Thursday, May 28, 2015

Republican conundrum: Can the federal government subsidize private health insurance without regulating it?

Two moderate conservatives, neither of them averse to a federal effort to make health insurance affordable for all Americans, walk into a conference session and disagree about likely Republican behavior should the Supreme Court rule for the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell, thus cutting off subsidies for some eight million Americans who bought their health plans on

This happened earlier this month at the Health Insurance Exchange Summit in Washington, D.C. The disagreement was between Stuart Butler, a longtime Heritage Foundation scholar now at the Brookings Institute, and Christopher Condeluci, who was tax and benefits counsel to the Senate Finance Committee while the ACA was being drafted.

Butler, generally considered the father of the individual mandate (though he has renounced his brainchild and its bastard stepchild, the ACA), kicked off the session by sketching out a post-King settlement that he hoped might lead to a "kumbaya moment" and win 400 votes in the House.  That settlement would build on the ACA's existing "innovation waivers," provided in Section 1332, which empower states to propose alternative schemes that meet the ACA's coverage and affordability goals by different means.

Section 1332 puts everything up for grabs -- the individual and employer mandates, health plan coverage rules, exchange structure, and subsidy allocations. Since alternative schemes must meet ACA standards for coverage and affordability, however, Republicans complain that Section 1332 takes away with the left hand the freedom it proffers with the right. Butler proposed that in a post-King negotiation Republicans and Democrats might negotiate a "superwaiver" process that would loosen the ACA standards and lighten HHS oversight while also moving up the timeline -- at present, approved state proposals can't take effect until 2017.

Condeluci, who has said that Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee had signed off on 80% of the bill that eventually became the ACA, agreed that Republicans post-King would look to "1332-like" alterations to the ACA. But he said that Republicans would not accept the waiver structure as a framework. Instead they would invite states to opt into a Republican alternative that would include repeal of the individual and employer mandates as well as of the essential health benefits that every plan qualified under the ACA must provide.

Afterward, I asked Condeluci whether the plan he envisioned would give states free reign to take federal subsidy money and reorder their insurance markets as they saw fit, or rather to opt into a prepackaged Republican scheme that would lay out new coverage rules. He said, in effect, either/or. His answer spotlights an important...let's call it tension in Republican thinking about healthcare reform.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Underinsurance: What's offsetting the rise in deductibles?

On the weekend, I posed a few questions raised by the Commonwealth Fund survey of underinsurance released this week. I've since heard from Commonwealth's Sara Collins, VP of health care coverage and access, the lead researcher in the study. Her answers highlight some significant unknowns about what's going on in employer-sponsored insurance.*

To recap, Commonwealth found that among those American adults under age 65 who were insured for a full twelve months, 23 percent were underinsured – that is, their deductibles and copays were high enough to cause severe financial strain. That top line is almost unchanged since 2010; the real damage on this front was done from 2005 to 2010, when employers started shifting costs en masse to employees. Among those who get insurance from an employer, the Commonwealth found an underinsurance rate of 20%, unchanged since 2012 and up from 17% in 2010.

Monday, May 25, 2015

LBJ before Selma: wait -- no, go

After seeing Ava DuVernay' Selma a few weeks ago, I bought Nick Kotz's Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Laws that Changed America (2005). It's a digest of LBJ and King's interactions, beginning in fruitful if sometimes tense collaboration and ending in tragic enmity.  I can't say how central a source this book itself was for the movie, but the encounters it records indicate that those who claim that Johnson was more supportive of the voting rights campaign than their early encounter in the movie implies and those who claim that the scene is an accurate depiction of a pre-Selma encounter are both right.

LBJ and King had exquisitely attuned political antennae -- King with a genius for staging and calibrating confrontations to move public opinion, Johnson for how and when to move Congress. In the early stage of Johnson's presidency, sometimes their antennae were attuned, and sometimes they were in tension. Following his landslide reelection in November 1964, LBJ did ask King to ease up on the voting rights campaign so he could first get his antipoverty program passed. But within a few weeks, he began to think that the time might also be ripe for voting rights legislation, and he alternately tapped the gas and brake as the campaign gained momentum.

