Election 2020: Trump and Biden’s starkly diverging views on healthcare

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/presidential-election-2020-trump-biden-different-healthcare-policies-ACA-coronavirus/585184/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Issue:%202020-10-01%20Healthcare%20Dive%20%5Bissue:29992%5D&utm_term=Healthcare%20Dive

Spoiler: the 2 nominees differ on almost everything.

President Donald Trump and Democrat nominee Joe Biden’s starkly contrasting views on healthcare were laid bare during this week’s chaotic debate. But some major industry executives noted at a recent conference they’ve done relatively well under Trump and could likely weather a Biden presidency, given his moderate stance and rejection of liberal dreams of “Medicare for All.”

The former vice president stresses incremental measures to shore up President Barack Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act. Trump’s campaign website has no list of healthcare priorities, making his record even more relevant to attempts to forecast his future policies.

“I think a lot of the president’s second term agenda will be extensions of things he’s done in his first term,” Lanhee Chen, domestic policy director at Stanford University’s Public Policy program, said at AHIP in September.

Either way, the impact of whoever lands in the White House next year still matters for the industry’s future.

And 33 seats in the Senate are also up for grabs in November, complicating the outlook. Two scenarios would likely lead to health policy gridlock, according to analysts and DC experts: Trump wins regardless of Senate outcome, or Biden wins and Republicans maintain control of the Senate. A third scenario, where Biden wins and Democrats retake the Senate, would be the most negative for healthcare stocks, Jefferies analysts say, while the other two outcomes would be a net positive or mostly neutral.

Here’s a look at where the candidates stand on the biggest healthcare issues: the coronavirus pandemic, the Affordable Care Act, changes to Medicare and Medicaid and lowering skyrocketing healthcare costs.

COVID-19 response

Trump

Of all wealthy nations, the U.S. has been particularly unsuccessful in mitigating the pandemic. The U.S. makes up 4% of the global population, but accounted for 23% of all COVID-19 cases and 21% of all deaths as of early September.

Public health experts assign the majority of the blame to an uncoordinated federal response, with the president electing to take a largely hands-off approach to the virus that’s killed nearly 207,000 people in the U.S. to date. That backseat stance is unlikely to change if Trump is elected to a second term.

In March, Trump said a final COVID-19 death toll in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 Americans would mean he’s “done a very good job.”

Critics blame shortages of supplies like test materials, personal protective equipment and ventilators, especially in the crucial early days of the pandemic, on Trump’s approach. States and healthcare companies have also reported challenges with shifting federal guidelines on topics from risk of infection to hospital requirements for reporting COVID-19 caseloads.

Trump has also pushed unproven treatments for COVID-19, giving rise to concerns about political influence on traditionally nonpartisan agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These concerns have colored Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s public-private partnership to fast-track viable vaccines. The operation received $10 billion in funds from Congress, but administration officials have also pulled $700 million from the CDC, even as top health officials face accusations of trying to manipulate CDC scientific research publications.

Fears that political motivations, not clinical rigor, are driving the historically speedy timeline could lower public trust in a vaccine once it’s eventually approved.

Trump has also repeatedly refused to endorse basic protections like widespread mask wearing, often eschewing the face covering himself in public appearances. He’s consistently downplayed the severity of the pandemic, saying it’ll go away on its own while suggesting falsely that rising COVID-19 cases were solely due to increased testing.

While Trump’s list of priorities for his second term include “eradicating COVID-19,” the plan is short on details. His most aggressive promise has been approval of a vaccine by the end of this year and creating all “critical medicines and supplies for healthcare workers” for a planned return to normal in 2021, along with refilling stockpiles to prepare for future pandemics.

Biden

Biden, for his part, would likely work to enact COVID-19 legislation and dramatically change the role of the federal government in pandemic response first thing if elected.

The Democratic candidate says he would re-assume primary responsibility for the pandemic. He plans to “dramatically scale up testing” and “giving states and local governments the resources they need to open schools and businesses safely,” per an August speech in Wilmington, Delaware.

Biden says he’d take a backseat to scientists and allow FDA to unilaterally make decisions on emergency authorizations and approvals.

The candidate supports reopening an ACA enrollment period for the uninsured, eliminating out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 treatment, enacting additional pay and protective equipment for essential workers, increasing the federal match rate for Medicaid by at least 10%, covering COBRA with 100% premium subsidies during the emergency, expanding unemployment insurance and sick leave, reimbursing employers for sick leave and giving them tax credits for COVID-19 healthcare costs.

Trump opposes most of these measures, though he did sign COVID-19 relief legislation that upped the Medicaid match rate by 6.2% and extended the COBRA election period, though without subsidies.

Biden has said he’d be willing to use executive power for a national mask mandate, though ensuring compliance would be difficult. He’d also rejoin the World Health Organization, which Trump pulled the U.S. out of in May.

Affordable Care Act

Trump

On his first day in office, Trump issued an executive order saying: “It is the policy of my Administration to seek the prompt repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” But after the Republican repeal-and-replace effort floundered in 2017, the administration began steadily chipping away at key tenets of the decade-old law through regulatory avenues.

Trump has maintained he’ll protect the 150 million people with preexisting conditions in the U.S. But despite publicly promising a comprehensive replacement plan on the 2015 campaign trail (and at least five times this year alone), Trump has yet to make one public. The president did in September sign a largely symbolic executive order that it’s the stance of his administration to protect patients with preexisting conditions.

The president doesn’t mention the ACA in his list of second term priorities. The omission could have been intentional, as Trump is backing a Republican state-led lawsuit seeking to overturn the sweeping law, now pending in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and scheduled for oral arguments one week after the election.

The death of liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg puts the law in an even more precarious position.

And Trump’s health agencies have enacted myriad policies keeping the law from functioning as designed.

The president signed legislation zeroing out the individual mandate penalty requiring people to be insured in 2017. The same year, he ended cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, suggesting that would cause the ACA to become “dead.” But the marketplace generally stabilized.

The administration has also increased access to skimpier but cheaper coverage that doesn’t have to comply with the 10 essential health benefits under the ACA. The short-term insurance plans widely discriminate against people with pre-existing health conditions, even as a growing number of Americans, facing rising healthcare costs, enrolled, according to a probe conducted by House Democrats this year.

Trump has also encouraged state waivers that promote non-ACA plans, cut funding for consumer enrollment assistance and outreach, shortened the open enrollment period and limited mid-year special enrollments.

​Despite his efforts, the ACA has grown in popularity among voters on both sides of the aisle, mostly due to provisions like shoring up pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to stay on their parent’s insurance until age 26.

Biden

If elected, Biden would likely roll back Trump-era policies that allowed short-term insurance to proliferate, and restore funding for consumer outreach and assistance, political consultants say.

Building on the law is the linchpin of Biden’s healthcare plan. The nominee has pledged to increase marketplace subsidies to help more people afford ACA plans through a number of policy tweaks, including lowering the share of income subsidized households pay for their coverage; determining subsidies by setting the benchmark plan at the pricier “gold” level; and removing the current cap limiting subsidies to people making 400% of the federal poverty level or below.

Biden maintains as a result of these changes, no Americans would have to pay more than 8.5% of their annual income toward premiums. They could save millions of people hundreds of dollars a month, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis. Commercial payers mostly support these efforts, hoping they’ll stabilize the exchanges.

But a second prong of Biden’s health strategy is deeply unpopular with private insurers: the public option. Biden’s called for a Medicare-like alternative to commercial coverage, available to anyone, including people who can’t afford private coverage or those living in a state that hasn’t expanded Medicaid.

The rationale of the public plan is that it can directly negotiate prices with hospitals and other providers, lowering costs across the board. However, market clout will depend on enrollment, which is still to-be-determined.

Critics see the plan, which by Biden’s estimate would cost $750 billion over 10 years, as a down payment on Medicare for All. And the private sector worries it could threaten the very profitable healthcare industry, which makes up about a fifth of the U.S. economy.

