Health Care Reform: This Decade’s Crux

There’s a lot of moving parts when it comes to comprehensive health care reform. The goal is bring down the overall cost of care while increasing access to as close to universal as is possible. When you’re dealing with spending that amounts to $2.4 trillion, roughly 17 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, it can’t help be anything but complicated. (These figures are from the National Coalition Health Care’s web site). There’s so many moving parts involved and so many parties impacted by each proposal that it’s almost too much for any one person to grasp it all — assuming maintaining one’s sanity is a priority.

Fortunately the political process tends to winnow the complexity down to a few basic conflicts. Partly this is because many aspects of any reform proposal are noncontroversial (is there anyone who opposed promoting wellness?) In part it’s because the country’s 24-hour news organizations don’t handle complexity well. They next clear cut conflict to keep the commercials from running together. Pictures of Democrats and Republicans arm-in-arm singing the praises of cutting waste and fraud don’t garner viewers. Seeing them in a verbal cage match does.

One of the conflicts focused on during last decade’s health care reform debate was the creation of mandatory purchasing pools. The Clinton Administration proposed requiring all Americans to sign-up with these pools which would contract with private carriers to offer specified (meaning government determined) health plans.

Proponents of this “managed competition” approach argued it would lower costs, allow Americans to own their coverage without regard to their employment status, and force health plans to compete on efficiency and service. Opponents saw it as a government takeover of health insurance with HMO bureaucrats being supplanted by government bureaucrats in an effort to eliminate choice, increase government spending and eventually lead to a single payer system.

That was then. Now it appears the big fight will be over voluntary health exchanges. The idea here is that, if you’re happy with the health insurance you have, keep it. If you’re not, get your coverage from the exchange. That coverage, at least for now, is promised to be comparable to what members of Congress receive.

By having a horse in the race, so to speak, the government could assure a truly competitive market. Private carriers would be able to innovate and compete as they do now, but there’s be a new player on the field (to mix metaphors). That would prevent competition based on gaming the system and focus it on price, service, and meeting the needs of the public.

To advocates like former Vermont Governor and past Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean (who’s also a doctor) having a government alternative in the market is critical. According to Greg Sargent in his The Plum Line blog, Governor Dean is forming “Stand With Dr. Dean” to serve as a grass roots effort to push for inclusion of a public insurance option in whatever reform emerges in Washington. “We’re saying that if the public option is not included, it’s not real health care reform,” Sargent quotes a Dean-ally as saying.

At the same time, Republicans in Congress, most noticeably Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking GOP member on the Senate Finance Committee, is saying a government competitor in the market is unacceptable. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, opponents are concerned that if the government pool becomes too large, it will “drive down reimbursements to doctors and hospitals, much like Medicare does. To remain solvent those providers would need to increase the costs they charge private carriers forcing them to raise prices. Eventually this would force private carriers out of business, leaving only the government-run plan. In other words, creating a public plan creates a slippery slope leading to a single payer system.

Whether this scenario comes to fruition or not, there is a high likelihood that rules and regulations would emerge to benefit the public plan. To continue mashing sports analogies, when the umpire steps up to the plate, he’s rarely called out on strikes. Maintaining a level playing field could be impossible when one of the participants in the game is entrusted with setting and enforcing the rules. It’s worth noting that the Securities and Exchange Commission regulates stock markets, but it doesn’t sell stocks.

Whether or not there should be a voluntary federal health insurance exchange is an important issue, one of many important issues. It is rapidly becoming, however, one of the few defining issues of this decade’s health care reform debate. There will be others, but how this one is handled will say a great deal about the political process that will shape the ultimate health care reform package. If the debate over a public plan is civil and reasoned, it holds out hope for a compromise solution that takes into account multiple views. If a solution is rammed through Congress the hopes for bi-partisan health care reform will fade rapidly.

That’s the crux of the matter.