5 biggest health care provisions inside the House reconciliation bill

House to consider modified reconciliation bill with health care provisions  | AHA News

After months of negotiations, House Democrats on Friday passed their version of the Build Back Better bill—an expansive $1.7 trillion package that contains some of the largest health reforms since the Affordable Care Act’s passage in 2010.

While the overall scope of the bill is roughly half the size of President Biden’s original $3 trillion proposal, many of Democrats’ key health care provisions made it in, albeit with some modifications. What’s more, the Congressional Budget Office projected that while the overall bill would add $367 billion to the deficit over the 10 year period, the health care provisions would all be largely paid for by provisions aimed at lowering drug prices.

Below, I round up the five biggest health care changes included in the House bill.

Find out where the states stand on Medicaid expansion

1. Health care coverage expansions

The House bill leverages the ACA’s exchanges and federal tax credits to expand access to coverage in two ways. First, the bill would extend the American Rescue Plan’s enhanced ACA tax credits through 2025. The enhanced tax credits, which are currently slated to expire in 2023, fully subsidize coverage for people with annual incomes up to 150% of the federal poverty level (FPL) and have enabled people above 400% FPL to qualify for subsidies and capped their premium costs at 8.5% of their incomes.

While Democrats had originally proposed to permanently expand those subsidies, they ultimately had to scale back this—and other proposals—to ensure they could cover the costs. But as we’ve seen in the past, it is much harder to take away an existing benefit or subsidy than it is to create a new one—so while the current bill was able to cover the cost of the health care provisions by making them temporary, lawmakers will have to revisit the tax credits before 2025 and find new money to either further extend them or permanently authorize them. This is one of several health care provisions we could see the Senate take a closer week at in the coming weeks.

Second, the House bill takes aim at the so-called Medicaid coverage gap. The bill would enable residents below 138% FPL who live in states that have not expanded their Medicaid programs to qualify for fully subsidized exchange plans through 2025. While an earlier version of the House bill included language for a new federal Medicaid program covering those below 138% FPL who live in non-expansion states to begin in 2025, the final House bill contains no such program.

Instead, the bill aims to encourage non-expansion states to expand their Medicaid programs by reducing their Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments by 12.5% beginning in 2023—a significant cut that the American Hospital Association (AHA) estimates would reduce DSH payments in those states by $2.2 billion over five years and $4.7 billion over 10 years. At the same time, expansion states would see their federal match for spending on the Medicaid expansion population rise from 90% to 93% from 2023 through 2025.

While the AHA and others are pushing back against the proposed DSH payment cuts—the move addresses the moral hazard component that critics raised about earlier versions. It no longer rewards holdout states for not expanding their programs—effectively punishing those who did and are now on the hook for 10% of their expansion population’s costs. It’s a clever move, and one we’ll be watching to see if it survives the Senate.

2. New Medicare benefits.

The House bill adds a hearing benefit to Medicare beginning in 2023. The hearing benefits would cover hearing aids and aural rehabilitation, among other services. While this is certainly a win for many Medicare beneficiaries who do not have or cannot afford private Medicare Advantage plans, this is significantly scaled back from the original proposal to add hearing, as well as dental and vision benefits.

However, given that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has named Medicare benefit expansions as one of his top priorities, it’s possible we could see this topic revisited in the Senate. But any meaningful change would mean Democrats need to find more money to cover the costs—and so far, that has proved challenging.

3. Medicaid home and community care.

The House bill allocates $150 billion for home- and community-based care. The funding would be used to help increase home care provider reimbursement rates and help states bolster home- and community-based care infrastructure.

While the funding is down from an original proposal of $400 billion, the Biden administration—and the Covid-19 pandemic—have made it clear that home-based health care will continue to grow and be a key player in the U.S. health care delivery system. Providers looking at their offerings should keep an eye on how states are investing these funds and building out home-based health care delivery in their areas.

4. Lowering the costs of prescription drugs.

Democrats scored a huge win in the House bill, and that is securing Medicare authority—albeit narrower authority than they sought—to negotiate prices for some of the highest-priced Part B or Part D drugs. Under the bill, HHS would be able to select 10 drugs to negotiation in 2025, up to 15 drugs in 2026 and 2027, and then up to 20 drugs per year in 2028. To be eligible for negotiation, a drug could no longer be subject to market exclusivity.

Drug manufacturers that do not negotiate eligible drug prices could be subject to an excise tax. This was perhaps one of the most contentious provisions debated in the health care portions of this bill. Democrats for years have been seeking to give Medicare drug pricing authority, but intense lobbying and Republican—and some Democrat—objections have kept this proposal on the shelf. While it’s not the first time the House has passed a bill with drug price negotiation—it is the first time we are in a place where the Senate could reasonably pass either this or a modified version of the proposal.

