Does the United States Ration Health Care?

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/blog/2019/does-united-states-ration-health-care

MRI taking place in the U.S.

As recent congressional hearings on Medicare for All proposals have illustrated, members of Congress and presidential candidates are looking outside the United States to find ways to achieve universal coverage. Some have suggested that other countries are able to provide universal coverage because they “ration” care — a term rife with negative connotations. This post examines the extent to which health care is rationed in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom — as compared to the U.S.

Examples of health care rationing tend to focus on long wait times for procedures —such as hip replacements, or MRIs — or limited access to the newest drugs. This happens in some (but not all) countries and can be a challenge for policymakers. But there are other ways in which health systems engage in rationing, by restricting access to insurance, through insurance benefit design, or by imposing high patient cost-sharing. While other countries may ration because of national budget constraints and supply-side factors, the United States’ lack of access to comprehensive insurance and affordable care represent a de facto form of rationing that leads people to delay getting care or going without it entirely.

Getting in the Door

In the five European countries we examined, all residents are entitled to health care through the national system. These range from tax-funded systems in Sweden or the U.K. to private insurance-based systems in Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. In the latter, governments regulate premiums to be affordable and provide income-related subsidies to low-income families, which include 27 percent of Swiss and 30 percent of Dutch residents. Governments also mandate generous benefit packages that typically guarantee a minimum set of services: primary, specialty, and hospital care; prescription drugs; mental health; maternity; and palliative care.

In comparison, there are 30.4 million uninsured people in the U.S. Not having affordable, comprehensive insurance coverage often means that sick Americans do not even get in the door to see a doctor. For those who do have coverage, new rules that allow states to circumvent the Affordable Care Act’s mandated essential health benefits may mean skimpy coverage for some.

Waiting to Be Seen

Patients in some countries face longer wait times for specialty care than in the U.S., where only 25 percent of Americans need to wait longer than one month for a specialist appointment. Patients in Germany and Switzerland get in just as fast (27% and 26%, respectively) as their U.S. counterparts, but those in Sweden and the U.K. do not (45% and 43%, respectively). Similarly, very few U.S., Dutch, and Swiss patients (4% to 7%) who need elective surgery face wait times longer than four months, while 12 percent of Swedish and British patients do. It should be noted that in Sweden and the U.K., where wait times for specialty care are longer, people can buy supplemental insurance to gain quicker access to private specialists.

While Americans overall enjoy shorter wait times for specialty care, wait times for same- or next-day appointments when sick are around average compared to other countries. U.S. adults are among the most frequent users of emergency departments. Nearly half who do report doing so because they couldn’t get an appointment with their regular doctor.

Weighing Health Against Your Wallet

In a recent Commonwealth Fund survey, fewer than one of 10 patients in the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, or Sweden reported skipping needed care or treatments because of cost. This contrasts sharply with the U.S., where one of three Americans reported the same. This is partly because of the rise in high deductibles, unpredictable and opaque copayments, and higher health care prices in the U.S. than in other countries. An estimated 44 million Americans who have insurance are effectively underinsured because their out-of-pocket costs and deductibles are very high relative to their incomes.

Other countries are more protective. In the U.K., Germany, and the Netherlands, patients have no out-of-pocket costs when they visit a primary care doctor, and Brits never pay for hospital care. In Germany, out-of-pocket costs are capped at 2 percent of annual household income and 1 percent for chronically ill people. In Sweden, out-of-pocket costs for physician visits and drugs are capped at $370 annually. No one in these five countries declares bankruptcy because of medical debt.

Paying for Value

A commitment to providing universal coverage means that other countries have to make hard choices to ensure that each health care dollar is spent effectively.

Countries aim to give patients access to the most clinically meaningful and cost-effective drugs. In the U.K., only drugs that are deemed cost-effective are covered, while in Germany, manufacturers have to demonstrate that their new drug adds clinical benefit to negotiate a higher price than other existing drugs. This doesn’t mean that new technologies aren’t available; in fact, 79 percent of new cancer drugs are approved for routine use in the U.K.

These kind of controls, coupled with fixed copayments and annual caps on patient drug spending, translate into better access. While nearly one of five U.S. adults skip doses or do not fill a prescription because of costs, just 2 percent to 9 percent of patients do so in the other countries discussed here.

Conclusion

It would be a missed opportunity for America to ignore lessons about universal coverage from other countries out of a fear that they ration health care more than we do. In reality, more people in the U.S. forgo needed health care because access to care is rationed through lack of access to adequate insurance or unaffordable services and treatments.

 

 

 

2020 Election’s Healthcare Debate: Truths, Half-Truths, And Falsehoods

https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshuacohen/2019/07/08/2020-elections-healthcare-debate-truths-half-truths-and-falsehoods/#57fb72076466

Image result for health policy

are may emerge as the number one issue in the 2020 election. In itself this isn’t surprising, given that for many decades the electorate has considered healthcare a key issue.

