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Category: Health Policy

What Will Shape Joe Biden’s Health Care Agenda?

I’m thrilled to have health futurist Jeff Goldsmith back on THCB, and given Biden was only confirmed as President-elect this morning, his article on what to expect is extremely timely!–Matthew Holt

By  JEFF GOLDSMITH

The Trump administration’s health care journey began with a trillion dollar near miss–the failed Repeal and Replacement of ObamaCare- and ended with a full-on train wreck, the catastrophically mismanaged COVID epidemic that will have claimed 300,000 lives by the time he leaves office. After four years of posturing and lethal incompetence, it will be a relief to see caring and professionalism return to the White House health policy under President-Elect Joe Biden.   

Like Inheriting a Badly Managed World War

Like Barack Obama, Joe Biden will be saddled at the beginning of his regime with a damaged national economy. He will also walk in the door to the immediate need to manage the greatest public health catastrophe in a century as well as its economic consequences–a deep and enduring recession. Biden will be inheriting the equivalent of a badly managed World War we are presently losing.

Public health professionals who were marginalized by Trump will be challenged not only to craft coherent policy to contain and extinguish COVID  but also to sell it to a frightened and polarized general public, many of whom reject the need for basic public safety measures.    

Controlling COVID and rebuilding the critical public health agencies–CDC and FDA–that have damaged by political meddling will consume the lion’s share of the administration’s health policy bandwidth in its first year. It will be pressed to address a huge readiness gap–from critical PPE supplies to the development and deployment of testing and tracing capability to public health co-ordination and messaging–for the next pandemic. Increasing the presently inadequate level of public health funding (less than $100 billion a year in a $21 trillion economy) seems inevitable.

The inability of Congress to produce a fall round of COVID relief will create pressure on Biden to take immediate action to help struggling sectors of the economy, like airlines, restaurants and hospitals, as well as further help for the long term unemployed. Only a little more than half of the 22 million jobs lost in the spring have returned by November. Twenty million Americans were stranded by the July expiration of supplemental unemployment benefits as well as countless millions more “free agents” and contractors not eligible for traditional unemployment that are losing coverage at the end of the year. Mortgage, credit card and consumer loan forbearance are ending, and unless Congress acts, acres of rotten credit will turn rapidly into a banking and bond market crisis which the Federal Reserve cannot fix by itself.   

State governments face FY21 deficits equaling $500 billion over the next two years , against a current annual spending base of about $900 billion.  Further assistance to state and local governments will almost certainly include an additional increase in the federal match for Medicaid (FMAP), beyond the 6.2% temporary increase passed in March). Medicaid enrollment will likely top 80 million by mid 2021, almost one-quarter of the US population. Some states will have upwards of 40% of their population on Medicaid by mid-2021.

States laboring under severe revenue shortfalls will be unable to afford the expanded Medicaid program that was part of ObamaCare without a further increase in the FMAP rate.  President Trump and Senate Republicans blamed the state and local government fiscal crisis on profligate Democratic mismanagement, and blocked aid to them during 2020. But Texas, Florida, Georgia and other red states have the same problems New York and California do. 

Serious Fiscal Limitations Push the Health Policy Agenda Away from Coverage Expansion

Barack Obama entered office with a FY08 federal deficit of $420 billion. Joe Biden enters with a FY20 deficit of $3.1 trillion and a baseline FY21 deficit of $1.8 trillion, before adding the cost of the likely additional trillion dollar-plus stimulus package early next year. It will be passed over the dead bodies of Republican Congressional leadership suddenly recommitted to deficit reduction after racking up $8 trillion in deficit spending during the four years they controlled the federal government.

Coverage Expansion via Medicare and Public Option Unlikely

That deficit will significantly constrain a further expansion of health coverage. Not only will “Medicare for All” be off the table. Severe fiscal pressures will cause the new administration to “slow walk” a public option (which would require federal subsidies to implement) and Medicare expansion to people over age 60. These expansions were going to be  controversial and politically costly because they would be fiercely contested by hospitals and other care providers concerned about the erosion of their commercial insured customer base (the source of perhaps 130% of their bottom lines) as well as the use of Medicare as a de facto price control lever. 

