Biden rescinds Medicaid work rules in 2 more states

The Reality of Work Requirements for Medicaid - YouTube

President Joe Biden moved to unwind Medicaid work requirements in Michigan and Wisconsin, after pulling the rules in Arkansas and New Hampshire.

CMS sent letters to health officials in Michigan and Wisconsin April 6 withdrawing their approval to implement work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries. In both letters, CMS noted that combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, the work rules risk “significant coverage losses and harm to beneficiaries.”

In March, the Biden administration revoked approval for similar Medicaid work requirements in Arkansas and New Hampshire.

Supreme Court pulls Medicaid work requirements case off docket

The Supreme Court announced Thursday it will no longer hear oral arguments later this month on an appeal over the controversial Medicaid work requirements program in New Hampshire and Arkansas.

Legal experts say the move likely means the case won’t be heard this term and possibly may not be heard at all, especially with the Biden administration signaling a different approach to work requirements.

“By taking the cases off the docket, the court is signaling that it won’t hear them this term and probably that it’ll never hear them at all,” University of Michigan Law Professor Nicholas Bagley told Fierce Healthcare.

A major question mark, though, is whether the court will vacate the decisions by several appellate courts that upheld lower court rulings that the programs should be struck down. 

“If the Supreme Court is not going to vacate the D.C. Circuit ruling, that means the decision on the books is one that clearly explains why work requirements are not permitted under the Medicaid statute,” said Rachel Sachs, associate professor of law at Washington University, in an interview with Fierce Healthcare. 

She added that it is unlikely for the case to come back and “extremely unlikely that this issue will return in the near future.”

The Biden administration asked the court back in February to cancel the oral arguments originally scheduled for March 29. The administration said in a filing that allowing the requirements to take effect won’t promote the objectives of Medicaid to extend health insurance to low-income people.

President Joe Biden’s Department of Justice called for the court to vacate judgments of appeals courts and remand the case back to the Department of Health and Human Services so it can finish a review of all the waivers.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement back in February that the legal filing seeking the delay was a “politically motivated stunt designed to avoid a Supreme Court decision upholding a program that encourages personal responsibility while still providing healthcare coverage for those seeking gainful employment.”

Arkansas’ work requirements program was installed in 2018 and led to approximately 18,000 people losing Medicaid coverage before the program was struck down by a federal judge.

Appellate courts upheld judgments from lower courts that New Hampshire and Arkansas’ programs did not meet the objectives of the Medicaid program. The states appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the cases late last year.

Court rulings have also struck down programs in other states including Kentucky and Michigan. Kentucky pulled its program in 2019 after a Democrat was elected governor.

Arkansas and New Hampshire’s attorneys general did not return requests for comment on the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday.

Reversing course on Trump-era healthcare policy

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Ahead of a Supreme Court hearing in March to consider the legality of imposing work requirements as a condition of gaining Medicaid coverage, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) were expected to inform states on Friday of plans to rescind the controversial Trump administration policy.

Under the previous administration, ten states had applied for and were approved to use waiver authority to impose work requirements on Medicaid enrollees, and several other states were in the process of submitting applications. Critics (including us) have long held that such requirements, while nominally intended to introduce an element of “personal responsibility” to the safety-net coverage program for low-income Americans, actually serve to hinder access to care, and jeopardize the health status of already vulnerable populations; in addition, the added expense of program infrastructure often exceeds anticipated cost savings.

The policy was a favored project of former CMS administrator Seema Verma, who helped craft a similar program for the state of Indiana before joining the Trump administration. Among states granted waiver authority to impose work requirements, only Arkansas ever fully implemented the policy, before the legality of the waivers was challenged successfully in lower courts.
 
The Biden administration’s recision of work requirements is part of a broader reversal of Trump-era healthcare policies. This week the Justice Department notified the Supreme Court that it was switching sides in the closely watched case questioning the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), although the court has already heard the case and is expected to rule this spring. Starting Monday, the Biden team will also reopen the federal insurance marketplace for a special enrollment period, bolstering funding for outreach to ensure those eligible are aware of coverage options. And as part of its proposed COVID relief legislation, the administration plans to increase subsidies to help individuals buy coverage on the exchanges, and to increase funding to support state Medicaid programs—policies that got a boost this week from a broad coalition of healthcare industry groups, including health plans, doctors, and hospitals.

