States and Health Care Reform

Health insurance has long been a state affair in the USA. Insurance companies were even exempt from many aspects of federal anti-trust law to better enable state regulators to oversee their activities. Yes, there were federal laws that standardized certain aspects of the business—think HIPAA and COBRA. Think about Medicaid, Medicare and SCHIP while you’re at it. But when it came to health insurance regulation the states reigned supreme.

Enter Congress and President Barack Obama stage left. With the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act the federal role in shaping and regulating health insurance shifted significantly to Washington, DC. The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services is now arguably the most important health insurance regulator in the country. The Department of Labor and Internal Revenue Service will also play significant roles in determining the future of the nation’s health insurance market and the choices (or lack of choices) Americans have to meet their health care coverage needs. No wonder critics of the PPACA condemn the law as a “federal takeover.”

That the nexus of health plan oversight has shifted to the federal government is beyond argument. The new health care reform law touches everything from how medical plans are designed, priced, offered, maintained and purchased. To conclude that state insurance regulators are shunted to the sideline, however, dangerously overstates the case. In fact, the PPACA invests tremendous flexibility in the states, allowing them to implement the federal requirements in what will likely be very divergent ways.

Rebecca Vesely, writing in Business Insurance, makes this clear in her article describing how two states, Vermont and Florida, are taking strikingly different paths in addressing health care reform. Vermont has taken the first step toward creating a single payer system by 2017. Legislation to set up a five member board to move the state in this direction has already been enacted. And while many details need to be worked out (funding, to name one) and Vermont will need to obtain a waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to put the package together, the state is further down the road to single payer than any other.

Then there’s Florida where the move is in the opposite direction. That state is seeking to shift virtually all of its Medicaid population from government coverage into private plans starting in July 2012. These private managed care plans would be offered through large health care networks with health plan profits above five percent shared with the state. Whether this approach will achieve the $1.1 billion in first year savings promised by the Governor or not, it has brought new participants into the Medicaid marketplace such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida.

The Business Insurance article includes a prediction by Boston University law professor Kevin Outterson that the Obama administration will sign off on the waivers Vermont and Florida need to move forward.

What the starkly different approaches to reigning in skyrocketing health care costs being taken by Florida and Vermont demonstrates is the broad flexibility states retain in shaping their own health care destiny. Yes, federal waivers are required, but that would be the case even if the PPACA had never passed—Medicaid is a federal program after all. The CMS web site lists 451 state waivers or demonstration projects in place today. The concept of allowing experimentations and exceptions is ingrained in the Medicaid program just as they are in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. There’s nothing wrong with this any more than having shock absorbers on a car is an indictment of an automobile’s chassis or tires.

The marked variation in approaches being taken by Vermont and Florida are extreme examples of what we’ll see as states implement exchanges and other aspects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Of course, whether this is good news or bad news depends a great deal on the state in which you live and work. States that are heavily tilted toward one party or the other (I’m looking at you California and Wisconsin) could make some of their residents yearn for the federal government to step in and keep things in perspective. Given the way the PPACA preserves state powers, however, they are going to be disappointed.

Dealing with Changing Change

The folks over at American Health Line are doing a series of guest posts discussing health policy developments over the the past year and what’s likely to happen in 2011. I was honored to be asked to participate and my contribution was posted today. Entitled “The Plot Will Thicken” it expresses my viewpoint that health care reform will continue to evolve over the next few years and especially in 2011. This doesn’t mean that every change will be for the better (which is an easy prediction to make since, depending on your perspective, what is “for the better” may be “for the worse.”) But it does mean what we think the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will do may not be what it actually does.

One reason is that the impact of the PPACA will vary to a significant extent by where you live and work. This aspect of the health care reform package hasn’t received a great deal of attention. While the PPACA is a federal law (two laws if you’re being technical — HR 3590 and HR 4872) state regulators and lawmakers will be responsible for its implementation. For example, Congress requires each state to have a health insurance exchange up-and-running by 2014 or have the Department of Health and Human Services run one for them. In the health care reform package they described in broad terms what those exchanges are supposed to do and how they’ll operate. The operative word here, however, is “broad.” States will determine whether all health plans will be eligible to participate in their exchanges, the role of navigators and brokers, the ability for consumers to enroll directly with a carrier directly through the exchange, and a lot more.

