Consumers choosing insurance via the federal Affordable Care Act exchanges reached 8.25 million over the 2021 open enrollment period, about the same number as the year before, CMS said Wednesday.
Because two fewer states are participating in the federal marketplace this year, adjusted year-over-year growth in plan selections was 7%, the agency said.
Of the total, 23% of consumers were new, down by 3.6%. Renewing consumers who actively chose a new plan and those who were automatically re-enrolled both increased.
The figures are the last from the Trump administration, which has drastically reduced money toward navigators who help people use the Healthcare.gov website and find the best ACA plan for them. The administration has made no secret of its opposition to the law and after failing to overturn it in Congress has used executive actions to undermine it.
President-Elect Joe Biden and his pick for HHS chief, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, however, are eager supporters and are likely to take a number of actions to restore and burnish it. That could be increasing tax credits and subsidies, increasing navigator funding and building on protections like essential health benefits.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to make its ruling on the ACA case later this spring or summer, but the Biden administration could essentially make it moot by walking back the zeroing out of the individual mandate penalty that is the linchpin of the lawsuit against it.
The relatively steady enrollment could be increased through those actions and the possibility of a special enrollment period to account for needs during the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis and the recession it has caused have kicked millions of people off their employer-sponsored insurance, and they could turn to the exchanges for coverage, especially with higher tax credits and subsidies.
With just a dozen days left in power, the Trump administration on Friday approved a radically different Medicaid financing system in Tennessee that for the first time would give the state broader authority in running the health insurance program for the poor in exchange for capping its annual federal funding.
The approval is a 10-year “experiment.” Instead of the open-ended federal funding that rises with higher enrollment and health costs, Tennessee will instead get an annual block grant. The approach has been pushed for decades by conservatives who say states too often chafe under strict federal guidelines about enrollment and coverage and can find ways to provide care more efficiently.
But under the agreement, Tennessee’s annual funding cap will increase if enrollment grows. What’s different is that unlike other states, federal Medicaid funding in Tennessee won’t automatically keep up with rising per -person Medicaid expenses.
The approval, however, faces an uncertain future because the incoming Biden administration is likely to oppose such a move. But to unravel it, officials would need to set up a review that includes a public hearing.
Meanwhile, the changes in Tennessee will take months to implement because they need final legislative approval, and state officials must negotiate quality of care targets with the administration.
TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, said the block grant system would give it unprecedented flexibility to decide who is covered and what services it will pay for.
Under the agreement, TennCare will have a specified spending cap based on historical spending, inflation and predicted future enrollment changes. If the state can operate the program at a lower cost than the cap and maintain or improve quality, the state then shares in the savings.
Trump administration officials said the approach adds incentive for the state to save money, unlike the current system, in which increased state spending is matched with more federal dollars.If Medicaid enrollment grows, the state can secure additional federal funding. If enrollment drops, it will get less money.
“This groundbreaking waiver puts guardrails in place to ensure appropriate oversight and protections for beneficiaries, while also creating incentives for states to manage costs while holding them accountable for improving access, quality and health outcomes,” said Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. “It’s no exaggeration to say that this carefully crafted demonstration could be a national model moving forward.”
Opponents, including most advocates for low-income Americans, say the approach will threaten care for the 1.4 million people in TennCare, who include children, pregnant women and the disabled. Federal funding covers two-thirds of the cost of the program.
Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, said the block grant approval is a step backward for the state’s Medicaid program.
“No other state has sought a block grant, and for good reason. It gives state officials a blank check and creates financial incentives to cut health care to vulnerable families,” she said.
The agreement is different from traditional block grants championed by conservatives since it allows Tennessee to get more federal funding to keep up with enrollment growth. In addition, while the state is given flexibility to increase benefits, it can’t cut them on its own.
Democrats have fought back block grant Medicaid proposals since the Reagan administration and most recently in 2018 as part of Republicans’ failed effort to repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act. Even some key Republicans opposed the idea because it would cut billions in funding to states, making it harder to help the poor.
Implementing block grants via an executive branch action rather than getting Congress to amend Medicaid law is also likely to be met with court challenges.
“This is an illegal move that could threaten access to health care for vulnerable people in the middle of a pandemic,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, posted on his Twitter account. “I’m hopeful the Biden Administration will move quickly to rollback this harmful policy as soon as possible.”
The block grant approval comes as Medicaid enrollment is at its highest-ever level.
More than 76 million Americans are covered by the state-federal health program, a million more than when the Trump administration took charge in 2017. Enrollment has jumped by more than 5 million in the past year as the economy slumped with the pandemic.
