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Musings of a Philadelphia Physician who has served the community for six decades

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Clinton Health Plan of 1993 - Part One
health careMistaking Senate re-election of Harris Wofford to mean the country demanded reform of the medical system, newly-elected President Clinton announced he would create one. When stakeholders surmised he was making it up as he went along, they deserted him.

Be Careful What You Wish For

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Pulse

Events at the time of the introduction of the Clinton Health Plan to Congress were a confused jumble, but one vignette stands out in my memory. The five hundred or so members of the secret work group were all invited to the White House for a big party, with saxaphones and all. On a television interview at home in Minnesota, Paul Ellwood said he wasn't going to the party. Indeed, he looked rather morose and had little to say. It is clear he had advance notice, before the plan even reached Congress, that things were not going the way he wanted. Since the public, even Congressional leaders, were still unclear just what was to be proposed, Ellwood's dejection, or rejection, did not come from them. No one has said so, but it must be presumed the rejection came from his sponsors, the business leaders. Business, in short, had pulled out; responsibility probably lies with no more than half a dozen CEOs who continue to be anonymous fifteen years later.

At that confused time, the reasoning of the masterminds was obscure. Perhaps they decided HMOs were no good; perhaps an outrageous political demand had been linked to the proposal; or there was to be too much political control, too little business control; or perhaps government costs had been shifted onto the backs of employers; perhaps the whole idea sounded too leftist to be comfortable. And perhaps a lot of other things, who knows. Even today, no one has written a book or even listed a few plain sentences of reminiscence.

What is known is that major business employers immediately launched a nation wide initiative to go ahead with a strong push to convert employer-based plans from fee-for-service to managed care HMOs. This was to be the way employers handled health care they were paying for; the government could do as it liked. It must be admitted it was a bold stroke, quite effectively handled. When you consider the rather uncertain legal right they had to impose a system of health care on their employees, it took more audacity to go ahead than you would suppose they could summon. It was a gamble that the Clinton White House would lack the courage to challenge a private initiative to go ahead with what they had so publicly endorsed, and that providers would be so surprised by the concerted coup that they would hold back legal challenge until evidence of antitrust or conspiracy emerged. It was a sort of Battle of the Bulge in reverse, and it might well have been hugely successful except for one thing they did not anticipate. Their employees almost universally hated HMOs when they tried them out. No one likes to be hustled into something he doesn't understand, no one likes to change doctors, no one like to be told he can't have what he expects to have. Employers expected resistance of this sort, but it simply had to be done to save the fiscal health of the business. Unfortunately, what emerged was that it didn't save much more money than its own extra cost to administer. The hard reality of business life is you regularly have to bully people in order to make any money. But bullying people without making any money is a quick route to dismissal. No wonder there have been no memoirs written.

A quick re-appraisal of the Clinton Health Plan was that the two systems, Medicare for people over sixty-five and employer-based for people under sixty-five, were to be merged into a single system for efficiency and better control. There were to be local, regional, and national governance bodies; evidently the purpose of the National Business Coalitions for Health was to supply a unified business hierarchy to match it up and down the line. Hated politicians, hated bureaucrats and hated unions could be counted on to apply strong pressures; business would have to remain well informed, sternly disciplined, and speak with a single voice for any hope of surviving in such an environment. It is my surmise that such a prospect seemed to guarantee failure for business. No, we're sorry, Business would draw a bright line at age sixty-five, and run its own show where it ruled the roost.

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