Category Archives: Insurance

Moderate Democrats Health Care Plans Fall Short

Listening to the Democratic debates since they began last year, I have been dumbfounded and angered that so many of the candidates running for President this year believe that some halfway measure to achieve universal coverage for health care is possible, if only voters would vote for them.

With the exception of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the rest of the candidates, those still running, and those who dropped out, advocate a public option or fixing the ACA. (see “Medicare for All and the Democratic Debates”) Their proposals fly in the face of study after study, article after article that firmly states that the only way to provide universal coverage at lower cost, and that will save money is Medicare for All.

They are trying to scare the American people with words like “Socialism” and suggesting that their taxes will go up, or that they will lose their employer-based or private health insurance.

As I have written in the past, there is a concerted effort on the part of the health care industry to defeat Medicare for All/Single Payer, and they have been targeting the Democrats to do so.

An article last Monday in The Hill by Diane Archer, senior adviser at Social Security Works states that twenty-two studies agree that Medicare for All saves money.

According to Ms. Archer, researchers at three University of California campuses examined 22 studies on the projected cost impact for single-payer health insurance in the United States and reported their findings in a recent paper in PLOS Medicine.

Every single study, they found, predicted that it would yield net savings over several years. In fact, it’s the only way to rein in health care spending significantly in the U.S.

In addition, all of the studies, regardless of ideological orientation, showed that long-term cost savings were likely. As reported last year, even the Mercatus Center, a right-wing think tank belonging to the libertarian Koch Brothers, recently found about $2 trillion in net savings over 10 years from a single-payer Medicare for All system. Most importantly, everyone in America would have high-quality health care coverage

The key takeaway from the studies is that Medicare for All is far less costly than our current system largely because it reduces administrative costs.

This is because Administrative savings from Medicare for All would be about $600 billion a year. Savings on prescription drugs would be between $200 billion and $300 billion a year, if we paid about the same price as other wealthy countries pay for their drugs. A Medicare for All system would save still more with implementation of global health care spending budgets.

None of the other Democratic candidates can make that assertion because their plans leave many uninsured and and keep in place the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies to make huge profits from the health of the American people.

While I am no fan of Bernie Sanders as a candidate, and his recent dispute with the Nevada Culinary Union not withstanding, his goal is to cover every American with universal health care. Elizabeth Warren’s plan differs somewhat from Sanders’, but has a more reasonable time frame for implementation.

The inconvenient truth, folks is that Medicare for All will save money, will cover everyone, and will finally bring down the cost of health care so that no one has to go broke paying for it, or decide not to get medical care when needed because they can’t afford it.’

Those of you who are not physicians or in the insurance industry, or the pharmaceutical industry who pontificate on social media that Medicare for All is bad, are only delaying the inevitable. You consultants, analysts, researchers and other auxiliary industries to health care must see the truth staring you in the face. You are on the wrong side of the debate, and on the wrong side of history.

COVID-19 and America’s Social Safety Net

Friday’s HuffPost published an article by Emily Peck on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on the country’s broken social safety net.

The article indicates that millions of working Americans do not get paid sick days. It also states that a stunning 70% of low-wage workers and one of three workers in the private sector, have no access to paid sick time.

According to Ms. Peck, the US is one of the few countries in the world without a national paid sick leave policy. In addition, she adds, millions of Americans do not have health insurance, or their policies are designed to keep them away from doctors with high co-payments and deductibles.

Both these issues, Ms. Peck writes, highlights how coronavirus, or COVID-19, could test the US’ uniquely weak social safety net.

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, the executive director of MomsRising, a nonprofit advocating for paid leave is quoted in the article, “Right now we’re looking at a situation where we have a lack of policies that most other countries take for granted that protect their public health.”

