Category Archives: Medicare buy-in

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.

Multiple studies show Medicare for All would be cheaper than public option pushed by moderates | Salon.com

For all those skeptics and naysayers who say we can’t afford single payer, Salon.com has an article from Saturday (see below) that dispels the notion that Medicare for All is too expensive.

Yet, bear in mind, that we are spending billions on two wars, raising the military spending budget, wasting money on a stupid wall that is falling down, and a host of other useless and wasteful spending that is running up the deficit, at the same time health care companies and pharmaceutical companies are raking in huge profits and returning questionable outcomes.

But go ahead, believe the Republican lies, libertarian fantasies  and moderate Democrats wishful thinking about a public option. You only have your health to lose.

Here’s the article:

Yale and Harvard researchers found that Medicare for All reduces costs while public option makes health care more expensive.

Source: Multiple studies show Medicare for All would be cheaper than public option pushed by moderates | Salon.com

American College of Physicians Endorses Single Payer

For all you naysayers in the health care industry, whether you work for insurance companies, drug companies, or are consultants or analysts, the following posts from the Annals of Internal Medicine should convince you that you are on the wrong side of the issue, and that more and more physicians are coming around to the realization that single payer is necessary to improve the American health care system. The first article is authored by a panel, and the second by Woolhandler and Himmelstein.

I have been asking these questions, and many others like them for some time: What gives you the right to deny your fellow Americans universal health care? What right do you have to prevent them from getting lower cost medical care and lower cost drugs? What gives you the right to defend the profiteering in health care that has created a dysfunctional, broken, and wasteful system? The answer to these questions is the same – GREED. and your desire to protect your jobs. Well, according to these articles, you may be coming to the end of the line in that regard.

Here are the articles in full, thanks to Don McCanne:

Annals of Internal Medicine

January 21, 2020

Envisioning a Better U.S. Health Care System for All: A Call to Action by the American College of Physicians

By Robert Doherty, BA; Thomas G. Cooney, MD; Ryan D. Mire, MD; Lee S. Engel, MD; Jason M. Goldman, MD; for the Health and Public Policy Committee and Medical Practice and Quality Committee of the American College of Physicians

U.S. health care costs too much; leaves too many behind without affordable coverage; creates incentives that are misaligned with patients’ interests; undervalues primary care and public health; spends too much on administration at the expense of patient care; fails to invest and support public health approaches to reduce preventable injuries, deaths, diseases, and suffering; and fosters barriers to care for and discrimination against vulnerable individuals.

The ACP’s Vision of a Better Health Care System for All

The ACP believes the United States can, and must, do better and offers the following 10 vision statements for a better health care system for all.

1. The American College of Physicians envisions a health care system where everyone has coverage for and access to the care they need, at a cost they and the country can afford.

(Nine more vision statements listed.)

The accompanying policy papers offer specific recommendations, supporting rationales, and evidence on ways the United States can move to achieve ACP’s vision.

In “Envisioning a Better Health Care System for All: Coverage and Cost of Care” (1), ACP recommends transitioning to a system of universal coverage through either a single payer system, or a public choice to be offered along with regulated private insurance. Although each approach has advantages and disadvantages, either can achieve ACP’s vision of a health care system where everyone has coverage for and access to the care they need, at a cost they and the country can afford. The evidence suggests that publicly financed and administered plans have the potential to reduce administrative spending and associated burdens on patients and clinicians compared with private insurers. Other approaches were considered by ACP, including market-based approaches, yet ACP found they would fall short of achieving our vision of affordable coverage and access to care for all. The ACP asserts that under a single payer or public option model, payments to physicians and other health professionals, hospitals, and others delivering health care services must be sufficient to ensure access and not perpetuate existing inequities, including the undervaluation of primary and cognitive care.

The ACP proposes that costs be controlled by lowering excessive prices, increasing adoption of global budgets and all-payer rate setting, prioritizing spending and resources, increasing investment in primary care, reducing administrative costs, promoting high-value care, and incorporating comparative effectiveness and cost into clinical guidelines and coverage decisions.

