Category Archives: Democrats

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.

Majority of Americans Would Switch From Employer-based Health Care

Common Dreams and Business Insider both reported last week on polling that counters the right-wing narrative, and what some Democratic primary candidates are defending, that says that Americans like their employer-provided health care.

The survey, they wrote, showed that 59 percent of respondents who have employer-provided insurance “said they would support switching their employer-based health insurance to a government plan under Medicare for All” as long as quality of coverage would remain the same or improve.

The poll also found that Americans on government-run healthcare plans such as Medicare and Medicaid are more satisfied with their coverage than those on employer-sponsored plans, which have soared in cost over the past two decades.

According to BI, this is how the polling was broken down:

  • 44% of people said they were on an employer-based plan. Of them, 41% love their plan, 20% don’t like their plan, and 39% would be fine if it changed as long as they kept coverage.
  • 28% were on Medicare, Medicaid or military coverage. Of them, 57% love their plan, 14% don’t like their plan, and 29% would be fine if it changed as long as they kept coverage.
  • 12% directly purchased health insurance. 39% love their plan, 22% don’t like their plan, and 39% would be fine if it changed as long as they kept coverage.
  • 7% said they did not have health insurance.
  • 9% didn’t know or had some other type of coverage.

As reported in BI, the results highlight the fact that although a majority of Americans are fairly satisfied with their employer-based health coverage — which supports other polling on the subject — mainly people just like being covered in general, bearing little loyalty to a specific insurer.

Therefore, If the system provides equal or more comprehensive benefits, then broad swaths of Americans are likely to support it.

Medicare for All is not likely to pass anytime soon, but as more people come to see the benefits of such a program, compared to the rising cost of employer-based health insurance, that majority will only grow larger.

Those who advocate for Medicare for All need to keep pounding away at educating the public, and to make sure that coverage under Medicare for All is better than employer-based health care.

Useless Health Insurance Companies

Don McCanne’s Quote-of-the-Day brings us an article from the Los Angeles Times by Michael Hiltzik about how useless health insurance companies are.

Los Angeles Times
August 5, 2019
Health insurance companies are useless. Get rid of them
By Michael Hiltzik

 

The most perplexing aspect of our current debate over healthcare and health coverage is the notion that Americans love their health insurance companies.

This bizarre idea surfaced most recently in the hand-wringing over proposals to do away with private coverage advocated by some of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for president. Oddly, this position has been treated as a vote-loser.

During the first round of televised debates on July 30 and 31, only four of the 20 candidates raised their hands when asked if they would ban private insurers as part of their proposals for universal coverage: Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Harris later backed away, releasing a “Medicare for all” proposal that would accommodate private insurers at least for the first 10 years.

Health insurers have been successful at two things: Making money and getting the American public to believe they’re essential.

HEALTH INSURANCE EXPERT WENDELL POTTER

She should have stood her ground. The truth is that private health insurers have contributed nothing of value to the American healthcare system. Instead, they have raised costs and created an entitled class of administrators and executives who are fighting for their livelihoods, using customers’ premium dollars to do so.

“Health insurers have been successful at two things: Making money and getting the American public to believe they’re essential,” says Wendell Potter. He should know, since he spent decades as a corporate communications executive in the industry, including more than 10 years at Cigna.

The insurers’ success in making themselves seem essential accounts for the notion that Americans are so pleased with their private coverage that they’ll punish any politician who dares to take it away. But the American love affair with private insurance warrants close inspection.

Let’s start by examining what the insurers say are their positive contributions to healthcare. They claim to promote “consumer choice,” simplify “the health care experience for individuals and families,” address “the burden of chronic disease” and harness “data and technology to drive quality, efficiency, and consumer satisfaction.” (These claims all come from the website of the industry’s lobbying organization, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP).

They’ve achieved none of these goals. The increasingly prevalent mode of health coverage in the group and individual markets is the the narrow network, which shrinks the roster of doctors and hospitals available to enrollees without heavy surcharges. The hoops that customers and providers often must jump through to get claims paid impose costly complexity on the system, not simplicity. Programs to manage chronic diseases remain rare, and the real threat to patients with those conditions was lack of access to insurance (until the Affordable Care Act made such exclusion illegal).

