Trump

Trump

Repealed or Repaired?

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Last Wednesday marked the sixth anniversary of the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. As of this week, the five Presidential aspirants have each articulated key changes they’d propose, though polls show interest in the law is largely among Democrats who consider healthcare a major issue along with national security and the economy.

GOP candidates Trump, Cruz and Kasich say they will repeal the law; Democratic frontrunner Clinton says she will repair it, and her challenger, Bernie Sanders, promises to replace it with universal coverage. Some speculate that candidate Clinton’s plan will ultimately mirror her Health Security Act of 1993 that parallels the Affordable Care Act in many respects. But the law gets scant attention on the campaign trails other than their intent about its destiny if elected.

I have read the ACA at least 30 times, each time musing over its complexity, intended results, unintended consequences and hanging chads. At the risk of over-simplification, the law purposed to achieve two aims: to increase access to insurance for those unable to qualify or afford coverage, and to bend the cost curve downward from its 30 year climb. It passed both houses of Congress in the midst of our nation’s second deepest downturn since the Great Depression. Unemployment was above 10%, the GDP was flat, and companies were cutting costs and offshoring to adapt.

The “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” soon after became known as the “Affordable Care Act”, and then, in the 2010 Congressional Campaign season that followed its passage, “Obamacare”. It was then and now a divisive law: Kaiser tracking polls show the nation has been evenly divided for and against: those opposed see it as “the government takeover of healthcare” that will dismantle an arguably expensive system that works for most, while those supportive see it as a necessary to securing insurance coverage for those lacking.

Premium Hikes in the Exchanges: Not Good News, But Not the End of Obamacare Either

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OK.  Yes, this is bad.  The Obama administration is being disingenuous if it tries to spin it any other way.   And, as has been clear for several months, this hands Hillary a “nasty” issue (pun intended). 

The “this,” of course, is the administration’s announcement on Oct. 24—after weeks of speculation and anticipation—that premiums in the exchanges will rise by an average 22% for 2017 coverage (if both state- and federally-run exchanges are included in the count.)

Despite the fact that tax subsidies will significantly soften the blow for the vast majority of people buying health insurance in the exchanges, millions of families will still be adversely affected.  

Specifically, about 2 million people who will buy coverage through the exchanges in 2017 will not get subsidies because their incomes are too high.  You could argue: hey, they can afford it.  But it’s still a pretty big hit when your monthly premium goes from $500 a month to $625.   

Obama Channeled Orszag, Orszag Channeled the Dartmouth Institute

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flying cadeuciiIn an open letter to President Obama that I posted here on August 24, I stated that his expectation that the Affordable Care Act would have a deflationary effect was naive. I said he was badly misled by the managed care movement, and that he should never have accepted the movement’s diagnosis (overuse) and solutions (shifting insurance risk to doctors and micromanaging them). To help him understand that, I said I would post criticism of three prominent managed care proponents who influenced him: Elliott Fisher and his colleagues at the Dartmouth Institute, Atul Gawande, and Peter Orszag.

I will start with Elliott Fisher and his colleagues at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Research because they have been so influential with the entire health policy elite, not just Obama. I will devote this post and the next to them. I devote this post to demonstrating how influential they have been; I devote the next post to demonstrating how misleading they have been.

The Dartmouth Institute deserves credit for assembling data that shows substantial variation in the rate at which medical services are provided, both within small areas and between regions of the country. This data is very useful for generating hypotheses in need of further research. But the group deserves severe criticism for promoting the conclusion that variation can be explained primarily by overuse and virtually none of it can be explained by underuse, and for promoting “accountable care organizations” and other forms of “integrated care” as the solution that will address their erroneous overuse diagnosis.

Something Not So Terrific

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The brand new President Barack Obama, whether wittingly or not, invested his entire political capital in reforming health care in America. He gambled and he lost, not because he had nefarious intentions, but because he left the gory details to a corrupt Congress and a shady cadre of lying and conniving technocrats, ending up with something vastly different from what he campaigned on. From everything I’m reading now, Mr. Trump is about to walk in Mr. Obama’s footsteps, and if he does, the results will be unsurprisingly identical.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump repeatedly stated that Bernie Sanders forfeited his place in history when he “made a deal with the devil” and embraced the corrupt Democratic Party establishment that fought his candidacy in most abject fashion. Guess what? Mr. Trump seems to be making the same deal with the red version of the same devil. Mr. Trump’s cabinet choices indicate that he is now embracing the ultra-conservative factions of the Republican Party, the same people who actively or passive-aggressively opposed his candidacy. Nowhere is this peculiar and completely unnecessary capitulation more evident than in the beleaguered health care sector.

Seven Pillars of Trumpcare

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flying cadeuciiIt is possible that in a few months from now, only Nate Silver’s prediction models will stand between Donald Trump and the White House. I will leave it to future anthropologists to write about the significance of that moment. For now, the question “What will President Trump be doing when he is not building a wall?” has assumed salience.

