State Reform Issues More Incremental than Comprehensive

My personal belief is that comprehensive health care reform is more likely to come from federal action than anything the states do over the next couple of years. That’s certainly true in California where lawmakers are now focused on attacking specific problems rather than fixing the entire system. But the obstacles to state efforts are more than exhaustion, as I’ve written previously, states have limited resources and even more limited levers to exact change on systems as complex as the nation’s health care system.

Yet incremental reforms can make a difference, too, and several states have enacted or are considering interesting approaches. Aetna publishes a “Health Reform Weekly” it distributes to agents (among others) and their March 24th issue provided a roundup of state reform activity. I’ve taken the liberty of  reproducing much of it below. As you’ll see, with the exception of New Jersey — and to a lesser extent, Florida — these are hardly comprehensive efforts:

CONNECTICUT: Many of the health care measures approved by the Insurance Committee last week are focused on the high cost of health care. One of the committee-approved proposals would establish a wellness tax credit for small businesses; another would allow more flexibility to offer lower-cost health plans. Another proposal would allow municipalities to collaborate together to purchase health insurance. The House put forth the Healthy Steps Program, which permits the sale of reduced-mandate products, requires a cost-benefit analysis of mandates and establishes business tax credits for providing employees with health insurance. The Insurance Committee did not act on the “pay or play” health care tax bill, nor did it act on legislation that would dictate the provisions and terms included in the contracts between health insurers and physicians. Disposing of these proposals early in the session provides a boost to the business climate in Connecticut.

FLORIDA: Governor Charlie Crist’s “Cover Florida” plan for the uninsured passed out of its first committee last week and continues to move forward.Aetna has worked with the Governor’s office for several months on this proposal and has been successful in seeing a number of suggestions incorporated into this version. Health plan participation in the plan would be voluntary. Though Cover Florida still contains guaranteed issue language affecting participating plans, the plan would allow pre-existing condition exclusions as well as benefit limits.

GEORGIA: Action on the Georgia Medical Association’s prompt-pay proposal was postponed last week, but it may be acted on in committee this week.While it still contains language applying the prompt-pay requirements to self-insured plans, Aetna has been able to help reduce the bill’s impact by assuring health plans are not assessed penalties regarding prompt payment of claims unless they are below a 95 percent compliance standard. Also, the interest penalty has been reduced from 18 percent to 12 percent.

INDIANA: The Legislature adjourned the 2008 session on March 14. In recent weeks, an Assignment of Benefits bill died in the Senate.However, a “Silent PPO” bill made it through the process. After much negotiation, the industry supported the bill, which requires greater disclosure of information regarding the rental of PPO networks. The provider community attempted to include much more far-reaching, costly, and unnecessary items to the bill, but those were ultimately defeated.

MASSACHUSETTS: Commonwealth Choice health insurance premiums projected for this summer will average 5 percent more than last July’s rates.A state panel last week approved a contract to pay insurers about 10 percent more for each person enrolled in the subsidized insurance program starting July 1, making the lowest premiums in Commonwealth Care $39 a month to $116 a month. Insurers had asked for an increase of about 15 percent but agreed to less after weeks of negotiations. Under the contract, the state also would assume more of the financial risk if the enrollees were to use more medical care than expected. The Connector’s Executive Director John Kingsdale recently reported that more than 300,000 Massachusetts residents have enrolled who were previously uninsured. This large number suggests that the state’s official estimate of the number of uninsured (372,000) was low, so the cost of solving this bigger problem is going to be significantly more than originally thought (an estimated $869 million in FY ’09 instead of $725 million).

NEW JERSEY: Senators Joseph Vitale and Robert Singer and Assemblymen Neil Cohen and Lou Greenwald joined David Knowlton, President of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, last week in announcing a comprehensive health care reform initiative – the Vitale Plan – with the goal of achieving universal coverage in New Jersey.Phase One would feature a Kids First mandate requiring coverage of all children under 18; expansion of New Jersey Family Care to 200 percent of the federal poverty level; and small group and individual market reforms, including prior approval by the Department of Banking and Insurance for premium increases of more than 15 percent, an increase in MLR from 75 percent to 80 percent, and a requirement that insurers selling small group market products also sell in the individual market. Phase 2 would feature an individual coverage requirement, and establishment of a state-operated health insurance plan administered (ASO) by two insurance carriers. Projected costs for the first year total $28.8 million (of which $20.5 is for the children’s component), and funding is purportedly available at present in the form of surpluses totaling $180 million in the state’s Family Care and Medicaid Programs.

