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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.  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  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.)
Having survived years of attacks from Republicans at the federal level, will the surviving ACA be rendered obsolete by Democrats’ local and state efforts towards universal health care? This could be an ironic twist of fate for Obamacare. Conceived out of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s ideas and an early experiment in Massachusetts under a Republican governor, President Obama’s signature legislative achievement could very well survive its most recent judiciary challenge. But over time the ACA is susceptible to obsolescence, because of the many universal health care solutions being pushed at the state level.
Let’s start this brief outlook for Obamacare by reviewing how it has played defense, quite successfully thus far: During most of 2017 and 2018, the future of the ACA was always discussed in the context of Republican efforts to repeal it. After all, the GOP controlled the White House and both Chambers of Congress. Hadn’t Republicans spent the last four years of the Obama administration promising to repeal Obamacare the instant they could? And so they went after the ACA in 2017 with all the levers of Washington power. But repealing is one thing, legislating another: We know what happened in July 2017, when the last “repeal and replace” effort was defeated in the U.S. Senate by the narrowest of margins, because three Republican Senators, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and the late and much regretted John McCain, voted against the repeal. With their December 22 tax law, Republicans did succeed in eliminating the ACA’s individual mandate tax penalty owed by individuals failing to maintain “minimum essential coverage.” Most medical plans qualify for this, as long as they meet a number of requirements, such as not charging more for pre-existing conditions. For good measure, the Trump administration used executive orders in 2018 to allow low-cost plans not meeting these ACA guidelines to be offered by employers. Twenty state attorney generals from Republican states, led by Texas and Wisconsin, also initiated litigation against the ACA, arguing that without the tax penalty the law had become unconstitutional.
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.”
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…
On June 14, 2016 a Federal Court ruled that broadband internet is as essential to American as phones, electricity, water and sewer systems and should be available to all Americans as a utility, rather than a luxury that doesn’t need close government supervision.
In the United States, public utilities are often natural monopolies because the infrastructure required producing and delivering a product such as electricity or water is very expensive to build and maintain. As a result, they are often government monopolies, or if privately owned, the sectors are specially regulated by a public utilities commission which severely limits the profits for the private utility company and the associated costs passed on to consumers of that utility.
There is nothing more essential to the lives and well being of Americans than health insurance and therefore healthcare is the ultimate utility.
We all knew how this was going to go, or thought we did. Fee-for-service payment for health services was going to disappear, and be replaced by population health risk-based payment (or as some term it, “capitation”- fixed payment for each enrolled life).Hospitals and care systems invested substantial time and dollars building capacity to manage the health of populations, yet many are discovering a shortage of actual revenues for this complex new activity.Was population health a mirage, or an actual opportunity for hospitals, physicians and health systems?
The historic health reform law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in March, 2010 was widely expected to catalyze a shift in healthcare payment from “volume to value” through multiple policy changes.The Affordable Care Act’s new health exchanges were going to double or triple the individual health insurance market, channeling tens of millions of new lives into new “narrow network” insurance products expected to evolve rapidly into full risk contracts.
In addition, the Medicare Accountable Care Organization (ACO) program created by ACA would succeed in reducing costs and quickly scale up to cover the entire non-Medicare Advantage population of beneficiaries (currently about 70% of current enrollees) and transition provider payment from one-sided to global/population based risk. Finally, seeking to avoid the looming “Cadillac tax”created by ACA, larger employers would convert their group health plans to defined contribution models to cap their health cost liability, and channel tens of millions of their employees into private exchanges which would, in turn, push them into at-risk narrow networks organized around specific provider systems.
Three Surprising Developments
Well, guess what? It is entirely possible that none of these things may actually come to pass or at least not to the degree and pace predicted.At the end of 2015, a grand total of 8.8 million people had actually paid the premiums for public exchange products, far short of the expected 21 million lives for 2016.As few as half this number may have been previously uninsured. It remains to be seen how many of the 12.7 million who enrolled in 2016’s enrollment cycle will actually pay their premiums, but the likely answer is around ten million.Public exchange enrollment has been a disappointment thus far, largely because the plans have been unattractive to those not eligible for federal subsidy.
Donald Trump recently released a healthcare reform plan. If only he had spent as much time crafting it as he does his hair.
The GOP frontrunner is right that Obamacare has failed to fix what ails America’s healthcare system. As Trump put it, the Affordable Care Act has “tragically but predictably resulted in runaway costs, websites that don’t work, greater rationing of care, higher premiums, less competition and fewer choices.” He famously said that he wants to “repeal and replace with something terrific.”
But “terrific” his plan is not.
Take, for instance, his proposal to legalize the importation of “safe and dependable [prescription] drugs from overseas.”
Importing cheaper drugs from other countries may seem like a great way to reduce the cost of medicine for Americans. But there are important reasons why it’s currently prohibited.