By the time Biden addresses the first two problems–COVID and the economic crisis–he will probably have expended his limited stock of political capital and be weakened enough to be unable to take on the large messy issues of health coverage expansion and cost control. The Affordable Care Act exhausted Obama’s store of political capital, by early 2010. His administration’s failure to turn the economy cost the Democrats control of the House of Representatives and 20 (!) state legislatures in 2010.

What Can Biden Do in Health that Does Not Require Federal Spending?

Thus, the focus of Biden health policy is likely to be on items not requiring fresh spending.

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We Need a Digital Identity Framework to Guide the Challenging Transition to Remote Healthcare

By GUS MALEZIS

We don’t often see two Republicans and two Democrats come together to offer solutions to problems. But even at this difficult time in America, I can see bipartisanship in a truly meaningful way. The intensely-challenging issue of digital identity is bringing members of Congress of both parties together.

Most American adults rely on an 84-year-old system of identification — the social security number. But that ID is limited in use, and does not serve us well in healthcare and especially as COVID-19 – beyond the healthcare and safety issues – makes us an ever more digital nation. We are indeed accelerating our national pivot to a digital nation as we, for example,  log on to go to school or work, to buy food, to shop for clothing, or to pay bill and transfer money from a bank account. And, now more so than ever, healthcare is becoming digital, as we seek to navigate a digital world to visit the doctor, to fill a prescription, or to review medical test results. Digital identity presents a major obstacle to a safer and smoothly functioning digital healthcare experience.

As the Coronavirus disrupts our nation, and healthcare delivery turns increasingly digital, on-line fraudsters have not been interrupted; they have simply been given far more opportunity than they might have imagined.

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A Cure at Any Cost? Time to Shine a Light on Drug Pricing

By CECI CONNOLLY and BOBBY CLARK

We are all are anxiously awaiting the approval and delivery of a cure to the novel coronavirus – or better yet, a vaccine.

Amid the race to develop a safe and effective vaccine, some may be inclined to give drug companies a pass on their well-established bad behavior related to pricing and market competition.

But that would be an awfully expensive mistake.

As the COVID-19 pandemic claims more lives and families’ livelihood, policymakers and the public must press drug makers for more information on the products they are developing. The country must be protected against price-gouging for therapies that could bring the pandemic to a halt.

Yes, we need America’s biopharmaceutical companies to develop a cure or vaccine so we can resume our normal lives. And yes, they should be compensated for their work.

But no, a cure should not come at any cost.

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Election Issue Spotlight: “Junk” Insurance Makes a Pandemic Even Worse

By ROSEMARIE DAY and NIKO LEHMAN-WHITE

One of the most important responsibilities of the American government is to protect its citizens from harmful industry practices, from lead poisoning to dangerous pharmaceuticals to financial meltdowns. Its record is far from perfect, but government regulators usually act in good faith and in turn earn the trust of those they protect. As we head into Tuesday’s election, it’s important to shine a spotlight on the fact that the Trump administration has betrayed that trust yet again. They have allowed low-quality, unregulated forms of insurance called Short-Term Limited Duration Insurance (STLDI) to prey upon those who lost their jobs during this pandemic. Also known as “junk” insurance, this issue has gotten far less attention than the need to protect people with pre-existing conditions. But the consequences of its inadequate coverage can be just as devastating.

Only 57% of STLDI plans cover mental health care, only 29% cover prescription drugs, and virtually none cover pregnancy. These plans are also allowed to discriminate against the sick, which most do in order to save money. STLDI managed to penetrate the market through a combination of cheap prices, lucrative broker incentives, and deceptive marketing.

Consumers get very little back for their money with these plans. Plans on the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges must spend 80 cents out of every premium dollar collected on care. In 2018, the top five STLDI insurers spent only 43 cents.

