Democrats Now More Likely to Move Health Care Reform Forward On Their Own

Well, so much for a breakthrough. The health care reform summit was fascinating political science. But it certainly does not seem to have generated a clear direction for anything close to bipartisan health care reform. Which means President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders will put forward a bill for an up-or-down vote, most Democrats will vote for it and no Republicans will. The only questions remaining are: 1) will Democrats invoke a rule that will allow them to move forward with a simple majority or will they permit the GOP to prevent the legislation from coming to a vote; and 2) will Democrats make any changes to the legislative proposal put forward by the President to reflect issues raised by Republicans during today’s health care reform summit. This post addresses the first question; the next one the second.

Reconciliation: My guess is that Democrats will use reconciliation as a means of bringing health care reform legislation to the floor of the Senate for a vote. As NPR has reported, it would not be the first time reconciliation led to substantial changes to America’s health care system. As Sara Rosenbaum, chair of the Department of Health Policy at George Washington University, notes in the NPR story, “In fact, the way in which virtually all of health reform, with very, very limited exceptions, has happened over the past 30 years has been the reconciliation process.”

She’s not just talking about arcane legislation, either. COBRA, the provision that allows workers to continue their coverage after leaving an employer, was passed through reconciliation. In fact, COBRA stands for the bill in which this health insurance extension was included, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985. Reconciliation is the “R” in “COBRA.” In 1997 the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which along with Medicaid now covers one in every three children in the United States, was passed as part of a budget reconciliation bill. As the NPR story reveals, the list literally goes on-and-on. It seems health care reform simply can’t wend its way through the Senate with a super majority. is this because, as the Center for Public Integrity reports, there are eight health care lobbyists for each member of Congress? Whatever the reason, reconciliation is commonly used to pass health care reform.

It’s likely Democrats will keep this streak going. Yes, Republicans will cry foul, but at the end of the day, it’s a perfectly legal process. And while not every provision of the President’s reform package is likely to be eligible for reconciliation, enough will be to enable Democrats to declare victory.

Assuming, of course, they can muster majorities for comprehensive health care reform legislation. The earlier House bill passed with two votes to spare – including one from a Republican who is now saying he’d vote against the bill. And while the Democratic caucus numbers 59 members, there are 18 members of a the Moderate Dems Working Group. Whatever bill comes before the Senate will need to hold onto nine of those moderates – and that’s assuming all other Democrats are willing to go this route. Some liberals, including Senator Jay Rockefeller, have expressed reluctance to to invoke reconciliation. In the end, the President is likely to muster enough support for a bill – he only needs 50 votes in the Senate as Vice President Joe Biden could cast the decisive vote there. The vote will be close in the House, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly demonstrated her ability to muster a majority when needed.

President Obama needs a vote on health care reform. Politically he needs to demonstrate to his base and moderate independents that his commitment to hang tough on the issue – even if it means he’s the captain going down with his ship. If Republicans (and some Democrats) defeat the legislation, he’ll have shown he’ tried. America doesn’t like quitters (former-Governor Sarah Palin being the most prominent exception). They do like fighters. Politically, moving forward on health care reform is a necessity.

It also makes public policy sense. The health care status quo is untenable. Change is needed. Even if his ambitious reforms fail, the effort will set the stage for more modest reforms – modest reforms that could be introduced and voted upon before the November elections.

In an upcoming post I’ll discuss whether the bipartisan health care reform summit makes it more likely the President will moderate his health care reform proposal.

Health Care Reform 2009 Style

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

Health Care Reform Activity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Public Policy Dimension

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

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

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

Health Care Reform 2009: The Human Factor

So what to make of health care reform 2009 style?

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

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

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

Why Liberals Won’t Kill Health Care Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medicare Buy-in Compromise Unraveling?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devil Dwells in the Details of Health Care Reform Compromise

A critical health care reform compromise seems to have emerged from negotiations between five liberal and five moderate Democratic Senators (the so-called “Gang of 10”). They are putting forward a compromise that eliminates (or at least postpones) the creation of a government-run health plan while allowing Americans 55 through 64 years of age to purchase Medicare and tasking the Office of Personnel management to administer a program offering coverage through non-profit, private health plans. Of course, as with anything as complicated as health care reform, a solution or compromise on one issue creates new ones elsewhere – think of trying to flatten a partially inflated balloon. Push down on one part and the air pops up in another.

