At its annual meeting this week, the AMA’s policymaking arm voted to adopt resolutions opposing state efforts that criminalize abortion or limit access to reproductive healthcare. This comes ahead of the much-anticipated Supreme Court decision, which is expected to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The nation’s largest physician organization joined the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in calling on the Food and Drug Administration to make birth control pills available over-the-counter and without age restrictions. The AMA also declared climate change a public health crisis, as physicians are already seeing negative health effects from heat-related injuries.
The Gist: As a new generation of physicians has entered the workforce, the policy priorities of physician lobbying organizations have evolved. We are seeing a growing interest in addressing hot-button social issues head-on. The AMA has declared both gun violence and racism to be public health issues, and supports health insurance coverage expansion, positions that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago.
Though progressive on social issues, however, the AMA is still advocating against state efforts to expand mid-level providers’ scope of practice—maintaining its traditional role as a protector of the physician guild.
If the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade—which in 1973 established an individual’s constitutional right to an abortion—is finalized, as many as 26 states are either certain or likely to ban abortion. The resulting patchwork of abortion laws across the country could create confusion for providers and hospitals on multiple fronts, including cases related to the Federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), as well as for health systems that operate in multiple states. Medical training on the procedure could become much more limited, as about half of the nation’s obstetrics and gynecology residencies are in states likely to ban abortion.
Recognizing the precarious position that abortion bans will put some providers in, the American Medical Association released a statement on Thursday saying that it is “deeply concerned” with the draft opinion, and that it “would lead to government interference in the patient-physician relationship, dangerous intrusion into the practice of medicine, and potentially criminalizing care.”
The Gist: Abortion is just one of a raft of issues where the provision of health services increasingly intersects with charged politics in this country. If Roe is overturned, medication abortion—the use of abortion pills—which already accounts for more than half of all abortions, will increase, although multiple states are already seeking to limit access.
Restricting access to safe abortions will also further exacerbate health disparities, driving up the already distressingly high US maternal mortality rate, especially among Black women. Andoverturning Roe would have implications far beyond access to abortion, especially for patients experiencing miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, or other life-threatening medical conditions related to pregnancy.
Congress cut billions of dollars in COVID-related funding from the broader government spending bill it just passed, jeopardizing President Biden’s plans for covering the costs of COVID testing and treatments, and making antiviral drugs available for free at pharmacies for those who test positive through the “test to treat” initiative.
However, a variety of other healthcare funding made it into the final package, including a five-month extension of COVID-era telehealth flexibilities for Medicare beneficiaries, and funds for pandemic preparedness. Congressional Democrats now plan to pass a separate COVID funding bill, although that effort will likely face stiff opposition from Senate Republicans.
The Gist: Removing COVID funding from the final spending package may signal the beginning of the end of federal pandemic relief spending, and could render the “test to treat” initiative, which has been praised by public health experts, dead on arrival.
Pharmacists, who have taken on a larger role in patient care during the pandemic, assisting with testing and vaccination of millions of Americans, have pushed for the ability to prescribe new antiviral therapies, but the American Medical Association criticized the initiative, maintaining that physicians should control the prescribing. Although the drug interactions and side effects cited by the AMA are important to manage, pharmacy-based “test to treat”would reduce time to treatment for those with COVID, and provide a sustainable mechanism for managing future surges of the disease.
A recent New Yorker article details the history of the American Medical Association’s (AMA) opposition to single-payer healthcare, and the grassroots movement that nearly changed its position in 2019.
Since its founding in the 1840s, the largest association of the nation’s doctors has wielded significant influence over healthcare policy, and has been the most effective opponent of several waves of progressive healthcare reform proposals across the last century. More recent changes in the demographic makeup of its physician constituents have begun to mirror the US population. A quarter of today’s practicing physicians graduated from foreign medical schools, and gender and racial gaps in medical schools have been reduced. Today, half of medical students are female, and half are people of color.
The Gist: The perspectives, needs, and politics of the physician community are changing. Younger physicians tend to be more left-leaning, and more are employees, rather than entrepreneurial business owners. While physician pocketbook issues historically dominated the AMA’s policy positions, today’s younger physicians are increasingly motivated by social justice concerns, leading to advocacy positions that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago.
