The plaintiffs in Braidwood v. Becerra filed a motion on Monday asking a US District Court judge in Texas—the same judge who ruled the entire ACA unconstitutional in 2018—to block enforcement of the ACA’s no-cost requirement for preventive care services. This judge already sided with the plaintiffs in September, ruling the government cannot require a company to fully cover preventive HIV drugs, also known as PrEP therapy, for its employees, on the grounds that doing so violates owners’ religious freedom.
In that ruling, the judge also asserted that the government’s system for deciding what preventive care services should be covered under the ACA is unconstitutional. This latest motion now asks him to invalidate all parts of the ACA requiring preventive health services on the grounds that the Preventive Services Task Force was never appointed by Congress, and thus lacks the authority to say which services insurers must cover. The final ruling is expected early next year, after which the case will certainly be appealed, regardless of outcome.
The Gist: Given the judge’s initial ruling in Braidwood last month, this motion from the plaintiffs was expected. While the US Supreme Court reversed a 2018 ruling by this judge that struck down the entire ACA, it could potentially find the narrow targeting of this case more reasonable, making preventive care coverage optional for employers.
If that happens, millions of Americans would once again have to pay for some of the most common and highest-value healthcare services, including screening tests for a variety of cancers, sexually transmitted infections, and diabetes. That additional financial burden, along with likely tightening of health plan benefit designs, would create barriers to access and exacerbate health disparities.
In a concerning New York Times article, reporter Gina Kolata relates the findings of a recent Health Affairs study that convened focus groups of physicians to anonymously discuss the ways they provide—or too often, don’t provide—care to disabled patients. Many admitted to avoiding seeing patients in wheelchairs and complained about having to provide accommodations to speech-impaired patients, citing the high costs of adapting their clinic operations while dealing with disruptions to workflow. People with disabilities interviewed for the article, including Harvard professor of medicine Dr. Lisa Iezzoni, who ran the study, found its results confirmed impressions of widespread bias against the disabled, which is pervasive across healthcare.
The Gist: Reducing disparities in access and quality of care for disabled people often receives less attention than reducing economic, racial, and gender disparities. What’s revealing about this piece is how these disparities among disabled patients manifest, ranging from personal biases (physicians not wanting or knowing how to care for certain groups of disabled people) to structural challenges (constraints of time, money, and facilities needed for proper care). However, for disabled patients, these factors result in an often substandard and unacceptable healthcare experience, which must be addressed head-on by physician and health system leaders.
Citi, The American Hospital Association (AHA) and the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA) recently hosted the 22nd annual Not-for-Profit Healthcare Investor Conference. The event was in person, after being virtual in 2021 and canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. Leaders from over 25 diverse health systems, as well as private equity and fund managers, presented in panel discussions and traditional formats. The following summary attempts to synthesize key themes and particularly interesting work by leading health systems. The conference title was “Refining the Now, Reshaping What’s Next.”
Is Healthcare Headed for Best of Times or Worst of Times?
Clearly the pandemic showed how essential and adaptive the US healthcare industry is, and especially how incredible healthcare workers continue to be. It also exposed and accelerated many underlying dynamics, such as impact of disparities, clinical labor shortages and supply chain challenges. On balance, at this year’s conference presenters remained quite optimistic about the future, and felt that despite enormous pain, the pandemic has helped to accelerate positive transformation across healthcare.
At the same time, almost all presenters referenced future headwinds from labor and supply inflation, concerns about increasing payment pressures, and the continued need to address disparities and social justice. That being said, there was not much disclosure at the conference about just how bad things could get in the future given accelerated operational and financial risks.
As usual at such a conference, there was much passion, creativity, sharing and celebration. While each organization and market differ somewhat, the following are common themes discussed.
Enormous Workforce Challenges – Every speaker referenced workforce as being THE key issue they are facing, specifically retirement, recruitment, retention, well-being and cost. We have talked for years about a future caregiver shortage, but this reality was accelerated by the pandemic. The majority of health systems saw single-digit turnover rates grow to 20-30%, and the cost of temporary labor such as traveling nurses, decimate operating margins. The many strategies discussed at the conference went beyond simply paying more to attract and retain staff. A key question is whether organization-specific strategies will be enough, or whether we need a broader societal and industry-wide collaborative effort to dramatically increase training slots for nurses and other allied health professionals.
