Spurred by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s investigation into how credit companies report medical debt, TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian—the country’s three largest credit bureaus, who keep records on 200M Americans—are revising how they report medical debt.
As a result, the companies could eliminate up to 70 percent of medical debt from consumers’ credit reports. Starting in July, medical debts paid after going to collections will no longer appear on credit reports, and unpaid debts won’t be added until a year after being sent to collections (instead of six months, per current policy). And beginning in 2023, medical debts of less than $500 will also be excluded from credit reports altogether.
The Gist:The poorest and sickest patients have been disproportionately saddled with the highest levels of medical debt. In 2017, 19 percent of US households carried medical debt, including many with private insurance.
While these changes will help mitigate the impact of medical debt for some, they aren’t a fix to the larger underlying problem of rising healthcare costs and access to adequate health insurance coverage.
The stress, disruption, isolation, and lives lost during the pandemic have exacerbated longstanding challenges in access to mental healthcare. In the graphic above, we highlight how COVID has impacted the state of mental health across generations.
Younger Americans are faring much worse. This week, the nation’s leading pediatric professional societies declared a national mental health emergency for children and adolescents, and nearly half of “Generation Z” reports that their mental health has worsened during COVID.
Mental health-related emergency department (ED) visits increased in 2020 across all age groups, with the steepest rise among adolescents. Because of a national shortage of inpatient psychiatric beds, patients with mental health needs are increasingly being “boarded” in the ED—even asnearly two-thirds of EDs lack psychiatric services to adequately manage patients in crisis.
Case in point: research on behavioral health access in Massachusetts shows one in every four ED beds is now occupied by a patient awaiting psychiatric evaluation. ED boarding of patients in mental health crisis not only delays necessary care, but leads to throughput backups in hospitals, and increases caregiver stress and burnout.
Access to inpatient treatment is most challenged for children and adolescents, as well as “med-psych” patients, who also have significant physical health needs that must be managed. New solutions have emerged during the pandemic: burgeoning telemedicine platforms don’t just increase access to outpatient therapy, they also enable psychiatrists to evaluate emergency patients virtually.
In the long term, a three-part approach is needed—new virtual solutions, expanded inpatient capacity, and greater community resources to address the social needs that often accompany a behavioral health diagnosis.
Democrats’ push to extend health coverage to millions of very low-income people in red states has a lot working against it: It’s expensive, it’s complicated, it may invite legal challenges, and few national Democrats stand to gain politically from it.
Yes, but: The policy is being framed as a test not only of Democrats’ commitment to universal health coverage, but also their commitment to racial equity.
The big picture: Democrats are still figuring out how much money they have to spend in their massive social policy legislation, but there’s already intense competition among policies — including between health care measures.
Progressives are adamant about expanding Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing benefits. But a handful of prominent Democrats are making the case that closing the Medicaid coverage gap is equally, if not more, important.
The gap exists in 12 Republican-controlled states that have refused to accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, the majority of which are in the South.
What they’re saying: Closing the coverage gap is “very, very important to people of color. The majority of Black people in this country still live in the South,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn, one of the leading proponents of the measure.
More than 2 million adults are in the coverage gap, and 60% of them are people of color, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“What is the life expectancy of Black people compared to white people? I could make the argument all day that expanding Medicare at the expense of Medicaid is a racial issue, because Black people do not live as long as white people,” Clyburn added. “If we took care of Medicaid, maybe Black people would live longer.”
Between the lines: In terms of raw politics, it’s pretty easy to see why many Democrats would prioritize Medicare expansion over closing the Medicaid gap: Seniors live in every district and state in the U.S.
Only three Democratic senators represent non-expansion states, and in 2020, only ine of the 41 battleground House seats identified by Ballotpedia were in non-expansion states.
Yes, but: Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, both from Georgia, are the reason that Democrats are able to consider their social policy legislation at all. Warnock is up for re-election next year.
“This is about people in this country, and I wish we’d stop this red state and blue state stuff,” Clyburn said. “Warnock and Ossoff won a runoff that nobody gave them a chance to win by promising they would close this gap.”
The catch: States that have already expanded Medicaid are covering a small portion of those costs themselves, and may question the fairness full federal funding for the holdout states.
That could create an incentive for existing expansion states to drop the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and pick up the new program instead. And any effort Congress makes to stop them could invite legal challenges.
