Saturday, August 12, 2017

Only Trump Can Go To Single-Payer

There is an old Vulcan proverb saying that only Nixon could go to China. Only a man who used to work for Joseph McCarthy could set America on a path to better relations with a virulently Communist country. A few years after Nixon went to China, Menachem Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister who represented people believing that the state of Israel should stretch from the Nile to the Euphrates, gave Egypt back all the lands conquered in a recent war and made a lasting peace with Israel’s largest enemy. They said back then that only Begin could make peace with the Arabs.

Today, I want to submit to you that only Trump can make single-payer health care happen in this country. Only a billionaire, surrounded by a cabinet of billionaires, representing a party partial to billionaires, can make that hazardous 180 degrees political turn and better the lives of the American people, and perhaps the entire world as a result. Oh, I know it’s too soon to make this observation, but note that both Mr. Nixon and Mr. Begin were deeply resented (to put it mildly) in their times, by the same type of people who find Mr. Trump distasteful today. The liberal intelligentsia back then did not have the bona fides required to cross the political chasm between one nation and its ideological enemies, or as real as death immediate foes. The liberal intelligentsia today lost all credibility in this country when it comes to providing a universal solution to our health care woes.

Free health care (and free college) are not solutions. These are rabble rousing slogans to gin up the vote, slogans that end up in overflowing trashcans left in ballrooms littered with red white and blue balloons after everybody goes home to get some sleep before the next round of calls to solicit funds from wealthy donors for the next campaign. Providing proper medical care to the American people is a monumental enterprise that engages tens of millions of workers from all walks of life, every second of every day, in every square mile of habitable land, littered with the hopes and fears of hundreds of millions of invisible men, women and children who call this great country their home. This is not something that can be made free. Nothing is free in our times, not even sunshine and fresh air.

For the jaded, the cynically inclined, and those who are simply too afraid to jump off this cliff, and therefore argue that single-payer is not politically feasible, I have a simple question. Did you all think a couple of years ago, that a President Trump is politically feasible?  Okay then. Here is what I believe could be a relatively plausible scenario enabling this one-of-a-kind administration to use its unconventional political capital (if you can even call it that) to get us on the road to making health care great again, greater than ever before.

Step 1: Disaster

The current system, held together with string and duct tape must undergo a seismic shock, preferably a moderate shock and one that does not involve war and famine. The way things look now, the most likely implosion will be the Obamacare individual market. If the Trump administration holds back ransom money from insurance companies (a.k.a. CSRs), or engages in other mischievous behavior, and the individual mandate is not enforced, we may very well have a minor disaster on our hands. In addition, the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis is requesting that the President declare the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency. Put these two together and you see how lots of people are, or will shortly be, in dire need of medical services not currently available to them via existing “insurance” channels.

Step 2: Relief

The opioid crisis will need much more than providing care for its current victims, but we will need a coordinated effort to provide all necessary medical services to people addicted to opioids who are uninsured, or whose insurer is refusing to pay for the extensive programs needed for recovery. People who were able to afford insurance under Obamacare without, or with minimal, subsidies and are now left hanging to dry will also need a solution, and if they are sick, they will need immediate relief. This would be the perfect time to cut through the red tape and institute the Disaster Relief and Emergency Access to Medicare (DREAM) program. The DREAM will open Medicare to the victims of Obamacare and the victims of the opioid epidemic. This will be put in place as a temporary disaster response program, subject to extension of course, until a more permanent solution can be found. I doubt too many people in Congress could vote against such measure.

Step 3: The DREAM

No matter how short lived, all government programs including temporary ones need rules and regulations to execute now, and to be replicated in future emergencies as needed. Besides, any respectable bill needs more than just a title. How do we define opioid addiction? How do we define Obamacare victim? How do they sign up? What do they get? How much will it cost?

Opioid Crisis
  • Congress will appropriate $45 billion for this program for a period of five years to cover administrative costs, medical costs and program analysis costs.
  • Emergency funding will be provided to Federally Qualified Community Centers (FQHCs) to set up a process for opioid addiction screening. FQHCs are non-profit clinics, funded by the Federal government to serve low income populations regardless of ability to pay. All physicians and staff are salaried. The funding will be administered by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and defined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).
  • Any American citizen or lawful permanent resident will be eligible to access any FQHC and undergo opioid screening as specified by the Secretary at no cost. Individuals eligible for relief, based solely on clinical criteria, will need to provide information about their insurance status. Upon receipt of consent from the individual or legal guardian if the screened individual is a minor, eligibility results and insurance information will be sent from the FQHC to CMS for enrollment in the DREAM program.
  • If the eligible person (EP) is currently covered by commercial insurance, CMS will contact the EP’s insurance plan and require that the plan contacts the EP or legal guardian and obtains proper consent to transfer the EP’s coverage to the DREAM program. Following EP consent, Medicare will become the primary payer for the EP. Medicare at its sole discretion may discontinue eligibility for the EP and the commercial plan must reinstate coverage for the EP at that time. All subsidies paid by the Federal government to the insurance plan, if any, will be paid into the Medicare trust fund for the duration of DREAM participation.
  • The EP will pay to Medicare premiums equal to the last monthly amount the EP paid to the commercial plan. Medicare will cover all opioid related services with zero deductible and zero copay. For other services the EP deductible and copays will be equal to those of traditional Medicare beneficiaries (parts A, B and D). Medicare will end DREAM eligibility for an EP who missed 3 consecutive monthly payments.
  • If the EP is insured, or eligible to be insured, through Medicaid or any other public program, Medicaid or any other public program, will transfer into the Medicare trust fund estimated monthly premiums as calculated by the Secretary for the duration of DREAM participation. Medicaid will become the secondary payer for EPs previously enrolled, or eligible to be enrolled, in Medicaid.
  • If the EP is uninsured and not eligible for public insurance, the EP will be enrolled in Medicare (parts A, B and D), under the same terms as beneficiaries 65 years or older for the duration of DREAM eligibility, except that all opioid related services will be covered with zero deductible and zero copay.
Obamacare Crisis
  • Congress will appropriate $45 million for this program for a period of five years to cover program administration, evaluation and analysis. All other program costs, if any, will be absorbed by CMS budgets.
  • Any American citizen or lawful permanent resident who is not offered employer sponsored insurance, and is not eligible for Medicaid or another public insurance plan, and is not eligible for Federal subsidies on the Obamacare exchanges equal to at least 50% of total costs of the current benchmark plan, or resides in a county where no Obamacare plans are available on the exchange on the first day of the open enrollment period, will be eligible to enroll in Medicare parts A, B and D, at an annual rate of average Medicare spending per beneficiary (MSPB), adjusted for EP age.
  • The Secretary shall publish a list of DREAM premiums for three age bands, 0-21, 22-45, 46-64, no later than one month before the first day of open enrollment for the Obamacare exchanges. All DREAM rates will be assessed and billed for each individual EP. No family rates will be available and no Federal subsidies will be given to DREAM enrollees.
  • The EP, or a legal guardian if the EP is a minor, is responsible for premium payments to Medicare. EP deductible and copays will be equal to those of traditional Medicare beneficiaries (parts A, B and D). Medicare will end DREAM eligibility for an EP who missed 3 consecutive monthly payments.
  • For each program year the Secretary shall conduct and publish comparative analyses of Federal spending on Obamacare exchange enrollees and DREAM program enrollees to inform Congress and the public on the merits of each program.