And, the truth is healthcare access continues to be a major problem in the U.S., along with inequalities in outcomes, relatively high prices for healthcare services, and high out-of-pocket spending. Democratic presidential candidates have weighed in on these issues.

Without more clarity, however, the debate runs the risk of unraveling into exercises in sophistry.

Politicians in America have had a knack for telling half-truths or even untruths about healthcare. For example, in 2012, John Boehner claimed that “the U.S. has the best healthcare delivery system in the world.” And, just prior to signing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law, President Obama stated “if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.”

Many constituents — myself included — are also confused by certain terms used in the current debate.

Democrats appear to all want universal coverage. Among the presidential candidates there are different ideas about how to achieve the objective. One group, led by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, wants a single payer system, misnamed “Medicare for All.” When Sanders and others talk about Medicare for All, they aren’t aiming to expand the currently existing Medicare program to include all U.S. residents. Rather, they’re talking about a government program that would replace all currently existing forms of insurance, both private and public. Sanders’s plan would also substitute premiums and out-of-pocket spending with taxes. Whether this single payer system would result in lower healthcare costs for individuals – paid in the form of premiums and out-of-pocket costs, or taxes – remains to be calculated.

When Sanders and others speak of eliminating private insurance and replacing it with Medicare for All they ignore the fact that private insurance is embedded in many aspects of the Medicare program. For example, more than a third of Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan, and over 60% have their prescription drug coverage managed in stand-alone fashion by a prescription drug plan. So, in addition to the abolition of commercial private insurance, Medicare for All would radically alter the Medicare program as it operates today, which makes the name of Sanders’ plan all the more curious.

There are of course some things that presumably Medicare for All would do that the currently existing Medicare program does not, including coverage of long-term care expenses, hearing, dental, vision and foot care.

A number of candidates have proposed tinkering with the existing system by expanding Medicare eligibility, i.e., Medicare for More, and still others have proposed including a “public option” to augment ACA. Regarding the former, certain groups of people — for example, those over age 50 — would be offered the opportunity to purchase Medicare. And, in the ACA-plus scenario, certain individuals could buy into existing programs, such as Medicaid, state employee health plans, or an entirely new health plan run by the state.

One area of apparent consensus across the Medicare for All, Medicare for More, and ACA-plus camps is establishing a system in which there are lower reimbursement rates for healthcare services, which would drive down costs. Currently, there is a very sizable gap between Medicare and private health insurer reimbursement rates to hospitals and physicians. Medicare for All goes furthest in ratcheting down payments to essentially a single rate. By abolishing private insurance the rates would be reduced to Medicare levels, which are at least 40% lower. This, however, could prove to be problematic as such measures could force hospitals to close if they had to accept the rates currently paid by Medicare. Physicians would also stand to lose under a drastic rate reduction.

The healthcare industry is particularly opposed to Medicare for All because of concerns about disruption to the system – even undermining insurers’ raison d’être – and much lower reimbursement rates.

A frank discussion would be welcome regarding the implications of all proposals across the political spectrum, including ramifications of undoing the ACA. For too long, the healthcare debate on both sides of the aisle has shied away from explaining the consequences of policy proposals, or inaction for that matter.

 

 

Here’s What’s Missing From the Health-Care Debate

https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-06-28/democratic-2020-debate-medicare-for-all-and-health-care

Raise your hand if you want to debate health care.

There needs to be more frank talk and better explanations about the costs and trade-offs of plans like Medicare for All.

Health care took up a decent portion of the Democratic presidential debates this week. For all of the verbiage, we didn’t learn much new. Everybody wants universal coverage, but they have different ideas about how to get there. One group, led Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, want a single-payer system like “Medicare for All”; others, including former Vice President Joe Biden, prefer various flavors of a public option that co-exists with elements of the status quo.

Nonetheless, there were a few moments that drew attention to important issues that could (or should) shape the health-care discussion going forward: 

 

THE BIG TRADE-OFF: People who have health under Medicare for All will have no premiums, no deductibles, no co-payments, no out-of-pocket expenses,” Sanders said during Wednesday’s debate. “Yes, they will pay more in taxes, but less in health care for what they get.” Sanders was responding to a question about whether his policies would mean higher taxes for middle-class Americans; his answer elucidated an essential truth that’s still lost on many voters.

Medicare for All is at its core a shift in how America finances health care. Right now, people pay big chunks of their health costs themselves – especially when they’re sick. Sanders’s plan would replace that out-of-pocket spending with taxes. There’s an appeal to that. It’s more equitable and would eliminate situations where health crises result in bankruptcy, or costs dissuades people from seeking care. Whether this shift will result in savings for individuals will depend on tax details as well as income and health status. If such a plan can lower costs by cutting prices and eliminating insurer profits, there’s a real possibility that many Americans come out ahead. Right now, polls suggest that broad support for Medicare for All drops when people hear about tax increases. Getting voters to understand what they get in return will be critical. 

