New ads smartly target young, athletic types who feel invincible

For all of the SNAFUs with the website and all of the delayed mandates, one thing that the Department of Health and Human Services has gotten right is the advertising.

New ads include retired basketball stars Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Alonzo Mourning as spokespeople to encourage young, healthy people to sign up for health coverage in the marketplace.

With new rules prohibiting insurers from discriminating on the basis of pre-existing conditions, it’s easy to get older, sicker people to sign up for health coverage because they obviously need it. But it’s harder to get young, invincible people to see the value in purchasing health insurance since they don’t use much health care. But it’s also critically important to get them into the risk pool because, without them, there is a high risk of adverse selection in the risk pools, driving up insurance premiums for everyone. That’s why the much-maligned individual mandate is so important and also entirely inadequate.

While a bunch of young men on a basketball court probably can’t relate to cancer treatment, they can often relate to sports injuries. So it’s obvious why athletes are compelling spokespeople for this cause.

But why Johnson and Mourning instead of current players who are more relevant? Without going into their stories explicitly, many basketball fans understand that these men became seriously ill during their NBA careers. Johnson famously announced his HIV diagnosis in 1991, and Mourning’s career was also cut short by a rare kidney disease that required a transplant and ended his career. Both men had an air of invincibility but were faced with life-and-death circumstances. Both are survivors, and both required expensive medical treatments that most young people don’t think about.

So these ads are a stroke of genius by HHS. Will they be enough to close the gap of young, healthy people? Probably not. But they could definitely move the needle.

Obamacare is already reducing the number of uninsured Americans

For all the talk about people “losing their health care” (which really just meant their plans were cancelled and they would have to switch to a different plan with richer benefits) and all the technical difficulties on the exchanges, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is already working to reduce the uninsured rate to its lowest level since 2008, according to a report by the Associated Press. This should surprise no one since that was the whole point of the law. The Affordable Care Act is far from perfect, but it does represent real progress.

Perverse incentives and unintended consequences everywhere

I’m a big fan of the books Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, co-authored by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner. I especially like them in audiobook form because the reader, Dubner, throws his voice into a high shrill to demarcate when he is quoting someone else. But I digress.

The books consist of a series of anecdotes that are shocking, bizarre and occasionally inspiring. In the prologue to SuperFreakonomics, the authors tie all of the stories together with this theme. “People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable or manifest. Therefore, one of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences.”

I firmly believe that government has an important role to play in making society more just, equitable and civil than it would otherwise be. Whether it’s a police force protecting citizens from the threat of crime or Social Security protecting the elderly and disabled from the threat of poverty, the government is in a unique position to solve certain problems that might otherwise go unsolved.

Yet both of these books include story after story of well-intentioned government policies that went terribly awry because their authors did not predict how they would play out in the real world. In a scathing indictment of government intervention, the authors point out that Franklin Roosevelt — the progressive hero who brought us Social Security — chose to donate his personal funds to the private sector research on curing polio while he was sitting in the Oval Office instead of relying on Uncle Sam. Roosevelt suffered from polio himself, so his contributions to the organization that ultimately became the March of Dimes were the ultimate example of his personal health incentives outweighing his incentives for political gain. Even though he did not live to see it happen, Roosevelt bet on the right horse because it was a private sector team led by Jonas Salk that ultimately invented the polio vaccine.

If you’ve spent any time with me at all in recent years (or if you have read some of my other blog entries), you will know that I am particularly passionate about health care reform. Indeed I was quite pleased when the Supreme Court decided to uphold the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, albeit by the narrowest of margins. I see this as an issue of justice since more than 50 million Americans have no health insurance, and millions more are underinsured.

Yet I am a person who tries to listen to the ideas of those who do not share my views. And I have heard a lot of objections to the law. The strongest one that I have heard, though, was the law of unintended consequences. Levitt and Dubner made the best case for this when sharing stories of other government policies gone wrong in decades past. For example, the authors demonstrated how the Americans with Disabilities Act actually discouraged employers from hiring disabled people because they feared lawsuits if they were to ever discipline or fire a bad employee who happened to be disabled.

So, if government is not the answer, what is one to do when faced with a difficult societal problem — especially one as complex and emotional as health care? Simply accept the problem as inevitable?

