By Carol Paris, M.D.
On Nov. 29, the American Medical Association endorsed Dr. Tom Price, orthopedic surgeon and U.S. representative, for secretary of Health and Human Services. And I am once again worried that the lay public sees this endorsement and assumes that the AMA represents the majority of American physicians, including me. It does not.
As I wrote in 2009, the AMA represents less than one-third of America’s physicians and half of those are retired.
The AMA’s longstanding opposition to every effort to improve health care financing, including its opposition to Medicare in the 1960s and to single payer in the 2009 reform debate, has resulted in decades of needless and countless morbidity and mortality.
The AMA says its mission is to promote the art and science of medicine and the betterment of public health. But its actions continue to reveal that it is primarily a trade association looking out for the financial interests of its members.
If you are a member of the AMA and you support the mission of Physicians for a National Health Program, Improved and Expanded Medicare for All, then I urge you to exercise your activist muscle. Demand that the AMA rescind its endorsement of Tom Price. If they won’t, consider resigning in protest. PNHP will be happy to put your AMA dues to much better use.
Dr. Carol Paris is president-elect of Physicians for a National Health Program.
This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.
Kaiser Health Tracking Poll: November 2016
By Ashley Kirzinger, Elise Sugarman, and Mollyann Brodie
Kaiser Family Foundation, December 1, 2016
America divided on ACA next steps
What would you like to see President-elect Donald Trump and the next Congress do when it comes to the health care law?
30% – Expand what the law does
26% – Repeal the entire law
19% – Move forward with implementing the law as it is
17% – Scale back what the law does
03% – None of these/Something else
04% – Don’t know/Refused
Americans have favorable attitudes towards some ACA provisions
Percent who say they have a FAVORABLE opinion of each of the following provisions of the law (for now ignore percent in parenthesis):
85% (83%) – Allows young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26
83% (75%) – Eliminates out-of-pocket costs for many preventive services
81% (71%) – Closes the Medicare prescription drug “doughnut hole” so people on Medicare will no longer be required to pay the full cost of their medications
80% (72%) – Creates health insurance exchanges where small businesses and people can shop for insurance and compare prices and benefits
80% (68%) – Provides financial help to low- and moderate-income Americans who don’t get insurance through their jobs to help them purchase coverage
80% (66%) – Gives states the option of expanding their existing Medicaid program to cover more low-income, uninsured adults
69% (60%) – Prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage because of a person’s medical history
69% (62%) – Increases the Medicare payroll tax on earnings for upper-income Americans
60% (49%) – Requires employers with 50 or more employees to pay a fine if they don’t offer health insurance
35% (16%) – Requires nearly all Americans to have health insurance or else pay a fine
Based on media reports for the past half year or so Americans seemed to be split on whether they want to keep Obamacare or to repeal it and perhaps replace it with an ill-defined Republican plan. As is usual during political campaigns, the rhetoric did not reveal much in the way of the true feelings of Americans about health care reform. This Kaiser poll provides us much better insight.
Based on the rhetoric, 49% want to move forward with implementing the law as it is (19%) or, even more, wanted to expand what the law does (30% – the largest fraction). In contrast, 43% wanted to repeal the entire law (26%) or scale back what the law does (17%).
But the rhetoric can be quite meaningless, so they polled Americans on what health reform policies they would support, devoid of political rhetoric. By wide margins they supported policies that would improve the functioning of our health care financing system. Most of these policies are supported by the Affordable Care Act. The only policy rejected was requiring Americans to pay a fine if they were unfortunate enough to be uninsured. (Notably absent were policies more specific to single payer, though other studies have shown broad support for such policies.)
So Americans are split on Obamacare but they clearly support the policies of the Affordable Care Act. That may seem ironic, but it exemplifies the difference between communicating with political rhetoric and communicating with policy facts.
Now look at the percentages in parentheses. They show only slightly less support than the cross section of Americans, but still support by a wide margin for policies that would improve health care financing, except for fines for not being insured or for small employers not providing insurance.
Nobody wants to be uninsured, and they would surely object to being fined because they weren’t. Even if we were trying to get everyone insured, fines are a terrible way to do it. Far better would be equitable financing through a single payer system.
So what are the numbers in parentheses? Those are the percentage of Trump voters who support those particular policies. Trump voters!
Imagine that. Trump supporters want beneficial health care policies that would make health care accessible and affordable for everyone. So Donald Trump does have a mandate, but it is to adopt beneficial health policies, not to pare them back nor replace them with market models that benefit insurers to the detriment of patients.
His selection of Tom Price for HHS and Seema Verma for CMS sends us in the wrong direction. It is imperative that the message gets through to Mr. Trump that he should withdraw these two nominations and move forward with appointing health care leaders who would work with Congress to bring us the health care system that Americans really want. With a little more objective thought and less rhetoric, the overwhelming majority, including Trump supporters, would want to see enactment of an improved Medicare for all.
This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.
Trump’s CMS pick is viewed as both patient advocate and foe
By Virgil Dickson
Modern Healthcare, November 29, 2016
President-elect Donald Trump Tuesday announced that Seema Verma, the president, CEO and founder of SVC, a national health policy consulting company that has helped craft Medicaid expansion plans in Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio, would work under Rep. Tom Price, who currently is a congressman from Georgia but has been nominated for HHS secretary.
