President Obama and Health Care Reform Expectations

Senator Barack Obama remains a Senator for another 77 days. Then he becomes President of the United States. His is a remarkable story heightened by his ability to both symoblize and articulate hope. The challenges he will face upon assuming office are daunting, to say the least. Then there’s the expectations.

Every political campaign is about expectations. Candidates make promises because voters want to know what to expect. Democrats and Republicans, Mavericks and Insiders, they all make promises, which means they all create expectations. In this election, both candidates raised expectations that the nation’s “broken health care system” would, at least, be fixed.

I believe there will be comprehensive national health care reform in the next four years. There’s clearly pent-up demand in Congress for change. A bi-partisan group of Senators led by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Bob Bennett already have introduced a comprehensive health care reform package, the “Healthy Americans Act.” Senator Edward Kennedy is looking to cap his historic tenure in Congress with health care reform. While battling brain cancer he and his aides have been meeting (both personally and by video conference) lawmakers and advocacy groups to create a framework for health care reform. Many in Washington believe that the Clinton Administration squandered a unique opportunity for reforms that would have greatly benefited the nation over the past 14 years. They do not intend to let another chance go by.

Health Access outlined several reasons for progressives to be optimistic that meaningful reform is coming from Washington, D.C. They note the starring role health care reform played in Senator Obama’s campaign and the Obama/Biden ticket’s endorsement of Health Care for America Now!’s principles. They point out Senator Obama’s resounding victory will give him the political muscle, and his campaign theme and image gives him the credibility, to push through meaningful reforms.

I believe Health Access’ analysis is correct. There’s another reason health care reform is likely: the Obama Administration will take a far different approach than that taken by the Clinton Administration in 1993. They’ll learn from President Clinton’s mistakes. They’ll be far more inclusive and more accepting of input from Congress. They’ll be more willing to compromise on specifics to achieve their principles.  President Obama will bring to health care reform the same superb organization and discipline he brought to his campaign. All of this bodes well for some kind of significant reform coming out of Washington in the next four years.

The Obama Administration will face two challenges in fulfilling the health care reform expectations. First is the complex nature of the problem. A great deal of the upcoming debate will be spent on market reforms (should insurers be required to sell coverage to all applicants?) and access (should all Americans be required to have health care coverage?). These questions alone have brought down many a reform proposal. Yet they’re the relatively easy challenges. Too little attention will be spent on the most vexing problem facing every health care system in the world: the skyrocketing cost of medical care.

Someone has to pay for health care and there are only three sources: taxes, premiums or charity (some people pick up the tab for other people). Medical care inflation historically outpaces general inflation and there’s no reason to believe that will change. Which means it’s only a matter of time before the burden of paying for care crushes every and all of those sources.

This isn’t news. Last year the Henrey J. Kaiser Family Foundation released a study, Health Care Costs: A Primer, that put the discrepancy between inflation rates in perspective. There have been sporadic attempts in Washington to draw attention to the cost issue. In November 2007 the Congressional Budget Office identified the need for policy makers to focus on restraining health care costs. There are a lot of suggestions for controlling medical cost problem floating around. Few of them are easy to implement, especially since numerous interest groups will work hard to defend their current share of the health care dollar. And in the end, for better or worse, health care reform comes down to dollars.

Which leads to the second problem facing President Obama’s health care reform efforts. The nation’s economic house is in disorder. Can the nation afford expensive health care reform during a time of financial crisis?

Well, it depends. If health care reform is viewed as a line item expense on the government’s ledger, the answer is no. Even a liberal Congress is going to be hesitant to run up ever greater deficits by increasing government spending. And it’s not yet clear this Congress will be more liberal than the last. After all, a lot of its newer members came from relatively conservative districts or states. Especially when it comes to budget matters like deficits and taxes, the new Congress may have swing toward the middle.

But spending money on the health care system need not be viewed as a simple expense. By repositioning health care reform as part of a public works-like stimulus package the huge costs involved may be more palatable to the public and fiscal hawks in Washington. President-elect Obama has already declared his desire to increase spending on the nation’s infrastructure in order to create jobs and bolster the economy. Infrastructure is usually defined as roads, bridges and buildings. That doesn’t mean the definition can’t be expanded to encompass the health of its work force. In this context, health care reform is not a cost, it’s an investment.

President-elect Obama has promised voters health care reform during his first term. Upon taking office, however, he’ll face wars abroad and economic crisis at home. Dealing with the latter does not require him to ignore the former issue. By positioning health care reform as part of his plan to rebuild America, he might actually be able to fulfill the great expectations he’s created.