As the administration rounds out its health policy team, we’d expect a continued focus on strengthening the core pillars of the ACA, along with a greater focus on ensuring health equity and addressing disparities. Meanwhile, two key positions remain unfilled: CMS administrator and commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These slots will likely remain open until the looming confirmation battle over Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, has been settled.
 

Taking executive action to bolster the Affordable Care Act

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Thursday was healthcare day at the Biden White House, the latest in a series of themed days during which the President has issued executive orders on topics ranging from COVID response to climate change to racial equity.

Facing a closely divided Congress, the new administration has focused so far on actions it can take unilaterally to advance its agenda, and as President Biden described it at a signing ceremony yesterday, his healthcare agenda is centered on “restoring the Affordable Care Act and restoring Medicaid to the way it was” prior to the Trump administration.

The new executive order reopens the HealthCare.gov insurance marketplace for a “special enrollment period”, lasting from mid-February to mid-May, allowing approximately 15M uninsured Americans in 36 states (including 3M who lost employer-based insurance due to COVID) to sign up for coverage, many subsidized by the federal government.

The order also instructs agencies to review many of the regulatory changes made by the Trump administration, including loosening restrictions on short-term insurance plans, and allowing states to use waivers to implement Medicaid work requirements. (Also included in Thursday’s action was a measure to immediately rescind the ban on taxpayer funding for abortion-related counseling by international nonprofits, the so-called “Mexico City rule”.)

Actually unwinding those Trump-era changes will take months (or possibly years) of regulatory work to accomplish, but Biden’s executive order puts that work in motion. Attention now turns to Congress, which the Biden team hopes will provide funding for increased subsidies for coverage on the Obamacare exchanges, along with allocating money for the administration’s aggressive COVID response plan. 

Yesterday’s executive order is best understood as the starting gun for the lengthy legislative and regulatory process that lies ahead, as the Biden administration tries to bolster the 2010 health reform law, and stamp its mark on American healthcare.

Here’s which Trump-era health policies Biden could roll back — without help from Congress

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How To Roll-Back Data in a Temporal Table

The nearest-term 2021 actions will likely center on bolstering the ACA and Medicaid, after the Trump administration took aim at both.

Even with Democrats’ surprise flipping of the Senate, enacting big healthcare policies in Congress will be a heavy lift given the razor-thin margin in that body and division within the party on strategy.

A clearer path for incoming president Joe Biden is to focus on reversing policies enacted by President Donald Trump at the executive level. Trump’s tenure has been defined in large part by a chipping away at key tenets of the Affordable Care Act, curtailing the Medicaid program and sweeping deregulations critics allege harm consumer protections.

The nearest-term actions the incoming administration is likely to take will center on bolstering the landmark health law and Medicaid, both of which has drawn more bipartisan backing in recent years. Below are what the Biden health administration is likely to roll back quickly after inauguration Wednesday.

Boosting Affordable Care Act marketplace

One of Biden’s first moves may be to open a special enrollment period to sign up for coverage during COVID-19, combined with more outreach and enrollment assistance, Cynthia Cox, director of the ACA program at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said.

Beyond COVID-19, it’s likely the Biden administration will restore federal spending on navigation, marketing and outreach for exchange plans. For example, the Trump administration reduced the minimum number of navigator programs in each state using the federal marketplace to one. Biden could return it to two, and might also bring back the requirement that navigators have a physical presence in their service area.

Biden is also likely to unilaterally shore up standards for brokers, and take steps to bolster the exchange website healthcare.gov.

The Trump administration in December proposed a rule encouraging states to privatize their health insurance marketplaces instead of using healthcare.gov, which will make it more difficult for consumers to shop between plans and could divert people to subpar coverage, Tara Straw, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote in a December blog post.

The rule doubles down on the administration’s approval of a Georgia waiver to privatize its marketplace in November, but would allow states to follow suit and rely entirely on third-party brokers without a waiver.

