Compromise on Public Health Plan Not Easy to Find

If Congress is to enact comprehensive health care reform on anything approaching a bi-partisan basis, Democrats are either going to have to jettison their calls for creating a public health care plan to compete with private insurers or fashion a compromise that makes such a government-run plan acceptable. This won’t be easy.

Last week, 17 Senators  signed a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Edward Kennedy insisting that a public health plan needed to be a part of any health care reform package.  The 16 Democrats and one independent argued that “There is no reason to believe that private insurers alone will meet the public purpose of ensuring coverage for all Americans at affordable prices for taxpayers.” According to The Hill, the originator of the letter, Senator Sherrod Brown, told reporters that “A public plan option ‘would provide competition to the sometimes dysfunctional private insurance market.'”

Seventeen Senators is a significant block of votes, especially when they’re expressing the position of the Obama Administration as well. Yet Republicans are, thus far, united in their opposition to a government-run plan.  And not all Democrats are sold on the idea, either. The New York Times counts Democratic Senators Ben Nelson and Arlen Specter as among those expressing “reservations about a public plan.” If these and other moderate Senators object to the public plan, their liberal colleagues will be faced with the need to either give in on the issue or give up on comprehensive health care reform.

Thus the search for common ground.

The New York Times reports Senator Charles Schumer is attempting to do just that. The article  is indispensible reading as Senator Schumer’s was asked to search for a compromise by Finance Chair Baucus. Senator Schumer identified four principles that might make a public health insurance plan acceptable to moderates:

  • “The public plan must be self-sustaining. It should pay claims with money raised from premiums and co-payments. It should not receive tax revenue or appropriations from the government.
  • “The public plan should pay doctors and hospitals more than what Medicare pays. Medicare rates, set by law and regulation, are often lower than what private insurers pay.
  • “The government should not compel doctors and hospitals to participate in a public plan just because they participate in Medicare.
  • “To prevent the government from serving as both “player and umpire,” the officials who manage a public plan should be different from those who regulate the insurance market.”

This approach was echoed, with less specificity, during testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee by the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sabelius. According to The Wall Street Journal, she told a Congressional  Committee, “What I can assure is that it can be done as a level playing field.” The key, she went on to say, is how the program is set up. “It is about the rules that are established at the beginning.”

But there’s the rub. The rules in the beginning are not necessarily those that apply long term. California had a government managed health plan competing with private carriers in the small group market not all that long ago. The Health Insurance Plan of California (HIPC) was created by AB 1672 as part of a comprehensive small group health care reform package. The HIPC operated under many of the prinicples put forward by Senator Schumer. Ultimately the HIPC, which was spun off from the government and became the PacAdvantage, failed.

Yet almost immediately after it’s creation, legislators from both sides of the aisle put forward proposals to buttress the plan by giving it special status. Government, regardless of the party in charge, when seeking to build new programs, tends to look to existing programs as a foundation. Which means the level playing field promised by Secretary Sabelius may not last long. The principles enunciated by Senator Schumer may not last. As with any public program, once a government run health plan is in place, the rules that apply can be changed at any time. And someone is likely to try.

This doesn’t mean the search for a compromise shouldn’t continue, but  it highlights the difficulty involved. Unless the restrictions on the public plan aimed at preventing it from gaining an unfair advantage in the market are strong and long lasting, any compromise will simply be a milestone on an inevitable journey.

Obama Search for a Public Health Plan Compromise a Good Omen

One of the most contentious issues in the current health care reform effort wending its way through Washington, D.C. concerns whether the government should offer a health plan in competition with private carriers. To oversimplify the controversy: supporters argue it will help bring prices down and keep private insurers honest while opponents argue it will unfairly compete, driving private health plans out of business. Both sides are preparing for a no-holds barred fight over the issue. (For more on this topic, please see earlier posts here and here).

The Associated Press is reporting today that President Barack Obama will be seeking a compromise on the issue. The Associated Press describes Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform, as stating that “a public plan could be designed to address concerns about the federal government overreaching in its role.” One example given by Ms. DeParle is that “a public plan could pay hospitals and doctors rates that are similar to what private insurers pay — addressing fears that government would use its powers to dictate low rates that private plans can’t compete against.”

Because the government plan could be operated without the need to make a profit and would have lower administrative costs, Ms. DeParle argues such an arrangement could still work to lower the cost of health care coverage. However, there are already non-profits in the health care system. Many Blue Cross Blue Shield plans are non-profit and so is Kaiser Permanente. The Obama administration will need to demonstrate that they will be more non-profit than the other non-profits.

Whether the government can run a health plan more efficiently than private enterprise (whether for-profit or non-profit) has yet to be seen. That didn’t seem to be the case with California’s experiment, the Health Insurance Plan of California. And since government programs tend to look at distribution costs for savings, putting the focus on reducing administration costs doesn’t necessarily bode well for health insurance agents. Whether these savings are real or a mirage will be the topic of much debate. Agents will have a chance to argue their value to the system and statistics of all kinds will be plentiful. But the good news is that there will be a debate.

It’s still early in the debate. What I take away from Ms. DeParle’s comments is that the Obama Administration is aware of the dangers posed by a government-run competitor and are open to a constructive dialogue on the issue. That’s a hopeful sign. In a previous administration (one that rhymes with “Clinton”) there was little talk of compromise. The Obama Administration’s approach doesn’t guarantee common ground will be found, but it’s willingness to try to find it is as significant as it is welcome.