As Donald Trump and the Republicans aim a bulldozer at the Affordable Care Act, supporters of the ACA are making a strong case for its successes. One of them is Jonathan Cohn, who has covered health care for years. In a long and persuasive essay, he calls on witness after witness to show that “real people with serious medical issues are finally getting the help they need.”
Cohn interviews a number of people who fell victim to “the old system at its callous, capricious worst” (before President Barack Obama took office) when “roughly 1 in 6 Americans had no health care insurance, and even the insured could still face crippling medical bills.” The ACA was an effort to address their problems, and after seven years, he reports, the list of what’s gone right is long:
– In states like California and Michigan, the newly regulated markets appear to be working as the law’s architects intended, except for some rural areas that insurers have never served that well. Middle-class people in those states have better, more affordable options.
– It looks like more insurers are figuring out how to make their products work and how to successfully compete for business. Customers have turned out to be more price-sensitive than insurers originally anticipated. In general, the carriers that struggle are large national companies without much experience selling directly to consumers rather than through employers.
– Last year’s big premium increases followed two years in which average premiums were far below projections, a sign that carriers simply started their pricing too low. Even now, on average, the premiums people pay for exchange insurance are on a par with, or even a bit cheaper than, equivalent employer policies — and that’s before the tax credits.
– The majority of people who are buying insurance on their own or get their coverage through Medicaid are satisfied with it, according to separate surveys by the Commonwealth Fund and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. The level of satisfaction with the new coverage still trails that involving employer-provided insurance, and it has declined over time. But it’s clearly in positive territory.
Overall, Cohn concludes, the number of people without health insurance “is the lowest that government or private surveys have ever recorded.”
Yes, there are problems. Cohn acknowledges where the Affordable Care Act has failed and why. Mostly because the president and his allies were so determined to succeed where those before them had failed, “they made a series of concessions that necessarily limited the law’s ambition:
They expanded Medicaid and regulated private insurance rather than start a whole new government-run program. They dialed back demands for lower prices from drug makers, hospitals and other health care industries. And they agreed to tight budget constraints for the program as a whole, rather than risk a revolt among more conservative Democrats. These decisions meant that health insurance would ultimately be more expensive and the new system’s financial assistance would be less generous.”
Cohn gives critics their due, especially those who focused on the law’s actual consequences: the higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs that some people face.
“The new rules, like coverage of pre-existing conditions, have made policies more expensive, and Obamacare’s financial aid frequently doesn’t offset the increases. A ‘rate-shock’ wave hit suddenly in the fall of 2013, when insurers unveiled their newly upgraded plans and in many cases canceled old ones — infuriating customers who remembered Obama’s promise that ‘if you like your plan, you can keep it,’ while alienating even some of those sympathetic to what Obama and the Democrats were trying to do.”
But remember: “When the Senate passed its version of the legislation in December 2009, then-Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) described the program as a ‘starter home‘ with a solid foundation and room for expansion.”
Yet the Republicans, many of whom reject the whole concept of health care as a right, are determined to rip it all up. Giving scant attention to what’s gone right, they claim the Affordable Care Act is “a disaster.” Their now-leader, President Trump, turned directly to the camera Tuesday night in his address to Congress and announced that he still wants the ACA “repealed and replaced.” If Trump and his fellow Republicans could, they would end it altogether, but they are nervous about the political consequences of depriving millions of Americans of coverage and raising deductibles. As longtime health policy experts Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein — both physicians — point out in the current Annals of Internal Medicine, proposals by House Speaker Paul Ryan and the new HHS Secretary, Tom Price, both Republicans, would slash Medicaid spending for the poor, shift the ACA’s subsidies from the near-poor to wealthier Americans and replace Medicare with a voucher program. This would likely lead to their rout at the polls in 2018 and 2020. The vast majority of Americans want to keep their health care coverage.
We are at a stalemate. Opponents of the ACA have no viable replacement and supporters have no power to stave off the Republican bulldozer.
Is the situation hopeless? In Washington, probably — at least for now. But there are alternatives. As I noted above, two longtime advocates for universal health care, Drs. Woolhandler and Himmelstein, have renewed their campaign for single-payer reform, which candidate Barack Obama applauded when he was campaigning and then rejected after his election as part of those compromises he made to win support from conservative Democrats and the medical and insurance industries. In their Annals article, the two reformist physicians offer evidence that single-payer reform could provide “comprehensive coverage within the current budgetary envelope” because of huge savings on health care bureaucracy. It’s worth reading.