 

RAISE YOUR HAND: On both nights, the debate moderators chose to boil the health-care debate down to one yes-or-no question. Candidates who support eliminating private health insurance in favor of a single-payer system were asked to raise their hands. This is a defining divide in the field, so it was notable that Elizabeth Warren raised hers on Wednesday. She places third in most polls behind Joe Biden and Sanders, and has been vague on health care in the past. If she’s a dogmatic supporter of Sanders’s specific plan, that tilts the race in the direction of Medicare for All. I’m not sure that’s the case, though. She could end up diverging on specifics of how the U.S. should transition to a single-payer system and structure it. As the field shrinks, it will probably benefit her to stake out a place between Sanders and Biden, who supports a milder public option. A lot of candidates want to be in that space, though none have defined it well or made it their own yet. Given ambivalent polling about the details of Medicare for All and the idea of killing private insurance, this feels like an opportunity for the person who seizes it. 

 

WHAT PRICE IS RIGHT?  America spends far more than other countries on services without getting better results. That might not change without price controls for providers. Former Maryland representative John Delaney claimed on Wednesday that these types of controls would have consequences, saying that many hospitals would be forced to close if they had to accept the rates currently paid by Medicare for all services. While the truth of that statement is a matter of some debate, what isn’t in doubt is that lower reimbursement would be necessary even for milder plans, and that this could put pressure on hospital systems.

Reform-minded candidates don’t like to talk about that, which is why Delaney’s point stood out. Instead, they preferred to focus their ire on insurers and drugmakers. Drug prices and insurer overhead are important issues too, but services eat up a far more significant portion of spending. The field won’t be able to ignore that issue and the potentially disruptive consequences of dealing with it. 

These first debates got the discussion going. The devil will be in the details.

 

 

 

The Lessons of Washington State’s Watered Down ‘Public Option’

Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, signing a measure in May that puts the state on track to create the nation’s first “public option” health insurance.

Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, signing a measure in May that puts the state on track to create the nation’s first “public option” health insurance.

A big health care experiment for Democrats shows how fiercely doctors and hospitals will fight.

For those who dream of universal health care, Washington State looks like a pioneer. As Gov. Jay Inslee pointed out in the first Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday, his state has created the country’s first “public option” — a government-run health plan that would compete with private insurance.

Ten years ago, the idea of a public option was so contentious that Obamacare became law only after the concept was discarded. Now it’s gaining support again, particularly among Democratic candidates like Joe Biden who see it as a more moderate alternative to a Bernie Sanders-style “Medicare for all.”

New Mexico and Colorado are exploring whether they can move faster than Congress and also introduce state-level, public health coverage open to all residents.

But a closer look at the Washington public option signed into law last month, and how it was watered down for passage, is a reminder of why the idea ultimately failed to make it into the Affordable Care Act and gives a preview of the tricky politics of extending the government’s reach into health care.

On one level, the law is a big milestone. It allows the state to regulate some health care prices, a crucial feature of congressional public option and single-payer plans.

But the law also made big compromises that experts say will make it less powerful. To gain enough political support to pass, health care prices were set significantly higher than drafters originally hoped.

“It started out as a very aggressive effort to push down prices to Medicare levels, and ended up something quite a bit more modest,” said Larry Levitt, senior vice president for health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

So while Washington is on track to have a public option soon, it may not deliver the steep premium cuts that supporters want. The state estimates that individual market premiums will fall 5 percent to 10 percent when the new public plan begins.

“This bill is important, but it’s also relatively modest,” said David Frockt, the state senator who sponsored the bill. “When I see candidates talking about the public option, I don’t think they’re really grasping the level of opposition they’re going to face.”

During the Affordable Care Act debate, more liberal Democrats hoped a public option would reduce the uninsured rate by offering lower premiums and putting competitive pressure on private plans to do the same. President Obama backed it, saying in 2009 that such a policy would “keep the private sector honest.”

The public option came under fierce attack from the health care industry. Private health plans in particular did not look forward to competing against a new public insurer that offered lower rates, and fought against a government-run plan that they said “would significantly disrupt the coverage that people currently rely on.” The policy narrowly fell out of the health care law but never left the policy debate.

Congressional Democrats have started to revisit the idea in the past year, with health care as a top policy issue in the 2018 midterm elections.

“During the midterm elections, Medicare for all was gaining a lot of traction,” said Eileen Cody, the Washington state legislator who introduced the first version of the public option bill. “After the election, we had to decide, what do we want to do about it?”

