Ten common-sense steps to health care reform

Posted Feb. 26, 2010, at 6:52 p.m.

Maine Association of Health Underwriters members have a unique perspective on the health care industry. As licensed, professional insurance brokers and consultants, we work with Maine companies every day navigating the turbulent waters of health insurance. Our members advise thousands of Maine companies representing tens of thousands of Maine employees. This week, MAHU is bringing our expertise to the federal health care reform debate.

On Wednesday, the association held a press conference in Bangor to present representatives of Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins with an alternative, patient-centered health care reform plan to improve the health security of Maine residents and the nation. The intent was to provide common-sense solutions in advance of the health care reform summit at the White House on Thursday.

MAHU believes that reform efforts should operate on three key principals: guaranteed access for all individuals, lower cost and improved quality. MAHU believes this can be achieved with 10 common-sense steps.

First, Congress should end the ban that prevents insurers from selling across state lines. This would enable collaboration between Maine and other neighboring states to increase insurance choices and competition.

Second, Congress should create tax equity by enabling individuals to deduct health insurance premiums that are not otherwise excluded from income. Today, the tax code discriminates against anyone other than those with access to employer-sponsored coverage.

Third, reform must preserve the role of licensed, professional agents who advocate for consumers in the distribution of health insurance. Consumers rely on the expertise and guidance provided by their insurance broker. Congress should avoid creating new administrative burdens that increase cost or impede the local, personal-ized service provided by licensed brokers.

Fourth, Congress must preserve health savings accounts and other patient-centered insurance options. These programs are critical because they are saving Maine companies and employees money today. Improve the system, but do not eliminate valuable tools employers are utilizing to control costs.

Fifth, Congress should create tax incentives for employers that invest in work-site health promotion. Health care costs are driven largely by our personal behaviors, and the best way to lower costs is to stay healthy. Small investments in prevention and health promotion will yield enormous savings over time.

Sixth, Congress should allow Medicaid flexibility to support individuals who qualify for assistance to direct Medicaid dollars to support private health insurance through their employer or in the market, if the person desires. Those of us who are privately insured or uninsured carry a great burden shifted to us from federal and state governments who underpay medical providers for the care delivered to Medicare and Medicaid recipients. Increasing the number of privately insured residents not only saves states money, but also reduces the burden on our hospitals and doctors.

Seventh, reform efforts should promote greater education of patients about the cost and quality of providers, services and treatments. The lack of pricing transparency in health care is unconscionable. No longer should patient’s first exposure to health care costs arrive with the medical bills.

Eighth, we should promote innovation and competition in the treatment of primary and emergency care. Quality improvements will come from health care providers, not insurance companies. The last decade has brought urgent care centers as an alternative to expensive emergency room visits, clinics embedded in retail locations to provide convenience and affordability for treatment of minor ailments and patient-centered home initiatives to provide coordination of care around patient needs. These important trends must continue.

Ninth, the health care industry must embrace technology including electronic medical records. Not only will this increase efficiencies, it also will provide important consumer safety protections by reducing duplicative services and reducing errors caused by prescription drug interactions.

Tenth, Congress should promote evidenced-based medicine in treatment protocols. Wide variances in physician practice patterns account for huge discrepancies in both treatment costs and outcomes. Patients deserve the best available health care regardless of their location.

To date the reform efforts we have seen from Congress include new regulations, new government bureaucracies, new coverage requirements that affect the cost and type of health insurance coverage individuals and companies must purchase. We have also seen a shift in who will pay with new taxes and mandates accompanied by new tax credits.

It is time for Congress to focus on a common-sense approach that truly improves the health security of Maine residents and the nation.

Joel Allumbaugh is president of the Maine Association of Health Underwriters.

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