What Will U.S. Labor Protections Look Like After Coronavirus?

https://hbr.org/2020/04/what-will-u-s-labor-protections-look-like-after-coronavirus?utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=hbr&fbclid=IwAR1fNFaJM-Tz1jCoBQ3bTVJG5zdbuqcExQOujKz87J34csjOhRLm8C2Dxjo

As I was writing the draft of this article, I was checking my symptoms and awaiting the results of a test I underwent for Covid-19. This virus has upended my life, as it has for every last one of us, no matter where we fall on the socio-economic scale.

But the consequences fall more heavily on those at the bottom end of the wage distribution. That includes those risking their health as they sell us groceries, check our vitals, and sanitize our hospitals. Easily lost amid the chaos, however, is how this crisis may be an opportunity to improve employee protections — and not temporarily but permanently.

During bull markets, employers and policymakers often paint the hardships befalling low-wage workers as stemming from those workers’ personal failures. But when markets crash, we learn how these workers’ troubles were indicative of persistent, system-wide weaknesses.

As Warren Buffett wrote of the insurance failures exposed by 1993’s Hurricane Andrew, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.” Pundits cite Buffet to refer to firms that appear healthy during bull markets, only to get eaten alive during downturns. This month, however, the markets exposed a new group of skinny dippers: a government and an economic system that fail workers, and employers who haven’t or can’t fill this gap in public policy.

In response to the novel coronavirus, the stock market has been mostly in a free fall since late February. The low-wage service sector is facing widespread layoffs. And the tumbling markets have uncovered other deep inequalities among workers, who fall into two groups: those with access to employment protections like affordable healthcare, remote work accommodations, paid time off, and job security — and those without.

This second group, which includes the working class, often lack healthcare or face high out-of-pocket expenses. There are nearly 24 million uninsured working-age adults in the United States. Those with only a high school diploma or who did not complete high school are the least likely to be insured. Moreover, racial and ethnic minority groups face significant barriers to “good jobs.” They form 60% of the uninsured population but only 40% of the total population.

A quarter of all U.S. workers have no access to paid sick leave. Work-from-home options are slim, but many can’t afford not to work. Among workers at the bottom 10th of the earnings distribution, only 31% have paid sick leave. For comparison, 94% of the top 10% of earners have paid sick leave.

While many professionals enjoy protections that can help them ride out the pandemic with their livelihoods and family’s health intact, workers in the low-wage service sector have few options or resources to stay home to care for themselves, let alone their loved ones. And that burden to provide care largely falls on women. The workers lacking healthcare and paid sick leave are also the most vulnerable to layoffs and lost hours. The fate of service workers in travel and food services indicate what’s to come. Similarly, gig economy workers, migrant laborers, and those in the informal economy are particularly vulnerable.

How did we get here? Since the late 1970s, executives have prioritized boosting dividends for shareholders over protecting their employees, whose work has been outsourced, digitized, and downsized. In our book, Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance, Ken-Hou Lin and I show how this shift in corporate governance undermined workers’ bargaining power. Although insurance coverage increased from the Affordable Care Act, overall working conditions, protections, and pay have diminished.

A more robust safety net would help to mitigate the consequences for workers today as it shores up the economy against future downturns. For years, U.S. policymakers have considered universal healthcare impractical because of its large scope and high startup costs. But as new unemployment claims surge to historical levels and Americans face the medical precarity of a pandemic, this crisis has laid bare the underlying problem of linking healthcare to employment.

Sick leave and universal healthcare would ease the stressors workers face and ensure the sick have time to recover, making them more productive when they return to work. Without the costs of insuring workers, employers could pay more. An income boost would generate more spending and stimulate the economy.

Broader protections would also support the self-employed, contract workers, and prospective entrepreneurs. The United States has lower rates of self-employment (6.3%) than countries with universal healthcare (e.g., Spain has 16%), and a lower share of employment at small businesses than any OECD country except Russia. Reducing the reliance on big businesses would free workers to find jobs that better fit their skills, creating a more nimble and innovative economy.

The current moment provides an opportunity to make lasting changes to the status quo and improve conditions for all workers. As sociologists have theorized, crises and crashes expose cracks in the systems upholding inequality. And history provides a clue for how crises can provide opportunities to transform society in ways that reduce inequality. After the Great Crash of 1929, unemployment spiked, reaching 25% by 1933. In less than three years, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reduced unemployment to 9%.The New Deal achieved this feat through a vast and broad range of public works and conservation projects.

