Welcome to Friday’s Health 202, where today we have a special spotlight on the pandemic two years in.
🚨 The federal government is about to be funded. The Senate sent the long-term spending bill to President Biden’s desk last night after months of intense negotiations.
Two years since the WHO declared a pandemic, what health-care system changes are here to stay?
Exactly two years ago, the World Health Organizationdeclared the coronavirus a pandemic and much of American life began grinding to a halt.
That’s when the health-care system, which has never been known for its quickness, sped up. The industry was forced to adapt, delivering virtual care and services outside of hospitals on the fly. Yet, the years-long pandemic has exposed decades-old cracks in the system, and galvanized efforts to fix them.
Today, as coronavirus cases plummet and President Biden says Americans can begin resuming their normal lives, we explore how the pandemic could fundamentally alter the health-care system for good. What changes are here to stay — and what barriers are standing in the way?
A telehealth boom
What happened: Telehealth services skyrocketed as doctors’ offices limited in-person visits amid the pandemic. The official declaration of a public health emergency eased long-standing restrictions on these virtual services, vastly expanding Medicare coverage.
But will it stick? Some of these changes go away whenever the Biden administration decides not to renew the public health emergency (PHE). The government funding bill passed yesterday extends key services roughly five months after the PHE ends, such as letting those on Medicare access telehealth services even if they live outside a rural area.
But some lobbyists and lawmakers are pushing hard to make such changes permanent. Though the issue is bipartisan and popular, it could be challenging to pass unless the measures are attached to a must-pass piece of legislation.
“Even just talking to colleagues, I used to have to spend three or four minutes while they were trying desperately not to stare at their phone and explain to them what telehealth was … remote patient monitoring, originating sites, and all this wonky stuff,”said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a longtime proponent of telehealth.
“Now I can go up to them and say, ‘So telehealth is great, right?’ And they say, ‘yes, it is.’ ”
A new spotlight on in-home care
What happened: The infectious virus tore through nursing homes, where often fragile residents share rooms and depend on caregivers for daily tasks. Ultimately, nearly 152,000 residents died from covid-19.
The devastation has sparked a rethinking of where older adults live and how they get the services they need — particularly inside their own homes.
“That is clearly what people prefer,” said Gail Wilensky, an economist at Project HOPE who directed the Medicare and Medicaid programs under President George H.W. Bush. “The challenge is whether or not it’s economically feasible to have that happen.”
More money, please: Finding in-home care — and paying for it — is still a struggle for many Americans. Meanwhile, many states have lengthy waitlists for such services under Medicaid.
Experts say an infusion of federal funds is needed to give seniors and those with disabilities more options for care outside of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
For instance, Biden’s massive social spending bill included tens of billions of dollars for such services. But the effort has languished on Capitol Hill, making it unclear when and whether additional investments will come.
A reckoning on racial disparities
What happened: Hispanic, Black, and American Indian and Alaska Native people are about twice as likely to die from covid-19 than White people. That’s according to age-adjusted data from a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report.
In short, the coronavirus exposed the glaring inequities in the health-care system.
“The first thing to deal with any problem is awareness,” said Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Nobody can say that they’re not aware of it anymore, that it doesn’t exist.”
But will change come? Health experts say they hope the country has reached a tipping point in the last two years. And yet, any real systemic change will likely take time. But, Benjamin said, it can start with increasing the number of practitioners from diverse communities, making office practices more welcoming and understanding biases.
We need to, as a matter of course, ask ourselves who’s advantaged and who’s disadvantaged” when crafting new initiatives, like drive-through testing sites, Benjamin said. “And then how do we create systems so that the people that are disadvantaged have the same opportunity.”
The agency’s end goal for Medicare Advantage is to match CMS’ vision for its programs as a whole, with an emphasis on health equity.
On Wednesday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released proposed payment policy changes for Medicare Advantage and Part D drug programs in 2023 that are meant to create more choices and provide affordable options for consumers.
The Calendar Year 2023 Advance Notice for Medicare Advantage and Part D plans is open to public comment for 30 days. This year, CMS is soliciting input through a health equity lens on the approach to some future potential changes.
The agency’s end goal for Medicare Advantage is to match CMS’ vision for its programs as a whole, which Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said is “to advance health equity; drive comprehensive, person-centered care; and promote affordability and the sustainability of the Medicare program.”
CMS is proposing an effective growth rate of 4.75% and an overall expected average change in revenue of 7.98%, following a 4.08% revenue increase planned for 2022.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
CMS is requesting input on a potential change to the MA and Part D Star Ratings that would take into account how well each plan advances health equity.
The agency is also requesting comment on including a quality measure in MA and Part D Star Ratings that would assess how often plans are screening for common health-related social needs, such as food insecurity, housing insecurity and transportation problems.
The Health Equity Index has been tasked with creating more transparency on how MA plans care for disadvantaged beneficiaries.
Additionally, CMS is requesting input on considerations for assessing the impact of using sub-state geographic levels of rate setting for enrollees with end-stage renal disease, particularly input regarding the impact of MA payment on care provided to rural and urban underserved populations and how such payment changes may impact health equity.
Other areas in which CMS is soliciting input include a variety of payment updates, a new measure concept to assess whether and how MA plans are transforming care by engaging in value-based models with providers’ and updates to risk-adjustment models to continue to pay appropriately for people enrolled in MA and Part D plans.
Public comments on the Advance Notice must be submitted by March 4. The Medicare Advantage and Part D payment policies for 2023 will be finalized in the 2023 Rate Announcement, which will be published no later than April 4.
The proposed rule has already elicited reaction from various organizations, including Better Medicare Alliance.
“As we continue to review the Advance Notice in further detail, we appreciate that CMS has offered a thoughtful proposal that will help ensure stability for the millions of diverse seniors and individuals with disabilities who count on Medicare Advantage,” Mary Beth Donahue, president and CEO of the Better Medicare Alliance, said, adding that the proposal furthers the shared goal of improving health equity.
