By Joseph Devlin
Health care reform is closer than ever, but right-wing hit men continue to employ corporate “researchers” to muddy the waters. Such as the recent Lewin Group study which gave rise to rumors of federal “death panels” designed to kill off patients by denying care. Unfortunately, leading politicians like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) have relied on Lewin reports, apparently unaware of the company’s underlying conflicts of interest.
First, the latest Lewin study was bad research. It didn’t reflect the legislation before Congress and relied on unrealistic assumptions. Lewin figured that private companies could buy into the public plan while the government dramatically increased the cost of private policies. Neither is the case.
In fact, the most likely effect of a “public option” would be to force private insurers to become more efficient and reduce administrative costs. The Congressional Budget Office figured that perhaps three million people would shift from employer plans. In contrast, Lewin made the fantastic claim that nearly 90 million people would drop private policies and take the public option.
This conclusion may reflect the fact that Lewin is a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, which sells private insurance policies. UnitedHealth obviously opposes government competition.
Lewin officials claim to act independently, but even if UnitedHealth doesn’t directly interfere with the former’s research, Lewin knows what policies will promote its long-term profitability. Moreover, Lewin is part of Ingenix, a UnitedHealth subsidiary. Ingenix was accused by the New York Attorney General and American Medical Association of understating “usual and customary” doctor fees, in order to shift costs onto consumers by reducing reimbursement rates. UnitedHealth settled for $400 million.
Moreover, Lewin recently won an information technology contract from the California Department for Health Care Services. Lewin is to “develop a strategy and a detailed implementation plan for the deployment of these funds and for the related activities to support the adoption of” electronic health records (EHR). An estimated $36 billion over six years is at stake.
Lewin’s conflict of interest is so obvious that the company spent five pages of its proposal urging the state to look the other way. Ingenix claims to be a leader in health information and technology. Thus, Lewin’s formulation of the state’s strategy and detailed implementation plan would have a direct impact on parent Ingenix’s potential business.
In fact, the contractor is to develop information about the strengths and weaknesses of the various vendors and products in the EHR market. The winning bidder also is to make a Landscape Assessment, which may include vendor/product issues including product features, flexibility to accommodate providers workflows, technical support, and the ability to conform to the evolving definition of ‘meaningful use’.
How can Lewin be trusted to make a dispassionate analysis of either Ingenix’s competitors or their products? How can the state of CA be so naive to think they will obtain non-biased work products when there has been a questionable track record and so much at stake?
Lewin’s misbehavior would be bad enough at any time. But now this self-interested company’s flawed research may end up undercutting support for real health care reform.
Joseph Devlin is a writer and political consultant.