Category Archives: PNHP

Beware Billionaires Against Medicare for All

This week, the former CEO of everyone’s favorite coffee house and time waster, Starbucks, declared that he was considering a run for president next year as an independent.

This announcement brought immediate response from both wings of the Democratic Party, as they said it would result in the re-election of the current occupant of the White House.

Even former NYC Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire, said that he should not run.

However, as this is a blog about medical care, and not politics, I will leave the discussion as to the efficacy of an independent run for president by another billionaire for others.

What I do want to focus on is this overpaid former barista’s belief that the US cannot afford a Medicare for All, single-payer health care system.

Incidentally, this is also Bloomberg’s view as well.

But I do not think their opposition is based solely on the belief that Medicare for All, single-payer is too expensive. Rather, I believe they are afraid that after the results of last November’s midterm elections, the Democratic Party is poised to win back the White House and possibly the Senate, and that Medicare for All, in whatever form it takes, will be enacted.

I have written about the health care industry’s efforts to derail Medicare for All in previous posts. (See the following: https://wp.me/p2QJfz-QIyhttps://wp.me/p2QJfz-Jki, and https://wp.me/p2QJfz-WI5)

While I cannot accuse Schultz and Bloomberg of being in the pocket of the healthcare industry, it does look suspicious that now that the Democrats control the House, they are coming out against a health care plan that many Americans voted for when they voted for Democrats.

But billionaires should not be the ones deciding whether or not we enact Medicare for All. That should be up to the voters (patients and non-patients), their elected representatives, and most importantly, those in the medical profession who believe the time has come for Medicare for All, single-payer.

One such group are physicians themselves, as reported back in August in the magazine of the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), which I was informed of this morning by a high school alumnus who posted the article on another alum’s Facebook post.

The article was originally posted in Jacobinmag.com.

Here is the link to the article by Meagan Day.

One caveat to progressives: Don’t assume that every American voter who is undecided, declared themselves as an independent, or are unhappy with their choice in the last presidential election, and his behavior and actions, will vote for your chosen candidate. That is why Schultz is contemplating running. And he can do a lot of damage to your plans for 2020.

 

 

Single Payer A Bargain

Another shout out to Don McCanne for the following.

On Friday, the Nation published an article by Steffie Woolhandler, David Himmelstein, and Adam Gaffney.

You may recall these folks from my book review, “Health Care Under the Knife,” and it’s conclusion, “Some Final Thoughts on ‘Health Care Under the Knife.'”

Rather than regurgitate it for you, I am letting you read it in its entirety. But before I do, let me bring to your attention, an issue that is flying under the radar and has serious consequences for the country, our rights, and for the future of health care and other social programs.

Those lovable brothers from the Midwest, Charles and David Koch, are funding a group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. One of the goals of ALEC is to call an Article V (of the Constitution, for those of you not familiar with the document) that allows for the creation of a convention in the event the government gets too much power.

I recommend you read up on it because it will radically alter our system of government for the benefit of the corporations and wealthy. Say goodbye to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and direct election of Senators, to name a few goals.

That brings me to a quote I must let you read from a man who has no clue what he is talking about, and is emblematic of the dysfunction of his party. That man is former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, himself a physician who said the following regarding a convention and why he and others feel it is necessary.

“We’re in a battle for the future of our country…We’re either going to become a socialist, Marxist country like western Europe, or we’re going to be free. As far as me and my family and my guns, I’m going to be free.”

In case you missed that, let me repeat it:

“We’re in a battle for the future of our country…We’re either going to become a socialist, Marxist country like western Europe, or we’re going to be free. As far as me and my family and my guns, I’m going to be free.” Violent, ain’t he?

Pray tell, what country in western Europe is Marxist? Last I heard, none. Folks, these guys not only want to take away health care, they are still fighting the Cold War and godless, Marxist Communism.  No, what they are really about is defending a system, both economic and health care-wise, that cannot be sustained.