That rule is not yet final, so Biden’s HHS will likely remove it from the Federal Register to avoid fragmenting marketplace functions.

Biden could also beef up consumer protections and standards for web brokers, which also sell skimpy short-term health insurance and other non-ACA-compliant coverage.

Biden is also likely to re-expand the annual enrollment period. In 2017, the Trump administration shortened the annual enrollment period to 45 days. Biden’s HHS could use rulemaking to return that period to three full months.

The incoming administration could also reverse previous CMS guidance on Section 1332 waivers that let states subvert or sidestep ACA protections on coverage and cost. The Trump administration proposed a rule in November to codify the waiver standards in regulation but — despite a recent wave of proposed and final regulations as the Trump administration hustles to preserve its health agenda — the rule has not yet been finalized, so HHS could remove it from the Federal Register as well.

By nixing the rule, Biden could also help reverse Trump administration cuts from 2018 that slashed user fees on healthcare.gov plans. The November proposed rule would further decimate the fees, which finance a large swath of marketplace operating expenses, to 2.25% in 2022, versus 3% in 2021 and 3.5% last year.

One key tenet of Biden’s health agenda is to expand ACA subsidies to more low-income Americans, something he can’t do without Congress. However, Biden could use administrative processes to reverse a Trump-era method for indexing marketplace subsidies that kicked in for the 2020 plan year, which led to a small reduction in the financial aid.

Dialing back short-term and association health plans

Biden’s HHS could also roll back the controversial expansion of short-term health plans, bare-bones coverage that isn’t required to cover the 10 essential health benefits under the ACA.

Short-term plans were created as inexpensive stop-gap insurance that could last for up to three months, giving consumers peace of mind while they shopped more comprehensive coverage. However, in 2018, the Trump administration expanded the duration of the plans to 12 months, with a three-year renewal period, and also allowed all consumers — not just those who couldn’t afford other options — to purchase them.

HHS touted the expansion as giving consumers more options, while noting they weren’t meant for everyone. yearlong investigation by House Democrats found the plans widely discriminate against women and people with pre-existing conditions, and had major coverage limitations leaving unwitting consumers susceptible to surprise medical bills.

The Biden administration could enact stricter limits against the sale of the plans. Through additional rulemaking, HHS could limit future enrollment or make it harder to renew short-term coverage, enact stronger consumer protections or beef up standards to limit their sale.

Though actions around limiting new people coming into the plans are likely, Biden may wait to see if Congress takes up the issue, experts say.

A growing number of Americans in the individual healthcare market have subscribed the inexpensive coverage amid skyrocketing medical costs. Roughly 3 million consumers bought the plans in 2019, a 27% growth from 2018, the investigation found. The explosive growth in use makes it a bit less likely Biden’s HHS would pursue immediate, unilateral movement in the space, for fear of kicking Americans off their coverage.

Biden could also reverse Trump’s regulatory changes that have been friendly to association health plans, which allow small businesses or groups to band together to offer coverage. Though the ACA enhanced oversight of the coverage, the Trump administration in June 2018 issued a rule exempting them from rules regulating individual and small-group employer coverage.

As a result, association health plans were allowed to exclude or charge more on the basis of gender, age or other factors.

A federal court invalidated the rule later that year, and some states took legislative or regulatory actions to discourage the use of association health plans. However, the plans —which cover an estimated 3 million Americans — are still not required to cover all essential health benefits, making them a likely target for the Biden administration.

“It is something that we’re going to see some action on pretty soon, but it’s challenging. You don’t want to take those plans away from people, especially during a pandemic,” Cox said.

Expanding Medicaid coverage, eligibility

The Trump administration has given red states new avenues to constrict their Medicaid programs, which provide safety-net health insurance to some 75 million Americans.

Biden will likely first revise state demonstration waiver policies to expand coverage. Among other measures, Biden could get rid of past CMS guidance allowing states to play with Medicaid eligibility through work requirements, controversial programs tying coverage eligibility to work or volunteering hours, and to cap program funding.

