Healthcare Is The No. 1 Issue For Voters; A New Poll Reveals Which Healthcare Issue Matters Most

Depending on which news outlet, politician or pundit you ask, American voters will soon participate in the most important midterm election “in many years,” “in our lifetime” or even “in our country’s history.”

The stakes of the November 2018 elections are high for many reasons, but no issue is more important to voters than healthcare. In fact, NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that healthcare was the No. 1 issue in a poll of potential voters.

What’s curious about that survey, however, is that the pollsters didn’t ask the next, most-logical question.

What Healthcare Issue, Specifically, Matters Most To Voters?

To answer this question, I surveyed readers of my monthly newsletter. Will the opioid crisis sway voters at the polls? What about abortion rights? The price of drugs? The cost of insurance?

To understand the significance of these results, look closely at the top four:

  1. Prescription drug pricing (58%)
  2. Universal/single-payer coverage (57%)
  3. Medicare funding (50%)
  4. Medicaid funding (40%)

Notice a pattern here? All of these healthcare issues come down to one thing: money.

Healthcare Affordability: The New American Anxiety

Because the majority of my newsletter readers operate in the field of healthcare, they’re well informed about the industry’s macroeconomics. They understand healthcare consumes 18% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and that national healthcare spending now exceeds $3.4 trillion annually. The readers also know that Americans aren’t getting what they pay for. The United States has the lowest life expectancy and highest childhood mortality rate among the 11 wealthiest nations, according to the Commonwealth Fund Report. But these macroeconomic issues and global metrics are not what keeps healthcare professionals or their patients up at night.

Eight in 10 Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Most don’t have the savings to cover out-of-pocket expenses should they experience a serious or prolonged illness. In fact, half of U.S. adults say that one large medical bill would force them to borrow money. The reality is that a cancer diagnosis or an expensive, lifelong prescription could spell financial disaster for the majority of Americans. Today, 62% of bankruptcy filings are due to medical bills.

To understand how we’ve arrived at this healthcare affordability crisis, we need to examine the evolution of healthcare financing and accountability over the past decade.

The Recent History Of Healthcare’s Money Problems

Until the 21st century, the only Americans who worried about whether they could afford medical care were classified as poor or uninsured. Today, the middle class and insured are worried, too.

How we got here is a story of evolving policies, poor financial planning and, ultimately, buck passing.

A big part of the problem was the rate of healthcare cost inflation, which has averaged nearly twice the annual rate of GDP growth. But there are other contributing factors, as well.

Take the evolution of Medicare, for example, the federal insurance program for seniors. For most of the program’s history, the government reimbursed doctors and hospitals at (approximately) the same rate as commercial insurers. That started to change after a series of federal budget cuts (19972011) and sequestration (2013) reduced provider payments. Today, Medicare reimburses only 90% of the costs its enrollees incur and commercial insurers are forced to make up the difference. As a result, businesses see their premiums rise each year, not only to offset the growth in their employee’s medical expenses, but also to compensate hospitals and physicians for the unreimbursed portion of the cost of caring for Medicare patients.

Combine two high-cost factors: general health care inflation and price constraints imposed by Medicare and what you get are insurance premiums rising much faster than business revenues.

To compensate, companies are shifting much of the added expense to their employees. The most effective way to do so: Raise deductibles. By increasing the maximum deductible annually, the company reduces the magnitude of its expenses the following year, at least until that limit is reached. A decade ago, only 5% of workers were enrolled in a high-deductible health plan. That number soared to 39.4% by 2016, and jumped again to 43.2% the following year.

High-deductible coverage holds individual patients and their families responsible for a major portion of annual healthcare costs, anywhere from $1,350 to $6,650 per person or $2,700 to $13,3000 per family. This exceeds what the average available savings for most American families and helps to explain the growing financial angst in this country.

And it’s not just employees under the age of 65 who are anxious. Medicare enrollees also fear that the cost of care will drain their savings. As drug prices continue to soar, Medicare enrollees are hitting what has been labeled “the donut hole,” which means that once the cost of their “Part D” prescriptions reaches a certain threshold, patients are on the hook for a significant part of the cost. Now, more and more seniors find themselves having to pay thousands of dollars a year for essential medications.

