Governors and HHS in Violent Agreement Concerning Exchange Flexibility?

While the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is federal law, much of its implementation is  in the hands of the states. Near the top of the list on the state’s to-do list is the creation, design and operation of the health insurance exchanges.

Not all Governors are happy with this burden. They are busy with other priorities, such as keeping their states from going bankrupt. However, the PPACA makes it hard for Governors, even those who oppose the new health care reform law, from avoiding their exchange-related responsibilities. If states fail to create an acceptable exchange in time (acceptability being determined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services) the federal government will step in and establish (and run) an exchange of its own in the non-cooperating state.

Which is one reason 21 Governors sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking for more control over the structure and operation of the exchanges. (Thanks to blog reader The Insurance Barn for commenting on this letter when it first became public). That all those signing the letter were Republicans suggests another reason might be political – shocking, I know. But focusing on the substance of the Governor’s concerns, they asked for six concessions (in their own words):

  • Provide states with complete flexibility on operating the exchange, most importantly the freedom to decide which licensed insurers are permitted to offer their products
  • Waive the bill’s costly mandates and grant states the authority to choose benefit rules that meet the specific needs of their citizens.
  • Waive the provisions that discriminate against consumer-driven health plans, such as health savings accounts (HSAs)
  • Provide blanket discretion to individual states if they chose to move non-disabled Medicaid beneficiaries into the exchanges for their insurance coverage without the need of further HHS approval.
  • Deliver a comprehensive plan for verifying incomes and subsidy amounts for exchange participants that is not an unfunded mandate but rather fully funded by the federal government and is certified as workable by an independent auditor.
  • Commission a new and objective assessment of how many people will end up in the exchanges and on Medicaid in every state as a result of the legislation (including those “offloaded” by employers), and at what potential cost to state governments. The study must be conducted by a neutral third-party research organization agreed to by the states represented in this letter.

Most of these items are non-controversial. In fact, soon after the letter was sent, Politico Pulse was reporting on a statement from HHS claiming that the PPACA already offered states the flexibility concerning the exchanges the Governors were seeking. Specifically, HHS claims (in its own words):

  • States will determine which insurers are permitted to offer products in the Exchanges.
  • States can choose benefit rules that meet the needs of their citizens.
  • Consumer-driven health plans and Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) will be available.
  • States have discretion over Medicaid coverage.
  • New funding to establish Exchanges and modernize eligibility systems is available.
  • Reliable, independent cost estimates are available.

So, the Republican Governors and the Democratic HHS Secretary are in violent agreement on this matter, right? Well, that depends on through what color lenses one is looking.

Substantively, probably. Some of the Governors’ concerns do seem to be addressed already in the PPACA or related regulations. Others are non-controversial and non=political. However, the independent cost estimates referred to by the HHS fails to meet the Governors’ criteria – to to address their concern regarding the financial impact on their states. There are some unanswered subtleties remaining, too, as well as new concerns that will no doubt surface over time.

Politically, so long as either party feels there are points to be made in the run-up to the 2012 elections by engaging in these disputes, they’ll continue to engage in these disputes. And since both sides do believe there are points to be made, expect a lot of letters passing between Governors and HHS.

What’s unfortunate in all this is that some harder questions concerning the exchanges are not being addressed. Leave aside the most important one, “are exchanges really necessary?” Most Democrats and Republicans believe they are. There are other questions needing answers, however.

For example, if exchanges will accomplish so much , why do they need special advantages? Why are tax credits offered to small businesses and premium subsidies made available to consumers only if they obtain coverage through the exchange? This assistance could be made available simply enough to those getting insurance outside an exchange. If lawmakers and regulators truly believe in maximizing consumer choice and are convinced the aggregated buying power of the exchanges will deliver increased value to small businesses and consumers, why limit the availability of the incentives? If they’re right, the exchanges will come to dominate a state’s insurance marketplace because consumers recognize their value. If not, then they have failed. Such real world feedback should be welcomed by policymakers.

Exchanges should be required to compete on a level playing field with the health plans available in the broader market. Governors of both parties should be asking for the flexibility to make this possible. And HHS should have the confidence in the exchanges necessary to make that goal a reality.

Dealing with Changing Change

The folks over at American Health Line are doing a series of guest posts discussing health policy developments over the the past year and what’s likely to happen in 2011. I was honored to be asked to participate and my contribution was posted today. Entitled “The Plot Will Thicken” it expresses my viewpoint that health care reform will continue to evolve over the next few years and especially in 2011. This doesn’t mean that every change will be for the better (which is an easy prediction to make since, depending on your perspective, what is “for the better” may be “for the worse.”) But it does mean what we think the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will do may not be what it actually does.

One reason is that the impact of the PPACA will vary to a significant extent by where you live and work. This aspect of the health care reform package hasn’t received a great deal of attention. While the PPACA is a federal law (two laws if you’re being technical — HR 3590 and HR 4872) state regulators and lawmakers will be responsible for its implementation. For example, Congress requires each state to have a health insurance exchange up-and-running by 2014 or have the Department of Health and Human Services run one for them. In the health care reform package they described in broad terms what those exchanges are supposed to do and how they’ll operate. The operative word here, however, is “broad.” States will determine whether all health plans will be eligible to participate in their exchanges, the role of navigators and brokers, the ability for consumers to enroll directly with a carrier directly through the exchange, and a lot more.

