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Tag: 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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New Technologies Drive Cost Growth Over Time

By KEN TERRY

(This is the eighth and final installment in a series of excerpts from Terry’s new book, Physician-Led Healthcare Reform: a New Approach to Medicare for All, published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.)

Medical technologies include drugs, devices, tests, and procedures. Considered as a whole, these technologies are the key driver of growth in health costs, according to Georgetown University professor Gregg Bloche and his associates.

Bloche, et al., view insurance coverage as the chief enabler of these technological innovations. In a 2017 Health Affairs Blog post, they said,Drug and device developers, clinical researchers, and their financial backers anticipate coverage for new tests and treatments with little concern for whether they add substantial therapeutic value, and they make research and development decisions accordingly.”

In an interview, Bloche further explained, “If you’re a technology developer, you can reasonably anticipate that if your product achieves a low but significant health gain, insurers are going to be under pressure to pay for it.”

Insurers do cover most new drugs, although they may make it difficult for patients to access the ones that they deem to be low-value, notes Peter Neumann, director of the Center for the Evaluation of Value and Risk in Health at the Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

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Obstacles to Value-Based Care Can Be Overcome

By KEN TERRY

(This is the seventh in a series of excerpts from Terry’s new book, Physician-Led Healthcare Reform: a New Approach to Medicare for All, published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.)

Even in a healthcare system dedicated to value-based care, there would be a few major barriers to the kinds of waste reduction described in this book. First, there’s the ethical challenge: Physicians might be tempted to skimp on care when they have financial incentives to cut costs. Second, there’s a practical obstacle: Clinical guidelines are not infallible, and large parts of medicine have never been subjected to rigorous trials. Third, because of the many gaps in clinical knowledge, it can be difficult for physicians to distinguish between beneficial and non-beneficial care before they provide it.

Regarding the ethical dimension, insurance companies often are criticized when they deny coverage for what doctors and patients view as financial reasons. Physicians encounter this every day when they request prior authorization for a test, a drug, or a procedure that they believe could benefit their patient. But in groups that take financial risk, physicians themselves have incentives to limit the amount and types of care to what they think is necessary. In other words, they must balance their duty to the patient against their role as stewards of scarce healthcare resources.

On the other hand, fee-for-service payment motivates physicians to do more for patients, regardless of whether it’s necessary or not. In some cases, doctors may order tests or do procedures of questionable value to protect themselves against malpractice suits; but studies of defensive medicine have shown that it actually raises health costs by a fairly small percentage. More often, physicians overtreat patients because of individual practice patterns or because they practice in areas where that’s the standard of care. As long as doctors believe there’s a chance that the patient will benefit from low-value care, they can justify their decision to provide that care.

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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

Why Health Systems Employ Doctors: Money and Control

By KEN TERRY

(This is the third in a series of excerpts from Terry’s new book, Physician-Led Healthcare Reform: a New Approach to Medicare for All, published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.)

The American Medical Association (AMA) last year announced that, for the first time, more physicians were employed than were independent. While many of these doctors were employed by private practices, the AMA said, about 35% of them worked directly for a hospital or for a hospital-owned practice.25

This estimate was lower than that of other surveys. According to research conducted by the Physicians Advocacy Institute (PAI) and Avalere Health, a consulting firm, 44% of physicians were employed by hospitals in January 2018, compared to 25% in July 2012. More than half of U.S. physicians now work for or contract with fewer than 700 healthcare systems across the country, according to a new study in Health Affairs.

Many of the physicians employed by hospitals and health systems formerly were in private practice. They sold their practices to hospitals because of increasing overhead, dwindling reimbursement, and the rising administrative burdens of ownership, according to Jackson Healthcare, a physician recruiting firm.

The many negative factors affecting primary care also have impelled a growing number of primary care physicians to seek employment in recent years. In 2018, 47% of general internists, 57% of family physicians and 56% of pediatricians were employed. There is evidence that this trend may be exacerbating the primary care shortage because employed doctors see fewer patients per day, on average, than do those in private practice.

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Slow Walking to Value Based Care: Why Fee for Service Still Rules

By KEN TERRY

(This is the second in a series of excerpts from Terry’s new book, Physician-Led Healthcare Reform: a New Approach to Medicare for All, published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.)

In January 2015, then Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced lofty goals for the government’s value-based payment program. By the end of 2016, she said, 85% of all payments in the traditional Medicare program would be tied to quality or value, and 90% would be value-based by the end of 2018.

The government planned to tie 30% of Medicare payments to alternative payment models by 2017, according to Burwell, and hoped to reach the 50% mark by 2018. In March 2016, HHS said it had reached the 30% goal a year ahead of schedule, mainly because of the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP).