Medicaid, part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” initiative of the 1960s, is an entitlement program in which the government pays each state a certain percentage of the cost of care for anyone eligible for the health coverage. As a result, the more money states spend on Medicaid, the more they get from Washington.
Under the approved demonstration, CMS will work with Tennessee to set spending targets that will increase at a fixed amount each year.
The plan includes a “safety valve” to increase federal funding due to unexpected increases in enrollment.
“The safety valve will maintain Tennessee’s commitment to enroll all eligible Tennesseans with no reduction in today’s benefits for beneficiaries,” CMS said in a statement.
Tennessee has committed to maintaining coverage for eligible beneficiaries and existing services.
In exchange for taking on this financing approach, the state will receive a range of operating flexibilities from the federal government, as well as up to 55% of the savings generated on an annual basis when spending falls below the aggregate spending cap and the state meets certain quality targets, yet to be determined.
The state can spend that money on various health programs for residents, including areas that Medicaid funding typically doesn’t cover, such as improving transportation and education and employment services for enrollees.
The 10-year waiver is unusual, but the Trump administration has approved such long-term experiments in recent years to give states more flexibility.
Tennessee is one of 12 states that have not approved expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, leaving tens of thousands of working adults without health insurance.
“The block grant is just another example of putting politics ahead of health care during this pandemic,” said Johnson of the Tennessee Justice Center. “Now is absolutely not the time to waste our energy and resources limiting who can access health care.”
State officials applauded the approval.
“It’s a legacy accomplishment,” said Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican. “This new flexibility means we can work toward improving maternal health coverage and clearing the waiting list for developmentally disabled.”
“This means we will be able to make additional investments in TennCare without reduction in services and provider cuts.”
The economy lost 140,000 jobs in December, the first reported losses since April, as the unemployment rate remained steady at 6.7 percent.
Economists expected a small jobs gain of nearly 50,000. The drop is the latest sign of a weakening economy amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. All in all, the economy remains about 10 million jobs below its pre-pandemic levels.
“There’s not much comfort to be taken from the stable unemployment rate, given that millions of Americans have left the labor force with nearly 11 million listed as officially out of work,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com.
“Between the human and economic tolls taken by the pandemic, these are some of the darkest hours of this soon-to-be yearlong tragedy.”
The biggest losses were concentrated in leisure and hospitality, a sector particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, which lost an astonishing 498,000 jobs.
State and local government payrolls shed 51,000 jobs. Congress deferred passing state and local aid in its latest COVID-19 relief bill.
But the overall loss would have been worse had it not been for gains in professional and business services, which added 161,000 jobs; retail trade, which added 120,500 jobs; and construction, which added 51,000.
Some demographic groups have been hit harder by the economic downturn.
The unemployment rate for Hispanics rose to 9.3 percent in December, while Black unemployment remained elevated at 9.9 percent. The rate for whites was 6 percent, and for Asians it was 5.9 percent.
Over a third of jobless people have been unemployed for over 27 weeks.
Their Senate majority will be slim as can be, and their margin for error in the House is also quite small. So it’s not going to be easy to get anything done. But it seems likely that the Biden White House and a Democratic Congress will try to pass legislation to expand health coverage.
Regarding what Democrats’ health care agenda would look like if the party enjoyed full control of Congress and the White House, a senior party official told reporters this fall: “If we don’t take full advantage of this moment, we’ll be making a huge mistake.”
The question is how big they will go. A lengthy health care section will likely be part of any new Covid-19 relief and recovery bill. But will that be the end of it, or do Democrats want to try to pass another health care plan through budget reconciliation? Given Senate rules, that process is probably their best chance of passing a major bill.
Taking a cue from my Future Perfect colleagues and their 21 predictions for 2021, I thought I would lay out some of my expectations for the coming two years of health policy. These projections are based on my own reporting, but they are not meant to be definitive — and nothing is 100 percent guaranteed. It’s more like a list of issues I’ll be watching.
Democrats will expand eligibility for Obamacare subsidies: 85 percent chance
Democrats could attempt to take two bites at the health care apple: first as part of a Covid-19 relief bill, and second in a budget reconciliation package that can pass with a bare majority. I think there is a very strong chance both attempts would end up with provisions expanding eligibility for insurance tax subsidies.
