The upcoming election has huge implications for healthcare, far beyond how COVID is managed, ranging from how care is covered to how it’s delivered. The graphic above shows a continuum of potential policy outcomes of the November 3rd vote.
If President Trump wins a second term and Republicans control at least one house of Congress, there will likely be more attempts to dismantle the ACA, as well as continued privatization of Medicare coverage.
If Democrats win the presidency and sweep Congress, actions to expand the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or even create a national public option, are on the table—although major healthcare reform seems unlikely to occur until the second half of a Biden term.
In the short term, we’d expect to see more policy activity in areas of bipartisan agreement, like improving price transparency, ending surprise billing and lowering the cost of prescription drugs, regardless of who lands in the White House.
While healthcare emerged as the most important issue for voters in the 2018 midterm elections, the COVID pandemic has overshadowed the broader healthcare reform platforms of both Presidential candidates heading into the election. As shown in the gray box, many Americans view the election as a referendum on the Trump administration’s COVID response. Managing the pandemic is one of the most important issues for voters, especially Democrats, who now rank the issue above reducing the cost of healthcare or lowering the cost of drugs.
In many aspects, the COVID policies of Biden and Trump are almost diametrically opposed, especially concerning the role of the federal government in organizing the nation’s pandemic response.
The next administration’s actions to prevent future COVID-19 surges, ensure safe a return to work and school, accelerate therapies, and coordinate vaccine delivery will remain the most important aspect of healthcare policy well into 2021.
This week Nebraska became the latest state to receive waiver authority from the Trump administration to implement work requirements as part of its Medicaid expansion program.
The program, called “Heritage Health Adult”, will be a two-tiered system, with expansion-eligible adults choosing between “Basic” and “Prime” coverage levels. The lower tier will provide coverage for physical and behavioral health services, with a prescription drug benefit, and is open to adults not eligible for traditional Medicaid with incomes under 138 percent of the federal poverty line.
“Prime” enrollees will get additional dental, vision, and over-the-counter drug benefits, in exchange for agreeing to 80 hours per month of work, volunteering, or active job seeking, which must be reported to the state.
Nebraska voters approved the Medicaid expansion two years ago, although enrollment only began this August, and the work-linked demonstration project is slated to start next year. An estimated 90,000 additional Nebraskans are expected to enroll in Medicaid under the expanded program.
The approval of Nebraska’s Medicaid work requirement comes a week after the Trump administration approved a partial expansion of Medicaid in Georgia, called “Pathways to Coverage”, which is also tied to a requirement to seek or engage in employment or education activities.
The Georgia program also requires premium payments by eligible adults who make between 50 and 100 percent of the federal poverty line. Court challenges will inevitably ensue for both the Nebraska and Georgia programs—only Utah has successfully implemented Medicaid work requirements, with 16 other state programs either pending approval, held up in court, or awaiting implementation. We continue to be deeply skeptical of Medicaid work requirements, and believe they only serve to deter those who would otherwise qualify for coverage from enrolling, and that the expense of their implementation and ongoing operation often outweighs any savings to the state.
The argument that “work encourages health”, often advanced by proponents of work requirements, gets it exactly backwards—rather, health security encourages work, a reality that has become ever more urgent as the COVID pandemic has drawn on.
As the economy continues to falter, Medicaid’s importance as a safety net program grows ever greater, and work requirements create an unhelpful obstacle to basic healthcare access.
President Trump repeated baseless claims at the final presidential debate that the coronavirus “will go away” and that the U.S. is “rounding the turn,” while Joe Biden argued that any president that has allowed 220,000 Americans to die on his watch should not be re-elected.
Why it matters: The U.S. is now averaging about 59,000 new coronavirus infections a day, and added another 73,000 cases on Thursday, according to the Covid Tracking Project. The country recorded 1,038 deaths due to the virus Thursday, the highest since late September.
What they’re saying: “More and more people are getting better,” Trump said. We have a problem that’s a worldwide problem. This is a worldwide problem. But I’ve been congratulated by the heads of many countries on what we’ve been able to do … It will go away and as I say, we’re rounding the turn. We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away.”
- Trump later disputed warnings by public health officials in his administration that the virus would see a resurgence in the winter, claiming: “We’re not going to have a dark winter at all. We’re opening up our country.”
Biden responded: “Anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.”
- “What I would do is make sure we have everyone encouraged to wear a mask all the time. I would make sure we move in the direction of rapid testing, investing in rapid testing.”
