New York Times

January 5, 2007

By PAUL KRUGMAN

 

Universal health care, much as we need it, won’t happen until there’s a change of management in the White House. In the meantime, however, Congress can take an important step toward making our health care system less wasteful, by fixing the Medicare Middleman Multiplication Act of 2003.

 

Officially, of course, it was the Medicare Modernization Act. But as we learned during the debate over Social Security, in Bushspeak “modernize” is a synonym for “privatize.” And one of the main features of the legislation was an effort to bring private-sector fragmentation and inefficiency to one of America’s most important public programs.

 

The process actually started in the 1990s, when Medicare began allowing recipients to replace traditional Medicare — in which the government pays doctors and hospitals — with private managed-care plans, in which the government pays a fee to an H.M.O. The magic of the marketplace was supposed to cut Medicare’s costs.

 

The plan backfired. H.M.O.’s received fees reflecting the medical costs of the average Medicare recipient, but to maximize profits they selectively enrolled only healthier seniors, leaving sicker, more expensive people in traditional Medicare. Once Medicare became aware of this cream-skimming and started adjusting payments to reflect beneficiaries’ health, the H.M.O.’s began dropping out: their extra layer of bureaucracy meant that they had higher costs than traditional Medicare and couldn’t compete on a financially fair basis.

 

That should have been the end of the story. But for the Bush administration and its Congressional allies, privatization isn’t a way to deliver better government services — it’s an end in itself. So the 2003 legislation increased payments to Medicare-supported H.M.O.’s, which were renamed Medicare Advantage plans. These plans are now heavily subsidized.

 

According to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, an independent federal body that advises Congress on Medicare issues, Medicare Advantage now costs 11 percent more per beneficiary than traditional Medicare. According to the Commonwealth Fund, which has a similar estimate of the excess cost, the subsidy to private H.M.O.’s cost Medicare $5.4 billion in 2005.

 

The inability of private middlemen to win a fair competition against traditional Medicare was embarrassing to those who sing the praises of privatization. Maybe that’s why the Bush administration made sure that there is no competition at all in Part D, the drug program. There’s no traditional Medicare version of Part D, in which the government pays drug costs directly. Instead, the elderly must get coverage from a private insurance company, which then receives a government subsidy.

 

As a result, Part D is highly confusing. It’s also needlessly expensive, for two reasons: the insurance companies add an extra layer of bureaucracy, and they have limited ability to bargain with drug companies for lower prices (and Medicare is prohibited from bargaining on their behalf). One indicator of how much Medicare is overspending is the sharp rise in prices paid by millions of low-income seniors whose drug coverage has been switched from Medicaid, which doesn’t rely on middlemen and does bargain over prices, to the new Medicare program.

 

The costs imposed on Medicare by gratuitous privatization are almost certainly higher than the cost of providing health insurance to the eight million children in the United States who lack coverage. But recent news analyses have suggested that Democrats may not be able to guarantee coverage to all children because this would conflict with their pledge to be fiscally responsible. Isn’t it strange how fiscal responsibility is a big concern when Congress is trying to help children, but a nonissue when Congress is subsidizing drug and insurance companies?

 

What should Congress do? The new Democratic majority is poised to reduce drug prices by allowing — and, probably, requiring — Medicare to negotiate prices on behalf of the private drug plans. But it should go further, and force Medicare to offer direct drug coverage that competes on a financially fair basis with the private plans. And it should end the subsidy to Medicare Advantage, forcing H.M.O.’s to engage in fair competition with traditional Medicare.

 

Conservatives will fight fiercely against these moves. They say they believe in competition — but they’re against competition that might show the public sector doing a better job than the private sector. Progressives should support these moves for the same reason. Ending the subsidies to middlemen, in addition to saving a lot of money, would point the way to broader health care reform.

Bullet Points for Legislators

  • Single Payer saves money.  For the past 20 years, states have commissioned studies on different types of health care systems.   In EVERY case, single payer was shown to be the only way to cover everyone and the only system that saved money and controlled costs.

  • Publicly financed does not mean government run health care.  YOU have publicly finance health coverage, but the government does not make decisions regarding your health care.

  • Cost conscious patients often don't get the care they need.   Most decisions are made by the doctor in concert with the patient, but the patient relies on the doctor's knowledge to make a decision.  Expensive tests and treatments cannot be ordered by the patient, only the doctor.

  • Lifestyle choices are not what is fueling high costs in health care.   The United States ranks low in general health indicators, but high in good health habits.  We smoke less, drink less and consume less animal fat that many other countries with better health indicators and much lower health care costs.

  • Businesses can accurately determine their health care costs and are not subject to unanticipated large premium increases.

  • It will reduce labor costs due to a more efficient way of financing health care, eliminating much wasteful administration.

  • Workers' Compensation costs will be reduced, likely by half, due to the fact that everyone has health coverage and there is no need for the medical portion.

  • It reduces the need for part time employees and provides easier recruiting.  There are no pre-existing conditions or Cobra issues.

  • Eliminates the oversight of health benefits and bargaining health coverage with employees.

  • It creates healthier personnel and more stable employees, reduces absenteeism and eliminates employer health coverage complaints.

  • It reduces employee health related debt and personal bankruptcies.

  • It frees up family income that can be spent on other goods and services, thus stimulating the economy.

Tips for Writing Letters to Editor

Follow guidelines for your local paper (word count, submission instructions, etc.)

Frame your letter in relation to a recent news item Use state specific data whenever possible (let us know if you need help finding some!)

Address counter arguments

Be aware of your audience and emphasize how Medicare for All is good for ALL residents of the state

Criticize other positions, not people Include your credentials (especially if you work in the healthcare field)

Avoid jargon and abbreviations

Don’t overload on statistics and minor details

Cover only one or two points in a single letter

Avoid rambling and vagueness

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