No-one can say any longer that Senate Republicans are entirely deaf to calls to describe how they would replace the much maligned Affordable Care Act.
This week, three senior GOP senators (Orrin Hatch, Tom Coburn, and Richard Burr) announced their proposed Patient Choice, Affordability, Responsibility, and Empowerment (or Patient CARE) Act. Given that each of this group is a heavyweight mainstream Republican and that Senator Coburn is one of the few physicians in the Congress, the draft Act deserves a serious look.
Although the first part of the draft would repeal the ACA, other parts would continue a number of the ACA’s reforms while introducing some changes in attempts to control costs and reduce the numbers of uninsured, creating a kind of Obamacare Lite.
The draft proposes to continue the ACA’s ban on lifetime insurance caps, its coverage of dependents up to the age of 26, and the ACA’s savings in Medicare costs. It also continues, although in a weaker form, the ACA’s subsidies for low-income individuals and the ban on medical underwriting, and allows states to continue to operate insurance exchanges (although without any federal funding).
On the other hand, the three parts of the ACA that have taken the most heat from Republicans – the individual mandate, the Medicare IPAB, and the expansion of Medicaid eligibility – would all be eliminated.
For Medicare, this has been a summer of good and bad news. On one hand, the program’s costs continue to rise remarkably slowly. So far this fiscal year, they have gone up by only 2.7 percent in nominal terms, the Congressional Budget Office reports.
On the other hand, opposition to the Independent Payment Advisory Board — created as part of the Affordable Care Act — continues to mount. And opponents continue to mischaracterize the whole point of the board.
What they seem not to understand is that the board is needed mostly so that that Medicare can continue to encourage slower growth in costs.
One reason costs have been rising so slowly is that systems for paying hospitals and doctors are changing. We’re moving away from the old fee-for-service plan and toward paying for value in health care — and we’re making the shift more rapidly than expected.
Redesigning the payment system is a fundamentally different approach to containing costs. The old way was to simply slash the amounts that Medicare pays for services. And here is where the criticism of the Independent Payment Advisory Board becomes somewhat Orwellian.
The point of having such a board — and here I can perhaps speak with some authority, as I was present at the creation — is to create a process for tweaking our evolving payment system in response to incoming data and experience, a process that is more facile and dynamic than turning to Congress for legislation.
In particular, as Medicare experiments with accountable care organizations, bundled payments and other new strategies, the agency will inevitably need to make adjustments. Questions will come up, such as: How should the payments to doctors, hospitals and other providers be changed to reflect what is learned about the quality of care they provide? How much should the penalties or bonuses be? Is it better to have hospitals face all the costs associated with patient (as in an accountable care organization) or only the costs incurred during a specific episode of care (as in bundled payments)?
This is how sexy the chatter gets over cocktails at health policy wonk-ins in Washington. This is how sexy the chatter gets over cocktails at health policy wonk-ins in Washington.
“No pre-ex’s, community rating, guaranteed issue.”
“No, that’s Obamacare stuff,” I said to my colleague, as she read a summary of Congressman Paul Ryan’s House Republican budget plan released on Tuesday. “Everyone in Medicare already has those. You must have the wrong memo.”
She scrolled to the top of her iPhone and pointed at the screen. “Summary of the Ryan Budget Plan – Medicare.”
“Maybe just a gimme for popular support?” I speculated, knowing from headline coverage earlier in the day that the Ryan plan sought to repeal Obamacare, not strengthen its most popular consumer protections. “Guaranteed issue but no mandate — that would sure hang the insurers out to dry. But why would you put that in a budget?”
“Here’s why,” she read. “‘Seniors buy coverage through new Medicare Exchange.'”
Consumers need protections only when they are turned into consumers. And that is what Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget seeks to do for — or do to, depending on your feelings about medical capitalism — future Medicare beneficiaries.
Conservatives love to apply “cost-benefit analysis” to government programs—except in health care. In fact, working with drug companies and warning of “death panels,” they slipped language into Obamacare banning cost-effectiveness research. Here’s how that happened, and why it can’t stand.
Why are you reading this when you could be doing jumping jacks?
And how come you’ve gone on to read this sentence when you could be having a colonoscopy?