Pandemic Stressed Organizations and Accelerated Transformation – At the 2021 virtual Citi/AHA/HFMA conference, many posited that the country was past the worst of the pandemic. (In fact this author’s summary of last year’s conference was titled “Sunrise After the Storm”). That was before the Omicron wave hit hard in Q1 2022. First-quarter 2022 operating margins were negative for most but not all healthcare systems due to cumulative impact of Omicron, temporary labor and supply costs, especially since the governmental support that partially offset those costs in 2020 ended. Organizations and their teams remain resilient, but highly stressed. Risks and challenges associated with future waves continue, as well as high reliance on foreign drug and supply manufacturing. While highly distracting and painful, many organizations discussed how the pandemic actually accelerated the pace of transformation. Necessity drives required action, and at least temporarily overcomes political and cultural barriers to change.
Growing Pursuit of Scale, Including through M&A and Partnerships – All health systems continue to be highly complex with multiple competing “big-dot” priorities. Multiple systems described their current M&A and growth strategies, pursuit of scale, as well as how these strategies were impacted by the pandemic. While the provider community remains highly unconsolidated on a national basis, mergers are more frequent, including between non-contiguous markets. Systems said that larger size, coupled with disciplined management, can reduce cost structure and improve quality and patient experience. While some pursue scale through organic growth initiatives or M&A, others described success in creating scale by leveraging partnerships with “best-in-class” niche organizations and other outside expertise.
Health Equity, Diversity and ESG as Core to Mission – Consistent with last year, most speakers discussed their efforts to address health equity, social justice, diversity, and Social Determinants of Health. Many health systems have developed robust strategies quickly as the pandemic spotlighted the impact of existing disparities. There is increasing interest in Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) initiatives, including environmental stewardship to improve the health of their communities and the world by reducing their carbon footprint and medical waste.
Patient-Centric Care Transformation Continues as a Priority – The pandemic significantly accelerated the shift to telehealth and virtual care. Many health systems are increasing their efforts to design care around the patient instead of the traditional provider centric focus. While the need for inpatient care will always continue, more care is taking place in settings closer to or at home, with digital enablement. Expansion of personalized medicine, genetic testing and therapies, and drug discovery are transforming how healthcare is provided.
Affordability and Value-Based Care – US healthcare costs as a percentage of GDP increased from 18% in 2019 to almost 20% in 2020, mainly driven by the pandemic. There remains a dichotomy between reliance on fee-for-service payment and commitment to value-based care. Although only 11% of commercial payment is currently through two-sided risk arrangements, almost all presenting health systems discussed their strategies to continue moving to value-based care and to improve affordability. Some systems are leveraging their integrated health plans and/or expanding risk-based contracts. Many are trying to reduce unnecessary care through adoption of evidence-based models and to shift care to less costly settings.
Inflation and Accelerating Financial Pressures – Health systems are facing unprecedented increases in labor and supply costs, that are likely to continue into the foreseeable future. At the same time, commercial payment rate adjustments are “sticky low” as insurers and employers push back on rate increases. Governmental payment rate increases are less than cost inflation. In addition to current cuts like the re-implementation of sequestration, longer-term cuts to provider assessment programs, provider-based billing, disproportionate share and Medicaid expansion may severely impact many organizations over time. Benefits like 340b discounts are also experiencing pressure. Post-pandemic clinical-volume trends remain unclear, and additional governmental support associated with future pandemic waves is unlikely. Adding to these challenges, declines in stock and bond prices are negatively impacting currently strong balance sheets.
Conclusion: Best or Worst of Times in Healthcare?