Patient advocacy and policy experts agree that Verma’s philosophy encourages people to take charge of their healthcare. Verma has supported charging premiums to individuals above and below the poverty line and freezing beneficiaries out of coverage if they don’t pay. She is also in favor of mandating enrollees search for work while being covered and that they are timely when reapplying for Medicaid coverage or else face a lockout period that could last a year.
Even small contributions can cause some low-income people to choose to bypass coverage, according to Judy Solomon, a vice president for health policy at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
For example, a recent state evaluation of Indiana’s HIP 2.0 waiver, which Verma helped develop, found that about one-third of those eligible don’t enroll because they can’t or don’t want to pay a premium, Solomon said.
Trump’s Pick To Run Medicare And Medicaid Has Red State Policy Chops
By Jake Harper
Kaiser Health News, November 29, 2016
On Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump tapped Seema Verma, a health care consultant, to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Her consulting firm, SVC, Inc., worked closely with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to design Indiana’s Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. The expansion, known as the Healthy Indiana Plan or HIP 2.0, went into effect early last year.
Indiana’s unique Medicaid expansion was designed to appeal to conservatives. HIP 2.0 asks covered people to make a small monthly payment to access health insurance. A missed payment can result in six-month lockout from insurance coverage. Those provisions aren’t allowed under traditional Medicaid, but Indiana got special permission from CMS to implement them through a waiver.
Verma’s role in shaping Indiana’s health care policy has had some controversy. According to a 2014 report from The Indianapolis Star, she has received millions of dollars from the state through her work with the Indiana government. She was also paid by Hewlett-Packard, a Medicaid vendor that received more than $500 million in state contracts. Government ethics experts told the Star the arrangement presented a conflict of interest.
Indiana: Health Care Reform Amidst Colliding Values
By Mitchell Roob and Seema Verma
Health Affairs Blog, May 1, 2008
In May 2007, Indiana enacted comprehensive health reform in the form of the Indiana Check-Up Plan and its centerpiece, the Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP).
HIP is the first Medicaid expansion in the nation to be modeled in the spirit of a high deductible health plan (HDHP)/ health savings account (HSA).
The many conservatives of our state initially balked at the idea of either establishing another entitlement program that could create budget shortfalls for future generations or creating another Medicaid plan that creates a platform for unhealthy lifestyles that leads to abuse of the healthcare system. We managed to overcome these obstacles and our experience provides several lessons for reformers elsewhere:
1) Inaction is not a market solution.
2) Choose reforms that help those who need it, but also increase personal responsibility and utilize market incentives.
Hailed by conservatives, HDHPs and HSAs promote the notion of consumerism and promise greater price transparency, competition and quality. By giving participants some “skin in the game,” they encourage healthy lifestyles and provide individuals a financial incentive to make cost- and value-conscious healthcare decisions, which in turn increases pressure on providers to demonstrate value and quality.
Following the HSA model, the Personal Wellness and Responsibility (POWER) Account is used to fund the deductible. Moving away from premiums and copays that are typically too low to incentivize collection by providers, HIP requires individuals to make mandatory monthly contributions – ranging from 2 percent to 5 percent of income, up to $92/month — to their POWER Account. To prevent participants from obtaining temporary coverage, penalties are stiff for payment lapses.
3) Be fiscally responsible.
The legislation restricts the State from providing services “beyond the level of state appropriations authorized for the plan.”
The implications of a non-entitlement program were enormous, as it gave many legislators the peace of mind to allow them to support the bill.
4) Reach out across party lines and to multiple constituencies.
5) Compromise and cut deals
In developing HIP, we never let the perfect be the impediment of the good.
6) With the exception of compromise, don’t take any of the above lessons too seriously.
Federal policy, and in particular CMS’ waiver process, should provide maximum leeway for this sort of state experimentation.
Through each round of review and approval the plan was tweaked, but with each turn, the health savings account model remained intact.
May 1, 2008
Health savings accounts (HSAs) are specifically designed to use regressive tax policies to fund health care for higher-income individuals. They also reward individuals for being fortunate enough to remain healthy by allowing them to use those funds for other purposes in retirement, with the same tax benefits as an IRA.
Since HSAs are designed to benefit the healthy and wealthy, they are not the solutions that we need to address the very severe deficiencies in our health system. They are an especially lousy model to finance health care for lower-income individuals with greater health care needs.
The description of the POWER accounts as “following the HSA model” is particularly disingenuous. Although participants are required to deposit their own funds into the POWER accounts (on a sliding scale), they receive no tax advantage (though most of them wouldn’t anyway because of their low incomes). Unlike an IRA, they receive no income from the funds deposited in these accounts. When they leave the program, they may receive a pro-rated amount of their own contribution, but none of the state’s contribution. Since the account limit is $1100, it is likely that the individual’s pro-rated amount would be a relatively paltry sum given as a reward for remaining healthy, but would totally disappear quite rapidly as the $1100 is used for health care.
This blog is read by members of the health policy community who understand health policy science. The authors impair their own credibility amongst these professionals when they use the “skin in the game” rhetoric of right-wing ideologues. Pretending that small, segregated accounts somehow constitutes a major policy breakthrough is an unproductive diversion from the dialogue on reform that we desperately need.
