With Baited Breath

I watch this presidential race, apprehensive about its implications on national politics and health care. After Hillary Clinton’s narrow win in the Indiana Democratic primary and Barack Obama’s solid win in North Carolina, it appears that Clinton’s campaign aides are doubling their efforts to have Michigan and Florida included in the final delegate count in a last ditch effort to help Clinton win the nomination. The two states have been excluded because they held their primaries at an early date in defiance of rules set by the Democratic National Party; furthermore, Michigan’s ballot did not even list Barack Obama as a candidate. Considering the problems the state caused in the 2000 election, I find it ironic that Florida is one of the states involved in this controversy. Do we really want to nominate a presidential candidate who is as willing to bend and break rules to win as our current President?

My primary concerns, nonetheless, are with the health care policies touted by the three current contenders: Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator John McCain, and Senator Barack Obama.

On Clinton

I’m very worried and concerned about the extent to which Hillary Clinton intends to reform health care. Granted, as one news writer pointed out, health care reform legislation ultimately will be written by Congress (or lobbyists). However, the next President will play an important role in setting the tone for the nature of the reform to come. My political leanings tend to be toward the progressive and the left which would make me more sympathetic to Clinton’s calls for universal health care. Notably, neither Clinton nor Obama are advocating for a single payer system of health care financing (in which a single entity, usually the government, would manage and pay for all health care insurance and expenses). However, according to health08.org’s comparison of the health plans proposed by the current three contenders, Clinton’s plan does have a few cryptic proposals:

1. Individuals must have health insurance coverage. – The most distinct difference in the health reform plans offered by Clinton and Obama is that Clinton’s plan establishes a mandate requiring all individuals to have health care coverage (e.g. insurance) while Obama’s plan requires all children to have health care coverage. Obama’s plan essentially seems to be an enhanced extension of SCHIP (which covers uninsured families with children who are not eligible for Medicaid) and Medicaid: it would be a relatively modest step to ensuring that all children in the U.S. have health care coverage, not unlike present laws requiring children to receive grade school education. The attitude of American society toward children is relatively favorable, and it is widely believed and accepted that all children should be given equal opportunities before the onset of adulthood. However, Clinton’s mandate for all individuals to have insurance is a more complicated and larger task. There is certainly a considerable population of individuals who choose not to purchase health care insurance, although their attitudes and reasons may vary (based on considerations of cost and benefits, perceived need, ignorance, etc.). A larger portion of uninsured Americans would probably prefer to have health insurance coverage but are unable to afford it on their own as private plans are usually prohibitively expensive. At this time, Massachusetts is the first state to have a mandate requiring all individuals to have health care coverage (or face a fine). Thus far, the plan has been successful in reducing the number of uninsured individuals. However, the plan has also put severe strain on the health care infrastructure and financing systems, requiring the state to take extra measures to raise funds for the government subsidization of individual health plans. My question is this: if such a mandate is straining the health care system in Massachusetts, a relatively wealthy state, how successful would such a mandate be on a national scale? How would it fare in a state as poor as my own home state of Louisiana?

2. Cost Containment: A “paperless” health information technology system. – As mentioned in a previous post, I am very much in favor of digitizing medical records if the transition occurs in a sensible and balanced manner. A national standard for electronic medical records that interfaced with patient-accessible personal health records would be a wonderful advancement in health care. However, as expressed in my concerns for my hospital’s EMR system, who would be responsible for managing, fixing, and updating this system? Would it be a consortium of government agencies and private companies? Or perhaps a network of different EMR systems that were forced to communicate with one another? Either way, the startup cost of the software development and hardware replacement would be considerable, and the system could easily fall apart without a strong central authority with a clear responsibility to manage it.

3. Cost Containment: Linking medical error disclosure with physician liability protection. – Of all the details listed of Clinton’s plan, this is the one that worries me the most. What does this ambiguous and undiscussed clause mean? In a worse case scenario, it sounds as though Clinton would like to see a system in which physicians who “make mistakes” lose their malpractice insurance coverage (e.g. perhaps as a “three strikes, you’re out” type of policy). Considering that most medical errors are “system” errors rather than individual errors, how can one appropriately determine which is which? This clause is listed under “cost containment,” and it is difficult to view it as anything but a penalizing system for physicians that would likely exacerbate the current malpractice crisis. Which again makes me wonder: what snooty premed spurned Hillary Clinton in her younger days to make her hate doctors so?