The $2.4 trillion HEROES Act passed by the House, a likely starting point for Covid-19 negotiations between the House and the Senate, would have made anybody currently on unemployment insurance eligible for premium tax credits. That would help people who have lost their employer-sponsored coverage afford a new health care plan. A provision like that is likely to become part of whatever Covid-19 bill Congress comes up with.
A reconciliation bill could make that change permanent and universal. Back in spring 2020, Senate Democrats released a list of their health care priorities in response in response to Covid-19. At the top was a plan to raise the current cutoff for Obamacare subsidies, which stands at 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
Under current law, anybody with an annual income above that threshold, which is about $51,000 for an individual or $87,000 for a family of three, is ineligible for any assistance. Democrats have introduced plans to expand eligibility, either by doubling the income cap to 800 percent of the federal poverty level (like in this bill from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen) or by eliminating it entirely so that nobody pays more than a fixed percentage of their income on health insurance (as President-elect Joe Biden proposed). Democrats could also try to make low-income people in states that have not expanded Medicaid eligible for tax credits to buy private coverage.
The people squeezed under Obamacare have been the ones ineligible for the law’s financial aid. Expanding eligibility could insure up to 4 million people, and it seems like the bare minimum Democrats would want to do on health care with their new power.
The public option won’t be part of a Democratic health care bill: 75 percent chance
Much like the 2009 debate over Obamacare, a new government insurance plan would probably be the most hotly debated proposal if Democrats try to approve a major health care bill. Biden embraced the public option in his campaign, but passing it won’t be easy — in fact, I think it’s more likely than not that it doesn’t happen.
One problem for a public option is budget reconciliation. Unless Democrats are willing to eliminate the 60-vote legislative filibuster, they’ll have to use this special procedural tool in order to pass a bill with just 51 votes.
But budget reconciliation comes with limits on what provisions can be included, narrowly targeted to federal spending, and creating this new program may not qualify. Capital Alpha, a health care policy analysis group, thinks there is “virtually zero chance” a public option like that proposed by Biden during his campaign would be enacted because it likely doesn’t satisfy the reconciliation rules.
Progressives will push Democratic leadership to be as aggressive in pursuing a public option as possible, including in how they handle those procedural limits. But the moderate Senate Democrats who will ultimately dictate what the final package will look like have sounded ambivalent about the public option, and Democrats are wary of the party getting dragged into a messy health care fight.
Support for a public option would be substantial — about 70 percent of Americans say they’re for it, polls show — but so would the opposition. The health care industry will surely mobilize against the plan if Democrats look serious about pursuing it.
I suspect that, either because the moderates rule it out from the start or Democratic leaders balk at a drawn-out health care debate, politics will take the policy off the table.
Democrats will approve Medicare negotiations for prescription drugs: 55 percent chance
Democrats have campaigned for several election cycles now on a promise to give Medicare more power to negotiate drug prices with pharma companies. This promise was a part of the drug pricing bill that House Democrats passed in the last Congress, a plan that was estimated to cut federal spending by $456 billion over 10 years.
Savings are the reason the policy could be handy for Democrats in crafting a budget reconciliation plan. Democrats will need to include provisions that save the government money to help pay for the new provisions that cost money, like expanding eligibility for tax subsidies.
“We have long believed that pharma faces the greatest risk of drug pricing reforms in conjunction with Democrats’ efforts to expand coverage,” Capital Alpha wrote in a recent analysis.
Those twin incentives — delivering on a campaign promise and finding offsets — could help overcome what would surely be fierce industry opposition.
But the politics of drug pricing have shifted during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is why I think there’s only a slightly better than even chance that Congress will approve Medicare negotiations. Pharma has delivered the Covid-19 vaccines in record time, improving the industry’s relationship with the public in the process. This, in turn, has lowered expectations among the experts for how aggressive Democrats will be on drug prices.
“I think now you don’t have all those stories about insulin and EpiPen, plus you have positive stories about vaccines and other drugs,” Walid Gellad, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh, told me in December. “You don’t have as fertile an environment for more extreme drug measures.”
Thus, my feeling that the odds for Medicare negotiations are closer to 50/50.
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.
That brings the total number of enrollees to 2.9 million, a slight jump over last year but with more days to sign up over 2019.
During the fourth week of the 2020 open enrollment period, from November 22-28, 523,020 people selected plans using the HealthCare.gov platform.
That brings the total number of enrollees to 2,903,547 after the first four weeks of open enrollment. That’s an increase of 523,020 people from last year, which saw 2,380,527 consumers sign up for plans after the first four weeks.
