Healthcare Reform: The Perfect or Politically Possible?

Healthcare Reform: The Perfect or Politically Possible?

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Health economist William Hsiao PhD lays out two stark choices on healthcare reform facing Americans:

  • should health insurance continue being treated as a market-driven commercial product, or should it be changed to a government-regulated social good?
  • if Americans opt for change, should they alter the system quickly in a few years or slowly over decades?

In the February issue of Foreign Affairs, Professor Hsiao makes the case the healthcare market has failed – “Americans pay more and get less.” But he questions whether Americans currently have enough political will to undertake more than small incremental steps toward transforming it.

He acknowledges that changing to a single-payer approach would radically cut administrative costs, extend coverage to all, strengthen fraud control, and spread actuarial risk more evenly. He also acknowledges that doing so would reduce the overall national spending on healthcare and would relieve households from the financial threats of escalating premiums and illness.

But, he writes, the single-payer approach would encounter both public fear of major change as well as resistance from powerful interest groups like the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical firms. “Although Americans have begun to take a more favorable view of single-payer systems in recent years, it’s far from clear that the idea has enough popular support to clear such hurdles.”

He cites Canada and Taiwan as examples of rapid comprehensive reform undertaken in 1968 and 1995, respectively. He notes that these two systems have kept annual per-capita spending at $4,974 in Canada and $1,430 in Taiwan, compared with over $10,000 annually for Americans. And he notes that both countries enjoy longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality than the U.S.

But he questions whether such a radical approach is politically possible in the U.S. His admonitions should not be ignored, since he is a renowned international expert on healthcare financing and social insurance, with long-standing tenure at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. Also, he is no stranger to healthcare politics as the prime architect of Medicare’s resource-based relative-value pricing schema.

The German Alternative

Professor Hsiao suggests another model – Germany.

Germany’s first “sickness funds” were created in 1883 by Chancellor von Bismarck (see my YouTube video, “Brief History of U.S. Healthcare”).  Then, after World War I, the Reichstag mandated universal coverage for all citizens. In the 1990s, chaotic coverage packages were standardized by law. Since then, the hybrid regulated market consolidated down to just 115 insurers currently, all now using required uniform claims procedures. Administrative costs are low, drug costs are controlled, per-capital spending is $5,728, and life expectancy and infant mortality are better than in the U.S.

Professor Hsiao argues that an incremental approach like Germany’s is more politically feasible in the U.S.  For example, implementing a uniform system of records and payments could streamline claims processing and improve control of duplication and fraud. He favors allowing a monopsony of insurers to collectively bargain on drug prices. Measures like these would predictably save $200 to $300 billion dollars annually, a comparatively small but worthwhile step.

Meanwhile, he favors state-level or federal-level risk pools and regional health budgets to cover the uninsured and underinsured.  These measures would require modest tax increases along the way, but would sidestep the politically problematic issue of abolishing private health insurance.

Comment

Professor Hsiao astutely frames the question of healthcare reform as a debate over “the perfect and the good.” He implies that doing nothing is not an option. But he also astutely notes that the clash between public sentiment and the vested interests will drive the political power dynamic. Will Americans’ escalating pocketbook costs prevail over their fear of change and their tolerance for non-costworthy spending in the current system?

This blog has predicted that rising walletbook pain will push Americans to their political tipping point.  Time will tell.

 

Health care is Iowa’s only winner right now

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Iowa Democrats reported last night that their biggest priorities were beating President Trump and health care — but the meltdown of their election reporting systems left their presidential choices unresolved.

Why it matters: We’ve been writing for months that Democrats have a major choice ahead, either picking an advocate of Medicare for All — and siding with the plan that’s less popular with the rest of the country — or a public option advocate.

  • The Iowa debacle means the path the party will take won’t be clear for a while longer.

By the numbers: Several polls — including ones by NBC News, the National Exit Poll and AP Votecast — found that around four in 10 caucus voters said health care was their top issue.

  • Previous polling has found that Medicare for All is less popular overall than a public option, but both were popular among Democratic caucus-goers last night.
  • Seven in 10 said they back a single-payer plan, and almost nine in 10 said they support a public option, per AP Votecast, which was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for The Associated Press and Fox News.

