Often, a Congressional gridlock is essentially good. This is because the executive arm of government is forced to consider a bipartisan approach to issues if it’s to secure the approval of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
The outcome of the midterm elections indicates that the Republicans have managed to retain their control of the Senate, while Democrats have secured control of the House of Representatives.
Health a Central Issue During the Midterms
According to a survey by Health Research Incorporated, the three top issues of concern during the midterm elections were health, followed by Social Security and Medicare, with 59% of the respondents irrespective of age, race or geography citing health as the most significant.
Among Trump’s electoral promises was a complete repeal and replacement of Obamacare under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with a policy that was apparently less expensive and more effective. On his first day of office, Trump signed an executive order instructing federal agencies “to take all reasonable measures that minimize the economic burden of the law, including actions to waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay the implementation of any provision or requirement of the Act.”
The 2019 ACA plan year is notable for the increase in insurer participation in the marketplace. Expansion and entry have been substantial, and the percent of counties with one insurer has declined from more than 50 percent to approximately 35 percent. While urban areas in rural states have received much of the new participation, entire rural states have gained, along with more metropolitan urban areas.
Economic theory and common sense lead most to believe that increased competition is unquestionably good for consumers. Yet in the paradoxical world of the subsidized ACA marketplace, things are not so simple. In some markets, increased competition may result in a reduction in the purchasing power of subsidized consumers by narrowing the gap between the benchmark premium and plans that are cheaper than the benchmark. Even though the overall level of premiums may decline, potential losses to subsidized consumers in some markets will outweigh gains to the unsubsidized, suggesting that at the county level, the losers stand to lose more than the winners will win.
One way to illustrate this is to hypothetically subject 2018 marketplace enrollees to 2019 premiums in counties where new carriers have entered the market. Assuming that enrollees stay in the same metal plan in both 2018 and 2019, and that they continue to buy the cheapest plan in their metal, we can calculate how much their spending would change by income group.
Under these assumptions, in about one quarter of the counties with federally facilitated marketplaces (FFM) that received a new carrier in 2019, both subsidized and unsubsidized enrollees would be better off in 2019, meaning that they could spend less money and stay in the same metal level. In about thirty percent of these counties, all enrollees are worse off. In almost all of the rest, about forty percent, there are winners and losers, but in the aggregate, the subsidized lose more than the unsubsidized win. Overall, in about 70 percent of FFM counties with a new carrier, subsidized enrollees will lose purchasing power, while in about 66 percent of these counties, unsubsidized customers will see premium reductions. In population terms, about two-thirds of subsidized enrollees in counties with a new carrier will find plans to be less affordable, while a little more than half of unsubsidized enrollees will see lower premiums.
Among all the talk of waves and tides of the close midterm races around the country, there were tremendous results on election day for Medicaid expansion. Three states – Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah – passed ballot initiatives approving the policy.
On top of that, in Kansas and Maine, governors who had vetoed the policy in the past were replaced with candidates promising to enact it.
This was obviously great news for supporters of Medicaid expansion with the total number of expansion states firmly at 36.
What were the issues?
In Idaho, the Expansion ballot initiative was designed to provide insurance covers for individuals under the age of sixty-five and whose income is below 138 percent of the federal poverty level and who are not eligible for any other state insurance cover.
Among the proponents of Medicaid in Idaho was State representative Christy Perry a Republican and staunch Trump supporter. She had over the years attempted to push for the expansion through the state legislature but faced resistance from statehouse leaders.
The scenario in Idaho applies to Utah and Nebraska, with the ballot initiative being necessitated by the strong opposition from the majority of Republicans and statehouse leaders. In Utah, opponents of the Expansion argued that the initiative would bankrupt the state treasury. In Nebraska caution was given against reliance on federal government financing for state programs noting that often the national government scale back or neglect supporting state programs without proper transitional mechanisms.
However, it was difficult to debate against the fact that Medicaid would free up resources invested by the state governments in local insurance programs and that the federal government is legally obliged to pay 90% of the cost of the policy.
The Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), one of numerous pay-for-performance (P4P) schemes authorized by the Affordable Care Act, was sprung on the Medicare fee-for-service population on October 1, 2012 without being pre-tested and with no other evidence indicating what it is hospitals are supposed to do to reduce readmissions. Research on the impact of the HRRP conducted since 2012 is limited even at this late date , but the research suggests the HRRP has harmed patients, especially those with congestive heart failure (CHF) (CHF, heart attack, and pneumonia were the first three conditions covered by the HRRP). The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) disagrees. MedPAC would have us believe the HRRP has done what MedPAC hoped it would do when they recommended it in their June 2007 report to Congress (see discussion of that report in Part I of this two-part series). In Chapter 1 of their June 2018 report to Congress, MedPAC claimed the HRRP has reduced 30-day readmissions of targeted patients without raising the mortality rate.
