How New Health Care Reforms Make Single Payer Less Likely

There are those who view the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the health care reform legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama, as the first step toward a complete government takeover of America’s health care system. While I don’t agree with their arguments, they do have a case to make. That is:

  • because the reforms fail to restrain the out-of-control growth of medical costs, insurance premiums will continue to rise
  • because the reforms place constraints on health insurance companies, the private sector will be squeezed between increases in the underlying cost of care and their ability to charge adequate premiums to cover those costs
  • meanwhile the government-run health insurance exchanges, to be operational by 2014, which is also when Medicaid is set to dramatically expand, increases the percentage of health care coverage provided or made accessible by governments

Throw in a few other provisions (elements of the reform some say will undermine Medicare Advantage, the new taxes imposed on health insurance carriers and others), season to taste with paranoia and the belief that the recently passed health care reforms is merely the first steps down a path leading to a single payer system gains significant heft.

Given this scenario, one might expect folks on the left to be gleeful with the reforms. Many liberals publicly and fervently support a government-run health plan that would completely remove private health insurance companies from the marketplace. If they believed what emerged from Washington moved that goal closer, you’d expect them to celebrate, at least a little.

If so, the folks at Consumer Watchdog failed to get the memo. This group, led by Jerry Flanagan, considers health insurance companies to be the manifestation of evil in our plane of reality. OK, I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea. They are unabashed advocates of a single payer system for California and the nation.

On April 8th, wrote a letter to President Obama, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and members of Congress identifying what it calls loopholes in the newly enacted health care reform bill. (Consumer Watchdog Letter on Health Care Reform Loopholes). Among the group’s concerns is that the minimum benefit requirements to be proposed by HHS will preempt stronger minimum benefit standards at the state level, that its approach to Medicare Advantage could “push traditional Medicare into an economic death spiral,” that the law fails to attack recent price hikes by pharmaceutical companies, and that carriers will continue to be permitted to rescind coverage for intentional misrepresentation, without creating new regulatory oversight to ensure that exception is not abused by health plans.

Most interesting, however, is Consumer Watchdog’s fear that the new health care reform bill will prevent states from adopting a single payer system at least until 2017. Under the heading “States Rights to Innovate,” the letter states, “Under the current law, states must wait until 2017 for waivers from the federal government to use federal Medicaid, Medicare, tax subsidies
and other funds to support state alternatives to the private insurance market, whether that
be by adopting a state single-payer model or a state ‘public option.’”

Since states can’t divert funds from existing public programs to new government programs, the new health care reform law blocks initiatives to create single payer systems at the state level. In fact, the new reforms block states from creating a health plan to compete with private carriers (unless it can do so without federal funds, tax subsidies and the like).

I suppose what this proves is there is a balance in the universe. The same legislation some fear will inevitably lead to a single payer system is the same legislation that prevents states from creating a single payer system.

Of course some will argue that this simply delays the coming of a single payer system to 2017. However, think about the recent reform package. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It was passed by the slimmest of margins and only after intense debate and adroit legislative maneuvering. It’s passage was possible only because Democrats occupy the White House and have substantial majorities in both chambers of Congress. Yet the legislation has no public option and is built around private health insurance. Nonetheless it is criticized as “socialism” by some and a “government takeover” by others.

Does anyone realistically believe the country is going to move further to the left in future elections? That’s one of the reasons the Administration pushed so hard to pass health care reform in 2009. The party occupying the White House nearly always loses seats in mid-term elections. They knew the Democratic majorities resulting from the 2006 and 2008 elections were the high watermark for Democrats in Congress. Long before the tea party started brewing the Administration understood the 2010 elections would reduce their working majorities in Congress. Why would anyone think future Congresses would be even more liberal than this one?

That’s why Consumer Watchdog is concerned about the new health care reform package. It prevents them from moving forward with a state public option or single payer system until 2017. And by then, given the pendulum that is American politics, the odds of a government takeover of health care is likely to be slimmer than it is today.

Bashing Insurance Companies May Be Fun, But Avoids the Real Issue

That health insurance carriers were ascending to the throne of political piñata in the health care reform debate has been apparent for some time now. Last July President Barack Obama began referring to health care reform as health insurance reform. A couple of weeks later Speaker Nancy Pelosi described insurance companies as “almost immoral” for opposing the creation of a government-run health plan. That insurance companies were to be cast as the villains was pretty much inevitable. People like and trust hospitals and doctors much more than health insurance carriers. And pharmaceutical companies, while profiting far more from health care than medical carriers are a bit removed from people’s daily experience. The reality is the only group Americans trust less when it comes to health care reform than insurance companies are Republicans in Congress.

Compounding the situation the health insurance industry has had atrocious timing. America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the industry’s trade organization, released a report warning that health care reform plans being considered by Congress would dramatically increase medical insurance premiums for many Americans. The message was hardly welcomed by Congressional Democrats, but what infuriated them was the timing. The Senate Finance Committee was about to vote upon the closest lawmakers had come to a bipartisan agreement (meaning at least one Republican voted for it. The vitriol the report inspired went far beyond its substance.

Then there’s the timing of recent rate increases in the individual health insurance market. While Anthem Blue Cross’ individual market increase first captured the public – and lawmakers’ attention – it’s now clear several carriers have levied double-digit premium increases in multiple states in both the individual and small business market segments. Many political observers believe that these rating actions breathed new life into flagging reform efforts.