For a critique of a more recent Health Affairs Blog on POWER accounts co-authored by Seema Verma:
In media reports about her selection as CMS administrator, Seema Verma is being praised for her policy acumen and for being able to work across the isle, that is, as long as “the health savings account model (for Medicaid) remained intact.”
My comment on the POWER accounts (above), in response to the 2008 Health Affairs Blog that she co-authored, demonstrates that she lacks policy acumen. And the insistence that low-income Medicaid beneficiaries, even below the poverty level, must have “skin in the game” by contributing their own funds to their care is a concept that can be considered bipartisan when one or two neoliberal Democrats (or maybe more) join the Republicans in advancing this cruel health policy, even though it’s clearly a conservative concept.
It was not only in the 2008 article that the reference to “skin in the game” appeared, it was also repeated in the 2016 blog (link above): “Because HIP Plus members’ own dollars are at stake, they have ‘skin in the game’ and therefore an incentive to make cost-conscious health care decisions.”
Little does it matter that this ideological nonsense caused “one-third of those eligible (to not) enroll because they can’t or don’t want to pay a premium.” It is far more important to her to advance her ideology than it is to meet the health care needs of the targeted population. And, yes, those who fail to pay are punished by being denied certain benefits in the future – the nature of the punishment being dependent on variations in eligibility. Nice!
These articles were written eight years apart, and the second article, written after the negative impact was obvious, demonstrates that her soft manner and demeanor did not warm up her cold, cold heart.
The Kaiser Health News article reports that she “received millions of dollars from the state through her work with the Indiana government” while “also paid by Hewlett-Packard, a Medicaid vendor that received more than $500 million in state contracts.” Her cold heart allows her to feign obliviousness to this blatant conflict of interest.
And we are going to put her in charge of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, with its trillion dollar budget?!
This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.
By picking Tom Price to lead HHS, Trump shows he’s absolutely serious about dismantling Obamacare
By Sarah Kliff
Vox, November 28, 2016
Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Health and Human Services secretary, already has a plan for how to abolish Obamacare.
Price will arrive with at HHS with a clear blueprint for what comes next. He is the author of the Empowering Patients First Act, one of the most thorough and detailed proposals to repeal and replace Obamacare.
It would replace the law with a plan that does more to benefit the young, healthy, and rich — and disadvantages the sick, old, and poor.
The biggest cut to the poor in Price’s plan is the full repeal of the Medicaid expansion, a program that currently covers millions of low-income Americans, which Price replaces with, well, nothing.
This change will likely make Price’s proposal significantly cheaper than those that do continue the Medicaid expansion, but it will come at the cost of throwing millions of Americans off of their health insurance.
The Empowering Patients plan, unlike Obamacare, would let insurers charge sick people more if they did not maintain “continuous coverage.”
It would invest $3 billion over three years in a high-risk pool to cover those with preexisting conditions who are unable to afford coverage on the marketplace.
Empowering Patients makes the individual market more advantageous for healthier people. It eliminates the essential health benefits package, which mandated that all insurers cover a set of 10 different types of care including maternity services and pediatric care. Empowering Patients would allow insurers to cut whatever benefits they no longer want to cover — they could stop covering maternity benefits, for example, to make their plans less attractive to women who plan to become pregnant. This would likely benefit healthy people, who generally want less robust coverage at a cheaper price. But it’ll send the cost of more comprehensive plans — the plans sicker people need — skyrocketing.
There are other ways Empowering Patients makes insurance better for young people too: by letting insurance plans charge them lower rates. It does this by allowing insurers to charge their oldest enrollees as much as they want.
Obamacare’s tax credits are based on income, with those who earn less getting more help. Empowering Patient’s tax credits would only be based on age, giving more help to those who are older (and who will presumably be charged higher premiums).
There is one important change the plan would make to employer-sponsored insurance: It would cap the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored coverage. Price’s bill proposes limiting the employer-tax exclusion for insurance to $8,000 for individual policies and $20,000 for families. As popular as this provision will be with economists, you can bet that the public will hate it, as it would make some health plans significantly more expensive — and face similar pushback to Obamacare’s Cadillac tax.
In choosing Price, Trump is signaling that he is serious about dismantling Obamacare. He has found one of the law’s most ardent, knowledgeable, and prepared opponents, and put him in charge of the effort.
H.R. 2300 – Empowering Patients First Act of 2015:
Trump to pick Seema Verma for Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
Reuters, November 28, 2016
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is set to name Indiana health policy consultant Seema Verma as his pick for administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a transition official told Reuters on Monday.
Indiana’s phony Medicaid health savings accounts:
President-elect Donald Trump is making good on his promise to repeal and replace Obamacare by appointing Tom Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Seema Verma as administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). There is trouble coming.
Tom Price was a co-founder of the conservative Congressional Tea Party caucus. He has long supported measures to reduce the role of government in health care, freeing himself and his fellow physicians to do whatever they want and collect whatever fees they desire. He has authored replacement legislation that has been included in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way” that will likely provide guideposts in the Republican effort to replace the Affordable Care Act. His legislation – Empowering Patients First Act of 2015 – is available at the link above.
Seema Verma worked with the Republican governors of Indiana, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, to require low-income patients on Medicaid to establish POWER accounts – a bastardized health savings account – so that they would have “consumer empowerment” in shopping for health care. More information about these phony accounts is available at the link above.
