Repeal + Replace

Repeal + Replace

WaPo Leaked Tape of GOP Repeal & Replace Talks is Troubling. But Also Weirdly Reassuring …

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“We’re telling those people that we’re not going to pull the rug out from under them, and if we do this too fast, we are in fact going to pull the rug out from under them.” 

– Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J)

“The fact is, we cannot repeal Obamacare through reconciliation.  We need to understand exactly: what does that reconciliation market look like.  And I haven’t heard the answer yet.” 

– Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif)

“It sounds like we are going to be raising taxes on the middle class in order to pay for these new tax credits.” 

– Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La) 

These quotes, and many others, from a leaked recording of the Republican closed-door strategy session in Philadelphia last week are both jarring and reassuring.   

They reveal in harsh light what the media, pundits, and commentators have been saying for weeks: the Trump administration and congressional Republicans are in a deep quandary about the best path forward on repeal and replace, and are just beginning to weigh the pros and cons of the complex policy options involved. 

But the discussion also shows us that rank and file Republican lawmakers understand the difficulty of the task and know the political price they’ll pay if they screw it up.  Their remarks also imply frustration with the cavalier, ill-informed, and mixed-message statements coming out of the White House.

Democrats Paid a Steep Price For Ignoring the CBO. Republicans Will Too.

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Eight years ago it was Democrats who were criticizing the Congressional Budget Office. Now it’s Republicans who are bashing the CBO for estimating that 14 million Americans will lose their health insurance next year if the House Republicans’ “repeal and replace” bill becomes law.

The media and the blogosphere have done a reasonably good job of debunking the Republicans’ criticisms of the CBO. Any citizen paying attention can discover that although fewer people enrolled in the Obamacare exchanges in 2014 than the CBO predicted in 2010, the CBO correctly forecast that the uninsured rate would fall by about half and that employers would not stop offering health insurance. The attentive citizen can also discover that the CBO’s predictions were more accurate than those of many other experts.

The media has also reported that Democrats leveled their own unfair criticisms against the CBO back in 2009 and 2010. Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Max Baucus, to name just a few prominent Democrats, criticized the CBO for not giving the alleged cost-containment provisions in the Affordable Care Act more credit.

I want to make three points here that I have not seen made elsewhere:

(1) The criticism that both Democrats and Republicans make of the CBO consists almost exclusively of raw opinion, usually delivered in a huff, and almost never cites or discusses research;

(2) The CBO may have been off in predicting how many people would enroll in Obamacare and Medicaid, but it was accurate in predicting the failure of the managed care fads written into the ACA to cut costs; and

(3) Today, more than ever, America needs the CBO because the CBO adheres to the quaint principle that evidence should trump ideology.

Letter from Washington:
Don’t Jump … Yet

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Washington, D.C. hardly seems like a town on suicide watch.

As November turned to December, from the venerable Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House, to Charlie Palmer Steak at 101 Constitution and over to The Capital Grille at 601 Pennsylvania, revelers abounded, in both food and drink.

At the Capitol Hyatt on New Jersey Avenue though, some contrasts were evident. While contestants from the Miss World 2016 pageant moved in and out of the upper lobby to awaiting buses, in the lower-level meeting rooms, also from November 30 to December 2, the mood was hopeful optimism meets whistling past the graveyard.

There the Jefferson College of Population Health summit brought forth Andy Slavitt, Michael Leavitt, Farzad Mostashari, NCQA President Peggy O’Kane, former advisors from the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, officials from Johns Hopkins, the Henry Ford Health System, Brookings, Deloitte, AMA, AHA and the American College of Physicians and many more to dissect MACRA and ponder “population health strategy under the new administration.”

The consensus on where value-based care (VBC) is heading?

Wait and see.

Repealing the Right to Redistribute ‘Other Peoples’ Money’

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Republicans are having a hard time agreeing on how and when to repeal Obamacare. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is difficult to unravel because it was designed to alleviate a problem too costly for the government alone to fix. The health care law was passed to make medical care more accessible for low-income Americans and those with pre-existing conditions. This was to be done largely by socializing the costs and spreading the burden among a much broader segment of the healthy population. This is not unlike a pyramid scheme, where a broad base of people at the bottom get ripped so a few at the top can benefit.

Republicans have it within their power to use a process known as budget reconciliation to repeal Obamacare provisions that involve the budget, with a simple majority vote. For example, Republicans can repeal the taxes, fees and appropriations that fund the ACA. The individual and employer mandates, with associated penalties, can also be repealed. What Republicans cannot do is repeal the costly insurance regulations that drive up premiums for most people. That would require the help of perhaps a dozen skeptical Democrats.

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.   

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 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.

A Better “Better Way”

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Reports coming out of Washington suggest that Republicans may have bitten off more than they would like to chew with repealing & replacing the ACA, with a proliferation of proposals and no consensus on which to support, or how to get the 60 Senate votes needed to turn an eventual consensus plan into law.

There is a general consensus in the GOP to proceed with the budget reconciliation process, but if they pass the bill the House passed in 2015, it will immediately defund plan subsidies and the Medicaid expansion, setting up 25 million or more to lose their coverage right around midterm elections in 2018.

Even a less drastic budget reconciliation bill, for example one that gets rid of the individual and employer mandates by deleting the penalties associated with them, would leave us with a, “zombie ACA”, with everything not budget-related still in place, but malfunctioning with unintended consequences.

All this uncertainty is bad—it’s bad for the government, it’s bad for industry, and most importantly, it’s bad for the tens of millions of confused consumers trying to make informed decisions about how and if they can get health coverage.

Taking a step back

As the saying goes, when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In this case, when you have a legislative majority, every problem looks like it should be solved by changing the law.

But does that have to be the case? What if Congressional Republicans were to take a back seat and let Tom Price and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) begin the process of reforming health reform?