Mirror, Mirror

Don McCanne brings us this post from the London Review of Books that describes in detail how the British NHS is being denationalized and privatized, in a mirror image of the push some Democrats are making about enacting Medicare for All.

Here in full is the article by John Furse. It is a cautionary tale for all those who support Medicare for All, and for those who want to keep the status quo, for-profit system here in the US. Remember that the NHS was endorsed by no less than Winston Churchill, by no means a flaming Socialist, and has been popular with the British people for seventy years. Can we say the same thing about our system?

London Review of Books

November 7, 2019
The NHS Dismantled
By John Furse

The Americanisation of the NHS is not something waiting for us in a post-Brexit future. It is already in full swing. Since 2017 Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) have been taking over the purchasing as well as the provision of NHS services in England, deciding who gets which services, which are free and which – as with the dentist and prescriptions – we have to pay for. Known in the US as Accountable Care Organisations (ACOs), ICSs are partnerships between hospitals, clinicians and private sector providers designed – and incentivised – to limit and reduce public healthcare costs, and in particular to lessen the demand on hospitals. Health Maintenance Organisations (HMOs), the forerunners of ACOs, were pioneered by the US health insurance provider Kaiser Permanente in 1953. President Nixon’s adviser John Ehrlichman explained to his boss the basic concept before the passage of the 1973 HMO Act: ‘The less care they give them the more money they make.’ In May 2016 Jeremy Hunt, then health minister, admitted at a Commons Health Committee hearing that Kaiser was a model for his planned NHS reforms. When a trial of ACOs was announced in the UK in 2017, it caused an outcry from campaigners and NHS England quickly rebranded them ICSs. But the Kaiser model isn’t new to healthcare policy in the UK: it has been the inspiration for the long and discreet process of the dismantling and reformation of the NHS since the 1980s.

In his report to the Conservative Party’s Economic Reconstruction Group in 1977, Nicholas Ridley wrote that “denationalisation should not be attempted by frontal attack but by preparation for return to the private sector by stealth. We should first pass legislation to destroy the public sector monopolies. We might also need to take power to sell assets. Secondly, we should fragment the industries as far as possible and set up the units as separate profit centres.”

After coming to power two years later, Thatcher was able openly to denationalise many industries, but the NHS, with its huge number of staff and institutions, its largely effective and equitable provision of healthcare and its great popularity, was a far more difficult proposition. In 1986 hospital cleaning services were privatised. In 1988 Oliver Letwin and John Redwood published Britain’s Biggest Enterprise: Ideas for Radical Reform of the NHS, which proposed turning the NHS into an independent trust and advocated joint ventures with the private sector and the introduction of fees.

The first major legislative step was the creation of the internal market. Kenneth Clarke’s 1990 NHS and Community Care Act split the NHS into ‘service purchasers’ and ‘service providers’: hospitals and GPs would compete for custom and the successful parties would be rewarded with greater funding. The influence of the HMO model and of the Kaiser consultant Alain Enthoven was acknowledged in Parliament by the then Tory MP Quentin Davies. ‘The fund-holding practice concept owes something to the system of HMOs in the United States … Elements of the Bill reflect some of the thinking of Professor Enthoven in his famous report and reflect his concept of an internal market.’ Enthoven was seen as an expert on ‘unsustainable growth’ in health expenditure and in 1985 his report ‘Reflections on the Management of the National Health Service’ had advised the Thatcher administration that ‘in competition doctors impose on themselves controls they would never dream of accepting if the government tried to impose them.’ ‘The system needed to be reconfigured,’ he later explained, ‘in such a way as to give incentives to motivate the self-interest.’

Letwin and Redwood’s ideas also had traction in Tony Blair’s 1997 National Health Service Act. Together, the 1990 and 1997 Acts turned NHS hospitals into trusts able to operate as commercial businesses. Many formed Private Finance Initiative partnerships to build and maintain hospitals – these deals, originally worth £11.4 billion, have lumbered the NHS with more than £80 billion of debt. Under New Labour a number of hospital trusts commissioned Kaiser and United Health, the largest US private health insurer, to run pilot programmes. ‘Consumer choice’ had been the mantra of the Thatcher era; under New Labour NHS patients became consumers and the goal ‘patient choice’.

These changes were minor compared to those introduced by the 2012 Health and Social Care Act (Letwin was by then a senior figure in Tory policy-making), which enabled hospital trusts to raise 49 per cent of their budgets from private patients and other sources, and to use NHS ‘brand loyalty’ to attract patients to their private services. In 2017 Swindon’s Great Western NHS Hospital advertised its private service saying: ‘Our patients benefit from a premium environment while having immediate access to specialist services often only available in large NHS hospitals.’

The Act gave more than 60 per cent of the NHS budget to local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), comprised of GPs and other clinicians, to be used to commission services from the private sector as well as from the NHS. Writing anonymously, one GP described the change as ‘how to get turkeys not only voting for Christmas but also plucking, basting and putting themselves in the oven’. Given their lack of business expertise, CCGs were provided with Commissioning Support Units run by private companies including KPMG, Price Waterhouse Cooper, McKinsey and Optum, the UK subsidiary of United Health. In practice, these companies now run the franchising of NHS services.