What the states decide on these questions will vary considerably. In California we’re seeing a push for a heavy government-hand in the marketplace.  In other states the exchanges are likely to have a lighter touch, adopting the role of an information resource rather than negotiating with carriers. Regardless of the approach, the states will comply with federal requirements, but their impact on the market and stakeholders will vary considerably.

Another reason the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will continue to evolve is the political reality that the Congress convening in 2011 is far different from the Congress that passed HR 3590 and HR 4872 in 2010. The impact of Republican gains — at both the state and federal levels — cannot be ignored. Nor can the shadow that is already being cast by the 2012 presidential election.  

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives will try to repeal the PPACA and they will fail, but that doesn’t mean they will be unable to influence how the reforms are implemented and interpreted. And it doesn’t mean Congress won’t attempt to modify aspects of the law. Doing so will not be easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible task.  We’re already seeing strong bi-partisan support for changing some elements of the law, for example, the 1099 reporting requirements. As more of the burdensome elements of the law become apparent the greater will be the pressure to make adjustments.

Then there’s the changes to the PPACA the courts may require. The judge in Florida hearing a suit brought by 20+ state attorneys general is likely to throw out the individual mandate contained — and he may find the entire law is unconstitutional. From a legal perspective this will be a non-event (except for providing a lot of lawyers the opportunity to appear on cable news channels). Other judges will uphold the law (and some already have). The Supreme Court will ultimately decide both of these issues. What will matter is the wind this decision will put in the sails of those seeking to amend the PPACA.

To assume that the law as we understand it today will remain as is over the next few years is to ignore the dynamic nature that is legislative and political change. Laws as complex and far-reaching as the PPACA are not set in stone. To be fair, they’re not set in sand either. They’re set in something more closely approximating Silly Putty. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one).

Even in California, one of the states that seemed immune to the conservative wave that swept across the rest of the country in the recent election, health care reform will evolve. There has been widespread concern among California brokers concerning their implicit exclusion from the exchanges. One reading of the law is that unlicensed navigators will perform the role of counseling consumers on the best health plan for their unique needs. Yet the board charged with running the exchange may realize the short-sightedness of this approach. I’m not saying they will. And until we see who is appointed to the board I wouldn’t bet on things getting better. Regardless, there will be a lot of folks (including CAHU and myself) working hard educate the exchange board, lawmakers and regulators concerning the value of brokers and how we can help achieve the shared goal of making health care coverage more affordable and accessible to Californians. Whether this effort will succeed remains to be seen — and its success if far from certain.

That health care reform will evolve doesn’t mean that brokers, providers and carriers (to name just a few of the groups impacted by the PPACA) should simply sit back and wait to see what happens. Brokers, for example, need to examine their business strategies, recognize that their world has changed and begin the process of adapting to it. Some readers of this blog (and we’ll no doubt hear from them in the comments section, below) are convinced that brokers specializing in the sale and service of individual policies are doomed to extinction and no amount of changes in the PPACA will change them. Given that reasonable people can disagree, others have expressed their intent to diversify into other product lines or market segments, but to continue to be fully engaged in the individual market.

How individual brokers (or physicians or carriers) respond to the changes resulting from implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will depend on their tolerance for risk, their ability and willingness to adapt, the nature of their current business, the state or states they operate in, and the like. What’s important for all of us to recognize, however, is that we need to keep an eye on those changes resulting from implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Because the changes will be changing, too.

Governor Schwarzenegger Signs California Health Benefit Exchange Legislation

California became the first state to enact legislation creating an exchange under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on September 30th when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law AB 1602 (authored by Assembly Speaker John Perez) and SB 900 (by Senator Elaine Alquist). The two bills create the California Health benefit Exchange. In signing the bills Governor Schwarzenegger stated “Choice and competition have the power to improve health care quality and reduce health care costs for California consumers. With the California Health Benefit Exchange, we will be able to create a competitive marketplace where consumers can choose among qualified health plans – all without relying on the state’s General Fund.”

The five-person Board created by the legislation are tasked with creating an exchange to present health plan options to individuals and small businesses beginning January 1, 2014. Concurrent with Governor Schwarzenegger’s signing of the bills, the Obama Administration announced a $1 million grant to the state “to fund the costs of preliminary planning efforts related to the development of the Exchange.” Further federal funds are expected to become available to the California Health Benefit Exchange in 2011. After 2014 the Exchange is designed to be supported entirely from fees paid by health plans and insurers, meaning no general revenues will be allocated to the entity.

Some carriers supported the legislation; others urged the Governor to veto it. The concern of many opponents was the power given to the Exchange’s Board to exclude accept or exclude carriers from the Exchange. The fear, which is demonstrated on a weekly basis by local, state and federal agencies every day, is that the Board will use the carrot of being included in the Exchange as a lever to dictate what insurers do (and what plans they offer) outside the Exchange. Giving this power to an independent Board (one that is exempt from significant oversight by the legislative or executive branches of government) is seen as a threat to the private marketplace.

Supporters argue that this power is essential if the Exchange to going to fulfill the desired (and desirable) goal of negotiating lower health insurance premiums for consumers and businesses buying through the Exchange.

