By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Assuming that Trump takes office on January 20, we can expect health care policy to shift from the left side of the Overton Window to the right, even as the only solutions that remain “on the table” are neoliberal and markets-first non-solutions. Let’s begin by setting the baseline for a rational and humane health care policy — i.e., not neoliberalism — as a universal benefit. From Richard D. Lamm and Vince Markovchic in the Denver Post:
U.S. is on fast track to health care train wreck
In 2015 we spent $3.2 trillion on health care, which was $10,000 per person in the U.S., ($25,000 for a typical American family). This is 17.5 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP). To put this in perspective, this is more than twice what most other developed nations spend on health care while insuring all of their residents. This year we are on track to exceed that amount with it being 18 percent of GDP.
Even with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, we still have 28 million people with no health insurance, and many more are under-insured due to rising co-pays and deductibles….
Of the $3.2 trillion health spending, 70 percent goes directly to fund the cost of our healthcare. The remaining 30 percent is spent on administration and profit, which is more than twice that of any other nation. In 2014, studies published by the Institute of Medicine, Rand Corporation, and the Center for Medicare/Medicaid Services estimated that out of total health care spending, as much as $900 billion, or about one third of our total spending, can be attributed to waste, fraud and abuse.
This current system is unsustainable, but who will tell the American public? We suggest that the solutions to the real problems of health care are hardly being talked or written about.
The ideal health insurance system is one that: provides free choice of hospitals and doctors; provides insurance coverage to all at all times (i.e., not tied to an employer); is affordable and will remove all risk of medical bankruptcy. This system should have an administrative cost of less than 5 percent and have everyone in the risk pool, thus making premiums affordable. We have such a system now: Medicare covers all persons over 65, those on total disability, and all renal dialysis patients.
Medicare, with all the fraud and other issues, still operates with about 3 percent to 4 percent overhead. That is much less than the profit and overhead added by U.S. health insurers, which is instead 15 percent to 20 percent. In addition, Obamacare, Veterans Affairs and Medicaid each add another entire layer of expensive bureaucracies. All these, along with the government being unable to bid for drugs purchased under Medicare, add up to unnecessary cost and waste in our system.
Similarly, there would be tremendous cost savings if under Medicare as a single payer, it is authorized to negotiate for hospital care on a more cost-efficient and more comparable basis across the nation.
So, the health insurance companies are parasites who should be removed. Now, I don’t know why Lamm and Markovchic don’t just lower the age for Medicare eligibility from 65 to zero, like Teddy Kennedy proposed. And I also don’t know why Democrats (including Sanders) aren’t prefacing every statement they make on heatlh care with “Of course, Americans deserve Medicare for All. Until then….” Instead, they’re digging in to defend a flawed system that hasn’t covered 28 million people, instead of going on the offense for the universal benefit. (That’s the difference between “resistance” and “revolution,” I guess. The one is reactionary; the other is, er, progressive.)
Anyhow, it is what it is and we are where we are. Absent a universal benefit, we get health care silos: ObamaCare, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veterans Administration, among others. In this post, I’m going to take a very quick look at the current news in each silo. All the silos are in decay and disrepair — except from the standpoint of those who profit from them, of course — and all suffer from neoliberal infestations, but the forms of decay and the degrees of infestation differ. So the post will be a bit of a patchwork, but then the health care system itself if a patchwork. As always, I welcome comments from readers with informed experience interacting with these systems, for good or ill.
ObamaCare: Repeal and Replace, But How, When, and with What?
On ObamaCare repeal, Chuck Schumer suggests: “It’s a political nightmare for them. They’ll be like the dog that caught the bus.” Heaven forfend Schumer should defend a universal benefit, but on this he could be right. Throwing 30 million people off the rolls is a heavy lift, even for Republicans. That’s because there’s really no popular consensus for doing it:
But the euphoria of finally acting on a long-sought goal will quickly give way to the reality that Republicans — and President-elect Donald Trump — have no agreement thus far on how to replace coverage for about 20 [or 30] million people who gained insurance under the health-care law.
Obamacare continues to be viewed unfavorably by Americans, but the politics of undoing the law are complicated. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll after the election showed 26 percent want to repeal it, while 17 percent want to scale it back. Nineteen percent want to move forward with implementation and 30 percent want to expand it.
It’s also not clear what would happen to Republican border states like Tennessee and Kentucky, that benefited signifacantly from Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare.
So the Republicans want Democrats to hold hands with them as they jump off the cliff. Let me know how that works out:
Some Republican aides say they may pursue a replacement through a series of small bills as opposed to one big measure. Leading Republicans such as Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas have said they want Democratic buy-in on a replacement plan. Breaking a filibuster would require the support of at least eight Democrats.
(Of course, reconciliation requires a bare majority, and the filibuster can be altered or abolished when the Senate adopts its rules at the start of a session.)
Now comes the American Enterprise Institute’s conservative health wonk James Capretta with an idea that cuts to the chase: Why not just “grandfather” all the people currently receiving benefits via the ACA and make whatever the new “replacement” system turns out to be prospective for new people seeking assistance?
