Thursday, March 10, 2011

So How Are Democrats and Republicans Different?

Just how is the way Wisconsin Republicans have handled the political confrontation over worker rights different than the way Washington, DC Democrats handled last year's health care vote?

With apologies in advance to Ezra for taking some liberties with his column yesterday evening in the Washington Post:

What happened in Wisconsin [Washington DC] tonight [last March]
By Ezra Klein [Bob Laszewski]

Here's what just happened [last March] in Wisconsin [Washington, DC]: The rules of the state's [U.S.] Senate require a quorum [60 votes] for any measures that do [don't] spend money. That's how the absence of the Senate's Democrats [the election loss in Massachusetts] could stymie Gov. Scott Walker's [the Democrat's efforts] to block [pass] the proposed budget law [the new health care bill] -- it spent [parts didn't spend] money, and thus it needed a quorum [60 votes].

But in a surprise move earlier today [after the Massachusetts loss], Wisconsin's [Washington's] Senate Republicans [Democrats] rewrote the bill [using reconciliation rules] and left out all the parts that spent [didn't spend] money. Then they quickly convened and passed the new law, which included the provisions stripping most public-employee unions of their collective bargaining rights [a bill that dramatically impacted 14% of the economy and the delivery of everyone's health care] but excluding everything in the law [by crafting a special a reconciliation bill leaving everything out that] that spent [didn't spend] money.

What happens [happened] next? Expect the protests over the next few days [ensuing months] to be ferocious. But unless a judge [the Supreme Court] rules the move illegal -- and I don't know how to judge the likelihood of that -- Walker's [the Democrat's] proposed [new health] law will go forward. The question is whether Walker and the Republicans [Obama and the Democrats] who voted for it will do the same.

Polls in Wisconsin [across the country] clearly showed that Republicans [Democrats] had failed to persuade the public of their cause. Walker's [Obama's, Reed and Pelosi's] numbers dropped, while Democrats and unions [Republicans and the Tea Party] found themselves suddenly flush with volunteers, money and favorable media coverage. And they plan to [did] take advantage of it: Eight Wisconsin Republicans have served for long enough to be vulnerable to a recall election next year, and Democrats have already begun gathering signatures. Now their efforts will accelerate. "We now put our total focus on recalling the eligible Republican senators who voted for this heinous bill," said Mike Tate, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. "And we also begin counting the days remaining before Scott Walker is himself eligible for recall." [The Republicans scored the biggest off-year election victory in a lifetime.]

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Fixing America's Health Care Reimbursement System

This post is authored by Brian Klepper and first appeared at Kaiser Health News:

A tempest is brewing in physician circles over how doctors are paid. But calming it will require more than just the action of physicians. It will demand the attention and influence of businesses and patient advocates who, outside the health industrial complex, bear the brunt of the nation's skyrocketing health care costs.

Much responsibility for America's inequitable health care payment system and its cost crisis is embedded in the informal but symbiotic relationship between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the American Medical Association's Relative Value System Update Committee -- also known as the RUC. For two decades, the RUC, a specialist-dominated panel, has encouraged national health care reimbursement policy that financially undervalues the challenges associated with primary care's management of complicated patients, while favoring often unnecessarily complex, costly and excessive medical services. For its part, CMS has provided mostly rubber-stamp acceptance of the RUC's recommendations. If America's primary care societies noisily left the RUC, they would de-legitimize the panel's role in driving the American health system's immense waste and pave the way for a more fair and enlightened approach to reimbursement.

As it is, though, unnecessary health care costs are sucking the life out of the American economy. Over the past 11 years, health care premium inflation has risen nearly four times as fast as the rest of the economy. Health care costs nearly double those in other developed nations have put U.S. corporations at a severe competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace.

Many health care experts believe that half or more of all health care expenditures -- the costs of bloated transactional processes as well as inappropriate procedures, service sites and prescription drug levels -- provide no value. For perspective, this year we'll unnecessarily spend nearly $1.5 trillion on health care, an amount equivalent to the budget deficit. Though we continually have given physicians and the health care industry a pass on this issue, its impact can be understood as the difference between our national prosperity and decline.

The current system's under-valuing of primary care is one of three structural flaws -- the other two are fee-for-service reimbursement and a lack of cost, quality and safety transparency -- that produce excess spending and block the health care sector from working as a true market. Overwhelming evidence shows that allowing physicians to serve as patient advocates and guides throughout the entirety of care results in better outcomes at significantly lower cost. Recently, patient-centered medical homes, super-charged primary care practices, have demonstrated measurable cost and quality successes, also proofs of the approach. These facts are indisputable and are, by the way, the reason why America's corporations are stepping up the use of on-site primary care clinics.

Meanwhile, a spate of recent articles about the RUC have produced swift, strong responses within key circles. They have been passed virally among primary care physicians. Discussions have begun with people who might have influence over the process. And sensible changes in this advisory system seem possible.

Seizing that opportunity would first require mobilizing primary care doctors to demand that their professional societies, such as the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Physicians, abandon the RUC. Then these physicians also would call on CMS to replace it with a more independent advisory panel. That effort would also launch a national discussion about how to more fairly value and pay for America's health care.