Senator Invites Carriers to Help with Health Care Reform

A coalition of Senators is waiting to help the next president forge a bi-partisan coalition on health care reform. A leader of the group, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, spoke before the America’s Health Insurance Plans 2008 National Policy Forum on March 5th and urged health plans to join the effort, not to fight it.

The 12 Senators, six Democrats and six Republicans, have their own health care reform proposal before Congress, the Healthy Americans Act. None of the Senators support every element of the package. But the mere existence of a bi-partisan coalition surrounding health care reform will give the next president a boost in developing a compromise plan.

In Senator Wyden’s address to AHIP, he said the “success of health care reform hinges to a great extent on how your profession responds to the efforts of a new president and a new Congress.” He warned, however, that if medical carriers spend “millions of dollars fighting to preserve the status quo, you may delay reform for awhile but you will increase the likelihood of a government run health system with no role for the private sector.”

In urging the insurance industry to become a part of fashioning a solution, Senator Wyden noted that in a market in which 20 percent of Americans are uninsured, carriers need to be good avoiding risk. As Senator Wyden put it, “If you don’t excel at shedding risk, you are going to enroll too many people who need too much care.  Enrolling too many people who need too much care means that your costs are going to go through the roof.  When your costs soar this way, the healthy people that you do business with are going to start looking for another insurer whose costs aren’t going through the stratosphere.  In other words they’re going to look for another insurer who does a better job of shedding risk.”

This, according to Senator Wyden, is part of the reason the current health care system is broken. Another reason is that health care in the United States is tied to the employer/employee relationship, which the Senator noted hasn’t changed much since 1948. “But economic challenges for business and workers today are very different then they were in 1948,” he noted.  “Sixty years ago employers weren’t operating in a global marketplace and employees who went to work at twenty stuck around long enough to get a gold watch and a steak dinner for retirement.  Employers need cost-containment and workers need quality health care within a system that is portable – where they can truly take their insurance from job to job.”

As an alternative, Senator Wyden suggested carriers consider a new approach in which “everyone who’s not in the military or on Medicare, has a basic private health insurance policy. Private insurance companies are on the same footing – each must take all comers. Competition would be based on price, benefit and quality.”

This is the underlying approach established by the Healthy Americans Act. In asking his audience to consider supporting the legislation, he cited six reasons why health plans would benefit from this alternative system:

  1. Bringing the 47 million uninsured into the system would greatly expand the private insurance market.
  2. There would be “no competitive disadvantage for carriers doing the right thing” and, with a risk sharing mechanism as part of the package, there would be no need to specialize in risk avoidance.
  3. The legislation supports increased information and transparency in the health marketplace.
  4. By focusing on wellness and preventive programs, carriers would be selling a product people want more of.
  5. Carriers “wouldn’t be the political football any longer.”
  6. More attention could be given to cost containment issues such as reducing needless medical errors.

He concluded his speech with a plea to carriers to be a part of the solution. “I want to ask you to become a part of the Senate’s bipartisan effort to fix American health care. Both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate want to work with you to get health care right in 2009.”

My take on all this is that the stars may be aligning for a health care reform effort that is more consultative than adversarial. Senator Barack Obama has certainly spoken of the need to have everyone, including carriers at the table. Senator Hillary Clinton has also spoken of leading a more open process than she did during her husband’s Administration. Significantly, Senator John Edwards, who promised to exclude the health insurance industry from participating in the health care reform debate, is out of the race.

I also think a move away from employer-provided coverage is likely to be a strong current in future health care reform discussions. Senator John McCain favors this approach as does the bi-partisan coalition of Senators backing the Healthy Americans Act. The business community would love to be relieved of the burden of shouldering the nation’s health care system. In speeches I began giving in 2006 I predicted that health care coverage might follow the path of pensions. Instead of companies running pension plans they moved to simply administering — and contributing to — their employee’s individual retirement plans. Similarly, employers could administer — and contribute to — employee’s individual health plans. Even though the Democratic presidential candidates still embrace an employer-centric system, the support fora more individual-centric model is gaining momentum..

For health plans this could be good news. They would remain a core part of the nation’s health care system. While the nature of their competition would change, it would still likely be a vibrant, primarily private, market.

The role of health insurance agents could change far more dramatically. If consumers are pushed into exchanges, connectors or purchasing pools, the system administrators might assume they can play the role of agents. It will be important for agents to make sure Americans continue to have access to independent advocates and consultants — in other words, to professional insurance agents. That won’t be easy. Many lawmakers — and even more of their staffs — have never worked with an agent and don’t understand the value we bring to the system.

Senator Wyden and others, however, have expressed a willingness to listen to others. That’s an opportunity agents need to seize. Fortunately agents have a compelling story to tell.