It’s important to note, however, that in 2020 there were more days in this four-week period than last year, since the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services measures enrollment Sunday through Saturday. Nov. 1 was on a Sunday this year and on a Friday in 2019, so the first week of 2019 had only three days, while the first week this year measured a full seven.
The numbers are a dip from the third week of open enrollment, during which 758,421 signed up for coverage.
The HealthCare.gov platform is used by the federally facilitated exchange and some state-based exchanges. Notably, New Jersey and Pennsylvania transitioned to their own platforms for 2021, and due to this they’re absent from HealthCare.gov for 2021 coverage. Those two states accounted for 578,251 plan selections last year, 7% of all plan selections. These enrollees’ selections will not appear in CMS’ figures until it announces the state-based marketplace plan selections.
Open enrollment lasts six weeks and ends on December 14. Those who sign up within that time frame will see their coverage begin January 1, 2021.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT
This is the fourth snapshot of open enrollment figures by CMS during this sign-up period.
Of those selecting plans, 138,183 were new consumers, while 384,837 were renewing coverage. This brings the total number of new consumers to 659,455 since the beginning of open enrollment, while the tally for those renewing coverage now stands at 2,244,092. More than 4,386,530 consumers have been on the applications submitted to date.
A consumer is considered to be a new consumer if they did not have 2020 exchange coverage through Dec. 31 of this year and had a 2021 plan selection. They’re considered a renewing consumer if they have 2020 exchange coverage through Dec. 31 and actively select either the same plan or a new plan for 2021.
The numbers represent those who have submitted an application and selected a plan, net of any cancellations from a consumer, or cancellations from an insurer. The weekly metric represents the net change in the number of uncanceled plan sections over a given period.
Plan selections will not include those consumers who are automatically re-enrolled into a plan. To have their coverage effectuated, consumers generally need to pay their first month’s health plan premium. CMS did not report the number of effectuated enrollments.
In all, there were 1,749,555 HealthCare.gov users recorded during the fourth week, and 57,502 of the Spanish-speaking equivalent, CuidadoDeSalud.gov, bringing the four-week totals to 9,582,790 and 317,487, respectively.
To date, Florida tops in the number of plan selections over the first four weeks with 871,361 sign-ups, followed by Texas (471,849) and Georgia (198,090).
THE LARGER TREND
President-elect Joe Biden has said he is favorable to strengthening and expanding the Affordable Care Act, and favors a government-run public option to run parallel with private offerings.
But prior to Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021, CMS may release a final rule based on a proposed rule it released late on Thanksgiving Eve to allow states to implement Section 1332 waivers to waive certain ACA requirements. This allows states to decentralize enrollment through insurers and web brokers. Opponents have said this will expose consumers to junk plans.
A federal appeals court upheld a ruling that would allow hospitals to calculate their disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payments using Medicaid patients as well as patients eligible for treatment under experimental Medicaid “demonstration projects” approved by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The opinion, issued Friday, upheld the decision of a lower court that sided with 10 Florida hospitals seeking to include days of care funded by Florida’s Low Income Pool, an approved Medicaid demonstration project. Through the pool, the state and federal governments jointly reimbursed hospitals for care provided to uninsured and underinsured patients.
HHS argued against allowing the hospitals to include those patients in their Medicaid fraction on the ground that the patients were treated out of charity rather than as designated beneficiaries of a demonstration project.
“The district court found the Secretary’s arguments to the contrary unpersuasive. The Secretary argued the text of the regulation allows hospitals to include days of care provided under a demonstration project only if the project entitles specific patients to specific benefit packages,” the judges said (PDF). “As the court noted, however, this is not what the regulation says. Rather, a patient must have been ‘eligible for inpatient services,’ meaning the demonstration project enabled the patient to receive inpatient services, regardless whether the project gave the patient a right to these services or allowed the patient to enroll in an insurance plan that provided the services.”
DSH payments have traditionally been calculated using the costs incurred to treat Medicaid and uninsured patients. However, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid’s 2017 rule says costs incurred treating other patients are applicable. For example, a dually eligible patient who’s admitted to the hospital will likely have their stay paid for by Medicare, the agency said, as Medicaid is treated as the “payer of last resort.” As such, those costs would be eligible to be subtracted from DSH payouts.
In backing the hospitals on the DSH dispute, the judges pointed to a similar case considered by the Fifth Circuit last year in which the agency sought to exclude from the Medicaid fraction days of care funded through an “uncompensated care pool” created by a demonstration project. That pool reimbursed hospitals in Mississippi for services provided to uninsured patients affected by Hurricane Katrina but did not entitle specific patients to specific services.