When it comes to paying for healthcare, the United States is an anxious nation in search of relief. The fear of not being able to afford out-of-pocket requirements is the reason so many voters have made healthcare their No. 1 priority as they head to the polls this November. And it’s why both parties are scrambling to deliver the right campaign message.

On Healthcare, Each Party Is A House Divided

In the last presidential election, the Democratic Party chose a traditional candidate, Hilary Clinton, whose views on healthcare were closer to the center than her leading challenger, Bernie Sanders. Two years later, the party is divided by those who believe that (a) the only way to regain control of Congress is by fronting centrist candidates who support and want to strengthen the Affordable Care Act as the best way to attract undecided and independent voters, and (b) those who will accept nothing less than a government-run single payer system: Medicare for all. The primary election of New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Sanders supporter, over long-time incumbent Joseph Crowley, represents this growing rift within the party.

The Republicans also face two competing ideologies on healthcare. Since his election in 2016, President Donald Trump has sought to dismantle the ACA. In addition, he and his political allies want to shift control of Medicaid (the insurance program for low-income Americans) from the federal government to the states—a move that would lower healthcare spending while eroding coverage protection. There are others in the Republican Party who worry that shrinking Medicaid or undermining the health exchanges will come back to bite them. Most of them live and campaign in states where voters support the ACA.

Do The Parties Agree On Anything?

Regardless of party, everyone, from the president to the most fervent single-payer advocate, understands that voters are angry about the cost of their medications and the associated out-of-pocket expenses. And, not surprisingly, each party blames the other for our current situation. Last week, the president gave the Medicare program greater ability to reign in costs for medications administered in a physician’s office. In addition, Trump has promised a major announcement this week to achieve other reductions in drug costs. Of course, generous campaign contributions may dim the enthusiasm either party has for change once the voting is over.

Playing “What If” With Healthcare’s Future

If both chambers remain Republican controlled, we can expect further erosion of the ACA with more exceptions to coverage mandates and progressively less enforcement of its provisions. For Republicans, a loss of either the Senate (a long-shot) or the House (more likely), would slow this process.

But regardless of what happens in the midterms, no one should expect Congress to solve healthcare’s cost challenge soon. Instead, patient anxiety will continue to escalate for three reasons.

First, none of the espoused legislative options will do much to address the inefficiencies in the current delivery system. Therefore, prices will continue to rise and businesses will have little choice but to shift more of the cost on to their workers.

Second, the Fed will persist in limiting Medicare reimbursement to doctors and hospitals, further aggravating the economic problems of American businesses. whose premium rates will rise faster than overall healthcare inflation.

Finally, compromise will prove even more elusive since so many leading candidates represent the extremes of the political spectrum.

Politics, the economy and healthcare will all be deeply entangled this November and for years to come. I believe the safest path, relative to improving the nation’s health, is toward the center. Amending the more problematic parts of the ACA is better than either of the two extreme positions. If our nation progressively undermines the current coverage provisions, millions of Americans will see their access to care erode. And on the other end, a Medicare-for-all healthcare system will produce large increases in utilization and cost.

It’s anyone’s guess what will happen in three months. But, whatever the outcome, I can guarantee that two years from now healthcare will remain top-of-mind for voters.



2018 Mid-Term Healthcare Issues

Senate Democrats used their truncated August recess to talk to their constituents about one key issue: Health care. 

And though they are returning to Washington tonight, they have no plans to stop talking about it. 

That’s a remarkable turnaround for Democrats who have been on the defensive about health care for the better part of a decade. Obamacare played a major role in their loss of control of the House in the first midterm election of President Obama’s presidency in 2010. But now, they’re hoping to take back the House and retain their seats in the Senate largely by running on the merits of the Affordable Care Act.

Over their 10-day mini break, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) held a roundtable discussion with voters about health care, as did Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who held his third roundtable this year focused specifically on pre-existing conditions. And Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) also met with voters with pre-existing conditions on Tuesday.