Medicare

Trump

Neither Trump nor Biden supports Medicare for All, dashing the hopes of supporters of the sweeping insurance scheme for at least another four years.

“It has a pulse — it’s not dead — I just don’t see it happening in any near term,” John Cipriani, vice president at public affairs firm Global Strategy Group, said at AHIP.

Trump has promised to protect Medicare if elected to a second term, and it’s unlikely he’d make any major changes to the program’s structure or eligibility requirements, experts say.

But Medicare is quickly running out of money, and neither Trump nor Biden has issued a complete plan to ensure it survives beyond 2024. Political consultants think it’ll teeter right up to the edge of insolvency before lawmakers feel compelled to act.

The president’s administration has allowed Medicare to pay for telehealth and expanding supplemental benefits in privately run Medicare Advantage programs, efforts that would likely bleed into his second term — or Biden’s first, given general bipartisan support on both, experts say.

Under Trump, HHS did pass a site-neutral payment policy, cutting Medicare payments for hospital outpatient visits in a bid to save money. But Democratic lawmakers have argued Trump’s calls to get rid of the federal payroll tax, which partially funds Medicare, could throw the future of the cash-strapped program in jeopardy.

The president has also signed legislation experts say accelerated insolvency, including the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 and the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020, which repealed the ACA’s Cadillac tax — a tax on job-based insurance premiums above a certain level.

Nixing that tax lowered payroll tax revenue, also dinging Medicare’s shrinking trust fund.

Trump’s proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year floated culling about $450 billion in Medicare spending over a decade. And repealing the ACA would also nix provisions that closed the Medicare prescription drug “donut hole,” that added free coverage of preventive services and reduced spending to strengthen Medicare’s winnowing Hospital Insurance Trust Fund.

Biden

Biden has proposed lowering the Medicare age of eligibility to 60 years, with the option for people aged 60-64 to keep their coverage if they like it. The idea is popular politically, though providers oppose it, fearful of losing more lucrative commercial revenue.

It would make about 20 million more people eligible for the insurance, but could also add even more stress onto the program, experts say. Biden’s campaign says it would be financed separately from the current Medicare program, with dollars from regular tax revenues, and will reduce hospital costs.

Biden also says he’d add hearing, vision and dental benefits to Medicare.

Medicaid

Trump

Trump’s tenure has also been defined by repeated efforts to prune Medicaid. The president has consistently backed major cuts to the safety net insurance program, along with stricter rules for who can receive coverage. That’s likely to continue.

Republican lawmakers maintain the program costs too much and discourages low-income Americans from getting job-based coverage, and have enacted policies trying to privatize Medicaid. The Trump administration took a step toward a long-held conservative dream earlier this year, when CMS invited state waivers that would allow states to deviate from federal standards in program design and oversight, in exchange for capped funding.

So far, no states have enacted the block grants.

The administration also aggressively encouraged states to adopt work requirements, programs tying Medicaid coverage to work or volunteering hours. A handful of states followed suit, but all halted implementation or rolled back the idea following fierce public backlash and legal ramifications.

And repealing the ACA would ax Medicaid expansion, which saved some 20,000 lives between 2014 and 2017, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Biden

Biden, however, wants to preserve expansion, and would take a number of other steps to bolster the program, including increasing federal Medicaid funding for home- and community-based services. The roughly 4.8 million adults in states that elected not to expand Medicaid would be automatically enrolled into his public option, with no premium and full Medicaid benefits.

Additionally, states that have expanded Medicaid could elect to move their enrollees into the public option, with a maintenance-of-effort payment.

Lowering costs of drugs and services

Trump

Efforts to lower prescription drug costs have defined Trump’s healthcare agenda in his first term, and been a major talking point for the president. That’s more than likely to continue into a second term, experts say, despite a lack of results.

Trump did cap insulin costs for some Medicare enrollees, effective 2021. He also signed legislation in 2018 banning gag clauses preventing pharmacists from telling customers about cheaper options.

But despite fiery rhetoric and a litany of executive orders, Trump has made little if any concrete progress on actually lowering prices. One week into 2020, drugmakers had announced price hikes for almost 450 drugs, despite small price drops earlier in Trump’s tenure.

Trump has proposed several ideas either dropped later or challenged successfully by drugmakers in court, including allowing patients to import drugs from countries like Canada, banning rebates paid to pharmacy benefit manufacturers in Medicare and forcing drugmakers to disclose the list prices of drugs in TV ads.

The president has signed recent executive orders to lower costs largely viewed as pre-election gambits, including one tying drug prices in Medicare to other developed nations and another directing his agencies to end surprise billing. Implementation on both is months away. Trump has also promised to send Medicare beneficiaries $200 in drug discount cards before the election, an effort slammed as vote-buying that would cost Medicare at least $6.6 billion.

Both Trump and Biden support eliminating surprise bills but haven’t provided any details how. That “how” is important, as hospitals and payers support wildly different solutions.

Biden

Biden also has a long list​ of proposals to curb drug costs, including allowing the federal government to negotiate directly with drug manufacturers on behalf of Medicare and some other public and private purchasers, with prices capped at the level paid by other wealthy countries. Trump actually supported this proposal in his 2016 campaign, but quickly dropped it amid fierce opposition from drugmakers and free market Republican allies.

Biden would also cap out-of-pocket drug costs in Medicare Part D — but wouldn’t ban rebates, as of his current plan, allow consumers to import drugs (subject to safeguards) and eliminate tax breaks for drug advertising expenses.

He would also prohibit prices for all brand-name and some generic drugs from rising faster than inflation under Medicare and his novel public option. Biden would create a board to assess the value of new drugs and recommend a market-based price, in a model that’s shown some efficacy in other wealthy countries like Germany.

Both Biden and Trump say they support developing alternative payment models to lower costs. But they diverge on the role of competition versus transparency in making healthcare more affordable. In a rule currently being challenged in court, Trump’s HHS required hospitals to disclose private negotiated prices between hospitals and insurers, with the hope price transparency will allow consumers to shop between different care sites and shame companies into lowering their prices.

Biden, by comparison, says he would enforce antitrust laws to prevent anti-competitive healthcare consolidations, and other business practices that jack up spending. Trump has been mum on the role of M&A in driving healthcare costs, and inherited a complacent Federal Trade Commission that’s done little to reduce provider consolidation. Until a contentious hospital merger in February this year, the FTC hadn’t opposed a hospital merger since 2016.

 

 

 

 

Administration Sketches Healthcare Plan, Signs Executive Order

https://www.medpagetoday.com/washington-watch/electioncoverage/88810?xid=fb_o&trw=no&fbclid=IwAR1OTD2FHXYsDzbKZ_H3MdTUNnvlxhe7kqEMtaZMXjRBpkHFksvvY-lHVGc

New Executive Order Applies to Foreign Third-Party Code | The Media Trust

Critics question value of provision addressing preexisting condition coverage.

President Trump presented his “America First Healthcare Plan” during a speech to healthcare professionals in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Thursday — a plan that mentioned preexisting condition coverage protections and surprise billing but did not seem to include comprehensive changes to the healthcare system.

“Under the America First Healthcare Plan, we will ensure the highest standard of care anywhere in the world, cutting-edge treatments, state-of-the-art medicine, groundbreaking cures, and true health security for you and your loved ones,” Trump said. “And we will do it rapidly, and it’s in very good order, and some of it has already been implemented.”

