Friday, September 18, 2009

Pay or Play or Pay and Pay; Obama versus Baucus Health Plans

Baucus Health Plan
Senator Baucus of Montana broke away from his committee to present his approach to a United States health care overhaul. His plan proposes a complicated series of benefit changes in Medicare/Medicaid, along with taxes on health care suppliers, employers, and individuals, depending on the health care scenario. It is like trying to look through depression era glass for the economy in this approach. First of all, I don’t think adding more taxes to an already expensive health care delivery system will make it less expensive. If anything, this type of proposal will drive more people into the government option Obama plan.
Both the Obama and Baucus health plans rely on the employer system for health care financing, as opposed to a program based on individuals selecting their health plan from regional cooperatives, with a tax credit allowance, and some employer allowance. I am often asked why we expect employers to provide health care in the USA and my only answer is, "because that is the way it is now." It would be interesting to hear what employers, both large and small think about their preferred level of contribution to health care for their workers. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s 2009 Health Confidence Survey, 83% of their constituent’s support a public health option. An employer mandate for a national health plan gleans 75% support as well. This organization is a conservative, employer, and insurance based entity, so if this is what their subscribers are saying, Brunhilde has finished her aria, and the curtain is coming down on the current health care marketplace.
Similarities between the Baucus and Obama plans include the following features: guaranteed ability to obtain coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions, less predatory pricing based on gender and age, and a reduction in the uninsured populations. These are all good mechanisms to get more people eligible to obtain treatment, so their medical conditions can be better managed and less expensive in the long run.
Baucus recommends the use of nonprofit health care purchasing cooperatives (Community Health Plans or Health Maintenance Plans), to meet the needs of the uninsured population. Does he mean HMO’s or CHP’s? The problem with spreading the cooperative method to the entire United States population is scale; these are localized primary care provider organizations, not national health care institutions. Also, Community Health Plans deliver primary care at a lower cost than HMO’s although their history is briefer. The Obama public option would have the advantage of existing scale with the government already providing a number of health care services. The government is in a position to negotiate the largest discounts for supplies (theoretically) and prescriptions. Since insurance companies will be prohibited from dropping sick individuals from their plans and they will be required to accept all new applicants, there will be some attrition in the number of providers. Depending on your economic perspective, this is either an intended or unintended consequence of the policy change.
Medicare Reform
Obama’s plan expressly closes the gap in prescription drug coverage for seniors, called the donut hole, which is good. I also like his intent to improve quality and care coordination for Medicare recipients. Most of us will be on Medicare coverage someday and that is when we will experience our highest health care expenses. Since the costs for Medicare are escalating beyond sustainability, as a population we should be reviewing this program for efficiencies as a part of our national health care reform initiatives.
Things I would change in Medicare payments include the following:
-Establish an evidence based payment policy for orthopedic treatments (including hip transplants), that considers value delivered over life expectancy
-Tighten up on medical supply payments for motorized wheelchairs and other areas of abuse
-Optimize government purchasing power for the Medicare prescription program
-Stop paying for Viagra on Medicare (increases the risk of a cardiac event)
-Align reimbursements with optimized treatment protocols, which offer sound clinical results and affordable treatments
Finally, I would also institute a fee schedule for Medicare premiums based on earnings, which was voted down by the AARP years ago. Note to the AARP, look you are relying on the current taxpayers to finance your health care, and you are going to have to compromise a little. Be nice to the young people, we will need them when we are old.
My verdict on the Baucus Plan is that it is DOA, but it certainly contributes to an improved level of discussion on health care reforms, when someone else had the guts to reveal his plan. Like the Greek God of wine, Senator Baucus, I raise a glass to you.

This article was written by Roberta E. Winter, MHA, MPA and may be reprinted with her permission, 9/17/2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Insurance is Not Health Care

To listen to the vitriol regarding health care reforms for Americans, you would think we were in the civil war again. I have noticed a number of trends in blogs and citizens meetings on health care reform and thought I needed to speak up.
Number one, insurance is not health care, it is a financing vehicle for people to pay for health care and this is available to approximately half of the United States population. In order to obtain "private health insurance" many conditions must exist such as:
1) The employer offers health care
2) The employee actually makes a living wage and can afford the premiums
3) A health insurance company serves their area and is accepted by clinicians and hospitals
4) The person is not disabled or otherwise uninsurable
5) Or an individual policy may be available in their region or rural locale
Obviously a lot of employers are not offering health insurance, which is representative of the "private health care system" we have now. As an example, I know someone who worked up to thirty-six hours a week for a nonprofit organization which refused to consider that fulltime employment, so they could exclude that employee from eligibility for the health plan. This represents a market failure in economic terms and thus encourages the government to step in to make up for private market lapses. This is an example of the abuse that happens everyday in business and why the Obama Administration is advocating a pay or play policy for employers. Yes, it is time that employers pay for health insurance or contribute into the regional pool for those workers.
Number two, it does matter when you access health care, because obtaining appropriate care in a timely manner not only saves lives, it saves society money. By refusing to provide basic health care to United States residents we are merely choosing to pay more later for manageable conditions. Examples of these are breast cancer, prostate cancer, prenatal care, hypertension, and diabetes. The current United States health policy, which does not provide fair and equitable access to primary care for all residents, is effectively saying we will pay more later for residents who have these conditions and defer treatment. For example, a young couple, in Arizona, did not have insurance when she became pregnant with twins, yet both of them had jobs. Consequently, she was not able to obtain optimal prenatal care, which resulted in a delay in diagnosis, with potentially tragic results. This lapse in treatment was not their fault, it reflects our shortsightedness as a people that we choose to pay the higher cost for our lack of effective treatment for those who need health care.
Number three, for those Rambo-types who think they can provide for their own health care on a pay-as-you-go basis, I would be willing to bet that you don’t have a chronic disease or a sick child or failing parent. All you have to do is look at the number of individual bankruptcies filed in this country for health reasons to understand the impact on people who were no longer able to pay. A person’s inability to afford health care is not some moral failing, it is a combination of poor health policy and opportunity or just plain bad luck.
Finally, all of the examples I gave have happened to someone in my family. I am sure the rest of you can think of similar examples in your families too. Can’t we put aside partisan differences and work together to improve health care access and delivery for everyone?