Why President Obama Should Jettison the Individual Mandate

Two key elements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are the requirement that health insurance carriers accept all applicants (what’s called guarantee issue) matched by a requirement that individuals obtain health care coverage or face a penalty (referred to as an individual mandate). The PPACA was not the first bill take this approach to move toward more universal coverage. In response to then President Bill Clinton’s health care reform proposal, 19 Republican Senators joined by two Democrats, put forward the Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act of 1993. Central to the proposed legislation was an individual mandate.

That was then.

Now Republicans cite the individual mandate as a key flaw of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Recently a Federal Judge in Florida declared the individual mandate contained in the the PPACA was unconstitutional and, as a result, the law itself was unconstitutional. Eventually the Supreme Court will rule on whether the individual mandate in particular and the health care reform law in general can stand. Their decision will hinge on how they interpret the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution.

This is not a clear-cut, black-or-white issue and the Court could go either way on the issue. The Commerce Clause has evolved considerably since the Constitution was adopted. That legal scholars and judges reach different conclusions when applying it is not surprising. Consider: to date, two Federal District Court Judges have rejected claims the individual mandate exceeds Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause while two others determined it does. For those interested, NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show aired one of the most informative, clear and helpful discussions of the legal issues surrounding the PPACA I’ve come across. (The entire 51 minutes segment is well worth a listen, however, much of the key legal explanation takes place between the 8 minute and 28 minute marks).

Unless the Supreme Court accelerates the process, they will probably hear appeals of lower court decisions after they convene their next term in October of this year, with a decision likely to be published in the Spring of 2012. Take note of that timing – as we’ll see it matters.

The question is, should President Barack Obama even let the individual mandate reach the Supreme Court? An argument can be made that the President and his signature domestic legislative accomplishment would be better off abandoning the individual mandate as it exists and replacing it with a different approach. Here’s my version of the argument:

Requiring carriers to accept all applicants without a provision requiring consumers to obtain coverage is a recipe for disaster. The average premium for individual coverage (insurance purchased without a contribution from an employer) in New York and New Jersey are more than twice the average premium for similar coverage in California in large part because New York and New Jersey law requires guarantee issue, but lack an individual mandate. . Consumers there take the economically smart course of waiting until they are sick or have an accident before obtaining coverage. To cover the inevitable losses, carriers set high premiums.

This is why Democrats included an individual mandate in the PPACA. Unfortunately, it isn’t much of a mandate. Individuals who fail to obtain coverage, unless excused from the requirement on religious grounds, will be required to pay a penalty. In 2014 this fine is the greater of $95 or 1% of income; by 2016 $695 or 2.5% of income, whichever is greater. Given that the CBO estimates that individual premiums for the lowest level of benefits available to most Americans under the PPACA will average between $4,500 and $5,000 (that’s for the Bronze level of benefits for those keeping track) the economic calculation is pretty straightforward. $4,500 is 2.5% of $180,000. So anyone with a taxable income of $180,000 is arguably better off going without coverage until they need it – give or take risk tolerance.

The PPACA’s individual mandate may be lightweight, but the political cost has been heavy Jettisoning the individual mandate as it currently exists would neuter one of the Republicans core attacks against President Obama and the PPACA – that this provision exemplifies an abusive expansion of the federal government at the expense of individual liberty. (That the IRS will need to hire additional staff to enforce the penalties only makes the situation politically worse for the Administration). Democrats may describe the individual mandate as a call for individual responsibility, but they’re losing the debate – as the election results of 2010 underscores.

Replacing the PPACA’s individual mandate with something different, something that more directly speaks to personal responsibility – without involving the IRS – and that is more effective in accomplishing the goal of the individual mandate, is a winning public policy and political strategy.

Fortunately for the Administration, there are viable alternatives. For example, a year ago I suggested allowing carriers to exclude coverage for pre-existing health conditions and impose a premium surcharge on individuals who go without medical coverage for a specified period of time. Others are suggesting creating a limited open enrollment period during which uninsured individuals can apply for coverage on a guaranteed issue basis.