Private insurers don’t do nearly as well as Medicare in holding down costs, in part because the more they pay hospitals and doctors, the more they can charge in premiums and the more money flows to their bottom lines. They haven’t shown notable skill in managing chronic diseases or bringing pro-consumer innovations to the table.

pareto

The vast majority of Americans have very little need for medical care in any given year; that’s why most people are satisfied with their coverage. But what if they have a big claim?
(NIHCM)

 

Insurers cite these goals when they try to get mergers approved by government antitrust regulators. Anthem and Cigna, for example, asserted in 2016 that their merger would produce nearly $2 billion in “annual synergies,” thanks to improved “operational” and “network efficiencies.”

The pitch has a long history. The architects of a wave of health insurance mergers in the 2000s also proclaimed a new era of efficient technology and improved customer service, but studies of prior mergers show that this nirvana seldom comes to pass. The best example may be that of Aetna’s 1996 merger with U.S. Healthcare in a deal it hoped would give it access to the booming HMO market.

According to a 2004 analysis by UC Berkeley health economist James C. Robinson, the merger became a “near-death” experience for Aetna. The deal was expected to bring about “millions in enrollment and billions in revenue to pressure physicians and hospitals” to accept lower reimbursement rates, he wrote.

“The talk was all about complementarities, synergies, and economies of scale… The reality quickly turned out to be one of incompatible product designs, operating systems, sales forces, brand images, and corporate cultures.” Aetna surged from 13.7 million customers in 1996 to 21 million in 1999, but profits collapsed from a margin of nearly 14% in 1998 to a loss in 2001.

Even when they don’t happen, insurance merger deals cost customers billions of dollars. That’s what happened when two proposed deals — Aetna/Humana and Anthem/Cigna — broke down on a single day in 2017. The result was that Aetna owed Humana $1.8 billion and Anthem owed Cigna $1.85 billion in breakup fees — money taken out of the medical treatment economy and transferred from one set of shareholders to another.

In reality, Americans don’t like their private health insurance so much as blindly tolerate it. That’s because the vast majority of Americans don’t have a complex interaction with the healthcare system in any given year, and most never will. As we’ve reported before, 1% of patients account for more than one-fifth of all medical spending and 10% account for two-thirds. Fifty percent of patients account for only 3% of all spending.

Most families face at most a series of minor ailments that can be routinely managed — childhood immunizations, a broken arm here or there, a bout of the flu. The question is what happens when someone does have a complex issue and a complex claim — they’re hit by a truck or get a cancer diagnosis, for instance?

“We gamble every year that we’re going to stay healthy and injury-free,” Potter says. When we lose the gamble, that’s when all the inadequacies of the private insurance system come to the fore. Confronted with the prospect of expensive claims, private insurers try to constrain customers’ choices — limiting recovery days spent in the hospital, limiting doctors’ latitude to try different therapies, demanding to be consulted before approving surgical interventions.

Indeed, the history of American healthcare reform is largely a chronicle of steps taken to protect the unserved groups from commercial health insurance practices.

When commercial health insurance became insinuated into the American healthcare system following World War II via employer plans, it quickly became clear who was left behind — “those who were retired, out of work, self-employed, or obliged to take a low-paying job without fringes,” sociologist Paul Starr wrote in his magisterial 1982 book, “The Social Transformation of American Medicine.”The process even left those groups worse off, Starr observed, because insurance contributed to medical inflation while insulating only those with health plans. “Government intervention was required just to address the inequities.”

Insurers wouldn’t cover the aged or retirees, so Medicare was born in 1965. Insurers refused to cover kidney disease patients needing dialysis, so Congress in 1973 carved out an exception allowing those patients to enroll in Medicare at any age. (So much for addressing the “burden of chronic disease.”)

Individual buyers were charged much more for coverage than those buying group plans through their employers — or barred from the marketplace entirely because of their medical conditions — the Affordable Care Act required insurers to accept all applicants and, as compensation, required all individuals to carry at least minimal coverage.

The health insurance industry’s most telling contribution to the debate over healthcare reform has been “to scare people about other healthcare systems,” Potter told me. As a consequence, discussions about whether or how to remove private companies from the healthcare system are chiefly political, not practical.

