Co-op, Co-opt, Cop-Out: Conjugating Health Reform

August 19, 2009

A verb is conjugated according to its context. Healthcare proposals change according to their context, too. Health insurance co-ops have worked very well in certain parts of the country. But when they’re used to kill meaningful nationwide reform, “co-ops” become a “co-opting” of the political process by special interests.

I’ve already expressed my objections to co-ops in this context. Bob Laszewski calls them “the single dumbest idea (he’s) heard in the health care debate in twenty years.” I think that’s harsh – after all, I’ve heard lots of dumb ideas over the years – but Bob raises some objections I hadn’t considered.

Sen. Kent Conrad boasts on his website that his co-op idea is a “a bipartisan, compromise health care reform proposal.” But he apparently forgot to get any “bi” support. Sen. Jon Kyl rejected the idea by calling it a “Trojan Horse.”

That makes co-ops a “monopartisan” proposal.

Conrad insists there aren’t enough votes in the Senate for a public option. He has rejected Obama’s deadline for health bill, and has sent mixed signals on whether he’d even vote for a bill that included a public option. He was evasive and perhaps even a little misleading in this exchange with Robert Siegel on National Public Radio:

SIEGEL: How much would it cost to get a network of nonprofit co-ops up and running all around the country?

Sen. CONRAD: We’ve gone to the best actuaries in the country and they’ve independently come back with the same answer. They have said about $6 billion to have the insurance reserve requirements met.

Sen. Conrad wasn’t asked about “reserve requirements.” He was asked how much it would cost. The total cost for creating a national co-op network would include offices, staff, computer systems, overhead, advertising, etc. etc. … … plus those billions in reserves. (We can’t vet the $6 billion figure without knowing the underlying assumptions the actuaries were given.)

The Medicare organization at CMS already has much of the needed infrastructure in place, so it could do the job at much less cost – that is, if politicians don’t bargain away too many of these cost-efficiencies. (Here’s a little political shorthand: When it comes to the public option, “level playing field” is a euphemism for “spending a lot of money to provide political cover.”)

Sen. Conrad also said this in the NPR interview: “There are large cooperatives all across this country. Land O’Lakes is a $12 billion club functioning all across America. There are rural electric co-ops in 47 states. Ace Hardware is a cooperative.”

But healthcare is not a “commodity” like a kilowatt of power or a stick of margarine. Insurance is an amalgamation of predictions backed by financial instruments, and medical delivery is an economy in which the seller (who is frequently the physician) often controls the demand. Ace Hardware and Land O’Lakes may be fine companies, but they aren’t working models for a competitive and efficient healthcare system.

Here’s the political bottom line: Right now the “centrist” Democrats support a requirement that middle-class Americans obtain health insurance – the so-called “mandate.” If they don’t also provide a meaningful alternative to costly, for-profit insurance, the backlash against them will be enormous. Co-ops will not be able to provide that alternative.

And those who think Obama hasn’t compromised enough on the public option should take note: He’s already compromised plenty. He promised during the campaign that “any American (would) have the opportunity to enroll in the new public plan or an approved private plan.” Yet only about six million employees will have that opportunity under most proposals being discussed, according to the Congressional Budget Office. (You can read the pdf report here or see Timothy Noah’s summarization in this piece for Slate.) Six million employees is far more modest than a plan that’s available to “any American,” so there’s already been plenty of compromise.

The co-op idea is probably dead, so the public option remains the last best hope for meaningful reform. So far the President has remained above the fray, preferring to let others fight it out. He won’t have that luxury for much longer. The confrontation between progressive House Democrats and Senate Dems over the public plan option will come to a head soon. It will take a firm Presidential hand to resolve the conflict.

It’s going to take leadership to turns co-option into co-operation.


UPDATE: Speaking of Timothy Noah, today he points out that Obama is increasing funding for that “socialized medicine” over at the Veterans’ Administration. I share his outrage, but I have a suggestion: Democrats should add provisions that remove the VA’s “unfair advantages” over private insurance. That way they can ensure that our veterans receive care that is both more costly and less efficient than other Americans get.

Gotta level that playing field!


One Response to “Co-op, Co-opt, Cop-Out: Conjugating Health Reform”

  1. […] The Sentinel Effect tells us co-op’s are a cop-out –not a realistic alternative to a public plan. Colorado Health Insurance Insider says co-ops aren’t needed anyway, because there’s plenty of competition in the private market, at least in Colorado. […]

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