Tag Archives: private insurance

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.

Tracking Poll on Medicare for All

Last week, during the Democratic debates, the candidates were asked if they supported eliminating private insurance as part of their plan for single payer health care. Only four candidates raised their hands: Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris.

The rest offered various alternative plans such as a public option to buy into Medicare, and Sen, Klobuchar said that she did not want to kick half of the country off of their insurance in four years.

Much has been made of the fact that many Americans say they like their private insurance, and thus are opposed to Medicare for All.

However, a tracking poll released yesterday, and posted by Don McCanne on his Quote of the Day newsletter, indicated that while support for Medicare for All drops if it means that private insurance is eliminated, once it is shown that patients would keep their doctors and hospitals, support for Medicare for All goes up, according to an article in Morning Consult by Yusra Murad.

Here is the tracking poll taken between June 29th and July 1st:

Morning Consult + Politico

National Tracking Poll #190675 June 29 – July 01, 2019

Do you support or oppose a ’Medicare for All’ health care system, where all Americans would get their health insurance from the government?

53%  Support

30%  Strongly support

23%  Somewhat support

36%  Oppose

13%  Somewhat oppose

23%  Strongly oppose

11%  Don’t know/No opinion

Do you support or oppose the public health insurance option, a system in which Americans can choose to purchase medical coverage either entirely from a federally-run health program, entirely from private insurers, or a combination of both?

68%  Support

33%  Strongly support

35%  Somewhat support

17%  Oppose

9%  Somewhat oppose

8%  Strongly oppose

16%  Don’t know/No opinion

Do you support or oppose the 2010 Affordable Care Act, sometimes referred to as Obamacare?

48%  Support

24%  Strongly support

24%  Somewhat support

41%  Oppose

11%  Somewhat oppose

30%  Strongly oppose

10%  Don’t know/No opinion

As you may know, during the Democratic presidential primary debates some candidates advocated for installing a ’Medicare for All’ system that would diminish the role of private insurers. Would you support or oppose ’Medicare for All’ if it diminished the role of private insurers?

46%  Support

24%  Strongly support

22%  Somewhat support

35%  Oppose

9%  Somewhat oppose

26%  Strongly oppose

18%  Don’t know/No opinion

As you may know, during the Democratic presidential primary debates some candidates advocated for installing a ’Medicare for All’ that would diminish the role of private insurers but allow people to keep their preferred doctor and hospital. Would you support or oppose ’Medicare for All’ if it diminished the role of private insurers but allowed you to keep your preferred doctor and hospital?

55%  Support

31%  Strongly support

24%  Somewhat support

31%  Oppose

9%  Somewhat oppose

22%  Strongly oppose

14%  Don’t know/No opinion

https://morningconsult.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/190675_crosstabs_POLITICO_RVs_v2_BH.pdf

So, while a majority of Americans are opposed to Medicare for All if it means that they will lose their doctors and hospitals if private insurance is eliminated, a majority of Americans support Medicare for All if it means they can still go to the same doctors and use the same hospitals.

Candidates supporting Medicare for All must be careful to make that distinction, and to frame the discussion of single payer in such a way that it conveys the fact that it would not be government-run health care, but rather, government-financed or supported health care, etc.

 

‘Medicare for America’ Will Not Get Us Where We Need to Be

In light of yesterday’s revelation that the Orangutan is seeking to repeal the entire ACA, which would leave millions of Americans without health coverage, here is an incremental measure that some are advocating so that those who like their expensive, profit-driven, corporate health insurance plans can keep them, but as the article below from Common Dreams states, will not get us where we need to be.

This incremental approach, called Medicare for America, claims that it provides universal coverage, and thus insures everyone has healthcare.

However, as Michael Lighty points out, “…is universal coverage guaranteed healthcare?”

His answer is to debate the role of the US based private insurance, it’s business model, relationship to the healthcare industry and finance sector. This is sometimes referred to as the medical-industrial complex.

Here is the rest of the article:

The incremental approach to healthcare reform is an approach the nation can no longer afford. Only Medicare for All will do… With so much written about the politics and some about the policy of

Source: ‘Medicare for America’ Will Not Get Us Where We Need to Be

Immigrants Pay More In Private Insurance Premiums Than They Receive In Benefits | Health Affairs

A press release from Dr. Carol Paris of the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) reported the following article from yesterday’s Health Affairs journal.

Two of the authors of the study, Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein are regular contributors to many articles appearing in Health Affairs, and you may remember them from my review of the book they published along with Howard Waitzkin and others, Health Care Under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Health.

