Health Care Reform’s Likely Outcome: Worse Than Promised; Not as Bad as Feared

As the Senate begins their effort to pass health care reform anxiety levels are, quite naturally and rightly rising. Health care is highly personal. For those of us working within the current framework, having politicians mess with our livelihood is a stressful to say the least. That these politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) seem to care less about the substance of the reform and more about how they appeal to their electoral base does nothing to reduce that stress.

Of course, what we’re reacting to at this stage is not the final reform legislation. The House and Senate proposals foreshadow what Congress will eventually pass (if it passes anything). The actual legislation is still to come. Put another way, we know the basic outline, but the devil resides in a suburb of the details. As I pointed out in my previous post, however, the real drafting of health care reform legislation hasn’t started yet. With the Senate taking up the issue we’re seeing the end of the legislative phase in which the parameters are defined. It’s in the upcoming conference committee that will define health care reform 2009-style (or, more likely, early 2010).

Concerning that prior post, Ron Masters, a friend and frequent reader/commenter of this blog, took me to task for writing too kindly about the current House and Senate versions of health care reform. “I’m surprised that you seem to feel that either of these bills are any good,” he write. This after a litany of shortcomings concerning the current administration, the ability of government to deliver much of anything, and the foolishness of imposing taxes and creating new entitlements in the midst of the current economic mess. And he makes some fair points.

He’s not alone. I’ve heard from a lot of brokers, readers and others who are convinced the coming health care reform will be a disaster leading to ruin and damnation for the country. I disagree. Here’s why.

As any reader of this blog knows, I don’t buy into the premises of those at the extreme. Not all government programs are good, but some are. Not all taxes are bad, but some are. Change is important, but getting change right is more important. Defending the status quo just because it is the status quo is indefensible. In other words, I’m comfortable with the gray shades of reality and uncomfortable with the black-and-whites of true believers.

I’m also comfortable with the government doing stupid things now and then. No party and no administration has a monopoly on such foolishness. (Nor has any party or administration failed to achieve some truly noble accomplishments). What’s more, no administration lasts forever. Whatever health care reform passes in the next few months will be administered by a parade of future administrations and modified by Congresses yet to-be-elected. Many people have a tendency to believe whatever Congress passes and how the current administration implements it will remain unchanged forever. It won’t. Medicare was vilified as socialistic and a fast slide toward America’s ruin when it was being created. Things didn’t work out that way. The program has survived for nearly 45 years under the administrations of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush-the-first, Clinton and Bush-the-second. Yes, it is a far from perfect program and faces significant challenges. Still, it works, it’s evolved and it will continue to do so. And the country has survived.

Another reason I’m not outright opposed to health care reform is because I believe expanding access to health insurance is critically important. It is well understood that everyone in America has access to health care. But it is also well documented that people with health insurance live healthier, longer lives. A recent study by researchers at Harvard Medical School confirmed an earlier study from the 1980’s that “uninsurance is associated with mortality.” That’s an awkward way of stating a well-accepted truism: being uninsured can be hazardous to your health.

Expanding coverage, however, is expensive. The more people who have coverage the more people who will incur medical expenses. That is after all, the whole idea and a desirable outcome. It’s also an expensive outcome. In my mind, it’s a price worth paying. Especially considering the potential return on this investment.

Those with insurance are already making heavy payments to pay for care received by the uninsured according to a study by Families USA. In 2008, the study reports, nearly $43 billion of health care the uninsured received from hospitals, doctors and other providers went unpaid. This uncompensated care results in higher premiums for those with coverage. In 2008 this hidden tax increased premiums $368 for single coverage and $1,017 for family coverage. Given the recession, this amount has no doubt gone up. Increasing the number of Americans with insurance should reduce this burden.

Early identification of potential health conditions before they blossom into serious diseases can generate tremendous economic benefits, although these savings are rarely considered in a cost-benefit analysis. Every dollar invested in preventing and treating heart attacks generates $7 in increased productivity, according to a study by United BioSource Corporation.

In other words, it’s not just the reform bills being considered in Washington that are expensive. So is the status quo. Health care costs are crippling businesses, bankrupting families and state governments, enabling fraud and abuse, increasing taxes, and failing to deliver on many of its promises. Change is inevitable – and it’s coming.

Too many in Washington believe (or at least claim to believe) that reforming the health insurance industry will reduce the cost of coverage. Far from it. The bills being considered in Congress will cause premiums to increase. Until Congress tackles the underlying causes of skyrocketing medical costs, health insurance coverage will become increasingly unaffordable. The House and Senate health care reform bills do have more cost containment provisions than is generally acknowledged. Could they be stronger and more ambitious? Yes. Are obvious cost containment opportunities missing (e.g., malpractice reform?) Yes. But they’re there. And future efforts to restrain medical costs will benefit from the seeds planted in the current reform debate.