But the 24-hour news channels and other media along with their innumerable pundits need fresh meat. Their job is to keep people watching (or reading) so the commercials don’t run together. There’s only so many ways you can use “insurance company” and “venal” in the same story before it gets old. Insurance company bashing will continue, but there are signs that serious attention may be given to aspects of America’s health care system reform beyond insurance markets.

Consider: Daniel Weintraub is one of California’s most respected journalists. In addition to reporting for and providing opinion pieces to the Sacramento Bee he maintains an excellent blog on health care issues, HealthyCal.org. In the past, Mr. Weintraub has been hard on insurance carriers. Nor is he a fan of the health care status quo in this country. So it must have been a surprise to even him when he wrote a post that makes clear that bashing health insurance companies is not the same as enacting meaningful health care reform.

Mr. Weintraub begins his post citing the political travails California insurance companies face in the state today, ranging from separate investigations by Attorney General Jerry Brown and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner to a host of legislative hearings led by lawmakers who, like the Attorney General and Insurance Commissioner, are seeking higher office in this election year.

While noting the entertainment value of this spectacle and recognizing that “it might actually produce information relevant to the health care debate,” Mr. Weintraub makes clear that “health insurance company profits and administrative costs remain a relatively small factor in driving the cost of coverage skyward. The biggest reason that health insurance is getting more expensive,” he continues, ”is that health care is getting more expensive.”

The post includes a useful pie chart describing national health expenditures as broken down by the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Of the $2.3 trillion on health care Americans spent in 2008, $159 billion (approximately seven percent) “went to private insurers after deducting all the costs they pass through to the doctors, hospitals and other health care providers.” Put another way: “health care costs nearly doubled between 1998 and 2008, increasing by 96 percent. If we had eliminated private insurance companies in 1998, and assuming they provide no benefit in managing costs, health spending still would have increased by 83 percent during that decade.”

None of this means that health insurance companies and their behavior should be ignored nor their misdeeds forgiven. But as Mr. Weintraub notes, “when this election year is over and the current political bash-fest comes to an end, the core costs of health care will still be there, and chances are they will still be rising.”

That a respected journalist is noting that attacks on health insurance companies are diverting attention from other serious issues with America’s health care system is significant. But he’s not alone. According to Politico.com, Warren Buffett is advising President Obama “to scrap the health care bill and start over” because the legislation “does not focus on controlling costs.” (He went on to say that he’d vote for the Senate bill as opposed to maintaining the status quo).

President Obama and his allies will argue that their legislation does attack rising costs – and they have some evidence to back their claim. But few could honestly say it goes far enough. And while good starts are important, the question is whether the Administration and Congress have the political will to follow-up with meaningful cost containment measures.

Attacks on the health insurance industry will continue. Every drama needs a villain and in this particular theater, carriers are the bad guys. But that folks like Mr. Weintraub and Mr. Buffet are calling out politicians for failing to more fully address the most critical issue undermining America’s health care system – runaway medical costs – is an encouraging sign.

Health Care Reform 2009 Style

When it comes to health care reform 2009 has been an interesting year. And while comprehensive health care reform legislation will not be arriving on President Barack Obama’s desk this year, it is all but certain that will happen early in 2010. Getting to this penultimate moment has, to put it mildly, taken some doing. And the process says a lot about America and its leaders.

Health Care Reform Activity

President Obama had made clear throughout his campaign for the presidency that health care reform would be a top priority of his new administration. He lost no time making his promise real after his inauguration. Expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan, a proposal twice vetoed by then President George Bush, along with significant funding for medical technology, were a part of Administration’s economic stimulus package.

President Obama’s health care reform efforts took a serious blow in February when former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was forced to withdraw his nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services and as Director of the White House Office on Health Reform due to problems with his past tax returns. Senator Daschle is a political pragmatist who is highly regarded by lawmakers from both parties. Would the health care reform debate have been more civil had Senator Daschle led the White House reform effort? We’ll never know. What we do know is that civility quickly left the room as the House and Senate Committees with jurisdiction on the matter began their deliberations. The health care reform debate was passionate, raucous and partisan to the extreme. Neither party and no ideology is blameless for this descent into the dark side of politics. Both have benefited from it (although none as much as the 24 hour cable news channels) and both have sullied their standing with the public as a result.

Given what’s at stake when 1/6th of the nation’s economy is subjected to the legislative process, there may have been no avoiding an ugly health care reform debate. President Obama made clear in a speech in February that he wanted health care reform passed quickly. Many Republicans (and their talk show host allies) made it clear they’d rather see no health care reform rather than anything along the lines being proposed by – or that would politically benefit – President Obama. Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means, House Education and Labor and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committees pushed through liberal bills; anchors on the left in anticipation of the negotiations to follow. The resulting climate promoted intense partisanship.

Eventually more conservative Democrats forced the House Energy and Commerce Committee to slow done and moderate the legislation, although what they passed would still be considered “liberal” by most definitions.  All the House bills passed out of the committees without a single Republican vote. Meanwhile Senator Max Baucus was trying to fashion legislation that might gain the support of at least three GOP members of the Senate Finance Committee. (He would eventually manage to get the support of only one GOP Senator).

The difficulty of finding common ground between liberals and conservatives on health care reform was made abundantly clear during the summer of 2009. The disruption of lawmaker’s town hall meetings were reminiscent of the anti-Viet Nam War protests of the 1960’s. (I suppose it’s ironic that many of those shutting down the town hall meetings had participated in the anti-war protests more than 40 years earlier). The passion and concern of the health care reform protests were as sincere as some of the rhetoric and actions were unfortunate and despicable (death threats and swastikas are inherently contemptible and disgraceful). The protests did assure, however, that Republicans would remain united against the kind of reforms being pushed by the Administration.

