The Rising Crisis of Underinsurance: How the Biden Administration May Shape Inequities in Patient Affordability

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The Affordable Care Act (ACA) made historic strides in expanding access to health insurance coverage by covering an additional 20 million Americans. President Joe Biden ran on a platform of building upon the ACA and filling in its gaps. With Democratic majority in the Senate, aspects of his health care plan could move from idea into reality.

The administration’s main focus is on uninsurance, which President Biden proposes to tackle in three main ways: providing an accessible and affordable public option, increasing tax credits to help lower monthly premiums, and indexing marketplace tax credits to gold rather than silver plans.

However, underinsurance remains a problem. Besides the nearly 29 million remaining uninsured Americans, over 40% of working age adults are underinsured, meaning their out-of-pocket cost-sharing, excluding premiums, are 5-10% of household income or more, depending on income level.

High cost-sharing obligations—especially high deductibles—means insurance might provide little financial protection against medical costs beneath the deductible. Bills for several thousand dollars could financially devastate a family, with the insurer owing nothing at all. Recent trends in health insurance enrollment suggest that uninsurance should not be the only issue to address.

A high demand for low premiums

Enrollment in high deductible health plans (HDHP) has been on a meteoric rise over the past 15 years, from approximately 4% of people with employer-sponsored insurance in 2006 to nearly 30% in 2019, leading to growing concern about underinsurance. “Qualified” HDHPs, which come with additional tax benefits, generally have lower monthly premiums, but high minimum deductibles. As of 2020, the Internal Revenue Service defines HDHPs as plans with minimum deductibles of at least $1,400 for an individual ($2,800 for families), although average annual deductibles are $2,583 for an individual ($5,335 for families).

HDHPs are associated with delays in both unnecessary and necessary care, including cancer screenings and treatment, or skipped prescription fills. There is evidence that Black patients disproportionately experience these effects, which may further widen racial health inequities.

common prescription has been to expand access to Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), with employer and individual contributions offsetting higher upfront cost-sharing. Employers often contribute on behalf of their employees to HSAs, but for individuals in lower wage jobs without such benefits or without extra income to contribute themselves, the account itself may sit empty, rendering it useless.

recent article in Health Affairs found that HDHP enrollment increased from 2007 to 2018 across all racial, ethnic, and income groups, but also revealed that low-income, Black, and Hispanic enrollees were significantly less likely to have an HSA, with disparities growing over time. For instance, by 2018, they found that among HDHP enrollees under 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL), only 21% had an HSA, while 52% of those over 400% FPL had an HSA. In short, the people who could most likely benefit from an HSA were also least likely to have one.

If trends in HDHP enrollment and HSA access continue, it could result in even more Americans who are covered on paper, yet potentially unable to afford care.

Addressing uninsurance could also begin to address underinsurance

President Biden’s health care proposal primarily addresses uninsurance by making it more affordable and accessible. This can also tangentially tackle underinsurance.

To make individual market insurance more affordable, Biden proposes expanding the tax credits established under the ACA. His plan calls for removing the 400% FPL cap on financial assistance in the marketplaces and lowering the limit on health insurance premiums to 8.5% of income. Americans would now be able to opt out of their employer plan if there is a better deal on HealthCare.gov or their state Marketplace. Previously, most individuals who had an offer of employer coverage were ineligible for premium subsidies—important for individuals whose only option might have been an employer-sponsored HDHP.

Biden also proposes to index the tax credits that subsidize premiums to gold plans, rather than silver plans as currently done. This would increase the size of these tax credits, making it easier for Americans to afford more generous plans with lower deductibles and out-of-pocket costs, substantially reducing underinsurance.

The most ambitious of Biden’s proposed health policies is a public option, which would create a Medicare-esque offering on marketplaces, available to anyone. As conceived in Biden’s proposal, such a plan would eliminate premiums and having minimal-to-no cost-sharing for low-income enrollees; especially meaningful for under- and uninsured people in states yet to expand Medicaid.

