Obamacare’s Opponents Spread Doubt and Confusion About Small Business Exchanges

In the past, I have reported on misinformation about healthcare reform going viral. It has happened again, and this time, reform’s critics have outdone themselves.

In March, the Obama administration proposed revising the rules governing insurance marketplaces or “exchanges” where small business owners will be able to pool their buying power, and purchase affordable, high quality insurance for their employees. The change to the rules is small, and it is temporary.

Nevertheless, Obamacare’s critics pounced, and soon began distorting what the administration said. USA Today quoted the Chamber of Commerce (long a foe of reform), claiming that the small business exchanges “will be of little or no value to employers, or by extension, their employees.”

                                     How Small Business Exchanges Lower Premiums

Before considering the charges, let’s review what the health reform law’s Small Business Health Options (SHOP) exchanges offer. Today, insurers charge small companies 18 percent more because the administrative costs of hand-selling policies to small groups are high.

But in the SHOP Exchanges, small businesses automatically become part of large groups. Some will qualify for tax credits.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates premiums will fall by 2 percent to 11 percent. Meanwhile those premiums will buy far better coverage. (Policies sold in the SHOP Exchanges will have to meet the high standards set for plans in the individual exchanges).

                             The Proposed Change: What the Administration Actually Said

Now consider the proposed change. Originally, the Affordable Care Act called for opening SHOP exchanges to employees in 2014. First, the employer would choose a tier of insurance. (Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum tiers will pay 60 percent to 90 percent of an average group’s covered benefits, with any individual’s out-of-pocket spending capped at roughly $6,000.) Employees would then pick plans from that tier.

But Washington had assumed that states would be eager to help their small businesses by setting up exchanges. Today, only 16 states and the District of Columbia have begun. Now the administration realizes it will need more time to set up the IT that millions of employees will need to navigate exchanges in 34 states.

 HHS still plans to open the exchanges in 2014, but only to employers. They will survey the many plans available, and then pick one for their employees. “Employee Choice” will be delayed – but just for one year. And the postponement will apply only to the 34 states that have not set up exchanges. In 2014, the other 16 states and D.C. can (and probably most will) open exchanges to employees.

Nearly 40% of small businesses in this country do business in the 17 states implementing their own exchanges,” observes John Arensmeyer, president of Small Business Majority (SBM), a non-profit advocacy group. And “starting next year, small employers will still be able to pool their buying power in the exchanges, giving them the kind of clout large businesses currently enjoy.”

“This is not a failure, it’s a bump in the road,” Small Business Majority’s Rhett Buttle told me.

                                               The Attack Begins

Nevertheless, Robert Laszewski, a long-time health reform critic, jumped on the bump, telling Modern HealthCare: “Offering a single employer all of the exchange options is a complex undertaking . . . a delay means that the exchange isn’t going to offer any advantage over the employer simply staying with their existing insurer.”

Laszewski suggests that “a single employer“ will not be able to choose from all of the exchange options.” This is simply not true. Business owners will choose from all plans in the exchange. As for an employer keeping his “existing” coverage – why would he do that? The policies in the exchanges will offer better coverage for less.

Above, the opening of a post that I wrote for HealthInsurance.org.   To find out more about why Lawzewski’s is bashing small business Exchanges–and what what Time’s Joe Klein, the Wall Street Journal and Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff had to say– read the entire post on HIO.   You’ll also find out  why some of us think that the importance of “consumer choice” may be “way overblown.”

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Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin and why is he saying such terrible things about health reform?

Today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing entitled: Unaffordable: Impact of Obamacare on Americans’ Health Insurance.  (Always nice to know that our elected representatives are keeping an open mind.)

Prominent on the list of witnesses: “Douglas Holtz-Eakin.” Even before reading his testimony, I knew what Holtz-Eakin would say: young, health Americans should brace for “sticker shock.”  Conservatives like Holtz-Eakin tend to stay on script. However stale the rhetoric, they firmly believe that if you repeat a sound-bite often enough, people will believe it.                                     

                                        Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin?

If you recognize the name, it’s probably because Holtz-Eakin has become a familiar figure in the mainstream media, quoted in the New York Times, writing Op-eds for Reuters and Politico.com, and appearing, not only on Fox Business News, but on CNN and the PBS’ Newshour.

Alternatively, “Holtz-Eakin” may ring a bell because he served as a member of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), and as Director of Bush’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO.)

In a remarkably candid 2011 interview, Holtz Eakin recalled his tour in the Bush administration:

“Going into the summer of 2001, things were getting worse. . . When we first went in and talked to the President, Glenn [Hubbard] and Larry Lindsey said, ‘Mr. President . . . We’re probably not going to run a surplus on budget.  We’re going to run a deficit.”