This isn’t just a “coronavirus” problem, Ms. Peck says. Even though the CDC warned Americans earlier in the week, so far there have been very few case reported in the US. (Note: As of this writing,  there have been 74 reported cases in the US, and two men have died in Washington State, and one case was recently reported in Rhode Island, and one in Manhattan)

Yet, fears of an outbreak has put a spotlight on the public health system. With cuts to many agencies by Trump, many experts fear that we will be unable to deal with the crisis, especially since the Trump called it a hoax at a recent political rally.

He also appointed his evolution-denying Vice President, Mike Pence to coordinate the Administration’s response after gagging several Administration personnel from appearing on the Sunday talk shows. It was mentioned after the announcement that Pence did not believe that smoking causes cancer when he was Governor of Indiana.

For the Democrats, says Ms. Peck, coronavirus makes the case for policies like universal health care and paid sick and family leave.

Some key points to consider:

First, flu rates are higher without sick leave. What about coronavirus?

In the US, the article reports, just 10 states, 20 cities and three counties have some kind of paid sick leave. This is compared with the rest of the world, where more than 145 countries have this benefit. People who live in those places, research shows, are less likely to get sick, Ms. Peck reports.

And lack of paid sick leave is certainly a “risk factor”, according to Nicolas Ziebarth, associate professor in health economics at Cornell. Professor Ziebarth’s 2019 paper in the Journal of Public Economics, looked at Google data on flu rates, compared cities with leave policies with those without, and found that flu rates were 5% lower in places with sick leave.

An upcoming paper of Professor Ziebarth’s, based on CDC data, has found that the rates are actually 11% lower.

For those workers in low-wage jobs, if they get sick, they cannot afford to take time off of work because they are barely getting by. So, they end up going to work, and they get their co-workers sick.

Working from home isn’t an option.

Many companies are telling employees to work from home with the threat from coronavirus. However, for low-wage hourly workers, says Ms. Peck, this just isn’t an option. Many work in industries that have contact with the community — such as food servers, people who care for children, clean offices and homes.

As stated above, it is not just sick leave, The US also lacks any kind of comprehensive paid family leave policy, according to Ms. Peck, which would enable workers to take time off to care for a close family member’s health issues. This issue first came to light in 1993 when Bill Clinton signed into law, the Family and Medical Leave Act, which required covered employers to provide employees with job-protected and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons.

An example of just how needed is paid family leave, comes from the experience of Ericka Farrell, a mother of three in Maryland, who lost her temp job in the early 2000s because she had to take so much time off to care for her young son. She did not regret staying home, but now works with MomsRising to advocate for paid leave herself, writes Ms. Peck.

Millions are uninsured. Many more have terrible insurance.

According to Ms. Peck, even if you take time off when you are sick, you might not be able to afford to see the doctor. Slightly more than 10% of Americans. she mentions, or about 30 million people, don’t have health insurance. This is because their employers do not offer it, or it is too expensive.

Things to consider regarding the uninsured:

  • Far less likely to go to the doctor
  • Americans with insurance face obstacles to getting care due to high co-payments
  • Then there are the deductibles, which have been going up for decades
  • Most people haven’t come near clearing those deductibles at the beginning of the year

John Graves, associate professor of health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center was quoted as saying, “If we as a society are going to face a spreading infectious disease, the worse time of the year is the beginning of the year.”

Graves added that the US health care system is simply not designed to deal with a potential pandemic.

First, he says, the US relies on employment-based insurance. If people are thrown out of work due to an economic downturn, they lose coverage.

Second, insurance is designed to encourage people not to see the doctor through so-called “cost-sharing.”  Co-payments and deductibles exist to discourage people from visiting the doctor or going to the hospital for every “cough and sniffle.” Graves said.

Lastly, in 2018, the Administration made it easier for people to buy insurance plans with less generous coverage, and don’t always cover expenses stemming from preexisting conditions, the article says. Experts have said that these plans they consider junk policies, have even higher out-of-pocket costs.

So what does this all mean?

