Join the debate on “Reining in Medicare Costs without Hurting Seniors”

The January 26 post below (“How to Rein in Medicare costs without Hurting Seniors“) has drawn some 43 comments (including mine, as I responded to readers). I thought of turning a couple of my replies into posts, but then decided it might be more interesting for you to read them in the context of what other readers said.

I would love to see more readers participate in this thread. Comments are still open.

It’s a lively thread that takes on a number of third-rail issues: Does Medicare spend too much on pricey cancer drugs, end-of-life care and brand name hospitals?

 Should we try to spend less on end-of life care? Many say “Yes,” but Zeke Emanuel (a medical ethicist and oncologist who was part of the Obama team during the president’s first term), says “No.” I link to a column where he notes that “It is conventional wisdom that end-of-life care is an increasingly huge proportion of health care spending. . . Wrong. Here are the real numbers: end-of-life care (not just for the elderly, but for all Americans) accounts for just 10% to 12% of  total health care spending. This figure has not changed significantly in decades.”

He goes on to suggest that while we probably can’t make end-of-life “cheaper,” we can make it “better . . .  Here are four things the health care system should do to try to improve care for the dying, even if they won’t save money.”

A number of readers comment on what is driving Medicare spending. Is it “patient expectations,”  “doctors’ fear of litigation,”  “regulations that dictate nurse-staffing ratios,” “practice patterns that doctors learned long ago,” or is the biggest problem “promotional efforts by manufacturers?”

Other questions come up: Does anyone really have any idea how much Medicare will cost in 2022?  By then will Medicare have begun negotiating with drug-makers and device-makers for discounts on drugs (the way the VA does now, saving 40%)?  How far will Medicare go in using medical evidence to decide what to cover?

One doctor/reader points out that in his field Medicare has begun to refuse to pay for procedures when research shows that they are not effective. He and another reader agree that in this way Medicare can provide “political cover” for private sector insurers who will follow Medicare’s lead.

We also discuss the deficit, and whether we should be trying to address the deficit now — or wait until the recession ends and unemployment falls. Also, is the deficit already dissolving as CAP suggests? 

And is the deficit our biggest problem? On this question, you will find links to Paul Krugman, Peter Orszag (who analyzes the slow-down in health care spending over the past three years as a “structural change, not just the result of the recession) and Ezra Klein,

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Obama Wins Round One of Budget Negotiations

CNN is reporting that the “Fiscal cliff deal is down to wrangling over the details.” While others in the media continue to say that talks are stalled, everything I know about both the economics and the politics of the situation tells me that CNN is right.

At 4:30 this afternoon, CNN updated its story: “Both sides agree the wealthy will pay more, so now fiscal cliff  talks come down to how much Republicans can wring out of the White House in return for giving in on taxes.

“To President Barack Obama, it’s all about first locking in additional revenue from raising taxes on high-income owners, an outcome the GOP has long rejected.”

President Obama had made it clear that negotiations over government spending on safety nets such as Medicare wouldn’t begin until Republicans accepted a higher marginal tax rate for individuals earning over $200,000 and couples earning over $250,000.

The president dug in, and, according to CNN, he has won round one.

“Retiring Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio told CNN on Thursday that he sensed a shift in the House GOP approach during a conference meeting the day before.

“A GOP source told CNN that talks between staff members on both sides resumed Thursday for the first time this week, after Obama and Boehner spoke by phone the day before.”

A Two-Step Approach

It is not clear whether negotiations over so-called “entitlements” will be concluded before the end of the year. But CNN, reports

“All signs point toward a two-step approach sought by newly re-elected Obama — an initial agreement that would extend lower tax rates for income up to $250,000 for families, while letting rates return to higher levels from the Clinton era on income above that threshold.”  That agreement on taxes will be signed and sealed before the end of the year.

“Even conservatives such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal acknowledge the obvious — taxes on the wealthy are going up despite opposition by Republicans.