“Cutting people off from insurance and making it harder for people to get insurance, we’re all still gonna pay the bill because in America we’re not going to stop people at the door at the emergency room and I’m sorry you don’t have health insurance, we’re gonna let you die,” she said, according to Missourinet.

In Nevada, Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, who is hoping to unseat GOP Sen. Dean Heller, also held a public meeting with voters with pre-existing conditions.  Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) met with health care providers and patients to talk pre-existing conditions, and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who is vying for the open Senate seat there, also met with constituent groups to discuss health care.

“It doesn’t matter which community you are in, health care is the number-one issue that Arizonans are talking about,” Sinema told the Arizona Daily Star. “It is not just Arizonans who don’t have health-care coverage, many of those who are expressing concerns and fear are Arizonans who do have coverage but cannot afford it.”

As campaign cycles go, it’s still early in this one. And the deluge of ads will really heat up come fall. Republicans still see an opening to talk about rising costs of health care and President Trump continues to declare that the ACA is dead. But unlike years past when the GOP could run on an anti-Obamacare message, this year the party is more likely to focus on other issues like tax cuts and job creation. 

It’s harder for GOP candidates to make their case that health care policy is failing in the first election where they are in control of both houses in Congress and the White House. And recent scuttlebutt that Republicans would consider another repeal effort if they held Congress may not be helpful this cycle.

And so Democrats, if August activity is the precursor to the fall campaign, are going all in on health care. 

Earlier this month, the New York Times’ Margot Sanger-Katz had a great anecdote from an event with McCaskill. The senator, who may be in the toughest fight of her career, asked voters to stand if they have a pre-existing condition. There were reportedly few people left in their seats.

The Democrats and the groups who support them have homed in specifically on the warning that if the ACA is struck down, people with pre-existing conditions would lose protection. Notably, McCaskill and Manchin, two of the Democrats’ most vulnerable members, are running against state attorneys general who joined a lawsuit arguing the ACA should be deemed unconstitutional. If the law were struck down, it would take with it protections for people with past and current health conditions.

Before the Senate left, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.)  pledged to keep health care front and center this month in Congress, which is in keeping with Democrats’ election strategy this year.  Schumer’s office declined to show its hand, but on the floor he detailed exactly what the Democrats would be pushing for, including votes to protect people with pre-existing conditions and a Medicare buy-in program. They’re unlikely to get those votes, but that’s all part of the game plan to keep the attention on health care.

“The number one thing Americans want is health care, and we Democrats will spend August recess focusing on that issue, and forcing Republicans to cast votes or deny votes on those important issues,” Schumer said. “It’s a great opportunity, not just for Democrats, not just for Republicans, but for America. We are going to do it.”

The first television ad the campaign arm for the Democrats released in 2017 was about health care. It showed a man selling his car and a woman pawning her engagement ring. Then it cuts to them sitting at the hospital bedside of a sick child.

Most of the heavy ad buys are still to come, but an independent analysis of political ads so far this cycle found pro-Democrat ads have been overwhelmingly about health care.  According to Kantar Media/CMAG data by the Wesleyan Media Project, “An astounding 63 percent of pro-Democratic ads for U.S. House discuss healthcare, and 16 percent contain an explicit statement about being in favor of the Affordable Care Act. U.S. Senate contests are less likely to feature health care, but it is still the top issue, appearing in over a quarter (28 percent) of all ad airings.”

Take Rosen, the congresswoman running against Heller. She has a television ad that shows her talking to voters about their anxieties over the ACA being repealed. She says in the ad that ACA has “real problems,” but repealing it isn’t the answer. 

It’s a strategy divergent from previous years when Democrats were defensive of their support for Obamacare. They’d make macro arguments about the millions of people who would lose coverage without it. But now, with the focus on pre-existing conditions, they’ve found a way to make it personal and accessible for voters. 

