The Endangered Individual Health Insurance Market

And then there were none? The individual health insurance marketplace is endangered and policymakers need to start thinking about a fix now, before we pass the point of no return.

Health plans aren’t officially withdrawing from the individual and family market segment, but actual formal withdrawals are rare. What we are witnessing, however, may be the start of a stampede of virtual exits.

From a carrier perspective, the individual and family health insurance market has never been easy. This market is far more susceptible to adverse selection than is group coverage. The Affordable Care Act’s requirement guaranee issue coverage only makes adverse selection more likely, although, to be fair, the individual mandate mitigates this risk to some extent. Then again, the penalty enforcing the individual mandate is simply inadequate to have the desired effect.

Add to this higher costs to administer individual policies relative to group coverage and the greater volatility of the insured pool. Stability is a challenge as people move in-and-out of the individual market as they find or lose jobs with employer provided coverage. In short, competing in the individual market is not for the faint of heart, which is why many more carriers offer group coverage than individual policies. Those carriers in the individual market tend to be very good at it. They have to be to survive.

Come 2014, when most of the ACA’s provisions took effect, these carriers suddenly found their expertise less helpful. The changes were so substantial historical experience could give limited guidance. There were simply too many unanswered questions. How would guarantee issue impact the risk profile of consumers buying their own coverage? Would the individual mandate be effective? How would competitors price their products? Would physicians and providers raise prices in light of increased demand for services? The list goes on.

Actuaries are great at forecasting results when given large amounts of data concerning long-term trends. Enter a horde of unknowns, however, and their science rapidly veers towards mere educated guesses. The drafters of the ACA anticipated this situation and established three critical mechanisms to help carriers get through the transition to a new world: the risk adjustment, reinsurance and risk corridor programs.

Risk corridors are especially important in this context as they limit carriers’ losses—and gains. Carriers experiencing claims less than 97% of a specified target pay into a fund administered by Health and Human Services; health plans with claims greater than 103% of this target receive funds. You can think of risk corridors as market-wide shock absorbers helping carriers make it down an unknown, bumpy road without shaking themselves apart.

You can think of them as shock absorbers. Senator Marco Rubio apparently cannot. Instead, Senator Rubio views risk corridors as “taxpayer-funded bailouts of insurance companies.”

In 2014 Senator Rubio led a successful effort to insert a rider into the budget bill preventing HHS from transferring money from other accounts to bolster the risk corridors program if the dollars paid in by profitable carriers were insufficient to meet the needs of unprofitable carriers. This provision was retained in the budget agreement Congress reached with the Obama Administration late last year. Senator Rubio in effect removed the springs from the shock absorber. The result is that HHS could only reimburse carriers seeking reimbursement under the risk corridors program just 12.6% of what they were due based on their 2014 experience. This was a significant factor in the half the health co-operatives set up under the ACA shuttering.

Meanwhile individual health insurers have taken a financial beating. In 2015 United Healthcare lost $475 million on its individual policies. Anthem, Aetna, Humana and others have all reported substantial losses in this market segment. The carriers point to the Affordable Care Act as a direct cause of these financial set-backs. Supporters of the health care reform law push back on that assertion, however. For example, Peter Lee, executive director of California’s state-run exchange, argues carriers’ faulty pricing and weak networks are to blame. Whatever the cause, the losses are real and substantial. The health plans are taking steps to staunch the bleeding.

One step several carriers are considering is to leave the health insurance exchanges. Another is to exit the individual market altogether; not formally, but for virtually. Formal market withdrawals by health plans are rare. The regulatory burden is heavy and insurers are usually barred from reentering the market for a number of years (five years in California, for example).

There’s more than one way to leave a market, however. A method carriers sometimes employ is to continue offering policies, but make it very hard to buy them. Since so many consumers rely on the expertise of professional agents to find the right health plans, a carrier can prevent sales by making it difficult or unprofitable for agents to do their job. Slash commissions to zero and agents lose money on each sale.

While I haven’t seen documentation yet, I’m hearing of an increasing number of carriers eliminating agent commissions and others removing agent support staff from the field. (Several carriers have eliminated field support in California. If you know of other insurers making a similar move or ending commissions please provide documentation in the comments section).