“‘Whatever deal is reached is going to contain elements that are detrimental to our economy,’ Jindal wrote Thursday in an opinion piece published by Politico. ‘Elections have consequences, and the country is going to feel those consequences soon.’”

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The Democratic National Convention, 1980 and 2012: Turning Points in American History

I originally published this post on HealthInsurance.org (www.healthinsurance.org) Check there for other posts on the election–just click on “Blog” at the top of the page.

Ted Kennedy’s speech at the 1980 Democratic convention still echoes in my mind. It remains the finest, most inspiring political oration that I have ever heard. Kennedy was speaking from a position of defeat. He had just lost the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter.

And yet this was a full-hearted, rousing speech delivered by a man who realized that in the battle ahead, the issues at stake were far, far more important than his own loss. Intuitively, he knew that the country had reached a turning point. (You can listen to the speech at The  History Place.

At that moment, Conservatives were ready to launch a revolution, and they would succeed. In November, Ronald Reagan won the White House, and his administration would set the tone for much of the next 30 years. Tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, a campaign to privatize both Social Security and Medicare. Health care reform would be off the table for many years.

Kennedy saw the danger ahead and addressed it: “My fellow Democrats and my fellow Americans, I have come here tonight, not to argue as a candidate but to affirm a cause. I’m asking you–to renew the commitment of the Democratic Party to economic justice.

“I am asking you to renew our commitment to a fair and lasting prosperity that can put America back to work.” Then, as now, unemployment was a pressing issue. In April of 1980, the unemployment rate jumped to 6.9%; in May it hit 7.5%.  “Let us pledge that employment will be the first priority of our economic policy,” Kennedy declared. “We will not compromise on the issue of jobs.”

Universal Coverage “The Passion of My Life”

Kennedy understood that “we cannot have a fair prosperity in isolation from a fair society. So,” he declared, “I will continue to stand for a national health insurance.”

“We must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real control over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family’s health shall never depend on the size of a family’s wealth.”

Kennedy had witnessed what economic inequality can mean when a child is sick.  Many years later he recalled “One of the searing memories in my life was being in a children’s hospital in Boston, where my son had lost his leg to cancer. He was under a regime that was going to take three days of treatment, every three weeks, for two years …
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The Affordable Care Act’s “Penalty”: If You Don’t Buy Health Insurance in 2014, How Much Will You Pay?

Note to readers; a longer version of this post originally appeared on HealthInsurance.org, along with a penallty calculator.

Despite the hullabaloo about the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that nearly everyone puchase heath insurance in 2014–or pay a penalty–the Congressional Budget Office estimates that only 1.4 percent of Americans will wind up paying the tax.

That is because the vast majority of us either have health insurance, or are exempted from the mandate for any one of a number of reasons.  For example, at the end of 2014 you will owe no tax if:

  • your income is low enough that your share of premiums (after federal subsidies and employer contributions) would total more than 8 percent of your income;
  • your income is below the income tax filing threshold, and so you’re not required to file taxes;
  • you were uninsured for less than three months of the year (If over three, the penalty is pro-rated);

As a result the Urban Institute estimates that just 6  percent of the population (roughly 18 million Americans) will even have to consider the question: “Should I purchase health insurance, or pay a tax?” That’s right: a whopping 94 percent of the population will have no reason to worry about paying a penalty.

And 11 million of that 18 million will be low-income or middle-income Americans who are eligible for a government subsidy to help cover the cost of their premiums. Chances are, most of them will take the government up on its offer.
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What Will the Supreme Court’s Decision Mean for the November Election?

Thursday, when Chief Justice Roberts explained that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is constitutional because the “penalty” that some Americans will have to pay is, for all practical purposes, a “tax,” you could hear tea cups shattering from Billings to Boca Raton. In conservative and libertarian circles, the initial reaction was shock, but it didn’t take long for President Obama’s opponents to rally.