Reform was being pushed by the White House even if the Administration was declining to define reform. Instead the White House broadly described the key elements they’d like to see in a reform bill. President Obama’s three core principles for health care reform called for reducing costs, guaranteeing choice and ensuring quality care for all. He would later add other conditions (e.g., reform could not add to the deficit), but the details of the bill were being hashed out in Congress by Democratic lawmakers. The result, much to the chagrin of liberals, was that over time the legislation became increasingly moderate culminating in the legislation passed out of the Senate Finance Committee with the support of only one Republican, Senator Olympia Snowe.

With all the committees of jurisdiction having staked out their positions it was time for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to pull together the pieces into bills that could pass their respective chambers. Speaker Pelosi succeeded first with the House passing a health care reform in November. The price of passage was high: liberals had to accept language dealing with abortions that sparked outrage in the pro-choice community.  It took the Senate more than a month to follow suit, but eventually they did. Now it’s up to a conference committee to pull the pieces together into one bill that can pass both the House and the Senate. Not an easy task, but with the finish line in sight it’s very doubtful lawmakers will falter now.

The Public Policy Dimension

While the activity swirling around health care reform has been … interesting, the evolution of the substance of the legislation has been even more fascinating. Not all that long ago liberal lawmakers were claiming a health care reform bill lacking a government-run health plan was no health care reform at all. They seemed to believe that a public health plan was the magic wand that would remake America’s health care system into something fair, competitive and wonderful. Or maybe they just thought the public option was a way station on the path to their promised land: a single payer system. While the House bill would create a new government health plan, the Senate legislation rejected the public option. While liberals outside of Congress continue to attack reform without a public option, liberals lawmakers seem to accept the inevitable. What emerges from the conference committee will no doubt lack a public option and liberal lawmakers will still support the reform package.

While liberals were losing a public option an unlikely coalition of conservatives and liberals were also watering down a requirement that all Americans purchase coverage. Conservatives dislike the idea as a restriction on the freedom of people to have their health care reform subsidized by higher health insurance premiums for everyone else. Liberals don’t like it because, apparently, the result is a windfall for evil health insurance companies. (OK, they offer more substantive public policy arguments against the individual mandate, but the rhetoric focuses on freedom and windfalls). Never mind that requiring health plans to sell coverage without requiring individuals to buy coverage before they incur claims is a recipe for higher insurance costs or that many states require drivers to buy auto insurance. As the legislation has moved through Congress the penalty for failing to purchase coverage has drifted toward a slap on the wrist end of the spectrum.

Other issues have taken interesting turns as well. Reimbursing doctors for counseling to seniors concerning living wills and the like was removed from the bill once the discussions were labeled “death panels.” What taxes will be imposed to pay for health care reform is still uncertain. Anti-abortion advocates have done a masterful job of inserting abortion into the debate. Both the House and Senate bills contained provisions that could “bend the cost curve” (which is apparently the new articulation of what was once called cost containment). If all the cost cutting provisions in the current bills were moved into separate legislation it would actually look like a serious effort. Mixed in with the health insurance reform dominating the current versions, however, the provisions appear weak and almost an afterthought.

Health Care Reform 2009: The Human Factor

So what to make of health care reform 2009 style?

First, that the legislative process is messy and can be downright uninspiring. Second, that tackling an issue as important and complicated as health care reform cannot overcome the need for partisans of both parties to put aside the public good for their political stratagems. Third, that the health care reform package that finally passes will be far more moderate than might have been apparent earlier this year. Fourth, criticism that Congress is moving too fast on reform are really complaints that Congress is not doing what critics leveling this charge want them to do. The health care reform bill that will find its way to President Obama’s desk in 2010 will be over a year in the making. Longer if you count the debate on health care held during the 2008 presidential election. Longer still if you include the previous health care reform efforts undertaken over the past several decades.

We elect politicians to hold office because they promise to address problems. No one has ever won a campaign on the promise to do nothing if elected. In 2008 Democrats won, and won handily, in part on a promise to solve the problems posed by America’s current health care system. They are fulfilling that promise. In the process they will create new problems.

Because the fact is we humans rarely solve problems. Instead we tend to replace existing problems with new ones. And if the 2009 health care reform process has taught us anything, it’s that the people who make up the Administration and Congress (and the general public) are only human. Anyone looking at the health care reform package emerging from Congress would find evidence of that reality.

Why Liberals Won’t Kill Health Care Reform

For those opposed to the current versions of health care reform moving through Congress it might be enjoyable to see the Democrat versus Democrat circus currently underway in Washington. Both parties are susceptible to the joys of circular firing squads, but the Democrats are embracing the concept with exceptional glee of late as liberals and moderates in the Democratic caucus brawl over the shape of health care reform legislation. But at the end of the day there’s several reasons why it’s highly likely all 60 members of the Democratic caucus will vote to move the bill forward.