But one man's waste is another's income. The current reimbursement system handsomely serves most of the health care industry: health plans; hospitals; specialists; and drug, device and technology firms. Threaten that revenue stream, and those organizations would direct their considerable resources to its protection. In 2009, records show that some members of Congress collected $1.2 billion in health care lobbying contributions - more than it had ever received from an industry on an issue - from health care interests. America's 250,000 primary care physicians are simply no match for the combined power and influence of the rest of the health care industry.

In an influence-driven government like ours, it is the non-health care business sector that has the organization and leverage necessary to drive the health care changes America so desperately needs. The health care industry represents one dollar of every six dollars in the U.S. economy, but industries outside health care represent the other five. If American businesses, led by groups like the National Business Group on Health, the Pacific Business Group on Health, the Business Roundtable, the National Retail Federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business were to advocate for the same policies in national health care reimbursement policy that their members are often implementing in their own on-site clinics, it would have a dramatically positive impact on the nation's physical and economic health.

Ironically, health care reform specifically avoided addressing the carnage that has been wrought by the RUC. If America's primary care physicians, backed by the nation's corporations, all working out of enlightened self-interest, were to focus on addressing this one structural defect, the corrective impact on our health system would be greater than all the reform bill's cost-reduction provisions combined.

Brian Klepper is an independent health care analyst, Chief Development Officer for WeCare TLC Onsite Clinics and the editor of Care & Cost. His new site, Replace the RUC, provides extensive background on the issue.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Republicans Had Better Get Organized on Health Care

If the past week is any indication, the Republicans will have real trouble come 2012 trying to convince voters they have a plan to fix the American health care system.

Last weekend, President Obama endorsed the Wyden-Brown bill that would give the states the opportunity, in 2014, to take their share of the almost $1 trillion the new health law collects and use it to craft an alternative health care plan to their liking.

With Republicans now controlling the “trifecta” in 16 states—the governorships as well as the state legislatures—it is a very interesting offer.

I found an editorial this week in the Wall Street Journal criticizing the offer puzzling.

In an editorial titled, “Obama’s Health Waiver Gambit—the White House offers the mirage of state flexibility," they wrote:
Mr. Obama's new faith in federalism is trailed by his customary rhetorical asterisk. Any state that the Administration decided deserved a waiver would still need to cover the same number of uninsured, and its coverage would still need to include the same comprehensive benefits and be as "affordable" as the Administration says it should be. That is, it must be as heavily subsidized.

So perhaps states could opt out of some consumer or employer mandates, which is a minor release valve. But they would still need to find other mechanisms to achieve the same liberal priorities, which in practice leaves little room to innovate—especially for a straight tax deduction or credit to purchase individual coverage or alternative insurance designs like high-deductible or value-based plans.
Say what? Getting rid of the individual mandate—the thing Conservatives are focusing their Constitutionality challenges on—is only an offer to jettison “a minor release valve?”

It looks to me like the WSJ is saying conservatives would not be able to cover as many people as well as the Democrats are on their way to doing under the Affordability Act.

First, let me remind you that the CBO has estimated that the new law would only cover about two-thirds of the uninsured. And, that the standard of coverage demanded by the new law sets the “Silver Plan” as the standard—essentially a typical comprehensive major medical plan with a $1,000 deductible. And, let’s not forget that the Affordability Act would require a family of four making $65,000 a year to pay $6,175 in out-of-pocket annual premiums net of any federal subsidy—hardly what the WSJ called, “heavily subsidized” premiums.

The WSJ laments that there isn’t enough “room to innovate” with tax credits and high deductible plans.

Why not? Why can’t a Republican tax credit plan be devised using the Democrats money pot? I see no reason an actuarially equal conservative high deductible plan that gave any excess Democratic cash to consumers in the form of deposits to Health Savings Accounts can’t be crafted that is financed with tax credits. And, all of those Republican governors’ complaints about Medicaid? Here is the block grant of all block grant offers!

Could a Democratic HHS Secretary play games and deny a state an actuarially sound conservative alternative? Sure but after the offer the President put on the table this week, suffer lots of political consequences doing it.

Could the Democrats rig the game by demanding things like too rich a definition of the standard benefits? Sure. But a Republican governor could also put a more reasonable plan on the table and dare a Democratic HHS Secretary to reject it.

Just how would a Democratic HHS Secretary deny a state any reasonable health care alternative experiment that had just passed both houses of the state legislature and had been signed by the governor?

It is notable that more liberal states like Vermont and Oregon look like they are ready to take up this challenge by crafting even more liberal health plans for their states. You have to give the liberals credit--at least they walk their talk.

By embracing Wyden-Brown, President Obama has offered the Republicans a put up or shut up political challenge: Show me how you can cover as many people as well as we did.

The Republicans are afraid of this challenge? The Republicans don’t think they know how to cover two-thirds of the uninsured for the same money the Democrats are spending? The don’t think they can craft a consumer-driven plan with a health savings account for the same money it will take to provide the “Silver Plan?” They think telling a family of four making $65,000 a year that still has to pay $6,175 for a plan with a $1,000 deductible that they are still too “heavily subsidized”?