The New Deal transformed American society — from erecting iconic buildings and statues, to saving the whooping crane, to developing the rural United States, to planting a billion trees. New Deal workers built and renovated 2,500 hospitals, 45,000 schools, and 700,000 miles of roads. The New Deal hired 60% of the unemployed, including 50,000 teachers and 3,000 writers and artists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The New Deal modernized, preserved, and employed the country, while reducing inequality between the haves and have-nots.

Facing a similar economic threat in the wake of the pandemic, we have a comparable once-in-a-century opportunity to make lasting changes that address the pressing problems of today, from inequality to climate change.

In today’s crisis, we could double down on the “trickle-down” approach of the 2008 financial crisis: stimulus to the banks, corporations, and their investors combined with tax cuts and temporary wage support as a short-term Band-Aid for immiserated workers. But Lin and I find that this approach left many workers flailing and worsened inequality, because the banks deposited, rather than invested, the stimulus funding and corporations borrowed the money to buy back their stocks, enriching top executives and shareholders.

Last week, the president signed into law a sweeping $2 trillion plan that combines money for states, loans for distressed businesses, and tax relief, paid leave, unemployment benefits, and cash for most citizens. But this plan only gives workers temporary benefits. Although the bill has stricter oversight and restricts buybacks, it is unlikely to reduce inequality unless it addresses the structural conditions making some workers more vulnerable.

While a New Deal approach may be infeasible amid a contagious virus, we can and should enact permanent policies protecting all workers. Sick leave and healthcare should be universal rights. We could adopt a “flexicurity” labor policy modeled on the Danish one. The Danes provide both flexibility for employers to hire and fire workers as needed and security for workers through generous benefits and retraining opportunities during unemployment.

Meanwhile, in my household, after 2.5 weeks of symptoms—from a dry cough to a tight chest to a low fever—my test results came back negative. Thanks to the healthcare and insurance provided by my employer, I will continue to do the work I care about.

While I am on the mend, the workers who sell our groceries, serve us food, clean our workplaces, and drive us to the doctor also need to take care. In this pandemic, they are risking their health and lives. And they deserve the same level of care as the people they serve: access to both preventative medicine and comprehensive treatment, and time to take a break, recover, and care for their loved ones. The coronavirus is our chance to extend these protections during times of crisis and far into the future.

 

 

Two candidates remain: Mr. Medicare for All and Mr. Public Option

https://mailchi.mp/9e118141a707/the-weekly-gist-march-6-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

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The past week in Presidential politics has been momentous—but not clarifying—for determining both the eventual Democratic nominee and the healthcare platform of the party. Between the first ballots cast in South Carolina and the last votes counted in California, the field of viable candidates for the nomination has been winnowed to two: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden. The coming weeks will feature a knock-down, drag-out fight for delegates in the run-up to what is likely to be a contested convention in Milwaukee in mid-July, pitting Biden’s “establishment” wing of the party against Sanders’ “progressive” wing.

On the healthcare front, that means a continued debate between defenders of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), who want to extend coverage, as Biden does, using a government-run “public option” plan, and supporters of single-payer, “Medicare for All” (M4A) coveragewhich Sanders advocates. That’s the same argument Democrats have been having since the campaign started, and while healthcare remains the top issue of concern for primary voters, polls indicate that both plans are popular with the electorate.

We continue to believe that the public option plan is a far more likely outcome than M4A, but only if the Democrats win control of the Senate—a prospect which appears more possible given billionaire Mike Bloomberg’s post-Super Tuesday endorsement of Biden, and plans to devote his substantial campaign resources to support Democratic candidates across the ballot. Some of that money will surely be spent in Montana, where Gov. Steve Bullock is poised to announce plans to run against incumbent Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), in a critical race that could be the most expensive Senate contest in history.

And for an indication of how the politics of a public option would play out, look no further than Colorado, where the Democratic legislature moved forward with its version of the plan this week, over the objections of the hospital and insurance lobbies.

Finally, looming over the general election campaign will be the pivotal Texas vs. California case, which the Supreme Court agreed to take up in this fall’s term. That case will ensure that healthcare will remain the centerpiece of American political debates regardless of who leads the Democratic ticket. Buckle up.