The Affordable Care Act allowed private insurers to continue playing a role in delivering coverage not because they were any good at it but because their wealth and size made them formidable adversaries to reform if they chose to fight it. They were sufficiently mollified to remain out of the fray, but some of the big insurers then did their best to undermine the individual insurance exchanges once they were launched in 2015.

Even as individual Americans fret over losing their private health insurance, big employers have begun to see the light. Boeing, among other big employers, is experimenting with bypassing health insurers as intermediaries with providers by contracting directly with major health systems in Southern California, Seattle and other regions where it has major plants. It would not be surprising to see the joint venture of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan Chase try a similar approach in its quest to bring down costs.

That’s an ironic development, since the private insurers first entered the market precisely by offering to play the role of intermediaries for big employers. But instead of fulfilling the promise of efficiency and cost control, they became rent-seeking profiteers themselves.

There’s no doubt that it will take years to wean the American healthcare system off the private insurance model; Kamala Harris’s proposal may be merely a recognition of the necessary time frame. It’s true that some countries with universal healthcare systems preserve roles for private insurance, including coverage for services the government chooses to leave out of its own programs or providing preferential access to specialists, at a price.

But the private insurers’ central position in America’s system is an anachronism dating back some 75 years. The sooner it’s dispensed with, the better — and healthier — America will be. The next time a debate moderator asks presidential candidates if they favor doing away with private insurance, let’s see all the hands go up.

The Debate Continues

 

The multilateral debating society that is known as the 2019 Democratic Debates has now had four such contests, and in keeping with the previous post, Medicare for All and the Democratic Debates, I want to discuss the issue of health care.

This was the first topic of the evening, and on both nights, it was a contentious, and long debate. The first night saw Sens. Sanders and Warren debating the other eight contenders over Medicare for All versus a public option.

The second night was more of the same, however, only NYC mayor Bill de Blasio argued for full MFA, while Sen. Kamala Harris argued for her plan that would enroll some Americans right away, while taking ten years to fully implement. All the rest, including former V.P. Joe Biden argued for either repairing the ACA, or adding a public option as a Medicare buy-in.

As I will report later in this article, there is a problem with the idea of a Medicare buy-in or a public option, and its impact on the ACA.

But before I do, I would like to discuss a few areas that seem to be missing from the candidate’s talking points on health care that need to be answered, addressed, or clarified. The CNN moderators, as was pointed out at one part of the debate, was questioning the candidates with what were essentially Republican talking points about MFA.

One area that was somewhat glossed over on the first night was the issue of middle class taxes being raised to pay for MFA. MSNBC host Chris Matthews of Hardball questioned Sen. Warren several times after the debate in the spin room on this very subject, yet she danced around the question by talking more about the savings people would receive.

Sen. Sanders agreed with Joe Biden when he said that those pushing Medicare for All without a middle-class tax hike are living in a “fantasy world.” In addition, Sanders said, that he knows middle-class taxes will go up, but maintained that the American people could still end up saving money on the other side.

In a CNN interview with Jake Tapper, Sanders said the following:

“The first thing that we have to understand is, under Medicare for all, similar to what Canada has, people are not gonna pay any premiums. They’re not gonna pay any deductibles. They’re not going to pay any co-payments. So if you call a premium a tax, we’re getting rid of that. But I do believe that, in a progressive way, people will have to pay taxes. The wealthy will obviously pay the lion’s share of the taxes, but at the end of the day, the vast majority of the American people will pay substantially less for the health care they now receive because we’re going to do away with hundreds of billion dollars of administrative waste. We’re gonna do away with the incredible profiteering of the insurance companies and the drug companies. People will be paying, in some cases, more in taxes, but overall, because they’re not gonna pay premiums or deductibles, co-payments, they’ll be paying less for their health care.”

Another area missing from the debates was the issue of what to do about union contracts. Rep. Tim Ryan (OH) made that a point in both debate appearances, and the question still has not been fully addressed, even though Sen. Sanders said he was very pro-union.