- “I would make sure that we set up national standards as to how to open up schools and open up businesses so they can be safe and give them the wherewithal, the financial resources, to be able to do that.”
The bottom line: Biden and Trump are living in two different pandemic realities, but Biden’s is the only one supported by health experts.
Go deeper: The pandemic is getting worse again
As the presidential election draws near, we reflect on the meaningful differences in health policy priorities and platforms between the two candidates, which we’ve described more fully in our recent blog series.
While similarities exist in some areas — most notably prescription drug pricing and proposals to control health care costs — the most striking differences between the positions taken by President Donald Trump and those of former Vice President Joe Biden are on safeguarding access to affordable health care coverage, advancing health equity for those who have been historically disadvantaged by the current system, and managing the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The importance of maintaining or expanding access to affordable health care in the midst of a pandemic cannot be understated. Going into the crisis, 30 million Americans lacked health coverage, with many more potentially at risk as a result of the current economic downturn. And even for many with coverage, costs are a barrier to receiving care. Moreover, despite efforts by Congress and the Trump administration to ease the financial burden of COVID-19 testing and treatment, many people remain concerned about costs; examples of charges for COVID-related medical expenses are not uncommon.
In this context, President Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the most important signal of his position on health care. The administration’s legal challenge of the law will be considered by the Supreme Court this fall. With no Trump proposal for a replacement to the ACA, if the Court strikes the law in its entirety or in part, many voters cannot be certain that their health coverage will be secure. By undermining the ACA — the vast law that protects Americans with preexisting health conditions and makes health coverage more affordable through a system of premium subsidies and cost-sharing assistance — the president has put coverage for millions at risk.
Trump issued an executive order to preserve preexisting condition protections. If the ACA remains intact, the order is redundant. But if the ACA is repealed by the Court, the order is meaningless because it lacks the legal underpinning and legislative framework to take effect.
In contrast, Vice President Biden has proposed expanding coverage through the ACA by adding a public option, enhancing subsidies to make health care more affordable, filling the gap for low-income families living in states that did not expand Medicaid, and giving people with employer health plans the option to enroll in marketplace coverage and take advantage of premium subsidies. For sure, if Biden is elected, many policy details must be ironed out; passing legislation in a deeply divided Congress is never easy. Despite these challenges, Biden proposes expanding health coverage rather than revoking it.
Just as COVID-19 has exposed gaps in health coverage and affordability, it also has highlighted the poor health outcomes stemming from racial and ethnic inequities in the U.S. health system. Communities of color — Black, Hispanic, and American Indian and Alaska Native people — have higher rates of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths compared to white people. These disparities are a result of myriad factors, many of which are deeply rooted in structural racism. The candidates’ plans to address health disparities and advance health equity set them apart.
The ACA has played a critical role in reducing disparities in access to health care and narrowed the uninsured rate among Black and Hispanic people compared to white people. Medicaid expansion has been key to improving racial equity. Repealing the ACA, as President Trump has sought to do, would reverse these gains. Even beyond repealing the ACA, this administration has pursued policies intended to limit Medicaid eligibility — for example, by permitting states to impose work requirements and other restrictions that would lead to fewer people covered. These measures and others are already having an impact; coverage gains achieved through the ACA have eroded since 2016. Health care for legal immigrants also has declined as a result of policies like the recently finalized “public charge” rule, which seems also to have caused an increase in uninsurance among children. The administration has further revoked ACA antidiscrimination and civil rights protections for LGBTQ people.
In addition to restoring and expanding coverage under the ACA, Vice President Biden has pledged to address health disparities and reinstate antidiscrimination protections. He has a proposal to advance racial equity not just in health care but across the economy. If successful, his plan could address underlying factors contributing to higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths among people of color, as well as their higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and other health conditions tied to social determinants of health.
Finally, the candidates differ deeply in their approaches to the coronavirus pandemic. President Trump has failed to orchestrate a national strategy for combating coronavirus and has routinely undermined accepted public health advice with respect to mask-wearing and social distancing. He has delegated to the states responsibility for controlling the pandemic when it is clear that the virus travels freely across the country, regardless of state borders. Lax states can negate the efforts of those states sacrificing to bring the pandemic under control. Vice President Biden has strongly signaled, though his personal conduct and rhetoric, that he intends more aggressive federal leadership in fighting the virus.
