Category Archives: Employers

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.

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.

Injured Worker Arrested When Employer Could Not Cut WC Benefits

The Charlotte Observer today reported on the case of an injured worker who suffered a brain injury after a fall in 2003 at his employer’s workplace. And because they could not cut off his benefits, they had him arrested.

In case you find this incredible, here is the link to the article:

https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article217808590.html

Is this what it has come to today in Workers’ Comp? That insurance companies refuse to continue lifelong payments to injured workers because they believe he is faking his injuries, so they and his employer have him arrested?

This is more than harsh; this is despicable.

 

Ten Most Reported Worker’s Compensation Injuries – Machine Safety Blog

Back in March of 2015, I wrote about the top 10 causes of workplace injuries. I posited the idea that medical tourism (medical travel) could save employers money so that the workers’ comp industry would take medical travel seriously as an option for injured workers. The same holds true for the medical travel industry, as they seem to be AWOL when it comes to workers’ health.

Here is an updated report on the Machine Safety Blog from Rockford Systems, LLC:

Last year in America 2.9 million employees (U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics) suffered a workplace injury from which they never recover, at a cost to business of nearly $60 billion (Liberty Mutual Insurance). These statistics are staggering. To help gain a better perspective on the realities of workplace danger, we have compiled a list of […]

Source: Ten Most Reported Worker’s Compensation Injuries – Machine Safety Blog

Typical Family of Four Now Paying Over $28,000 for Health Care

A report issued Monday by Milliman indicated that the cost of health care for a typical American family covered by the average employer-sponsored preferred provider organization (PPO) plan in 2018 is $28,166, as per the Milliman Medical Index (MMI).

Broken down into component parts, this represents the following costs:

2018 MMI Components of Spending
31% ($8,631) – Inpatient
19% ($5,395) – Outpatient
29% ($8,275) – Professional services
17% ($4,888) – Pharmacy
4% ($995) – Other (Home health, ambulance, DME, prosthetics)

The key takeaway from the report is that employers are paying more; but employees are paying a lot more.

The health care expenditures are funded by employer contributions to health plans and by employees through their payroll deductions and out-of-pocket expenses incurred when care is received, according to the report.

The report continues that they are seeing over the long-term, and that employees are paying a higher percentage of the total, with employee expenses increasing 5.9%, and employer expenses increasing 3.5% in 2018.

The total cost of health care is shared by both the employer and employee for a family of four, the MMI stated, which breaks down to three categories:

1. Employer subsidy. Employers that sponsor health plans subsidize the cost of healthcare for their employees by allocating compensation dollars to pay a large share of the cost.
2. Employee contribution. Employees who choose to participate in the employer’s health benefit plan typically also pay a substantial portion of costs, usually through payroll deduction.
3. Employee out-of-pocket cost at time of service. When employees receive care, they also often pay for a portion of these services via health plan deductibles and/or point-of-service copays.

The relative proportions of medical costs for 2018 are:

56% ($15,788) – Employer contribution
27% ($7,674) – Employee contribution
17% ($4,704) – Employee out-of-pocket

Looking at this another way, employees are paying a total of 44% as either a contribution or out-of-pocket, which adds up to $12,378, compared to the employers’ 56% and $15,788, respectively.

As health care gets more expensive, it will naturally lead to higher costs for employers, but also higher costs for employees. And as has been happening more commonly, employers are shifting more of the costs onto the employees. With stagnant wages, as reported daily in the news, this is going to be a problem for those families caught in the squeeze between rising costs for medical care and stagnant wages.

This would be resolved by creating a single payer health care system that will save both employers and employees money,

 

The Disruptors are Coming: The New Health Economy and the Medical-Industrial Complex

A big shout out to Dr. Don MCanne for his Quote of the Day post Friday for today’s topic, and a belated shout out to him for his post last Tuesday about the gains from the ACA being reversed. See my post, ACA Gains Reversing.

This time, Don alerts us to the impact the new health economy disruptors will have and what it might mean for the push towards single payer health care.

Last month, the PwC Health Research Institute (HRI) released a report analyzing the new health economy landscape as more and more companies pursue acquisitions of companies in the insurance, pharmacy benefit management, health care services and retail spaces.
In the last six months, the report states, there has been an explosion of unusual deals between companies such as CVS Health buying Aetna, Cigna buying Express Scripts, UnitedHealth’s Optum buying DaVita Medical Group (Kidney disease and dialysis), Albertsons agreeing to merge with Rite Aid, as well as the much highly publicized partnership between Amazon, JP Morgan, and Berkshire Hathaway.

Naturally, these aren’t the only deals that have occurred. Last year, 67 deals occurred in the US health services market, including payers and providers, the report adds.