Finally, three other areas mentioned in the debates, but that may not have been fully discussed or explained, was the issues of private insurance and employer-based insurance. The third issue, pre-existing conditions was only mentioned in the post-debate analysis from the political pundits. At many times, it was argued by the anti-MFA candidates that those advocating MFA wanted to take away such insurance from over 150 million Americans. But as the following two articles suggest, private insurance and employer-based plans are part of the problem.

As reported by CheatSheet, the Supreme Court decision mandating that a for-profit corporation — in this case, Hobby Lobby — can actually mandate the types of healthcare provisions its employees receive, all based on the religious beliefs of the company’s owners. Hobby Lobby’s arguments were based on a stack of flawed science and misunderstood concepts, and the fact that the Supreme Court ruled that an employer’s particular religious belief — which can be made up off the top off their heads, for all the Court cares — now takes precedent over the medical needs of their employees.

CheatSheet concluded that the case in itself is ridiculous, but it brings us to one important conclusion: The era of employer-sponsored health care needs to end.

Reed Abelson in The New York Times wrote the following article, reprinted here in its entirety:

The New York Times
July 29, 2019
How a Medicare Buy-In or Public Option Could Threaten Obamacare
By Reed Abelson

It seems a simple enough proposition: Give people the choice to buy into Medicare, the popular federal insurance program for those over 65.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is one of the Democratic presidential contenders who favor this kind of buy-in, often called the public option. They view it as a more gradual, politically pragmatic alternative to the Medicare-for-all proposal championed by Senator Bernie Sanders, which would abolish private health insurance altogether.

A public option, supporters say, is the logical next step in the expansion of access begun under the Affordable Care Act, passed while Mr. Biden was in office. “We have to protect and build on Obamacare,” he said.

But depending on its design, a public option may well threaten the A.C.A. in unexpected ways.

A government plan, even a Medicare buy-in, could shrink the number of customers buying policies on the Obamacare markets, making them less appealing for leading insurers, according to many health insurers, policy analysts and even some Democrats.

In urban markets, “a public option could come in and soak up all of the demand of the A.C.A. market,” said Craig Garthwaite, a health economist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

And in rural markets, insurers that are now profitable because they are often the only choices may find it difficult to make money if they faced competition from the federal government.

Some insurers could decide that a smaller and uncertain market is not worth their effort.
If the public option program also matched the rates Medicare paid to hospitals and doctors, “I think it would be really hard to compete,” Mr. Garthwaite said. Even leading insurers do not have the leverage to demand lower prices from hospitals and other providers that the government has.

Whether to implement a public option or Medicare buy-in has become a defining question among Democratic presidential candidates and is likely to be a contentious topic at this week’s debates.

On Monday, Senator Kamala Harris took an alternate route, unveiling a plan that would allow private insurers to participate in a Medicare-for-all scheme, akin to their role currently offering private plans under Medicare Advantage.

The recent spate of proposals reprises some of the most difficult questions leading up to the passage of the A.C.A., in many ways a compromise over widely divergent views of the role of the government in ensuring access to care.

After a shaky start, the federal and state Obamacare marketplaces are surprisingly robust, despite repeated attempts by Republicans to weaken them. They provide insurance to 11 million customers, many of whom receive generous federal subsidies to help pay for coverage.

The A.C.A. is now a solidly profitable business for insurers, with several expanding options after earlier threats to leave. For example, Centene, a for-profit insurer, controls about a fifth of the market, offering plans in 20 states. It is expected to bring in roughly $10 billion in revenues this year by selling Obamacare policies.

In spite of stock drops because of investors’ concerns over Medicare-for-all proposals, for-profit health insurers have generally thrived since the law’s passage.

But a buy-in shift in insurance coverage could profoundly unsettle the nation’s private health sector, which makes up almost a fifth of the United States economy. Depending on who is allowed to sign up for the plan, it could also rock the employer-based system that now covers some 160 million Americans.

In a recent ad, Mr. Biden features a woman who wants to keep her current coverage. “I have my own private insurance — I don’t want to lose it,” she said.

A spokesman for Mr. Biden argued that a public option can extend the success of the Affordable Care Act.

“Joe Biden thinks it would be an egregious mistake to undo the A.C.A., and he will stand against anyone — regardless of their party — who tries to do so,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Mr. Biden, in an email.

