Kennedy’s Health Bill: A First Look

A draft of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s health care reform bill is finally available, and it is difficult to overstate how far he would move us to a government-run health care system. An initial read-through reveals among the key provisions:

  • An individual mandate, requiring that every American purchase a “qualified” insurance plan. (Sec. 161(a)) The mandate will be enforced through the tax code with Americans required to pay a penalty if they fail to comply.  In an extraordinary delegation of congressional authority, the Kennedy bill would give the Secretaries of Treasury and Health and Human Services the power to determine what this penalty should be. Individuals would be required to submit information on their insurance status over the previous year to the Secretary of HHS, along with “any such other information as the Secretary may require.” (Sec. 6055(b)(2) and (3)). Individuals who already have insurance could keep it. However, if they changed plans (or presumably changed jobs), their new insurance would have to meet the definition of “qualified.”
  • A “pay or play” employer mandate requiring employers to provide all workers with health insurance and pay a minimum amount of the premium, or pay a tax (Sec 162). Again, the amount of the new tax is left to the discretion of the Secretaries of HHS and Treasury. Some small employers would be exempt from the mandate, but the size of those firms remains TBA. (Sec. 3113(g)) Companies with fewer than 250 workers would be forbidden to self-ensure. (Sec. 2720)
  • A new federal bureaucracy, the Medical Advisory Council, which would determine what benefits will be required to be part of your “qualified” insurance plan. (Sec. 3103(h) and (i)). Lest anyone think Congress won’t get involved. The Council’s decisions can be disapproved by Congress if, say, they don’t mandate inclusion by a favored provider group or disease constituency. (Sec 3103(g)).
  • Massive new federal subsidies. Medicaid would be expanded to individuals earning 150 percent of the poverty level, and the federal government would pay all incremental costs of the increased enrollment. (Sec 152.) Single, childless adults would become eligible for Medicaid. Even more egregious, individuals and families with incomes between 150-500 percent of the poverty level ($110,250 for a family of four) would be eligible for subsidies on a sliding scale-basis.(Sec. 3111(b)(1)(A-G)).
  • Insurers would be required to accept all applicants regardless of their health (guaranteed issue) and forbid insurers from basing insurance premiums on risk factors (Community rating). There does not appear to be any exception for lifestyle factors, such as smoking, alcohol or drug use, diet, exercise, etc. Thus, not only will the young and healthy be forced to pay higher premiums to subsidize the old and unhealthy, but the responsible will be forced to pay more to subsidize the irresponsible.
  • A “public option” operating in competition with private insurance (Section 31__). How this plan would be funded, the level of premiums, etc. is left mostly TBA. In response to criticism, the Kennedy bill does require that the public plan pay providers 10 percent above Medicare reimbursement rates. (Sec 31__(B)). That would still allow for a considerable degree of cost-shifting to private insurance. And, we should recall that such promises are ephemeral. When Medicare began, proponents promised it would reimburse at the same rate as insurance. That promise didn’t last long.
  • States would be prodded to set up “gateways,” similar to Massachusetts’ “connector.” (Sec 3104(a)) If a state fails to do so, the federal government will set one up for them. (Sec. 3104(d)) The federal government would provide grants to states to help them set up these gateways. The amount of the grants is, you guessed it, left to the discretion of the Secretary of HHS. Gateways may also fund their operations by assessing a surcharge on insurers. Sec. 3101(b)(5)(A)/
  • A new federal long-term care program (Sec 171).

Kennedy does not include any estimate of how much his plan would cost, nor any proposal for how to pay for it.

More details will undoubtedly emerge, but it is very clear that the Kennedy plan would put one-sixth of the US economy and some of our most important, personal, and private decisions firmly under the thumb of the federal government.