Just a smidgen more on US healthcare reform

My previous comment on US healthcare reform, which was actually a comment on the current Australian system, got quite a few eyeballs thanks to John Hempton’s shout-out.  Anyway, I thought I’d highlight a couple of new developments for my little audience.

First, Republican Senator Olympia Snowe (of Maine), who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, has said that she will vote in favour of the suggested bill being proposed by that committee’s chairman, Max Baucus.  That is good for the Democrats as it will provide valuable political cover.  It’s no guarantee that she will vote in favour of whatever the Senate as a whole end up producing, or for whatever the Senate and House then negotiate as the final bill, but it’s still a significant move and the probability of her voting for those later versions has just increased.

Second, we have the fact that the healthcare insurance industry has recently done an about-face, from actively promoting reform to actively fighting against it.  Nate Silver points out why:

Take a look at what’s happened to the share prices of the six largest publicly-traded health insurance companies since Labor Day, which was about the point at which the Democrats appeared to regain their footing — at least up to a point — on health care.

Weighted for market capitalization, these insurance stocks have lost 11 percent of their value since Labor Day, wiping out about $10 billion in value. And that’s understating the case since the major indices have gained 5-8 percent over the same period — the insurance industry stocks are underperforming the market by just shy of 20 percent.

So why have they tanked in the stock market?  Nate suggests two reasons:

Firstly, the individual mandate has been weakened to the point where it’s arguably a tokenish provision. There are good, policy reasons to be worried about this, although the insurance lobby’s reasons for being opposed — they’ll have less guarantee of an incoming phalanx of high-margin customers — are not necessarily the same as the public’s at large. The second factor is that the Baucus bill in certain ways treats the insurers fairly harshly, both taxing them directly as well as levying a surcharge on high-cost insurance plans.

I’d also suggest that the compromise version of the public option (that it be in the bill, but with states able to opt out if they wish [Paul Krugman, Talking Points Memo]) will have scared the insurance companies and investors as well.

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