So what can be done? In a presidential election year not much legislatively. Republicans will want to use an imploding individual market to justify their calls repealing the ACA altogether. Senator Bernie Sanders will cite this situation as yet another reason we need “Medicare for all.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, has an incentive to raise the alarm. She wants to build on the ACA. Having it implode just before the November presidential election won’t help her campaign. She needs to get in front of this issue now to demonstrate she understands the issue and concerns, begin mapping out the solution and inoculate herself from whatever happens later this year.

Congress should get in front of the situation now, too. Hearings on the implosion of the individual market and discussions on how to deal with it would lay the groundwork for meaningful legislative action in 2017. State regulators must take notice of the endangered individual market as well. They have a responsibility to assure competitive markets. They need to examine the levers at their disposal to find creative approaches to keep existing and attract new carriers into the individual market.

If the individual market is reduced to one or two carriers in a region, no one wins. Competition and choice are consumers’ friends. Monopolies are not. And when consumers (also known as voters) lose, so do politicians. Which means smart lawmakers will start addressing this issue now.

The individual health insurance market may be an endangered species, but it’s not extinct … yet. There’s still time to act. Just not a lot of time.

Health Care Reform Absent from Democratic Debate

Two hours of policy-heavy dialogue and, unless I missed it, not one of the five Democratic candidates for President uttered the words “Obamacare,” “Affordable Care Act” or “health care reform.” True, Senator Bernie Sanders brought up “Medicare for all” and declared that health care coverage is a right of citizenship. However, there was no mention of his remarks by the other candidates, former Senator Lincoln Chafee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Governor Martin O’Malley, and former Senator Jim Webb.

Update: October 14, 2015: Oops. There was a brief discussion of allowing undocumented immigrants eligible for coverage under the ACA. The focus of this segment was immigration and the candidates mention of health care was incidental. I don’t think this undermines the point of this post, but they did mention it. My bad.

Ignoring health care reform is a s pretty amazing development when you think about it. Health care reform was a big part of the Democratic presidential primary campaign in 2008. The passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010 turned American politics upside down adding copious amounts of fuel to the Tea Party movement. Yet, in the CNN/Facebook debate from Las Vegas … not a word.

I’m not saying CNN should have made health care reform the primary topic of Tuesday night’s Democratic debate. However, a short simple question soliciting short simple answers would have, I believe, highlighted some differences among the candidates. At the very least it would have contrasted the Democrats running for president from the Republicans seeking the office.

My hoped for question: “What changes to the Affordable Care Act, if any, would you seek if elected President?”

We know Senator Sanders’ response: he’d scrap the Affordable Care Act for a single payer system. Would any of the others join him? Maybe. Would any of them defend the health care reform law as is? Possibly. Quizzing the candidates on legalizing marijuana was of interest to some, no doubt, but, in my mind at least, finding out what they’d change in the ACA is both a more important and fascinating topic.Of course, given the topic of this blog, I am a bit biased.

Jeb Bush Reveals Health Care Reform Plan

Ironically, this is the day former Republican presidential candidate, Governor Jeb Bush, detailed his health care reform proposal. Calling the ACA a “monstrosity,” Governor Bush said the government should help Americans obtain catastrophic coverage (albeit with a preventive care component) to protect them from financial ruin, but not force individuals to buy and businesses to offer comprehensive coverage.He would require carriers to cover insured’s pre-existing conditions for individuals who maintain continuous coverage.

Under Governor Bush’s proposal, individuals without employer coverage would receive tax credits allowing them to buy coverage against “high cost medical events.” Governor Bush also called for raising the contributions limits allowed on health savings accounts.

Significantly, Governor Bush recognizes that the ACA can’t simply be repealed without serious adverse impacts on what he calls “the 17 million Americans entangled in Obamacare.” He calls for a transition plan to help them move from the ACA to the Governor’s system.

Governor Bush’s health care reform plan also calls for restoring state regulation of insurance markets, promotion of health information technology adoption, wellness rewards and innovation in care delivery models. An interesting, and maybe wishful, provision of his proposal is “an app on your smart phone that calls your doctor to your front door, just as it does for a car to come pick you up.”