What the states decide on these questions will vary considerably. In California we’re seeing a push for a heavy government-hand in the marketplace.  In other states the exchanges are likely to have a lighter touch, adopting the role of an information resource rather than negotiating with carriers. Regardless of the approach, the states will comply with federal requirements, but their impact on the market and stakeholders will vary considerably.

Another reason the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will continue to evolve is the political reality that the Congress convening in 2011 is far different from the Congress that passed HR 3590 and HR 4872 in 2010. The impact of Republican gains — at both the state and federal levels — cannot be ignored. Nor can the shadow that is already being cast by the 2012 presidential election.  

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives will try to repeal the PPACA and they will fail, but that doesn’t mean they will be unable to influence how the reforms are implemented and interpreted. And it doesn’t mean Congress won’t attempt to modify aspects of the law. Doing so will not be easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible task.  We’re already seeing strong bi-partisan support for changing some elements of the law, for example, the 1099 reporting requirements. As more of the burdensome elements of the law become apparent the greater will be the pressure to make adjustments.

Then there’s the changes to the PPACA the courts may require. The judge in Florida hearing a suit brought by 20+ state attorneys general is likely to throw out the individual mandate contained — and he may find the entire law is unconstitutional. From a legal perspective this will be a non-event (except for providing a lot of lawyers the opportunity to appear on cable news channels). Other judges will uphold the law (and some already have). The Supreme Court will ultimately decide both of these issues. What will matter is the wind this decision will put in the sails of those seeking to amend the PPACA.

To assume that the law as we understand it today will remain as is over the next few years is to ignore the dynamic nature that is legislative and political change. Laws as complex and far-reaching as the PPACA are not set in stone. To be fair, they’re not set in sand either. They’re set in something more closely approximating Silly Putty. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one).

Even in California, one of the states that seemed immune to the conservative wave that swept across the rest of the country in the recent election, health care reform will evolve. There has been widespread concern among California brokers concerning their implicit exclusion from the exchanges. One reading of the law is that unlicensed navigators will perform the role of counseling consumers on the best health plan for their unique needs. Yet the board charged with running the exchange may realize the short-sightedness of this approach. I’m not saying they will. And until we see who is appointed to the board I wouldn’t bet on things getting better. Regardless, there will be a lot of folks (including CAHU and myself) working hard educate the exchange board, lawmakers and regulators concerning the value of brokers and how we can help achieve the shared goal of making health care coverage more affordable and accessible to Californians. Whether this effort will succeed remains to be seen — and its success if far from certain.

That health care reform will evolve doesn’t mean that brokers, providers and carriers (to name just a few of the groups impacted by the PPACA) should simply sit back and wait to see what happens. Brokers, for example, need to examine their business strategies, recognize that their world has changed and begin the process of adapting to it. Some readers of this blog (and we’ll no doubt hear from them in the comments section, below) are convinced that brokers specializing in the sale and service of individual policies are doomed to extinction and no amount of changes in the PPACA will change them. Given that reasonable people can disagree, others have expressed their intent to diversify into other product lines or market segments, but to continue to be fully engaged in the individual market.

How individual brokers (or physicians or carriers) respond to the changes resulting from implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will depend on their tolerance for risk, their ability and willingness to adapt, the nature of their current business, the state or states they operate in, and the like. What’s important for all of us to recognize, however, is that we need to keep an eye on those changes resulting from implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Because the changes will be changing, too.

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.

Cantwell Amendment Another Handoff to States

As the Senate Finance Committee concludes its mark-up of health care reform legislation an interesting dynamic is emerging: Senators are increasingly turning to the states to address some of the more pressing challenges the reform effort is designed to address.