“What we’re seeing on the trail is that health care remaining the defining issue of the election and voters are aware and concerned that GOP policies will increase their costs and jeopardize their coverage and voters are preparing to hold GOP candidates accountable on this issue,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

When asked, most Republicans will say they support keeping protections for pre-existing conditions. For example, when asked, McCaskill’s opponent, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, said he thinks“insurance companies should be forced to cover pre-existing conditions.”

For his part, Hawley’s first television ad of the campaign was about his work as a clerk on the Supreme Court and accused McCaskill of supporting “liberal activist judges.”

In a press release in response to the ad, McCaskill’s campaign said, “Josh Hawley is suing to strip protections for nearly 2.5 million Missourians with pre-existing conditions.”




Drug Trade Group Quietly Spends ‘Dark Money’ To Sway Policy And Voters

Drug Trade Group Quietly Spends ‘Dark Money’ To Sway Policy And Voters


In 2010, before the Affordable Care Act was passed by Congress, the pharmaceutical industry’s top lobbying group was a very public supporter of the measure. It even helped fund a multimillion-dollar TV ad campaignbacking passage of the law.

But last year, when Republicans mounted an aggressive effort to repeal and replace the law, the group made a point of staying outside the fray.

“We’ve not taken a position,” said Stephen Ubl, head of the organization, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, known as PhRMA, in a March 2017 interview.

That stance, however, was at odds with its financial support of another group, the American Action Network, which was heavily involved in that effort to put an end to the ACA, often referred to as Obamacare, spending an estimated $10 million on an ad campaign designed to build voter support for its elimination.

“Urge him to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act now,” one ad running in early 2017 advised viewers to tell their congressman. That and similar material (including robocalls) paid for by the American Action Network ran numerous times last year in 75 congressional districts.

PhRMA was one of AAN’s biggest donors the previous year, giving it $6.1 million, federal regulatory filings show. And PhRMA had a substantial interest in the outcome of the repeal efforts. Among other actions, the GOP-backed health bill would have eliminated a federal fee paid by pharmaceutical companies, one estimated at $28 billion over a decade.

But there was no way the public could have known at the time about PhRMA’s support of AAN or the identity of other deep-pocketed financiers behind the group.

Unlike groups receiving its funds, PhRMA and similar nonprofits must report the grants in their own filings to the Internal Revenue Service. But the disclosures don’t occur until months or sometimes more than a year after the donation.

The conservative-leaning AAN has become one of the most prominent nonprofits for funneling “dark money” — difficult-to-trace funds behind TV ads, phone calls, grass-roots organizing and other investments used to influence politics. Such groups have thrived since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which loosened rules for corporate political spending, and amid what critics say is nonexistent policing of remaining rules by the IRS.

(It’s impossible to know from public records whether PhRMA donated before or after President Donald Trump’s victory, which made repealing the health law a substantial possibility. In any case, most donations to dark-money groups are not earmarked for a particular program.)

Generally speaking, dark-money groups are politically active organizations, often nonprofits, that are not required to disclose identities of their donors. Under IRS regulations, donors may fund a nonprofit group such as AAN, which is allowed to engage in political activities and is not required to reveal its funding sources.

Dark-money groups are often chartered under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax law, which grants tax exemption to “social welfare organizations.” For those seeking to influence politics but stay in the background, 501(c)(4) designations offer two big advantages: tax exemption and no requirement to disclose donors.

Against the backdrop of high drug prices and its heaviest political expenditures in years, the pharmaceutical industry is directing substantial resources through AAN and other such groups that hide the identity of their donors and have few if any limits on fundraising.

“PhRMA has always been very aggressive and very effective in their influence efforts,” said Michael Beckel, research manager at Issue One, a nonprofit devoted to campaign-finance transparency. “That includes using these new, dark-money vehicles to influence policy and elections.”

PhRMA’s $6.1 million, unrestricted donation to AAN was its single-biggest grant in 2016, dwarfing its $130,000 contribution to the same group the year before. Closely associated with House Republicans — AAN has a former Republican senator and two former Republican House members on its board — the group backed the failed GOP health bill intended to replace the Affordable Care Act. It also supported the successful Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which reduced corporate taxes by hundreds of billions of dollars over a decade.