So is a plan put forth by Minnesota State Sen. John Marty. Often described as “the conscience of the Minnesota Senate,” Marty has been an advocate for universal health care since he was elected 30 years ago. He has served as chairman of the Senate Health Committee and now serves as the ranking minority member of the Senate Energy Committee. Often ahead of his times, Marty introduced and eventually secured passage of the country’s first ban on smoking in hospitals and health care facilities. Long before public support had materialized, he worked to ban mercury in consumer products, create a legal structure for public benefit corporations and bring about a “living wage” for workers. In 2008, when he introduced legislation proposing marriage equality for LGBT couples and predicted it could pass in five years, colleagues dismissed him as a Don Quixote. Five years later Minnesota passed marriage equality legislation.
So this lifelong progressive has earned the right to chide his fellow progressives for “merely tinkering” with problems. He writes that “If 21st-century progressives had been leading the 19th-century abolition movement, we would still have slavery, but we would have limited slavery to a 40-hour work week, and we would be congratulating each other on the progress we had made.”
This timidity, Marty acknowledges, might be partially explained by decades of defeat at the hands of powerful financial interests and politicians beholden to those interests. But as a result, many politicians who espouse progressive change have retreated from a “politics of principle” to a “politics of pragmatism.”
Sen. Marty crisscrossed Minnesota to talk directly with citizens about what they need and want in health care. He has now proposed a universal health care system which he calls the Minnesota Health Plan. He’s distilled it into a small paperback book — Healing Health Care: The Case for a Commonsense Universal Health System. I asked him to write an essay for us summing up the plan’s basic principles and the case for it.
— Bill Moyers
A CALL TO ACTION
By John Marty
Our health care system is broken.
We have some of the best health care available in the world, but one of the worst systems for accessing that care. We squander outstanding health care resources — providers, clinics and hospitals, medical research and technology — on a broken system that makes it difficult and expensive for many people to get the care they need.
President Obama provided hope during his 2008 campaign, saying health care “should be a right for every American.” Unfortunately, he never proposed universal health care, though the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was a big step forward. It reduced the number of people without health coverage by almost half. It made a (in some cases, literally) lifesaving difference for millions of Americans.
However, even if the ACA were beefed up, it would always leave some people without coverage. In addition, health insurance does not equate to health care — millions of Americans who have insurance still cannot afford the care they need due to exclusions in coverage, copays and deductibles. And because it added even more complexity to our already convoluted insurance system, the ACA is easy to attack.
Republican attacks during the 2016 campaign were wrong; the ACA is not the cause of the problems in the system. Nor is it the solution, despite the good it did for many people.
Now that President Trump has blurted out that “nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” we will watch the ironic efforts of Republicans to replace the Affordable Care Act — an insurance-based plan, largely modeled on former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney’s “Romneycare,” which, in turn, was largely based on ideas from the conservative Heritage Foundation. We have Republicans attacking a Republican concept. It might be bizarre to watch, but lives are at stake.
We are headed in the Wrong Direction
Most of the health care “reforms” in recent decades aimed at saving money by making sure people don’t overuse health care, putting barriers in their way. These reforms included use of restrictive “networks” of providers, requiring “prior authorization” by the insurance company before treatments could be provided, copays and higher and higher deductibles. The Republican proposals this year head further down that path of adding barriers to care, especially when they cut Medicare and Medicaid.
After four decades of putting barriers between people and medical care, we do make fewer visits to the doctor than people in most other countries.
But it is hard to call this a success. About a third of Americans report that they fail to get the care they need, because they cannot afford to pay for it. Yet even after all those “reforms,” we are spending nearly twice as much as people in most other countries spend. That raises both an ethical and an economic question:
Why would any society make it difficult for its people to access health care? And, if our attempts to make health care less expensive through barriers to care isn’t working, shouldn’t we try a new approach?
Fixing these problems requires fundamental changes in our health care system. We need a new model.
Health care should be covered like police and fire
We could start by looking at other public services. Nobody goes without police and fire protection — nobody has to apply for new “police and fire coverage” each year, nobody has to worry that they may no longer be qualified, nobody has to worry about a $3,000 deductible before the fire department will come. Nobody has to worry that the local sheriff won’t accept their “police insurance” plan. And nobody gets a letter informing them that their police or fire coverage is being terminated, for any reason.
A civilized, humane society that takes care of its people with universal police and fire coverage needs to do the same with health and dental care.
Designing a new system
Before leaving on a trip it is important to know where you are going: Focus on your goals and where you are headed. The same is true for designing a health care system.
Here are some basic principles that need to be followed if a health care system is to serve the public well. The health care system must:
- ensure all people are covered;
- cover all types of care, including dental, vision and hearing, mental health, chemical dependency treatment, prescription drugs, medical equipment, long-term care and home care;
- allow patients to choose their providers;
- reduce costs by cutting administrative bureaucracy, not by restricting or denying care;
- set premiums based on ability to pay;
- focus on preventive care and early intervention to improve health;
- ensure there are enough health care providers to guarantee timely access to care; and
- provide adequate and timely payments to providers.