Yesterday I wrote about a compromise being circulated by moderate Senator Tom Carper. The Carper Compromise would allow states to create government-run insurance programs, networks of co-ops or the like. That proposal has yet to be brought to the Senate Finance Committee and may not be. Instead, it could be offered later in the process as the Senate seeks to bridge the gap between the Finance Committee’s bill and legislation passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – which calls for a robust government-run plan.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee has adopted a proposal offered by Senator Maria Cantwell. which gives states the option “to negotiate with insurance companies for lower rates on health coverage policies for those living barely above the poverty line and provides federal dollars to pay for it,” according to the McClatchy news service. The Cantwell Amendment is modeled after a program currently in operation in Senator Cantwell’s home state of Washington and would benefit families between 133 percent and 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (up to $21,660 for individuals and $44,100 for a family of four). Senator Cantwell staff claims such plans could cover up to 30 million of the nation’s uninsured according to the Associated Press. This, of course, assumes that state’s out-reach efforts are successful in bringing those eligible for such a program into the system. There are millions of individuals eligible for existing programs like Medicaid and children health programs who remain unenrolled across the country.

Senator Cantwell’s amendment is not an alternative to the public option, the issue most dramatically dividing Democratic liberals from their moderate and conservative colleagues in Congress. Bridging that gap will require something along the lines of the Carper Compromise. (This doesn’t mean Senator Cantwell’s proposal wasn’t controversial. It was adopted on a 12-11 vote with Democrat Blanche Lincoln joining all 10 Republican members of the panel in voting against it).  What inclusion of the Cantwell Amendment in the Senate Finance Committee’s legislation does underscore is the likelihood Congress will be giving states a central role to play in making health care reform real.

The benefits of this approach include keeping health care decisions closer to consumers and allowing for different approaches to meet the differing needs of the states. One of the downsides to relying on states, however, is that it eliminates savings that might have been achieved by more uniform, national standards and regulations.

Another outcome of shifting responsibility and power to the states under health care reform: even after Congress completes its work, intense legislative battles will remain. Only the venue will move from Washington, D.C. to a state capital near you.

Health Care is Local

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously noted that “all politics is local.” And he’s right. He was not talking about the rules of the political game. Those are established by a national constitution and subject to state laws as well as local ones. He meant that the political dynamics of each district are what determines the ideological shading of a district.

Some examples are obvious: compare the voting record of legislators from Massachusetts and Utah. Others are less so: Republican Senator Charles Grassley had been a reasonable voice on health care reform until he remembered he was up for reelection in 2010 and saw how conservative Iowans were responding to unfounded claims of “death panels” and the like; he is now embracing aspects of the silliness.

Health care is local, too. The medical delivery system in Los Angeles looks far different from the one in Cheyenne. Even what’s considered standard treatment varies from community to community. And as Dr. Atul Gawande demonstrated in his New Yorker article, the cost of care varies greatly among localities based on medical provider’s approach to health care.

How the local nature of politics and health care interact underscores the complexity of health care reform. Because health care is local, what’s broken in the current system varies from place-to-place. Because politics and is local, acceptable solutions vary depending on locale. It may just be a coincidence, but it is worth noting that the initial advocate for community-based health insurance co-operatives, Senator Kent Conrad, hails from North Dakota where rural electricity co-operatives are common while many of those claiming only a government-run health plan will do represent urban areas.

Recognizing this dynamic, the the House Energy and Commerce Committee has described HR 3200’s impact on each Congressional District. (My thanks to Dwight Mazzone for bringing these documents to my attention). Reading through these is a glimpse of the richness and variety of America.

For example, in Wyoming (which has one Representative for the entire state) up to 19,000 businesses would be eligible for tax credits to pay for health insurance, 7,400 seniors would benefit from reducing brand name drug costs, much of the $23 million in uncompensated care hospitals and health providers face would be eliminated, and the tax surcharge to pay for reform would impact 3,120 households.

Compare this to the Los Angeles area district represented by Henry Waxman, the Chair of the Energy and Commerce. In California’s 30th District up to 14,300 businesses would be eligible for the subsidy, 5,200 seniors would see lower prescription costs, hospitals and other providers would be relieved of much of the $85 million in uncompensated care they deal with today, while 22,100 households would pay the tax surcharge.