 

Healthcare Reform: The Perfect or Politically Possible?

Healthcare Reform: The Perfect or Politically Possible?

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Health economist William Hsiao PhD lays out two stark choices on healthcare reform facing Americans:

  • should health insurance continue being treated as a market-driven commercial product, or should it be changed to a government-regulated social good?
  • if Americans opt for change, should they alter the system quickly in a few years or slowly over decades?

In the February issue of Foreign Affairs, Professor Hsiao makes the case the healthcare market has failed – “Americans pay more and get less.” But he questions whether Americans currently have enough political will to undertake more than small incremental steps toward transforming it.

He acknowledges that changing to a single-payer approach would radically cut administrative costs, extend coverage to all, strengthen fraud control, and spread actuarial risk more evenly. He also acknowledges that doing so would reduce the overall national spending on healthcare and would relieve households from the financial threats of escalating premiums and illness.

But, he writes, the single-payer approach would encounter both public fear of major change as well as resistance from powerful interest groups like the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical firms. “Although Americans have begun to take a more favorable view of single-payer systems in recent years, it’s far from clear that the idea has enough popular support to clear such hurdles.”

He cites Canada and Taiwan as examples of rapid comprehensive reform undertaken in 1968 and 1995, respectively. He notes that these two systems have kept annual per-capita spending at $4,974 in Canada and $1,430 in Taiwan, compared with over $10,000 annually for Americans. And he notes that both countries enjoy longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality than the U.S.

But he questions whether such a radical approach is politically possible in the U.S. His admonitions should not be ignored, since he is a renowned international expert on healthcare financing and social insurance, with long-standing tenure at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. Also, he is no stranger to healthcare politics as the prime architect of Medicare’s resource-based relative-value pricing schema.

The German Alternative

Professor Hsiao suggests another model – Germany.

Germany’s first “sickness funds” were created in 1883 by Chancellor von Bismarck (see my YouTube video, “Brief History of U.S. Healthcare”).  Then, after World War I, the Reichstag mandated universal coverage for all citizens. In the 1990s, chaotic coverage packages were standardized by law. Since then, the hybrid regulated market consolidated down to just 115 insurers currently, all now using required uniform claims procedures. Administrative costs are low, drug costs are controlled, per-capital spending is $5,728, and life expectancy and infant mortality are better than in the U.S.

Professor Hsiao argues that an incremental approach like Germany’s is more politically feasible in the U.S.  For example, implementing a uniform system of records and payments could streamline claims processing and improve control of duplication and fraud. He favors allowing a monopsony of insurers to collectively bargain on drug prices. Measures like these would predictably save $200 to $300 billion dollars annually, a comparatively small but worthwhile step.

Meanwhile, he favors state-level or federal-level risk pools and regional health budgets to cover the uninsured and underinsured.  These measures would require modest tax increases along the way, but would sidestep the politically problematic issue of abolishing private health insurance.

Comment

Professor Hsiao astutely frames the question of healthcare reform as a debate over “the perfect and the good.” He implies that doing nothing is not an option. But he also astutely notes that the clash between public sentiment and the vested interests will drive the political power dynamic. Will Americans’ escalating pocketbook costs prevail over their fear of change and their tolerance for non-costworthy spending in the current system?

This blog has predicted that rising walletbook pain will push Americans to their political tipping point.  Time will tell.

 

Health care is Iowa’s only winner right now

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Iowa Democrats reported last night that their biggest priorities were beating President Trump and health care — but the meltdown of their election reporting systems left their presidential choices unresolved.

Why it matters: We’ve been writing for months that Democrats have a major choice ahead, either picking an advocate of Medicare for All — and siding with the plan that’s less popular with the rest of the country — or a public option advocate.

  • The Iowa debacle means the path the party will take won’t be clear for a while longer.

By the numbers: Several polls — including ones by NBC News, the National Exit Poll and AP Votecast — found that around four in 10 caucus voters said health care was their top issue.

  • Previous polling has found that Medicare for All is less popular overall than a public option, but both were popular among Democratic caucus-goers last night.
  • Seven in 10 said they back a single-payer plan, and almost nine in 10 said they support a public option, per AP Votecast, which was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for The Associated Press and Fox News.

