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Health in 2 Point 00, Episode 154 | Health Tech Rounds, Socialized Medicine, & the ACA

On Episode 154 of Health in 2 Point 00, follow @barkyboy (a dog wearing a Health in 2 Point 00 shirt!) on Twitter! Jess also asks me about Papa getting $18M in a Series B for their matching platform for college students, Optimize.health raising $15.6M in a Series A for their RPM platform, Joint Academy raising $23M for their physical therapy platform, and Maple Corp raising $75M for their Canadian telehealth platform in socialized medicine. Also, Matthew talks about his new piece on THCB where he wrote about what Biden should say to the Supreme Court Justices on the ACA. Matthew Holt

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Biden’s Nov 9th speech: “Don’t you force me to pass Medicare 4 All”

By MATTHEW HOLT

The new Supreme Court, in all likelihood including just nominated Justice Amy Coney Barrett, will be hearing the California v Texas suit against the ACA on November 10th, seven days after the election. The lower courts have already ruled the ACA unconstitutional. Some hopeful moderates among my Democratic friends seem to believe that the justices will show cool heads, and not throw out the ACA. But it’s worth remembering that in the NFIB vs. Sebelius decision which confirmed the legitimacy of most of the ACA back in 2011 all the conservative justices with the exception of John Roberts voted to overturn the whole thing. With Ginsburg being replaced by Barrett there’s no reason to suppose that she won’t join Thomas, Alito, Kavanagh & Gorsuch and that Robert’s vote won’t be enough to stop them this time. The betting odds must be that the whole of the ACA will be overturned.

There is nothing the Democrats can realistically do to prevent Barrett filling RBG’s seat on the court, but assuming Biden wins and the Democrats take back the Senate, the incoming Administration can give the Supremes something to think about regarding the ACA. I would not suggest this level of confrontation before the election but, if Biden wins, the gloves must come off.

Assuming he wins and that the Dems win the Senate, this is the speech Biden should give on November 9th. (The TL:DR spoiler is, “Keep the ACA or I’ll extend Medicare to all ages”)

“I’m directing this speech to an extremely select number of people, just the Supreme Court Justices appointed by Republican Presidents. It is obviously no secret that we have political differences on many issues and we find ourselves in the strange situation in which I am the incoming President with an incoming Democratic Senate majority and yet you are considering overturning the signature bill of the administration in which I was Vice-President. You may recall that at the time of its signing I told President Obama that it was a “big f****** deal”  and, although many of my colleagues in the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party have criticized the ACA since its passage, it turns out that I was right. 

I am not referring here to the apoplexy that the ACA created amongst the Republican Party including not only the current and outgoing President but also almost all Republican members of Congress between 2010 and 2018. Instead I’m referring to the ACA’s impact on the nation and its health care system. 

Since 2010 there have been many changes to the way our nation’s health care system operates; almost all of them have their roots in the ACA. 

First, the ACA gave access to health insurance coverage to many people who had great trouble getting it before. That includes young people moving between their parent’s home, college and getting into the workforce; small business owners; freelance workers; the unemployed; people with low incomes; and people with underlying “pre-existing” health conditions. I remind you that due both to the pandemic and changes in our economy, there are many, many more of these people now than there were in 2009. 

Before the ACA these people were either not well served by the private health insurance industry or literally were unable to buy coverage at all. This not only caused extreme personal and financial suffering and in some cases death to the people affected, but also impacted the economy. It restrained innovation and entrepreneurship, and it meant that the participants in the health care system–including very many well meaning clinicians and provider organizations–had to play very inefficient games in order to try to provide those people with much-needed care, which drove up the cost of care to everyone else. Warren Buffet calls that the tapeworm in the US economy.

The ACA changed this in two main ways.

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THCB Gang Episode 26, 9/24

Episode 26 of “The THCB Gang” was live-streamed on Thursday, September 24th! Watch it below!

Joining Matthew Holt (@boltyboy) were some of our regulars: health futurist Ian Morrison (@seccurve), patient advocate Grace Cordovano (@GraceCordovano), patient & entrepreneur Robin Farmanfarmaian (@Robinff3), health care consultant Daniel O’Neill (@dp_oneill), and patient safety expert Michael Millenson (@MLMillenson). The conversation revolved around the dismantling of the ACA, conservatives causing chaos in the government, the dismissal of pre-existing conditions, and the state of women’s health rights after the passing of RBG. It was both an emotional & impactful conversation.

