Monday, December 6, 2010

qotd: Socialized medicine comes to Yosemite

California Healthline
December 6, 2010
Innovative Plan To Keep Yosemite Clinic Open
by Diana Marcum

The medical clinic in Yosemite National Park... will become the first medical clinic in a national park to be operated by the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

It's an unusual solution to a problem that threatened to leave the storied tourist draw without a clinic.

Tenet -- the Dallas-based investor-owned hospital company that's owned the clinic since 1995 -- has been losing money on the facility every year.

"There's lots of patients, but not a lot of revenue," said Yosemite spokesperson Scott Gediman, adding, "The bottom line was we were looking for a way to keep a clinic open when it couldn't make money."

Most national parks don't have their own clinics because they are near cities. But no clinic in Yosemite would mean rangers, tourists and workers in the country's most visited park would be more than an hour's drive away from medical care.

In October, as the clinic's fate remained precarious, local climbers hung a sign reading "Save Our Clinic " high up on El Capitan, the iconic 3,000-foot vertical rock formation at the north end of Yosemite Valley.

Housed in a stone and timber lodge in the heart of Yosemite Village, the clinic, which opened in 1929, is a family practice and outdoor adventure emergency department rolled into one. The clinic has served about 7,000 patients annually.

"We see everything here," Sean Pence, the clinic manager, said. He added, "We get colds and flus, abrasions, heart attacks. We're orthopedic central -- lots of ankles and wrist injuries from falls. We see snowboarders with head injuries, climbers with frostbite."

The two agencies -- Public Health Service and the National Park Service -- will man the clinic together. The health service is providing doctors and nurses, and the park service is providing building maintenance and support staff.

Comment:  Yosemite visitors know how isolated Yosemite Valley is. With a large permanent park staff and the highest volume of tourists of all national parks, Yosemite's 24-hour clinic has been a godsend for those with urgent or sometimes life-threatening needs. So what were they to do when the clinic's operator, investor-owned Tenet, decided to leave because the clinic wasn't profitable?

Where do we usually turn when there is a crying need that the private sector fails to fulfill? Did I hear... The Government?

Yes. Talk about an ideal solution. Our own Public Health Service providing health care in our own national park. Socialized medicine at its finest. This is an essential service being provided to those who need it - not based on the ability to milk a profit, but based simply on meeting the health care needs of a community, albeit an unusual community including many foreign visitors.

Think of how fortunate the park employees and visitors will be. They will have available, 24 hours a day, medical services of which we can be envious. Think about that. Wouldn't it be nice if we had in our own communities 24-hour clinics staffed with our own public employees who were there with a mission to serve, rather than a mission to enhance profits?

Maybe we've been too wimpy in pushing merely for a single payer insurance program. We're already pay more per capita through the tax system than do nations with socialized medicine. Maybe we should be advocating for a better deal by improving and expanding the National Health Service so that we could all have access to it. Not just Medicare for all, but National Health Service for all.

The opponents of health care reform have moved the goal posts so far to the right that even a Blue Cross/Blue Shield-like public option has been excluded. Suppose we move our goal posts far to the left to a program of socialized medicine - an improved National Health Service for all. If the opponents of reform really believed that was a genuine threat, maybe they would meet us center field with a private health care delivery system financed by a single payer Medicare for all.

Can we expect that coming from a government that is too timid to stand up to the billionaires who have benefited from the massive transfer from the workers to the wealthy? A government that would dig our deficit hole deeper by not allowing a temporary, decade-long, partial tax holiday for billionaires to expire as scheduled? Don't think so. Obama promised health care for all, but instead he is delivering much more wealth for the wealthiest, and we're paying.

Friday, December 3, 2010

qotd: Victor Fuchs explains resistance to national health insurance

The New England Journal of Medicine
December 1, 2010
Government Payment for Health Care — Causes and Consequences
By Victor R. Fuchs, Ph.D.

The most obvious, easily quantifiable difference between the United States and countries that have national health insurance is that those countries spend much less on health care, whether measured per capita or as a share of the gross domestic product. Not only is the United States the highest spender, but the gap between it and the other countries is unnaturally large.

The difficult question is why the special interests have more influence over health policy in the United States than they do elsewhere. The answer probably lies in part in the structure of the U.S. political system, including the role of primary elections, long and expensive election campaigns, the separation of powers, the numerous congressional committees and subcommittees with overlapping authority, and the need for supermajorities in the Senate in order to pass meaningful legislation. But the quirks of the political system can't be the whole answer. If the U.S. public wanted a different outcome, over time they could move policy in that direction.

