Wednesday, 17 June 2009

USA - Public Health Insurance Bill Unveiled, June 2009

President Obama has indicated that he views major reform of the US healthcare system as a priority, arguing in February 2009 that it ‘…cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year’. Details are slow in emerging, although a number of basic principles have been laid down:
  • Reduce long-term growth of health care costs for businesses and government
  • Protect families from bankruptcy or debt because of health care costs
  • Guarantee choice of doctors and health plans
  • Invest in prevention and wellness
  • Improve patient safety and quality of care
  • Assure affordable, quality health coverage for all Americans
  • Maintain coverage when you change or lose your job
  • End barriers to coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions

Reducing the number of uninsured Americans is a key, and contentious, component of this. One element became a little clearer in June 2009, with the introduction into the House of Bill H.R. 2668, the Choice in Health Options Insures Care for Everyone (CHOICE) Act. This is being sponsored by Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and co-sponsored by Peter Welch (D-Vermont) and Bruce Braley (D-Iowa).

The bill would create a Federal public health insurance plan for the first time in the USA. It would not be compulsory, but would compete with private health plans for members. It was introduced in the House on June 2nd 2009 and referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which has jurisdiction over healthcare legislation, and also the House Ways and Means Committee. It will probably form part of a wider health reform plan currently being prepared in Congress by the Democrats.

The proposed public plan (the American Trust Health Plan) would be operated by the DHHS and would be self-financing. Anyone eligible to purchase private health insurance would be able to enroll. All healthcare providers providing services under Medicare would be required to participate. Premiums would be set by the DHHS. Regional variations in premiums will be allowed, as will other variations in accordance with existing norms.

The bill’s sponsors hope that the public plan will give private providers an incentive to reduce costs and make health insurance more affordable. Critics see it as a first step on the road to a compulsory public system, similar to that proposed by President Clinton in 1993. That effort failed as a result of a concerted lobbying effort by the healthcare industry. The current bill may face a more benign Congress, but pressure from the private insurance industry and its allies is sure to be strong, and will test the resolve of Democrats to present a united front.

Further reading - An in-depth review of the US pharmaceutical market, including some background information on the healthcare system, is available from Espicom: The Pharmaceutical Market: USA (published March 2009)

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