Executive Order Provisions

The president signed an executive order outlining the plan, but the order contained initiatives in only a few areas, including:

  • Preexisting condition coverage. The order says simply: “It has been and will continue to be the policy of the United States to ensure that Americans with preexisting conditions can obtain the insurance of their choice at affordable rates.” The order does not direct any government agency to enact a regulation nor request Congress to pass legislation. In August 2018, the Trump administration allowed the sale of “short-term, limited duration” insurance plans that could last for up to 3 years; these often exclude coverage for preexisting conditions but also typically cost less than comprehensive coverage.
  • Surprise billing. “Recognizing that both chambers of the Congress have made substantial progress towards a solution to end surprise billing, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) shall work with the Congress to reach a legislative solution by December 31, 2020,” the order says. “In the event a legislative solution is not reached by December 31, 2020, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall take administrative action to prevent a patient from receiving a bill for out-of-pocket expenses that the patient could not have reasonably foreseen.”
  • Price transparency. “Within 180 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall update the Medicare.gov Hospital Compare website to inform beneficiaries of hospital billing quality, including whether the hospital is in compliance with the Hospital Price Transparency Final Rule whether, upon discharge, the hospital provides patients with a receipt that includes a list of itemized services received during a hospital stay; and how often the hospital pursues legal action against patients, including to garnish wages, to place a lien on a patient’s home, or to withdraw money from a patient’s income tax refund,” the order reads.

Trump also announced another initiative, this one aimed at seniors. “Under my plan, 33 million Medicare beneficiaries will soon receive a card in the mail containing $200 that they can use to help pay for prescription drugs … The cards will be mailed out in coming weeks,” Trump said. The $6.6 billion cost of the cards will be paid for under the auspices of a Medicare demonstration program. These funds are ostensibly available via savings generated through Trump’s “most favored nation” executive order allowing Medicare to pay no more for certain prescription drugs than the price paid by other developed countries, a White House official said. That executive order has not yet been implemented, however, and court challenges are expected.

Final Rule Issued on Drug Importation

Trump also noted that the FDA issued a final rule on Thursday implementing the president’s July executive order earlier this month to allow for importation of certain less expensive prescription drugs from Canada. “This means a state or whatever — can go to Canada and buy drugs for a fraction of the price that they’re charging right now,” he said.

He also highlighted individual actions his administration had taken that mostly affected particular groups, including lowering insulin prices for certain Medicare beneficiaries, investing in childhood cancer research, and expanding health reimbursement accounts that employers can use to reimburse employees for medical expenses. The COVID-19 pandemic received scant mention other than a reference to slashing red tape to accelerate development of treatments for the disease, and a sentence about how the pandemic had greatly increased the use of telehealth.

During a telephone briefing with reporters Thursday afternoon, HHS Secretary Alex Azar highlighted the surprise billing provision. “The President is saying that all the relevant players — hospitals, doctors, insurance companies — had better get their act together and get legislation passed through Congress that protects patients against surprise medical bills from anybody — hospitals or doctors, doesn’t matter,” he said.

“Those special interest groups need to sort it out and figure out how that would work,” he continued. “There have been legislative packages that have come quite close on the Hill that are bipartisan, but…. the president is saying the time is now. And if they do not get legislation passed by January 1st, he is instructing me to use the full regulatory power of the U.S. government to protect patients against surprise medical bills.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), outgoing chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP) Committee, praised the surprise billing announcement. “The president is right to call on Congress to pass legislation this year to end surprise medical billing,” Alexander said in a statement, adding that a bill currently going through the House and Senate addresses the issue effectively. “Ending surprise medical bills is a problem that requires a permanent solution passed by Congress this year. The American people can’t afford to wait any longer.”

Preexisting Condition Provision Panned

The preexisting condition provision drew scorn from Democratic legislators. The provision “offers no protection not already available through the existing Affordable Care Act (ACA) and no protection for millions of Americans with preexisting conditions if Trump is successful in packing the Supreme Court to destroy the ACA,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), chairman of the House Ways & Means Health Subcommittee, said in a statement.

But Azar said during the briefing that the ACA’s clause requiring insurers to cover preexisting conditions does no good if people aren’t able to afford insurance in the first place. “If you’re a couple, aged 55, living in Missouri, making $70,000 a year, Obamacare is going to cost you $30,000 in premiums and a $12,000 deductible,” he said.

Azar promised that the administration “will work with Congress or otherwise to ensure” that people with pre-existing conditions are protected, but he did not indicate how that would be made affordable to individuals without government subsidies of the sort Republicans have long opposed.

Bob Laszewski, president of Health Policy and Strategy Associates in Alexandria, Virginia, questioned how much good the executive order’s preexisting condition provision would do. “Trump and the Republicans couldn’t pass an alternative to Obamacare in 2017 when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress,” he wrote in a blog post. “But, now he can just sign an executive order and everything is fixed? He has signed a number of healthcare-related executive orders and just about all of them are tied up in the byzantine federal regulatory process, or have faded away. This is just an election-year gimmick in an attempt to persuade voters that Trump has healthcare policy under control. There are a lot of governments in the world that operate by executive fiat. Ours is not one of them.”

 

 

 

 

Administration’s Record on Health Care

President Trump’s Record on Health Care

President Trump's Record on Health Care | KFF

A review of Trump’s health care record so far. Avoiding the problematic issue of Trump’s alleged plan, analysts at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation released a report this week that examines President Trump’s record on health care over the last three and half years. Some highlights from the overview and the full analysis:

  • On the Affordable Care Act: “From the start of his presidential term, President Trump took aim at the Affordable Care Act, consistent with his campaign pledge leading up to the 2016 election. He supported many efforts in Congress to repeal the law and replace it with an alternative that would have weakened protections for people with pre-existing conditions, eliminated the Medicaid expansion, and reduced premium assistance for people seeking marketplace coverage. While the ACA remains in force, President Trump’s Administration is supporting the case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the ACA in its entirety that is scheduled for oral arguments one week after the election.”

 

  • On Medicare and Medicaid: “The Administration has proposed spending reductions for both Medicaid and Medicare, along with proposals that would promote flexibility for states but limit eligibility for coverage under Medicaid (e.g., work requirements).”

 

  • On drug prices: “The President has made prescription drug prices a top health policy priority and has issued several executive orders and other proposals that aim to lower drug prices; most of these proposals, however, have not been implemented, other than one change that would lower the cost of insulin for some Medicare beneficiaries with diabetes, and another that allows pharmacists to tell consumers if they could save money on their prescriptions. The Trump Administration has also moved forward with an initiative to improve price transparency in an effort to lower costs, though it is held up in the courts.”

 

  • On the response to the coronavirus: “The Trump administration has not established a coordinated, national plan to scale-up and implement public health measures to control the spread of coronavirus, instead choosing to have states assume primary responsibility for the COVID-19 response, with the federal government acting as back-up and ‘supplier of last resort.’ The President has downplayed the threat of COVID-19, given conflicting messages and misinformation, and often been at odds with public health officials and scientific evidence.”

 

President Trump’s Record on Health Care – Issue Brief

 

A Doctor Went to His Own Employer for a COVID-19 Antibody Test. It Cost $10,984.

https://www.propublica.org/article/a-doctor-went-to-his-own-employer-for-a-covid-19-antibody-test-it-cost-10-984

An Austin Doctor Went To His Own Employer For A COVID-19 Antibody Test. It Cost  $10,984. – Corridor News

Physicians Premier ER charged Dr. Zachary Sussman’s insurance $10,984 for his COVID-19 antibody test even though Sussman worked for the chain and knows the testing materials only cost about $8. Even more surprising: The insurer paid in full.

When Dr. Zachary Sussman went to Physicians Premier ER in Austin for a COVID-19 antibody test, he assumed he would get a freebie because he was a doctor for the chain. Instead, the free-standing emergency room charged his insurance company an astonishing $10,984 for the visit — and got paid every penny, with no pushback.

The bill left him so dismayed he quit his job. And now, after ProPublica’s questions, the parent company of his insurer said the case is being investigated and could lead to repayment or a referral to law enforcement.

The case is the latest to show how providers have sometimes charged exorbitant prices for visits for simple and inexpensive COVID-19 tests. ProPublica recently reported how a $175 COVID-19 test resulted in charges of $2,479 at a different free-standing ER in Texas. In that situation, the health plan said the payment for the visit would be reduced and the facility said the family would not receive a bill. In Sussman’s case, the insurer paid it all. But those dollars come from people who pay insurance premiums, and health experts say high prices are a major reason why Americans pay so much for health care.