In that case, the Fifth Circuit held “plain regulatory text demands that such days be included—period.”
“We see no flaw in Judge Collyer’s analysis and therefore embrace the district court’s opinion as the law of this circuit,” the judges said.
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a case questioning the legality of the ACA on Nov. 10.
Five things to know:
1. At the center of the case is whether the health law should be struck down. In a brief filed June 25 in Texas v. United States, the Trump administration argues the entire ACA is invalid because in December 2017, Congress eliminated the ACA’s tax penalty for failing to purchase health insurance. The administration argues the individual mandate is inseverable from the rest of the law and became unconstitutional when the tax penalty was eliminated; therefore, the entire health law should be struck down.
2. The administration’s brief was filed in support of a group of Republican-led states seeking to undo the ACA. Meanwhile, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is leading a coalition of more Democratic states to defend the ACA before the Supreme Court.
3. The case goes before the Supreme Court days after media outlets projected Joe Biden as the next president of the U.S. President-elect Biden has said he seeks to expand government-subsidized insurance coverage and wants to the bring back the ACA’s tax penalty for failing to purchase health insurance, according to The Wall Street Journal. If a change regarding the tax penalty did occur, the publication notes that Republicans’ argument on severability would no longer apply.
4. The case also goes before the Supreme Court about two weeks after the Senate voted Oct. 26 to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Ms. Barrett previously criticized Chief Justice John Roberts’ 2012 opinion sustaining the law’s individual mandate, The New York Times reported, but she said during her confirmation hearings in October that “the issue in the case is this doctrine of severability, and that’s not something that I have ever talked about with respect to the Affordable Care Act.”
5. According to the Journal, the Supreme Court is not expected to make a decision in the case until the end of June.
President-elect Joe Biden’s healthcare agenda: building on the ACA, value-based care, and bringing down drug prices.
In many ways, Joe Biden is promising a return to the Obama administration’s approach to healthcare:
Building on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) through incremental expansions in government-subsidized coverage
Continuing CMS’ progress toward value-based care
Bringing down drug prices
Supporting modernization of the FDA
Bolder ideas, such as developing a public option, resolving “surprise billing,” allowing for negotiation of drug prices by Medicare, handing power to a third party to help set prices for some life sciences products, and raising the corporate tax rate, could be more challenging to achieve without overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate.
Biden is likely to mount an intensified federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, enlisting the Defense Production Act to compel companies to produce large quantities of tests and personal protective equipment as well as supporting ongoing deregulation around telehealth. The Biden administration also will likely return to global partnerships and groups such as the World Health Organization, especially in the area of vaccine development, production and distribution.
What can health industry executives expect from Biden’s healthcare proposals?
Broadly, healthcare executives can expect an administration with an expansionary agenda, looking to patch gaps in coverage for Americans, scrutinize proposed healthcare mergers and acquisitions more aggressively and use more of the government’s power to address the pandemic. Executives also can expect, in the event the ACA is struck down, moves by the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers to develop a replacement. Healthcare executives should scenario plan for this unlikely yet potentially highly disruptive event, and plan for an administration marked by more certainty and continuity with the Obama years.
All healthcare organizations should prepare for the possibility that millions more Americans could gain insurance under Biden. His proposals, if enacted, would mean coverage for 97% of Americans, according to his campaign website. This could mean millions of new ACA customers for payers selling plans on the exchanges, millions of new Medicaid beneficiaries for managed care organizations, millions of newly insured patients for providers, and millions of covered customers for pharmaceutical and life sciences companies. The surge in insured consumers could mirror the swift uptake in the years following the passage of the ACA.
Biden’s plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic
Biden is expected to draw on his experience from H1N1 and the Ebola outbreaks to address the COVID-19 pandemic with a more active role for the federal government, which many Americans support. These actions could shore up the nation’s response in which the federal government largely served in a support role to local, state and private efforts.
Three notable exceptions have been the substantial federal funding for development of vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Congress’ aid packages and the rapid deregulatory actions taken by the FDA and CMS to clear a path for medical products to be enlisted for the pandemic and for providers, in particular, to be able to respond to it.
Implications of Biden’s 2020 health agenda on healthcare payers, providers and pharmaceutical and life sciences companies
The US health system has been slowly transforming for years into a New Health Economy that is more consumer-oriented, digital, virtual, open to new players from outside the industry and focused on wellness and prevention. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some of those trends. Once the dust from the election settles, companies that have invested in capabilities for growth and are moving forcefully toward the New Health Economy stand to gain disproportionately.