A key part of the 2012 Act, to which McKinsey was a significant contributor, was the abolition of the health minister’s responsibility for national healthcare provision. This was left to NHS England under its new director, Simon Stevens, a former health policy adviser to the Blair government appointed by David Cameron because ‘he knows more about NHS problems and market solutions than any man alive.’ In his previous role as a CEO of United Health, Stevens had led corporate opposition to the introduction of Obamacare. His ‘Five-Year Forward View’, launched in 2015, became the basis for NHS England’s Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs), drawn up with Optum and McKinsey. The STPs were supposed to create savings of almost £5 billion a year by 2020. As in the Kaiser model, costs are cut by reducing access to care. (Meanwhile, the revolving door continued to turn: senior government and NHS England figures who took prominent positions at Optum include Cameron’s health adviser Nick Seddon, NHS England’s commissioner David Sharp and its mental health director Martin McShane.)

The STPs divided England into 44 CCG-run ‘footprint’ areas, all of which were put under pressure to amalgamate hospitals and shrink specialist units. Hospital beds have been progressively cut: the UK’s bed-to-patient ratio is now one of the lowest in any developed country. Accident and emergency departments, which not only require expensive equipment and high numbers of staff but also take the brunt of social care failings, are in the process of being cut from 144 to about fifty. GP care is increasingly provided by ‘physician associates’, nurse practitioners and pharmacists, while patients are exhorted to use privately owned, profit-making online and app consultancies such as Doctaly, GP at Hand and myGP. Opening up new markets for US tech giants is a key factor in the reconfiguration of the NHS.

Enforced centralisation has resulted in ‘hub’ hospitals and fewer, larger GP practices: at least a thousand have closed since 2014 and the number with more than twenty thousand patients has tripled. With funding incentives from NHS England, GPs are merging their practices into competing, largescale organisations with names like Primary Care Networks and Super-Practices, or becoming partners in commercially driven Multi-Speciality Community Provider centres. These reduced and restructured services are open to takeovers by private companies. NHS hospitals now lease space on their own premises to private companies. Guy’s Hospital, in the absence of the funding it needed to develop adequate cancer facilities, rented space to the Hospital Corporation of America for private cancer suites that were given access to the hospital’s facilities. The merging of public and private provision in the same space usefully blurs the distinction between them. And the rationing of non-urgent operations such as hip replacements and restrictions on follow-up therapies – as well as increased waiting times – encourage patients to seek private treatment.

A recent report by the Strategy Unit, an NHS consultancy, acknowledges that ICSs are designed to ‘moderate’ demand and reduce spending, while their partners keep the savings they make if they run below budget. It cautions that, as with ACOs, there is ‘only limited assurance that providers will not game the system and that quality will not suffer … large financial rewards may flow out of the NHS.’ At the 2012 World Economic Forum, Stevens (then working for United Health) led proposals to replace public healthcare systems around the world with accountable care systems. His collaborators included Medtronic, the world’s largest producer of medical devices (a US company based in Ireland for tax purposes), Qualcomm Life, which designs medical technology, and Kaiser. Since his arrival at NHS England, the influence of such companies has grown: IBM is now a lead supplier of IT; Optum runs GP referrals services and is in a partnership with the second largest GP federation, Modality. The UK’s largest GP network, the Practice Group, is owned by the American company Centene. Similar companies, such as the Priory Group, are major players in mental healthcare provision and are involved in mental health ICSs.

Private companies, with their increased overheads, higher rates of borrowing and shareholder dividends, are inherently more costly to the public than state-funded services. Less obvious are the high costs of management and administration involved in franchising and marketing services. In the US these are estimated to account for more than 30 per cent of the $3.6 trillion spent on healthcare. A 2010 report commissioned by the Department of Health estimated management and administration costs at 14 per cent of total NHS spending, more than twice the figure in 1990. Commercial confidentiality laws and opaque NHS accounting make the costs of privatisation hard to quantify but privatisation is probably adding at least £9 billion a year to the NHS budget.

Stevens was recently praised by politicians and the media when he called for the repeal of Section 75 of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, which requires competitive market tendering for the provision of services – ostensibly a move away from privatisation. But the real reason lies in the small print. Section 75 subjects private contractors to the Competition and Markets Authority. Its repeal will deregulate the sector and make ICSs more attractive to companies. Andrew Taylor, the founding director of the Co-operation and Competition Panel for NHS Funded Services, told a Commons committee hearing in May: ‘I don’t think anyone’s realistically talking about removing the private sector from the NHS. What the proposals do in effect is deregulate NHS markets. They don’t actually remove markets from the NHS.’

The Ridley Report’s proposals for denationalisation are being hurried to fulfilment. NHS property and land assets worth £10 billion are being sold to private developers. The fragmentation of a once fully integrated service into competing and commercially-driven units is well advanced and has been accomplished without proper public scrutiny, knowledge, consent or appropriate Parliamentary legislation. Successive governments have been assisted by the failure of the media to recognise the overall shape of the project and sufficiently analyse the disparate changes. ICSs will be fully up and running throughout England within 18 months.