Sussman, a 44-year-old pathologist, was working under contract as a part-time medical director at four of Physicians Premier’s other locations. He said he made $4,000 a month to oversee the antibody tests, which can detect signs of a previous COVID-19 infection. It was a temporary position holding him over between hospital gigs in Austin and New Mexico, where he now lives and works.

In May, before visiting his family in Scottsdale, Arizona, Sussman wanted the test because he had recently had a headache, which can be a symptom of COVID-19. He decided to go to one of his own company’s locations because he was curious to see how the process played out from a patient’s point of view. He knew the materials for each antibody test only amounted to about $8, and it gets read on the spot — similar to an at-home pregnancy test.

He could even do the reading himself. So he assumed Physicians Premier would comp him and administer it on the house. But the staff went ahead and took down his insurance details, while promising him he would not be responsible for any portion of the bill. He had a short-term plan through Golden Rule Insurance Company, which is owned by UnitedHealthcare, the largest insurer in the country. (The insurance was not provided through his work.)

During the brief visit, Sussman said he chatted with the emergency room doctor, whom he didn’t know. He said there was no physical examination. “Never laid a hand on me,” he said. His vitals were checked and his blood was drawn. He tested negative. He said the whole encounter took about 30 minutes.

About a month later, Golden Rule sent Sussman his explanation of benefits for the physician portion of the bill. The charges came to $2,100. Sussman was surprised by the expense but he said he was familiar with the Physicians Premier high-dollar business model, in which the convenience of a free-standing ER with no wait comes at a cost.

“It may as well say Gucci on the outside,” he said of the facility. Physicians Premier says on its website that it bills private insurance plans, but that it is out-of-network with them, meaning it does not have agreed-upon prices. That often leads to higher charges, which then get negotiated down by the insurers, or result in medical bills getting passed on to patients.

Sussman felt more puzzled to see the insurance document say, “Payable at: 100%.” So apparently Golden Rule hadn’t fought for a better deal and had paid more than two grand for a quick, walk-in visit for a test. He was happy not to get hit with a bill, but it also didn’t feel right.

He said he let the issue slide until a few weeks later when a second explanation of benefits arrived from Golden Rule, for the Physicians Premier facility charges. This time, an entity listed as USA Emergency sought $8,884.16. Again, the insurer said, “Payable at: 100%.”

USA Emergency Centers says on its website that it licenses the Physicians Premier ER name for some of its locations.

Now Sussman said he felt spooked. He knew Physicians Premier provided top-notch care and testing on the medical side of things. But somehow his employer had charged his health plan $10,984.16 for a quick visit for a COVID-19 test. And even more troubling to Sussman: Golden Rule paid the whole thing.

Sussman was so shaken he resigned. “I have decided I can no longer ethically provide Medical directorship services to the company,” he wrote in his July 13 resignation email. “If not outright fraudulent, these charges are at least exorbitant and seek to take advantage of payers in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic.”

Sussman agreed to waive his patient privacy so officials from the company could speak to ProPublica. USA Emergency Centers declined interview requests and provided a statement, saying “the allegations are false,” though it did not say which ones.

The statement also said the company “takes all complaints seriously and will continue to work directly with patients to resolve issues pertaining to their emergency room care or bill. …The allegations received pertain to a former contracted employee, and we cannot provide details or further comment at this time.”

Physicians Premier advertises itself as a COVID-19 testing facility on its website, with “results in an hour.” According to the claims submitted by Physicians Premier to Golden Rule, obtained by Sussman, the physician fee and facility fees were coded as emergency room visits of moderate complexity. That would mean his visit included an expanded, problem-focused history and examination. But Sussman said the staff only took down a cursory medical history that took a few minutes related to his possible exposure to COVID-19. And he said no one examined him.

The claims also included codes for a nasal swab coronavirus test. But that test was not performed, Sussman said. The physician’s orders documented in the facility’s medical record also do not mention the nasal swab test. Those charges came to $4,989.

The claims show two charges totaling $1,600 for the antibody test Sussman received. In a spreadsheet available on its website on Friday, Physicians Premier lists a price of $75 for the antibody test.

For comparison, Medicare lists its payment at $42.13 for COVID-19 antibody tests. That’s because Medicare, the government’s insurance plan for the disabled and people over 65, sets prices.

Complicating matters, Texas is the nation’s epicenter for free-standing emergency rooms that are not connected to hospitals. Vivian Ho, an economist at Rice University who studies the facilities, said their business model is based on “trying to mislead the consumer.” They set up in locations where a high proportion of people have health insurance, but they don’t have contracted rates with the insurers, Ho said. They are designed to look like lower-priced urgent care centers or walk-in clinics, Ho said, but charge much higher emergency room rates. (The centers have defended their practices, saying that they clearly identify as emergency rooms and are equipped to handle serious emergencies, and that patients value the convenience.)

The day after he resigned, Sussman texted an acquaintance who works as a doctor at Physicians Premier. The acquaintance said the facility typically only collects a small percentage of what gets billed. “I just don’t want to be part of the game,” Sussman texted to him.

Shelley Safian, a Florida health care coding expert who has written four books on medical coding, reviewed Sussman’s medical records and claims at ProPublica’s request. The records do not document a case of a complex patient that would justify the bills used to code the patient visit, she said. For example, the chief complaint is listed as: “A generic problem (COVID TESTING).” Under “final acuity,” the medical record says, “less urgent.” Under the medical history it says, “NO SYMPTOMS.”

Safian described the charges as “obscene” and said she was shocked the insurer paid them in full. “This is the exact opposite of an employee discount,” she said. “Obviously nobody is minding the store.”

Congress opened the door to profiteering during the pandemic when it passed the CARES Act. The legislation, signed into law in March, says health insurers must pay for out-of-network testing at the cash price a facility posts on its website, or less. But there may be other charges associated with the tests, and insurers generally have tried to avoid making patients pay any portion of costs related to COVID-19 testing or treatment.

The charges for Sussman’s COVID-19 test visit are “ridiculous,” said Niall Brennan, president and CEO of the Health Care Cost Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies health care prices. Brennan wondered whether the CARES Act has made insurers feel legally obligated to cover COVID-19 costs. He called it “well intentioned” public policy that allows for “unscrupulous behavior” by some providers. “Insurance companies and patients are reliant on the good will and honesty of providers,” Brennan said. “But this whole pandemic, combined with the CARES Act provision, seems designed for unscrupulous medical providers to exploit.”

It’s illegal for medical providers to charge for services they did not provide. But ProPublica has previously reported how little insurers, including UnitedHealthcare, do to prevent fraud in their commercial health plans, even though experts estimate it consumes about 10% of all health care costs. For-profit insurance companies don’t want to spend the time and money it takes to hold fraudulent medical providers accountable, former fraud investigators have told ProPublica. Also, the insurance companies want to keep providers in their networks, so they easily cave.

In mid-July, Sussman used the messenger system on Golden Rule’s website to report his concerns about the case. Short-term health plans are typically less expensive because they offer less comprehensive coverage. Sussman said he appreciated that his plan covered the charges, and felt compelled to tell the company what had happened.

That led to a phone conversation with a fraud investigator. They went line by line through the charges and Sussman told him many of the services had not been provided. “His attitude was kind of passive,” Sussman said of the fraud investigator. “There was no indignation. He took in stride, like, ‘Yep, that’s what happens.’” The investigator said he would escalate the case and see if the facility had submitted any other suspect claims. But Sussman never heard back.

Maria Gordon-Shydlo, a spokeswoman for UnitedHealthcare, which owns Golden Rule, would not provide anyone to be interviewed. She said in an emailed statement that the company’s first priority during the pandemic “has been to ensure our members get the care they need and are not billed for COVID testing and treatment. Unfortunately, there are some providers who are trying to take advantage of this and are inappropriately or even fraudulently billing.”