Time will tell, in retrospect, if the next five years will be the best of times, worst of times, or both in healthcare. Optimists point to the resiliency of healthcare organizations; enormous opportunity to reduce unnecessary cost through adoption of evidence-based care and scale; pipeline of new cures and technology; and opportunities to address social and health equity. Pessimists point to likely unprecedented financial pressures and operational challenges due to endemic labor and supply shortages; high-cost inflation vs. constrained payment rates; and future uncertainty about the pandemic, the economy and investment markets.
The situation will undoubtedly vary by market and organization as reflected in conference presentations, but all systems will likely face substantial pressure. As one speaker noted “humans have a great ability to respond to pain,” so this may be the inflection point where more healthcare systems radically accelerate necessary change to improve health, make healthcare more equitable and affordable, with higher quality and better outcomes. Some health systems are clearly doing that, with pace, nimbleness and passion. Can the industry as a whole accomplish it successfully?
Welcome to Friday’s Health 202, where today we have a special spotlight on the pandemic two years in.
🚨 The federal government is about to be funded. The Senate sent the long-term spending bill to President Biden’s desk last night after months of intense negotiations.
Two years since the WHO declared a pandemic, what health-care system changes are here to stay?
Exactly two years ago, the World Health Organizationdeclared the coronavirus a pandemic and much of American life began grinding to a halt.
That’s when the health-care system, which has never been known for its quickness, sped up. The industry was forced to adapt, delivering virtual care and services outside of hospitals on the fly. Yet, the years-long pandemic has exposed decades-old cracks in the system, and galvanized efforts to fix them.
Today, as coronavirus cases plummet and President Biden says Americans can begin resuming their normal lives, we explore how the pandemic could fundamentally alter the health-care system for good. What changes are here to stay — and what barriers are standing in the way?
A telehealth boom
What happened: Telehealth services skyrocketed as doctors’ offices limited in-person visits amid the pandemic. The official declaration of a public health emergency eased long-standing restrictions on these virtual services, vastly expanding Medicare coverage.
But will it stick? Some of these changes go away whenever the Biden administration decides not to renew the public health emergency (PHE). The government funding bill passed yesterday extends key services roughly five months after the PHE ends, such as letting those on Medicare access telehealth services even if they live outside a rural area.
But some lobbyists and lawmakers are pushing hard to make such changes permanent. Though the issue is bipartisan and popular, it could be challenging to pass unless the measures are attached to a must-pass piece of legislation.
“Even just talking to colleagues, I used to have to spend three or four minutes while they were trying desperately not to stare at their phone and explain to them what telehealth was … remote patient monitoring, originating sites, and all this wonky stuff,”said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a longtime proponent of telehealth.
“Now I can go up to them and say, ‘So telehealth is great, right?’ And they say, ‘yes, it is.’ ”
A new spotlight on in-home care
What happened: The infectious virus tore through nursing homes, where often fragile residents share rooms and depend on caregivers for daily tasks. Ultimately, nearly 152,000 residents died from covid-19.
The devastation has sparked a rethinking of where older adults live and how they get the services they need — particularly inside their own homes.
“That is clearly what people prefer,” said Gail Wilensky, an economist at Project HOPE who directed the Medicare and Medicaid programs under President George H.W. Bush. “The challenge is whether or not it’s economically feasible to have that happen.”
More money, please: Finding in-home care — and paying for it — is still a struggle for many Americans. Meanwhile, many states have lengthy waitlists for such services under Medicaid.
Experts say an infusion of federal funds is needed to give seniors and those with disabilities more options for care outside of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
For instance, Biden’s massive social spending bill included tens of billions of dollars for such services. But the effort has languished on Capitol Hill, making it unclear when and whether additional investments will come.
A reckoning on racial disparities
What happened: Hispanic, Black, and American Indian and Alaska Native people are about twice as likely to die from covid-19 than White people. That’s according to age-adjusted data from a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report.
In short, the coronavirus exposed the glaring inequities in the health-care system.
“The first thing to deal with any problem is awareness,” said Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Nobody can say that they’re not aware of it anymore, that it doesn’t exist.”
