Health Reform: Let's Work on Drug Costs and Premiums

Now that Washington is back at the drawing board, here are two big fixes that should be made.

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Insurance reform: In the same spirit of allowing competition and consumer choice to thrive, the way health insurance is sold should be addressed. The current system bears no resemblance to an open market where people can shop for the best policy for themselves and their families at the best price, as they can, say, for car insurance. Now, patients have little leverage. Those with health risks can be rejected out of hand, existing coverage can be canceled, and claims can be denied for little or no reason. Outlawing such abuses is the one part of the current healthcare reform legislation that has strong bipartisan support. And this is an imperative that cannot be walked away from.

[Read Why Rush Health Reform? Let's Fix Insurance First.]

But even then, a nagging problem remains: People don't feel insurers are working for them, although the companies manage lots of their money and weigh in on their health. This could get worse, since a keystone of health reform—the individual mandate—would force people to buy coverage restricted to that sold through either a government-run exchange or an employer. Only the federal government would define the "essential" coverage every American must have and would set up the rules of the exchange.

Instead, to preserve patient choice while trimming cost, we need multiple nationwide exchanges, public and private, that will foster competition among insurers, expand choices, and lower prices by helping patients to be smart consumers. Rather than being forced to buy a one-size-fits-all, comprehensive, government-approved policy, for example, most young people could get insurance for thousands of dollars less by choosing a scaled-back, high-deductible cata­strophic plan that brings access to discounted ­prices for preventive and primary care.

Face it: Since most of the uninsured fall into the relatively healthy under-40 group, the current bills will force tens of millions of Americans to overpay for coverage, a juicy deal for insurers but not for anyone else. A bonus to allowing high-deductible plans is that they force people to think about the cost of their care and, much as those elders did when they boarded buses to cross the border to get cheaper drugs, to search for ways to save. We cannot ignore the power of the people to make their own wise decisions. Let's give them an incentive to do so, and we'll develop a generation of prudent healthcare consumers.