It is likely that Trump will delegate these two to interact with the Republican-controlled Congress in designing the new way forward in health care. The only power Democrats have is to block onerous legislation through the filibuster, but several Democratic senators who are vulnerable in the 2018 elections have indicated a desire to work with Trump and their Republican colleagues in Congress in revising health care financing in the United States. That would give the Republicans enough votes to squelch a filibuster. This is a setup for compromise, but compromises that will be defined strictly on Republican terms.
What might we expect? Perhaps elimination of the Medicaid expansion, reduction in subsidies for private insurance, waiving of the requirement to establish minimal plan benefits, loss of guaranteed issue if unable to pay the premium, dumping high risk patients into pools with grossly inadequate funding, expansion of health savings accounts that remain unfunded or underfunded except for the wealthy, higher premiums for older and sicker patients, premium support vouchers to further privatize Medicare, and other measures that reduce the protections provided by insurance while reducing government funding of health care, thereby making insurance more affordable for the young and healthy while sending those with needs to health care purgatory.
We are told that conservatives are caring people who want to make America great again. But Trump and Pence and Price and Verma and Ryan are not caring people. They would abandon the poor and infirm, based on a combination of ideology and greed.
There will be those who will fight to keep what we have. There will be those who will compromise to reduce the losses. But they are supporting our current health care injustices that will only be made worse.
No compromises. No defense of the status quo. Gear up for an all out battle for health care justice for all. We’ll need to take to the streets for this one, literally and figuratively.
Geographical Distribution of Emergency Department Closures and Consequences on Heart Attack Patients
By Yu-Chu Shen Renee Y. Hsia
National Bureau of Economic Research, November 2016
NBER Working Paper 22861
We develop a conceptual framework and empirically investigate how a permanent emergency department (ED) closure affects patients with acute myocardial infarction (AMI). We first document that large increases in driving time to closest ED are more likely to happen in low- income communities and communities that had fewer medical resources at baseline. Then using a difference-in-differences design, we estimate the effect of an ED closure on access to cardiac care technology, treatment, and health outcomes among Medicare patients with AMI who lived in 24,567 ZIP codes that experienced no change, an increase of <10 minutes, 10 to <30 minutes, and 30 minutes in driving time to their closest ED. Overall, access to cardiac care declined in all communities experiencing a closure, with access to a coronary care unit decreasing by 18.64 percentage points (95% CI -30.15, -7.12) for those experiencing 30-minute increase in driving time. Even after controlling for access to technology and treatment, patients with the longest delays experienced a 6.58 (95% CI 2.49, 10.68) and 6.52 (95%CI 1.69, 11.35) percentage point increase in 90-day and 1-year mortality, respectively, compared with those not experiencing changes in distance. Our results also suggest that the predominant mechanism behind the mortality increase appeared to be time delay as opposed to availability of specialized cardiac treatment.
From the Discussion
Our results suggested that when patients had to drive at least 10 more minutes to their next available ED upon local ED closure, time delay became the dominant mechanism in affecting health outcomes when local ED closure occurred, both directly (as time delays causes more severe infarction) and indirectly through its effect on access and treatment.
The adverse effect of time delay on mortality rates became evident in communities that experienced 10-30 min increase in driving time, and became substantial in communities that experienced more than 30-minute increase in driving time. The adverse effect did not resolve even after we controlled for access and treatment, suggesting that the time delays likely made the prognosis worse, directly affecting mortality rates.
Our study showed that patients with AMI whose driving time to the nearest ED after local ED closure increased by 10 minutes or more had a significant increase in mortality. Among those who experienced a closure that resulted in a drive time increase of 30 minutes or more, they experienced a 30% higher 90-day mortality and 21% higher 1-year mortality. Increased driving time due to a closure was also associated with an overall decrease in access to cardiac technology in the remaining hospitals. Our findings suggest that permanent ED closure has substantial consequences on patient outcomes, particularly among communities with limited resources for time-sensitive illnesses such as AMI. We find that the predominant mechanism by which patients’ outcomes decline is primarily due to time delay, as opposed to changes in availability of treatment. We can conclude that while provision of necessary cardiac technology is one important factor for remaining hospitals, the effects of a time delay due to an ED closure are not easily mitigated.
Under our medical-industrial complex, decisions regarding location of facilities such as emergency departments are frequently based on business considerations of the market rather than on what would be optimal for the community. This NBER paper demonstrates that such decisions can be a matter of life or death. If closure of an emergency department results in more than a ten minute delay in access to the next closest hospital, mortality for an acute myocardial infarction is increased.
Under a well designed single payer system, planning is an integral part and is based on community need rather than on private profit potential. This is today’s message. What follows is a personal anecdote which you can skip unless you are curious.
Our community hospital in San Clemente, California – Saddleback Memorial Medical Center – is part of the MemorialCare Health System, located in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. It was decided that the San Clemente campus be converted from an acute care hospital into an outpatient center. After months of controversy and the inability to agree on this change, the owners decided to close our hospital, including the emergency department. It is now surrounded by a chain-link fence.
According to Google, the additional time required to travel to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo is 13 minutes, longer than the ten minute delay than can increase mortality in the event of an acute myocardial infarction, according to this study. But our freeway is frequently heavily congested due to stop-and-go beach traffic, especially throughout the extended weekend. The alternate route over surface roads is 23 minutes, according to Google. People will die.
