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Opinion

Opinion

Opinion: Medicare model may gain favor

August 27, 2013

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By Caroline Poplin

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Any program as large and complex as Obamacare (not to mention one facing such entrenched opposition) is going to encounter some turbulence on its shakedown cruise. But the recent glitches are as important for what they tell us about reform, as for what they do.

Obamacare (more formally, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) will cover millions of currently uninsured Americans as advertised — but with as little disruption to corporate profits as possible. Patients and taxpayers are to shoulder most of the additional cost.

The administration will delay for one year — until 2015 — the requirement that large employers offer their employees decent insurance, or pay a small penalty (the so-called “employer mandate”). There was no corresponding delay of the individual mandate, the requirement that all citizens sign up for insurance coverage starting in 2014, the most unpopular provision of ACA. This means that next year employees of the recalcitrant firms will have to buy health insurance without any contribution from their employers.

Congressional Republicans (and some Democrats) passed a bill to delay the individual mandate also. However, no one in Washington really wants that; it would hurt the insurance companies, who are adamant that young, healthy individuals be required to enroll so as to cover the costs of the sick, who will sign up right away.

The administration also quietly postponed for a year ACA annual and lifetime limits on out-of-pocket costs in some employer-sponsored plans. This delay will fall hardest on the sickest — patients with diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis, or HIV, where the costs of drugs alone can easily exceed $100,000 a year.

Democrats winced and largely remained silent. Republicans chortled, passed another symbolic bill, and continue to obstruct the ACA wherever they can.

Is there something wrong with this picture?

Don’t misunderstand: Extending health insurance coverage to millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans is an unequivocal good, and a substantial step forward.

However, the U.S. pays the highest prices in the world for health insurance and health care. Notwithstanding its name, the Affordable Care Act extends this extravagantly expensive system to the uninsured with little attention to reducing or spreading the cost, just a hope and a prayer that the invisible hand of the market will somehow do the heavy lifting.

Politicians tell us that this market-driven system, heavily reliant on consumer payments and subsidies, is the only one that Americans today will accept. Maybe.

Yet keep in mind that the U.S. is the outlier here. In one way or another, all the other advanced Western democracies regulate insurers, hospitals, doctors and manufacturers to ensure that all their citizens (sometimes even visitors!) receive the health care they need, with modest profits to providers.

Indeed, we have such “socialized” health insurance already, hiding in plain sight: Medicare, the most popular program in the country after Social Security.

For the sake of millions of uninsured citizens, I hope the rollout of the peculiarly American ACA is successful. But if it turns out to be too complex or too expensive, voters have a cheaper, simpler, fairer alternative. Employers, insurers and providers, take heed.

— Caroline Poplin is a physician, attorney and policy analyst in Bethesda, Md. She wrote this column for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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