So far in this election cycle, AAN has given more than $19 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC with which it shares an address and staff, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The fund recently ran ads opposing Democratic candidates in high-profile special congressional elections in Georgia and Pennsylvania.

PhRMA disputes the suggestion that it backs particular actions by the recipients of its donations. “PhRMA engages with groups and organizations that have a wide array of health care opinions and policy priorities,” said its spokesman, Robert Zirkelbach. “It is inaccurate and would be inappropriate for you to attribute those grants to a specific campaign.”

AAN declined several requests for comment.

Including AAN, PhRMA gave nearly $10 million in 2016 to politically active groups that don’t have to disclose donors, its most recent filing with the IRS shows. By contrast, PhRMA and its political action committee, or PAC, made only about $1 million in comparatively transparent political donations in 2015 and 2016 that were disclosed to regulators and reported by the Center for Responsive Politics.

PhRMA’s 2016 political activities included support for the Republican National Convention. Rather than directly support the Cleveland convention, which several companies pulled out of after it became clear that Donald Trump was going to be the presidential nominee, PhRMA routed $150,000 through limited liability companies with names like Convention Services 2016 and Friends of the House 2016.

Like 501(c)(4)s, LLCs do not have to disclose their donors. PhRMA’s support was revealed in IRS filings more than a year later. (Donations by PhRMA and other groups to Friends of the House, which financed a luxury lounge for convention dignitaries, were first reported by the Center for Public Integrity last fall.)

PhRMA’s surge in donations to AAN coincides with the arrival of Ubl, who took over as president and CEO in 2015 and has long-standing ties to Norm Coleman, a former U.S. senator from Minnesota who is now AAN’s chairman. Ubl once ran the lobby for makers of knee implants, heart stents and other medical devices, one of whose most powerful members, Medtronic, is based in Minneapolis.

Dues paid by member drug companies rose by 50 percent after he got there. PhRMA’s total revenue increased by nearly a fourth in 2016, according to IRS filings.

PhRMA’s 2016 dark-money contributions included $150,000 to Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group associated with billionaires Charles and David Koch. Their group has already signaled it will be active in November’s elections, running attack ads against Sen. Jon Tester, a vulnerable Montana Democrat, for not supporting ACA repeal.

PhRMA also gave $50,000 to Americans for Tax Reform, run by conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.

PhRMA and other trade associations donate to such groups “to avoid attracting attention” amid the political fray, said Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability, which seeks to shed light on corporate political spending. Nevertheless “they’re achieving their goals by giving money to these folks and helping elect members that are going to be in support of them.”

Mostly smaller amounts went to centrist and liberal groups. Center Forward, which claims to seek bipartisan, common ground on drug policy and other issues, got $300,000 directly from PhRMA and another $179,000 from a PhRMA-backed group called the Campaign for Medical Discovery, according to tax filings.

Zirkelbach disputed the notion that PhRMA donations to AAN and other groups were intended to achieve specific goals, saying, “We seek to work with organizations we agree with as well as those where we have disagreements on public policy issues.”

Much of the work by PhRMA-linked, dark-money groups touches health policy and harmonizes with PhRMA’s positions.

During debates over the tax overhaul, Center Forward worked to preserve a tax credit for researching rare-disease medicines known as orphan drugs. PhRMA took a similar stance, encouraging Congress “to maintain incentives” for rare-disease drugs.

AAN, which collected total contributions and grants of $14.6 million for fiscal 2016, launched a $2.6 million mass-mailing and ad campaign against letting Medicare lower drug prices through negotiations. PhRMA supported that stance, telling Healthline that such a measure could jeopardize seniors’ access to medicine and discourage companies from developing drugs.

Americans for Tax Reform ran similar ads in local markets opposing “price controls” on prescription drugs.

PhRMA’s dark-money allies push its agenda without disclosing its role, critics say.