Ms. Cody introduced a bill in January to create a public option that would pay hospitals and doctors the same prices as Medicare does, which is also how many congressional public option proposals would set fees. The Washington State Health Benefit Exchange, the marketplace that manages individual Affordable Care Act plans, estimates that private plans currently pay 174 percent of Medicare fees, making the proposed rates a steep payment cut.

“I felt that capping the rates was very important,” Ms. Cody said.“If we didn’t start somewhere, then the rates were going to keep going up.”

Doctors and hospitals in Washington lobbied against the rate regulation, arguing that they rely on private insurers’ higher payment rates to keep their doors open while still accepting patients from Medicaid, the public plan that covers lower-income Americans and generally pays lower rates.

“Politically, we were trying to be in every conversation,” says Jennifer Hanscom, executive director of the Washington State Medical Association, which lobbies on behalf of doctors. “We were trying to be in the room, saying rate setting doesn’t work for us — let’s consider some other options. As soon as it was put in the bill, that’s where our opposition started to solidify.”

Legislators were in a policy bind. The whole point of the public option was to reduce premiums by cutting health care prices. But if they cut the prices too much, they risked a revolt. Doctors and hospitals could snub the new plan, declining to participate in the network.

“The whole debate was about the rate mechanism,” said Mr. Frockt, the state senator. “With the original bill, with Medicare rates, there was strong opposition from all quarters. The insurers, the hospitals, the doctors, everybody.”

Mr. Frockt and his colleagues ultimately raised the fees for the public option up to 160 percent of Medicare rates.

“I don’t think the bill would have passed at Medicare rates,” Mr. Frockt said. “I think having the Medicare-plus rates was crucial to getting the final few votes.”

Other elements of the Washington State plan could further weaken the public option. Instead of starting an insurance company from scratch, the state decided to contract with private insurers to run the day-to-day operations of the new plan.

“It would have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars just to operate the plan,” said Jason McGill, who recently served as a senior health policy adviser to Mr. Inslee. He noted that insurers were required to maintain large financial reserves, to ensure they don’t go bankrupt if a few patients have especially costly medical bills.

“Why would we do that when there are already insurers that do that? It just didn’t make financial sense. It may one day, and we’ll stay on top of this, but we’re not willing to totally mothball the health care system quite yet.”

Hospitals and doctors will also get to decide whether to participate in the new plan, which pays lower prices than private competitors. The state decided to make participation voluntary, although state officials say they will consider revisiting that if they’re unable to build a strong network of health care providers.

Most federal versions of the public option would give patients access to Medicare’s expansive network of doctors and hospitals.

Although Mr. Frockt is proud of the new bill, he’s also measured in describing how it will affect his state’s residents. After going through the process of passing the country’s first public option, he’s cautious in his expectations for what a future president and Democratic Congress might be able to achieve. But he does have a clearer sense of what the debate will be like, and where it will focus.

“This is a core debate in the Democratic Party: Do we build on the current system, or do we move to a universal system and how do we get there?” he said. “I think the rate-setting issue is going to be vital. It’s what this is all about.”

 

 

Even Democrats prefer more moderate “Medicare for All”

https://www.axios.com/even-democrats-prefer-more-moderate-medicare-for-all-2fc79e20-70e7-47f1-890d-711ef0adeb92.html

Image result for Even Democrats prefer more moderate "Medicare for All"

Allowing people to buy into Medicare is more popular than establishing a single-payer health care system — including among Democrats, according to a recent Navigator poll.

Why it matters: Bernie Sanders made “Medicare for All” a popular concept, but even its supporters have different ideas about what it entails. And more moderate versions have the upper hand.

Between the lines: Most people don’t have a nuanced understanding of health policy, and even within the same poll, different ways of describing the same policy yielded different results.

By the numbers: Even a majority of Republicans said that they would support a Medicare buy-in, when given a choice between that or single-payer.

  • In another section of the poll, though, a 40% plurality of Republicans said “expanding Medicare” was a bad idea, and 59% said that “Medicare for anyone who wants it” is a bad idea.

Yes, but: A version of Medicare for All that eliminates private insurance is still supported by a majority of both Democrats and independents.

  • 78% of Democrats said a “universal health care system” is a good idea, 76% said that a “‘Medicare for All’ program” is a good idea, and 52% said that a “single payer health care system” is a good idea.

What they’re saying: Polling aside, I think Medicare for All is what the American people want and need,” Sanders said in a brief interview.

  • “I think the vision of a simple, seamless system of health care where you have the care that you need, your loved ones have the care that they need…is very, very appealing. Many ideas are being presented for how do we get to that,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, who has a Medicare buy-in proposal.

The bottom line: There’s plenty of opportunity to sway the health care debate, but moderate Democrats seem to have the most popular ideas right now.