There’s another very practical reason for the President to seek a different approach to getting individuals to obtain coverage before they are sick or injured. Whether the Supreme Court will rule the PPACA’s individual mandate as unconstitutional is a great unknown. Legal decisions are hard to predict and given the makeup of the current Court, their decision on this matter will likely be close.

And the result could be devastating to the Administration. If the Court were to strike down the individual mandate in the Spring of 2012 the Administration would be forced to find a replacement in the heat of a presidential election campaign. How likely are Republicans to cooperate with the White House just weeks before their nominating convention? Worse, the Supreme Court could find that since the individual mandate is unconstitutional the entire health care reform law is nullified.

Imagine the chaos. Would 26 year olds insured under their parents’ policies suddenly be dropped? Would seniors be required to reimburse the government for checks they’ve received to close the donut hole in their Medicare prescription coverage? This is not what the President wants dominating the news during his re-election campaign.

The political and societal risk can be minimized to nearly zero simply by eliminating the element of the PPACA most open to challenge: the individual mandate. After all, the Supreme Court can’t declare unconstitutional a provision already removed from the law.

Republicans say they want to do away with the individual mandate. The President should let them do so. Yes, the GOP will claim victory. For the Obama Administration, giving Republicans bragging rights is a small price to pay for improving the PPACA, demonstrating his openness to bipartisan solutions, and avoiding a political nightmare of apocalyptic proportions.

This is one situation in President Obama should embrace the call to “repeal and replace.” Doing so is in his own – and more importantly, the American people’s – best interest.

Preparing for Health Care Reform

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the law of the land. And it will stay that way for a long time. The new health care reform law will evolve, but it won’t be repealed. President Barack Obama would veto any outright appeal, which means a two-thirds vote in both Chambers would be required to overcome that veto. There’s not mathematical possibility, outside of a Karl Rove’s hallucination, in which that two-thirds threshold comes close to being met any time soon.

So the law is here to stay. However, that doesn’t mean the law won’t be changed. Legislation is like a blueprint, in this case defining the outline of health care reform. But as I’ve mentioned before, it is “the regulators, judges, businesses and civilians interpreting, implementing and simply trying to figure out how things are supposed to work” that make the law real. That process has only just begun. For example, one of the few elements of the law that takes effect in 2010 concerns the tax credits available to some small businesses to offset the cost of health insurance premiums they provide their workers. The IRS has begun providing guidelines on how this tax credit will work.

Another example: The Department of Health and Human Services has clarified an ambiguity in the law as to whether carriers must accept children for coverage regardless of any pre-existing conditions. HHS has decided children under 19 years of age are eligible for guarantee issue and carriers have agreed to go along with this interpretation. Good to know. And we’re being told in before the guarantee issue provision takes effect (in July for those keeping track).

There are a lot of guidelines, clarifications and new regulations still to come. But here’s the good news: like those mentioned above, they will be coming well in advance of the effective date of the health care reform package’s various provisions.

For health insurance brokers, uncertain of their role in the new world, this is good news. They will have plenty of time to prepare for changes in the health insurance industry before they take effect. And there are plenty of folks out there – associations, carriers, general agents, service providers, and even a blogger or two – who will be providing the information brokers need to deal with the coming changes. (Note: On April 13th at 10:30 Pacific Time I’ll be participating in an online conversation discussing health care reform and how brokers can prepare for it., This is a free webinar sponsored by Norvax. Also worth noting: the National Association of Health Underwriters has been offering a series of informative, insightful and helpful webinars for its members).

Of course, brokers have alternatives to preparing themselves for reform. They can stress out. They can panic. They can descend into anger. I hear denial can be comforting for awhile. But indulging in these reactions won’t accomplish much, especially in the long term.