Yes, but: Caucus-goers said they prefer a Democratic candidate who can beat Trump over one that agrees with them on issues, CNN reports.

The big picture: Republicans are more than happy to talk about Medicare for All — and its subsequent tax increases and expanded government role in health care — instead of protecting and building on the Affordable Care Act.

  • Whereas the former gives them an opportunity to go on offense, the latter puts the GOP on defense against its 2017 repeal-and-replace efforts and ongoing lawsuit that would strike down the whole health care law, including its protections for pre-existing conditions.

 

The U.S. Spends $2,500 Per Person on Health Care Administrative Costs. Canada Spends $550. Here’s Why

https://time.com/5759972/health-care-administrative-costs/

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Whether it’s interpreting medical bills, struggling to get hospital records, or fighting with an insurance provider, Americans are accustomed to battling bureaucracy to access their health care. But patients’ time and effort are not the only price of this complexity. Administrative costs now make up about 34% of total health care expenditures in the United States—twice the percentage Canada spends, according to a new study published Monday in Annals of Internal Medicine.

These costs have increased over the last two decades, mostly due to the growth of private insurers’ overhead. The researchers examined 2017 costs and found that if the U.S. were to cut its administrative spending to match Canadian levels, the country could have saved more than $600 billion in just that one year.

“The difference [in administrative costs] between Canada and the U.S. is enough to not only cover all the uninsured but also to eliminate all the copayments and deductibles, and to amp up home care for the elderly and disabled,” says Dr. David Himmelstein, a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College and co-author of the study. “And frankly to have money left over.”

Closing the Health Care Gap : Ashley Judd, Dr. Raj Panjabi (moderated by Haley Sweetland Edwards)
Closing the Health Care Gap : Ashley Judd, Dr. Raj Panjabi (moderated by Haley Sweetland Edwards)
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Research has long shown that the U.S., which uses a disparate system of private providers and insurers, has higher administrative costs than other developed countries that use single-payer systems. But the Annals study puts a finer point on it: as the first major effort to calculate administrative costs across the U.S. health system in nearly two decades, the researchers found that the gap between the U.S. and Canada has widened significantly.

The U.S. now spends nearly five times more per person on health care administration than Canada does. The U.S. administrative costs came out to $812 billion in 2017, or $2,497 per person in the U.S. compared with $551 per person in Canada, according to the Annals study.

Along with Himmelstein, co-authors Steffie Woolhandler and Terry Campbell examined administrative costs for insurance companies and government agencies that administer healthcare, as well as costs in four settings: hospitals, nursing homes, home care agencies and hospices and physician practices. For each category, the researchers determined which costs were administrative and conducted analyses to adjust comparisons between relative costs in the U.S. and Canada.

Insurers’ overhead, the largest category, totaled $275.4 billion in the U.S. in 2017, or 7.9% of all national health expenditures, compared with $5.36 billion in Canada, or 2.8% of national health expenditures. The American number included $45 billion in government spending to administer health care programs and $229.5 billion in private insurers’ overhead and profits, which covers employer plans and managed care plans funded by Medicare and Medicaid.

This insurance overhead accounted for most of the total increase in administrative spending in the U.S. since 1999, according to the study. While the share of Americans covered by commercial insurance plans has not changed much, private insurers have expanded their role as subcontractors handling what are known as “managed care” plans for Medicaid and Medicare. The study notes that most Medicaid recipients are now on private managed care plans and about one third of Medicare enrollees now have Medicare Advantage plans. Both of these types of plans have higher overhead costs than the publicly administered alternatives.

“We were struck, and frankly hadn’t expected it until we delved into the data, by the huge increase in insurance overhead,” Himmelstein told TIME.

Other reports, including one by the Center for American Progress published last April, have identified ways to reduce administrative costs without moving the U.S. to a single-payer health care system. But Himmelstein says his study shows that a public option that preserves private insurance wouldn’t provide the same savings as a traditional single-payer system. “We could streamline the bureaucracy to some extent with other approaches, but you can’t get nearly the magnitude of savings that we could get with a single payer,” Himmelstein says, adding, “If the Medicare public option includes the Medicare Advantage plans, it’s actually conceivable that the public option would increase the bureaucratic costs.”