The value of these deals increased 146% over those in 2016. The US health care industry, the report states, is undergoing seismic changes generated by a collision of forces: the shift from volume to value, rising consumerism, and the decentralization of care.
The HRI identified four new archetypes of companies engaged in this new health care economy:

• Vertical integrators — CVS & Aetna, Optum & DaVita, Cigna & Express Scripts
• Employer activists — February 2016, 20 US companies form Health Transformation Alliance (HTA) and developed tools to help its members cut employee healthcare costs. In January, Amazon, JP Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway partnered to lower costs and improve employee satisfaction
• Technology invaders — Amazon selling over-the-counter medical products, offering discounted access to Prime service, Apple’s newest operating system allows users to access parts of their EHRs on their phones
• Health retailers — CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Albertsons and others using their network of store locations, consumer insights, national and global supply chains, and national (and sometimes global) branding to attract consumers looking for affordable, convenient care and goods

The HRI report recommends that all healthcare companies should make the following moves:

• Invest in customer experience
• Plan for a broader workforce
• Focus on price

This is how Don McCanne commented on this report. He wrote that Arnold Relman, like Dwight Eisenhower did about the military-industrial complex, warned us about the medical-industrial complex, but did not realize how intense the disruption would be in health care that the HRI report discusses.

According to Don, we are about to see a takeover by the disruptors who “have a leg up on many established health players in understanding consumers and tailoring experiences for them.”
The disruptors are “positioned to address price through greater scale, ownership of middlemen and a wider grip on the US health system value chain.”

If you don’t believe Don, then read what Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan said, “To attack these issues, we will be using top management, big data, virtual technology, better customer engagement and the improved creation of customer choice (high deductibles have barely worked). This effort is just beginning.”

This is exactly what the Waitzkin et al. book describes when explaining the methods used by the medical-industrial complex to control and direct the American health care system for power and profit of the members of the complex.

Dr. McCanne observes that it is almost as if the physicians, nurses and other health care professionals and the hospitals and clinics in which they provide their services have become a peripheral, albeit necessary, appendage to their wellness-industrial complex that is displacing our traditional health care delivery system and its more recent iteration of the medical-industrial complex.

In other words, the physicians and nurses and other professionals have become proletarianized, and the hospitals and clinics merely the places where the medical-industrial complex derives its power and profit from.

Dr. McCanne posits the following questions as to what the health care system would look like once the transformation is well along:

• Once the silos of the health care system are flattened, how will health care be financed?
• Will there still be networks?
• Cost sharing barriers such as high deductibles?
• Will it be possible to fund this expansive model of the wellness-industrial complex through anything remotely resembling an insurance product, especially when the insurers are being amalgamated into what was formerly the health care delivery system?
• And now that the plutocracy is in control, how could we ever remove the passive investors that extract humongous rents through the wellness-industrial complex?
• And what about the patients? Did we forget about them?

It is obvious from his comments that this new health economy is going to be more problematic for providing universal health care to all Americans and will only make things worse. His Rx is to begin now to move to a single payer, Medicare for All program, and not worry about what has passed.

Smart diagnosis and prescription.

An Old Story Resurfaces

My loyal readers may recall that in two separate occasions, I discussed a company in North Carolina called HSM that chose to send its employees to India and Costa Rica for medical care under their self-insured health care plan.

The two previous articles, US Companies Look to ‘Medical Tourism’ To Cut Costs and Self-Insured Employers and Medical Travel: One Company’s Experience came out of an interview in Business Insurance.com that was conducted by the author and the Director of Benefits for HSM, Tim Isenhower.

This morning, my good friend Laura Carabello of US Domestic Medical Travel.com published another interview with Tim, adding two more locations to their medical travel portfolio, Cancun and the Cayman Islands.

The interview is reproduced verbatim below, and pay attention to one point Tim makes about his company’s workers’ comp costs, a point I mentioned previously and cite as a basis for considering implementing medical travel into workers’ comp.

Here is the interview:

SPOTLIGHT: Tim Isenhower, Director of Benefits, HSM
Spotlight U.S. Domestic by Editor – March 20, 2018

About Tim Isenhower

Tim Isenhower, Director of Benefits – has worked with HSM and their self-insured health insurance for the past 25 years. Managing a self-insured health plan through the 90’s to today has provided him the opportunity to think out of the box for reduced healthcare cost programs including direct contracting, on site clinics, chronic disease management, and medical tourism. With IndUShealth, Tim and HSM were pioneers in self-insured companies offering medical tourism, as was presented on ABC News and Nightline.

About HSM

HSM is a privately-owned holding company based in Hickory, North Carolina, that specializes through its subsidiaries, in the manufacture of components for the furniture, bedding, transportation, packaging and healthcare industries, and the design and construction of automated production machinery for the bedding, apparel, aerospace and other industries.

Medical Travel Today (MTT): As a pioneer in the medical travel phenomenon, your story and your company’s role is so intriguing.