One tiny glimmer of hope is that the hospital has refused to release the portraits of the former chiefs of staff hanging in a hallway (mine included). This suggests that the hospital owners have not given up on the facility. However it is likely that they will continue their demand that it be converted to an outpatient facility.
Why would they do this? An outpatient facility can be used to feed lucrative elective cases to their larger facility – Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills – whereas, as the only hospital in San Clemente, by virtue of EMTALA they would have to take all cases regardless of insurance status and profitability.
Even though MemorialCare is non-profit, it is still very much an active part of the medical-industrial complex. Although the delivery system can remain private, non-profit, we really do need a universal public financing system – a single payer improved Medicare for all. And we want our hospital back.
Backtrack to 2008 to 2010, when the increasing costs and unaffordability of insurance and health care for Americans were a front-burner issue. They remain so today.
Soon after coming into office, the new Obama administration worked for two years, in the name of health care “reform,” to appease corporate stakeholders in our well-entrenched medical-industrial complex. The political question then was not what was in the best interests of patients and families, but how to gain the support of the major corporate players, especially the insurance, hospital, and drug industries. Following their huge campaign donations, sending more than 4,500 lobbyists to the Beltway (eight for every member of Congress) (1) and a rapidly revolving door of conflicts of interest, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, or ACA and Obamacare) was passed by a narrow margin in Congress almost seven years ago.
Today, it is obvious to all that patients are still not protected by good insurance coverage at affordable rates, and that the very name of the bill is a misnomer. The costs of health care keep rising at rapid rates as insurers, hospitals and drug companies blame others for these increases. None of these industries have contained costs as they pursue their business model of making profits, with their highest priority maximizing revenues for their CEOs and shareholders. As we are now seeing, insurers exit markets when they are not sufficiently profitable, even as health care stocks have soared to the highest sector of the S & P 500.
Not only did the health insurance industry get some 20 million new enrollees as a result of the ACA (mostly through Medicaid expansion), but insurers gained many ways to decrease their risk for covering enrollees’ health care costs. These include offering plans covering as little as 60 percent of costs (bronze plans), receiving “risk corridor” funds protecting them from losses (now a court case), benefit designs that still discriminate against the sick, shrinking provider networks, restrictive drug formularies, offering limited-benefit bare-bones policies, and deceptive marketing practices. In no way have they contained costs, even as they have been subsidized by new enrollees through the exchanges. All the while, they have gained market power through consolidation as they consume 15 to 20 percent of U. S. health care expenditures, mostly through profiteering, administrative overhead, and bureaucratic waste. If their merger agreements survive court challenges, just three giants—Anthem/Cigna, United Health Group, and Aetna/Humana will collectively have a margin share exceeding more than 130 million Americans. (2)
Insurers have segmented the market in their own interests, shifting the burden of care of sicker patients to public programs. They have increasingly privatized both Medicare and Medicaid, resulting in higher administrative costs compared with public Medicare and Medicaid. They also maximize profits by cutting staff and value of coverage, resulting in worse outcomes for patients compared with public plans. (3)
Most people are unaware that the government already pays for about 64 percent of total health care spending—about $1.9 trillion in 2013, much of that by subsidizing private health care industries, especially private health insurance. There is a long history to this subsidization, dating back to policy decisions after World War II giving tax exemptions to employers for their costs of providing employer-sponsored health insurance.
The ACA bailed out the industry in 2010, which is once again calling for more government subsidies to stay in business. A just-released estimate by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) acknowledges that the three-year risk corridor deficit from 2014 through 2016 for insurer losses will exceed $14 billion. (4)
The Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee for Taxation estimate that the net subsidy from the federal government in 2016 for health insurance for people under age 65 and costs for Medicaid enrollees under age 65 will be $660 billion. (5) That estimate includes effects of preferential tax treatment for employer-sponsored coverage.
We can anticipate that insurers will make good on their threats to leave the market when we recall that 2.4 million private Medicare beneficiaries were abandoned in 2002, when they lost their Medicare + Choice coverage despite infusion of more federal dollars. (6)
The incoming Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress will be pressured to continue a further federal bailout of the private health insurance industry. But why whip a dead horse? It is past time to learn that corporate greed and the business model do not, and will never, serve the common good. As Wendell Potter, former Cigna executive and author of Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans, observes:
Folks, we are guilty of magical thinking. We’ve fallen for insurers’ deception and misdirection, hook, line and sinker. And many of us can’t be persuaded that we are being duped. Meanwhile, the shareholders of the big for-profits are laughing all the way to the bank. Every single day. (7)
We—Americans needing health care, employers, federal and state governments, and all of us taxpayers—cannot afford another bailout of the health insurance industry, especially since we have a real fix— single-payer, not-for-profit national health insurance, Medicare for All. It will provide universal access to care for our entire population, save us all money, give us free choice of physician and hospital, and improve our health care outcomes in a reformed system dedicated to service and the public interest. Corporate stakeholders with their political and economic power, and their lobbyists (most unregistered) are again pushing for continued government bailouts of this industry, which has not earned it. Another bailout cannot reverse the health insurance industry’s continuing death spiral.
