Highlights from the Reconciliation Bill, and Maggie’s Comments on the Changes

Overall, the changes in the reconciliation bill will make the Senate
bill more progressive—and fairer.

My prediction: the bill will
pass
. Those who oppose universal coverage are becoming
angrier, louder, more abusive, and more frantic. This is because they realize
that they are losing
, and now they are just flailing about.

This
evening (Thursday) I heard Bart Stupak acknowledge, on “Hardball
with Chris Matthews”, that while the Democrats may not have the
votes today, by Sunday, they could well have them.
On this, I agree
with Stupak.

Below, the details of the new bill, and my comments
in red.

Under the new reconciliation bill:

  • Low-income and middle-income families will have an easier time
    affording premiums.
    The tax credits for health insurance premiums
    are more generous for individuals and families with incomes between 250%
    and 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL)—i.e.  individuals earning
    less than $41,500,  or a family of three earning less than $70,400. When
    compared to the Senate bill, the legislation also cuts cost-sharing for
    individuals and families with incomes between 100% and 250% FPL.

Comment:  Research shows  that when a low-income
family of four (for instance a family earning less than $22,000) is
required to share in health care costs, too often they delay needed
care.  For these families, even a $15 co-pay can be a barrier. Fifteen
dollars will buy groceries for two dinners for a family of four (e.g.
spaghetti with tomato sauce and bread).  Middle-income families who
don’t have help from an employer also need the higher subsidies that the
new bill provides.

  • Six months after the bill is enacted, all existing health
    insurance plans are prohibited from imposing life-time limits on payouts
    or refusing to cover children suffering from pre-existing conditions.
      
    Excessive waiting periods before insurance kicks in also will be
    banned, and insurers will be required to provide coverage for
    non-dependent children up to age 26 on their parent’s polices.  (Parents
    will pay extra for the coverage, but adult children will get better
    deals than many would on their own.) Beginning in 2014, group health
    plans will no longer be able to exclude adults based on pre-existing
    conditions. Annual limits on how much an insurer will pay out will be
    restricted beginning six months after enactment, and prohibited starting
    in 2014.

Comment: Limits on how much insurers will pay out
annually or over a lifetime can condemn individuals to death. If you
have the bad luck to be diagnosed with a very expensive disease that
might require years of pricey treatments (MS for example, or childhood
cancers) your insurance can easily “max out”—even though treatment that
might cure you (in the case of some childhood cancers where we have been
making great progress)– or at least give you many additional years of
life.

  • The “Cadillac Tax” on expensive health insurance plans has been
    pushed back five years and won’t go into effect until 2018.
    The
    thresholds also have been raised: the tax will apply only to individual
    plans that cost $10,200 or more (up from $8,500) or family plans that
    fetch $25,500 (up from $23,000). Dental and vision plans would not be
    included.  Under the new bill, there is no special deal for unions.

Comment:  In my view, this is a positive change.
As I have argued in the past, the Cadillac tax could hit middle-income
families.

  • While the Cadillac tax is rolled back, the Medicare tax for
    wealthy individuals earning over $200,000 and married couples who earn
    over $250,000 rises.
      Today, they pay a 1.45% payroll tax on wages.
    The Senate bill would raise that tax to 2.35%. The reconciliation bill
    expands the tax to include investment income (dividends, capital gains,
    etc.) as well as earned income. It still applies only to individuals who
    show income over $200,000 and couples who report income over $250,000.

Comment:  This tax makes up for the cut-back and
push-back on the Cadillac tax. In contrast to the Cadillac tax , this
tax is limited to those at the very top of the income ladder. Unlike the
middle-class, those earning over $200,000  have  enjoyed significant
tax breaks and income hikes in recent years. They are in a much better
position to afford the increase. It’s worth noting that other countries
tax investment income to help fund healthcare.

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A Very Open Letter from an Oncologist

     During the holidays, I received the letter below from Dr. Peter Eisenberg, Medical Director at California Cancer Care, an oncology practice in Northern California.  A member of The Century Foundation’s Working Group on Medicare Reform. Eisenberg is a very experienced, and successful oncologist, who has served on the board of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the Association of Northern California Oncologists.

