the budget drama of the past eight months. Now think about a health care structure upon which the state’s residents depends being subject to this horrendous display of chaos. It’s more than scary. It’s a nightmare that eventually California — or any state — will likely face if it tries to tackle the complex issues of comprehensive health care reform aimed at achieving anything close to universal coverage. Until states can print money, they will be incapable of shepherding their health systems through economic times like these.

America’s economy will recover. It’s only a matter of time and hard work. The nation’s health care system can be reformed into a truly American-style system that achieves universal — or nearly universal — coverage. It’s also a matter of time, hard work as well as of smart politics able to find common ground among competing factions. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

No one during the debate over ABX1-1 could have anticipated what’s happened to the economy. The LAO warned against the potential, but even they did not declare this situation likely. Yet here we are. If ABX1-1 had passed the California fiscal crisis would be even worse than it is. And the state’s lawmakers would have been unable to face the challenge.

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.

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.

Do Schwarzenegger Vetoes Signal a Push for Comprehensive Reform in 2009?

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a host of health care reform bills on Tuesday. Some of them were to be expected. For example, he struck down Senate Bill 840, Senator Sheila Keuhl’s attempt to create a government-run, single payer system in the state. The Governor has been on record as opposing this approach for years and has vetoed the concept in the past. His vetoes of several bills requiring medical plans to include coverage for certain conditions is also consistent with his previously stated opposition to coverage mandates.

But there were lots of surprises on the list, too. Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation that would have made it far more difficult for carriers to insurance companies to rescind an insured once they’ve accepted an application for individual or family coverage (Assembly Bill 1945 by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre. No carrier practice has garnered more negative press — and bigger fines — than rescission. From a political point of view, AB 1945 was a soft ball. Yet Governor Schwarzenegger struck it down.

He vetoed legislation (Senate Bill 1440 by Senator Keuhl) to compel carriers to spend 85 percent of the premium they take in on medical care — even though this concept was contained in the unsuccessful comprehensive health care reform package the Governor was pushing for last year. The same fate befell Senate Bill 973 by Senator Joe Simitian that would have created a statewide public insurer to link together existing regional and county-based health plans even though it too was similar to a portion of the Governor’s own reform plan.

Governor Schwarzenegger’s veto of Assembly Bill 2 by Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally was especially surprising. It would have expanded the ability of the state’s existing high risk pool to help more Californians unable to qualify for coverage in the private marketplace due to pre-existing health conditions.  The program needs significant help to continue to meet its mission. He also vetoed Senate Bill 981 by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata which would have prohibited “balance billing” by doctors and other care providers.

The Governor had his reasons for keeping these bills from becoming law. His veto message concerning AB 1945 deplored the practice of unfair rescission and listed consumer-protection provisions he would want to see in legislation dealing with the issue. But he noted that AB 1945 was “written by the attorneys that stand to benefit from its provisions” and would lead to unwarranted litigation. Similarly, he preferred a different solution to the problem of balance billing than the approach embodied in SB 981.

Vetoes of this type, over approaches to solving problems, are common. They represent legitimate policy and political differences. The Legislature, for example, considered several bills addressing recission. They could have worked with the Governor’s office to fashion a compromise that he would sign. That didn’t happen. The veto did.

But it’s Governor Schwarzenegger’s rationale for vetoing AB 2, SB 1440, and SB 973 that best illuminates what’s in store for California concerning heatlh care reform. In all three of his veto messages, Governor Schwarzenegger made clear he wants comprehensive health care reform. Piecemeal and incremental changes are unacceptable.

I’ve written previously about why state health care reform efforts usually fail. In my mind, meaningful and comprehensive reform will need to come from Washington. And while enacting such reform has been greatly complicated by the current financial crisis, it still remains near the top of the domestic agendas for both Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama.

If the new Congress and the next Administration succeed in enacting dramatic health care reforms, it could preempt laws and regulations at the state level. To me, this suggests the efforts of California’s leaders might best be spent in helping to shape what happens in Washington, DC. Governor Schwarzenegger apparently disagrees.

Governor Schwarzenegger’s vetoes make clear he intends to pursue a California solution. It’s not just what the veto messages say, it’s their political impact that is important. They keep pressure on lawmakers to enact substantial reform. His opponents, for example, will be unable to call for a “time out” on further changes to the system while the new laws are given a chance to work. His allies, while angry at the vetoes, will work all the harder to get their pet reforms enacted.

