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Economic Scene: Health Care Overhaul Represents Progress

The New York Times‘ economics columnist David Leonhardt weighs in on implementation of the new health care law, judging disruptions to the current system to be healthy signs that we are abandoning a deeply flawed status quo.

Economic Scene

Health Care’s Uneven Road to a New Era

By DAVID LEONHARDT

Published: October 5, 2010

Consider what it would be like to have a health insurance plan that capped annual benefits at $2,000. For any medical care costing more than that, you would have to pay out of pocket.

In a McDonald’s health plan, workers can pay about $730 a year for benefits up to $2,000.

Examples of care that costs more than $2,000 — and often a lot more — include virtually any cancer treatment, any heart surgery, a year’s worth of diabetes treatment and care for many broken bones. Even a single M.R.I. exam can cost more than $2,000. A typical hospital stay runs thousands of dollars more.

So does this insurance plan sound like part of the solution for the country’s health care system — or part of the problem?

A $2,000 plan happens to be one of the main plans that McDonald’s offers its employees. It became big news last week, when The Wall Street Journal reported that the company was worried the plan would run afoul of a provision in the new health care law. In response to the provision, McDonald’s threatened to drop the coverage altogether, until the Obama administration signaled it would grant some exemptions.

This episode was only the latest disruption that the health law seems to be causing. Also last week, the Principal Financial Group said it was getting out of the health insurance business, while other insurers have said they might stop offering certain types of coverage. With each new disruption come loud claims — some from insurance executives — that the health overhaul is damaging American health care.

On the surface, these claims can sound credible. But when you dig a little deeper, you often discover the same lesson that the McDonald’s case provides: the real problem was the status quo.

American families spend almost twice as much on health care — through premiums, paycheck deductions and out-of-pocket expenses — as families in any other country. In exchange, we receive top-notch specialty care in many areas. Yet on the whole, we do not get much better care than countries that spend far less.

We don’t live as long as people in Canada, Japan, most of Western Europe or even relatively poor Jordan. Misdiagnosis is common. Medical errors occur more often than in some other countries. Unique to the developed world, millions of people have no health insurance, and millions more, like many fast-food workers, are underinsured.

In choosing their health reform plan, President Obama and the Democrats eschewed radical changes, for better or worse, and instead tried to minimize the disruptions to the current system. Sometimes, Mr. Obama went so far as to suggest there would be no disruptions, saying that people could keep their current plan if they liked it. But that’s not quite right. It is not possible to change a system as huge, and as hugely flawed, as ours without some disruptions.

McDonald’s offers its hourly workers two different health care plans, which are known as “mini-med” plans. In one, workers can pay about $730 a year for benefits of up to $2,000. In the other, they can pay about $1,660 a year for benefits of up to $10,000, The Journal reported.

In a memo to federal regulators, McDonald’s executives argued that their version of health insurance “positively impacts” the almost 30,000 workers who are covered. And that’s true. A plan with a $2,000 or $10,000 cap can cover some modest health problems and is better than being uninsured.

But should the litmus test for American health care really be better than nothing?

Mini-med plans force people to drain their savings accounts for dozens of common medical problems. They also force hospitals to let some bills go unpaid, which drives up costs for everyone else.

Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, has previously criticized AARP for marketing similarly limited plans to its members. “It’s not better than nothing,” Mr. Grassley argued, “to encourage people to buy something described as ‘health security’ when there’s no basic protection against high medical costs.”

Dr. Aaron Carroll, an Indiana University pediatrics professor who studies health policy, says of mini-med plans: “They’re great if you’re healthy, because you feel like you’re covered. But if you ever need them, they’re so skimpy, they provide very little.” Gary Claxton of the Kaiser Family Foundation adds, “They really just shouldn’t be considered health insurance.”

The plans’ skimpiness is the main reason they ran into legal jeopardy. Under the new law, most plans must spend at least 85 percent of their revenue on medical care, rather than administrative overhead. The McDonald’s plans aren’t generous enough to clear the hurdle.

At the same time, it’s probably unrealistic to expect McDonald’s to give workers decent health insurance. Many of those workers make less than $20,000 a year. A typical family insurance plan would raise their total compensation by more than half, destroying the McDonald’s business model.

The workers, for their part, cannot afford to buy insurance in the so-called individual market. Plans are even more expensive in that market, because it is dominated by people who desperately need insurance — which is to say, sick people.

This is where health reform comes in. It tried to solve the problem by creating what policy experts call a three-legged stool.

First, people will be required to buy insurance, to spread costs among the sick and the healthy. Second, insurers will be prohibited from cherry-picking only the healthiest customers, again to spread costs. Finally, the government will give subsidies to people, like McDonald’s workers, who can’t afford insurance on their own.

Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland all use a system along these lines to cover everyone, largely through the private sector, for less money per person than this country spends.

The recent disruptions in our health insurance market are partly a result of the fact that the stool’s three legs were not built on the same timetable. Some of the insurance regulations, like the one on overhead costs, are starting to take effect. But the new markets for health insurance, known as exchanges, won’t be up and running until 2014. This timetable has its problems, and the Obama administration will probably need to grant some more temporary exemptions.

In 2014, however, the choice for McDonald’s workers will no longer be between a bad policy and no policy. Through the exchanges, they will be able to buy a real health insurance plan — one that covers cancer, heart attacks, surgeries, M.R.I.’s and hospital stays. Dr. Carroll notes that many families will end up paying less than they are now paying out of pocket and will get more access to care, too.

For insurance companies, these changes won’t be quite so positive. They will no longer be able to sell plans that devote 30 percent of revenue to salaries for their workers. They will not be allowed to compete over which company can come up with the most ingenious ways to say no to the sick. Their benefits and prices will become more public, thanks to the exchanges.

The health care overhaul that passed Congress is far from ideal, as I have written many times in this space. But it does represent progress.

The fact that it is beginning to disrupt the status quo — that some insurance policies will eventually be eliminated and some inefficient insurers will have to leave the market altogether — is all the proof we need.