More recent data on the value-based-care movement comes from the Health Care Payment & Learning Action Network (LAN), a public-private partnership launched in 2015 by the Department of Health and Human Services. The LAN reported in October 2018 that public and private payers covering 226 million lives, or 77% of insured Americans, had tied 34% of their payments to value-based care. According to the organization, only 23% of total payments had been value-based in 2016.A deeper analysis of the LAN data, however, shows that the vast majority of value-based payments—both in Medicare and in the larger healthcare system—were still limited to pay for performance, upside-only shared savings, and care management fees paid to patient-centered medical homes.

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Your Face is Not Your Own

By KIM BELLARD

I swear I’d been thinking about writing about facial recognition long before I discovered that John Oliver devoted his show last night to it.  Last week I wrote about how “Defund Police” should be expanded to “Defund Health Care,” and included a link to Mr. Oliver’s related episode, only to have a critic comment that I should have just given the link and left it at that.  

Now, I can’t blame anyone for preferring Mr. Oliver’s insights to mine, so I’ll link to his observations straightaway…but if you’re interested in some thoughts about facial recognition and healthcare, I hope you’ll keep reading.

Facial recognition is, indeed, in the news lately, and not in a good way.  Its use, particularly by law enforcement agencies, has become more widely known, as have some of its shortcomings.  At best, it is still weak at accurately identifying minority faces (or women), and at worst it poses significant privacy concerns for, well, everyone.  The fact that someone using such software could identify you in a crowd using publicly available photographs, and then track your past and subsequent movements, is the essence of Big Brother.  

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A Missed Opportunity for Universal Healthcare

Connie Chan
Phuoc Le

By PHUOC LE, MD and CONNIE CHAN

The United States is known for healthcare spending accounting for a large portion of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) without yielding the corresponding health returns. According to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), healthcare spending made up 17.7% ($3.6 trillion) of the GDP in the U.S. in 2018 – yet, poor health outcomes, including overall mortality, remain higher compared to other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. According to The Lancet, enacting a single-payer UHC system would likely result in $450 billion in savings in national healthcare and save more than 68,000 lives.

Figure 1. Mortality rate in the US versus other OECD countries.

The expansion of Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) was not the first attempt the United States government made to increase the number of people with health insurance. In 1945, the Truman administration introduced a Universal Health Care (UHC) plan. Many Americans with insurance insecurity, most notably Black Americans and poor white Americans, would benefit from this healthcare plan. During this time, health insurance was only guaranteed for those with certain jobs, many of which Blacks and poor white Americans were unable to secure at the time, which resulted in them having to pay out-of-pocket for any wanted healthcare services. This reality pushed Truman to propose UHC within the United States because it would allow “all people and communities [to] use the promotive, preventative, curative, rehabilitative and palliative health services they need of sufficient quality…, while also ensuring that the use of these services does not expose the user to financial hardship.”

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Defund Health Care!

By KIM BELLARD

In the wake of the protests related to George Floyd’s death, there have been many calls to “defund police.”  Those words come as a shock to many people, some of whom can’t imagine even reducing police budgets, much less abolishing entire police departments, as a few advocates do indeed call for.

If we’re talking about institutions that are supposed to protect us but too often cause us harm, maybe we should be talking about defunding health care as well.  

America loves the police.  They’re like mom and apple pie; not supporting them is essentially seen as being unpatriotic.  Until recent events, it’s been political suicide to try to attack police budgets.  It’s much easier for politicians to urge more police, with more hardware, even military grade, while searching for budget cuts that will attract less attention.  

It remains to be seen whether the current climate will actually lead to action, but there are faint signs of change.  The mayor of Los Angeles has promised to cut $150 million from its police budget, the New York City mayor vowed to cut some of its $6b police budget, and the Minneapolis City Council voted to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department,” perhaps spurred by seeing the mayor do a “walk of shame” of jeers from protesters when he would not agree to even defunding it.  

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A Healthcare System, If We Can Keep It

By KIM BELLARD

We are in strange days, and they are only going to get stranger as COVID-19 works its way further through our society.  It makes me think of Benjamin Franklin’s response when asked what kind of nation the U.S. was going to be:  “A Republic, if you can keep it.” 

SAUL LOEB / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The versions of that response that COVID-19 have me wondering about are: “A federal system, if we can keep it,” and, more specifically, “a healthcare system, if we can keep it.”  I’ll talk about each of those in the context of the pandemic.

In times of national emergencies — think 9/11, think World Wars — we usually look to the federal government to lead.  The COVID-19 pandemic has been declared a national emergency, but we’re still looking for strong federal leadership.  We have the Centers for Disease Control, infectious disease experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, and a White House coronavirus task force.  But real national leadership is lacking. 

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