Maybe Next Time

Health care reform in general and the Affordable Care Act will no doubt be a big part of the general election. Governor Bush has laid out one approach for Republicans. It would be nice to learn a bit more about what Democrats would do. CBS hosts the next one on November 14th. Maybe the issue will come up then.

Is requesting one straightforward health care reform question asking for too much?

 

Health Care Reform the 2016 Where’s Waldo

At this time in 2011, six months before the Iowa caucuses, health care reform was a big deal. Republicans couldn’t see a live microphone without calling for its repeal. And one would think that the official name of what was commonly referred to as “Obamacare” was “the President’s signature issue” in his first term. Flash forward four years and health care reform is now the “Where’s Waldo” issue of 2016: it’s there somewhere, but darn well hidden.

True, every candidate on the GOP wants to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. They are all happy to haul out the old tropes about how the ACA is a job killing, anti-free market, mess and a government overreach. Many will be happy to explain how it’s all unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, every candidate on the Democratic side is defending the ACA, although some more enthusiastically than, well, at least one. Candidate Bernie Sanders has promised to introduce “Medicare for all” legislation (a euphemism for single payer) soon and would seek a single payer solution were he to become president. Yet even on the Democratic side, the topic of the ACA is pretty well hidden in their campaigns.

In fact, a quick survey of campaign web sites shows a remarkable lack of emphasis on health care reform by presidential candidates. On the Democratic side, health care reform doesn’t make the issues list on the campaign web sites of former Governor Martin O’Malley or Senator Bernie Sanders. Defending the Affordable Care Act is the ninth issue addressed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s web site.

On the Republican side Donald Trump is too busy bullying his opponents and the press to mention any issues other than immigration on his site. Health care reform makes Dr. Ben Carson list of issues, but he devotes just 98 words to the topic — and the only alternative he mentions is his support of health savings accounts. Former Governor Jeb Bush’s site is nearly issues free (there’s a white paper on his tax reform plan in the “news” section, but there is no “issues” tab). I couldn’t find anything about health care reform on the site. Then, I couldn’t find the issue (or any issues) on Carly Fiorina‘s or Senator Ted Cruz‘s sites, either.

Governor Scott Walker announces his intent to repeal Obamacare on his first day in office. And although I couldn’t find it on his web site, to his credit Governor Walker has offered a plan to replace the ACA. Senator Marco Rubio gets around to discussing health care reform on his web site after first mentioning 17 other issues while on Governor John Kasich‘s site it comes in at #3.

Given all that’s going on the world, it’s not surprising health care reform isn’t a driving issue. Which is remarkable. Health care reform arguably gave birth to the Tea Party movement. It cost Democrats the majority in the House in 2010 and helped chip away at their Senate majority until that was lost, too. In short, health care reform moved elections.

Now, not so much. The ACA is a part of America’s landscape now. Too many people are insured under the law to repeal it. Too much physical, digital and process infrastructure has been built out. Too many stakeholders are vested in the ACA continuing and opponents of the reforms have no coherent program to replace it.

This isn’t a bad thing. Because it opens up a real possibility that, once there’s a new President and Congress in 2017, they can accomplish something important: fixing the Affordable Care Act. The law has lots of flaws, but the debate since it’s passage has too often been an all-or-nothing affair: dump it or defend it. Yes, there’s been some tweaking around the edges of the legislation, but not the comprehensive review and modification that’s needed.

Finding Waldo can be hard. Finding a way forward to improve the ACA will be harder still. If little kids can find Waldo, perhaps there’s hope that what passes for adults in Congress can find common ground to improve the ACA. That’s still a long shot, but perhaps a bit more possible now than just a year or two ago.

Health Care Reform: The Lighter Side

Don’t get me wrong. Health care reform is a serious issue. But sometimes there are ironies and juxtapositions that just strike me as funny.

