Bloomberg health plan aims to lower costs, cover more people

Michael Bloomberg has unveiled a health care plan that would expand coverage and cut people's costs by building on the current system, not replacing it

The former New York mayor and Democratic presidential candidate embraced a new government-run “public option" to compete with private insurance and called for Medicare to negotiate drug prices, using an approach similar to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent legislation.

“It's in the Biden-Buttigieg world rather than Sanders-Warren,” said John Holahan, a health policy expert with the nonpartisan Urban Institute think tank. Holahan reviewed an outline of the plan provided by the Bloomberg campaign.

Bloomberg announced his plan during a speech in Memphis. The state of Tennessee is one of 14 that has not expanded Medicaid for low-income people under the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, or ACA. Tennessee copes with a high burden of chronic illness and ranked 44th this year in an annual state-by-state report card from the nonprofit United Health Foundation.

“Leadership isn't dreaming up a plan that can never pass Congress,” Bloomberg said, taking a swipe at backers of Medicare for All.

“Every American who already has private insurance will be able to keep private insurance if they choose,” he added. “We'll work aggressively to enroll uninsured Americans.”

But he wouldn't reinstate its unpopular “individual mandate,” as the Obama-era coverage requirement is known. Instead, he's calling for an extensive outreach campaign to voluntarily sign up uninsured people, relying on a strategy he piloted as New York mayor.

The campaign said the plan would cover most of the nation's estimated 27.5 million uninsured people.

Key elements of the Bloomberg plan include:

— Extending subsidized coverage under the ACA to cover more people and creating a permanent federal program to help insurers pay for the costliest patients, an approach that has been shown to lower premiums.

— Empowering Medicare to negotiate prices for the costliest brand-name drugs, capping prices at 120% of the average in other economically advance countries. Privately insured patients would be able to get Medicare's prices. Seniors' out-of-pocket costs for medicines would be capped at $2,000 per year.

— Creating a new Medicare benefit for dental, hearing and vision care with a premium of $25 a month for beneficiaries. Expanding Medicaid benefits to include dental care for low-income people.

— Ending so-called “surprise medical bills” for people covered by private insurance when they're treated by a provider outside their plan's network. The plan would cap out-of-network hospital charges at 200% of what Medicare pays.

The Bloomberg campaign said the plan would cost about $1.5 trillion over 10 years, with some of that covered through expected savings on prescription drugs. Officials said Bloomberg intends for the plan to be fully paid for, so it would not add to the government's mounting debt.

Bloomberg said he's working on a separate plan to improve basic public health throughout the country, striving to reverse recent declines in life expectancy blamed in part on the opioid epidemic.