MedPAC is almost certainly wrong about that. What is indisputable is that MedPAC’s defense of the HRRP in that report was inexcusably sloppy and, therefore, not credible. To illustrate what is wrong with the MedPAC study, I will compare it with an excellent study published by Ankur Gupta et al. in JAMA Cardiology in November 2017. Like MedPAC, Gupta et al. reported that 30-day CHF readmission rates dropped after the HRRP went into effect. Unlike MedPAC, Gupta et al. reported an increase in mortality rates among CHF patients. 
We will see that the study by Gupta et al. is more credible than MedPAC’s for several reasons, the most important of which are: (1) Gupta et al. separated in-patient from post-discharge mortality, while MedPAC collapsed those two measures into one, thus disguising any increase in mortality during the 30 days after discharge; (2) Gupta et al.’s method of controlling for differences in patient health was superior to MedPAC’s because they used medical records data plus claims data, while MedPAC used only claims data.
I will discuss as well research demonstrating that readmission rates have not fallen when the increase in observation stays and readmissions following observations stays are taken into account, and that some hospitals are more willing to substitute observation stays for admissions than others and thereby escape the HRRP penalties.
All this research taken together indicates the HRRP has given CHF patients the worst of all worlds: No reduction in readmissions but an increase in mortality, and possibly higher out-of-pocket costs for those who should have been admitted but were assigned to observation status instead.
Egged on by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), Congress has imposed multiple pay-for-performance (P4P) schemes on the fee-for-service Medicare program. MedPAC recommended most of these schemes between 2003 and 2008, and Congress subsequently imposed them on Medicare, primarily via the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 and the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) of 2015.
MedPAC’s five-year P4P binge began with the endorsement of the general concept of P4P at all levels – hospital, clinic, and individual physician – in a series of reports to Congress in 2003, 2004, and 2005. This was followed by endorsements of vaguely described iterations of P4P, notably the “accountable care organization” in 2006 , punishment of hospitals for “excess” readmissions in 2007 , the “medical home” in 2008 and the “bundled payment” in 2008. None of these proposals were backed up by anything resembling evidence.
Congress endorsed all these schemes without asking for evidence or further details. Congress dealt with the vagueness of, and lack of evidence supporting, MedPAC’s proposals simply by ordering CMS to figure out how to make them work. CMS staff added a few more details to these proposals in the regulations they drafted, but the details were petty and arbitrarily adopted (how many primary doctors had to be in an ACO, how many patients had to sit on the advisory committee of a “patient-centered medical home,” how many days had to expire between a discharge and an admission to constitute a “readmission,” etc.).
New rule, new culture
This process – invention of nebulous P4P schemes by MedPAC, unquestioning endorsement by Congress, and clumsy implementation by CMS – is not working. Every one of the proposals listed above has failed to cut costs (with the possible exception of bundled payments for hip and knee replacements) and may be doing more harm than good to patients. These proposals are failing for an obvious reason – MedPAC and Congress subscribe to the belief that health policies do not need to be tested for effectiveness and safety before they are implemented. In their view, mere opinion suffices.
This has to stop. In this two-part essay I argue for a new rule: MedPAC shall not propose, and Congress shall not authorize, any program that has not been shown by rigorously conducted experiments to be effective at lowering cost without harming patients, improving quality, or both. This will require a culture change at MedPAC. Since its formation in 1997, MedPAC has taken the attitude that it does not have to provide any evidence for its proposals, and it does not have think through its proposals in enough detail to be tested. Over the last two decades MedPAC has demonstrated repeatedly that it believes merely opining about a poorly described solution is sufficient to discharge its obligation to Congress, taxpayers, and Medicare enrollees. Continue reading…
According to the Democrats, their success across the country in the midterm elections has largely been due to the party running on healthcare. Indeed, surveys such as the one conducted by Health Research Incorporated indicated that health was the number one concern for voters during the midterms. In the three states where Medicaid expansion was on the ballot, voters were in favor of it. We’ve been wondering about that, so we took a look at how Iowa voted.
It’s one thing for voters to support healthcare on its own. It’s another for an issue to outweigh all others. Did healthcare really beat every other concern a voter thinks about when picking a candidate during the midterms?
Congressional and Statewide Races
Democrats took 3 of the Iowa’s 4 seats, unseating 2 Republican incumbents. They had a sizeable majority of the votes cast, so things looked good for the Democrats. If the theory holds up, the focus the Democrats kept on healthcare throughout the race would pay off. And it would seem it worked, right?
There’s a big problem here. If Democrats had made gains in Iowa because of healthcare issues, we should expect them to have a pretty resounding victory in the gubernatorial race and in the statehouse.
Former President George H.W. Bush may have been every inch the caring individual portrayed in the eulogies of those who knew him, but when it came to health care reform, two words characterized his attitude: Don’t care.
However, compared to Congressional Republicans, Bush was a profile in conservative courage – a lesson with unfortunate parallels to now.
