Repeal + Replace

Repeal + Replace

Not Really Insurance: The Pre-Existing Condition Debate

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The recent debate over the potential repeal and replacement of the ACA, with the current focus on coverage for preexisting conditions, has drawn a great deal of attention to the concept of health insurance.  While our political leaders are constantly talking about it, few of them seem to understand the “insurance” component of health insurance. As a result, much of what they say about preexisting condition coverage is gibberish. We are here to set the record straight.

At its most basic level, insurance provides protection against the risk of unexpected financial losses. We focus on the term risk because if we were risk neutral (i.e., we were indifferent between sure things and actuarially equivalent gambles), then we would not value this protection. But nearly all of us are risk averse, meaning that we would rather not face having to dramatically reduce consumption of everything we enjoy in the event we are hit with an astronomical medical bill.  Because we are risk averse, health insurance improves our collective well-being by helping us collectively smooth our consumption.  Everyone who purchases insurance consumes somewhat less of everything else when healthy, but does not have to consume dramatically less when sick.

Health Reform Must End the Harms of Prior Authorizations

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As the White House continues to push for a revised Republican proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), one thing is for certain, many of the sickest Americans will continue to suffer as they are denied medications and other treatments under current health insurance strategies to save costs.

Both the ACA, and the recently proposed MacArthur Amendment, do not address a well-established practice of health insurers’ use of restrictive prior authorization requirements to deny or delay coverage of medications and treatments to seriously ill patients. In my own practice caring for cancer patients and those with terminal conditions, I have witnessed the additional suffering caused by denying these patients timely access to medications for pain.

A prior authorization is essentially a check run by insurance companies or other third party payers before approving certain medications, treatments, or procedures for an individual patient. Insurance companies justify this practice as a means to save costs to consumers by preventing unnecessary procedures from being covered, or requiring generic drugs to be used instead of brand-name, more expensive alternatives.

Could Price Be Right?

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If confirmed as Secretary of HHS, Tom Price will oversee a $1 trillion budget – roughly one-third of all health expenditures.  His proposed legislation “Empowering Patients First” seeks to control costs by giving patients more choices and providing the information required to make them. He calls for publicly available standardized information on the price and quality of physicians, hospitals and other health care institutions.

It sounds like Dr. Price is prescribing a single data system. 

Medicare has had a single data system on the over-65 population for decades.  Since 2005, these data have informed Hospital Compare, a consumer oriented website comparing the quality of over 4000 hospitals.  And while prices in Medicare are relatively fixed, these same data have shown substantial variation in costs because the quantity of service – the number of hospital admissions, procedures and physician visits – varies substantially from place to place.

But Medicare is only one piece of the data puzzle.  A National Bureau of Economic Research report[nber.org] added another piece last year with data from large insurance companies like Aetna and United.  For the under-65 commercially insured population, it’s not just the quantity of services that are all over the map – it’s also the prices. 

Purging Healthcare of Unnatural Acts

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Everyone knows (or should know) that forcing a commercial health insurer to write for an individual a health insurance policy at a premium that falls short of the insurer’s best ex ante estimate of the cost of health care that individual will require is to force that insurer into what economists might call an unnatural act.

Remarkably, countries that rely on competing private health insurers to operate their universal, national health insurance systems all do just that. They allow each insurer to set the premium for a government-mandated , comprehensive benefit package, but require that each insurer “community-rate” that premium by charging the company’s individual customers that same premium, regardless of their health status and even age (with the exception of children).

American economists wonder why these countries do that, given that in the economist’s eyes community-rated health insurance premiums are “inefficient,” as economists define that term in their intra-professional dictionary. 

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA, otherwise known as “ObamaCare”) also mandates private insurers to quote community-rated premiums on the electronic market places created by the ACA, allowing adjustments only for age and whether or not an applicant smokes. But within age bands and smoker-status, insurers must charge the same premium to individual applicants regardless of their health status.

As fellow economist Mark V. Pauly points out in an illuminating two-part interview with Saurabh Jha, M.D., published earlier on this blog, aside from the “inefficiency” of that policy, it has some untoward but eminently predictable consequences. It happens when healthier people disobey the mandate to purchase insurance, leaving the risk pools of those insured in the ACA market places with sicker and sicker individuals, thus driving up the community-rated premiums. As Pauly points out at length, a weakly enforced mandate on individuals to be insured can become the Achilles heel of community rating.   

Jimmy Kimmel Left Out Some Important Stuff About Obamacare

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Late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel, in a recent opening monologue, spoke tearfully of his newborn son Billy, born with a serious congenital heart defect.  Heart defects in newborns, while uncommon, occur in 1 in 100 births.  The more serious ones, meaning those needing surgery in the first year, represent about a quarter of all congenital heart defects.

Jimmy’s son fell into the latter category, with Tetralogy of Fallot, bad plumbing in the heart, causing oxygen-poor blood to circulate out into the body without picking up a fresh supply of oxygen from the lungs.  Hence the newborn baby turning blue.

I have firsthand experience with this, as my youngest son was born with the same heart defect.  He needed surgery as an infant and then two additional open heart procedures before reaching adulthood.  I have walked in Jimmy Kimmel’s shoes and understand exactly what he is feeling – terror, anguish, guilt, helplessness, and hopelessness.

Trump’s Obamacare Debacle: Vanquished by a Ghost!

