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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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Now More Than Ever, the Case for Medicaid Expansion

Sam Aptekar
Phuoc Le

By PHUOC LE, MD and SAM APTEKAR

A friend of mine told me the other day, “We’ve seen our insured patient population go from 15% to 70% in the few years since Obamacare.” As a primary care physician in the Midwest, he’s worked for years in an inner-city clinic that serves a poor community, many of whom also suffer from mental illness. Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the clinic constantly struggled to stay afloat financially. Too often patients would be sent to an emergency room because the clinic couldn’t afford to provide some of the simplest medical tests, like an x-ray. Now, with most of his patients insured through the Medicaid expansion program, the clinic has beefed up its staffing and ancillary services, allowing them to provide better preventive care, and in turn, reduce costly ER visits.

From the time Medicaid was established in 1965 as the country’s first federally-funded health insurance plan for low-income individuals, state governments have only been required to cover the poorest of their citizens. Before the ACA, some 47 million Americans were uninsured because their incomes exceeded state-determined benchmarks for Medicaid eligibility and they earned far too little to buy insurance through the private marketplace.

The ACA reduced the number of uninsured Americans by mandating that states increase their income requirement for Medicaid to 138% of the federal poverty line (about $1,330 per month for a single individual), and promising that the federal government would cover the cost to do so. However, in a 2012 decision, the Supreme Court left it to the states to decide if they wanted to increase their Medicaid eligibility. If they agreed to adopt Medicaid expansion, the federal government offered to cover 100% of the increased cost in 2014 and 90% by 2021.

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The Future of the Affordable Care Act: Unscathed by Attacks from the Right, Overtaken on its Left?

By ETIENNE DEFFARGES Etienne_Deffarges

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.

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What Does Congressional Gridlock Mean for the Rest of the Country?

By AMY LONG and JOE MOLLOY Joe Molloy, health policy, Congressional gridlock

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.”

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The November 6 Midterm Elections and Their Impact on Obamacare:Q&A

By ETIENNE DEFFARGES

1) What is the likelihood the ACA will be repealed?

This straightforward question has a very simple answer: It depends on the results of the upcoming November 6 U.S. congressional elections.

If the Republicans retain control of both the House and the Senate, the probability that the ACA will be repealed is very high: The Republicans would be emboldened by such a victory and would most probably attempt in 2019 to repeal the health care law—again. It is worth remembering that in July of last year, the repeal of the ACA (a version of which had passed the House in May) was defeated in the 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. This is very unlikely to happen again, although one would also have to consider the margins by which the Republican would have gained control both Chambers after these November midterms. In July of 2017, the Republicans held a 52-48 advantage in the Senate. Given ever-increasing polarization, such a margin, plus Republican control of the House, would likely spell the end of the ACA in 2019.

If the Democrats gain control of either the House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate, then the ACA will remain the law of the land. The only issue in the horizon will be the lawsuit filed in February of this year by a coalition of 20 states, led by Texas and Wisconsin. This lawsuit claims that Obamacare is no longer constitutional after the Republicans eliminated in December of 2017 the tax penalty associated with the ACA’s individual mandate. The 20 Republican attorney generals argue that without the tax penalty, Congress has no constitutional authority to legislate the individual mandate. Even if this case reaches the Supreme Court, one has to remember that the Court affirmed twice the constitutionality of the ACA, in June of 2012 and then 2015, with Chief Justice John Roberts voting with the majority on both occasions.

2) What do recent congressional changes to the ACA mean for those who buy insurance on health care exchanges?

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Please support Charles Gaba at ACASignups

By CHARLES GABA

It’s pretty rare that I ask THCB readers to go over to another blog and support that blog with money BUT, today is the day to do that. Charles Gaba has been THE leading source of information about exactly who is signing up for ACA plans on which exchange, and what impact on the ACA Trump et al have had. He’s not in academia, not on some big company or foundation payroll, just a one man band web designer who has basically torpedoed his own business to deliver what I think is a vital service. I support him and anyone interested in health policy could do a lot worse than shove a few bucks a year his way. Read on for his story & how you can helpMatthew Holt

On October 11th, 2013, I posted the following in a blog entry over at Daily Kos, where I’d been a regular contributor since 2003:

“Seriously, though, HHS should really start releasing the official (accurate) numbers of actual signups for all 50 states (or at the very least, the 36 states that they’re responsible for) on a daily–or at least, weekly–basis. I don’t care if it’s a pitifully small number. 100,000? 10,000? 100? 10? Even if it’s in single digits, release the damned numbers. Be upfront about it. Everyone knows by now how f***** up the website is, so be honest and just give out the accurate numbers as they come in.”

