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GOP

We are hearing that Republicans are considering proposing high-risk pools as part of an alternative health insurance reform proposal to Obamacare.

A high-risk pool proposal would likely mean the Congress giving states the flexibility, and perhaps funding, to set up these risk pools. Risk pools by definition are a place where people can go when they are not able to buy health insurance in the regular market because they have a health problem.

That means Republicans would be turning the clock back to a time when insurance companies could turn people down for health insurance because of their health status.

Presumably, the Republicans are contemplating a market where insurance companies could once again choose just who they wanted to cover––the healthy but not the sick.

Anyone turned down could then go the high-risk pool to be assured of having health insurance. Presumably, Republicans would assure consumers that they would be able to access the same kind of comprehensive health insurance and at the same market rates as those able to buy from insurance companies would be able to get.

Let me be clear at this point that I don’t know of anyone in the insurance industry asking to go back to the days when a carrier could exclude people as a result of their health status and make money just covering the healthy.

Whether it’s Obamacare or a risk pool concept, policymakers are faced with the same dilemma: How do you insinuate the unhealthy and otherwise uninsurable into a health insurance system in a way that benefits are comprehensive and costs are affordable for everyone?

Continue reading “Republicans Considering Proposing High-Risk Pools: Health Insurance Ghettos???”

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In light of Thursday’s bicameral, bipartisan release of a Medicare physician payment policy to permanently replace the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula – an achievement to be celebrated in its own right – some are seeing momentum toward passage of such a deal before the current doc fix  expires on March 31.

But the scope of what the committees issued Thursday represents as much of a step back as a step forward, at least relative to their aspirations and timeline for accomplishing them.

Once the appointment of Senator Baucus to be Ambassador to China was announced, the committees agreed to make it “as far as they could” toward a comprehensive SGR replacement policy prior to his confirmation, including identifying offsets to pay for the $125-150 billion (over 10 years) bill. For those who missed it, Senator Baucus was confirmed on Thursday.

Only in the past week did the key committees acknowledge that achieving agreement on offsets by this deadline was unattainable, but finalization of the so-called “extenders,” a hodge podge of Medicare payment plus-ups and other polices perennially included with the doc fix, was still the goal.

(Recall that the Senate Finance Committee passed an SGR replacement bill with extenders in December, but their House counterparts have yet to do so.)

In negotiations on that extenders element, House Republican leads reportedly would not agree to include beneficiary-oriented policies, such as funding for outreach to Medicare enrollees regarding low-income subsidy programs and for Family-to-Family Health Information Centers.

While some Democrats involved in the talks may have been inclined to make this concession, others sharply objected, scuttling a deal on this front and demonstrating the difficulty of compromise on this relatively non-controversial topic.

Furthermore, and has always been the assumption, identifying offsets for the package continues to be an exponentially heavier lift than any other aspect of the process. On that front, the key camps have outlined their broad parameters for what they might accept.

House Republican leads desire and likely require meaningful cuts to ACA-related spending as well as a substantial balance of Medicare beneficiary-impacting cuts, such as those relating to premiums and coinsurance.

Continue reading “Don’t Be Fooled, Prospects for Long-Term SGR Fix Still Dim”

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What a difference a few weeks make. Just as Republicans were desperately trying to extricate themselves from the fiasco of tying budget passage and debt ceiling legislation to repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the White House came to their rescue with its disastrous healthcare.gov start-up.

It’s now looking like the most egregious healthcare.gov glitches will be fixed by year-end, but with enough problems remaining in 2014 to continue to provide fodder for conservative (and other) critics. Unfortunately for the administration, just as the technical bugs are ironed out the spotlight will move to other aspects of Obamacare.

Premiums are going to take a jump next year, reflecting the lower than projected enrollment by the young and healthy (thanks in part to the healthcare.gov fiasco and the confusion created by Presidential and Congressional attempts to allow non-compliant plans to be extended). There’s a good chance of wholesale cancellations, too, as some insurers take a long look at the unhealthy business they’ve acquired and decide to abandon the exchange market. And it’s almost a given that every other increase in premiums or cut in coverage or cancellation of insurance will be blamed on the upheaval of the Affordable Care Act.

It’s enough to make gleeful Republican leaders believe in the Tooth Fairy.

But will the Tooth Fairy continue to deliver, notably in the Congressional midterms in 2014 and the Presidential election in 2016? The public attention span is notoriously short, and while the current chaos may influence the 2014 midterms, by 2016 the healthcare.gov disaster is likely to be a fading memory. Barack Obama won’t be running for reelection, so harping on the present White House’s incompetence will have limited impact. And while the eventual imposition of IRS fines on those still without coverage will certainly generate a new round of outrage–even assuming the IRS gets the calculations right–Hilary Clinton, or whoever the Democratic candidate turns out to be, will reasonably be able to ask “So where was the Republicans’ better idea?”