Step 4: Consequences

See? Wasn’t that bad now, was it? Defining the program is relatively easy and the above is just an abbreviated example. Other details will need to be added, removed or changed, but the main idea here is to open Medicare in the short term to people who are hurting and are underserved by the commercial health insurance markets. There will of course be consequences. First, the Obamacare exchanges will most likely go bust, and we will have to expand the DREAM to allow enrollment of people who will bring their subsidies with them. Second, employers may decide to fund Medicare premiums instead of dealing with health insurance in house. Third, the folks who don’t qualify for the DREAM program may start chomping at the bit, seeing how DREAMers get to choose pretty much everything without breaking the bank. 

Yes, yes, I know. I’m being too clever by half, but surely someone who professes to be the voice of the forgotten men and women, could see his way clear to make this happen. It will, after all, lead to a complete repeal and replace of Obamacare. And for all timid liberals enamored with the poetry inscribed at the feet of Lady Liberty, let’s help the President erect a statue of liberty at the gates to Medicare.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Is Single-Payer the Right Payer?

As is customary for every administration in recent history, the Trump administration chose to impale itself on the national spear known as health care in America. The consequences so far are precisely as I expected, but one intriguing phenomenon is surprisingly beginning to emerge. People are starting to talk about single-payer. People who are not avowed socialists, people who benefit handsomely from the health care status quo seem to feel a need to address this four hundred pound gorilla, sitting patiently in a corner of our health care situation room. Why?

The all too public spectacle of a Republican party at war with itself over repealing and replacing Obamacare is teaching us one certain thing. There are no good solutions to health care within the acceptable realm of incremental, compromise driven, modern American solutions to everything, solutions that have been crippling the country and its people since the mid-seventies, which is when America lost its mojo. To fix health care, we have to go back to times when America was truly great, times when the wealthy Roosevelts of New York lived in the White House, times when graduating from Harvard or Yale were not cookie cutter prerequisites to becoming President, times when the President of the United States conducted meetings while sitting on the toilet with the door open and nobody cared. Rings a bell?

Single-payer health care is one such bold solution. Listening to the back and forth banter on social media, one may be tempted to disagree. We don’t have enough money for single-payer. Both Vermont and California tried and quit because of astronomic costs. Hundreds of thousands of people working for insurance companies will become unemployed. Hospitals will close. Entire towns will be wiped out. Doctors will become lazy inefficient government employees and you’ll have to wait months before seeing a doctor. And of course, there will be formal and informal death panels. Did I miss anything? I’m pretty sure I did, so let’s enumerate.

Single-payer is going to bankrupt the nation

We have $3 Trillion in our health care pot right now. We have 325 million Americans, men women and children of all ages. First grade arithmetic says we have almost $10,000 per year to spend on each American, the vast majority of whom is either young or healthy or both. For comparison, Medicare spends on average around $12,000 per year for the oldest and sickest population. Last year a platinum plan for a 21 year old cost less than $5,000 per year and this includes the built in waste of private health insurance. So please, tell me again how we can’t afford to pay for everybody’s health care needs at a Medicare actuarial level, which is slightly less than commercial platinum.

And no, we need not increase taxes either. You keep paying what you’re paying. Your employer keeps paying what it is paying. The government keeps paying what it’s paying. But instead of dispersing all that cash to all sorts of corporate entities standing in line with their golden little soup bowls ready to catch the last drop, we put it all together in one big beautiful barrel, and pay for care directly to those who provide care - one pool, one budget, and one accounting system for all. This is a national endeavor. It is irrelevant that Vermont failed and California bungled the whole thing. Do you think California and Vermont could afford to provide for their own armies, air force and navies? I didn’t think so.

Single-payer will cause millions to lose their jobs

Hundreds of thousands of people work for commercial insurers. Claims need to be processed, money needs to be collected and paid out, books need to be kept, customers and service providers need to be supported, computers have to be maintained, audits need to be performed, contracts need t be managed, lots and lots of labor and lots and lots of decently paying jobs. Do you have any idea how Medicare administration works? Or are you under the impression that Medicare runs itself with no human labor? Have you ever heard of Noridian or Cahaba? No? Then I respectfully suggest that you should refrain from opining about the horrors of single-payer.

Medicare is run by private administrative contractors called MACs, each assigned to specific geographical regions and specific portions of Medicare services. In addition to the MACs there are slews of functional contractors that specialize in one or more types of supporting services to the MACs. These are private entities no different from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Hewlett-Packard, Booz Allen Hamilton, GE and many more. They employ thousands of people and if Medicare becomes our single-payer, there will be more MACs, more functional contractors, and hundreds of thousands more private employees.

That said, it stands to reason that consolidation from many payers to one, will introduce some efficiencies and the total number of available jobs will be reduced, so here is a solution to this potential problem. Currently all insurers including Medicare and Medicaid are offshoring claim processing and in the case of private insurers other functions, including clinical, as well. Change the regulations and bring those jobs back home where they belong in the first place, and offer them to those who will lose their commercial insurance jobs. This administration is especially well positioned to effect such changes to CMS regulations.

Single-payer will take away our freedom

What if Sam’s Club only carried General Mills cereal and Costco only carried Kellogg’s?  What if you had a Costco membership but stopped by another store to pick up some Cheerios and were charged ten times as much as Sam’s Cub sells it for? No it’s not exactly the same, but you get the idea. Would you consider this to be freedom of choice? Or would you rather have one big huge market where all brands sell their products directly to you competing against each other? The latter is how single-payer could work. Freedom to shop for an insurance plan is freedom to shop for your preferred rationing scheme and ultimately your own flavor of death panel.

Traditional Medicare allows you to choose your doctor and your hospital and it pays for all medically necessary services. No commercial plan can say the same unless it’s one of those platinum things nobody can afford. Traditional Medicare can do that because it sets the prices for all health care providers, instead of negotiating with a few preferred vendors. Medicare can take these liberties because it’s big enough and because it’s a Federal program. But Medicare doesn’t pay for everything. That’s why most seniors purchase supplemental plans if they can afford them, and if they are poor enough, Medicaid kicks in as the secondary payer. Being the safety net for the fixed price single-payer should be the sole function of a new and federally administered Medicaid.

Single-payer will destroy our health care

I think American medicine is the best in the whole world. Not because it’s expensive and not due to the corrupt ways in which it’s being financed, but in spite of these things. Finding a better way to pay our medical bills has nothing to do with the quality of American medicine. The concern here is that once Medicare becomes the only game in town, it will unilaterally cut its fee schedules and all hospitals will go bankrupt, all doctors will be driven into homelessness, no new drugs will be developed and we’re all going to die. On the other hand, the Federal government is the sole purchaser of aircraft carriers, stealth bombers, and weaponry of all types. How cheap are those items?  How powerless and decrepit is that industry?

