Random Thoughts on Health Care Reform

Just some random thoughts while we see if the Democrats can muster enough votes to enact health care reform. None of them are worth a separate post (and may not be worth being in any post), but I thought I’d clear the decks before the real fun starts over the next few weeks.

It’s Franken’s Fault: If health care reform fails I blame Senator Al Franken. Elected by a mere 206 votes, Senator Franken became the 60th Democratic vote, the super-majority the caucus needed to overcome, in theory, any Republican filibuster. This enabled President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress to treat health care reform as a Democrats-only endeavor. Yes, Senator Max Baucus tried to work out a compromise with a few Republicans (and actually got one of them to vote for the Senate Finance bill). But liberals in the party and in the land of pundits were constantly and consistently pushing reforms to the left.  For example, Democrats insisted health care reform include a government-run health insurance plan far longer than would have been the case if they lacked a super-majority. Want proof? The public option fell to the wayside within 58 hours of the loss of their super-majority.

Of course, liberal Democrats had already made the mistake of believing that all Democrats think alike. Proud to be the party of inclusion, they forgot that they had included moderates and conservatives into their ranks. They somehow thought they could get Senators Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln and other centrists to go along with the liberal wish list for health care reform. Having a super-majority masked this illusion. So if 104 Minnesotans had voted the other way, who knows, health care reform might have passed months ago.

Republicans Will Vote to Keep the Sweeteners.  Republicans hate being called the Party of No, but they’ve earned the epitaph. They seem to have adopted a political strategy that Democrats can achieve no victories. Whether that’s to embrace the Tea Party advocates who want the federal government to go away, acquiescence to Rush Limbaugh who is on record saying he wants President Obama to fail, or, who knows, a sincere expression of their public policy beliefs, the outcome is they act in near lockstep to defeat any proposal with the Administration’s finger prints on it. Which may create an interesting spectacle: Republicans voting to preserve the Cornhusker Kickback and the Louisiana Purchase.

These are among the legislative sweeteners added to the Senate health care reform bill to gain the support of Senators Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu. And to deprive President Obama of a victory on health care reform Republican may need to defeat legislation to repeal them. Here’s why:

Under the legislative dance Democrats are likely to use to pass health care reform, the House will pass the Senate’s version health care reform bill. Since the Senate bill already passed that legislation – with a super-majority no less, House passage sends it directly to the President’s desk for his signature. At the same time Democrats will introduce legislation aimed at modifying the Senate legislation to, among other provisions, repeal the sweeteners, bribes, backroom deals, whatever you want to call them. Among those “other provisions,” by the way, are a number of items on Republican’s health care reform wish list. To deny Democrats the a victory on health care reform, Republicans may have to defeat the clean-up legislation – a vote to keep the sweeteners and to defeat their own reform proposals. The word “ironic” comes to mind – along with many others.

Politicians Need an Asterisk Projector. President Obama likes to say that “If you like your current health insurance you can keep it.” Well, in theory maybe. For awhile perhaps. But even in the short-term there’s a huge caveat: there’s no guarantee you can keep your health insurance in the current health insurance system and the reform bills do nothing to change that. When employers changes coverage, their employees change coverage. Whether they want to make that change or not. If a carrier drops a particular health plan in the individual market, insureds have to choose another plan. So when President Obama makes this pronouncement, he should project an asterisk over his head to cover these contingencies.

When Republicans condemn Democrats for even thinking about using the reconciliation process to pass the health care reform clean-up legislation discussed above they should project an asterisk. That’s because they were very happy to pass tax cuts a few years ago using the reconciliation process. So what Republicans mean when they oppose reconciliation is that they’re for it when it’s helpful to them and they think it’s un-American when it’s not.

For a Rookie He’s Gotten Pretty Far. Regardless of what you think of President Obama’s ideas or his tactics, you have to give him credit for getting further with health care reform than any of his predecessors. Pretty impressive for someone who was a State Senator just five years ago.