If you’d rather listen to the episode, the audio is preserved as a weekly podcast available on our iTunes & Spotify channels — Zoya Khan

THCB Gang Episode 17, LIVE 7/9 1PM PT/4PM ET

Episode 17 of “The THCB Gang” was live-streamed on Thursday, July 9th! Watch it below!

Joining me were some of our regulars: patient advocate Grace Cordovano (@GraceCordovano), health economist Jane Sarasohn-Kahn (@healthythinker), WTF Health Host Jessica DaMassa (@jessdamassa), and guests: Tina Park, partner at Diagram (@diagramoffice) & Shannon Brownlee, Senior VP at the Lown Institute (@ShannonBrownlee). The conversation focused on asynchronous care, the gap between patients & technology, and the Supreme Court ruling on employers’ ability to limit women’s access to birth control coverage. It was a great and engaging conversation with some of the top health care experts in the field.

If you’d rather listen, the audio is preserved as a weekly podcast available on our iTunes & Spotify channels — Zoya Khan

Health in 2 Point 00, Episode 103 | ACA Ruling, Sutter Health Settlement, & Bright Health

Today, I’m closing out the year of Health in 2 Point 00 from the ski slopes. In Episode 103, Jess asks me about the ACA ruling that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, whether Sutter Health got what they deserved after the $575 million settlement, health insurer Bright Health raising a huge $635 million round, and a rumor about a $250M Softbank investment coming next week. Wishing you all a very happy 2020! —Matthew Holt

Improving the Affordable Care Act Markets (Part 2)

By JONATHAN HALVORSON

In a previous post, I described how some features of the Affordable Care Act, despite the best intentions, have made it harder or even impossible for many plans to compete against dominant players in the individual and small employer markets. This has undermined aspects of the ACA designed to improve competition, like the insurance exchanges, and exacerbated a long term trend toward consolidation and reduced choice, and there is evidence it is resulting in higher costs. I focused on the ACA’s risk adjustment program and its impact on the small group market where the damage has been greatest.

The goal of risk adjustment is commendable: to create stability and fairness by removing the ability of plans to profit by “cherry picking” healthier enrollees, so that plans instead compete on innovative services, disease management, administrative efficiency, and customer support. But in the attempt to find stability, the playing field was tilted in favor of plans with long-tenured enrollment and sophisticated operations to identify all scorable health risks. The next generation of risk adjustment should truly even out the playing field by retaining the current program’s elimination of an incentive to avoid the sick, while also eliminating its bias towards incumbency and other unintended effects.

One important distinction concerns when to use risk adjustment to balance out differences that arise from consumer preferences. For example, high deductible plans tend to attract healthier enrollees, and without risk adjustment these plans would become even cheaper than they already are, while more comprehensive plans that attract sicker members would get disproportionately more expensive, setting off a race to the bottom that pushes more and more people into the plans that have the least benefits, while the sickest stay behind in more generous plans whose premium cost spirals upward. Using risk adjustment to counteract this effect has been widely beneficial in the individual market, along with other features like community rating and guaranteed issue.

However, in other cases where risk levels between plans differ due to consumer preferences it may not be helpful. For example, it has been documented that older and sicker members have a greater aversion to change (changing plans to something less familiar) and to constraints intended to lower cost even if they do not undermine benefit levels or quality of care, like narrow networks. These aversions tend to make newer plans and small network plans score as healthier. Risk adjustment would then force those plans to pay a penalty that in turn forces enrollees in the plans to pay for the preferences of others.

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$2 Trillion+ in New Taxes for Single Payer, or $50 Billion to Strengthen ObamaCare? Next Question, Please

By BOB HERTZ

It is not wise for Democrats to spend all their energy debating Single Payer health care solutions.

None of their single player  plans has much chance to pass in 2020, especially under the limited reconciliation process. In the words of Ezra Klein, “If Democrats don’t have a plan for the filibuster, they don’t really have a plan for ambitious health care reform.”

Yet while we debate Single Payer – or, even if it somehow passed, wait for it to be installed — millions of persons are still hurting under our current system.

We can help these people now!

Here are six practical programs to create a better ACA.

Taken all together they should not cost more than $50 billion a year. This is a tiny fraction of the new taxes that would be needed for full single payer. This is at least negotiable, especially if Democrats can take the White House and the Senate.