But will change come? Health experts say they hope the country has reached a tipping point in the last two years. And yet, any real systemic change will likely take time. But, Benjamin said, it can start with increasing the number of practitioners from diverse communities, making office practices more welcoming and understanding biases.
We need to, as a matter of course, ask ourselves who’s advantaged and who’s disadvantaged” when crafting new initiatives, like drive-through testing sites, Benjamin said. “And then how do we create systems so that the people that are disadvantaged have the same opportunity.”
The agency’s end goal for Medicare Advantage is to match CMS’ vision for its programs as a whole, with an emphasis on health equity.
On Wednesday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released proposed payment policy changes for Medicare Advantage and Part D drug programs in 2023 that are meant to create more choices and provide affordable options for consumers.
The Calendar Year 2023 Advance Notice for Medicare Advantage and Part D plans is open to public comment for 30 days. This year, CMS is soliciting input through a health equity lens on the approach to some future potential changes.
The agency’s end goal for Medicare Advantage is to match CMS’ vision for its programs as a whole, which Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said is “to advance health equity; drive comprehensive, person-centered care; and promote affordability and the sustainability of the Medicare program.”
CMS is proposing an effective growth rate of 4.75% and an overall expected average change in revenue of 7.98%, following a 4.08% revenue increase planned for 2022.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
CMS is requesting input on a potential change to the MA and Part D Star Ratings that would take into account how well each plan advances health equity.
The agency is also requesting comment on including a quality measure in MA and Part D Star Ratings that would assess how often plans are screening for common health-related social needs, such as food insecurity, housing insecurity and transportation problems.
The Health Equity Index has been tasked with creating more transparency on how MA plans care for disadvantaged beneficiaries.
Additionally, CMS is requesting input on considerations for assessing the impact of using sub-state geographic levels of rate setting for enrollees with end-stage renal disease, particularly input regarding the impact of MA payment on care provided to rural and urban underserved populations and how such payment changes may impact health equity.
Other areas in which CMS is soliciting input include a variety of payment updates, a new measure concept to assess whether and how MA plans are transforming care by engaging in value-based models with providers’ and updates to risk-adjustment models to continue to pay appropriately for people enrolled in MA and Part D plans.
Public comments on the Advance Notice must be submitted by March 4. The Medicare Advantage and Part D payment policies for 2023 will be finalized in the 2023 Rate Announcement, which will be published no later than April 4.
The proposed rule has already elicited reaction from various organizations, including Better Medicare Alliance.
“As we continue to review the Advance Notice in further detail, we appreciate that CMS has offered a thoughtful proposal that will help ensure stability for the millions of diverse seniors and individuals with disabilities who count on Medicare Advantage,” Mary Beth Donahue, president and CEO of the Better Medicare Alliance, said, adding that the proposal furthers the shared goal of improving health equity.
“Medicare Advantage has proven its worth for seniors and taxpayers – providing lower costs, meaningful benefits that address social determinants of health, better outcomes and greater efficiencies for the Medicare dollar,” she said. “A stable rate for 2023 ensures this work can continue. On behalf of our 170 Ally organizations and over 600,000 beneficiary advocates, we applaud CMS for putting seniors first by issuing an Advance Notice that protects coverage choices, advances health equity and preserves affordability for beneficiaries.”
AHIP also responded, with President and CEO Matt Eyles pointing out that for 2022 the average Medicare Advantage monthly premium dropped to $19, down more than 10% since 2021.
“We agree that MA plans play an essential role in improving health equity and addressing the social determinants of health that impact millions of seniors and people with disabilities,” he said. “We support CMS soliciting input on ways to advance these important goals.
“Medicare Advantage enjoys strong bipartisan support because it provides America’s seniors and people with disabilities with access to affordable, high-quality healthcare services,” said Eyles. “We will continue to review the 2023 rate notice and look forward to providing constructive feedback to CMS during the comment period.”
THE LARGER TREND
CMS’ Advance Notice follows a recent congressional letter in which 346 bipartisan members of Congress declared support for Medicare Advantage and urged the agency “to provide a stable rate and policy environment” for the program in 2023.