Physician societies continue to move closer to endorsing more extensive healthcare reform policies, over trying to ensure economic protection for the profession—and in the long run, this shift in physician support could prove a key driver in increasing public approval of “Medicare for All” and other coverage reforms.
Independent physician groups, which include telehealth docs, must now accept a rate that someone elsehas negotiated, expert says.
The No Surprises Act has providers scrambling to understand the implications of a law that went into effect earlier this month.
Under the law, patients treated by an out-of-network physician can only be billed at the in-network rate. It protects patients from receiving surprise medical bills from the ER or air ambulance providers or for non-emergency services from out-of-network physicians at in-network facilities.
Patients can no longer receive balance bills – the difference between what the provider charges and what the insurer pays – or be charged a larger cost-sharing amount.
The congressional intent was to save patients sometimes thousands of dollars in unexpected, or surprise, medical bills. But applying the No Surprises Act to clinical care is being left to providers to sort out.
A big question is the definition of an emergency and the benchmark used to determine when it ends, according to Kyle Faget, a partner at Foley who is co-chair of the firm’s Health Care and Life Sciences Practice Groups. She asked: Does the emergency end when the patient is stabilized, or should another standard apply? This includes emergency services for mental health and substance-use disorders.
Another question is around pre-planned services. Patients have to be notified who is providing the care and whether the physician is in-network. If the physician is out-of-network, patients must provide consent. But that can be tricky, for instance, if a patient scheduled for a planned C-section gets an out-of-network doctor who was not scheduled at the time the appointment was made.
At some hospitals, a new layer of administration is needed to comply with the law, Faget said.
Another area not well understood is how the law affects telehealth consults in the ER.
TELEHEALTH AND THE NO SURPRISES ACT
The law states that if treated by a telehealth clinician, the patient can only be billed the in-network rate, said Faget, who specializes in telehealth law.
Telehealth is often used in the ER, according to Faget. Most ER visits require a physician consultation, with hands-on medical care provided by a clinician other than the physician.
Pre-COVID-19, providers were in the embryonic stage of providing virtual emergency care, she said. The pandemic, and a shortage of physicians, spurred virtual care in the ER.
These telehealth providers often work on a contracted basis. They are likely credentialed at the hospital but are not hospital employees, Faget said.
This means they are not credentialed with the insurer. Under the No Surprises Act, they are now subject to the in-network rates negotiated by the hospital.
Telehealth ER physicians could negotiate their own contracts with insurers, but as a small group, they are not likely to get the higher rates they had prior to the implementation of the No Surprises Act.
“It’s an arduous contracting process, and small-group bargaining power is low,” Faget said. “The big hospital system has bargaining power. Those groups providing telehealth services won’t necessarily have agreements in place and, by definition, are out-of-network.”
Independent physician groups, which include telehealth docs, must now accept a rate that someone else has negotiated, Faget said. This fact can be more of an issue than the lower rate they’re now being paid, she said.
“I think telehealth will adapt,” Faget said. “I think it will become the way of doing business.”
WHY THIS MATTERS
The bottom line is that the No Surprises Act is doing what it promised to do – saving patients from getting a large bill not covered by insurance.
Surprise bills are a moral and ethical issue, Faget said. Patients, at their most vulnerable in the ER, are sent home only to get a $5,000 bill they never saw coming.
“It’s like kicking a person when they’re down,” Faget said.
However, in the larger healthcare ecosystem, ending surprise medical bills will ultimately result in cost-shifting, she said.
“Think about the system globally: somebody is paying for something somewhere,” Faget said. “At the end of the day, somebody’s going to have to pay.”
THE LARGER TREND
Providers have told her that the No Surprises Act incentivizes insurance companies to lower their payments, Faget said.
The American Society of Anesthesiologists has accused BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina of doing this. A letter sent by BCBS of North Carolina to anesthesiology and other physician practices this past November threatens to terminate physicians’ in-network status unless they agree to payment reductions ranging from 10% to over 30%, according to ASA.
The ASA saw this as proof of its prognostication to Congress upon passage of the No Surprises Act: that insurers would use loopholes in the law to leverage their market power.