In “Envisioning a Better Health Care System for All: Health Care Delivery and Payment Systems” (2), ACP calls for increasing payments for primary and cognitive care services, redefining the role of performance measures to focus on value to patients, eliminating “check-the-box” reporting of measures, and aligning payment incentives with better outcomes and lower costs. The position paper calls for eliminating unnecessary or inefficient administrative requirements, and redesigning health information technology to better meet the needs of clinicians and patients. The ACP concludes there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reforming delivery and payment systems, and a variety of innovative payment and delivery models should be considered, evaluated, and expanded.

In “Envisioning a Better Health Care System for All: Reducing Barriers to Care and Addressing Social Determinants of Health” (3), ACP calls for ending discrimination and disparities in access and care based on personal characteristics; correcting workforce shortages, including the undersupply of primary care physicians; and understanding and ameliorating social determinants of health. This position paper calls for increased efforts to address urgent public health threats, including injuries and deaths from firearms; environmental hazards; climate change; maternal mortality; substance use disorders; and the health risks associated with nicotine, tobacco use, and electronic nicotine delivery systems.

These are just a partial summary of the recommendations in the 3 position papers; considered together, they offer a comprehensive and interconnected set of policies to guide the way to a better a health care system for all. We urge readers of this call to action to review the 3 papers for a complete understanding of ACP’s recommendations and the evidence in support of them.

The ACP rejects the view that the status quo is acceptable, or that it is too politically difficult to achieve needed change. By articulating a new vision for health care, ACP is showing a willingness to try to achieve a better U.S. health care system for all. We urge others to join us.

https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2759528/envisioning-better-u-s-health-care-system-all-call-action

Better Is Possible: The American College of Physicians’ Vision for the U.S. Health Care System

21 January 2020 Vol: 172, Issue 2_Supplement

The following link provides full free access to nine papers in this special Annals of Internal Medicine/American College of Physicians Supplement on a bold new prescription for the U.S. health care system:

https://annals.org/aim/issue

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Annals of Internal Medicine

January 21, 2020

The American College of Physicians’ Endorsement of Single-Payer Reform: A Sea Change for the Medical Profession

By Steffie Woolhandler, MD, MPH; David U. Himmelstein, MD

For a century, most U.S. medical organizations opposed national health insurance. The endorsement by the American College of Physicians (ACP) of single-payer reform marks a sea change from this unfortunate tradition.

Canada’s generally positive experience is among the strands of evidence underpinning the ACP’s endorsement. A single-payer reform that reduced insurance overhead to 2% (the level for Canada and traditional Medicare) could save more than $200 billion annually. In addition, our multipayer system imposes complexity and expense on providers; the Cleveland Clinic has 210 000 000 different prices. Single-source payment could streamline reimbursement—for example, by replacing per patient hospital payment with global budgets and establishing uniform billing and documentation requirements. Hospitals and doctors could save billions on billing-related costs and repurpose those savings to expand care, making universal, first-dollar coverage affordable.

Achieving universal coverage would be costlier under the “public choice” model the ACP co-endorses along with single payer. Multipayer systems incorporating for-profit insurers have not gleaned large administrative savings. For-profit insurers’ overhead is high everywhere, and the persistence of multiple payers would hinder efforts to streamline providers’ billing-related work.

Moreover, real-world experience with 2 public choice models—Medicare’s Advantage program and the Consumer Oriented and Operated Plans (CO-OPs) under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA)—warns that in health insurance competition, public option good guys finish last.

Although no reform achieves perfection, evidence indicates that a well-structured single-payer reform might resolve our nation’s coverage and affordability problems, preserve the choices patients value, and allow doctors to focus on what matters most: caring for our patients.

https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2759531/american-college-physicians-endorsement-single-payer-reform-sea-change-medical

PNHP release:

https://pnhp.org/news/doctors-prescribe-medicare-for-all-single-payer-reform-endorsed-by-americas-largest-medical-specialty-society-and-recommended-in-open-letter-from-thousands-of-physicians/

Here is Don’s Comment:

Welcome to a bright new day in health care reform.