PhRMA is “spending millions of dollars on politics every cycle, and they’re splitting it up between the state and federal level,” said Robert Maguire, political nonprofits investigator for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations. “They’re just not running the political ads themselves,” which keeps their name off the product, he said.

A group called Caregiver Voices United, which got $720,000 from PhRMA in 2016, backed a secret effort to generate letters opposing a drug-transparency bill in Oregon. The campaign surfaced when an employee leaked phone-script documents to a lawmaker, as reported in February by The Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene.

Caregiver Voices United is “not influenced” by PhRMA or any other outside group, said John Schall, its president.

Dark-money groups received pharmaceutical industry money from individual companies as well, not just the PhRMA trade organization.

In 2016, Amgen gave $7,500 to Third Way, a center-left group that supports reimbursement for drugs and medical devices based on their results, according to the Center for Political Accountability. Johnson & Johnson gave $35,000 that year to the Republican Main Street Partnership, a 501(c)(4) that describes itself as a coalition of lawmakers committed to “conservative, pragmatic government,” the CPA data show.

But CPA’s research also reveals that many pharmaceutical companies don’t disclose donations made to 501(c)(4) organizations, nor are they legally required to.

Corporations “could dump millions into one of these (c)(4)s and nobody would ever know where it came from,” said Steven Billet, a former AT&T lobbyist who teaches PAC management at George Washington University.


Welcome to the New Health-Care Debate

America’s health-care debate is entering a new phase. Liberals, inspired by self-described socialists such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative-to-be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are excited about the possibility of “Medicare for All.” Republicans have at the same time largely abandoned efforts to enact major reforms of health care.

This new phase of the debate is full of opportunity for Republicans, and peril for conservatives.

But perhaps it would be better to say that the debate is reverting to an older pattern. For roughly four decades, liberals have highlighted the flaws of the existing health-care system, chiefly high costs and unequal access, and proposed increased governmental involvement as the solution. Conservatives talked up the dangers of bigger government, chiefly even higher costs and the disruption of existing arrangements, and reminded voters of the virtues of the status quo.

Most of the time, health care has been a back-burner issue, and discontent with the system has been a modest source of political strength for liberals. When health care has become a dominant issue, however, public fear of disruption has helped conservatives. From 2009 through 2016, Republicans were able to exploit public unhappiness with the changes that Obamacare first threatened to make and then did make.

There have been two brief exceptions to this pattern. In 1995-96 and 2017-18, Republicans advanced their own sweeping changes to health policy. Led by Newt Gingrich 20 years ago, they tried to reform Medicare and Medicaid. Over the last two years, they tried to replace Obamacare and reform Medicaid. 1

Both times the public’s fear of change was turned against Republican politicians, who did not like the pressure one bit. Most of them are relieved to have dropped their party’s Obamacare and Medicaid proposals. They are eager to settle into the familiar role of criticizing liberal health-care proposals.

There’s plenty to criticize. In polls, most people say they like their existing insurance policies — which may be a way for them to signal to politicians that they fear their meddling with those policies. The single-payer plans that are ascending among Democrats would by definition threaten most existing coverage.

These plans pose much bigger political risks than Obamacare did. Obamacare was carefully designed to insulate Democrats from charges that they were turning people’s coverage upside down.

In selling the legislation, President Barack Obama spent much of his time reassuring people that they could keep their doctors and their insurance plans if they liked them. The law mostly avoided changes to the employer-provided coverage through which most Americans get health care.

Yet Obamacare still provoked a backlash. That backlash was especially intense when, in the fall of 2013, it resulted in a significant number of plan cancellations. But many voters have also resented the narrower networks and higher premiums and deductibles that Obamacare has foisted on them.

As even more sweeping left-wing proposals move to the center of the debate, Republicans can reclaim the advantage of opposing disruption. But they may also again be saddled with the disadvantage of being associated with an unsatisfactory status quo.

They are in charge of Congress and the White House; they have been talking about reworking the health-care system for years; and they have succeeded in making significant changes, albeit much less ambitious ones than they sought. They have, for example, ended the fines on people without health insurance that were a major part of Obamacare. In addition, the Trump administration is in the process of liberalizing the rules for short-term insurance plans that do not have to comply with the regulations Obamacare imposes on most other plans.

