Bypassing Health Care Reform Conference Committee Comes at a Cost

With the political decision made to skip a conference committee and use another, faster Congressional procedure, health care reform is moving along quickly. Congressional leaders, their staffs, and members of the Obama Administration have spent hours considering the differences between the versions of reform passed by the House and the Senate. According to Reuters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is claiming “Democrats were close to agreement … but still faced challenges in blending the two approaches.”

The streamlined approach being taken by Legislative leaders bypasses the more common approach to blending differing House and Senate bills: the conference committee. Instead of convening a group of Democrats and Republicans to hash out a single bill, the so-called “ping-pong” approach leaves negotiating a compromise in the hands of Legislative leaders (and/or their designees). While far less

The problem Democratic leaders have with the conference committee approach is the many opportunities it provides Republicans to score political points and delay the process – a political strategy GOP leaders have pledged to pursue. By using a procedure known as “messages between the Houses,” however, Democratic leaders can thwart the Republican strategy of delay. However, the procedural victory trades one set of political headaches for another. Republicans will claim that Democrats are ramming through partisan reforms without listening to the people (with “people” being defined as those who agree with the GOP and/or disagree with the Democrats). In that polls show a majority of Americans oppose a description of the Democratic health care reforms, that’s a lot of people.

Blogger Keith Hennessey does a great job of explaining the messages between the Houses procedure and the mechanics are pretty straightforward. Put simply: the Senate bill will be brought up on the floor of the House, considers and passes amendments on a majority vote. (The assumption being that Speaker Pelosi will only bring to the floor a version of the health care reform legislation she knows can pass). The legislation returns to the Senate where the amended version will be voted upon. Assuming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can keep his 60 votes together to end the expected Republican filibuster, the Senate then votes on the bill. With both chambers having passed identical bills, the legislation is sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

In a conference committee, Republicans are in the room. So are other lawmakers the legislative leaders believe are necessary to work through controversial issues or who can help deliver the needed votes. The reality is that Republicans have already stated their position in absolute terms: they oppose the bill and will do everything in their power to defeat it. This is not the kind of negotiating posture that gets one invited to too many parties. So in one sense the Democrats are simply acknowledging reality: Republicans don’t want to talk about compromises, they want to kill the bill. Instead of having GOP lawmakers watch Democrats talk about reform, the Democrats will simply talk among themselves and those they feel need to be included to build the required majorities.

Bypassing Republicans undermines the pledges then Senator Obama made during the presidential campaign to make laws in a transparent, bi-partisan manner. Closed doors, by definition, are not transparent. And the resulting legislation is unlikely to garner a single Republican vote. Both of these outcomes are negative for Democrats. However, they seem to have made the political calculation that: 1) the harm from failing to pass health care reform is far greater; and 2) few will remember, and fewer will care about, the process once health care reform is signed into law. They may be right.

The reality is the legislation emerging from the ping pong procedure is highly likely to be the same as what would have emerged from the conference committee process. The debate over how the legislation is written will be noisy, but in the long run it is of secondary importance. What really matters is what health care reform does.

Abortion and Health Care Reform: Practical Considerations

The task of the House-Senate conference committee on health care reform will not be an easy one. Yes, the legislation passed by each chamber have many provisions in common. But where they tend to differ are on some of the thorniest, most controversial issues. Whether there will be a government-run health plan and how to pay for health care reform are but two of the items needing to be worked through. One issue on which finding common ground will be especially difficult concerns abortions.

Most of the media and blog coverage of the abortion issue (including my own) have focused on the political aspects: will the more restrictive House language survive the conference committee or will the slightly less restrictive Senate version be a part of the final health care reform bill? And will liberals pass health care reform legislation that includes any additional restrictions on the procedure?

The folks at ReportingOnHealth.org, a project of The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships and the USC Annenberg School for Communication, asked a more interesting question: what would the likely compromises concerning abortion coverage currently being considered by lawmakers mean in the real world? How would the compromises work in practice? They invited me to offer a post on the topic and, for those interested, the post is available on their site.

ReportingOnHealth.org is aimed at helping journalists gain a better understanding of health care issues. The result is a host of meaningful insights for the general public as well. It’s a site well worth regularly checking.

Speaking of sites with interesting perspectives and enabling my descent into the world of punditry, there’s also HealthLeaders Media. They consistently offer an objective, reasoned view of the health care reform debate and provide perspectives from varied viewpoints. They are also one of the few news organizations offering regular podcasts on health care reform. My interview with Les Masterson focused on how health care reform might impact the industry.

Countdown to the Real Work on Health Care Reform

With a commitment of 60 votes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid unveiled the manager’s mark of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or, as it is better known, the Senate’s health care reform bill. After day long negotiations over abortion and other issues, Senator Ben Nelson agreed to vote in favor of bringing the bill to the Senate floor.

The manager’s mark of HR 3590 identifies the changes made to the  original Senate health care reform legislation (in other words, if you want to read the bill you have to read both the original and the most recent document). As has been widely reported, there are some provisions of the legislation specifically aimed at securing the support of Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska. For example, the health care reform bill will increase state spending on Medicaid. The Senate bill reimburses states for this extra cost until 2017 at which time the federal matching funds are phased out. Except for Nebraska where the federal government would pay for Medicaid expansion forever. (Or, to be realistic, until Congress takes the subsidy away).

There’s a host of other provisions of interest. A government-run health plan is out of the bill, much to the frustration and dismay of liberals. Carriers would be required to maintain a medical loss ratio of 80 percent for small group and individual products while meeting a minimum 85 percent MLR for their large group block of business. Rating differences based on age would be limited to a 3-to-1 ratio. However, states could increase the minimum medical loss ratios or narrow the age-based rating difference. There’s new language concerning abortions, one of the inducements to get Senator Nelson’s vote, although this language is apparently not strong enough for anti-abortion Democrats in the House.

The Office of Personnel Management would create a copy of the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan featuring private carriers. (It appears both for-profit and non-profit plans could participate in this new program, but I may be reading it wrong and only non-profits are permitted). There’s a host of preventive/wellness programs, pilot projects and other provisions aimed at addressing costs. And it would allow carriers meeting certain federal standards to offer coverage in other states through state exchanges.

(I received an email from a conservative broker blasting this provision as removing the ability for “the Citizens of a State having a say on State Laws and Mandates!” Which is pretty funny considering it’s at the center of Republican reform proposals, was a part of Senator John McCain’s health care reform platform when he ran for president, and is not much different than the Associated Health Plans advocated by conservatives for over a decade. Sometimes it seems to be less about the underlying public policy and more about who makes a proposal that drives the reaction.)

The bottom line is that Senator Reid did what he needed to do to cobble together 60 votes in the Senate. What, in the words of former Majority Leader Tom Daschle, is the equivalent of shoveling 60 frogs into a wheelbarrow.)  As a result, the Senate will pass health care reform.

And that’s when the fun begins. There are substantial differences between the House and Senate versions of health care reform. Perhaps Speaker Nancy Pelosi, recognizing the greater challenge Senator Reid has in rounding up votes, will instruct House negotiators to quickly adopt the Senate version of health care reform. This could result in a bill passing Congress in very early January.

More likely, however, House and Senate negotiators will struggle to refine the legislation. The result will be closer to the Senate version than what passed the House, but it would not be the same HR 3590 that will pass the Senate. This process will take significantly longer, perhaps most of January. While unlikely, the conference committee has the power to start with a blank piece of paper and write a brand new bill.

My guess is Speaker Pelosi will focus on a few key modifications to the Senate bill. So long as it doesn’t cause one of Senator Reid’s frogs to jump out of the wheelbarrow these will be accepted. The result will a relatively short conference committee leading to a final vote on health care reform by mid-January.

What’s significant is that the playoff season is almost over. The World Series (that would be the conference committee) is about to begin. Which means the real work of writing health care reform legislation is about to begin.

Added December 21, 2009: Memorandum from the Congressional Budget Office to Senator Harry Reid summarizing their analysis of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and to a blog posting by CBO Director  Douglas Elmendorf concerning a correction to the calculation of federal reductions beyond 2019.

Senate Health Care Reform Still Alive, But Likely to Change

The Senate has just spent most of today (Saturday) engaging in a debate on whether to allow a debate on comprehensive health care reform. Later this evening 58 Democrats and 2 Independents will vote to allow Majority Leader Harry Reid’s health care reform bill come to floor for debate and consideration of amendments. 40 Republican Senators will vote unanimously against allowing this to happen. Senator Reid’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is still alive. It is unlikely to survive in its current form for long, however.

Don’t get me wrong. Tonight’s vote is significant, very significant.  The vote is a test of President Barack Obama’s and Senator Reid’s ability to line up enough votes to keep the bill alive.  The debate leading up to the vote has been an opportunity for Republican Senators to present their opposition to HR 3590. (Yes, the Senate has taken a bill passed by the House and moved to the Senate, gutted that language and substituted their health care reform package. Consequently, the Senate legislation has a House bill number.) And the vote to allow debate has served as an action forcing event, sort of, for Democratic moderates.

Those moderates could have sided with the Republicans killing the bill before it could be brought to the floor. Instead, they joined with their liberal colleagues and kept health care reform alive. While there are 18 moderate Democratic Senators (including Senator Joe Lieberman, who is an Independent), it eventually came down to three:  Senators Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson. All three made clear they would seek amendments to the bill before voting for it. And all three are among those moderates making it clear further changes to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is necessary before they’ll commit to voting for it.