Tennessee this month became the first state to receive a federal green light to convert its Medicaid funding to a block grant, following controversial CMS guidance issued early last year. Republicans tout block grants as a way to lower costs, while Democrats oppose the models as capped funding could lead to restricted benefits down the line, especially during times of emergency like a pandemic or natural disaster.

It’s more difficult to roll back a waiver if it’s already been approved, but Biden could put restrictions on it or reverse the decision before it goes into effect, experts say, though Tennessee would have an opportunity to object.

There are also actions Biden could take to reinstate certain beneficiary protections, which would require regulatory changes, KFF researchers say. Those include revising or stopping pending proposals that would change how Medicaid eligibility is determined in a way that would probably result in previously eligible people losing coverage by enacting more documentation requirements; change the government’s methodology for recouping improper payments; and reduce enhanced federal funding for eligibility workers.

Biden’s administration could also tweak regulations that have already been finalized, including the final Medicaid managed care rule for 2020 that relaxed network adequacy, beneficiary protections and quality oversight.

Biden to reopen ACA insurance marketplaces as pandemic has cost millions of Americans their coverage

President Biden is scheduled to take executive actions as early as Thursday to reopen federal marketplaces selling Affordable Care Act health plans and to lower recent barriers to joining Medicaid.

The orders will be Biden’s first steps since taking office to help Americans gain health insurance, a prominent campaign goal that has assumed escalating significance as the pandemic has dramatized the need for affordable health care — and deprived millions of Americans coverage as they have lost jobs in the economic fallout.

Under one order, HealthCare.gov, the online insurance marketplace for Americans who cannot get affordable coverage through their jobs, will swiftly reopen for at least a few months, according to several individuals inside and outside the administration familiar with the plans. Ordinarily, signing up for such coverage is tightly restricted outside a six-week period late each year.

Another part of Biden’s scheduled actions, the individuals said, is intended to reverse Trump-era changes to Medicaid that critics say damaged Americans’ access to the safety-net insurance. It is unclear whether Biden’s order will undo a Trump-era rule allowing states to impose work requirements, or simply direct federal health officials to review rules to make sure they expand coverage to the program that insures about 70 million low-income people in the United States.

The actions are part of a series of rapid executive orders the president is issuing in his initial days in office to demonstrate he intends to steer the machinery of government in a direction far different from that of his predecessor.

Biden has been saying for many months that helping people get insurance is a crucial federal responsibility. Yet until the actions planned for this week, he has not yet focused on this broader objective, shining a spotlight instead on trying to expand vaccinations and other federal responses to the pandemic.

The most ambitious parts of Biden’s campaign health-care platform would require Congress to provide consent and money. Those include creating a government insurance option alongside the ACA health plans sold by private insurers, and helping poor residents afford ACA coverage if they live in about a dozen states that have not expanded their Medicaid programs under the decade-old health law.

A White House spokesman declined to discuss the plans. Two HHS officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity about an event the White House has not announced, said Monday they were anticipating that the event would be held on Thursday.

According to a document obtained by The Washington Post, the president also intends to sign an order rescinding the so-called Mexico City rule, which compels nonprofits in other countries that receive federal family planning aid to promise not to perform or encourage abortions. Biden advisers last week previewed an end to this rule, which for decades has reappeared when Republicans occupied the White House and vanished under Democratic presidents.

The document also says Biden will disavow a multinational antiabortion declaration that the Trump administration signed three months ago.

The actions to expand insurance through the ACA and Medicaid come as the Supreme Court is considering two cases that could shape the outcome. One case is an effort to overturn rulings by lower federal courts, which have held that state rules, requiring some residents to work or prepare for jobs to qualify for Medicaid, are illegal. The other case involves an attempt to overturn the entire ACA.

According to the individuals inside and outside the administration, the order to reopen the federal insurance marketplaces will be framed in the context of the pandemic, essentially saying that anyone eligible for ACA coverage who has been harmed by the coronavirus will be allowed to sign up.

“This is absolutely in the covid age and the recession caused by covid,” said a health-care policy leader who has been in discussions with the administration. “There is financial displacement we need to address,” said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe plans the White House has not announced.