In a recent Commonwealth Fund survey of likely voters, control of the pandemic and covering preexisting conditions were very important factors in choosing a president. In seven battleground states, protections for preexisting conditions outweighed COVID-19 and health costs as the leading health care issue voters are considering. In all 10 battleground states included in the survey, Vice President Biden was viewed as the more likely candidate to address these critical health care issues.
Perhaps since the Civil War, the United States has never faced starker choices in a presidential election. In health and other areas, there are profound differences in the positions of President Trump and former Vice President Biden. Voting this November is literally a matter of life and death for the American people.
- The number of uninsured people has increased since 2016, rising from 29 million, following the reforms of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), to 35.7 million by the end of 2019. The economic recession has left an estimated 3 million more people uninsured this year.
- Racial inequities in coverage narrowed after the ACA, but uninsured rates among people of color exceed those of white people.
- Many insured people pay premiums that consume an increasingly large share of their income.
- An estimated 40 million people with insurance are effectively underinsured because of deductibles and cost-sharing.
- An estimated 133 million people under age 65 have preexisting health conditions; COVID-19 has already increased that number by an estimated 3.4 million nonelderly adults (20–59) as of October 7.
The Candidates’ Approaches
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP
Overall approach: Repeal the ACA and replace it with market-driven coverage options aimed at lowering premiums and increasing choice of plans tailored to individual preferences; give states more flexibility in designing coverage options; require more accountability for people with low incomes enrolled in public programs; protect preexisting conditions.
Medicaid: Repeal the ACA Medicaid expansion for adults; provide block grants to states to design their own programs; increase accountability through work requirements.
Individual market and marketplaces: Has promoted weaker regulations on plans that don’t comply with the ACA’s preexisting condition protections and other requirements; elimination of advertising and enrollment assistance during open enrollment; elimination of payments to insurers to offer lower-deductible plans.
Employer coverage: Has promoted weaker regulations on association health plans that don’t comply with the ACA and allowed employers to fund accounts for employees to buy health plans on their own, including products that don’t comply with the ACA.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN
Overall approach: Protect insurance for people with preexisting conditions by supporting and building on the ACA; expand insurance coverage and reduce consumers’ health care costs by enhancing the ACA’s marketplace subsidies, covering people currently eligible for Medicaid in nonexpansion states, and giving more people in employer plans the option to enroll in marketplace plans with subsidies.
Medicaid: Expand enrollment by allowing eligible people in 12 states without Medicaid expansion to enroll in a public plan through the marketplaces with no premiums; make enrollment easier with autoenrollment.
Individual market and marketplaces: Expand enrollment through enhanced subsidies, greater advertising and enrollment assistance: no one pays more than 8.5 percent of income on marketplace coverage; change the benchmark plan from silver to gold to reduce deductibles and cost-sharing.
Employer coverage: Allows anyone with employer coverage to enroll in a public plan through the marketplaces and be eligible for subsidies.
Medicare: Would allow people ages 60 to 65 to enroll in a Medicare-like heath plan.
Implications of the Candidates’ Approaches
I DON’T HAVE HEALTH INSURANCE. WILL THE APPROACHES PROVIDE ME WITH NEW OPTIONS?
Trump: The number of people without health insurance has increased under the president’s watch in part because of policies that have eliminated the promotion and advertising of marketplace open-enrollment periods, enrollment restrictions in Medicaid, and immigration policies that have had a chilling effect on enrollment of legal immigrants and their children. Trump supports a lawsuit now before the Supreme Court that argues for repeal of the ACA, which would eliminate coverage for as many as 20 million people. Says he will come up with a replacement but has yet to do so.
Biden: Has introduced proposals to build on the ACA by covering people in the 12 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid and enhance subsidies for marketplace plans. This would provide new options for people who are currently uninsured and increase coverage over time.
I HAVE A PREEXISTING HEALTH CONDITION. WILL THE APPROACH GUARANTEE THAT I CAN ALWAYS GET COVERED?
Trump: The ACA currently provides this protection. Trump supports the lawsuit before the Supreme Court that argues for repeal of the ACA and its preexisting conditions provision. Trump issued an executive order that said preexisting conditions are protected, but without the ACA or new legislation the order has no effect and is purely symbolic.
Biden: The vice president pledges to support and build on the ACA, retaining its preexisting condition protections.
MY PREMIUMS AND DEDUCTIBLES ARE BECOMING LESS AFFORDABLE; WILL THE CANDIDATES’ APPROACHES LOWER THEM?