Yes, but: Caucus-goers said they prefer a Democratic candidate who can beat Trump over one that agrees with them on issues, CNN reports.

The big picture: Republicans are more than happy to talk about Medicare for All — and its subsequent tax increases and expanded government role in health care — instead of protecting and building on the Affordable Care Act.

  • Whereas the former gives them an opportunity to go on offense, the latter puts the GOP on defense against its 2017 repeal-and-replace efforts and ongoing lawsuit that would strike down the whole health care law, including its protections for pre-existing conditions.

 

The U.S. Spends $2,500 Per Person on Health Care Administrative Costs. Canada Spends $550. Here’s Why

https://time.com/5759972/health-care-administrative-costs/

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Whether it’s interpreting medical bills, struggling to get hospital records, or fighting with an insurance provider, Americans are accustomed to battling bureaucracy to access their health care. But patients’ time and effort are not the only price of this complexity. Administrative costs now make up about 34% of total health care expenditures in the United States—twice the percentage Canada spends, according to a new study published Monday in Annals of Internal Medicine.

These costs have increased over the last two decades, mostly due to the growth of private insurers’ overhead. The researchers examined 2017 costs and found that if the U.S. were to cut its administrative spending to match Canadian levels, the country could have saved more than $600 billion in just that one year.

“The difference [in administrative costs] between Canada and the U.S. is enough to not only cover all the uninsured but also to eliminate all the copayments and deductibles, and to amp up home care for the elderly and disabled,” says Dr. David Himmelstein, a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College and co-author of the study. “And frankly to have money left over.”

Closing the Health Care Gap : Ashley Judd, Dr. Raj Panjabi (moderated by Haley Sweetland Edwards)
Closing the Health Care Gap : Ashley Judd, Dr. Raj Panjabi (moderated by Haley Sweetland Edwards)
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Research has long shown that the U.S., which uses a disparate system of private providers and insurers, has higher administrative costs than other developed countries that use single-payer systems. But the Annals study puts a finer point on it: as the first major effort to calculate administrative costs across the U.S. health system in nearly two decades, the researchers found that the gap between the U.S. and Canada has widened significantly.

The U.S. now spends nearly five times more per person on health care administration than Canada does. The U.S. administrative costs came out to $812 billion in 2017, or $2,497 per person in the U.S. compared with $551 per person in Canada, according to the Annals study.

Along with Himmelstein, co-authors Steffie Woolhandler and Terry Campbell examined administrative costs for insurance companies and government agencies that administer healthcare, as well as costs in four settings: hospitals, nursing homes, home care agencies and hospices and physician practices. For each category, the researchers determined which costs were administrative and conducted analyses to adjust comparisons between relative costs in the U.S. and Canada.

Insurers’ overhead, the largest category, totaled $275.4 billion in the U.S. in 2017, or 7.9% of all national health expenditures, compared with $5.36 billion in Canada, or 2.8% of national health expenditures. The American number included $45 billion in government spending to administer health care programs and $229.5 billion in private insurers’ overhead and profits, which covers employer plans and managed care plans funded by Medicare and Medicaid.

This insurance overhead accounted for most of the total increase in administrative spending in the U.S. since 1999, according to the study. While the share of Americans covered by commercial insurance plans has not changed much, private insurers have expanded their role as subcontractors handling what are known as “managed care” plans for Medicaid and Medicare. The study notes that most Medicaid recipients are now on private managed care plans and about one third of Medicare enrollees now have Medicare Advantage plans. Both of these types of plans have higher overhead costs than the publicly administered alternatives.

“We were struck, and frankly hadn’t expected it until we delved into the data, by the huge increase in insurance overhead,” Himmelstein told TIME.

Other reports, including one by the Center for American Progress published last April, have identified ways to reduce administrative costs without moving the U.S. to a single-payer health care system. But Himmelstein says his study shows that a public option that preserves private insurance wouldn’t provide the same savings as a traditional single-payer system. “We could streamline the bureaucracy to some extent with other approaches, but you can’t get nearly the magnitude of savings that we could get with a single payer,” Himmelstein says, adding, “If the Medicare public option includes the Medicare Advantage plans, it’s actually conceivable that the public option would increase the bureaucratic costs.”

Most of the public option plans proposed by Democratic presidential candidates are not detailed enough to determine exact costs, Himmelstein says. But overall, he believes they won’t result in significant cost savings.

