The Need to Do Something — But SB 1440 Isn’t It

We elect politicians to solve problems. That’s their job. It’s what we pay them for. No one campaigns for office proclaiming their intent to accomplish nothing. There’s always some injustice to right. There’s always a mess to fix. So no one should be surprised that current lawmakers in Sacramento are desperate to do something about California’s health care system. After all, there are real problems in the current system.

But there’s a difference between lawmakers really addressing problems and simply looking like their addressing problems. Take Senate Bill 1440 authored by Senator Shiela Keuhl. The bill would require carriers to spend 85 percent of the premium they take in on medical care. As originally introduced, SB 1440 would have had a devastating impact on the individual health insurance market. It would have increased costs, decreased competition and made it nearly impossible for independent agents to assist consumers in finding the right plan for their needs.

Fortunately, SB 1440 has been substantially amended since its original introduction. As it reads today, the biggest problem with the bill is it requires carriers to segregate their Department of Managed Care regulated plans from those regulated by the Department of Insurance. While it’s not surprising regulators and legislators perceive these plans to be worthy of distinction, from a consumer’s point of view it’s a meaningless difference. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator Keuhl should address this issue in their negotiations concerning the legislation. But that’s not the overriding problem with SB 1440.

What’s wrong with SB 1440 is that it won’t lower premiums, which is the stated purpose of the bill. The Rand Corporation in a report by Neeraj Sood and Eric Sun titled “Health Insurance Premiums in California: The Role of Administrative Cost and Profits” examined the results of similar legislation in other states. They found states with no Medical Loss Ration legislation spend statistically the same percentage of premium as those that regulated the entire market (83 percent and 84 percent, respectively). While it’s true that states limiting the loss ratio of all coverage (individual, small group and large group) set targets at levels lower than the 85 percent called for by SB 1440, the report suggests consumers are unlikely to benefit from any premium savings.

The reason is that profits and administrative costs aren’t the problem with skyrocketing health care costs; it’s the price of medical treatment that drives premiums. The study found that 85 percent of the increase in revenue per enrollee between 2002 and 2006 was the result of medical costs.

Lawmakers could address 85 percent of the problem. But that’s hard work. It requires examining the drivers of increased medical costs and making tough decisions on how to reduce their rate of increase. It’s far easier (if less impactful) to go after health insurance companies and HMOs. Never mind that, as reported by the Rand study, the profits of California HMOs are less than the profitability of the companies comprising the S&P 500. The reality is that, along with oil and tobacco companies, they are about as easy a political target as exists.

So lawmakers will pass SB 1440 and declare a blow against rising insurance premiums. They may not be able to pass a budget, but they can teach those insurance companies a lesson. The fact that the legislation won’t have much, if any, impact on premiums is irrelevant. The fact that it won’t bring medical inflation down to general inflation levels doesn’t matter.

Because while we pay them for results, we have a tendency to elect lawmakers based on appearances. Which means the underlying problem remains.

Progressives Accepting of Half a Health Care Reform Loaf?

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez has long supported a single payer health care system for California and prefers that solution to his own health care reform plan, Assembly Bill X1-1, passed by the Assembly earlier this month and awaiting consideration by the State Senate on January 16th.

Yet, he takes Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at his word that he will not sign a single payer bill and notes that the Governor previously vetoed such legislation, Senate Bill 840. Consequently, he encourages progressives to recognize this reality and line up behind ABX1-1, health care reform that can be enacted.

The Speaker made this plea explicit in posts on several liberal blogs (that’s one, here’s another and another) last week. In his post, Speaker Nunez warned  progressives that “it would be a shame if disappointment over the chances of single payer (and I’m a supporter of single payer)  detracted from the opportunity we have to do a strong measure of good for the millions of Californians who don’t have, or are having trouble affording, health care.”

His plea for liberals to line up behind ABX1-1 seems to be having an effect. Consumers Union is on board. Several labor organizations, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are backing the bill. They, and others, are finding ABX1-1 to be a very satisfactory partial health care reform loaf.

Mike Russo, Health Care Advocate and Staff Attorney for the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG), does an excellent job in parsing the legislation and pointing out the reason progressives should support it: “ABX1-1 sets out an entirely new framework for health care in this state, and it’s critical to focus on making that framework the best it can be, rather than rejecting it for an unsustainable, intolerable status quo.” Whether you agree or not with his politics, his post is insightful and well worth reading.

The Left is far from united on ABX1-1. Senator Sheila Kuehl, the author of SB 840, remains opposed. So is the California Nurses Association. But the fact that proponents of a single payer scheme for California are not united against ABX1-1 is a major victory for Speaker Nunez and Governor Schwarzenegger.

And it puts pressure on Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata to push the legislation through his house. Senator Perata, however, has placed the future of the bill in the hands of the Legislative Analyst’s office. He has asked them for an analysis of the legislation’s impact on the state’s finances. If the result is a report showing the state can’t afford ABX1-1, it would be hard for Senator Perata to bring the bill forward. If the analysis shows the health care reform package would help the state’s finances, he’s pretty much pledged to get the bill passed.

But what if the Legislative Analyst calculates a budget neutral impact or even that the impact is impossible to determine? In other words, what if it’s a “tie?” In that case, having a substantial portion of the liberal community advocating for the bill is to result in Senator Perata pushing ABX1-1 through the Senate. In other words, the support of liberals breaks the tie in favor of the legislation passing. 

Whether ABX1-1 should pass the Senate is still an open question for many of us. What’s interesting about the dynamic taking place in the progressive universe, however, is how it runs counter to business as usual.. 

True believes on either end of the political spectrum often take a “purist’s” approach to issues. It’s all or nothing. In their willingness to accept what they see as a partial victory, liberals have increased the odds California will pass comprehensive health care reform legislation next month. That’s hardly business as usual.

The Potential California Health Care Reform Deal — Maybe

My last post mentioned rumors of a pending health care reform compromise among Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Speaker Fabian Nunez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata. A deal, according to these rumors, that was blessed by the California Labor Federation. The post also noted that the principals involved denied a deal was close.

Now comes blogger Randy Bayne with newsthat a vote on an amended version of Assembly Bill X1-1 “could come as early as next Monday or Tuesday, but will take place only if there is a deal in place ‘ready to be advanced.'” Unlike the earlier rumor, the pending deal described in Mr. Bayne’s post may not be acceptable to Labor. Supposedly the exemption to the requirement that all residents obtain coverage is out of the compromise bill. Yet when testifying before the Assembly Health Committee last month, that “affordability standard” was cited frequently as absolutely essential if the union and their allies were to support the legislation. Also eliminated from the compromise bill is any requirement that employers cover part-time employees — another item favored by Labor.

Of coure, even if the Assembly were to pass ABX1-1 next week, its fate in the Senate is uncertain. Mr. Bayne notes the bill would normally go first to the Senate Health Committee, chaired by Senator Sheila Keuhl. She has been vocally opposed to reforms that fall short of her Senate Bill 840, the single-payer legislation, even voting against Assembly Bill 8, the Democratic Leadership’s health care reform bill passed by the legislature and vetoed by the Governor during the regular legislative session. Mr. Bayne reports on speculation that ABX1-1 may be put “on a fast track using rules suspensions to bypass the Health Committee and ram it rhough to the Senate Floor.”

So the drama continues. Talks are clearly reaching the fish-or-cut-bait stage. For now, however, we’ve got more rumors than substance.