A December 2021 Morning Consult poll showed that 94% of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries are satisfied with their coverage, while 93% believe that protecting MA should be a priority of the Biden administration.
Another challenging year defined by the continued COVID-19 fight and vaccination drives has created a unique healthcare landscape. Pandemic-induced telehealth booms, continued strain due to understaffing and pressure from big tech disruptors are just some of the issues that have presented themselves this year.
Here are five major trends that hospitals and health systems may see in 2022. While some present challenges, others present significant opportunities for healthcare facilities.
Record numbers of workers have quit their jobs in 2021, with some 4.4 million people quitting in September. That means that 1 in 4 people quit their jobs this year across all industries. Around 1 in 5 healthcare workers have left their positions, creating issues with understaffing and lack of resources in hospitals and health systems. Stress, burnout and lack of balance have all been cited as reasons for staff leaving their roles. An increase in violence toward medical professionals, continued COVID-19 surges and low pay and benefits have contributed to the exodus of healthcare workers. None of those problems seems poised to disappear come 2022, so the new year could bring continued workforce and staffing challenges.
Pressure from disruptors
Big tech and retail giants have continued their push into healthcare this year. Companies like Apple, Amazon and Google stepped up their game in the wearables market. Pharmacy and retail chains Walmart and CVS Health both detailed their intended expansions into primary care. The pandemic also encouraged big corporations outside the healthcare sector, like Pepsi and Delta Airlines, to consider hiring CMOs to make sense of public health regulations guide them on their policy. These moves all mean there is a tightening of competition for the top physicians and hospital executives. Going into 2022, health systems may be under pressure to hang onto top talent and keep patients from using other convenient health services offered by retail giants.
The unequal toll of the pandemic on people of color both medically and economically helped shed a light on the rampant inequities in American healthcare and society at large. Indigineous, Black and Hispanic people were much more likely than white or Asian people to suffer severe illness or require hospitalization as a result of COVID-19. Increasing numbers of hospitals, health systems and organizations are starting initiatives to advance health equity and focus on the socioeconomic drivers of health. The American Medical Association launched a language guide to encourage greater awareness about the power of language. Z-code usage has also been encouraged by CMS to increase knowledge and data about the social determinants of health. Next year, the perspective of health as holistic instead of just a part of an individual’s life will continue, with special attention being paid to social drivers.
The pandemic helped the telemedicine industry take off in a big way. Telehealth was often the only healthcare option for many patients during the height of the lockdown measures introduced during the pandemic. Despite a return to in-person visits, telehealth has retained its popularity with patients. Some advocates argue that telehealth can help increase access to healthcare and improve health equity. About 40 percent of patients said that telehealth makes them more engaged and interact more frequently with their providers. However, while Americans see telehealth as the future of healthcare, a majority still prefer in-person visits. Regardless of patient opinion, telehealth will remain a key part of health strategy. In late December, the FCC approved $42.7 million in funding for telehealth for 68 healthcare providers. This suggests that there are investments and subsidies available in the future for health systems to bolster their telehealth services.
At the 2021 UN Climate Conference, Cop26, in Glasgow, Scotland, hospitals and health systems acknowledged the role they have to play in mitigating the effects of climate change. Hospitals and health systems shed light on the health-related effects of climate change, such as illness and disease from events like wildfires and extreme weather. Health systems are also becoming more aware of their own contributions to climate change, with the U.S. healthcare system emitting 27 percent of healthcare emissions worldwide. To that end, HHS created an office of climate change and health equity that will work alongside regulators to reduce carbon emissions from hospitals. More health systems too are taking charge and pledging net neutrality and zero carbon emissions goals, including Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealth group. It’s expected that more systems will follow suit in the coming year and make more concrete plans to address emissions reduction.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the need for substantial investment in public health. Journalist Anna Maria Barry-Jester, in an investigation published in California Healthline and the Los Angeles Times last week, reported that the need is pressing and that the time is ripe to formulate solutions.
“As we’ve continued to make progress in bringing the COVID-19 emergency under control, many California leaders are turning their attention to the future,” Barry-Jester wrote.
