Health care facts, fiction, fantasies

After so many town hall meetings on health reform devolved into shouting matches, one woman quietly makes her views known last week in Alhambra, Calif., when 1,000 people turned out for one of the congressional forums.

Getty Images

After so many town hall meetings on health reform devolved into shouting matches, one woman quietly makes her views known last week in Alhambra, Calif., when 1,000 people turned out for one of the congressional forums.

Blatantly, patently wrong information about health care — from death panels for the disabled to euthanasia for granny — has gotten a lot of attention lately. But set aside the shouting, and there are still many legitimate areas for debate. Reform of health care is very much a work in progress, and Congress is considering a number of measures. With President Barack Obama and the Democrats largely on the defensive, a lot of the debate has focused on what the bills are not. Here, we'll explain what's actually in the bills and where the genuine disagreements lie. What's in the bills

Democratic efforts to reform health care have two goals: expand coverage and reduce costs. An estimated 46 million people in the United States don't have insurance. Meanwhile, health spending has grown much faster than inflation. If something isn't done, the health care programs we now have for the elderly and the poor — Medicare and Medicaid, respectively — could end up bankrupting the country in another 50 years or so.

The broad outlines for health care reform are similar in the Democratic legislation considered thus far.

Leave employer-provided insurance in place. About 60 percent of Americans get health care through work, and studies show many people like their coverage. A bill in the House of Representatives seeks to broaden that coverage by imposing new taxes on large employers who don't offer health insurance.

Health insurance exchange. To help people who have to buy insurance on their own, the plan creates a health insurance exchange. The exchange is a virtual marketplace where individuals and small businesses can comparison shop for insurance. The government would regulate the exchange so that insurance companies can't discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions, or charge wildly different amounts for similar coverage. (They will be able to set rates based on age, however.)

The public option. One of the options on the exchange will be a public option, run by the government, that offers basic coverage. Obama has said the public option will keep private insurers honest by competing with them so they can't charge unfair rates for the basics. Many experts believe that the public option will be the least expensive option on the exchange.

More for the poor. The plan expands eligibility for programs like Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Some people of modest means will receive "affordability credits" to buy plans on the health insurance exchange.

An individual mandate. This requires people to buy insurance, unless they qualify for a hardship exemption. The expectation is that everyone will be covered, either through their employer or through the exchange. People who don't buy insurance will have to pay a penalty on their taxes.

Electronic records. To reduce inefficiency and duplication of services, the government will invest in electronic health records, so doctors can see which tests and procedures patients have already had.

Research on better treatments. A comparative effectiveness research center will conduct and publish scientific research to find which treatments are the most effective. The government hopes easy-to-access information for doctors, patients and insurance companies will reduce procedures and treatments that don't really work, wringing waste from the system.

Medicare. The bill makes many changes to how Medicare pays doctors and other health care providers. Taken as a whole, the new rules aim to pay doctors for good patient outcomes instead of paying them per procedure, also called "fee-for-service."

What's controversial

Critics have centered on a number of key issues.

The public option: Conservatives dislike it for a couple of reasons. They argue that employers, motivated by cost, will drop their coverage and send their employees to the public option. Some believe it's a stalking horse for an eventual single-payer system; others believe it's simply unfair competition for private providers. Congress is negotiating now to put safeguards in place so the public option competes on even footing with private insurers. Those include requiring the public option to finance itself through customer premiums (i.e., no taxpayer subsidies) and to make it negotiate like any other insurance company on what it pays doctors and health care providers. Meanwhile, proponents of the public option say it is crucial for reining in profiteering from the insurance companies.

Cost. The plan doesn't come cheap. Covering millions of people who are now uninsured will cost billions more per year. As a way to raise revenues, Obama has proposed reducing the deductions that the wealthy are allowed to take on their taxes. The House of Representatives rejected that, deciding instead on a new tax surcharge for the wealthiest households. We're still waiting to see what kind of tax measure the Senate will consider.

"Rationing." Critics say the program will lead to health care rationing. They attribute that to various elements of the plans, such as the government's new role running a public option and an approach known as comparative effectiveness research that seeks to find the most efficient treatments. The bills being considered now don't allow for the comparative research to be binding on health care plans or dictate treatment. Still, it seems reasonable to assume that health insurers will begin to act on the government information, refusing to fund treatments considered experimental or ineffective. Supporters say health care is rationed already, by insurance companies. Your comfort level on this probably depends on whom you trust most: the government or insurance companies.