The American College of Physicians (ACP) is the largest physicians’ organization dedicated to patient care (the AMA has traditionally functioned primarily as a physicians’ guild). “ACP recommends transitioning to a system of universal coverage through either a single payer system, or a public choice to be offered along with regulated private insurance.”

ACP has proffered a large volume of material that presents a multitude of problems with our current expensive but underperforming health care system. They present many options for reform that have been under consideration, but, as mentioned, they single out two for their vision of a better U.S. health care system for all: 1) single payer, or 2) a “public choice” with regulated private insurance.

Included in the AIM supplement is an important paper by Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein. They discuss the clear advantages of a Canadian-style single payer model, but they caution us about the deficiencies of the for-profit insurers that we have in the United States, and the failures of our experimentation with public choice models – CO-OPs and Medicare Advantage. (To understand better the problems with a private plan and public choice approach, you should read not only the full Woolhandler/Himmelstein paper at the link above, but also the voluminous material on this topic at pnhp.org.)

There is much more material in this AIM supplement, especially on delivery reform and addressing social determinants of health, but it is important to not get buried under the reams of material such that you might be distracted from the overriding imperative of ACP’s vision for reform – the pressing need to enact and implement the essential infrastructure on which we can build the rest of reform – a single payer national health program.

Still think you know better than the College of Physicians? You still think that physicians will not take Medicare for All because many don’t take traditional Medicare? You think that implementing Medicare for All/Single Payer will be destructive to medical care? Think again.

These physicians are more concerned with provide everyone with health care and not to make huge profits for themselves, insurance companies, drug companies, hospitals, investors, stockholders, and other stakeholders such as you and your employers. You are standing in the way.

Don’t Listen to the Noise Coming From Naysayers

Quote of the Day re-posted this article from Common Dreams on why those in the Democratic Party are wrong to dismiss Medicare for All. You hear them during the debates, and as any well-informed advocate of MFA knows, their arguments are red herrings and even outright lies and misinformation.

Here is the article:

Published on Wednesday, November 20, 2019 by CNN

Democratic Naysayers Are Wrong on Medicare for All

“Americans know that their current private health care payments, whether insurance premiums or out-of-pocket, are nothing other than ‘taxes’ they pay to stay alive.”

Supporters rally for universal health care in Chicago. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The American political debate over health care is absurd. Americans pay twice as much as any other nation for health care, and then are told daily that they “can’t afford” to switch to a lower-cost system very similar to those of Canada and Europe. If President Donald Trump and the plutocratic Republican party were the only ones carrying this ridiculous message, it would be understandable. Yet this message is also coming from media pundits aligned with the Democratic Party and the most conservative wing of the party.

Let’s be clear on the central point. Medicare for All, as first proposed by Bernie Sanders and endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, is affordable precisely because it is cheaper, much cheaper, than the current system.

America’s health care system relies on local monopolies (such as a health care provider centered at the sole major hospital in a city) and national monopolies, notably pharmaceutical companies holding exclusive patents.

In other countries, the government sets delivery prices and typically pays the health bills through the budget. In the US, the monopolists set the prices.

The sky-high revenues end up as huge corporate profits, wasteful administrative costs, useless and even harmful advertising and lavish salaries. Health care CEOs are making gargantuan salaries, many exceeding $10 million per year.

Who loses? Almost all Americans, whose insurance costs and out-of-pocket outlays inevitably lead to lower income because of unaffordable health care costs, untreated chronic illnesses, premature mortality and personal bankruptcies. Single-payer systems such as in Canada and Europe are cheaper, fairer and have better outcomes.

A recent international comparison of the performance of 11 national health systems on five main dimensions (care process, access, efficiency, equity and health care outcomes) ranked the US health system dead last.