Moving forward: A need to directly address underinsurance

More extensive efforts are necessary to meaningfully address underinsurance and related inequities. For instance, the majority of persons with HDHPs receive coverage through an employer, where the employer shares in paying premiums, yet cost-sharing does not adjust with income as it can in the marketplace. Possible solutions range from employer incentives to expanding the scope of deductible-exempt services, which could also address some of the underlying disparities that affect access to and use of health care.

The burden of high cost-sharing often falls on those who cannot afford it, while benefiting employers, healthy employees, or those who can afford large deductibles. Instead of encouraging HSAs, offering greater pre-tax incentives that encourage employers to reabsorb some of the costs that they have shifted on their lower-income employees could prevent the income inequity gap from widening further.

Under the ACA, most health insurance plans are required to cover certain preventative services without patient cost-sharing. Many health plans also exempt other types of services from the deductible – from generic drugs to certain types of specialist visits – although these exemptions vary widely across plans. Expanding deductible-exempt services to include follow-up care or other high-value services could improve access to important services or even medication adherence without high patient cost burden. Better educating employees about what services are exempt would make sure that patients aren’t forgoing care that should be fully covered.

Health insurance is complicated. Choosing a plan is only the start. More affordable choices are helpful only if these choices are fully understood, e.g., the tradeoff between an HDHP’s lower monthly premium and the large upfront out-of-pocket cost when using care. Investing in well-trained, diverse navigators to help people understand how their options work with their budget and health care needs can make a big difference, given that low health insurance literacy is related to higher avoidance of care.

The ACA helped expand coverage, but now it’s time to make sure the coverage provided is more than an unused insurance card. The Biden administration has the opportunity and responsibility to make progress not only on reducing the uninsured rate, but also in reducing disparities in access and patient affordability.

Why Biden Has a Chance to Cut Deals With Red State Holdouts on Medicaid

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President Joe Biden has an unexpected opening to cut deals with red states to expand Medicaid, raising the prospect that the new administration could extend health protections to millions of uninsured Americans and reach a goal that has eluded Democrats for a decade.

The opportunity emerges as the covid-19 pandemic saps state budgets and strains safety nets. That may help break the Medicaid deadlock in some of the 12 states that have rejected federal funding made available by the Affordable Care Act, health officials, patient advocates and political observers say.

Any breakthrough will require a delicate political balancing act. New Medicaid compromises could leave some states with safety-net programs that, while covering more people, don’t insure as many as Democrats would like. Any expansion deals would also need to allow Republican state officials to tell their constituents they didn’t simply accept the 2010 health law, often called Obamacare.

“Getting all the remaining states to embrace the Medicaid expansion is not going to happen overnight,” said Matt Salo, executive director of the nonpartisan National Association of Medicaid Directors. “But there are significant opportunities for the Biden administration to meet many of them halfway.”

Key to these potential compromises will likely be federal signoff on conservative versions of Medicaid expansion, such as limits on who qualifies for the program or more federal funding, which congressional Democrats have proposed in the latest covid relief bill.

But any deals would bring the country closer to fulfilling the promise of the 2010 law, a pillar of Biden’s agenda, and begin to reverse Trump administration efforts to weaken public programs, which swelled the ranks of the uninsured.

“A new administration with a focus on coverage can make a difference in how these states proceed,” said Cindy Mann, who oversaw Medicaid in the Obama administration and now consults extensively with states at the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

Medicaid, the half-century-old health insurance program for the poor and people with disabilities, and the related Children’s Health Insurance Program cover more than 70 million Americans, including nearly half the nation’s children.

Enrollment surged following enactment of the health law, which provides hundreds of billions of dollars to states to expand eligibility to low-income, working-age adults.

However, enlarging the government safety net has long been anathema to most Republicans, many of whom fear that federal programs will inevitably impose higher costs on states.

And although the GOP’s decade-long campaign to “repeal and replace” the health law has largely collapsed, hostility toward it remains high among Republican voters.