“Golden Rule has put processes in place to address excessive COVID-related billing,” the statement said. “We are currently investigating this matter and, if appropriate, will seek to recoup any overpayment and potentially refer this case to law enforcement.”

Golden Rule’s 100% payment of the charges may simply come down to “incompetence,” said Dr. Eric Bricker, a Texas internist who spent years running a company that advised employers who self-fund their insurance. Insurance companies auto-adjudicate millions of claims on software that may be decades old, said Bricker, who produces videos to help consumers and employers understand health care. If bills are under a certain threshold, like $15,000, they may sail through and get paid without a second look, he said.

UnitedHealth Group reported net earnings of $6.6 billion in the second quarter of 2020. Bricker said the company may be paying bills without questioning them because it doesn’t “want to create any noise” by saying no at a time its own earnings are so high, Bricker said.

Texas has a consumer protection law that’s designed to prevent businesses from exploiting the public during a disaster. The attorney general’s office has received and processed 52 complaints about health care businesses and billing or price gouging related to the pandemic, a spokeswoman from the office said in an email. The agency does not comment on the existence of any investigations, but has not filed any cases related to overpriced COVID-19 tests.

Sussman said he got one voicemail from a billing person at Physicians Premier, saying she wanted to explain the charges, but he did not call back. He said he spoke out about it to ProPublica because he opposes Medicare-for-all health care reform proposals. Bad actors in the profession could cause doctors to lose their privilege to bill and be reimbursed independently, he said. Most physicians are fair with their billing, or even conservative, he said. “If instances like these go unchecked it will provide more ammo for advocates of a single-payer system.”

 

 

 

A large racial divide exists in the concern over ability to pay for COVID-19 treatment

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/large-racial-divide-exists-concern-over-ability-pay-covid-19-treatment

Nonwhite adults say they’re either “extremely concerned” or “concerned” about the potential cost of care.

People of color are far more likely to worry about their ability to pay for healthcare if they are diagnosed with COVID-19 than their white counterparts, according to a new survey from nonprofit West Health and Gallup.

By a margin of almost two to one (58% vs. 32%), nonwhite adults report that they are either “extremely concerned” or “concerned” about the potential cost of care. That concern is three times higher among lower-income than higher-income households (60% vs. 20%).

The data come from an ongoing survey about Americans’ experiences with and attitudes about the healthcare system. The latest findings are based on a nationally representative sample of 1,017 U.S. adults interviewed between June 8 and June 30.

There’s also a disturbing trend when it comes to medication insecurity. Overall, 24% of U.S. adults say they lacked money to pay for at least one prescribed medicine in the past 12 months, an increase from 19% in early 2019. Among nonwhite Americans, the burden is growing even more quickly. Medication insecurity jumped 10 percentage points, from 21% to 31%, compared with a statistically insignificant three-point increase among white Americans (17% to 20%).

WHAT’S THE IMPACT?

All of this results in what Tim Lash, chief strategy officer for West Health, called a “significant and increasing racial and socioeconomic divide” in Americans’ views on the cost of healthcare and the impact it has on their lives. When polling started in 2019, one in five Americans were unable to pay for prescription medications within the past 12 months. That number now stands at one in four. The bottom line is that the situation is getting worse.

Amid broad concern about paying for the cost of COVID-19 or other medical expenses, health insurance benefits are likely more important than ever to U.S. workers. The survey found that 12% of workers are staying in a job they want to leave because they are afraid of losing healthcare benefits, a sentiment that is about twice as likely to be held by nonwhite workers as white workers (17% vs. 9%).

However, Americans step across racial lines in their overwhelming support for disallowing political contributions by pharmaceutical companies, and for government intervention in setting price limits for government-sponsored research and a COVID vaccine.

Nearly 9 in 10 U.S. adults (89%) think the federal government should be able to negotiate the cost of a COVID-19 vaccine, while only 10% say the drug company itself should set the price. Similarly, 86% of U.S. adults say there should be limits on the price of drugs that government-funded research helped develop.

Regarding the influence of pharmaceutical companies on the political process, 78% of adults say political campaigns should not be allowed to accept donations from pharmaceutical companies during the coronavirus pandemic.

THE LARGER TREND

Concerns over payment aren’t the only race-related disparities found in healthcare. Dr. Garth Graham, the vice president of community health at CVS Health, said during AHIP’s Institute and Expo in June that although African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, they account for about 24% of COVID-19 deaths.

He attributed some of the driving factors for these particular COVID-19-related disparities to the social determinants of health, the over-predominance of African American and Latino frontline workers, and the higher incidence-rates of chronic illness such as diabetes and hypertension in minority groups.

On June 19 – Juneteenth, as it’s known for many Black Americans – 36 Chicago hospitals penned an open letter declaring that systemic racism is a “public health crisis.”

“Systemic racism is a real threat to the health of our patients, families and communities,” the letter reads. “We stand with all of those who have raised their voices to capture the attention of Chicago and the nation with a clear call for action.”

 

 

 

 

Administration keeps promising an overhaul of the nation’s health-care system that never arrives

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-obamacare-promise/2020/08/01/856ce250-d348-11ea-8d32-1ebf4e9d8e0d_story.html

Conversations About Health Reform - Dr. Susan Mazer Blog

It was a bold claim when President Trump said that he was about to produce an overhaul of the nation’s health-care system, at last doing away with the Affordable Care Act, which he has long promised to abolish.

“We’re signing a health-care plan within two weeks, a full and complete health-care plan,” Trump pledged in a July 19 interview with “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace.

Now, with the two weeks expiring Sunday, there is no evidence that the administration has designed a replacement for the 2010 health-care law. Instead, there is a sense of familiarity.

Repeatedly and starting before he took office, Trump has vowed that he is on the cusp of delivering a full-fledged plan to reshape the health-care system along conservative lines and replace the central domestic achievement of Barack Obama’s presidency.

No total revamp has ever emerged.

Trump’s latest promise comes amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has infected millions, caused more than 150,000 deaths and cost Americans their work and the health benefits that often come with jobs. His vow comes three months before the presidential election and at a time when Trump’s Republican allies in Congress may least want to revisit an issue that was a political loser for the party in the 2018 midterm elections.

Yet Trump has returned to the theme in recent days.

“We’re going to be doing a health-care plan. We’re going to be doing a very inclusive health-care plan. I’ll be signing it sometime very soon,” Trump said during an exchange with reporters at an event in Belleair, Fla., on Friday. When a reporter noted that he told Fox’s Wallace that he would sign it in two weeks, Trump added: “Might be Sunday. But it’s going to be very soon.”

Trump’s decision to revive a health-care promise that he has failed to deliver on — this time with less than 100 days before Election Day — carries political risks. Although it may appeal to voters who don’t like the ACA, it also highlights his party’s inability to come up with an alternative, despite spending almost a decade promising one.

It also raises questions about what exactly his plan would look like and whether it would cover fewer Americans than the current system as the pandemic ravages the country.

Nonetheless, some of Trump’s allies said floating health-care ideas is a smart move by the president.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who regularly meets and golfs with the president, said the health-care plan that Trump has referred to would come in the form of an executive order that Graham called “fairly comprehensive.” However broad, an executive order would fall short of a full legislative overhaul.

Graham said what Trump has in mind now would ensure that consumers do not risk losing their health plans if they get sick, but he did not give details.

“He’s pretty excited about it,” Graham said of the president. The ACA’s consumer protections for people with preexisting medical conditions is one its most popular facets with the public, and it is the one part of the law Trump consistently says he would preserve if he could get rid of the rest. How he could do that while containing costs after he and congressional Republicans remove the law’s requirement that everyone has to purchase health insurance remains the question.

Graham said it is politically astute for the White House to present an alternative to Democratic proposals close to the election, including the idea of Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive nominee, to build on the ACA so that more people could get coverage.