Whether It’ll Make Things Better or Worse is A Guess. Of course, it would be nice if the health care reform package he may get through was better than what will emerge from Congress, but let’s face it: no reform proposal would be popular. This is one of those issues in which there are no popular options. Everyone recognizes the status quo can’t endure. Everyone knows every proposal to fix the system is gravely flawed.

My first political mentor, Cathy O’Neill, used to say, however, “The test of whether to vote for something is not whether it’s perfect, but whether it’s better than what we’ve got.” When it comes to health care reform, however, there’s no way to know if a particular bill will make things “better” or not. The system is too complex. The opportunity for unintended consequences is too great. It’s likely only comprehensive reform can fix the system, but there’s no way to truly understand what comprehensive reform will accomplish until well after it’s implemented. Not a reassuring prospect, but it’s reality.

We’ve Only Just Begun.  Let’s say health care reform passes. That’s just the start. States and regulators will need to interpret and implement the reforms. Future Congress’ may seek to change or repeal the bills. Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, “It’s not over until it’s over.” When it comes to health care reform, “It’s not over even when it’s over.”

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.

Harry Reid’s Health Care Reform Dilemma: The Myth of the 60th Democratic Senator

If asked even two weeks ago I’d have said there was an 80 percent change or greater that meaningful health care reform would be signed into law this year. Now, however, I think the chances of such an outcome are far lower – still substantial – but much less likely.

One reason meaningful health care reform may not reach President Barack Obama’s desk this year is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is having difficulties in lining up the 60 votes necessary to overcome the inevitable filibuster from Republicans. Senator Reid’s problem is that while there are 60 Senators in his caucus, there are really only 59 Democrats plus Senator Joe Lieberman.

Senator Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats because he used to be one (he won re-election as an Independent in 2006) and he wants to be a Committee Chair (he chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee). However, he campaigned strongly for Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign, even addressing the Republican National Convention. Senator Lieberman also has said he expects to campaign for Republican candidates in 2010. It doesn’t take much insight to predict that, were Republicans to gain a majority in the Senate, Senator Lieberman would be knocking on their door for admittance.

Senator Lieberman has pledged to support a filibuster of a health care reform bill that includes a public option.  While he recently seems to have backed off this threat, as Timothy Noah on Slate.com points out, the Senator’s position on health care reform has been … well, let’s call it a bit erratic. So let’s say Senator Reid puts forward a bill that Senator Lieberman can support, does that solve his problem?

Hardly. Remember Senator Roland Burris, he of the controversial appointment to the Senate by then-Governor Rod Blagojevich. Senator Burris is threatening to oppose any health care reform bill that does not include the public option. As Senator Rollins is a bit of pariah in the Senate (many of its members, including his fellow Senator from Illinois, having called for him to resign) the Democratic leadership has little influence over his actions. So Harry Reid is in a bit of a no-win situation. Go after Senator Lieberman’s vote and he risks losing Senator Burris’ support. Accommodate Senator Burris and there goes Senator Lieberman.

Meanwhile, Senator Reid is forced to wait for an analysis of his proposal by the Congressional Budget Office. What they have to say about his efforts to blend the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s differing versions of health care reform will greatly impact the votes of moderate Democrats. Since only one Republican vote, that of Senator Olympia Snowe, seems to be in play, those moderate Democrats hold the key to whether the Senate can muster the votes for health care reform.

Given that the debate in the Senate will be long, slogging through the legislation will take quite some time. While Senator Reid would like to get a bill on the president’s desk before Christmas, this is a present that may need to wait for the new year. That, of course, complicates matters considerably as 2010 is an election year. Lawmakers hate doing controversial things in an even numbered year. (Why the difference between December 2009 and January 2010 makes a difference is one of those unanswerable questions that seem to be especially common within the Beltway).