A second large difference between health care in the United States and in countries with national health insurance is the more important role of redistribution in the latter countries. Such redistribution is evident in the greater equality of access to care and in the sharing of costs through taxes on income or payroll, value-added tax or sales tax, or other forms of taxation that are either proportional or progressive with respect to income. Of course, all insurance is redistributive after the fact. The large amount of care utilized by a small proportion of policy holders is paid from the premiums of others who use little care. The important distinction is that under a national health insurance system, the redistribution occurs before the event, since it is clear that some individuals will pay much less tax than the value of their insurance and some will pay much more.

Since redistribution plays a greater role in the health care systems of other countries than it does in the United States, there is an implication that a more egalitarian ethos holds sway in Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. From de Tocqueville to the present, many observers have commented on the stronger role of individualism in the United States than elsewhere, but there is no consensus regarding its explanation. Possible contributors to the phenomenon include the heterogeneity of the population, the revolutionary origins of the country with its dedication to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and the absence of many centuries of a common language, history, and culture. In speculating about the possible rise of despotism in a democracy, de Tocqueville painted a grim picture of individualism taken to the extreme. He wrote, "Each . . . living apart, was a stranger to all the rest — his children and private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone."

The lower spending and the greater redistribution in countries that have national health insurance are not independent phenomena. If spending in these countries were at U.S. levels, the taxation required to accomplish their redistribution goals would probably wreck the economy. Given the social or political desire to redistribute health care resources, constraints on spending become a necessity. These constraints take various forms, such as controls over the number and specialty mix of physicians, limits on facilities and acquisition of expensive technologies, hard bargaining over prices charged by drug companies and other suppliers, and restraints on physicians' fees and incomes, among others.

Because the governments in these countries pay for most medical care — usually 70 to 90% of total expenditures — they are in a good position to apply these cost-restraining measures. They have what economists call "monopsony power." The U.S. government, although it pays for almost 50% of health care, makes very little use of its power to restrain costs. Thus, in one sense, Americans wind up in the worst of all worlds, with government bearing a big part of the burden of paying for health care, with the concomitant large burden of taxes, but exercising very little control over the cost of care. As an indication of how absurd the situation is in the United States, government currently spends more per capita for health care than eight European countries spend from all sources on health care.


The New England Journal of Medicine
June 6, 2002
What's Ahead for Health Insurance in the United States?
By Victor R. Fuchs, Ph.D.

The announcement that most of the nation's biggest insurers — Aetna, CIGNA, Humana, the United Health Group, and Wellpoint Health Network — will be introducing a new kind of health plan during the next year or two signals the beginning of a new era in health insurance in the United States. These plans feature a complicated menu of premiums, copayments, and deductibles. One of their major effects will be to shift the burden of health care costs from employees who use little care to those who use more. Thus, the new plans will be another nail in the coffin of health insurance as a form of social insurance.

The Reemergence of Social Insurance

The case for the fairness of the social-insurance model will be strengthened as people realize that most health problems have, at least in part, a genetic basis. The case for the model's efficiency will benefit from recognition that employment-based insurance has high administrative costs but provides no advantages to society as a whole. The desire to exert more direct control over increasing expenditures will provide an additional reason to introduce some form of national health insurance.

The timing of such a change, however, will depend largely on factors external to health care. Major changes in health policy are political acts undertaken for political purposes. The political nature of such changes was apparent when Bismarck introduced national health insurance to the new German state in the 19th century. It was apparent when England adopted national health insurance after World War II; and it will be apparent in the United States as well. National health insurance will probably come to the United States after a major change in the political climate — the kind of change that often accompanies a war, a depression, or large-scale civil unrest. Until then, the chief effect of the new plans will be to make young and healthy workers better off at the expense of their older, sicker colleagues.

Comment:  In his 2002 NEJM article, Victor Fuchs explained the inevitability of national health insurance in the United States, but cautioned that will likely only come to our nation "after a major change in the political climate - the kind of change that often accompanies a war, a depression, or large-scale civil unrest." In his current NEJM article, he provides plausible reasons as to why there has been such resistance to the inevitability of national health insurance - intense enough perhaps to require political upheaval, if we expect action. We have been trying war and deep recession. Does that mean our only hope left is "large-scale civil unrest"?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

qotd: Can states control private insurance premiums?

Kaiser Family Foundation
December 2010
Rate Review: Spotlight on State Efforts to Make Health Insurance More Affordable

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to work in collaboration with state insurance departments to conduct an annual review of "unreasonable increases in premiums" for "nongrandfathered" health plans. Plans that propose an unreasonable rate will be required to provide a justification for the increase to HHS, and post the justification on their websites.