That makes it perilous for politicians to embrace any part of it, said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies. “A lot of Republican state legislators are sitting in core red districts, looking over their shoulders at a primary challenge,” he said.

Many conservatives have called instead for federal Medicaid block grants that cap how much federal money goes to states in exchange for giving states more leeway to decide whom they cover and what benefits their programs offer.

Many Democrats and patient advocates fear block grants will restrict access to care. But just before leaving office, the Trump administration gave Tennessee permission to experiment with such an approach.

“It’s a frustrating place to be,” said Tom Banning, the longtime head of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians, which has labored to persuade the state’s Republican leaders to drop their opposition to expanding Medicaid. “Despite covid and despite all the attention on health and disparities, we see almost no movement on this issue.”

Some 1.5 million low-income Texans are shut out of Medicaid because the state has resisted expansion, according to estimates by KFF. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

An additional 800,000 people are locked out in Florida, which has also blocked expansion.

Two million more are caught in the 10 remaining holdouts: Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Advocates of Medicaid expansion, which is broadly popular with voters, believe they may be able to break through in a handful of these states that allow ballot initiatives, including Mississippi and South Dakota.

Since 2018, voters in Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, Oklahoma and Missouri have backed initiatives to expand Medicaid eligibility, effectively circumventing Republican political leaders.

“The work that we’ve done around the country shows that no matter where people live — red state or blue state — there is overwhelming support for expanding access to health care,” said Kelly Hall, policy director of the Fairness Project, a nonprofit advocacy group that has helped organize the Medicaid measures.

But most of the holdout states, including Texas, don’t allow citizens to put initiatives on the ballot without legislative approval.

And although Florida has an initiative process, mounting a ballot campaign there is challenging, as political advertising is expensive. Unlike in many states, Florida’s leading hospital association hasn’t backed expansion.

Another route for expansion: compromises that could win over skeptical Republican state leaders and still get the green light from the Biden administration.

The Obama administration approved conservative Medicaid expansion in Arkansas, which funneled enrollees into the commercial insurance market, and in Indiana, which forced enrollees to pay more for their medical care.

Money is a major focus of current talks in several states, according to health officials, advocates and others involved in efforts across the country.

The health law at first fully funded Medicaid expansion with federal money, but after the first three years, states had to begin paying part of the tab. Now, states must come up with 10% of the cost of expansion.

Even that small share is a challenge for states, many of which are reeling from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, said David Becker, a health economist at the University of Alabama-Birmingham who has assisted efforts to expand Medicaid in that state.

“The question is: Where do we get the money?” Becker said, noting that some Republicans may be open to expanding Medicaid if the federal government pays the full cost of the expansion, at least for a year or two.

Other efforts to find ways to offset state costs are underway in Kansas and North Carolina, which have Democratic governors whose expansion plans have been blocked by Republican state legislators. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly this month proposed using money from the sale and taxation of medical marijuana.

Some Democrats in Congress are pushing to revise the health law to provide full federal funding to states that expand Medicaid now. Separately, in the stimulus bill unveiled last week, House Democrats proposed an additional boost in total Medicaid aid to states that expand.

Other Republicans have signaled interest in partly expanding Medicaid, opening the program to people making up to 100% of the federal poverty level, or about $12,900, rather than 138%, or $17,800, as the law stipulated.

The Obama administration rejected this approach, but the idea has gained traction in several states, including Georgia.

It’s unclear what kind of compromises the new administration may consider, as Biden has yet to even nominate someone to oversee the Medicaid program.

Some Democrats say it’s time to give up the search for middle ground with Republicans on Medicaid.

A better strategy, they say, is a new government insurance plan, or public option, for people in non-expansion states, a strategy Biden endorsed on the campaign trail.

“Democrats can no longer countenance millions of Americans living in poverty without insurance,” said Chris Jennings, a Democratic health care strategist who worked in the White House under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and served on Biden’s transition team.