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Judging by the dazed expression on President Trump’s face at his Friday afternoon press conference, it is clear that he never saw his first major political defeat coming. It was as if he had stepped off the curb looking the other direction into the path of an uncoming bus.

The key to any political victory is situational awareness- clarity about your goals and mastery of the details. There were warning signs of a potentially fatal disengagement, for example, in Trump’s periodic references to “the healthcare” when discussing the issue.

It doesn’t make Trump’s political pain any more bearable to know that he was mugged by a ghost, by a potent political symbol nourished by the Obama administration. The stunningly rapid political failure of the American Health Care Act more resembled a botched exorcism than a serious exercise in health policy.

From his successful campaign, Trump knew that repealing and replacing ObamaCare was the most reliable thunderous applause line in his stump speech. This visceral connection moved the issue to the top of his political agenda. To Trump’s political base, repealing ObamaCare was striking a blow against a paternalistic all-knowing federal government, against interference in citizens’ private lives, against confiscation and redistribution of peoples’ wealth, to a new “entitlement” program, but most of all, against a President they reviled.

The Price Is Basically Right

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Recently, President-Elect Trump selected Rep. Tom Price, MD to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.  Suffice it to say, this signals Mr. Trumps’ resolve and commitment to definitively repealing and replacing.  Dr. Price has already sunk his teeth into health care reform, having proposed alternative healthcare solutions in every Congressional session since 2009.  As a physician myself, I am delighted at the prospect of having another doctor at the helm of HHS. The last physician to lead HHS was Louis Sullivan, MD as part of the administration of George H.W. Bush.  Having a physician, who can understand the needs of physicians and patients, representing both in health policy decision making at the federal level gives everyone the best chance for meaningful and successful health care reform. 

Dr. Price is a third generation physician and a retired orthopedic surgeon with experience in clinical practice and academia before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  At his core, he has been a fierce critic of Obamacare.  Dr. Prices’ most frequent objection to the ACA is the fact it hinders the ability of patients and physicians to be in control of medical decision making and puts the government squarely between doctors and patients.  Amen! He understands the subtle distinction that while expanding coverage may provide insurance, it is in no way akin to delivering patients unfettered access to health care. 

Paying Doctors For Outcomes Makes Sense in Theory. So Why Doesn’t it Work in the Real World?

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For decades, the costs of health care in America have escalated without comparable improvements in quality. This is the central paradox of the American system, in which costs outstrip those everywhere else in the developed world, even though health outcomes are rarely better, and often worse.

In an effort to introduce more powerful incentives for improving care, recent federal and private policies have turned to a “pay-for-performance” model: Physicians get bonuses for meeting certain “quality of care standards.” These can range from demonstrating that they have done procedures that ought to be part of a thorough physical (taking blood pressure) to producing a positive health outcome (a performance target like lower cholesterol, for instance).

Economists argue that such financial incentives motivate physicians to improve their performance and increase their incomes. In theory, that should improve patient outcomes. But in practice, pay-for-performance simply doesn’t work. Even worse, the best evidence reveals that giving doctors extra cash to do what they are trained to do can backfire in ways that harm patients’ health.

Dear President Trump, About That Health Care Law

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I hope you read this letter. I doubt you will.

I know you’re busy rebuilding Washington, reshaping the international order and doing a lot of other weighty stuff.  Full disclosure, I voted for you.  Not because you promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or because you tweeted at me about it, but because our healthcare system is hopelessly broken and requires an overhaul that does not simply convert over to a single payer system.

Recently you were quoted in an interview with Reuters:

“I loved my previous life… I had so many things going… this is more work than my previous life. I thought it would be easier.” Yes. I did too. Welcome to the frustrating world of shaping health care for a nation. It should be about making others’ lives better, but instead it is about padding lobbyist pockets.

There are people who say you’re the wrong man for this job. I think they have it exactly backwards.  You’re famous for your hatred of complicated solutions.  They annoy you. They annoy you because you know they’re a waste of time and energy.  Time and energy that can be put into more important things.

You’re also well known for your distrust of experts, who you’ve learned to dislike after years of doing business and listening to boring presentations by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. There are more experts in healthcare than any other area of the economy.  Does that tell you something? I think it does.

Dear Mr. President-Elect, about that Ryan Plan Thing

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The American people, myself proudly included, chose to send you to Washington DC to do their bidding. That’s what happened on November 8th 2016. Everything you hear now from the elite punditry is aimed at obfuscating this simple truth. Forget about dainty glass ceilings, we the people were able to break through the fortified ramparts erected by entrenched money and power and exercise our right to govern ourselves. I would caution the smug intelligentsia against underestimating the wisdom of the people once again, and I would caution you against forgetting who sent you there and why we did so. We now know we have the power, and what the people giveth, the people can taketh away.

RYANCARE

The ecstatic welcome you received from Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell the other day looks more like an act of violence than one of true reconciliation. Fair weather friends are usually there because they want something, and in this case they want to highjack the people’s agenda and replace it with their own conservative garbage. Mr. Ryan in particular has been proposing bogus alternatives to Obamacare with alarming regularity. Similar to Obamacare, Mr. Ryan’s health reform plan is based on belief in his own superior intelligence and devoid of any evidence that it can indeed work. Unlike Obamacare, the Ryan plan is also based on the assumption that helping the poor get poorer and the rich get richer is the ultimate role of government.