Obama Health Plan Adds to Employer System


Editor's Note: Coverage of the health care proposals of presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will appear in an upcoming issue of this newspaper.

With Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) set to become the Democratic Party's presidential nominee this month, health care experts are once again scrutinizing his plans to reform the health care system.

The centerpiece of Sen. Obama's plan is a public-private system that would allow people to remain in their employer-sponsored health plans while offering the uninsured the chance to purchase either a private or government-sponsored plan.

For the government-sponsored plan, the proposal uses as a model the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program—the system available to federal employees and members of Congress. For individuals and families who want to purchase insurance on the private market, Sen. Obama is proposing to create a National Health Insurance Exchange through which they could enroll in either the new government-sponsored plan or purchase a private plan.

All plans offered through the exchange would be required to offer at least the same coverage as the government-sponsored plan and adhere to the same standards for quality and efficiency.

Employers also would have a role to play under the Obama plan. Those employers that do not offer or contribute to employee health coverage would be required to pay a percentage of their payroll toward the cost of the government health plan. There would be an exemption for some small employers under the proposal.

The Obama proposal also calls for expanding eligibility for Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Under the proposal, the government would offer subsidies to individuals who do not qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP but still needed financial assistance to purchase health insurance.

Sen. Obama also would guarantee that no American could be turned down for health insurance because of illness or a preexisting condition. However, his proposal stops short of requiring all Americans to purchase coverage. Instead, the plan mandates coverage for children only.

The other half of Sen. Obama's plan is aimed at reducing premiums and decreasing overall health system costs. For example, he would target the catastrophic health expenses that account for a significant portion of the costs incurred by private payers. Under his plan, the federal government would reimburse employer-sponsored health plans for a portion of the cost of catastrophic health events above a certain threshold. In exchange, the plans would have to use the savings to reduce the cost of premiums.

Cost control also is addressed in the Obama plan, with electronic health records playing a big role. The candidate proposes to spend $10 billion a year for the next 5 years in an effort to encourage widespread adoption of EHRs. The idea is that the investment would reap savings through increased efficiencies since paper records are more costly to store and process than are electronic ones, according to the Obama campaign. The plan also seeks to control costs through greater regulation of insurance companies and by allowing the federal government to negotiate drug prices.

The Obama campaign estimates that, if implemented, the reforms they are proposing would save the average family about $2,500 a year in medical expenses.

“I want to … know that every single American has health care when they need it, that every senior has prescription drugs they can afford, and that no parents are going to bed at night worrying about how they'll afford medicine for a sick child,” Sen. Obama said in June during a health care town hall meeting in Bristol, Va.

If elected, Sen. Obama has pledged to implement his health care proposal by the end of his first term as president.

But the plan continues to face critics on the left and the right. Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute, an organization that favors free-market approaches to health care, said she is concerned that the government-sponsored program would be underpriced and crowd out the private insurance options the same way that Medicare has crowded out private insurance in the over-65 market.

“That is not a level playing field,” said Ms. Turner, who also is an adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Sen. Obama's approach is really a “back door” to getting everyone on a government-funded health plan, she said.

Ms. Turner also criticized Sen. Obama's plan to have the federal government take on a portion of the costs of catastrophic health costs in employer-sponsored health plans. This type of approach would require the government to be heavily involved in auditing health care expenditures, she said.


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