Major insurers and hospital chains, pharmaceutical companies and the American Medical Association have joined forces to try to derail efforts like Medicare-for-all and the public option. Mr. Sanders denounced these powerful interests in a recent speech.

“The debate we are currently having in this campaign and all over this country has nothing to do with health care, but it has everything to do with the greed and profits of the health care industry,” he said.

Other critics of the public option, including Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, argue Democrats’ programs will lead to a “complete government takeover.”

“These proposals are the largest threats to the American health care system,” she said in a speech earlier this month.

Some experts predict that private insurers will adapt, while others warn that the government could wind up taking on the sickest customers with high medical bills, leaving the healthier, profitable ones to private insurers.

It’s uncertain whether hospitals, on the other hand, could thrive under some versions of the public option. If the nation’s 5,300 hospitals were paid at much lower rates by a government plan — rates resembling those of Medicare — they might lose tens of billions of dollars, the industry claims. Some would close.

One variant of the public option — letting people over 50 or 55 buy into Medicare — is often depicted as less drastic than a universal, single-payer program. But this option would also be problematic, experts said.

This consumer demographic is quite valuable to insurers, hospitals and doctors.

Middle-aged and older Americans have become the bedrock of the Obamacare market. Some insurers say this demographic makes up about half of the people enrolled in their A.C.A. plans and, unlike younger people who come and go, is a reliable and profitable source of business for the insurance companies.

The aging-related health issues of people in this group guarantee regular doctor visits for everything from rising blood pressure to diabetes, and they account for a steady stream of lucrative joint replacements and cardiac stent procedures.

The 55-to-64 age group, for example, accounts for 13 percent of the nation’s population, but generates 20 percent of all health care spending, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Health Spending
People age 55–64 are responsible for one fifth of total health spending and account for a sizable share of the private insurance market. People 65 and older are eligible for Medicare and account for one third of total spending.

By The New York Times | Sources: Kaiser Family Foundation; Dept. of Health & Human Services. Data from 2016

Several experts said that designing a buy-in program that is compatible with the existing public and private plans could be daunting.

“You’d have to do it carefully,” said Representative Donna Shalala, a Florida Democrat who served as the secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton.
Linda Blumberg, a health policy expert at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, agreed.

“The idea of Medicare buy-ins was taken very seriously before there was an Affordable Care Act,” she said. “In the context of the A.C.A., it’s a lot more complicated to do that.”

Many dismiss concerns about whether insurers can compete.

“Any time a market shrinks in America, insurers don’t like it,” said Andy Slavitt, the former acting Medicare administrator under President Obama and a former insurance executive. Mr. Slavitt noted that insurers raised similar concerns about the federal law when it was introduced. “They’ll figure it out,” he said.

In Los Angeles County, five private insurers that sell insurance in the A.C.A. market already compete with L.A. Care Health Plan, which views itself as a kind of public option, said John Baackes, the plan’s chief executive.

The insurer offers the least expensive H.M.O. plan in the county by paying roughly Medicare rates. “We’ve proved that the public option can be healthy competition,” he said.

But the major insurance companies, which were instrumental in defeating the public option when Congress first considered making it a feature of the A.C.A., are already flexing their lobbying muscle and waging public campaigns.

In Connecticut, fierce lobbying by health insurers helped kill a state version of the public option this spring. Cigna resisted passage of the bill, threatening to leave the state. “The proposal design was ill-conceived and simply did not work,” the company said in a statement.

Blue Cross plans could lose 60 percent of their revenues from the individual market if people over 50 are shifted to Medicare, said Kris Haltmeyer, an executive with the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, citing an analysis the company conducted. He said it might not make sense for plans to stay in the A.C.A. markets.

Siphoning off such a large group of customers could also lead to a 10 percent increase in premiums for the remaining pool of insured people, according to the Blue Cross analysis. More younger people with expensive medical conditions have enrolled than insurers expected, and insurers would have to increase premiums to cover their costs, Mr. Haltmeyer said.

Tricia Neuman, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which studies insurance markets, said a government buy-in that attracted older Americans could indeed raise premiums for those who remained in the A.C.A. markets, especially if those consumers had high medical costs.

But some experts countered that prognosis, predicting that premiums could go down if older Americans, whose health care costs are generally expensive, moved into a Medicare-like program.

