Sunday, August 22, 2004

Medicare reform hits insurers' opposition.

The biggest reform package to amend Medicare since its inception in 1965 (passed last fall) is famously unpopular with seniors (at least the ones who know the details). It also really hacked off Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike, who have objected to being lied to about the true price of the reforms by the White House (through the DHHS/CMS chief actuary, acting under "orders" (literally a threat) from his boss, CMS chief Tom Scully). Now comes the story in the August 22 N.Y. Times that insurers don't much like it either, because it would require them to insure regionally, rather than locally or on a statewide basis, which most if not all insurers claim is not financially feasible. The insurers, of course, like to insure relatively low-cost insureds, and those are found in greater numbers in the cities. Rural patients cost insurance companies more, and the insurers shun them like the . . . well, you know. Of course, the insurers could raise premiums to cover their increased costs, but that would make them less competitive against other insurance companies who aren't in the Medicare market.

This is one more small example of a nearly universal pattern in American health care. Cream-skimming the insurance market, shifting costs to someone else, jimmying your product or your market so that you avoid high costs and thereby help to ensure hefty operating margins -- all of these techniques, which the federal government applies just as skillfully as the private insurance companies, are designed to get "someone else" to pay for the most expensive health care. The result is patchwork affair that will someday have more holes than fabric. The truth is, there is no free ride in health care. Everything gets paid for by someone, whether it's taxpayers, shareholders, other patients' health plans (and therefore other patients and their employers), consumers whose costs are inflated by the cost of health care, citizens who travel further (and at greater risk) for trauma care because of ER closings, the hospital employees who work longer hours for less pay . . . the costs are covered many different ways, some hidden and some more visible. Many of the ways these costs are covered are bad for everyone's health and drive costs up higher than they otherwise would be.

This is nuts. Who is going to bite the political bullet and propose a realistic plan for covering the actual costs of providing health care to all? Neither Kerry nor Bush has really come up with anything close, though Kerry's health plan would do much more for the uninsured than Bush's (and at a much higher cost). Ironically, the Medicare reform law's requirement of regional insurance plans was probably a step in the right direction, but that isn't the way the insurers, who prefer business as usual, want to compete.
posted by tommayo, 10:01 PM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter