When it comes to health-care reform, no news is not good news; the House's recent plan to delay voting on a health-care reform bill until September should have investors reaching for the antacids.
For investors, limbo is a four-letter word. Even laws that go against a company can be dealt with -- at least the pain is quantifiable. But the unknowns of a bill in progress make it difficult for investors to know exactly how it'll affect the performance of the companies we invest in. That cloud of doubt is going to weigh on stock prices until health-care reform is hopefully resolved in the fall.
The big competition
In addition to delaying a vote, the latest compromise in the House involves keeping the negotiation of payments by the government-run public plan separate from Medicare. The deal was struck to help rural hospitals that generally get lower payments from Medicare, but it turns out to be good for health insurers as well.
Companies such as UnitedHealth Group
Bigger is better for some
Pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer
Leaders in the Senate think they'll be able to cover 95% of Americans with their plan, but I wonder if the cuts in Medicare they're using to pay for the increased coverage will derail the bill. Doctors are already complaining about the current payments from Medicare; I doubt their lobbying group is going to be very happy about lower payments.
Today's plan is tomorrow's reconciliation
Even if health-reform bills finally pass the House and the Senate, there will likely still be plenty more compromises to work out beforehand. For instance, the Senate bill looks like it might contain a network of nonprofits to increase coverage for the uninsured, while the House bill contains a government-run public plan. Someone's going to have to compromise before the bill can go to Obama's desk.
While the compromises could go smoothly, I see a more likely possibility of designing a health-care plan without any bite. Keeping the status quo isn't necessarily that bad for health-care companies in the short term, but in the longer term, the current path isn't really sustainable.
A mediocre plan would put investors back where we started -- with an unknown future clouding the ability to make intelligent investment choices.
What's a Foolish investor to do?
Besides keeping abreast of changes to the health reform bill, and perhaps calling your representatives in the House and Senate, there not much we can do. Stick it out and hope that it gets resolved quickly seems like the only course of action.
I will leave you with one bright spot, though, the AMEX pharmaceutical index quadrupled in the four years or so after the weight of the unknown factors were lifted when Hillary Clinton's health-reform bill was shot down in the 1990s. That, fellow Fools, could be just what the investment doctor ordered.
No need to compromise on this additional Foolishness:
UnitedHealth is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Pfizer and UnitedHealth are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. The Fool also owns shares of UnitedHealth. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.