The AHA and AMA have sued the Department of Health and Human Services over implementation of a dispute-resolution process in the law they say favors the insurer. The arbitrator must select the offer closest to the qualifying payment amount. Under the rule, this amount is set by the insurer, giving the payer an unfair advantage, according to the lawsuit.
About 73% of health insurance markets are highly concentrated, and in 46% of markets, one insurer had a share of 50% or more, a new report from the American Medical Association shows. The report comes a few months after President Joe Biden directed federal agencies to ramp up oversight of healthcare consolidation.
The majority of health insurance markets in the U.S. are highly concentrated, curbing competition, according to a report released by the American Medical Association.
For the report, researchers reviewed market share and market concentration data for the 50 states and District of Columbia, and each of the 384 metropolitan statistical areas in the country.
They found that 73% of the metropolitan statistical area-level payer markets were highly concentrated in 2020. In 91% of markets, at least one insurer had a market share of 30%, and in 46% of markets, one insurer had a share of 50% or more.
Further, the share of markets that are highly concentrated rose from 71% in 2014 to 73% last year. Of those markets that were not highly concentrated in 2014, 26% experienced an increase large enough to enter the category by 2020.
In terms of national-level market shares of the 10 largest U.S. health insurers, UnitedHealth Group comes out on top with the largest market share in both 2014 and 2020, reporting 16% and 15% market share, respectively. Anthem comes in second with shares of 13% in 2014 and 12% in 2020.
But the picture looks different when it comes to the market share of health insurers participating in the Affordable Care Act individual exchanges. In 2014, Anthem held the largest market share among the top 10 insurers on the exchanges, with a share of 14%. By 2020, Centene had taken the top spot, with a share of 18%, while Anthem had slipped to fifth place, with a share of just 4%.
Another key entrant into the top 10 list in 2020 was insurance technology company Oscar Health, with 3% of the market share in the exchanges at the national level.
“These [concentrated] markets are ripe for the exercise of health insurer market power, which harms consumers and providers of care,” the report authors wrote. “Our findings should prompt federal and state antitrust authorities to vigorously examine the competitive effects of proposed mergers involving health insurers.”
The payer industry hit back. In a statement provided to MedCity News, America’s Health Insurance Plans, a national payer association, said that Americans have many affordable choices for their coverage, pointing to the fact that CMS announced average premiums for Medicare Advantage plans will drop to $19 per month in 2022 from $21.22 this year.
“Health insurance providers are an advocate for Americans, fighting for lower prices and more choices for them,” said Kristine Grow, senior vice president of communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans, in an email. “We negotiate lower prices with doctors, hospitals and drug companies, and consumers benefit from lower premiums as a result.”
Further, the report does not mention the provider consolidation that also contributes to higher healthcare prices. Mergers and acquisitions among hospitals and health systems have continued steadily over the past decade, remaining relatively impervious to even the Covid-19 pandemic.
Scrutiny around consolidation in the healthcare industry may grow. In July, President Joe Biden issued an executive order urging federal agencies to review and revise their merger guidelines through the lens of preventing patient harm.
The Federal Trade Commission has already said that healthcare businesses will be one of its priority targets for antitrust enforcement actions.
— At stake: scheduled payment reductions totalling $54 billion
Healthcare groups are applauding efforts being made in Congress to stop two different cuts to the Medicare budget — both of which are due to “sequestration” requirements — before it’s too late.
One cut, part of the normal budget process, is a 2% — or $18 billion — cut in the projected Medicare budget under a process known as “sequestration.” Sequestration allows for prespecified cuts in projected agency budget increases if Congress can’t agree on their own cuts. Medicare’s budget had been slated for a 2% sequester cut in fiscal year 2020; however, due to the pandemic and the accompanying increased healthcare needs, Congress passed a moratorium on the 2% cut. That moratorium is set to expire on April 1.
Another projected cut — this one for 4%, or $36 billion — will be triggered by the COVID relief bill, formally known as the American Rescue Plan Act. That legislation, which President Biden signed into law last Thursday, must conform to the PAYGO (pay-as-you-go) Act, which requires that any legislation that has a cost to it that is not otherwise offset must be offset by sequestration-style budget cuts to mandatory programs, including Medicare.