Take the Mobius strip that is the individual mandate (lingo for requiring everyone to obtain health care coverage, one of the more controversial elements of the health care reform package President Barack Obama signed into law). Try to follow this one: When then First Lady Hillary Clinton led the charge for health care reform in the 1990s she attempted to force employers to cover all their workers (what’s called an employer mandate). Republicans, marching under the banner of personal responsibility, countered with health care reforms that relied on an individual mandate.

Cut to 2008. Then Senator Barack Obama puts forward a health care reform proposal that includes neither an employer nor an employee mandate (although it did require all children to obtain coverage, which would be what, a kiddie mandate?). Then Senator Hillary Clinton rightly chastises her campaign opponent for being unrealistic. If carriers are to be required to accept all applicants regardless of their pre-existing conditions, then everyone needs to be in the insurance pool. Otherwise the system won’t work. Prices will skyrocket as everyone waits until after they need medical care before they buy health insurance. Nay, nay, says the future President.

Until he becomes President. At which time he makes the individual mandate a central component of his overall health care reform plan. Where do Republicans stand on the individual mandate? Having promoted the idea during the Clinton Administration they now oppose it during the Obama Administration. And the trip around the Mobius strip is complete. (Well almost. With a real Mobius strip you wind up back where you started. If history is any guide, however, it is inevitable that one day the GOP will defend the individual mandate as a true expression of personal responsibility. So it’s only a matter of time until the Mobius journey is complete). Given all this it’s kind of a shame that now Secretary of State Clinton doesn’t get one of the 22 pens used by the President to sign the health care reform bill.

But wait, there’s more. Today’s Republicans are so aghast that yesterday’s Republicans proposal for an individual mandate is now part of President Obama’s health care reform law they’re going to court. Well, not Republicans per se. But 14 states are suing to overturn the new health care reform bill and it just so happens that 13 of the 14 Attorneys General filing the suits are Republicans. (The 14th is a Democrat from Louisiana which. There’s a joke there somewhere, but I’m taking a pass).

As the Christian Science Monitor reports, the suits have two basis. First, that “the new law infringes the liberty of individual state residents to choose for themselves whether to have health insurance. It also says the states themselves are victims of a federal power grab by leaders in Washington” because of changes made to Medicaid.

For now, let’s just focus on the claims about whether the individual mandate is unconstitutional. Because this is where Alice’s looking glass comes returns to center stage. It seems there’s a relatively recent Supreme Court precedent that makes this challenge an uphill climb. The ruling, in which conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy joined the 6-to-3 majority according to the Los Angeles Times held that “Congress could regulate (an item) that was neither bought nor sold on the market ….”

Which puts those two Justices and their colleagues in a bit of pickle. Because in order to rule the health insurance law unconstitutional they will likely need to overturn at least certain aspects of this earlier case, Gonzales vs. Raich. And that is something conservatives would like to avoid as that case was about the legality of growing and selling marijuana for medical purposes, something California law permitted. In ruling that the federal government could prevent a state from regulating transactions that occurred solely within its borders, the Supreme Court found the federal government had broad regulatory powers.

The substance of the case that will determine whether an individual mandate is constitutional is important and will have long-term ramifications for the country. But that’s not amusing. What’s amusing is that the suits put conservative Supreme Court justices between a rock and cloudy place.

Health care reform is a serious issue. But you do have to admit there are times when laughter is a more appropriate reaction than jubilation, anger or fear. Not always, but sometimes.

Obama Health Care Reform Strategy Sidesteps Clinton’s Missteps

The number of mistakes made by the Clinton Administration in pushing for health care reform in 1993 are embarrassingly numerous.  One of the most damning was their heavy handed approach with Congress. Instead of engaging with lawmakers from the beginning, the task force led by then First Lady Hillary Clinton worked behind closed doors. Democratic Congressional Members were pushed out of the loop and expected, I assume, to fall in line with their Democratic President because, well, he was their Democratic President. Oh, and of course because the health care reform package developed by the task force was so obviously wonderful.

