The Hill reports that the House Democratic leadership has decided to rebrand the "public option" as Medicare Part E, that is, Medicare for everyone. But are they really proposing that everyone should be able to enroll in Medicare, fulfilling the wildest hopes of single payer advocates?
Not likely. The House's version of Medicare Part E could more aptly be labeled as the Medicare Part UPWDNHATAEHCAWDNQFMOS program , standing for Uninsured Persons Who Do Not Have Access To Affordable Employer Based Health Coverage And Who Do Not Qualify For Medicaid Or SCHIP. Barring a complete re-write of the House bill, the re-branded public plan option would be available only to the 30 million or so people who fall in the UPWDNHATAEHCAWDNQFMOS category and are eligible to receive federal subsidies to buy coverage through a health alliance. Calling it Medicare for Everyone doesn't make it so.
Still, it might be a very good political move. People like Medicare and don't associate it with "government run" health care (remember the reports of seniors at the August town hall meetings screaming "keep government out of my Medicare?").
The Hill also reports that the plan will be "the 'robust' option or 'Medicare Plus 5' in the jargon that has emerged on Capitol Hill, [which] ties provider reimbursement rates to Medicare, adding 5 percent."
The American College of Physicians has said that it could be appropriate for people eligible for the health exchanges to have the option of choosing either a qualified private insurance plan or a public health plan, provided that the public option is funded through premiums and is not tied to Medicare physician participation agreements or Medicare rates. ACP wrote:
"Proposals to use the current Medicare reimbursement structure as a basis for reimbursement under the public plan option raise significant concerns. In particular, payment levels for physicians participating in the public plan would amount to price controls that insufficiently compensate physicians for their work. It is widely believed that the current Medicare fee schedule is ineffective in promoting quality care and incentivizes volume-based rather than value based health care. In its March 2009 report to Congress, MedPAC stated that it was dissatisfied with the current fee schedule updating mechanism for physician payments. Further, the Medicare fee schedule has resulted in improper utilization of services rather than cost containment. Proponents of the public plan option have cautioned that hospital closures, stifled innovation of new technology, and limited access to physician services could result if a government-run health plan strictly limits payments to providers under a public plan ... To be successful, a public health plan would not have to control prices to maintain access, promote quality care, and limit cost efficiencies ... Instead, the government (or the plan's administrator) should negotiate with providers in a manner similar to the private market."
Especially given the Senate's failure yesterday to repeal the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula, it doesn't make sense to build the new Medicare E program on a payment structure that Congress itself knows doesn't work and would require that they close a $240 billion budget shortfall to stop the scheduled physician pay cuts. The same payment structure that Congress acknowledges undervalues primary care and rewards volume over value. Yet Speaker Pelosi wants the flawed Medicare fee schedule to be the foundation for the new public option?
My guess is that the decision to base the public plan on the Medicare rates is principally a negotiating tactic in anticipation of a conference committee with the Senate, which is not likely to include a "robust" public option in its bill. A compromise might be to accept the House's proposal for public plan option, but to divorce it from the Medicare rates and instead allow the public plan to negotiate rates with physicians, hospitals and other providers. Yet in one form or another, it seems more likely than ever that some kind of public option will end up in the final bill. Call it Medicare E if you want, even though most of us will not have access to it.
Today's questions: What do you think about re-branding the public option as Medicare Part E? Should it pay physicians and hospitals based on the Medicare rates (plus 5%) or should the rates be negotiated?