There are now several bills in Congress to address these pending cuts. H.R. 1868, co-sponsored by House Budget Committee chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), House Ways & Means Committee chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), and House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), among others, would get rid of the PAYGO Act requirement and extend the 2% Medicare sequester moratorium through the end of 2021.
Another bill, H.R. 315, introduced in January by Reps. Bradley Schneider (D-Ill.) and David McKinley (R-W.Va.), would extend the 2% sequester moratorium until the end of the public health emergency has been declared. In the Senate, S. 748, introduced Monday by senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) would do the same.
“For many providers, the looming Medicare payment cuts would pose a further threat to their ability to stay afloat and serve communities during a time when they are most needed,” Shaheen said in a press release. “Congress should be doing everything in its power to prevent these cuts from taking effect during these challenging times, which is why I’m introducing this bipartisan legislation with Senator Collins. I urge the Senate to act at once to protect our health care providers and ensure they can continue their work on the frontlines of COVID-19.”
Not surprisingly, provider groups were happy about the actions in Congress. “MGMA [Medical Group Management Association] supports recent bipartisan, bicameral efforts to extend the 2% Medicare sequester moratorium for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency,” said Anders Gilberg, senior vice president for government affairs at MGMA, in a statement. “Without congressional action, the country’s medical groups will face a combined 6% sequester cut — a payment cut that is unsustainable given the financial hardships due to COVID-19 and keeping up with the cost of inflation.”
Leonard Marquez, senior director of government relations and legislative advocacy at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said in a statement that it was “critical” that Congress extend the 2% sequester moratorium “to help ensure hospitals, faculty physicians, and all providers have the necessary financial resources to continue providing quality care to COVID-19 and all patients ... While we are making progress against COVID-19, cutting provider payments in the middle of a pandemic could jeopardize the nation’s recovery.”
The American Medical Association (AMA) also urged Congress to prevent both the 2% and the 4% Medicare cuts. “We strongly oppose these arbitrary across-the-board Medicare cuts, and the predictably devastating impact they would have on many already distressed physician practices,” AMA executive vice president and CEO James Madara, MD, said in a letter sent to congressional leaders at the beginning of March.
“And, while Medicare spending on physician services partially recovered from the April low, it was still 12% less than expected by the end of June 2020,” he continued. “During the first half of 2020, the cumulative estimated reduction in Medicare physician spending associated with the pandemic was $9.4 billion (19%). Results from an earlier AMA-commissioned survey of 3,500 practicing physicians conducted from mid-July through August 2020 found that 81% of respondents were still experiencing lower revenue than before the pandemic.”
Not everyone is a fan of extending the 2% cut moratorium, however. “Bad idea,” said James Capretta, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, at an event Tuesday on Medicare solvency sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. “There’s plenty of give in the revenue streams of these systems that creating a precedent where we’re going to go back to the pre-sequester level — it’s better to move forward and if there are struggling systems out there, deal with it on an ad hoc basis rather than just across the board paying out a lot more money, which I don’t think is necessary.” He added, however, that he agreed with the bill to get rid of the 4% cut. “The bigger cut associated with PAYGO enforcement I think would be too much.”
The groups said that Americans “deserve a stable healthcare market that provides access to high-quality care and affordable coverage for all.”
This week, a coalition of healthcare and employer groups called for achieving universal health coverage by expanding financial assistance to consumers, bolstering enrollment and outreach efforts, and taking additional steps to protect those who have lost or are at risk of losing employer-based coverage because of the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
They have banded together to advocate for achieving universal coverage via expansion of the Affordable Care Act, which is supported by President Biden. Biden also intends to achieve universal coverage through a Medicare-like public option — a government-run health plan that would compete with private insurers.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT
Despite a lot of pre-election talk about universal healthcare coverage from elected officials and those vying for public office, achieving this has remained an elusive goal in the U.S. In a joint statement of principles, the groups said that Americans “deserve a stable healthcare market that provides access to high-quality care and affordable coverage for all.”
“Achieving universal coverage is particularly critical as we strive to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and work to address long-standing inequities in healthcare access and outcomes,” the groups wrote.
