Health Care Reform: Getting Ready for Crunch Time

For health care reform, the next few weeks will be critical. Congressional committees are poised to pass legislation (to put this in perspective, this never happened during the Clinton Administration’s reform efforts in 1993-94). President Obama and his aides will become even more engaged concerning the legislative language they would like to see Congress enact. Senate moderates will begin taking sides on critical issues. In short, this is when it all starts coming together. In the next few weeks, it will become clear if Washington will enact health care reform and, if so, what it will look like.

Events will move quickly, so I’m clearing out some short items that have been lingering in my “to blog” folder for awhile. They are a random assortment of items unlikely to become stand-alone posts. Taken as a whole, however, I hope they provide some useful background to the history about to unfold.

  1. Health care reform ideas are flying around the Capital in ever increasing numbers. Keeping track of them all can be a challenge. Good thing there’s the Kaiser Family Foundation’s health care reform proposal comparison tool. It makes comparing the entire plan or just particular issues across the various proposals simple.
  2. One of the plans we have yet to see details on will be presented in the next few days in the Senate Finance Committee. They are working hard to construct a legitimately bi-partisan proposal, which means it has the greatest likelihood of foreshadowing the legislation likely to emerge from Congress. To get an early taste of the coming debate in that committee, check out the dialogue between Senator Charles Grassley and Senator Charles Schumer on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
  3. I’m a fan of the FiveThirtyEight.com blog. The site applies rigorous math to political topics. Very rigorous math: it’s prediction of election outcomes during the presidential primaries and the general election were eerily accurate. The site has a left-leaning bias on some topics, but overall, its posts are more nerdish than ideological. Recently it did an interesting analysis on how campaign contributions may derail a public option plan. Of course, whether Senators vote a certain way because of the contributions they receive or they receive contributions because of the way they vote is an open issue (which, to his credit, the author acknowledges). But the issue of causality does not change his conclusion: unless the several stars fall into place, a public option is unlikely to be part of the final health care reform package.
  4. Need more evidence a government-run health plan is losing momentum? As noted last week, Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee feel the need to dress their public plan proposal in moderate clothing. Then there’s White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel making clear today the Administration is willing to accept legislation without a public plan. According to the Wall Street Journal Mr. Emanuel says “’The goal is to have a means and a mechanism to keep the private insurers honest. The goal is non-negotiable; the path is’ negotiable.”  Mr. Emanuel goes on to say creating a public plan only if the private market proves incapable of offering competition would be one acceptable solution.
  5. Is a government-run plan even needed for health care reform to be meaningful? Uwe Reinhardt, an economics professor at Princeton, uses the German health care system as evidence it is not. This is not to say that the German system is an appropriate model for the United States, but it does undermine the argument that health care reform will only work if the government is both referee and player.
  6. All the health care reform attention is focused on what’s happening in Washington. Some folks think this is a mistake. Instead, the federal government should simply enable states to pass their own reform plans. This would allow solutions to reflect local values and enable the best ideas to emerge over time. I disagree. States lack the levers of power necessary to reform something as complex and critical as health care reform. In a post from 2007 I cited an article by Ezra Klein describing the many failed state health care reform efforts. That doesn’t mean, however, that every health care decision needs to be made at the national level. Meaningful structural change — and the financing required to implement it – requires the federal government. Implementing those changes can be managed and administered at the regional, state or even local level.
  7. The status quo is on life support. Health care costs are rising faster than either general inflation or wages. (To see for yourself, check out Tom’s Inflation Calculator). We have the opportunity today to enact responsible, meaningful reform. Without such intervention, the current system will eventually deteriorate until unwise and extreme proposals make sense. Fortunately, what’s likely to emerge from the current debate will be determined by moderates. This doesn’t mean the reforms won’t be flawed, but it does mean that there’s a chance for responsible reform sooner rather than later.
  8. The advocates of a single payer system know that the status quo is unsustainable. It is why some of them will oppose whatever moderate reforms emerge from the current health care reform debate. They are like a doctor who sees surgery as the solution to every ailment. If the patient takes medication, and it works, they don’t get to cut. Similarly, if reasonable changes increase access to affordable, quality health care coverage and reduces overall spending, the need for a single payer solution vanishes.
  9. Meanwhile, back at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver crunches some poll result numbers and points out that moderates are disappointed with President Obama’s handling of health care reform. Whether these results show President Obama needs to get more specific in describing his health care reforms (as Mr. Silver concludes) or whether he needs to focus more on pushing the right health care reform, is something to ponder.

Both Edges of Public Health Insurance Are Sharp

One of the more devisive issues emerging in the current health care reform debate concerns whether or not a government-run plan should compete with private carriers for individual and small group customers. President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress have spoken forcefully in favor of this approach. Republicans have argued just as strongly against it. The role of government — should it be solely a regulator or serve as both regulator and competitor — is high on the list of issues most likely to frustrate a bipartisan solution.

I’ve written previously about the dangers of the hybrid approach, how it is likely to lead to a tilted playing field that benefits the public entry to the detriment and potential destruction of private offerings. But there are other points of view, several of them. For example, Princeton Professor Uwe Reinhardt, posting on the New York Time’s Economix articulates several reasons why the public might embrace a government competitor.

Professor Reinhardt notes that recent behavior by private health insurers has shaken public confidence in the industry. He also cites the double whammy of families facing lay0ffs in the current economic downturn and, as a result of our current employer-centric system, losing their subsidized coverage at the same time.

The long-term confidence elderly Americans have put in government-run Medicare plans, even over those of competing private health plans offering richer benefits.

But his strongest arguments in favor of a “Medicare for all,” public insurance program is its ability to beat down rising health care costs. “The providers of health care and health care products, to whom ‘national health care spending’ represents ‘national health care incomes,’ fear the market power that a public health plan might bring to the demand (payment)side of the health sector,” he writes.

Using its buying power, Professor Reinhardt expresses hope the public plan “might significantly bend down the lush, currently projected, long-run growth path of America’s health spending .”  Of course, it’s driving down the cost for enrollees in the public program at the expense of those in private plans that is of great concern to those who want to maintain a competitive system.

It’s the two-edged nature of a hybrid system that is most troublesome — and dangerous. As many of those who have commented on my previous post note, the key to meaningful health care reform is to focus on bringing down costs. Well, as Professor Reinhardt points out, Medicare-for-all can do that. But if the price of that cost control is the destruction of private insurance, why not just turn to a single-payer system in the first place? Well, of course, there’s huge problems with that approach, too, including the danger of runaway taxes.

Is there a middle ground?  Professor Reinhardt claims that an “all-American compromise that could give most sides in this fray much (but not all) of what they ask for” is possible and he promises to outline that compromise in a future post. Until he or someone else does, the debate over which side of the sword we want to face as a nation will, rightfully, be front and center.