Leaving aside the lack of wonderfulness in the plan they developed, this approach was nothing short of political malpractice. The president may propose, but it’s Congress that enacts legislation. Any effort to dramatically change something as expensive and personal as health care will generate opposition. Some of that opposition is based on sincere differences of opinion concerning public policy. Some emerges from economic or political agendas threatened by the changes. In either event, it’s important to have a strong base with a unified message to withstand the inevitable attacks. The Clinton Administration’s approach — imposing their viewpoint on Congress — meant they had few supporters when and where they needed them most. The result was a political rout that helped open the way to a Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

Whether based on temperament or wisdom earned at the Clinton presidency’s expense, President Barack Obama and his team are approaching health care reform in a far different manner. Their outreach to Congress has been extraordinary. They are not only working with Congressional leaders to design the plan, but are helping to create a unified message as well.

The Associated Press reported on a meeting today between several Democratic Senators and White House political advisor David Axelrod. Their goal, according to Senator Dick Durbin, was to “coordinate our messaging so we present a health care reform effort that the American people trust.”

The meeting was, in part, a response to advice circulated among Republicans by Dr. Frank Luntz outlining ways to attack the Democratic proposal. Dr. Luntz is a highly regarded GOP consultant and an expert on political messaging, the author of Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. He urged Republicans to be “on the side of reform.” while attacking the Administration’s proposal as leading “to the government setting standards of care, instead of doctors” and “to the government rationing care.”

The 26-page report has caused quite a stir on Capital Hill. Democrats in Congress wanted to make sure they were prepared to withstand the suggested assault. The meeting today with Senators and with House Leaders yesterday were designed to do just that. It was reinforced by a message to the grass roots following President Obama developed during the campaign that now operates as Organizing for America.

What was agreed to was a three-pronged message: medical costs must be lowered, people must have choice in their health care coverage, and care must be affordable for everyone. How these principles are put into action has yet to be determined. No legislation has yet emerged from the numerous Congressional hearings underway.

It’s the lack of explicit information that makes framing the reform effort so important. Until there’s actual legislation to read, all the public has to go on is the general policy positions pronounced by various parties. Eventually, we’ll see a bill, but how the public reacts to it will be influenced to some degree by the spinning that occurs before its release.

By involving Democrats in Congress early in the process of developing the legislative language and working with them to shape a unified message, the Obama Administration is sidestepping one of the most damaging missteps of the Clinton Administration. Ultimately what will matter is the legislation itself. But the mere fact that President Obama and his team are avoiding the mistakes made 16 years ago, is an indication of how different the battle will be this time.

News Channels Fail to Explain Clinton Health Care Plan Failure

With President Barack Obama launching his health care reform initiative last week with a White House summit, the news programs have, not surprisingly, been recalling the last major push for change. For those who missed it, that was in 1993 and 1994. Then President Bill Clinton, who, like President Obama, had campaigned with a pledge to change America’s health system, assigned then First Lady Hillary Clinton to spearhead his Administration’s effort to provide affordable health care for all.

In recalling this recent history the news channels make it sound like the only reason the Clinton effort failed was the opposition of special interests. But for the insurance industry’s Harry and Louise ads, some greedy doctors and uncooperative Republicans, the Clinton Administration’s reforms would have breezed through Congress ushering in a golden era of health care. This is far from what happened.

Yes, special interests campaigned hard against the Clinton reforms, but they had a lot to work with. As I’ve written before, the Clinton effort failed in part because it was fashioned behind closed doors and in part because it wasn’t a very good proposal.  The task force that helped the First Lady draft the proposal excluded input from many in Congress and shunned many stakeholders. So when it emerged from the inner sanctum it  lacked broad buy-in. The take-it-or-leave-it attitude of many in the task force didn’t help matters.

What they proposed was both complex and elegant. They sought to enact “managed competition.”  This approach would have forced most Americans to drop their existing coverage and instead obtain insurance from government run “purchasing pools.” The carriers offering coverage through the pools would offer only plans designed by the managing government agency and would be expected to use their clout to negotiate deep discounts from health care providers. There was a lot more to it — a lot more — but those were two of the key provisions.

It wasn’t just special interests (which the news channels identify as insurance companies, the business community and some doctors) who thought it was a bad idea poorly executed. So did many Democrats in Congress and liberal think tanks. The Clinton health care reforms were attacked and even ridiculed by, well, most everyone who wasn’t on  the task force. It’s not that these critics didn’t recognize the need for reform. They just believed the Clinton package was bad reform. 