Continue reading “The Republican Dilemma”

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The reason that Republicans shut down the federal government, it turns out, was to “restore patient-centered healthcare in America.”

Huh?

As the lead author of a policy paper entitled, “Will the Affordable Care Act Move Patient-Centeredness to Center Stage?” I admit to a certain guilty thrill when I read this precise demand coming as the climax of a letter sent by 80 hard-right representatives to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). You don’t get much more “center stage” than shutting off the federal money spigot, which is what the letter – discussed in a recent article in The New Yorker – threatened unless the ACA was defunded.

Having said that, patient-centeredness was a truly odd choice to occupy a central role in the conservative casus belli that ended up disrupting the entire U.S. economy until the right wing finally caved.

To begin with, the term is a minor piece of jargon likely to draw blank stares from pretty much the entire American public. Even for us health policy mavens, the GOP letter linking James Madison on the redress of grievances to defunding Obamacare to a “restoration” of patient-centeredness required major mental gymnastics.

Then there’s the unintentional linguistic irony. The term “patient-centered medicine” originated after World War II with a psychoanalyst who urged physicians to relate to patients as people with physical and psychological needs, not just a bundle of symptoms. “Patient-centered care” further defined itself as exploring “patients’ needs and concerns as patients themselves define them,” according to a book by the Picker/Commonwealth Program for Patient-Centered Care, which coined the term in 1987. Patient-centered care was adopted as a “goal” by the Institute of Medicine, which added its own definition, in 2001.

But here’s where the irony kicks in. Obamacare opponents assert that the ACA undermines the traditional doctor-patient relationship – although I suspect that being able to pay your doctor because you have health insurance actually improves it quite a bit.

Yet in calling for “patient-centered healthcare” instead of the more common “patient-centered care” or even patient-centered medicine, conservatives unwittingly abandoned doctor-patient language in favor of business-speak.

Continue reading “GOP’s Oddest Obamacare Rejection: “Patient-Centered Healthcare””

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Today’s House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing/grilling of the contractors behind Healthcare.gov brought a lot of defenses and fingerpointing, but little clarity of when the website will be fixed.

Still, here are some of the more-memorable quotes. The sources are below each.

“I will not yield to this monkey court,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said when Republican lawmakers tried to talk about online privacy fears. -Politico

“This is not about blame. It’s about accountability,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “We still don’t know the real picture, as the administration appears allergic to transparency.” - WSJ.com

“CMS [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] had the ultimate decision to go live or not go live,” said Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, the lead federal contractor on the project. “At CGI we were not in position to make that decision. We were there to support the client. It’s not our position to tell clients whether to go live or not go live.” —  Washington Post

“Amazon and eBay don’t crash the week before Christmas,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, a Democrat. “ProFlowers doesn’t crash on Valentine’s Day.” – NBC News

“Three weeks after the Web site went live, we are still hearing reports of significant problems. These problems need to be fixed, and they need to be fixed fast,” said Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado. -New York Times

“We understand the frustration many people have felt since healthcare.gov was launched. We have been and remain accountable for the performance of our tools and our work product,” said Andrew Slavitt, the group executive vice president for Optum/QSSI, a contractor on the project.   – ABC News

Meanwhile, HHS officials may be regretting their decision to give Healthcare.gov visitors the ability to post comments to the site. ProPublica reporters reviewed over 500 comments posted at https://www.healthcare.gov/connect/.

A sampling:

Wrongly Listed As Jailed

“Website said my wife and I were ineligible due to current incarceration. We have never been arrested in our lives, both 63!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” Fred wrote on Oct. 21.

Health Problems Made Worse

“I have a pre-existing condition …. a-fib…..and actually had an attack after getting frustrated with this confusing mess,” Bill wrote on Oct. 22. (A-fib refers to atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heartbeat.)

Daughter is Not a Daughter Anymore

“I am having difficulty with my account,” Joanna wrote on Oct. 22. “It appears that my daughter was added twice so that I now have two daughters with the same name and social security number. I am unable to delete one of them.  Also, the drop down menu that relates to what relationship someone is to another is faulty. I choose that my husband is the father of our daughter and that my daughter is a dependant [sic] to me and my husband. What it actually shows though is that my daughter is a stepdaughter to her father and that my daughter is now both my husband and I’s parent. “

Continue reading “Round One of the Obamacare Exchange Hearings. Angry Republicans 6 Contractors 0.”

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Today, more than three years after being signed into law, and more than a year after surviving a Supreme Court challenge, the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, finally begins to fulfill its promise. Most of this country has long since taken sides, despite appalling gaps in popular understanding of what the law means, what it does, and what it doesn’t do.

