OPINION: The Florida Revelation . . .
May 29, 2008
The Wall Street Journal--May 29, 2008
Republicans in Congress may be out of gas, but that doesn’t mean conservative ideas aren’t percolating elsewhere, and even on the supposedly Democratic stronghold of health care. Take the news from Florida, where GOP Governor Charlie Crist succeeded last week in moving an innovative reform through the state legislature.
The Sunshine State has about 3.8 million people without insurance, or about 21% of the population, the fourth-highest rate in the country. The “Cover Florida” plan hopes to improve those numbers by offering access to more affordable policies. As even Barack Obama says, the main reason people are uninsured isn’t because they don’t want to be; it’s because coverage is too expensive.
But the Florida reform, which both houses of the legislature approved unanimously, renounces Mr. Obama’s favored remedy: It nudges the government out of the health-care marketplace. Insurance companies will be permitted to sell stripped-down, no-frills policies exempted from the more than 50 mandates that Florida otherwise imposes, including for acupuncture and chiropractics. The new plans will be designed to cost as little as $150 a month, or less.
Mr. Crist observed that state regulations increase the cost of health coverage, and thus rightly decided to do away with at least some of them. It’s hard to believe, but this qualifies as a revelation in the policy world of health insurance. The new benefit packages will be introduced sometime next year and include minimum coverage for primary care and catastrophic expenses for major illness.
Critics are already saying that, without mandates, the plan won’t guarantee quality of care. That’s purportedly why the states have imposed more than 1,900 specific-coverage obligations. But invariably mandates are the product of special-interest lobbying. Health-care providers – not consumers – are always asking for tighter regulation, because they profit from making everyone subsidize generous plans that cover, say, podiatry or infertility treatment. Given the choice, consumers might choose policies that cover some services but not others.
These government rules are imposed without regard for how much they will cost and who will bear the burden. In practice, the costs are disproportionately carried by lower- and middle-income workers, who already on average have more limited insurance coverage as part of their compensation, or none at all. When prices rise because of mandates, the less affluent are often forced to make an all-or-nothing choice between “Cadillac coverage,” which involves just about everything, or going uninsured. In other words, they’re prohibited from buying the lower-cost options that might be better suited to their needs.
Governor Crist is to be credited for removing this artificial, regressive floor on plans. It’s a simple matter of equity. And though the plan will only enroll those who have gone without coverage for six months, it also creates a clearinghouse that will let small businesses that can’t afford coverage offer their employees a variety of similar policies.
Despite his often populist brand of politics (such as on hurricane insurance), Mr. Crist also avoided the typical liberal health-care response of expanding public programs. Mitt Romney should have taken this route in Massachusetts, but fell instead for the siren song of “universal coverage,” even if provided by the government. Florida is already having a tough fiscal year, but such state-level expansions are often pushed anyway.
Some 13 states currently offer bare-bones policies on a full or trial-run basis. While not a cure-all, they’re movement in the right direction – especially as the states can’t do anything about the continuing tax bias for employer-provided health insurance. That kind of much-needed change can only come from Washington, as John McCain is proposing.
The Florida success also shows the political benefits when Republicans talk seriously about health care. Mr. Crist has made increasing consumer choice a signature issue. When Mr. McCain talked up his health-care reforms earlier this spring, he did so in Tampa. He chose the right state.