Any proposal seeking massive changes to a system as complex as America’s health care system is going to be controversial. It is also highly likely to be seriously flawed. The purpose of the legislative process is to allow interest groups (special and otherwise) to debate the plan’s details, to identify the flaws, and to the extent possible, fix them.

Given the numerous flaws in the Clinton Administration’s plan and the take-it-or-leave-it attitude of its proponents, Congress decided to leave it. Did special interests play a role? Certainly. (Full disclosure: I testified on behalf of health insurance agents against the Clinton plan  at three Congressional committees hearings in 1993). But to credit its defeat solely to those interests is to overstate their strength and to absolve the authors of too much guilt. They were the ones, after all, who put forward a poorly designed package with a striking lack of political skill. A better plan more ably presented might have passed in 1993. We never got the chance to find out.  

In oversimplifying history, reducing what happened to a tag team bout between Bill and Hillary on one side and Harry and Louise on the other, the news channels are doing the country a disservice. Yes, special interests from across the political spectrum will protect their special interests (that’s why they’re called special interests). But the Obama Administration’s health care reforms will stand or fall on their merits, just as the Clinton Administration’s did.

That’s the way it should be. And that’s the way it should be reported.

2009 versus 1993 Health Care Reform: The Difference is Consensus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dashcle Appointment Puts Obama Health Care Reform on Fast Track

In case there was any doubt, President-elect Barack Obama made clear today that reforming the nation’s health care system will be an early priority for his Administration.  Hhealth care reform won’t wait while President Obama first focuses on fixing the country’s economic mess, but will instead be an integral part part of that effort. As he said during a press conference announcing the creation of a White House Office of Health Reform, to be led by his nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, former Senator Tom Daschle, “If we want to overcome our economic challenges, we must also finally address our health care challenge.” (Here’s a  video of the press conference — the comment is made at roughly the 2:40 mark).

The need to move quickly on health care reform was a central theme of the press conference. After reciting the usual litiany of the current health system’s shortcomings, President-elect Obama said, “We’re on an unsustainable course. The time has come, this year, in this Administration to modernize our health care system for the 21st century, to reduce costs for families and businesses and to finally provide affordable, accessible health care for every single American.” (This statement begins at about the 1:40 mark).

He then directly tied health care reform to addressing the current financial meltdown.  “Now, some may ask, ‘How at this time of economic challenge we can afford to invest in reforming our health care system’. And I ask a different question: ‘How can we afford not to?'” (About the 2:00 mark).

The creation of a White House Office of Health Reform, and the appointment of Senator-soon-to-be-Secretary Daschle as it’s Director is especially telling. By placing the locus of health care reform inside the White House, President-elect Obama elevates the importance of achieving meaningful change. By placing the leadership of the Office in the hands of his HHS Secretary he makes it easier for his Administration to speak — and negotiate — with one voice. By making that HHS Secretary Senator Daschle he assures the reform effort will move forward in a nuanced fashion, sensitive to the legislative process. 

This approach stands in stark contrast to the Clinton Administration’s health care reform initiative.  That fiasco, led by then First Lady Hillary Clinton, was a textbook example of insularity and insensitivity to political realities. It discouraged vigorous debate and excluded Congressional input.

Senator Daschle, who led Democrats for 10 of his 18 years in the Senate and who served in the House for eight years, will take a far different approach. First, he can’t help but reach out to members of Congress — it’s in his DNA. Second, at the press conference he pledged to work with “people from across the country to find a path forward that makes health care in this country as affordable and available as it is innovative.” As a member of the Obama Transition Team he is already coordinating thousands of small meetings across the country on the topic to bring the American people “into this conversation” in order to make “an open and inclusive process that goes from the grass roots up.”  (Beginning at the 7:10 mark).

Senator Daschle is no newcomer to the health care reform debate. He’s studied, and written about, the issue as a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. He is co-author of Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis along with Dr. Jeanne Lambrew, who President-elect Obama named today as the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Health Reform.  Their prescription for reform is not dissimilar from that put forward by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus which, in turn, reflects many of the principles put forward by candidate Barack Obama during the presidential election.