John Geyman, M.D. is the author of The Human Face of ObamaCare: Promises vs. Reality and What Comes Next and How Obamacare is Unsustainable: Why We Need a Single-Payer Solution For All Americans
1. Eaton, J, Pell, MB. Lobbyists swarm capitol to influence health reform. Washington, D.C. The Center for Public Integrity, February 23, 2010)
2. Mattioli, D, Hoffman, L, Mathews, AW. Anthem hears $48 billion Cigna deal. Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2015: A1
3. Geyman, JP. The health insurance industry’s last-ditch holdup. The Huffington Post, August 15, 2016.)
4. Blase, B. A taxpayer bailout of ObamaCare insurers just got a lot more expensive. Forbes, November 21, 2016.)
5. CBO and JCT. Federal subsidies for health insurance coverage for people under 65: 2016 to 2026. March 24, 2016.
6. Waldholz, M. Prescriptions. Medicare seniors face confusion as HMOs bail out of program. Wall Street Journal, October 3, 2002: D4.)
7. (Potter, W. It’s way past time for us to stop deluding ourselves about private health insurers. The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2016: p. 20.)
House Republicans seek delay in case to end ACA cost-sharing subsidies
By Harris Meyer
Modern Healthcare, November 21, 2016
To buy President-elect Donald Trump time to craft an Affordable Care Act replacement, House Republicans have asked a federal appellate court to delay considering the Obama administration’s appeal in a case that could end some payments to health plans and throw the individual insurance market into chaos.
The House Republicans’ general counsel filed a motion Thursday to temporarily hold in abeyance all briefings in the appeal of a federal district court’s May ruling in House v. Burwell that the Obama administration illegally compensated insurers for reducing low-income enrollees’ cost-sharing responsibilities. A U.S. District Court judge nominated by President George W. Bush unexpectedly held that the payments were unconstitutional because Congress had not appropriated the money.
If those cost-sharing reduction payments were eliminated, as House Republicans have sought, insurers either would have to sharply raise premiums or exit the ACA exchange markets, since the law requires them to reduce cost-sharing burdens for eligible members in silver plans.
Some Republicans and health policy experts fear that any hasty, drastic moves would crash the individual insurance markets. They warn that ending the cost-sharing reductions without any replacement system might panic insurers by causing them to lose lots of money.
If Republicans Repeal Obamacare, Ryan Has Replacement Blueprint
By Alison Kodjak
NPR, November 21, 2016
The absence of specifics on health care from the president-elect makes the 37-page plan that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has released the fullest outline of what Republicans would like to replace Obamacare. Some health policy analysts say it looks a bit like Obamacare light.
Republicans repeatedly voted for repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) knowing that the severe adverse consequences would be prevented by serial vetoes by President Obama. They also filed a lawsuit – House v. Burwell – to prevent the payment of cost-sharing subsidies for exchange plans since the funds were never authorized by Congress. But since, to their surprise, a judge has ruled in favor of the Republicans, they are concerned about being blamed for the ensuing disaster if the judge’s decision were to be upheld.
Since they have never advanced replacement legislation, it is clear that this has only been a game of political chicanery and not a legitimate effort to advance their own concepts of whatever they may truly believe would be a superior health care financing system.
Since winning the election, Trump has posted seven items for action which together would “completely repeal” ACA but would introduce changes that would have only a negligible impact in making insurance more available and affordable. The Republicans clearly do not want to be blamed for taking away the expansions in coverage made possible by ACA, so the Trump proposals are not being taken seriously.
The Republicans have been considering many proposals, and they have been aggregated into a 37 page white paper released by Speaker Paul Ryan. Many of the measures would reduce the effectiveness of insurance plans and shift many of the costs of health care onto the individual patients. But it is clear to the Republicans that there are many policy principles that must be met to have any semblance of a functioning insurance market. When they include these requirements, they end up with a proposal that is very similar to Obamacare, except with less coverage and less regulation. Thus the Republican plan is referred to as “Obamacare light.”
We don’t know yet what will happen, but the Republican effort to halt their own lawsuit against the ACA subsidies indicates that they realize that they will have to come up with an effective proposal before they begin to reverse (and then somewhat surreptitiously reinstate) the reforms in ACA. That will likely be Obamacare light.
The improvements under ACA were not enough and have left us with a terribly deficient health care financing system. Under the Republicans, it will be more of the same, but worse. We cannot let up on our efforts to inform the nation that a single payer, improved Medicare for all would be a vast improvement, but it will not happen unless the people demand it. Although there is support for single payer, their voices are not loud enough yet to move the politicians. We need to change that.
CMS’ Hospital Quality Star Ratings Fail To Pass The Common Sense Test
By Susan Xu and Atul Grover
Health Affairs Blog, November 14, 2016
In July of 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) implemented a new overall star rating system on the Hospital Compare website. Almost all hospitals are now rated between one and five stars (higher is better) depending on performance on a series of quality metrics. CMS’ intent for the new star ratings is to “help patients and families learn about hospital quality, compare facilities side by side, and ask important questions about care quality.”
However, patients and families will find the newly released star ratings from CMS confusing at best and misleading at worst. Many well-known hospitals that are highly rated by other ranking systems are absent from the list of 102 hospitals that received five stars.
