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Is Walgreens the Future? What a Big Pharmacy Chain’s Moves Tell Us About Obamacare

Two-hundred-and-fifty-nine organizations have been named Medicare accountable care organizations. Most were formed by hospitals. Some were launched by physician groups.

And three were created by a pharmacy chain.

Walgreens’ move into shared savings is many things: unusual, eye-catching, a sign of the times.

But it’s not surprising, observers say, as the pharmacy chain has been cultivating a broader strategy to ramp up its role in frontline care. And through a handful of new programs, Walgreens already has “demonstrated … the valuable role our pharmacists can play working with physicians to meet the triple aim” of improving patient outcomes and satisfaction while cutting health costs, spokesperson Jim Cohn told me.

“ACOs are the next step.”

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Could Wasteful Healthcare Spending Be Good for the Economy?

Suppose I throw a rock through a store owner’s window. You admonish me for this act of vandalism. But I reply that I have actually done a good deed.

The store owner will now have to employ someone to haul the broken glass away and someone else, perhaps, to clean up afterward. Then, the order of a new glass pane will create work and wages for the glassmaker. Plus, someone will have to install it. In short, my act of vandalism created jobs and income for others.

The French economist, Frédéric Bastiat called this type of reasoning the “fallacy of the broken window.” All the resources employed to remove the broken glass and install a new pane, he said, could have been employed to produce something else. Now they will not be. So society is not better off from my act of vandalism. It is worse off — by one pane of glass.

But there is a new type of Keynesian (to be distinguished from Keynes himself) that rejects the economist’s answer. Wasteful spending can actually be good, they argue. If so, they will love what happens in health care.

By some estimates one of every three dollars spent on health care is unnecessary and therefore wasteful. ObamaCare’s “wellness exams” for Medicare enrollees — so touted during the last election — is an example. Millions of taxpayer dollars will be spent on this service, yet there is no known medical benefit. Similarly, ObamaCare is encouraging all manner of preventive care — by requiring no deductibles or copayments — which is not cost effective.

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About Time? Smokers Face Tough New Rules Under Obamacare

The Affordable Care Act contains a number of provisions intended to incent “personal responsibility,” or the notion that health care isn’t just a right — it’s an obligation. None of these measures is more prominent than the law’s individual mandate, designed to ensure that every American obtains health coverage or pays a fine for choosing to go uninsured.

But one provision that’s gotten much less attention — until recently — relates to smoking; specifically, the ACA allows payers to treat tobacco users very differently by opening the door to much higher premiums for this population.

That measure has some health policy analysts cheering, suggesting that higher premiums are necessary to raise revenue for the law and (hopefully) deter smokers’ bad habits. But other observers have warned that the ACA takes a heavy-handed stick to smokers who may be unhappily addicted to tobacco, rather than enticing them with a carrot to quit.

Under proposed rules, HHS would allow insurers to charge a smoker seeking health coverage in the individual market as much as 50% more in premiums than a non-smoker.

That difference in premiums may rapidly add up for smokers, given the expectation that Obamacare’s new medical-loss ratios already will lead to major cost hikes in the individual market. “For many people, in the years after the law, premiums aren’t just going to [go] up a little,” Peter Suderman predicts at Reason. “They’re going to rise a lot.”

Meanwhile, Ann Marie Marciarille, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, adds that insurers have “considerable flexibility” in how to set up a potential surcharge for tobacco use. For example, insurers could apply a high surcharge for tobacco use in older smokers — perhaps several hundred dollars per month — further hitting a population that tends to be poorer.

Is this cost-shifting fair? The average American tends to think so.

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And With the Stroke of a Pen, Health Insurance Exchanges Become Health Insurance Marketplaces ….

Thanks to David Kerrigan of the Massachusetts Health Connector for pointing out that the Obama Administration has suddenly switched terminology: health insurance exchanges are now health insurance marketplaces. I think it’s a great idea, which is why I wrote a blog post on this very topic on Friday. The Hill (Obama officials ditch ‘exchanges’ in rebranding of healthcare reform law) covers the story.