During the press conference, both President-elect Obama and Senator Daschle emphasized the many problems apparent in today’s health care system. This shouldn’t be a surprise. When rallying the nation to change a complex and critical component of government service reminding voters of its flaws and the need for reform is standard practice.

It would have been nice, however, if a bit niaive, to hope they would have noted, even in passing, that much of the current system works and is worth preserving. Such a statement would have been as refreshing as it would have been unexpected. And it might even have underscored the new kind of politics President-elect Obama promises to bring to Washington. 

Obama Must Do Better on Health Care Reform

In his stump speech, during the presidential debates, highlighted in his 30 minute commercial, Senator Barack Obama has made clear that, were he elected president, health care reform will be near the top of his priorities. It’s viewed as a critical component in fixing the nation’s faltering economy, ranking alongside energy independence and a middle class tax cut at the top of his domestic agenda.

Senator Obama’s commitment to the issue is more than ideological, although he does see health care coverage as a right of all Americans. It is also highly personal. Senator Obama described the roots of his committment to health care reform in Sarasota, Florida yesterday this way: “And as somebody who watched his own mother lying on a hospital bed at the end of her life because they had cancer. The insurance companies were saying this was a pre-existing condition, maybe we don’t have to pay for your treatment, I know what it’s like to see a loved one suffer not just because they’re sick but because of a broken health care system.”

This combination of ideology, politics and the personal will assure that health care reform would be taken up early in an Obama Administration. Given his passion for the issue, the state of the economy and the real need to address serious problems in the current health care system, the odds are extremely high a comprehensive reform package will emerge sometime in his first term. Whether these reforms will be similar to what Senator Obama describes on the campaign trail, however, is, fortunately, both uncertain and unlikely.

One reason is because Senator Obama’s health care reform plan is seriously flawed. To cite just one example, a core attribute of his proposal is to require carriers to except all applicants for coverage without regard to their medical condition. As he put it in Sarasota, “… when I am president, we will end discrimination by insurance companies to the sick and those who need care the most.” This is a noble purpose, but if done wrong, it can lead to a health care reform surcharge that would increase the number of uninsured in the country while increasing costs in the system. The “wrong” way is require carriers to sell coverage without requiring consumers to purchase it. This, in essence, is how non-employer sponsored coverage works in New York and New Jersey. Average premiums in those states are more than twice what they are in California

The need for matching mandates, was integral to Senator Hillary Clinton’s health care reform plan. She perceived it more as a means to universal coverage, but also acknowledged that “adverse selection” is a real, proven phenomena. Imagine the premiums auto insurance companies would need to charge if drivers could wait until after an accident to buy automobile insurance. That is adverse selection and it is exactly what Senator Obama is proposing.

Another reason Senator Obama’s health care reform proposalis unlikely to survive the legislative process intact is it will need to compete with a host of other plans. Senator Ron Wyden (a Democrat) and Senator Bob Bennett (a Republican) have brought together a bipartisan coalition of Senators behind the “Healthy Americans Act.” Then there’s the proposal by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, Director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the National Institute of Health, who proposes a voucher system financed by a Value Added Tax and shares some elements of the Wyden-Bennett proposal. Senator Ed Kennedy is talking to Senators and policy mavens from across the political spectrum to develop a reform package he hopes to introduce in January. Republicans, too, have a host of ideas for reforming the nation’s health care system. Some might even look similar to the health care reform package advocated by Senator John McCain during this presidential campaign.

In short, there will be no dirth of ideas when Washington begins to address health care reform in 2009. Hopefully a coherent, workable plan will arise from this stew of policies and concepts. Senator Obama speaks of being open to other approaches. As he put it when speaking at a Families USA forum in January 2007, “… affordable, universal health care for every single American must not be a question of whether, it must be a question of how. We have the ideas, we have the resources, and we will have universal health care in this country by the end of the next president’s first term.”

As president, Senator Obama would do well to remember these words. There will be pressure to pass something and pass something quickly. The “First 100 Days” nonsense will be pushed forward as his only window for pushing through comprehensive reform. This is silly. It’s far more important to get health care reform done right than according to an arbitrary timetable.