The organizations support a number of steps to make health coverage more accessible and affordable, including protecting Americans who have lost or are at risk of losing employer-provided health coverage from becoming uninsured.
They also want to make Affordable Care Act premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions more generous, and expand eligibility for them, as well as establish an insurance affordability fund to support any unexpected high costs for caring for those with serious health conditions, or to otherwise lower premiums or cost-sharing for ACA marketplace enrollees.
Also on the group’s to-do list: Restoring federal funding for outreach and enrollment programs; automatically enrolling and renewing those eligible for Medicaid and premium-free ACA marketplace plans; and providing incentives for additional states to expand Medicaid in order to close the low-income coverage gap.
THE LARGER TREND
The concept of universal coverage is gaining traction among patients thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, A Morning Consult poll taken in the pandemic’s early days showed about 41% of Americans say they’re more likely to support universal healthcare proposals. Twenty-six percent of U.S. adults say they’re “much more likely” to support such policy initiatives, while 15% say they’re somewhat more likely.
As expected, Democrats were the most favorable to the idea, with 59% saying they were either much more likely or somewhat more likely to support a universal healthcare proposal. Just 21% of Republicans said the same. Independents were somewhere in the middle, with 34% warming up to the idea of blanket coverage.
More than 21% of Republicans said they were less likely to support universal care in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Seven percent of independents reported the same, while for Democrats the number was statistically insignificant.
During his campaign, President Joe Biden said he supported a public option for healthcare coverage. He also pledged to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. By executive order, Biden opened a new ACA enrollment period for those left uninsured. It begins February 15 and goes through May 15.
On Monday, the American Medical Association (AMA) voted to recognize racism as an “urgent threat to public health”. At its annual meeting, the organization’s House of Delegates voted to take actions to confront systemic, cultural and interpersonal racism, including acknowledging harm and bias in medical research and healthcare delivery, funding research to identify risks of racial bias to health, and encouraging medical schools to teach students about the causes and effects of racism, and strategies to prevent adverse health outcomes.
The resolution was one of several proposed items aimed at addressing racial diversity and equity in medical education and care delivery. Over the past two years, the AMA has been moving toward a more progressive stance on health and social policy; in June the AMA Board of Trustees also pledged action against racism and police brutality in response to the murder of George Floyd.
A generational divide between older and younger doctors was also apparent during last year’s debates on Medicare for All, when the organization narrowly voted to maintain its opposition to single-payer healthcare in a close vote that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.
At this week’s meeting, however, the group gave its stamp of approval to proposals for a more limited “public option” coverage expansion.As more young physicians enter the field of medicine, we’d expect the AMA to become a stronger voice on a range of social and policy issues.
A collection of provider and payer groups are imploring Congress to continue a moratorium on Medicare payment cuts instituted under the sequester.
The letter (PDF), sent Friday by more than 20 groups to congressional leaders, is concerned that the moratorium installed under the CARES Act expires on Jan. 1. The groups want the moratorium to extend through the COVID-19 public health emergency, which has been renewed by the federal government several times.
The groups said that the moratorium needs to be extended as healthcare facilities are under massive financial stress with new surges of COVID-19.
The surge has impacted the “financial health of medical professionals and facilities, including increased cost of labor to ensure adequate staffing, procurement of personal protective equipment, significant reductions in patient volume resulting from orders to cancel non-emergent procedures and the high cost of caring for COVID patients,” the letter said.
Some of the groups signing on to the letter include the American Medical Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, Federation of American Hospitals and American College of Physicians.
The groups said that the moratorium on the sequester cuts installed as part of the CARES Act was an acknowledgment from Congress over the important role that Medicare reimbursement plays in “the financial well being of our healthcare system.”
The sequestration cut Medicare payments by 2% across the board to all Medicare providers back in 2013.
The letter comes as Congress is pondering another relief package for COVID-19 during the lame-duck period. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the presidential election that he was open to restarting talks on a new relief package and added that hospitals will need some additional relief.
But McConnell said earlier this week that the same issues that have held up a deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are still there.
“I don’t think the current situation demands a multi-trillion dollar package,” McConnell told reporters. “I think it should be highly targeted.”
But Pelosi has endorsed a larger package. The House passed the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion relief bill, several months ago.