Obamacare

flying cadeuciiLast week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the most recent and pernicious attack on the Affordable Care Act – aka Obamacare.  In the absence of a dysfunctional Congress, the case would be beneath the dignity of Court:  it addresses no complicated legal issues that might guide future decisions of lower courts.   Instead, the Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether a drafting error resulting in one unfortunate phrase in the much maligned 2000 page law –“Exchange established by the States” — means that more than 6.3 million citizens would not be eligible for federalsubsidies allowing them to afford commercial (i.e. – non-governmental) health insurance.

Ordinarily, Congress is expected to fix such drafting problems itself.  Each year Congress pass dozens of “Technical Corrections” bills to fix such errors in prior legislation.  These bills are akin to software patches that are regularly released by companies to fix unanticipated “bugs” previously release programs.  But this is no ordinary legislation.  Having spent six years vilifying for President Obama and has supporters for passing legislation that improves American lives it is far too late in the day for the Republican Congress to replace demagoguery with common sense.

So this issue is now in the lap of the Supreme Court, with its well-known partisan divide of four liberals, four arch-conservatives, and Justice Kennedy, who as the “swing vote” effectively decides many of the most divisive cases himself.  The Court can decide to gloss over this drafting error, as proposed by the Obama Administration, or apply its language to devastating effect.   Prior Supreme Court cases—i.e. “precedent” in the jargon of the law—can be found to support either position.   In the end, there have been few cases in which the Court has more judicial freedom – assuming precedent ever really binds the Court – to do whatever it wants in keeping with the Justices own political biases. Continue reading “King v. Burwell: Will the Supreme Court Save the Republican Party from Itself?”

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It is reassuring that in a country which produced HL Mencken, Homer Simpson and Mark Twain, reports of death of satire have been grossly exaggerated.

Recently, the faculty at Harvard were up in arms because their new health plan involves copayments and deductibles. With ninety cents to the dollar covered, the plan is generous by national standards, and would be rated “platinum” in Obamacare’s exchanges. It’s not as if the professors were placed on Medicaid to show solidarity with the poor.

Increased out-of-pocket contribution is the trend post health care reform. That same reform which many Harvard professors supported and some designed. This is why their revolt, an Orwellian political satire, has spread schadenfreude amongst conservatives who are enjoying Gore Vidal’s favorite words in the English Language: “I told you so.” Continue reading “Healthcare’s Reform Pareto Trap”

GOP vs Democrat

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton along with Senate Finance Chairman Orin Hatch and Senator Richard Burr have outlined what is, at least for now, the Republican alternative to Obamacare.

Republicans will now argue they have a better health insurance reform plan and that Obamacare should be repealed and replaced by it––particularly if the Supreme Court plunges the new health law into chaos by throwing the subsidies out in 37 states.

They will have an uphill battle. Not because these Republicans don’t have a lot of good ideas, but because they have put a list of big and complicated changes on the table. Lots of people may not like Obamacare but Republicans have now really muddied the waters with a huge take it or leave it alternative that will have plenty of its own reasons to give voters pause.
Continue reading “A Detailed Analysis of the Republican Alternative to Obamacare”

Dear White People Poster

The latest Gallup and Healthways poll doesn’t phrase it this way, but its findings that the Affordable Care Act “appears to be meeting its goal of reducing the percentage of Americans without health insurance” is more evidence Obamacare is good for white people.

In an interview with National Public Radio at the end of last year, President Obama was asked whether he and the Democrats had lost support among white voters. He denied it, comparing his share of the white vote favorably to that John Kerry in 2004 and pointing to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as a program that benefited working-class white voters without many realizing it. I’d written much the same thing about Obamacare in a THCB blog post a couple of weeks before the 2012 presidential election. But as with other issues related to race, it’s a topic that the president has only reluctantly discussed, even when good policy is also good politics.

In response to NPR questions about race, Obama noted that some of the biggest beneficiaries of the ACA live in places like “Mitch McConnell’s state,” home to relatively few blacks or Hispanics. Coincidentally, a front page story in the print New York Times documented Kentucky’s experience with the law – which, the president wryly noted, Kentuckians do not call “Obamacare” – the same day the NPR interview aired.

Continue reading “More Evidence Obamacare is Good For White People”

Gruber OptimizedIn the giddy days after the passage of ACA, I was chatting to a PhD student in health economics. He was in love with the ACA. He kept repeating that it would reduce costs, increase quality and increase access. Nothing original. You know the sort of stuff you heard at keynotes of medical meetings; ‘Healthcare post Obamacare’ or ‘Radiology in the new era.’ Talks warning us that we were exiting the Cretaceous period.

He spoke about variation in healthcare, six sigma, fee-for-value and ‘paying doctors to do the right thing.’

‘How?’ I asked.

‘I just told you, we need to pay doctors for value and outcomes.’ He smugly replied.

‘How?’ I asked again.