“The insurance companies are wrong about opposing the public option,” Ms. Shalala said.

Dr. David Blumenthal, the president of the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that funds health care research, said a government plan that attracted people with expensive conditions could prove costly.

“You might, as a taxpayer, become concerned that they would be more like high-risk pools,” he said.

Jonathan Gruber, an M.I.T. economist who advised the Obama administration during the development of the A.C.A., likes Mr. Biden’s plan and argues there is a way to design a public option that does not shut out the private insurers.

“It’s all about threading the needle of making a public option that helps the failing system and not making the doctors and insurers go to the mat,” he said.

Many experts point to private Medicare Advantage plans, which now cover one-third of those eligible for Medicare, as proof that private insurers can coexist with the government.

But the real value of a public option, some say, would stem from the pressure to lower prices for medical care as insurers were forced to compete with the lower-paying government plans, like Medicare.

Washington State recently passed the country’s first public option, capping prices as part of its plan to provide a public alternative to all residents by 2021.

“It’s couched in this language in expanding coverage, but it does it by regulating prices,” said Sabrina Corlette, a health policy researcher at Georgetown University.

The hospital industry would most likely fight just as hard to defeat any proposal that would convert a profitable group of customers, Americans who are privately covered at present, into Medicare beneficiaries.

Private insurers often pay hospitals double or triple what Medicare pays them, according to a recent study from the nonprofit Rand Corporation.

While Ms. Shalala supports a public option as an alternative to “Medicare for All,” she is clear about how challenging it will be to preserve both Obamacare and the private insurance market. “You can’t do it off the top of your head,” she said.

So, let’s see, the Republicans want to kill the ACA, and others want to fix it. But adding a public option, or including a Medicare buy-in, might harm the ACA. On the other hand, it has been shown that both private insurance and employer-based insurance are part of the problem.

The idea that people like their private plans, whether obtained from their employer, or from private insurance companies directly, and is part of the problem is being left out of the discussion.

And debate moderators who ask those questions to candidates are only echoing Republican talking points, or worse, taking their cues from the drug manufacturers and insurance companies.

So if neither fixing ACA, adding a public option, or providing a Medicare buy-in  will solve the enormous complexity and confusion that the broken and dysfunctional health care system represents,  that only leaves one alternative: Medicare for All, while currently not likely to be enacted, nevertheless is popular with the public until the issue of taxes is mentioned.

The moderate candidates, are either defending the drug and insurance companies  because of campaign contributions, or have been part of the health care industry, such as former Congressman John Delaney, and therefore is an unlikely spokesman for progressive change. Let’s hope that he and the other bottom-tier candidates drop out soon, so that perhaps these other issues can be discussed and debated.

How the campaign will turn out, and who the Democrats will nominate is still far off in the future, but who ever is nominated, will have to eventually deal with the reality that health care must be solved, and that the march towards single payer will have already begun.

No Socialists Here

Dear Insurance company execs, pharmaceutical company execs, employee benefits consultants and executives, Wall Street investors, and all other stakeholders in the current dysfunctional, broken, complex, complicated, and bloated mess called the US health care system.

You have heard many politicians, and journalists, not to mention your own peers, or even you yourselves label the push for Medicare for All as “Socialism.”

We even have the Administrator of CMS, Seema Verma, calling it, and the public option plan,  “radical and dangerous for the country” recently when she spoke to the Better Medicare Alliance’s Medicare Advantage Summit in Washington, D.C.

Her solution, and probably yours as well, is to keep selling Medicare Advantage plans, which only makes the current system worse.

So, to help you get over your fear and loathing of Socialism, and to prove to you that the only reason why the US is the only Western, industrial nation to not provide its citizens with universal health care is because you are making money off of other people’s health, or lack thereof.

You are doing so, because you are greedy. There I said it. Now I hope you will pay attention to the following graphic:

Do you see any socialist countries? Do you see any radical and dangerous regimes that are hostile to the interests of the US? Well, maybe Slovenia. After all, they did send us Melania and her illegal family.

But back to the case at hand. I defy any of you hotshots in the health care space to prove to me that all of these Capitalist, free-market countries are flaming Reds, or even a bit Pinko.