In some significant ways, the potential for success is greater in 2009 than it was in 2008. Governor Schwarzenegger will be negotiating with a new cast of Legislative Leaders.  He will will be working with a relatively new Legislature, many of whom will have no scars with from his previous effort. Yet, unlike in 2007 when he launched the Year of Health Care Reform, a year in which, for most of it, the Governor offered only general principals, in 2009 he can use his defeated reform legislation, Assembly Bill X1-1, as a detailed starting point.

Certainly, the task won’t be easy. It may even be impossible. The state’s finances are in shambles and health care reform is expensive.

But there’s a legacy to be attended to. Plus, the Governor does not like to lose and the defeat of ABX1-1 was both visible and painful. His vetoes are a clear signal of where he’s headed. Expect 2009 to be the Year of Health Care Reform. Again.

Single Payer Losing Ground

This should be the best of times for advocates of a single payer health care system in America. The environment for radical change has never been better. After years of hammering at problems in the current system, there is general agreement on the need for substantial change. When asked what single issue will most impact their vote for president, a substantial number of voters have consistently cited health care according to the Kaiser Health Tracking Polls. For example, in the August 2008 survey, 16% cited health care as their determinative issue, ranking this concern behind only the Economy (49%), Iraq (25%) and and Gas Prices 18%). Significantly, health care reform is a critical part of the economy and 24% of the respondents said paying for health care and health insurance was a serious problem. 

Meanwhile, legislation to create a single payer system has been introduced in Congress and several states. In California, the Legislature passed a bill to create a state-run health plan:(Senate Bill 840 by Senator Sheila Kuehl. (It currently is awaiting a veto by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Given all this momentum for radical change, you would think a government-run system would be a major issue in the presidential campaign, yet it’s not. Clearly, Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee is not going to support a single payer system. What’s significant, however, is that Democrats are not advocating this approach either. Neither the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama. nor his chief rival through the primary season, Senator Hillary Clinton, called for a government takeover of America’s health care system. Even the Democratic Party platform rejects a single payer system.

The 2008 Democratic National Platform, Renewing America’s Promise, gives its approach to heath care reform considerable prominence. Here’s some meaningful excerpts from the document:

“Democrats are united around a commitment that every American man, woman and child be guaranteed affordable, comprehensive healthcare.”

Our vision includes: Covering All Americans and Providing Real Choices of Affordable Health Insurance Options.  Families and individuals should have the option of keeping the coverage they have or choosing from a wide array of health insurance plans, including many private health insurance options and a public plan. Coverage should be made affordable for all Americans with subsidies provided through tax credits and other means.”

Shared Responsibility. health care should be a shared responsibility between employers, workers, insurers, providers and government. All Americans should have coverage they can afford; employers should have incentives to provide coverage to their workers; insurers and providers should ensure high quality affordable care; and the government should ensure that health insurance is affordable and provides meaningful coverage. As affordable coverage is made available, individuals should purchase health insurance and take steps to lead healthy lives.”

Meaningful Benefits. Families should have health insurance coverage similar to what Members of Congress enjoy.”

This is not the language of single payer advocates. Yes, the Democrats call for coverage for all Americans that is “similar to what Members of Congress enjoy.” And they want to protect Americans from “the burden of skyrocketing premiums, unaffordable deductibles or benefit limits that leave them at financial risk when they become sick.” So we’re not talking about a “hands-off” approach here.

But we’re also not talking about a single payer system. Advocates of SB 840 claim as one of its chief benefits the elimination of health insurers and HMOs. That’s a long way from the platform’s call for “keeping private health insurance options” available.

There will be robust debate in Washington concerning health care reform. As I’ve written previously, a bipartisan coalition of Senators is waiting for the new president with their own health care reform package. Single Payer advocates are not going away. They will throw their proposals into the mix, but this won’t change the reality: the Democratic nominee and his party’s platform have rejected the single payer approach.

So here’s the question: if single payer advocates can’t win when the political stars are so strongly aligned in their favor, will they ever win?

My take is that the stars are realigning in such a way to make the answer a resounding “no.” Over the next two-to-four years there is a real possibility that Congress and the new president will pass meaningful, comprehensive health care reform. That’s another two-to-four years in which the cracks in existing single payer systems around the world will deepen, broaden and become more apparent. Faced with a new alternative to what will increasingly be seen as a nonviable approach at hand being rolled out, single payer advocates won’t go away, but they won’t be successful either.