Let me admit that I’ve never had particularly warm feelings toward President Obama. I think his foreign policy is a mess. The trillions in debt that the U.S. has run up over the past 5 years will hurt my generation and future generations, and if Republicans can be faulted for their fantasy that the federal budget can be balanced exclusively through spending cuts, Obama has sustained the Democratic fairy tale that raising taxes on “millionaires and billionaires” is all that is necessary to pay the skyrocketing bills.

On multiple occasions during my time in government, the President had no qualms about squashing science and scientists for political convenience. He is a perpetual campaigner, preferring theatrical gestures to the backstage grunt work of governing. And for all of his rhetorical gifts when preaching to the choir, he’s been one of the least effective persuaders-in-chief to have held the office.

And so, naturally, I oppose Obamacare. I oppose a government takeover of health care that includes morally repugnant death panels staffed by faceless bureaucrats who will decide whose grandparents live or die and make it impossible for clinicians to provide compassionate end-of-life care. I oppose the provision in Obamacare that says that in order for some of the 50 million uninsured Americans to obtain health insurance, an equal or greater number must forfeit their existing plans or be laid off from their jobs.

I oppose the discarding of personal responsibility for one’s health in Obamacare. I oppose Obamacare’s expansion of the nanny-state that will regulate the most private aspects of people’s lives.

It’s a good thing that Obamacare, constructed on a foundation of health reform scare stories, doesn’t exist and never will.

Instead, the Affordable Care Act (which I support) is based on a similar law in Massachusetts that was signed by a Republican governor and openly supported by the administration of George W. Bush. It achieves the bulk of health insurance expansion by leveling the playing field for self-employed persons and employees of small businesses who, until now, didn’t have a fraction of the premium negotiating power of large corporations that pool risk and provide benefits regardless of health status.

Continue reading “I Oppose Obamacare. I Support the Affordable Care Act.”

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There is nothing controversial about stopping Obamacare. A majority of Americans dislike the law and want it repealed. Obamacare is disastrous for individuals, businesses, and doctors alike. It is unaffordable and unworkable, and the Obama Administration has also made it unfair by giving its pet interest groups waivers and opt-outs.

Conservatives are also united behind full repeal of Obamacare, despite what you may hear from the media and liberal operatives. The debate right now is on how this goal is best achieved.

Debate is healthy for society, and also for a movement. Conservatives should not want to become the empty echo chamber that has become the liberal political/media/academic establishment.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the debate over how to save the country from Obamacare. Our view is that the most effective way to delay Obamacare is to cut off funding. Congress can halt Obamacare’s disastrous impact by defunding it entirely before the law’s health insurance exchanges take effect on October 1.

This approach would prevent further implementation of the law; it is the only tactic that fully achieves the objective that advocates of delay seek to accomplish.

Some conservatives believe they can achieve delay without defunding by postponing the individual mandate and employer mandate for one year while leaving firmly in place the massive federal spending on Obamacare’s new health care entitlements—$48 billion next year, and nearly $1.8 trillion over 10 years. Others, acknowledging that a delay of the mandate is insufficient, are now calling for Congress to delay the mandates and the new entitlements.

Continue reading “The Most Effective Obamacare Delay is Defunding”

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Stealthily, AHRQ has acquired a new head, but the ax still hovers over it.

Very quietly, researcher Richard Kronick, PhD was named by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to be the new director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). He joins an organization that remains squarely on the House GOP’s chopping block and with few friends strong enough to ward off the blow.

Last fall, when a House appropriations subcommittee voted to eliminate all AHRQ funding, I wrote that the agency’s execution went almost unnoticed: it didn’t even rate a separate mention in the committee’s lengthy press release.

Back then, the House GOP’s big target was Big Bird, a/k/a funding for public broadcasting. Since then, the rampaging Republican right-wing has decided it won’t approve subsidies to farmers unless it can also slash food stamps to the poor and that undocumented immigrants are mostly a law-and-order problem, not a human one. That these positions contradict views held by many conservative Republican senators, governors and party leaders has had little to no effect.

Enter Kronick, after a months-long search to replace Dr. Carolyn Clancy, who’d held the top AHRQ post since February, 2003. Oddly, the announcement by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wasn’t posted on the HHS website or even the AHRQ one. Searching Kronick’s name simply turned up press releases from his current position as deputy assistant secretary for health policy. According to MedPage Today, the naming of Kronick was made “in the department’s daily electronic afternoon newsletter.”

Why? My guess: politics.

Clancy was known for good relations with policymakers of both parties; she was upgraded from “acting director” to permanent status during the George W. Bush administration. Her predecessor, Dr. John Eisenberg, enjoyed a similar bipartisan rapport. Of course, that was before conservatism gave way to crusaders. Kronick, by contrast, has a background almost tailor-made to tick off Tea Partyers.

Continue reading “In a Quiet Move, Washington Replaces the Head of AHRQ. Is It Too Late to Save the Agency?”