Most of the public option plans proposed by Democratic presidential candidates are not detailed enough to determine exact costs, Himmelstein says. But overall, he believes they won’t result in significant cost savings.

In addition to their research, Himmelstein and Woolhandler have been longtime advocates for single-payer health care. They co-founded the group Physicians for a National Health Program, which advocates for a single-payer system. They also conducted the initial health administrative costs study on 1999 data and have published other studies comparing hospital administrative costs in the U.S. and other countries.

Himmelstein says his team’s estimates of total U.S. administrative costs in the Annals study are likely conservative. When estimating physicians’ administrative costs, the researchers relied on a 2011 study of time spent by physicians and their staffs interacting with insurers. And he notes that while 2017 data was often the latest available when they were conducting this study, 2018 health spending numbers have since come out showing further increases in insurance overhead.

“We can afford universal coverage with a single payer plan, not just universal coverage but first dollar coverage for everybody in our country if we adopted a single-payer Medicare for all approach,” Himmelstein says. “If you’re going to cover everybody without getting those savings you’re going to have to spend more or you’re going to have to have big co-payments and deductibles that deter people from getting the care that they actually need.”

 

 

Pros and Cons of Different Public Health Insurance Options

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/journal-article/2018/nov/pros-cons-public-options-2020-democratic

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Options for Expanding Health Care Coverage

It is more than likely that Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election will propose some type of public health insurance plan. In one of two Commonwealth Fund–supported articles in Health Affairs discussing potential Democratic and Republican health care plans for the 2020 election, national health policy experts Sherry Glied and Jeanne Lambrew assess the potential impact and trade-offs of three approaches:

 

  • Incorporating public-plan elements into private plans through mechanisms such as limits on profits, additional rules on how insurers operate, or the use of Medicare payment rates.
  • Offering a public plan — some version of Medicare or Medicaid, for example — alongside private plans. Such a plan could be offered to specific age groups, like adults 50 to 64 who are not yet eligible for Medicare, to enrollees in the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) marketplaces, or to everyone under 65, including those working for self-insured employers. It also could be made available in regions of the country where there is little health care competition.
  • Replacing the current health care financing system with a “Medicare for all” single-payer system administered by the federal government. Some single-payer proposals would allow consumers to purchase supplementary private insurance to help pay for uncovered services.

 

Issues for Consideration in 2020

The authors find trade-offs in each type of public plan. First, a single-payer system would significantly increase the federal budget and require new taxes, a politically challenging prospect. On the other hand, federal spending might decrease if a public plan were added to the marketplace or if public elements were added to private plans. In 2013, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that a public plan, following the same rules as private plans, would reduce federal spending by $158 billion over 10 years, while offering premiums 7 percent to 8 percent lower than private plans. A single-payer approach would lower administrative costs and profits, and likely reduce health care prices as well. By assuming control over the financing of health care, the federal government could reduce administrative complexity and fragmentation. On the flip side, the more than 175 million Americans who are privately insured would need to change insurance plans.

 

public–private choice model would help ensure that an affordable health plan option is available to Americans. While politically appealing, this option presents implementation challenges: covered benefits, payment rates, and risk-adjustments all need to be carefully managed to ensure a fair but competitive marketplace. A targeted choice option might be adopted by candidates interested in strengthening the ACA marketplaces in specific regions or for specific groups (as with the Medicare at 55 Act). It would benefit Americans whose current access to affordable coverage is limited, but the same technical challenges associated with a more comprehensive choice model would apply.

 

Finally, to lower prices for privately insured individuals, public plan tools such as deployment of Medicare-based rates could be applied to private insurance, either across the board or specifically for high-cost claims, prescription drugs, or other services. The major challenge here is setting prices that would appropriately compensate providers.

 

The Big Picture

Under the ACA, the percentage of Americans who had health insurance had reached an all-time high (91 percent) in 2016, an all-time high, and preexisting health conditions ceased to be an obstacle to affordable insurance. But Americans remain concerned about high out-of-pocket spending and access to providers, and fears over losing preexisting-condition protections have grown. While most Democratic presidential candidates will likely defend the ACA and seek to strengthen it, most recognize that fortifying the law will not be enough to cover the remaining uninsured, rein in rising spending, and make health care more affordable.