He did not answer. Instead he gave me the look that one gives an utter imbecile who doesn’t know the difference between a polygon and a triangle. Continue reading “Grubernomics”

In more stunning proof that America’s 18th century style governing process just doesn’t work, a subset of a regional Federal court ruled against part of Obamacare. The Halbig ruling is certain to be overturned by the full DC court and then probably will stay that way after it makes it’s way through the Supremes–at least Jonathan Cohn thinks so.

But think about what the Halbig ruling is about. Its proponents say that when Congress (well, just the Senate actually as it was their version of the bill that passed) designed the ACA, they wanted states only to run exchanges and only people buying via states to get subsidies. But that they also wanted a Federal exchange for those states that couldn’t or (as it turned out) wouldn’t create their own. But apparently they meant that subsidies wouldn’t be available on the Federal exchange. That would just sail through Logic 101 at any high school. Well only if the teacher was asleep, as apparently most Senators were.

Now two judges interpret what was written down to imply that subsidies should only be available on state exchanges–even though logic, basic common sense and fairness would dictate that if we’re going to subsidize health insurance we should do it for everyone regardless of geography.

Don’t forget that in the House version of the bill there was only a Federal exchange. Continue reading “Halbig corpus interruptus”

Being against Obamacare has been the keystone, the capstone, the mighty sledgehammer, the massive metaphor of your choice for the right for five years now. They couldn’t stop it from being passed. They couldn’t stop it at the Supreme Court.

They weren’t able to choke it off by “defunding” it. They rejoiced at the rubber-meets-the-sky rollout of Healthcare.gov, but then the kinks got worked out of that.They railed at the administration using discretionary powers built into the law to help it work better. Every horror story of Obamacare ruining people’s lives they came up with turned out to be false.

Almost all of the people cynically cancelled by the insurance companies as a way to sell them more expensive insurance got insured again fairly quickly. Then 7 million people signed up on the exchanges, and altogether some 10 million formerly uninsured people now have medical coverage.

But the right still needs to call it a “train wreck.” The magic mantra has to work for them. Just this morning, here’s a Republican Congressman saying that we have to cut Food Stamps because: Obamacare. Say that again slowly?

It’s getting harder and harder on the right to come up with new ways to say it isn’t working when it actually seems to be working. I have to hand it to them, though: Those spin factories are filled with hard-working creative people. Get to work early, stay late, trash Obamacare. Hey, it’s a living.

So what’s the latest? This fall, Obamacare premiums are going to “skyrocket”!

Continue reading “Obamacare Premiums Are Going To “Skyrocket”? Forget About It.”

You’ll be hearing a lot about the number six point five million over the next few days.

Six point five million — or whatever the exact number turns out to be at the end of the day — being the number of people that the administration say signed up for Obamacare through the exchanges when open enrollment ends March 31st.

How meaningful the official numbers are will be open to debate. The bloviation factor will be in full effect.  The critics will be downplaying the administration’s number, ACA supporters defending it. Data geeks-turned-media stars will explain what it all means.

Here’s a guide to some of the other numbers we should be talking about as we try to make sense of what’s really going on and what really happened during the Obamacare rollout.

FUDs: The number of people who are innocently living their lives thinking they have bought health insurance, but who, for one reason or another,  be it technical glitch, bureaucratic incompetence or technicality – are going to wake up one morning not long from now and discover that they do not have health insurance.

And who one day soon will discover that they do not have health insurance.  This is the group that causes people in Washington to lie awake at night; because they are going to complain – and complain loudly. While the talk from the administration to this point has been all tough, it seems logical to assume it will build an appeal mechanism that will allow FUDs back into the system. The early signs are that this is the case.

404s : The number of people / applications lost in the system,  either as a result of the Healthcare.gov fiasco or because their application is sitting forgotten on somebody’s desk somewhere or on a laptop. Anybody who tried to log into Healthcare.gov at the height of the meltdown or who has gone back and forth with their insurance company over a bill gets it.

It is safe to assume that this is another number that keeps planners up at night. Let’s just say it is safe to assume that there are a lot of 404s.

CANCELS: The number of people who had their insurance plans cancelled by insurers on the grounds that they did not meet the standards set by the Affordable Care Act. In a way, being a cancel can be considered a badge of honor in the gamification of the healthcare system that is Obamacare.

UNCANCELS: The number of people who had their plans cancelled by the health insurers only to have them declared “uncancelled” by the Obama administration or their state.  Nobody really knows how many uncancels there are. Don’t ask. Yes, it will take a really long time to sort out the uncancels from the cancels and the QHPs.

And you will probably want to shoot the person explaining it to you.  In the gamification of the healthcare system, level ups go to people who have been cancelled, uncancelled and bumped.

BUMPS: The number of people who have been “bumped” out of network and are being forced to change doctors.  What’s going on? In gamification terms, bumps make things more exciting. In real life, they suck.  Getting bumped off a flight is annoying, getting bumped in the health care system is potentially life-threatening.