Still, senior Republican aides on Capitol Hill who are steeped in health care said they had little knowledge of any White House planning for a comprehensive replacement of the ACA.

The White House did not offer details or parse the president’s terminology, which has included saying that the forthcoming plan would be a bill. That implied legislation rather than an executive order.

“President Trump continues to act in delivering better and cheaper health care, protecting Americans with preexisting conditions, lowering prescription drug costs, and defending the right of Americans to keep their doctors and plans of their choice,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement to The Washington Post.

McEnany pointed out that Trump issued four executive orders in late July intended to lower prescription drug prices. “There will be more action to come in the coming weeks,” she said without identifying any.

On Capitol Hill, the president’s promises of health plans and legal efforts by the administration to scrap the ACA have created dilemmas for some Republicans. Of the GOP senators facing competitive races this fall, only Susan Collins (Maine) has said that she opposes the Justice Department’s decision to back an effort to gut the law in the courts. Other Republicans have struggled to answer directly, walking a tightrope between embracing a position that would go against popular provisions in the health-care law and risking the wrath of conservatives who want Obamacare repealed.

And the pandemic has also only sharpened the relevance of health care in the eyes of voters — increasing Republican anxiety about doing anything that could limit coverage ahead of the election. Republican Sens. John Cornyn (Tex.), Dan Sullivan (Alaska), Steve Daines (Mont.) and Martha McSally (Ariz.) — all on the ballot this November — this past week drafted legislation that would provide assistance through COBRA for people who lose their employer-sponsored health care as jobs continue to vanish during the pandemic.

“I think there’s definitely things we need to do,” Cornyn said. “But I think our focus ought to be on giving people more choices.”

The ACA — politically polarizing throughout the decade it has existed — is favored by a slim majority of Americans. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey in July found that 51 percent support the law while 36 percent oppose it. A Fox News survey in June showed 56 percent support and 38 percent opposition.

For Trump, saying that he is about to produce a health-care plan to replace the ACA has become a recurrent mantra of his presidency.

During his 2016 campaign, condemning the law was central to Trump’s candidacy. During that campaign’s final days, Trump said he was so eager to repeal and replace the 2010 law that he might ask Congress to convene a special session to do it.

“It will be such an honor for me, for you and for everybody in this country,” the then-Republican nominee said, “because Obamacare has to be replaced. And we will do it, and we will do it very, very quickly.”

The ACA was a significant theme of the president’s joint address to Congress just over a month into his tenure. “Tonight I am calling on this Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare,” he said, calling for measures that would “expand choice, increase access, lower costs and, at the same time, provide better health care.”

With GOP majorities in both the House and the Senate, Congress devoted much of 2017 to trying to get rid of substantial parts of the law. But a succession of repeal bills ultimately faltered in the Senate. When the last one did, Trump said nothing.

Near the end of the year, Congress took one big whack at the health law. As part of a major change in tax law, it eliminated the penalty the ACA levied on most Americans if they failed to carry health insurance. The penalty’s end neutralized the law’s insurance mandate.

With little appetite after that among Senate Republicans to continue trying to gut the law, and a Democratic House majority a year later, the momentum for replacing the ACA fell back to the Trump administration. Cabinet departments have, by turns, undercut specific parts of the law and tried to have it invalidated in the courts, while emphasizing that their concern for the nation’s health-care system and America’s patients reaches beyond the ACA.

And the president? He has continued to periodically vow that he would come up with a better health plan.

In the fall of 2017, Trump took a major swipe at the law by ending payments to insurance companies that had helped them afford to offer lower-income customers discounts on their deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs, as the ACA requires.

During 2018, health officials sought to shrink the law in several other ways. They wrote rules that gave states greater latitude in defining a set of 10 “essential health benefits” that the ACA requires many health plans to cover. They widened the availability of short-term health plans — originally intended as bridge coverage when someone was, say, between jobs — that do not meet consumer protections or benefits that the law otherwise requires.

The administration has joined with a group of Republican attorneys general who are pursuing a lawsuit, now before the Supreme Court, that contends the entire ACA is unconstitutional. At first, the Justice Department argued that only part of the law is invalid, but the administration hardened its position to argue that the entire law should be thrown out.

As these and other administration health-care actions have played out, the drumbeat has continued that the president was about to reveal an ACA replacement plan.

In June 2019, Trump said in an interview with ABC News that he would announce a “phenomenal” new health-care plan “in about two months, maybe less.”

Two months later, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters that the president was preparing to introduce an elaborate plan to redesign the nation’s health-care system in a speech the following month. “We’re working every single day here,” Conway said last August. “I’ve already been in meetings this morning on the president’s health-care plan. It’s pretty impressive.”

No speech or plan came.

In June, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar suggested that the administration would develop a health-care plan only if the nation’s highest court, which has upheld the law in two earlier cases over the past eight years, overturns it this time. “We’ll work with Congress on a plan if the ACA is struck down,” Azar said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We’ll see what the Supreme Court rules.”

That was three weeks before the president told Fox that he was about to issue a plan.

The administration’s antipathy toward the law has not produced much real-world change for the approximately 20 million people who have coverage through the insurance marketplaces the ACA created for those who cannot get affordable health benefits through a job and those insured through Medicaid expansions.

Early on, HHS slashed federal funding for advertising and other outreach efforts to encourage people to buy ACA health plans during the annual enrollment period. Critics of the administration predicted that sign-ups would ebb. They have not.

The most recent enrollment figures document the number of people choosing an ACA health plan who had followed up by paying insurance premiums last winter so their coverage was in place as of February. The figures, released last week, show that 10.7 million consumers have such plans, slightly more than the 10.6 million a year earlier.

Despite the administration’s steps to undercut parts of the law, and the elimination of the penalty for not having insurance, some of the ACA’s main features remain in place. They include federal subsidies for more than 8 in 10 people who buy health plans in the marketplaces created under the law, the expansion of Medicaid in most states, many consumer insurance protections, and a rule that young adults can stay on their parents’ insurance until they turn 26.

Against existing evidence, Trump says that will soon change.

“We’re getting rid of it because we’re going to replace it with something much better,” Trump told Wallace two weeks ago.

 

 

 

 

KHN’s ‘What The Health?’: Trump Twists on Virus Response

KHN’s ‘What The Health?’: Trump Twists on Virus Response

KHN's 'What The Health?': Trump Twists on Virus Response | Kaiser ...

President Donald Trump — who has spent the past six months trying to play down the coronavirus pandemic — seems to have pivoted. In back-to-back briefings on July 21 and 22, Trump cautioned that the U.S. is in a dangerous place vis-a-vis the pandemic. He urged the public to wear masks — although he has rarely worn one in public.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate are scrambling to put together a package for the next COVID-19 relief bill, facing a July 31 deadline, when some of the benefits passed in the spring expire. House Democrats passed their bill in May.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times and Tami Luhby of CNN.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Although Trump’s renewed emphasis on COVID-19 has surprised some of his critics, it may persuade his supporters to take actions promoted by public health officials. Trump’s emphasis on the importance of face coverings, perhaps coupled with the rising number of cases in parts of the country, could convince people who were otherwise dismissive of masks. People who do not necessarily trust public health officials may listen to Trump.
  • Republicans on Capitol Hill are in disarray on how to approach the next coronavirus relief bill. They are not in lockstep with the White House and are not supporting Trump’s call for a payroll tax cut.
  • One reason members of Congress are not eager to cut the payroll taxes is that the economic downturn has spurred concerns the Medicare and Social Security trust funds are being depleted faster than expected. However, analysts point out that when employment rises again, some of those concerns could dissipate.
  • A key sticking point in the economic relief package is whether to extend the bump in unemployment benefits that Congress approved in the spring. Lawmakers are facing a hard deadline on the issue because that money runs out next week, and the prohibition on evictions that was also part of an earlier COVID-19 relief bill ends even sooner. With rent, mortgages and other bills coming due Aug. 1, unemployed consumers could face a tough beginning of the month.
  • The Food and Drug Administration has approved limited use of pool testing for COVID-19. That allows approved labs to put together a small number of tests to run at once, thus conserving some of the materials needed for the process. If the pool tests positive, then those people whose results were pooled have to be tested again individually. The efforts have limited usefulness when rates of transmission are high in a community, but they may be helpful in specific settings, such as schools or workplaces.
  • New data shows that opioid addiction ticked back up in 2019, after a slight decline. Part of the problem is the growing use of the powerful — and dangerous — drug fentanyl. Economic woes also play a role. Addiction is often referred to as an epidemic of despair.
  • Although it’s unlikely the judicial system will overrule the administration’s efforts to bolster short-term insurance plans — which are generally less expensive but don’t offer as much protection for consumers as policies sold on the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces — they could be circumvented if Democrats take over the White House. Even still, Democrats would likely have to find a way to make ACA plans more affordable.

