Legislature Addressing Health Care Costs

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Finding ways to curtail the soaring cost of health care has fallen onto the shoulders of a freshman state lawmaker from West Michigan, who’s taking a pragmatic approach to dealing with a complex issue.

While state Rep. Barbara Vander Veen doesn’t see her subcommittee coming up with a cure-all for high health care costs, she does hope to hear plenty of “viable answers” this summer that lawmakers can formulate into legislation aimed at addressing some of the problems from at least a state public-policy perspective.

“It’s a huge brain-storming effort to see if we can come up with viable answers,” said Vander Veen, a Republican from Allendale who was elected to the state House last fall. “It’s a big issue and there’s no magic bullet that’s going to take care of this issue, but we can take on little bits at a time.”

The Health Policy Subcommittee on Reducing the Overall Cost of Health Care is part of a broader effort by state Rep. Steve Ehardt, a Lexington Republican who chairs the House Health Policy Committee.

Ehardt in late February formed six subcommittees that are responsible for addressing key areas of health care, including cost, access, quality, work force, preventive and wellness care, and supply and utilization.

VanderVeen’s subcommittee has held one hearing and plans to gather eight more times this spring and summer to hear views on what the state can do to address rising health care costs. The panel’s next meeting is at 9 a.m., May 15, in Room 307 of the Capitol Building in Lansing. Vander Veen plans to hold at least one hearing in the Grand Rapids area.

Vander Veen plans to focus the subcommittee’s work on seven general areas: pharmacy, the uninsured, wellness and prevention, federal regulations, lawsuits, insurance and outpatient care.

“It’s an issue that’s been there because it’s so big and so fraught with twists and turns, people didn’t want to look at it,” she said.

While health care has never been an inexpensive proposition, costs have soared further in recent years. Health insurers have passed on double-digit premium increases to subscribers in each of the last three years, citing the growing cost of pharmaceuticals and technological advancement, and the greater utilization of the system.

Problems with health care today are systemic and the fault does not lay with any particular aspect of the industry, said Lody Zwarensteyn, president of the Alliance for Health in Grand Rapids. Potential solutions to the problems need to come from a broad-based perspective as well, he said.

“It really relates to everybody and the solutions have to include everybody,” Zwarensteyn said. “It’s a discussion that should go on. The more that comes out of it, the better.”

The Health Care Finance Administration, the federal agency that runs Medicare and Medicaid, projects that health care costs will total 15.9 percent on the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, or $2.6 trillion, by 2010, from 13 percent of GDP in 1999.

The agency expects health spending to grow at an 8.6 percent annual rate this year, and then at a 7.1 percent annual rate through 2010, with the lesser growth rate the result of the move toward more restrictive health plans and employers’ attempts to control costs.

With that kind of annual cost increases, and the resulting rise in health premiums for employers and employees, Carl VerBeek, chairman of the Health Care Committee of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, would be satisfied if changes in state policy and statutes lead to merely curtailing the escalating health care costs.

“It isn’t coming down, but if we can keep it from escalating as fast as it has or as fast as it will, that’s a success,” said VerBeek, a labor attorney at Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett.

One change VerBeek personally would like to see is government paying the full cost of health care for Medicare and Medicaid recipients, a move that would alleviate the need for health care providers to shift the cost of treating those patients to others. Cost-shifting is “bad public policy,” he said.

“It ought to pay the cost, the actual cost, of people who are in government programs,” VerBeek said.

VerBeek also would like to see government mandates for health coverage and the utilization of health care addressed. People need to have a better understanding of the system and the cost implications of it, he said.

“The public has a great appetite for health care, as long as somebody else is paying for it,” VerBeek said. “Until we start to curb our own appetite, we can’t start to curb our problems.”

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