  1. The Senate is not voting on a final health care bill. Yes, passage of health care reform by the U.S. Senate would be a historic milestone, but just a milestone. What emerges from the Senate will go to a conference committee where the final health care reform bill will be drafted. This makes it easier for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to muster the necessary votes. For example, Senator Ben Nelson who is threatening to vote against allowing a vote on the legislation unless it’s abortion language is modified, can make it clear he’ll vote “aye” now to keep the health care bill alive, but he’ll vote against it if the conference committee doesn’t address his concerns. The liberals who are claiming the legislation is a bail-out of the insurance industry can make the same claim: “I’ll vote for it now, but it needs to get better in conference.”
  2. Liberals opposing the bill don’t vote. With the exception of Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, most of the complaints have come from liberals outside of the Senate. Former Governor Howard Dean was the first well-known liberal to call for defeating the Senate health care reform bill. he was soon joined by Keith Olbermann of MSNBC and folks at the Daily Kos blog. The AFL-CIO and SEIU are also making noises about killing the bill and starting over. But killing the bill would require liberals to tell millions of Americans that preventing health insurance companies from denying them coverage isn’t adequately progressive. Or that preventing carriers from dropping insureds when they get sick isn’t sufficiently liberal. Or that eliminating annual and lifetime caps on insurance coverage is unimportant to liberals. Or that making health insurance accessible and affordable (through subsidies) for millions of the currently uninsured fails to meet the definition of “good enough.” Liberals will complain. They’ll whine and threaten. At the end of the day, however, it’s unlikely any liberal wants to go down in history as the vote that postponed health care reform for a generation (see reason #4, below). Mr. Olbermann gets paid to talk so the commercials on his Countdown show don’t run together. He doesn’t have vote in Congress. Neither does Governor Dean. What they say matters only within the bubble known as cable news. Having a vote in Congress is a responsibility the pundits lack, but lawmakers take very seriously – seriously enough to keep health care reform legislation moving forward.
  3. Liberals are upset over more than just the public option. While dropping a “robust” public option from the Senate health care bill is generating the most recent complaints from the left, threats to defeat the bill result from several disappointments. Many liberals support a single payer system and see a government-run health plan as a compromise. They look at the requirement for everyone to purchase health insurance and ask a reasonable question: what is to stop carriers from gouging the public? (Hence proposals for requiring high medical loss ratios). Then there’s efforts by anti-abortion groups to use health care reform to insert language that goes beyond the current status quo embodied by the Hyde amendment. Some progressives also are upset pure community rating is absent from the bill and the fact Health Savings Accounts will survive the reform effort. As the end game approaches, it’s not surprising that passions rise and frustration bubbles over. Especially for liberals about to vote for what they consider disappointing legislation, venting their displeasure is to be expected. Venting displeasure, however, is not the same as blocking health care reform.
  4. Liberals won’t get a better bill any time soon. Progressives were understandably delighted by the 2008 election results. President Barack Obama had a demonstrably liberal voting record and still won in what can legitimately be called a landslide. Democrats had substantial majorities in both houses of Congress. What was overlooked is that the Democratic Party (and the president) is more centrist than true liberals like to believe. In fact, nearly one-third of the Democratic Caucus are also members of the Senate Moderate Dems Working Group. Anyone not trying to sell Viagra and auto insurance (which leaves out Mr. Olbermann) has known for months that health care reform would be shaped by these moderate Democrats Senators. And if liberals think they’ll be replacing these moderates with more liberal Democrats they’re spending too much time in a different space-time continuum than the rest of us. The chances of liberals taking the seats of Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor (Arkansas), Evan Bayh (Indiana), Ben Nelson (Nebraska), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Kay Hagan (North Carolina), or Clare McCaskill (Missouri) any time soon are extremely slight. The reality is that Republicans are likely to pick up several seats in the Senate and House in 2010. Historically, the mid-term elections go poorly for the party in the White House. What this means is that for liberals, the current Congress is as good as it gets. Starting over would likely result in reforms even more moderate than what’s being considered today. That’s why Republicans are doing everything they can to slow down the health care reform process. They know the longer the process takes the more likely health care reform is likely to fail and that future attempts will be more to their liking. Liberals in the Senate know this. The Governor Deans of the world can ignore this fact, but lawmakers have to deal with reality, not the fantasies of ideologues.
  5. There’s always tomorrow. To think that whatever health care reform legislation President Barack signs into law health care reform legislation early next year will end debate on the issue for the rest of his Administration is naive. As Republicans gain strength they’ll seek to modify whatever is enacted. Democrats will attempt to expand reforms through more targeted legislation. Whatever health care reform bill emerges from Congress this session should be viewed as a foundation for future political fights, not the end of them.

Could health care reform fail because of attacks from both the left and the right? Yes. Is it likely to fail because liberals join Republicans in torpedoing health care reform? Not really. I don’t envy Senate Majority Leader Reid his task, but my guess is he’ll soon have the 60 votes needed to bring health care reform legislation to the floor of the Senate. Then if some of the liberals want to make a symbolic vote against the reform package they can go right ahead. Once the bill is brought before the Senate It only take 51 votes to move the legislation forward to the conference committee.

Of course, whether whatever health care reform legislation the conference committee can draft will secure enough votes is still very uncertain. But we will have the chance to find out.

Senate Likely to Move Forward with Health Care Reform Absent a Public Option

Liberal Democratic Senators appear to be sliding down a slippery slope, but one that will likely move health care reform to a conference committee.

In the beginning was a robust public option: a government-run health care program to compete with private carriers that would pay doctors, hospitals and other providers a small percentage above Medicare’s reimbursement levels (which for many services are below those medical providers’ actual cost). Moderate and conservative Democrats balked, claiming a public option paying Medicare-like rates would decimate the private market.

So liberal Democrats offered a compromise: the public health insurance plan would negotiate with medical providers as private carriers do. Never mind that this approach undermines the rationale for a public option – driving down health care costs. At least it preserved a government-run plan. Still no love. Moderate and conservative Democrats balked, claiming the government-plan would still have an unfair competitive advantage in the market, driving private health plans out of business.

