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Notes from the AHIP National Policy Conference

by Fred Fortin

I’m attending the AHIP health policy conference in Washington, DC this week and getting an earful about the elections and healthcare reform. Some impressions:

First up on the podium was Chris Matthews, TV commentator of Hardball fame. Matthews is a good speaker and captures the audience right away. He believes anyone of the three presidential candidates could take the election. Yes, there is still a path for Hillary to get the nomination but a lot depends on what happens today at the polls in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont.

To Matthews, America is in a “rut”. The people want change, they want deliverance. And doing nothing is definitely “out”. Obama is different, not your typical politician and he believes that this election is really going to be “transformative”, the likes of which we have not seen for quite a while. While he did not address health care reform in a specific way, Matthews argues that real political change only comes from brilliant, dramatic, unpredictable and grand moves. So I don’t think health care incrementalism is in Matthews’ play book.

Donna Brazile, TV political commentator and Chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute, and super-delegate, also believes that voters are in a foul mood. There “will be blood in this election”, she says. The next president will inherit a divided country and healthcare will be right in the middle of it. In addition, the deterioration of the economy will make health care reform doubly difficult. Even so, Democrats will want to get something in healthcare reform on the table quickly after the election.

Michael Murphy, Republican Political Consultant, and TV Commentator, on this point, says a McCain presidency may, contrary to popular thinking, do more for healthcare reform since if it is proposed by Democrats, the Republicans will block it. Like Nixon going to China, you need a conservative to front this kind of liberal change.

Dan Crippen, former Director of the Congressional Budget Office, observes that many people think rising health care premiums are capricious acts; they go up by themselves and are unrelated to cost structure. He asks “How do we change the 30 year old question in healthcare from ‘who should pay’ to ‘what are we buying’.”

Ezekiel Emanuel, Chair of the Department of Clinical Bioethics, Warren G. Magnuson Clinical Center, National Institutes of Health, asks the question of how do we make sure that the process of healthcare reform is legitimate if we need to make sacrifices? What voices need to be heard? He also agrees with many of the other speakers that we need to better assess what we’re spending our money on in healthcare. We need a better strategy. In responding to those who say that cost should not be a consideration in delivering healthcare, he advocates, that cost is an essential ethical consideration in healthcare because cost has an impact on our ability to pay for other critical services and needs. And that fact alone makes it an ethical dimension worth weighing.

In a similar vein, Paul B. Ginsburg, President, Center for Studying Health System Change, provokes the audience on questions about the importance of equity in healthcare, and the public tolerance for administrative control of the distribution of health care services. Containing health care costs will be painful, he reminds us. There is no painless solution. Ginsburg warns that health care financing systems can fail, but that they fail slowly. This health care crisis has been with us for over a decade. However, the affordability problem is now invading the middle class, crowding out other important needs.

The final speaker of the day one was the notable Theodore R. Marmor, Professor Emeritus of Public Policy and Management, and Political Science, School of Management, Yale University. Marmor observes that the lack of consensus should not be surprising since with healthcare we have five Americas: The British model embodied in the Veterans Administration system; the German social insurance program model in Medicare; the 19th century poor laws model in Medicaid; the private health insurance system; and pure charity medicine.

His own criteria for judging health reform proposals are fairly simple: Does is include everyone as payers and recipients for care? Does it cover what ordinary people think is medical care? Does it contain fiscal restraints to prevent the raiding of either the public or personal funds? It is accountable for results? And is the protection portable?

Marmor would like to see a real national conversation about healthcare since right now he feels what Washington is saying up to this point is pure gibberish. How, he asks, can we avoid another mistake like that which was made by the Clintons without a real national dialogue and consensus? We cannot wait another decade for an answer.

US Senator Ron Wyden took the stage first thing the morning of day two of the conference. He’s a frequent speaker at this conference usually focusing on his ‘Healthy Americans Act’ as a step towards real healthcare reform. He says the first 100 days for the new president will be critical for healthcare. Democrats — if they win — will need to put something on the table quickly. Congress is getting ready to act and Wyden does not want a repeat of the now infamous Clinton failure of 1994. This time there is an opportunity to do healthcare reform right. He wants a system where everyone has a basic private portable health insurance plan.

Recent history shows states cannot fix healthcare by themselves because the big drivers are federal, such as Medicaid and Medicare. And if we don’t fix the private market, the country will go single payer. Wyden wants a new private health insurance market that breaks the dependence on employer-sponsored coverage. His plan would still offer a choice of an employer plan. But his ‘Healthy Americans Act’ now before Congress would provide for an alternative to both single payer, and an over-dependence on employer-sponsored healthcare.

But how will health insurers respond to these proposed new changes? Cajoling his audience of health plan representatives, he argues that his approach would be one way to stop playing the healthcare blame game, replete with its usual designated healthcare villain of the day being held responsible for all that is wrong in healthcare. Health plans have all too often shared this distinction.

Andy Stern, President of Service Employees International Union, started his talk with an all-too-familiar tragic story of a healthcare disaster that end bankrupting an American family. He then switched gears to share the changes his own union has had to undergo to confront the new global economy. Healthcare, he believes, has also not reacted well to this new global economy. What we have now is a healthcare sector; what we need to build is a healthcare system. “Change is inevitable but progress is optional,” he lamented.

If there is one truth about healthcare reform, Stern believes, it is that the longer you wait, the worse it gets. And the US employer-based healthcare system is not sustainable for the economy of the future. It is dead and it’s time for hard choices. We need to move on to a more competitive approach. But he doesn’t think the country is ready, willing or able to go for a single payer system. We have to build a broader coalition on healthcare and negotiate a new blend in order to move on.

Stern warned that there is a big target painted on health insurers and the bullets are getting closer. Health insurers will have to walk in a new direction. People are ready for change. But where is the solution? “Be the agents of change”, he charged, “not the assassins of change”.

Gail Wilensky, Senior Fellow, Project Hope and a former Medicare chief, observed that even when we have expanded access to healthcare — such as the recent addition of drug benefits to Medicare, we still have problems with cost and quality. Medicare’s cost is unsustainable and its population is becoming more politically forceful. The program’s provider financial incentives are perverse and its spending constraints are ineffective when it comes to value and quality. It will be an immense challenge to moderate the Medicare’s cost growth.

Bruce Vladeck, Senior Health Policy Advisor, Ernst & Young, and also a former Medicare chief noted that the healthcare reform proposals put forth by the presidential candidates rarely mention Medicare or Medicaid. Problems with Medicare are the problems with the healthcare system generally speaking. He argues that Medicare costs — even with new efficiencies — cannot be sustained without new money. Politicians need to be more open and explicit about this hard fact. And he adds, that we must stop confounding the problems having to do with improving the quality of healthcare, with the problems of moderating the cost of care. It is a fantasy, he says, that improved quality will save serious money in healthcare.

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