Shortages of clinicians and foreign medical students may continue to be an issue for a while
The Trump administration made limiting the flow of immigrants to the US a priority. The associated policy changes have the potential to exacerbate shortages of physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers, including medical students. These consequences have been aggravated by the pandemic, which dramatically curtailed travel into the US.
Healthcare organizations, especially rural ones heavily dependent on foreign-born employees, may find themselves competing fiercely for workers, paying higher salaries and having to rethink the structure of their workforces.
Providers should consider reengineering primary care teams to reflect the patients’ health status and preferences, along with the realities of the workforce on the ground and new opportunities in remote care.
Focus on modernizing the supply chain
Biden and lawmakers from both parties have been raising questions about life sciences’ supply chains. This focus has only intensified because of the pandemic and resulting shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tests and other medical products.
Investment in advanced analytics and cybersecurity could allow manufacturers to avoid disruptive stockouts and shortages, and deliver on the promise of the right treatment to the right patient at the right time in the right place.
Drug pricing needs a long-term strategy
Presidents and lawmakers have been talking about drug prices for decades; few truly meaningful actions have been implemented. Biden has made drug pricing reform a priority.
Drug manufacturers may need to start looking past the next quarter to create a new pricing strategy that maximizes access in local markets through the use of data and analytics to engage in more value-based pricing arrangements.
New financing models may help patients get access to drugs, such as subscription models that provide unlimited access to a therapy at a flat rate.
Companies that prepare now to establish performance metrics and data analytics tools to track patient outcomes will be well prepared to offer payers more sustainable payment models, such as mortgage or payment over time contracts, avoiding the sticker shock that comes with these treatments and improving uptake at launch.
Pharmaceutical and life sciences companies will likely have to continue to offer tools for consumers like co-pay calculators and use the contracting process where possible to minimize out-of-pocket costs, which can improve adherence rates and health outcomes.
View interoperability as an opportunity to embrace, not a threat to avoid or ignore
While the pandemic delayed many of the federal interoperability rule deadlines, payers and providers should use the extra time to plan strategically for an interoperable future.
Payers should review business partnerships in this new regulatory environment.
Digital health companies and new entrants may help organizations take advantage of the opportunities that achieving interoperability may present.
Companies should consider the legal risks and take steps to protect their reputations and relationships with customers by thinking through issues of consent and data privacy.
Health organizations should review their policies and consider whether they offer protections for customers under the new processes and what data security risks may emerge. They should also consider whether business associate agreements are due in more situations.
Plan for revitalized ACA exchanges and a booming Medicare Advantage market
The pandemic has thrown millions out of work, generating many new customers for ACA plans just as the incoming Biden administration plans to enrich subsidies, making more generous plans within reach of more Americans.
Payers in this market should consider how and where to expand their membership and appeal to those newly eligible for Medicare. Payers not in this market should consider partnerships or acquisitions as a quick way to enter the market, with the creation of a new Medicare Advantage plan as a slower but possibly less capital-intensive entry into this market.
Payers and health systems should use this opportunity to design more tailored plan options and consumer experiences to enhance margins and improve health outcomes.
Payers with cash from deferred care and low utilization due to the pandemic could turn to vertical integration with providers as a means of investing that cash in a manner that helps struggling providers in the short term while positioning payers to improve care and reduce its cost in the long term.
Under the Trump administration, the FDA has approved historic numbers of generic drugs, with the aim of making more affordable pharmaceuticals available to consumers. Despite increased FDA generics approvals, generics dispensed remain high but flat, according to HRI analysis of FDA data.
Pharmaceutical company stocks, on average, have climbed under the Trump administration, with a few notable dips due to presidential speeches criticizing the industry and the pandemic.
Providers have faced some revenue cuts, particularly in the 340B program, and many entered the pandemic in a relatively weak liquidity position. The pandemic has led to layoffs, pay cuts and even closures. HRI expects consolidation as the pandemic continues to curb the flow of patients seeking care in emergency departments, orthopedic surgeons’ offices, dermatology suites and more.
Lawmakers and politicians often use bold language, and propose bold solutions to problems, but the government and the industry itself resists sudden, dramatic change, even in the face of sudden, dramatic events such as a global pandemic. One notable exception to this would be a decision by the US Supreme Court to strike down the ACA, an event that would generate a great deal of uncertainty and disruption for Americans, the US health industry and employers.