Here is the article in full:

Last week, Charles Blahous at the Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason University published a study suggesting that Bernie Sanders’s single-payer health-care plan would break the bank. But almost immediately, various observers—including Sanders himself—noted that according to Blahous’s own estimates, single payer would actually save Americans more than $2 trillion over a decade. Blahous doubled down on his argument in The Wall Street Journal, and on Tuesday, The Washington Post’s fact-checker accused Democrats of seizing “on one cherry-picked fact” in Blahous’s report to make it seem like a bargain.
The Post is wrong to call this a “cherry-picked fact”—it’s a central finding of the analysis—but it is probably right that single-payer supporters shouldn’t make too much of Blahous’s findings. After all, his analysis is riddled with errors that actually inflate the cost of single payer for taxpayers.
First, Blahous grossly underestimates the main source of savings from single payer: administrative efficiency. Health economist Austin Frakt aptly demonstrated the “bewildering complexity of health care financing in the United States” in The New York Times last month, citing evidence that billing costs primary-care doctors $100,000 apiece and consumes 25 percent of emergency-room revenues; that billing and administration accounts for one-quarter of US hospital expenditures, twice the level in single-payer nations; and that nearly one-third of all US health spending is eaten up by bureaucracy.
Overall, as two of us documented recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a single-payer system could cut administration by $500 billion annually, and redirect that money to care. Blahous, in contrast, credits single payer with a measly fraction of that—or $70 billion—in administrative savings.
Our profit-driven multi-payer system is the source for this outlandish administrative sprawl. Doctors and hospitals have to negotiate contracts and fight over bills with hundreds of insurance plans with differing payment rates, rules, and requirements. Simplifying the payment system would free up far more money than Blahous estimates to expand and improve coverage.
Next, Blahous lowballs the potential for savings on prescription drugs. He assumes that a single-payer system couldn’t use its negotiating clout to push down drug prices, ignoring the fact that European nations and the US Veterans Affairs system achieve roughly 50 percent discounts relative to the US private sector. (Single payer’s only drug savings, he argues, will come from shifting 15 percent of brand-name prescriptions to generics.) Hence Blahous foresees only $61 billion in drug savings in 2022, even though tough price negotiations would likely achieve threefold higher savings.
Third, Blahous underestimates how much the government is already spending on health care. For instance, he omits the $724 billion that federal agencies are expected to pay for employees’ health benefits over the 10 years covered by his analysis, which would simply be redirected to Medicare for All. He also leaves out the massive savings to state and local governments, which would save nearly $3.6 trillion on employee benefits and another $5.3 trillion on Medicaid and other health programs. Hence, much of the “new money” needed to fund Sanders’s reform is already being collected as taxes.
Yes, there will need to be some new taxes—albeit much less than Blahous estimates. But those new taxes would just replace—not add to—current spending on premiums, co-pays, and deductibles. Additionally, at least some of the new taxes would be virtually invisible. For instance, the $10 trillion that employers would otherwise pay for premiums could instead be collected as payroll taxes. Similarly, Medicare for All would relieve households of the $7.7 trillion they’d pay for premiums and $6.3 trillion in out-of-pocket costs under the current system.
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds here. But at the end of the day, even according to Blahous’s errant projections, Medicare for All would save the average American about $6,000 over a decade. Single payer, in other words, shifts how we pay for health care, but it doesn’t actually increase overall costs—even while providing first-dollar comprehensive coverage to everyone in the nation. The Post’s fact-checker is wrong: Single-payer supporters can and should trumpet this important fact.
Of course, the most important benefits of single payer are altogether invisible in economic analyses like the one performed by Blahous. No matter what injury or illness we faced, we would be forever freed from one great worry: the cost of our care. It’s hard to put a price tag on that kind of freedom. Yet, paradoxically, even the slanted analysis of a libertarian economist provides evidence that it would be fiscally responsible.

Obamacare: The Last Stage of Neoliberal Health Reform

In my recent review of the Introduction to Health Care under the Knife, the term “neoliberalism” was discussed as one of the themes the authors explored in diagnosing the root causes of the failure of the American health care system.

For review, the term neoliberalism refers to a modern politico-economic theory favoring free trade, privatization, minimal government intervention in business, reduced public expenditure on social services, etc. (Source: Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014)

As defined in Wikipedia, and as I wrote in my review, neoliberalism refers primarily to the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. Those ideas include economic liberalization policies such as privatization, austerity, deregulation, free trade and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980.

This recrudescence or resurgence gained momentum with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, and with the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 1994 midterm election, which made Newt Gingrich Speaker of the House, and implemented the Contract with America. (I’ve called it the Contract on America, for obvious reasons)

Yet, the full impact of neoliberalism was not felt until the rise of the TEA Party in the run-up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and that led to the Freedom Caucus in the House that has tried unsuccessfully multiple times to repeal and replace Obamacare with basically nothing.