The reopening of HealthCare.gov will be accompanied by an infusion of federal support to draw attention to the opportunity through advertising and other outreach efforts. This, too, reverses the Trump administration’s stance that supporting such outreach was wasteful. During its first two years, it slashed money for advertising and for community groups known as navigators that helped people enroll.

It is not clear whether restoring outreach will be part of Biden’s order or will be done more quietly within federal health-care agencies.

Federal rules already allow people to qualify for a special enrollment period to buy ACA health plans if their circumstances change in important ways, including losing a job. But such exceptions require people to seek permission individually, and many are unaware they can do so. Trump health officials also tightened the rules for qualifying for special enrollment.

In contrast, Biden is expected to open enrollment without anyone needing to seek permission, said Eliot Fishman, senior director of health policy for Families USA, a consumer health-advocacy group.

In the early days of the pandemic, the health insurance industry and congressional Democrats urged the Trump administration to reopen HealthCare.gov, the online federal ACA enrollment system on which three dozen states rely, to give more people the opportunity to sign up. At the end of March, Trump health officials decided against that.

During the most recent enrollment period, ending the middle of last month, nearly 8.3 million people signed up for health plans in the states using HealthCare.gov. The figure is about the same as the previous year, even though it includes two fewer states, which began operating their own marketplaces.

Leaders of groups helping with enrollment around the country said they were approached for help this last time by many people who had lost jobs or income because of the pandemic.

The order involving Medicaid is designed to alter course on experiments — known as “waivers” — that allow states to get federal permission to run their Medicaid programs in nontraditional ways. The work requirements, blocked so far by federal courts, are one of those experiments. Another was an announcement a year ago by Seema Verma, the Trump administration’s administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, that states could apply for a fundamental change to the program, favored by conservatives, that would cap its funding, rather than operating as an entitlement program with federal money rising and falling with the number of people covered.

“You could think about it as announcing a war against the war on Medicaid,” said Katherine Hempstead, a senior policy adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Dan Mendelson, founder of Avalere Health, a consulting firm, said Biden’s initial steps to broaden insurance match his campaign position that the United States does not need to switch to a system of single-payer insurance favored by more liberal Democrats.

The orders the president will sign “are going to do it through the existing programs,” Mendelson said.

A look at the broader Biden healthcare agenda

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Beyond the initiatives directly tied to COVID relief, President Biden’s healthcare agenda includes a broader bolstering of the protections and coverage mechanisms in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as well as the rollback of several of the previous administration’s regulatory changes. We’ve outlined that agenda in the graphic below, as well as highlighting key members of the Biden healthcare team.

While much will depend on how the COVID pandemic continues to unfold, and how successful Biden is at striking bipartisan compromises with a closely divided Congress, we’re watching closely for the answers to several key questions:

(1) how aggressive can and will the new administration be in unwinding Trump-era reforms, particularly regarding Medicaid work requirements;

(2) what will be the thrust of Biden’s antitrust policy in the healthcare space;

(3) how hard will Biden be willing to push for expanded subsidies for individuals purchasing insurance on the ACA exchanges;

(4) how will the Biden team build on the transparency measures implemented by the Trump administration; and

(5) how will the new administration use payment reforms and other regulations to address racial and other disparities in healthcare?

All of that preceded by one burning question that has us holding our breath: who will Biden pick to run the all-important Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services?

Expect a Different Senate Healthcare Agenda if Dems Win Georgia Senate Races

A woman dropping her ballot into a ballot box decorated with the flag of Georgia

If Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both win Senate seats in Tuesday’s runoff election, and give the Democrats majority power in that chamber, it will change not only what type of healthcare policies are passed by the Senate but which healthcare bills get brought up in the first place.

“The big thing that it means is that [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) no longer controls what bills even get a vote” in the full chamber, said one policy advocate who asked to speak on background. “Last year, a bill on prescription drug pricing passed on a somewhat bipartisan basis out of the Senate Finance Committee,” with the blessing of committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), “and it never even got a vote. It certainly would have passed the House. So it’s not so much that you’re going to see a lot of partisan bills passed with [Vice President Kamala] Harris casting the tie-breaking vote … it’s that things will actually get voted on.”