The word “tax” might as well have been a pistol shot at a horse race. In the blink of an eye, Obama’s opponents were off and running, megaphones in hand, blasting the president for lying to the American people while hiking taxes under the guise of healthcare reform. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign then began providing regular Twitter updates on the campaign contributions it was raking in following the decision. Friday, it announced that it had collected $5.5 million.

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Immigrants Exploit Our Health Care System…Right?

There’s no easier punching bag in politics today than undocumented immigrants. They can be blamed for any number of problems—including high health care costs. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), for example, insists that “the costs of medical care for immigrants are staggering.”

But a handful of hot-off-the-press reports tell a different story. A just released Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study concludes that while immigrants are indeed “more likely [than American citizens] to rely on emergency rooms or public clinics for health care” the cost of caring for immigrants is much less than alarmists would have you believe.

This conclusion clashes with the widespread conception that emergency rooms around the nation are filled to the brim with Mexicans—all on the dime of the American taxpayer. In fact, a November UCLA study showed that “undocumented immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries are 50 percent less likely than U.S.-born Latinos to use hospital emergency rooms in California,” the state that incurs the most undocumented immigration-related costs. (The lower rate of hospital use is due to the fact that undocumented immigrants tend to be young and healthy. After all, border-crossing is a rough experience).

Of course, it’s not the rate of health care use that has people worried—it’s the cost of use. But a 2006 RAND study concluded that in 2000, health care for undocumented immigrants between 18 and 64 years old cost taxpayers about $11 per household—roughly the price of a cheeseburger in Manhattan.

Part of the reason the price tag is so low is that our health care
system does only the bare minimum for undocumented immigrants. The CBO
reports that 1986 Medicaid reforms stipulated that immigrants could
receive emergency Medicaid for must-have-care situations like
childbirth. But “emergency Medicaid covers only those services that are
necessary to stabilize a patient; any other services delivered after a
patient is stabilized are not covered.” Undocumented immigrants are
only assured enough health care to make sure they don’t die; so the
costs of emergency Medicaid are very low.

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Obama Says No One Should Be Forced to Sign up For Insurance; Edwards Says If You Don’t, He’ll Garnish Your Wages—Who is Right?

John Edwards’ declaration that under his health reform proposal anyone who refuses to sign up for health insurance will be subject to having their wages garnished has led to a blogstorm of often confusing debates.  Under national health reform, should everyone be required to enroll? The Edwards and Clinton plans have mandates insisting that all Americans purchase insurance; the Obama plan has a mandate for children, but not for adults

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman stirred controversy Friday by defending Edwards, and criticizing Barack Obama: “Under Obama’s health care plan, healthy people could choose not to buy insurance—then sign up for it if they developed health problems later,” Krugman observed. “As a result, people who did the right thing and bought insurance when they were healthy would end up subsidizing those who didn’t sign up for insurance until or unless they needed medical care.”

On Sunday former FCC Commissioner Reed Hundt called Krugman out on TPM Cafe in a post headlined “Ease up, Dr. Krugman.” According to Hundt: “The very idea of government mandates directed to individuals evokes a command-and-control model that disturbs citizens who want to enjoy certain freedoms in choosing health care.” As of yesterday, Hundt’s post had drawn some 60 comments—some on point, others muddying the waters.

Meanwhile, at TNR Jonathan Cohn weighs in with a long discussion of just how many people Obama’s plan might leave uncovered—and suggests that one of Obama’s advisers has information showing that under Edwards’ plan, even more Americans would be left “going naked.”

Because the conversation in the blogosphere has become such a mix of good information, misinformation and false assumptions, I’ve decided to try to spell out, as clearly as possible, why we need a mandate. Very simply, it addresses a serious defect in our health care system:  under existing rules, you don’t have to buy insurance, but you can be priced out of the insurance system if you are sick.