The Trump Administration Cracked Down on Medicaid. Kids Lost Insurance. — ProPublica

In case you think Medicare for All is a pipe dream, here is an article from ProPublica that reports that even children are vulnerable to losing their medical coverage when they need critical surgery and other life-saving treatments.

If you don’t care if adult Americans cannot get adequate medical care, then perhaps you should care that children do. After all, it could be your kid who needs it. Would you really sacrifice your kids to the almighty dollar and profit?

One salient point to mention, the Petersen’s are from northern Idaho. Idaho is a Red state and voted for Trump. While there is no way to tell if Mrs. Petersen voted for Trump, it can be assumed that she probably did. So much for making America great again. Your kid dies because the President hates Medicaid.

Here is the article link:

Weeks before 4-year-old Paul Petersen’s surgery to close a hole in his stomach, he lost coverage. The administration’s latest enforcement of the Affordable Care Act burdened many Idaho Medicaid recipients, as a million kids nationwide lost coverage.

Source: The Trump Administration Cracked Down on Medicaid. Kids Lost Insurance. — ProPublica

Seven Years Good Luck

Despite LinkedIn’s algorithm to the contrary, today is the seventh anniversary of this blog. It was seven years ago that I began to write about Medical Travel and Workers’ Comp.

And although it has morphed into a blog about health care issues, and more recently, about Medicare for All, it is an accomplishment that it has lasted this long.

As I am sure happens to many a blogger or writer, one runs out of things to say, so they fall back on re-posting what others have written to keep themselves in the game. Such has been my experience of late.

This is no accident. Having been diagnosed with ESRD, and attending to the protocols involved with receiving treatment and dealing with it on a daily basis, I have had to slow down the pace of writing, concentrated on other issues, or just took a break from it by not working on it period.

However, with the Democratic primary campaign heading towards its next phase, I thought it would be a good idea to review the positions of each of the major candidates now debating regarding health care for Americans.

This review is a follow-up to previous posts on this blog about the Democratic debates and Medicare for All, namely Medicare for All and the Democratic Debates and The Debate Continues.

Since then, I have concentrated on posts that single out aspects of some of the candidates positions on providing health care to more people, but each and every article posted has shown that those positions will not lead to the outcome that will provide universal health care to all Americans.

So, here are the plans for health care of each of the candidates currently still debating:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: https://www.npr.org/2019/09/10/758172208/health-care-see-where-the-2020-democratic-candidates-stand

Since August, five of the last eight posts I wrote addressed some aspect of why those advocating a public option or keeping private insurance are wrong, and why we have not had universal health care.

The New York Times, as part of a series of articles published in their Sunday magazine about the year 1619, included an article as to why universal health care has been rejected in the US.

The article, Why doesn’t the United States have universal health care? The answer has everything to do with Race, traces the opposition to universal health care to after the Civil War, when the South was devastated, and the Freedmen’s Bureau addressed the smallpox virus that was spreading across the South. It was argued then by white legislators that it would breed dependence.

But, other articles posted since August, have criticized calls for a public option, such as the article, Public Option A Bad Policy, which was re-posted from The Nation earlier this month.

A second article, Private Insurance Failure to Lead to Medicare for All, re-printed from The New York Times two weeks ago, was written by a former CEO of a health insurance company, and currently professor of health care finance at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

His observations about where private insurance is leading us should be read by those who are supporting candidates who advocate keeping private insurance.

Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) president Adam Gaffney, in Boston Review, put it simply: “It’s the financing, stupid.

Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, writing in The Guardian four days ago, stated that Medicare for All would cut taxes for most Americans, and that not only would universal healthcare reduce taxes for most people, it would also lead to the biggest take-home pay raise in a generation for most workers.

This is something that Elizabeth Warren has not been able to address in the debates, instead talking about how it will lower costs for people. She has not been wrong in doing so, because if the average family pays $5,000 in taxes and has medical costs twice that, moving to a single payer system will save them money, even if their taxes were to increase by a small percentage. Their medical bills would fall far below the $10,000 level. However, Warren will be releasing a plan to pay for it.

Saez and Zucman, in a chapter in their book, The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay, called private insurance a poll tax.

According to Saez and Zucman,

“…private insurance premiums are akin to a huge private tax. Although most workers get insurance through their employers – and thus employers nominally foot the bill – the premiums are a labor cost as much as payroll taxes are. Just like payroll taxes, premiums are ultimately borne by employees. The only difference is they are even more regressive than payroll taxes, because the premiums are unrelated to earnings. They are equal to a fixed amount per employee (and only depend on age and family coverage), just like a poll tax. The secretary literally pays the same dollar amount as an executive.”

Listening to the candidates other than Sanders and Warren, they would rather keep the status quo so that stakeholders can profit from the dysfunction in the system than address the problem of health care head-on.

It is as if we said we wanted to go to the Moon, but opted to go part of the way, saying we will get there someday, but not now, as it is too expensive, people like looking at the Moon without knowing there are men up there and spacecraft parts, and that we shouldn’t mess with it until we clean up down here.

It is better to advocate going all the way, then not at all. If you fail, then you know you must do it again until you get what you want. Thus, was the case with passing the ACA. It did not happen overnight.

