My Evaluation of Joe Biden’s Healthcare Platform, Part 3

Image credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty

This is the final part in the series. Part 1 was direct quotes from Joe Biden’s official campaign website about his healthcare plan. Part 2 explained the main parts and rationale of that plan. And in this final part I share my assessment of that plan.

First, as a brief summary, let me remind you of the main parts of Joe Biden’s plan.

He is going to get rid of the limit (400% of the federal poverty level) on who qualifies for health insurance premium subsidies when they are buying insurance on the private market, and he will replace it with a flat percentage of income (8.5%). Anyone whose health insurance will cost more than 8.5% of their annual income will qualify for a subsidy. And he’s going to make those subsidies more generous, so whether someone qualifies for a subsidy will be calculated based on their income compared to the price of a gold-level insurance plan rather than a silver-level plan. And, to top it all off, he’s going to create a new government-run health insurance company that will offer an insurance plan on the private market. This “public option” will be available to other groups as well. For example, employers could, instead of administering their own employer-sponsored insurance plans, have their employees get on the public option. And in states where Medicaid eligibility is more restrictive, many of the uninsured will qualify to be on the public option plan for free.

Ok, now for my thoughts on all of that.

First, I like to start by thinking in terms of the big picture. There are three problems healthcare reformers are usually trying to solve. They want to (1) increase access to care, (2) decrease the cost of care (prices), and (3) improve the quality of care. But I merge the last two goals into one by saying that they want to improve the value of care (which takes into account prices and quality).

So how will Joe Biden’s plan do at increasing access and improving the value of care?

Let’s take the increasing access one first. Remember from last week that there are about 30 million uninsured people in the U.S. Joe Biden’s website quotes that this plan will get 97% of Americans insured, which means there will only be about 10 million uninsured people when all this is implemented. Whether that is too many or not is purely a judgment call based on your own personal moral and political beliefs, so I won’t give any comment on that.

What I will comment on, however, is the other aspect of access-increasing policies that needs to be taken into account. You see, there are two questions that need to be considered whenever you are evaluating a policy designed to increase access. The first is what I already mentioned: How many people it will get insured? The second question, which is almost universally forgotten, is this: How will this policy impact our efforts to improve the value of care? If we increase access and, at the same time, impair our efforts to improve the value of care, we have taken one step forward and one step backward all at the same time.

If you’ve read any of my other writings, you will already know that I believe the key to improving value in healthcare is to get more patients to choose higher-value insurers and providers, which comes from giving them price and quality information about their options and then making sure nothing interferes with their incentives to choose the highest-value one for them. When that is happening properly, market share flows to the higher-value providers and, therefore, it stimulates competition over who can offer the highest value to patients.

Single-payer systems, such as Medicare for All (where a single insurance company run by the government insures everyone in the country), typically are implemented in a way that creates many barriers to that value-improving competition. (By the way, to be clear–I am not saying those barriers are intrinsic to single-payer system designs, just that that’s how they always seem to be implemented; if you want to know more on this topic, see my description of an optimal single-payer system and my evaluation of Elizabeth Warren’s healthcare platform.)

In contrast to Medicare for All proposals, improving the Affordable Care Act is pretty much the most value-improvement friendly way to increase access; it doesn’t create any major new barriers to the changes that need to be made to improve value.

Summarizing this analysis of how Joe Biden’s plan does with the first issue (increasing access), fixing the ACA rates poorly on getting everyone covered (although he is going about it in the most reasonable way possible) but it rates highly on not creating new barriers to fixing the second issue.

And now, speaking of that second issue, improving the value of care, let’s see how Joe Biden’s plan does at that.

. . . Crickets. In spite of choosing an access-increasing plan that will not create too many barriers to our efforts to improve value, I don’t see much in his plan that will take advantage of that. I don’t think this is necessarily an oversight. I just think he and his team don’t know what needs to happen to make transformative changes in healthcare value (although that’s what this blog is all about–apparently they haven’t found it yet). But he has at least proposed what he can to try to lower drug costs, which makes political sense because that’s been a hot topic these days.

I haven’t yet mentioned the public option, so let me say something about that before I close this series.

Creating a public option is a workaround. It’s trying to solve a problem without getting at the root of the problem, which severely hampers its effectiveness at solving that problem and also risks causing collateral damage.

The primary problem that a public option is trying to solve is the issue of non-competitive insurance markets. But no other market in society needs a government-produced option to keep the market’s pricing honest, so why does healthcare insurance? The answer is that it doesn’t. What the healthcare insurance market needs is what other markets already have, and it’s the same thing I mentioned above: It needs shoppers to be able to readily identify the highest-value insurance plan and then choose it. Eliminating barriers to this will do more to stimulate competition over value than a public option will, and it risks no collateral damage.

A public option is also a gradual way to shift more of the population onto public insurance and slowly phase out private insurance, which essentially results in a single-payer system. You could call it Medicare-and-Medicaid-and-Public-Option for All. Whether that’s his goal or not, it doesn’t matter, because it opens up an avenue for that to eventually take place. And I’ve already mentioned my concerns about single-payer systems above.

Overall, I am impressed with Joe Biden’s approach to fixing the ACA. It’s a very rational approach, which is why it’s exactly what I described in my KevinMD post in 2019 about a possible optimal future U.S. healthcare system. But I am very concerned about his addition of a public option, which I think will distract from the real changes that need to be made in the health insurance market and will also create serious risk of new barriers to improving the healthcare system’s value. And as for his plan to improve healthcare value, he doesn’t really have one. So it’s only half a plan, really, with some positive aspects and some negative aspects. Drop the public option and propose some things to improve the value of care (here are some suggestions), and we’ve got ourselves a solid option for the future of our healthcare system.

Evaluating the ACP’s Vision for Our Healthcare System, Part 3 of 3: Coverage and Cost of Care

The last in my series evaluating ACP’s “vision for a better U.S. health care system.” Check out the intro to the series, Part 1, context for Part 2, and Part 2.

This is the paper that generated the most media attention, much of which incorrectly asserted that the ACP endorsed “Medicare for All.” So let me, at the outset, clear this up: The ACP doesn’t endorse Medicare for All in this paper. It endorses a couple different options to achieve universal coverage, one of which is a single-payer system. There are many ways to achieve a single-payer system, and Medicare for All is just one way to do that. Maybe this sounds like semantics, but I think it’s important to be accurate here because the term “Medicare for All” carries with it a lot of specific ideas about how a single-payer system should be implemented, and it also carries with it specific political affiliations. The ACP was not committing to any of those specific ideas or political affiliations; the writers were only endorsing the general single-payer system approach as one of two options for how to increase insurance coverage.

Now, on to assessing the details of the paper.

Part 1 of this paper reviews the state of insurance coverage and healthcare spending, which sets the stage for Parts 2 and 3 to talk about ways to expand coverage and lower care costs.

Part 2 is mostly what I want to talk about. First, it asserts unabashedly that the ACP feels that universal health insurance coverage is essential. And since having insurance coverage is pointless if its spending requirements are not affordable or if providers are unavailable, it adds those access details in as also being essential.

Then it lists two options that it sees as being able to achieve that goal: a “single-payer financing approach” and a “publicly financed coverage option.” Let’s look at each one.

Single-payer financing approach. This means a single government-run insurance company provides insurance for everyone in the country. It doesn’t necessarily prevent people from purchasing private supplemental insurance, but it would cover everything considered to be essential. The paper then discusses some of the well-known benefits and concerns that come along with having a single-payer system. The interesting part to me, which makes sense coming from a physician organization, is their particular concern about how this would affect physicians. It could decrease administrative burden and uncompensated care, but it could also decrease autonomy. And the big concern is that if it relies on “Medicare’s flawed payment system,” it would perpetuate a few undesirable things, including bad incentives (such as an over-reliance on fee for service), the overvaluing of certain services (procedures), and unsustainably low reimbursements (that would make some providers go bankrupt). Any prior “Medicare for All” proposal I’ve seen relies on Medicare’s payment system, so this is a good example of why the ACP is not endorsing Medicare for All specifically.

Publicly financed coverage option. Another name for this is a “public option.” Basically it’s a government-run insurance plan that will be offered alongside private insurance plans. It would be available for employees to opt into rather than use their employer-sponsored insurance as well. An essential part of this insurance plan is that it would have premium and cost-sharing subsidies (so that, again, lower-income people don’t end up with useless coverage). Later on in this paper, they say that no matter which option is chosen, it needs to have included with it a mandatory or automatic enrollment component. I’m not sure how premiums would be paid for by people auto-enrolled into the public option plan–possibly through filing their taxes–but isn’t this looking more and more like the Affordable Care Act? Require people to have insurance coverage and subsidize lower-income people to be able to buy it? Yes, that’s the ACA. The one difference is that one of the insurance plans people can select from will be run by the government (which, incidentally, was originally part of the ACA plan).

So those are the two options the ACP supports. They also mention another approach: convert all insurers to non-profits and require everyone to have health insurance (another variation of the ACA, but this time there’s no public option and instead all the insurers are non-profits). But they say there is not enough information on how such a system could be applied to the U.S., so they don’t endorse it. And all the other options for reform that are out there (such as “market-based approaches”) would not achieve universal coverage, so they were eliminated from consideration.

Even though the ACP is politically neutral, you can see that their foundational beliefs and priorities line up much more closely with modern liberal thinking rather than conservative thinking/beliefs/priorities. This is what I expected, and I discussed it in my intro to this series.

Part 3 discusses strategies they support to lower healthcare costs. There are 5 of them: invest more in primary and comprehensive care, reduce excessive pricing and improve efficiency, reduce low-value care, rely more on global budgets and all-payer rate setting, and use more reference pricing.

Rather than get into the merits and drawbacks of these different policies here, lets finish this series with a brief discussion about whether the two options they endorse to attain universal coverage will get in the way of the ideas we talked about in Part 2.

If you will recall, the second ACP paper we discussed gave 6 different recommendations, the two main ones being to (1) give patients price and quality information to help them choose higher-value providers and (2) getting providers to shift to value-based purchasing arrangements (especially different forms of capitation) with insurers.

With a single-payer system, usually the implementation involves setting a uniform nationwide price for each service (adjusted by region for cost of living). This would completely ruin their idea of getting patients to choose providers based on value because the price would be the same for all providers. I will not get into detail on how, but setting a price floor like that completely distorts providers’ innovation incentives. It would kill pretty much any cost-lowering innovation that results in slightly reduced quality, even if the innovation could result in drastically lower cost.

But, on the upside, since there’s only one insurer to deal with, a single-payer system would allow for perfectly uniform incentives for any provider that chooses to enter a VBP arrangement!

With a public option like they have described, there is the exact same problem with distorted/ruined incentives due to uniform pricing, but at least the extent of the problem is limited to the number of patients who are on the public option plan. And, as for providers’ efforts to enter into VBP arrangements, it would probably make it slightly easier to get uniform incentives because I assume VBP arrangements would be harmonized between Medicare and this public option. But any provider who wants to design their own VBP arrangement is going to have to have an even harder time attaining uniform incentives because I suspect they would have to convince the plan administrators of Medicare and the public option independently, which means they’re trying to win over yet another public payer to be able to move forward with their idea.

Am I saying that the ACP’s efforts to accomplish universal coverage will interfere with their efforts to improve the care delivery system? Yes. The two options they endorse don’t necessarily need to be implemented in a way that does that, but I see nothing in what they’ve written that specifies that they should be implemented in a way that mitigates those problems. (For details on how this could be done, see what an optimal single-payer system would look like here and what an optimal ACA-type system would look like here.)

I think different groups of people were working on each paper, and even though they were reporting their findings and recommendations to the same group of ACP leaders for approval, it’s quite a difficult task as one of those ACP leaders to be presented with complex recommendations from two different groups and figure out exactly how they might conflict with each other.

Well, there we have it. The ACP endorsed some things that would be very beneficial, but they fell into the same trap of not thinking about these things from a complete system perspective, so their efforts to get more people into the system will interfere with the changes the system needs to deliver better value over time. This is why any healthcare reformer first needs to have a firm understanding of the core causes of low value and how those can be resolved before deciding on the details of how to enact universal coverage.

But I am happy the ACP jumped directly into this arena. It shows that powerful physician groups are also interested in figuring out how to fix the healthcare system. Maybe the biggest benefit from their efforts of researching and releasing these papers (and then having them critiqued) is that it will make the ACP and other provider groups more likely to recognize and support policies that will truly move us closer to fixing our healthcare system.