So a group of Senators negotiated another health care reform compromise. The Gang of 10 (five liberals and five moderates) proposed turning to the Office of Personnel Management to administer a health care program involving private carriers in a manner modeled after the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan (which is the program that covers members of Congress). They also proposed allowing individuals 55 through 64 to buy into the Medicare program. At first the Gang of 10’s compromise seemed to have some wind at its back. But Senator Joe Lieberman announced his opposition to the Medicare buy-in concept (a proposal he previously had supported). And on Monday, after a caucus of Democratic Senators concluded, the party’s leadership in the chamber all but announced the Gang of 10’s compromise proposal was off the table. Which means liberals face an uncomfortable choice: see health care reform fail or remove the public option and push legislation through the Senate – then hope they can improve it in the conference committee.

While this result was far from certain, it isn’t much of surprise either. The fate of health care reform has long been in the hands of moderate and conservative Democratic Senators. Republicans have been united and vocal in their opposition. Announcing early in the debate that they could never support any health care reform plan that contained provisions core to the Democratic platform is not a high percentage approach to being invited to negotiate on the legislation. So their 40 votes have long been off the table. That meant that the discussion would take place exclusively among the 58 Democrats and the two Independent Senators who caucus with them.

And that’s what’s happening. And that’s why the Senate is likely to pass a health care reform bill before Christmas leaving it up to a House-Senate conference committee to come up with the final version of the reform bill. Liberals won’t be happy with the process. There will be a lot of complaining by their supporters that Democrats are failing to deliver on meaningful reform. But the reality is that moderates like Senators Tom Carper and Blanche Lincoln are as much a part of the Democratic party as Senators Jay Rockefeller and Charles Schumer. Whatever emerges from Congress will need to be acceptable to all Democrats. not just the most liberal. Or the loudest.

What all this also means is that the real work of drafting comprehensive health care reform legislation is about to get underway. It’s been a long strange trip, but that’s American politics in 2009 – and 2010, too.

Medicare Buy-in Compromise Unraveling?

Nothing lasts forever … not even health care reform compromises. The Congressional Budget Office is expected to come out with its analysis of the latest proposal – replacing a the creation of a new government-run health plan (the controversial “public option”) with a program in which Americans 55-64 could buy Medicare coverage. However, it’s looking like even if the CBO determines the idea makes financial sense, the votes to go forward with the proposal there doesn’t seem to be enough votes around for it to move forward. Which means the public option remains the big make-or-break element of health care reform in the Senate.

Only a few days ago, along with the idea of empowering the Office of Personnel Management to organize a coverage program, the Medicare buy-in compromise  seemed to be the solution to breaking the public option impasse. Now the idea seems to be losing steam.

First, doctors and hospital groups came out in opposition to the Medicare buy-in compromise, with the Washington Post reporting them as claiming the approach “would be financially untenable and would jeopardize access to health-care services for millions of Americans.”  The medical and hospital groups are concerned, according to the Washington Post, “because the program pays providers at much lower rates than private insurers, and because older Americans are the greatest consumers of health-care services.”

And then two conservative members of the Democratic caucus indicated their disapproval of the Medicare buy-in. According to the Associated Press, Senator Joe Lieberman, who had originally sounded open to the idea, now considers it “a bad deal for taxpayers and the deficit.” And the AP quotes Senator Ben Nelson as saying “I’m concerned that it’s the forerunner of single-payer, maybe even more directly than the public option.”

So while, as the Washington Post and others are reporting, the President Barack Obama and many Democrats are praising the compromise, the fact is, the Democrat’s need 100 percent buy-in by their caucus to pass any bill. (Yes, it’s possible Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins might cross party lines and vote for a bill, but it’s hard to see how these Republican Senators could support any legislation conservative Democrats like Senators Lieberman and Nelson could not).

Democrats are trying to dodge a nasty choice: dropping the public option from health care reform. Liberals have made inclusion of a public option their litmus test for meaningful reform. As the liberal blog Daily Kos put it this past summer, the public option is the compromise progressives are willing to make between a single payer system and the status quo.

In the end, however, liberals will need to decide whether the absence of a public option is enough to get them to walk away from reform. Because there does not seem to be any way they will obtain 60 votes in the Senate for a bill that includes a new government-run health plan. My guess? Liberals will complain bitterly, but ultimately vote for a bill without a public option. Health care reform has been on their agenda for decades and they have moved the issue further through Congress  than ever before. To abandon it now would set back health care reform for at least a decade if not longer. Failure would hand Republicans a huge stick to use against them in the 2010 elections.

Passing reform, even reform liberals perceive as too weak, provides a foundation for future efforts. This might seem like a hollow victory for many progressives, but it would be a victory for them nonetheless. And I just don’t see them trading even a hollow victory for a hard defeat.

House and Senate Health Care Reform Bills Mark the Beginning of the Endgame

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is unveiling his health care reform plan after it received passing grades from the Congressional Budget Office. Whether he has the 60 votes he needs to bring the bill to the floor is still an open question, but odds are he’ll have the votes when he needs it, perhaps by this weekend.

Then the fun begins. Senators will debate the bill, offer amendments, vote on those changes, and finally craft a bill. If Senator Reid and his allies play their cards well, they’ll have the 60 votes needed to allow a vote on the legislation. (Yes, before there’s a vote there’s a vote on whether to have a vote – you’ve gotta love democracy). Only then will the Senate make history and pass health care reform.

