On Friday, February 26, 2010, Gerald F. Seib, the Wall Street Journal reporter for the Capital Journal column, wrote an insightful column entitled “Parties’ Differences Are Clear – and That’s a Start.” In his column, he explained clearly the philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats on health insurance reform.
He stated that there were three fundamental differences:
- Democrats favor comprehensive reform and transformation; Republicans favor a more incremental approach.
- Democrats believe that access is the priority, rather than cost reduction; Republicans believe that if health care costs are reduced, the access problem will get solved.
- Democrats believe strongly that the government needs to set standards for health insurance and health care; Republicans believe that the market, particularly consumers, need to decide what they want for health insurance and health care.
Where do I stand?
- I am somewhere between the two parties on the comprehensiveness issue, although I tend to believe that comprehensive reform opportunities come along infrequently and we should take advantage of this one. On this issue, I would agree with the Democratic philosophy.
- On the other hand, I do not believe we can tackle the insurance access issue without understanding why access has been a problem in the past. Runaway health care costs cannot be deferred until later. Business and global competitiveness depend on addressing cost before access.
- Relative to health care needs, I believe the government should create a safety net for those unable to get coverage from private insurance, although I do not believe that safety net should include either guaranteed issue or elimination of pre-existing condition requirements for private insurance policies. The burden for the least healthy members of our society, and them alone, should be borne by all citizens, not in a way that burdens every private insurance policy. Government is totally ill equipped to decide on minimum coverage for everyone else. Over the years, elected officials have repeatedly added coverage mandates to all insurance policies because of the power of special interest groups, whether or not the mandates represented good medicine. Think back to the excessive expansion of bone marrow transplants combined with high-dose chemotherapy in the early 1990’s because cancer advocacy groups mistakenly believed it could save lives. In fact, after a Congressional mandate was also adopted in many states, the treatment was found to be worse, on average, than doing nothing. It shortened lives.
Some very smart people have said to me: “Why don’t we solve the insurance problem now, since we can, and we’ll get to cost reduction later?”
Aside from the competitiveness issues to which I referred above, there are two other problems with expanding coverage and not dealing with upstream prevention and health care system issues:
- Giving someone access to health insurance is not only not the same as giving them access to health care, it often results in lower quality care for everyone because of increased demand, and, eventually, decisions by doctors to stop treating Medicaid patients because they get reimbursed less than they do through commercial insurance. Having an insurance card, but no doctor to use it with, is useless. Massachusetts has had universal health insurance since 2006, but both the access to care and the quality of that care have suffered. More non-elderly adults report difficulty in getting access to physicians in 2009 than they did in 2007.
- To the degree that there is universal insurance, but inadequate access to doctor care, there is even more strain on our emergency departments. Many studies have pointed out that a majority of the people who access the emergency department for non-urgent care, that is, inappropriately, have insurance coverage, but either do not have timely access to care or are too impatient to wait until they can get access. The system gets stressed at its weakest point, emergency care.
I am most disappointed that the Democratic majority in Congress and the very capable White House staff could not establish a prevention and wellness agenda, and begin to take on the badly broken fee-for-service health care payment system.
People who argue the practical politics of tackling the insurance issue always point out to me that politicians are swayed by hard-luck stories, individuals who died or went bankrupt because they could not afford sufficient health insurance to cover catastrophic health problems like cancer, heart disease, or a serious injury. Unfortunately, no health insurance system can eliminate these tragic stories. Moreover, increasing demands on the health care system without increasing the supply of physicians and nurses creates other kinds of tragedies.
Politicians are very moved when an individual tells a story about being unable to afford a “life-saving” cancer treatment because of no or inadequate health insurance. What puzzles me about these stories is whether the patient has attempted to get relief directly from the pharmaceutical manufacturer. Every pharmaceutical company has programs to provide life-saving drugs for individuals who cannot afford them, and they provide relief for many patients every year.
However, the tragedy of someone who had no primary care physician because doctors in his or her community did not accept Medicaid patients, and, who, as a result, has an undiagnosed heart or diabetic condition, is a harder one to portray on the evening news. The patient generally does not understand that, but for a stingy government program, he or she might have had access to a doctor who could have diagnosed and treated the condition earlier. A public health official from India described the explosive growth of undiagnosed chronic disease cases as a “health tragedy in slow motion”
Implementing universal and affordable health insurance without addressing the imbalance between supply and demand in the underlying system will simply swap one kind of tragedy for another, at a much higher cost to the taxpayer and to businesses that can create jobs to bring many more people out of poverty. The Democratic majority seems hell-bent to do something, even if it is the wrong something, relative to health insurance. That’s too bad, and we will all pay dearly for the mistake.