The bill also would redesign the Medicare Part D benefit to create an annual cap of $2,000 on seniors’ out-of-pocket drug costs, and impose an inflation rebate on drug manufacturers’ whose drug prices rise faster than inflation (based on 2021) in a given year.

5. Other notable provisions.

The House bill also includes provisions to permanently fund CHIP, bolster the country’s pandemic preparedness and response, and bolster the health care workforce through new training and workforce programs, the nation’s first permanent federal paid family and medical leave program, investments in childcare, and more.

What’s next?

While the health care provisions in the House bill are notable, it’s important to remember that this is not the end of the road. The House bill now goes to the Senate, where the Senate parliamentarian will check provisions against the Byrd rule—a Senate rule requiring reconciliation bills to meet certain budgetary requirements.

Democrats also will enter a new round of negotiations, and industry groups—including PhRMA and AHA—are expected to launch a new round of lobbying. PhRMA objects to the bill’s drug price negotiation provision and AHA is fighting the provision to reduce DSH payments in non-Medicaid expansion states by 12.5%. Any Senate-passed reconciliation bill will need to go back to the House for final approval before it can go to Biden’s desk.

But this is not the only thing on lawmakers’ plates in December. Members of Congress also face several other deadlines, including addressing looming physician payment cuts and passing end of the year spending bills. The short-version is, while there’s a lot to learn from the House-passed bill, it’s possible the Senate version could look very different—and it may take several weeks before we see that bill take shape.

Millions of Americans remain vulnerable as cases rise

Coronavirus cases are on the rise again in several states, partially a result of variants of the virus becoming more widespread, experts say.

Why it matters: Even though a remarkable 72% of Americans 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, millions of Americans — particularly younger Americans with underlying conditions — remain vulnerable.

Driving the news: Coronavirus cases are rapidly rising in places including Michigan, New York, New Jersey and other Northeastern states.

  • In Michigan, the number of hospitalized younger adults has dramatically increased this month. Coronavirus hospitalizations increased by 633% for those aged 30 to 39 and by 800% for those aged 40 to 49, the Detroit Free Press reports.
  • The variant that originated in the U.K., which is partially driving the new surge, appears to be more transmissible and deadlier.

The big picture: “There are certainly many people who are not vaccinated who are still at severe risk themselves because of underlying medical issues,” said Leana Wen, a visiting professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.

  • Because of vaccination demographics and who’s at highest risk of exposure, “the proportion of people who are hospitalized and who will die will likely skew toward a younger subset,” she said.

Between the lines: Those still vulnerable to the virus are disproportionately people of color.

  • That’s because prioritizing people for vaccines based on age disproportionately benefits white Americans, who tend to be older than people of color.
  • But younger people of color are tend to be at higher risk of severe infections because of underlying conditions.

What they’re saying: “To address areas of outbreak, we should allocate more of the increased vaccine supply coming into the market to places where penetration is low and infection rates high, like metro Detroit,” former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted.

The Burdens Grow Heavier for COVID-19 Health Care Providers

Dr. Christine Choi, a second year medical resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center
Dr. Christine Choi, 32, a medical resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, prepares to enter an isolation area for COVID-19 inpatients. Health care providers must face daily patient death and suffering.

Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring, Christine Choi, DO, a second-year medical resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, volunteered to enter COVID-19 patient rooms. Since then, she has worked countless nights in the intensive care unit in full protective gear, often tasked with giving the sickest patients and their families the grim choice between intubation or near-certain death.

Essential Coverage

I’m offering this guy two terrible options, and that’s how I feel about work: I can’t fix this for you and it sucks, and I’m sorry that the choices I’m giving you are both terrible,” Choi told the Los Angeles Times’ Soumya Karlamangla about one patient encounter.

While Choi exhibits an “almost startlingly positive attitude” in her work, it’s no match for the psychological burdens placed on her shoulders by the global pandemic, Karlamangla wrote. When an older female COVID-19 patient died in the hospital recently, her husband — in the same hospital with the same diagnosis — soon began struggling to breathe. Sensing that he had little time left, Choi held a mobile phone at his bedside so that each of his children could come on screen to tell him they loved him. “I was just bawling in my [personal protective equipment],” Choi said. “The sound of the family members crying — I probably will never forget that,” she said.

It was not the first time the young doctor helped family members say goodbye to a loved one, and it would not be the last. Health care providers like Choi have had to work through unimaginable tragedies and unprecedented circumstances because of COVID-19, with little time to dedicate to their own mental health or well-being.

It has been nearly a year since the US reported what was believed at the time to be its first coronavirus death in Washington State. Since then, the pandemic death toll has mushroomed to nearly 500,000 nationwide, including 49,000 Californians. These numbers are shocking, and yet they do not capture the immeasurable emotional weight that falls on the health care providers with the most intimate view of COVID-19’s deadly progression. “The horror of the pandemic has unfolded largely outside public view and inside hospitals, piling a disproportionate share of the trauma on the people whose work takes them inside their walls,” Karlamangla wrote.