This video, from a president who knew how to speak in complete and intelligible sentences, illustrated what it took to get Medicare and Medicaid passed.

Just like President Kennedy’s call to go to the Moon in the 1960s, so too did he call for universal health care as far back as 1962 when he made this speech in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

We cannot afford to do anything less, because the stakes are that important. Medicare for All must be the one and only goal. Anything else is a half-measure destined to fail.

Private Insurance Failure to Lead to Medicare for All

Here is an article from The New York Times from a former insurance executive and professor of Health Care Finance, thanks to Don McCanne. Comment from Don to follow.

The New York Times

October 15, 2019

This Is the Most Realistic Path to Medicare for All

By J.B. Silvers

Much to the dismay of single-payer advocates, our current health insurance system is likely to end with a whimper, not a bang. The average person simply prefers what we know versus the bureaucracy we fear.

But for entirely practical reasons, we might yet end up with a form of Medicare for All. Private health insurance is failing in slow motion, and all signs are that it will continue. It was for similar reasons that we got Medicare in 1965. Private insurance, under the crushing weight of chronic conditions and technologic breakthroughs (especially genetics), will increasingly be a losing proposition.

As a former health insurance company C.E.O., I know how insurance is supposed to work: It has to be reasonably priced, spread risks across a pool of policyholders and pay claims when needed. When companies can’t do those fundamental tasks and make a decent profit is when we will get single payer.

It’s already a tough business to be in. Right now the payment system for health care is just a mess. For every dollar of premium, administrative costs absorb up to 20 percent. That’s just too high, and it’s not the only reason for dissatisfaction.

Patients hate paying for cost-sharing in the form of deductibles and copays. Furthermore, narrow networks with a limited number of doctors and hospitals are good for insurers, because it gives them bargaining power, but patients are often left frustrated and hit with surprise bills.

As bad as these problems are, most people are afraid of losing coverage through their employers in favor of a government-run plan. Thus inertia wins — for now.

But there’s a reason Medicare for All is even a possibility: Most people like Medicare. It works reasonably well. And what could drive changes to our current arrangement is a disruption — like the collapse of private insurance.

There are two things insurers hate to do — take risks and pay claims. Before Affordable Care Act regulations, insurance companies cherry-picked for lower-risk customers and charged excessive rates for some enrollees.

Those were actually the first indications of market failure. Since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, insurers have actually had to take these risks as they were supposed to all along and provide rebates of excessive profits.

With insurers under such pressure, we’re now facing another sort of market dysfunction. Insurance companies are doing what they can to avoid paying claims. A recent report says that Obamacare plans average an 18 percent denial rate for in-network claims submitted by providers. Some reject more than a third. This suggests that even in a regulated marketplace like the Obamacare exchanges, insurers somehow manage to dispute nearly one out of every five claims.

These are systemic failures that can and should be fixed by regulation of the exchanges, better information on plan performance and robust competition. Unfortunately, consumers often still can’t make informed choices, and the options they have are limited.

But even if we fix these problems, there are two bigger factors looming that threaten the integrity of the entire system. Insurance at its root assumes that the payout required cannot be determined for each individual but can be estimated for the whole group. We can’t predict who will be affected by trauma or a broken bone, but in the aggregate, it is possible to estimate what will happen to the insured group as a whole. Some will suffer losses while the majority will be fine, and all will pay a fair average premium to cover the expenses that result.

Yet with the increases in chronic conditions and the promise of genetic information, these insurance requirements are not met. Someone with diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis will have the same condition and similar costs in each future year. And the woman with a positive BRCA gene is much more likely to develop breast cancer. In these cases, known costs simply must be paid. Instead of spreading these across all enrolled populations, they must be financed across time for the increasing numbers with such conditions. Loading private insurance companies with these expenses results in uncompetitive rates and market failure.

There is only one solution: pooling and financing some or all of these at the broadest levels. In a nutshell, that is how we get a single-payer government system.

It is how we got Medicare. The cost of care to the elderly was known at the individual level for virtually everyone, so private insurance just wouldn’t work. So we had to finance this largely predictable cost through the government and its enormous pool of taxpayers.

It has been a tremendous, albeit expensive success. For the most part, people on Medicare like it a lot. This is the reason such a disruptive change is even a political possibility.

We will face the same need sometime in the future for the rest of us. Then a form of Medicare for All will look better than the alternative — a failing private insurance system.

J. B. Silvers is a professor of health care finance at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/15/opinion/medicare-for-all-insurance.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

About J.B. Silvers, PhD:

https://weatherhead.case.edu/faculty/j-b-silvers

Comment by Don McCanne

J.B. Silvers is both a former insurance executive and currently a professor of health care finance. What is his lesson for us? The indications of market failure of the private insurance model are already there, and private insurance “will increasingly be a losing proposition.”
“There is only one solution: pooling and financing some or all of these (health care costs) at the broadest levels. In a nutshell, that is how we get a single-payer government system.”
The sound bite? Private insurance has already failed us and establishing a single health care financing pool is the only solution that will work for all of us – Single Payer Medicare for All.

