Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, signing a measure in May that puts the state on track to create the nation’s first “public option” health insurance.
A big health care experiment for Democrats shows how fiercely doctors and hospitals will fight.
For those who dream of universal health care, Washington State looks like a pioneer. As Gov. Jay Inslee pointed out in the first Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday, his state has created the country’s first “public option” — a government-run health plan that would compete with private insurance.
Ten years ago, the idea of a public option was so contentious that Obamacare became law only after the concept was discarded. Now it’s gaining support again, particularly among Democratic candidates like Joe Biden who see it as a more moderate alternative to a Bernie Sanders-style “Medicare for all.”
New Mexico and Colorado are exploring whether they can move faster than Congress and also introduce state-level, public health coverage open to all residents.
But a closer look at the Washington public option signed into law last month, and how it was watered down for passage, is a reminder of why the idea ultimately failed to make it into the Affordable Care Act and gives a preview of the tricky politics of extending the government’s reach into health care.
On one level, the law is a big milestone. It allows the state to regulate some health care prices, a crucial feature of congressional public option and single-payer plans.
But the law also made big compromises that experts say will make it less powerful. To gain enough political support to pass, health care prices were set significantly higher than drafters originally hoped.
“It started out as a very aggressive effort to push down prices to Medicare levels, and ended up something quite a bit more modest,” said Larry Levitt, senior vice president for health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
So while Washington is on track to have a public option soon, it may not deliver the steep premium cuts that supporters want. The state estimates that individual market premiums will fall 5 percent to 10 percent when the new public plan begins.
“This bill is important, but it’s also relatively modest,” said David Frockt, the state senator who sponsored the bill. “When I see candidates talking about the public option, I don’t think they’re really grasping the level of opposition they’re going to face.”
During the Affordable Care Act debate, more liberal Democrats hoped a public option would reduce the uninsured rate by offering lower premiums and putting competitive pressure on private plans to do the same. President Obama backed it, saying in 2009 that such a policy would “keep the private sector honest.”
The public option came under fierce attack from the health care industry. Private health plans in particular did not look forward to competing against a new public insurer that offered lower rates, and fought against a government-run plan that they said “would significantly disrupt the coverage that people currently rely on.” The policy narrowly fell out of the health care law but never left the policy debate.
Congressional Democrats have started to revisit the idea in the past year, with health care as a top policy issue in the 2018 midterm elections.
“During the midterm elections, Medicare for all was gaining a lot of traction,” said Eileen Cody, the Washington state legislator who introduced the first version of the public option bill. “After the election, we had to decide, what do we want to do about it?”
Ms. Cody introduced a bill in January to create a public option that would pay hospitals and doctors the same prices as Medicare does, which is also how many congressional public option proposals would set fees. The Washington State Health Benefit Exchange, the marketplace that manages individual Affordable Care Act plans, estimates that private plans currently pay 174 percent of Medicare fees, making the proposed rates a steep payment cut.
“I felt that capping the rates was very important,” Ms. Cody said.“If we didn’t start somewhere, then the rates were going to keep going up.”
Doctors and hospitals in Washington lobbied against the rate regulation, arguing that they rely on private insurers’ higher payment rates to keep their doors open while still accepting patients from Medicaid, the public plan that covers lower-income Americans and generally pays lower rates.
“Politically, we were trying to be in every conversation,” says Jennifer Hanscom, executive director of the Washington State Medical Association, which lobbies on behalf of doctors. “We were trying to be in the room, saying rate setting doesn’t work for us — let’s consider some other options. As soon as it was put in the bill, that’s where our opposition started to solidify.”
Legislators were in a policy bind. The whole point of the public option was to reduce premiums by cutting health care prices. But if they cut the prices too much, they risked a revolt. Doctors and hospitals could snub the new plan, declining to participate in the network.
“The whole debate was about the rate mechanism,” said Mr. Frockt, the state senator. “With the original bill, with Medicare rates, there was strong opposition from all quarters. The insurers, the hospitals, the doctors, everybody.”
Mr. Frockt and his colleagues ultimately raised the fees for the public option up to 160 percent of Medicare rates.
“I don’t think the bill would have passed at Medicare rates,” Mr. Frockt said. “I think having the Medicare-plus rates was crucial to getting the final few votes.”
Other elements of the Washington State plan could further weaken the public option. Instead of starting an insurance company from scratch, the state decided to contract with private insurers to run the day-to-day operations of the new plan.
“It would have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars just to operate the plan,” said Jason McGill, who recently served as a senior health policy adviser to Mr. Inslee. He noted that insurers were required to maintain large financial reserves, to ensure they don’t go bankrupt if a few patients have especially costly medical bills.
“Why would we do that when there are already insurers that do that? It just didn’t make financial sense. It may one day, and we’ll stay on top of this, but we’re not willing to totally mothball the health care system quite yet.”
Hospitals and doctors will also get to decide whether to participate in the new plan, which pays lower prices than private competitors. The state decided to make participation voluntary, although state officials say they will consider revisiting that if they’re unable to build a strong network of health care providers.
Most federal versions of the public option would give patients access to Medicare’s expansive network of doctors and hospitals.
Although Mr. Frockt is proud of the new bill, he’s also measured in describing how it will affect his state’s residents. After going through the process of passing the country’s first public option, he’s cautious in his expectations for what a future president and Democratic Congress might be able to achieve. But he does have a clearer sense of what the debate will be like, and where it will focus.
“This is a core debate in the Democratic Party: Do we build on the current system, or do we move to a universal system and how do we get there?” he said. “I think the rate-setting issue is going to be vital. It’s what this is all about.”