 

 

 

 

 

Pandemic Proves Why Leaders Must Protect Americans From Junk Insurance Plans

Pandemic Proves Why Leaders Must Protect Americans From Junk Insurance Plans

Cartoon – Short Term Health Insurance | HENRY KOTULA

The coronavirus pandemic hit the nation hard and fast, infecting Americans from coast to coast, overwhelming health care systems and wreaking havoc on the economy. Those with pre-existing conditions – like diabetes and cardiovascular disease – are more vulnerable to the deadly virus. Americans have higher rates of these chronic conditions than other countries, in part because so many people live without health insurance or have shoddy coverage. This has become increasingly worse over the last four years as underlying health coverage has shrunken for the virus’s hardest hit victims: Black Americans, Native Americans and people of color.

Of the hundreds of thousands of Americans now recovering from COVID-19, many will undoubtedly have new chronic conditions, like lasting lung damage. This will be on top of the pre-existing conditions many who were predisposed to coronavirus already had. Record job losses in the wake of the pandemic have resulted in the loss of employer-sponsored coverage for more than 5 million Americans who are now on the hunt for new, affordable health insurance plans.

This presents the perfect storm for junk insurance plans – short-term limited duration insurance plans – that allow discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, expose consumers to financial risk and provide inadequate coverage. STLDIs are more dangerous now than ever in our new COVID-19 reality. Let’s be clear: These junk insurance plans – touted by the Trump administration and supported through taxpayer dollars – are not the answer. It is time for our leaders to put back the limitations on how long they can be used.

As their name suggests, short-term limited duration plans are meant to be used temporarily to bridge short-term gaps in coverage that arise from a job loss or other extenuating circumstance. However, new federal rules under the Trump administration have allowed the coverage period of STLDI plans to expand from six to 12 months. The administration has also promoted these plans to states as being eligible for federal subsidies, meaning our tax dollars help pay for them. President Donald Trump himself has touted these plans for being more affordable than Obamacare, but that is because they lack the same protections and do not meet minimum essential coverage standards under the law.

That is what makes these plans so dangerous. Though they tend to be less expensive than Affordable Care Act plans, they leave consumers vulnerable to unanticipated out-of-pocket costs by offering bare-bones coverage. Unlike ACA plans, STLDI plans can exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions, do not cover the cost of prescription drugs, have annual or lifetime maximums on covered services, and are not required to cover preventive services like cancer screenings or maternity care.

The lower price tag may lure consumers suffering financially during the pandemic, but they are high risk for those who do not fully understand what they are buying. Without carefully reading the fine print, many may not know before purchasing that STLDI plans are exempt from ACA rules as well as regulations for insurers recently passed in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. We have already seen the pandemic exacerbate existing health inequalities in America, and now these plans expose consumers, especially low-income individuals and those with chronic conditions, to more discrimination and financial ruin.

The Department of Health and Human Services has already acknowledged that these plans fall short. In fact, the government is having to cover the cost of COVID-19 testing for people with STLDI plans, classifying them as “uninsured.” Yet, they will not cover the cost of COVID-19 treatment, meaning those with STLDI plans could face bills in the thousands of dollars, considering the average cost to treat a hospitalized coronavirus patient is $30,000.

Consumers for Quality Care, a coalition of advocates and former policy makers which provides a voice for patients in the health care debate, recently sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma asking that they protect consumers from these dangerous plans.

This pandemic has laid bare how dangerously unprepared America’s health care system is for a large-scale public health crisis. People needed high-quality insurance coverage before coronavirus hit, and they will need it long after the pandemic subsides. Let this be a lesson to the Trump administration – it is time to stop backing junk insurance plans and remove them from the open market. If our leaders fail to act, the lives and financial well-being of millions of Americans are at stake.

 

 

 

 

Administration’s talking health care again, with 2020 in mind

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/07/26/trumps-health-care-again-with-2020-election-381473?utm_source=ActiveCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Republicans+Roll+Out+%241+Trillion+Coronavirus+Relief+Plan&utm_campaign=TFT+Newsletter+07272020

Tell us: How has Trump handled healthcare in his first 100 days ...

Polls show voters say Joe Biden would handle the issue better. And Trump is running short on options to make concrete changes before November.

President Donald Trump is suddenly talking about health care again.

He signed several executive orders on drug pricing on Friday. He vowed to unveil some new health plan by the end of next week, although he hasn’t provided specifics or an explanation of how he’ll do it. His aides are touting a speech in which Trump will lay out his health care vision. White House counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway has been calling Trump “the health care president.”

Yet it’s unlikely to amount to much in terms of policy ahead of the election. There’s almost no chance Congress will enact any legislation on the issue before November and policy specialists say the executive orders in question will make changes only at the margins — if they make any changes at all. Trump has also previously vowed to roll out a grand health care plan without following through.

That leaves Trump with mostly rhetorical options — even if he insists otherwise — cognizant that voters consistently rank health care as a top priority and say Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive 2020 rival, would handle the issue better than the president. Meanwhile, Trump is running for reelection having not replaced Obamacare or presented an alternative — all while urging the Supreme Court to overturn the decade-old health law. And millions of Americans are currently losing their health insurance as the coronavirus-gripped economy sputters.

“I think politically, the main objective will be to have something he can call a plan, but it will be smaller than a plan. Just something that he can talk about,” said Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health policy organization. “But it’s almost inconceivable that anything can be delivered legislatively before the election.”

Trump has long stumped on his pledges to kill Obamacare, the law his predecessor implemented that expanded Americans’ access to health insurance, set baseline standards for coverage, introduced penalties for not having insurance and guaranteed coverage for preexisting conditions. But conservatives say the law introduced too many mandates and drove up costs.

But after winning election in 2016, Trump failed to overturn the law in Congress — or even offer an agreed upon alternative to the law — despite holding the majority in both chambers on Capitol Hill. Democrats then retook the House in the 2018 midterms, essentially ending any chances the law, formally known as the Affordable Care Act, would be repealed.

Even some conservatives said the ongoing failure to present a concrete replacement plan is helping the Democrats politically.

Republicans, said Joe Antos, a health expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, “spent basically 2010 to today arguing that the ACA is no good. After 10 years, clearly there are some problems with starting all over again. I haven’t detected very strong interest, at least among elected officials, in revisiting that.”

But the coronavirus pandemic has added pressure to address health care costs, and Trump has lagged behind Biden on his handling of the issue in polls. Fifty seven percent of registered voters recently polled by Quinnipiac said Biden would do a better job on health care than Trump, while only 35 percent approved of Trump’s handling of health care as president. And on the issue of affordability, a CNBC poll found 55 percent of battleground voters favored Biden and the Democrats, compared with 45 percent who preferred Trump and the Republicans.

“At this point, there are two huge issues, jobs and the economy, and health care, i.e., the coronavirus. If anything that’s simply been magnified,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster and strategist. “Given the fact that it’s one of the top issues, it’s not like there’s a choice but to talk about it. If candidates aren’t making statements and proposing solutions around that, it’s a requirement. Both candidates have to address it.”

