A badly designed public plan could turn out to be the opposite of what progressives intend.

By Paul Starr
The American Prospect

In the current battle over health reform, progressives may have set themselves up for trouble by pinning all their hopes on the creation of a government-run insurance plan.

All the proposals receiving serious consideration in Congress allow employers to continue to insure their workers and dependents directly. They also call for new “insurance exchanges” as an alternative means for individuals and employee groups to purchase coverage. If there is a new government-run plan, it would be one of the options in those exchanges.

The great danger is that the public plan could end up with a high-cost population in a system that fails to compensate adequately for those risks. Private insurers make money today in large part by avoiding people with high medical costs, and in a reformed system they’d love a public plan where they could dump the sick.

Entry into the public plan for the eligible employed would be a two-stage process. First, employers would choose between paying into the exchange and buying insurance directly to cover their workers. Unless the exchange is such a good deal that nearly all employers take it, firms with a young, healthy work force would tend to buy insurance on their own, while those with higher-cost employees would go into the exchange’s pool. As a result, the pool would suffer “adverse selection” — it would get stuck with a higher-risk population.

Second, within the exchange, the government-run plan would compete against private insurers, yet it would likely abstain from the marketing strategies used by private plans to avoid high-risk enrollees. This double jeopardy of adverse selection could then more than nullify the advantage the public plan derives from its lower overhead (as a result of less money going for salaries, profits, and marketing).

Here’s the delicate political problem: Unconstrained, the public plan could drive private insurers out of business… Over-constrained, the public plan could go into a death spiral itself as it becomes a dumping ground for high-risk enrollees, its rates rise, and it loses its appeal to the public at large. Creating a fair system of public-private competition — giving the public plan just enough power to offset its likely higher risks — wouldn’t be easy even if it were up to neutral experts, which it isn’t.

There are a lot of ways to defeat reform, not just by blocking it entirely, but by setting it up for failure. Those who think a public plan is a good idea no matter how badly designed are not thinking ahead.

Paul Starr received the Pultizer Prize for “The Social Transformation of American Medicine.”

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