This is relatively easy to answer when it comes to health policy. Just ask what people want. Seniors don’t want Medicare rescinded. Even the free market fundamentalist group, the Tea Party, wants Medicare benefits as they stand. At one of their demonstrations against Obamacare a protester warned, without leaving a trace of irony, “Government, hands off my Medicare.

Rest assured, Trump will protect Medicare. Even raising the eligibility age for Medicare may be off the cards as far as he is concerned. He has promised that no one will be left dying on the streets. That people no longer die on the streets, but in hospitals, because emergency rooms must treat patients regardless of their ability to pay, is irrelevant. The point is that Mr. Trump knows that the public values their healthcare. Trumpcare will show that Trump cares.

Huge ACA Rate Hikes in 100
Words or Less

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ACA permits people to sign up even if they are already sick. Real insurance cannot work that way.

Imagine an Accountable Fire Insurance Act that required insurers to sell you fire insurance after your home had burned. Homeowner insurance rates would skyrocket. Anyone who carefully read the ACA would see that coming.

The big insurers knew this would happen but played along in the beginning to avoid attracting political fire.

When 75% of Americans get a taxpayer subsidy under ACA, it isn’t really insurance but more of an income redistribution mechanism…for better for worse.

There it is, 97 words.

Cancer and the Politics of Moonshots

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As many of the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates lament the high cost of healthcare and put forth how they aim to make it more cost effective, few have focused on the impact of out-of-pocket costs specifically for cancer patients. They should. One in every two men and one in every three women will get cancer at some point over their lifetime. As the U.S. population and American lifespans increase, this toll will have major financial ramification for everyone.

When fighting against the disease, cancer patients are often at the mercy of the pharmaceutical industry. Given Pfizer’s recent announcement that it plans to merge with Allergan, making it the largest pharmaceutical company in the world, many cancer patients are wondering what this will mean in terms of their cost of care. Pfizer, a giant in the cancer pharma space, already raised prices on 133 of its brand-name drugs last year, and they are not alone.  Big pharma has raised cancer drug prices up to 5000%. Recently ousted Turing CEO Martin Shkreli justified such hikes explaining, “I could have raised [prices] higher and made more profits for our shareholders, which is my primary duty.” The lack of focus on patients spawned outrage amongst patients, providers and even politicians, but the drug industry seems to be “in denial of the seriousness of its pricing problem.”

Granted, drug production takes years of research and can cost $350 million to get a single drug to market. Considering 95% of the experimental drugs will never see a pharmacy shelf, it might seem reasonable that the cost to patients is on the increase.  But contrary to the pharmaceutical industry’s claims, the cost of innovation is not the driver of drug prices. A study published in JAMA Oncology found that prices of cancer drugs are not tied to novelty nor to effectiveness, but rather set to what the market can bear. Here within lies the problem: if you’re a patient faced with a cancer diagnosis, wouldn’t you pay whatever the cost, no matter the price?

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.

Trump’s Healthcare Plan: Right Diagnosis, Wrong Prescription

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Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 9.37.58 AMDonald Trump recently released a healthcare reform plan. If only he had spent as much time crafting it as he does his hair. 

The GOP frontrunner is right that Obamacare has failed to fix what ails America’s healthcare system. As Trump put it, the Affordable Care Act has “tragically but predictably resulted in runaway costs, websites that don’t work, greater rationing of care, higher premiums, less competition and fewer choices.”  He famously said that he wants to “repeal and replace with something terrific.”

But “terrific” his plan is not.

Take, for instance, his proposal to legalize the importation of “safe and dependable [prescription] drugs from overseas.”

Importing cheaper drugs from other countries may seem like a great way to reduce the cost of medicine for Americans. But there are important reasons why it’s currently prohibited.

Is the ACA Merely a Step Towards Single-Payer “Medicare-for-All?”

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A recent commentary in the Wall Street Journal announced, “Obamacare’s meltdown has arrived.” Over the years I’ve heard conspiracy theories that the Affordable Care Act was designed to fail, as a means to nudge a reluctant nation one step closer to a single-payer, Medicare-for-All health care system.

Bernie Sanders famously advocated for single-payer during his campaign.  In 2011, the Vermont legislature passed a bill to create a single-payer initiative. Green Mountain Care was abandoned in 2014 by Vermont’s governor — a Democrat — as being too costly. Despite an 11.5 percent payroll and a sliding-scale income tax of up to 9.5 percent, Green Mountain Care was projected to run deficits by 2020.   

A similar single-payer initiative is now taking place in Colorado. Amendment 69, known as ColoradoCare, would create a taxpayer-funded health insurer. ColoradoCare would be available to nearly all Colorado residents, including Medicaid enrollees. Federal programs, such as Medicare, TRICARE and the VA would remain in place, however.