 

     One of the things I admire about Eisenberg is that he pulls no punches.  In the extraordinarily candid letter below he criticizes a health care system that pays physicians  fee-for-service for “doing more” in the form of ever more aggressive treatments.  

 

     Sometimes they are effective. Often they are not. Meanwhile, the same system pays little or nothing for what some call “thinking medicine”—consulting with other doctors, counseling patients, giving them choices, and offering services that recognize patients as human beings.

 

     “Medicare pays just $69 for a 15 minute office visit with an established patient; $103 for 25 minutes and $138 for a 40-minute visit,” Eisenberg observes. “As you might imagine” he adds, “even if our doctors saw back-to-back patients 10 hours a day, we would not generate the kind of dollars from evaluation and management fees on our Medicare population to pay more than a fraction of our costs, including rent, salaries for our large staff and our new electronic medical records.

 

     But Eisenberg does not just blame “the system.”  He recognizes that all of us—doctors and patients, not to mention insurers and Pharma—help perpetuate a system that, too often, values the most expensive and aggressive treatments over patient “care.”  In our society, patients play a role; we expect that everything can and should be cured.  Or, as Eisenberg put it: “we expect that we can smoke 2 packs a day for 30 years and the doc will ‘fix it.’”

 

      In the eye-opening  final section of this letter, Eisenberg talks, very specifically about the “financial inducements” that lead many oncologists to decide which drugs to use—and  how frequently to administer them—based, not on what is best for the patient, but on what will maximize the physician’s reimbursement.

                                      

   


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How Soon Can We Expect National Health Reform?

On this blog, we have debated how soon Americans will be ready for national health reform.  Many observers believe that we’ll only get reform when more people are uninsured—specifically when more middle-class and  upper-middle-class families find themselves “going naked.”

The chart below comes from a new Commonwealth Fund Report which shows that while two-thirds of low-income adults (earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold) were uninsured or underinsured in 2006, just 17 percent of those earning more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) were either underinsured or uninsured at some point during the year.

 

Uninsuredandunderinsured_2

“Underinsured” is defined as someone who finds himself spending 10 percent or more of his income on out-of-pocket medical expenses. (For those earning less than 200 percent of FPL, the number is 5 percent.)

The report observes that employers are continuing to back away from offering health benefits:  “Between 2000 and 2005, the proportion of workers receiving employer-provided health insurance declined from 74.2 percent to 70.5 percent,” and again “middle- and lower-wage workers,” suffered most, with “the largest decreases” hitting this group.

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Pilots Use Checklists. Doctors Don’t. Why Not?

This is a question Dr. Atul Gawande explores in the December 10 issue of The New Yorker. “The Checklist” is a shocking story, it’s an important story—and it’s also very long. I, of course, would be the last person on earth to criticize someone for “writing long” but it occurs to me that many of HealthBeat’s readers may not have the time to peruse the full nine-page story, so I decided to offer a capsule summary here. (To read the story in its entirety, click here).

Gawande is the author of one of my favorite healthcare books, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, and he writes wonderfully well. This piece begins with a riveting tale of a three-year-old who falls into in icy fishpond in a small Austrian town in the Alps. “She is lost beneath the surface for 30 minutes before her parents find her on the bottom of the pond and pull her up.” By then “she has a body temperature of 68 degrees—and no pulse.” A helicopter takes her to a near-by hospital. 
There a surgical team puts her on a heart-lung bypass machine. She now has been lifeless for an hour and a half. Gradually, the machine begins to work. After six hours, her core temperature reaches 98.6 degrees, but she is hardly out of the woods. Her lungs are too badly damaged to function, so the surgeons use a power saw to open her chest down the middle and sew lines to and from an artificial lung system into her aorta and beating heart. “Over the next two days, all of her organs recover except her brain. When a CT scan shows global brain swelling, the team drills a hole into her skull, threads in a probe to monitor cerebral pressure, and adjusts fluids and medications to keep her stable. “

Slowly, over two weeks, she comes back to life. “Her right leg and left arm [are] partially paralyzed.  Her speech [is] thick and slurry.  But by age five, after extensive outpatient therapy, she has recovered her faculties completely. She [is] like any little girl again.” 