“Medicare Advantage has proven its worth for seniors and taxpayers – providing lower costs, meaningful benefits that address social determinants of health, better outcomes and greater efficiencies for the Medicare dollar,” she said. “A stable rate for 2023 ensures this work can continue. On behalf of our 170 Ally organizations and over 600,000 beneficiary advocates, we applaud CMS for putting seniors first by issuing an Advance Notice that protects coverage choices, advances health equity and preserves affordability for beneficiaries.”
AHIP also responded, with President and CEO Matt Eyles pointing out that for 2022 the average Medicare Advantage monthly premium dropped to $19, down more than 10% since 2021.
“We agree that MA plans play an essential role in improving health equity and addressing the social determinants of health that impact millions of seniors and people with disabilities,” he said. “We support CMS soliciting input on ways to advance these important goals.
“Medicare Advantage enjoys strong bipartisan support because it provides America’s seniors and people with disabilities with access to affordable, high-quality healthcare services,” said Eyles. “We will continue to review the 2023 rate notice and look forward to providing constructive feedback to CMS during the comment period.”
THE LARGER TREND
CMS’ Advance Notice follows a recent congressional letter in which 346 bipartisan members of Congress declared support for Medicare Advantage and urged the agency “to provide a stable rate and policy environment” for the program in 2023.
A December 2021 Morning Consult poll showed that 94% of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries are satisfied with their coverage, while 93% believe that protecting MA should be a priority of the Biden administration.
Massachusetts-based health system Wellforce recently appointed its first ever chief consumer officer, tapping an executive from a well-known sneaker brand.
Christine Madigan joined the health system to lead marketing and consumer engagement, Wellforce announced in January. She comes from New Balance Athletics, where she led the global marketing and brand management organization. Madigan was attracted to what she termed the “challenger brand” because of its nimble innovation strategy and its mission to help people live healthier. “I can’t imagine a more purpose-driven culture than that,” she told Fierce Healthcare.
“As a marketing veteran from consumer products, Christine understands the importance of envisioning and building services around consumer needs. She will be a great asset in improving and modernizing the way consumers engage with the health care industry,” David Storto, Wellforce’s executive vice president and chief strategy and growth officer, said in the announcement.
The move comes amid a rising trend in healthcare: executives sourced from outside the industry, and in particular from consumer brands, to lead innovation strategies. Fierce Healthcare spoke to several, some of whom have been in their roles for years. They agree that while there are many transferrable skills, there is also an advantage to being an outsider.
To Madigan, the core challenge remains the same business to business—understanding who the consumer is and the different ways they engage with one’s brand.
Aaron Martin, chief digital officer at Providence St. Joseph Health, who joined the health system from Amazon in 2016, echoed Madigan. “Bringing the patient focus—what we called at Amazon ‘customer obsession’—to Providence was key,” he told Fierce Healthcare.
Society is bombarded by healthcare marketing messages, Madigan noted. She wants to “drive some simplicity into the process.” While the system is built to provide reactive, acute care, Madigan sees preventive care as just as important. And a crucial part of facilitating that is establishing not only awareness of but trust in a provider. “Every detail matters in what you communicate in an experience,” she said.
And for organizations that don’t innovate, “somebody else is going to disrupt us,” Martin said.
To drive innovation at scale, Martin sees a disciplined strategy as key. At Amazon, that looked like picking an area to impact and measuring the value of closing that gap. Applying that to Providence, Martin worked with the clinical team to discover patients in need of low-acuity care were going to other providers instead of to Providence. So Providence launched ExpressCare, offering virtual appointments to recapture those patients and establish continuity of care.
Like Madigan, Novant’s chief digital and transformation officer Angela Yochem, who has held chief information officer roles at Rent-A-Center and BDP International, believes passive care is not enough to eradicate health inequities. “We’ve optimized for fixing things,” she said of the healthcare system. “I’d like to see the healthcare industry become more engaged continually. We need to understand our patients beyond what their last condition is,” she added, referring to social determinants of health.
“In retail, we used to say that customers shouldn’t have to shop our merchandising organizational chart,” said Prat Vemana, Kaiser Permanente’s chief digital officer, who transitioned in 2019 from chief product and experience officer at The Home Depot. To streamline how patients navigate an already highly fragmented healthcare system, Kaiser starts with the patient and works backward when developing digital experiences.
A challenge in healthcare, Vemana acknowledged, is the lag in data around health outcomes. Whereas in retail, results are immediately visible, healthcare is less straightforward. “We have to develop workarounds to get directional information while waiting to see the results,” he said.
The transformation of the sector won’t happen without diversity of thought and experience, Yochem said. It’s less about hiring from a particular sector and more about hiring from all over. Those people will have seen the potential for consumer engagement and will be able to “apply what we know to be possible,” Yochem said. Without those outsider insights in the insular sector, “you create an echo chamber, because you respond to problems in the same way.”
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the need for substantial investment in public health. Journalist Anna Maria Barry-Jester, in an investigation published in California Healthline and the Los Angeles Times last week, reported that the need is pressing and that the time is ripe to formulate solutions.
“As we’ve continued to make progress in bringing the COVID-19 emergency under control, many California leaders are turning their attention to the future,” Barry-Jester wrote.
This year’s state budget set aside $3 million for an assessment of California’s public health infrastructure. “Public health leaders believe it will show that staffing and training are major issues,” Barry-Jester reported.
Starting in July 2022, annual state budgets will include $300 million to be spent to improve public health infrastructure.
The pandemic highlighted two significant public health needs in California. One is basic investment in public health infrastructure, as highlighted by Barry-Jester. The other is to address housing, diet, livable wages, and access to quality health care as part of an overarching public health strategy — a necessity highlighted by the stark racial, ethnic, and economic disparities among those who contracted and died from COVID-19.