Brokers have had another concern about AB 1602 and SB 900. The federal health care reform envision exchanges that include “navigators” to help consumers and business owners explore their health insurance options. However, the PPACA leaves it to states to define the actual specifics of the navigator role. Will they simply be a “help desk” answering questions about how to use the exchanges or will they be actively engaged in providing advice and guidance on which plan a consumer or business should select? The California laws leaves these details to the Exchange Board. What’s of concern, however, is that language that would have required the California Exchange’s navigators to be licensed was removed from the now-signed legislation shortly before it was passed by the Legislature.

And there’s a sentence in Governor Schwarzenegger’s press release touting his signing of AB 1602 and SB 900 that is at both once reassuring and of great concern. “The Exchange will work in partnership with agents and brokers, community organizations and other “navigators” to help consumers make informed decisions based on the price, quality and value.” While it’s reassuring the Schwarzenegger Administration recognizes that agents and brokers need to be involved with the Exchange, it’s of concern that they consider licensed professionals to be on an equal footing with unlicensed community organizations and others.

What will be important for the California Association of Health Underwriters, the leading organization representing independent producers, and other agent groups to work through with the Legislature and the Exchange Board is that there is a difference between licensed, regulated brokers and others. Each can play a role. When it comes to publicizing the Exchange and providing general advice about how to use it, non-licensed individuals and entities can play an important and valuable role. Helping consumers select the health plan that best suits their unique needs and then providing ongoing service to purchasers once they’ve obtained coverage, however, is best performed by licensed and regulated professionals.

The statement in the Governor’s press release is consistent with this division of labor, but only because it lacks details. Follow-up legislation and explicit regulations will be needed to assure consumers have access to qualified professionals. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners sees a continued role for brokers as an essential consumer protection. In a resolution adopted during their August 2010 meeting, the NAIC noted that “employers and consumers will need professional guidance even more in the future” as a result of health care reform. 

While Governor Schwarzenegger’s signing of AB 1602 and SB 900 directly impacts only Californians, other states are likely to study these bills as they contemplate the design of their own exchanges – another reason why legislation to clarify brokers’ role in the state’s Exchange should be introduced and enacted quickly in the next legislative session. So this California development could have repercussions across the country.

In some of the comments posted on this blog, some have suggested that Democratic states are likely to create anti-broker exchanges while more Republican states will create broker-friendly ones. This view, however, ignores the facts that Republican’s health care reform proposals are as those of Democrats to increase health care costs while undermining brokers’ role in the system. Consider Republican support for mandating carriers to offer health insurance coverage to all applicants (“guarantee issue”) and their opposition to requiring all consumers to purchase coverage (an “individual mandate”)  No surer recipe for skyrocketing health insurance costs exists than imposing guarantee issue without an individual mandate. Assuming lawmakers will do the right thing just because of the political party they are in is naive. What’s required is a strong political and educational push by people who understand the current system, who sees its flaws, and have practical and meaningful ideas on how to fix it. Put another way, brokers must stay involved and engaged regardless of which political party holds the majority of seats in their state’s legislatures.

Fortunately, there’s still time (even in California) to make a difference. As noted, CAHU is already working on needed changes to AB 1602 and SB 900. Meanwhile, the National Association of Health Underwriters is deeply involved in working with state legislatures and insurance commissioners to help them develop exchanges that implement the letter and spirit of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act while preserving consumers’ access to qualified, professional producers.

In any change of the consequence and complexity presented by health care reform there will be advances and setbacks. The nice thing about politics and legislation is there’s always another election and another legislative session coming up. The key is to avoid giving in to despair with each setback, but rather to persevere until one achieves the next advance.

California Exchange Legislation Greatly Flawed and Should be Vetoed

How states implement exchanges will have a tremendous impact on the efficacy of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. States can create exchanges that educate consumers, bring them innovative products, increase choice in the marketplace and encourage competition. On the other hand exchanges can be designed to drive consumers to handpicked carriers, stifle innovation, strangle competition, and reduce choice. Fashioning smart exchanges (that would be the first type mentioned) won’t be easy. Fortunately, states have time to get it right.

Which makes the California Legislature’s decision to create an exchange that will do more harm than good even more dismaying. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will need to decide whether to sign into law AB 1602 and SB 900 or veto the bills by September 30th (they can become law without his signature if he takes no action by that date). He should veto the bills and require the legislature to start over. There’s time and the need for a more thoughtful approach to California’s health insurance exchange.

AB 1602, authored by Assembly Speaker John Perez and SB 900, authored by Elaine Alquist, invests in a five member board the authority to create and operate the California Health benefit Exchange. The legislation law was supported by a broad coalition including Health Access, AARP, Blue Shield of California, Kaiser Permanente, Consumer’s Union and the SEIU. As originally drafted the legislation raised concerns, but took a more reasonable approach.

They were amended, however, in the last days before the California Legislature adjourned, in ways that will ultimately harm California consumers. The exchange board was given broad authority to set its own budget, sign contracts and create rules and regulations behind closed doors and without oversight. These concerns that are front-and-center in the efforts of the California Association of Health Underwriter’s and others to persuade Governor Schwarzenegger to veto AB 1602 and SB 900.

Other problems with the legislation is the empowerment of Navigators to assist consumers enrolling through the exchange. These individuals could wield great influence on individual’s purchasing decisions, but they are not required to be licensed. In addition, many are concerned that the exchange board could prevent independent brokers from participating in the exchange. Changes made at the last minute changed the legislation in ways that seem to run counter to a resolution recently enacted by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners which which calls on policy makers to “acknowledge the critical role of producers” and to include a role for them within exchanges.