“This is why the Biden public option or other new ways to secure affordable, meaningful care should become the order of the day for people living in states like Florida and Texas.”

Hospital, insurer and employer groups band together in bid to achieve universal coverage

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/hospital-insurer-and-employer-groups-band-together-bid-achieve-universal-coverage

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The groups said that Americans “deserve a stable healthcare market that provides access to high-quality care and affordable coverage for all.”

This week, a coalition of healthcare and employer groups called for achieving universal health coverage by expanding financial assistance to consumers, bolstering enrollment and outreach efforts, and taking additional steps to protect those who have lost or are at risk of losing employer-based coverage because of the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Affordable Coverage Coalition encompasses groups representing the nation’s doctors, hospitals, employers and insurers. They include America’s Health Insurance PlansAmerican Hospital AssociationAmerican Medical AssociationAmerican Academy of Family Physicians, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Federation of American Hospitals and the American Benefits Council.

They have banded together to advocate for achieving universal coverage via expansion of the Affordable Care Act, which is supported by President Biden. Biden also intends to achieve universal coverage through a Medicare-like public option — a government-run health plan that would compete with private insurers.

WHAT’S THE IMPACT

Despite a lot of pre-election talk about universal healthcare coverage from elected officials and those vying for public office, achieving this has remained an elusive goal in the U.S. In a joint statement of principles, the groups said that Americans “deserve a stable healthcare market that provides access to high-quality care and affordable coverage for all.”

“Achieving universal coverage is particularly critical as we strive to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and work to address long-standing inequities in healthcare access and outcomes,” the groups wrote.

The organizations support a number of steps to make health coverage more accessible and affordable, including protecting Americans who have lost or are at risk of losing employer-provided health coverage from becoming uninsured.

They also want to make Affordable Care Act premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions more generous, and expand eligibility for them, as well as establish an insurance affordability fund to support any unexpected high costs for caring for those with serious health conditions, or to otherwise lower premiums or cost-sharing for ACA marketplace enrollees.

Also on the group’s to-do list: Restoring federal funding for outreach and enrollment programs; automatically enrolling and renewing those eligible for Medicaid and premium-free ACA marketplace plans; and providing incentives for additional states to expand Medicaid in order to close the low-income coverage gap.

THE LARGER TREND

The concept of universal coverage is gaining traction among patients thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, A Morning Consult poll taken in the pandemic’s early days showed about 41% of Americans say they’re more likely to support universal healthcare proposals. Twenty-six percent of U.S. adults say they’re “much more likely” to support such policy initiatives, while 15% say they’re somewhat more likely.

As expected, Democrats were the most favorable to the idea, with 59% saying they were either much more likely or somewhat more likely to support a universal healthcare proposal. Just 21% of Republicans said the same. Independents were somewhere in the middle, with 34% warming up to the idea of blanket coverage.

More than 21% of Republicans said they were less likely to support universal care in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Seven percent of independents reported the same, while for Democrats the number was statistically insignificant.

During his campaign, President Joe Biden said he supported a public option for healthcare coverage. He also pledged to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. By executive order, Biden opened a new ACA enrollment period for those left uninsured. It begins February 15 and goes through May 15.

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.

3 health care policy predictions now that Democrats have won control of the Senate

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/22216716/georgia-senate-election-results-obamacare-vote

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How Democratic wins in Georgia affect the odds on 3 health care policy proposals.

Democrats have won control of the Senate, and suddenly the possibilities for health care policy look a little wider than they did before the Georgia runoff elections.

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.

‘We feel bullish’: Payers look ahead to 2021

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/we-feel-bullish-payers-look-ahead-to-2021/585211/

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Top executives at some of the biggest commercial insurers outlined their shifting strategies and what markets are growth opportunities in light of the recession at Morgan Stanley’s annual conference.