Many Reasons for Staff Attrition
Before the pandemic, the state’s public health infrastructure already required shoring up. The COVID-19 crisis hammered the already underfunded and understaffed county and state public health systems.
In California, public health workers are leaving their jobs in droves. Counties are “losing experienced staffers to retirement, exhaustion, partisan politics, and higher-paying jobs,” Barry-Jester reported.
The exodus from public health predated this surge of resignations. Since the early days of the pandemic, experienced California public health leaders have been leaving the field, including 17 county public health officers and 27 county-level directors or assistant directors of public health. Both the director and the deputy director of the state’s department of public health resigned during the pandemic.
“Public health nurses, microbiologists, epidemiologists, health officers, and other staff members who fend off infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV, inspect restaurants, and work to keep communities healthy are abandoning the field,” Barry-Jester wrote. “The collective expertise lost with those departures is hard to overstate.”
Public health laboratories illustrate how much we rely on public health infrastructure for our everyday safety. The labs are largely invisible to the public but touch every aspect of daily life. “Public health labs sample shellfish to make sure it is safe for eating. They monitor drinking water and develop tests for emerging health threats such as antibiotic-resistant viruses. They also test for serious diseases, such as measles and COVID-19. And they typically do it at a fraction of the cost of commercial labs — and faster.”
Yet labs across the state are unable to hire and retain staff, and they are in danger of closing. “The biggest threat to [public health labs] right now is not the next emerging pathogen,” said Donna Ferguson, director of the public health lab in Monterey County, “but labs closing due to lack of staffing.”
Addressing Social Needs as Public Health Strategy
The pandemic highlighted the effects of income inequality and racial disparitieson health in California. Data from the California Department of Public Health highlight the stark disparities in COVID-19 outcomes. The COVID-19 death rate for Latinx people is 19% higher than the statewide death rate, and the death rate for Black people is 16% higher. The case rate for Pacific Islanders is 45% higher than the statewide rate, while the rate of Pacific Islanders earning less than $40,000 annually is 33% higher than average.
“There is an 80% higher rate of diabetes among Hispanics compared to non-Hispanic whites. We think early life nutrition is very important but also the environment where people live, which can include a combination of factors like poor access to healthy food, poor access to resources, air pollution, even chemical contaminants in the environment we found contribute to this disparity,” he told Los Angeles Times reporter Alejandra Reyes-Velarde.
These chronic diseases then put Latinx people at higher risk for worse COVID outcomes. “One of the most common recurring risk factors, not so much for rates of infection but the severity of the infection, is blood-glucose levels,” he said. “Individuals with higher blood-glucose levels seem to have a more severe response to COVID-19 infection, and of course, higher blood glucose is what contributes to diabetes.”
A Health Affairs study from the early days of the pandemic, which drew on data from California’s Sutter hospitals, noted that Black people are similarly at higher risk from the chronic illnesses that make people more susceptible to poor outcomes from COVID infections, including type 2 diabetes and congestive heart failure, as do other populations disproportionately harmed by COVID-19.
“Already underfunded and neglected even before the pandemic, public health has been further undermined in ways that could resound for decades to come,” wrote journalists Mike Baker and Danielle Ivory. The Times investigation of hundreds of health departments in all 50 states revealed that “local public health across the country is less equipped to confront a pandemic now than it was at the beginning of 2020.”
Threats, harassment, and anger directed at public health officials and workers drove many out of the field since the beginning of the pandemic and was identified as an ongoing problem by Baker and Ivory. “We have learned all the wrong lessons from the pandemic,” Adriane Casalotti told them. Casalotti is the chief of public and government affairs for the National Association of County and City Health Officials, an organization representing the nearly 3,000 local health departments across the nation. “We are attacking and removing authority from the people who are trying to protect us.”
Officials interviewed by Baker and Ivory noted that while additional funds are crucial to rebuilding public health departments, they aren’t sufficient to address the problems that have long weighed down the system or those that emerged during the pandemic.
Melissa Lyon, public health director for Erie County, Pennsylvania, put it this way: “If a ship is sinking, throwing treasure chests of gold at the ship is not going to help it float.”
Health economists study the economic determinants of health. They also analyze how health care resources are utilized and allocated, and how health care policies and quality of care can be improved. In this episode, we discuss what exactly a healthcare system would look like if these professionals were calling all the shots.
At a certain point, it was no longer a matter of if the United States would reach the gruesome milestone of 1 in 500 people dying of covid-19, but a matter of when. A year? Maybe 15 months? The answer: 19 months.
Given the mortality rate from covid and our nation’s population size, “we’re kind of where we predicted we would be with completely uncontrolled spread of infection,” said Jeffrey D. Klausner, clinical professor of medicine, population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “Remember at the very beginning, which we don’t hear about anymore, it was all about flatten the curve.”
The idea, he said, was to prevent “the humanitarian disaster” that occurred in New York City, where ambulance sirens were a constant as hospitals were overwhelmed and mortuaries needed mobile units to handle the additional dead.
The goal of testing, mask-wearing, keeping six feet apart and limiting gatherings was to slow the spread of the highly infectious virus until a vaccine could stamp it out. The vaccines came but not enough people have been immunized, and the triumph of science waned as mass death and disease remain. The result: As the nation’s covid death toll exceeded 663,000 this week, it meant roughly 1 in every 500 Americans had succumbed to the disease caused by the coronavirus.
While covid’s death toll overwhelms the imagination, even more stunning is the deadly efficiency with which it has targeted Black, Latino, and American Indian and Alaska Native people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
Death at a younger age represents more lost years of life. Lost potential. Lost scholarship. Lost mentorship. Lost earnings. Lost love.
Neighborhoods decimated. Families destroyed.