Instead, brokers need to be thinking about the kind of agency that will survive and flourish in the years ahead. In my mind, this means spending the next few months refining one’s agency so it is both nimble and flexible. This will allow brokers to to adapt to a changing environment as new provisions of the law take effect, avoid the inevitable pitfalls created by new government bureaucracies or existing health insurance carriers, and to seize opportunities created by those same bureaucracies and carriers.

Notice I didn’t say “quickly avoid” or “immediately seize.” I’m not convinced victory will go to the swift this time around. Instead, I believe during this time of transition the advantage will go to the prepared, the informed and the thoughtful. Speed is required when change comes quickly. But when it comes to health care reform regulations will likely be in place six months or more before the legislative elements they refer to go into effect. This relieves brokers from the need to predict the future. Instead, prepared agencies will have at least some time to think about the developments as they emerge and figure out the right response. Given a choice between “quick” and “right” I’m going with the latter every time.

All of this means now is not the time to panic. Instead, now is the time to take stock of your business practices and determine which ones foster readiness – and which don’t. Now is the time to ignore the blathering of so-called news organizations that are more interested in whipping up partisan passion than informing insurance professionals or the public (yes, I’m looking at you Fox and MSNBC). Instead, plug into the vast support network out there, starting with NAHU, who are ready, willing and able to help you understand not just the letter of the new health care reform law, but how it is being brought to life.

Health Care Reform Makes It Clear: Howard Dean is No Ted Kennedy

Dr. Howard Dean was governor of Vermont for 12 years. He was a front runner briefly during the 2004 presidential campaign. He became chair of the Democratic National Committee. And now he is demonstrating why he failed for Governor and why Democrat are better off having him as the “former” chair of their party.

As Democrats in the Senate struggle to cobble together a super-majority in support of health care reform, Governor Dean is busy throwing bricks into the room. Upset that the legislation likely to emerge from the Senate will contain neither a government-run health plan nor the ability for 55-to-64 year olds to buy-in to Medicare, Governor Dean is urging defeat of the bill. The reason, according to a report by the Associated Press, the Senate health care reform bill is “an insurance company’s dream.” Which is malarkey. I don’t know any insurance carriers happy with the direction of health care reform in Washington. As the AP reports White House spokesman Robert Gibbs putting it, “If this is an insurance company’s dream, I don’t think the insurance companies have gotten the memo.”

Governor Dean asserts that “You will be forced to buy insurance. If you don’t you’ll pay a fine.” True enough, although in the Senate bill the fine is $750, far less than the cost of coverage. Then he goes on to assert that insurance companies would not be prohibited from denying coverage for preexisting conditions. And that older Americans would pay more than their younger neighbors for coverage.

Let’s look at the substance of the Governor’s complaints. Does he seriously believe that whatever health care reform bill emerges from Congress will allow health insurance companies to deny applicants for coverage? If so, he’s the only pundit in the country who does. Even Republicans support guarantee issue of health insurance coverage.

As for older people paying more for coverage than younger people, he’s right. Both legislation passed by the House and being considered in the Senate allow carriers some flexibility in setting rates by age. But both bills substantially reduce the differential that exists today. In California, for example, a 64 year old can expect to pay six times more than a 19 year old for the same coverage. (Anthem Blue Cross offers a $3500 deductible PPO that costs a single 19 year old in Los Angeles $110 per month and his 64 year old neighbor $664 a month). Under the legislation being considered in the Senate, the ratio would could be no more than 3-to-1. The House bill limits the differential to 2-to-1. Governor Dean never complained about this premium spread before. Now that the public option is likely to be cut from the Senate bill, a 3-to-1 limit on premiums becomes a decisive factor for him?