 

While the health reform proposals of Democratic candidates in 2020 will likely differ dramatically from those of Republican candidates, recent grassroots support for the ACA’s preexisting condition clause may indicate a willingness by both political parties to support additional government intervention in private insurance markets.

 

 

 

Health Care in 2019: Year in Review

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/blog/2019/health-care-2019-year-review

Health care was front and center for policymakers and the American public in 2019. An appeals court delivered a decision on the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) individual mandate. In the Democratic primaries, almost all the presidential candidates talked about health reform — some seeking to build on the ACA, others proposing to radically transform the health system. While the ACA remains the law of the land, the current administration continues to take executive actions that erode coverage and other gains. In Congress, we witnessed much legislative activity around surprise bills and drug costs. Meanwhile, far from Washington, D.C., the tech giants in Silicon Valley are crashing the health care party with promised digital transformations. If you missed any of these big developments, here’s a short overview.

 

1. A decision from appeals court on the future of the ACA: On December 18, an appeals court struck down the ACA’s individual mandate in Texas v. United States, a suit brought by Texas and 17 other states. The court did not rule on the constitutionality of the ACA in its entirety, but sent it back to a lower court. Last December, that court ruled the ACA unconstitutional based on Congress repealing the financial penalty associated with the mandate. The case will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the timing of the SCOTUS ruling is uncertain, leaving the future of the ACA hanging in the balance once again.

 

2. Democratic candidates propose health reform options: From a set of incremental improvements to the ACA to a single-payer plan like Medicare for All, every Democratic candidate who is serious about running for president has something to say about health care. Although these plans vary widely, they all expand the number of Americans with health insurance, and some manage to reduce health spending at the same time.

 

3. Rise in uninsured: Gains in coverage under the ACA appear to be stalling. In 2018, an estimated 30.4 million people were uninsured, up from a low of 28.6 million in 2016, according to a recent Commonwealth Fund survey. Nearly half of uninsured adults may have been eligible for subsidized insurance through ACA marketplaces or their state’s expanded Medicaid programs.

 

4. Changes to Medicaid: States continue to look for ways to alter their Medicaid programs, some seeking to impose requirements for people to work or participate in other qualifying activities to receive coverage. In Arkansas, the only state to implement work requirements, more than 17,000 people lost their Medicaid coverage in just three months. A federal judge has halted the program in Arkansas. Other states are still applying for waivers; none are currently implementing work requirements.

 

5. Public charge rule: The administration’s public charge rule, which deems legal immigrants who are not yet citizens as “public charges” if they receive government assistance, is discouraging some legal immigrants from using public services like Medicaid. The rule impacts not only immigrants, but their children or other family members who may be citizens. DHS estimated that 77,000 could lose Medicaid or choose not to enroll. The public charge rule may be contributing to a dramatic recent increase in the number of uninsured children in the U.S.

 

6. Open enrollment numbers: As of the seventh week of open enrollment, 8.3 million people bought health insurance for 2020 on HealthCare.gov, the federal marketplace. Taking into account that Nevada transitioned to a state-based exchange, and Maine and Virginia expanded Medicaid, this is roughly equivalent to 2019 enrollment. In spite of the Trump administration’s support of alternative health plans, like short-term plans with limited coverage, more new people signed up for coverage in 2020 than in the previous year. As we await final numbers — which will be released in March — it is also worth noting that enrollment was extended until December 18 because consumers experienced issues on the website. In addition, state-based marketplaces have not yet reported; many have longer enrollment periods than the federal marketplace.

 

7. Outrage over surprise bills: Public outrage swelled this year over unexpected medical bills, which may occur when a patient is treated by an out-of-network provider at an in-network facility. These bills can run into tens of thousands of dollars, causing crippling financial problems. Congress is searching for a bipartisan solution but negotiations have been complicated by fierce lobbying from stakeholders, including private equity companies. These firms have bought up undersupplied specialty physician practices and come to rely on surprise bills to swell their revenues.

 

8. Employer health care coverage becomes more expensive: Roughly half the U.S. population gets health coverage through their employers. While employers and employees share the cost of this coverage, the average annual growth in the combined cost of employees’ contributions to premiums and their deductibles outpaced growth in U.S. median income between 2008 and 2018 in every state. This is because employers are passing along a larger proportion to employees, which means that people are incurring higher out-of-pocket expenses. Sluggish wage growth has also exacerbated the problem.