Here is the press release in full:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Despite recent claims that immigrants are a drain on the American economy and health system, a study published yesterday in Health Affairs shows that immigrants make a net contribution to private health insurance plans. The research team, which included several PNHP members, found that as a group, immigrants paid $88.7 billion in private insurance premiums but used only $64.0 billion in insurer-paid health care, generating a surplus of $24.7 billion in 2014.

In “Immigrants Pay More in Private Insurance Premiums Than They Receive in Benefits,” researchers Leah Zallman, M.D., M.P.H., Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., M.P.H., Sharon Touw, M.P.H., David Himmelstein, M.D., and Karen Finnegan, Ph.D. found that between 2008 and 2014, immigrants generated a cumulative surplus of $174.4 billion for private insurers, heavily subsidizing the the benefits of U.S.-born enrollees and boosting the profits of insurance companies. On a per-enrollee basis, immigrants provided an average premium-over-payout surplus of $1,123 each, while U.S.-born Americans incurred an average deficit of $163 each. Undocumented immigrants, who generally use little medical care, generated the largest surplus at $1,445 per enrollee.

While recent studies have examined the financial impact of immigrants on public health programs like Medicare, this project was the first to look specifically at immigrants’ role in financing private health insurance. Since undocumented immigrants or those residing legally in the U.S. for fewer than five years are not eligible for Medicaid and Medicare, private insurance is often immigrants’ only coverage option. Even so, many immigrants are afraid to use the coverage that they earn and pay for.

“Almost every day I see immigrant patients who avoid seeking the care they need to stay healthy,” said lead author Dr. Leah Zallman, who is director of research at the Institute for Community Health, physician at Cambridge Health Alliance, and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Political leaders have created a climate of fear by blaming immigrants for driving up health care costs. However, this study and our prior research shows that by paying more into the system than they receive, immigrants actually subsidize both private insurance and Medicare for U.S.-born citizens.”

Don McCanne added the following on his post this afternoon about immigrants and private health insurance premiums.

From the Discussion

Immigrants contributed far more in premiums for private coverage in 2014 than their insurers paid out for their care, with undocumented immigrants generating the largest per enrollee surplus. This net surplus offset a deficit incurred by US natives and exceeded total insurance industry profits by about $10 billion that year. Our 2014 findings were not anomalous: Immigrants made large net contributions in every year in the period 2008–14, with little change over time.

While immigrants’ premiums were similar to those for US natives, immigrants incurred much lower expenditures—a disparity that was present in analyses limited to working-age adults. Among immigrants, expenditures increased with duration of time in the US, a phenomenon documented previously. This may reflect worsening health habits related to acculturation, increased care-seeking behaviors, and increased educational standing with time in the US. However, because premium contributions also increased with time in the US, immigrants made a net contribution to private health insurance regardless of their length of residence in the US.

Our findings contradict assertions that people born in the US are systematically subsidizing the medical care of immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented. On the contrary, immigrants subsidize US natives in the private health insurance market, just as they are propping up the Medicare Trust Funds.

Immigrants’ subsidies to private insurance and Medicare likely reflect their relative youth and good health, as well as the reluctance of many to seek care. Policies that curtail the flow of immigration to the US are likely to result in a declining number of such “actuarially desirable” persons, which could worsen the private insurance risk pool.

Source: Immigrants Pay More In Private Insurance Premiums Than They Receive In Benefits | Health Affairs

What’s Really Wrong With Health Care?

Book Review

Health Care Under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Health

by Howard Waitzkin and the Working Group on Health Beyond Capitalism

Monthly Review Press
e-book: $18.00
Paperback: $27.00
Hard cover: $45.00

Americans commemorated the assassination of Martin Luther King fifty years ago on Wednesday. Two years earlier, Dr. King, in March 1966, said the following during a press conference in Chicago at the second convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR):

“…Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.”

The part of the quote up to the word ‘inhuman’ begins the Introduction of a new book I just began reading called, Health Care Under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Health by Howard Waitzkin and the Working Group on Health Beyond Capitalism, published by Monthly Review Press, the publishing arm of the Monthly Review, an Independent Socialist magazine.

Those of you who know me, and those of you who have read many of my previous posts, know that my educational background is in the Social Sciences, as my B.A, is in Political Science and History, with Sociology and African-American Studies thrown in, along with some Humanities coursework. My M.A. is in History, with emphasis on American Social History, especially post-Civil War until the mid to late 20th century. In addition, I also have a Master’s degree in Health Administration (MHA).

But what you may not know is that my leanings have been to the far left, and I am still proudly and defiantly so, even if I have tempered my views with age and new insights. I think that is called wisdom.