Lawmakers need to determine the role of exchanges and strike a careful balance. Exchanges are generally regarded as a tool for simplifying the health insurance market. But simplify too much and through bureaucratic fiat as opposed to market demand, and the result will inevitably stifle innovation, depriving consumers of access to new and better plan designs.

Consider what would have happened had a five member board been empowered to determine product designs 10 years ago. Would they have created HSAs, one of today’s fastest growing types of health plans? Doubtful. And if they even considered the concept the decision would probably have been made on political grounds as much as economic ones. Would they have introduced value-based plans that reward consumers for visiting their doctors and taking healthy actions? Highly unlikely. (Full disclosure here, one of my consulting clients is SeeChange Health, a new insurance company that recently began offering just such value-based plans in parts of California).

AB 1602 and SB 900 empower the board of the Health Benefit Exchange a great deal of power to determine not just the types of plans offered within the exchange and which carriers can offer them, but also a tremendous amount of influence over what happens outside the exchange. One tremendous lever they’ll have to do so is their ability to determine, without public scrutiny or review, which insurers may participate in the exchange. They also have the ability to adopt major changes governing insurance coverage without public comment or legislative oversight.

Much has been written about how signing AB 1602 and SB 900 could be an an important part of Governor Schwarzenegger’s his legacy. Much has been written about how vetoing the exchange bills would reflect far better on the Governor’s service. Given his desire to fix what he frequently called “California’s broken health care system” the Governor no doubt would like to sign the legislation. And there’s nothing inherently wrong in giving the exchange board the ability to negotiate with carriers on behalf of those enrolling for coverage through the exchange. But those powers must be delegated in an appropriate way with an eye enhancing choice and innovation. AB 1602 and SB 900 fail to accomplish this.

All states need to be moving forward with creating their exchanges soon. It will take time to establish these operations, staff them and get them ready for business. However, lawmakers should also take the time necessary to get the legislation right. California lawmakers, in accepting last minute changes without public hearings, failed to do so. Starting over in January will still give them plenty of time to develop an exchange for the nation’s largest state that not only accomplishes the goals of such exchanges, but does so in a way that will nurture innovation over time.

Health Care Reform: Haven’t We Been Here Before?

Legislation is like the framing of a house. For example, the recent health care reforms the President signed into law provides the basic structure for a new way of doing business. But that’s all. Similarly, when a contractor puts up the frame of a house it provides a sense of where things are headed, giving a clear sense of the broad outline of what’s coming. But without the carpenters, plumbers, painters and other craftsmen, it’s not a home. Same with legislation. Without the regulators, judges, businesses and civilians interpreting, implementing and simply trying to figure out how things are supposed to work, the legislation is merely a law, not a part of life.

Nothing like an overwrought metaphor to start off a blog posting, but there you go. What got me thinking about this was coming across some material I wrote in the aftermath of California’s comprehensive small group health care reform. Best known as AB 1672 the law took effect in 1993. The legislation included guarantee issue for all small groups, limits on how carriers could rate for risk and a state-run purchasing pool. In short, AB 1672 changed the way small businesses shopped for, purchased and renewed their coverage. Immediately after the legislation was signed into law there was tremendous consternation among health insurance brokers, carriers, and others. Clients had questions. Entrepreneurs wondered about their future. Executives needed to figure out how to adapt their businesses to the new world. Eventually, they did and have prospered.

With the passage of HR 4872 and HR 3590 (the bills embodying President Barack Obama’s health care reform plan) the anxiety, fear and confusion is palpable in ways very similar to the early 90s in California. Which is reassuring. Because we too often forget that we’ve all survived tectonic shifts in the business before. All states enacted some version of health care reform in the past couple of decades. Yet, for the most part, the transition worked out. (There are exceptions. The state reforms in Washington and Tennessee, for example, needed to be dramatically rewritten when they proved impractical and ineffective. And they were).

There was also significant consternation when the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (much better known as HIPAA) became law in 1996. And many were concerned about the Children’s Health Insurance Program. And let’s not even get started on the fear generated when Medicare was first enacted in the 60s. In the end, however, the insurance industry, business community and the public adapt and even prosper. In short, it’s a familiar drill. Markets change. Regulations change. Products change. Been there. Done that.

Yes, President Obama’s health care reform plan will have much greater consequences than state laws and even HIPAA. The new law touches upon more people and a greater part of the economy than Medicare and Medicaid. Yet, it is far from the government takeover of health care that some critics contend. The new law does not create a single payer system. Nor does it do away with private enterprise. As Howard Fineman wrote recently in Newsweek, “If this (health care reform) is socialism, then Warren Buffett is Karl Marx.” (Please note, this is not an invitation for a host of screeds on the Obama Administration, Republicans, Democrats, television pundits, the mainstream media or the state of American politics. We’ve had more than enough comments along those lines on this blog already. If you absolutely have to, go ahead, but please do not feel obliged to add to the heap).

Yes, the new laws will require change. But keep in mind, insurance companies, and health insurance companies in particular, have long been one of the most regulated industries in the country. Those regulations will change because of the new law. There will be more of them. But it’s not like regulations are being imposed for the first time.

Yesterday (well, in 2008) governments at all levels accounted for roughly 45 percent of health care spending. Tomorrow (let’s say 2014) it will be somewhat more. But it was going to be more even without reform.