 

9. Tech companies continue inroads into health care: We are at the dawn of a new era in which technology companies may become critical players in the health care system. The management and use of health data to add value to common health care services is a prime example. Recently, Ascension, a huge national health system, reached an agreement with Google to store clinical data on 50 million patients in the tech giant’s cloud. But the devil is in the details, and tech companies and their provider clients are finding themselves enmeshed in a fierce debate over privacy, ownership, and control of health data.

 

10. House passes drug-cost legislation: For the first time, the U.S. House of Representatives passed comprehensive drug-cost-control legislation, H.R. 3. Reflecting the public’s distress over high drug prices, the legislation would require that the government negotiate the price of up to 250 prescription drugs in Medicare, limit drug manufacturers’ ability to annually hike prices in Medicare, and place the first-ever cap on out-of-pocket drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries. This development is historic but unlikely to result in immediate change. Its prospects in the Republican–controlled Senate are dim.

 

 

 

Britain’s Bold Move Toward Healthcare

https://www.kornferry.com/institute/britain-election-healthcare-leadership?utm_campaign=12-19-19-twil&utm_source=marketo&utm_medium=email&mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTnpBek5UVmpOR0UyTkRVeSIsInQiOiJVV2tpTzNyRjlpXC9xS2gweDJSckUxRThIK0F6b2VxeDBNNzRDcDFhTVVEVUpqY2hXdG1ucGc0ZHVFYmFkY1V0WlwvbDhuWFdsNFpqZWVnXC9rdE93SldkY3lqTERSdzZGMW41ZWNOTHJJc0VIQUNycStRa0pkM2ZvaUhJd08wUU5sbyJ9

Just days after a landslide election victory for the Conservative Party, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson just made a massive and bold announcement: He’ll get laws passed to guarantee plenty of cash for the state-run healthcare system.

The official announcement will likely come Thursday when the Queen, who is the official head of state, will reopen Parliament and outline the coming legislative agenda. Tucked within her speech will be a call for £34 billion ($45 billion) in annual taxpayer money for the National Health Service (NHS).

While other countries embrace their private health systems, the British love their publicly funded NHS, an employer of 1.5 million people, which services the population of 66 million. In general, the people are concerned about the quality of care provided by the NHS and look to the government for solutions, says Mary Macleod, a senior client partner for Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice and a former Conservative Party MP. “The NHS does become a bit of a political football,” she says. “And to a large extent, everyone in the UK feels that they are stakeholders in it.”

The pledge to secure NHS money will likely bolster Johnson’s political leadership versus the opposition Labour Party. And the move also neutralizes critics that have barraged the Conservative Party with allegations that it would sell parts of the NHS to foreign investors. In other words, pushing a new funding law through Parliament could partially neutralize political opponents.

But the politics of the matter is only part of the announcement’s strength, Macleod says. Promising the NHS years of generous financing will allow the organization to develop a strategy for how it will care for the country’s population for years into the future. In short, Macleod says, it sends a message to the NHS leadership: You can get busy now. “If you now know you are getting the funding, you can plan ahead,” she says.

Johnson’s lack of specifics about how the NHS should spend the money could be a strength. In a sense, he has empowered the organization’s leadership to make the decisions that they deem suitable. “What the prime minister is not doing is defining the solutions,” Macleod says. But she also notes that he will want results in the form of improved service from the organization. “He will hold them accountable,” she says.

While there are benefits when leaders take bold steps, there are also risks, says Christina Harrington, Korn Ferry’s head of advisory services in Stockholm, Sweden. She says it is good for leaders to act quickly and with conviction, as the public expects that of its leaders. But that alone isn’t enough. She says the problem comes when there’s too much ego involved. “You need an egoless conviction to drive a decision making the greater good,” she says.

Ideally, the driver of proposed changes needs to have a long-term vision of something better than the current situation. If that vision is lacking, then the leader may lack the required stamina to get the job done. Indeed, if headline-grabbing is all that the boss wants, then he or she might wind up doing a U-turn. “If there isn’t a long-term vision, then another fast decision may come in the other direction,” Harrington says. “And that’s what we see a lot of.”