Wednesday wanderings the first week of March

Well, March Madness will be thrust upon Americans later this month, so everyone get ready for the various brackets for the NCAA basketball tourney. Madness may be the operative term for the world these days, but please note things are usually not as bad as reported, as good news is vastly underreported and does not have as high a bounce as a negative news.

Here are few thoughts as a wander this Wednesday.

The Coronavirus will be more prevalent than first thought, but it seems not as deadly as other viruses. Still, those who are not in good physical shape with breathing issues, circulation issues, obesity issues, etc. should be prepared to more abruptly deal with symptoms. Sadly, since the US president has made this a personal political issue, listening to politicians talk, whose first mission is to protect the Trump brand, is not reassuring. I want to hear from experts.

Many financial people have forewarned that using stimulus tools to prop up an economy and stock market when it is going pretty well is not the best time to deploy them. When they are used now, what will you use later? The economy is still doing pretty good, but has been softening for more than a year. And, the stock market has been in need of a downward adjustment for some time. But, the president views the stock market as a key barometer, so he takes it personally when it falls, even though, he has little ability to control it long term. Yesterday, the market did not react very well to the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates 50 basis points (1/2 %). To me, it was seen as a panicky move, but smarter people than me will have to judge this (note, the market got a bump today in reaction to Biden’s success in the primaries).

While I like Bernie and will vote for him if he is the nominee, America breathed a sigh of relief yesterday with former VP Joe Biden’s rebound performance. As an independent and former Republican and Democrat, I am fiscally conservative and socially progressive. I very much believe in helping people with opportunities and to climb a ladder when disenfranchised. But, we need to pay for things. Right now, we have $23 trillion in debt and it is projected to increase to over $35 trillion by the end of the decade. We must deal with this obstacle, while we do other things – pay for infrastructure improvements, shore up the ACA, Social Security, etc. With this in mind, while both are good people, Biden will be better positioned to bring folks together to do that – Democrats, independents and even some Republicans.

If Bernie wins the nomination, I hope he pulls in a more moderate Democrat as his VP candidate. If Joe wins, it would be great if he tapped someone a little more progressive than he is. One of the dilemmas is the Democrats need to think about the future, as neither person is a spring chicken. I like listening to folks like Pete Buttitieg, Andrew Yang, etc. as they have a well-considered ideas, even if you don’t agree with every thing they say.

Whatever happens, Democrats need to vote for their candidate as four more years of the most corrupt and deceitful president in my lifetime, including the corrupt Richard Nixon, will not be good for America. I have said and written this to Senators and my Congressman, but regardless of party, we cannot have a president who acts the way this incumbent does. He is a national security risk and quite simply, America is no longer trusted as before, because the president is not trustworthy. Plus, we cannot lose sight of more aggressively addressing climate change and environmental degradation that have been made worse and would deteriorate more on his continued watch.

Near universal health coverage achieved in six states and DC

An article by Michael Rainey of The Fiscal Times (see link below), called “How six states achieved near universal coverage” noted the success of covering at least 95% of their people. These six states are Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Vermont. The District of Columbia also fits the bill. Per the article:

“A half-dozen states and the District of Columbia have health care insurance rates of over 95%, achieving near-universal coverage. Three researchers at the University of Pennsylvania — including Ezekiel Emanuel, a key architect of Obamacare — said Monday that the Affordable Care Act has everything to do with those results.

Here’s how the states achieved such high insurance rates, according to the authors:

Expanding Medicaid: States that expanded their Medicaid programs as allowed under the ACA had about half the uninsured rate (6.6%) in 2018 as states that did not do so (12.4%). ‘Nearly 5 million people would gain health insurance if the remaining 14 states expanded Medicaid,’ they write.

Extending enrollment periods: High-coverage states countered the Trump administration’s efforts to shorten enrollment periods and reduce informational assistance.

Lowering premiums: States enacted additional subsidies and reinsurance programs to keep premiums low, a crucial factor in maintaining insurance coverage from year to year.

Simplifying options: Some states limited the number of options available to counteract “choice overload,” which can reduce signups through consumer paralysis.

Maintaining individual mandates: Five low uninsured states maintain some kind of individual and employer mandates, which may help persuade healthy people to sign up.

The lesson, the authors say, is that near-universal health coverage can be achieved without national legislation. ‘While it is easy to dismiss the ACA and focus on the promise of Medicare for All, there is a more straightforward path to universal coverage,’ they write, ‘adopting a handful of relatively simple policies and programs at the state level can ensure health insurance coverage for nearly all Americans.’”

This article echoes what can be achievable if Medicaid is expanded and the other above steps are taken. The three states who drag the results down for the country – Texas, Florida and Georgia – did not expand Medicaid nor run their own Healthcare exchanges. Of the six states over 95%, it should be noted Iowa and Hawaii use the federal Healthcare Exchange, while the other four run their own exchanges.