Think of it this way, if the government was taking over health care and the health insurance industry, would there be so many people spending so much time figuring out how to deal with the reforms? Brick walls are pretty easy to identify and to deal with – find a new job. Instead we have a much more challenging task: we have to be ready to adapt the way we do our jobs to an uncertain future, but a future that includes a role for us.

And when I say “uncertain future,” I mean uncertain. That’s because, as in the stretched metaphor above, legislation is just the starting point, the framework, for defining that future. There’s a lot more to come. The good news is, for the most part, the regulations, court decisions, carrier policies, etc. will bring some clarity and certainty to the situation.

What will the exchanges look like? The law says there will be exchanges, they will be run by the states, and that nothing prevents brokers from selling their products. There’s more, but it’s more framework along these lines. How the exchanges actually work is unknown at this time, but we’ll be learning more over the next few years.

And even when the regulations come out there’s this nasty thing called reality that tends to make its presence known. The best laid plans of mice and regulators are no match for 300 million Americans. What will give health care reform shape and substance is how Americans use the new system; what parts they seize and what aspects they ignore.

Consider this: there’s nothing in the law that says doctors have to give up their private practices. Yet as the New York Times reports, fewer young physicians are opening up private practices, instead preferring to become salaried employees of hospitals and health systems. The article notes older doctors are following suit. These doctors are reacting to regulations (and to the economy and a host of other factors). But what they’re doing is beyond and besides what current laws require. Similarly doctors, insurers, brokers and consumers will make decisions beyond and besides the new laws.

People who know they are going to be impacted by the new law want to know what those impacts are. The anticipation of change, like the anticipation of a shot or dentist visit (or worse, a shot during a dentist’s visit) is usually worse than the actual shot and/or visit. But for now, anticipation is all we have. The framework is there. The details are not.

So what to do? Worrying simply adds to the stress. Fretting is non-productive. Nothing is going to come as a surprise. And nothing will come suddenly. So the smart thing to do is to prepare.

How to get prepared? I’ll offer my thoughts in upcoming posts.

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.

Health Care Reform Means Changes for Brokers, Not Elimination

There’s a big difference between bending and breaking; between change and destruction. This is especially important to keep in mind when talking about the impact health care reform will have on insurance brokers. Some commentators, like John Goodman, president of the National Center for Policy Analysis, are quite emphatic in their doom and gloom. In an interview published in HIU magazine, Dr. Goodman states “Under any sort of exchange that’s being envisioned by Congress or the White House, there will be no broker.”

I disagree. As I wrote several months ago, my take is that “brokers will continue to be a part of whatever new health care system emerges.” My confidence rests partly on the herculean efforts made by the National Association of Health Underwriters and other broker organizations to include specific language in several of the bills moving through Congress that explicitly permit brokers to sell products offered in an exchange. But more importantly, I believe that even after the exchanges are up and running (probably in 2013) individuals and small business owners will still need the services of independent brokers.

Whether this need for brokers will survive health care reform will be determined to a large degree by two factors: the nature of the exchange(s) created; and the viability of the individual market. While it’s (unfortunately) easy to imagine an exchange that eliminates the need for brokers, the exchanges most like to emerge from the debate in Congress are widely expected to be much more benign. In my previous post I articulated a “Theory of Disintermediation.” This theory hold that “whether the Internet will eliminate distribution intermediaries depends on the interplay of six factors of the product or service being sold, specifically how:

  1. complex the product or service is to consumers
  2. frequently the product or service is purchased
  3. personal and critical the product or service is to consumers
  4. expensive is the product or service
  5. much on-site service is required to install or use the product or service
  6. easily a description of the product or service can be digitized.”

Exchanges are likely to simplify health insurance policies and bring some standardization to marketing material and the like. However, consumers are still going to have to make a decision concerning an expensive, complex product they infrequently purchase which is critical to their health and financial security. For small business owners the need for independent expertise will be even greater: they are making a decision that effects not only their own families, but those of their workers. That’s a responsibility most employers will feel reluctant to make without expert support.

Whether individual coverage remains viable is still uncertain. The danger is that while Congress will require carriers to sell coverage to all applicants, they won’t require all Americans to purchase coverage. The result is the equivalent of allowing motorists to buy auto insurance after they’ve had an accident. Few consumers would voluntarily buy such coverage until they need it. The result would be price increases previously only experienced in states like New York where this dynamic has resulted in a costly health insurance surcharge.

This may be naive and wishful thinking, but I do think there’s enough common sense in Congress to recognize the need to require all residents to obtain coverage before they show up at the doctors office or hospital. The American people seem to recognize this. A recent ABC/Washington Post public opinion poll shows a majority of those surveyed support requiring everyone to buy health insurance. Indeed, if subsidies are offered to low-income households, support for an individual mandate rises to 71 percent. So the political wind is there to help Congress create a fair and workable approach to this issue. And that, in turn, would go a long way to keeping the individual market viable.

So if brokers are likely to be part of the new world of health insurance does that mean it will be business as usual for us?

No.

The value brokers bring to the products we sell is likely to evolve. So will the way we’re paid. For example, helping consumers find the plans that best fit their unique needs will remain at the forefront of what we do. The reforms will make that part of the job easier. The reforms will make after sale service a bit more complicated as a new layer or two of bureaucracy gets added to the mix. (Only someone working in Washington DC will claim that adding a government agency, like an exchange, to the mix will reduce problems or make resolving them easier).