Leadership of Senate committees also will change, noted Dan Mendelson, founder of Avalere Health, a consulting firm here. And because of that, “you’d see the Senate Finance Committee focused on coverage, and you’d see kind of an aggressive push to figure out how do we expand exchanges, expand Medicaid, and get more people covered in the U.S.”

One of the top priorities will be shoring up the Affordable Care Act (ACA), he continued. “There is no consensus on how to replace the law if it’s struck down by the Supreme Court. Legislation is necessary on an urgent basis.” Some other issues, such as drug costs, “are more likely to be addressed through regulatory approaches rather than legislative ones initially,” Mendelson said.

Marie Fishpaw, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank here, suggested that expanded federal control of healthcare would be under consideration. “Last Congress, a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives and 15 Democratic senators have already signaled their support for Medicare for All, so we can expect the left will push for more government control of healthcare should they get more power in Congress,” she said in an email. “Whether that happens by expanding Obamacare with a public option or setting up Medicare for All, it all leads to the same outcome in which government officials in Washington have more decision-making power over the kind of healthcare that Americans receive.”

Joe Antos, PhD, scholar in healthcare and retirement policy at the American Enterprise Institute, another right-leaning think tank, said in an email that “with Harris as the tie breaker, Biden will need to avoid issues where Democrats are not solidly behind him (at least Democratic senators). Drug pricing limits and another COVID spending bill are the most likely to be enacted, perhaps fairly quickly.”

The COVID bill will include “another trillion or two,” Antos said, because “despite all the moaning on TV about lack of state funding, the problem isn’t money — it’s organization and the skilled people to wield the needle. I think there would be more money for states and public health.”

As for the ACA, Biden “might try to reinstate the individual mandate with a penalty/tax, but that would only be a political show since the mandate really hasn’t mattered much in increasing number with insurance (after the first 2 years of ACA enrollment),” said Antos. “Increasing access to the premium subsidy is a possibility, but the true left won’t like it.” On the regulatory side, Antos predicted that Biden will “rewrite Medicaid guidance and reject waiver projects that tighten Medicaid rules,” such as waivers seeking to add work requirements for Medicaid.

Like Mendelson, Antos expects to see Biden push for action to lower prescription drug prices — possibly legislatively. “He would even get some Republican votes for limiting what Medicare will pay for Part B drugs and maybe even Part D drugs,” he said. “This isn’t Medicare ‘negotiating’ drug prices — it’s just old-fashioned price setting, which Medicare has done for decades.” Such a thing would be easier to implement in Part B “since we are already in a price-setting regime.” And, because the price controls would only be in effect for Medicare, “prices paid by everyone else will likely rise,” Antos added.

Less likely to succeed is Biden’s proposal for an advisory board that would consider drugs’ therapeutic value in its recommendations on prices. That is “a complex version of the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which never got off the ground,” Antos said.

Biden also may try to ease rules related to funding of reproductive healthcare organizations like Planned Parenthood that provide abortions, but legislative action in that regard would be a tough slog, Antos said, even with a nominally Democrat-controlled Senate. But Biden “could do something administratively” as the Trump administration has done in the other direction.

Senate confirmations of Cabinet members, such as California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services, would also be smoother under a majority-Democratic Senate, said Mendelson.

And what if the Republicans retain the Georgia Senate seats — and their majority? “The primary strategy the Republican leadership has pushed is to slow things down and to kill major legislation, and that goal gets facilitated if there’s a Republican majority,” he added. With McConnell keeping control of the Senate’s agenda, “things will run much more slowly and there will be a mentality of not doing things.”

But it could go the other way as well, Mendelson noted. “The optimistic scenario is that Senate Republicans feel like they have something lose in the midterms in 2022, and they need to build some sort of record of legislative accomplishments.” In that case, premium support for ACA marketplace enrollees and bringing down costs in the small-group insurance market might be in play, he said.

Nebraska gets the nod for Medicaid work requirements

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Federal judge blocks Kentucky's Medicaid work requirements

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.