On paper, Democrats have a 60-vote majority in the Senate. That’s a myth. In reality they have a group of 60 Senators who caucus together, but don’t act together. That’s actually good for democracy (the unanimity within the Republican caucuses in Congress demonstrates stronger party unity, but a lack of individuality that is somewhat startling). But the diversity within the caucus makes being Majority Leader a lot harder.

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.

 

AHIP Report Puts Health Care Reform Surcharge In Spotlight

America’s Health Insurance Plans have struck a nerve. The carrier’s industry association issued a report warning  that Congress is heading for a set reforms that could dramatically increase the cost of health insurance coverage for American consumers. The study, prepared by PriceWaterhouseCoopers warns that various taxes and fees, combined with a weakening of provisions requiring all Americans to purchase coverage, will raise premiums paid by a family in 2013 by $1,700 more than they would pay without the reform. Premiums for a single person would go up by $600 more than would otherwise be the case.

The AHIP report examined the impact of four provisions of the Senate Finance Committee bill. These are:

  • Requirements on carriers to sell coverage coupled with “weak coverage requirements” on consumers along with rating reforms
  • Taxes on so-called “Cadillac plans”
  • Cost-shifting resulting from $400 billion in cuts to Medicare
  • Taxes on insurance companies, medical device manufacturers and other health care sectors

Significantly, the study did not consider other proposals in the reform legislation that might reduce the cost of medical coverage. Even so, what the report has to say about current medical cost trends and these four elements of the reform package is important to understand.

According to PriceWaterhouseCooper, health care costs in America are expected to “grow over the next decade by approximately 6 percent per year under current law, which is more than double the expected growth in the Consumer Price Index of approximately 2.5 percent per year.” This means the cost of private health insurance coverage is expected to increase by 26 percent between 2009 and 2013 and 50 percent between 2009 and 2016. If the four provisions it reviewed are implemented, however, health insurance premiums would increase by 40 percent between 2009 and 2013 and by 73 percent between now and 2016. Meaning the average cost for single coverage, $4,800 today is expected to increase to $5,800 in 2013 under current law, but to $6,400 in 2013 given these reforms. And instead of costing $6,900 in 2016, the average single policy would cost $7,900. These are average increases. The impact by market segment is even greater:

  • 49% increase for the non-group (individual) market
  • 28% increase for small employers (those firms with fewer than 50 employees)
  • 11% increase for large employers with insured coverage
  • 9% increase for self-insured employers.

Again, the impact of other provisions of the Senate Finance Committee’s proposal might reduce this trend, but there’s two conclusions that can be drawn from the report:

First, the status quo is unsustainable. Any system in which the cost of a service increases year-over-year-over-year by more than twice general inflation will eventually become unaffordable. Change is needed.

Second, key elements of the reform package expected to be passed by the Senate Finance Committee today will increase costs significantly beyond the already unacceptable trends.

Not surprisingly, proponents of reform have vociferously attacked the AHIP study. The White House described the report as “Distorted and flawed.” An AARP spokesman called it “Fundamentally dishonest.” Senator Jay Rockefeller described AHIP’s publication of the study as “The misleading and harmful claims made by the profit-driven insurance companies are politicking for corporate gain at its worst.” (That AHIP also represents numerous non-profit health plans has apparently escaped the Senator’s notice).

The harsh tone of the attacks on AHIP and its report reveals correlates with the significance of the study’s conclusions. Supporters of reform had long claimed it would reduce the cost of health care for most Americans or, at the very least “bend the cost curve.” For voters happy with their current coverage this is a critical message. They generally support health care reform, but that support could waiver if the cost to them personally is too high. And AHIP is now demonstrating what the cost to these individuals is in dollars and sense. That could undermine support for reform just as the legislation heads for a crucial stage: consideration and a vote in the next few weeks by the Senate and the House of Representatives.

In the next few days, critics will undermine points in the study. The tax on high-end plans may drive consumers to less rich benefit packages, reducing their premiums. The Medicare cuts could eliminate waste and, consequently, avoid shifting additional costs to individuals with private insurance. The taxes on medical suppliers will be passed through to consumers, but spread over a broader population as more Americans obtain health insurance coverage.