These are mere tweaks in the average broker’s day. The biggest, most fundamental change brokers will face is how they are compensated. First, brokers will likely be paid less per sale. Requiring everyone to purchase coverage is a two-edged sword. It dramatically increases the number of consumers buying health insurance. It also creates tremendous pressure to keep premiums low. Distribution costs are generally the second largest budget line for carriers trailing only claims costs. With everyone having to buy, reducing broker compensation for each sale is all but inevitable. This doesn’t mean producers won’t be able to do well under the new system. They’ll just have to do more. Given that 30 percent or more of the individual cases they work on today are rejected by carriers, reforms which assure all applicants are accepted will go a long way to offsetting this per sale reduction.

The second impact of reform is likely to be the end of the commission system. At the risk of being flamed by brokers reading this blog, paying us a percentage of premiums makes little sense now and will make even less sense going forward. The reality is that the cost and rewards associated with making a sale don’t relate to the premiums paid by the consumer. The biggest driver of health insurance premiums is the underlying cost of medical care and these cost increase far faster than general inflation. It’s not uncommon for medical trend increase at twice the rate of rent, supplies, phones, and other costs associated with running an agency. Linking broker pay increases to medical trend is a historical, but no longer logical, practice.

No one likes to talk about how they’re paid and the public policy issues involved. When’s the last time you heard a doctor publicly criticize the fee-for-service model – you know, the one that rewards them for maximizing the number of tests and treatments a patient receives without regard for the outcomes of those treatments? But to think that policymakers and carriers aren’t aware of this disconnect between how broker compensation is calculated and their actual costs.

Yet broker cannot work for free – nor should they. In the current system, carriers charge consumers for the brokers compensation and pass this revenue through to to the broker. It’s an efficient method and is likely to continue, but instead of commissions, brokers are likely to receive a flat fee per month per member. There may be regular adjustments made to the level of this fee to account for inflation, but it will be independent of the underlying premium.

Additionally, we’re likely to see the emergence of consultants in the individual and small group market segments. Instead of being paid through the carrier, these entrepreneurs will charge consumers directly. This is a less efficient method –- and is currently illegal in many states. But laws can be changed and the context for a new approach to producer compensation will be strong. We shouldn’t be surprised if new systems emerge.

And many consumers may find this pay for services system appealing. When California ran a health plan in the 1990s it imposed on a five percent of premium surcharge on small business owners wanting to work with a broker. Over 65 percent of the employers enrolling in the state plan paid the surcharge.

I believe Dr. Goodman’s warning that health care reform will do away with brokers is overstated.  And brokers need to remember, just because someone – even someone as bright and respected as Dr. Goodman – claims the sky is falling, doesn’t mean it is falling. It could just be changing.

Health Insurance Exchanges are No Miracle Cure

That health care reform would include an insurance exchange has been all but a given for months. Democrats and Republicans alike are enamored with the idea of creating a marketplace in which individuals, small business and maybe larger enterprises could shop for health insurance. There are differing opinions as to whether these exchanges simply help purchasers compare plans on an apples-to-apples basis by presenting benefits and rates in a common format and language (along with providing common enrollment forms and the like) or whether they should also negotiate benefit and pricing with carriers and help users select and purchase coverage. What is rarely brought up is that exchanges are effective only if they are innocuous or cheat.

By innocuous I mean they serve simply as a data resource, providing consumers basic information in a common format and using a common terminology. Don’t get me wrong. This would be an extremely valuable service. Numerous brokers provide this kind of information today, but they’re hamstrung by the differing language and descriptions used by carriers. By forcing health plans to adopt a shared language, consumers would enjoy greater clarity when determining what plan to buy.

By cheating I mean that the playing field needs to be tilted in the favor of the exchange or it will not either deliver the intended value or last very long. That’s not the point of an op-ed in the New York Times by Cappy McGarr, who helped launch Texas’ version of a purchasing pool back in 1993, but it’s a fair conclusion. (Note: you may need to register with the New York Times web site to view the article, but registration is free. And my thanks to reader Nosedoc for bringing this opinion piece to my attention).  Mr. McGarr describes the failure of purchasing pools to take hold last decade in Texas, California, North Carolina and Florida. He blames their failure on cherry picking by private carriers outside the exchange, claiming these carriers signed up “all the small businesses with generally healthy employees and offload(ed) the bad risk … onto the exchange.”

From what I saw of the California version of a purchasing pool, Mr. McGarr claim is accurate in defining the problem, but wrong in describing the cause. California’s purchasing pool (called the Health Insurance Plan of California, or HIPC) did attract groups with higher claims. But this wasn’t the result of carriers directing expensive insureds to the pools as claimed by Mr. McGarr. Instead it was the direct result of a decision taken by the HIPC’s administrators.

Outside the HIPC, private carriers were required to accept all small groups applying for coverage, but could adjust rates up or down 10 percent based on a group’s risk profile. Virtually all of them did. The HIPC could have used this legal rating band, but its leadership chose not to do so. (The members and staff of the agency responsible for the HIPC were bright, well intentioned individuals, but they were reacting, at least in part, to public policy concerns, not a business needs). This meant low risk groups found the market outside more attractive and high risk groups found the offerings within the HIPC more attractive. The result is neither sinister nor should it be unexpected.

