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Stocked Exchange

Did the Senate just kill a crucial ingredient of health care reform?

Ten years from now, if health care reform is a boondoggle, you might be able to trace that failure back to a decision in the wee hours of last week's Senate Finance Committee hearings.

It happened on Thursday night, just before midnight, when John Kerry put forward an amendment. It was amendment C-8: "Empowering State Exchanges to be Prudent Purchasers." The title may sound innocuous, if a bit arcane. But if you've followed the health care reform debate, then you know (or should know) that anything involving the insurance exchanges is important.

And Kerry's amendment is very important.

The idea of an insurance exchange is relatively straightforward. If you work for a big company or, say, the federal government, every year you choose from among a set of insurance plans--all of them conforming to some minimal standard, all of them available to you regardless of pre-existing medical condition. They've been chosen by your human resources or benefit department, who--ideally--have some clue about what they're doing, more at least than you do.

If, by contrast, you work on your own or in a small company, then you may have just one choice--or no choice at all. Affordable coverage probably won't be available to you if you have existing medical problems; even if you're healthy, the coverage you get could have major gaps or be otherwise unreliable. It'd be good to know which policies work and which ones don't. But unless you happen to be an actuary or insurance broker yourself, chances are you're clueless when it comes to navigating this complex world.

It's you, the individual or small businessperson trying to buy insurance, for whom the exchanges are being created. They're basically regulated marketplaces, where you get to choose from among insurance plans more or less the same way folks in large companies do. Your premiums should be more affordable, since now you're part of a large bargaining group. You should be able to get coverage regardless of preexisting conditions, since insurers can't pick and choose which exchange customers to cover. And you should have the peace of mind that the coverage is good, since you know it's been screened by the exchange.

The concept has been around for a while, although it's gone under different names. The reform plan that Bill Clinton put forward in 1993 proposed to create health "alliances" that would serve roughly the same purpose. And while that vision never came to fruition, one state, Massachusetts, managed to create such an institution three years ago, when--as part of a more comprehensive health reform plan--it started a pair of insurance pools for small businesses and individuals who couldn't get coverage through employers.

The results, so far, are encouraging. People once unable to penetrate the private insurance market because of income or medical condition can now go online and select from a menu of insurance options--all of them covering essential services and providing solid financial protection, for rates not previously available. And although overall medical costs in Massachusetts have continued to rise, as they have across the country, premiums for what's known as the Commonwealth Care plans--the insurance option that the exchange manages most closely--have risen at a far slower rate.

Washington has taken notice. The bills moving through Congress all set up exchanges modeled more or less on what Massachusetts has done. But there are a few critical differences. Among the most important is a difference in how the exchanges would select which plans to offer people.

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.

Jon Kingsdale, who runs the Massachusetts exchange, calls that a recipe for "policy disaster," as consumers faced a dizzying array of more expensive, less regulated choices. "It would be like telling your grocery store they have to offer every single kind of bread baked by every single bakery. ... The exchanges would be nothing more than an automated Yellow Pages."

Kingsdale is among several Massachusetts-based policy experts who have been ringing the alarm bells about this flaw in the Finance bill. And it's no coincidence that it's a Massachusetts senator, Kerry, who now proposed to fix it by giving the exchanges the same powers envisioned in the House and HELP bills.

But when Kerry introduced his plan last week, he couldn't get the votes to pass it. The reason, several sources on Capitol Hill say, was opposition from Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican who also sits on Senate Finance. Snowe seems to be concerned that a more aggressive exchange would amount to more government--which, in fact, it would be. But, as Massachusetts has shown, sometimes more government is exactly what health care needs.

Chances are reasonably good that Kerry's vision of reform will prevail, if not during the Senate floor debate then afterwards, when a conference committee merges whatever passes from the two congressional chambers. But it's not a sure thing, which is why this seemingly narrow question deserves a lot more attention.

Exchange design doesn't get the attention of controversies like the public option, abortion, or supposed death panels. In the long run, though, it could be far more decisive in whether reform works.

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor of The New Republic. This column is a collaboration between TNR and Kaiser Health News. KHN is an editorially independent news service and is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.