Yet the ACA does not alter states' existing regulatory authority over health insurance rates. Such state authority varies dramatically, ranging from states with no authority at all to those that have robust authority to review and approve or disapprove rates before they are implemented.

Key findings include the following:

A state's statutory authority often tells little about how rate review is actually conducted in the state.

In many cases, statutory authority to disapprove rates does not extend to all market participants.

Most states we interviewed use a subjective standard to guide the review and approval of rates.

Most of the states we interviewed have made little or no effort to make rate filings transparent.

Many states lack the capacity and resources to conduct an adequate review.

Comment:  Proponents of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) have claimed that states will be given broad powers to control private health insurance premiums, making health plans affordable again. Can we really anticipate relief from the outrageous prices of private health plans?

Under ACA, the federal role in premium regulation is limited to reviewing unreasonable rate increases and requiring plans to post on their websites a justification for their increases. The law does not alter the states' existing regulatory authority over health insurance rates.

So how well are the states doing? Not very well. You need only look at the numerous media reports of outrageous premium increases that have provoked the state regulators to demand explanations for these unconscionable incidences of rate gouging (is it really gouging?). The followup stories reveal that the regulators have been successful in convincing insurers to roll back their increases to mere multiples of the rate of inflation. Year after year. The current level of premiums is proof that the state regulators have been ineffective in making decent health plans affordable.

This report from the Kaiser Family Foundation confirms that state regulation is spotty at best, but we know that even in states with greater regulatory power, premiums have continued to rise inexorably. The only successes in slowing premium increases have been in those instances in which the regulators permit plans to strip benefits and shift costs to patients. Of course, that has resulted in making health care unaffordable, impairing access and sometimes resulting in personal bankruptcy.

If a plan is going to provide adequate coverage for health services, those costs will have to be paid by the insurer, and there is no way that state insurance regulators can demand a rollback to rates that would deplete the insurers' reserves and drive them into bankruptcy.

It's nice that the Department of Health and Human Services has been granted the authority to require the insurers to post explanations for why their premiums are so high (it's the costs of health care, stupid), but it is disingenuous to say that this would have any real impact in slowing premium increases for adequate insurance plans.

An unfortunate, unique feature of health care financing in the United States is the profound administrative waste that has been a major contributor to placing us first amongst all nations in what we spend on health care. The premium game that state insurance regulators are playing is only one more example of that waste. 

Single payer supporters already know what we should do to reduce this egregious waste. Eliminate the insurance middlemen and replace them with our own public monopsony (single buyer) - an improved Medicare for everyone. Then we can use more effective and more equitable single payer tools to slow future cost increases.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

qotd: Fiscal Commission - "hastening the public option"

Final Report of National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform
December 1, 2010

From a discussion of the final recommendations, to be voted on by December 3:

Sen Dick Durbin (D-IL):  We are hastening the day when the only option left will be a public option.  

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI):  I think Sen. Durbin probably said it right. We are hastening the day when the only option is the public option. I think you're right (directed to Sen. Durbin), and I think that this advances that possibility and likelihood.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX):  I would agree with Sen. Durbin... you are hastening more people into the public option.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL):  To say that we're going to reduce our deficit and our debt by asking Medicare beneficiaries to pay more for their health care, I think is absolutely unconscionable.   ...already 30 percent of their income going to health care costs, I think is absolutely the wrong way to go when we do have other options. I put on the table, not as an if-all-else fails, a public option to reduce health care costs.

PNHP has issued a response to the commission recommendations:
"Deficit panel's Rx is wrong medicine: doctors' group"

Comment:  The commission members understand that health care is the greatest contributor to our federal budget deficit. Most of them recognize that the health spending recommendations in their final report are inadequate to control continuing cost escalation.

Some would reduce government spending by shifting more costs to Medicare beneficiaries, even though they understand that current out-of-pocket costs are already excessively burdensome. To others, that would be unconscionable.

There seemed to be an understanding by both Democratic and Republican commission members that the failure to control Medicare spending will hasten the day when the public option will be the only option.

Why a public option? Apparently there is bipartisan agreement that a government insurance program would be more effective in slowing future health care spending. They understand that government systems have worked well in other nations.

Where they are confused is that they seem to think that all you need is the option of choosing a government plan, and that is enough to enable all of the single payer efficiencies. Of course, this is where they're wrong. A government plan offered within our market of private plans is incapable of instituting most of the changes that make single payer systems work. As simply another player in our fragmented, dysfunctional system, it would be a very feeble force for efficiency.

So what does this really mean? It says that both Republicans and Democrats know that we are going to have to have direct government involvement if we ever hope to control health care spending, but they still need to learn that there is a tremendous difference between a powerful single payer monopsony and a wimpy public option.