Monday, May 5, 2008

Watch the Wyden-Bennett "Healthy Americans Act"--It Could Be the Place Health Care Reform Compromise Takes Place in 2009

Health care reform will be hard to do after the November election. I've even called it a long-shot.

Polls clearly show the voters split evenly between the Democratic and Republican approach to health care reform. I can't tell you who will win the presidency but I am willing to make the bold statement that it will be a close election and neither very different approach to health care reform will enjoy any kind of mandate.

That will mean finding common ground between these very different approaches will be more than tricky.

But we may already have an outline.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT) have crafted a health care reform plan that gives both sides the most important things each are looking for:
  • For the Republicans, it gives them a plan that moves away from the third-party employer-based payment system to one of individual responsibility and the promise of a more vibrant market.
  • For the Democrats, it provides a plan that assures everyone will have access to coverage and provides the financing to get about everyone covered in the short-term.
But here's the big one: Last week the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation said the Wyden-Bennett plan could be operational by 2012 and would be budget neutral by 2014! In health care terms, parting the Red Sea would be an easier accomplishment.

The key to the individual-based program's financing is an employer contribution. Employers would be required to pay a tax based upon a sliding scale of 3% to 26% of the cost of basic health insurance--tied to their size and revenue per employee. That would convert to a per worker tax of something like $250 to $2,000 for an employer. Employers who now contribute would be required to convert their contributions to higher wages during the first two years and pay the sliding scale tax later.

Under the Wyden-Bennett plan, people with an income of less than 400% of poverty would be eligible for subsidies, everyone would have access to guaranteed and community rated coverage, and the feds would oversee a system of private individual-based insurance and would collect the base-line premiums through the tax system.

In exchange for all of this consumer support, the Wyden-Bennett plan would also require individuals to have health insurance (an individual mandate) and that it must be purchased from a state-run purchasing pool that would require health policies have substantial benefits (rich benefit mandates) and offer a choice of private policies. There would be a flat personal tax deduction ($12,000 for a couple) for consumer insurance payments and low-income subsidies would be tied to the lowest cost policy available.

While employers could offer plans created especially for them by the state purchasing pools it is hard to see why they they would other than to comply with existing labor contracts that required benefits that did not fit the standard state pool offerings.

Those in SCHIP and Medicaid would be converted to this private system. The private insurance sector would clearly have lots more business as they picked up the uninsured and those in these public programs.

Just as there is something for everyone to like there is also something for everyone to dislike.

Conservatives still see too many benefit mandates, too little financial incentive for people to be better health care consumers, and too much federal regulatory control over how the private insurance market would work
: See a critical view of the Wyden-Bennett "Healthy American's Act" from the Heritage Foundation.

Liberals, particularly the unions, will be concerned about moving away from the employer-based system. Liberals will also be concerned about continuing to base the system on private insurance--particularly the higher cost individual form and ceding SCHIP and Medicaid to private insurance companies.

Employers will be hard hit to pay for it. Those who provide health benefits today will have to convert their existing health support to wages and pay another tax on top of that.

I would also label the proposal "cost containment lite." It clearly emphasizes access over cost cost control.

It will also be easier to pass this bill since it doesn't directly take on any of the powerful health care special interests--insurers, drug companies, doctors, hospitals, or lawyers. However, the biggest losers would include insurance agents (out of business for health care), Medicaid and SCHIP program bureaucracies, and insurance company employees who do billing and eligibility work.

In exchange for all of the new business, insurers would be subject to a lot more regulation including minimum loss ratios and a complex bid process that could only narrow premium margins. This would likely be a business model not as kind to Wall Street.

But as a place for a country split right down the middle to come together and begin a health care reform process?

Watch this one.

The Wyden-Bennett "Healthy Americans Act"
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