The industry claims to have had a change of heart, but its position hasn’t changed at all.
The genius of modern marketing is pouring old material into new packaging. Over the years this has given us yogurt in tubes, prechopped salad greens in cellophane bags and, most recently, the health insurance industry’s new image as a friend of reform.
In December, the industry’s trade group, AHIP (for America’s Health Insurance Plans) revealed that it had experienced an epiphany and decided for the first time to support the principle of universal healthcare — insuring everyone in America, regardless of health condition.
It described its change of heart as the product of three years of sedulous soul-searching by AHIP’s board of directors, who claimed to have “traveled the country and engaged in conversations about healthcare reform with people from all walks of life.”
As a connoisseur of health insurance lobbying practices, however, I withheld judgment until I could scan the fine print. What I found by reading AHIP’s 16-page policy brochure was that its position hadn’t changed at all. Its version of “reform” comprises the same wish list that the industry has been pushing for decades.
Briefly, the industry wants the government to assume the cost of treating the sickest, and therefore most expensive, Americans. It wants the government to clamp down hard on doctors’ and hospitals’ fees. And it wants permission to offer stripped-down, low-benefit policies freed from pesky state regulations limiting their premiums.
As for universal coverage, which is the goal of many reformers (if not yet the Obama administration), the industry will accept a government mandate to take on all customers, as long as all Americans are required by law to buy coverage.
Parsing the insurance industry’s stance on healthcare reform will be of paramount importance this year. President Obama’s healthcare forum on Thursday demonstrated that the administration and Congress are girding for a big push to remake a tattered employer-based system that has left more than 45 million people without coverage.
Given the recent surge in unemployment, the total is almost certainly much higher today — possibly as high as 50 million, reckons Timothy McBride, a health economist at Washington University in St. Louis. “In the context of the recession, a lot of people are going to be losing their coverage,” he told me last week.