LBJ met King alone a week after King had been awarded the Nobel Prize, on December 18, 1964 -- less than three months before the first march on Selma on March 7, 1965 and LBJ's speech introducing the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress on March 15. The upshot, as described in Judgment Days, is the basis of the LBJ-King White House meeting dramatized in Selma:

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mysteries of underinsurance in the Commonwealth Fund survey

A Commonwealth Fund survey released this week found that among those American adults under age 65 who were insured throughout 2014, 23 percent were underinsured – that is, their deductibles and copays were high enough to cause severe financial strain. That top line is almost unchanged since 2010; the real damage on this front was done from 2005 to 2010, when employers started shifting costs en masse to employees.

I have several questions about the report, to which I'm seeking answers from the authors. If you have any insight, please let me know (email address is in profile to right).

In the questions below, please keep in mind Commonwealth's definition of underinsured: 1) total out-of-pocket costs exceed 10% of annual income, or 5% if the person's household income is under 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), or 2) the plan deductible exceeds 5% of the beneficiary's annual income.

1. While deductibles in employer-sponsored plans continue to rise, most notably among those with less than 100 employees, the underinsurance rate actually dropped among large employers from 2012 to 2014, from 16% to 14%.  In the same period, the percentage of large-firm employees whose deductible exceeded 5% of annual income rose from 6% to 8%.  What's offsetting that rise in the ranks of those whose deductibles alone classify them as underinsured? Do the free preventive services mandated by the ACA play a role? Or rather, since "the out-of-pocket cost component of the measure is only triggered if a person uses his or her plan," could reluctance to use (and pay for) any medical services be inhibiting the underinsured total?

2. More generally, , among all insured Americans under age 65, Commonwealth finds an increase of 7 million since 2010 in those whose deductibles qualify them as underinsured, but a net increase in underinsureds of only 2 million . Again, something seems to be offsetting the relentless rise in deductibles. Since 2010,

Friday, May 22, 2015

Commonwealth and Kaiser on underinsurance

This week, the Commonwealth Fund put out a new survey of underinsurance among American adults under age 65, while Kaiser released a new survey of buyers in the individual market, both on- and off-exchange. Over at, I find that Kaiser indirectly indicates that Cost Sharing Reduction subsidies are somewhat leveling the underinsurance playing field. CSR is a leaky vessel, but it's carrying maybe 6 million souls across the underinsurance chasm. Hope you'll have a look.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Your money or your life

Last September, the Times' Elisabeth Rosenthal spotlighted the manifold ways in which hospitals impose out-of-network billing charges on patients even when the patients have contracted with an in-network physician in an in-network hospital.

Rosenthal documented how hospital ORs and EDs operate as free-billing zones in which an array of doctors, physical therapists and other service providers can insinuate themselves in a procedure without the patient's prior knowledge or consent, whether they're in the patient's insurance network or not -- and then relentlessly pursue either the insurer or the patient or both for their exorbitant billings.

She's made me extremely wary to enter a hospital for any purpose  -- a reluctance that I suppose could in itself be dangerous to my health (or, conversely, salubrious; see point 3 here). But I had evidence today that the virus, so to speak, has spread to physician practices, which hospitals are relentlessly buying up and contracting with. In my primary care physician's office, I was confronted with a form requiring me, theoretically at least, to put all I own in hoc to the parent parent company, a certain Atlantic Health System:
I understand the Hospital charges do not include the fees of my treating physician, or the fees for services provided by Emergency Department physicians, anesthesiologists, cardiologists, neonatologists, obstetricians, pathologist, radiologists, surgeons, the on call physician, other consultants, and other Voluntary Medical Staff  who may treat men. I understand that I am financially responsible for the payment of my physician fees and these fees may not be covered by my insurance plan.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Post-King fallout: Waiting for Superwaiver?

I have a post up at that recounts opposing forecasts from two moderate conservatives about likely Republican behavior if the Supreme Court rules for the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell.  invalidating subsidies credited through

First up is Stuart Butler, generally considered the father of the individual mandate, long at Heritage, now at Brookings. The other is Christopher Condeluci, a former Republican Senate Finance Committee staffer who was involved in that committee's efforts to report out a bill with bipartisan backing (he has said that there was agreement between Republicans and Democrats on the committee on about 80% of the substance of what became the ACA).

