Healthcare Reform Explained – An Updated Guide For The Perplexed

DrRich | March 27th, 2010 - 7:39 pm


Now that the great campaign to transform the American healthcare system has passed a critical milestone – the passage of President Obama’s healthcare reform legislation – many Americans find themselves confused about what it all means. What just happened here? What will happen to our healthcare insurance? How much will it cost, and who will pay for it? Why does the whole process seem so darned difficult and confusing?

The confusion is quite natural, since, in fact, nobody really understands what the new legislation says. It is common knowledge that only one or two of our legislators actually read the whole 2700 pages, and those who did only read it so they could make trouble for the President at his Bipartisan Healthcare Roundtable this past spring. (You know who you are, Paul Ryan.)

Remember when Nancy Pelosi said, “We have to pass the bill so we can all find out what’s in it,” and all the Republicans jumped all over her for making such a stupid remark? Well, DrRich is here to tell you that Nancy was displaying uncommon wisdom. Because DrRich now has read large parts of the legislation himself, and can say with confidence that the bill is not merely lengthy, convoluted, and difficult to understand. Rather, its meaning is fundamentally indeterminate.

The indeterminacy of the bill’s language was, of course, intentional. It was done so that, for instance, some legislators could be assured that the bill disallowed Federally funded abortions, and other legislators could be assured that the bill encouraged Federally funded abortions, while the actual language of the bill could be construed to bolster either assertion. Therefore, Speaker Pelosi’s silly-sounding statement was not only correct, but also was probably the most insightful commentary on the bill we’ve heard from any public official.

The bill is now being torn into bits by multitudes of officious bureaucrats, and translated into millions of pages of rules, regulations and guidelines, and then key aspects of those new rules, regulations, &c. will be fought over in courts of law. Once all that is finished, we can all find out what was in it. Just like Nancy said.

In the meantime, whatever the details of our new healthcare system turn out to be, there is a certain clear narrative to our ongoing healthcare saga that, once you understand it, will go a long way toward enlightening you about what’s really going on.

And so, as a public service, DrRich will now explain all this to you in a very simple way, so that – whatever jive you’re hearing from politicians or journalists – you will always get it. For, once you understand a few key concepts, this thing is really pretty easy to follow.

The Fundamental Problem

The fundamental problem with American healthcare is this: None of the pools of money we have created (or ever could create) to pay for our healthcare – whether those pools of money reside with the insurance companies or the government or both – can possibly buy all the healthcare that might benefit all Americans. This means we have to ration healthcare (i.e., intentionally withhold at least some beneficial healthcare from at least some of the people who would benefit from it). But because we’re Americans and Americans don’t ration, we (and in particular, our political leaders) are unable to address this need to ration openly and forthrightly. Therefore, the unavoidable rationing is being conducted covertly.

Until now, most of the covert rationing has been overseen by the health insurance industry. This, indeed, from the very beginning was the primary purpose of modern health insurance companies, as determined by Congress itself when it legislated the formation of HMOs. (See the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Pegram et al. v. Herdrich (98-1949), 530 US 211, 2000.) So, when the health insurers engage in cherrypicking patients, denying medically necessary services, coercing doctors to ration at the bedside, retrospectively canceling the policies of patients after they get sick, and doing everything short of dispatching teams of Ninjas in the dark of night to slaughter some of their more expensive subscribers in their sleep, they are not really being evil. They are only carrying out the job that had been assigned to them by our society. Covert rationing is a dirty, thankless job, but somebody’s got to do it.

The major sin of the health insurers is that, despite their Herculean efforts to harness covert rationing to control costs – and despite the wondrous incentive of greater profits if they do so – they have utterly failed in their assignment. Healthcare costs continue to rise at 3 – 4 times the rise in the cost of living, and within the next couple of decades promises to bring our republic to its fiscal knees (even without all the other stuff that’s making our deficit explode).

This is the healthcare crisis, and it’s real. We simply cannot actually spend $40 trillion on Medicare patients over the next three or four decades (as we’ve explicitly promised the baby boomers). The only real question is whether we will avoid spending all that money thanks to societal disruption and revolution, or by some more civilized means. (The fiscal implosion of our society would of course finally fix our healthcare crisis. Healthcare, far from being an essential and indispensable human need, actually is a luxury, a recent artifact of our advanced, stable, and affluent culture. Runaway healthcare costs, by bringing down our societal stability, will eventually provide its own cure.) Our current “healthcare reform process,” such as it is, is our stab at a more civilized means of addressing our looming impossible fiscal obligations.

What Is Healthcare Reform Actually Going to Reform?

What we are witnessing today is merely a rather messy changing of the guard. The primary responsibility for covert healthcare rationing is going to shift from the health insurers to the government.