Economist Said E. Dawlabani, in his book, MEMEnomics, describes the period from 1932 to 1980, which includes the post-war Keynesian consensus, as the second MEMEnomic cycle, or “Patriotic Prosperity” MEME. The current period, from 1980 to the present, represents the third MEMEnomic cycle, or the “Only Money Matters” MEME.

It is in this period that the American health care system underwent a radical transformation from what some used to call a “calling profession” to a full-fledged capitalist enterprise no different from any other industry. This recrudescence of 19th century economic policies did not spring forth in 1980 fully formed, but rather had existed sub-rosa in the consciousness of many American conservatives.

In the early 1970’s, Richard Nixon’s administration came up with the concept of the Managed Care Organizations, or MCOs, as the first real attempt to apply neoliberalism to health care. As we shall see, this would not be the first time that neoliberal ideas would be implemented into health care reform.

In Chapter Seven, of their book, Health Care under the Knife, authors Howard Waitzkin and Ida Hellander, discuss the origins of Obamacare and the beginnings of neoliberal health care reform. They point to the year 1994 as a significant one for reform worldwide, as Colombia enacted a national program of “managed competition” that was mandated and partially funded by the World Bank. This reform replaced their prior health system and was based mostly on public hospitals and clinics.

1994 was also the year when then First Lady, Hillary Clinton spearheaded a proposal like the one Colombia enacted that was designed by the insurance industry. I am sure you all remember the Harry and Sally commercials that ran on television that sank her proposal before it ever saw the light of day?

What ultimately became Obamacare was the plan implemented in 2006 in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney, but that was later disavowed when he ran for President in 2012. Waitzkin and Hellander write that even though these programs were framed to improve access for the poor and underserved, these initiatives facilitated the efforts of for-profit insurance companies providing “managed care.”

Insurance companies, they also said, profited by denying or delaying necessary care through strategies such as utilization review and preauthorization requirements; cost-sharing such as co-payments, deductibles, co-insurance, and pharmacy tiers; limiting access to only certain physicians; and frequent redesign of benefits.

These proposals, the authors state, fostered neoliberalism. They promoted competing for-profit private insurance corporations, programs and institutions based in the public sector were cut back, and possibly privatized. Government budgets for public-sector health care were cut, private corporations gained access to public trust funds, and public hospitals and clinics entered competition with private institutions, with budgets determined by demand rather than supply. Finally, prior global budgets for safety-net institutions were not guaranteed, and insurance executives made operational decisions about services, superseding the authority of physicians and other clinicians.

The roots of neoliberal health reform emerged from the Cold War military policy, and the authors cite economist Alain Enthoven providing much of the intellectual framework for those efforts. Enthoven was the Assistant Secretary of Defense under Robert S. McNamara during both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. While he was at the Pentagon, between 1961 and 1969, he led a group of analysts who developed the “planning-programming-budgeting-system” (PPBS) and cost-benefit analysis, that intended to promote more cost-effective spending decisions for military expenditures. Enthoven became the principal architect, the authors indicate, of “managed competition”, which became the prevailing model for the Clinton, Romney, and Obama health care reforms, as well as the neoliberal reforms around the world.

The following table highlights the complementary themes in the military PPBS and managed competition in health care.

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Sources: See note 11, page 273.

Enthoven continued to campaign for his idea throughout the 1970s and 1980s and collaborated with managed care and insurance executives to refine the proposal after being rejected by the Carter administration. The group that met in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which included Enthoven and Paul Ellwood, was funded by the five largest insurance corporations, as well as the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign, and wife Hillary’s Health Security Act.

The authors state that Barack Obama, while a state legislator in Illinois, favored a single payer approach, but changed his position as a presidential candidate. In 2008, he received the largest financial contributions in history from the insurance industry, that was three times more the contributions of his rival, John McCain.

The neoliberal health agenda, the authors write, including Obamacare, emerged as one component of a worldwide agenda developed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other international financial institutions. The agenda to promote market-driven health care, facilitated access to public-sector health and social security trust funds by multinational corporations, according to Waitzkin and Hellander. The various attempts in the US by the Republican Party to privatize Social Security is an example of this agenda.

An underlying ideology claimed that corporate executives could achieve superior quality and efficiency by “managing” medical services in the marketplace, but without any evidence to support it, the authors contend. Health reform proposals from different countries have resembled one another closely and conform to a cookie-cutter template. Table 2 describes the six features of nearly all neoliberal reform initiatives.