What we still don't know

Obama hoped to have bills passed by the House and Senate before the August recess. That didn't happen, but the House did produce a complete draft bill, and one Senate committee — the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, or HELP — also produced a bill. But a key committee, the Senate Finance Committee, left for the recess without concluding its negotiations. This committee is widely considered to be pivotal, and we don't yet know where it will weigh in on a number of issues. Among the questions yet to be answered:

Will a public option make it into the final bill, and how will it be structured? The Finance Committee is also considering, in place of the public option, a co-operative model. A co-op would not be government-run, but it's not clear if it would have enough bargaining power to offer genuine competition to private insurers, which is important to lowering costs.

What kind of new taxes will be used to pay for health care? The Senate seems unlikely to go along with the House idea to put a surcharge on the wealthy. The Finance Committee has considered all sorts of ideas, including taxes on soda pop or capping the tax-exempt status of employer-provided insurance. What they will finally decide on is one of the great unknowns.

Will the promised cost savings actually materialize? The independent Congressional Budget Office has examined the health care plan and concluded that it will cost about $1 trillion over 10 years and, as currently envisioned, cause a shortfall of $239 billion. But the Obama administration believes that the CBO may be undervaluing cost-saving measures in the plan. The CBO says it likes to err on the side of caution. The truth is that it's very difficult to put dollar figures on many of these things, because of the size of the health care industry and the inherent unpredictability of major policy changes over many years. It's good to keep in mind that when it comes to health care reform, no one has a crystal ball.

PolitiFact reporters Robert Farley, Bill Adair, Catharine Richert and Louis Jacobson contributed to this report.

Clarification: This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification: About 60 percent of Americans receive health insurance through a work-related plan. An article on Aug. 16, 2009, implied the number was slightly larger.

The reading file

• In addition to our own PolitiFact.com Web site, Slate.com has compiled a very good on-line guide of information sources, including the text of the bills working their way through Congress, and commentary, analysis and background on the health-care debate. It's a great source for anyone who wants to follow this story as it happens. Read it at tinyurl.com/mbvpgp.

Here are a few excerpts from a provocative piece entitled How American Health Care Killed My Father by businessman David Goldhill in the current Atlantic. He has far different ideas for reform than are currently being debated. It is well worth your time. Read it in full at tinyurl.com/lquswk

***

Almost two years ago, my father was killed by a hospital-borne infection in the intensive-care unit of a well-regarded nonprofit hospital in New York City. Dad had just turned 83, and he had a variety of the ailments common to men of his age. But he was still working on the day he walked into the hospital with pneumonia. ....

***

Like every grieving family member, I looked for someone to blame for my father's death. But my dad's doctors weren't incompetent — on the contrary, his hospital physicians were smart, thoughtful, and hard-working. Nor is he dead because of indifferent nursing — without exception, his nurses were dedicated and compassionate. Nor from financial limitations — he was a Medicare patient, and the issue of expense was never once raised. There were no greedy pharmaceutical companies, evil health insurers, or other popular villains in his particular tragedy.

Indeed, I suspect that our collective search for villains—for someone to blame — has distracted us and our political leaders from addressing the fundamental causes of our nation's health-care crisis. All of the actors in health care — from doctors to insurers to pharmaceutical companies — work in a heavily regulated, massively subsidized industry full of structural distortions. They all want to serve patients well. But they also all behave rationally in response to the economic incentives those distortions create. Accidentally, but relentlessly, America has built a health-care system with incentives that inexorably generate terrible and perverse results. Incentives that emphasize health care over any other aspect of health and well-being. That emphasize treatment over prevention. That disguise true costs. That favor complexity, and discourage transparent competition based on price or quality. That result in a generational pyramid scheme rather than sustainable financing. And that — most important — remove consumers from our irreplaceable role as the ultimate ensurer of value.

These are the impersonal forces, I've come to believe, that explain why things have gone so badly wrong in health care, producing the national dilemma of runaway costs and poorly covered millions.