But if nothing else the study will bring highlight an important reality: a requirement on carriers to sell coverage that is not tied to a strong, enforced requirement for consumers to buy coverage will dramatically increase insurance premiums. The Congressional Budget Office concludes the Senate Finance Bill will increase the number of Americans with insurance from 83 percent today to approximately 94 percent. Karen Ignagni, AHIP’s president, says “You really have to have a coverage level in the high 90s to make this work.”

You don’t need high priced analysts to recognize that mandates to buy and to sell coverage need to be balanced. New York and New Jersey currently require health plans to guarantee issue coverage, but has no requirement that their citizens purchase insurance. Not surprisingly, premiums for individual health insurance coverage is two-to-three times what it is in California. The difference is a health reform surcharge paid for by the residents of those states.

But the example of New York and New Jersey isn’t even necessary: common sense shows the impracticality of an unbalanced approach. Imagine if consumers could put off buying auto insurance until the tow truck arrives at the scene of their accident. Auto insurance costs would skyrocket. What would fire insurance cost if it could be purchased after the flames are extinguished?

American consumers will do the math. If the penalty for purchasing coverage is the equivalent of one month’s premium (which is roughly what the Senate Finance Committee is proposing) every month they go without coverage (minus the first month) is money saved. When they face medical charges greater than the penalty, they’ll buy it. Once they’re treated, they’ll drop the coverage. The result will be a surcharge on all those with health insurance coverage.

Passage of the Senate Finance Committee legislation is not the end of the health care reform debate. It’s merely a milestone – and important one, but in the end, just a milestone. As the reforms move forward, lawmakers will need to face up to the need for balanced reforms.  That will require making tough decisions, such as telling their constituents they must have coverage. But health care reform, if it’s to be done right, takes both common sense and political courage.

It’s Time for President Obama to Define Health Care Reform

Now comes the fun part. With the Senate Finance Committee poised to pass its version of comprehensive health care reform we get to one of the more difficult segments of the Kabuki dance: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid must now reconcile the bills passed by multiple committees into a blended proposal. Which means the time is right for President Barack Obama to publicly define what, exactly, is “Obamacare”.

First some background. In the House, different versions of health care reform legislation have been passed by the House Ways & Means, Energy & Commerce, and Education & Labor committees. To be more precise, while the legislation moved forward by Ways & Means and Education & Labor were very similar, moderate Democratic members on the Energy & Commerce committee gained significant changes in that committee’s version. Speaker Pelosi will now combine the three versions into a “Manger’s Bill.” This is the version that will be debated and voted upon by the full House.

What’s makes Speaker Pelosi’s mash-up of the House Committee’s health care reform bills important is that any changes must be imposed upon it. Her version of the bill is the “default” position. From a legislative process perspective, this puts those seeking changes to the legislative language at a disadvantage.

The same blending process is underway in the Senate. There the task is even harder. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed a liberal version of health care reform; the Senate Finance Committee’s plan is much more moderate. The gap between them is far greater than that between the three House committee’s bills. The Associated Press describes Senator Reid’s efforts to blend two disparate health care reform bills as “mission seemingly impossible.” Given the differences in the how the two Committees addressed costs, taxes, whether there should be a government-run plan, the obligation of employers to provide coverage and other controversial items, “seemingly impossible” may be an understatement.

Unless President Obama dives deeper into the details than has publicly been the case. The White House has been engaged in Congressional health care reform negotiations for some time. According to news reports, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, formerly part of the House Leadership, has been the Administration’s point person in these discussions. Until recently, President Obama has been willing to let Congress thrash out the thorny issues related to health care reform, setting forth broad principles. Beginning last month the president has offered more specifics, but hardly enough to clearly define what his version of health care reform looks like. At least not publicly.

