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.

2009 versus 1993 Health Care Reform: The Difference is Consensus

Politically, 2009 and 1993 will share some similarities.  A new Democratic President takes over after years of a Republican White House. The new president will be able to work with a Congress firmly in Democratic control. Both soon-to-be President Barack Obama and then President Bill Clinton entered office during difficult economic times. And as candidates both made health care reform a top issue in their successful campaigns.

But 2009 is far different from 1993 in many ways. Concerning health care reform the political environment are strikingly different.  In 1993 President Clinton asked First Lady Hillary Clinton to take the lead. As I’ve noted previously, her insular and heavy handed approach helped doom that effort. But she had lots of help. There was broad disagreement about the nature of the problem, let alone the solution. Interest groups fought the Clinton Administration reforms vigorously and effectively. Given the lack of consensus and clumsy politics, it’s eventual defeat, in retrospect, seems inevitable. 

In 2009, the political environment will be far different. That there is a crisis in America’s health care system is broadly accepted. Out-of-control medical costs, and the ever increasing health insurance premiums they cause, are harming the financial security of families and the economic viability of companies. Tolerance for the large number of uninsured in the country is near an end.

There’s not only wide agreement that there is a problem, there’s a growing consensus on what the solution might be. The several proposals already circulating in Washington overlap with one another and the approach advocated by Candidate Obama. Interest groups and academics who waged pitched battles in 1983 are finding common ground as 2009 approaches.

This was strikingly clear in a recent broadcast of NPR’s To The Point. Host Warren Olney interviewed representatives from Families USA (generally considered a liberal health care reform advocacy group, America’s Health Insurance Plans (the carrier’s trade association),  the United States Chamber of Commerce and an academic from UC Berkeley. Their perspectives differed, but what was striking was the amount of agreement they expressed. True, there were no representatives of medical care providers on the show, but the common ground expressed by these four may not have been possible in 1993. And, as is usual when Mr. Olney is conducting the interviews, the show was very informative. (I recommend making the time to listen to this episode, entitled “Barack Obama and ‘Universal’ Healthcare Reform“).

Consensus in December 2008 does not guarantee a smooth and easy process to enacting comprehensive health care reform in 2009. The debate will be vigorous and heated. There will be winners and losers — and the losers will not take their lumps quietly. But unlike in 1993, when the top priority of many stakeholders was to stop health care reform, in 2009 their approach will be to help develop the right reform. Now that is a big difference.