“So often when we think about the majority of the country who have lost people to covid-19, we think about the elders that have been lost, not necessarily younger people,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, executive vice president at the Seattle Indian Health Board and director of the Urban Indian Health Institute. “Unfortunately, this is not my reality nor that of the Native community. I lost cousins and fathers and tribal leaders. People that were so integral to building up our community, which has already been struggling for centuries against all these things that created the perfect environment for covid-19 to kill us.”
Six of Echo-Hawk’s friends and relatives — all under 55 — have died of covid.
“This is trauma. This is generational impact that we must have an intentional focus on. The scars are there,” said Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of President Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force and associate dean for health equity research at Yale University. “We can’t think that we’re going to test and vaccinate our way out of this deep pain and hurt.”
The pandemic has brought into stark relief centuries of entwining social, environmental, economic and political factors that erode the health and shorten the lives of people of color, putting them at higher risk of the chronic conditions that leave immune systems vulnerable to the coronavirus. Many of those same factors fuel the misinformation, mistrust and fear that leave too many unprotected.
Take the suggestion that people talk to their doctor about which symptoms warrant testing or a trip to the hospital as well as the safety of vaccines. Seems simple. It’s not.
Many people don’t have a physician they see regularly due in part to significant provider shortages in communities of color. If they do have a doctor, it can cost too much money for a visit even if insured. There are language barriers for those who don’t speak English fluently and fear of deportation among undocumented immigrants.
“Some of the issues at hand are structural issues, things that are built into the fabric of society,” said Enrique W. Neblett Jr., a University of Michigan professor who studies racism and health.
Essential workers who cannot avoid the virus in their jobs because they do not have the luxury of working from home. People living in multigenerational homes with several adult wage-earners, sharing housing because their pay is so low. Even the fight to be counted among the covid casualties — some states and hospitals, Echo-Hawk said, don’t have “even a box to check to say you are American Indian or Alaskan Native.”
It can be difficult to tackle the structural issues influencing the unequal burden of the pandemic while dealing with the day-to-day stress and worry it ignites, which, Neblett said, is why attention must focus on both long-term solutions and “what do we do now? It’s not just that simple as, ‘Oh, you just put on your mask, and we’ll all be good.’ It’s more complicated than that.”
The exacting toll of the last year and a half — covid’s stranglehold on communities of color and George Floyd’s murder — forced the country to interrogate the genealogy of American racism and its effect on health and well-being.
“This is an instance where we finally named it and talked about structural racism as a contributing factor in ways that we haven’t with other health disorders,” Neblett said.
But the nation’s attention span can be short. Polls show there was a sharp rise in concern about discrimination against Black Americans by police following Floyd’s murder, including among White Americans. That concern has eroded some since 2020, though it does remain higher than years past.
“This mistaken understanding that people have, almost this sort of impatience like, ‘Oh, we see racism. Let’s just fix that,’ that’s the thing that gives me hives,” Nunez-Smith said. “This is about generational investments and fundamental changes in ways of being. We didn’t get here overnight.”
The performance of the U.S. healthcare system ranked last among 11 high-income countries, according to a report released Aug. 4 by the Commonwealth Fund.
To compare the performance of the healthcare systems in 11 high-income countries, the Commonwealth Fund analyzed 71 performance measures across five domains: access to care, care process, administrative efficiency, equity and patient outcomes.
Despite spending far more of its gross domestic product on healthcare than the other nations included in the report, the U.S. ranked last overall, as well as last for access to care, administrative efficiency, equity and patient outcomes. However, the U.S. ranked second on measures of care process, trailing only New Zealand.
Norway, the Netherlands and Australia had the best healthcare system performance, according to the report. In all seven iterations of the study conducted by the Commonwealth Fund since 2004, the U.S. has ranked last. It is the only country included in the study that does not provide its citizens with universal health insurance coverage.
Four features separate the top performing countries from the U.S., according to the report: universal health insurance coverage and removal of cost barriers; investment in primary care systems to ensure equitable healthcare access; reduction of administrative burdens that divert time and spending from health improvement efforts; and investment in social services, particularly for children and working-age adults.
The Biden administration is quietly engineering a series of expansions to Medicaid that may bolster protections for millions of low-income Americans and bring more people into the program.
Biden’s efforts — which have been largely overshadowed by other economic and health initiatives — represent an abrupt reversal of the Trump administration’s moves to scale back the safety-net program.
The changes could further boost Medicaid enrollment — which the pandemic has already pushed to a record 80.5 million. Some of the expansion is funded by the COVID-19 relief bill that passed in March, including coverage for new mothers.
Others who could also gain coverage under Biden are inmates and undocumented immigrants. At the same time, the administration is opening the door to new Medicaid-funded services such as food and housing that the government insurance plan hasn’t traditionally offered.
“There is a paradigm change underway,” said Jennifer Langer Jacobs, Medicaid director in New Jersey, one of a growing number of states trying to expand home-based Medicaid services to keep enrollees out of nursing homes and other institutions.
“We’ve had discussions at the federal level in the last 90 days that are completely different from where we’ve ever been before,” Langer Jacobs said.
Taken together, the Medicaid moves represent some of the most substantive shifts in federal health policy undertaken by the new administration.
“They are taking very bold action,” said Rutgers University political scientist Frank Thompson, an expert on Medicaid history, noting in particular the administration’s swift reversal of Trump policies. “There really isn’t a precedent.”
The Biden administration seems unlikely to achieve what remains the holy grail for Medicaid advocates: getting 12 holdout states, including Texas and Florida, to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income working-age adults through the Affordable Care Act.
And while some of the recent expansions – including for new mothers — were funded by close to $20 billion in new Medicaid funding in the COVID relief bill Biden signed in March, much of that new money will stop in a few years unless Congress appropriates additional money.
The White House strategy has risks. Medicaid, which swelled after enactment of the 2010 health law, has expanded further during the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, pushing enrollment to a record 80.5 million, including those served by the related Children’s Health Insurance Program. That’s up from 70 million before the COVID crisis began.
