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.
It’s open enrollment season—the annual period in which tens of millions of consumers wallow in the misery of health insurance choices and costs. So, let’s pause to reflect on the status of things—enrollment-wise—with employer coverage, Medicare, and the exchanges.
In particular, do consumers have better tools these days to help them choose insurance plans?
For people with employer-based coverage—about 150 million Americans—things are okay and stable, but not great. The latest report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, released last month and based on a detailed survey of 1,900 employers (small, mid-size and large), indicates that premiums rose on average a modest 3% in 2016—to just over $18,000 for family coverage. Workers paid 29% of that.
A similarly small increase in premiums has prevailed for several years and is expected again for 2017.
Almost all firms with 50 or more employees offer health benefits and the vast majority claim their coverage meets the ACA’s requirements for value and affordability. Overall, 56% of employers offer health benefits because hundreds of thousands of small firms either choose not to offer it or can’t afford it—especially the smallest Mom and Pop shops.
Is he on or off message — or what? We are taking about Bill Clinton, who said in a speech today/yesterday that small business folks and individuals were “getting killed” by Obamacare….with “premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half.”
“The people who are getting killed in this deal are the small businesspeople and individuals who make just a little too much to get in on these subsidies,” Clinton said. He added that for many people, Obamacare’s changes have meant “their premiums doubled and their coverage [was] cut in half.”
Ouch. But then he went on to say that one solution is to allow Americans to buy into Medicare, as Hillary has proposed. We’re not sure if she’d be pissed or pleased with these remarks. Perhaps not bad to let Bill signal her awareness that things with the exchanges are not good, and that she might be open to bigger changes in the program than she’s owned up to so far.
In the world of fine wine, it is well known that some types of wine grapes grow only in very specific climates and ecologies. The concept borrowed from the French is “terroir” (ter-WAHR). Terroir explains why the finest champagne grapes grow only in a small district in northeastern France, characterized by rolling hills and a chalky limestone subsoil that provides a steady level of moisture and imparts a mineral note to the wine’s flavor.
Health policy advocates have sought for generations to propagate promising forms of health care organization across the country. Yet one finds repeatedly that some forms of organization that prosper in one part of the country fail to thrive in others. Is it possible that the concept of terroir also applies in health care?
The Case Of Kaiser Permanente
Kaiser Permanente’s health plans would be a great example. Kaiser has been a darling of health policy advocates such as Alain Enthoven, Paul Ellwood, and others because of its integrated structure, global risk, and salaried employment model of physician practice. Yet, despite repeated federal interventions, beginning with the Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973, Kaiser only recently exceeded 10 million in enrollment for the first time in its 71 year history. Moreover, 82 percent of that enrollment is in two states—Oregon and California—where Kaiser originated. The percentage of Kaiser’s enrollment that derives from its origin states is basically unchanged in a decade.
It is selfish of a leader of a nation to drop dead during office. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, died suddenly at 74, apparently from a ruptured aneurysm. His aneurysm, allegedly, had something to do with Edwina Mountbatten – the wife of Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. Shortly after Nehru’s death, Pakistan attacked India. Nehru’s replacement, Lal Bahadur Shastri, died mysteriously in Tashkent two years after Nehru’s death, and was succeeded by Indira, Nehru’s daughter. India’s future was forever changed by a burst aneurysm or, if rumors are to be believed, by a flagellating spirochaete which left the Raj in bliss.
Clearly, the death of a leader creates turmoil for a republic. So it is understandable that a nation obsessed with health is obsessed with the health of its presidential runners. Mr. Trump’s doctor declared he’s the healthiest presidential candidate ever. Mr. Trump has drawn attention to his super health by pointing to the size of his hands – by Mr. Trump’s standards a rather decorous allusion. It matters not what has hypertrophied Mr. Trump’s hands, what matters is that Mr. Trump’s large hands signal vigor and imagination. The American Psychiatric Association, to their credit, in ruling out a new diagnostic code for Mr. Trump’s colorful soundbites in the next edition of their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, ended all hopes of banning Mr. Trump from the presidential race on health grounds.
In 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.
Brexit has been hailed as a turning point in the history of Western Democracy by a collection of liberal and conservative elites that decry the vote of a disenchanted and ignorant populace. The greatest threat to democracy in the modern age turn out to be the very same people that make up the democracy. We are told these are the same forces that propel Donald Trump forward. It is a convenient narrative that extinguishes any real debate on policy. If you support Brexit or Donald Trump you are an uninformed, xenophobic bigot. Yet here I am – an Indian immigrant, a physician, and a lifelong democrat to boot, who sees no other choice than Trump this election cycle.
I must confess that I have no emotional connection with Mr. Trump – his public demeanor, braggadocio, and above all, the coarseness of his manner when he engages opponents are not what are familiar or soothing to eye or ear. Yet, as a physician who has struggled through the last eight years of policies and regulations that have made my ability to take care of patients more and more difficult, Mr. Trump has taken on the form of an orange-tinged life preserver.
As unusual as the 2016 presidential election has been, one obvious aspect has gone largely unnoticed: By the time the next president of the United States is inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2017, he or she will have reached or come close to reaching 70 years old.
That all the remaining major candidates are among the “young old” at this stage of the election process is unprecedented. Yet, in spite of the stakes for the American people, there is no independent source that can provide an adequate accounting of the medical condition of the next president.
Historians have examined the ways that previous administrations have been affected by the medical problems of presidents including Abraham Lincoln, William Henry Harrison, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. The news has not always been positive.
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.