The star rating methodology intends to rate all hospitals based on 64 quality measures from seven quality domains and to make domain weight reflect relative importance of a quality domain to patients. CMS has assigned greater weight (66 percent of the overall star rating) to the three domains—mortality, readmission, and patient safety—that measure clinical outcomes such as whether a patient dies, contracts a hospital-acquired infection, or is readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of an inpatient stay. Other domains that focus on processes such as efficient use of medical imaging and timeliness of care are given less weight.
Nonetheless, CMS calculated and published star ratings for hospitals that had sufficient data to report on as few as three quality domains, including some hospitals that only had data from one clinical outcome domain. The fewer the clinical outcome domains a hospital reports, the less that hospital’s overall star rating is actually tied to performance on patient outcomes.
Among the 30 five-star hospitals that had sufficient data to report only the minimum number of quality domains required—three out of a total of seven (red bars)—14 had performed higher than the national average on only one quality domain, 15 performed above average on two domains, and a single hospital excelled at those three quality domains. Hospitals that reported all seven quality domains (yellow bars), however, needed at least three quality domains with above national average performance to receive a five-star rating.
This disconnect is a result of the fact that when a hospital has insufficient data to report on one or more quality domains, the “weights” of those missing domains are reallocated to the domains for which there is sufficient data.
Major teaching hospitals, a group that includes many of the nation’s most renowned hospitals, provide comprehensive services and thus are able to report on a majority of quality domains. In fact, 80 percent of major teaching hospitals reported on all seven quality domains. To receive ratings with more stars, these hospitals have to meet a higher standard than hospitals with fewer reported quality domains because of their narrower service areas and less diverse patient populations. Not only do major teaching hospitals need to achieve performance better than the national average in more quality domains, but their overall star ratings will also be heavily tied to the outcomes of their clinical services (e.g., mortality) instead of processes of care delivery (e.g., efficient use of medical imaging). While all improvement efforts can be challenging, we believe that it takes more to improve clinical outcomes—for example, saving a patient’s life—than to improve delivery process, such as reducing the use of imaging.
Many major teaching hospitals also serve a large population of patients who live in poverty and economically deprived neighborhoods. Study after study links low socioeconomic status (SES) to increased risk of readmission after inpatient discharge. Unfortunately, the readmission risk associated with patient SES is not currently adjusted for in quality domains like readmissions. That 70 percent of the major teaching hospitals with the highest share of low SES patients (top quartile) received one or two stars reflects more of the systematic bias in the ratings system.
To provide meaningful information for patients, families, and caregivers about hospital quality, a star ratings system has to make sense. At a minimum, quality performance among hospitals with the same star rating should be consistent. And higher star ratings should reflect better actual quality performance. Unfortunately, the CMS star ratings in their current form fail to meet this basic test and will do more harm than good to patients.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has been leading the charge to paying for quality instead of quantity, as if that will be the answer to our concerns about the high cost of health care. This report on CMS’s hospital quality star ratings reveals that the ratings are not only invalid, but they are potentially harmful because of the misinformation disseminated about the hospitals’ quality status.
This nonsense about paying for quality instead of quantity came about merely because our politicians and policy community refused to consider financing infrastructure changes that would control spending, while improving quality through better resource allocation – characteristics of a single payer financing system. Instead, they insisted on preserving the existing dysfunctional infrastructure that was not amenable to the mere tweaks provided by the Affordable Care Act.
CMS pretending that the hospital quality star rating will address our cost and quality problems is health policy malpractice. Let’s move on to a program that will work – a single payer national health program supervised by public stewards who care.
How California can survive Trumpcare
By Gerald F. Kominski
Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2016
No one knows exactly what Donald Trump’s pledge to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act means. The hints, however, are troubling. No state has embraced the ACA — Obamacare — more enthusiastically and successfully than California. And no state has more to lose with Trumpcare.
The question is, what comes next? The Trump campaign was short on details. Suggestions included promoting health savings accounts linked to high-deductible health plans; allowing insurance to be sold across state lines in an effort to increase competition and thus affordability; and allowing everyone to deduct health insurance premiums from their taxes.
In one “replace” scenario — contained in Ryan’s 2016 “A Better Way” proposal — those tax credits would continue but would no longer be scaled to income as they are under Obamacare.
As for Medi-Cal, Trumpcare would fundamentally transform the program. Under Trumpcare, each state will instead receive a block grant program that fixes its allocation at a to-be-determined point in time. Because healthcare spending has always grown faster than inflation, the real value of Trumpcare block grants is guaranteed to shrink over time.
For Medi-Cal, the options are some combination of cutting eligibility, cutting benefits and raising taxes. Paying providers less won’t be viable because California already has some of the lowest rates in the country for its Medicaid program.
For Covered California, higher taxes will be required if the state wants to keep the program going with health plans and policies that meet Obamacare standards. Californians would have to agree to make up whatever the shortfall is between Trumpcare’s tax credits and Obamacare credits. The only other option is reduced benefits.
A brand new state “single payer” plan is another possibility, but it would face its own challenges, particularly under a Republican administration in Washington hostile to innovations that aren’t based on the mythical “free” market for health. The economics and administration of single payer work best if all government health insurance programs — including Medicare, the Veterans Administration system and the military’s Tricare program, as well as the state’s CalPERS program for public employees — are folded into one plan. The Trump administration is not going to easily grant permission for California to exit the federal programs taking its share of the taxes that support them.