Bush’s reply: “We’re not going to run a deficit. If you come in here with a deficit, you’re both fired. Go fix it.’”

We ended up running a budget surplus of one billion dollars,” Holtz-Eakin confided, “driven by gimmicks of remarkable proportions.”
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Health Wonk Review –Waste, Warnings and the Future

 

Last week I hosted Health Wonk Review for HIO.  This round-up of some of the health care posts published over the past two weeks includes:

–  A piece by Managed Care Matter’s Joe Paduda that takes a hard look at “Flu season and Tamiflu,” and asks “Which one’s more hyped?”

 – A investigative post on Health Care Renewal that reviews “The Tragic Case of Aaron Swartz,”  the young computer activist who faced criminal charges for downloading thousands of scientific scholarly articles from the site JSTOR. After being pursued by a “tough as nails, relentless federal prosecutor,” Swartz committed suicide. Yet blogger Roy Poses notes, this same U.S. Attorney has been “soft as a marshmallow when dealing with top executives of health care corporations.”

– A post by The Hospitalist Leader’s Brad Flansbaum questioning the ACA’s assumption that a high rate of hospital readmissions signals waste. Just how many were preventable?

 –  In  a provocative post on Health Business Blog, David E. Williams asks why Cincinnati hospitals are furious because some employers have signed up for an insurance plan that would pay all hospitals just 40% more than Medicare pays for the same service.  The Hospitals claim  that isn’t enough. Moreover, each hospital would like to set its own prices—quietly. (This allows brand-name hospitals to charge far more than some of their competitors, for exactly the same services. )

 – On Wright on Health, Brad Wright describes a new rule, proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services that could prove “disastrous” for patients on Medicaid: “HHS is now attempting to woo states into participating in the Medicaid expansion by allowing them to increase cost-sharing in Medicaid” for all but the poorest of the poor. (More bloggers and reporters might want to write about this. The proposed rule will be open for comment until Feb. 13.)

 

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Ignore the Hype: Why Health Insurance Premiums Won’t Skyrocket in 2014

Health reform’s critics are sounding the alarm: in 2014, they say, health insurance premiums will climb, both for small businesses and for individuals who purchase their own coverage. “Hold onto your hat,” writes  Bob Laszewski, editor of Health Care Policy and Market Place Review. “There Will Be Sticker Shock!” 

Laszweski’s piece has been cross-posted on popular blogs, and his forecasts have been popping up in mainstream newspapers, including  USA Today Such wide circulation makes Laszewski’s warnings worthy of attention, and compels me to ask an important, if impertinent, question: Is what he says true?

Cherry-picking a CBO report

The Congressional Budget Office expects  that the ACA will have a “negligible” effect on the premiums that large employers pay for insurance, and most experts agree. But in the individual market, Laszewski claims that CBO projections show “10% to 13% premium increases.”

Here is what the CBO actually said:

About 57 percent of people buying [their own] insurance would receive subsidies  via the new insurance exchanges, and those subsidies, on average, would cover nearly two-thirds of the total premium.

“Thus, the amount that subsidized enrollees would pay would be roughly 56 percent to 59 percent lower, on average, than the premiums charged under current law.”

Wait a minute: “56 to 59 percent lower?” Where does Laszweski get “10 percent to 13 percent higher?

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Subsidies: Will You Receive a Tax Credit to Help You Buy Insurance in 2014? How Much?

Beginning in 2014, millions of Americans will discover that they qualify for subsidies designed to help them purchase their own health insurance. The aid will come in the form of tax credits, and many will be surprised by how generous they are.

Not only low-income, but moderate-income families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) – currently $44,680 for a single person and $92,200 for a family of four – will make the cut.

Yesterday, I posted about subsidies on healthinsurance.org. The post includes a calculator which tells you whether you would be eligible, and how much you would receive. Even if your employer offers health benefits, you might qualify for a tax credit  if the plan too expensive, or too skimpy. (I explain how the government defines those terms.) I also explain how the government calculates subsidies, and what happens if you live a place where healthcare is particularly expensive.

Click here for the full post   If you like, come back here to comment.

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Health Care Reform: Stage Two

Last week, my editorsat  the Health Insurance Resource Center (Healthinsurance.org) challenged me to write a letter to President Obama and suggest what he should do next to advance reform. They were looking for a “new, big idea.”

After thinking about it, I concluded that we don’t need another big idea.  The Affordable Care Act (ACA) contains a great many ideas. Now we need to implement them.

Critics of Obamacare have suggested that as we approach 2014, Washington needs to turn its attention to containing healthcare costs. In particular, they suggest that Medicare is too expensive.

But the fact is that if you read the legislation (and I have, more than once) , you’ll find that it already cuts Medicare spending by some $716 billion. And it does this without cutting medical benefits and without slashing Medicare’s reimbursements to doctors.