With all the Congressional committees having taken a position, the time has come to get specific. Yes, the White House could leave it to Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid to fashion compromises that can pass their respective chambers, but that only postpones the Administration’s day of reckoning. For after the House and Senate passes their differing versions of reform, a conference committee (made up of both Senators and Representatives) will convene to fashion the final bill. If President Obama waits until the conference committee convenes to publicly engage in the nitty-gritty of reform, it could be too late. Legislators will have been forced to make numerous politically challenging votes. The political payback if the White House then makes those votes unnecessary would be … ugly.

President Obama needs to make his health care reform vision known now, before those votes. He needs to say “this is acceptable;” “this is not.”  He needs to spend his political capital to define Obamacare, to give lawmakers the cover they need to make tough votes, and to rally his considerable grassroots organization behind specific legislation.

Publicly defining what he wants in the bill is a huge political risk for President Obama. His positions will anger some supporters and give opponents mounds of ammunition to use against him. Whatever changes Congress makes to the president’s reform plan will be described by the jabbering cable network pundits as a defeat for the Administration. If he accepts those changes he’ll be accused of weakness and flip-flopping. (One of the most insightful columnists around, Richard Reeves recently explained the value and wisdom of political leaders capable of changing their minds).

But the greater risk to the Administration is failing to achieve meaningful health care reform. And if health care reform does pass, the messiness of the process will be soon forgotten. The odds of President Obama getting a health care reform bill sent to his desk increases exponentially if Congress – and the public – have a clear understanding of the Administration’s legislative ambitions.

The policy and political pieces are all on the table. Selecting from among the various provisions contained in the five variations of health care reform passed by Congressional committees won’t be an easy, but it is necessary. President Obama wanted Congress to participate in the reform process. They have. Now it’s his turn.

Cantwell Amendment Another Handoff to States

As the Senate Finance Committee concludes its mark-up of health care reform legislation an interesting dynamic is emerging: Senators are increasingly turning to the states to address some of the more pressing challenges the reform effort is designed to address.

Yesterday I wrote about a compromise being circulated by moderate Senator Tom Carper. The Carper Compromise would allow states to create government-run insurance programs, networks of co-ops or the like. That proposal has yet to be brought to the Senate Finance Committee and may not be. Instead, it could be offered later in the process as the Senate seeks to bridge the gap between the Finance Committee’s bill and legislation passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – which calls for a robust government-run plan.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee has adopted a proposal offered by Senator Maria Cantwell. which gives states the option “to negotiate with insurance companies for lower rates on health coverage policies for those living barely above the poverty line and provides federal dollars to pay for it,” according to the McClatchy news service. The Cantwell Amendment is modeled after a program currently in operation in Senator Cantwell’s home state of Washington and would benefit families between 133 percent and 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (up to $21,660 for individuals and $44,100 for a family of four). Senator Cantwell staff claims such plans could cover up to 30 million of the nation’s uninsured according to the Associated Press. This, of course, assumes that state’s out-reach efforts are successful in bringing those eligible for such a program into the system. There are millions of individuals eligible for existing programs like Medicaid and children health programs who remain unenrolled across the country.

Senator Cantwell’s amendment is not an alternative to the public option, the issue most dramatically dividing Democratic liberals from their moderate and conservative colleagues in Congress. Bridging that gap will require something along the lines of the Carper Compromise. (This doesn’t mean Senator Cantwell’s proposal wasn’t controversial. It was adopted on a 12-11 vote with Democrat Blanche Lincoln joining all 10 Republican members of the panel in voting against it).  What inclusion of the Cantwell Amendment in the Senate Finance Committee’s legislation does underscore is the likelihood Congress will be giving states a central role to play in making health care reform real.

The benefits of this approach include keeping health care decisions closer to consumers and allowing for different approaches to meet the differing needs of the states. One of the downsides to relying on states, however, is that it eliminates savings that might have been achieved by more uniform, national standards and regulations.