PPACA is undoubtedly fraught with problems. One unintended consequence of the law has already cropped up: some insurers have responded to the law’s prohibition against denying coverage to children for pre-existing conditions by not offering child-only policies at all. (This is a temporary problem since the law prohibits this practice for all ages starting in 2014 — insurers surely cannot stop selling policies altogether.)

But why would insurers make this tradeoff, even in the short term? Why would they stop selling policies to the parents of healthy kids just because they will have to cover sick kids too? Because health care itself is expensive, and the sick children who can now qualify for insurance are really expensive to cover.

This turn of events should not have come as any surprise to smart policymakers because when there is a lot of money on the line, rational humans invariably will game any system. This goes for insurers, hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers and patients. There is no way to make everybody happy. Any meaningful reform will have big winners and big losers.

Many smart patients will likely choose to pay the individual mandate penalty and go without health insurance until they get sick because the penalty is less than the cost of insurance and the insurance companies will be required to accept them regardless of health status. The higher premiums these gamers will create for everyone else will become what economists call anegative externality — a consequence of one person’s actions that is borne by another person. At least the penalty provides some counterweight to that natural inclination.

So why doesn’t the law go harder after making health care itself cheaper so insurers won’t have such a strong incentive to deny coverage to sick children? Sure, there are some provisions in the law like comparative effectiveness research, accountable care organizations, and health information technology investments, but I suspect the real reason for the kid-gloves approach to costs in the system is because politicians respond to incentives too.

When President Obama and congressional Democrats started working on this law in 2009, they knew that they would face a tough political fight. It was made tougher by Republicans who decided it was in their best political interests to oppose the law unanimously, no matter what provisions it contained. Plus, as politicians who run for re-election, everyone owed a sort of legislative debt to whoever contributed to their campaign funds if they hoped to continue raising said funds.

Since we have already established that health care is expensive, any attempt to reduce costs is invariably going to lead to some belt tightening. And, as humans who respond to incentives, everybody wants somebody else to do the most belt tightening. Are health insurance companies earning too much profit? Are pharmaceutical and medical device companies to blame? What about those high-paid doctors and huge hospital bills? Naturally, with that much money at stake, the biggest players were willing to sink millions of dollars into lobbyists and advertising campaigns to protect their interests.

So, President Obama struck deals — some might say dirty, backroom deals — with PhRMA, the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association by shielding them from deep cost cutting provisions in exchange for their political allegiance. The Republicans were no better — they partnered with America’s Health Insurance Plans, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Medical Device Manufacturers Association to campaign against the law since these players had so much to lose and the Republicans. Rather than making deals across the aisle, both sides drew lines in the sand and built up their arsenals for an ugly, televised fight that included phrases like “death panels” and “pull the plug on Grandma.” No matter what your ideology, the second half of 2009 was a low point in American politics.

This is another important concern — is it possible for anyone on either side of the aisle to do honest policymaking anymore? Won’t even the most well-intentioned bill authored by the most honest legislator ultimately be corrupted by the time it reaches the President by lobbyists who have become so endemic to the political process?

Perhaps the federal government has a role to play after all, but it is not the role that anybody on the left or right expects. It is neither a role of command and control and micromanagement nor a role of laissez faire, but a role of creating the right incentives for people to do the right thing.

Maybe we should offer big incentives for health insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions instead of penalizing them for denying it. Maybe the pharmaceutical industry should be required to prove the cost-effectiveness of their drugs before the FDA along with safety and efficacy data. Maybe the government can issue huge award checks for the best ideas to solve the health care cost problem.

Maybe the federal government can dispense money to each state government (proportionate to their populations), give a few simple constraints on the results they must achieve (like covering 95 percent of their residents and not denying people for pre-existing conditions) and then create 50 laboratories for health reform plus regular workshops so that state lawmakers can learn from each other’s successes and failures. If one state can achieve the results at a lower cost than what has been allocated, they get to refund taxpayers the difference. And if you don’t like what your state is doing, you can easily move to another state.

I don’t have all the answers. Whatever the government does — or doesn’t do — there will certainly be some unintended consequences.

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.