I have long said Medicare for All is something to be explored, but it requires detailed analyses (and time) of its costs and impact. In the interim, I have strongly advocated improving the Affordable Care Act. The goal is access to care, in my view. The employment paradigm has been changing for some time, where fewer full-time workers are being used than before. We are seeing several industries move to a largely part-time workforce, such as in the retail, restaurant, and hospitality industries. We have seen contractual employment continue as well as the growth of gig economies. Health care access needs to come from somewhere.

What I do not care for is the hyper-politicization of this topic. Republicans (including the president) have actively sabotaged the Affordable Care Act, cutting funding to insurers, not mentioning the negative talk about it. It has still survived. Some Democrats choose to throw progress out and go full bore with Medicare for All. Again, that is a detailed undertaking and no candidate can accomplish this without buy-in from both parties.

So, let’s improve what we have. States who have not expanded Medicaid have been economically short-sighted and harmed their citizens. I have argued for repaying insurers who were harmed by the reneging on funding commitments, inviting them back into markets. Where choice is not available, introduce a Medicare option. I would also lower the eligibility for Medicare to age 60 or 62.

These are practical options that may move the needle upward like in those six states. Let’s talk about that.

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/6-states-achieved-near-universal-224827646.html

Former Arkansas surgeon general brags on Medicaid expansion

I have written often about the Affordable Care Act not being fully implemented since 15 states have not expanded Medicaid. Rather than repeat my arguments, let me reference the attached editorial written by Dr. Joe Thompson, the former Surgeon General of Arkansas, which I read in Friday’s The Charlotte Observer. The reason for their interest is North Carolina has a Democrat governor working with a Republican majority General Assembly and the issue of Medicaid expansion is of importance. The editorial is entitled “Medicaid expansion works in deep red Arkansas. It would work in North Carolina too.”

“My home state of Arkansas is unusual among Southern states in having adopted Medicaid expansion early and in our own fashion.

I was Arkansas’ surgeon general in 2013 when the state first faced the question of whether to expand Medicaid. Like North Carolina now, Arkansas then had a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled legislature. Fortunately, we avoided an impasse; lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came together to approve an innovative alternative to traditional Medicaid expansion that provides private health insurance coverage to about 250,000 people earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level.

The effect on Arkansas’ uninsured rate was swift and dramatic. A 2015 Gallup report showed that since Arkansas’ Medicaid expansion program took effect in January 2014, the state’s uninsured rate had been cut roughly in half, dropping from 22.5% to 11.4% ― the biggest reduction in the nation.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arkansas’ uninsured rate was 8.2% in 2018. North Carolina’s was 10.7%, the ninth-highest rate in the nation. Arkansas’ reduced uninsured rate led to a 55% reduction in uncompensated-care losses at hospitals. This has been especially important for rural hospitals, which treat many low-income patients.

Since January 2010, only one rural Arkansas hospital has closed for financial reasons. In the five neighboring states that have not expanded Medicaid, more than 50 rural hospitals have closed, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Expanding Medicaid also has helped stabilize Arkansas’ health insurance market, improve competition and control premiums. Since 2014, at least three insurers have offered plans through the Health Insurance Marketplace in each county in the state. The competition encourages low rates: In 2014, 38 states had marketplace premiums lower than Arkansas’; today, only six states have lower premiums.Medicaid expansion has brought billions of new federal dollars into Arkansas’ economy: $1.7 billion between January 2014 and June 2015 alone, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Arkansas also is saving money because some individuals previously covered under traditional Medicaid, which in Arkansas is 30% state and 70% federally funded, are now covered under Medicaid expansion.

The federal government currently is paying 93% of Medicaid expansion costs and will pay 90% in 2020 and thereafter. A consultant told a legislative task force in 2016 that Medicaid expansion would save Arkansas $757 million between 2017 and 2021.Thirty-six states have now decided to accept Medicaid expansion.

Arkansas has become a firmly red state, but it has reauthorized its Medicaid expansion program with a supermajority vote every year because of the demonstrated benefits to the working poor, the economy and the health care infrastructure. Last year, Arkansas added a work and community engagement requirement that currently is blocked by a federal judge’s order, but however that issue ultimately is resolved, it is clear that Medicaid expansion has had tangible, positive results. There’s a reason the number of states rejecting it continues to shrink each year.

Joe Thompson, MD, MPH, is president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. He was Arkansas’ surgeon general under Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee and Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe.”

In spite of efforts to naysay it, hobble it and kill it, the Affordable Care Act is stabilizing some. It needs more stability and Medicaid expansion would help in the remaining 15 states. I have also advocated the US government paying back the money they withheld from insurers causing some to leave the market, inviting those companies back to the market. I have also advocated the reduction of the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to age 62 or even 60. And, where options don’t exist, Medicare could be offered as an option for younger adults.