You and I could be doing all sorts of things right now that we have reason to believe would improve our health and life expectancy. We could be working out at the gym, or waiting in a doctor’s office to have our bodies scanned and probed for tumors and polyps. We could be using this time to eat a steaming plate of broccoli, or attending a support group to help us overcome some unhealthy habit.
Yet you are not doing those things right now, and the chances are very strong that I am not either. Why not?
How’s this for a bitter pill?
For Republicans looking for cures for Medicare spending growth, one of the best places to look is one of their least favorites: in the legislative pharmacopeia that is Obamacare.
There are many things opponents of President Obama’s health reform law detest, and topping the list is the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB.
Before we get to the reasons why, it is good to remember that, as sketched into the law, the singular goal of the IPAB is — guess what? — to control Medicare spending growth.
Nothing actually happens under the provision unless (i.e., until) the $525 billion per year program exceeds growth targets, and the earliest any IPAB-directed actions could take effect is 2015. But if everything really is on the table as both sides work to avoid the next in a series of fiscal embarrassments, why not a major dose of economic medicine — properly defined and administered — that is already written into law and embraced by the president?
The biggest obstacle for Republicans is political or, more precisely, optical. Although IPAB’s stated goal is to contain Medicare spending growth, the provision is the embodiment of everything Republicans do not like, not just about Obamacare, but about “Big Government” generally. IPAB is a Board! — sufficient criticism for many — of 15 “bureaucrats” who will operate beyond the reach of Congress or the public. They will make arbitrary decisions about what Medicare will or will not pay for. They will use payment to come between you and your doctor. They will take away your health care!
Maybe so. The IPAB as drafted today is a black box, not a blueprint, a plan to make plans to save money, later. And for critics, black boxes are whatever they want them to be: death panels in drag, roulette wheels for rationing care, medical-industrial phantasmagoria straight out of Kafka and Huxley. Even among health industry supporters of Obamacare — patient advocacy groups, insurers, the major provider and drug lobbies — the IPAB is worrisome because it is all cost-containment mission and few particulars. If done right, it could save not only billions of dollars but thousands of lives from needless and dangerous medical interventions; if done wrong, it could mean arbitrary intrusions into medical care and a death knell for whole spheres of medical innovation.
The need for clarity today about how the IPAB will work years from now is one more reason the White House and Congress can and should mobilize — in the service of deficit reduction — the biggest potential mechanism for Medicare cost containment already written into law. Federal budget negotiators need the vehicle; those rushing to implement Obamacare need to flesh out how the IPAB will work; and those investing — or afraid to invest — in medical innovations need to know what impact IPAB will have on the future of Medicare.
In August of 2009, Sarah Palin claimed that the health legislation being crafted by Democrats at the time would create a “death panel,” in which government bureaucrats would decide whether disabled and elderly patients are “worthy of healthcare.” Despite being debunked by fact-checkers and mainstream media outlets, this myth has persisted, with almost half of Americans stating recently that they believe the Affordable Care Act (ACA) creates such a panel.
The death panel myth killed neither the ACA nor Obama’s reelection bid. But persistence of this myth could threaten the Obama administration’s efforts to implement the law, because many of its most controversial features are scheduled to be implemented over the next few years. Why is the death panel myth so hard to shake and why is its persistence relevant to the unfolding of Obamacare?
In part, the myth is hard to shake because most people have a very poor understanding of the complex law. The ACA tries to increase access to health insurance through a bewildering combination of Medicaid expansions, private insurance subsidies, health insurance exchanges, and the infamous health insurance mandate. It attempts to improve healthcare quality through things such as reimbursement reforms and promotion of electronic medical records. And it encourages the formation of more efficient healthcare organizations, with inscrutable names like “accountable care organizations” and “medical homes”.
The myth is also likely to persist because the law calls for the establishment of a 15 person committee– the independent payment advisory board (or IPAB)–which is given the job of recommending cost-saving measures to the Secretary of Health and Human Services if Medicare expenses rise too quickly. The IPAB will consist of independent healthcare experts who are forbidden, by law, from proposing changes that will affect Medicare coverage or quality.