 

Public Option A Bad Policy

I’m back!

In case you missed me, I have been busy with personal matters and preparing for a trip out of town. Now that I am back, I have decided to pick up where I left off, and re-post an article from The Nation by Himmelstein and Woolhander on why private insurance or the public option is a bad policy choice. This article comes courtesy of Don McCanne, so thanks go to him.

Here is the entire article:

The Nation
October 7, 2019
The ‘Public Option’ on Health Care Is a Poison Pill
Some Democratic candidates are pushing it as a free-choice version of Medicare for All. That’s good rhetoric but bad policy.
By David U. Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler
Health care reform has been the most hotly contested issue in the Democratic presidential debates. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been pushing a single-payer Medicare for All plan, under which a public insurer would cover everyone. They would ban private insurance, except for items not covered by the public plan, such as cosmetic surgery or private rooms in hospitals. The other Democratic contenders favor a “public option” reform that would introduce a Medicare-like public insurer but would allow private insurers to operate as well. They tout this approach as a less traumatic route to universal coverage that would preserve a free choice of insurers for people happy with their plans. And some public option backers go further, claiming that the system would painlessly transition to single payer as the public plan outperforms the private insurers.
That’s comforting rhetoric. But the case for a public option rests on faulty economic logic and naive assumptions about how private insurance actually works. Private insurers have proved endlessly creative at gaming the system to avoid fair competition, and they have used their immense lobbying clout to undermine regulators’ efforts to rein in their abuses. That’s enabled them to siphon hundreds of billions of dollars out of the health care system each year for their own profits and overhead costs while forcing doctors and hospitals to waste billions more on billing-related paperwork.
Those dollars have to come from somewhere. If private insurers required their customers to pay the full costs of private plans, they wouldn’t be able to compete with a public plan like the traditional Medicare program, whose overhead costs are far lower. But this is not the case: In fact, taxpayers—including those not enrolled in a private plan—pick up the tab for much of private insurers’ profligacy. And the high cost of keeping private insurance alive would make it prohibitively expensive to cover the 30 million uninsured in the United States and to upgrade coverage for the tens of millions with inadequate plans.
Public option proposals come in three main varieties:
§  A simple buy-in. Some proposals, including those by Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, would offer a Medicare-like public plan for sale alongside private plans on the insurance exchanges now available under the Affordable Care Act. These buy-in reforms would minimize the need for new taxes, since most enrollees would be charged premiums. But tens of millions would remain uninsured or with coverage so skimpy, they still couldn’t afford care.
§  Pay or play. This variant (similar to the plan advanced by the Center for American Progress and endorsed by Beto O’Rourke) would offer employers a choice between purchasing private insurance or paying a steep payroll tax (about 8 percent). Anyone lacking employer-paid private coverage would be automatically enrolled in the public plan. The public option would be a good deal for employers who would otherwise have to pay more than 8 percent of their payroll for private coverage—for example, employers with older or mostly female workers (who tend to use more care and incur high premiums) or with lots of low-wage workers (for whom 8 percent of payroll is a relatively small sum). But many firms employing mostly young, male, or highly paid workers (e.g., finance and tech) would likely stay with a private insurer.
§  Medicare Advantage for All. The public option approach favored by Kamala Harris would mimic the current Medicare Advantage program. Medicare Advantage plans are commercial managed care products currently offered by private insurers to seniors. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency that administers Medicare, collects the taxes that pay for the program and passes the funds ($233 billion in 2018) along to the insurance companies. Under this approach, the public option would operate alongside the private Medicare Advantage plans and compete with them, as the traditional fully public Medicare program currently does.
No working models of the buy-in or pay-or-play public option variants currently exist in the United States or elsewhere. But decades of experience with Medicare Advantage offer lessons about that program and how private insurers capture profits for themselves and push losses onto their public rival—strategies that allow them to win the competition while driving up everyone’s costs.
IN US HEALTH INSURANCE, GOOD GUYS FINISH LAST
A public option plan that facilitates enrollees’ genuine access to health care can’t compete with private insurers that avoid the expensively ill and obstruct access to care. Despite having overhead costs almost seven times that of traditional Medicare (13.7 versus 2 percent), Medicare Advantage plans have grown rapidly. They now cover more than one-third of Medicare beneficiaries, up from 13 percent in 2005. Greed has trumped efficiency, and the efforts of regulators to level the playing field have been overwhelmed by insurers’ profit-driven schemes to tilt it.
Private insurers employ a dizzying array of profit-enhancing schemes that would be out of bounds for a public plan. These schemes, which continually evolve in response to regulators’ efforts to counter them, boil down to four strategies that are legal, in addition to occasional outright fraud.
§  Obstructing expensive care. Plans try to attract profitable, low-needs enrollees by assuring convenient and affordable access to routine care for minor problems. Simultaneously, they erect barriers to expensive services that threaten profits—for example, prior authorization requirements, high co-payments, narrow networks, and drug formulary restrictions that penalize the unprofitably ill. While the fully public Medicare program contracts with any willing provider, many private insurers exclude (for example) cystic fibrosis specialists, and few Medicare Advantage plans cover care at cancer centers like Memorial Sloan Kettering. Moreover, private insurers’ drug formularies often put all of the drugs—even cheap generics—needed by those with diabetes, schizophrenia, or HIV in a high co-payment tier.