Of course, what the Senate passes and what becomes law are two different things. Just as passage by the House of Representatives of HR 3962 was only a prelude to what will be the act of drafting the “real” health care reform bill.

Many have tried, but only President Barack Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have gotten this far with health care reform. What they’ve accomplished is historic and Herculean. Whether you support or oppose their bills, respect for their accomplishment is appropriate. But getting this far is not the end. Well, it’s the end of the beginning. And it brings us closer to the beginning of the endgame.

The legislative process involves several stages. In the beginning there’s a lot of sincere questions being asked as lawmakers seek information, float trial balloons, and generally get a lay of the political landscape and the issues. During this phase there are a lot of options on the tables, including the most extreme positions (e.g., do nothing or enact a single payer system).

This phase was also when it became clear that, for the most part, Republicans were as interested in defeating “Obamacare” as they were in reforming the health care system. By publicly declaring so early in the process they would oppose any legislation containing provisions dear to the Democrats, the GOP effectively removed themselves from the deliberations. Why, after all, would Democrats negotiate with a party that had made clear they would oppose anything other than their own proposals?

Of course, Republicans could ask the same question of the Democrats (and do). The difference is that Democrats are in the majority in Congress. So if the two parties go their separate ways, the Democrats could still, under the right circumstances, pass a bill. In other words, it’s their bat and ball, so if the Republicans stalk off the field, the game continues.

In the second legislative phase the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction on health care weighed in. General concepts became legislative language. Lawmaker’s inclinations became public votes. Options feel by the wayside. (This is the phase in which the possibility of enacting a single payer system was formally laid to rest).

What the committees produced generated a lot of concern, anger and raucous  objections. Apparently some folks thought someone in Washington really thought these bills would become law. Nope. What the committees were producing were negotiating positions, not laws. Everyone had their eye on the main battle to come in the fourth phase. They were setting up their arguments, gathering their support for the real showdown.

Before the showdown, however, we have to get through the current phase, phase three. In this portion of our program, ideology and public policy take a back seat to a very practical concern: what needs to be in the bill – and what needs to stay out of the legislation – in order to get enough votes to pass it.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle describes this process as shoveling frogs into a wheelbarrow. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s job: craft a bill that could get 218 members of the House into her wheelbarrow. She succeeded by cobbling together legislation that is an abomination to many of the House Members who voted for it.

Senator Reid’s task: to get 60 Senators into his wheelbarrow. To do that he’s pared back provisions (such as on a government-run plan) in ways that only three weeks ago liberals would have labeled a betrayal (and some still do. Of course, those progressives complaining about the compromises Senator Reid has made tend not be in the Senate. Because liberal Senators understand the process. If they need to accept a weakened public insurance program to help Senator Reid keep 60 frogs in the wheelbarrow, so be it.

Why do liberal House members vote for a bill they consider an abomination and progressive Senators accept compromises that were absolutely unacceptable a few weeks ago? Because this is the phase where it’s about getting something passed, not public policy.

If the Senate passes Senator Reid’s health care reform legislation, the fourth phase begins. A conference committee will be created made up of members of the House and Senate. Their task: to meld together the House and Senate proposals into a single bill for which Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid can shovel enough frogs into their respective wheelbarrows to pass.

Think about that challenge. A single bill that can get majorities in both chambers. That won’t be easy. The process won’t be pretty. Decisions will be made based on factors outside of health care reform.

Take Senator Joe Lieberman. He’s on record declaring his opposition to a government-run health plan is a matter of conscience. His history makes clear he loves being Chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Keeping the chairmanship he loves may require him to bend his conscience a bit. Yes, who chairs a particular committee has nothing to do with the substance of health care reform. But it has everything to do with the politics of health care reform.

(By the way, I’m not saying Senator Lieberman has been threatened with losing his chairmanship unless he agrees to let health care reform come to a vote in the Senate. But if it turns out he was, no one should be surprised. Hardball is a sport played by both parties. And  the higher the stakes, the harder the ball.)

Given the nature of the issue and the politics, the conference committee will forgo public policy debates and focus on fashioning a compromise that majorities of the frogs – I mean, lawmakers – in each chamber can support. This means what the House passed and what the Senate may pass are now the extremes in the health care reform debate. Compromises, after all, tend to wind up in the middle of two poles. The Congressional leaders making up the conference committee will try to establish a middle ground on which their needed majorities can stand. Their building blocks will be what it takes to get the bill passed. That the result may be messy, perhaps even unworkable is of less concern. There will be time enough to fix those problems.

Getting reform right was for an earlier phase in the process. And by eliminating some of the more extreme ideas, by establishing the boundaries of reform, those phases assured that public policy considerations would have an impact on the final legislation. But that was then. In this final phase of the legislative process it’s is about getting reform. Period.

In short, the health care reform process to date has been fascinating and important, but it’s main purpose has been to define negotiating positions. We’ll see the end of the beginning of health care reform if and when the Senate enacts its version of reform.

Only when the conference committee convenes, however, do we move into the beginning of the endgame, the point where the drafting process of health care reform begins in earnest.