You can’t, because it is not true. You and those who call Medicare for All, Single Payer, or even the so-called “public option” radical, just don’t want the government to interfere with your looting the pockets of the American people for your financial gain.

And that is why we are the only country with an “X”, instead of a check mark below our name.

16,000 Unnecessary Deaths Tied to Failure to Expand Medicaid

The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that a new study found that Medicaid expansion brought appreciable improvements in health to enrollees, but also that full expansion nationwide would have averted 15,600 deaths among the vulnerable Medicaid-eligible population.

This is in contrast to the view of opponents of Medicaid expansion who have said that lack of evidence that enrollment in Medicaid improves health and saves lives, and therefore they believed that expansion was a waste of money.

In the 22 mostly red states that refused expansion, the cause of the 15,600 deaths of their state’s residents was attributed to failure to expand.

“This highlights an ongoing cost to non-adoption that should be relevant to both state policymakers and their constituents,” the authors of the study said.

Fourteen states are still holding out, States such as Wyoming and South Dakota, the article states, have a warped sense of “freedom.” States such as Maine and Louisiana, who have had a change in governors from Republican to Democrat, have recently adopted expansion.

medicaid

Fourteen states still resist Medicaid expansion, at great cost to their residents (Kaiser Family Foundation)

The article takes a dim view of the entire rationale for refusing to expand Medicaid, and cites a few noted Conservative voices against the entire idea of expansion and Medicaid itself.

Conservatives have worked hard to depict Medicaid as ineffective, the article reports. They’ve done so, it continues,  by overinterpreting limited studies such as a 2013 study of a Medicaid expansion in Oregon.

Critics focused on the researchers’ finding of “no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes in the first 2 years” of expansion, but they overlooked the findings that the expansion did “increase use of healthcare services, raise rates of diabetes detection and management, lower rates of depression, and reduce financial strain.”

Conservative health policy Avik Roy has crowed, the article states, that the result “calls into question the $450 billion a year we spend on Medicaid, and the fact that Obamacare throws 11 million more Americans into this broken program.”

Another right-wing critic of Medicaid expansion, and not to mention, also of Medicare for All, and now more recently, the public option for Medicare, is CMS Administrator Seema Verma, a Trump flunky.

(Credit: Getty Images )  Picture worth a thousand words was never more true. What a piece of work!

Verma has argued that the expansion hasn’t been a success despite its enrollment figures and has been a leader in undermining the program by allowing states to impose premiums, work requirements and punitive disenrollments on patients. (Her efforts have been blocked by a federal judge, for now.)

This is why advocates for Medicare for All are so passionate and determined, in the face of even the slightest opposition to improving the health and lives of millions of Americans for small changes to our nation’s health care system.

Failure to expand Medicaid, failure to enact universal health care, even if it is a public option, is challenged from the right for morally indefensible and reprehensible reasons.

The cry of “freedom” from conservatives is a smoke-screen to hid their true purpose. To dismantle all social programs and funnel that money to the wealthy and corporations, as they have already done with the Trump tax giveaway.

Now they are trying to cut three million Americans off of food stamps.

All these schemes have one purpose in mind, to kill off their most ardent supporters in Southern and Midwestern states that continue to vote for these sociopaths. To them, freedom means, freedom for a company to profit off of your misfortune, whether that misfortune is due to poor diet, poor personal habits such as smoking and drug abuse, and poor health outcomes due to poverty and economic distress.

Naturally, any attempt to improve the health and lives of the poor, black or white, or Latino, etc., is viewed as “Socialism” and is deemed bad for the country, as Ms. Verma did this week to the Better Medicare Alliance’s Medicare Advantage Summit in Washington, D.C.

No, it’s not bad for the country. It’s bad for the profits of the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies, the benefit managers industry, the health care consultants, and Wall Street investors.

Wanting to cut of food stamps, fail to expand even Medicaid, tightening rules for who is eligible for these programs, is not only bad for the health of average Americans, it is bad for the economic vitality of the nation in an era of global competition.

The men and women at Trump rallies are angry, but they are angry at the wrong people. The clown on the stage is the person they really should be angry at, and his entire swamp of “the best people.”