Insurers whose first reaction to a big bill is “claim denied” discourage many patients from pursuing their claims. And as discussed below, if hassling over claims drives some enrollees away, even better: The sickest will be the most hassled and therefore the most likely to switch to a competitor.
§  Cherry-picking and lemon-dropping, or selectively enrolling people who need little care and disenrolling the unprofitably ill. A relatively small number of very sick patients account for the vast majority of medical costs each year. A plan that dodges even a few of these high-needs patients wins, while a competing plan that welcomes all comers loses.
In the employer market, cherry-picking is easy: Private insurers offer attractive premiums to businesses with young, healthy workers and exorbitant rates to those with older, sicker employees. As a letter this summer to The New York Times put it, like casinos, health insurers are profitable because they know the odds of every bet they place—and the house always wins.
The CMS, in theory, requires Medicare Advantage plans to take all comers and prohibits them from forcing people out when they get sick. But regulators’ efforts to enforce these requirements have been overwhelmed by insurers’ chicanery. To avoid the sick, private insurers manipulate provider networks and drug formulary designs. Despite the ban on forcing enrollees out, patients needing high-cost services like dialysis or nursing home care have switched in droves from private plans to traditional, fully public Medicare. And as a last resort, Medicare Advantage plans will stop offering coverage in a county where they’ve accumulated too many unprofitable enrollees, akin to a casino ejecting players who are beating the house.
Finally, Medicare Advantage plans cherry-pick through targeted marketing schemes. In the past, this has meant sign-up dinners in restaurants difficult to access for people who use wheelchairs or offering free fitness center memberships, a perk that appeals mainly to the healthiest seniors. But higher-tech approaches are just around the corner. Will Oscar, the health insurer founded by Jared Kushner’s brother—with Google’s parent company as a significant investor—resist the temptation to use Google’s trove of personal data to target enrollment ads toward profitable enrollees like tennis enthusiasts and avoid purchasers of plus-size clothing or people who have searched online for fertility treatments?
§  Upcoding, or making enrollees look sicker on paper than they really are to inflate risk-adjusted premiums. To counter cherry-picking, the CMS pays Medicare Advantage plans higher premiums for enrollees with more (and more serious) diagnoses. For instance, a Medicare Advantage plan can collect hundreds of dollars more each month from the government by labeling an enrollee’s temporary sadness as “major depression” or calling trivial knee pain “degenerative arthritis.” By applying serious-sounding diagnoses to minor illnesses, Medicare Advantage plans artificially inflate the premiums they collect from taxpayers by billions of dollars while adding little or nothing to their expenditures for care.
Though most upcoding stays within the letter of the law and merely stretches medical terminology, the CMS’s (rare) audits of enrollees’ charts indicate that Medicare Advantage plans are collecting $10 billion annually from taxpayers for entirely fabricated diagnoses. And that’s only a small fraction of their overall take from upcoding. Private insurers keep most of this pilfered money for their profits and overhead, but they use a portion to fund added benefits (for example, eyeglasses or slightly lower co-payments for routine care) that attract new enrollees and help private plans to seemingly outcompete traditional Medicare.
§  Lobbying to get excessive payments and thwart regulators. Congress has mandated that the CMS overpay Medicare Advantage plans by 2 percent (and even more where medical costs are lower than average). On top of that, Seema Verma, Trump’s CMS administrator, has taken steps that will increase premiums significantly and award unjustified “quality bonuses,” ignoring advice from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission that payments be trimmed because the government is already overpaying the private plans. And she has ordered changes to the CMS’s Medicare website to trumpet the benefits of Medicare Advantage enrollment.
In sum, a public option insurer that, like traditional Medicare, doesn’t try to dodge unprofitable enrollees would be saddled with more than its share of sick, expensive patients and would become a de facto high-cost, high-risk pool. The CMS’s decades-long efforts to level the playing field have been thwarted by insurers’ upcoding, belying their promises of fair competition. And insurance companies have used their political muscle to sustain and increase their competitive advantage over traditional Medicare. The result: The public plan (and the taxpayers) absorbs the losses while private insurers skim off profits, an imbalance so big that private plans can outcompete a public plan despite squandering vast sums on overhead costs, CEO salaries, and shareholder profits.
SINGLE PAYER WOULD SAVE, PUBLIC OPTION WON’T
This year alone, private insurers will take in $252 billion more than they pay out, equivalent to 12 percent of their premiums. A single-payer system with overhead costs comparable to Medicare’s (2 percent) could save about $220 billion of that money. A public option would save far less—possibly zero, if much of the new public coverage is channeled through Medicare Advantage plans, whose overhead, at 13.7 percent, is even higher than the average commercial insurer.
Moreover, a public option would save little or nothing on hospitals’ and doctors’ sky-high billing and administrative costs. In a single-payer system, hospitals and other health facilities could be funded via global, lump-sum budgets—similar to the way cities pay fire departments—eliminating the need to attribute costs to individual patients and collect payments from them and their insurers. That global budget payment strategy has cut administrative costs at hospitals in Canada and Scotland to half the US level. The persistence of multiple payers would preclude such administrative streamlining, even if all of the payers are charged the same rates. (Under Maryland’s mislabeled global budget system, the state’s hospitals charge uniform rates but continue to bill per patient; our research indicates that their administrative costs haven’t fallen at all, according to their official cost reports.)