California’s experience with Obamacare has been extremely positive, and there are already indications that state politicians will try to keep it alive regardless of what Washington does. As the details of Trumpcare come into focus, so will the state’s best strategies to close the expected funding gaps. All options need to be considered, and no option should be ruled out quickly because it appears too difficult or politically impossible. Californians dream big, and that’s what will be required to keep healthcare accessible in the Golden State.
Gerald F. Kominski is director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
Quoting Professor Gerald Kominski:
“No option should be ruled out quickly because it appears too difficult or politically impossible.”
“The economics and administration of single payer work best if all government health insurance programs — including Medicare, the Veterans Administration system and the military’s Tricare program, as well as the state’s CalPERS program for public employees — are folded into one plan.”
We need to consider the possibility of “a ‘brand new’ state single payer plan.”
Obviously a national single payer program is what we really need, but that would require a total turnabout by Sen. McConnell and Speaker Ryan – a political shift that would be about as likely as electing Donald Trump president. But think about that for a minute. Think about what that means when someone says that it’s not politically feasible.
At any rate, California politicians have an excellent track record of supporting optimal policies. Just because they have been very successful in implementing the Affordable Care Act doesn’t mean that they should rest on their laurels and simply accept the intolerable deficiencies that remain.
It’s time for California to initiate another effort to move forward with enactment of whatever single payer policies are possible within federal restrictions that Congress refuses to waive – as an interim measure until we have an enlightened Congress and administration that will bring us a single payer national health program – an improved Medicare for all.
Unfinished Business: More than 20 Million Children in U.S. Still Lack Sufficient Access to Essential Health Care
Children’s Health Fund, November 2016
Children’s Health Fund (CHF) estimates that, at minimum, 20.3 million children in the United States (28% of all children) face barriers to accessing essential health care. This estimate covers children who are a) uninsured; b) children who don’t receive routine primary care; and c) publicly insured children who are connected to primary care but have unmet needs for pediatric subspecialty care when needed, such as pediatric cardiology or pediatric endocrinology.
Based on the collective reach and impact of Medicaid, CHIP, and ACA, the child uninsurance rate fell from 13.9 percent in 1997 (9.6 million) to 4.5 percent (3.3 million) in 2015—a drop of more than 67%. But there is still much to be done. We need to find ways to cover that remaining 4.5 percent—some 3.3 million children, many of whom are from the most marginalized communities and regions in the United States. And while important, uninsurance figures often promote the false dichotomy of “insured” versus “uninsured” children, ignoring the millions of children who are counted as insured but go without coverage for some portion of the year. Such coverage gaps matter. Discontinuous health coverage can negatively impact timely receipt of preventative and other crucial health care services.
Beyond the issue of coverage is an equally important question: Do children who receive some form of coverage actually access the care that that coverage is supposed to provide? The answer is often no. Based on data and our analysis, Children’s Health Fund believes that there are two main categories of barriers to obtaining health care: Financial and Non-financial.
Financial barriers refer to the costs imposed by a coverage plan that prevents children from accessing the care they need. Such barriers refer to costs such as high copays, high deductibles, and unaffordable prescription drug prices. CHF calculates that there are over 13.1 million children whose families report either having problems paying medical bills or being unable to pay medical bills. Provider-based barriers also contribute to the financial burden when clinics or providers won’t accept certain forms of insurance or create environments that promote insurance stigma.
Non-financial barriers most often take the form of either geographic barriers or informational barriers. Geographic barriers include issues of transportation, such as a lack of a car or poor public transit options, and federal-designated Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) where the number of health professionals in a given geographical area is insufficient for that population’s healthcare needs. CHF estimates that over 14 million children live in HSPAs. Informational barriers include parents’ health illiteracy, dauntingly complex language used in information about coverage eligibility and accessing care, and parents’ limited English proficiency.
In designing the Affordable Care Act, special attention was given to be sure that children were well covered by our system of public and private programs. Yet over 20 million children still have access barriers to essential health care services.
Look at some of the reasons for this impaired access and then imagine how it would be under a single payer system:
* 3.3 million children have no insurance at all. Single payer would automatically include everyone.
* Millions who are counted as insured have frequent gaps in coverage for a variety of reasons related to the fragmented nature of health care financing post-ACA. Single payer covers everyone for life, so there would be no gaps in coverage.
* High patient cost sharing and high prices frequently impair access to care. Under single payer, all essential services would be paid for in full, so there would be no financial barriers.
* Frequently certain insurance plans are not accepted by many health care providers. Under single payer, there is only one plan that would be accepted by all providers since there is no other option.
* The stigma of welfare plans such as Medicaid can interfere with access, especially for subspecialty care. Under single payer there is no separate welfare program for low-income individuals or families. Single payer would cover everyone, eliminating the stigma of assigning the poor to welfare programs.
* Over 14 million children live in federally designated Health Professional Shortage Areas, potentially impairing access. A single payer system plans and budgets capital improvements, providing improved distribution of our health care resources.
The attitude today seems to be that we have done a pretty good job of covering children, though maybe we need a few more tweaks that might slightly improve access, though it is not practical to fill in all of the voids. Nonsense. All we need is a well designed single payer system. It would dramatically improve access for these 20 million children (and everyone else) without increasing spending over our current levels.
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