Precisely because of the lessons learned from the mighty military industrial complex, single-payer reform will have to change three things in the structure of our current so-called health care system. First, all hospital consolidation and acquisition of physician practices will need to be rolled back. Second, petty regulations, vindictive carrots and sticks strategies and crude attempts at social engineering by clueless bureaucrats, will have to be dismantled brick by brick. Third, physicians will need to form a union of independent small contractors to negotiate fees and terms alongside the already powerful hospital associations. I have been a longtime proponent of a physicians’ union, even in our current system, to serve as check and balance to corporate greed and government arrogance. A single-payer system cannot and will not succeed without unionized independent physicians.

Single-payer is not the American way

We have been conditioned by large corporations to think that what they do to us is the nature of free-markets, and thus the only way to achieve prosperity for all. I would submit (for the millionth time) that what Apple is doing to the world has nothing to do with Adam Smith’s free markets. The actors in classic free markets must be approximately equal. When sellers are so big that they need artificially intelligent tools to even notice the existence of buyers, there is no free market. When the price of products sold exceeds the lifetime incomes of most buyers, there is no free market. When no one can muster enough moral turpitude to publicly say that if you’re poor, your babies should die, there is no free market. There is no free market and there can be no free market in health care.

There can however be competition. Perhaps not in sparsely populated areas, and perhaps not for highly complex procedures, but there can be competition for most health care services in most places. The uniform single-payer price should be set so that innovative hospitals and entrepreneurial physicians can thrive by charging less and those holding themselves in higher than usual esteem, or those who choose to provide luxury, are free to charge more. If all sellers are small enough, and if the standard single-payer price is fairly negotiated, we will have a real market, because people will shop to save money (in a rewards system like credit cards have) and some will shop for status and vanity.

Will there be a role for private insurance?  There could be, but private insurance should not be allowed to cover any services covered by the single-payer because that would take us back to where we are today. Let private insurance cover stuff nobody needs, but wealthy people like to flaunt, like fresh baked brioche for breakfast after having a baby, or executive physicals in palatial settings, and let those things become frightfully expensive, as these types of things usually are in a free market.

Single-payer will create a new set of losers. Health care executives making tens of millions of dollars every year for no particular reason will be losers. Perhaps they can find new careers at Boeing or Lockheed Martin seeing how their expertise is easily transferable. Health insurance stocks will tank and improperly managed pension funds will also lose bigly. People running for elections will see a major cash cow go dry after the initial struggle is over and done with. There will be powerful losers and it won’t be easy.

But Obamacare has its losers too. Hard working, taxpaying middle class citizens were the designated losers of Obamacare. Some by commission and most by omission, because Obamacare made no attempt to solve the health care problems facing the vast majority of workers with employer sponsored health insurance. That bomb keeps ticking away at a steady pace. The newly empowered Republican Party has nothing to offer either, and I can’t blame them. There is nothing more we can do here. We tried everything else, and now it’s time to do the right thing. It’s the American way.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Legend of Health Care

Once upon a time, in a kingdom by the sea, broad consensus has been reached, which seems rather weird nowadays. America, you see, was spending too much money on health care for too little in return. We spent almost twenty percent of our GDP on health care, which was much more than any other developed country in the world, but our health outcomes were middling at best. And the costs just kept rising. Something had to be done before health care terminally crowded out every other public need. The Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, was that something. It was supposed to “bend the cost curve” and everybody was supposed to learn that “less is more”.

And so the nation rolled up its sleeves and got to work. Insurance companies were supposed to limit their administrative waste and tightly mange care. Hospitals were supposed to bundle and warrant episodes of care. Doctors were burning out trying hard to cut the volumes of their expensive services, while exercising stewardship of scarce resources (i.e. dollars). Pharmaceutical companies were to be taken to the shed for regular beatings. Patients were educated to choose wisely and seek value for every insurance penny. And in a bizarre remake of Fantasia, the government was cheerfully orchestrating the entire effort with rules, regulations, computerizations and spontaneously generated armies of consultants.

It didn’t work. Not even a little bit. Yes, across the board industry profits and stocks were soaring, as were the loudly lamented loses from sky-scrapping premiums paired with ballooning deductibles (don’t ask, health care is complicated). And yes, Obamacare put a big dent in the “free loader” problem (as the uninsured issue was described to the Supreme Court by the Obama administration), but other than that, everything else was in the “showing potential” or “more research is needed” stage. It wasn’t for lack of trying either. The levels of “disruptive innovation” were positively dizzying. Ever increasing heaps of monies were getting shuffled relentlessly from here to there and back again, amidst vigorous debates on the merits of this or that “initiative”, but for some peculiar reason, not one dollar was ever taken off the health care table.

And then the warm and cozy incubator, where health care expenditures were being raised and nurtured for ages, experienced the mother of all disruptions. Donald Trump got himself elected President. Bluster and bravado notwithstanding, Mr. Trump is a weak President, with no political machine and no support inside the criminal beltway, or the moneyed power-centers that rule this country. The raging crowds that propelled Mr. Trump’s unusual ascent turned back into pumpkins at midnight on November 8th, 2016. He is virtually alone in Washington DC and it seems that slowly but surely the President is realizing that you gotta dance with the one that brung ya.

The Republican Party is now aiming in earnest to take a good portion of government money off the health care table. After seven years of planning, plotting, squirming and howling, the conservative wing of the GOP finally got its hands on the chips’ rake, and they intend to use it. This should not come as a surprise to anybody, but the Obamacare repeal and replace theater can be very instructive in ways that have little to do with a succession of wacky bills that will never become law. For starters, it’s worth noting how beautifully the current commotion validates that Paul Ryan and his fiscally responsible buddies are, and always have been, less than concerned with the infamous 47% of Americans who would never vote for Mitt Romney (but somehow voted in droves for Donald Trump).

Heath Care Hopscotch

Most importantly though, the responses to Mr. Ryan’s slash and burn reform proposals, from both sides of the fake ideological aisle, teach us that we will never be able to “bend the curve” of health care costs through a regular parliamentary process. Never.  And here are some vignettes that might explain why.

When President Obama signed his landmark health care reform legislation, an individual mandate to purchase insurance was included. The mandate was originally proposed by a premier conservative think tank, and copiously derided by the President himself during his 2008 primaries. Once Obamacare became law, the Republican Party took its objection to the individual mandate all the way to the Supreme Court, and when it lost its case there, embarked on a seven years (and counting) quest to repeal and replace Obamacare. Somewhere in the middle of that journey, the GOP fielded presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the first implementer of the individual mandate in Massachusetts (with Paul Ryan, the greatest Obamacare warrior, as his running mate).  How much of the Republican opposition to forcing people to buy insurance had to do with conservative ideology and how much it had to do with political opportunism, and how much it had to do with Mr. Obama himself, is up to you to decide.

