Repeal + Replace

Repeal + Replace

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. 

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.

The Arc of Justice in Healthcare

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We all fear that phone call.  A medical report turns out the wrong way and life may never be the same.  When that call arrives we all have the same needs:  A doctor who cares, a place to go for treatment and the finances to afford what’s needed.  Starting on January 20th, some of my patients will join the 20 million whose lifeline to those fundamental needs becomes jeopardized.  

One of my patients facing this threat lost his job and health insurance during the 2008 recession.   Because he’s a diabetic and has a special needs son, no insurance company would sell his family a policy.   Why would they?   Diabetics and others with serious illnesses pose high risks for future health expenses.  Insurance companies make money by avoiding such risk.   After exhausting all the options, he sweated out 18 months with no coverage.   Finally, the roll-out of the California Exchange, funded by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), allowed him to buy an Anthem Blue Cross policy for his family.  

Do we really want millions of our fellow Americans to relive those nightmares?  We all benefit from the ACA’s fundamental commitment: That everyone deserves access to healthcare regardless of their ability to pay.  The policies guided by this principle moved us toward the achievement of universal coverage without changing the existing care of the majority of working families with employer based plans nor those with self-funded coverage.   

I Dub Thee “Three Pronged” Care

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There are approximately 18 million Americans who purchase health insurance on the so called individual market, on and off the Obamacare exchanges. There are another 14 million or so who could be buying insurance on the individual market, but choose not to buy anything. This puts the total individual market at about 10% of Americans. Half of those are, or are eligible to be, heavily subsided through Obamacare (including those huge deductibles). The other 5% are facing the full brunt of health insurance price increases under Obamacare. Of those, 3% are paying for Obamacare health insurance and getting garbage in return for their money, while the remaining 2% are uninsured.

This is the magnitude of the primary problem we are supposedly trying to solve. The 17% of Americans on Medicare are not upset at Obamacare. The approximately 23% of Americans on, or eligible to be on, Medicaid are not angry at Obamacare either (although the 1% eligible for the Medicaid expansion in states that chose not to expand it, might be angry with their Governors). Some of the 50% or so, who are getting health insurance through their employer, and used to get rather flimsy insurance in the past, may be somewhat disgruntled because the Obamacare imposition of “essential benefits” caused their share of premiums and deductibles to rise, and their ability to choose their doctors to plummet.

This is the secondary problem we are supposedly trying to solve. The American Health Care Act (AHCA) addresses neither problem and exacerbates both.

It Begins

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For the second time in a decade, a president and Congress will undertake a large-scale effort to re-engineer the health care system.   

Politics and debate over policy are not the primary cause of this continued upheaval.  It is our patchwork, Rube Goldberg-like system, developed ad hoc over 50 years.      

As THCB readers know, we have an insurance and care delivery system that works less well—in terms of public health, coverage, patient outcomes, and cost—than health care in most of the rest of the developed world. 

And, things are getting worse.  To wit: rising death rates among middle-aged, low- and middle-income white Americans; the unchecked rise in obesity and preventable chronic diseases and opioid addiction; and woefully slow progress to reduce medical errors and improve patient safety.    

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.

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.

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.   

Pig in a Poke Health Reform

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Uwe ReinhardtFrom a political perspective, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s trashing of ObamaCare (a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act or ACC) during CNN’s recent town hall meeting probably was quite effective. One would, of course, not expect a staunch political opponent of ObamaCare to render a “fair and balanced” picture of the program, to plagiarize a Fox News mantra. Not surprisingly, the Speaker dwelt solely on some serious shortcomings of ObamaCare that are by now well known among the cognoscenti.

The question now is precisely what would replace ObamaCare, as Republicans fall over one another in their haste to repeal it. Enumerating principles, as has been done in sundry tracts in recent years and is done once again in the House of Representatives’  “A Better Way”, is no longer enough. Yet even at this time of imminent repeal of ObamaCare, the crucial details of any replacement plan remain a mystery. Surely the time has come to let the cat out of the bag.

During the town hall meeting, for example, Speaker Ryan proposed the general outline of a system that would rely on high risk pools for Americans with pre-existing medical conditions, coupled with a market for individually purchased insurance policies whose modus operandi was largely unspecified. What would be the parameters of the high risk pools? Granted, it would have been difficult to be much more specific on this point than the Speaker was in a town hall meeting. But it would certainly have been helpful had there been a website to which he could have directed his audience for the specifics of a replacement plan built on a Republican consensus.  To my knowledge, there is no such website.

Risk pools have long been the workhorse of Republican rhetoric on health reform. One can think of such a pool as just another health insurance company selling insurance in the individual market for such policies to relatively sick applicants for insurance. To assess the merits of the coverage it sells, one surely would want to know: 

Replacing the ACA; Closing the Deal

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Last week, the CBO threw buckets of cold water on the American Health Care Act.

While there are serious questions concerning the CBO’s methods and its historical accuracy (see Avik Roy’s critique), Democrats fighting to defend the ACA as it heads towards collapse celebrated; they know CBO scores have potent political weight.

The Republican response was two fold—the loudest voices want to repeal the ACA and see what happens.  They’re wishing away the concerns of millions of Americans to demand a rapid march over the political cliff.

Many other Republicans (e.g., Senators from Medicaid expansion states) are quietly eying the hills. To succeed politically and substantively, the AHCA needs to preserve the ACA’s most popular features in a fiscally sustainable way while building a base of political support that lasts beyond the next election.

Here’s a path forward.

ACA’s core flaws.  The ACA has two fundamental flaws—it is financially unsound and politically unstable.  The ACA’s financial instability is hard-wired.  Combining a weak individual mandate, community rating that strongly tilts against young people, guaranteed issue and comprehensive benefits has produced predictable results. Too many young people have concluded the ACA’s a bad deal, too many others are gaming the system and premiums/deductibles are too high for too many.

Whether the ACA is in a death spiral is debatable.  Whether it’s heading that direction is not.

The ACA’s enactment added political instability to the mix. 

Had common ground with Republicans been found when the ACA was enacted, its repeal would not be today’s top legislative priority.

AHCA’s proposed fix; heat and light

The AHCA carries a heavy load of political peril. The AHCA replaces subsidies with refundable tax credits.  Critics on the left believe the tax credits won’t be generous enough.  Refundable tax credits give the Freedom Caucus real heartburn.