After examining that problem–and looking at how requiring insurance solves it– I’d like to answer a sensible question that observers like the Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum have raised: Why force people to buy insurance? Why not just tax everyone, put the money in a pool similar to the Medicare Trust Fund, and use it to buy universal insurance?

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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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Health Care Reform: What Do Americans Want? (Or Think They Want?)

On the surface, it seems that American voters have made their will clear.  Poll after poll shows that they are calling for a major overhaul of our health care system.

But when you look closer, their responses bristle with contradictions, contradictions that I think the reform-minded presidential candidates will have to consider when deciding how to approach health care reform. 

In a poll reported in Health Affairs at the end of last year, sixty-nine percent of respondents rated the US system as “fair” or “poor.” Yet in the same survey, when asked about their own experience with receiving medical services or with their own physician, 80 percent who had received care in the last year ranked their care as “excellent” or ”good.”

Other polls reveal the same pattern.

According to a survey released by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner in July, voters express doubts about the quality of the American health care system (with 49 percent dissatisfied), while 74 percent were dissatisfied with the cost.   Yet, “at another, more personal level,” the pollsters note, “a slightly different picture emerges. Fully eight in ten (82 percent) describe themselves as satisfied with the quality of the health care they receive personally. This number jumps to 90 percent among seniors (64 percent very satisfied), but includes impressive majorities of nearly all groups…”

Nevertheless, when the pollsters asked the same group about health care reform, three-quarters called for “major changes” or “completely rebuilding” the system. 

If they are satisfied with the care they are receiving, why would they want radical change? Because they don’t feel secure that they will be able to keep what they have:  “There’s a precariousness to Americans’ contentment with their own health insurance coverage,” the Kaiser Family Foundation reported after looking at a number of polls at the end of last year.  “Among the insured, six in ten are at least somewhat worried about being able to afford the cost of their health insurance over the next few years, and nearly as many (56 percent) said they worry that by losing a job, they or their family might be left without coverage.”

This, then, is why so many Americans want universal health care: it would guarantee that they and their families would always be covered.

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How Wall Street Reacts to Fraud in Our Health Care Industry

This appeared on Bloomberg News today:

“WellCare Shares Jump After Analyst Calls Fraud Probe `Limited’

Nov. 20 (Bloomberg) – WellCare Health Plans Inc., the U.S. health insurer under investigation for possible government overpayments, rose the most in two weeks in New York trading after an analyst upgraded the company.

“The analyst, Carl McDonald of CIBC World Markets in New York, called the probe ‘limited’ and raised his rating of WellCare to ‘sector outperform-speculative’ from ‘sector perform.’ WellCare rose $2.38, or 6.8 percent, to $37.39 at 9:40 a.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading after touching $38.14.

“A U.S. government raid of WellCare’s Tampa, Florida, headquarters on Oct. 24 yielded thousands of records, including papers pulled from a shredder bin and files on offshore bank accounts, according to court filings. McDonald said the filings suggest the probe is focused on Florida’s Medicaid program for the poor.

“’It’s possible that the Florida Medicaid investigation spreads into other areas, but the document seems to rule out widespread, systemic fraud,’ the analyst said in a note to clients today.”

Bloomberg also reveals that: “The agents seized records from the desks of Chief Executive Officer Todd Farha and Chief Financial Officer Paul Behrens, according to the court records. From Behrens’ desk, agents grabbed a document called the ‘Stairway to Heaven Plan,’ according to the inventory.

“Also taken were wire transfers, tax returns, bank accounts in the Grand Cayman Islands, a calendar of political visitors and contributions, and phone lists. One seized document was labeled ‘Re: Possible Kickback,’ according to the court records”.

Yet none of this seems to bother the analyst who upgraded the stock or the many investors who followed his upgrade–pushing the share price up 6.8 percent this morning.  The analyst predicts that “that WellCare [will] settle, pay a fine, but remain in all its businesses, rather than being put out of business.”

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