On McCain

Medical blogger Shadowfax recently wrote an intriguing review of McCain’s recently exposed health care plan: essentially, his plan promises to completely destroy the current methods that most Americans can acquire health care insurance (through employment) while exacerbating the major problems facing medicine and health care today (e.g. the least amount of health insurance coverage or no coverage for the sickest and poorest patients). Originally, when McCain had not revealed detailed of his plan, I considered his superficial approach (e.g. “ignore reforming health care because it is a Democratic platform issue”) to be less threatening than that of Hillary Clinton, whose “grab-health-care-by-the-balls” approach seems as though it may cause more harm than good. However, while Clinton’s plan might harm health care providers and health care infrastructure (and in turn, indirectly pass on the damage to patients and consumers), McCain’s plan will directly affect the American people adversely. Paraphrasing part of Shadowfax’s argument, McCain’s plan aims to remove employer tax benefits and thus the incentives for employers to provide health care insurance to their employees, forcing individuals to purchase their own plans. This may be useful if health insurance plans were affordable. However:

McCain’s plan does the opposite by deregulating the insurance industry. That’s not what they call it, of course. Rather, conservatives claim that state regulations are so onerous that they drive up the cost of insurance. Their proposal is to allow insurance products to be marketed across state lines. The consequence of this will be that large insurers will domicile themselves in whichever state has the least level of regulation and the most pliable legislature. States which have robust consumer protections in place — guaranteed issue, prudent layperson legislation, bans on pre-existing condition exclusions, minimum benefit levels, etc — will find that their insurance products are more expensive because they cover more benefits (and sicker people). The states which allow the most aggressive anti-consumer policies will have cheaper costs and the lowest common denominator will become the de facto national standard.

On Obama

I am currently most in favor of Obama as a candidate based primarily on his health care policies, his no-political-BS approach, and his ability to evoke images of a better leadership for a better America. With respect to his health care plan, it essentially is a leaner, less confrontational Democratic plan with some of the same approaches as Hillary Clinton. However, his plan is more balanced and more likely to draw support from both patient-consumers, physicians, and the industries that support health care:

1. Require all children to have health insurance. – No one can argue with this, or they would just look callous and heartless.

2. Create a new public plan so that small businesses and individuals without access to other public programs or employer-based coverage could purchase insurance. Plan coverage would offer comprehensive benefits similar to those available through FEHBP. Coverage under the new public plan would be portable. – Both Clinton and Obama have plans suggesting the creation of new public/government health care insurance plans or the expansion of preexisting plans. However, at this time, I haven’t yet found information in Clinton’s plan about provisions to allow health care insurance to be portable. Allowing insurance to be portable gives patients the ability to have more control over their health care by allowing them to select and access physicians of their choice. McCain’s plan does have provisions for portability, but his plan focuses on “allowing the free market” to provide competition between health care plans in order to theoretically provide patients with affordable options. McCain’s idea would seem reasonable if he actually had strong measures in place (along the lines of Hillary Clinton’s reform policies) to reel in the influence of the health insurance industry, but this is not the case.

3. Prevent insurers from abusing monopoly power through unjustified price increases. Require health plans to disclose the percentage of their premiums that actually goes to paying for patient care as opposed to administrative costs. In market areas where there is not enough competition, require insurers to pay out a “reasonable share” of premiums on patient care benefits. – Obama’s plan unfortunately does not explain in detail what these clauses mean. However, it offers some promise that as a President, he would be interested in breaking apart the health care insurance monopolies currently in place that prevent any meaningful competition between companies.

4. Reform medical malpractice while preserving patient rights by strengthening antitrust laws and promoting new models for addressing physician errors. – Where Clinton’s plan fails to inspire confidence, Obama’s plan shines here. In this single clause, Obama reveals his nature as a moderate candidate that is willing to work with many parties and is willing to see issues in the degree of complexity that they exist. Clinton, as an executive, would likely not hesitate to try and bulldoze over any opposition she faces, especially opposition from physicians as a group. However, Obama’s policy reads in such way that seems to offer concessions to all parties involved while aiming to address the central issue (acknowledging that there is no one party at fault).

At the end of the day, this is all still speculation on early glimpses of health care reform plans that may change significantly over the next few years. However, at this time, I suspect that Obama offers the best hope toward encouraging positive reform in health care while both Clinton and McCain seem to offer great risk for catastrophe.

  1. This was an interesting analysis. Still, I wonder why some people are so afraid of forcing Health Insurers out into the free market? Why the assumption that such a policy will ONLY affect people negatively? There is equally no proof in the Clinton or Obama camp that their policies will work either. Ultimately the question comes down to more or less big brother.

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