SOUTH DAKOTA: The Legislature adjourned its 2008 session on March 17.Recent legislative action includes passage of a transparency bill, which requires licensed hospitals to report charges for any procedure for which the hospital had at least 10 cases. The data will be reported to the South Dakota Association of Healthcare Organizations, which is required to develop a web-based system for making the information available to the public via a link from the Department of Health’s website. In addition, the law requires the dissemination of information about physicians’ charges for certain outpatient procedures.

TENNESSEE: The Tennessee Medical Association this week announced it now officially supports the “Silent PPO” legislation originally introduced by some individual providers.The bill closely follows the AMA model on this issue and contains significant restrictions on insurers’ ability to operate rental networks. Aetna is working with the industry to defeat this legislation.

State lawmakers are not going to ignore health care issues. Nor should they. But when it comes to substantial changes to the structure of health care and health care coverage in this country, the next president and the new Congress will need to take the lead.

Public and Private Sectors Facing Tough Health Care Decisions

I’ve written numerous times in this blog on what’s needed to achieve meaningful health are reform: increase access to health care coverage; and constrain escalating medical costs. The latter is the most important. If we don’t get control of health care costs we won’t be able to afford to provide access. Not only that, health care costs will vacuum resources away from other important societal needs.

There’s been some success in recent years on increasing access. The State Children Health Insurance Plan has resulted in coverage for millions of children that otherwise would likely to have gone without. Carriers have created innovative products that have proved popular with young people and those seeking catastrophic coverage. (There’s also been numerous disappointments during that time, when opportunities to expand coverage failed).

In fact, a substantial component of the uninsured could obtain coverage today. As Aetna CEO Ron Williams noted at a meeting of the Business Council in Florida last week, 20 percent of the uninsured are eligible for Medicaid and the state children’s health programs, but fail to enroll in those programs. In an article on the conference by Jason Szep of Reuters, Mr. Williams also noted that 10 percent of the nation’s 47 million uninsured are college students and “could be easily and relatively cheaply enrolled for health care insurance.”

At the same conference, Angela Braly, the CEO of WellPoint, called for expansion of programs aimed at children and low-income families. WellPoint estimates this could cut the uninsured by 25 million if all 50 states acted to cover all children and increasing eligibility for Medicaid.

It’s true that too many of those eligible for public programs fail to enroll in them. It’s true that some states have had success in requiring college students to have health care coverage. And it’s true that expanding children and low-income health programs would bring many of today’s uninsured into the system. The problem, however, is that these programs are under tremendous stress. The safety net that has assured health care for all is crumbling.

In Los Angeles, for example, there are plans to shut 11 health clinics to meet the county’s $195-$331 million budget deficit. According to the Los Angeles Times,  a majority of the Board of Supervisors opposes these closures, but simultaneously, health officials are drawing up contingency plans that would shutter all of the county’s health clinics — facilities that provide “more than 160,000 urgent care visits and nearly 180,000 specialty care visits a year, mostly from the uninsured and poor.”

Meanwhile, in Sacramento, doctors providing care to Medicaid patients will see their reimbursement rates cut by 10 percent as the state makes a mid-year adjustment to its hemorrhaging budget. As a result, fewer physicians are likely to accept new Medicaid patients or some may stop seeing program participants altogether.

America’s current health care system is already a mix of private and public health care programs. The private sector is under attack for its rescission practices, among other issues. The public sector is going broke and, even in the best of economies, seems unable to reach out to all those promised care.

What’s needed is a national dialogue about priorities. If Americans are serious about expanding coverage, they’re going to have to find a way to pay for it in good economic times or bad. And that means keeping it affordable. States should not balance their budgets by breaking their promise to those whom they promised coverage.

The private sector is also going to have to clean up its act. Behaving legally is not enough, they have to act right. Carriers need to act in ways that earns the public’s respect by demonstrating an appreciation of the critical role these enterprises play in society — a role that requires them to meet a higher standard than most corporations. Business as usual could mean no business at all.

There’s a strong demand among voters to change the country’s health care system. Given all that’s happening, that’s not surprising. And, given all that’s happening, it’s not going to be easy, either.