Originally envisioned as short-term solutions to gaps caused by unexpected coverage loss, the Trump administration extended their maximum length from three to 12 months and allowed renewals that can essentially extend them to three years, thus drawing consumers away from the individual markets established under Obamacare. This was essentially a kick in the gut for the law, after the current administration was unable to win any legislative or court battles against it.

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Rehash: The Health Assurance SPAC

Not so long ago (August) Jessica DaMassa and I ran a THCB Bookclub interview with Hemant Teneja & Stephen Klasko about their new book UnHealthcare. And, just because, their friend Glen Tullman sat in…..

Fast forward to this week and the three of them plus a cast of characters from General Catalyst & Livongo (Jenny Schneider, Lee Shapiro) have put $500m of their Livongo winnings into a SPAC. The book is based on the idea of Health Assurance and so is the SPAC. So if you are interested in figuring out what they are up to and what they might do or buy, here’s the interview–Matthew Holt

Viruses on Motorcycles

By ANISH KOKA

The most recent fiction dressed up as science about COVID comes to us courtesy of a viral Washington Post article.  “How the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally may have spread coronavirus across the Upper Midwest” screams the headline.   The charge made is that “within weeks” of the gathering that drew nearly half a million visitors the Dakota’s and adjacent states are experiencing a surge of COVID cases.  

The Sturgis Rally happens to be a popular motorcycle rally held in Sturgis, South Dakota every August that created much consternation this year because it wasn’t cancelled even as the country was in the throes of a pandemic.  While some of the week long event is held outdoors, attendees filled bars and tattoo parlors,(and that too without masks!), much to the shock and chagrin of the virtuous members of society successfully able to navigate life via zoom, amazon prime, and ubereats.

This particular Washington Post article’s sole source of data comes from a non-profit tech organization called The Center For New Data that attempted to use cellphone data to attempt to track spread of the virus from the Sturgis rally.  Unfortunately, tracking viral spread using cellphone mobility data is about as hard as it seems.  The post article references only 11,000 people that were able to be tracked out of a total of almost 500,000 visitors, and isn’t able to assess mask wearing, or attempts at social distancing. How many bars are there to stuff into in Sturgis anyway?? And so it isn’t surprising that even in an article designed to please a certain politic, this particular sentence appears:

“But precisely how that outbreak unfolded remains shrouded in uncertainty.”

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Careful What You Wish For: How Republican Attorneys General’s Attack on the ACA Could Trigger Medicare for All

By MIKE MAGEE

Cautionary tales are timeless. Take for example Aesop’s Fables, from 620 BC, which included the advisory, “Be careful what you wish for lest it come true.”

Trump and the Republicans who oppose the ACA take heed. You may be inadvertently taking the entire collusive Medical-Industrial Complex down a rabbit hole.

In the opening salvo to the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to be anxious for the fight.  Her view of Trump’s strategy? “The president is rushing to make some kind of a decision because … Nov. 10 is when the arguments begin on the Affordable Care Act…He doesn’t want to crush the virus. He wants to crush the Affordable Care Act.”

With no health plan replacement on the shelf, death star Republicans have been struggling to bury this ever more popular piece of legislation for ten years.

In the process, they’ve alienated not only those who believe health care is a right rather than a privilege, and those who support protections for pre-existing conditions, but also those against deceptive skimpy health insurance, those who believe transgender Americans deserve care guarantees, those who demand access to affordable drugs, those who have their under age 26 adult children covered on their family plan, those opposed to cuts in coverage of contraceptives, and those in favor of federal funding of Planned Parenthood clinics.

As Kaiser Health News Washington correspondent, Julie Rovner, recently wrote, “With the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the ACA’s future is in doubt.” In a case now known as California v. Texas, set for presentation to the Supreme Court in just a few weeks, 21 attorneys general (AGs) led by California are seeking clarity on a challenge by Texas led Republican AGs to declare the ACA unconstitutional based on a weak technicality.

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Will Trump, Congressional Infections Boost Innovations For Covid-19 Survivors?

By MICHAEL MILLENSON

When powerful politicians confront a life-threatening diagnosis, it can change policy priorities. 