Back during the 1995 budget wars President Clinton proposed a “"per capita cap" on federal spending for Medicaid, in which federal payments would be made for each eligible person but with the amount rising each year only according to adjusted inflation increases”. Although the Medicaid cap never came to be, according to then Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) "Virtually every Democrat indicated today that they could support it. In fact no Democrat indicated that he could not support it”. Fast forward twenty years or so, and the GOP proposal to impose inflation adjusted per capita caps on Medicaid is equivalent to the murder of millions of Americans in the eyes of current Congress Democrats, many of whom were also there in 1995.

Heath Care is just a political bludgeon. There are two ideological bookends for the theoretical idea of health care: equality vs. free markets. But when it comes to gory details, and heath care is a cornucopia of goriness, there are no principled positions to be taken. Everything can be twisted and fit into all but the most extreme ideologies (i.e. either everybody has a right to all the care they want or you get what you can pay for) and there are few, if any, people firmly entrenched at each end of the spectrum. Once you acknowledge that there is a morally valid spectrum, you can hop, skip and jump all over the place to serve your immediate political needs, which easily explains the vignettes above and many more acts of intellectual and linguistic chicanery commonly employed in health care policy propaganda.

The Unbending Curve

When the Democratic Party had its chance to bend the curve, they chose to spend more upfront and hope that harassing doctors and managing patients will bend the curve in mysterious ways. Republicans seem more inclined to use brute force to push the curve down at its weakest point, while hoping that the same doctor and patient harassment tactics will counteract the damage caused by any shortages in health care funding.  Whereas Obamacare brought us a flurry of innovations designed to move the system to value-based payments so we can save a few bucks, GOPcare will be bringing us a flurry of equally impotent innovations designed to move the system to value-based care so we can squeeze more quality from fewer bucks. In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

If we want to spend less money on health care, then we need to spend less money on health care.  That pesky curve is not going to bend itself. All industry innovations claiming to save money are simply moving coins from one profit center to another, usually where the profit margins are higher and efficacy is lower or practically nonexistent. Curbing patients’ utilization of proper medical services, which is already lower compared to other developed countries, is a virtuous endeavor. Curbing the wanton rise in prices of said services is either evil Communism, or heartless Capitalism, depending on how the winds blow in Washington DC. The simple truth is that bending the curve means paying less than the industry feels entitled to, and the medical industrial complex shall not be denied. But there is new hope now…

Dollar Store Care

The progressive half of our ruling class seems to have had an epiphany of sorts. Medicaid, you see, is now an array of no frills, managed care, commercial health plans with atrociously narrow and underpaid networks. Medicaid is the Dollar Store of health care and as such it is the ultimate value-based solution. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could put the entire former middle-class on Medicaid and call it universal health care or even single payer? Besides, Medicaid accessorizes very nicely with that new and so very hip universal basic income pushed by progressive billionaires who are sucking up every bit of wealth from every living thing. The conservative half of the ruling class would much rather see a free market of Dollar Stores for health care. The GOP value-based solution is to reduce public funding for health insurance and let the market for Medicaid style commercial plans do its thing unencumbered by the heavy hand of government and the excessive burden of Federal dollars.

The existential question now before us is whether the government will be charitable enough to subsidize our Dollar Store purchases or not so much. There is no longer any debate about the race to a Dollar Store standard of care in America. The goal posts have been moved. Expectations have been reset. Mission accomplished. A win for progressives is Medicaid for all. A win for conservatives is Medicaid for some. The final score: Billionaires 1, America 0. What’s next?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Trump Lemonade for Dr. Price

President Trump campaigned on making health care better, cheaper and available to all Americans, regardless of ability to pay. Once Mr. Trump was safely in the White House, the Republican “thought leaders” in Congress were quick to supply him with their stale and superficial “plans” to repeal and replace Obamacare, which were written in protest to President Obama’s policies and were never meant to be implemented. When scrutinized by the rank and file of the Republican Party, it turned out that the Ryan/Price American Health Care Act was neither repealing enough for some, nor replacing enough for others. Nevertheless, Mr. Ryan felt a sense of urgency to ram his pet bill down the throats of not only the opposition party and the public at large, but also the throats of his own party and its rookie President.

The Democratic Party lost no time in whipping up public frenzy against the Ryan/Price bill, and Speaker Ryan lost no time in generating a sense of false urgency to pass his bill now, now, now, because for Paul Ryan this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to begin dismantling the welfare state. From the left, it looked like the bill will be withdrawing billions of dollars in health care benefits from the most vulnerable citizens who also happen to be Trump supporters. From the right, the bill looked like Obamacare Lite because it didn’t throw all the poor people under the bus fast enough.

These were the cards President Trump was dealt. If he signs the bill, he breaks his campaign promises and loses his base. If he comes out against the bill, he confirms the worst fears of all Conservatives and loses Republican support in Congress. There is zero chance for this President to appeal to another set of voters anytime soon, and currently, there is zero chance that even one Democrat in Congress will support anything President Trump proposes, no matter how liberal and beneficial that proposal might be. It was a difficult hand to play, but he played it brilliantly, in my view. Or maybe it was just beginner’s luck.

Right now the Democratic Party and its echo-chamber media are celebrating the defeat of the would-be destroyers of Obamacare. The Republicans are in disarray again. Paul Ryan has been humiliated. Trump, the closer, the grand deal maker, lost big league. Nancy Pelosi declares victory without having to fire one parliamentarian shot. The President in the meantime calls The New York Times and Washington Post reporters and doesn’t sound angry at all. No irate tweets. No below-the-belt punches. No fighting back. No nothing. How weird is that? Think about it. Is this how a beaten Donald Trump sounds like? Nope. That’s how a winning Donald Trump sounds like - calm, collected, magnanimous and low-keyed. President Trump passed his first test.

What’s not next?

According to my Twitter list of health care policy experts, the Big Bad President Trump will now “sabotage” Obamacare so it fails spectacularly, right before the mid-term elections, dragging millions of poor people down with it. Sabotage, espionage, life is good when you are kibitzing from the sidelines. Now why would a Trump administration want to create huge hardships for millions of people right before the mid-term elections? The thought process here is that if Obamacare collapses, the people will blame the Democratic Party, because as long as Republicans do not repeal and replace anything, Democrats continue to “own” health care. Therefore, the GOP will finally have a mandate to get rid of Obamacare any way they see fit, and will likely increase their majorities in both houses in 2018. There is only one little problem with this logic: when things go wrong, most people blame the currently governing administration, not the previous ones, and rightfully so.

Deliberately blowing up the health care system is a criminal endeavor that must be executed in the public eye, because Secretary Price cannot promulgate secret regulations. No administration can afford to do something like this, and expect to survive. Every new President in recent memory insisted that he “inherited a mess”, and every President then gives a State of the Union Address taking credit for fixing said mess. President Trump will be no different. Obamacare may not be in a “death spiral”, as detractors love to decry, but for millions of people, including those who receive generous subsidies, Obamacare is already a monumental mess. No sabotage needed.