Two days later, on October 13th, I registered “ObamacareSignups.net” (which soon changed to ACASignups.net, not because I had a problem with “Obamacare” but because it was easier to type) and posted an announcement over at dKos, asking for some crowdsourcing assistance.

This was supposed to be just a lark…a six-month thing which would combine my passion for data analysis, politics and website development into one nerdy hobby.

Instead…well, if you’ve been following my work for any length of time, you know the rest of the story. ACASignups.net soon caught the attention of major media outlets, and it’s been cited and used as a resource ever since by media outlets spanning the ideological spectrum including the Washington Post, Forbes, Bloomberg News, Vox.com, MSNBC, the New Republic, USA Today, the CATO Institute, National Review Online and The New York Times among others, and has even received a mention (albeit an obscure one) in prominent medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet.

For awhile I pretended that this was still a “hobby”…I accepted donations, sure, and even slapped some banner ads on the site to drum up a few bucks, but in my mind, I was still officially a website developer…even though I was spending 90% of my time posting updates here instead of maintaining my business. In April 2014, at the peak of the media attention and insanity over the crazy first open enrollment period, I even came down with a nasty case of shingles whch laid me up for over a month. I was in denial for years even as the business suffered, constantly thinking that as soon as this Open Enrollment Period was over, I’d wrap things up…

My ass was effectively saved by Markos and the Daily Kos community that year, who collectively raised enough money to not only make up for my lost business in 2014, but also to allow me to keep the site operating through 2015 as well. I’m eternally grateful for that support.

In the fall of 2016, things came to a head and I realized that I could no longer continue living with one foot in each world: I had to either mothball this site and refocus my efforts on building my web development business back up…or I had to try and earn a living at it.

At the time–and I swear on my life this is true–I was planning on doing the former. My reasoning was simple: If Hillary Clinton had become President, there probably wouldn’t be that much interest in my work here going forward. There’d still be plenty of healthcare stuff to write about, but the ACA would be safely embedded into the American landscape and interest in the day to day minutiae of its developments would fade over time.Continue reading…

Misdiagnosis: Obamacare Tried to Fix the Wrong Things and Prescribed the Wrong Treatments

Today THCB is happy to publish a piece reflecting the learnings from Charles Silver and David Hyman’s forthcoming book Overcharged: Why Americans Pay Too Much For Health Care, shortly to be published by the libertarian leaning Cato Institute. In subsequent weeks we’ll feature commentary from the right radical libertarian zone on the political game board (Michael Cannon) and from the left (Andy Slavitt) about the book and its proposals. For now please give your views in the comments–Matthew Holt

There are many reasons why the United States is “the most expensive place in the world to get sick.” In Part 1 of Overcharged: Why Americans Pay Too Much For Health Care, we show that the main reason is that we pay for medical treatments the wrong way. Instead of having consumers purchase these treatments directly, we route trillions of dollars through third-parties payers – both government and private insurers.

Relying on third party payers has many consequences — few of them good. To start with, this arrangement removes the budgetary constraint that would otherwise cap the amount consumers are willing to spend. By minimizing the direct cost of treatments at the point of sale, third party payment arrangements alter everyone’s incentives fundamentally. Consumers no longer need worry about balancing marginal costs against marginal benefits; instead, they have an incentive to use all treatments that have any potential to help, regardless of their prices. When millions of consumers act on these incentives, total spending skyrockets and consumers collectively wind up worse off, because their fixed costs spiral upward too. Heavy reliance on third party payers creates a classic failure of collective action.

It isn’t just consumers. Providers love third party payment as well. And why not? Once providers have access to the enormous bank accounts of third party payers, the sky is the limit, at least until third party payers start setting limits on the amounts they will pay and saying no to unproven and/or cost-ineffective treatments that doctors want to provide and patients want to receive.

Not surprisingly, it has turned out to be extraordinarily difficult and politically unpopular for third party payers to set such limits. Obamacare’s appeal derives largely from two requirements: health insurance plans must accept all comers, including applicants with preexisting conditions that require expensive medical treatments; and health plans must provide unlimited benefits (i.e., no annual or lifetime spending caps). From an individual consumer’s perspective, what could be better than having access to unlimited amounts of money to spend on medical needs? From society’s point of view, though, this combination is a recipe for disaster.Continue reading…

Health in 2 point 00 — Episode 12

Jessica DaMassa asks me about the AMA & digital snake oil, Israel investing in Digital Health, and the budget impact on CSRs & Obamacare in today’s edition of Health in 2 point 00 — Matthew Holt

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