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The Public Option Will Improve Private Health Insurance

Without the government as competition, the private sector has little incentive to improve.

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But, say the critics, the public plan starts off with an unfair advantage because it's likely to have lower administrative costs. That may be true -- Medicare's administrative costs per enrollee are a small fraction of typical private insurance costs -- but here again, why exactly is this unfair? Isn't one of the goals of health-care cost containment to lower administrative costs? If the public option pushes private plans to trim their bureaucracies and become more efficient, that's fine.

Critics complain that a public plan has an inherent advantage over private plans because the public won't have to show profits. But plenty of private plans are already not-for-profit. And if nonprofit plans can offer high-quality health care more cheaply than for-profit plans, why should for-profit plans be coddled? The public plan would merely force profit-making private plans to take whatever steps were necessary to become more competitive. Once again, that's a plus.

Critics charge that the public plan will be subsidized by the government. Here they have their facts wrong. Under every plan that's being discussed on Capitol Hill, subsidies go to individuals and families who need them in order to afford health care, not to a public plan. Individuals and families use the subsidies to shop for the best care they can find. They're free to choose the public plan, but that's only one option. They could take their subsidy and buy a private plan just as easily. Legislation should also make crystal clear that the public plan, for its part, may not dip into general revenues to cover its costs. It must pay for itself. And any government entity that oversees the health-insurance pool or acts as referee in setting ground rules for all plans must not favor the public plan.

Finally, critics say that because of its breadth and national reach, the public plan will be able to collect and analyze patient information on a large scale to discover the best ways to improve care. The public plan might even allow clinicians who form accountable-care organizations to keep a portion of the savings they generate. Those opposed to a public option ask how private plans can ever compete with all this. The answer is they can and should. It's the only way we have a prayer of taming health-care costs. But here's some good news for the private plans. The information gleaned by the public plan about best practices will be made available to the private plans as they try to achieve the same or better outputs.

As a practical matter, the choice people make between private plans and a public one is likely to function as a check on both. Such competition will encourage private plans to do better -- offering more value at less cost. At the same time, it will encourage the public plan to be as flexible as possible. In this way, private and public plans will offer one another benchmarks of what's possible and desirable.

Mr. Obama says he wants a public plan. But the strength of the opposition to it, along with his own commitment to making the emerging bill "bipartisan," is leading toward some oddball compromises. One would substitute nonprofit health insurance cooperatives for a public plan. But such cooperatives would lack the scale and authority to negotiate lower rates with drug companies and other providers, collect wide data on outcomes, or effect major change in the system.

Another emerging compromise is to hold off on a public option altogether unless or until private insurers fail to meet some targets for expanding coverage and lowering health-care costs years from now. But without a public option from the start, private insurers won't have the incentives or system-wide model they need to reach these targets. And in politics, years from now usually means never.

 
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