Trump: The president eliminated payments to insurers to reimburse them for offering lower-deductible plans in the ACA marketplaces to people with lower incomes, as required by the law. This had the effect of increasing premiums for people not eligible for subsidies. He has promoted the sale of non-ACA-compliant health plans, like short-term plans. These plans have lower premiums for healthy people but screen for preexisting conditions and often provide little cost protection if someone becomes sick. He has loosened regulations for association health plans, although that was turned back under legal challenge. The repeal of the ACA would mean the loss of marketplace subsidies and preexisting-condition protections, making coverage unavailable or unaffordable for people with low and moderate incomes and those with health problems.
Biden: The vice president’s proposal to enhance marketplace subsidies will cap the amount of premiums people pay at 8.5 percent of income, including people in employer plans who would have the option to enroll in the marketplaces. By linking subsidies to gold plans, deductibles would also fall for those who choose those plans.
I AM WORRIED ABOUT RACIAL INEQUITY IN HEALTH CARE. WILL THE APPROACH MAKE HEALTH COVERAGE MORE EQUITABLE?
Trump: Uninsured rates among Hispanic people have risen under the president’s watch. Repealing the ACA would further eliminate coverage gains made by Hispanics, as well as Black people and Asian Americans, widening racial disparities in coverage and access.
Biden: The vice president’s proposals to expand coverage under the ACA will particularly benefit people of color. This is because people living in the 12 states that have not yet expanded Medicaid are disproportionately Black and Hispanic.
Share of hospital beds occupied
by COVID-19 hospitalizations
States shown from first date of reported data, from March 17 to Oct. 17, 2020
- In the last two weeks hospitalizations are:
Coronavirus hospitalizations are increasing in 39 states, and are at or near their all-time peak in 16.
The big picture: No state is anywhere near the worst-case situation of not having enough capacity to handle its COVID-19 outbreak. But rising hospitalization rates are a sign that things are getting worse, at a dangerous time, and a reminder that this virus can do serious harm.
By the numbers: 39 states saw an increase over the past two weeks in the percentage of available hospital beds occupied by coronavirus patients.
- Wisconsin is faring the worst, with 9.4% of the state’s beds occupied by COVID patients.
- Sixteen states are at or near the highest hospitalization rates they’ve seen at any point in the pandemic.
Yes, but: The all-time peak of coronavirus hospitalizations happened in the spring, when 40% of New Jersey’s beds were occupied by COVID patients. Thankfully, even the the worst-performing states today are still a far cry from that.
Between the lines: These numbers, combined with the nationwide surge in new infections, confirm that the pandemic in the U.S. is getting worse — just as cold weather begins to set in in some parts of the country, which experts have long seen as a potentially dangerous inflection point.
- They also suggest that most parts of the country won’t need to pause or scale back non-coronavirus treatments, as hospitals did in the spring when no one was quite sure how bad things could get.
- In rural areas, however, even a modestly sized outbreak can strain local hospital capacity.
The number of new unemployment claims jumped last week, the latest sign of the toll the coronavirus pandemic continues to take on the economy.
States across the country processed 898,000 new unemployment claims, up more than 50,000 from the previous week, the largest increase in first-time jobless applications since August.
These numbers marked another unfortunate milestone: The number of unemployment claims has been above the pre-pandemic one-week record of 695,000 for 30 weeks now.
Claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, for gig and self-employed workers, went down, to 373,000 from about 460,000.
And the total number of people on all unemployment programs dropped slightly, to 25.3 million for the last week of September, down from 25.5 million the previous week.
The number of new claims has fallen greatly from its peak in the spring, but economists say they are concerned that the number remains so high.
“No question this report casts doubt on the recovery,” said Andrew Chamberlain, the chief economist at Glassdoor. “This is a sign covid is still dealing heavy blows to the labor market. We’re nowhere near having the virus under control.”
The news comes amid a string of poor economic news, with headlines punctuated with reports of large companies announcing layoffs in recent weeks.
“It’s not coming down quickly,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at the jobs site ZipRecruiter. “It’s unclear how quickly we can recover. We’re likely to see additional layoffs and high numbers of unemployment for the foreseeable future.”
Pollak said there are indications that consumer spending has fallen since the expiration of government aid programs — another warning sign about more economic trouble ahead.
Many economists, including those at the Federal Reserve, have urged Congress and the White House to pass a new package of aid. House Democrats passed a $2.2 trillion plan earlier this month that Republicans have declined to advance, while Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has been pushing a $1.8 trillion plan.