However, the Hill has a weird angle on this. The article heavily features an anti-ObamaCare activist, Dean Clancy who says:

“They could call them motherhood or apple pie, but it wouldn’t change our feelings about them… We’re encouraged that they’re showing signs of desperation. I think that it’s too late in the game to try to start calling this something different. And [we’re] not going to spend a lot of effort fighting over a word.”

Clancy’s website is called blockexchanges.com, so he may actually have more commitment to the word exchange than the Obama folks. Somehow blockmarketplaces.com just doesn’t have the same ring to it. (That domain is still available at this writing in case you want to grab it.) Blockexchanges also has some misleading information on its home page:

“Remember, without the state exchanges, ObamaCare cannot function.”

Actually, the federal government will step in if the states don’t.

Personally, I don’t sense desperation but rather a gradual wising up about what implementation will require. The term “marketplace” makes a good deal of sense for someone who is comparison shopping for health insurance. Here’s to more commonsense improvements as ObamaCare is rolled out.

David E. Williams is co-founder of MedPharma Partners LLC, strategy consultant in technology enabled health care services, pharma, biotech, and medical devices. Formerly with BCG and LEK. He writes regularly at Health Business Blog, where this post first appeared.

Obamacare’s Fiscal Cliff

Did you notice that in the standoff over the fiscal cliff, all the discussion was about the Bush tax cuts? Which ones would be made permanent? And for whom? There was no discussion about the ObamaCare tax increases. I think that was a huge tactical mistake on the part of the Republicans.

Over and over again, President Obama claimed he was trying to protect the middle class from higher taxes. It was a claim that went unchallenged ― by the Republicans and by the mainstream media.

Yet five of the tax increases Americans are facing this month are new taxes created under the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare). Three of the five will hit people who are solidly middle class.

Next year, things will get worse. The new tax on health insurance is about as regressive as a tax can be. It will total $100 billion over the next 10 years and very little of that amount will be paid by anyone who can be called “rich.”

  • The health insurance tax will fall on private sector Medicaid plans, which have about 70% of all Medicaid enrollees.
  • The tax will fall on Medicare Advantage plans whose enrollees have below average incomes and are disproportionately minority.
  • The tax will hit every small business and every individual who buys insurance in the commercial market place.
  • The tax will not fall on self-insured plans whose enrollees include the highest paid workers and the highest paid CEOs.

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Health Reform: The Political Storms Are Far from Over

The history of president Obama’s health reform bears an uncanny and disturbing similarity to the life cycle of a hurricane. With Sandy fresh in our memory, the similarity is not comforting.

Hurricanes have three phases. The front wall of the storm brings high winds, lightening, and rain. Next, at the hurricane’s center, or eye, the wind drops and the air warms. If one is at sea, the water may turn calm and warm, bringing the illusion that the storm has ended. As the storm moves on, wind and rain return, often with increased force. Those fooled by the calm who leave safe havens may be destroyed by what follows.

The life cycle of a hurricane will bear an eerie similarity to that of health reform. Nearly four years elapsed between president Obama’s initial call for national health reform until the bill became law and the Supreme Court ruled on its constitutionality. The political and legal turmoil was intense and continuous. The process was rancorous and the outcome in doubt from start to finish. It took a bitterly fought presidential election to put an end to this phase of the struggle.

Now, we are in a period of relative calm. The 2012 election settled the immediate fate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The candidate who swore to repeal it lost. The ACA was the major domestic legislative achievement of the victorious incumbent president who won reelection. Now, eighteen states are in process of designing rules for health insurance exchanges — the administrative entities that will manage implementation of the new law, the most important provisions of which will take effect one year hence. The other states will either leave implementation entirely to the federal government or share administrative responsibilities with federal agencies.

A huge amount of work remains to be done by October 1, 2013 when people can begin enrolling for insurance coverage in the new exchanges.

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Repairing ObamaCare

In the aftermath of the recent election, virtually all commentators were quick to conclude that ObamaCare has been saved. The health reform law can now go forward and Republicans are powerless to stop it.

