It’s Thanksgiving Eve. Which for Health 202 begs this question: What is everyone thankful for this year when it comes to health policy?
We suspect that maybe – just maybe –you’d get vastly different answers from doctors versus insurers versus drugmakers versus consumers versus any other stakeholder in the $3.6 trillion U.S. health-care industry complex. Everyone has competing interests, which is a prime reason why the country’s besetting problems of ever-rising costs and subpar medical outcomes never quite seem to get solved.
So before you tune out the news cycle for Turkey Day, here’s our best guess at what’s giving each health-care stakeholder an attitude of gratitude.
—The White House and Republicans: Democrats are fixated on Medicare-for-all.
The GOP could hardly be more eager to focus on Medicare-for-all proposals from the Democratic presidential candidates. They view it as a way to veer the political conversation away from their own, unpopular actions on health-care policy and to depict Democrats as out-of-touch with voters.
President Trump and his top health officials have repeatedly decried Medicare-for-all, including during an October speech where the president announced an executive order boosting the role of private plans in the Medicare program.
“Every major Democrat in Washington has backed a massive government health care takeover that would totally obliterate Medicare,” the president said during that address. “These Democratic policy proposals … may go by different names, whether it’s single payer or the so-called public option, but they’re all based on the totally same terrible idea: They want to raid Medicare to fund a thing called socialism.”
—Democrats: The Trump administration is refusing to defend the Affordable Care Act.
Democrats are well aware that the refusal by Trump’s Justice Department to defend the Affordable Care Act from a challenge by GOP-led states is a political gift. They spent the 2018 election castigating the administration for not standing by the health-care law’s protections for patients with preexisting conditions – and it helped them win the House majority.
They plan to hammer that message again in 2020, as they seek the White House.
—The Department of Health and Human Services: Obamacare hasn’t been struck down (yet).
A federal appeals court is expected to rule any time now on the challenge to the ACA, which was upheld by a lower court last year. As The Health 202 has written, the decision against defending the law was a deeply controversial one inside the administration.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, tried to persuade the White House to defend the law. If the courts ultimately strike down the ACA, the administration will be on the hook to propose a replacement that would preserve health coverage for millions of Americans who gained it under the health-care law.
—Health-care advocates: Marketplace premiums are somewhat more affordable.
After several rough years for the ACA’s individual marketplaces, they got some good news this year. Average premiums for mid-level “silver” plans fell four percent for 2020 – a marked shift from the double-digit increases shoppers have typically seen.
That doesn’t mean plans are suddenly affordable for consumers ineligible for government subsidies. But it does mean insurers have found a sustainable way to keep participating in the marketplaces – and the marketplaces are here to stay for people without access to employer-sponsored coverage.
—Drugmakers: Chances for a major, bipartisan drug pricing deal this year are fading.
One of the pharmaceutical industry’s biggest fears is that Congress passes legislation allowing the federal government to directly negotiate lower prices in the Medicare program – a move the industry describes as government “price-fixing.”
Trump used to support allowing direct negotiations, and his staff was even in discussions with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office earlier this fall over the potential for a bipartisan effort along these lines.
But the president and his aides have increasingly distanced themselves from Pelosi’s bill to allow direct negotiations. Now it looks like House Democrats will pass that measure as a messaging tactic, only to see it blocked in the GOP-led Senate. A bipartisan Senate bill capping how much drugmakers can annually raise prices has somewhat better prospects, but even that measure has made many Republicans suspicious.
In the end, only minor and less-controversial drug pricing measures may end up being attached to a longer-term spending bill.
—Doctors and hospitals: Any legislation protecting patients from “surprise” medical bills will almost certainly include arbitration – an approach that means higher payments for them.
Virtually every member of Congress agrees American patients should be protected from the surprise bills that can result when they visit an emergency department outside their health plan’s provider network or get care from an out-of-network provider at an in-network hospital.
But how to solve that has turned into an insurers-versus-doctors food fight.
Insurers and the Trump administration want to use a benchmarking approach to resolve out-of-network bills, in which the payments are tied to average prices in the same geographic area. That approach would save the government money, the Congressional Budget Office has said.
But doctors – and some dark-money groups that represent their interests – have been spending millions of dollars to push Congress toward adopting an approach called arbitration. In arbitration, which CBO has said would cost the government more money, the medical provider and the insurer each submit a bid to a third party arbiter, who then make a final decision.
Doctors believe arbitration would translate to beefier payments for them – and outcomes from New York’s arbitration system supports that notion. So if Congress passes surprise billing legislation, it will likely include some element of arbitration given the heavy influence by the doctor lobby.
—Regular Americans: Not much.
We hate to say it, readers, but there’s little for you to be thankful for this year when it comes to health-care policy. Costs for employer-sponsored coverage are going up and coverage plans are getting less generous. Congress appears unable to pass major reforms on the biggest consumer concerns. And the next election is likely to result in a government severely split over how to improve health-care – making it likely the status quo will prevail for some time.
But Happy Thanksgiving, anyway!