In addition to President Trump and a slew of top aides, five U.S. senators and 15 members of the House of Representatives have now tested positive or been presumed positive in tests for Covid-19 as of Oct. 5, according to a running tally by National Public Radio (NPR).

In that light, the recent burst of coronavirus infections could accelerate three significant innovations affecting every Covid-19 survivor.

1) Post-Covid Clinics

Even seemingly mild encounters with the coronavirus can trigger a cascade of lingering health consequences. While “there is no consensus definition of post-acute Covid-19,” noted an Oct. 5 JAMA commentary, symptoms that have been reported include joint pain, chest pain, fatigue, labored breathing and organ dysfunction “involving primarily the heart, lungs and brain.”

A survey by Survivor Corps, a patient support group, and the Indiana University School of Medicine found that Covid “long haulers” often suffer from “painful symptoms…that some physicians are unable or unwilling to help patients manage.” A similar survey by the Body Politic Covid-19 Support Group concluded that Covid long-haulers face “stigma and lack of understanding [that] compromise access to health care and quality of support.”  

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A War on Science is a War on Us

By KIM BELLARD

We’re in the midst of a major U.S. election, as well as hearings on a Supreme Court vacancy, so people are thinking about litmus tests and single issue voters – the most typical of which is whether someone is “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”  Well, I’m a single issue person too; my litmus test is whether someone believes in evolution. 

I’m pro-science, and these are scary times.

Within the last week there have been editorials in Scientific American, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Nature – all respected, normally nonpartisan, scientific publications – taking the current Administration to task for its coronavirus response.   Each, in its own way, accuses the Administration of letting politics, not science, drive its response. 

SA urges voters to “think about voting to protect science instead of destroying it.”  They cite, among other examples, Columbia Law School’s Silencing Science Tracker, which “tracks government attempts to restrict or prohibit scientific research, education or discussion, or the publication or use of scientific information, since the November 2016 election.”  Their count is over 450 by now, across a broad range of topics in numerous federal agencies on a variety of topics.   

The SA authors declare:

Science, built on facts and evidence-based analysis, is fundamental to a safe and fair America. Upholding science is not a Democratic or Republican issue.

Similarly, NEJM fears:

Our current leaders have undercut trust in science and in government,4 causing damage that will certainly outlast them. Instead of relying on expertise, the administration has turned to uninformed “opinion leaders” and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.

Jeff Tollefson, in Nature, warns:

As he seeks re-election on 3 November, Trump’s actions in the face of COVID-19 are just one example of the damage he has inflicted on science and its institutions over the past four years, with repercussions for lives and livelihoods. 

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Value-based care – no progress since 1997?

By MATTHEW HOLT

Humana is out with a report saying that its Medicare Advantage members who are covered by value-based care (VBC) arrangements do better and cost less than either their Medicare Advantage members who aren’t or people in regular Medicare FFS. To us wonks this is motherhood, apple pie, etc, particularly as proportionately Humana is the insurer that relies the most on Medicare Advantage for its business and has one of the larger publicity machines behind its innovation group. Not to mention Humana has decent slugs of ownership of at-home doctors group Heal and the now publicly-traded capitated medical group Oak Street Health.

Humana has 4m Medicare advantage members with ~2/3rds of those in value-based care arrangements. The report has lots of data about how Humana makes everything better for those Medicare Advantage members and how VBC shows slightly better outcomes at a lower cost. But that wasn’t really what caught my eye. What did was their chart about how they pay their physicians/medical group

What it says on the surface is that of their Medicare Advantage members, 67% are in VBC arrangements. But that covers a wide range of different payment schemes. The 67% VBC schemes include:

  • Global capitation for everything 19%
  • Global cap for everything but not drugs 5%
  • FFS + care coordination payment + some shared savings 7%
  • FFS + some share savings 36%
  • FFS + some bonus 19%
  • FFS only 14%

What Humana doesn’t say is how much risk the middle group is at. Those are the 7% of PCP groups being paid “FFS + care coordination payment + some shared savings” and the 36% getting “FFS + some share savings.” My guess is not much. So they could have been put in the non-VBC group. But the interesting thing is the results.

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