'It's a great slogan, but it's not workable:' Health insurers pan Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders health fixes

Ken Alltucker

The top executive of the health insurance industry's largest trade group said Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden's plan to bolster the Affordable Care Act with a public insurance option is a dangerous approach to extend affordable health coverage to millions of Americans.

America's Health Insurance Plans CEO Matt Eyles said a government-run insurance option would upend the private insurance market and "be terrible" for hospitals and other health providers.

"Some of the public options that he's putting out there would not operate on a competitive playing field," Eyles said during a meeting Tuesday with the USA TODAY Editorial Board. "It would displace the private market, and we don't think it would necessarily be the right approach."

On Monday, Biden proposed adding a public health insurance option to Obamacare, reviving a decade-old idea floated by President Barack Obama but dropped during negotiations that created the Affordable Care Act, signed into law in 2010. 

The former vice president's incremental approach contrasts with Sen. Bernie Sanders' "Medicare for All" proposal endorsed by other Democrats that would replace private health insurance in favor of a government-run health insurance. 

Eyles also blasted the Sanders plan, predicting that such a sweeping proposal would fall flat with Americans, including the 180 million people who get health insurance through their employer. 

FILE - This June 27, 2019 file photo shows Democratic presidential candidates from left, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice-President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and California Rep. Eric Swalwell on the second night of the Democratic primary debate hosted June 27, 2019, by NBC News in Miami.

"It's a great slogan, but it's not workable in practice," Eyles said. "It's going to lead to higher costs for everyone through taxes, longer waiting times in terms of access to providers and, at the end of the day, care is going to be worse."

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AHIP is one of four founding members of a group called the Partnership for America's Healthcare Future, a coalition of 30 insurance, hospital, pharmaceutical and other health industry groups that counter dramatic health reform proposals such as Medicare for All.

Lauren Crawford Shaver, the partnership's executive director, said in a statement that Biden's public option proposal would "ultimately lead our nation down the path of a one-size-fits-all  health care system run by Washington."

Former US Vice President Joe Biden, the leading Democratic 2020 presidential candidate, gestures July 11, 2019, as he delivers a speech about his foreign policy vision for America at the Graduate Center at City University of New York.

Eyles told USA TODAY that he favors tweaking the Affordable Care Act to make insurance coverage affordable for more Americans. One example: Use reinsurance programs – an insurance pool for insurers – to lower monthly insurance premiums. Such a step could save 10% to 20% on premiums for people who buy their own coverage but earn too much to qualify for the health law's subsidies for low- and some moderate-income earners, Eyles said.

He added that rising prescription drug costs continue to be a major driver of increasing health costs. Pharmaceutical companies are introducing new, brand-name drugs at much higher prices than a decade ago, as well as increasing the price of existing drugs.

He cited the example of oral chemotherapy drugs that cost an average of $180,000 per year, or about triple the amount  of U.S. median household income.

"That's really what's fed a lot of the dissatisfaction, saying something has to give,"  Eyles said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders health insurance fixes won't work: insurers