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† Sources: patients, employers, public sector trust (“solidarity”) funds (the latter being “contributory” for employed workers, and “subsidized” for low income and unemployed).
‡ Sources: patients, public sector trust funds – Medicaid, Medicare.

The six features of neoliberal health reform are as follows:

  1. Organizations of providers – large, privately controlled organizations of health care providers, operate under direct control or strong influence of private insurance corporations, in collaboration with hospitals and health systems, may employ health care providers directly, or may contract with providers in a preferred network. In Obamacare, they are called Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), supported only in Medicare, but Obamacare accelerated organizational consolidation in anticipation of broader implementation.

In this model, for-profit managed care organizations (MCOs) offer health plans competitively. In reality, competition is restrained by the small number of organizations large enough to meet the new laws’ financial and infrastructure requirements, as well as by the consolidation in the private insurance industry. They contract with or employ large numbers of health practitioners. Instead, physicians and hospitals are absorbed into MCOs.

  1. Organizations of purchasers – large organizations purchasing or facilitating the purchase of private health insurance, usually through MCOs. Under Obamacare, the federal and state health insurance “exchanges”—later renamed “marketplaces” to reflect reality of private, government-subsidized corporations—fulfill a similar role.
  2. Constriction of public hospitals and safety net providers – public hospitals at the state, county, or municipal levels compete for patients covered under public programs like Medicaid or Medicare with private, for-profit hospitals participating as subsidiaries or contractors of insurance companies or MCOs. With less public-sector funding, public hospitals reduce services and programs, and many eventually close. Under Obamacare, multiple public hospitals have closed or have remained on the brink of closure. Note: This is a subject I have written about in prior posts about Medicaid expansion.
  3. Tiered benefits packages – defined in hierarchical terms, minimum package of benefits viewed as essential, individuals and employers can buy additional coverage, poor and near poor in Medicaid eligible for benefits that used to be free of cost-sharing, but since Obamacare passed, states have imposed premiums and co-payments. Under Obamacare, various metal names—bronze, silver, gold, platinum, identify tiers of coverage, where bronze represents the lowest tier and platinum the highest.
  4. Complex multi-payer and multi-payment financing – financial flows under neoliberal health policies are complex (see Chart 7.1). There are four sources of these various financial flows.
    1. Outflow of payments – each insured person considered a “head” for whom a “capitation” must be paid to an insurance company or MCO.
    2. Inflow of funds – funds for capitation payments come from several sources. Premiums paid by workers and their families, contributions from employers is a second source. Public-sector trust funds are a third source, co-payments and deductibles constitute a fourth source, and taxes are a fifth source.
  5. Changes in the tax code – neoliberal reforms usually lead to higher taxes because they increase administrative costs and profits, Obamacare reduces tax deductions and imposes a tax for so-called Cadillac insurance plans. In addition, it calls for penalties for those who do not purchase mandatory coverage, administered by the IRS. I was unable to get on the ACA because I had not filed a return in several years due to long-term unemployment because of the financial collapse of 2007/2008, and the subsequent jobless recovery.

Chart 7.1 Financial Flows under Neoliberal Health Reform

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*Purchase of insurance policies for employers and patients mediated by large organizations of health care purchasers.

What is the outlook for single payer in the US, the authors ask?

They cite national polls that show that about two-thirds of people in the US favor single payer. See Joe Paduda’s post here.

If the US were to adopt single payer, the PNHP proposal would provide coverage for all needed services universally, including medications and long-term care, no out-of-pocket premiums, co-payments, or deductibles; costs would be controlled by “monopsony” financing from a single, public source, would not permit competing private insurance and would eliminate multiple tiers of care for different income groups; practitioners and clinics would be paid predetermined fees for services without and need for costly billing procedures; hospitals would negotiate an annual global budget for all operating costs, for-profit, investor-owned facilities would be prohibited from participating; most nonprofit hospitals would remain privately owned, capital purchases and expansion would be budgeted separately, based on regional health-planning goals.

Funding sources would include, they add, would include current federal spending for Medicare and Medicaid, a payroll tax on private businesses less than what businesses currently pay for coverage, an income tax on households, with a surtax on high incomes and capital gains, a small tax of stock transactions, while state and local taxes for health care would be eliminated.