Similarly, for physicians and other practitioners, the complexity involved in billing multiple payers, dealing with multiple drug formularies and referral networks, collecting co-payments and deductibles, and obtaining referrals and prior authorizations drives up office overhead costs and documentation burdens.
The excess overhead inherent to multipayer systems imposes a hidden surcharge on the fees that doctors and hospitals must charge all patients—not just those covered by private insurance. All told, a public option reform would sacrifice about $350 billion annually of single payer’s potential savings on providers’ overhead costs, over and above the $220 billion in savings it could sacrifice annually on insurers’ overhead.
Finally, a public option would undermine the rational health planning that is key to the long-term savings under single payer. Each dollar that a hospital invests in new buildings or equipment increases its operating costs by 20 to 25 cents in every subsequent year. At present, hospitals that garner profits (or “surpluses” for nonprofits) have the capital to expand money-making services and buy high-tech gadgets, whether they’re needed or not, while neglecting vital but unprofitable services. For instance, hospitals around the country have invested in proton-beam-radiation therapy centers that cost hundreds of millions of dollars apiece. (Oklahoma City alone now has two.) Yet there’s little evidence that those machines are any better for most uses than their far cheaper alternatives. Similarly, hospitals have rushed to open invasive cardiology and orthopedic surgery programs, often close to existing ones. These duplicative investments raise costs and probably compromise quality.
Meanwhile, primary care and mental health services have languished, and rural hospitals and other cash-strapped facilities that provide much-needed care spiral toward closure. As in Canada and several European nations, a single-payer system could fund new hospital investments through government grants based on an explicit assessment of needs, instead of counting on private hospitals to use their profits wisely. That strategy has helped other nations direct investments to areas and services with the greatest need and to avoid funding wasteful or redundant facilities. Public option proposals would perpetuate current payment strategies that distort investment and raise long-term costs.
Because a public option would leave the current dysfunctional payment approach in place, it would sacrifice most of the savings available via single-payer reform. The bottom line is that a public option would either cost much more or deliver much less than single payer.
WHY NOT IMPORT GERMAN, SWISS, OR DUTCH HEALTH CARE?
Public option proponents often cite Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands as exemplars of how private insurers can coexist with thriving public health care systems. But they ignore the vast differences between those nations’ private insurers and ours.
The nonprofit German “sickness funds,” which cover 89 percent of the population (only wealthy Germans are allowed to purchase coverage from for-profit insurers), are jointly managed by employers and unions—a far cry from our employer-based coverage. The government mandates identical premium rates for all the sickness funds, takes money from those with low-risk enrollees and subsidizes others with older and sicker ones, and directly pays for most hospital construction. All sickness funds offer identical benefit packages, pay the same fees, and cover care from any doctor or hospital.
Although the details differ, a similarly stringent regulatory regime applies in Switzerland, whose system descended from Otto von Bismarck’s original German model, and as in Germany, the government funds most hospital construction. While for-profit insurers can sell supplemental coverage, only nonprofits are allowed to offer the mandated benefit package.
Since 2006, the Netherlands has been transitioning from the German-style universal coverage system to a more market-oriented approach championed by corporate leaders. However, the government pays directly for all long-term care, and a strong ethos of justice and equality has pressured both public and private actors to avoid any erosion of social solidarity. The Netherlands has long enjoyed ready access to care, and its system hasn’t descended (yet) into an American-style abyss. But under the new regime, hospital administrative costs have risen nearly to US levels, overall health costs have increased rapidly, doctors complain of unsustainable administrative burdens, and even in such a small nation, tens of thousands of people are uninsured. Insurers spend massively on marketing and advertising, and private insurers’ overhead costs average 13 percent of their premiums. Moreover, the United States and the Netherlands aren’t the only places where for-profit insurers’ overhead costs are high: They average 12.4 percent in Switzerland, 20.9 percent in Germany, and 26.2 percent in the United Kingdom.
Transforming the immensely powerful, profit-driven insurance companies of the United States into benign nonprofit insurers in the Swiss or German mold would be as heavy a lift as adopting Medicare for All. Nor can we count on the cultural restraints that have thus far softened the Dutch insurers’ rapacious tendencies and prevented a reversal of that country’s long-standing health care successes.
A final point: While allowing private insurers to compete with a public plan amounts to a poison pill, the same isn’t true for supplemental private plans that are allowed to cover only those items excluded from the public benefit package. While Canada bans the sale of private coverage that duplicates the public plan’s benefits, it has always allowed supplemental coverage, and that hasn’t sabotaged its system.
The efficiencies of a single-payer system would make universal coverage affordable and give everyone in the United States their free choice of doctors and hospitals. But that goal will remain out of reach if private insurers are allowed to continue gaming the system. Preserving the choice of insurer for some would perpetuate the affordability crisis that has bedeviled the US health care system for generations. Proponents of the public option portray it as a nondisruptive, free-choice version of single payer. That may be good campaign rhetoric, but it’s terrible policy.
David U. Himmelstein, MD and Steffie Woolhandler, MD, MPH are Distinguished Professors of Public Health at the City University of New York at Hunter College and are co-founders of Physicians for a National Health Program.