The programs now cost taxpayers more than $600 billion a year. And although the federal government will cover most of the cost of the Biden-backed expansions, surging Medicaid spending is a growing burden on state budgets.
The costs of expansion are a frequent target of conservative critics, including Trump officials like Seema Verma, the former administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, who frequently argued for enrollment restrictions and derided Medicaid as low-quality coverage.
But even less partisan experts warn that Medicaid, which was created to provide medical care to low-income Americans, can’t make up for all the inadequacies in government housing, food and education programs.
“Focusing on the social drivers of health … is critically important in improving the health and well-being of Medicaid beneficiaries. But that doesn’t mean that Medicaid can or should be responsible for paying for all of those services,” said Matt Salo, head of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, noting that the program’s financing “is simply not capable of sustaining those investments.”
Restoring federal support
However, after four years of Trump administration efforts to scale back coverage, Biden and his appointees appear intent on not only restoring federal support for Medicaid, but also boosting the program’s reach.
“I think what we learned during the repeal-and-replace debate is just how much people in this country care about the Medicaid program and how it’s a lifeline to millions,” Biden’s new Medicare and Medicaid administrator, Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, told KHN, calling the program a “backbone to our country.“
The Biden administration has already withdrawn permission the Trump administration had granted Arkansas and New Hampshire to place work requirements on some Medicaid enrollees.
In April, Biden blocked a multibillion-dollar Trump administration initiative to prop up Texas hospitals that care for uninsured patients, a policy that many critics said effectively discouraged Texas from expanding Medicaid coverage through the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare. Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the nation.
The moves have drawn criticism from Republicans, some of whom accuse the new administration of trampling states’ rights to run their Medicaid programs as they choose.
“Biden is reasserting a larger federal role and not deferring to states,” said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow at the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability.
But Biden’s early initiatives have been widely hailed by patient advocates, public health experts and state officials in many blue states.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said Kim Bimestefer, head of Colorado’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.
Chuck Ingoglia, head of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, said: “To be in an environment where people are talking about expanding health care access has made an enormous difference.”
Mounting evidence shows that expanded Medicaid coverage improves enrollees’ health, as surveys and mortality data in recent years have identified greater health improvements in states that expanded Medicaid through the 2010 health law versus states that did not.
In addition to removing Medicaid restrictions imposed by Trump administration officials, the Biden administration has backed a series of expansions to broaden eligibility and add services enrollees can receive.
Biden supported a provision in the COVID relief bill that gives states the option to extend Medicaid to new mothers for up to a year after they give birth. Many experts say such coverage could help reduce the U.S. maternal mortality rate, which is far higher than rates in other wealthy nations.
Several states, including Illinois and New Jersey, had sought permission from the Trump administration for such expanded coverage, but their requests languished.
The COVID relief bill — which passed without Republican support — also provides additional Medicaid money to states to set up mobile crisis services for people facing mental health or substance use emergencies, further broadening Medicaid’s reach.
And states will get billions more to expand so-called home and community-based services such as help with cooking, bathing and other basic activities that can prevent Medicaid enrollees from having to be admitted to expensive nursing homes or other institutions.
Perhaps the most far-reaching Medicaid expansions being considered by the Biden administration would push the government health plan into covering services not traditionally considered health care, such as housing.
This reflects an emerging consensus among health policy experts that investments in some non-medical services can ultimately save Medicaid money by keeping patients out of the hospital.
In recent years, Medicaid officials in red and blue states — including Arizona, California, Illinois, Maryland and Washington — have begun exploring ways to provide rental assistance to select Medicaid enrollees to prevent medical complications linked to homelessness.
The Trump administration took steps to support similar efforts, clearing Medicare Advantage health plans to offer some enrollees non-medical benefits such as food, housing aid and assistance with utilities.
But state officials across the country said the new administration has signaled more support for both expanding current home-based services and adding new ones.
That has made a big difference, said Kate McEvoy, who directs Connecticut’s Medicaid program. “There was a lot of discussion in the Trump administration,” she said, “but not the capital to do it.”
Other states are looking to the new administration to back efforts to expand Medicaid to inmates with mental health conditions and drug addiction so they can connect more easily to treatment once released.
Kentucky health secretary Eric Friedlander said he is hopeful federal officials will sign off on his state’s initiative.
Still other states, such as California, say they are getting a more receptive audience in Washington for proposals to expand coverage to immigrants who are in the country without authorization, a step public health experts say can help improve community health and slow the spread of communicable diseases.
“Covering all Californians is critical to our mission,” said Jacey Cooper, director of California’s Medicaid program, known as Medi-Cal. “We really feel like the new administration is helping us ensure that everyone has access.”
The Trump administration moved to restrict even authorized immigrants’ access to the health care safety net, including the “public charge” rule that allowed immigration authorities to deny green cards to applicants if they used public programs such as Medicaid.In March, Biden abandoned that rule.
Medicare Advantage (MA) focused companies, like Oak Street Health (14x revenues), Cano Health (11x revenues), and Iora Health (announced sale to One Medical at 7x revenues), reflect valuation multiples that appear irrational to many market observers. Multiples may be exuberant, but they are not necessarily irrational.
One reason for high valuations across the healthcare sector is the large pools of capital from institutional public investors, retail investors and private equity that are seeking returns higher than the low single digit bond yields currently available. Private equity alone has hundreds of billions in investable funds seeking opportunities in healthcare. As a result of this abundance of capital chasing deals, there is a premium attached to the scarcity of available companies with proven business models and strong growth prospects.
Valuations of companies that rely on Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement have traditionally been discounted for the risk associated with a change in government reimbursement policy. This “bop the mole” risk reflects the market’s assessment that when a particular healthcare sector becomes “too profitable,” the risk increases that CMS will adjust policy and reimbursement rates in that sector to drive down profitability.