When competing against the private market, exchanges will have other disadvantages. For example, government agencies must hold open and public meetings. This is a good thing, the government shouldn’t operate behind closed doors. But it’s also a cumbersome process. Businesses need to adjust quickly to changing circumstances, move quickly to seize unexpected opportunities and to avoid unanticipated dangers. Government enterprises are restricted in their ability to take fast action; private companies are not.

So how can exchanges compete with a vibrant market beyond their jurisdiction? One way is to give the exchanges advantages over the private market; the other is to hobble the private market. For example, the legislation making its way through Congress offers premium subsidies to lower income Americans. yet those subsidies can only be used within the exchange. Why? If coverage outside the exchange meets the definition of acceptable coverage, shouldn’t consumers have the choice to use their subsidies on whatever plan they determine best fits their needs? Lawmakers claim to support consumer choice, but here’s an example of where members of both parties are willing to restrict that choice. Other methods of tilting the playing field? Force carriers to participate in the exchange. Limit what they can do with their non-exchange products.

Mr. McGarr’s suggested solution is to require private carriers to accept all applicants (an idea nearly everyone, including the private carriers agrees upon) and to prevent them from adjusting rates based on health status. He notes, however, that enforcement will be challenging and then makes an interesting proposal: instead of creating exchanges to foster competition, create a public plan.

As regular readers know, I’m not a fan of public plans. But it is interesting to think about the trade-off. If a public plan was required to play by the same rules as private carriers (no fair simply reimbursing providers a percentage of Medicare rates) and be self-sufficient, would that be worse than creating exchanges that lawmakers will find ways of benefitting through a tilted playing field?  After all, if exchanges are to have a significant impact on the cost of health insurance, they will need to negotiate rates with doctors and hospitals. But that’s not what they do. It is, however, what public plans do.

Not that we have a choice, but if we did, which would you choose? An exchange? Or a public plan?

Senator Baucus Reaches Out to Liberals and Moderates on Health Care Reform

The Senate Finance Committee has embarked on its long journey to amend and refine the Chairman’s Mark of America’s Healthy Future Act of 2009. While there’s a lot of attention being given to the fact that committee members have submitted over 500 amendments that number is less impressive than it may seem. Many of these proposed changes are technical in nature while others are duplicative. Besides, it’s not the number of amendments that matter, it’s the substance of them that determines the scope of the task facing the committee.

The task is great. Three ideologies are at play on the committee: conservative, moderate and liberal. While conservatives will have their say and no doubt get a few of their proposals added to the bill, it is moderates and conservatives – most all of them Democrats – who will truly shape the final outcome. Most Republicans have made it clear they will vote against any bill that resembles the Chairman’s Mark. This effectively removes them from the mix, leaving the shaping of the legislation to a tug-of-war between moderates and liberals.

Senator Max Baucus modified his Chairman’s Mark to address criticism from liberals and to reach out to some moderates.

For example, Senator Baucus’ health care reform plan requires all individuals to obtain medical insurance and provides a premium subsidy to help make the coverage affordable for lower-income households. Originally, those subsidies were designed to cap premium costs at three percent of a household income for those making 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level rising to thirteen percent of household income for those households earning 300 percent of the FPL. Senator Baucus modified his original proposal to “lower the maximum amount of income that families would contribute to their health insurance premiums to two percent of income for those at 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level …” He also increased the number of Americans eligible for those subsidies to households earning 400 percent of the FPL ($43,320 for an individual; $88,200 for a family of four) and capped their premium costs at 12 percent of income — $10,584 for a family at 400 percent of FPL. (Page 6 of the Modifications to the Chairman’s Mark). To illustrate how the subsidies under various health care reform bills work, including the modified version of Senator Baucus’ proposal, take a look at the nifty subsidy calculator on Kaiser Family Foundation site.

Senator Baucus also reduced out-of-pocket maximums for households between 200 and 300 of the poverty level to two-thirds of the HSA out-of-pocket limit ($3,987 for an individual; $7,073 for a family in 2010). (Page 6 of the Modifications).

A change requested by Senator Olympia Snowe, the Republican most likely to support the bill in committee, was accepted by Senator Baucus. It would require small employers to provide a plan with a deductible of no more than $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for families unless higher amounts are offset by HSAs, HRAs or the like. (This requirement would not impact the “young invincible” catastrophic coverage medical plan (that also cover preventive care) available to those 25 years old and younger. (Page 6 of the Modifications).

Speaking of the young invincible bill, Senator Baucus accepted another proposal by Senator Snow, opening up eligibility for these plans to those who would otherwise have been eligible for a hardship exemption from the requirement to obtain coverage. The exemption was available to those for whom premiums exceed 10 percent of their income. (Page 6 of the Modifications).

As originally proposed, workers receiving coverage from their employers that met certain conditions would be ineligible to receive tax credits to enable them to purchase coverage on their own through a health insurance exchange. Senator Baucus accepted yet another amendment from Senator Snowe that lowers this threshold, permitting employees whose share of premiums through their employer-sponsored coverage exceeds 10 percent of their income to qualify for the tax credit. (Page 7 of the Modifications).

There are other significant changes, too. For example, the threshold for plans on which insurance companies would be subject to a tax (so-called “Cadillac plans) had not been indexed to inflation in the original proposal. Over time this meant these plans (costing $8,000 for individual coverage and $21,000 for family coverage in 2013) would likely look more like Chevrolets. Senator Baucus now indexes the threshold for these plans. He also increased the excise tax from 35 percent to 40 percent.