We’ll learn more about the changes moderates will demand over the several weeks before a final vote on health care reform is held in the Senate.  Democratic leaders are hoping to hold that vote before the end of the year. The legislation would then move on to a conference committee that will attempt to reconcile it with legislation the House passed earlier this month.  More importantly, that conference committee, made up of an equal number of Senators and House members, will seek to fashion legislation they hope will earn the support of a majority of House members and 60% of Senators. As I’ve noted before, passage of legislation by the Senate is merely the final playoff game. The World Series — the conference committee — is yet to come.

Uniting the Democrats to allow debate on health care reform is a victory for the Obama Administration and for Senator Reid personally. That it took this much effort, however, demonstrates the challenges they yet face. Republicans appear to be uniting in opposition to the legislation. Even Senator Olympia Snowe, who voted for a health care reform bill in the Senate Finance Committee, is expected to vote against bringing HR 3590 to the floor.

I’ve written before about the power moderates have to determine if health care reform legislation will pass Congress and what the final bill will contain.  Now we’ll see that power put forward. Some of what they’ll ask for will be parochial. (That there’s a provision in Senator Reid’s bill that would send additional Medicaid money to Senator Landrieu’s state of Louisiana is neither a coincidence or accidental). But most of their demands wil concern public policy issues. Moderate Democrats tend to be more fiscally cautious than their more liberal colleagues, giving them pause to legislation that greatly expands governmental powers,  spends nearly a trillion dollars over the next decade and taxes corporations and individuals to pay for it. These are the issues on which they will focus.

Republicans will have their own pet issues, but those are unlikely to influence the outcome. Having already declared their unmoving opposition to any health care reform Democrats could claim keeps their campaign promises, the GOP has removed themselves from negotiations. (A couple of the Republicans, most notably Senator Snowe and her colleague from Maine, Susan Collins, might vote what moderate Democrats fashion. But whether they’ll be able to insert provisions without committing to voting for the bill if their amendments are accepted is unlikely. 

We don’t know yet what changes to HR 3950 moderate Democrats will demand, but the possibilities are extensive. They could eliminate a public option — or at least postpone its implementation until after other reforms have had a chance to take effect. They could  demand additional cost containment provisions. They could strengthen — or weaken — the requirement that all consumers obtain coverage. Certainly they will modify what taxes and fees are imposed to pay for health care reform.

What’s important to remember is that moderate Senators will have two shots at the bill. They’ll extract as much as they can during the current Senate debate. Then at least two or three of them are likely to agree to vote for the bill “in order to keep the process moving forward.” However, they’ll also make clear they want significant changes made to the legislation by the conference committee before they’ll commit to a vote that would place the legislation on the president’s desk. Liberals will insist they have compromised all they can, but in reality, the moderates (and the liberals) know that the progressives are likely to accept any legislation that can be called “health care reform” with a straight face. And as politicians, they have great skill in passing the straight face test.

Yes, Democrats have won the debate on whether to debate health care reform. What legislation eventually emerges from the Senate, if any, is still uncertain.

Health Care Reform’s Likely Outcome: Worse Than Promised; Not as Bad as Feared

As the Senate begins their effort to pass health care reform anxiety levels are, quite naturally and rightly rising. Health care is highly personal. For those of us working within the current framework, having politicians mess with our livelihood is a stressful to say the least. That these politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) seem to care less about the substance of the reform and more about how they appeal to their electoral base does nothing to reduce that stress.

Of course, what we’re reacting to at this stage is not the final reform legislation. The House and Senate proposals foreshadow what Congress will eventually pass (if it passes anything). The actual legislation is still to come. Put another way, we know the basic outline, but the devil resides in a suburb of the details. As I pointed out in my previous post, however, the real drafting of health care reform legislation hasn’t started yet. With the Senate taking up the issue we’re seeing the end of the legislative phase in which the parameters are defined. It’s in the upcoming conference committee that will define health care reform 2009-style (or, more likely, early 2010).

Concerning that prior post, Ron Masters, a friend and frequent reader/commenter of this blog, took me to task for writing too kindly about the current House and Senate versions of health care reform. “I’m surprised that you seem to feel that either of these bills are any good,” he write. This after a litany of shortcomings concerning the current administration, the ability of government to deliver much of anything, and the foolishness of imposing taxes and creating new entitlements in the midst of the current economic mess. And he makes some fair points.

He’s not alone. I’ve heard from a lot of brokers, readers and others who are convinced the coming health care reform will be a disaster leading to ruin and damnation for the country. I disagree. Here’s why.

