• Careful What You Wish For

    This post originally appeared on The Health Care Blog. Numerous comments to the post can be read there, but I’m no longer reading new ones  posted on that site. If you’d like me to see your comment on this, post it here (or in both places).

    On the left are those who would like health reform to include a strong public plan, one that could negotiate large provider discounts, driving down the cost of medical care. On the right are those who think health insurance should be provided only privately. I’m neither left nor right. I consider myself a realist and an empiricist.

    A reasonable reading of the political tea leaves suggests that health insurance for the non-elderly will remain largely a private affair. (See the Debating the Public Option in The American Prospect by Paul Starr, Robert Reich, and Robert Kuttner.) Therefore, I’d like the private insurance market to work well. I’m also very familiar with the Medicare experience (and its problems) with both public and private provision of insurance.

    So is Kerry Weems, the former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid. Weems was interviewed recently by John Iglehart, the founding editor of Health Affairs, a respected journal of health policy (Doing More With Less: A Conversation With Kerry Weems, Health Affairs, 18 June 2009). Based on his experience managing Medicare and Medicaid, Weems had some interesting things to say, some of which I summarize below.

    In general he paints an ugly picture of a public plan. If you’re hoping health reform includes a strong public plan you should be careful what you wish for, and you should read the interview to see what problems a public plan might have. This is not to say a public plan is better or worse than private plans. It is just to say that one should expect that a public plan will likely experience certain types of problems. Now on to the summary of the Weems-Iglehart interview.

    On Congress. Congress has not treated CMS well because funding it is not as sexy as funding other agencies overseen by the same appropriation subcommittees: the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A consequence is that CMS has insufficient resources to fight waste, fraud, and abuse. For example, according to Weems,

    “CMS’ annual expenditures [are]…more than the economies of all but twelve nations, and CMS carries out its responsibilities with a staff of 4,600 people. Social Security is of comparable budget size and handles its dollars with about 66,000 people…”

    On Medicare Advantage. Weems feels that private plans under Medicare advantage can offer “better care at lower or the same costs” as traditional fee-for-service Medicare.

    On Payment Errors. Medicaid has a payment error rate of 24 percent, meaning that the payments paid to providers are either incorrect or unverifiable 24 percent of the time.

    On Waste, Fraud, and Abuse. Investigations of waste, fraud, and abuse under Medicare and Medicaid have yielded a return of $17 for every $1 spent. However, far too little is spent in the fight. Therefore, a considerable amount of waste, fraud, and abuse exist under Medicare and Medicaid. (See the recent stories on fraud in Miami, Detroit, and Denver.)

    On a Public Plan under Health Reform. Weems thinks a public plan is “a bad idea because the government has a difficult time selecting only those providers who deliver high-quality care. There is a risk that a lot of resources will be wasted on poor care.

    On Political Pressure. CMS administrators get a lot of pressure from Congress to treat certain providers more favorably than they might deserve. Such political meddling is a handicap in properly administering a public insurance plan.

    On Physician Payments. The American Medical Association (AMA) has considerable influence on physician payments through its Resource Based Relative Value Scale (RBRVS) Update Committee (RUC). Weems thinks the resulting payments have “contributed to the poor state of primary care in the United States.” (Weems’ anti-RUC statements sparked a blogosphere debate (hat tip: Kate Steadman of Kaiser Health News). Rebecca Patchin, Chair of the Board of Trustees for the American Medical Association wrote on the Health Affairs blog that CMS is under no obligation to follow the RUC’s recommendations and she cites examples where it has not done so. On the Health Care Renewal blog, physician and Brown University professor Roy Poses asks “why does CMS rely exclusively on the RUC to update the RBRVS system, apparently making the RUC de facto a government agency, yet without any accountability to CMS, or the government at large?”)

    On balance, it is clear that Weems is not impressed with the public provision of health insurance under Medicare and Medicaid. Some of the sources of problems could in principle be remedied. However, if Congress were to implement a public plan under health reform there is no assurance it would not suffer from at least some of the problems that plague traditional Medicare and Medicaid. I think the most challenging are political pressures, including rent seeking on the part of providers, and a potential inability for a public entity to selectively contract based on quality.

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