Biden has campaigned on expanding Obamacare while also promising to implement a “public option” similar to Medicare, which is government-run health insurance for seniors. On drug pricing, he and Trump embrace some of the same ideas, like allowing the safe importation of drugs from other countries where they are cheaper. Biden also supports direct Medicare negotiation of drug prices, a Democratic priority that Trump supported during the 2016 campaign before reversing course.

“Donald Trump has spent his entire presidency working to take health care away from tens of millions of Americans and gut coverage for preexisting conditions,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman. “If the Trump campaign wants to continue their pattern of highlighting the worst possible contrasts for Donald Trump, we certainly won’t stop them.”

The Trump administration insists it can point to several health care victories during Trump’s term.

Trump frequently notes the removal of the penalty for Americans who do not purchase insurance as a major victory, falsely claiming it is equivalent to overturning Obamacare.

Trump also signed an executive order last year to fight kidney disease to encourage home dialysis and increase the amount of kidney transplants, and he expanded telehealth medicine during the pandemic.

More recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld a Trump administration rule expanding the availability of short-term health plans, which Trump has touted as an alternative to Obamacare but Democrats deride as “junk.” The plans are typically cheaper than Obamacare coverage because they don’t provide the same level of benefits or consumer protections for preexisting conditions.

A federal judge in June similarly upheld another Trump administration rule requiring hospitals to disclose the prices they have negotiated with insurers. Price transparency in the health care system has long been a significant issue, with Americans rarely having clarity over how much their treatments will cost ahead of time. Trump called the win “bigger than health care itself,” in an apparent reference to Obamacare. It’s unclear whether transparency will force down health care prices, and hospitals opposing the rule have appealed the judge’s decision.

And on Friday at the White House, Trump held an event to sign four executive orders aimed at slashing drug pricing. The move aimed to tackle a largely unfulfilled signature campaign promise — that he would stop pharmaceutical companies from “getting away with murder.”

“We are ending the sellouts, betrayals and broken promises from Washington,” Trump said Friday.“You have a lot of broken promises from Washington.”

But the orders appeared largely symbolic for now, as they were not immediately enforceable, contained notable caveats and may not be completed before the election anyway. For instance, an order requiring drugmakers to pass along any discounts directly to seniors requires the health secretary to confirm the plan won’t result in higher premiums or drive up federal spending. But the White House had shelved that plan last summer over worries the move might hike seniors’ Medicare premiums ahead of the election and cost taxpayers $180 billion over the next decade.

Conway disputed that Trump had not made progress on issues like drug pricing.

“President Trump is directing the development of therapeutics and vaccines, has delivered lower prescription drug costs, increased transparency in pricing for consumers and is committed to covering preexisting conditions and offering higher quality health care with lower costs and more choices,” she said.

Yet a number of Trump’s other health care initiatives have faced hurdles — especially amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The opioid crisis, which the president had touted as a top priority and campaigned on in 2016, is getting worse. Drug overdose deaths hit a record high in 2019 and federal and state data shows they are skyrocketing in 2020.

“The overdose epidemic will not take a back seat simply because Covid-19 has hit us hard, and that needs to be reflected in policy,” said Andrew Kessler, founder and principal of Slingshot Solutions, a behavioral health consulting firm.

The president’s plan to end HIV by 2030 has similarly receded during the pandemic. And Trump’s proposal on improving kidney care — an issue that affects roughly 15 percent of American adults — is still in its early stages and will not be finalized until next year.

 

 

 

Short-term ‘junk’ plans widely discriminate against those with pre-existing conditions, House probe finds

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/short-term-junk-plans-widely-discriminate-against-those-with-pre-existing/580556/

U.S. Rep. Castor's Statement Following a Federal Judge's Ruling on ...

Dive Brief:

  • A yearlong probe by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce into bare-bones insurance plans encouraged by the Trump administration found widespread discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, even as a growing number are enrolled.
  • Top congressional Democrats investigated eight insurers selling short-term, limited duration plans, finding they all denied medical care claims if they found a consumer had a pre-existing condition. Some refused to pay for medical claims for no discernable reason, processing them only after consumers sued or complained to state regulators. Most rescinded coverage if they determined a member had a pre-existing condition or developed one later.
  • An HHS spokesperson defended the coverage as an affordable option to pricier Affordable Care Act plans, telling Healthcare Dive, “We’ve been abundantly clear that these plans aren’t for everyone.” America’s Health Insurance Plans made similar points, with spokesperson David Allen noting: “For Americans with pre-existing conditions, they may not be protected at all.”

 

Dive Insight:

The investigation looked at 14 companies that sell or market the plans, including eight insurers such as market giants Anthem and UnitedHealth Group, and six brokers.

It found insurers frequently turned down consumers with pre-existing conditions and discriminated against women, turning down applicants who were pregnant or planning to become pregnant and charging women more than men for the same coverage.

The plans had significant coverage limitations. Some excluded routine care like basic preventive visits and pelvic exams. Some plans had hard coverage cutoffs that left consumers with massive medical bills.

In one case, a consumer was billed a whopping $280,000 and lost coverage after being treated for an infection. The insurer said the patient previously had gotten an ultrasound that was “suspicious for deep venous thrombosis.”

AHIP spokesman Allen said it is not surprising given the plans are not intended to replace comprehensive coverage.

“They often do not cover the care and treatments that patients need throughout the year — preventive care, prescription drugs, mental health care or treatments for chronic health conditions — or if they do, they may limit or cap the benefits,” he acknowledged.

On average, short-term plans spend less than half of premium dollars collected from consumers on medical care: only 48%, the investigation found. That’s in stark contrast to plans in the ACA’s individual market, which are required to shell out at least 80% of all premium dollars on claims and benefits.

Short-term insurance represents a significant and growing share of the individual healthcare market. Roughly 3 million consumers bought the plans in 2019, a 27% growth from 2018, the investigation launched in March last year found.

The growth came after the Trump administration, in a controversial move, extended the maximum duration of the plans. The skimpy coverage, which isn’t required to cover the 10 essential benefits under the ACA, was originally designed as cheap safety net coverage for three months.

But in August 2018, HHS expanded the plans to 12 months, with a three year renewal period, and opened them up to all consumers, not just for those who can’t afford other coverage.

ACA supporters and patient advocates blasted the move, which sparked an ongoing legal challenge from safety net providers. Reports of consumers purchasing the coverage, believing it was comprehensive, then being shocked by balance bills prompted the House investigation.

The report also found brokers are paid up to 10 times more compensation for peddling short-term plans than ACA-compliant coverage. The average commission rate for short-term plans compared to ACA plans was 23% versus 2%, respectively.

Currently, 24 states ban or restrict the sale of short-term plans. Some states, including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, prohibit their sale entirely, while others like Colorado, Connecticut, New Mexico and Rhode Island have such strict regulations that no plans are sold.

Democratic leaders unveiled a bill on Wednesday to bolster the ACA and rescind the administration’s expansion of the plans and expand subsidies, allowing more people to qualify for coverage.

The effort has zero chance of moving this year with Republicans in control of the Senate, but both it and the probe are likely to play into the looming 2020 presidential and congressional elections.

“The heavy-handed tactics uncovered in this investigation demonstrate why Congress must reverse the Trump Administration’s expansion of these junk plans,” E&C Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette, D-Colo., wrote in a joint statement. “It also shows how dangerous a post-ACA world would be if Republican Attorneys General and the Trump Administration are successful in striking down the law and its protections.”

That lawsuit, led by 18 red states, argues the ACA, which expanded insurance to some 20 million people, is unconstitutional because a tax bill passed in 2017 zeroed out the penalty for its individual mandate. It’s currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

President Donald Trump and his health officials have repeatedly promised people with pre-existing conditions will be protected if the ACA is struck down, but neither the administration nor Republicans in Congress have said specifically how.