Top executives at some of the biggest commercial insurers provided a peak behind their curtains at Morgan Stanley’s annual investor conference this week, discussing the pace of utilization recovery and how they’re approaching rate setting and risk going into next year

Though there’s significant uncertainty around the future of the insurance industry, many remarks can be summed up in a line from Cigna CEO David Cordani: “We feel bullish on 2021.”

And despite the major role of government in regulating healthcare, most officials seemed agnostic on the presidential election looming in less than two months.

Payers are reporting skyrocketing profits amid the COVID-19 pandemic as patients deferred care in droves in the second quarter, sparking a congressional investigation into business practices. Use of healthcare services continues to recover from a nadir in March and April, and that recovery has continued into the third quarter, payer executives said. But the pace has differed by segment.

At the start of the pandemic, Humana saw beneficiary use drop to about 30% of pre-COVID-19 levels until mid-May, when it slowly started to tick back up. The Louisville, Kentucky-based insurer’s utilization is now still “a little below par,” but well above that depression and meeting internal expectations, CEO Bruce Broussard said.

CVS Health-owned Aetna has seen its commercial business come back faster than Medicare, CFO Eva Boratto said. Primary care and labs have seen a quicker rebound, but it’s been slower in inpatient and ambulatory.

Centene CEO Michael Neidorff predicts utilization will be between 65% to 80% of normal by the end of the year, but remains cautious due to the shifting nature of the pandemic, and how it could coincide with a potentially nasty flu season.

“We don’t know what other peaks we’re going to see,” Neidorff said.

2021 rate setting, strategic pivots

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 is also shaping major payer’s go-to-market approaches and how they’re thinking about 2021 bids.

Humana, for example, studied both historical data prior to COVID-19 and did scenario planning around what the pandemic could do to factors like utilization, testing and treatment if it continued throughout the year. Eventually, the payer decided to base bid assumptions off trending historical information forward, according to Broussard.

“We were very oriented to pricing that was more conservative as we thought about the approach,” he said.

It appears Centene, contrastingly, is using 2020 data to risk score. When asked how the payer is approaching rate setting, Neidorff said: “We’re dealing with this year. And we’re saying that any concessions this year should not necessarily carry into next year, which is an entirely different year.”

Employers and plans nationwide are struggling with this issue. Only about 60% of employers are using 2020 claims to set rates for next year, while another 26% are calculating expected medical costs based on data from 2019, and 9% are using data from the first two months of 2020 alone, according to Credit Suisse.

The pandemic has also shifted insurers’ broader strategic priorities in 2021 and beyond, especially by hammering home the need for diversified revenue streams to keep afloat, top execs said.

“We’re in 37 states. If you have a stock that’s not performing well in your portfolio, you probably have some that are offsetting it,” Centene’s Neidorff said.

Humana has been investing in telesales, at-home and in-community offerings and digital capabilities, with an eye for growth. Broussard said Humana’s customers have been mostreactive to an omnichannel approach to care delivery.

For example, the payer is seeing home as an increasingly valid path for care a little more acute in service than in the past. As a result, Humana plans to continue investing in areas that dovetail with that trend, and those with biggest impact on downstream healthcare costs, including primary care, social determinants of health, behavioral health and pharmacy.

CVS has also accelerated development of its virtual care offering, eClinic, as a result of the pandemic and relaxed federal regulations. Visits are up 40% since the end of June, CEO Larry Merlo said, noting he believes the future of healthcare delivery is at the intersection between digital and physical.

Because of the pandemic, “we are seeing an accelerated shift to this multichannel, integrated approach,” Merlo said. “We did change some of our priorities, and accelerate some things that may have been further down the road.”

CVS is continuing to convert existing stores to health- and wellness-focused locations, called HealthHUBs, which devote a fifth of floor space to healthcare products and services. Currently, the Rhode Island-based giant has 275 HUBs up and running, despite pausing conversions for a time in March.

Cigna is also looking to drive revenue by moving beyond a payer’s traditional wheelhouse. On Wednesday, the insurer announced it was rebranding its health services division as Evernorth, in a next step for the Cigna-Express Scripts megamerger completed almost two years ago.