Governor Dean’s attack on the Senate bill is a loud reminder of how much Senator Edward Kennedy is missed in Washington. Senator Kennedy was as liberal, if not more liberal, than Governor Dean. The difference is that Senator Kennedy accomplished a great many things on the national stage. Governor Dean has accomplished nothing nationally. Senator Kennedy was successful in large part because he recognized the need to seize progress when and where he could. He knew there would be future opportunities. Even more importantly, he understood that, in broad terms, America becomes more progressive over time. Consider: it wasn’t that long ago that the fight was over whether the government should provide a medical safety net for older citizens. Republicans called Medicare socialism. Now they defend the program.

There’s a lot in the current health care reform bill I don’t like. There’s a lot about the status quo I don’t like either. What is infuriating about Governor Dean’s attack on the bill is that it is as nonsensical as those of the right. His “insurance company dream” is to the left what former-Governor Sarah Palin’s “death panels” are to the right – ideology masquerading as dire warnings.

Liberals in Congress will probably come around to supporting what they consider a watered down, insufficient health care reform bill. Liberals outside of Congress, like the former Governor from Vermont, will call on them to defeat the bill and start over. Underlying their logic is apparantly the belief that it’s possible to pass an even more liberal Congress.

What liberals like Governor Dean need to realize is that moderate Senators like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln are just a part of the party as liberals like Senators Jay Rockefeller and Charles Schumer. I suppose Governor Dean could recruit liberals to run for the Senate in Nebraska, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana and other states from which moderate Democrats hail. There’s only one problem. Liberals don’t get elected to the Senate from those states. Not in 2010.

Members of Congress understand the need for compromise. They may not like it, but they accept that their less-than-liberal colleagues represent their constituencies. Those on the sidelines have the freedom to ignore such realities and to throw bricks with abandon. These ideologues won’t solve many problems, but I guess the brick throwing makes them feel better.

Senator Kennedy understood the need to work with those less liberal than himself, to keep issues alive by passing significant reforms that may not be all he wanted to achieve, but laid the groundwork for future efforts. Governor Dean is blind to this approach. But then, Howard Dean is no Ted Kennedy. Never was. Never will be.

Health Care Reform Odds & Ends

When it comes to health care reform, to maul Dickens: It is the busiest of times. It is the calmest of times. Or as general agent Michael Traynor put it, “These are interesting times when talk of exchanges and pre-existing exclusions have bumped Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan from the news.”

This coming week it will be even harder on E! News and the like. Sure, Hollywood has the Emmys, but Washington has the debate in the Senate Finance Committee over America’s Healthy Future Act of 2009. Not a contest. Add to the mix President Barack Obama’s five appearances on Sunday morning television shows (plus his stint Monday night as David Letterman’s guest) and these are strange days, indeed. 

There’s several items in the mix I wanted to comment upon, but none of them really warranted their own post. So here they are, mashed together into a single article. Think of it as clearing the deck in anticipation of all the fun news coming out of Washington in the next few days. 

1. Excluding Pre-Existing Conditions

Yes, it’s true, health insurance companies exclude individuals with pre-existing conditions. When they can carriers refuse to offer coverage to those likely to use that coverage. According to some politicians and pundits of all political stripes, instead of being a legitimate business practice, this process (called “underwriting”) is evidence of the evil nature of health insurance carriers and their executives. 

Under today’s rules, however, underwriting is necessary to keep the cost of coverage from going even higher than it is today. Imagine permitting people to buy auto insurance from the tow truck driver at the scene of an accident. Or picture homeowners buying fire insurance after the flood waters recede. The cost of these policies would be astronomical. Why would anyone buy auto or homeowners coverage before they need it if they can buy the same policy after an accident or disaster? The cost of insurance in this environment would be the cost of the claim (plus administrative expenses). Have $1,000 in damage after that wreck? The cost of the policy sold by the tow truck driver would need to be more than $1,000 because no one else’s premium would be available to cover any of the cost.