In addition, the ACA includes many carrots and sticks designed to encourage hospitals and doctors to provide more efficient, less costly, safer care. In the future they won’t be paid for doing More;  they’ll be paid for doing it Better–for Less. Only health care providers have the power to truly reform our wasteful health care system. Already we’ve seen some evidence that they are responding to the incentives: Medicare spending has slowed.

Finally, and most importantly, President Obama should reject any attempts to re-negotiate the ACA during budget talks. The ACA is not on the table. It is now the law of the land. The American people do not want to listen to politicians continue to debate healthcare. (They want their elected leaders to focus their attention on just one Big Idea: Jobs)

The election gave the president the green light to go ahead with reform.. Now, the administration needs to implement the legislation to so that we can see what works and what doesn’t. This will take time–but only then will we be in a position to revise, refine and improve on reform legislation. .

I hope you’ll read the entire post--and come back here to comment.

 

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The Future of Health Reform May Turn on Senate Races

Below, the introduction to a post that I published earlier today on Healthinsurance.org

While all eyes focus on the presidential race, the ultimate fate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could depend on the Senate contests in the states.

Even if Mitt Romney were elected, he alone could not overturn major provisions of healthcare reform. Only Congress can pass the legislation needed to change the ACA.

Republicans are expected to maintain control of the House, but if Democrats hold the Senate, they will be able to block House bills aimed at eviscerating “Obamacare.”

Republicans are expected to maintain control of the House, but if Democrats hold the Senate, they will be able to block House bills aimed at eviscerating “Obamacare.”

What is At Stake

If Republicans take the Senate, the two chambers could pass legislation that would:

  • eliminate the premium subsidies designed to make health insurance affordable for middle-income and low-income families
  • bring an end to Medicaid expansion, and
  • rescind the individual mandate that everyone buy insurance or pay a tax.

Under “budget reconciliation,” Republicans would need only a simple majority to pass such legislation. In the Senate, 51 votes would do it. Today, Republicans hold 47 seats.

Razor-sharp margins in many states make it impossible to predict outcomes. Polls only give us a blurry snapshot of one moment in time – and in states like Arizona, candidates have been trading leads from week to week.

Much will depend on the demographics of who turns out to vote.

What Could Happen: Three Scenarios . . .

To read the rest of this post please go to HealthInsurance.org

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Dear HealthBeat Readers,

 

As I have mentioned in the past, I am now posting on healthinsurance.org as well as here on HealthBeat.  (I write separate pieces for the two sites; sometimes we cross-link the posts.)

Healthinsurance.org (HIO) is a consumer-focused guide to health insurance and a vocal advocate of health care reform. An independent web site, it was founded in 1994 to arm consumers with the information they need to understand insurance coverage and health reform proposals, compare policies and find affordable medical insurance. HIO is not an insurance company or broker, although it links to sites where shoppers can get pricing and information on plans.

HIO’s articles and blog posts from health care writers are more often than not critical of the insurance industry for long-standing practices that include denial of coverage due to pre-existing conditions, cancellation of policies when customers fall sick, and the industry’s failure to include maternity benefits in most individual plans.

Today, both Linda Bergthold (who worked on the Clinton Health Reform plan and was the head of the Obama health care blog team in 2008) and U. of Chicago ProfessorHarold Pollack (who has published widely about poverty policy and public health) contribute to healthinsurance.org. I urge you to take a look at their posts. (Just go to the top of the site’s homepage and click on Blog.)

Below, you will find the first section of a post that I published on healthinsurance.org about a week ago, with a link to the rest of the piece.

This week, HIO published another post where I attempt to counter the fear-mongering about reform. Gloomsters predict that as more Americans are insured, doctors’ waiting rooms, hospitals and ERS will be packed. Some of reform’s opponents warn that you won’t be able you get an appointment with your own doctor. Others suggest that as demand for medical care rises, so will prices.

The number-crunchers at Price Waterhouse Cooper’s Health Research Institute have just published a report telling us that this is Not True.  Check out the post.

Finally, long-time readers no doubt noticed that when I re-launched HealthBeat last summer, the website sported a new, greatly improved design.  It’s sharper, more attractive, and the “search” engine works!

When I began writing for healthInsurance.org last spring, HIO founder Charles Smith-Dewey volunteered to give HealthBeat a new look.  He also offered to host HealthBeat on his server.  Many thanks to Chuck for his generosity—I couldn’t have brought the blog back to life without HIO’s help.

Thanks also to HealthBeat readers for their loyalty and their comments. (Readership is back to where it was, and is growing.)

Finally, if you’re not getting e-mails telling you when I have published new posts, just go to “Subscribe to Maggie’s Updates” in the upper-right corner of this page.

 

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