Why Big Health Insurance Supported Obamacare, Part II
The fact that the health insurance industry supported Obamacare from the very beginning was entirely missed by the mainstream press. This is perhaps understandable, since a) the mainstream press does not understand the dynamics of the healthcare system, and b) during the Obamacare drama, the health insurance companies had been assigned, and had graciously accepted, their vital role as the Forces of Evil. To the famously credulous members of the mainstream press, it was easy to imagine that the insurers were actually among the opposition.
But the insurance industry supported Obamacare from the start – and even before the start. During the Presidential race of 2008, for instance, managed care companies donated far more money to both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton than to any Republican candidate, even though both of these Democratic candidates publicly castigated the insurance companies for producing most of the problems in American healthcare, and promised to institute reforms that would drastically cramp their style and reduce their profits.
Why would the insurance industry support the very candidates whose chief healthcare strategy was to demonize them? Quite simply, it was because the insurance industry had nowhere else to go.
By the time Mr. Obama became president, the once proud, self-confident, and even arrogant American health insurance industry had been completely humbled. Like the old Soviet Union twenty years earlier, it still may have looked formidable from the outside, but it was really an empty shell. The industry had run out its string; it was entirely bereft of ideas. Its business model was completely broken, and it desperately needed an exit strategy. And it was due to the need to find a serviceable exit strategy that the industry supported Obamacare.
To understand what landed the insurance industry in this sad state of affairs, it is necessary to review its recent history.
The Rise of the For-Profit HMOs
When the Clintons set out to reform the American healthcare system in 1993, the health insurance industry initially claimed to support them. The Clintons had promised them a vast new market – the millions of heretofore uninsured Americans whose premiums would be paid, presumably, by the government.
But the alliance fell apart the moment the insurance industry began reading the massive tome of regulations the Clintons finally produced, and found in it much they didn’t like. Chiefly, they they didn’t like the parts that ceded full control of their industry to the government. So Big Health Insurance immediately turned against the Clintons, and spent millions of dollars introducing us to Harry and Louise (a “typical” American husband and wife who were viewed in numerous TV commercials discovering various appalling provisions of the Clinton plan). In the end, when the Clinton’s reform plan went down to ignominious defeat, the powerful health insurance industry, appropriately, got most of the credit.
Most of us Americans were happy at the time that the Clintons’ plan had been defeated, but during the debate over healthcare reform we had become convinced that the old way of doing healthcare wasn’t any good either. The healthcare system, we all knew by now, was bankrupting us. And something needed to be done about it. But with the Clinton plan off the table, what were our options?
In the ashes of the Clintons’ failed effort, the health insurers saw their golden opportunity. And they presented the American people with a savior. The savior was, of course, them.
The insurance industry made its pitch in a new guise which we Americans had never seen before. For the big fee-for-service insurance companies had transformed themselves into HMOs, and had fully assimilated the language of managed care. These were not the touchy-feely, non-profit HMOs that had been puttering around in the healthcare system for a decade or so. These were meat-and-potatoes, for-profit HMOs, run for the most part by hard-nosed business executives, and newly formulated for a new era of American healthcare.
And here is what they said: “Citizens! We all – employers, patients, physicians, hospitals, manufacturers and insurers – have just dodged a bullet. Thanks to us, the frightening socialist reforms of the Clintons have been soundly defeated. But where does this leave us? We stand now between Scylla and Charybdis, between the specter of nationalized healthcare on one hand, and the continued profligacy of traditional fee-for-service medicine on the other. And we cannot countenance either. But here,” they continued, “is a third way. A painless way, based on the sound principles of managed care, open markets, and free enterprise. Let healthcare become a business like any other business, and the market forces will find ways not only to cut costs but also to improve quality, and with no government intervention.”
The offer, in other words, was to turn healthcare over to the business professionals now running the New Model HMOs, who were cocky with the certainty that they could harness the efficiencies of the marketplace to control costs, make a big profit at the same time, and be feted as saviors to boot. Because we’re Americans and we know the benefits of capitalism, and because the other choices we faced looked even worse, we all said, “Go for it.”
This change led to the most rapid transformation the American healthcare system has ever seen, and within a few short years, the majority of Americans were enrolled in HMOs, or some other species of corporate managed care.
So HMO executives set out to control the cost of American healthcare, and to make a spectacular profit doing it. And for a few years, they seemed successful. Healthcare inflation slowed dramatically in the late 1990s, and HMO profits soared.
But it was all an illusion.