What frustrates this retired benefits manager, consultant and actuary is the fact people getting harmed by decisions to harm the ACA is not a major factor. There is too much focus on winning an argument that people getting screwed does not seem to matter. Please help make it matter. Even as we speak, the eating away at the edges of the ACA could lead the Supreme Court to rule it unconstitutional. If this occurs it would be a damn shame.

Medicaid expansion is needed for NC says this retired benefits professional

As North Carolina continues its stalemate on Medicaid expansion, it might be interesting to heed the words of former Ohio Republican governor John Kasich. When Ohio moved forward with the Medicaid expansion, he called it a “no brainer.”

Now why would he say that? Kasich noted Medicaid expansion would not only help people, it would bring $13 billion to his state over several years. George Washington University did a study that said Medicaid expansion would help a state’s economy, help a state’s rural hospitals and help people. We should also remember NC Republican Mayor Adam O’Neal of Belhaven walking to Washington seeking the expansion of Medicaid after his colleagues in Raleigh turned him down as he tried to save his town’s hospital.

Rather than offer stale arguments, it would be nice if the Senate and House leaders figure out a way to get this done. Let me add the voices of The Commonwealth Fund, RAND Corporation and Economic Policy Institute that echo the results of the GWU study. NC is already in the minority on this. Please let’s find a way to help people.

Let me close with a truism about health coverage to think about. Those with coverage will see doctors earlier and will have access to prescription drugs to avoid future train wrecks. Preventive care and health maintenance are better paths forward for people and healthcare financing.

Note: The author of this post is a retired benefits professional who is a former actuary, former benefits consultant and benefits manager for a Fortune 500 company

The most realistic path to ‘Medicare for All’ says a former Insurance CEO

I said back in 2010 to a healthcare consulting colleague, we will eventually need to consider national health insurance, but it won’t happen. When he asked why, I responded the “Healthcare industrial complex is too powerful.” People forget the reason we have the Affordable Care Act is CFOs were tired of rising healthcare costs to their bottom line.

Healthcare is a complex topic and the ACA added to that complexity. It has since gotten better, but we need to shore it up to stabilize it more, rather continue to allow it to be diminished as its opponents have down for several years.

But, national health care under the banner of “Medicare for All” is worthy of consideration with data and analysis. This retired actuary, benefits consultant and benefits manager supports data driven analysis to improve what we have and consider more substantive changes. JB Silvers, a former health insurance CEO and professor of health care finance at Case Western University, penned an article called “The most realistic path to ‘Medicare for All'” in The New York Times earlier this month. Here are excerpts from the article:

“Much to the dismay of single-payer advocates, our current health insurance system is likely to end with a whimper, not a bang. The average person simply prefers what we know versus the bureaucracy we fear.

But for entirely practical reasons, we might yet end up with a form of Medicare for All. Private health insurance is failing in slow motion, and all signs are that it will continue. It was for similar reasons that we got Medicare in 1965. Private insurance, under the crushing weight of chronic conditions and technologic breakthroughs (especially genetics), will increasingly be a losing proposition.

As a former health insurance company C.E.O., I know how insurance is supposed to work: It has to be reasonably priced, spread risks across a pool of policyholders and pay claims when needed. When companies can’t do those fundamental tasks and make a decent profit is when we will get single payer.

It’s already a tough business to be in. Right now the payment system for health care is just a mess. For every dollar of premium, administrative costs absorb up to 20 percent. That’s just too high, and it’s not the only reason for dissatisfaction.

Patients hate paying for cost-sharing in the form of deductibles and copays. Furthermore, narrow networks with a limited number of doctors and hospitals are good for insurers, because it gives them bargaining power, but patients are often left frustrated and hit with surprise bills.

As bad as these problems are, most people are afraid of losing coverage through their employers in favor of a government-run plan. Thus inertia wins — for now.

But there’s a reason Medicare for All is even a possibility: Most people like Medicare. It works reasonably well. And what could drive changes to our current arrangement is a disruption — like the collapse of private insurance.

There are two things insurers hate to do — take risks and pay claims. Before Affordable Care Act regulations, insurance companies cherry-picked for lower-risk customers and charged excessive rates for some enrollees…”

There is only one solution: pooling and financing many of the risks related to chronic and acute health care issues. A study by my former company noted generally 15% of participants drive 80% of the claims costs in any given year. It may not be the same 15%, but with major chronic issues, some could continue to be in the mix. The principle of insurance is to pool those risks, so that good risks can moderate the higher risks.

The ACA uses the private insurance system, exchanges and expanded Medicaid. Unfortunately, there are about 15 states who still have not expanded Medicaid. Medicare for All would consolidate the risk into one place, eliminating the profit load and reducing the relative administration cost of insurance companies. I have suggested for several years to do a pilot and expanded Medicare eligibility from age 65 to age 62, or even lower. This would let us measure the impact of such a change.

