The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee worked hard to produce a final draft of its health care reform legislation before Congress adjourned for the July 4th holiday. It made substantial progress, but failed to complete work some key elements, including those related to a government-run health plan and a requirement that employers obtain coverage for their workers. However, the broad outlines of their approach to a public plan are taking shape.
As I posted last month, the Senate HELP Committee and its chair, Senator Edward Kennedy, seemed intent on anchoring the left on several provisions, including a public health insurance plan. When first proposed, the government-run plan would be permitted to limit doctor and hospital payments to just 10 percent above those paid by Medicare. This would still have resulted in payments less than the providers’ actual costs in many instances, resulting in a cost shift to the private plans. This would create a tremendous premium gap between the private carriers and the public plan with the inevitable result that, eventually, the government plan would be the only carrier remaining.
Republicans and some moderate Democrats have made it clear that this chain of events is unacceptable. The response of the Senate HELP Committee is intriguing. Instead of simply ramming through their initial provision, they seem to be trying to dress it up as more moderate. According to Bloomberg.com the committee will now call on the public plan to abide by “the same rules for defining benefits, protecting consumers and setting premiums ‘that are fair and based on local costs.'” Although the government would pay the first three months of [the public plan’s] claims, these “would be considered a loan to be repaid over time,” according to Bloomberg. The government-run plan would be empowered to pay providers up to the “local average private rates.”
While this might sound like a retreat from their original position, it’s less movement than it is meant to convey. The public plan may pay up to the average rates paid by private carriers in a community, but it can also pay less. The Secretary of Health and Human Services would negotiate the reimbursement schedule. The Secretary is a political appointment of the President. Regardless of which party controls the White House, does anyone think the Secretary would — or should — seek to settle for the maximize payment amounts? If so, that anyone has not paid attention to what Democratic and Republican Administrations have done to Medicaid and Medicare providers.
Another fig leaf: although the public plan would be expected to pay its own way (after initial seed money) it would also be eligible for “‘risk corridor protections’ to offset or reclaim excessive losses,” reports Bloomberg. In other words, if the artificially low premiums it charges are not enough to pay its bills, a bailout from the federal government is already in place. Maybe I’m missing something, but recipients of bailouts are, by definition, not paying their own way.
What’s matters about all this is not that the Senate HELP Committee’s compromises are insubstantial, but that Democrats on the committee felt the need to compromise at all. It is a clear sign that support for a government-run health plan is waning in the Senate. Continued talk in support of health insurance co-ops as a possible compromise underscores this reality. So does the intensity of public health plan advocates campaigns against moderate Democrats. These campaigns are facing tough going in some states. For example, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire blog reports that Senator Mary Landrieu continues to express reservations about a public option in spite television and radio advertising attacks on her by liberal groups like Move-on.org and Democracy for America. Senator Landrieu, through a spokes person, continues to be “committed to reforming the health care system and ensuring that all Americans are covered … but does not believe that healthcare reform starts with a public option. Senator Landrieu supports a predominantly private system that features a federal backup plan that serves as a safety net.” Co-ops could serve this safety net function.
There’s a long way to go before the final act and advocates of public health plans will win a few skirmishes between now and then. The need for fig leaves, however, underscores that, for now at least, they are in danger of losing the war.