This year’s state budget set aside $3 million for an assessment of California’s public health infrastructure. “Public health leaders believe it will show that staffing and training are major issues,” Barry-Jester reported.
Starting in July 2022, annual state budgets will include $300 million to be spent to improve public health infrastructure.
The pandemic highlighted two significant public health needs in California. One is basic investment in public health infrastructure, as highlighted by Barry-Jester. The other is to address housing, diet, livable wages, and access to quality health care as part of an overarching public health strategy — a necessity highlighted by the stark racial, ethnic, and economic disparities among those who contracted and died from COVID-19.
Many Reasons for Staff Attrition
Before the pandemic, the state’s public health infrastructure already required shoring up. The COVID-19 crisis hammered the already underfunded and understaffed county and state public health systems.
In California, public health workers are leaving their jobs in droves. Counties are “losing experienced staffers to retirement, exhaustion, partisan politics, and higher-paying jobs,” Barry-Jester reported.
The exodus from public health predated this surge of resignations. Since the early days of the pandemic, experienced California public health leaders have been leaving the field, including 17 county public health officers and 27 county-level directors or assistant directors of public health. Both the director and the deputy director of the state’s department of public health resigned during the pandemic.
“Public health nurses, microbiologists, epidemiologists, health officers, and other staff members who fend off infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV, inspect restaurants, and work to keep communities healthy are abandoning the field,” Barry-Jester wrote. “The collective expertise lost with those departures is hard to overstate.”
Public health laboratories illustrate how much we rely on public health infrastructure for our everyday safety. The labs are largely invisible to the public but touch every aspect of daily life. “Public health labs sample shellfish to make sure it is safe for eating. They monitor drinking water and develop tests for emerging health threats such as antibiotic-resistant viruses. They also test for serious diseases, such as measles and COVID-19. And they typically do it at a fraction of the cost of commercial labs — and faster.”
Yet labs across the state are unable to hire and retain staff, and they are in danger of closing. “The biggest threat to [public health labs] right now is not the next emerging pathogen,” said Donna Ferguson, director of the public health lab in Monterey County, “but labs closing due to lack of staffing.”
Addressing Social Needs as Public Health Strategy
The pandemic highlighted the effects of income inequality and racial disparitieson health in California. Data from the California Department of Public Health highlight the stark disparities in COVID-19 outcomes. The COVID-19 death rate for Latinx people is 19% higher than the statewide death rate, and the death rate for Black people is 16% higher. The case rate for Pacific Islanders is 45% higher than the statewide rate, while the rate of Pacific Islanders earning less than $40,000 annually is 33% higher than average.
“There is an 80% higher rate of diabetes among Hispanics compared to non-Hispanic whites. We think early life nutrition is very important but also the environment where people live, which can include a combination of factors like poor access to healthy food, poor access to resources, air pollution, even chemical contaminants in the environment we found contribute to this disparity,” he told Los Angeles Times reporter Alejandra Reyes-Velarde.
These chronic diseases then put Latinx people at higher risk for worse COVID outcomes. “One of the most common recurring risk factors, not so much for rates of infection but the severity of the infection, is blood-glucose levels,” he said. “Individuals with higher blood-glucose levels seem to have a more severe response to COVID-19 infection, and of course, higher blood glucose is what contributes to diabetes.”
A Health Affairs study from the early days of the pandemic, which drew on data from California’s Sutter hospitals, noted that Black people are similarly at higher risk from the chronic illnesses that make people more susceptible to poor outcomes from COVID infections, including type 2 diabetes and congestive heart failure, as do other populations disproportionately harmed by COVID-19.
“Already underfunded and neglected even before the pandemic, public health has been further undermined in ways that could resound for decades to come,” wrote journalists Mike Baker and Danielle Ivory. The Times investigation of hundreds of health departments in all 50 states revealed that “local public health across the country is less equipped to confront a pandemic now than it was at the beginning of 2020.”