Another outcome of shifting responsibility and power to the states under health care reform: even after Congress completes its work, intense legislative battles will remain. Only the venue will move from Washington, D.C. to a state capital near you.

Public Option Compromises Gain Traction

President Barack Obama wants a public insurance plan to compete with private carriers. Democrats in the House of Representatives want a government-run plan. Apparently so do a majority of Democrats in the Senate. However, as of now there’s enough Democrats in the Senate opposed to the idea to keep the support below the 60 votes needed to pass health care reform legislation. A compromise being considered in the Senate, however, could change the math, creating the potential government health plans will be part of the health care reform package ultimately enacted by lawmakers.

Advocates for public plans were set back when the Senate Finance Committee defeated amendments to add a government medical plan to the health care reform bill its writing. But liberals immediately pledged to keep pushing for the public option and many claim a public option is critical to meaningful reform. Whether progressives would defeat health care reform which doesn’t include a public health insurance plan is uncertain, but it is possible.

Enter Senator Tom Carper from Delaware. Senator Carper is a thoughtful moderate who voted against one of the public option amendments in the Senate Finance Committee, but voted for another. He is floating a compromise that not only may appeal to liberals, but to moderate Democrats and, conceivably, to Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, the only member of her party considered likely to support a Democratic version of health care reform.

Politico.com reports that Senator Carper proposal would give “states the option of creating a competitor to private insurers, (these competitors could be) a government plan, a network of co-ops, or a large purchasing pool modeled after the revered Federal Employees health Benefits Plan.” Unlike a compromise suggested by Senator Snowe which would create a national government-run plan only if private carriers failed to offer affordable coverage to at least 95 percent of the population, Senator Carper’s plan envisions only state (and, perhaps, regional) public plans and permits states to move forward, according to another Politico.com posting, “if affordable insurance is not widely available or the insurance market is dominated by only one or two players.” (It should be noted Senator Snowe has not sought a vote on her idea by the Senate Finance Committee)

Brian Beutler, writing on the Talking Points Memo blog, predicts Senator Carper’s idea may fail to gain support from either liberals or conservatives. He writes, “Liberal critics will charge that, while the plan doesn’t involve triggers, it does lack the heft that a plan organized at the national level would have to bargain down prices with providers” while conservatives will reject it as the first step toward a single payer system. “

Mr. Beutler may be right, but I think a compromise along the lines of Senator Carper’s proposal will gain traction. According to a second Politico.com posting, lawmakers, both public option supporters and opponents, are speaking positively about Senator Carper’s compromise.

The political reality is that there probably will not be enough votes to pass the “pure” public option desired by liberals. So they will face a choice: no government-run plan at all, a host of state-run insurance plans, or no health care reform. To reject health care reform because the public plans competing with private carriers are not controlled by the federal government is a political argument few liberals will want to make.

At the same time moderate Democrats may see the compromise as a way to push the entire public plan controversy to the states. This would allow them to escape the intense pressure they are under from party activists (and, perhaps soon, the White House) without personally voting for a government-run plan. State’s rights are usually championed by moderates and conservatives. It is certainly reasonable for a lawmaker to conclude that the public option is an appropriate decision for states and not the federal government. It is interesting to note that one of the three Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee to vote against both attempts to add a public option, Senator Kent Conrad described Senator Carper’s plan as a “very constructive option,” according to Politico.

What the effort to construct a workable public health insurance option overlooks is that it is virtually impossible to create a government-run plan that will both lower medical costs and compete fairly with the private marketplace. A public plan can lower health care spending only by imposing (not negotiating) low reimbursement rates on doctors and hospitals, most likely by tying them to other government programs such as Medicare. (It is important to note that Medicare often pays providers less than their actual costs). But imposing rates, something only monopolies and governments can do, is unfair competition (which is why we have laws against monopolies). But a public plan that merely negotiates rates with doctors and hospitals like any other health plan does is unlikely to be effective in reducing costs.