The statistics cited come from legitimate sources, but are presented in order to muster support for HR 3200. Were the same information to be presented by House Republicans it would no doubt have a different spin. Nonetheless, the information is a treasure trove of insight into the local politics and health care that drives the health care reform debate.

These statistics should also give lawmakers demanding a single, one-size-fits-all solution to health care reform pause. As I’ve argued before, state health care reform efforts usually fail. America’s health care system is too large, too interrelated and too complex to be reformed on a state-by-state basis. States lack the tools needed to make meaningful changes work; the national government has those tools. However, the reforms themselves could benefit from local implementation. For instance, instead of creating one, national government-run health plan to compete with private carriers, enabling the creation of local health insurance co-operatives to generate competition where it is needed is more appropriate.

Finding the balance between federal and local management of health care is critical to a well-functioning medical system. It is also good politics.

Health Care Reform: Getting Ready for Crunch Time

For health care reform, the next few weeks will be critical. Congressional committees are poised to pass legislation (to put this in perspective, this never happened during the Clinton Administration’s reform efforts in 1993-94). President Obama and his aides will become even more engaged concerning the legislative language they would like to see Congress enact. Senate moderates will begin taking sides on critical issues. In short, this is when it all starts coming together. In the next few weeks, it will become clear if Washington will enact health care reform and, if so, what it will look like.

Events will move quickly, so I’m clearing out some short items that have been lingering in my “to blog” folder for awhile. They are a random assortment of items unlikely to become stand-alone posts. Taken as a whole, however, I hope they provide some useful background to the history about to unfold.

  1. Health care reform ideas are flying around the Capital in ever increasing numbers. Keeping track of them all can be a challenge. Good thing there’s the Kaiser Family Foundation’s health care reform proposal comparison tool. It makes comparing the entire plan or just particular issues across the various proposals simple.
  2. One of the plans we have yet to see details on will be presented in the next few days in the Senate Finance Committee. They are working hard to construct a legitimately bi-partisan proposal, which means it has the greatest likelihood of foreshadowing the legislation likely to emerge from Congress. To get an early taste of the coming debate in that committee, check out the dialogue between Senator Charles Grassley and Senator Charles Schumer on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
  3. I’m a fan of the FiveThirtyEight.com blog. The site applies rigorous math to political topics. Very rigorous math: it’s prediction of election outcomes during the presidential primaries and the general election were eerily accurate. The site has a left-leaning bias on some topics, but overall, its posts are more nerdish than ideological. Recently it did an interesting analysis on how campaign contributions may derail a public option plan. Of course, whether Senators vote a certain way because of the contributions they receive or they receive contributions because of the way they vote is an open issue (which, to his credit, the author acknowledges). But the issue of causality does not change his conclusion: unless the several stars fall into place, a public option is unlikely to be part of the final health care reform package.
  4. Need more evidence a government-run health plan is losing momentum? As noted last week, Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee feel the need to dress their public plan proposal in moderate clothing. Then there’s White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel making clear today the Administration is willing to accept legislation without a public plan. According to the Wall Street Journal Mr. Emanuel says “’The goal is to have a means and a mechanism to keep the private insurers honest. The goal is non-negotiable; the path is’ negotiable.”  Mr. Emanuel goes on to say creating a public plan only if the private market proves incapable of offering competition would be one acceptable solution.
  5. Is a government-run plan even needed for health care reform to be meaningful? Uwe Reinhardt, an economics professor at Princeton, uses the German health care system as evidence it is not. This is not to say that the German system is an appropriate model for the United States, but it does undermine the argument that health care reform will only work if the government is both referee and player.
  6. All the health care reform attention is focused on what’s happening in Washington. Some folks think this is a mistake. Instead, the federal government should simply enable states to pass their own reform plans. This would allow solutions to reflect local values and enable the best ideas to emerge over time. I disagree. States lack the levers of power necessary to reform something as complex and critical as health care reform. In a post from 2007 I cited an article by Ezra Klein describing the many failed state health care reform efforts. That doesn’t mean, however, that every health care decision needs to be made at the national level. Meaningful structural change — and the financing required to implement it – requires the federal government. Implementing those changes can be managed and administered at the regional, state or even local level.
  7. The status quo is on life support. Health care costs are rising faster than either general inflation or wages. (To see for yourself, check out Tom’s Inflation Calculator). We have the opportunity today to enact responsible, meaningful reform. Without such intervention, the current system will eventually deteriorate until unwise and extreme proposals make sense. Fortunately, what’s likely to emerge from the current debate will be determined by moderates. This doesn’t mean the reforms won’t be flawed, but it does mean that there’s a chance for responsible reform sooner rather than later.
  8. The advocates of a single payer system know that the status quo is unsustainable. It is why some of them will oppose whatever moderate reforms emerge from the current health care reform debate. They are like a doctor who sees surgery as the solution to every ailment. If the patient takes medication, and it works, they don’t get to cut. Similarly, if reasonable changes increase access to affordable, quality health care coverage and reduces overall spending, the need for a single payer solution vanishes.
  9. Meanwhile, back at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver crunches some poll result numbers and points out that moderates are disappointed with President Obama’s handling of health care reform. Whether these results show President Obama needs to get more specific in describing his health care reforms (as Mr. Silver concludes) or whether he needs to focus more on pushing the right health care reform, is something to ponder.