Here is a tiny example. Remember that poor 64 year old, making $26,500 per year who, according to the CBO, ended up paying $1,700 under Obamacare and would have had to pay $14,600 under the Ryan plan? Well, that’s only part of the story, because those dollar amounts are just for premiums. Thus a fully subsidized healthy 64 year old is indeed paying “only” $1,700 for the cheapest Silver plan currently available on the Obamacare marketplace (in my zip code). A sicker 64 year old, making $26, 500, with high medical expenses is projected to have over $7,500 in total yearly costs, which is almost 30% of his gross income. I would like to humbly suggest to the Washington DC jet-setters that for this gentleman, there is no difference whether he needs to pay $7,500 or $14,600, or $140,000 or $14,000,000. He can’t come up with any of this. He is uninsured for all practical purposes. The only difference is that under Obamacare, they may have talked him into donating $1,700 to some insurance company.

What is next?

I know conservatives and libertarians abhor the sheer existence of Medicare and Medicaid, but a savvy Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) could use the girth and might of these government programs to nurture the reemergence of a relatively free market in medical services, and minor bi-partisan legislation could create a relatively less predatory market in medical products. These two efforts will do more to reduce the price (and costs) of health care than any Obamacare folly or any Obamacare repealing and replacing idiocy. Furthermore, the effects could be framed in terms of freedom, choice, access and even deficit reduction, in addition to quality and affordability for those less fortunate, pleasing people on both sides of the ideological aisle.

Here is my very modest wish list for Secretary Price. All I’m asking for is that from this point onward, we start practicing evidence-based health care reform.
  • Independent Evaluation – Between CMS itself, CMMI, HRSA and other agencies, HHS has billions of discretionary dollars in its budget to try new things, and even more billions to implement statutory experimentations. Traditionally, large sums of money have been spent on health system “transformation” to patient-centered, team-based, coordinated, value-based, managed care (feel free to insert your favorite buzzword if I left something out). Many, but not all, of these “demonstration programs”, pilots, innovation models, etc. include evaluation studies to assess performance and so far the results have been tepid at best, but artfully spun as inconclusive. I want independent evaluations of all CMS funded “initiatives”, and I want programs that do not deliver on promised fantasies to be wound down immediately and the money reallocated to better thought out projects.
  • Practice Research – For the last decade or more, it has been the unequivocal position of HHS that better health care at lower costs necessitates large integrated delivery systems. There is not one iota of bona fide research to support this assertion. And yet, the Federal government has engaged in massive direct and indirect efforts to dismantle the so called “cottage industry” of small independent physician practices. I want CMS to fund several serious comparative-effectiveness studies across various medical practice models before it’s too late and we have nothing left but monopolistic chains for medicine. And I want CMS to follow through and undertake the deconstruction of all infernal medical factories where nobody knows your name, but everybody knows your risk score.
  • Hospital Research – I remember reading something a couple of years ago about someone trying to study the effectiveness of hospitalist care compared to community doctors who are allowed to admit and care for their own hospitalized patients. Hospitalists are another pre-Obamacare “innovation” based solely on hospital profitability arguments. As such, it caught on like wild fire and we have very few community physicians left who follow their patients inside the hospital walls. I want to see that study performed immediately, before the last dinosaurs die off and we forget that continuity and coordination were once built into health care, by default.
That’s it. That’s all I want for Christmas. Disappointed? Don’t be. A comprehensive, well researched report on our health care delivery models (shall we call it The Price Report?) could change the trajectory of health care in America and the entire world. I did not forget about Medicaid, the ludicrous deductibles, the device taxes, the pharma bidding and all those big huge things every pundit is reciting on cable news channels. These are important things of course, but they are temporary solutions at best. Single payer, if implemented tomorrow, is going to implode just as quickly as Obamacare did, and end up rationing care worse than the British system does. The various free market solutions are even more vulnerable to the ominous crescendo of unchecked profit extraction and incompetence engulfing our health care system.

Health care cannot be sustainably fixed in broad political strokes. If we want a real and lasting solution, we will need to step away from the political theater and engage in painstakingly detailed work on fundamentals. Health care is about medicine, and medicine is about applying science to the bodies and souls of people. We know how to do it. We do have the best health care in the world. We just forgot where it is, so now we have to systematically look around until we find it again. Hopefully Dr. Tom Price understands the historic moment he finds himself in.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Citizen's Amendment to RyanCare

There are approximately 18 million Americans who purchase health insurance on the so called individual market, on and off the Obamacare exchanges. There are another 14 million or so who could be buying insurance on the individual market, but choose not to buy anything. This puts the total individual market at about 10% of Americans. Half of those are, or are eligible to be, heavily subsided through Obamacare (including those huge deductibles). The other 5% are facing the full brunt of health insurance price increases under Obamacare. Of those, 3% are paying for Obamacare health insurance and getting garbage in return for their money, while the remaining 2% are uninsured. This is the magnitude of the primary problem we are supposedly trying to solve.

The 17% of Americans on Medicare are not upset at Obamacare. The approximately 23% of Americans on, or eligible to be on, Medicaid are not angry at Obamacare either (although the 1% eligible for the Medicaid expansion in states that chose not to expand it, might be angry with their Governors). Some of the 50% or so, who are getting health insurance through their employer, and used to get rather flimsy insurance in the past, may be somewhat disgruntled because the Obamacare imposition of “essential benefits” caused their share of premiums and deductibles to rise, and their ability to choose their doctors to plummet. This is the secondary problem we are supposedly trying to solve.

The American Health Care Act (AHCA) addresses neither problem and exacerbates both.

Three Pronged Care

The proposed GOP solution is “three pronged”. Prong One repeals Obamacare (whatever that means) and replaces it with more widespread, but less generous, subsidies for the individual market and reduces funding for Medicaid, while also reducing Obamacare taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, including taxes slated to increase the longevity of the Medicare trust fund. Prong Two is a flurry of yet to be determined regulatory relief that the Secretary of Health and Human Services will be supposedly providing at his discretion. Prong Three consists of new legislation, which will require the support of at least some Democrats in the Senate, to relax both the definition of Obamacare “essential benefits” and the regulations on health insurance corporations, so cheaper insurance plans can proliferate across the land (as they did before Obamacare).

The most important thing to understand about the Three Pronged Care proposal is that although the CBO can, and did, estimate the effects of the first Prong, nobody can estimate the cumulative results of all three Prongs, because nobody knows what the second Prong is and because it will take an act of God to make the third Prong materialize. Since we are talking about health care, think of this as some sort of orthopedic, cardiac or transplant surgery. First you cut the patient open, then you remove or adjust the offending parts, and then you put in something new and hopefully better. Coming in after a previous surgeon messed things up is obviously harder, but cutting the patient open and walking away until you figure out if you want to or are able to do more, is hardly a viable option for the patient, and will likely result in a huge malpractice suit (plus a copious prison sentence) for you.

What if Prong One is as good as it gets?

