Bush health plan rapped by GAO, congressman

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11400382488663.jpg’, ”, ‘Pete Stark’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11400382628663.jpg’, ”, ‘Henry Waxman’);

President George W. Bush’s health plan proposals, unveiled in his recent State of the Union address, are under fire from the Government Accounting Office (GAO) and two congressmen.

Senior House Democrats Pete Stark and Henry Waxman have released a GAO report comparing people enrolled in Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and High-Deductible Health Plans (HDHPs) with federal workers in the traditional Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP).

In the State of the Union address, Bush suggested that expanding HSAs and HDHPs would be a main feature of his domestic program. Experts on health policy are fearful that these plans will attract only the healthiest participants, plus boost costs and risk coverage for other people and families in traditional plans. The congressmen said the GAO report seems to support these claims.

“This report screams ‘buyers beware,’ verifying what we have suspected all along,” said Stark. “HSAs and high-deductible health plans proposed by President Bush and the Republicans are designed for healthy, wealthy people. Despite this reality, President Bush is pushing them on low-income workers—not to provide them with better health insurance, but to meet his long-term goal of dismantling employer-provided health care. HSAs are another way for the GOP to benefit their special interest friends—in this case, the insurance industry, corporations, and wealthy taxpayers—at the expense of America’s workers,” Stark said.

Waxman declared: “The president’s Health Savings Account plan combines the worst elements of the president’s failed Social Security privatization plan and his Medicare prescription drug fiasco. HSAs would increase health care costs for many consumers, and force others to ration care, embroiling them in a confusing morass of accounts and bills when they should be focused on their health. Unfortunately, they have the potential to increase the number of uninsured.”

These are the principal findings of the GAO’s report:

HSA enrollees are younger than those enrolled in traditional health care plans. The GAO said: “individuals with certain demographic characteristics”—younger enrollees who have lower health care costs—“may be disproportionately attracted to these plans.” The average age of HSA enrollees was 46 years old compared with an average age of 59 for enrollees in traditional plans. The oldest enrollees, those who were retired, were only one-fourth as likely to sign up for HSAs.

HSA enrollees are wealthier than other FEHBP enrollees. HSA enrollees in the highest income bracket analyzed by GAO (those with incomes more than $75,000) were more than three times as likely to sign up for HSAs.

HSAs and HDHPs failed to provide adequate information to enrollees. According to GAO, “HDHPs…are premised on the notion that enrollees will become more actively involved in making healthcare purchase decisions. To do so, enrollees need information to help them assess the cost and quality trade-offs between different health care treatments and providers. However, the extent to which FEHBP, HDHPs made such information available to enrollees was varied and limited.”

Critics of these plans have held for some time that expansion of them would jeopardize health insurance coverage for the more than 160 million Americans who are covered through their jobs. That could translate into a massive shift in costs to consumers who—in addition to having to pay more for coverage—would be on their own to try to bargain with insurance companies for necessary medical care.

The GAO report can be viewed online at www.democrats.reform.house.gov

From the Feb. 15-21, 2006, issue.

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