These principles offer an entirely different approach to health care reform. Instead of trying to design a health care system that restricts care, we design a system that keeps people healthy and helps them get care when needed.
Perhaps counterintuitively, that logical health system actually saves money. To illustrate why a system focused on health is less expensive than one based on insurance, consider an analogy between schools and hospitals:
If schools were funded the way we fund hospitals, each teacher would need to spend a half hour or more each day calculating and reporting how much time was spent with each student, along with the amount of supplies each student consumed. Those calculations would be forwarded to the school’s billing office, where a portion of janitorial costs, facility costs, and administrative overhead would be allocated to each student.
The billing office would bill each student’s “education insurance plan,” at a highly inflated price (Hospitals call it a “chargemaster” rate.). Each education insurance plan would negotiate with the school, ultimately reducing their cost by about two thirds. Those families who don’t have any “education insurance” would be liable for the full, inflated “chargemaster” price. Many families would struggle to pay. As a result, the school would also need a collections office.
Would this improve education? No. It would make it worse, shifting teacher and administrator time from education to billing.
Would it save money? No. It would cost much more, adding these significant administrative duties.
We would never want to fund schools the way we fund hospitals.
Our proposal — A Minnesota Health Plan
I have introduced legislation to create a Minnesota Health Plan (MHP), a proposal designed to meet all of the principles mentioned above. The MHP would be governed by those principles, setting it apart from other health systems in its focus on public health and well-being instead of profit or politics. While this plan is designed for Minnesota, a similar model could be used in other states.
The MHP would be a single, statewide plan that would cover all Minnesotans for all their medical needs. Equally important, it would reduce the need for costly medical care through public health, education, prevention and early intervention. It would be governed by a democratically selected board that would be legally bound to those governing principles.
Under the plan, patients would be able to see the medical providers of their choice without network restrictions, and their coverage by the health plan would not end when they lose their job or switch to a new employer.
Dental care, prescription drugs, optometry, mental health services, chemical dependency treatment, medical equipment and supplies would all be covered, as well as home care services and nursing home care. Consumers would use the same doctors and medical professionals, the same hospitals and clinics, but all the payments, covering all of the costs, would be made by the MHP, and everyone would be covered.
There would be no filling out of complex application forms, no worrying whether a provider is “in network” or not, no worrying about whether the treatment was covered or how you are going to pay for the drugs.
The MHP would be prohibited from restricting or denying care to save money, but would lower health care spending through efficiency, the elimination of billing and insurance paperwork, and through public health prevention.
The MHP would restore medical decision-making to the doctor and patient, removing health insurance companies from making treatment decisions. The plan would end not only access problems caused by cost, but also access problems caused by an inadequate number of health professionals and facilities around the state, because the health plan would be required to ensure sufficient providers to meet medical needs around the state.
The plan would be funded by all people, with premiums based on the ability to pay, and a payroll tax on employers, along with existing state and federal funds that have been committed to health care. Those payments would replace all premiums currently paid by employees and employers, as well as all copayments, deductibles and all costs of government health care programs. The premiums paid by all but the wealthiest would be less than the premiums, copays and deductibles they currently pay.
Although the MHP is not cheap, it is significantly less expensive than our current system, and it would provide a full range of health care services to everyone, improving the health of Minnesotans.
The politics of health care reform in 2017
Republican gains in recent years show that progressives need to spell out solutions that would actually fix our problems. We cannot win policy battles by negative attacks against the other side. We will win when the public realizes that our solutions will improve their lives. Thus, when fighting against Republican efforts to eviscerate Medicare, Medicaid and the ACA, saying “no” isn’t enough. We need to articulate a solution.
Republicans typically describe health reform proposals they don’t like as “government health care.” But that is not an accurate description of this plan. The MHP is a patient-directed health plan. It lets people choose the providers they trust, and medical decisions are made by patients and their doctors, not government or insurance companies.
The MHP is publicly governed, which means that it is more accountable to patients than insurance companies. It encourages competition and innovation among doctors and hospitals based on an efficient financing system in the background.
Finally, let’s not forget the ethical dimension. What does it say about a society that allows some of its people to suffer from untreated health crises? Should profit and individual wealth continue to determine who gets care, or should health care be available to everyone?
The proposed Minnesota Health Plan and the principles that underlie it are nothing more than what any caring society would desire in order to ensure good health for all of its people. It is time to replace health insurance for some with health care for all.