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Dr. James Robinson Advises CA Exchange Board

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James Robinson, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Health Technology and the Kaiser Permanente Professor of Health Economics at UC Berkeley. Among his research interests is health insurance. He was participated in a panel discussion at the California Health Benefit Exchange board meeting on February 21, 2012. Dr. Robinson delivers an entertaining mixture of intelligence, candor and humor. We have gathered some of his comments from that meeting here.

On What the Public Wants “We want to cover all services, for everyone, without prior authorization, and without having to pay for it.”

On Saying No “The exchange has ambitious goals. And the most difficult of those goals is moderating cost. That boils down to saying no at some point, and that’s a very unpopular thing to do. What we want is everything. And that’s the one thing the board cannot do. Board needs to find the “least worst set of options” or “the least disliked form of cost control” to keep premium costs down.

On Trimming the Fat “The common notion is that the health care system is like a steak, where you get a sharp knife and carefully pare a thick slab of fat off the meat. But there’s no painless way to reduce cost in the health care system. The real image is that the fat is marbled all the way through the steak. There’s no way to use a knife. The only way is to throw that steak in the fire.”

On Cost Control Tactics “Plans will likely have to cover a broad range of services, which drives up premiums. So one answer is cost-sharing, where patients who want certain services pay a higher price. Networks can be designed with fewer providers, which could lower cost, or base reimbursement in part on financial incentives. A third possibility is through medical management.

On Employee Choice “There is always this back-and-forth between choice and efficiency. You have to either rely on the individual to make choices among a broad menu of choices, or you have to use the leverage of enrollment and limit contracting to a small number of plans. You have to figure out where to say no — is it a decision for individuals, or is it a collective decision to be made by the board?”

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