Despite all of this, the US pundits profess to be alarmed about the prospect of Medicare for All. There has been a wave of op-eds and columns published (for example, here and here and here) declaring that Medicare for All would lead to massive tax increases, and that Sanders’ and Warren’s support for Medicare for All threatens to reelect Trump. It’s ridiculous.

Both Sanders and Warren poll well against Trump, ahead in the overall popular vote (though like all Democrats, facing headwinds of the Electoral College).

And at this stage of a national campaign, the goal should be to explain to voters the vast benefits of a single-payer system rather than to prejudge the politics based on self-fulfilling fear-mongering.

Yes, one way or another, taxes would rise with Medicare for All, but private health outlays would go down by much more. Total health costs would fall.

That idea is not so hard to understand.

One influential pundit, economist Paul Krugman, has come around. In the 2016 election cycle, Krugman railed against Medicare for All. Yet after Warren laid out her proposal, Krugman supported Medicare for All. In truth, he was simply returning to the economically sound observations that he had long made before 2016.

The pundits seem to believe that Americans will rebel at “higher taxes.” Actually, Americans are much smarter than that. They know that their current private health care payments, whether insurance premiums or out-of-pocket, are nothing other than “taxes” they pay to stay alive. They’ll agree to pay higher taxes to the government if those new taxes eliminate larger private health care bills — again, there are “taxes” by any other name — that they now pay.

Some mainstream pundits are simply repeating what they hear from Democratic Party conservatives and centrists, the wing that has been dominant since Clinton’s election in 1992. They are following the lead of Nancy Pelosi, Pete Buttigieg and others who are trashing Medicare for All.

What in the world are these leading Democratic Party politicians doing in opposing the transition to a fairer, more efficient and lower cost health care system? I would suggest it’s not a lack of understanding. It’s the power of campaign financing. These Democrats are funded by the status quo. The health sector contributed $265 million to federal campaigns in 2018, of which 56% went to Democrats. The sector spends nearly $500 million per year on lobbying. Money talks. Meanwhile, Americans go bankrupt or die early.

There remains the issue of the best way to raise budget revenues for Medicare for All. The basic answer is to use progressive taxation to fund the program. In this way, the nation as a whole will pay much less for health care and the vast majority of households will as well. The highest income households will end up paying a bit more because their funds will not only finance their own health care but will help to pay the health care costs of the poorest households as well.

Sanders rightly proposed a menu of options to pay for Medicare for All, including payroll and income taxation. Warren has proposed one specific approach: progressive taxes on the super-rich and the corporate sector but also a surprisingly regressive “head tax” on companies. She took great pride in not charging a penny of new income or payroll taxes on middle class households. But the proposed head tax on companies would hit wages indirectly and regressively.

Still, both Sanders’ and Warrens’ approaches would result in a more equitable and less expensive system. For most households, overall health care costs will decline.

The most worrisome thing about Warren’s statement as she introduced her Medicare for All plan, is her emphasis on “not one penny” of new middle-class taxes. Here we go again. The Democrats have, for far too long, copied the Republican mantra about “no new taxes,” even as our public debt soars, our infrastructure and public services collapse and inequality reaches stratospheric dimensions.

To honor the silly stricture of “no new taxes” directly paid by middle-class households, Warren ended up endorsing a regressive head tax paid by the employer, which would end up hitting lower-wage workers even though its paid by their employers.

Let’s hope this blunder is a one-time stumble for Warren. Most importantly, both Sanders and Warren are pointing the correct way to reform America’s costly, unfair and inefficient health care system. And this is a goal that most Americans support.

Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, having held the same position under former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He is co-founder and Chief Strategist of Millennium Promise Alliance, and is director of the Millennium Villages Project. A recent survey by The Economist Magazine ranked Professor Sachs as among the world’s three most influential living economists of the past decade. Sachs is the author, most recently, of The Age of Sustainable Development,” 2015 with Ban Ki-moon.

Seven Years Good Luck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Saez and Zucman,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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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.