However, there appears to be consensus among both political parties that MA is the right policy to help manage the rise in overall Medicare costs and, thus, incentives for MA growth can be expected to continue. This factor combined with strong demographic growth in the overall senior population means investors apply premiums to companies in the MA space compared to traditional providers.
Large pools of available capital, scarcity value, lower perceived sector risk and overall growth in the senior population are all factors that drive higher valuations for the MA disrupters.However, these factors pale in comparison the underlying economic driver for these companies. Taking full risk for MA enrollees and dramatically reducing hospital utilization, while improving health status, is core to their business model. These companies target and often achieve reduced hospital utilization by 30% or more for their assigned MA enrollees.
In 2019, the average Medicare days per 1,000 in the U.S. was 1,190. With about $14,700 per Medicare discharge and a 4.5 ALOS, the average cost per Medicare day is approximately $3,200. At the U.S. average 1,190 Medicare hospital days per thousand, if MA hospital utilization is decreased by 25%, the net hospital revenue per 1,000 MA
enrollees is reduced by about $960,000. If one of the MA disrupters has, for example, 50,000 MA lives in a market, the decrease in hospital revenues for that MA population would be about $48 million. This does not include the associated physician fees and other costs in the care continuum. That same $48 million + in the coffers of the risk-taking MA disrupters allows them deliver comprehensive array of supportive services including addressing social determinants of health. These services then further reduce utilization and improves overall health status, creating a virtuous circle. This is very profitable.
MA is only the beginning. When successful MA businesses expand beyond MA, and they will, disruption across the healthcare economy will be profound and painful for the incumbents. The market is rationally exuberant about that prospect.
The country is reopening. What does the future hold?
The story of the American pandemic has unfolded in three chapters.The first began last January, when the coronavirus emerged and the world was plunged into uncertainty about how covid-19 could be treated, how the virus spread, and when it might be defeated. The second started on the morning of November 9, 2020, when Pfizer-BioNTech announced the extraordinary efficacy of its vaccine. Those results made clear that this pandemic would end not through infection but vaccination. Our goals shifted from merely slowing the spread to beginning immunization as quickly as possible. In America, much of the past half year has been devoted to administering vaccines and gathering evidence on how well they work in the real world.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ushered in the American pandemic’s third chapter. The agency announced that vaccinated people could go without masks or social distancing indoors and outside, in crowds large and small. It carved out a few exceptions—for hospitals, public transportation, and the like—and noted that people still needed to obey federal and local laws. But the broad message was that vaccinated Americans could resume their pre-pandemic lives. The C.D.C. is an agency known for caution, and its new guidance shocked many public-health experts; just two weeks earlier, it had issued far more restrictive recommendations. During the same period, a survey of nearly six hundred epidemiologists found that more than three-quarters of them believed that indoor mask-wearing might remain necessary for another year or more. Still, immediately after the announcement, a number of states lifted their mask mandates. Others will surely follow, as the pressure to return to normal grows. America is now moving swiftly toward reopening.
Despite the C.D.C.’s early stumbles on communication, masks, and tests, it remains perhaps the world’s preëminent public-health agency. Its recommendations carry unparalleled scientific force in the U.S. and beyond. Ultimately, the C.D.C.’s decision reflects real shifts in the weight of the evidence on several fundamental epidemiological questions: Are the vaccines as effective as they were in the trials? Can they protect us against the coronavirus variants? And do they prevent not just illness but transmission? The answers to these questions give us good reason to think that the pandemic’s newest chapter will be its last. Read The New Yorker’s complete news coverage and analysis of the coronavirus pandemic.
On the first question, the nationwide rollout of covid-19 vaccines has proved, beyond any doubt, that they are astonishingly effective at preventing serious illness, even for the most vulnerable people. So-called breakthrough infections, in which the virus weaves its way around some of an individual’s immune system, do occur. But such infections are extremely rare, and—because a person almost always has some effective antibodies and other immune-system defenses—they usually cause mild or no symptoms. In one study, the C.D.C. examined post-vaccination infections among nearly fifteen thousand nursing-home residents and staff members, and discovered only two covid-19 hospitalizations and one death. Another study, involving half a million health-care workers from around the country, found that getting two shots reduced the risk of a symptomatic infection by ninety-four per cent. Moving forward, we should expect to continue seeing breakthrough infections from time to time—but, for the most part, we shouldn’t worry about them. (At the same time, the covid vaccines have proved exceptionally safe. Few dangerous side effects have been linked to the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, and the over-all risk of concerning blood clots after receiving Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is rare—as of last week, when more than nine million doses had been administered, there were thirty confirmed cases.)
The most striking vaccine-efficacy statistic draws on data shared by state governments. Around a hundred and thirty million Americans are fully vaccinated, and the C.D.C. has said that it has received reports of fewer than fourteen hundredcovid-19 hospitalizations and three hundred deaths among them. This means that, after vaccination, one’s chances of dying of covid-19 are currently about two in a million, with the likelihood of being hospitalized only slightly higher. Statistics reported by hospitals tend to be accurate; still, even if state governments have missed a few cases here and there, the results are staggeringly good. “The evidence on vaccines just keeps getting better and better,” Robert Wachter, a physician and the chair of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told me. “When the trial results first came out, I thought, They can’t actually be this good. The real world is always messier than the trials. What we’ve learned since then is that the vaccines are probably even more spectacular than we initially believed.”
The answer to the second question—whether the vaccines work against the major coronavirus variants—is also now clear. Earlier this month, a study conducted in Qatar, where the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants predominate, found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was ninety-seven per cent effective at preventing severe disease. Vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson also appear to be highly effective against the variants; in fact, these vaccines are already successfully fighting them here in the United States. The B.1.1.7 variant, which is vastly more contagious than the original virus and caused a devastating surge in the U.K. this past winter, now accounts for three-quarters of new U.S. cases—and yet, largely thanks to vaccination, daily infections in this country have fallen by nearly ninety per cent since their peak in January, and are now lower than at any point in the past eight months. The existence of more contagious variants isn’t a reason to doubt the vaccines but to vaccinate people as quickly as possible.