It is also worth noting that Republicans have not had much luck in the past convincing people to accept radical policy changes by grandfathering those most immediately affected. George W. Bush’s proposed partial privatization of Social Security was supposedly only going to affect people aged 55 or younger. The same was true of Paul Ryan’s original Medicare voucher proposal.
(ObamaCare enrollment hit a record high this year, so I wonder if people were acting on rational expectations of a grandfathering solution. I know I thought of it.) So the 115th Congress should be interesting. However, if the 21st Century has taught us anything, it’s that it’s always possible to make a bad situation worse. Remember the ObamaCare rollout debacle? Does anybody believe the Republicans will do any better at a rollback?
Medicare: Balance Billing
Naked Capitalism covered ObamaCare’s balance billing problems back in 2013:
One of the proofs that Obamacare is really about helping insurers and Big Pharma rather than ordinary Americans is its failure to do much about the seamy practice known as balance billing.
Say you have a scheduled procedure, like getting a stent. Like most Americans who have health insurance, you are in an HMO or a PPO. Your doctor, who is in your network, schedules you for the operation at a hospital in your network. You assume the only thing you need to worry about is a fairly minor co-pay and recovery.
But weeks later, you find that the anesthesiologist wasn’t in your network, and you are hit with a $12,000 bill for his services. And this sort of scamming (hospitals knowingly putting people on a surgical team that they can bill at huge premiums to negotiated rates) is routine. And of course, if the ambulance takes you to an emergency room that is not in your network, the outcome can be catastrophic.
And now, the Trump administration is considering expanding this pleasant practice to Medicare:
“[B]alance billing” [is] why the American Medical Association is strongly supporting Donald Trump’s pick of [the aptronymic] Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicare. … In 2011, Price (an orthopedic surgeon himself) introduced a Medicare “reform” bill in Congress that, among other things, would have brought balance billing to the program. This
Balance billing is basically illegal for Medicare patients…
Permanently obliterating the financial security of helpless families with no or bad insurance as a loved one dies slowly and painfully of a chronic illness is a nice little profit center for providers. But it pales in comparison to the gravy train they might get if they can bring balance billing to Medicare. Seniors use far more care than the younger exchange population, and there are a lot more of them — 55.5 million, versus 12.7 million people on the exchanges. Perhaps most importantly, they’re quite a bit richer on average. Many seniors have been scrimping their whole lives to save for retirement, in keeping with decades of agitprop from conservatives and Wall Street, and the more sociopathic among the health-care population are licking their chops at the prospect of being able to devour those nest eggs.
(I like Ryan Cooper. The man can write.) So, like I said, it’s always possible to make things worse…
Medicaid: Privatization in Iowa
Let’s start out by noting that Medicaid has a serious neoliberal infestation problem:
More than two-thirds of states contract out some or all of their Medicaid program to private companies. The benefits of the practice and its impact on quality and cost of care have been unclear, however.
The Des Moines Register:
HHS believes 57% of Medicaid beneficiaries were enrolled in Medicaid managed-care organizations as of July 1, 2011, compared with 10% in 1991. The consulting firm Avalere Health projects that 75% of Medicaid beneficiaries will be covered by managed-care organizations starting in 2015. A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report, using fiscal 2011 data, found Medicaid managed-care plans received about 27%, or $74.7 billion, of federal Medicaid expenditures.
The rush into Medicaid managed care came despite limited evidence that the plans save money for states and the federal government.
Iowa’s Republican governor Terry Branstad controversially privatized Iowa Medicaid services, on the (ostensible) premise that the state would save money (see Lamm and Markovchic, supra). Oops:
Iowa Medicaid payment shortages are ‘catastrophic,’ private managers tell state
In a Nov. 18 letter to Iowa Medicaid Director Mikki Stier, a UnitedHealthcare executive also warned of financial problems. Kimberly Foltz, chief executive officer of the company’s Iowa branch, wrote to Stier that she appreciated the state’s efforts to address some of the issues, “but overall the program remains drastically underfunded.”
Foltz wrote that experts from the Milliman firm, who were hired by the state, underestimated by 40 percent how much it would cost to cover the tens of thousands of poor Iowans who were allowed to sign up for Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.
The mistake “suggests there were flaws in the rating projection,” [Foltz] wrote.
Oops. (Had UnitedHealthcare no data to check Milliman’s figures?)
Foltz wrote that one way to help make up for the shortfall would be to allow the managed care companies to negotiate down how much they pay pharmacies to fill prescriptions. She suggested her company could cut those rates by nearly 90 percent. Hill said the contracts are written in a way that would make it difficult for the managed care companies to opt out unilaterally. But she said the companies could argue that the state and its actuarial firm, Milliman, did not properly estimate the costs of covering care for Iowa’s poor and disabled residents. “Conceivably, that could be a ,” which could allow the companies to bail out of the project, she said.
A nice Christmas gift for Terry Branstad. (The 90% figure seems to me remarkable.)
Of course, the real solution to cost problems is to abolish the insurance companies altogether, and use the power of single payer to beat back Big Pharma. But then you knew that.