As any reader of this blog knows, I don’t buy into the premises of those at the extreme. Not all government programs are good, but some are. Not all taxes are bad, but some are. Change is important, but getting change right is more important. Defending the status quo just because it is the status quo is indefensible. In other words, I’m comfortable with the gray shades of reality and uncomfortable with the black-and-whites of true believers.

I’m also comfortable with the government doing stupid things now and then. No party and no administration has a monopoly on such foolishness. (Nor has any party or administration failed to achieve some truly noble accomplishments). What’s more, no administration lasts forever. Whatever health care reform passes in the next few months will be administered by a parade of future administrations and modified by Congresses yet to-be-elected. Many people have a tendency to believe whatever Congress passes and how the current administration implements it will remain unchanged forever. It won’t. Medicare was vilified as socialistic and a fast slide toward America’s ruin when it was being created. Things didn’t work out that way. The program has survived for nearly 45 years under the administrations of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush-the-first, Clinton and Bush-the-second. Yes, it is a far from perfect program and faces significant challenges. Still, it works, it’s evolved and it will continue to do so. And the country has survived.

Another reason I’m not outright opposed to health care reform is because I believe expanding access to health insurance is critically important. It is well understood that everyone in America has access to health care. But it is also well documented that people with health insurance live healthier, longer lives. A recent study by researchers at Harvard Medical School confirmed an earlier study from the 1980’s that “uninsurance is associated with mortality.” That’s an awkward way of stating a well-accepted truism: being uninsured can be hazardous to your health.

Expanding coverage, however, is expensive. The more people who have coverage the more people who will incur medical expenses. That is after all, the whole idea and a desirable outcome. It’s also an expensive outcome. In my mind, it’s a price worth paying. Especially considering the potential return on this investment.

Those with insurance are already making heavy payments to pay for care received by the uninsured according to a study by Families USA. In 2008, the study reports, nearly $43 billion of health care the uninsured received from hospitals, doctors and other providers went unpaid. This uncompensated care results in higher premiums for those with coverage. In 2008 this hidden tax increased premiums $368 for single coverage and $1,017 for family coverage. Given the recession, this amount has no doubt gone up. Increasing the number of Americans with insurance should reduce this burden.

Early identification of potential health conditions before they blossom into serious diseases can generate tremendous economic benefits, although these savings are rarely considered in a cost-benefit analysis. Every dollar invested in preventing and treating heart attacks generates $7 in increased productivity, according to a study by United BioSource Corporation.

In other words, it’s not just the reform bills being considered in Washington that are expensive. So is the status quo. Health care costs are crippling businesses, bankrupting families and state governments, enabling fraud and abuse, increasing taxes, and failing to deliver on many of its promises. Change is inevitable – and it’s coming.

Too many in Washington believe (or at least claim to believe) that reforming the health insurance industry will reduce the cost of coverage. Far from it. The bills being considered in Congress will cause premiums to increase. Until Congress tackles the underlying causes of skyrocketing medical costs, health insurance coverage will become increasingly unaffordable. The House and Senate health care reform bills do have more cost containment provisions than is generally acknowledged. Could they be stronger and more ambitious? Yes. Are obvious cost containment opportunities missing (e.g., malpractice reform?) Yes. But they’re there. And future efforts to restrain medical costs will benefit from the seeds planted in the current reform debate.

Which brings us, I suppose, to the key question: are the House and Senate health care reform bills good? No, not really. They’re too heavy handed, using an axe when a scalpel is required. As noted, their cost containment provisions are weaker than the American people deserve. The bills reflect a misunderstanding of how health insurance works and about what drives premiums. The costs for the program are no doubt understated (few initiatives of this magnitude, whether attempted by government or business, come in under budget).

If either the House or Senate bills were the final legislation I’d be more concerned than I am now (and, for the record, I am concerned). But neither HR 3962 nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s proposal are going to be enacted, not as currently written. I believe the conference committee will need to make significant changes in order to get the votes needed for passage – if that’s even possible.

There are plenty of substantive problems with these health care reform proposals. To make matters worse, their backers and opponents are knowingly overpromising or attempting to frighten the public. Democrats claim their reforms will reduce overall health care costs, lower premiums and reduce the deficit. Wrong on all counts. Republicans claim it will destroy American businesses, annihilate Medicare, create death panels and bankrupt the country. Just as wrong.

We’ve seen this script before concerning Medicare, Iraq, and a host of other issues. Partisans on one side over promise, their opponents dredge up scenarios of doom. That both sides are equally guilty makes it no more acceptable or welcome. But it is what it is.

The main point of my previous post, and of this one, is that if reform passes, it will not be as bad as feared nor as good as promised. It will be refined sooner (by regulation) and later (by future legislation). The fight for a better health care system will continue. Only the status quo will have changed. The need to improve on it will remain.