Affordable Care Act 2.0: New Trends and Issues, New Urgency

Thursday marks the 13th anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act– perhaps the most consequential healthcare legislation since LBJ’s passage of the Medicare Act in 1965. Except in healthcare circles, it will probably go unnoticed.

World events in the Ukraine and China President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia will grab more media attention. At home, the ripple effects of Silicon Valley Bank’s bankruptcy and the stability of the banking system will get coverage and former President Trump’s arrest tomorrow will produce juicy soundbites from partisans and commentators. Thus, the birthday of Affordable Care Act, will get scant attention.

That’s regrettable: it offers an important context for navigating the future of the U.S. health system. Having served as an independent facilitator between the White House and private sector interests in 2009-2010, I recall vividly the events leading to its passage and the Supreme Court challenge that affirmed it:

  • The costs and affordability of healthcare and growing concern about the swelling ranks of uninsured were the issues driving its origin. Both political parties and every major trade group agreed on the issues; solving them not so easy.
  • Effective messaging from special interests about the ACA increased awareness of the law and calcified attitudes for or against. Misinformation/disinformation about the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” morphed to a national referendum on insurance coverage and the cost-effectiveness of the ACA’s solution (Medicaid expansion, subsidies and insurance marketplaces). ‘Death panels. government run healthcare and Obamacare’ labels became targets for critics: spending by special interests opposed to the law dwarfed support by 7 to 1. Differences intensified: Emotions ran high. I experienced it firsthand. While maintaining independence and concerns about the law, I received death threats nonetheless. Like religion, the ACA was off-limits to meaningful discussion (especially among the majority who hadn’t read it).
  • And after Scott Brown’s election to the vacant Massachusetts seat held by Ted Kennedy in January, 2010, the administration shifted its support to a more-moderate Senate Finance Committee version of the law that did not include a public option or malpractice reforms in the House version. Late-night lobbying by White House operatives resulted in a House vote in favor of the Senate version with promises ‘it’s only the start’. Through amendments, executive orders, administrative actions and appropriations, it would evolve with the support of the Obama team. It passed along party lines with the CBO offering an optimistic view it would slow health cost escalation by reducing administrative waste, implementation of comparative effectiveness research to align evidence with care, increased insurance coverage, changing incentives for hospitals and physicians and more.

The Affordable Care Act dominated media coverage from August 2009 to March 2010. In the 2010 mid-term election, it was the issue that catapulted Republicans to net gains of 7 in the Senate, 63 in the House and 6 in Governor’s offices. And since, Republicans in Congress have introduced “Repeal and Replace” legislation more than 60 times, failing each time.

Today, public opinion about the ACA has shifted modestly: from 46% FOR and 40% against in 2010 to 55% FOR and 42% against now (KFF). The national uninsured rate has dropped from 15.5% to 8.6% and Medicaid has been expanded in 39 states and DC. Lower costs, increased affordability and quality improvements owing to the ACA have had limited success.

Key elements of the ACA have not lived up to expectations i.e. the Patient Centered Outcome Research Institute, the National Quality Strategy, Title V National Healthcare Workforce Task Force, CMMI’s alternative payment models and achievement of Level 3 interoperability goals vis a vis ONCHIT, CHIME et al. So, as the 2024 political season starts, the ACA will get modest attention by aspirants for federal office because it addressed big problems with blunt instruments. Most recognize it needs to be modernized based on trends and issues relevant to healthcare in 2030 and beyond.

Trends like…

  • Self-diagnostics and treatment by consumers (enabled by ChatGPT et al).
  • Data-driven clinical decision-making.
  • Integration of non-allopathic methodologies.
  • The science of wellbeing.
  • Complete price, cost and error transparency.
  • Employer and individual insurance coverage optimization.
  • And others.

Issues like….

  • The role and social responsibility of private equity in ownership and operation of services in healthcare delivery and financing.
  • The regulatory framework for local hospitals vs. Regional/nation health systems, and between investor-owned and not-for-profit sponsorship.
  • The role and resources for guided self-care management and virtual-care.
  • Innovations in care delivery services to vulnerable populations using technologies and enhanced workforce models.
  • Modernization of regulatory environments and rules of competition for fully integrated health systems, prescription drug manufacturers, health insurers, over-the counter therapies, food as medicine, physician ownership of hospitals, data ownership, tech infomediaries that facilitate clinical decision-making, self-care, professional liability and licensing and many others.
  • Integration of public health and local health systems.
  • The allocation of capital to the highest and best uses in the health system.
  • The sustainability of Medicare and role of Medicare Advantage.
  • The regulatory framework for disruptors”.
  • And many others.

These trends are not-easily monitored nor are the issues clear and actionable. Most are inadequately addressed or completely missed in the ACA.

Complicating matters, the political environment today is more complicated than in 2010 when the ACA became law. The economic environment is more challenging: the pandemic, inflation and economic downturn have taken their toll. Intramural tensions in key sectors have spiked as each fights for control and autonomy i.e. primary care vs. specialty medicine, investor-owned vs. not-for-profit hospitals, retail medicine & virtual vs. office-based services, carve-outs, direct contracting et al . Consolidation has widened capabilities and resources distancing big organizations from others. Today’s media attention to healthcare is more sophisticated. Employers are more frustrated. And the public’s confidence in the health system is at an all-time low.

“ACA 2.0” is necessary to the system’s future but unlikely unless spearheaded by community and business leaders left out of the 1.0 design process. The trends and issues are new and complicated, requiring urgent forward thinking.

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