A critical health care reform compromise seems to have emerged from negotiations between five liberal and five moderate Democratic Senators (the so-called “Gang of 10”). They are putting forward a compromise that eliminates (or at least postpones) the creation of a government-run health plan while allowing Americans 55 through 64 years of age to purchase Medicare and tasking the Office of Personnel management to administer a program offering coverage through non-profit, private health plans. Of course, as with anything as complicated as health care reform, a solution or compromise on one issue creates new ones elsewhere – think of trying to flatten a partially inflated balloon. Push down on one part and the air pops up in another.
As I noted the other day, expanding Medicare is an idea that appeals to both liberals and conservative Democrats. For example, former Governor Howard Dean, a leading and vocal advocate for a government-run health plan called the compromise “a positive step forward” on the CBS’ “The Early Show.” Meanwhile, Senator Joe Lieberman, who had threatened to support a filibuster of any health care reform plan containing a public option signaled the compromise might be acceptable. According to MSNBC Senator Lieberman said he was “’open- minded’ about the deal” and indicated he was encouraged by what he’s heard so far about the compromise. In other words, he’s pretty much on board.
Senator Reid will be submitting the Gang of 10’s compromise to the Congressional Budget Office where its financial impact will be determined. In the interim, it’s worthwhile asking some questions about the impact of elements of the health care reform compromise as it is in the details that the devil likes to linger.
For example, how will allowing 55 through 64 years old enroll in Medicare impact private health insurance premiums? It is widely accepted that Medicare often pays doctors, hospitals and other providers less than the actual cost of the care they provide. For example, “payment levels for hospital services under Medicare are equal to only about 71 percent of what is paid by private health plans for the same service,” according to a study by the Lewin Group. Medical care providers make up for the Medicare reimbursement shortfall by charging more to their insured patients. This cost shifting is reflected in higher health insurance premiums.
To the extent the 55-through-64 year olds signing up for Medicare previously were insured by private carriers the amount of dollars being shifted to private insurance will increase and the number of privately insured consumers absorbing this cost will decrease. The result, upward pressure on health insurance premiums.
However, to the extent that these new enrollees were previously uninsured it will reduce the cost of private coverage. Right now virtually all the costs incurred by the uninsured are shifted to private carriers. If Medicare pays for 71 percent of these expenses that’s 71 percent less in losses providers need to shift to their insured patients. How these two consequences balance out is as yet unknown – and may not be knowable until after the fact. But lawmakers should be aware of these consequences.
There’s another detail of the compromise potentially offering affordable housing to the devil. Alison, a regular reader of this blog, pointed out a provision that would require private carriers to spend at least 90 percent of premiums on medical care. Forcing carriers to spend a high percentage of premiums on medical costs is one of those proposals that: 1) sounds great; and 2) emerges with the regularity of ground hogs in Pennsylvania in February. And it’s a seriously flawed proposal.
Consider: requiring carriers to maintain a specified medical loss ratio (as the percentage of premium spent on claims is called) could reduce the availability of low cost plans. It costs just as much to process claims for a plan costing $300 per month as it does for one with a monthly cost of $100. If these fixed costs amount to $15, they represent 15 percent of the lower cost plan’s premium, but only 5 percent of the premiums for the more expensive plan. Need to get your medical loss ratio (as the percentage of premium spent on claims is called) to 10 percent? Raise your premiums. It’s counter-intuitive, but do the math and you’ll see the danger.
There are several other potential dangers from requiring a high and specific medical loss ratio. Economic swings or flu outbreaks (or the lack of expected flue outbreaks) can greatly alter the percentage spent on claims. So can government-imposed mandates to cover certain conditions. Private carriers pay taxes and need lawyers to deal with government regulation. These costs are beyond their control, but they tend not to increase over time (taxes and regulations have a nasty habit of piling up), meaning these uncontrollable costs are likely to absorb funds needed for truly administrative costs – like answering the phone. Answering the phone, of course, speaks to customer service, a likely victim of mandated loss ratios.
And setting the medical loss ratio at 90 percent would certainly eliminate broker commissions. Brokers would either need to charge fees directly to clients (if that’s permitted) or go away, leaving consumers bereft of independent advocates and counselors.
The good news is that just because a provision is in the compromise doesn’t mean it will be part of the final legislation. Or that it can’t be improved upon before reaching President Obama’s desk. When California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed an 85 percent medical loss ratio in his 1997 health care reform plan, lawmakers recognized the potential pitfalls. The provision was amended to make clear, for example, that taxes and disease management programs would be part of the claims side of the ledger. Eventually a workable compromise was was reached. (The bill did not pass the Legislature, however).
Of course, fixing California’s version of a mandated medical loss ratio didn’t happen of its own accord. Many interested parties, including the California Association of Health Underwriters, expended considerable effort to educate lawmakers about the implications of this provision. An effort of similar magnitude will be required to make sure that the devil is unable to take up residence in the details of the health care reform compromise shaping up in Washington.