“What makes her recovery astounding,” Gawande writes, is “the idea that a group of people in an ordinary hospital could do something so enormously complex. To save this one child, scores of people had to carry out thousands of step correctly; placing the heart-pump tubing into her without letting in air bubbles, maintaining the sterility of her lines, her open chest, the burr hole in her skull; keeping a temperamental battery of machines up and running” all the while “orchestrating each of these steps in the right sequence, with nothing dropped . . .”

This, Gawande says, is what happens in intensive care units, every day of the year, all across the country. “Intensive care medicine has become the art of managing extreme complexity—and a test of whether such complexity can, in fact, be humanly mastered.”

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Complaints about Medicare Advantage Mount…While Congress Contemplates Slashing Fees Traditional Medicare Pays Docs

Recently I argued that eliminating the private insurance industry would not suddenly make health care affordable. But this is no reason to gratuitously overpay private insurers to provide health care to Medicare patients—while simultaneously planning to slash the fees that Medicare pays physicians.

Begin with the insurers. When Congress created Medicare Advantage, the program that allows private insurers to offer Medicare to seniors, it agreed to pay for-profit insurers about 12 percent more per patient than traditional Medicare would spend if it were covering those patients directly.  Add up those extra payments and they amount to a $16-billion-a-year subsidy for the health insurance industry.

Why the sweetener?  Lobbyists argued that the government would have to pay more to persuade for-profit insurers to join the Advantage program.  Moreover, they promised that the insurers would use the $16 billion to offer patients extra benefits like acupuncture and eye exams that they would not receive under traditional Medicare.  And Congress agreed. Now, think about this for a minute: legislators agreed to use our tax dollars to help for-profit insurers draw customers away from a government program that most people liked—and that cost taxpayers less.  This is not about saving money by transferring Medicare to the supposedly more efficient private sector. This is about the conservative agenda: some politicians are determined to try to outsource government to for-profit corporations.

Predictably, private insurers structured their plans to siphon off the healthiest seniors.  In New York City, for example, Oxford included free memberships to some pretty posh gyms as part of the package. They called it the “Silver Sneakers” program. Unfortunately, a year after seniors signed up they discovered that the number of gyms involved in the program had suddenly shrunk. The options that remained weren’t nearly as tony, and most were no longer located in upper-middle-class residential neighborhoods. Is this “bait-and-switch”? You decide.

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Reform under the Radar: What Medicare Needs to Do to Control Costs

Below, a very welcome contribution from Shannon Brownlee,  author of Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer (2007),  an outstanding report on why ‘more care’ often is not ‘better care’.   An award-winning journalist and Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, Brownlee has written extensively about health care for the many publications including the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

As I’ve suggested in the past, Medicare reform could be a stepping stone to national health reform. Ideally, we would do both simultaneously. In this post, Brownlee puts her finger on what is wrong with the way Medicare has traditionally tried to cut costs.  In future HealthBeat posts, we’ll talk more about specific proposals for cutting Medicare waste.

——

While Barack, Hillary, and Paul Krugman slug it out over the individual mandate, it’s worth pausing for a second to wonder why nobody is saying much about controlling health care costs. Yes, covering everybody is the right thing to do, it’s the moral thing to do, but it isn’t the only thing to do. Theoretically, it shouldn’t even be the hardest thing to do, because at its core, covering everybody is mostly a matter of being willing to come up with the money.  In reality, of course, coming up with the money is a political nightmare.

Controlling costs, on the other hand, is a much deeper problem, but oddly enough it may be easier to achieve politically at the federal level than universal coverage. That’s because cost containment can begin with Medicare, which has been instituting cost control measures under the radar for years. Its efforts have resulted in a lot of bitching and moaning from the hospital industry and doctors, but not a lot of political fallout.

So why aren’t Medicare’s cost control measures working? Because CMS has focused most of its efforts to limit spending on controlling prices. This strategy arises out of the mistaken belief that if they could just rein in the price per unit of care, the price of each CT scan and each office visit, they could control spending overall. This would be a dandy strategy in any other industry, but in health care it hasn’t worked out. And it hasn’t worked out because in health care, the real driver of cost is volume. Costs go up when the amount of care doctors and hospitals deliver to each patient goes up. And because the amount of care delivered doesn’t have all that much to do with the amount of care that patients actually need, whenever Medicare slashes the price it will pay, hospitals and individual physicians can always find ways to deliver more stuff in order to maintain their revenue stream.   