Unfortunately, this is precisely what Paul Ryan and his ragtag coalition are proposing to do with Prong One, whose sole effect will be to add insult to the Obamacare injury. Once we accept the premise that the Federal government has an obligation to help people get health care, the remaining disagreements are just haggling over price. And once we dismiss highfalutin principled rhetoric, the problem with Prong One is that for most people, in absence of Prongs Two and Three, this is just a stingier version of Obamacare. The GOP argument that two imaginary birds in the bush are better than a real bird in hand flies in the face of millennia of human wisdom. On top of that, there is absolutely nothing in Prong One that even begins to address the fundamental problem in our health care system, which is the unit price of health care services. Therefore, premiums and deductibles will likely continue to rise unabated.

In all fairness though, there is a twisted argument to be made that if you cut subsidies and there is less money available, insurers will work hard to lower the price of their products to match what the “market” can bear. That may be true if the reduction in funds affected the entire market, instead of at most 10% (likely 5%) of it, and the least profitable 10% to boot. In “normal” markets, a non-participation rate of 10% percent is certainly sustainable and actually pretty good for the sellers. That said, smaller health insurance vendors currently specializing in Medicaid managed care could step into this niche and offer a commercial product through their existing underpaid networks. If you’re a physician, this prospect should set your hair on fire.

The Free Market Delusion

At some point we will need to collectively disabuse ourselves of the notion that a market in health care insurance could be created without abolishing the provision of health insurance benefits through employment. I know everybody is talking about Flo and the little lizard selling health insurance on TV as the ultimate solution to health care affordability, but that is nothing short of demagoguery. Note that practically all auto insurance is business to consumer (B2C), while health insurance is overwhelmingly business to business (B2B). I suggest you try buying a cow from a feedlot and see for yourself how much negotiating power your consumer status bestows on you in a B2B market. If you want to try a free market solution for health insurance, you would need to do more than just kick a few poor people off their subsidies. You would need to kick 150 million people off their employer health insurance plans. Good luck with that.

I have to admit that there is something compelling about the conservative vision of a portable health insurance product that people buy and carry with them wherever they go. Obviously health insurance that is intended to serve people from cradle to grave cannot be a game of Russian roulette with covered benefits, or as Mr. Ryan refers to it, “patient-centered” insurance. Equally obvious is the fact that State and Federal governments will still have to honor their obligation to help those who can’t afford to purchase insurance for a predefined set of “essential benefits” on their own. Will such semi-free health insurance market deliver the health care affordability we seek? Not likely. The deceptively simple truth is that you cannot successfully tackle the pricing failure in the health insurance market without first taking an axe to our dysfunctional health care delivery system.

The Three Prong Shuffle

Obamacare not only failed to put a dent in health care delivery prices, but arguably made things worse by actively encouraging system consolidation. Under the best case scenario, a heavily modified GOP Prong One plan (e.g. higher tax credits, lower tax cuts for the rich, more money for Medicaid), will not change the Obamacare trajectory one bit and will not provide meaningful relief to people hurt by Obamacare. All this tinkering and re-tinkering with an insignificant portion of the health insurance market is like obsessively unclogging the kitchen sink on the Titanic. The sketchy descriptions of Prong Three, the free market prong, are just too ridiculous to consider at this point, but Prong Two, the regulatory prong, has great potential. After reading the manager’s amendment to the Ryan Make America Poor Again plan, I would like to offer my own citizen’s amendment.
  • New Prong One: Swallow hard and let the AHCA die a merciful death. Extend some temporary relief to the 5% hurt by Obamacare. Give Secretary Price a chance to affect regulatory changes first. Medicare is the de-facto price setter for health care services. The Secretary can affect changes to Medicare fee schedules and payment models that will quickly ripple through the commercial sector. I would start with the RUC and hike the relative value of comprehensive primary care. I would create a monthly CPT code that can accommodate subscription based primary care (not quite what the Direct Primary Care lobby wants, but darn close). And I would engage in a long string of multi-payer initiatives to accelerate dissemination of measures to control unit prices, while leaving behind the naïve and failed attempts to cut utilization.
  • New Prong Two: This is not a purely health care prong, but it is necessary because this is the only way to fix health care in America. Get those tax cuts done, renegotiate trade agreements, fix the education system, get infrastructure projects going, get manufacturing back, drain the swamp, and create lots of opportunities. Introduce specific pieces of legislation along the way to negotiate drug prices, break health system monopolies or at least encourage independent, small and more cost-effective practices to thrive. Keep up a brisk regulatory and deregulatory program to curtail the flow of billions of health care dollars to opportunistic corporations that do not provide care or any other benefits for patients. Think creatively about connecting health insurers’ participation in State/Federal programs to affordability in the individual market (at the very least make it count in Medicaid RFPs).
  • New Prong Three: If all goes well, we can finally do away with Obamacare, which should become automatically obsolete if Prongs One and Two are executed successfully (otherwise Obamacare will be the least of our problems). If the economy catches fire and more people have good paying jobs, and health care unit prices are at the very least contained, fewer people will need subsidies or Medicaid welfare. Make a note to schedule a symbolic full repeal and replace on January 21st 2021. I am certain it will pass with strong bi-partisan support.
Will Washington DC put the horses in front of the cart for a change? Not by choice. However, the good news is that all of a sudden Prong One seems to be on life-support in the House and dead on arrival in the Senate. The excellent news is that President Trump made another promise: "We will take care of our people or I’m not signing it" (it being Prong One, whatever it ends up being, if it ends up being). The disastrous news is that no self-respecting Democrat will engage in any effort to help the President help the American people. That would be too much to ask of our elected representatives.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

RSVP to an Invitation from Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon, the White House Chief Strategist and nationalist lightening-rod extraordinaire, has made his public speaking debut at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) a couple of weeks ago. I’ll leave the dissection of his remarks to people who get paid millions of dollars to spin things, but at the very end of the interview, Mr. Bannon invited the audience, and by extension the American people, to help the Trump administration in a very peculiar way: “We want you to have our back... but also and more importantly, hold us accountable. Hold us accountable to what we promised. Hold us accountable for delivering on what we promised”. Well, Mr. Bannon, here is my RSVP to your most gracious invitation.

I would like to hold you accountable for the way you are handling, or rather mishandling, the debate around Obamacare, and health care in general. As far as I can tell, and by your own admission, your job Mr. Bannon is to implement the President’s agenda as presented to the American people for consideration during his campaign. I have watched approximately 90% of candidate Trump’s rallies, all the debates and all the interviews, because as a bleeding heart liberal, I had to be sure I knew exactly what I was voting for. What he promised, what you all promised, was to protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and you made it crystal clear that Mr. Trump was the only candidate (excluding the defeated Bernie Sanders) to commit to this trifecta of righteousness. I would like to hold you accountable for delivering on this promise in its entirety.

