Health care reform really is a big @$%!ing deal

If there is a single issue that has defined the Obama presidency, it has been the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act…also known as health care reform or derisively as Obamacare. On the night President Obama signed PPACA into law, a microphone picked up Vice President Biden saying that “this is a”big @$%!ing deal.”

Every Republican candidate for president — even former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — has vowed to repeal it immediately if he or she is elected. Many Democrats have downplayed their votes in favor of it. I think the backlash against the law is due less to objections in the actual law and more to mistrust of Washington and misconception about what the law actually does.

As an employee of the nation’s largest health insurance company and a graduate student in health administration, I feel I have enough knowledge of this law to be dangerous and also a duty to address some of the common misconceptions about the law. If you still object to it, that’s fine, but object to it based on facts and not misinformation.

Objections based on misconceptions

Misconception #1: Death panels. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin took toFacebook on August 7, 2009 to attack health care reform legislation that was, as of that time, unwritten. She wrote:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

This accusation is totally without merit. The law does not allow anything even remotely resembling a death panel. To overcompensate for Gov. Palin’s lie (dubbed the biggest lie of 2009 by the non-partisan, an important, cost-saving provision was removed from the law: reimbursing physicians for counseling their Medicare patients on advance directives and other end-of-life issues.

In fact, private insurers already ration care through utilization management programs. Ever heard of “precertification?” In many cases, utilization management is a very necessary and important form of rationing. And the appeals panels that insurance companies set up frequently uphold denials.

Misconception #2: Government takeover. PPACA enables the government to do many things, but one thing it does not do is take over our nation’s health care system. PPACA is, at its very core, a set of regulations for private insurance companies, guidelines for states to set up insurance exchanges as marketplaces, subsidies to help people purchase private insurance and looser eligibility guidelines for Medicaid. It is actually quite similar to the law Romney signed into Massachusetts law when he was governor.

In early versions of the legislation, including the Affordable Health Care for America Act that passed the House but died in the Senate, there was a provision for a “public option,” but that did not end up in the final version of the law. There is also no trigger for a public option in the law either, although that was proposed.

Even if those things had made it into the law, there would still be private health insurance, and of course privately owned health care providers. Nothing in this law would constitute the government telling you which doctor to see or rationing care.

Misconception #3: Only good for the poorest. While it is true that the law expands Medicaid eligibility guidelines to 133% of the federal poverty level for men and women, many of the most important benefits will be for middle-income families purchasing subsidized private insurance through state-based exchanges. A family of four with adjusted gross income of $88,000 per year could qualify for a subsidy if they have to purchase individual coverage.

They’ll need it too — with new guaranteed issue (no denials for pre-existing conditions), community rating (no rating based on health) and 3-to-1 age banding (the oldest people will only pay three times as much as the youngest people), healthy people will be charged more for insurance to compensate for the sickest people who will be paying less or even newly eligible for private insurance in 2014.

Earlier in 2011, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) proposed a voucher program for Medicare that would use the Medicare tax to provide subsidies for Medicare beneficiaries to purchase private health insurance. This was viewed as a potential solution to the red ink facing the Medicare program. Considering Medicare beneficiaries are, by definition elderly and/or in poor health, they are often bad risk candidates for private health insurance…but only the rating rules under PPACA actually could have made such a program workable for seniors. I, for one, hope Congressman Ryan’s proposal resurfaces.

A few legitimate objections to health care reform

Objection #1: The individual mandate. The issues of guaranteed issue and community rating raise an important point about the real hot-button issue in the law: the individual and employer mandates to purchase health insurance.

Working in the health insurance industry has taught me about the problem of adverse selection, namely the projected rise in costs when more unhealthy people purchase insurance. The higher the cost, the more likely people are to wait until they get sick to purchase insurance…and that, in turn, raises the cost even more. Insurers have dealt with this problem up until now by denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, but a whopping 82 percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center say that the government should ban this practice.

So the insurance industry proposed an alternative: a mandate that requires people to buy health insurance. If you own a business or are in sales, wouldn’t it help your bottom line if the government required people to buy your product or pay a penalty?

Unlike death panels and the public option, this mandate actually is in the health care reform law, and it will face the ultimate constitutional test in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012.

We Americans are a conflicted bunch. We support a ban on denials for pre-existing conditions but then most of us oppose the mechanism for making such a ban workable: the individual mandate. Unfortunately this very popular ban costs something, and since there is no free lunch, the individual mandate is that cost.

Objection #2: The federal deficit. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projected that, through 2019, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would yield a net reduction in the federal deficit of $130 billion. Of course, the government’s budget projections have been wrong — very wrong — before.

When Medicare began in 1966, the cost was $3 billion, and the House Ways and Means Committee projected (conservatively mind you) that the cost would be $12 billion by 1990. In fact the cost of Medicare was $107 billion by 1990 and $468  billion for FY 2012. Considering that we are talking about health care with its extremely rapid inflation rates, CBO’s projections may need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Objection #3: It’s socialism. One of the definitions of socialism in The Merriam-Webster Dictionary reads, “a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done.”

By that definition, all social programs ranging from Medicare to food stamps to Social Security to unemployment insurance are forms of socialism. Yet people usually like these programs. As Paul Ryan was reminded, Medicare and Social Security are often sacred cows in American politics, and any suggestion of reforming them is certain to draw ire from seniors.

PPACA is on the same plane with Medicare and Social Security. There really is not an ideological distinction between one and the others. The question we should be asking ourselves is not, “Is this socialism?” but “Is socialism a good solution to this problem?” There are some who would never say yes, but most Americans support social programs to some degree whether or not they are willing to describe them as socialism.

While we cannot pretend that PPACA is cost-free, we must also consider the current system as an alternative: a system that shifts the debt from the government to individuals. In 2007, a study by the American Journal of Medicinefound that 62 percent of all bankruptcies filed were related to medical expenses, and 3/4 of medical debtors had health insurance. What’s worse, approximately 50 million Americans have no health coverage. When private citizens go bankrupt and cannot pay their medical bills, those costs get shifted to someone who can pay and usually does pay more…and isn’t that a form of socialism too?

The fact is that the spiraling cost of health care itself underlies both the need for health care reform and the opposition to it. I, for one, am tired of hearing Republicans talk just about repealing PPACA and instead want to hear what they propose as an alternative solution.

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