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The term ‘Medicare for All’ is being bandied about as the campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination gets underway. Declared and potential candidates are warming to the idea.

It’s easy to see why:

  • After years of trying to defend complex, compromised Obamacare from GOP rhetorical attacks and legislative and administrative undermining, Democrats are going with a program that is popular and well funded
  • Medicare especially appeals to the middle-aged and older population, who tend to vote. There’s no stigma attached to it
  • It could be funded and implemented as a sweeping program at the federal level, which is ideal for a Presidential candidate to talk about.

However, I’d much rather see attention turn to continued expansion of Medicaid, specifically by offering people the opportunity to “buy in” to Medicaid coverage. This has real advantages:

  • It’s the prices stupid,” we have been told since 2003. Price, not utilization, is the main reason the US spends so much more than other countries. By design, Medicaid puts the squeeze on costs through lower reimbursement rates
  • Medicaid has provisions to squeeze drug prices, too, something Democrats and Republicans favor
  • Medicaid coverage is more holistic than Medicare. It includes programs to address social determinants of health, and is suitable for younger people including parents and children
  • Medicaid is a partnership between the states and federal government, enabling individual states to craft solutions that fit their specific populations

Several states are already looking at Medicaid expansion as a way to address their specific issues. For example, New Mexico (a purple state) is getting serious about further use of Medicaid. The state has some distinctive characteristics:

  • Medicaid is by far the largest player already, covering 40% of the population
  • The uninsurance rate remains stubbornly high at 9%
  • There are many undocumented and mixed status families who are shut out of the current coverage system

New Mexico is studying four approaches. (You can read the assessment here.)

  1. Targeted Medicaid buy-in: Medicaid-style coverage to those ineligible for Medicaid, Medicare, or the Obamacare marketplace. The state would subsidize premium costs
  2. Qualified health plan public option: A variant on the program originally proposed in Obamacare, with coverage on the marketplace in partnership with an insurer
  3. Basic Health Program: An Obamacare option already
  4. Medicaid buy-in for all: An off-marketplace program available to anyone except Medicare eligibles

The analysis leads me to the idea of starting with Option 1 as a trial run for Option 4. The advantage of Option 1 is that it doesn’t require federal approval, would bring uninsured people into the system who are currently discriminated against, and provide a test bed for further expansion. It would not disrupt the current market by drawing away healthy people, because it is only open to those currently outside the system.

Option 4 could come into force after the 2020 election, when the federal environment is more favorable and once New Mexico has learned from its initial experience.

Sometime down the road, an even more radical version would shift everyone into Medicaid. Private health plans would still have a role since everyone could be enrolled in Medicaid managed care. Providers and drugmakers won’t like the compressed reimbursement, but maybe it will encourage them to innovate on efficiency.

All of these proposals can be combined with value based approaches, which enable the efficient, high quality providers to succeed while containing costs and potentially boosting the patient experience and outcomes.

For now, I’d like to see the debate start up as part of the presidential race. Candidates visiting early primary and caucus states should dig in. In Iowa, for example, Medicaid for all is being discussed by local Democrats.

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.




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