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New CDC Report: The Nail in the Coffin for Health Care Myths

On Monday the CDC released a landmark, and in many ways devastating, report on health care in the U.S. The report contains a wealth of data that, while not surprising to some, should help silence the dwindling few who insist that America’s health care system is doing just fine. As a public service, I thought it’d be helpful to list some of the myths that the report demolishes (with some help from other sources as needed).

Myth: If people don’t have health insurance or get medical care, it’s because they don’t want it.

Reality: Actually, the big issue with access is cost. According to the CDC report, more than 40 million Americans—almost one in five Americans over the age of 18—have foregone one of the following in the past year because they couldn’t afford it: medical care, prescription medicines, mental health care, dental care, or eyeglasses.

It’s not that uninsured people don’t understand the value of coverage. Last year a study from the Urban Institute found that less than 3 percent of uninsured adults and children have never had insurance or report having no need for insurance. That same report also found that the high cost of coverage alone explained over 50 percent of those cases where people are uninsured 

And even when the uninsured cite job-related difficulties as the reason why they can’t access employer sponsored coverage, the problem isn’t just that they can’t get it through work—it’s also that they can’t afford individual policies. (Individual policies are much more expensive than group policies, and in many states private insurers can charge individuals astronomical premiums if individuals have any “pre-existing conditions.)  According to the Urban Institute, for 79 percent of adults and 74 percent of children who are uninsured because of job-related problems, the high cost of individual insurance is a major problem.

Myth: The American system relies mostly, if not exclusively, on private enterprise to support health care.

Reality: Yes and no. While the U.S. does have the biggest private sector share of health expenditures in the world, making up 55 percent of our funding, personal health care expenditures (i.e. spending on actual patient care) is mostly public. The CDC reports that in 2005 the federal government and state and local governments combined paid 45 percent of personal health care expenditures; private insurers only paid 36 percent, with 15 percent coming from out-of-pocket payments. So much for the libertarian utopia.

There’s also a bigger public sector coverage presence than many would like to admit. Though two-thirds of insurance policyholders have private coverage, a Census bureau report from earlier this year noted that more than one quarter of Americans (about 27 percent) are covered by government insurance. The American model is much more of a private-public mix than some pundits—and candidates—are willing to admit.

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Is State-Level Health Care Reform Doomed?

It’s a waste of breath to say that health reform is a big issue in the states. But is it also the case that health reform in the states is a waste of time?

With health reform experimentation popping up across the nation, conventional wisdom has become, as Massachusetts State Senator Richard T. Moore put it in a blog post for the Commonwealth Fund, that states are “critical laboratories for quality and innovation.”

Yet while Moore is right to say that “common elements of success will serve as a useful learning experience for other states and national leaders in considering more comprehensive health care reform,” there’s another side of the issue to consider: there may be some states that can’t sustain universal coverage without more comprehensive federal reform—no matter how insurance programs are designed. There’s also a danger that failure at the state level could be used to argue that comprehensive health reform is simply an impossible goal.

Among the biggest problems with universal coverage is cost: how can we afford to insure everybody? One answer is to require that everyone buy coverage.  By mandating insurance, a state can spread the cost across a larger pool of people that includes low-risk individuals who can help share the burden of insuring high-risk individuals.

Without a mandate, no one would buy insurance until they were sick or elderly; the pool would be made up of people who are expensive to insure, and soon coverage would become unaffordable. The only alternative would be to pass laws saying that if you don’t sign up before you become sick, insurers have the right to refuse to cover you –or to charge you five times what they would charge a healthy person. This is what happens in many states today, which is why one serious illness can send a family into bankruptcy. If we want to say that insurers can’t leave anyone out in the cold—even if they are very sick –then we also have to say that everyone must participate in the system.

The question remains:  will mandates work at the state level?