Instead of rushing reform, President Obama should demand that all the “hows” be on the table. He should require participants to leave their egos and pride of authorship at the door. He should demand an honest appraisal and accounting of both what’s working and what’s not working in the current system. He should set forth the principles he expects to achieve in the process. Then and only then should the hard work of building a new, better system, one that will provide “affordable, universal health care for every single American” begin.

Single Payer Losing Ground

This should be the best of times for advocates of a single payer health care system in America. The environment for radical change has never been better. After years of hammering at problems in the current system, there is general agreement on the need for substantial change. When asked what single issue will most impact their vote for president, a substantial number of voters have consistently cited health care according to the Kaiser Health Tracking Polls. For example, in the August 2008 survey, 16% cited health care as their determinative issue, ranking this concern behind only the Economy (49%), Iraq (25%) and and Gas Prices 18%). Significantly, health care reform is a critical part of the economy and 24% of the respondents said paying for health care and health insurance was a serious problem. 

Meanwhile, legislation to create a single payer system has been introduced in Congress and several states. In California, the Legislature passed a bill to create a state-run health plan:(Senate Bill 840 by Senator Sheila Kuehl. (It currently is awaiting a veto by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Given all this momentum for radical change, you would think a government-run system would be a major issue in the presidential campaign, yet it’s not. Clearly, Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee is not going to support a single payer system. What’s significant, however, is that Democrats are not advocating this approach either. Neither the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama. nor his chief rival through the primary season, Senator Hillary Clinton, called for a government takeover of America’s health care system. Even the Democratic Party platform rejects a single payer system.

The 2008 Democratic National Platform, Renewing America’s Promise, gives its approach to heath care reform considerable prominence. Here’s some meaningful excerpts from the document:

“Democrats are united around a commitment that every American man, woman and child be guaranteed affordable, comprehensive healthcare.”

Our vision includes: Covering All Americans and Providing Real Choices of Affordable Health Insurance Options.  Families and individuals should have the option of keeping the coverage they have or choosing from a wide array of health insurance plans, including many private health insurance options and a public plan. Coverage should be made affordable for all Americans with subsidies provided through tax credits and other means.”

Shared Responsibility. health care should be a shared responsibility between employers, workers, insurers, providers and government. All Americans should have coverage they can afford; employers should have incentives to provide coverage to their workers; insurers and providers should ensure high quality affordable care; and the government should ensure that health insurance is affordable and provides meaningful coverage. As affordable coverage is made available, individuals should purchase health insurance and take steps to lead healthy lives.”

Meaningful Benefits. Families should have health insurance coverage similar to what Members of Congress enjoy.”

This is not the language of single payer advocates. Yes, the Democrats call for coverage for all Americans that is “similar to what Members of Congress enjoy.” And they want to protect Americans from “the burden of skyrocketing premiums, unaffordable deductibles or benefit limits that leave them at financial risk when they become sick.” So we’re not talking about a “hands-off” approach here.

But we’re also not talking about a single payer system. Advocates of SB 840 claim as one of its chief benefits the elimination of health insurers and HMOs. That’s a long way from the platform’s call for “keeping private health insurance options” available.

There will be robust debate in Washington concerning health care reform. As I’ve written previously, a bipartisan coalition of Senators is waiting for the new president with their own health care reform package. Single Payer advocates are not going away. They will throw their proposals into the mix, but this won’t change the reality: the Democratic nominee and his party’s platform have rejected the single payer approach.

So here’s the question: if single payer advocates can’t win when the political stars are so strongly aligned in their favor, will they ever win?

My take is that the stars are realigning in such a way to make the answer a resounding “no.” Over the next two-to-four years there is a real possibility that Congress and the new president will pass meaningful, comprehensive health care reform. That’s another two-to-four years in which the cracks in existing single payer systems around the world will deepen, broaden and become more apparent. Faced with a new alternative to what will increasingly be seen as a nonviable approach at hand being rolled out, single payer advocates won’t go away, but they won’t be successful either.