As for the final question—whether vaccinated people can spread the virus to others, especially unvaccinated people, including children—the evidence is similarly encouraging. Because vaccinated people are unlikely to contract the virus, the vast majority won’t be passing it on. And even the small number of vaccinated people who experience breakthrough infections have much less of the virus circulating in their bodies, and may be less infectious. Real-world data from Israel, which has mounted one of the world’s fastest and most effective vaccination campaigns, is instructive. The country’s progress in immunizing its adults has been linked to significant declines in infections among unvaccinated people; according to one preliminary estimate, each twenty-percentage-point increase in adult vaccination rates reduces infections for unvaccinated children by half. When vaccinated people remove their masks, they pose little threat to others, and they face little peril themselves.
The shift toward reopening is not without risk. The first issue is timing. Less than half of Americans have received even one shot of a covid-19 vaccine, and only around four in ten have been fully vaccinated. This means that the majority of the country remains susceptible to infection and disease. Meanwhile, the pace of vaccinations has slowed: in April, the U.S. was routinely vaccinating about three million people per day, but the daily average is now nearly two million. It’s unclear whether the new guidance will encourage or deter unvaccinated Americans from getting immunized. In a recent survey, unvaccinated Republicans said that they would be nearly twenty per cent more likely to get the shots if it meant that they wouldn’t have to wear a mask anymore. We’ll now find out how they really feel.
Vaccine hesitancy is only part of the picture. Some thirty million Americans—a group larger than anti-vaxxers or the vaccine-hesitant—say that they want to get immunized but haven’t yet done so. Some face language barriers, or fear immigration problems; others have difficulty navigating the health system, or can’t take time off from work. Many of the willing-but-unvaccinated are working-class Americans; four in five don’t have a college degree. The Biden Administration has sent billions of dollars to health centers serving low-income populations, offered tax credits to businesses that provide paid time off for employees to get immunized, and helped assemble thousands of volunteers—known as the covid-19 Community Corps—to assist with vaccine outreach to underserved populations. States, too, are trying to reduce barriers to vaccination, and offering incentives—including payments in Maryland, a lottery in Ohio, and a “Shot and a Beer” program in New Jersey—for residents who remain on the fence. There are, in short, real efforts under way to sway the vaccine-hesitant and make vaccines more accessible.
Still, the new C.D.C. guidance makes these efforts even more urgent. Until now, unvaccinated people have been shielded from high levels of viral exposure by government mandates and social norms that have kept their friends, neighbors, and colleagues masked and distanced, to varying degrees. But, in the coming weeks, those protections will likely erode. For unvaccinated Americans, this could be the most dangerous moment in the pandemic. In most contexts, there is no reliable mechanism for verifying who has and hasn’t been vaccinated. Inevitably, against the C.D.C.’s advice, many unvaccinated people will resume normal life, too, threatening their own health and that of others. When asked how businesses are to know which customers can enter unmasked, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, told CNN, “They will not be able to know. You’re going to be depending on people being honest enough to say whether they were vaccinated or not.”
“Unvaccinated people are now going to have much higher levels of exposure,” Wachter told me. “That’s especially true in places with lots of community spread and in places where more contagious variants are circulating.” Wachter suggested that the C.D.C. could be making an epidemiological bet. The move “will cause some additional covid cases that otherwise would not have occurred,” he said—but, “if it leads to even a small uptick in vaccination, it will save lives in aggregate.”
Since the start of the pandemic’s second chapter, public-health officials have been working to prevent a catastrophic collision between the ship of reopening and the iceberg of the unvaccinated. By slowing the speed of the ship or shrinking the size of the iceberg, we have sought to reduce the force of the collision. But barring a hundred-per-cent vaccination rate, or something close to it—an outcome that the U.S. was never likely to achieve—a crash of some sort has been inevitable.India’s collision has been titanic—it reopened with a population of more than a billion, even though hardly anyone was vaccinated. In the U.S., the situation is different. Our iceberg has been melting, and we’ve been approaching it slowly. Now we’re taking off the brakes.
The C.D.C. issues guidance, not laws; there are several quantitative measures that states, counties, cities, companies, and individuals can consult in pacing their reopening and squaring the agency’s broad recommendations with local realities. A community’s immunization rate is perhaps the most obvious statistic to track. Experts have argued for meeting a seventy-per-cent immunity threshold before relaxing masking and distancing requirements. No states have got there yet, although some, such as Vermont and Maine, are well on their way. The Biden Administration has said that it hopes to hit the seventy-per-cent target for first shots by the Fourth of July.
Because the vaccines prevent almost all cases of severe covid-19, the number of covid-19 hospitalizations is another good metric to watch. “With vaccines, cases become uncoupled from severe disease,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease doctor at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied asymptomatic coronavirus transmission, told me. Gandhi was among the first researchers to show that masks protect not just others but wearers, too; when we spoke, before the C.D.C.’s announcement, she said that, in her view, most precautions could end when half of Americans had received their first shot and covid-19 hospitalizations had fallen below sixteen thousand nationally, or about five per hundred thousand people. (At the peak of most flu seasons, the U.S. records five to ten influenza hospitalizations per hundred thousand.) Hospitalizations appear to be falling, unevenly, across the country. However, there are currently thirty thousand Americans hospitalized with covid-19—roughly a quarter of the January peak, but still about twice Gandhi’s threshold.