It means that cuts to the social safety net guarantees that should the coronavirus get out of hand, the US is not prepared to deal with it effectively, and many more people will probably die who shouldn’t because of politics and ideology.

Hospital closings in rural areas, the firing of hundreds of health care personnel at the federal level, silencing the experts in infectious diseases, and the appointment of a man who rejects evolution and says smoking does not cause cancer to coordinate the Administration’s response, is a recipe for a catastrophe of unimanigable proportions. Calling it a hoax in front of your ardent supporters who believe everything you say, will only lead to more confusion and more deaths.

But this crisis also proves that it is high time those on social media sites like LinkedIn who are part of the health care industry, whether they are physicians, in the pharmaceutical industry, work in hospitals, are device manufacturers, or are consultants and researchers, accept the fact that single payer, universal health care (Medicare for All) is not just an economic necessity, but a public health necessity as well.

Is your big, fat five or six figure incomes more important than human health? It’s your call.

The $8,000 Rip-off That Is Healthcare

Picking up on a theme I presented in two earlier posts this year, Health Care is Not a Market  and The Free Market Utopian Fantasy, Joe Paduda today asks “what would you do with another $8,000?”

Joe’s post outlines how providers, big pharma, device companies, and healthplans make money from a system designed to do so, and not to help you and your family stay healthy and functional. [ Emphasis Joe’s]

He shows us graphically how big health sector profit margins are, how we spend more than any other country, but die younger, and how healthcare premiums and deductibles and out of pocket costs keep climbing, but wages do not.

His one key point, is the following:

Healthcare is not, and cannot ever be, a free market. A free market requires buyers have the ability to make sellers respond to buyers’ needs – yet we all know we consumers have zero ability to make pharma, hospitals, big doctor groups, device companies respond to our needs.

Lastly, Joe asks the question: “If air travel worked like health care?” [Video link]

Would you rely on the airlines with your health care? Would you rely on the health care industry to fly you to your nephew’s wedding in Orlando? Of course, not.

So, why would you continue to defend, support and protect a dysfunctional, broken, wasteful, bloated, health care system that does not work like the free market, but only makes huge profits for the insurance companies, drug companies, device manufacturers, hospitals, investors, stock and shareholders.

And yes, you hanger’s on in consulting and research organizations who constantly attack single payer health care because it, one, puts you out of a job, and two, takes away any profits you and your company makes from advising  on or researching how to squeeze more profit out of the system.

One thing is for certain. I could sure use that $8,000 right now. My health care and other issues have taken a lot more from me than $8,000, but I’d settle for that. Wouldn’t you?

Two Perspectives on Health Care

Dear Readers,

Sorry for the delay in getting back to writing in this new year, I have not seen too many things to write about, and have also been busy with personal issues.

So, the following post from an unknown individual via Joe Paduda, who informs us that this person is a good friend and colleague, shows just how broken and dysfunctional our health care system really is.

This post is followed by one from Don McCanne about the Canadian system, and differentiates their system with what is being proposed in the US under a Medicare for All system advocated by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Dr. McCanne, and the Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP), among others.

Joe’s post: The Greatest Healthcare System in the World

Dr. McCanne’s post was written by Caitlin Kelly in The American Prospect on January 8th. Here is her article in full, followed by comments by Don McCanne.

The American Prospect

January 8, 2020

What Medicare for All Really Looks Like

The Canadian system, also called Medicare, guarantees coverage to every resident north of the U.S. border.

By Caitlin Kelly

Canadian health care is publicly funded and privately delivered, approximately the same vision that single-payer enthusiasts have for the American system. It even shares the same name as our largest government-run insurance provider: Medicare. But contrary to persistent American partisan mythmaking, no government officials sit in doctors’ offices or haunt hospital hallways with a checklist of all the services they’ll question and deny. They don’t dictate hands-on care. Canadians face little government interference or oversight of their health care, although, for historical reasons, their doctors retain much more power than patients.