The two were on a panel on likely post-King fallout at the Health Insurance Exchange Summit in D.C. last week. Here's the upshot of their disagreement:
Stuart Butler.. suggested that Democrats who wanted to preserve the ACA's core framework and Republicans looking to alter it might find "Houdini-like" escape from their impasse by taking inspiration from the ACA's "innovation waivers." These waivers empower states to propose alternative schemes that meet the ACA's coverage and affordability goals by different means...Butler spoke hopefully of a "superwaiver process" that would speed up the timeline and ease the application process,  giving states more freedom to shape their health insurance markets with less oversight from the federal government.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Obama and Warren: A contrast in rhetorical styles

Over the years, I've on several occasions been moved to summarize Obama's economic master narrative. Here's one more pass:

America has at various key points in its history committed itself to investments in shared prosperity and to widening the circle of opportunity to groups previously excluded. These include Lincoln's investment in railroads and infrastructure, FDR's in social welfare and education, and Eisenhower's in the interstate highway system.  In the Reagan years -- or in some speeches, in the Bush Jr. years -- the country took a wrong turn and the gains of economic growth started going disproportionately to the top. Many feel "the American dream is slipping away."  Fortunately, democracy gives America the capacity for self-correction, and his election and re-election bespeak a renewed commitment to shared prosperity and investments that will foster sustainable growth. It's a seductive narrative, highly idealized, but with enough acknowledgment of weakness and injustice to make it credible.

Lord knows I've been a longtime admirer of Obama's rhetoric -- of  the nuanced understanding of cause and effect he takes pains to articulate, of his Lincolnesque view of American history as a continuous, never-completed drive to fulfill the promises expressed in its founding documents, of his embrace of incremental, nonlinear progress. It's been often noted that he doesn't do sound bites, or leave us with memorable single phrases. I've argued before that Obama works both above and below the level of the single phrase: below, with musical, repetitive phrasing, and above, with conceptual clarity and coherence.

This is all by way of too-long introduction to the fact I heard Elizabeth Warren speak at the American Prospect birthday fundraiser on May 13, and her rhetorical strengths are..different from Obama's. Telling broadly the same economic story as Obama has been telling these past eight years, of investments in shared prosperity derailed by the Reagan Revolution, her narrative line was simpler -- and cleaner.

Barbara Pym's quote-happy Brits

My wife has taken to constantly rereading Barbara Pym, and sometimes when I grab the Kindle I tool read a few pages. When I did so a few minutes ago, I was struck, again, by Pym's rather sardonic relationship with the English canon. Here is an alter ego of sorts -- a pragmatic, unassuming writer of fiction and nonfiction for women's magazines, pausing over a pinch of high Victorian sentiment:
She imagined women under the drier at the hairdresser’s, turning the pages lazily and coming to ‘The Rose Garden’ by Catherine Oliphant. They would read the first page, the one that had the drawing of a girl standing with a rose in her hand and a man, handsomer than any real man could possibly be, standing behind her with an anguished expression on his face: but would they turn to the back of the magazine, where the continuation and ending were to be found? Catherine wondered gloomily. Dear as remembered kisses after death, she typed idly, but was it likely that her hero would have read Tennyson or quoted the line aloud like that? Not very, she thought, getting up and walking about the room (Less than Angels, Chapter 2).

Monday, May 11, 2015

A modest post-King proposal

Political science blogger Jonathan Bernstein is one King v. Burwell watcher who does not discount the likelihood that Republicans in Congress will come under intense pressure to keep the subsidies flowing through if the Supreme Court rules for the plaintiffs, Knowing this, I was nonetheless a bit surprised to read this morning that he thinks a more or less unconditional Republican surrender is a real possibility.

Imagine, Bernstein writes, that Republicans write a bill restoring the subsidies along with a poison pill like repeal of the individual mandate, and Obama vetoes it. What then? With most GOP senators and House reps wishing the "opportunity" to throw 8 or 9 million people off their insurance plans to go away, the party could swing either way:
We've seen similar cases in the last Congress: Republicans eventually decided to allow Superstorm Sandy relief and the Violence Against Women Act to pass, while they never permitted votes on a comprehensive immigration plan or on a bill prohibiting employer discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity. In each case, most Republicans wanted to oppose the measure in the event of a vote, though there were enough votes to pass it anyway. The question was whether enough Republicans wanted the legislation to pass while publicly voting "no." And they probably didn't know what they would do until the situation played out.
And here's his call;
My guess is that if this does happen (the court may, and should, rule the administration has read the health-care law properly), Republicans would be under heavy pressure to allow a simple fix to pass, and would probably give in. But it's hardly certain.
I think there's a third possibility: with both sides under heavy pressure and public opinion as to who's to blame hanging in the balance, Republicans might settle for amending the ACA in a conservative direction without destroying it. (See Michael Leavitt, Bush Jr.'s HHS Secretary, on this.) But how much amendment would be enough to satisfy the wrath of the party's base?

