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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wrestling with the Individual Mandate or We still Don't Know what kind of Health System we Want

As a nation, we do not know what we want our health system to be when it grows up. We are still using our health system as a source for our own fantasies and shortcomings. The fantasies are on such a grand scale that we expect our health system to be like James Bond with better abs when it grows up.

Allow me to step down from my somewhat random analogy. We still have the illusion that we can provide health coverage and access to care for everyone, keep it affordable, and not make any sacrifices like increased wait times for services, no longer offer the most invasive option possible, or not have an individual mandate. We have delayed tough decisions under the delusion that wellness, better chronic disease management, and Electronic Medical Records will result our health system being affordable, high quality, and with access for all. The reality is that health systems can usually only offer two of the three.

The sacrifice of the individual mandate is the topic of this blog post. Those who are still reading, probably realized that from the title and are now glad that I finally got to the point. Economists have explained that an individual mandate is required in order to have affordable universal health coverage. The healthy, like James Bond, has to pay into the pool to support the sick and those who are not really really really ridiculously good-looking. However, politicians continually look for a way to remove the watered down individual mandate that is included in health reform. This shows a continued inability to make tough decisions about what we want our future health system to look like. The current individual mandate is a $700 fine which should hardly dissuade the die hard libertarian from not buying insurance. That individual can continue to not buy auto insurance, not wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle, not pay taxes, or refrain from bringing samurai swords on a plane or any of those other things that individuals are currently mandated to do by law.

This post on the individual mandate is mainly driven by Senator Ben Nelson's request to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to see alternatives to the individual mandate. Now, given Nelson's history with the Cornhusker Kickback, his request for this analysis could be driven by a desire to fry up some more pork for his state or campaign contributions. Nelson never seems to have a position that he doesn't use to gain some benefit for himself. However, I'll assume that Nelson's inability to make hard choices about our health care system matches others. The GAO alternatives to the individual mandates can fall into the following categories:

Just another form of an individual mandate that will maybe convince those who aren't paying attention that it's not an individual mandate. It's kind of like reducing the number of uninsured by just changing the definition of uninsured to those whose religion forbid accessing medical care.
  1. Impose a tax to pay for uncompensated care (How is that different than the current $700 fine other than it's called a tax?)

  2. Restrict access to some federal benefits to people with insurance (whose value might be around $700?)

  3. Require or encourage credit-rating agencies to factor in insurance status in credit ratings (and the impact could be greater than $700 for those whose credit rating results in a higher interest rate for their loan)
General proclamations and principle like "We support preventive medicine and ice cream for kids on hot days" that don't really mean anything. The only thing they offer is something that everyone can agree on.
  1. Conduct a public education and outreach campaign

  2. Provide broad access to personalized help with health coverage enrollment by creating access points such as pharmacies, schools, and grocery stores (How about bars, shooting ranges, and casinos which is where those who won't buy insurance are more likely to hang out and be drunk enough to maybe sign up?)

Ideas that insurance companies really like but don't really help the public or solve the problem.

  1. Modify open enrollment periods and impose penalties for late enrollment (Insurance companies love this provision because it creates an incentive for people to preemptively sign up for insurance and stay enrolled longer. However, it doesn't work for the average citizen because this would mean that all of us who have insurance through our employers should start thinking about enrolling in individual insurance just in case we lose coverage. Open enrollment works in Medicare because the market is static. Once someone has Medicare, they always have it. The individual market is much more fluid since people will switch between Medicaid, Employer, and Individual insurance.)

  2. Allow greater variation in premium rates based on the enrollees' age to get more young and healthy people to sign up (Insurance companies would love to have lower prices for the young and healthy which means higher prices for the old, sick, and those who are not really really really really ridiculously good-looking. The problem is that it's hard to get the price low enough to be appealing to the young and healthy while keeping the price affordable for the old.)

Ideas that don't really have anything to do with the individual mandate but address other issues.

  1. Facilitate auto-enrollment for employer-sponsored coverage (If employees are not signing up for their health insurance, it's probably because they can't afford it or don't want it and are the type that need an individual mandate.)

  2. Pay insurance agents and brokers a flat fee rather than commissions to help people enroll (The Exchanges and brokers' inability to demonstrate their value proposition may eliminte the entire broker and producer industry. This provision is a life preserver for the industry. It is also duplicates the Exchange and doesn't address the core problem of individuals who don't want to enroll in insurance. The flat fee should be given to the young and healthy who enroll instead.)
Every country has struggled with balancing access, cost, and quality. The United States believes that it is exempt from those struggles which is why it wrestles with tough choices like an individual mandate. However, these 9 alternatives are not really alternatives at all. When we finally realize that we need to make sacrifices and tough decisions, the United States' health care system will be all growns up.

PS If anyone has been wondering where Roll Away the Dew has been in the month of February and March, I got hooked on the Office and spent my free time watching the series. I have watched 131 of the series 136 episodes so I am preparing myself for life after the Office. Thanks to those who are still reading.

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