If Massachusetts predicts the future of U.S. health reform - and I believe it does - there's a wild ride ahead!
In April, Governor Deval Patrick, who faces a tough re-election campaign in November, dramatized his friendliness to small business and job creation by having his insurance commissioner turn down the rate proposals made by health insurers. An observer commented that as economic policy, this made as much sense as drawing a line in the sand to turn back the tide. Massachusetts insurers are largely not for profits that operate on a one percent margin. What drives the cost increases is the combination of provider and patient behavior.
Governor Patrick's Republican opponent is Charlie Baker, who did a brilliant job as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care for ten years. By blasting insurers Patrick was trying to apply shock therapy to runaway costs, but he presumably also hoped to tarnish one of Baker's main credentials.
That piece of politics was round one.
The insurers appealed, and two weeks ago the appeals unit in the Division of Insurance reversed the rate denial its own Commissioner had issued to Baker's former organization. It concluded that the rate increases were "actuarially sound" and reflected the actual trend of utilization and charges, a conclusion that everyone who knew anything about Massachusetts health care already shared.
Now Massachusetts is tiptoeing into new waters. Throughout the national health reform process insurers have been portrayed as greedy, profiteering villains. This is a harder line to take with the low margin, not for profit Massachusetts insurers. Last week a Boston Globe editorial blasted insurers for a new reason - not bargaining hard enough with providers!
I've never been part of the bargaining process, but my guess is that the criticism is correct. In the context of (a) the national backlash against managed care, (b) provider consolidation, which gives them more bargaining power, and (c) public demand for wide access, (d) insurers have been in a relatively weak bargaining position nationally.
Now the political system is starting to ask insurers to take a leadership role in solving runaway costs. This is a big shift from blaming them as cause of the problem.
This is a plausible strategy in Massachusetts. The major insurers are locally based not for profits. It's going to be a harder move to make in states where national for profits are dominant.
If I were advising Governor Patrick I would urge him to bring together insurers, major provider groups, the medical society, consumer representatives, economists, policy leaders, and the business community, and give them an "assignment" - to get the state on a trajectory to bringing health costs in the state to a specified, tolerable level. I'd have him convene the group himself and then turn leadership over to a respected, non-political, public figure.
Finger pointing is the commonest political move these days, but it won't get us anywhere in health care, a societal system we're all part of. We have to learn to manage the system. That will take change on everyone's part. If the Governor can launch this process he'll deserve re-election. If he limits himself to finger pointing and rhetoric he'll be looking for a new job on November 3.