Experts are deeply concerned about the psychological and physical burdens that providers must bear, and the fact that there is still no end in sight. “At least with a natural disaster, it happens, people get scattered all over the place, property gets damaged or flooded, but then we begin to rebuild,” Lawrence Palinkas, PhD, MA, a medical anthropologist at USC, told Karlamangla. “We’re not there yet, and we don’t know when that will actually occur.”

Burned Out and Exhausted

A new CHCF survey of 1,202 California doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and behavioral health specialists confirms that levels of burnout and exhaustion are rising as the pandemic wears on. The survey, conducted January 4 to 14, 2021, is the second in a three-part series assessing COVID-19-related effects on health care providers.

Sixty-eight percent of providers said they feel emotionally drained from their work, 59% feel burned out, 57% feel overworked, and 50% feel frustrated. The poll asked providers who say they feel burned out what contributes most to that viewpoint. One doctor from the Central Valley wrote:

“Short staffed due to people out with COVID. I’m seeing three times as many patients, with no time to chart or catch up. Little appreciation or contact from my bosses. I have never had an N95 [mask]. The emotional toll this pandemic is taking. Being sick myself and spreading it to my wife and young kids. Still not fully recovered but needing to be at work due to physician shortages. Lack of professional growth, and a sense of lack of appreciation at work and feeling overworked. The sadness of the COVID-related deaths and the stories that go along with the disease. That’s a lot of stuff to unpack.”

Safety-net providers and health care workers with larger populations of patients of color are more likely to experience emotional hardships at work. As we know well by now, COVID-19 exacerbates the health disparities that have long burdened people of color and disproportionately harms communities with fewer health care and economic resources.

Women Bear the Brunt

The pandemic has been especially challenging for female health providers, who compose 77% of health care workers with direct patient contact. “The pandemic exacerbated gender inequities in formal and informal work, and in the distribution of home responsibilities, and increased the risk of unemployment and domestic violence,” an international group of experts wrote in the Lancet. “While trying to fulfill their professional responsibilities, women had to meet their families’ needs, including childcare, home schooling, care for older people, and home care.”

For one female doctor from the Bay Area who responded to the CHCF survey, the extra burdens of the pandemic have been unrelenting: “Having to work more, lack of safe, affordable, available childcare while I’m working. As a single mother, working 15 hours straight, then having to care for my daughter when I get home. Just exhausted with no days off. So many Zoom meetings all day long. Miss my family and friends.”

It is unclear how the pandemic will affect the health care workforce in the long term. For now, the damage “can be measured in part by a surge of early retirements and the desperation of community hospitals struggling to hire enough workers to keep their emergency rooms running,” Andrew Jacobs reported in the New York Times.

One of the early retirements Jacobs cited was Sheetal Khedkar Rao, MD, a 42-year-old internist in suburban Chicago. Last October, she decided to stop practicing medicine after “the emotional burden and moral injury became too much to bear,” she said. Two of the main factors driving her decision were a 30% pay cut to compensate for the decline in revenue from primary care visits and the need to spend more time at home after her two preteen children switched to remote learning.

“Everyone says doctors are heroes and they put us on a pedestal, but we also have kids and aging parents to worry about,” Rao said.

Working Through Unremitting Sickness and Death

In addition to the psychological burden, health care providers must cope with a harsh physical toll. People of color account for most COVID-19 cases and deaths among health care workers, according to a KFF issue brief. Some studies show that health care workers of color “are more likely to report reuse of or inadequate access to [personal protective equipment] and to work in clinical settings with greater exposure to patients with COVID-19.”

“Lost on the Frontline,” a collaboration of Kaiser Health News and the Guardian, has counted more than 3,400 deaths among US health care workers from COVID-19. Eighty-six percent of the workers who died were under age 60, and nurses accounted for roughly one-third of the deaths.

“Lost on the Frontline” provides the most comprehensive picture available of health care worker deaths, because the US still lacks a uniform system to collect COVID-19 morbidity and mortality data among health care workers. A year into the project, the federal government has decided to take action. Officials at the US Department of Health and Human Services cited the project when asking the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for a rapid expert consultation to understand the causes of deaths among health care workers during the pandemic.

The National Academies’ report, published December 10, recommends the “adoption and use of a uniform national framework for collecting, recording, and reporting mortality and morbidity data” along with the development of national reporting standards for a core set of morbidity impacts, including mental well-being and psychological effects related to working through public health crises. Some health care experts said the data gathering could be modeled on the federal government’s World Trade Center Health Program, which provides no-cost medical monitoring and treatment for workers who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks 20 years ago.

“We have a great obligation to people who put their lives on the line for the nation,” Victor J. Dzau, MD, president of the National Academy of Medicine, told Jacobs.