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Olympia Snowe Strikes Again

By Matthew Yglesias on October 5, 2009 at 3:06 pm

"Olympia Snowe Strikes Again"

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Olympia Snowe looks set to reprise her roll in hobbling the stimulus bill in exchange for providing the key pivotal vote for it by killing John Kerry’s amendment, “Empowering State Exchanges to be Prudent Purchasers.” Jon Cohn explains:

In the bills that passed three House committees and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, the exchange would be a “prudent purchaser.” In other words, it would have a staff that bargained with insurers to bring down premiums — and that made sure all plans lived up to strict guidelines for coverage and customer service. In effect, any insurer that wants to offer coverage through the exchanges has to get the equivalent of a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” from the administrators. This is precisely how it works in Massachusetts.

By contrast, the Senate Finance bill envisions much weaker exchanges. Instead of choosing which plans to make available, the exchange administrators would, by law, have to accept any plan that meets a relatively minimal set of standards.

There are several problems with this. One is that it’s going to be a mess for consumers. Another is that it threatens to turn the exchanges into playgrounds of implicit risk-shifting efforts wherein companies try to design policies specifically around dissuading high-need people from signing up. Thus ever-more burden is going to be placed on the untested risk-adjustment machinery that’s supposed to even this all out. Ezra Klein observes that Jon Kingsdale is basically the only person in America’s who’s run anything like the exchanges envisioned in all the different bills—he does the job in Massachusetts—and he views the prudent purchaser rule as absolutely essential. Against that Snowe is pitting, I guess, her intuition that this is too much government involvement.

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