As I noted the other day, expanding Medicare is an idea that appeals to both liberals and conservative Democrats. For example, former Governor Howard Dean, a leading and vocal advocate for a government-run health plan called the compromise “a positive step forward” on the CBS’ “The Early Show.” Meanwhile, Senator Joe Lieberman, who had threatened to support a filibuster of any health care reform plan containing a public option signaled the compromise might be acceptable. According to MSNBC Senator Lieberman said he was “’open- minded’ about the deal” and indicated he was encouraged by what he’s heard so far about the compromise. In other words, he’s pretty much on board.

Senator Reid will be submitting the Gang of 10’s compromise to the Congressional Budget Office where its financial impact will be determined. In the interim, it’s worthwhile asking some questions about the impact of elements of the health care reform compromise as it is in the details that the devil likes to linger.

For example, how will allowing 55 through 64 years old enroll in Medicare impact private health insurance premiums?  It is widely accepted that Medicare often pays doctors, hospitals and other providers less than the actual cost of the care they provide. For example, “payment levels for hospital services under Medicare are equal to only about 71 percent of what is paid by private health plans for the same service,” according to a study by the Lewin Group. Medical care providers make up for the Medicare reimbursement shortfall by charging more to their insured patients. This cost shifting is reflected in higher health insurance premiums.

To the extent the 55-through-64 year olds signing up for Medicare previously were insured by private carriers the amount of dollars being shifted to private insurance will increase and the number of privately insured consumers absorbing this cost will decrease. The result, upward pressure on health insurance premiums.

However, to the extent that these new enrollees were previously uninsured it will reduce the cost of private coverage. Right now virtually all the costs incurred by the uninsured are shifted to private carriers. If Medicare pays for 71 percent of these expenses that’s 71 percent less in losses providers need to shift to their insured patients. How these two consequences balance out is as yet unknown – and may not be knowable until after the fact. But lawmakers should be aware of these consequences.

There’s another detail of the compromise potentially offering affordable housing to the devil.  Alison, a regular reader of this blog, pointed out a provision that would require private carriers to spend at least 90 percent of premiums on medical care. Forcing carriers to spend a high percentage of premiums on medical costs is one of those proposals that: 1) sounds great; and 2) emerges with the regularity of ground hogs in Pennsylvania in February. And it’s a seriously flawed proposal.

Consider: requiring carriers to maintain a specified medical loss ratio (as the percentage of premium spent on claims is called) could reduce the availability of low cost plans. It costs just as much to process claims for a plan costing $300 per month as it does for one with a monthly cost of $100. If these fixed costs amount to $15, they represent 15 percent of the lower cost plan’s premium, but only 5 percent of the premiums for the more expensive plan. Need to get your medical loss ratio (as the percentage of premium spent on claims is called) to 10 percent? Raise your premiums. It’s counter-intuitive, but do the math and you’ll see the danger.

There are several other potential dangers from requiring a high and specific medical loss ratio. Economic swings or flu outbreaks (or the lack of expected flue outbreaks) can greatly alter the percentage spent on claims. So can government-imposed mandates to cover certain conditions. Private carriers pay taxes and need lawyers to deal with government regulation. These costs are beyond their control, but they tend not to increase over time (taxes and regulations have a nasty habit of piling up), meaning these uncontrollable costs are likely to absorb funds needed for truly administrative costs – like answering the phone. Answering the phone, of course, speaks to customer service, a likely victim of mandated loss ratios.

And setting the medical loss ratio at 90 percent would certainly eliminate broker commissions. Brokers would either need to charge fees directly to clients (if that’s permitted) or go away, leaving consumers bereft of independent advocates and counselors.

The good news is that just because a provision is in the compromise doesn’t mean it will be part of the final legislation. Or that it can’t be improved upon before reaching President Obama’s desk. When California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed an 85 percent medical loss ratio in his 1997 health care reform plan, lawmakers recognized the potential pitfalls. The provision was amended to make clear, for example, that taxes and disease management programs would be part of the claims side of the ledger. Eventually a workable compromise was was reached. (The bill did not pass the Legislature, however).

Of course, fixing California’s version of a mandated medical loss ratio didn’t happen of its own accord. Many interested parties, including the California Association of Health Underwriters, expended considerable effort to educate lawmakers about the implications of this provision. An effort of similar magnitude will be required to make sure that the devil is unable to take up residence in the details of the health care reform compromise shaping up in Washington.

Senator Reid Attempts to Find Middle Ground on Public Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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