Liberal’s Approach to Health Care Reform Made Abortion Controversy Inevitable

Democrats paid a heavy toll to keep health care reform moving forward. They were forced to accept substantial and virtually unprecedented limits on abortion coverage in order to get the Affordable Health Care for America Act through the House of Representatives. This result should awaken them to the need to rethink their approach, but it assumes they learned the key lesson: where government goes, ideology follows.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi needed 218 votes to make history: passage by the House of the Affordable Health Care for America Act. Liberals got her most of the way there, but to get across the finish line Speaker Pelosi needed support from moderates and conservatives. This meant cutting a deal with the pro-life caucus. The result: HR 3962 prohibits the government-run medical plan and coverage offered through the health insurance exchanges the bill would create from covering elective abortion procedures. Liberals are furious, but to pass health care reform they had to accept this restriction as part of the package.

This post is not about the politics or morality of abortions. Readers of this blog are on both sides of this issue. This blog is about health care reform and what happened to HR 3962 concerning abortion highlights one of the greatest pitfalls in Democrats approach to reform. If they continue down the road they are on, increasing the amount of America’s health care system government directly controls and manages, the party is guaranteeing that similar defeats on similar public policy issues is all but a certainty. The issue today is abortion. In the future it could be access to birth control. Or making coverage available to domestic partners. The fact is, government-run health care does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. Politics and ideology inevitably come along for the ride.

The final health care reform bill may loosen the prohibition on abortion coverage contained in the House bill. But if the restrictions are diminished, it will be because Democrats led by Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are in control of Congress and President Barack Obama occupies the Oval Office.

For now.

Eventually conservatives will be in power again. No party or ideology dominates America’s politics forever. And a conservative government will not hesitate to use the tools given to it by Democrats to push forward their agenda merely because those tools were created by liberals. 

No one should be surprised about this political reality. In a post back in August 2007 I warned single payer advocates that a government takeover of health insurance would open the door to ideology meddling by conservatives. And in August of this year I reminded liberals that while Democrats are ascendant today, politics, like a pendulum, eventually changes direction. “In 2001 the President was George W. Bush, the Senate Majority Leader was Trent Lott and the House Speaker was Dennis Hastert (just two years earlier it had been Newt Gingrich). Their view of how a public health plan should work – what it covers and who it benefits – varies considerably from the Obama/Reid/Pelosi view. Yet the greater the role liberals give the government over health care, the more control over issues like abortion conservatives like Bush/Lott/Hastert will have when they take power again – and eventually, they will.”  And I’m hardly the only observer to state this reality.

So Democrats face a critical choice. They can pursue their health care reform goals care by increasing government’s direct participation in the market or by looking to the regulations the government imposes on the market.  One opens the door wide to groups of lawmakers holding health care reform hostage to unrelated public policy issues; the other narrows this opening.

For example, lawmakers want to prohibit carriers from denying consumers coverage because of their current or previous health conditions. Creating a health insurance exchange is one method of achieving this goal, but it is not the only way. And alternatives limit the opportunity for ideological meddling in Americans’ lives.

Yes, a public plan would increase competition in the market (a primary justification for a government-run plan), but so would health insurance co-operatives. And as non-government entities, co-operatives would be less susceptible to partisan interference.

By focusing on their goals and being careful of their methodology for achieving them, Democrats can have their health care reform and limit the price they’ll pay on other issues. Or they can continue down a road in which accepting limits on abortion coverage is merely the first of many heavy and painful tolls they will pay.

House Health Care Reform Bill: Some Varied Perspectives

One person’s socialism is another’s sellout. At least that’s the way it seems to go when it comes to health care reform. And it certainly must appear that way to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who today unveiled the Affordable Health Care for America Act. HR 3926 blends together provisions from the three House Committees that have produced health care reform legislation: the Ways & Means Committee; the Education & Labor Committee; and the Energy & Commerce Committee. The result is not as liberal as some on the left called for and is too radical for those on the right.

As CBS News reported, those on the left are upset that the bill would create a government-run insurance plan that would be required to negotiate rates with providers much as private carriers do. This angers liberals who want the public health plan to set rates that providers would have to accept, much as is done with Medicare and Medicaid.

Meanwhile, back on the Hill, conservatives attacked the House health care reform bill in no uncertain terms. “It will raise the cost of Americans’ health insurance premiums; it will kill jobs with tax hikes and new mandates, and it will cut seniors’ Medicare benefits,” proclaimed House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Is it socialism? A sellout? A good idea or a bad idea? Most readers of this blog can guess my answers (for those interested, my view of it is at the end of this post). Here’s how others are discussing the legislation:

The National Underwriter does a great job of identifying where some of the controversial provisions in the bill can be found. While the publication is a bit too fixated with the number of pages in the House health care reform bill (1,990), it’s still a good starting point for understanding the legislation. And it points out that the bill does nothing to prevent brokers to sell products within the Exchange, so it offers a bit of a reassuring start, too.

The Congressional Budget Office is highly regarded by lawmakers on both side of the partisan divide for its objective analysis of the budget impact of legislation– unless, of course, they don’t like the analysis. The CBO’s analysis of HR 3926 indicates it will reduce the deficit over the next 10 years by $104 billion, insure 96 percent of non-elderly legal residents in the country (18 million people).  The CBO’s director, Douglas Elmendorf, maintains a blog and summarizes the analysis in his post today. he notes that the findings of the CBO are “subject to substantial uncertainty.”

The Christian Science Monitor’s story reports on the how the liberals may call for a floor vote on a more robust public option than is in the bill in order to put Democratic and Republican members on record as to where they stand on a government-run health plan.

The Associated Press focuses on the CBO’s conclusion that the public option might actually cost consumers more than private coverage. It also notes that while Speaker Pelosi compromised on the powers of the government-run health plan to appease the more moderate members of her caucus, many of those moderates remain concerned about the overall cost.