Tim Isenhower (TI): We are a manufacturing company and have had facilities coast to coast, as well as technologies in small towns and big cities. We were negotiating discount rates with hospitals across the country, where prices varied based on location.

I went to a human resource seminar in Raleigh in 2007 and Rajesh Rao’s company, Indus Health, was presenting medical travel to India as an option for employers. I went to India with Raj and his team, and got a physical exam which took less than six hours. In the U.S., this type of physical would have taken a month, from schedule to results.

So, we began offering medical travel to India for our employees during our annual enrollment process. We told them that if they chose to have a medical procedure done in India we would pay 100 percent, including travel with a companion.

We got no takers in the beginning. But at one of our final meetings, a fork lift driver from one our plants volunteered to have a knee replacement done in India – he simply couldn’t afford to have it done in the U.S.

He had never even been inside an airport, so I went with him and his travel companion. I was a little nervous because he had no experience traveling. But we got to India, and he actually did very well. He was impressed by the level of treatment he received.

When he returned home, he wrote a testimonial for our company newsletter. After that, more of our employees started traveling to India.

Soon word-of-mouth inspired more of them to get their surgeries in India because they saw what a positive experience it was.

MTT: So why did you shift your destination away from India?

TI: The cultural differences and distance resulted in many of our employees becoming homesick.

So, we started looking closer to home for medical care options. We have a large Hispanic population and Costa Rica had a history of high quality healthcare. We chose that area as the new medical travel destination.

Mostly, we send people for gastric procedures, joint replacements, back surgeries, hernia surgeries – a wide gamut of procedures.

Positive word-of-mouth has kept up the level of interest, and we also visit every location each year to promote the medical travel offering so more employees can understand its benefits.

MTT: And now you have expanded to Cancun. Do you find that there are other opportunities?

TI: We have. We had a patient go to Cancun just a couple of months ago. She did very well and that was a little different concept because it was an American doctor who flew down to Cancun to do her hip replacement. She was very happy with the services, pricing and results. We also send people to the Cayman Islands for various surgeries.

MTT: What has this experience meant to you, as an employer, beyond the cost savings?

TI: It’s really benefitted employee morale, to have a chance to travel to a place like Costa Rica, Cancun or the Cayman Islands. They come back and tell everyone about what a positive experience it was.

We’ve also been able to use our medical travel option as a recruitment tool.

What’s more, we saw our worker’s comp costs decline. [Emphasis mine]

I get thank-you notes from our medical travelers all the time, and we publicize these positive experiences within the company.

There’s no charge to the employee, and we give them a bonus when they return of 20 percent of what they saved the company.

MTT: Wow! That’s very generous.

TI: Up to $10,000. We are just trying to be a good employer, and this is just one way of doing that.

MTT: Do you know how many of your employees travel for surgery every year?

TI: I have lost count. We have roughly 2,500 employees now, and we’ve probably sent about 500 of them during the period of time that we have been doing this.

MTT: Did you ever have any unexpected outcomes?

TI: We’ve had people who had issues with back surgery, and they weren’t allowed to come home until the issue was resolved. But it was resolved.

They got better, came home and are doing very well.

That doesn’t always happen in a U.S. hospital. Here if a patient has issues down the road, they are on their own.

MTT: No legal issues?

TI: Fortunately, no. And the program is growing.

We’ve had everybody from executives to line workers utilize the program. Not everyone qualifies. A few have been eliminated because they have comorbidities that makes traveling for surgery unsafe, so these few were turned away.

MTT: And if you had to improve the program in any way, what would you suggest?

TI: I don’t know how I’d improve it.

Everybody that comes back is ecstatic about the program. The folks at Indus Health make it work. I know other administrators who couldn’t make it work. But Indus Health’s nurse case managers and screening process make it a no-brainer.

Rajesh Rao: We work very hard to make sure our patients are happy with our services. We don’t promise what we can’t deliver.

We work hard with our destinations to make sure we can provide assistance and high quality outcomes because that is what sells the program.

Jim Polsfut: I would like to add that it is a pleasure to work with Indus Health for all the reasons that Tim mentions. Their expertise and thoroughness have worked out very well with us.
We focus on three main objectives.

First, the quality outcomes.

Second, the satisfaction that we get from helping patients save money. In the U.S., it is so expensive to receive medical care even when you have a health plan. In that regard, the patient benefits in a significant way.

Finally, the cost benefit to the employer. For self-insured employers, this is important because of the hyperinflation of medical costs in the U.S. It’s difficult for employers to avoid the impact of healthcare expenses.

All of these factors motivate us, and give us a lot of satisfaction to provide a quality medical travel option.

Here is the link to the original: http://medicaltraveltoday.com/spotlight-tim-isenhower-director-of-benefits-hsm/