So, as I set out to read this book, much of the material presented in it will not be new to me, but will be perhaps new to many of you, especially those of you who got their education in business schools, and were fed bourgeois nonsense about marketing, branding, and other capitalist terms that are more apropos for selling automobiles and appliances and such, but not for health care, as this book will prove.

In this book, there will be terms that many of you will either find annoying, depending on your own personal political leanings, or that you are unfamiliar with. Words such as alienation of labor, commodification, imperialism, neoliberalism, and proletarianization may make some of you see red. So be it. Change will not occur until many of you are shaken out of your lethargy and develop your class consciousness.

“Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer, unless under compulsion from society.” Karl Marx

While the publisher of the book is an independent socialist foundation, it is no means a Marxist or Communist organization. And from my perusal of the names of the contributors to the chapters of the book, I have found that they are all health care professionals or academics, as well as activists.

Two of the contributors of one chapter, David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler, are familiar to many in the health care industry, as they have co-authored many peer reviewed articles in health care journals that I have cited in my previous blog posts.

Be warned. This book may piss you off. Too bad. The future of health care is at stake, as is the health of every man, woman, and child in the U.S. and around the world.

This will probably be true no matter what part of the health care industry you work in. Physicians, insurance company personnel, pharmaceutical company executives, Wall Street investors and money managers, service providers, vendors, consultants and many others will discover inconvenient truths about the businesses that provide their livelihood. As stakeholders in the status quo, you will be resistant to the prescriptions the writers offer for correcting the mistakes of the past, and the recommendations they suggest for the future of health care.

This book will not only be relevant to the health care industry, but also to the workers’ compensation and medical travel industries, as each is a subset of health care.

And if you do get upset or angry at me for what I have to say about health care, then you are part of the problem as to why health care in the U.S. is broken. Those of you around the world will also learn that your own countries are moving in a direction that sooner or later will result in your health care system mirroring our own, as the authors will point out.

This is a book that will shake you to your core. So, sit back, relax, and keep an open mind. It’s about to be blown.

The book is divided into five parts, with each part containing at most five chapters, as in Part Five, or two chapters, as in Part Two. Parts Three and Four, each contain four chapters. Part One deals with Social Class and Medical Work, and focuses on doctors as workers, the deprofessionalization and emerging social class position of health professionals, the degradation of medical labor and the meaning of quality in health care, and finally, the political economy of health reform.

Throughout the book, they ask questions relating to the topics covered in each chapter, and in Part One, the following questions are asked:

  • How have the social-class positions of health workers, both professional and non-professional, changed along with changes in the capitalist global economy?
  • How has the process of health work transformed as control over the means of production and conditions of the workplace has shifted from professionals to corporations?

These questions are relevant since medicine has become more corporatized, privatized, and financialized. The author of the second chapter, Matt Anderson, analyzes the “sorry state of U.S. primary care” and critically examines such recently misleading innovations such as the “patient-centered medical home”, “pay for performance”, the electronic medical record, quantified metrics to measure quality including patient satisfaction (“we strive for five”), and conflicts of interest as professional associations and medical schools receive increasing financial support from for-profit corporations.

Part One is concludes with Himmelstein and Woolhandler responding to a series of questions put to them by Howard Waitzkin about the changing nature of medical work and how that relates to the struggle for a non-capitalist model of a national health program. Himmelstein and Woolhandler comment on the commodification of health care, the transformation that has occurred during the current stage of capitalism, the changing class position of health professionals, and the impact of computerization and electronic medical records.

Part Two focuses on the medical-industrial complex in the age of financialization. Previous posts of mine this year and last, reference the medical-industrial complex, so my readers will be familiar with its usage here. In this section, the authors tackle the following questions:

  • What are the characteristics of the current “medical industrial complex,” and how have these changed under financialization and deepening monopolization?

Two corollary questions are raised as follows:

  • Are such traditional categories as the private insurance industry and pharmaceutical industry separable from the financial sector?
  • How do the current operations of those industries reflect increasing financialization and investment practices?

Once again, Matt Anderson authors the first chapter in Part Two, this time with Robb Burlage, a political economist and activist. Anderson and Burlage analyze the growing similarities and overlaps between the for-profit and so-called not-for-profit sectors in health care, considering especially the conversion of previously not-for-profit corporations such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield to for-profit.

The second chapter in Part Two is authored by Joel Lexchin, an emergency care physician and health policy researcher in Canada and analyzes monopoly capital and the pharmaceutical industry from an international perspective.

Part Three looks at the relationships between neoliberalism, health care and health. Before I go any further, let me provide the reader with a definition of neoliberalism in case the authors assume that those who read this book understand what it is.