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.

The Need to Do Something — But SB 1440 Isn’t It

We elect politicians to solve problems. That’s their job. It’s what we pay them for. No one campaigns for office proclaiming their intent to accomplish nothing. There’s always some injustice to right. There’s always a mess to fix. So no one should be surprised that current lawmakers in Sacramento are desperate to do something about California’s health care system. After all, there are real problems in the current system.

But there’s a difference between lawmakers really addressing problems and simply looking like their addressing problems. Take Senate Bill 1440 authored by Senator Shiela Keuhl. The bill would require carriers to spend 85 percent of the premium they take in on medical care. As originally introduced, SB 1440 would have had a devastating impact on the individual health insurance market. It would have increased costs, decreased competition and made it nearly impossible for independent agents to assist consumers in finding the right plan for their needs.

Fortunately, SB 1440 has been substantially amended since its original introduction. As it reads today, the biggest problem with the bill is it requires carriers to segregate their Department of Managed Care regulated plans from those regulated by the Department of Insurance. While it’s not surprising regulators and legislators perceive these plans to be worthy of distinction, from a consumer’s point of view it’s a meaningless difference. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator Keuhl should address this issue in their negotiations concerning the legislation. But that’s not the overriding problem with SB 1440.

What’s wrong with SB 1440 is that it won’t lower premiums, which is the stated purpose of the bill. The Rand Corporation in a report by Neeraj Sood and Eric Sun titled “Health Insurance Premiums in California: The Role of Administrative Cost and Profits” examined the results of similar legislation in other states. They found states with no Medical Loss Ration legislation spend statistically the same percentage of premium as those that regulated the entire market (83 percent and 84 percent, respectively). While it’s true that states limiting the loss ratio of all coverage (individual, small group and large group) set targets at levels lower than the 85 percent called for by SB 1440, the report suggests consumers are unlikely to benefit from any premium savings.

The reason is that profits and administrative costs aren’t the problem with skyrocketing health care costs; it’s the price of medical treatment that drives premiums. The study found that 85 percent of the increase in revenue per enrollee between 2002 and 2006 was the result of medical costs.

Lawmakers could address 85 percent of the problem. But that’s hard work. It requires examining the drivers of increased medical costs and making tough decisions on how to reduce their rate of increase. It’s far easier (if less impactful) to go after health insurance companies and HMOs. Never mind that, as reported by the Rand study, the profits of California HMOs are less than the profitability of the companies comprising the S&P 500. The reality is that, along with oil and tobacco companies, they are about as easy a political target as exists.

So lawmakers will pass SB 1440 and declare a blow against rising insurance premiums. They may not be able to pass a budget, but they can teach those insurance companies a lesson. The fact that the legislation won’t have much, if any, impact on premiums is irrelevant. The fact that it won’t bring medical inflation down to general inflation levels doesn’t matter.

Because while we pay them for results, we have a tendency to elect lawmakers based on appearances. Which means the underlying problem remains.