If I had been advising the Republicans this week I would have told them that focusing on criticizing the benefit side of the new health care law, as they all did, was the wrong strategy.

Where they could have been critical of the President’s challenge, and still been consistent with their past arguments and objections to the new law, would have been to point out that the $1 trillion Democratic money pot they would have to use to fund their alternative comes from the new law’s tax increases and Medicare cuts they opposed last year. In essence, they could have pointed out that they still oppose having to fund their version of health care with the “fruit from an objectionable tree.”

I still think it’s tantamount to immoral to raise $500 billion over ten years in taxes to pay for this, and not go after the real problem of cost, when about everyone believes there will be many trillions of dollars of waste in our health care system over those same ten years.

But for one Republican after another to admit that they couldn’t take their state’s share of a trillion dollars and use it to craft a health care system that covered their portion of the 32 million more people, using the new law’s modest “Silver Plan” as the standard of coverage, and still leaving big gaps in premium support for the middle class, that was startling to watch.

They better have a health care plan they believe in come 2012.

They also had better be able to explain it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Defined Contribution Health Care—The Conservatives' Silver Bullet

Conservatives are in a full court press these days telling us the answer to America’s out-of-control health care costs—and our fiscal crisis—is to move Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax code subsidy for private insurance to a defined contribution system.

Instead of the federal government defining a benefit and then shouldering the cost of whatever that promise leads to (today’s defined benefit plan), many conservatives are suggesting that we gradually move to a system where the government only promises an annual payment (or tax credit) for health care in the form of a voucher and then the consumer uses it (arguably more efficiently) to buy one of many health plans competing for their business.

First, let me tell you that I think defined contribution health care is generally a good idea. For too long the federal tax system and Medicare policy has subsidized careless health care spending.

Many worry that defined contribution health care would lead to poor people getting second-class health care because they would not be able to afford more than the voucher allows them. That is a legitimate concern and while that outcome can be tempered it cannot likely be eliminated. But that also occurs today, as many seniors have nothing more than a combination of Medicare and Medicaid while the wealthier can afford much better supplemental insurance. And, it will occur in the future under the Affordability Act because the new federal health care subsidies are based on the more limited plans available.

But I will also tell you that it is naïve to think the way to control health care costs is to simply move to a more market-oriented defined health care system.

We’ve had forms of defined contribution health care in the health benefits business for at least 20 years. It has long been common for employers to fix their contribution and then offer a cafeteria-like set of health plan choices. Not only has that approach not controlled costs, it has become somewhat passé as many employers have been disappointed with the results and more recently gone back to consolidating their health plan offerings.

Many conservatives cite the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan (FEHBP) as an example of a defined contribution program that has worked. It is very well run. But just where is the full cost of a federal worker’s health benefits under control, sustainable, and affordable or measurably lower than any other large employer?

The argument goes that if consumers have vouchers then health plans will compete with each other to control costs and make health care more affordable. Well, isn’t that what has been going on in all of these defined contribution employer plans over the years? And, just where are the affordable plans?

And, isn’t this what the Medicare Advantage program of private choices has been about? It has been operating in one form or another for more than 20 years. And, once again, where are the private plans that are less costly than Medicare? Hasn’t the recent health care debate been about the extra payments, above the cost of standard Medicare, that these plans have been receiving?

The health care industry actually took a pretty impressive run at offering health plans that worked hard to control costs back in the post-Clinton Health Plan period of the mid and late 1990s. The insurers did such a good job of screwing down the provider costs and limiting “unnecessary” care that we got the “Patient Rights Rebellion” (or maybe it was the “Provider Rights Rebellion”).

When employers and consumers actually had the chance to choose lower cost plans with more limited networks and tighter cost controls they rejected them. When that was all there was available to employees, they rebelled and employers ran from them. The result was a movement away from pure HMO plans in the late 1990s and a return to fee-for-service models.

What makes conservatives think the consumer/voter won’t rebel again when they figure out the voucher doesn’t give them the health care they think they are entitled to? What makes the conservatives think the politicians won’t chicken out and just keep increasing that voucher at unaffordable levels just like they now keep bailing out the less powerful physician lobby?

I think defined contribution health care is a productive tool that has a lot of potential to make consumers more careful purchasers and health plans more cost effective sellers of insurance—when it is part of a more comprehensive approach to unavoidable cost containment and value-based purchasing—when we also say no.

But then I guess I can be criticized for believing in “Death Panels.”

But defined contribution health care as a standalone strategy to fix what ails the American health care system without having to face real limits on what we pay and what we pay for? That is naïve.

But that argument does have some political appeal to the right (albeit not to the left) because it offers a somewhat painless solution—you still have the right to have whatever you want and no one is going to take away or limit anything you have today. Magically, we’ll all be enlightened purchasers happily cognizant of the health plan offering us both the lowest cost and the best brain surgery in town and everyone will have affordable health insurance.

To me, hearing a conservative say the answer to America’s health care (and deficit) problem is a defined contribution health care system that reinvigorates the markets is as naïve as hearing a liberal saying that a single-payer government-run health care system will magically give everyone the health care they need for an affordable price.
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