I’ve long predicted the health care reform legislation eventually enacted this year will not include a government-run health plan. Now, however, I have to recognize the possibility that a compromise along the lines of those proposed by Senator Carper or Senator Snowe might make it into the final package. It’s far from certain, but it is a possibility.

Senate Finance Committee Rejects Government-run Health Insurance Plan

The Senate Finance Committee continues to refine its health care reform legislation. Today it broke ranks with other Congressional committees with jurisdiction over health care reform by defeating amendments to create a government-run health plan. The debate was passionate, but ultimately enough Democrats joined with Republican Senators to defeat two attempts by the panel’s more liberal members to insert public option language into the bill.

Keeping the public option out of the bill was a major victory for Senator Max Baucus, chair of the Finance Committee. While acknowledging that a public option would “hold insurance companies’ feet to the fire,” his opposition was based on the goal of enacting health care reform this year. According to ABC News Senator Baucus believes health care reform including a government-run program cannot pass the Senate.

Senator Jay Rockefeller insisted, however, that a public health insurance plan was absolutely essential to meaningful reform. Failure to to create a public, non-profit plan to compete with private carriers, the Associated Press reports the West Virginia Democrat as saying, “was a virtual invitation to insurance companies to continue placing profits over people, and he predicted they would raise their premiums substantially once the legislation went into effect.”

Senator Baucus countered that the legislation being developed by the Senate Finance Committee includes numerous consumer protections, including a provision to prevent insurance companies denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. None of the lawmakers on either side of the aisle spent much effort in defending the behavior of private insurance companies. Senator Baucus said he agreed with the intent of the Rockefeller Amendment to “hold the insurance industry’s feet to the fire,” according to the Washington Post. The Associated Press quotes Senator Jim Bunning as observing that “the private sector is not doing exactly what it should do with medical services.”

Republican members of the committee were unanimous in their opposition to public options. The Washington Post quotes the ranking GOP member of the panel, Senator Charles Grassley, as warning that a government plan “will ultimately force private insurers out of business” and that “The government is not a fair competitor. It’s a predator.”

The first public option amendment, offered by Senator Rockefeller, would have permitted the government-run plan to set reimbursements to medical providers at levels paid by Medicare for the first two years. (After that period, I believe the Senators proposal would have permitted the public medical plan to, like Medicare, impose rates on providers). It should be noted, Medicare often pays doctors and hospitals less than the cost they incur providing services. The five Democrats joining with Republican committee members to defeat this amendment were Senators Baucus, Thomas Carper, Kent Conrad, Blanche Lincoln, and Bill Nelson.

Senator Charles Schumer then proposed an amendment that would have required the public plan to negotiate reimbursement rates with providers, much as private carriers do today. Three Democrats – Senators Baucus, Conrad and Lincoln – voted against accepting this amendment.

I’ve maintained for some time that a government-run health plan was unlikely to be part the health care reform plan passed by Congress. The Senate Finance Committee’s rejection of this provision increases the likelihood of this outcome, but the debate will continue. Senator Schumer, for one, pledged to continue the fight. 

"’The present system is broken’" the Washington Post reports him as saying. “He said he was pushing for a public option not for ideological or symbolic reasons but because ‘costs are going through the roof.’ And he expressed confidence that, ‘with some work and some compromise,’  proponents of the provision eventually could get 60 votes on the Senate floor. ‘We are going to get at this, and at this, and at this, until we succeed, because we believe in it so strongly.’"

With polls showing 65 percent of the public support a government-run health plan operating like Medicare to compete with private health insurance plans, President Barack Obama continuing to argue for a public option, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi claiming the House was unlikely the House would pass health care reform that did not include a public option, this debate is far from over. Assuming the Senate Finance Committee moves forward a reform package this week, the next step will be for it to be integrated into the bill passed by the Senate Health, Education and Pensions Committee – legislation that does include a public option.

Getting health care reform is a long hike. Today’s vote in the Senate Finance Committee is a step along the way – albeit a very significant step indeed.

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.