Yet, what we don’t need is this to become political. What people do not realize is the ACA has been sabotaged on several occasions by my former party which drove some insurers out of the market and increased premiums for everyone else more so than they otherwise would have been.

So, let’s cut to the chase and study options. And, politicians should let people who know what they are doing do the analysis. The ACA was made too complex and the exchange roll out was botched. On the flip side, what the GOP did in 2017 was sloppy and poorly staffed, so what was voted on woulf have been harmful to many.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina ACA premium rate cut request

Earlier this week, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) has announced a request of a premium rate cut for the second year in a row under the Affordable Care Act. They announced a request of a 5.2% rate reduction for their 435,000 members and one of 3.3% for small businesses in the state. It would have been three years in a row, but as I mentioned in earlier blogs, the Trump decision to renege on paying insurers for absorbing co-pays and deductibles for people making less than 2 1/2 x poverty limit caused premiums to increase for all.

This shows the ACA is stabilizing for insurance carriers who have been at it a few years. It would be nice to get more carriers back in for members to have choices. Many left when the Senate, led by the GOP defunded the risk corrider payments to the tune of 89% of the adverse selection cost. These carriers left the markets with the US government owing them money.

These two efforts to dampen the ACA have gone largely unreported. But, there is one more which is critical that impacts premiums and threatens the entire ACA. The tax bill passed by the GOP led Congress eliminating an unpopular feature of the ACA, which required individual coverage. It was called the individual mandate. By obligating people to have coverage, it lessened the risk on the insurers which will keep premiums lower than they would be otherwise.

Here is what BCBSNC said in their announcement as reported by The Charlotte Observer.

“The rate of decrease requested for 2019 would have been larger, the company told the Observer in 201, if the GOP tax reform legislation signed by President Donald Trump hadn’t repealed the ACA’s individual health insurance mandate.”

Further, several GOP led-states are suing the federal government to rule the ACA unconstitutional due to the elimination of the mandate. The tax laws are complex, but it is going to end up at the Supreme Court. It is thought by experts this case is weak, but the Trump Justice Department has decided to not defend the law which helps so many. Ironically, this is happening as it stabilizes even more, the GOP lost seats because of their ham-handed efforts to repeal it and when some Democrats want Medicare-for-all.

The art of exaggeration

The following are paraphrases of actual quotes from a person known to exaggerate and even prevaricate. A famous comedian from the same area as this person noted three years ago that this was “schtick” used to improve your image.

  • I am the least racist person in the world,
  • I am a stable genius.
  • I know more about taxes than anyone in the history of taxes.
  • They love me in England.
  • My gut is smarter than an expert’s brain.
  • No one has treated Black people better than me.
  • African-American people love the job I’m doing.

These are just top of mind from a longer list of exaggerations. Often, these are said following scrutiny that he has brought om himself.

This last point is important as I have said repeatedly this person is his own worst enemy. Through exaggeration and prevarication, he is the biggest purveyor of fake news by far. Even when the news is good, he must make it better or the “best.” Things he must change are “disasters.”

Yet, exaggerating and lying is bad enough, in and of themselves, but become  far more serious when policy is set off one of the two. Here are some real examples that should concern us all.

  • He said eliminating the subsidy to insurers under the Affordable Care Act to repay them for co-pays/ deductibles they absorbed for people making less than 2 1/2 times the poverty limit would only effect their profits – this is not true, as the CBO said it would increase the US deficit by $10 billion per annum and increased premiums for all members.
  • He said the illegal immigrants were taking all the jobs and are the reason for the malaise in certain areas – this is a gross exaggeration, as the primary reason for job loss is technology gains and CEOs chasing cheaper profits by offshoring manufacturing plants.
  • He said to reporters in front of the Pakistan PM, the India PM asked him to mediate the conflict in Kashmir – this is not true and statement was made by the India PM within an hour to state “no such request was made” as well as the White House staff going silent on the issue. India is an ally and experts noted this was a slap in their face as Kashmir is hyper-sensitive.
  • He said it is OK to have trade issues with China as we are raking in tariffs from them in our treasury, a statement he has repeated multiple times, including yesterday – while tariffs are being collected, this is a lie that China is paying them; US importers are paying the tariffs and passing much of the cost to US consumers.

I could go on as there are many examples to choose – he promised a better and cheaper healthcare program than the ACA in the election, but it has yet to materialize, and he is advertising it again for 2020. What is it Mr. President?

Politicians, business people and marketers tend to exaggerate and even lie to sell their message. Yet, the people who track lying say the incumbent has lapped the field. By the way, a key message from the Mueller report is the president is not very truthful and his staff knows it. And, Mueller testified that Trump was “generally” untruthful in his responses to his questions.