The Fall of the For-Profit HMOs
The initial impressive profitability of New Model HMOs was due to the one-time reduction in cost you always get when you implement efficiencies of scale (made possible by merging enterprises), and by instituting the new standardization techniques favored by managed care theory. These steps reduced the cost of healthcare for a while, but the underlying rate of healthcare inflation (which is mostly caused by new medical technologies and an aging population, neither of which are cured by managed care) was pretty much unchanged. So by the early 2000s, when these one-time cost reductions had been fully realized, healthcare inflation was right back on the same unsustainable trajectory it had been on before.
Unfortunately for the HMOs, the big profits they enjoyed throughout the 1990s could not last. Their rapidly expanding valuations were attributable not to their efficient management of healthcare, but instead, to the frenzy of mergers that rapidly ensued, and to the acquisition and privatization of not-for-profit public assets for a tiny fraction of their true value.
So not long after the turn of the century the for-profit managed care companies were getting very nervous. For the very first time in their history, HMOs were faced with the prospect of having to earn their profits, profits sufficient to satisfy their shareholders, by actually managing the healthcare of sick people. This is something they had never accomplished before, and, by the time the election of 2008 approached, they knew they never would.
By that time they had tried everything. Beginning in 1994, filled with confidence and enthusiasm and cheered on (initially, at least) by the public and by public officials alike, the health insurance companies had more than 15 years of more-or-less unfettered freedom to institute any efficiencies they wanted to. In the ensuing years insurance companies tried all kinds of legitimate ideas for reducing healthcare costs, such as managed care, gatekeepers, clinical pathways, disease management programs, pay for performance, wellness programs, medical homes, and even a ruthless consolidation of the industry to achieve “efficiencies of scale.”
They also tried every sneaky and underhanded idea they could think of for reducing costs, like cherry-picking the healthy patients, treating chronically ill patients like pariahs so they would go away, making access to specialty care as inconvenient as possible, forcing doctors to sign “gag clauses” to prevent them from telling their patients about certain treatment options, browbeating primary care physicians into zombie-like compliance with handed-down care directives, refusing to cover expensive-but-effective medical services, and canceling the policies of tens of thousands of patients after they get sick, based on trumped-up technicalities. Indeed, they tried everything short of dispatching teams of Ninjas in the dark of night to slaughter their most expensive subscribers in their beds. And finally, when all else failed, they instituted huge and unsustainable annual increases in premiums, to the point of driving their customers out of the market. (This latter move, of course, was an open acknowledgment that the industry had entered its death spiral.)
All these efforts were to little avail. The cost of healthcare continued to skyrocket, entirely unabated. And by 2009, when President Obama began his push for healthcare reform, the insurance companies knew they had no prospect of long-term profitability. Their business model was no longer viable, and, while telling soothing stories to avoid shareholder panic, they were urgently casting about for an exit strategy.
A drowning man will cling to any piece of flotsam that comes his way. What the insurance industry found floating by was Obamacare.
What Health Insurers Get From Obamacare
In return for its support in the healthcare reform battle, President Obama offered the insurance industry the graceful exit strategy it so desperately needed. Under Obamacare, for at least a few years the insurers hope to get One Last Windfall – namely, profits from the influx of previously-uninsured Americans whose premiums will be paid, or at least subsidized, by taxpayers. Here, the insurers are relying on the likelihood that the inflow of new premiums will, for a year or two at least, greatly outweigh the outflow of money they will have to spend caring for these new subscribers. Obviously, they will use every trick in their well-worn book to stave off expenditures for these new subscribers for as long as they can, but if they actually knew how to avoid paying healthcare costs indefinitely, they wouldn’t be seeking a government bail-out today. In any case, an inflow of new subscribers will be a very temporary source of profit for insurers. Hence, at best it is One Last Windfall.
What happens to the insurers after they exhaust this last windfall is still up in the air. Obamacare may, of course, eventually transition to a single-payer system, an outcome which many conservatives desperately fear, and many liberals fervently desire. In this case, there may very well be some final compensatory buy-out (or a buy-off) for the insurance companies. But more likely, the insurance companies under Obamacare will continue to exist essentially as public utilities. That is, they will exist as companies chartered by the government, which administer healthcare under the direction of the government, with the products they may offer, the prices they may charge, the profits they may keep, and the losses they may incur, determined solely by the government. It’s not glorious, but it’s a living.
And it’s much better than where they would have ended up without Obamacare. Which is why they supported it from the start.
Now that we know why the insurance industry supported Obamacare, in the next post we will explore how the industry, at no small cost to its own public image, supported the President when it counted most.
Why Big Health Insurance Supported Obamacare
DrRich explains it all in, Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.