Consider Maine. In 2005, Maine launched the nation’s first experiment
in universal health coverage through the “Dirigo Health Act,” named
after Maine’s state motto, “Dirigo,” Latin for “I lead.” Dirigo is
entirely voluntary, and as a result only 18,800 people (most of which
already had private sector insurance) have signed up for DirigoChoice,
the main arm of the program devoted to small businesses and
individuals. Meanwhile, some 130,000 Maine residents remain uninsured.

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The Unhappy Legacy of Medicaid

In September, the non-profit organization Public Citizen (PC) issued a report comparing Medicaid and Medicare payments to doctors in 10 states and Washington D.C. The results underline the fact that Medicaid has been designed, from day one, to give states an easy  cop-out when it comes to health care for the poor.

The study highlights cases where the disparities between what different states pay a doctor to care for a Medicaid patient are greatest: “In New York, doctors are paid $20 for an hour-long consultation with a Medicaid patient, while in higher-paying states, doctors receive an average of $157.92 for the same service – a difference of greater than sevenfold. The difference within a state between what Medicaid pays [a physician to treat a patient who is poor enough to qualify for Medicaid] and what Medicare [pays a doctor to care for an elderly patient] is just as dramatic. For this hour-long consultation, a physician in New York could earn $196.47 from Medicare, almost 10 times more than from Medicaid.”

Last month the AMA posted a chart of these and other disparities on its medical news website, and seen side-by-side, the comparisons are startling: a physician in New Jersey or Pennsylvania gets, on average, about one quarter as much for seeing a Medicaid patient as a Medicare patient; in New York and Rhode Island, less than a third; and in the nation’s capital less than half as much. Other states lie at the other end of the spectrum. Alaska, Wyoming, Delaware, and North Carolina all pay more for Medicaid than Medicare.

Is there any rhyme or reason to how states reimburse Medicaid care? Looking at Alaska (which pays more for Medicaid, relative to Medicare, than any other state) and New Jersey (which pays the least) it initially seems that poverty rates may factor into disparities. Alaska’s poverty rate is the 7th highest in the nation, so it would make sense that it would want to encourage health care for the poor. New Jersey, on the other hand, is almost last in the nation when it comes to poverty rates (no. 47 on the list) so the state may not feel as strongly about the need to ensure care for the poor.

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Conditional Cash Transfers: An Interim Model for Health Care Reform?

This past September, New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg welcomed 5,000 families into the pilot program of Opportunity NYC– the nation’s first conditional cash transfer (CCT) program. Based on a Mexican program called Oportunidades, CCT programs like Opportunity NYC (ONYC) provide financial incentives for poor households to “meet specific targets” in three areas: education, employment/training, and health.

I recently spoke with Héctor Salazar-Salame, Advisor to the Center for Economic Opportunity, which operates ONYC, about the health components of the program. I wanted to get an idea of the aims and strategy behind ONYC—and also to learn more about CCT as a potential model for thinking strategically about health care reform. 

According to the city’s press release, ONYC’s health incentives will be offered “to maintain adequate health coverage for all children and adults in participant households as well as age-appropriate medical and dental visits for each family member.” In terms of coverage, families can earn “$20 or $50 per adult per month for maintaining health insurance and $20 or $50 for maintaining health insurance for all the children in the family.”

The point is to encourage low-income families to enroll in health insurance plans. “Many families work for employers that offer insurance,” Salazar-Salame explains, but “many times the necessary employee contribution is quite high for low-income families. We’re providing an incentive for families to opt into their work-based, private health plan—and hoping that the incentives will help them offset the cost of the employee contribution.”

If parents are unemployed—or work for employers that don’t offer coverage—the family can still be eligible for health incentive rewards that keep them enrolled in Medicaid. “We know that to recertify for Medicaid can be a challenging yearly process that takes a lot of time,” says Salazar-Salame. (It’s worth keeping in mind that roughly 30 percent of parents who don’t manage to enroll or re-enroll their children in Medicaid have less than a high school education).  “We’re hoping the incentive will help them maintain the insurance that they’re eligible for,” Salazar-Salame explains.

Maintaining insurance is harder than it sounds. In October, Maggie wrote about  just how difficult it can be to stay enrolled in Medicaid and SCHIP, pointing to a Health Affairs article titled "Why Millions of Children Eligible for Medicaid and S-Chip Are Uninsured."

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