The same applies to health insurance.  Allow individuals to purchase coverage on their way to the hospital and costs will skyrocket. (Don’t laugh, one of the GOP proposals would allow consumers to buy coverage in the emergency room). In New York and New Jersey, where there’s a mandate to sell individual health insurance but no mandate to buy it, premiums are three-times higher than in California.

Which illustrates the only way to resolve this situation: require everyone to obtain medical coverage. Without this balance (both a mandate for carriers to sell and for consumers to buy coverage) premiums quickly become unaffordable. Lawmakers who propose guarantee issue without a mandate to buy – and they exist on both sides of the aisle – are either grandstanding, mathematically challenged or ill-informed.

2. Losing Coverage When You Need It

The other popular market reform concerns carriers cancelling coverage after claims are incurred by policy holders, a practice called “rescission.” Much of the furor over rescissions in Washington and elsewhere are legitimate, the result of carrier’s tone deaf, heavy-handed, and inept approach to a reasonable concern: preventing fraud. So long as health insurance is voluntary, carriers need to protect their members from being gamed by those who would intentionally abuse the system. To hear some talk about the problem, however, you’d think every claim submission is answered by a termination notice. Estimating the total number of rescissions is difficult due to disparate reporting requirements around the country. Yet in testimony before Congress three of the largest carriers claimed to have canceled about 20,000 health insurance policies over five years. Four thousand annual rescissions sounds like a lot, but it’s a small fraction of the millions of policies sold and maintained by those carriers each year.

Because the number of terminations is small does not excuse the health plans from abusing their rescission power. Change in this area is needed to restrict rescissions to only intentional misrepresentation of medical conditions. In the meantime, overstating the severity of the problem may be good politics, but it is misleading. (Of course, if underwriting is eliminated, this problem goes away: if carriers cannot charge premiums based on pre-existing conditions there’s no reason to even ask about prior medical conditions.)

3. Non-Profit Doesn’t Mean Cheaper

Liberals demanding that reform legislation include a government-run health plan usually claim it will reduce the cost of coverage by introducing a non-profit health plan into the market. Here’s how Senator Jay Rockefeller put it on MSNBC, “There’s got to be some discipline to other insurance companies, that make them take seriously, not just competing with each other, but competing with somebody who because they are non-profit … and don’t have to please their shareholders because they don’t have any, that they can offer premiums at lower prices” (this sound bite begins at about the 2:35 mark). Yet there are already non-profits operating in most states. In California, for example, Kaiser Permanente and Blue Shield of California are two. In some parts of the state, these plans do offer the most affordable plans; in other regions the lowest cost plans are available from their for-profit competitors. Experience indicates little correlation between a carrier having shareholders and their premiums. Claiming it does may sound good, but anyone taking the time to see what’s happening in the real world will realize this is a false argument.

4. Ugly Language is Dangerous.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised the possibility that the angry rhetoric prominent in the health care reform debate could turn violent, comparing it to the situation in San Francisco over gay rights in the 1970s. The link between the anti-gay rhetoric and the murder of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk is legitimate. So is the Speaker’s concern. Words can motivate. Passions can lead to horrendous acts – from terrorist bombings to the murder of doctors who perform abortions.

What’s hypocritical about Speaker Pelosi’s comment, however, is that she has contributed to tenor of the debate. When Speaker Pelosi, the individual third-in-line to the presidency calls opponents “immoral” and describes them as”the villains” in America’s health care reform system she loses the ability to complain when others claim her policies are socialist. The fact that Speaker Pelosi is guilty of what she rails against should not mean her warning is ignored. America’s health care system will be reformed by thoughtful deliberation. Depicting President Obama as Hitler, painting swastikas on the offices of lawmakers, pastors praying for the death of President Obama, or calling opponents “traitors” inspires ugly emotions and provides cover for crazies who take the law (both governmental and ecclesiastic) into their own hands.

Speaker Pelosi hopes for a more responsible tone in the health care reform debate. Her greatest contribution to achieving this goal would be to moderate her own rhetoric.