Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Co-op Version of the Public Plan—It’s a Camel!

I am sure you have heard the story about the committee that was charged with designing a horse but, because of the bureaucratic ways of the committee process, instead ended up creating a camel.

We will not see a Medicare-like public health plan as part of any health care reform bill in 2009. I know proponents don’t want to hear that but it is crystal clear to me there simply are not the Democratic votes in either house of Congress for it.

But proponents are bound and determined to get something with the moniker “public plan” attached to it before they will sign-on to a bill. In an effort to compromise, North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad has suggested a defanged public plan in the form of a not-for-profit health care cooperative. I have been critical of that suggestion on this blog because his proposals look to me to be no different than the dozens of not-for-profit community-based health plans already operating—not the least of which is North Dakota Blue Cross.

When the day is done, what would Senator Conrad’s co-op proposal accomplish that is any different than the not-for-profit community-based health plans, that already have 50% of the market share in the under-age-65 market, have achieved?

But let’s take it a bit further.

At the thirty thousand foot level the notion of a public health plan cooperative doesn’t sound like a bad one.

But when you dig into it and actually explore how such a thing would work, it looks more and more like a camel to me.

First, the stated objective of a public plan cooperative would be to step up market competition to lower costs—to negotiate lower prices and more efficient provider treatment protocols. The argument goes that the existing plans aren’t trying hard enough.

OK, let’s start with the notion that a co-op can do a better job of negotiating prices and protocols. But wait, on day one how many members does the co-op have. Well it has no members on day one. So, the co-op's provider relations guy goes to the doctor and hospital administrator and demands better prices and protocols. My guess is the provider’s response would go something like this, “So you are here because your stated objective is to screw my reimbursement down more than it is, you have no members now, and if I give you the rates to take members away from the existing health plans you are going to make life even more difficult for me than those existing health plans have?" My guess is that when the provider stops laughing…

Next, the co-op has to hire people to staff its management and operations ranks. Who are they going to hire? Out-of-work realtors? Obviously, the co-op will have to hire experienced health plan people. First, for those of you in the business, just think of all the competition for your services if 50 new health plans suddenly get lots of capital to start-up. But secondly, if the co-ops hire the same people as are running today’s health plans—particularly people in not-for-profit plans now—why would the end result be any different?

And, how will the co-op compete for these new hires? Why would the best talent want to go to work for a quasi government agency paying government pay scales whose future is in doubt? Will the co-op pay more than existing health plans to lure talent away? If so, how will their administrative costs be any lower? After all, payroll is at least half of total overhead costs.

Just how will the government decide how to capitalize these new plans? In the 90s we spent $75 million to $100 million to capitalize a health plan in each of the major markets. How much capital will each co-op get? In the market, that question was answered through the creation of a business plan. Any private not-for-profit health plan that did not ultimately meet minimum scale or reserve requirements was scuttled. Just how much, and over how many years, will the government dump capital into these plans and who will make the decision that the limit has been reached? Will co-ops have an unlimited access to government capital without accountability? No matter how ineffective they are will the government just keep subsidizing their losses?

Already, there is talk in the Congress about allocating $10 billion to build these things.

This whole debate gets back to the simple question I have not heard any of the co-op proponents answer: Just how will a co-op turn out to be any different than North Dakota Blue Cross with its profit percentage of less than 1% and its board a cross section of the provider, business, and consumer community?

Or for that matter, any one of the dozens of other similar Blues plans and not-for-profit community-based HMOs in just about every county in America?

But when you are grasping for a compromise—and putting the urgency for compromise ahead of good policy—it sure is easy to come up with a camel.

Related posts:

Here's an Example of a Cooperative Not-For-Profit Health Plan--North Dakota Blue Cross

Health Care Cooperatives--An Old New Idea--So What's a Blue Cross Plan?

A Public Health Plan That Looks Just Like a Big HMO---Why?


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