A BusinessWeek article zeroes in on some of the taxes the House health care reform legislation would impose and how they differ from the taxes likely to be in the Senate reform bill.

Reimbursing doctors for providing end-of-life counseling remains in the House health care reform bill. Given that some conservatives described this provision as creating “death panels,” preserving this element of the bill can be viewed as an act of political courage. As I’ve posted before, the death panel claim was more of a cruel hoax on the American people than an insightful read of the legislation. But the passions and paranoia surrounding the provision was so vociferous, the easy course would have been to simply drop it from the bill – as was done in the Senate. The Oregon Congressman, Earl Blumeauer, who championed inclusion of the counseling provision in the health care reform package, says he was motivated by a talk with a Southern Minister who told him ‘It’s very important for those of us in the clergy that this provision be kept, cos’ we see situations where families don’t get the help they need, and we have to try to counsel them through.”

For those interested in reading the bill, here’s a link to HR 3926 – the Affordable Health Care for America Act. As noted, it’s 1990 pages, but there’s a lot of white space on most of the pages.

My take on the House health care reform bill is that it’s not socialism nor a sellout. It is a politically necessary step down a long road. As regular blog reader Alison noted in her comment on an earlier post concerning Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s efforts to forge health care reform legislation that can muster 60 votes in the Senate, “… if you start off extreme then there is more room for negotiation to where he (Senator Reid) most likely anticipates its going anyway. If you give away the farm at first you have nothing left in your hand to negotiate with. I do not believe he anticipated this to fly at all but rather offers it as a calculated starting point.”

Alison’s point applies equally as well to Speaker Pelosi’s health care reform bill.

Health care reform is a process. First there was the pre-legislation discussion of what health care reform should do. Then there were the debates in various committees in which those intentions were put into bill form. Now the leadership of each chamber are blending the work of their committees into single bills. Next will come a conference committee tasked with combining the two bills that emerge from the Senate and the House of Representatives into a single bill. At each step along the way positions harden, the rhetoric (hard to believe it’s possible) becomes even more shrill, and the compromises more plentiful. But at each stage, the final legislation becomes more clear. After all, if the House Leadership is going to push moderate Democrats to vote for a public option of any kind, a vote those moderates will need to defend at election time, they must believe it is going to be a part of the final reform package. (At least those moderate Democrats hope so).

The Affordable Health Care for America Act will look more like whatever finally emerges from Congress than the bills passed by the three House Committees. But it’s not the last word. The blended Senate bill has been described, but not seen. Both the House and Senate proposals will be evolve. We’re several weeks away from seeing the legislation that will emerge from the conference committee.

The worthiness of the result, as always, will be in the eye of the beholder.

Senator Reid Attempts to Find Middle Ground on Public Option

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s challenge was to blend the liberal Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions health care reform legislation with the more moderate bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee. One of the most contentious issues concerned the creation of a public insurance plan to compete with private carriers — the Senate HELP Committee called for one; the Senate Finance Committee explicitly rejected the concept.

The problem for Senator Reid was that some members of his caucus were threatening to oppose a bill without a government-run plan while others were making the same threat if the legislation included such a provision. And Senator Reid’s number one priority was to find a compromise that could garner the 60 votes needed to pass a bill in the Senate.

His decision:  include a public option in the blended health care reform legislation he will be bringing to the Senate floor in the next few weeks, but include restrictions on it that, while appealing to moderates, are not enough to turn off liberals.

The legislation is being reviewed by the Congressional Budget Office and is not yet available online. But Senator Reid has announced he will allow states to opt out of participating in the public plan. This approach is very appealing to moderate Democrats such as Senator Tom Carper, who voted against one of the attempts to add a government plan to the Senate Finance bill. According to the National Underwriter, Senator Carper “has been a key advocate of letting states opt out of the public option health program and create their own alternatives to private plans.”

Not all moderates in the Senate are embracing the compromise yet. The Associated Press quote Senators Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson and  Mary Landrieu as all expressing various levels of skepticism. But the White House is on-board with the compromise and will likely bring a great deal of pressure on these moderates to get at least vote in favor of ending the inevitable Republican filibuster on the health care reform legislation. By including an opt-out, these moderates can support the procedural movement and claim they were putting state rights above their opposition to the public option.

The other provision Senator Reid has apparently included in his compromise is that, in the words of Senate Charles Schumer as quoted in the National Underwriter article, “Any public option plan ought to operate on a level playing field with private insurers, and it ought to meet the same state requirements and use similar provider rates.”

How this limitation would be imposed on a government-run plan is, as yet, unknown. But if the public option must play by state-specific rules, it would be a step toward a more level playing field between the public option and private carriers — and certainly closer to the level playing field than is contemplated in the House version of health care reform.

What’s ironic is that, as I’ve written previously, a public option is likely to accomplish its primary public policy goal — reduce medical costs — only if it is allowed advantages in the marketplace such as the power to unilaterally impose reimbursement rates on providers. By restricting it to the same rules and pricing regulations as private carriers might meet, its effectiveness is reduced.

Whether a public health insurance option is part of the reform legislation eventually passed by Congress is far from certain. But Senator Reid’s proposed compromises keeps the possibility alive. At the same time, the restrictions he’s suggesting reduces the impact of the government plan. That’s a reality liberals will not accept willingly.

Senator Reid is doing what Majority Leaders have to do: find the middle ground that can garner the support of 60 Senators. It’s not an easy task. Nor will the result please everyone. It might even please no one.