LIVES SAVED: As we speak Nate Silver or a smart person who looks and sounds a lot like Nate Silver is sitting at a computer in a darkened room somewhere trying to come up with a reliable quantification of the number of lives the Affordable Care Act has saved and will save by shielding people from the barbaric US healthcare system.

How would you go about coming up with that number? Would you look at people turned away from emergency rooms? Would you look at the  number of preventable deaths under the old system?  Would you total the number of deaths from cancer, heart attack and stroke?  Compare mortality rates over the decade from 2004-2014 with those from 2014-2024?  It will be long time before we have the data we need to really understand how well we’ve done.

You can forget the nonsense we’ve been hearing about Obamacare costing the lives of thousands of Americans by taking their health coverage away from them.  There is a difference between losing your coverage temporarily because the system is in transition and losing  it and knowing that you’ll never be able to get it back. Ever.

Calculated over decades to come the number of lives saved is likely to total in the thousands, if not the millions. And that will be the true test of the Affordable Care Act as a historical accomplishment for Barak Obama and his administration.

Continue reading “Numbers We’d Rather Be Talking About”

So many old rules in health care and insurance no longer seem to apply.

I keep stumbling upon situations, where, what used to be up is now down and what used to be down is now up.

No one seems to know for sure how things will settle out under the new reality created by Obamacare and the even more unpredictable reactions to the law by health care companies, employers and, most especially, you and me.

I’ve started using the term “weightlessness” to describe this state we’re in. Picture the astronauts on the international space station, floating through a room, flipping at will, as likely to settle on a wall or on the ceiling as on the floor.

That’s what life is like under Obamacare now—for physicians, hospital administrators, insurance executives, benefits brokers and employers.

Here are a few examples:

1. I wrote last week about how a chunk of workers, even at large employers with generous benefits, would actually get a better deal on health insurance from the Obamacare exchanges than from their employers. So their employers are starting to consider whether they should deliberately make health benefits unaffordable for those low-wage workers, so they can qualify for Obamacare’s tax-subsidized insurance.

That could be good for both employers and employees. The effect on taxpayers, which would switch from granting a tax credit to employers to instead granting it to the employees, is unclear.

2. Even though insurers were certain that price would be king on the Obamacare exchanges, that hasn’t led most customers to buy the plans with the cheapest premiums. As I wrote Friday, 76 percent of those shopping on the exchanges in my home state of Indiana have picked the higher-premium silver and gold plans, with only 24 percent picking bronze plans.

“There are a few geographies where we believe we are gaining share despite lower price competition which points to the value of our local market depth, knowledge, brand, reputation and networks,” WellPoint Inc. CEO Joe Swedish said during an January conference call with investors.

It’s possible that’s a result of older and sicker patients being the earliest buyers on the exchange, and that as healthier people buy coverage, they’ll gravitate to the low-cost bronze plans. But that hasn’t happened—which, as I wrote on Friday, has proved wrong hospitals’ concerns about the super-high deductible bronze plans.

Continue reading “The Weightlessness of Obamacare”

Rumors have been circulating in the marketplace all week that the administration was thinking of extending the individual health insurance policies that Obamacare was supposed to have cancelled for as much as three more years.

Those rumors have now come out into the open with Tom Murphy’s AP story on Friday.

That the administration might extend these polices shouldn’t come as a shock. My sense has always been that at least 80% of the pre-Obamacare policies would ultimately have to be canceled because of the administration’s stringent grandfathering rules that forced almost all of the old individual market into the new Obamacare risk pool.

But with the literal drop dead date for these old policies hitting by December 31, 2014, that would have meant those final cancellation letters would have had to go out about election day 2014. That would have meant that the administration was going to have to live through the cancelled policy nightmare all over again––but this time on election day.

The health insurance plans hate the idea of another three-year reprieve. They have been counting on the relatively healthy block of prior business pouring into the new Obamacare exchanges to help stabilize the rates as lots of previously uninsured and sicker people come flooding in.

With enrollment of the previously uninsured running so badly thus far, getting this relatively healthier block in the new risk pool is all the more important. The administration’s now doing this wouldn’t just be changing the rules; it would be changing the whole game.

Republicans, and a few vulnerable Democrats, had essentially called for this last fall when legislation was floated in both the House and Senate with the “If You Like Your Policy You Can Keep It,” proposals. At the time, the administration and Democratic leaders rightly said if this sort of thing would have been made permanent it would have a very negative impact on what people in the new pool would pay––and on their already high deductibles and narrow networks.

At the beginning of this post I asked, Is Obamacare unraveling?

First, as I have said before on this blog, the law’s reinsurance provisions will mean Obamacare can keep limping along for at least three years. And, even making this change won’t alter my opinion on this. It will just cost the government more reinsurance money to keep the carriers whole.

By asking if it is unraveling, what I really wonder about is the whole sense of fairness in the law and the expectation that everybody needs to get the Democrat’s definition of “minimum benefits” whether they want them or not.

Continue reading “Is Obamacare Unraveling?”

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