For its part, Centene is introducing more value-based contracts in 2021, after seeing providers it contracts with in alternative payment models are reporting stronger cash flow and patient relationships amid COVID-19 than those in fee-for-service relationships.

Going into next year, the payer is also focused on margin expansion, working with states to set rates and federal lobbying for friendly policies like an increased Medicaid match rate, Neidorff said.

Attractive markets

The COVID-19 recession booted millions of Americans off employer-sponsored insurance, though the full scope of the insurance crisis isn’t yet clear. Cigna’s Cordani noted the disenrollment in the first half of the year in its commercial population was lower than expected, helped by the fact the payer is less active in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic like travel and leisure.

But disenrollment could still snowball in the second half of 2020. As a result, a number of major commercial payers are building out offerings in two coverage backstops in the market: Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act exchanges.

Broussard said Humana sees ample opportunity in Medicaid — including the dually eligible — but wants to be more surgical in expansion moving forward, especially as states look for a more contemporary delivery of services and engagement with clinical programs. Humana is going to look for tuck-in acquisitions.

“Is there a way to enter the market in a small way, and leverage our capabilities and grow from that?,” Broussard said.

Cordani agreed that budget-strapped states are looking for new ways to lower costs, but said “Medicaid has always been a lower priority growth platform” for Cigna. Instead, the insurer sees the safety net program as an opportunity for Evernorth in the near term, more than its government business.

Of the 1.1 million new members Centene added from March through August, the majority were in Medicaid, but a significant portion were in the ACA exchanges, Neidorff said. Capitalizing on that momentum, Centene — already the largest payer in the exchanges — is adding 2 new states to its footprint for 2021. “I think we’ll grow in marketplace, given the level of people and the subsidies they get,” Neidorff said. “I see it as a positive going forward.”

Humana, however, is leery on entering the exchange market, given political uncertainty around the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to its top exec.

“The exchange market has stabilized in a lot of different ways, but still has elements where it tends to be a sicker, more transient population,” Broussard said. “We’d rather not be in the situation where we go in and have to pull out because of the political realm.”

Payers also continue to forecast strong growth in Medicare Advantage. Currently, about 34% of Medicare beneficiaries are in the privately run Medicare plans. It’s a popular program: The Congressional Budget Office predicts MA’s share of the overall Medicare population will swell to 47% by 2029.

CVS is currently on track for mid-single-digit growth next year, and sees Aetna’s continued growth in MA as one of the building blocks to continued earnings power, Boratto said. 

Similarly, Cigna is well on track to meeting its goal of 10% to 15% annual organic growth in MA, Cordani said. Historically, Cigna has only been present in about 18% to 19% of the addressable government market, but is trying to eventually expand to 50%.​

Shrugging off election

Unlike years past when some payers worried of Democratic plans for Medicare and other aspects of insurance, most executives seemed to shrugged off the coming presidential election.

President Donald Trump has made undermining the ACA one of the chief goals of his first term, while Democrat nominee former Vice President Joe Biden’s healthcare plan revolves around shoring up the decade-old law, enacting a public option and lowering Medicare’s age of eligibility.

But executives noted Trump’s tenure hasn’t necessarily been bad for them, and having Biden at the helm could provide some opportunity for savvy operators.

Humana could be particularly at risk going into a period of political uncertainty. The payer has a smaller portfolio and fewer assets than some of its bigger peers, Ricky Goldwasser, managing director at Morgan Stanley, said.

But Broussard said regardless of whether the inhabitant of the White House is blue or red, they’ll likely support value-based payment models — a key tenet of its strategy. Additionally, the seemingly-threatening Medicare buy-in option is “very similar to MA,” Broussard said. “We’d see that as the opportunity to expand our ability to bring our capabilities to maybe a younger population, but with a lot of the same elements.”