From the viewpoint of corporations, the insurance and financial sectors would lose a major source of capital accumulation, other large and small businesses would experience a stabilization or reduction in health care costs. Years ago, when I first considered single payer, I realized that if employers no longer had to pay for health care for their employees, they could use those funds to employ more workers and thus limit the impact of recessions and jobless recoveries.

So how do we move to single payer and beyond?

According to the authors, and to this reporter, the coming failure of Obamacare will become a moment of transition in the US, where neoliberalism has come home to roost. This transition is not just limited to health care. The theory of Spiral Dynamics, of which I have written about in the past, predicts that at the final stage of the first tier, or Existence tier, the US currently occupies, there will be a leap to the next stage or tier, that being the Being tier, where all the previous value systems have been transcended and included into the value systems of the Being tier.

We will need to address, the authors contend, with the shifting social class position of health professionals and to the increasingly oligopolistic and financialized character of the health insurance industry. The transition beyond Obamacare, they point out, will need to address also the consolidation of large health systems. Obamacare has increased the flow of capitated public and private funds into the insurance industry and extended the overall financialization of the global economy.

The authors conclude the chapter by declaring that as neoliberalism draws to a close, and as Obamacare fails, a much more fundamental transformation needs to reshape not just health care, but also the capitalist state and society.

To sum it all up, all the attempts cure the ills of health care by treating the symptoms and not the cause of the disease will not only fail, but is only making the disease worse, and the patient getting sicker. We need radical intervention before the patient succumbs to the greed and avarice of Wall Street, big business, and those whose stake in the status quo is to blame for the condition the patient is in in the first place.

Therefore, Obamacare is the last stage of neoliberal health care reform.

ACO’s Across the Pond: What Some Believe the US and England Can Learn From Each Other

It is amazing how experts in the field of health care are so wedded to ideas that are, with greater scrutiny, the real cause of the dysfunction and failures of providing health care to the citizens of a nation.

Such is the case with an article I found from the Commonwealth Fund, a well-respected organization in health care research, yet doubles down on the root causes of the crisis faced by the health care system in the US.

Late last month, Briggs, Alderwick, Shortell, and Fisher published the article entitled, “What Can the U.S. and England Learn from Each Other’s Health Care Reforms?

The focus of the article was on the idea of Affordable Care Organizations (ACO’s), which in the US were established in 2010 under the ACA. According to the authors, both countries are currently working toward better integrating health services, improving population health, and managing health care costs. They also said that both countries are developing their own versions of ACO’s to achieve these aims.

However, the authors point out, by way of listing previous links to articles they wrote, that results so far have been mixed, patient experience (you mean like having a great time at Disney World, that sort of experience?) and some quality measures have improved.

Yet, financial savings, they report, have been modest and data on outcomes is limited.

On the other hand, across the pond, the English NHS recently created 44 Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STPs) [Isn’t that what one puts in a motor car to make it run better?]

These STPs cover the entire country and are “place-based” partnerships of all NHS organizations and local government departments that purchase and provide health and long-term care services for a geographically defined population. They believe that organizations in STPs will work together to improve care and manage local budgets. Some payers are even considering American-style ACO contracting models.

Wait, if we are not having success with ACOs, what makes the Brits think they will do better? Interestingly enough, Himmelstein and Woolhandler, in “Health Care Under the Knife”, chapter 4, page 61, said the following when they were involved with drafting an new proposal for the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP):

“Recently, the emergence of huge integrated health systems incorporating multiple hospitals and thousands of physicians (so-called Accountable Care Organizations or ACOs), which dominate the care of entire regions, is causing us to again to talk about NHS models.”

So let me get this straight. We are not having much success with ACOs, yet, the Brits are moving in that direction. And the physician-led advocacy group in this country, the PNHP, that is pushing for single-payer, has been forced to consider models employed by the British NHS.

If that isn’t the definition of insanity, I don’t know what is.

Of course, the move towards ACOs in this country is due to the ACA and to the resurgence of 19th century economic liberalism, also known as neoliberalism, and its impact over the past thirty years on the American health care system. But in the UK, the move away from Labour Party socialism to the Conservative Party’s neoliberalism, is the reason why Britain is exploring the ACO model.

Maybe one day, both Anglo-oriented nations will wake up and stop believing in the fairy tale that the free market works for health care. It does for cars and other consumer goods, but health care is not a consumer good. It is a necessity of life.