The familiar and dreaded words “co-pay,” “deductible,” “pre-existing condition,” and “out of network” are meaningless here, in English or French, Canada’s two official languages. Patients don’t waste time chasing pre-authorizations or fighting medical bills, while physicians save thousands of administrative hours.

As Americans’ life expectancy is dropping and maternal mortality is ranked shockingly high among other wealthy nations, Canadian health outcomes fare better; Canadian women live two more years than their American counterparts, men three.

But the system is far from perfect. Outpatient care, like physical and occupational therapy or prescription medicine, is paid for out of pocket. In some places, there’s no mandate to use electronic records, so patient information can be difficult to access. And medical care of impoverished and remote First Nation and Inuit communities is openly acknowledged as abysmal.

Canada provides coverage for about 35 million, one-tenth the population of the United States. But how they’ve set up their health care system, and how it evolved over the decades, is instructive, especially given the robust debate during the presidential primary about overhauling our current system. It can inform how U.S. policymakers—and Canadians, for that matter—approach cost control, physician payment, and services for vulnerable communities. Rather than scaring Americans with well-structured narratives about the alleged horrors of Canadian Medicare, we could take the opportunity to learn from it.

A Difference in Bedrock Philosophies

A fundamental conceptual difference also divides how Canadians and Americans view their relationship to using government-financed or -run services. Classic American insistence on the bedrock values of individualism, self-reliance, and shunning government aid as a sign of moral failure differs radically from that of Canadians, who are more committed politically and economically to health care equity as a collective good.  [Emphasis mine] Consistently receiving free health care and heavily subsidized university and college tuition fees means that Canadians of all ages and income levels experience firsthand a consistent, quantifiable return on their tax dollars.

“One thing I wish Americans would understand is that ‘who’s going to pay?’ is actually a distraction,” says Dr. Danielle Martin, executive vice president and chief medical executive of Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “It’s ‘how will you organize delivery of it?’ Payment is just the first step on a worthy and interesting journey. The conflation of single-payer and wait times is false. We have wait times because of a million other issues, like we can’t get physicians to work in rural areas.”

Could This Work in the U.S.?

“The Canadian system is good, but underfunded,” says Steffie Woolhandler. “The American system is shitty but over-funded.”

https://prospect.org/health/what-medicare-for-all-really-looks-like/

===

Comment by Don McCanne

Our goal is to establish a single payer model of a dramatically improved version of our Medicare program that would ensure affordable, accessible, high quality health care for everyone in our nation. The model that is closest to that vision is the Canadian Medicare program – a series of provincial single payer programs. It is not the same system as what we propose.

It is helpful for us to understand the Canadian system since it has many beneficial features that would help us improve equity and access in our own system. Also it has some deficiencies, and it is important to understand those so that we can avoid them.

The excerpts from The American Prospect article by Caitlin Kelly give you an inkling of what the Canadian system is all about. This fairly long article should be read in its entirety for a few reasons:

*  People need to understand that we are not transporting the Canadian health financing infrastructure to the United States; rather we are building a new, better-than-Canadian Medicare for All.

*  When people reject single payer Medicare for All because of certain undesirable features of the Canadian system, it is important to understand what those features are and how we would guard against them in the United States.

*  When people say that we cannot afford Medicare for All it is important to understand and explain to them how we are already paying enough to fund a better-than-Canadian system, but we need to redirect the spending of the $600 billion in recoverable administrative waste that characterizes our dysfunctional multi-payer system.

*  The most common complaint about the Canadian system is the excessive queues for some non-urgent services. People need to understand that our Medicare for All would have enough funding to ensure adequate capacity in the system through central planning and budgeting of capital improvements, not to mention including adequate funding to improve queue management.

