States and Health Care Reform

Health insurance has long been a state affair in the USA. Insurance companies were even exempt from many aspects of federal anti-trust law to better enable state regulators to oversee their activities. Yes, there were federal laws that standardized certain aspects of the business—think HIPAA and COBRA. Think about Medicaid, Medicare and SCHIP while you’re at it. But when it came to health insurance regulation the states reigned supreme.

Enter Congress and President Barack Obama stage left. With the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act the federal role in shaping and regulating health insurance shifted significantly to Washington, DC. The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services is now arguably the most important health insurance regulator in the country. The Department of Labor and Internal Revenue Service will also play significant roles in determining the future of the nation’s health insurance market and the choices (or lack of choices) Americans have to meet their health care coverage needs. No wonder critics of the PPACA condemn the law as a “federal takeover.”

That the nexus of health plan oversight has shifted to the federal government is beyond argument. The new health care reform law touches everything from how medical plans are designed, priced, offered, maintained and purchased. To conclude that state insurance regulators are shunted to the sideline, however, dangerously overstates the case. In fact, the PPACA invests tremendous flexibility in the states, allowing them to implement the federal requirements in what will likely be very divergent ways.

Rebecca Vesely, writing in Business Insurance, makes this clear in her article describing how two states, Vermont and Florida, are taking strikingly different paths in addressing health care reform. Vermont has taken the first step toward creating a single payer system by 2017. Legislation to set up a five member board to move the state in this direction has already been enacted. And while many details need to be worked out (funding, to name one) and Vermont will need to obtain a waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to put the package together, the state is further down the road to single payer than any other.

Then there’s Florida where the move is in the opposite direction. That state is seeking to shift virtually all of its Medicaid population from government coverage into private plans starting in July 2012. These private managed care plans would be offered through large health care networks with health plan profits above five percent shared with the state. Whether this approach will achieve the $1.1 billion in first year savings promised by the Governor or not, it has brought new participants into the Medicaid marketplace such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida.

The Business Insurance article includes a prediction by Boston University law professor Kevin Outterson that the Obama administration will sign off on the waivers Vermont and Florida need to move forward.

What the starkly different approaches to reigning in skyrocketing health care costs being taken by Florida and Vermont demonstrates is the broad flexibility states retain in shaping their own health care destiny. Yes, federal waivers are required, but that would be the case even if the PPACA had never passed—Medicaid is a federal program after all. The CMS web site lists 451 state waivers or demonstration projects in place today. The concept of allowing experimentations and exceptions is ingrained in the Medicaid program just as they are in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. There’s nothing wrong with this any more than having shock absorbers on a car is an indictment of an automobile’s chassis or tires.

The marked variation in approaches being taken by Vermont and Florida are extreme examples of what we’ll see as states implement exchanges and other aspects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Of course, whether this is good news or bad news depends a great deal on the state in which you live and work. States that are heavily tilted toward one party or the other (I’m looking at you California and Wisconsin) could make some of their residents yearn for the federal government to step in and keep things in perspective. Given the way the PPACA preserves state powers, however, they are going to be disappointed.