KFF Health Tracking Poll – September 2019: Health Care Policy In Congress And On The Campaign Trail | The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

This month’s poll probes Democrats’ views about the general approaches to expanding health coverage and lowering costs put forward by the candidates; the public’s health care prio…

Source: KFF Health Tracking Poll – September 2019: Health Care Policy In Congress And On The Campaign Trail | The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

 

Comment by Don McCanne
According to this new poll, Democrats support Medicare-for-all (“a national health plan”), Independents are split, and Republicans are opposed. Also, Democrats and Independents both support a public option (“a government-administered health plan”), and Republicans are split. However, the public is confused as to whether Medicare-for-all and a public option are similar or different, and half have not heard much about Medicare-for-all and even more have not heard much about a public option.
It seems as if individuals do have an opinion on Medicare-for-all and on a public option even though many are confused as to what they are. The fact that the pollsters referred to one as “a national health plan” and the other as “a government-administered health plan” likely leaves many of those polled with little understanding of the refinements distinguishing the two models.
Features that people might be interested in include the following:
Everyone is automatically covered for life
Affordability is assured through equitable taxes based on ability to pay
Financial barriers such as high deductibles are eliminated
Choices of physicians and hospitals are assured through elimination of insurer networks
Hundreds of billions of dollars in administrative waste is recovered
Of course, these are features of the single payer model of Medicare for all and none would apply by merely adding a public option to our fragmented financing system of a multitude of public and private insurance programs.
When will the pollsters finally ask the following questions?
Should everyone be covered or just some of us?
Should insurance be automatic forever or should it depend on life circumstances?
Should payments into the system be made affordable based on income, or should many be left out because they can’t afford the premiums?
Should high deductibles and surprise medical bills be used to deprive individuals of health care that they should have?
Should patients have choices of their physicians and hospitals or shall we continue to allow private insurers to restrict choices to their networks?
Should we continue to tolerate wasting about half a trillion dollars in administrative excesses, or should we redirect those funds that so that we can pay for care for those currently uninsured or underinsured?
In other words, do we want a health care system that we can afford that takes care of all of us, or do we want to merely add a public option and a couple of tweaks to ACA that leaves our overpriced, highly dysfunctional system in place? People really need to understand the differences between Medicare-for-all (single payer version) and a public option. Let’s see that they do.

Why The US Doesn’t Have Universal Health Care – It Is Not What You Think

Landing Negroes at Jamestown from Dutch man-of-war, 1619.

Yesterday, The Sunday New York Times Magazine ran a series of articles titled, The 1619 Project.

According to the Times:

The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to re-frame the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

As a student of American history, I was fully exposed to the current literature of the time regarding slavery, slaveholders, and the impact it had on the African-American culture and people, through my introduction to such historians as Eric Foner, Eugene Genovese, Leon Higginbotham, and John Blassingame, as well as from my three African-American/Sociology courses as an undergraduate.

So, I believe that this series by the Times, is not only needed, but timely, given the racial animus we see day after day from the White House, the far right, and on the Internet.

Readers of this blog  have seen that I have advocated on behalf of Medicare for All/Single Payer, because of the many causes for our broken health care system.  However, it  is not solely based on economics, politics, or defending the profits of the insurers and pharmaceutical companies. But rather due to race, as Jeneen Interlandi writes.

According to Interlandi, the first federal health care program served freedmen after the Civil War, but white legislators argued that it would breed dependence.

This health care program, the medical division of the Freedmen’s Bureau addressed the health care crisis due to the smallpox virus spreading across the post-war South. And according to Jim Downs, white leaders were worried about black epidemics spilling into their communities, and wanted the former slaves to be healthy enough to go back to the plantation. However, they feared that free and healthy African-Americans would upend the racial hierarchy.

Interlandi describes how whenever there was some move to deal with health care, there was always some backlash or outright ignoring of the solutions to the problems facing the south in the post-war period and Reconstruction. Not only that, but when federal social programs were introduced, Southern Democrats (yes, but now they would be, and are Republicans) forced concessions to bar African-Americans from receiving the benefits of those programs, or the AMA barred black doctors, medical schools excluded black students, and most hospitals and clinics segregated black patients.

There is the story of the African-American doctor who discovered blood types, and died because he was refused admittance to a hospital because he was black. This story was brought to the attention of viewers of MASH when the subject of race was part of that episode’s plot.

In college, I wrote a paper on the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment that exposed African-American men to syphilis to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis; the African-American men in the study were only told they were receiving free health care from the United States government.[3]

So those of you who oppose single payer health care should stop and consider if being the only nation in the Western world to not provide its citizens with universal health care should continue to be based on racial prejudice or simply because you want to profit by not doing so.