“The case law in this domain is a bit of a moving target, and as we’ve seen over the past decade, there’s an awful lot of litigation over things pertaining to health reform,”said Nick Bagley, a professor at theUniversity of Michigan Law School.
But “if your goals are relieving health care cost burdens or expanding access to care, then it’s hard to do better on a dollar-for-dollar basis than buying coverage for uninsured people below the poverty line,” said Brookings’ Matt Fiedler.
What we’re watching: “I don’t see Medicaid as being on the radar of some of my friends in the caucus who seem to feel it’s more important to do Medicare,” Clyburn said. “I’m trying to get Medicaid on their agenda.”
“I’m tired of my party perpetuating … inequity,” he added. “Treating people according to their needs is what breaks the cycle.”
The performance of the U.S. healthcare system ranked last among 11 high-income countries, according to a report released Aug. 4 by the Commonwealth Fund.
To compare the performance of the healthcare systems in 11 high-income countries, the Commonwealth Fund analyzed 71 performance measures across five domains: access to care, care process, administrative efficiency, equity and patient outcomes.
Despite spending far more of its gross domestic product on healthcare than the other nations included in the report, the U.S. ranked last overall, as well as last for access to care, administrative efficiency, equity and patient outcomes. However, the U.S. ranked second on measures of care process, trailing only New Zealand.
Norway, the Netherlands and Australia had the best healthcare system performance, according to the report. In all seven iterations of the study conducted by the Commonwealth Fund since 2004, the U.S. has ranked last. It is the only country included in the study that does not provide its citizens with universal health insurance coverage.
Four features separate the top performing countries from the U.S., according to the report: universal health insurance coverage and removal of cost barriers; investment in primary care systems to ensure equitable healthcare access; reduction of administrative burdens that divert time and spending from health improvement efforts; and investment in social services, particularly for children and working-age adults.
Medicare helps to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and close gaps in insurance coverage, a new study in JAMA Network shows.
Why it matters: This raises the possibility that expanding the program could further reduce health disparities — a timely idea, as Senate Democrats debate lowering the Medicare eligibility age and broadening its benefits, Axios’ Marisa Fernandez reports.
What they found: Medicare access at age 65 sharply reduced the share of Black and Hispanic people reporting poor health and poor access to care, but not mortality, the study notes.
Respondents were “significantly more likely” to be insured immediately after age 65 compared to before turning 65, and coverage increased more for Black and Hispanic adults than white adults.
Medicare eligibility alone doesn’t completely eliminate disparities among the elderly, suggesting other social determinants of health need to be addressed.
State of play:Senate Democrats have signaled that they’ll attempt to expand Medicare to include dental, hearing and vision coverage in the coming months.
Although lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60 wasn’t included in their original proposal, Axios has reported it’s still possible that the measure gets included.
We’ve been hearing a growing number of stories from patients about difficulties scheduling appointments for specialist consults.
A friend’s 8-year-old son experienced a new-onset seizure and was told that the earliest she could schedule a new patient appointment with a pediatric neurologist at the local children’s hospital was the end of November. Concerned about a five-month wait time after the scary episode, she asked what she should do in the meantime: “They told me if I want him to be seen sooner, bring him to the ED at the hospital if it happens again.”
A colleague shared his frustration after his PCP advised him to see a gastroenterologist. Calling six practices on the recommended referral list, the earliest appointment he could find was nine weeks out; the scheduler at one practice noted that with everyone now scheduling colonoscopies and other procedures postponed during the pandemic, they are busier than they’ve been in years. Recent conversations with medical group leaders confirm a specialist access crunch.
Patients who delayed care last year are reemerging, and ones who were seen by telemedicine now want to come in person. “We are booked solid in almost every specialty, with wait times double what they were before COVID,” one medical group president shared. The spike in demand is compounded by staffing challenges: “I pray every day that another one of our nurses doesn’t quit, because it will take us months to replace them.”
Doctors and hospitals are now seeing a rise in acuity—cancers diagnosed at a more advanced stage, chronic disease patients presenting with more severe complications—due to care delayed by the pandemic. If patients can’t schedule needed appointments and procedures, this spike in severity could be prolonged, or even made worse.
For medical groups who can find ways to open additional access, it’s also an opportunity to capture new business and engender greater patient loyalty.
Dollar General hired its first CMO and plans to become a destination for affordable healthcare offerings.
The retail giant will bring an increased assortment of medical, dental and health aids to its shelves as part of its first major jump into the healthcare industry, according to a July 7 news release.