Which brings us, I suppose, to the key question: are the House and Senate health care reform bills good? No, not really. They’re too heavy handed, using an axe when a scalpel is required. As noted, their cost containment provisions are weaker than the American people deserve. The bills reflect a misunderstanding of how health insurance works and about what drives premiums. The costs for the program are no doubt understated (few initiatives of this magnitude, whether attempted by government or business, come in under budget).

If either the House or Senate bills were the final legislation I’d be more concerned than I am now (and, for the record, I am concerned). But neither HR 3962 nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s proposal are going to be enacted, not as currently written. I believe the conference committee will need to make significant changes in order to get the votes needed for passage – if that’s even possible.

There are plenty of substantive problems with these health care reform proposals. To make matters worse, their backers and opponents are knowingly overpromising or attempting to frighten the public. Democrats claim their reforms will reduce overall health care costs, lower premiums and reduce the deficit. Wrong on all counts. Republicans claim it will destroy American businesses, annihilate Medicare, create death panels and bankrupt the country. Just as wrong.

We’ve seen this script before concerning Medicare, Iraq, and a host of other issues. Partisans on one side over promise, their opponents dredge up scenarios of doom. That both sides are equally guilty makes it no more acceptable or welcome. But it is what it is.

The main point of my previous post, and of this one, is that if reform passes, it will not be as bad as feared nor as good as promised. It will be refined sooner (by regulation) and later (by future legislation). The fight for a better health care system will continue. Only the status quo will have changed. The need to improve on it will remain.

Public and Private Sectors Facing Tough Health Care Decisions

I’ve written numerous times in this blog on what’s needed to achieve meaningful health are reform: increase access to health care coverage; and constrain escalating medical costs. The latter is the most important. If we don’t get control of health care costs we won’t be able to afford to provide access. Not only that, health care costs will vacuum resources away from other important societal needs.

There’s been some success in recent years on increasing access. The State Children Health Insurance Plan has resulted in coverage for millions of children that otherwise would likely to have gone without. Carriers have created innovative products that have proved popular with young people and those seeking catastrophic coverage. (There’s also been numerous disappointments during that time, when opportunities to expand coverage failed).

In fact, a substantial component of the uninsured could obtain coverage today. As Aetna CEO Ron Williams noted at a meeting of the Business Council in Florida last week, 20 percent of the uninsured are eligible for Medicaid and the state children’s health programs, but fail to enroll in those programs. In an article on the conference by Jason Szep of Reuters, Mr. Williams also noted that 10 percent of the nation’s 47 million uninsured are college students and “could be easily and relatively cheaply enrolled for health care insurance.”

At the same conference, Angela Braly, the CEO of WellPoint, called for expansion of programs aimed at children and low-income families. WellPoint estimates this could cut the uninsured by 25 million if all 50 states acted to cover all children and increasing eligibility for Medicaid.

It’s true that too many of those eligible for public programs fail to enroll in them. It’s true that some states have had success in requiring college students to have health care coverage. And it’s true that expanding children and low-income health programs would bring many of today’s uninsured into the system. The problem, however, is that these programs are under tremendous stress. The safety net that has assured health care for all is crumbling.

In Los Angeles, for example, there are plans to shut 11 health clinics to meet the county’s $195-$331 million budget deficit. According to the Los Angeles Times,  a majority of the Board of Supervisors opposes these closures, but simultaneously, health officials are drawing up contingency plans that would shutter all of the county’s health clinics — facilities that provide “more than 160,000 urgent care visits and nearly 180,000 specialty care visits a year, mostly from the uninsured and poor.”

Meanwhile, in Sacramento, doctors providing care to Medicaid patients will see their reimbursement rates cut by 10 percent as the state makes a mid-year adjustment to its hemorrhaging budget. As a result, fewer physicians are likely to accept new Medicaid patients or some may stop seeing program participants altogether.

America’s current health care system is already a mix of private and public health care programs. The private sector is under attack for its rescission practices, among other issues. The public sector is going broke and, even in the best of economies, seems unable to reach out to all those promised care.

What’s needed is a national dialogue about priorities. If Americans are serious about expanding coverage, they’re going to have to find a way to pay for it in good economic times or bad. And that means keeping it affordable. States should not balance their budgets by breaking their promise to those whom they promised coverage.

The private sector is also going to have to clean up its act. Behaving legally is not enough, they have to act right. Carriers need to act in ways that earns the public’s respect by demonstrating an appreciation of the critical role these enterprises play in society — a role that requires them to meet a higher standard than most corporations. Business as usual could mean no business at all.

