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With the final markups of the Affordable Health Choices Act now clearing committees in the U.S. House of Representatives, the potential scope of the legislation is becoming clear. And, while the American Medical Association is on board with H.R. 3200, the House version of the bill, the insurance industry is coming out swinging.
Doctors have to appreciate several aspects of the bill. First, the bill would extend insurance coverage to tens of millions of Americans who currently are denied coverage by insurance companies or who simply can not afford it. (See An Explanation of the Health Care Bill.) Second, the bill enhances the role of the primary care physician in determining the effective course of treatment and offers economic incentives for doctors and medical students to take on this role. The bill also addresses flaws in the Medicare reimbursement mechanism and includes measures to promote wellness and disease prevention.
Insurance companies seem most concerned about the introduction of a government-operated insurance plan, which they view as unfair competition. Health care economists argue that a government plan is required in order to:
- Ensure access to affordable care
- Provide market leadership in setting standards and negotiating prices for medical services, which currently vary widely by market
- Develop (and share) processes and information systems for accurately assessing and paying claims
In the meantime, the U.S. House divided its work among three committees, all of which have completed markup of H.R. 3200. That version of the bill closely mirrors provisions of the bill passed by the Senate H.E.L.P. Committee, but also covers areas still under debate in the Senate Finance Committee. Having effectively taken the lead in the legislation, the House of Representatives is expected to pass H.R. 3200 following the August recess, perhaps with amendments taken from the floor of the House, and submit it to the Senate. At that point the Senate may choose to accept it as it stands (which is unlikely) or continue work on its own version of the legislation. If the Senate passes a bill that differs from H.R. 3200, the House and Senate leadership would then create a Conference Committee made up of representatives from each chamber to negotiate a bill that would be acceptable to both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Important provisions of H.R.3200 that have not been cleared by a Senate Committee would empower the government plan to aggressively negotiate prices, delivery methods and standards of service with providers. The debate about the government's role in determining what kind of care is most efficient and effective is bound to be most contentious.
Expecting a fight in the Senate, the Administration has already begun to telegraph its fallback position by referring to the bill as "insurance reform." In other words, having gotten similar insurance reform provisions through committees in both the Senate and the House, the Administration is confident that at least those aspects of the bill will become law. And, while they would like to adopt stronger measures to accelerate cost containment, those more controversial measures could be sacrificed in the interests of getting insurance industry restructuring underway.
Businesses large and small should be prepared to reevaluate their health care policies, providers and pension plans in light of this new legislation. Economic effects are likely to be profound.
The American College of Physicians has published three white papers: A Public Plan Option in a Health Insurance Connector; Reforming the Tax Insurance Exclusion; and Individual Mandates in Health Insurance Reform.
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