State autonomy versus a fundamental right: VP debate will spotlight divergent healthcare views

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Mike Pence and Kamala Harris take the debate stage Wednesday night. (Kamala (Harris photo by Ethan Miller; Pence photo by Joshua Roberts. Both Getty Images)

The undercurrent of the VP debate is the age and health of the two men vying for the presidency.

The two remaining presidential debates, scheduled for October 15 and 22, are in question due to President Trump’s positive COVID-19 and quarantine status, making the vice presidential debate this Wednesday at 9 p.m. even more important than VP debates of past elections.

The undercurrent in the debate consists of the ages of challenger Biden, who is 77 and turning 78 before the end of the year, and Trump, 74, who has been hospitalized for COVID-19 and was released from Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Monday afternoon. Trump has said he plans to debate Biden on October 15.

This VP debate is big, said Paul Keckley, a healthcare policy analyst and managing editor of the Keckley Report. 

“The reason is not so much the two are debating,” Keckley said. “We have a 77- year-old challenger and a 74-year-old incumbent. Voters are expecting the odds are one will become disabled and the vice president is going to step in. That’s the undercurrent of this debate.”

Healthcare is an obvious dominant theme Wednesday night beyond the health of the two men seeking the presidency. 

It is expected that Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris will challenge Vice President Mike Pence on his role heading the coronavirus task force when close to 7.5 million people in this country have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 200,000 have died.

Pence will likely challenge Harris on her support for Medicare for All before she backtracked to support Biden’s public-private option for healthcare coverage.

Pence and Harris are expected to lay out the healthcare plans of their respective Republican and Democratic nominees less than four weeks before the election, in a way the lead candidates failed to get across during the first presidential debate that presented more chaos than clarity.

TRUMP AND BIDEN PLANS

Trump and Biden differ fundamentally on whether the federal government should be involved in the business of providing healthcare coverage.

Trump’s guiding principles rest on the pillar of state autonomy as opposed to a federalized healthcare system and Biden’s maxim that healthcare is a right, not a privilege. 

Trump believes that private solutions are better than government solutions, according to Keckley. He is much less restrained on private equity and the Federal Trade Commission’s scrutiny of vertical integration. States become the gateway to the market as private solutions are sold to states as innovation.

Trump’s other concept is that the door to engaging consumers in healthcare is price transparency. His view is that price transparency will spawn consumer engagement.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, who was appointed by Trump in 2016 based largely on the recommendation of Pence, is instituting a rule, starting January 1, 2021, requiring hospitals to have price transparency for 300 shoppable services. Hospitals are being required to make their contract terms with payer accessible.

This is separate from CMS’s interoperability rule aimed at payers that also goes into effect on January 1.

Trump believes healthcare is a personal responsibility, not a public obligation. To Trump, healthcare is a marketplace where there are winners and losers, according to Keckley.

Biden has a more developed policy platform on making healthcare a universal right, starting with strengthening the Affordable Care Act that was passed while Biden was vice president during President Barack Obama’s terms.

Biden wants to increase the eligibility for tax subsidies in the ACA up to 400% of the federal poverty level, which would expand access to subsidized health insurance.

He also wants to reduce the affordability threshold for employer insurance. Currently, if employees pay more than 9.7% of their adjusted income for their workplace coverage, they can seek a plan in the ACA marketplace. Biden would lower that eligibility for ACA coverage to 8.5%, opening the door for many more consumers to be insured through the ACA, at a lower cost.

Biden would also lower the age of eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 60.

For companies such as manufacturing and transportation, in which individuals can retire after 30 years of service, this lets them into the Medicare system earlier to fill that gap between retirement and Medicare eligibility.

Biden’s public option would create insurance plans that would compete with private plans. 

The other factor to watch on the Biden side, Keckley said, is his clear focus on equity and diversity in healthcare. 

AFFORDABLE CARE ACT

Biden wants to strengthen Obamacare while Trump is actively pursuing a repeal of the law through the Supreme Court. 

President Trump’s debate prep and the White House Rose Garden event announcing the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, border on the definition of super spreader events.

