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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 7/31/19

The Fatal Flaw in Kamala Harris' Health Plan

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Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris
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Sen. Kamala Harris has become the latest presidential candidate to unveil a healthcare plan. Her proposal would take current Medicare, including the private plans known as Medicare Advantage, and extend it to the entire population. Her staff says that her plan would sharply limit out-of-pocket costs and cap premium rates at current levels.

As presented, the Harris plan is substantially better than Joe Biden's, and is a considerable improvement over most of the other health proposals put forward by other Democrats. It recognizes that today's out-of-pocket health care costs are unsustainable for most Americans, even those with "good" insurance. Unfortunately, it still falls short of the Medicare For All plan offered by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

For one thing, her numbers don't work. And her plan has an overarching, fatal flaw: It relies on the benevolence and good intentions of America's health insurers.

American health insurance corporations, including the ones behind most Medicare Advantage plans, have a documented history of disregarding patients' health and well-being when it threatens profits. Today's Advantage plans are conducting a covert war against single-payer Medicare, posing an existential threat to the system most Americans picture when they think of Medicare.

Its defenders will liken the Harris plan to certain European models of health care. But, unlike their European counterparts, American insurance companies have developed two forms of troublesome expertise: political manipulation, and predatory marketing. These twin traits have twined around the American health system like strands of a double helix, and they will strangle the Harris health plan.

Missing Numbers

Out-of-pocket costs (copays and deductibles) play a major role in determining which plan people choose. The Harris plan is still somewhat vague on that score, although Harris and her aides have been offering some clarification.

CNN quotes a "campaign aide" as saying her plan would limit out-of-pocket costs to $200 per year. If true, that would be a significant improvement over the financially devastating status quo.

The other major household cost is premiums. One of the great advantages of today's Medicare is its low premiums. If you register on time, there is no charge for Medicare Part A (hospital coverage). Standard monthly premium for outpatient care (Part B) is $135 per month, and the average cost for drug coverage is $34 per month. (Remember, these premiums apply to the costliest age group the elderly.)

Would Harris extend these low premiums to the general population? Apparently not. She has emphasized that, while the Sanders/Jayapal plan adds a 4 percent tax on income above $29,000, she wouldn't assess new taxes on households making less than $100,000 per year. HuffPost's Jonathan Cohn adds:

"Harris campaign uses the terms taxes & premiums interchangeably in this context (as many people do). So, campaign official confirmed to me, when they say no new taxes for $100k household income, they also mean no new premiums."

"No new premiums" isn't very clear, however. If it means that households won't pay more than they pay today, that's not nearly as good as it sounds. Under the ACA, many lower-middle-income households are paying more than 10 percent of their income for premiums, thanks to a design flaw known as the "subsidy cliff."

Many other middle-income households pay more than 4 percent in premiums. That means many working families would pay substantially less under the Sanders/Jayapal proposal. The Harris campaign should be pressed to clarify their numbers, but right now they don't look good for working families.

Offensive Underwriting

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Host of 'The Breakdown,' Writer, and Senior Fellow, Campaign for America's Future

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