The trouble is: ObamaCare is a deeply flawed piece of legislation. Its defects are so huge that Democrats are going to want to perform major surgery on it in the near future, even if the Republicans stand by and twiddle their thumbs.

That raises this question: What changes need to be made in the legislation to turn it into a health reform that solves existing problems without creating even more serious new problems? Here are six essential short term fixes:

Subsidize all insurance the same way. The way the government subsidizes health insurance under the current system is arbitrary and unfair. Employees with employer-provided insurance get that benefit tax free — a subsidy that is worth almost half the cost of the insurance for middle-income families. However, there is almost no subsidy available for people who must purchase insurance on their own. They must pay taxes on their income and then buy the insurance with what’s left over.

Under ObamaCare the subsidies become even more arbitrary. Although the new law creates generous tax credits for low and moderate income families who must buy their own insurance in newly created health insurance exchanges, the subsidy in an exchange can be as much as $12,000 higher than the same family will get if the same insurance is obtained through an employer!

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What the Rick Scott Decision Says About the Future of Health Care in the U.S.

In 2009, Rick Scott founded Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, a health care pressure group opposed to President Obama’s health reforms.

In 2010, Scott ran for governor of Florida on a mission to repeal Obamacare.

In 2012, Scott … will work to implement Obamacare.

For some conservatives, it’s a shocking reversal. Leaders of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative organization backed by the influential Koch brothers, were publicly disappointed in the Florida governor — who not so long ago said the Affordable Care Act was “the biggest job killer in the history of the country.”

Now, it will be Scott’s job to help implement it.

Changing Tune

Given his prominence, Scott’s move from Obamacare opponent to grudging supporter may be the biggest symbolic shift on the law since its passage.

The Florida governor was reportedly pressured by state legislators to negotiate with federal officials over the ACA, once November’s election made clear that Obamacare was here to stay.

But Scott won’t be the last GOP official to change his tune. More health care groups in other Republican-led states are putting similar pressure on their leaders to opt into the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, in hopes of securing additional dollars for providers.

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Did the Election Save ObamaCare?

The morning after Tuesday’s vote, there is one thing every commentator agreed on. The election of Barack Obama guaranteed that his signature piece of legislation — health reform — can now go forward. Republicans are powerless to stop it.

Yet there is something all these commentators are overlooking. There are six major flaws in ObamaCare. They are so serious that the Democrats are going to have to perform major surgery on the legislation in the next few years, even if all the Republicans do is stand by and twiddle their thumbs.

Here is a brief overview.

ObamaCare is not paid for. At least it’s not paid for in any politically realistic way. As is by now well known, the legislation will lower Medicare spending over the next 10 years by $716 billion in order to fund health insurance for young people. This reduction will primarily consist of lower payments to physicians, hospitals and other providers — reductions that are so severe that they will seriously impair access to care for senior citizens.

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Obamacare Is Still Vulnerable

President Obama has won reelection, and his administration has asked state officials to decide by Friday, November 16, whether their state will create one of Obamacare’s health-insurance “exchanges.” States also have to decide whether to implement the law’s massive expansion of Medicaid. The correct answer to both questions remains a resounding no.

State-created exchanges mean higher taxes, fewer jobs, and less protection of religious freedom. States are better off defaulting to a federal exchange. The Medicaid expansion is likewise too costly and risky a proposition. Republican Governors Association chairman Bob McDonnell (R.,Va.) agrees, and has announced that Virginia will implement neither provision.

There are many arguments against creating exchanges.

First, states are under no obligation to create one.

Second, operating an Obamacare exchange would be illegal in 14 states. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia have enacted either statutes or constitutional amendments (or both) forbidding state employees to participate in an essential exchange function: implementing Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates.

Third, each exchange would cost its state an estimated $10 million to $100 million per year, necessitating tax increases.

Fourth, the November 16 deadline is no more real than the “deadlines” for implementing REAL ID, which have been pushed back repeatedly since 2008.

Fifth, states can always create an exchange later if they choose.

Sixth, a state-created exchange is not a state-controlled exchange. All exchanges will be controlled by Washington.

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