Some industry experts see the public option, which has bipartisan support among voters, as a potential benefit for companies with leading market share in MA, like UnitedHealth, Humana and Aetna.

“We’ve had public options and done well in public options. So history says that’s fine,” Centene’s Neidorff said. “I think Biden would not be a threat, but an opportunity. I think a Trump re-election would just be more of what we’ve seen. And we’ve done OK with that.”

The AMA declares racism a public health threat

https://mailchi.mp/4422fbf9de8c/the-weekly-gist-november-20-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

AMA Declares Racism a Public Health Threat and Adopts Anti-Racist Policies  - Non Profit News | Nonprofit Quarterly

On Monday, the American Medical Association (AMA) voted to recognize racism as an “urgent threat to public health”. At its annual meeting, the organization’s House of Delegates voted to take actions to confront systemic, cultural and interpersonal racism, including acknowledging harm and bias in medical research and healthcare delivery, funding research to identify risks of racial bias to health, and encouraging medical schools to teach students about the causes and effects of racism, and strategies to prevent adverse health outcomes.

The resolution was one of several proposed items aimed at addressing racial diversity and equity in medical education and care delivery. Over the past two years, the AMA has been moving toward a more progressive stance on health and social policy; in June the AMA Board of Trustees also pledged action against racism and police brutality in response to the murder of George Floyd.

A generational divide between older and younger doctors was also apparent during last year’s debates on Medicare for All, when the organization narrowly voted to maintain its opposition to single-payer healthcare in a close vote that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

At this week’s meeting, however, the group gave its stamp of approval to proposals for a more limited “public option” coverage expansion. As more young physicians enter the field of medicine, we’d expect the AMA to become a stronger voice on a range of social and policy issues. 

Biden Wants To Lower Medicare Eligibility Age To 60, But Hospitals Push Back

Biden Plan To Lower Medicare Eligibility Age Faces Hostility From Hospitals  : Shots - Health News : NPR

Of his many plans to expand insurance coverage, President-elect Joe Biden’s simplest strategy is lowering the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 60.

But the plan is sure to face long odds, even if the Democrats can snag control of the Senate in January by winning two runoff elections in Georgia.

Republicans, who fought the creation of Medicare in the 1960s and typically oppose expanding government entitlement programs, are not the biggest obstacle. Instead, the nation’s hospitals — a powerful political force — are poised to derail any effort. Hospitals fear adding millions of people to Medicare will cost them billions of dollars in revenue.

“Hospitals certainly are not going to be happy with it,” said Jonathan Oberlander, professor of health policy and management at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Medicare reimbursement rates for patients admitted to hospitals are on average half what commercial or employer-sponsored insurance plans pay.

“It will be a huge lift [in Congress] as the realities of lower Medicare reimbursement rates will activate some powerful interests against this,” said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow with the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability.

Biden, who turns 78 this month, said his plan will help Americans who retire early and those who are unemployed or can’t find jobs with health benefits.

“It reflects the reality that, even after the current crisis ends, older Americans are likely to find it difficult to secure jobs,” Biden wrote in April.

Lowering the Medicare eligibility age is popular. About 85% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans favor allowing those as young as 50 to buy into Medicare, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll from January 2019. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.)

Although opposition from the hospital industry is expected to be fierce, it is not the only obstacle to Biden’s plan.

Critics, especially Republicans on Capitol Hill, will point to the nation’s $3 trillion budget deficit as well as the dim outlook for the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund. That fund is on track to reach insolvency in 2024. That means there won’t be enough money to pay hospitals and nursing homes fully for inpatient care for Medicare beneficiaries.

It’s also unclear whether expanding Medicare will fit on the Democrats’ crowded health agenda, which includes dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly rescuing the Affordable Care Act (if the Supreme Court strikes down part or all of the law in a current case), expanding Obamacare subsidies and lowering drug costs.

Biden’s proposal is a nod to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which has advocated for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ government-run “Medicare for All” health system that would provide universal coverage. Biden opposed that effort, saying the nation could not afford it. He wanted to retain the private health insurance system, which covers 180 million people.