Since 2010, when the Affordability Care Act was signed into law, the American mainstream media has insisted that President Obama’s bill provides the most at-risk Americans, low income families and seniors, with better health care. And that must mean, by any logic, better access to doctors, more access to the modern tools of diagnosis and treatment, and ultimately better health outcomes. That poor Americans benefit greatly from the ACA, and that seniors will be more secure under the president’s law, has seemed so obvious to the left-leaning news outlets that this fact has yet to be critically examined by them.
President Obama’s ACA law purports to provide new health coverage to upwards of 16 million low income Americans by way of Medicaid. We already see in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that many, if not most, states simply cannot be burdened with massive increases in their Medicaid outlays, regardless of the promise of financial support from the federal government (itself a financially unsustainable funding source).
But President Obama’s assertion about new insurance for the poor and all it brings is, in fact, a grand deception. We know that 55 percent of primary care physicians and obstetricians already refuse all or most new Medicaid patients (about four times the percentage that refuse new private insurance patients), and only half of specialist doctors accept most new Medicaid patients. Clearly, granting poor people Medicaid is not equivalent to providing access to doctors.
Just over two years ago, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a law purported to increase access to health care and to “bend down” the health care cost curve. A great debate over the implications of that law, especially in the areas of coverage, affordability, and quality of care, has arisen. Furthermore, a series of political and legal challenges have generated uncertainty about the law’s prospects within the health industry and at the state level. Despite this, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has already issued over 12,000 pages of regulations elaborating on the original 2,700-page law, leading to more uncertainty regarding how appointed and career federal officials will determine the exact shape of the law’s final requirements. All of this uncertainty raises real concerns about how the new law will impact the most crucial actors in any health care reform effort: doctors.
Doctors are demonstrably nervous about the new law and how it will affect their incomes, their access to technologies, and their professional autonomy. According to a survey by the Doctors Company, 60 percent of physicians are concerned that the new law will negatively impact patient care. Only 22 percent are optimistic about the law’s impact on patient care. Fifty-one percent feel that the law will negatively impact their relationships with patients. These statistics raise questions about how and whether doctors will participate in the new system.
It’s no secret that our nation’s economy is struggling, and the president’s health care law, enacted in 2010, is making things worse — raising health costs and making it harder for small businesses to hire workers. The only way to change this is by repealing ObamaCare in its entirety.
There has been much renewed media focus on the president’s health care law in recent months because the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in June on the question of whether the law is constitutional. But the American people have never lost their focus on it. They didn’t like the law when it was rammed through Congress by President Obama and a Democratic majority in 2010, and according to most public opinion surveys, they like it even less now.
It’s not difficult to understand why most Americans remain opposed to ObamaCare. Many question its constitutionality; I’m certainly one of them. But the law’s negative impact on Americans’ daily lives is what I hear about the most.
Americans are dealing every day with the tough realities of life in the Obama economy. They’re facing rising prices for food, gas, college tuition and health care. Many are out of work. And among those fortunate enough to have jobs, many are struggling to keep them. Couple this with the ever-present specter of higher taxes — which are constantly being threatened by the president and his advisors — and the possibility of another downgrade in our nation’s credit rating as a consequence of the national debt that has exploded under the president’s spending policies, and it’s a pretty grim picture. If you’re reading this, you know exactly what I mean.
The United States faces large federal budget deficits over the short-, medium-, and long-term. Although perhaps subject to the greatest public attention, the short-term deficits are generally thought to be helping the economy recover. In contrast, medium- and long-term deficits projected for years after the economy returns to full-employment are a source of concern: these deficits will create growing and serious burdens on the economy even if they do not lead to an immediate crisis. Economists of all political stripes agree on this point.
While extending the Bush tax cuts, if that occurs, will play a big role in making the medium and long-term deficit problems worse, economists agree that a key driver of the long-term deficit problem is growth in government spending on health care. Medicare and Medicaid, our two largest health spending programs, currently account for 23 percent of federal spending, or 5.6 percent of GDP. Under current law and optimistic assumptions for health spending, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates these programs will represent 30 percent of total federal spending (6.8 percent of GDP) by 2022 and will continue to grow thereafter.
The prospect of health-driven deficits has produced a burst of proposals for reform. Sadly, the simple truth is that we do not yet know how to reform government health programs to both rein in costs and maintain or improve quality and access.