A great debate on the great divide…

There’s few general-interest political reporters who get health policy and health issues like Ron Brownstein of the National Journal (and formerly from the Los Angeles Times). Now with the primaries over, he clearly and fairly lays out the choice between the plans of the presidential candidates, and it is stark.

His two recent articles in May, The Health Care Divide, and Going Solo, deserve to be read in full, but here are excerpts (the emphasis is mine):

The Health Care Divide
by Ronald Brownstein, National Journal, Sat. May 17, 2008

Countless details separate John McCain’s health care proposal from those of the Democratic presidential contenders. But the most significant difference is fundamental and philosophical. The two sides are offering divergent visions about the basic role of health insurance in the nation’s social safety net. The fork in the road could not be starker.

The plans unveiled by Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton encourage the sharing of risk between the healthy and the sick, even at the cost of requiring the former to subsidize the latter. McCain’s proposal would maximize individual choice in obtaining coverage, even at the cost of reducing risk-sharing. This contrast, which reflects the broader divide between the Democratic emphasis on community and the Republican focus on personal freedom, is the wellspring from which all of the major differences in the candidates’ plans flow.

Confused press coverage and McCain’s shift to other issues have obscured the magnitude of his proposal. But he may be pushing for greater changes than the Democrats in both the way Americans pay for health insurance and how they buy it–changes that have potentially profound implications for the pooling of risk…

America subsidizes employer-provided coverage this way partly because it is administratively efficient, but mostly because it promotes the pooling of risk. By putting young, healthy workers into the same risk pool as colleagues who are older or sicker, employer-based coverage supports cost-sharing…

McCain’s plan could threaten these arrangements, although how much is uncertain. He would eliminate the tax “exclusion,” so that health premiums paid by employers would count as taxable income for workers. But he would replace the current exclusion with a refundable tax credit of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families…

But almost all analysts think that without the economic incentive that the exclusion provides, some employers would drop coverage. The great unknown is how many. Even employers who want to maintain coverage might find it increasingly difficult to do so…

These dynamics could prompt a modest shift from group coverage to individually based insurance–or a massive exodus…

There’s been a lot of heat about the debate at the federal and state levels around the idea of an “individual mandate.” What Brownstein points to is a far more central debate: group vs. individual coverage. Since people want coverage, the issue was not so much the individual mandate, but the individual market.

When Health Access and other groups evaluated a health reform proposal here in California, one of the key barometers we looked at was whether it increased or decreased the number of Californians subject to the individual insurance market, the least efficient, most expensive way to get coverage, where the consumer is alone, at the mercy of the big insurers.

Schwarzenegger’s original health reform plan expanded group coverage, but also expanded the individual market, but with some important improvements (guaranteed issue, medical loss rations, etc.) While consumer advocates supported many of those insurance reforms (like the insurance standards in this year’s SB1522), we still preferred the benefits of group coverage.

The negotiated plan, AB x1 1, got support in part because the modelling showed that it shrank the individual market, while also attempting to fix it for those who are left.

McCain’s plan does the worst of both worlds–it shifts millions into the individual market, as he deregulates the market as the same time!

Going Solo
by Ronald Brownstein, National Journal, Sat. May 24, 2008

Today, most Americans receive health insurance through large organizations (either their employer or the government). Only a small number of them (about one in 11) buy it on their own in the individual insurance market.

Almost all experts agree that the health care proposal that presumptive GOP nominee John McCain recently announced would shift that balance–perhaps substantially–toward individually purchased coverage. McCain wants to replace the tax benefit for employer-provided coverage with a personal tax credit of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families. That trade would cause some companies to drop coverage, driving an unpredictable number of their workers from employer-based insurance to individually based plans…

That raises an obvious question: Could the individual market handle the load? A wide variety of experts, including some in the insurance industry, say that the answer, at least for today, is no.

For starters, the administrative costs of individual policies are at least triple those of employer-based policies. That means a worker shifting from a group policy to an individual one receives significantly less coverage for the same price, notes Kenneth Thorpe, an Emory University health policy professor. And although group policies share risk between the young and old, the healthy and sick, the cost of individually based policies varies enormously, depending on the person’s health. Most important, people with prior health problems often cannot get affordable coverage–if they can get any at all. “If you are a 60-year-old woman with multiple chronic diseases, forget it,” Thorpe says. “There is nowhere for you to go in the individual market.”

America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade association, insists that the individual market works better than Thorpe and similar critics believe. But, tellingly, even AHIP is not arguing for more reliance on individually based insurance. “We haven’t advocated that,” says Karen Ignagni, the group’s president. AHIP has endorsed a McCain-like tax credit for the uninsured, but it opposes eliminating the tax break for employer-based coverage.

McCain would respond to the problems in the individual market by massively deregulating the insurance industry, a step that he argues would promote productive competition. Each state currently sets minimum standards for the health insurance plans sold within its borders. McCain would override that state regulation by allowing health insurers to sell in every state any policy approved in any state. That would mean states could no longer require insurers to pay for specific medical procedures (such as mammograms) or establish coverage requirements (such as maximum deductibles) if any other state set a looser standard. The state that regulates least would set the rules.

…many experts argue that McCain would be courting disaster by deregulating the insurance industry just as his plan drove more people into the already turbulent individual market. That could produce massive premium increases and diminished (or no) coverage for people in poor health. Again, it is revealing that even AHIP has not endorsed nationwide insurance sales.

While McCain would deregulate the industry, Democratic contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton would restructure it by imposing new national standards. Each Democrat would establish government-organized purchasing exchanges for individuals and small businesses, and would require insurers participating in them to sell to all applicants at comparable prices, regardless of their health.
The Democratic plans would face their own political challenges, but none may be as daunting as McCain’s task of convincing Americans that the health care system will work better for average families if there is less regulation of the insurance industry, not more.

With the primaries over, I hope the medica coverage really focused on this clear distinction between the two candidates. It’s never been as clear, or as important.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.

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