*  Perhaps the most important lesson from Canada: “Classic American insistence on the bedrock values of individualism, self-reliance, and shunning government aid as a sign of moral failure differs radically from that of Canadians, who are more committed politically and economically to health care equity as a collective good. Consistently receiving free health care and heavily subsidized university and college tuition fees means that Canadians of all ages and income levels experience firsthand a consistent, quantifiable return on their tax dollars.”

Notice that McCanne leaves us with the same statement that I emphasized above. That is the real reason we don;t have free medical care and free college. We gained our independence from Britain when the values of individualism, self-reliance, freedom, liberty, and the right to private property were the prevailing values.

Canada, on the other hand, became independent (sort of) during the latter half of the nineteenth century, when modern liberalism emphasized the greatest good for the greatest number. This was in opposition to the classical liberalism of the American experiment begun a century earlier.

Both articles point out just where we are deficient, and where and how we can make improvements, but only if we abandon the profit-making, overly administratively bureaucratic, wasteful, and bloated current system for a more efficient Medicare for All single payer system that guarantees health care for all Americans. Then there will never be any surprise bills or upfront charges required.

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.

Medicare for All and the Democratic Debates

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For those of you who did not watch the two nights Democratic debate, and those like me who did, one thing is clear. Medicare for All is very popular among the audiences who attended, judging by the applause garnered each time a candidate was asked about their plan for providing every American with health care.

On the first night, the moderator asked for a show of hands to the question as to who supported eliminating private insurance, only two candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York mayor Bill de Blasio raised their hands.

The rest of the candidates on the first night supported keeping private insurance or giving people the choice of a public option, and de Blasio and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke sparring over the issue.

This is how some of the candidates responded to the issue:

“I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All,” said Elizabeth Warren

Amy Klobuchar said she preferred a “public option”, “I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years,”

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke allowed that the goal should be “guaranteed, high-quality, universal health care as quickly and surely as possible.” “Our plan says that if you’re uninsured, we enroll you in Medicare,” and called his plan Medicare for America.

On the second night, the same question about abolishing private insurance was asked, and again, only two raised their hands, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who defended the ACA, said that Americans “need to have insurance that is covered, and that they can afford.”

Candidates Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet all gave their views on universal coverage, noting the importance of a transition period, and suggesting that a public option would allow people to buy into Medicare.

While the rest of the candidates from both evenings’ debates were divided against their fellow candidates who supported Medicare for All, those who spoke up for it, Sanders, Warren, Harris and de Blasio, won over the audience in the hall. What remains to be seen is how their ideas are received in the primaries beginning early next year.

According to Bloomberg, (the publication, not the former New York mayor), Medicare for All enjoys broad support: 56% of Americans said they supported such a plan in a January survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. However, when told Medicare for All would eliminate private health insurance, 37% said they favor it while 58% said they oppose the idea.

So, supporters of Medicare for All have their work cut out for them. They need to convince more Americans that sustaining the current system of private insurance, whether they get it from their employers, or they purchase it on their own, is a big part of the problem facing the US health care system.

Another point that is forgotten in the debate is the fact that what is being proposed is not a government takeover of health care, but rather a transition from a broken system to a government financed system of health care. Candidates who support this should explain the difference, and not be led into the trap set by debate moderators or interviews of calling Medicare for All, government-run health care.

It must be made clear that the providing of care will remain private, but that paying for it will not. Sanders’ stump speech line about going to any doctor sounds reminiscent of President Obama’s promise that you can keep your doctor under the ACA, but the reality was far from that.

But the takeaway from the debates indicates that the campaign will be a long and hard fought one, and that Democrats must be very clear what it is they actually want to do on health care, know how to pay for it, and sell it as the best solution to our dysfunctional health care system, or as author Marianne Williamson called it, a sickness system.

Because already, the Orangutan has pounced on one issue raised in the debate, the support by all candidates for providing medical care to undocumented immigrants. In today’s charged political climate where racism has raised its ugly head, and nationalism is on the march, such ideas can be disastrous, especially if rejected by swing voters and independents.

Time and the primaries will tell.