The Justices, perhaps with the addition of Trump’s pick, Amy Coney Barrett, if there are enough Republican senators well enough and in attendance to vote for confirmation, are scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case brought by 18 GOP-led states on November 10, the week after the election.

Senators must be present to vote, and Republicans, who have a majority of 53 to 47 seats, need a four-vote majority. Two Republican senators – Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – have said they wouldn’t vote on a nominee prior to the election. Vice President Mike Pence could cast the deciding vote in a tie.

Three Republican senators have tested positive for the coronavirus. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who sit on the Judiciary Committee, tested positive for COVID-19 days after attending the White House Rose Garden event on September 26. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is now the third to test positive, though he did not attend that event.

There was a lack of social distancing and mask wearing at both the Rose Garden nomination and at a meeting between Trump and staff for debate prep. Twelve people in Trump’s inner circle, including his wife Melania, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, have tested positive since attending.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote in an email to GOP senators obtained by CNN that he needs all Republican senators back in Washington by October 19.

COVID-19

Trump announced in a tweet Monday that he would be leaving Walter Reed later in the afternoon, saying he felt “really good!” and adding, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

Trump has been criticized for leaving the hospital on Monday to take a drive-by ride to wave to supporters. Attending physician Dr. James Phillips called the action “insanity” and “political theater” that put the lives of Secret Service agents in the car with him at risk.

Trump has downplayed the virus in an effort to reopen the country and the economy, and has put the blame on China, where the coronavirus originated.

Trump told Biden during the debate, “We got the gowns; we got the masks; we made the ventilators. You wouldn’t have made ventilators – and now we’re weeks away from a vaccine.” 

Biden puts the blame squarely on Trump for delaying action to stop the spread.

Biden said during the debate: “Look, 200,000 dead. You said over seven million infected in the United States. We in fact have 5% or 4% of the world’s population – 20% of the deaths. Forty thousand people a day are contracting COVID. In addition to that, about between 750 and 1,000 people, they’re dying. When [Trump] was presented with that number he said ‘It is what it is’ – what it is what it is – because you are who you are. That’s why it is. The president has no plan. He hasn’t laid out anything.”

Biden said that back in July he laid out a plan for providing protective gear and providing money the House passed to get people the help they need to keep their businesses open and open schools. 

Under Trump’s Administration, Congress passed $175 billion in provider relief funds for hospitals, small businesses, individuals and others – $100 billion from the CARES Act and $75 billion from the Paycheck Protection Program and Healthcare Enhancement Act.

MEDICAID EXPANSION

CMS Administrator Seema Verma was healthcare advisor to Pence while he was governor of Indiana. Her consulting firm, SVC, Inc., worked closely with Pence to design Indiana’s Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. They developed a unique Medicaid expansion program called Health Indiana Plan 2.0, which mandated low income adults above the poverty level pay monthly premiums for their healthcare. 

Members who did not pay faced being disenrolled for six months. 

As administrator, Verma has initiated similar work requirements for Medicaid coverage nationwide.

While as governor Pence implemented Medicaid expansion, as vice president he has supported torpedoing the ACA, and has pushed the Graham-Cassidy plan for healthcare reform that would have replaced the ACA.

DRUG PRICES

Neither Trump nor Biden has taken on the pharmaceutical industry in a meaningful way, though both have voiced a strong belief that drug manufacturers are egregious to the system, according to Keckley.

“Both camps are saying, we’re really going to take them on,” he said. 

During the debate, Trump said he was cutting drug prices by allowing American consumers to buy drugs from Canada and other countries under a favored nation status. 

“Drug prices will be coming down, 80 or 90 percent,” Trump said during the debate, telling Biden he hadn’t done anything similar during his 47 years in government.

If Trump gets a second term, there will likely be more industry folks in his circle, following up on his first term of stacking his cabinet with business people.

Biden would be more likely to lean toward a blend of public health officials and industry executives. There would be more of a spotlight on wealth creation in healthcare and executive pay.

In the $1.1 trillion world of prescription drugs, the United States makes up 40% of the market. 

“We’re the hub of the prescription drug industry,” Keckley said.