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Robert Reich: How a Few Private Health Insurers Are on the Way to Controlling Health Care

December 10, 2009

By **Robert Reich**

The public option is dead, killed by a handful of senators from small states who are mostly bought off by Big Insurance and Big Pharma or intimidated by these industries’ deep pockets and power to run political ads against them. Some might say it’s no great loss at this point because the Senate bill Harry Reid came up with contained a public option available only to 4 million people, which would have been far too small to exert any competitive pressure on private insurers anyway.

To provide political cover to senators who want to tell their constituents that the intent behind a robust public option lives on, the emerging Senate bill makes Medicare available to younger folk (age 55), and lets people who aren’t covered by their employers buy in to a system that’s similar to the plan that federal employees now have, where the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management selects from among private insurers.

If you think an expanded Medicare is the answer, you’re smoking medical marijuana.

But we still end up with a system that’s based on private insurers that have no incentive whatsoever to control their costs or the costs of pharmaceutical companies and medical providers. If you think the federal employee benefit plan is an answer to this, think again. Its premiums increased nearly 9 percent this year. And if you think an expanded Medicare is the answer, you’re smoking medical marijuana. The Senate bill allows an independent commission to hold back Medicare costs only if Medicare spending is rising faster than total health spending. So if health spending is soaring because private insurers have no incentive to control it, we’re all out of luck. Medicare explodes as well.

A system based on private insurers won’t control costs because private insurers barely compete against each other. According to data from the American Medical Association, only a handful of insurers dominate most states. In 9 states, 2 insurance companies control 85 percent or more of the market. In Arkansas, home to Senator Blanche Lincoln, who doesn’t dare cross Big Insurance, the Blue Cross plan controls almost 70 percent of the market; most of the rest is United Healthcare. These data, by the way, are from 2005 and 2006. Since then, private insurers have been consolidating like mad across the country. At this rate by 2014, when the new health bill kicks in and 30 million more Americans buy health insurance, Big Insurance will be really Big.

In light of all this, you’d think the insurance industry would be subject to the antitrust laws, so the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission could prevent it from combining into one or two national behemoths that suck every health dollar out of our pockets (as well as the pockets of companies paying part of the cost of their employees’ health insurance). But no. Remarkably, the Senate bill still keeps Big Insurance safe from competition by preserving its privileged exemption from the antitrust laws.

From the start, opponents of the public option have wanted to portray it as big government preying upon the market, and private insurers as the embodiment of the market. But it’s just the reverse. Private insurers are exempt from competition. As a result, they are becoming ever more powerful. And it’s not just their economic power that’s worrying. It’s also their political power, as we’ve learned over the last ten months. Economic and political power is a potent combination. Without some mechanism forcing private insurers to compete, we’re going to end up with a national health care system that’s controlled by a handful of very large corporations accountable neither to American voters nor to the market.

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Robert Reich.JPGRobert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism, which is now out in paperback). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2009 Robert B. Reich

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