Three things to know:
In the United States, 75 percent of the population lives within five miles of one of the chain’s 17,400 stores. The chain recognizes that it’s postured to deliver care to rural communities that are traditionally underserved in the healthcare ecosystem, the release said.
“At Dollar General, we are always looking for new ways to serve, and our customers have told us that they would like to see increased access to affordable healthcare products and services in their communities,” said Todd Vasos, Dollar General CEO. “Our goal is to build and enhance affordable healthcare offerings for our customers, especially in the rural communities we serve.”
The chain selected Albert Wu, MD, as its first CMO and vice president. Dr. Wu will strengthen relationships with healthcare service providers to build a network for its customers. In his previous position, Dr. Wu worked at McKinsey, where he oversaw the care model for 250,000 rural patients and drove $2-5 billion in revenue.
The Biden administration is quietly engineering a series of expansions to Medicaid that may bolster protections for millions of low-income Americans and bring more people into the program.
Biden’s efforts — which have been largely overshadowed by other economic and health initiatives — represent an abrupt reversal of the Trump administration’s moves to scale back the safety-net program.
The changes could further boost Medicaid enrollment — which the pandemic has already pushed to a record 80.5 million. Some of the expansion is funded by the COVID-19 relief bill that passed in March, including coverage for new mothers.
Others who could also gain coverage under Biden are inmates and undocumented immigrants. At the same time, the administration is opening the door to new Medicaid-funded services such as food and housing that the government insurance plan hasn’t traditionally offered.
“There is a paradigm change underway,” said Jennifer Langer Jacobs, Medicaid director in New Jersey, one of a growing number of states trying to expand home-based Medicaid services to keep enrollees out of nursing homes and other institutions.
“We’ve had discussions at the federal level in the last 90 days that are completely different from where we’ve ever been before,” Langer Jacobs said.
Taken together, the Medicaid moves represent some of the most substantive shifts in federal health policy undertaken by the new administration.
“They are taking very bold action,” said Rutgers University political scientist Frank Thompson, an expert on Medicaid history, noting in particular the administration’s swift reversal of Trump policies. “There really isn’t a precedent.”
The Biden administration seems unlikely to achieve what remains the holy grail for Medicaid advocates: getting 12 holdout states, including Texas and Florida, to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income working-age adults through the Affordable Care Act.
And while some of the recent expansions – including for new mothers — were funded by close to $20 billion in new Medicaid funding in the COVID relief bill Biden signed in March, much of that new money will stop in a few years unless Congress appropriates additional money.
The White House strategy has risks. Medicaid, which swelled after enactment of the 2010 health law, has expanded further during the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, pushing enrollment to a record 80.5 million, including those served by the related Children’s Health Insurance Program. That’s up from 70 million before the COVID crisis began.
The programs now cost taxpayers more than $600 billion a year. And although the federal government will cover most of the cost of the Biden-backed expansions, surging Medicaid spending is a growing burden on state budgets.
The costs of expansion are a frequent target of conservative critics, including Trump officials like Seema Verma, the former administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, who frequently argued for enrollment restrictions and derided Medicaid as low-quality coverage.
But even less partisan experts warn that Medicaid, which was created to provide medical care to low-income Americans, can’t make up for all the inadequacies in government housing, food and education programs.
“Focusing on the social drivers of health … is critically important in improving the health and well-being of Medicaid beneficiaries. But that doesn’t mean that Medicaid can or should be responsible for paying for all of those services,” said Matt Salo, head of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, noting that the program’s financing “is simply not capable of sustaining those investments.”
Restoring federal support
However, after four years of Trump administration efforts to scale back coverage, Biden and his appointees appear intent on not only restoring federal support for Medicaid, but also boosting the program’s reach.
“I think what we learned during the repeal-and-replace debate is just how much people in this country care about the Medicaid program and how it’s a lifeline to millions,” Biden’s new Medicare and Medicaid administrator, Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, told KHN, calling the program a “backbone to our country.“
The Biden administration has already withdrawn permission the Trump administration had granted Arkansas and New Hampshire to place work requirements on some Medicaid enrollees.
In April, Biden blocked a multibillion-dollar Trump administration initiative to prop up Texas hospitals that care for uninsured patients, a policy that many critics said effectively discouraged Texas from expanding Medicaid coverage through the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare. Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the nation.
The moves have drawn criticism from Republicans, some of whom accuse the new administration of trampling states’ rights to run their Medicaid programs as they choose.