***

To achieve maximum coverage at acceptable cost with acceptable quality, health care will need to become subject to the same forces that have boosted efficiency and value throughout the economy. We will need to reduce, rather than expand, the role of insurance; focus the government's role exclusively on things that only government can do (protect the poor, cover us against true catastrophe, enforce safety standards, and ensure provider competition); overcome our addiction to Ponzi-scheme financing, hidden subsidies, manipulated prices, and undisclosed results; and rely more on ourselves, the consumers, as the ultimate guarantors of good service, reasonable prices, and sensible trade-offs between health-care spending and spending on all the other good things money can buy.

These ideas stand well outside the emerging political consensus about reform. ...

Tell us your story

Medical care during the final months of life has been in the news more than ever lately. We'd like to hear from Tampa Bay area families who have grappled with the physical, emotional and financial costs associated with the end of life. If you are willing to speak to a reporter in detail, including the role that your family member's age and medical condition, as well as your faith, insurance coverage, general finances and traditions played in your decisions, please e-mail health and medicine editor Charlotte Sutton at sutton@sptimes.com by Monday morning..

The reading file

All you need to know

In addition to our own PolitiFact.com Web site, Slate.com has compiled
a very good online guide of information sources, including the text of the bills working their way through Congress, and commentary, analysis and background on the health care debate. It's a great resource for
anyone who wants to follow this
story as it happens. Read it at
tinyurl.com/mbvpgp.

The system killed dad

Here are a few excerpts from a
provocative piece entitled "How American Health Care Killed My Father" by businessman David
Goldhill in the current Atlantic. He has far different ideas for reform than are currently being debated. It is well worth your time. Read it in full at tinyurl.com/lquswk

• • •

Almost two years ago, my father was killed by a hospital-borne infection in the intensive-care unit of a well-regarded nonprofit hospital in New York City. Dad had just turned 83, and he had a variety of the ailments common to men of his age. But he was still working on the day he walked into the hospital with pneumonia. ....

• • •

Like every grieving family member, I looked for someone to blame for my father's death. But my dad's doctors weren't incompetent — on the contrary, his hospital physicians were smart, thoughtful, and hard-working. Nor is he dead because of indifferent nursing — without exception, his nurses were dedicated and compassionate. Nor from financial limitations — he was a Medicare patient, and the issue of expense was never once raised. There were no greedy pharmaceutical companies, evil health insurers, or other popular villains in his particular tragedy.

Indeed, I suspect that our collective search for villains — for someone to blame — has distracted us and our political leaders from addressing the fundamental causes of our nation's health care crisis. All of the actors in health care — from doctors to insurers to pharmaceutical companies — work in a heavily regulated, massively subsidized industry full of structural distortions. They all want to serve patients well. But they also all behave rationally in response to the economic incentives those distortions create. Accidentally, but relentlessly, America has built a health care system with incentives that inexorably generate terrible and perverse results. Incentives that emphasize health care over any other aspect of health and well-being. That emphasize treatment over prevention. That disguise true costs. That favor complexity, and discourage transparent competition based on price or quality. That result in a generational pyramid scheme rather than sustainable financing. And that — most important — remove consumers from our irreplaceable role as the ultimate ensurer of value.

These are the impersonal forces... that explain why things have gone so badly wrong in health care, producing the national dilemma of runaway costs and poorly covered millions.

• • •

To achieve maximum coverage at acceptable cost with acceptable quality, health care will need to become subject to the same forces that have boosted efficiency and value throughout the economy. We will need to reduce, rather than expand, the role of insurance; focus the government's role exclusively on things that only government can do (protect the poor, cover us against true catastrophe, enforce safety standards, and ensure provider competition); overcome our addiction to Ponzi-scheme financing, hidden subsidies, manipulated prices, and undisclosed results; and rely more on ourselves, the consumers, as the ultimate guarantors of good service, reasonable prices, and sensible trade-offs between health care spending and spending on all the other good things money can buy. These ideas stand well outside the emerging political consensus about reform. ...

Tell us your story

Medical care during the final months of life has been in the news more than ever lately. We'd like to hear from Tampa Bay area families who have grappled with the physical, emotional and financial costs associated with the end of life. If you are willing to speak to a reporter in detail, including the role that your family member's age and medical condition, as well as your faith, insurance coverage, general finances and traditions played in your decisions, please e-mail health and medicine editor Charlotte Sutton at sutton@sptimes.com by Monday morning.

We can only use stories from people willing to have their names published.

Health care facts, fiction, fantasies 08/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 28, 2009 3:41pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...