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Improving the Affordable Care Act Markets (Part 1)

By JONATHAN HALVORSON, PhD

With each passing year, the Affordable Care Act becomes further entrenched in the American health care system. There are dreams on both the far left and far right to repeal and replace it with something they see as better, but the reality is that the ACA is a remarkable achievement which will likely outlast the political lifetimes of those opposing it. Future improvements are more likely to tweak the ACA than to start over from scratch.

A critical part of making the ACA work is for it to support healthy, competitive and fair health insurance markets, since it relies on them to provide health care benefits and improve access to care. This is particularly true for insurance purchased by individuals and small employers, where the ACA’s mandates on benefits, premiums and market structure have the most impact. One policy affecting this dynamic that deserves closer attention is risk adjustment, which made real improvements in the fairness of these markets, but has come in for accusations that it has undermined competition.

Risk adjustment in the ACA works by compensating plans with sicker than average members using payments from plans with healthier members. The goal is to remove an insurer’s ability to gain an unfair advantage by simply enrolling healthier people (who cost less). Risk adjustment leads insurers to focus on managing their members’ health and appropriate services, rather than on avoiding the unhealthy. The program has succeeded enormously in bringing insurers to embrace enrolling and retaining those with serious health conditions.

This is something to celebrate, and we should not go back to the old days in which individuals or small groups would be turned down for health insurance or charged much higher prices because they had a history of health issues. However, the program has also had an undesired effect in many states: it further tilted the playing field in favor of market dominant incumbents.

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How Are Hospitals Supposed to Reduce Readmissions? | Part I

By KIP SULLIVAN

The notion that hospital readmission rates are a “quality” measure reached the status of conventional wisdom by the late 2000s. In their 2007 and 2008 reports to Congress, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) recommended that Congress authorize a program that would punish hospitals for “excess readmissions” of Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) enrollees. In 2010, Congress accepted MedPAC’s recommendation and, in Section 3025 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) (p. 328), ordered the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to start the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP). Section 3025 instructed CMS to target heart failure (HF) and other diseases MedPAC listed in their 2007 report. [1] State Medicaid programs and the insurance industry followed suit.

Today, twelve years after MedPAC recommended the HRRP and seven years after CMS implemented it, it is still not clear how hospitals are supposed to reduce the readmissions targeted by the HRRP, which are all unplanned readmissions that follow discharges within 30 days of patients diagnosed with HF and five other conditions. It is not even clear that hospitals have reduced return visits to hospitals within 30 days of discharge. The ten highly respected organizations that participated in CMS’s first “accountable care organization” (ACO) demonstration, the Physician Group Practice (PGP) Demonstration (which ran from 2005 to 2010), were unable to reduce readmissions (see Table 9.3 p. 147 of the final evaluation) The research consistently shows, however, that at some point in the 2000s many hospitals began to cut 30-day readmissions of Medicare FFS patients. But research also suggests that this decline in readmissions was achieved in part by diverting patients to emergency rooms and observation units, and that the rising rate of ER visits and observation stays may be putting sicker patients at risk [2] Responses like this to incentives imposed by regulators, employers, etc. are often called “unintended consequences” and “gaming.”

To determine whether hospitals are gaming the HRRP, it would help to know, first of all, whether it’s possible for hospitals to reduce readmissions, as the HRRP defines them, without gaming. If there are few or no proven methods of reducing readmissions by improving quality of care (as opposed to gaming), it is reasonable to assume the HRRP has induced gaming. If, on the other hand, (a) proven interventions exist that reduce readmissions as the HRRP defines them, and (b) those interventions cost less than, or no more than, the savings hospitals would reap from the intervention (in the form of avoided penalties or shared savings), then we should expect much less gaming. (As long as risk-adjustment of readmission rates remains crude, we cannot expect gaming to disappear completely even if both conditions are met.)

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Why the Health Care System Is Incapable of Reducing Its Own Costs: A Brief Structural System Analysis

By JOE FLOWER

Leading lights of the health insurance industry are crying that Medicare For All or any kind of universal health reform would “crash the system” and “destroy healthcare as we know it.”

They say that like it’s a bad thing.

They say we should trust them and their cost-cutting efforts to bring all Americans more affordable health care.

We should not trust them, because the system as it is currently structured economically is incapable of reducing costs.

Why? Let’s do a quick structural analysis. This is how health care actually works.

Health care, in the neatly packaged phrase of Nick Soman, CEO of Decent.com, is a “system designed to create reimbursable events.” For all that we talk of being “patient-centered” and “accountable,” the fee-for-service, incident-oriented system is simply not designed to march toward those lofty goals.

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