Monday, January 25, 2010

They've Protected Us From Health Reforms

It's champagne time for reform opponents. Scott Brown's win over Martha Coakley puts to rest any lingering fears of health care changes that seriously damage interests of any major health industry players. Of course, all of them support the "right" reforms that won't diminish their own prosperity.

But any meaningful measure that cuts expenses (possibly excepting EHRs and tech savings, which are therefore over hyped) adversely affects some influential participant. And full reforms that tackle the whole trillion dollars of annual waste and overpayment to bring US costs in line with West Europe will likely take a big bite out of all players' earnings.

Now any effective reform proposals relating to cost controls have been stymied and even the weak Senate version of the health bill may not be passed into law. It's a remarkable outcome given the public outcry and election rhetoric over soaring health costs and uninsured Americans a scant year ago. To paraphrase a pundit, the industry hasn't just dodged a bullet, they've dodged a cannon fusillade. The credit for this upshot goes to many, as listed and recognized below:
  • The Congress. Apart from Republican lawmakers firmly in their pocket the industry got vital support from "centrist" Democratic senators who refused to let their 60 votes block a filibuster. It's sound economics. The industry collectively needs just a fraction of a percent of its trillion dollars of excess revenues to have billions of dollars to buy or influence crucial lawmakers. Methods can range from outright bribery (underpaid lawmakers come cheap) to legitimate campaign contributions and threat of funding opponents in weak re-election bids. Now the Jan. 21 Supreme Court ruling undoing many campaign finance reforms and restrictions adds to the power of special interests.
  • Good RNC and industry sloganeers. Terms like death panels and socialized medicine are catchy regardless of accuracy. Slogans like "don't let a bureaucrat come between me and my doctor" or "government takeover of health care" played well as if government loves paying patients' bills. Never mind that it's like Haitians earthquake victims protesting about aid groups coming between them and their rescue. The Roves and Cheneys managed to, say, link Saddam's Iraq with 9/11 attacks in the public mind. Their compatriots while outside of government used the same approaches to sow voter misgivings about health reforms.
  • President Obama. In the 2008 elections John McCain was weakest on reforms ideas and most likely to maintain the status quo. But Obama too has proved to be sufficiently inept, unlike Hillary Clinton who was the biggest threat to the existing system. He didn't use his bully pulpit and vaunted oratory skills to whip up public opinion and preempt lawmakers (especially "centrist" Democrats) from opposing big reforms. He gave a free pass to doctors, hospitals and trial lawyers in cost control, and made easy deals with drug makers who escaped government negotiating drug prices or allowing cheaper re-imports. Why? Because he was eager for industry (rather than public) support for changes aimed largely at private insurers who are a small part of the cost equation.
  • The media. Journalists and pundits seem to have been diverted from health factors leading to high costs (high provider prices, doctor scarcities, hospital concentration, unnecessary treatment, malpractice burdens, etc.) to mainly the issue of private insurer practices, the public option and covering of the uninsured. That took the heat off most other interest groups. And as countries like The Netherlands (top ranked by Consumer Health Powerhouse) show, even private insurance is very compatible with an excellent health care system, so long as you ensure an adequate supply of providers. Though incomplete it's also useful to see the OECD health head's September 2009 report comparing the US health care system with others.
  • Practitioners as writers. Health groups have their own members whose writings project views and can protect collective well-being. For example, Dr. Atul Gawande's (seen here on TV) long New Yorker article from a year ago that so impressed President Obama ignored high provider prices (twice those in Europe). It instead focused on much smaller contributors to overall US health costs - unnecessary tests and treatment - and offered no solutions. In another long article ("Testing, Testing) of Dec. 14, 2009 he advocates intensive experimentation that can postpone roll out of reforms tackling pricing and costs by years if not decades. Other US doctors and the AMA have dissed competing medical travel overseas while ostensibly evaluating it objectively. Of course, all or most writings aren't self-serving by any means.
  • Enemies helping enemies. Expedience makes strange bedfellows. Doctors and hospitals hate trial lawyers and want tort and malpractice reform. Yet it is mainly fear of US "jackpot" lawsuits in case anything goes wrong that holds back private insurers from medical tourism that lowers costs for them and their customers. Hospitals and doctors also complain about heavy regulation. But it is regulatory barriers that largely prevent more hospitals from being established and offering competition. Or prevent highly qualified foreign doctors from practising in the US and easing the acute doctor shortage. This greater supply and competition would have enabled insurers and payers to secure better rates. Doctors traditionally support Republicans. But is is Democratic bias against free trade and "jobs going overseas" that hold back Medicare or Medicaid (who face less legal exposure than private insurers) from using medical tourism to save taxpayer dollars.
  • The "independent" voter. The latest climbdown on health reforms has come because of the Democratic loss of Kennedy's senate seat. It is considered heretical and political suicide to question the wisdom of the voter. But as the Massachusetts election shows, many voters can blame the wrong party for failed legislation. More union households voted for Scott Brown than for the Democratic Martha Coakley. They feared a tax on their "Cadillac" health plans even though they were exempted before the election. They also failed to make the connection between lowered health costs and higher take home pay. The "independent" voters may be those who are free from letting their choices be guided by rationality or self-interests.

Where do we go from here? Paul Krugman strongly argues on Jan. 22 for House Democrats "to do the right thing" by passing the Senate version of the bill and possibly ironing out some parts through reconciliation. This view is echoed in today's NYT editorial. This is quite a happy state of affairs for the health industry since the Senate bill is quite favorable to them overall, and was decried as a sellout by liberals a short while back.

A simple but somewhat drastic alternative is suggested by Ezra Klein to lower the Medicare age from 65 down to 50 and to double the income limits for Medicaid recipients. Such a bill can pass through the reconciliation process in the Senate that requires only 51 votes, instead of the 60 to overcome a filibuster. It doesn't address many aspects of private insurance reform like dropping of coverage, denial due to preexisting conditions and coverage caps. Yet it hits private insurers by advancing a single payer model for more Americans. However, this idea is unlikely to be acted upon. We may even see little change till after the mid-term elections.

In sum the health industry can collectively relax a bit and thank the folks listed above who helped thwart more serious reforms.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that the industry is on steroids and overcharging the public. Unfortunately, doctors are still procedure driven instead of results driven. But that is the fault of Medicare which sets the payment standards.

But Obama has refused to reach out to the Republican side and take some of their ideas. Such as, HSA, tort reform... I think selling across state lines is great but you have to have tort reform first. If a New Yorker's claim is refused and the ins company is in TX, how do we litigate?

But O is dodging two big bullets. One is portability, and I think group insurance is a dinosaur. I'd rather swallow your liberal idea of Medicare for all, than this employer entrapment of providing healthcare. I'd rather everyone be allowed to purchase healthcare from birth with no rights of refusal from ins cos. for pre-ex conditions.

The other bullet is the last stages of life. That's what's consuming the resources and no one wants to talk about it. Left or Right.

Sandip Madan said...

As you say, Medicare for all is much simpler than the current bills and proposals, and frees us from the need for mandates and employer contributions. It just doesn't sit well with big government foes and the very well off (or those with Cadillac plans) who have more choices.

HSAs haven't gained much traction since 2005, and solve few problems about the uninsured or even controlling costs in the face of provider market power and inadequate or confusing information.

I agree about the pressing need for tort reforms, and also some norms for end of life care (or how much of public or 3rd party spending is reasonable to save a human life.)