Here's one possibility: detoxify Bernstein's poison pill a bit. Give each state the option of repealing the individual mandate.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Any low income readers from PA out there?

A brief update on this post: I have learned that CMS prepared for Pennsylvania health officials a list of 141,000 households containing QHP enrollees who are now eligible for Medicaid. That means that close to half -- or half, depending on attrition -- of PA's 2014 QHP enrollees had incomes under 138% FPL. Wow. Meanwhile, according to HHS stats published in March, fewer than 40,000 of the state's 2014 QHP enrollees had disenrolled by that point. So let's just say for the present that the state's Medicaid expansion, snarled in part by the "private option" complication now being unsnarled, has a ways to go.

Meanwhile, I am desperately seeking a 2014 QHP enrollee from Pennsylvania who is now eligible for Medicaid who either remains enrolled in a QHP or took a good long while to transition to Medicaid. Anyone? 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The ACA and the Working Class - Kevin Drum Festschrift

My festschrift contribution for Kevin Drum, who's recovering from a stem cell transplant in treatment for multiple myeloma, is up on Mother Jones. Kevin, give thanks, is doing very well, and managing to keep blogging on policy as well as track his treatment experience.

For those interested in the editing process -- as anyone who's ever edited inevitably is -- I thought my piece was skillfully shaped by Mother Jones managing editor Clint Hedler. Mostly he cut caveats and qualifications, which I've highlighted in the full draft below. Left to my own devices, I would leave the first and last highlighted sections in place and let the other cuts stand -- and I can see the case for all of them. I should be better at doing this to myself, as I spend half my day-job hours doing it to other people's articles.

One thing I've always appreciated about Kevin is that his commitment to economic justice is grounded in political realism.  That balance was on display in his postmortem on the Democrats' drubbing in November:
when the economy stagnates and life gets harder, people get meaner. That's just human nature. And the economy has been stagnating for the working class for well over a decade—and then practically collapsing ever since 2008.

So who does the WWC [white working class] take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor. In particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn't matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the WWC makes it more than any. That's because they're closer to it. For them, the poor aren't merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They're the folks next door who don't do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars. For a lot of members of the WWC, this is personal in a way it just isn't for the kind of people who read this blog.

And who is it that's responsible for this infuriating flow of government money to the shiftless? Democrats. We fight to save food stamps. We fight for WIC. We fight for Medicaid expansion. We fight for Obamacare. We fight to move poor families into nearby housing.

This is a big problem because these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class. 
As Kevin acknowledges, this is an age-old problem for Democrats. It's "unfair" in that there's overwhelming evidence that safety-net programs like food stamps, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit "have positive effects on health, educational attainment, earnings and employment years later," as Jared Bernstein recently wrote. Conversely, programs popular with the middle class, such as the mortgage tax credit and tax-sheltered college savings plans, bestow the bulk of their benefits on the affluent. The distinction between "the poor" and "the working class" may also be too neat, given the volatility of Americans' incomes and the erosion of stable jobs at working class pay levels. An awful lot of working people access the benefits that Kevin lists, or have family members who do, (e.g., a large majority of food stamp beneficiaries). All that said, the perception that Kevin fingers is a political force, and partly grounded in reality, in that safety net programs (for the non-elderly at least) do most directly benefit those at the bottom of the income distribution.

Friday, May 01, 2015

The conversation shifts toward wages

If I may indulge myself in a quick note at a busy time: today's lead NYT editorial marks a kind of watershed to me.  Aptly titled Picking Up the Tab for Low Wages, it begins by noting the divergence between productivity gains and wage gains since the 1970s and then alleges a primary cause:
These dynamics are not inevitable. Low-wage employers, in particular, pay low wages because they can and the main reason they can is that Congress has failed, over decades, to adequately update the minimum wage and other labor standards, including rules for overtime pay, employee benefits and union organizing.