The health insurance industry has run out its string. They have had 15+ years of virtually unfettered opportunity to get healthcare costs under control, and they have utterly failed. Over those 15 years, their attitude has evolved from arrogance to concern to abject fear. They finally and starkly realize that they have no clue as to how to control costs. As DrRich has pointed out for three years, the insurance industry has not been looking to block healthcare reform, but rather, was partnering with the reformers in the hope of finding for themselves a graceful exit strategy. They hope to gain one last windfall in profits and stock prices (from mandates and insurance subsidies for the tens of millions of currently uninsured Americans), and once that happens, they hope to settle into the business of administering, and processing transactions for, government controlled healthcare. That is, the insurers hope to become public utilities, since that’s way better than collapsing into oblivion.

So the overriding aim of healthcare reform, with the complete support of the insurance industry, is to conduct an orderly transfer of the pools of money with which we pay for our healthcare – along with the responsibility of managing “risk” and controlling the cost of care (i.e., covert rationing) – away from private insurers and to the government.

Understanding the Players

Government control of healthcare, of course, is precisely what the Republicans accuse the Democrats of wanting, and what the Democrats angrily deny they want.

Understanding the Republicans. Republicans as a group cling to the quaint notion that competition among insurers is all that is needed to reduce healthcare costs; that given the right market incentives, the insurance industry – in its wisdom – will bring healthcare inflation under control. They utterly fail to hear what the insurance companies themselves have said (by their actions): “No mas!”

The Republicans’ arguments ring hollow. It is useless to protest that the Democrat plans will lead to rationing, when not only do we already have rationing, but covert rationing in fact has been the official cost-cutting “plan” assigned to HMOs for decades now. It is useless to protest that 85% of Americans like their current health insurance, when the fiscal reality is that health insurance will change drastically for all Americans over the next decade or so, whether we change it by design or not. It does not matter that a lot of Americans like the health insurance they have now. Keeping it over the long term is not an option.

To a very large extent (DrRich is sorry to say, what with his conservative leanings and all), with such arguments the Republicans have made themselves nearly irrelevant in the current discussion.

Understanding the Democrats. The Democrats were handed the opportunity of a generation. They had a major advantage that Democrats of the Clinton era did not have: the health insurance industry is finished, and the industry knows it. The insurance industry was not going to let this effort fail.

The chief difficulty remaining for the Democrats is that (for their own survival) they must pretend they are not engineering a government takeover of healthcare, when in fact they are. As we have seen, there is not really much choice here. They must take over healthcare even if they don’t want to (though many of them do), because the health insurance industry is finished. The pretense is necessary, however, because the notion of government-controlled healthcare is not something the people – or even many Democrats – want, or are willing to tolerate.

Like the odious job of rationing healthcare (which they have now inherited in entirety), the Democrats must attempt to keep the complete government takeover of the healthcare system as covert as possible.

Which brings us to the biggest problem of all for the Democrats. They now have to take control of covert healthcare rationing. Covert rationing will be much more difficult for a government-run system than it has been for insurance companies. A government healthcare system will not have the opportunity to incorporate the most effective rationing techniques that have been available to the insurance industry – cherrypicking patients, for instance, or canceling the policies of people who get sick. Nor will the government be able to get away with summarily denying patients needed medical services – a standard tactic of HMOs. This is especially true now that chief Republican intellectuals have called everyone’s attention to the possibility of death panels. The unwashed masses, having been duly alerted to the government’s intentions of withholding life-saving healthcare, will now be on the lookout for “unreasonable” denials of care. Any move by the government to refuse to pay for a particular medical service will have to be supported by extremely convincing clinical data (which itself will be very expensive to collect), and even then Americans may not quietly accept such denials. The “death panel watchdogs” will be alert for every move the government makes, and will be quick to howl an alarm.

So the Democrats have won a huge and historic victory. But they are just beginning to figure out what a tiger they have by the tail.

The Bottom Line

As long as we pretend we don’t have to ration our healthcare, any reforms we invent – whether we do it as Republicans or Democrats – will merely add to the confusion, inefficiency, waste, inequity, and ineffectiveness of our healthcare system. How anyone can think that a process so fundamentally grounded in obfuscation and deception as the one we’ve just witnessed will result in anything good is quite beyond DrRich’s comprehension.

Real reform would require us to:

A) Minimize the necessity of imposed rationing by having patients themselves make as many of the spending decisions as possible, using their own money. (Subsidies could be provided to people who don’t have enough of their own money to pay for routine healthcare.)

B) Provide everyone with a high-deductable, catastrophic insurance product to cover non-routine medical expenses. This is where the necessary rationing would take place, but the rationing would be open, transparent, and determined through a public process.

C) Create a private market for “extra” health insurance for those who choose to supplement the universal catastrophic plan with their own funds.

But of course, any plan that relies on both personal responsibility and open rationing is a non-starter. Which is why we are going to get what we are going to get.

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