According to Wikipedia, Neoliberalism or neo-liberalism 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.

These neoliberal policies have been associated in the U.S. with the Republican Party and the Conservative movement since the election of Ronald Reagan. In the UK, the rise of Thatcherism ended the long dominance of the Labor Party’s left-wing until Tony Blair’s New Labor took over. Bill Clinton’s election in the U.S. in 1992, diminished some of these policies, and implemented others such as welfare reform, a goal Republicans had wanted to achieve for decades.

Returning to Part Three, the questions asked here are:

  • What is the impact of neoliberalism on health reforms, in the United States and in other countries?
  • What are the ideological assumptions of health reform proposals and how are they transmitted?
  • What are the effects of economic austerity policies on health reform and what are the eventual impacts on health outcomes?

In the next chapter, Howard Waitzkin and Ida Hellander, a leading health policy researcher and activist, trace the history of the Affordable Care Act initially developed by economists in the military during the Vietnam War. International financial institutions, the authors say, especially the World Bank, promoted a boilerplate for neoliberal health care reforms, which focused mainly on privatization of services previously based in the public sector and on shifting trust funds to private for-profit insurance companies.

Colombia’s health reform of 1994, Hillary Clinton’s in that year as well, Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts in 2006, which led to the ACA, are examples cited by the authors. The chapter also clarifies the ideological underpinnings of the neoliberal model and shows that the model has failed to improve access and control costs, according to the authors.

Economic austerity is closely linked to neoliberalism and have led to drastic cutbacks in health services and public health infrastructure in many countries. As I have recently written in my post, Three Strategies for Improving Social Determinants of Health, economic austerity policies have also affected health outcomes through increased unemployment, food insecurity, unreliable water supplies (Flint, MI), and reduced educational opportunities. Recent teacher protests in West Virginia, Oklahoma and other states are examples of this.

In the second chapter in Part Three, Adam Gaffney and Carles Muntaner, focus on social epidemiology, especially the impacts of economic policies on health and mental health outcomes. They also document the devastating effects of austerity in Europe, focusing on Greece, Spain and England. The authors analyze four dimensions of austerity:

1) constriction of the public-sector health system, 2) retreat from universalism, 3) increased cost sharing, and 4) health system privatization.

This trend would seem to have a negative effect on medical travel from Europe and to Europe, as Europe’s health care systems, long touted as a less expensive alternative to medical care in the U.S., begins to suffer.

Part Four examines the connections between health and imperialism historically and as part of the current crises. The question in this part is:

  • What are the connections among health care, public health, and imperialism, and how have these connections changed as resistance to imperialism has grow in the Global South?

The authors are referring to those countries in the Southern hemisphere from Africa, Asia, and Latin America as the Global South. The Global North refers to Europe and North America, and some other industrialized and advanced countries in the Northern hemisphere.

The authors in Part Four focus on the forces and institutions that have imposed a top-down reform of health care in the Global South. Such organizations as the Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Gates foundations, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, trade agreements such as NAFTA, CAFTA, TPP, TiSA, and health organizations as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) are all termed “philanthrocapitalism” by the authors, and have implemented policies that have weakened public health standards and favored private corporations.

The final part, Part Five focuses on the road ahead, i.e., the contours of change the authors foresee and the concrete actions that can contribute to a progressive transformation of capitalist health care and society.

The authors address these questions:

  • What examples provide inspiration about resistance to neoliberalism and construction of positive alternative models in the Global South?
  • Because improvements in health do not necessarily follow from improvements in health care, how do we achieve change in the social and environmental determinants of health?
  • How does progressive health and mental health reform address the ambiguous role of the state?
  • What is to be done as Obamacare and its successor or lack of successor under Trump fail in the United States?

Howard Waitzkin and Rebeca Jasso-Aguilar analyze a series of popular struggles that focused on the privatization of health services in El Salvador, water in Bolivia, as well as the ongoing struggle to expand public health services in Mexico. These struggles are activities David and Rebeca participated in during the past decade.

These scenarios demonstrate an image of diminishing tolerance among the world’s people for the imperial public health policies of the Global North and a demand for public health systems grounded in solidarity rather than profit.

In the U.S., the road ahead will involve intensified organizing to achieve the single-payer model of a national health program, one that will provide universal access and control costs by eliminating or reducing administrative waste, profiteering, and corporate control.

Gaffney, Himmelstein, and Woolhandler present the most recent revision of the single-payer proposal developed by Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP). They analyze the three main ways that the interests of capital have encroached on U.S. health care since the original proposal:

1) the rise of for-profit managed care organizations (MCOs); 2) the emergence of high-deductible (“consumer-directed”) health insurance, and 3) the entrenchment of corporate ownership.