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If you wanted to know what doctors thought about money and medical practice, including plumber envy, you’d read American Medical News(AMN). That’s the biweekly newspaper the American Medical Association just announced it’s shutting down.

Unlike JAMA, in which doctors appear as white-coated scientists, AMN focused on practical and political issues, not least of which was the bottom line. For outsiders, that’s provided a fascinating window into the House of Medicine.

Take, for instance, the sensitive topic of plumber envy. A 1955 AMA report I discovered during research on a book I wrote some years ago lamented physicians’ “consistent preoccupation with their economic insecurity,” including envious comparisons to “what plumbers make for house calls.”

Flash forward to 1967. Thanks to most patients now enjoying private or public health insurance, doctors’ incomes have improved substantially. The pages of AMN include advertisements for Cadillacs and convention hotels (Miami Beach is “Vacationland USA”). However, one man’s income is another man’s expenses, and complaints about rising medical costs have surged. When AFL-CIO president George Meany joins the chorus of carping, an AMN headline asks, “How about plumbing?”

If today’s doctors have finally piped down about plumbers ­– an electronic search of AMN archives back to 2004 produced no plumbing references – it may be because the average plumber earned about $51,830 in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the average general internist earned $183,170. Meanwhile, the AMN ads for cars ­were long ago replaced by ads for drugs, where influencing a doctor’s choice can drive millions or billions in revenue.

Unsurprisingly, the issue of rising medical costs and its causes has been a persistent theme in AMN since its launch in 1958. (For my book research, I pored through its indexes and old issues.) While AMN ran articles with titles like, “Medicine Called ‘Best Bargain Ever,’” the AMA leadership knew health cost unhappiness was not a psychosomatic disorder.

Continue reading “What the Death of American Medical News Says About the Future of American Medicine”

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After doing Talmudic-like studies of the doctrines on health reform promulgated by Republican health-policy makers and the conservative economists who inspired them during the past two decades, I am devastated to discover that all of those studies have been for naught. We are now told, sometimes by the same prophets of yore, that these doctrines were not only wrong, but outright heretical, which in this context means un-American.

New doctrines are rumored to be in the making, but the first word on them has yet to be committed to new, sacred tablets, mainly because there have not yet emerged any new ideas worth committing to tablets.

Do not take my word for it. Newt Gingrich, one of the Grand Old Party’s aging prophets, said so himself in his recent speech to the Republican National Committee.

Comes now conservative commentator John R. Graham of the Pacific Research Institute, telling us that Republicans seem lost in the desert even in their hit-and-run insurgency against their sworn enemy, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA).

What is a befuddled immigrant to the United States like me, eagerly trying to become a right thinking American, to make of it all?

My early introduction to the texts coming from conservative thinking on health reform was the Heritage Plan of 1989, Viewed through the prism of the ACA of 2010, its language seems eerily familiar. One provision, for example, proposed a:

“[m]andate all households to obtain adequate insurance. Many states now require passengers in automobiles to wear seatbelts for their own protection. Many others require anybody driving a car to have liability insurance. But neither the federal government nor any state requires all households to protect themselves from the potentially catastrophic costs of a serious accident or illness. Under the Heritage plan, there would be such a requirement” (p.5).

The Heritage Plan also called for income-related, refundable tax credits toward the purchase of private health insurance. Although it did not call for community rated premiums, it proposed means-tested public subsidies and toward high out-of-pocket expenses of individuals and families. It did not spell out the daunting administrative apparatus that would entail. But one can imagine the required new bureaucratic apparatus, replete with auditors to prevent fraud and abuse. Presumably, income-related subsidies would have involved the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in some ways as well.

Next came a text put forth by conservative economist Mark V. Pauly and like-minded colleagues in Health Affairs. It is worth a reading again. Here’s the core of these prophets’ proposal:

“In our scheme, every person would be required to obtain basic coverage, through either an individual or a family insurance plan. …All basic plans would be required to cover specified health services; plans could, however, offer more generous benefits or supplemental policies. The maximum out-of-pocket expense (stop-loss) permitted would be geared to income, with more complete coverage required for lower-income people, to ensure that no one faced the risk of out-of-pocket expenses that were catastrophic, given their income.” Again, lots of government intrusion into health care, along with links to the IRS.

There then followed a real life health bill based on these ideas, the late Republican John Chafee’s antidote to the emerging Clinton plan. It was called the “Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act of 1993” and had an impressively long list of Republican co-sponsors, among them Senator’s Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), now fierce opponents of the ACA. As the folks at the Kaiser Family Foundation have shown, many of its provisions of Chafee’s bill have a striking similarity to provisions in the ACA of 2010 and comparing.

Continue reading “Talmudic-Like Studies of Republican Health Reform Ideas”

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