Yes, Mr. Trump promised to “repeal and replace the disaster known as Obamacare” multiple times to standing ovations, and yes, he spoke loosely about selling insurance across state lines and health saving accounts and having all sorts of choices. In rally after rally, the President explained over and over again what he thought was wrong with Obamacare: the premiums going through the roof, especially that blessed 116% in Arizona, the high deductibles that make it impossible for people to see a doctor unless they are hit by a truck or are near death (whichever comes first, I guess). But most of all he spoke about “something terrific” that will replace the “failing Obamacare” and more recently President Trump promised health insurance for all Americans including those who cannot pay for it. I would like to hold you accountable for this terificness in all its promised glory.

My inclination is to say that so far your team has not delved into the intricacies of health care reform. If you would have, one or another incendiary piece of paper would have leaked to The New York Times by now. I get that dealing with insurance is not as philosophically elevating as dealing with culture wars and other grand historical trends, but back in the trailers of the Appalachian Mountains, and in the modest homes of rust belt workers who lost their jobs to the globalized economy, and at every kitchen table in the America where decisions are still made at kitchen tables, health insurance is a life and death problem. President Trump promised to be the voice of these forgotten people. He promised to speak for them, fight for them and win for them. Of all the promises you made, this is the one promise I will hold you most accountable for.

The other day the new GOP “secret plan” to repeal and replace Obamacare has been finally unveiled in two separate pieces. We have seen Obamacare replacement plans from the party of Ayn Rand long before this election, so I will not hold you accountable for the childishly vindictive Ryan “plan”, or the more comprehensive cruelty of Dr. Price’s “bill”, and I know that this “new” abomination, which is a clumsy cross between the two, is not your plan, Mr. Bannon. For all I know this may be a brilliant strategy to eschew the responsibility of fixing Obamacare, because this new plan is not likely to clear the House and it certainly won’t get through the Senate, but in the unlikely event that it does, I will hold you accountable if this exercise in boldfaced deceit ever becomes law.

The “experts” will be delving into all the gory details, but please allow me to cut through the chase. The GOP plan is a perfidious conservative concoction. The GOP plan is killing Medicaid and Medicare. The GOP plan is reducing premium support for most people without employer or government supplied health insurance. The GOP plan is increasing exposure to those awful high deductibles for millions of additional people, poorer older and sicker than before.  And finally, the GOP plan is cutting taxes for wealthy people and corporations. Is this your idea of how we put America First, Mr. Bannon? Is this President Trump’s idea of how we Make America Great Again? It never occurred to me to ask, sir, but what do you guys mean when you say “America”? I cannot obviously hold you accountable for the answer, but history and whichever God you pray to, eventually will.

I do agree with you Mr. Bannon on the nefarious effects of a globalized economy and the feckless role played by a “globalist, corporatist media” machine, and I have your back in this fight for the soul of America and the dignity of the American worker. I am sure you can appreciate how difficult it is for a liberal to make such statements amidst the frothing and frenzied neo-McCarthyism upon us now. The only remaining question, Mr. Bannon, is whether you have our backs. I have not seen President Trump shrink from a fight before, and whether you like it or not, health care, not Russia, will be the defining issue of his presidency. As conservative corporatism is fusing with progressive globalism, combining the worst of both worlds into a formidable force against the people, I will hold you accountable for failing to side with the irredeemably deplorable masses that put you in the White House in the first place.

President Trump needs to stand up and clearly state that he will not sign a bill that takes away whatever little health care poor, sick and low income people still have. These people are us, Mr. Bannon. They are the #TrumpTrain, the Movement, the Bikers for Trump, the Latinas for Trump, the “build that wall” and “lock her up” chanters, and the ones who took you up on your offer, because “what the hell do they have to lose”. They didn’t come “pouring in” to demand less health care for themselves so there’s more cash available for the “administrative government”. These people may not know much about the abject art of politicking, but they have vast expertise in getting screwed. They know it when they see it. And they are seeing it now, Mr. Bannon. They are seeing it now.

It would be most unfortunate, and the end of the road for me, if the first legislation enacted by this administration is one where once again men in fancy suits forget those who have always been forgotten, in stark contradiction to explicit promises made repeatedly, both before and after the elections. A government of, by and for the people, another frequently made promise, does not enact immoral legislation, and the GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare is beyond immoral. Your boss, Mr. Bannon, is the President of the United States of America. He is the President of the American people, even the poor ones, especially the poor ones. He has the power and the duty to veto immoral legislation, and we the people will hold President Trump accountable for that.

Friday, February 24, 2017

A Scientific Method to Repeal & Replace (wink) Obamacare

“So how about it, Nash? You scared?”
“Terrified... mortified... petrified... stupefied... by you.” 
(--A Beautiful Mind)
Fear is now a sign that you are an intelligent, educated, open-minded and caring person. Being scared is incontestable proof that you have a beautiful heart. When it comes to your health, there is palpable terror that soon, very soon, the bad guys will take away Obamacare, which was the source of health care and life itself for many. And make no mistake the enemy is coming for us all, now that we lost the war to “the Republicans”. It is therefore incumbent upon brave souls everywhere to join La Résistance Américain. Since I am not now and never have been a brave souled Maquisard, I’ll just sit here and daydream about a kinder and gentler occupation, until the Vichy comes for me.

Obamacare is the Status Quo

Obamacare went into effect only three years ago, but in the age of information technology, years are like decades. Obamacare with its many tentacles and offshoots is deeply and solidly entrenched in the health care landscape. There is zero chance that anybody will be able to dig up its rhizomic growth into the actual practice of medicine, so let’s play along and see what can be done about the large shiny part, visible to the naked eye, namely health insurance.

Traditionally, health insurance coverage is segmented into public insurance, employer group insurance and individual markets. However, considering the changes introduced by Obamacare, a different classification, may be in order: People who have all or most of their health care paid for, people who have some of their health care paid for, and people who must pay for all their health care on their own. 
Health insurance for all classes now includes a fixed set of “essential benefits”, no limits on lifetime spending and prohibition from factoring preexisting conditions into coverage decisions has been expanded to include non-group policies. This is the post Obamacare status quo. This is what the Republican Party is currently endeavoring to repeal and replace. It is important to note that while approximately 95% of Americans are eligible for either fully or partially subsidized health insurance, there is a 5% “donut” hole of mostly middle class, mostly precariously employed people, left to fend for themselves.

Democrats are poking fun at Republicans for lacking an Obamacare replacement plan after six years of complaining and symbolically voting to repeal the law multiple times. The irony here is that the GOP has plenty of plans that could have been put in place in 2008 and even in 2012, but not today. Why? Because none of the old plans are equal, let alone better, than the new status quo. The simple fact is that on its face, and for the short term, Obamacare helps far more people than it hurts. The other simple fact is that the one overriding fiduciary responsibility of members of Congress is to get themselves reelected.

The Basic Laws of Repeal and Replace

With that in mind and considering that for some peculiar reason getting rid of Obamacare was a major campaign promise for both the GOP and the new President, I would like to humbly suggest an entirely scientific set of basic laws for repealing and replacing Obamacare.