Still, there are signs that Senate Republicans would not be willing to accept that plan, either. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that he would not bring the plan to the floor, saying Senate Republicans believed the deal should top out at $1.5 trillion.
One sign of the severity of the economic crisis is the growing number of people who are transitioning to Pandemic Emergency unemployment compensation — for those who hit the maximum number of time that their state plans allow for. That number grew 818,000, according to the most recent figures, from the end of September.
Questions remain about the integrity of the data, as well.
A number of issues have complicated a straightforward read of the weekly release, such as issues with fraud, which are believed to have driven up these numbers an unknown amount, and backlogs in states like California. The country’s largest state typically accounts for about 20-28 percent of the country’s total weekly claims, but has put its claims processing on hold temporarily.
Instead, the Department of Labor is using a placeholder number for the state — 226,000, the number of new initial claims in the state from mid-September.
But some economists like Chamberlain are critical of this method.
“The idea of cutting and pasting the data from a state is so absurd,” he said. “They could at least use a model. But instead they’re carrying over the number. It’s quite a crisis.”
Quirks in the new filing process require people to apply for traditional unemployment and get rejected before applying for PUA — a source of potential duplicate claims.
Economists have been warning for months that the unemployment rate, which has improved steadily since its nadir in April, is at risk of getting worse without further government intervention.
States that saw significant jumps in unemployment claims last week include Indiana, Alaska, Arizona, Illinois, New Mexico and Washington.
Still, some economists have found reasons to hope. Pollak said job postings on ZipRecruiter have topped 10 million for the first time since the start of the pandemic, equaling a number last seen in January.
The jobs are different now, she said — fewer tech and business jobs and more warehousing jobs, temporary opportunities and contracting work.
U.S. states saw another 840,000 jobless claims filed last week, as the number of Americans applying for first-time unemployment insurance benefits each week continues to hover at a historically high level.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released its weekly jobless claims report at 8:30 a.m. ET Thursday. Here were the main metrics from the report, compared to Bloomberg estimates:
- Initial jobless claims, week ended Oct. 3: 840,000 vs. 820,000 expected and 849,000 during the prior week
- Continuing claims, week ended Sept. 26: 10.976 million vs. 11.4 million expected and 11.979 million during the prior week
New weekly unemployment insurance claims have held below the psychologically important 1 million mark for the past six consecutive weeks, but have so far failed to break below 800,000 since the start of the pandemic. At 840,000 last week’s new claims remained at a level still handily above the pre-pandemic record high of 695,000 from 1982.
The past two weeks’ jobless claims totals have also been flattered by an absence of updated new claims out of California. The state – which has consistently been one of the biggest contributors to new weekly claims – announced last week it was taking a two-week pause in processing initial claims to “reduce its claims processing backlog and implement fraud prevention technology,” according to the Labor Department’s statement.
Across all programs, the total number of jobless claims decreased for the week ending Sept. 19. Total claims came in at 25.5 million, down from the about 26.5 million during the previous week, as a smaller number of self-employed or gig workers not eligible for regular state programs claimed Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. But the number of workers collecting benefits through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program – which offers an extra 13 weeks’ worth of federal benefits to those who had exhausted previous state or federal compensation – rose by 154,000 to 1.96 million.
Continuing jobless claims, which are reported on a one-week lag and represent the total number of individuals still receiving state unemployment benefits, continued their gradual downtrend last week. But as with new jobless claims, continuing claims have held well above pre-pandemic levels, and have not broken below the 10 million mark in more than 6 months.
“Net, initial filings fell less than expected last week. The improvement in continuing claims is reflecting people being hired but also individuals exhausting their benefits,” Rubeela Farooqi, chief economist for High Frequency Economics, said in an email. “Overall, the signal from the claims data is still one of ongoing weak conditions in the labor market. Even as filings are declining, levels remain extraordinarily high. Employment growth has already slowed and without fiscal support that protected jobs, risks are skewed to the downside for payrolls going forward.”
The latest jobless claims report comes amid dimming hopes for another round of virus relief measures out of Congress, despite increasingly urgent calls from Federal Reserve officials for more fiscal stimulus to support individual Americans more directly.
President Donald Trump said Tuesday he had asked his negotiators to halt further stimulus talks until after the election, but added that he would support standalone measures providing tens of billions of dollars for airline payroll support and the Paycheck Protection Program. House Democrats, however, have previously balked at the notion of passing slimmed down versions of a stimulus package – meaning the prospect of further fiscal stimulus in the next month remains unlikely.