Herd immunity offers a third benchmark for reopening. The idea is that, once about eighty per cent of the population has been vaccinated or infected, the virus will struggle to spread. Recently, some experts have argued that we might never get to herd immunity because of variants, vaccine hesitancy, and the fact that children under twelve, who make up some fifteen per cent of the U.S. population, are unlikely to be immunized for some time. But the C.D.C.’s recommendation could change the equation. As states lift restrictions and unvaccinated people face higher levels of exposure, more of them are likely to get infected, pushing us closer to the herd immunity threshold. In all likelihood, the U.S. will be able to reach sixty-per-cent vaccination in the coming weeks; meanwhile, perhaps a third of Americans have already been infected. Even assuming significant overlap between the two groups, the combination of vaccination and infection is likely to make it harder for the virus to find new hosts. Marc Lipsitch, the director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, emphasized that, because some parts of the country may reach herd immunity, or something close to it, before others—Connecticut’s current covid-19 immunization rate, for instance, is nearly twice Mississippi’s—unvaccinated adults will face different levels of risk depending on where they live. “There won’t be one national end,” Lipsitch told me. “We’re going to see a fundamental change in terms of what it means to live in this country, but there’s also going to be a lot of local variation.”
Covid-19 deaths give us another way of tracking the pandemic. Experts have argued that the U.S., with a population of three hundred and thirty-two million, should aim for fewer than a hundred coronavirus deaths daily—roughly the toll of a typical flu season. Right now, America is seeing about six hundred covid-19 deaths each day; according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which generates one of the country’s most widely cited pandemic models, that number will likely fall to about a hundred in August. “Things will look very good this summer,” Christopher Murray, the director of the I.H.M.E., told me. “A lot of people will think that we’re done, that it’s all over. But what happens in the fall is the tricky part.” Murray believes that a confluence of factors—the spread of variants, in-person schooling, meaningful numbers of still-unvaccinated people, and the seasonality of the virus—will produce a small winter spike, concentrated in communities with low vaccination rates. It won’t be the apocalyptic surge of New York City in the spring of 2020—or, more recently, those of India or Brazil—but, each week, several thousand unvaccinated Americans could die.
It’s possible, given all this, to imagine a plausible scenario for the conclusion of the American pandemic. The coronavirus disease toll continues to fall throughout the summer. States do away with mask mandates and capacity restrictions; people increasingly return to bars, spin classes, and airports, then to stadiums, movie theatres, and concerts. By midsummer, in communities with high vaccination rates, covid-19 starts to fade from view. In those places, even people who remain unvaccinated are protected, because so little of the virus circulates. But, in other parts of the country, low immunization rates combined with reopening allow the disease to register again. Hospitals aren’t overwhelmed—there’s no need to build new I.C.U.s or call in extra staff—but the collision between ship and iceberg is forceful, and each week thousands of people fall ill and hundreds die. Some victims are vaccine-hesitant; others were unable, for whatever reason, to get vaccinated. Still, perhaps unfairly, these outbreaks come with an aura of culpability: to people in safe parts of the country, the ill seem like smokers who get lung cancer.
In the fall, many unvaccinated children return to school. Scattered infections among them capture headlines, but serious illnesses are exceedingly rare; the overwhelming majority of children remain safe, and, with time, they, too, are immunized. The U.S. approaches something like herd immunity. Some people may still fall ill and die of covid-19—perhaps they are immunocompromised, elderly, or just unlucky—but, by and large, America has gained the upper hand. Meanwhile, in poor nations with few vaccines, the pandemic continues. As crisis wanes in one country, catastrophe ignites in another. Every so often, we learn of a new variant that’s thought to be more contagious, lethal, or vaccine-resistant than the rest; we rush to institute travel bans, only to learn that the variant, or a close cousin, is already circulating in the U.S. and has been largely subdued by the vaccines, as all previous variants have been. In the fall, Americans line up for covid booster shots alongside flu vaccines. The pandemic’s final chapter comes to a close not through official decree but with the gradual realization that covid-19 no longer dominates our lives.
Reopening a country after a pandemic isn’t like flipping a giant switch. It’s more like lighting a series of candles, illuminating one part, then another, until the whole place shines. Many states, counties, cities, and businesses will further loosen their restrictions; others will wait. Communities and individuals will approach the end of the crisis differently, as they’ve approached the rest of it. Some unvaccinated people have already been forgoing precautions; on the other hand, I’ve been vaccinated for months and, since the C.D.C. announcement, have yet to leave my mask behind—whether because of a lingering, irrational fear or simply to avoid dirty looks, I can’t say. Social norms take time to change, even when one of the world’s most respected public-health agencies is telling you to change them.
The pandemic has created not just chaos and suffering but uncertainty. It’s easy, therefore, to be doubtful about the fortunate position in which we seem to find ourselves now. As a physician, I spent the early months of the pandemic caring for covid-19 patients in New York City; they streamed into the hospital day after day, deathly ill. We raced to build covid wards, I.C.U.s, and hospice units. At the time, we had little to offer. There were no proven therapies, and certainly no vaccines. There were weeks when thousands of New Yorkers died, many of them alone in their final moments, while more people were dying across the world. I felt fear, anxiety, and sometimes despair. The scale of the damage—the lives lost, businesses shuttered, dreams shattered, children orphaned, seniors isolated—was crushing, and the path forward was both frightening and unknown.
As good news began to arrive, I greeted it with a blend of guarded skepticism and cautious optimism. First came evidence that outdoor transmission was unlikely. Then we learned that contaminated surfaces rarely spread disease; that some patients can breathe better simply by lying on their bellies; that P.P.E. works; that dexamethasone saves lives. We discovered that immunity lasts many months, perhaps years; that repeat infections are unlikely; and that variants present a surmountable challenge.
Now, study after study, in country after country, has shown that the vaccines are capable of transforming a lethal pathogen into a manageable threat. Examining and reëxamining the vaccine results, I’ve gone through stages, too—caution, hope, and, finally, clarity. We really are that close. The beginning of the end is here.