Zeroth Law of R & R: Drain the swamp

If two systems (insurance and hospitals) are in profitable relationship with a third system (government), they are in profitable relationship with each other. This law helps define the notion of corruption.

First Law of R & R: Do no harm

No harm now and no harm in the future. No harm while you’re healthy and no harm if you get sick. Every American covered by some type of health insurance should be no worse than he or she currently is. Premiums should not be higher. Out of pocket spending should not be higher. Benefits included should not be fewer. Access to and choice of doctors and hospitals should not be reduced. And finally, government spending should not increase by too much either. If this law sounds to you like some sort of ridiculous wizardry, it isn’t. There are plenty of places to look for, and find money, other than working people’s pockets. Additionally, failure to comply with this basic law will guarantee loss of elected office for anybody remotely associated with such folly. Equivalently, perpetual election machines of the first kind (hurting people) are impossible.

Second Law of R & R: Fix what’s broken

Fix what the people say is broken, not what dead economists might have said is broken. Premiums, especially for unsubsidized people, are too high. Deductibles are way too high not just for those who have to pay full price for insurance, but increasingly so also for employer sponsored workers. Choice of doctors and hospitals is being narrowed for everybody, except the very rich and the very well connected. Those are the three things that voters need Congress to fix. Blabbering about death spirals and actuarial risk pools will get you zero (0) votes in your next election. Reducing Federal government spending on health care by a few billion dollars means nothing (0) to voters who have to cover the shortfall from their own individual pockets or go without. Equivalently, perpetual election machines of the second kind (ignoring people) are impossible.

Third Law of R & R: Watch your language

Do not lie to the American people and do not use words you don’t fully understand just because self-described experts use those words often in casual conversation. Don’t tell people that their health care will be affordable if they open another empty savings account. Don’t insult the intelligence of sick people by telling them that if they band together with other very sick people they’ll be able to buy more affordable health insurance. Do not tell States that cutting Federal support for Medicaid will finally free the States to innovate. First, the “dishonest” press will roast you alive, and second, your “base” of forgotten men and women will be forgetting all about you. Equivalently, perpetual election machines of the third kind (deceiving people) are impossible.

Repeal & Replace for Dummies

Based on the four simple laws above, I would like to submit one possible sequence of broad steps to “repeal and replace” Obamacare.
  • Step 0: Get rid of the individual mandate. It is irksome to many, it accomplishes nothing, and it’s already gone anyway. This, in and of itself, satisfies the minimum requirement for stating that Obamacare has been repealed.
  • Step 1: Take a baseline of who has what in the way of health insurance, and this includes covered benefits, because reducing health insurance prices by cutting benefits violates the First and Third Laws.
  • Step 2: Exclude programs where Obamacare changed little to nothing. Ignore the small changes and per the First Law, leave expansions in place.
    • Medicare, VA and other military related – Leave those out. Fix the VA separately.
    • Medicaid – Leave it alone, except make sure the remaining Republican governors expand it in their (your) states (threats, waivers and whatever it takes to help them save face).
    • Employer insurance – Leave the 26 years old children and the removal of lifetime limits in place because neither one makes much difference to affordability (preexisting conditions were never an issue for this group).
Now we’re down to about 18 million insureds in dramatically different situations. Half are subsidized to various degrees based on their Federal Poverty Level (FPL). People with less than 400% FPL (a bit south of $50,000 per year) get some form of subsidy for the premiums, but many are struggling with outrageous deductibles. Those who make less than 250% FPL get help with their high deductibles as well. The 9 million who pay full price, along with 7 million of the uninsured, are in desperate need of relief from Obamacare. Add to that an increasingly large portion of employees whose employers “offer” exceedingly high deductible plans, and you have your Obamacare resentment in a nutshell.
  • Step 3: The easiest and cheapest solution to the problem would be to allow people on the individual market to purchase Medicare coverage and direct all Federal subsidies (which will need to be spread out more broadly to include the 10% "donut" hole) back into Medicare. There should be no objection from the health insurance industry since they all seem eager to leave those tiny markets anyway. But of course, nobody is going to do that, because this would appear to be “government run health care” of the “socialized medicine” variety.
  • Step 3 (alternate A): Allow all subsidized people on the Obamacare exchanges to “buy” into local Medicaid plans, which should reduce cost significantly, and use the savings to broaden the subsidies to include the hurting half, with an option to get more “coverage” if they use those new subsidies to buy into Medicaid as well. Personally, I don’t find this alternative very appealing, certainly not as appealing as the Medicare option, but again, seeing how all Medicaid is privatized now and how health insurers are making fortunes from Medicaid, there should be no serious objections. This alternative violates the Second Law when it comes to choice of doctors.
  • Step 3 (alternate B): If increasing membership in Medicare or Medicaid (or both) is too much of a political hot potato (and it is), let’s use some of those buzzwords y’all enjoy throwing around to create a market-based solution. We have around 18 million people who participate in the individual market and perhaps another 13 million who fit the profile, but choose not to participate. We are talking about at most 10% of Americans.  I am pretty sure that some “brave” health insurance companies (preferably non-profits) would be willing to bid for contracts to insure these people. You can do this by state or by region “across state lines”. Here’s the deal: people don’t need choices of health insurance plans. They need choices of doctors and hospitals.
    • One generously subsidized HMO plan with an adequate but narrower network, which is essentially a Medicaid style option, but more expensive (go figure).
    • One less generously subsidized PPO plan with a comprehensive network, which is similar to a Medicare Advantage PPO.
    • You can add in your “health savings accounts” here, but only if they are fully or partially funded by the Federal government in lieu of direct payment to insurers. This is also a good place to experiment with subscription based comprehensive care, a.k.a. direct primary care (DPC), which introduces a small element of free-market competition into the health care delivery system.
  • Step 4: Limit employer high deductible plan offerings, because what is a reasonable deductible for the CEO, is most definitely not reasonable for the assembly line worker. If you think Obamacare is a huge problem now, wait until the employer health insurance sector collapses, and it will if left to its own devices. Yes, fully funded health savings accounts (and DPC) could be used here as well.
  • Step 5: If you are serious about providing relief to all the people, the government cost for replacement will be higher than the current Obamacare costs. To reduce health care insurance prices, you will need to consider the Zeroth Law of R & R and intervene in the pricing of health care products and services, such as drugs, devices, technology, regulations, the predatory environment created by consolidation of health systems, and the deprofessionalization of physicians.
Since all sides in this debate have strong ideological convictions or equally powerful financial interests, preventing them from civil collaboration, the most likely result of this R & R effort is that the people will end up getting hurt, again. But if the 2016 election wasn’t a clear enough message for you, here is another Nobel Prize worthy message attributed to John Nash (or rather the writers of A Beautiful Mind):
“If we all go for the blonde and block each other, not a single one of us is going to get her. So then we go for her friends, but they will all give us the cold shoulder because no one likes to be second choice. But what if none of us goes for the blonde? We won't get in each other's way and we won't insult the other girls. It's the only way to win. It's the only way we all get laid.”