“Biden is reasserting a larger federal role and not deferring to states,” said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow at the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability.
But Biden’s early initiatives have been widely hailed by patient advocates, public health experts and state officials in many blue states.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said Kim Bimestefer, head of Colorado’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.
Chuck Ingoglia, head of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, said: “To be in an environment where people are talking about expanding health care access has made an enormous difference.”
Mounting evidence shows that expanded Medicaid coverage improves enrollees’ health, as surveys and mortality data in recent years have identified greater health improvements in states that expanded Medicaid through the 2010 health law versus states that did not.
In addition to removing Medicaid restrictions imposed by Trump administration officials, the Biden administration has backed a series of expansions to broaden eligibility and add services enrollees can receive.
Biden supported a provision in the COVID relief bill that gives states the option to extend Medicaid to new mothers for up to a year after they give birth. Many experts say such coverage could help reduce the U.S. maternal mortality rate, which is far higher than rates in other wealthy nations.
Several states, including Illinois and New Jersey, had sought permission from the Trump administration for such expanded coverage, but their requests languished.
The COVID relief bill — which passed without Republican support — also provides additional Medicaid money to states to set up mobile crisis services for people facing mental health or substance use emergencies, further broadening Medicaid’s reach.
And states will get billions more to expand so-called home and community-based services such as help with cooking, bathing and other basic activities that can prevent Medicaid enrollees from having to be admitted to expensive nursing homes or other institutions.
Perhaps the most far-reaching Medicaid expansions being considered by the Biden administration would push the government health plan into covering services not traditionally considered health care, such as housing.
This reflects an emerging consensus among health policy experts that investments in some non-medical services can ultimately save Medicaid money by keeping patients out of the hospital.
In recent years, Medicaid officials in red and blue states — including Arizona, California, Illinois, Maryland and Washington — have begun exploring ways to provide rental assistance to select Medicaid enrollees to prevent medical complications linked to homelessness.
The Trump administration took steps to support similar efforts, clearing Medicare Advantage health plans to offer some enrollees non-medical benefits such as food, housing aid and assistance with utilities.
But state officials across the country said the new administration has signaled more support for both expanding current home-based services and adding new ones.
That has made a big difference, said Kate McEvoy, who directs Connecticut’s Medicaid program. “There was a lot of discussion in the Trump administration,” she said, “but not the capital to do it.”
Other states are looking to the new administration to back efforts to expand Medicaid to inmates with mental health conditions and drug addiction so they can connect more easily to treatment once released.
Kentucky health secretary Eric Friedlander said he is hopeful federal officials will sign off on his state’s initiative.
Still other states, such as California, say they are getting a more receptive audience in Washington for proposals to expand coverage to immigrants who are in the country without authorization, a step public health experts say can help improve community health and slow the spread of communicable diseases.
“Covering all Californians is critical to our mission,” said Jacey Cooper, director of California’s Medicaid program, known as Medi-Cal. “We really feel like the new administration is helping us ensure that everyone has access.”
The Trump administration moved to restrict even authorized immigrants’ access to the health care safety net, including the “public charge” rule that allowed immigration authorities to deny green cards to applicants if they used public programs such as Medicaid.In March, Biden abandoned that rule.
During Pride Month we feel it’s especially important to shine a light on the significant health disparities faced by transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals.
Transgender healthcare has been under growing attack in recent months; while the Biden administration formally reinstated Affordable Care Act protections for transgender Americans against discrimination in healthcare, 20 states have introduced anti-trans bills since the start of the year, most featuring provisions that bar physicians from providing trans children with gender-affirming care.
The graphic above shows that transgender individuals are twice as likely as the broader LGBTQ+ population to delay care for fear of discrimination. Trans individuals deal with myriad types of medical discrimination, from being misgendered in routine interactions to being denied treatment. And trans people of color report experiencing this mistreatment even more frequently. Transgender people are also more likely to be uninsured or to delay care for financial reasons, in part because their unemployment and uninsured rates are higher than the national average. Even when they do find supportive providers, nearly 40 percent report that their insurance will not cover essential elements of transitional care, such as hormone therapy.
It’s incumbent on doctors and health systems to strengthen their policies for treating trans individuals. Trans-specific training for clinicians and staff is a great place to start. Even simple shifts in operations—like including preferred name and pronouns on patient records and providing equal access to public restrooms—are small but important steps to providing a safer, more inclusive healthcare experience and reducing transgender health disparities.