No Health Care Bill is Better Than a Bad Bill

The new House bill for health care reform (HR 3962), unveiled by Speaker Nancy Pelosi on October 29th, will not fundamentally reform U.S. health care.

If you were to believe the hype that accompanied its release, you might think that it would be as important as Medicare and Social Security. The New York Times concluded that "This bill will take a long stride toward universal coverage while remaining fiscally responsible." Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman added: "The political environment is as favorable for reform as it's likely to get. The legislation on the table isn't perfect, but it's as good as anyone could reasonably have expected."

But this bill is not good enough to pass. It will not make a big enough difference in addressing the three main problems requiring reform--containing the spiraling costs of health care, providing universal access to affordable health care, and improving its quality. If we look at the provisions of this 1,990-page bill concerning just the first two of these three goals, we see that it will fail to deliver real reform.

After all of the political compromises along the way that have led to the introduction of the new bill (HR 3962), on the positive side we can say that it will introduce some limited reforms to the health insurance market, expand health insurance to some of the uninsured (primarily by expansion of Medicaid and by often-inadequate government subsidies to individuals and small employers for the purchase of private insurance); and help to address some other problems, such as the growing shortage of primary care providers.

But the negative side far outweighs the positive:

• Although supporters of the new House bill claim that it would expand coverage for as many as 30 million uninsured, we are actually likely to see an increase in the number of uninsured in coming years for these kinds of reasons--as costs keep going up, many Americans will be forced to drop
their present coverage because of inability to afford rapidly rising costs of premiums, deductibles and co-payments; there is no guarantee that the uninsured will be able to afford new private coverage (even with subsidies, which won't kick in for another four years); and expansion of Medicaid will
not take place until 2013 (many states are already pushing back with concerns that the their recession-strained budgets will not allow them to pay their share in adding to their Medicaid programs, potentially leaving millions of the poorest Americans uninsured.

• There are no effective cost containment mechanisms built into the bill, either for the costs of health insurance or for health care itself. As it whines about weakening of the individual mandate that will likely limit some of its big increase in the insurance market, the health insurance industry is already warning that sharp premium increases will result. The most the bill will do is to require disclosure and review of premium increases, without any regulatory teeth. Although the bill would set up a Health Benefits Advisory Committee to recommend a minimal essential benefits package (with four tiers), insurance industry lobbyists will argue for the most minimal levels of coverage, and we can anticipate an exponential growth in underinsurance. Moreover, there are no price controls to be applied anywhere in the system, except perhaps in authorizing the government to negotiate drug prices with manufacturers. But that provision will almost certainly not clear the Senate, where we can expect even less concern for affordability and prices.

• Although the public option has been the target of intense controversy, it will play a negligible role in health care reform. The CBO has concluded that it would cover no more than 6 million Americans, just two percent of the population, in 2013, and will cost more than private programs, mostly due to adverse selection in attracting sicker individuals and its inability to set reimbursement rates for physicians and hospitals as is done by Medicare. Moreover, middle-income families may be required to spend 15 to 18 percent of their income on insurance premiums and co-payments.

• HR 3962 will not result in making health care more affordable, despite allocating some $605 billion over ten years for subsidies to low- and middle-income Americans to buy insurance on Exchanges. We can count on continued increases in the cost of health insurance as far as the eye can see, together with less actuarial value of coverage.

• Buried in the fine print of this monster bill are many provisions that will benefit corporate stakeholders in the medical industrial complex on the backs of patients and their families. These examples make the point:

• Although medical loss ratios (MLR) (the proportion of premium revenue actually spent on medical care) are specified at a minimum of 85 percent, this loophole has been added--"while making sure that such a change doesn't further destabilize the current individual health insurance market." By way of comparison, the Senate Commerce Committee has found that the average MLR for the largest insurers in the individual market is only 74 percent, with 26 percent of premium revenue going to marketing, administrative overhead and profits.

• Although the bill would create a much-needed Center for Comparative Effectiveness Research, it would have no say over reimbursement and coverage policies. As the bill says, it "contains protections to ensure that research findings are not construed to mandate coverage, reimbursement or other policies to any public or private payer."

In sum, this $1.055 trillion plan over ten years will not fix the major problems of cost and affordable access to health care in our deteriorating system, will add new layers of bureaucracy and complexity to the present system, is not fiscally responsible, and is not sustainable.

What to do now? Rather than accept an unworkable bill that is politically expedient, we would be better off to make a major course change. That vote could take place as early as tomorrow.

If that fails, shelving this bill would be the best option. Until a few days ago, I would have added that lawmakers should be pressed to retain the amendment proposed by Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) to allow states to experiment with single-payer plans, as a number of states would like to do (e.g. California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, New York and Pennsylvania). Although that amendment had already been passed by a rare bipartisan vote of 27-19 in the House Education and Labor Committee, it has been stripped from the bill.

The best first option would be to call for a floor vote, as originally promised by the House Speaker Pelosi, for the amendment proposed by Anthony Weiner (D-NY) to substitute HR 676, a single-payer proposal, for HR 3962. If that fails, shelving this bill would be the best option, but if that is not possible, lawmakers should be pressed to retain the amendment proposed by Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) to allow states to experiment with single-payer plans, as a number of states would like to do (eg. California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, New York and Pennsylvania).

That amendment has already been passed by a rare bipartisan vote of 27-19 in the House Education and Labor Committee. Whether a health care bill survives the end game in both chambers of Congress in this session is still up in the air. If a bill is finally enacted into law, however, it will be ineffective in remedying the big problems of cost and access to health care. We should be gearing up for an intense effort in 2010 to push for real health care reform--Medicare for All.

Dr. John Geyman is professor emeritus of family medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, a past president of Physicians for a National Health Program and author of "Do Not Resuscitate: Why the Health Insurance Industry Is Dying, and How We Must Replace It." Buy John Geyman's Books at: