Marcia Angell, MD on the Massachusetts plan
Boston Globe op-ed
By Marcia Angell | April 17, 2006
IF GOVERNOR Romney thinks the state's new plan for universal health coverage will carry him to the White House, he should think again. This Rube Goldberg contraption won't even get him off the ground because it doesn't touch the underlying problem -- our reliance on multiple private insurance companies.
Private insurers compete not by offering better healthcare, but by avoiding high-risk individuals, limiting services for those they do cover, and, whenever possible, shifting costs to other payers or to individuals in the form of high deductibles and copayments. It's a chaotic and fragmented system that requires a mountain of paperwork, which is one reason premiums are so high. Those employers who still offer health benefits react by capping their contributions, so that workers pay more out of pocket and bear the full brunt of premium increases. Massachusetts does better than most states, but healthcare in Massachusetts is also the most expensive in the nation.
If this system is left essentially intact, as it is under the new plan, expanding coverage will inevitably increase costs. That is common sense: Coverage and costs have to move in tandem if the system stays the same. Furthermore, the plan does nothing to keep costs from growing. For years, premiums have been rising much faster than the consumer price index. At current rates, even if the state were able to cover its proposed contributions to the plan at launch, it wouldn't be able to keep up with soaring prices.
But already it's clear that the governor and legislators don't know how to pay for it even at launch. One legislator told Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi: ''We don't yet know what it's really going to cost us or where we're going to get the money from. To some extent you might call it a Hail Mary pass." The essence of this faith-based plan is to squeeze employers and individuals, with a relatively small state contribution. But employers who don't offer health insurance can get away with paying a penalty of only $295 per employee per year -- in a state where health insurance for individuals costs about $7,200 per year.
Individuals not covered by employers and whose income is at least 300 percent of the federal poverty level (now about $30,000) will have to buy their insurance or pay income tax penalties. Romney thinks premiums can be held to $2,400 a year with a cap of $2,100 on deductibles, but that is wildly implausible. If premiums are higher than that and continue to escalate faster than income, this will amount to fining people because they can't afford health insurance, which, in effect, will punish them twice -- an unsavory prospect.
Those individuals whose income is less than 300 percent of poverty level would receive state subsidies. That will require an enormous bureaucracy to determine what insurance is adequate and ''affordable" and who can really afford it, and there will be incessant legal and regulatory wrangling. The legislation calls for a new state agency, the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector, to oversee insurance plans, and that is just the beginning.
Like the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the Massachusetts healthcare plan is a complicated morass that might limp along for a while, but will never cover all the people it is meant to cover, and will become increasingly unaffordable. Most likely, it will meet the same fate as the much celebrated 1988 legislation to provide universal coverage in Massachusetts, which shriveled and died with scarcely a whimper.
The only answer is to change the system entirely, so that we can expand coverage while controlling costs. Romney said, ''The old single-payer canard is gone." No, it isn't. Sooner or later, that is exactly what we'll need if we're really serious about universal healthcare. There's no other way.
Dr. Marcia Angell is a senior lecturer in social medicine at Harvard Medical School and former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. Read in full