Veterans Administration: Creeping Privatization
Finally, let’s take a look at the Veterans Administration. (I’m by no means an expert in the VA, and so readers will correct me, but my general impression is that the VA rations by queuing but can’t admit it, which has caused them political problems. But once you’re in, the care is good, which presumably explains why veterans themselves don’t want to “privatize” it. However, I think privatization as a frame is slightly deceptive, as we shall see (even if Sanders adopts that frame).
So, here’s Trump doing the Trump thing, which is — and do not underestimate him! — translating policy into vivid phrases voters can grasp immediately:
TRUMP: “We think we have to have kind of , because some vets love the VA. Definitely an option on the table to have a system where potentially vets can choose either/or or all private.”
Brilliant of Trump to hijack the virulently memetic phrase “public option” — the bait and switch vaporware “progressives” used to suppress single payer advocacy in 2009 — with the conservative-sounding “public-privateoption.” And here Trump explains how such an option would work from the user’s perspective. Poltico:
Trump has insisted that what he wants is not to hand the veterans’ support mission entirely to the private sector. “No, it doesn’t have to be privatization,” he said in May. “What it has to be is when somebody is on line and they say it’s a seven-day wait, that person’s going to walk across the street to a private doctor, be taken care of, we’re gonna pay the bill.”
He has also proposed that all veterans be able to use their veterans’ IDs to get care at any hospital or doctor’s office that accepts Medicare.
Vets could use their ID cards! It’s brilliantly simple! It’s also a bridge too far for veterans:
But veterans’ groups see that as a major step toward privatization because it would allow veterans to opt out of the VA health care system. That is different from the recommendations of a recent federal Commission on Care, which pushed for the VA to oversee a network of qualified private health care providers to supplement VA-run hospitals and clinics.
But there’s less to this distinction than there seems to be at first sight. Trump proposes “walk[ing] across the street to a private doctor”; and the Federal Commission proposes “walk[ing] across the street to a certified private doctor.” Since the VA actually delivers health care, both solutions “allow veterans to opt out of the VA health care system,” and so both destroy the universality of the benefit. The Commission on Care (PDF) explains certification:
VHA credential community providers. To qualify for participation in community networks, providers must be fully credential ed with appropriate education, training, and experience, provide veteran access that meets VHA standards, demonstrate high-quality clinical and utilization outcomes, demonstrate military cultural competency, and have capability for interoperable data exchange.
Oh. Credentials. Not that I don’t want medical personnel to have them, but isn’t this rather a dog-whistle for liberals? And:
[A]ddressing veterans’ needs requires a new model of care: rather than remaining primarily a direct care provider, the VA should become an integrated payer and provider.
So, from being the American equivalent of the UK’s National Health Service, a “direct care provider” (even if the vile Tories are gutting it), the Commission proposes that the VA become more like Canadian Medicare for All, a single payer system. I told you it was a patchwork!
Now, let’s step back for a minute. The Commission was set up in 2014 under Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act (VACAA), which was designed to solve a queueing crisis through “choice,” i.e., by allowing veterans who are unable to get an appointment in a reasonable time to seek care outside the VA. Now, a suspicious mind would put this under the heading of a neoliberal pattern for destroying a universal public benefit: 1) Underfund the service; 2) Wait for the inevitable problems; 3) Publicize them; 4) Push through a privatizing solution; 5) Rinse and repeat until the public service is destroyed. The VACAA was quite small. The Commission’s proposals are not so small. And in a decade or so, if the neoliberals get their way, the VA will be where Iowa is today, even if it does pass through a single payer phase on the way.
That’s why I think the privatization frame is a little deceptive. Yes, the ultimate goal, as with all neoliberal programs, is privatization. But it can take place a little at a time. For example, from Stars and Stripes:
Concerned Veterans for America, or CVA, is a veterans advocacy group in the Koch brothers’ political network and has been one of the most vocal critics of VA since the 2014 wait-time scandal.
The CVA is poised to become more influential under the new administration, as President-elect Donald Trump has tapped the group to help overhaul the veterans health-care system. The most controversial proposal by the group is an expansion of veterans’ health-care options in the private marketplace – which critics, including traditional veterans advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers, say could lead to the dismantling of the current VA..
But CVA has not proposed a wholesale transfer of VA’s services over to the private sector – which is what “privatization” usually describes.
No, there is no “wholesale transfer.” Now. That’s for later, as with the Tories and the NHS.
So, what we have is a number of different battles on different fronts: ObamaCare, Medicaid, Medicare, and the Veterans Administration. It would be nice, and politically useful, if all these battles could be seen as a single theatre of war: Are we to have a humane and rational health care system — a universal benefit — or are we to have TrumpCare: An expensive and lethal mess?
 In of the earlier stories on Trump administration health care policy, the Times suggested that the Republicans seek a universal benefit. See FAIR, “Media Legitimizing GOP’s ‘Universal’ Health Plan That Doesn’t Exist.” I’ll believe it when I see it. The Democrats didn’t do it, so why would the Republicans?
 The 30 million figure comes from the Democrat nomenklatura at Think Progress, who helpfully calculate the number of deaths that will result. Ironically, they never calculate the lives saved with Medicare for All.
 Heaven forfend that any adult could use, say, their Social Security card for the same purpose.