Threats, harassment, and anger directed at public health officials and workers drove many out of the field since the beginning of the pandemic and was identified as an ongoing problem by Baker and Ivory. “We have learned all the wrong lessons from the pandemic,” Adriane Casalotti told them. Casalotti is the chief of public and government affairs for the National Association of County and City Health Officials, an organization representing the nearly 3,000 local health departments across the nation. “We are attacking and removing authority from the people who are trying to protect us.”
Officials interviewed by Baker and Ivory noted that while additional funds are crucial to rebuilding public health departments, they aren’t sufficient to address the problems that have long weighed down the system or those that emerged during the pandemic.
Melissa Lyon, public health director for Erie County, Pennsylvania, put it this way: “If a ship is sinking, throwing treasure chests of gold at the ship is not going to help it float.”
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.”
At a certain point, it was no longer a matter of if the United States would reach the gruesome milestone of 1 in 500 people dying of covid-19, but a matter of when. A year? Maybe 15 months? The answer: 19 months.
Given the mortality rate from covid and our nation’s population size, “we’re kind of where we predicted we would be with completely uncontrolled spread of infection,” said Jeffrey D. Klausner, clinical professor of medicine, population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “Remember at the very beginning, which we don’t hear about anymore, it was all about flatten the curve.”
The idea, he said, was to prevent “the humanitarian disaster” that occurred in New York City, where ambulance sirens were a constant as hospitals were overwhelmed and mortuaries needed mobile units to handle the additional dead.
The goal of testing, mask-wearing, keeping six feet apart and limiting gatherings was to slow the spread of the highly infectious virus until a vaccine could stamp it out. The vaccines came but not enough people have been immunized, and the triumph of science waned as mass death and disease remain. The result: As the nation’s covid death toll exceeded 663,000 this week, it meant roughly 1 in every 500 Americans had succumbed to the disease caused by the coronavirus.
While covid’s death toll overwhelms the imagination, even more stunning is the deadly efficiency with which it has targeted Black, Latino, and American Indian and Alaska Native people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
Death at a younger age represents more lost years of life. Lost potential. Lost scholarship. Lost mentorship. Lost earnings. Lost love.
Neighborhoods decimated. Families destroyed.
“So often when we think about the majority of the country who have lost people to covid-19, we think about the elders that have been lost, not necessarily younger people,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, executive vice president at the Seattle Indian Health Board and director of the Urban Indian Health Institute. “Unfortunately, this is not my reality nor that of the Native community. I lost cousins and fathers and tribal leaders. People that were so integral to building up our community, which has already been struggling for centuries against all these things that created the perfect environment for covid-19 to kill us.”
Six of Echo-Hawk’s friends and relatives — all under 55 — have died of covid.
“This is trauma. This is generational impact that we must have an intentional focus on. The scars are there,” said Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of President Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force and associate dean for health equity research at Yale University. “We can’t think that we’re going to test and vaccinate our way out of this deep pain and hurt.”
The pandemic has brought into stark relief centuries of entwining social, environmental, economic and political factors that erode the health and shorten the lives of people of color, putting them at higher risk of the chronic conditions that leave immune systems vulnerable to the coronavirus. Many of those same factors fuel the misinformation, mistrust and fear that leave too many unprotected.
Take the suggestion that people talk to their doctor about which symptoms warrant testing or a trip to the hospital as well as the safety of vaccines. Seems simple. It’s not.
Many people don’t have a physician they see regularly due in part to significant provider shortages in communities of color. If they do have a doctor, it can cost too much money for a visit even if insured. There are language barriers for those who don’t speak English fluently and fear of deportation among undocumented immigrants.
“Some of the issues at hand are structural issues, things that are built into the fabric of society,” said Enrique W. Neblett Jr., a University of Michigan professor who studies racism and health.
Essential workers who cannot avoid the virus in their jobs because they do not have the luxury of working from home. People living in multigenerational homes with several adult wage-earners, sharing housing because their pay is so low. Even the fight to be counted among the covid casualties — some states and hospitals, Echo-Hawk said, don’t have “even a box to check to say you are American Indian or Alaskan Native.”