The authors offer a critique of Obamacare, explain and demystify innovations as Accountable Care Organizations, the consolidation and integration of health systems, something yours truly has discussed in earlier posts as they relate to workers’ comp, and the increasing share of costs for patients.

The next two chapters concern overcoming pathological normalcy and confronting the social and environmental determinants of health, respectively. Carl Ratner argues, that mental health under capitalism entails “pathological normalcy.” Day-to-day economic insecurities, violence, and lack of social solidarity generates a kind of false consciousness in which disoriented mental processes become a necessary facet of survival, and emotional health becomes a deviant and marginalized condition.

Such conditions of life as a polluted natural environment, a corrupt political system, an unequal hierarchy of social stratification, an unjust criminal justice system, violent living conditions due to access of guns, dangerous working conditions, and so forth, Ratner dissects as the well-known crises of our age in terms of the pathologies that have become seen as normal conditions of life.

Next, Muntaner and evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace show how social and environmental conditions have become more important determinants of health than access to care. They emphasize struggles that confront social determinants through changes in broad societal polices, analyze some key environmental determinants of health including unsafe water (Flint again), capitalist agribusiness practices, and deforestation in addition to climate change. And they refer to the impact these have on emergent and re-emergent infectious diseases such as Ebola, Zika and yellow fever.

Lastly, Waitzkin and Gaffney try to tackle the question of “what is to be done.” They outline four main priorities for action in the U.S. and other countries affected by the neoliberal, corporatized, and commodified model of health care during the age of Trump:

  • a sustained, broad-based movement for a single-payer national health program that assures universal access to care and drastically reduces the role of corporations and private profit, 2) an activated labor movement that this time includes a well-organized sub-movement of health professionals such as physicians, whose deteriorated social-class position and proletarianized conditions of medical practice have made them ripe for activism and change, 3) more emphasis on local and regional organizing at the level of communal organizations…and attempted in multiple countries as a central component in the revolutionary process of moving “beyond capital”, and 4) carefully confronting the role of political parties while recognizing the importance of labor or otherwise leftist parties in every country that has constructed a national health program, and understanding that the importance of party building goes far beyond electoral campaigns to more fundamental social transformation.

In their book, the authors try to answer key and previously unresolved questions and to offer some guidance on strategy and political action in the years ahead. They aim to inform future struggles for the transformation of capitalist societies, as well as the progressive reconstruction of health services and public health systems in the post-capitalist world.

Throughout this review, I have attempted to highlight the strengths of the book by touching upon some of the key points in each chapter.

If there is a weakness to the book, it is that despite the impressive credentials of the authors, they like many other authors of left-of-center books, cling to an economic determinism as part of their analysis, which is based on theories that are more than one hundred years old.

As I stated in the beginning of this review, my views have been tempered by examining and incorporating other theories into my consciousness. One theory that is missing here is Spiral Dynamics.

Spiral Dynamics is a bio-psycho-social model of human and social development. It was developed by bringing together the field of developmental psychology with evolutionary psychology and combines them with biology and sociology.

In Spiral Dynamics, biology is concerned with the development of the pathways of the brain as the adult human moves from lower order thinking to higher order thinking. The social aspect is concerned with the organizational structure formed at each stage along the spiral. For example, when an individual or a society is at the Beige vMeme, or Archaic level, their organization structure is survival bands, as seen in the figure below.

At the Purple vMeme, or Mythic level, the organizational structure is tribal, and so on. There is, among the authors of the book, an evolutionary biologist, but it is not clear if he is familiar with this theory and what it can bring into the discussion at hand.

It would not only benefit the authors, but also the readers to acquaint themselves of this valuable theory which would present an even more cogent argument for better health care. As the book concludes with a look at the future of health care after capitalism, knowing the vMemes or levels beyond current levels will enhance the struggle.

As I continue reading the book, I hope to gain greater insight into the problems with privatized, corporatized, free-market capitalist health care. My writings to date in my blog has given me some understanding of the issues, but I hope that the authors will further my understanding.

I believe that anyone who truly wants to see the U.S. follow other Western nations who have created a national health program, whether they are politicians like Bernie Sanders, his supporters, progressives, liberals, and yes, even some conservatives who in light of the numerous attempts to repeal and replace the ACA, have recognized that the only option left is single-payer. Even some business leaders have come out and said so.

I recommend this book to all health care professionals, business persons, labor leaders, politicians, and voters interested in moving beyond capital and realizing truly universal health care and lower costs.