The amendments accepted by Senator Baucus without a debate highlights his desire to placate Senator Snowe and other moderates on one hand while addressing some of the concerns of liberals on the other. The political calculus is simple: the more these Senators can claim that they improved the bill, the greater their political cover to vote for it.

Put another way, it is unlikely any of the changes accepted by Senator Baucus reduces the chances of the bills passage and many increase its chances. With hours of debate and dozens of sustentative changes to consider, this journey is far from over.

Obama Speech Accomplishes Much, But It’s Only a Start

Agree with him or not, President Barack Obama knows how to deliver a speech. Anyone free of Pavlovian conditioning against the man would admit his address to Congress Wednesday night was powerful and at times moving. The question is, of course, what does it mean? (For those interested in reading along, here is the prepared text of President Obama’s health care reform speech).

First, it signals President Obama’s intent to shape not just the Congressional and public debate, but health care reform legislation itself. He repeatedly sprinkled variations of “under my plan” when discussing proposals. Whereas in the past he was content to lay out general principles to guide the reform process, this phrasing signals he is now taking ownership of the legislation. That alone will change the course of the legislative process.

Second, he gave Senator Max Baucus and the Gang of Six the cover they need to negotiate bi-partisan health care reform. As discussed in earlier posts, the Senate Finance Committee Senator Baucus chairs will take up legislation next week. The path they are headed down, as outlined in the Framework for Comprehensive Health Reform, disappoints many liberals. President Obama could have left them out on a political limb. Instead he embraced several of their proposals and, by refraining from declaring a government-run health plan a necessary component of reform, gave the negotiators the space they need to deliver a moderate package. Based on the President’s speech, there is little if anything in the Framework he would not accept. What this means is that the legislation produced by the Senate Finance Committee could serve as the foundation upon which the President can build his own, detailed proposal.

Third, the President, after the requisite insurance industry bashing, focused on constraining health care costs. Whether his proposals go far enough to “bend the cost curve” as the Administration is fond of saying, is open to legitimate challenge. But by elevating the need for controlling medical costs to the top of the health care reform discussion, the President makes it more likely cost containment will be part of the final package.

Fourth, President Obama made clear he would no longer tolerate lies and half-truths about his health care reform package. He called those who claim he would establish death panels liars. He rebuked those who claim illegal aliens would be eligible for federal premium subsidies. He rejected charges that he would be cutting back on Medicare benefits. There are those who will continue to make these charges, but the President made clear their claims would be repudiated quickly, loudly and sharply.

Fifth, President Obama called for a more robust Health Insurance Exchange than some moderates have been considering. He noted an exchange available to individuals and small businesses would mean “these customers will have greater leverage to bargain with the insurance companies for better prices and quality coverage. the same clout large employers enjoy when negotiating rates.” This implies the exchange would do more than simply present information to consumers, but would define benefits and seek bids from carriers wishing access to these markets. Whether or not such an exchange would be successful is open to debate. A similar approach was taken in California as part of its small group reform in the 1990’s. That legislation, AB 1672 is generally considered to have been very successful. The purchasing pool it created, however, has long been out-of-business, unable to compete with the private market.

Sixth, the President put forward his pragmatic side. He wants a government-run health plan to compete with private carriers, but he didn’t declare such a public plan was critical. Instead he said, the impact of a public option “shouldn’t be exaggerated – by the left or the right or the media. It is only one part of my plan ….” In other words, it’s a part of his plan he’d like to see in whatever legislation passes Congress, but it’s not an absolute requirement. Another example of his pragmatism trumping partisan ideology: the President reached out to Republicans by adopting some of their proposals, including those concerning malpractice reform. Yes, there was red meat for liberals, but there was plenty for moderates and even some conservatives to cheer about in his speech.

Seventh, President Obama’s speech was, well, presidential. Republican behavior was a bit childish. When President Obama stated that “the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally” Representative Joe Wilson achieved a new low in politics by shouting out “You lie!” Even when President Bush was arguably shredding the Constitution and, intentionally or not, misstating the facts, Democrats still treated him with respect when he appeared before Congress. Many Americans will see Representative Wilson’s outburst as a sign of partisan passions coming to rule the GOP. (Representative Wilson later apologized for his “lack of civility,” but the damage was done). Meanwhile, Republican House members were shown on television waiving paper at the President. Apparently these were copies of the GOP health care reform plan and their presence at the speech was meant to demonstrate that the Republicans were more than just the party of “no.” Unfortunately, the television audience wasn’t in on the symbolism. It just looked strange and undignified. Again, like Representative Wilson’s behavior, these antics may play well to the base, but it does nothing to expand that base.

Eighth, the President made clear the status quo is untenable. However, this message was simply part of a 45 minute presentation, dampening the impact. Change scares people. President Obama needs to prove his message that change is needed. If the Administration wants to reposition the debate to require opponents of health care reform to defend the status quo, he will need to devote at least one political event to this topic.

President Obama accomplished a great deal in his address to Congress, but at the end of the day, it was just one speech. Now comes the tough part, tying together the elements of a package that can make it’s way through Congress, while at the same time justifying the reform effort. Given the passions surrounding the health care reform issue, this will be no easy task.