I covered health policy as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune during the Bush years. One strong memory, confirmed by checking original sources, was the presidential debate on Sept. 25, 1988 between Bush and his Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. When Bush was asked what he’d do for the 37 million people without health insurance – about one in seven Americans – he answered that he would “permit people to buy into Medicaid.”
I remember turning from the TV to my wife and saying, “I have no idea what he’s talking about.” Neither, apparently, did anyone else. A Washington Post story that followed, headlined, “Bush’s Mysterious Medicaid Plan” noted that seeking details from the Bush campaign yielded “answers [that] are contradictory.” The story added that “Bush had never publicly mentioned the idea” until the debate.
In a recent essay, VIVIO Health’s CEO Pramod John guides us through four sensible drug policy changes and supporting rationales that could make drug pricing much fairer. Reading through it, one is struck by the magnitude of the drug manufacturing industry’s influence over policy, profoundly benefiting that sector at the deep expense of American purchasers. As Mr. John points out, the U.S. has the world’s only unregulated market for drug pricing. We have created a safe harbor provision that allows and protects unnecessary intermediaries like pharmacy benefit managers. We have created mechanisms that use taxpayer dollars to fund drug discovery, but then funnel the financial benefit exclusively to commercial interests. And we have tolerated distorted definitions of value – defined in terms that most benefit the drug manufacturers – that now dominate our pricing discussions.
The power of this maneuvering is clear in statistics on health industry revenues and earnings. An Axios analysis of financial documents from 112 publicly traded health care companies during the 3rd quarter of 2018 showed global profits of $50 billion on revenues of $636 billion. Half of that profit was controlled by 10 companies, 9 of which were pharmaceutical firms. Drug companies collected 23% of the total revenues during that quarter, but retained an astounding 63% of the profits, meaning that the drug sector accounts for nearly two-thirds of the entire health care industry’s profitability. Said another way, the drug industry reaps twice the profits of the rest of the industry combined.
This month, we saw historic turnout at the polls for midterm elections with over 114 million ballots cast. One noteworthy observation regarding voter turnout is record rates of participation by younger voters aged between 18 to 29 years old. Around 31 percent of people aged 18 to 29 voted in the midterms this year, an increase from 21 percent in 2014, according to a day-after exit poll by Tufts University.
Surely their political engagement counters the criticism that millennials are disengaged and disconnected with society and demonstrates that millennials are fully engaged when issues are relevant to them, their friends, and their families. Why, then, do we not see the same level of passion, engagement and commitment when young adults are asked to consider their health and well-being?
I have had the privilege of being a member of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute-funded Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study research team. In over 5,000 black and white adults who were initially enrolled when they were 18 to 30 years old and have now been followed for nearly 35 years, we have described the decades-long process by which heart disease develops. We were able to do this because, in the 1980s when these studies began, young adults could be reached at their home telephone numbers. When a university researcher called claiming to be funded by the government, there was a greater degree of trust.
Unfortunately, that openness and that trust has eroded, particularly in younger adults and those who may feel marginalized from our society for any number of valid reasons. However, the results—unanswered phone calls from researchers, no-shows at the research clinic and the absence of an entire group of adults today from research studies, looks like disengagement. Disengagement is a very real public health crisis with consequences that are as dire as any political crisis. Continue reading…
THCB readers may recall last year in early June when the Trump administration announced it would withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord and earlier this January when the World Economic Forum met to discuss its global risk report that included the chapter, “Our Planet on the Brink,” I discussed in part (here and here) the health care industry’s indifference to global warming (See also my related 3 Quarks Daily essay.) Now comes the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate and Change’s (IPCC’s ) latest report. Once again overwhelming scientific evidence that confirms life as we know it on this planet will soon cease to exist is received with apathetic insouciance.
Created in 1988 the IPCC is considered the world’s definitive scientific body on climate change and co-winner with Al Gore of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, finalized in early October its report, “Global Warming of 1.5°C.” The 2015 Paris accord called for the report. It was prepared by nearly one hundred scientists who analyzed thousands of the most recent scientific evidence. The report’s summary was accepted by over 180 countries including the American and Saudi Arabia delegation during the IPCC’s meeting recently concluded in South Korea.
What is newsworthy about the IPCC report is its conclusion that keeping or holding temperature increases below 2°C, the goal of the Paris agreement, would not avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming. At 1.5°C life on this planet would suffer serious or dire harm, at 2°C catastrophic harm. Specifically, the report compared the impact between a 1.5°C (2.7°F) increase in temperature with a 2°C (3.6°F) increase (The earth has already warmed by 1°C since the pre-industrial era). Among numerous other findings, should temperatures increase to 1.5°C, the report found of 105,000 species studied, four percent of vertebrates (that include us), eight percent of plants and six percent of insects would lose half of their climatically-determined geographic range. At 2°C, the percents double to triple. Global crop yields will decline significantly. At 1.5°C we will lose 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs, at 2°C there will be a 99 percent loss. At 1.5°C Marine fishery losses or the global annual catch loss would be 1.5 million tons, at 2°C they double.