It can be difficult to tackle the structural issues influencing the unequal burden of the pandemic while dealing with the day-to-day stress and worry it ignites, which, Neblett said, is why attention must focus on both long-term solutions and “what do we do now? It’s not just that simple as, ‘Oh, you just put on your mask, and we’ll all be good.’ It’s more complicated than that.”
The exacting toll of the last year and a half — covid’s stranglehold on communities of color and George Floyd’s murder — forced the country to interrogate the genealogy of American racism and its effect on health and well-being.
“This is an instance where we finally named it and talked about structural racism as a contributing factor in ways that we haven’t with other health disorders,” Neblett said.
But the nation’s attention span can be short. Polls show there was a sharp rise in concern about discrimination against Black Americans by police following Floyd’s murder, including among White Americans. That concern has eroded some since 2020, though it does remain higher than years past.
“This mistaken understanding that people have, almost this sort of impatience like, ‘Oh, we see racism. Let’s just fix that,’ that’s the thing that gives me hives,” Nunez-Smith said. “This is about generational investments and fundamental changes in ways of being. We didn’t get here overnight.”
The Democrats’ reconciliation bill includes several major health care pieces backed by different lawmakers and advocates, setting up a precarious game of policy Jenga if the massive measure needs to be scaled back.
Between the lines:Health care may be a priority for Democrats. But that doesn’t mean each member values every issue equally.
Why it matters: As the party continues to hash out the overall price tag of its giant reconciliation bill, it’s worth gaming out which policies are on the chopping block — and which could potentially take the entire reconciliation bill down with them.
There are clear winners of each pillar of Democrat’s health plan:
Seniors benefit from expanding Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing benefits.
Low-income people — primarily in the South and disproportionately people of color — in non-expansion states benefit if the Medicaid gap is closed, giving them access to health coverage.
Affordable Care Act marketplace enrollees benefit if the increased subsidy assistance that Democrats enacted earlier this year is extended or made permanent.
Elderly and Americans with disabilities benefit from an expansion of their home-based care options, and their caretakers benefit from a pay bump.
Seniors — and potentially anyone facing high drug costs — benefit if Medicare is given the authority to negotiate drug prices, although the drug industry argues it will lead to fewer new drugs.
Yes, but:Each of these groups face real problems with health care access and affordability. But when there’s a limited amount of money on the table — which there is — even sympathetic groups can get left in the dust.
Each policy measure, however, also has powerful political advocates. And when Democrats have a razor-thin margin in both the House and the Senate, every member has a lot of power.
Seniors are disproportionately powerful on their own, due to their voting patterns. But expanding what Medicare covers is extremely important to progressives — including Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Closing the Medicaid gap is being framed as a racial justice issue, given that it disproportionately benefits people of color. And although many Democrats hail from expansion states — particularly in the Senate — some very powerful ones represent non-expansion states.
These members include Sen. Raphael Warnock, who represents Georgia and is up for re-election next year in an extremely competitive seat, and Rep. Jim Clyburn, who arguably is responsible for President Biden winning the 2020 primary.
The enhanced ACA subsidies are scheduled to expire right before next years’ midterm elections. Democrats’ hold on the House is incredibly shaky already, making extending the extra help a political no-brainer.
Expanding home-based care options was one of the only health care components of Biden’s original framework for this package. But aside from the president’s interest in the issue, unions care a lot about it as their members stand to gain a pay raise — and Democrats care a lot about what unions care about.
And finally, giving Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices has the most powerful opponents, theoretically making it vulnerable to the chopping block. But it also polls very highly, and perhaps even more importantly, produces enough government savings to help pay for these other health care policies.
The bottom line: “From a political perspective, none of these health care proposals seem very expendable,” said KFF’s Larry Levitt.
Most — if not all of them — can be scaled to save money.
But there are also powerful constituencies for the other components of the bill that address issues like child care and climate change, meaning these health care measures aren’t only competing against one another.
And, Levitt points out, “there’s always a difference between members of Congress staking out positions and being willing to go to nuclear war over them.”