To expand coverage, Biden has proposed two major initiatives. In addition to the Medicare eligibility change, he wants Congress to approve a government-run health plan that people could buy into instead of purchasing coverage from insurance companies on their own or through the Obamacare marketplaces. Insurers helped beat back this “public option” initiative in 2009 during the congressional debate over the ACA.

The appeal of lowering Medicare eligibility to help those without insurance lies with leveraging a popular government program that has low administrative costs.

“It is hard to find a reform idea that is more popular than opening up Medicare” to people as young as 60, Oberlander said. He said early retirees would like the concept, as would employers, who could save on their health costs as workers gravitate to Medicare.

The eligibility age has been set at 65 since Medicare was created in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reform package. It was designed to coincide with the age when people at that time qualified for Social Security. Today, people generally qualify for early, reduced Social Security benefits at age 62, but full benefits depend on the year you were born, ranging from age 66 to 67.

While people can qualify on the basis of other criteria, such as having a disability or end-stage renal disease, 85% of the 57 million Medicare enrollees are in the program simply because they’re old enough.

Lowering the age to 60 could add as many as 23 million people to Medicare, according to an analysis by the consulting firm Avalere Health. It’s unclear, however, if everyone who would be eligible would sign up or if Biden would limit the expansion to the 1.7 million people in that age range who are uninsured and the 3.2 million who buy coverage on their own.

Avalere says 3.2 million people in that age group buy coverage on the individual market.

While the 60-to-65 group has the lowest uninsured rate (8%) among adults, it has the highest health costs and pays the highest rates for individual coverage, said Cristina Boccuti, director of health policy at West Health, a nonpartisan research group.

About 13 million of those between 60 and 65 have coverage through their employer, according to Avalere. While they would not have to drop coverage to join Medicare, they could possibly opt to pay to join the federal program and use it as a wraparound for their existing coverage. Medicare might then pick up costs for some services that the consumers would have to shoulder out of pocket.

Some 4 million people between 60 and 65 are enrolled in Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people. Shifting them to Medicare would make that their primary health insurer, a move that would save states money since they split Medicaid costs with the federal government.

Chris Pope, a senior fellow with the conservative Manhattan Institute, said getting health industry support, particularly from hospitals, will be vital for any health coverage expansion. “Hospitals are very aware about generous commercial rates being replaced by lower Medicare rates,” he said.

“Members of Congress, a lot of them are close to their hospitals and do not want to see them with a revenue hole,” he said.

President Barack Obama made a deal with the industry on the way to passing the ACA. In exchange for gaining millions of paying customers and lowering their uncompensated care by billions of dollars, the hospital industry agreed to give up future Medicare funds designed to help them cope with the uninsured. Showing the industry’s prowess on Capitol Hill, Congress has delayed those funding cuts for more than six years.

Jacob Hacker, a Yale University political scientist, noted that expanding Medicare would reduce the number of Americans who rely on employer-sponsored coverage. The pitfalls of the employer system were highlighted in 2020 as millions lost their jobs and their workplace health coverage.

Even if they can win the two Georgia seats and take control of the Senate with the vice president breaking any ties, Democrats would be unlikely to pass major legislation without GOP support — unless they are willing to jettison the long-standing filibuster rule so they can pass most legislation with a simple 51-vote majority instead of 60 votes.

Hacker said that slim margin would make it difficult for Democrats to deal with many health issues all at once.

“Congress is not good at parallel processing,” Hacker said, referring to handling multiple priorities at the same time. “And the window is relatively short.”

What healthcare executives can expect under Biden presidency

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-management-administration/pwc-what-healthcare-executives-can-expect-under-biden-presidency.html?utm_medium=email

https://www.pwc.com/us/Biden2020healthagenda

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.

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

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/vice-presidential-debate-will-likely-spotlight-divergent-views-healthcare

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.