In addition to their research, Himmelstein and Woolhandler have been longtime advocates for single-payer health care. They co-founded the group Physicians for a National Health Program, which advocates for a single-payer system. They also conducted the initial health administrative costs study on 1999 data and have published other studies comparing hospital administrative costs in the U.S. and other countries.

Himmelstein says his team’s estimates of total U.S. administrative costs in the Annals study are likely conservative. When estimating physicians’ administrative costs, the researchers relied on a 2011 study of time spent by physicians and their staffs interacting with insurers. And he notes that while 2017 data was often the latest available when they were conducting this study, 2018 health spending numbers have since come out showing further increases in insurance overhead.

“We can afford universal coverage with a single payer plan, not just universal coverage but first dollar coverage for everybody in our country if we adopted a single-payer Medicare for all approach,” Himmelstein says. “If you’re going to cover everybody without getting those savings you’re going to have to spend more or you’re going to have to have big co-payments and deductibles that deter people from getting the care that they actually need.”

 

 

Pros and Cons of Different Public Health Insurance Options

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/journal-article/2018/nov/pros-cons-public-options-2020-democratic

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Options for Expanding Health Care Coverage

It is more than likely that Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election will propose some type of public health insurance plan. In one of two Commonwealth Fund–supported articles in Health Affairs discussing potential Democratic and Republican health care plans for the 2020 election, national health policy experts Sherry Glied and Jeanne Lambrew assess the potential impact and trade-offs of three approaches:

 

  • Incorporating public-plan elements into private plans through mechanisms such as limits on profits, additional rules on how insurers operate, or the use of Medicare payment rates.
  • Offering a public plan — some version of Medicare or Medicaid, for example — alongside private plans. Such a plan could be offered to specific age groups, like adults 50 to 64 who are not yet eligible for Medicare, to enrollees in the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) marketplaces, or to everyone under 65, including those working for self-insured employers. It also could be made available in regions of the country where there is little health care competition.
  • Replacing the current health care financing system with a “Medicare for all” single-payer system administered by the federal government. Some single-payer proposals would allow consumers to purchase supplementary private insurance to help pay for uncovered services.

 

Issues for Consideration in 2020

The authors find trade-offs in each type of public plan. First, a single-payer system would significantly increase the federal budget and require new taxes, a politically challenging prospect. On the other hand, federal spending might decrease if a public plan were added to the marketplace or if public elements were added to private plans. In 2013, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that a public plan, following the same rules as private plans, would reduce federal spending by $158 billion over 10 years, while offering premiums 7 percent to 8 percent lower than private plans. A single-payer approach would lower administrative costs and profits, and likely reduce health care prices as well. By assuming control over the financing of health care, the federal government could reduce administrative complexity and fragmentation. On the flip side, the more than 175 million Americans who are privately insured would need to change insurance plans.

 

public–private choice model would help ensure that an affordable health plan option is available to Americans. While politically appealing, this option presents implementation challenges: covered benefits, payment rates, and risk-adjustments all need to be carefully managed to ensure a fair but competitive marketplace. A targeted choice option might be adopted by candidates interested in strengthening the ACA marketplaces in specific regions or for specific groups (as with the Medicare at 55 Act). It would benefit Americans whose current access to affordable coverage is limited, but the same technical challenges associated with a more comprehensive choice model would apply.

 

Finally, to lower prices for privately insured individuals, public plan tools such as deployment of Medicare-based rates could be applied to private insurance, either across the board or specifically for high-cost claims, prescription drugs, or other services. The major challenge here is setting prices that would appropriately compensate providers.

 

The Big Picture

Under the ACA, the percentage of Americans who had health insurance had reached an all-time high (91 percent) in 2016, an all-time high, and preexisting health conditions ceased to be an obstacle to affordable insurance. But Americans remain concerned about high out-of-pocket spending and access to providers, and fears over losing preexisting-condition protections have grown. While most Democratic presidential candidates will likely defend the ACA and seek to strengthen it, most recognize that fortifying the law will not be enough to cover the remaining uninsured, rein in rising spending, and make health care more affordable.

 

While the health reform proposals of Democratic candidates in 2020 will likely differ dramatically from those of Republican candidates, recent grassroots support for the ACA’s preexisting condition clause may indicate a willingness by both political parties to support additional government intervention in private insurance markets.