There’s a strong demand among voters to change the country’s health care system. Given all that’s happening, that’s not surprising. And, given all that’s happening, it’s not going to be easy, either.

Health Care Reform Lemonade

They tell me that in golf (I wouldn’t know, believe me), what separates good from fair players is not how far they drive the ball, but how well they recover from a bad shot. Because everyone makes bad shots now and then.

In politics it’s pretty much the same: making lemonade from lemons. In 1992, Governor Bill Clinton was hammered by a host of damaging news stories just before the New Hampshire primary. Instead of winning the state, he came in second.  For some that would be the end of the road. Bill Clinton, however, celebrated the results, proclaiming himself the “Come Back Kid” and no one cared that Senator Paul Tsongas had come in first. 

The Democratic Leadership and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger may be close to a compromise on health care reform. But as Dan Walters in the Sacramento Bee warns, “If health care … is worth doing, it’s worth doing right. It’s time for those involved to step back, take deep breaths and stop this madcap rush to do something just to say they did something.”

Substantial differences exist between Speaker Fabian Nunez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata on one side and the Governor on the other. And they’re playing with fire. If they fail to find the right balance between, to cite one challenge, requiring everyone to obtain health care coverage and a way to make coverage affordable, they could create a mess which will leave the state’s health insurance market in shambles. (And it won’t do much for the careers of some ambitious politicians, either), There are several issues on which a delicate balance must be struck and they’re performing without a net. Taking the time to get it right is of paramount importance.

But what if they can’t? What if, after all the press conferences, proclamations, negotiations, time, money, special session, raised expectations, near misses and pain there’s no deal? What’s the recipe for lemonade in that scenario?

My recommendation is that they pluck three lemons to work with.

1. Constrain Medical Costs
Every health care reform plan on the table includes provisions to control health care costs.  The approaches laid out by Democrats, Republicans and the Post-Partisan Governor overlap and, where they don’t, they often compliment one another. For example, most call for leveraging technology. Most include ways of promoting healthier lifestyles and preventive care. There’s some differences, but not much. It would take a week or two to fashion these ideas into a single, meaningful bill — one that would pass overwhelmingly and cost very little.

2. Capture Federal Medicaid Funds
California has one of the lowest Medicaid reimbursement rates in the country. This is wrong on many levels, but perhaps most significantly because the Federal Government matches a percentage of what the state pays. By underpaying for Medi-Cal (the state’s Medicaid program) California is failing to obtain from Washington what the state is due. This situation is so absurd the California Hospital Association accepted the Governor’s proposal to tax hospitals four percent of their gross revenues so long as the money is first used to fully fund Medicaid reimbursement. For most hospitals in the state the combination of increased reimbursement and federal funds more covers the revenue tax. If comprehensive health care reform is out-of-reach, capturing these federal funds is still possible. And the federal matching funds would help the state reduce the growing deficit.

3. Keep Our Promise to the Uninsured
Expanding affordable health care coverage for all Californians is the goal, but if it’s out-of-reach for now, let’s at least keep our promise to those already eligible for existing state programs. Nearly one million Californians — about 15 percent of the uninsured in the state — are eligible for Medi-Cal and Healthy Families, yet fail to enroll in those programs.  CAHU’s Healthy Solutions reform plan makes several low- and no-cost suggestions on how to improve outreach programs. Better yet, the Governor and Democratic Leadership should propose restoring $66 million in funds cut from the budget this summer, which was to be used for enrolling more children into Healthy Families. Given the state’s budget situation, it is only prudent to identify the source of new spending. I nominate eliminating the tax loophole benefiting out-of-state yacht purchases. I don’t know how much revenue this would generate, but every penny should be devoted to enrolling children already eligible for Healthy Families. Given that direct a trade-off — reducing the cost of boats for rich yacht owners or providing health care coverage to poor children — even the most fiscally conservative legislator would be hard pressed to claim helping out-of-state yachts sellers is a better use of funds. A bi-partisan spending bill would be a sight to behold.

It would be terrific if meaningful, workable, fair and affordable health care reform can come out of Sacramento in 2007. But it may be the only result will be, as Dan Walters described the state’s 1996 electric utility reforms, “a monumental pile of unintended consequences.” Enacting meaningful cost containment, capturing federal funds and keeping existing promises made to the uninsured would be no small accomplishment. Lawmakers could rightly claim a partial victory. It would address serious problems and lay the groundwork for more comprehensive reforms down the road. That’s a lot more than lemonade, that’s sound public policy.