The Republicans therefore have some, and growing, political ownership of the health-care system. The more they argue against left-wing proposals to change the system, the more ownership they will have.

For Republican politicians, defending even a flawed status quo is probably preferable to trying to impose disruptive changes to it. But if they adopt that position, it will mean that the only solutions on offer to popular concerns about health care will be left-wing ones.

It will mean, as well, that occasionally liberals will have enough political power to enact some, and maybe a lot, of their preferred changes to the system. We will move, that is, toward a health-care system with a larger and larger degree of governmental control even as Republicans make political gains by resisting that trend.

The new shape of the debate may be good news for Republican politicians, then, but it’s bad news for conservatives who favor limited government and free markets.

  1. Arguably there was a third exception: In 2011 and 2012, Paul Ryan led congressional Republicans to endorse increasing competition within Medicare as part of their budget proposals. They did not, however, attempt to advance legislation that would actually change Medicare.





How drug companies are beating Trump at his own game

People pass the Pfizer headquarters in New York. |Getty Images


Recent price freezes and rollbacks are symbolic measures with little lasting impact.

A July tweet from President Donald Trump sent panic through the C-suites of some of the world’s biggest drug companies, prompting Pfizer and nine other companies to roll back or freeze prices.

But there’s less to those announcements than meets the eye. The gestures turned out to be largely symbolic — efforts to beat Trump at his own game by giving him headlines he wants without making substantive changes in how they do business.

The token concessions are “a calculated risk,” said one drug lobbyist. “Take these nothing-burger steps and give the administration things they can take credit for.”

Of the few companies that actually cut prices, for instance, most targeted old products that no longer produce much revenue — such as Merck’s 60 percent discount to a hepatitis C medicine that had no U.S. revenues in the first quarter.

Others volunteered to halt price increases for six months — in some cases, just weeks after announcing what is normally their last price hike for the year.

“A lot of this shit is meaningless to satisfy Trump,” said another drug lobbyist.

The industry’s deft response to Trump’s tweet shaming has also become a test of whether his administration is serious about following up with an aggressive crackdown on the companies or will simply declare victory based on token measures and move on.

“I think right now it’s a lot of noise, not a lot of substantial impact to the companies,” said Les Funtleyder, a health care portfolio manager at E Squared Asset Management, which owns shares in Pfizer. The prospect for meaningful change “is out there … but that will take motivation on the part of regulators and policymakers.”

Analysts are in broad agreement that the spate of recent concessions won’t hurt bottom lines, or rein in drug prices beyond this six-month period, because many companies already increased prices this year — in some cases, just weeks before publicly pledging to freeze them for the rest of 2018.

“There’s the glass-half-full and glass-half-empty interpretation,” said Walid Gellad, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh. “Glass half full says we have never before seen pharma promise not to raise prices anymore. So this is a step forward — including for patients. Glass half empty is that these are token measures — either on drugs few people use, or drugs that just had their price raised, and that prices will just go up next year.”

Either way, Gellad said, “this is not the kind of structural change we want in the market so that prices go down.”

Drug prices are a fixation for Trump, who rants about them in conversations with aides and advisers, according to people close to the president. He sees the issue as a political winner, especially among his conservative — and largely older — base, which relies heavily on prescription drugs. And after facing huge hurdles moving his legislative priorities through Congress, he sees this as something he can win on by using his executive authority.

That has put huge pressure on Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former top official of Eli Lilly and Co.

“They talk three times a week, and they never have a conversation where drug pricing isn’t a topic,” said one person briefed on the conversations, adding that Trump has also interrupted Cabinet meetings to encourage Azar to brief the group on the latest developments.

But even as Azar implements his 44-page blueprint aimed at lowering prices, Trump has grown impatient with the glacial pace of rulemaking and arcane details of drug policy.

His outlet is Twitter, where he can marshal the rage of his millions of followers in an instant. White House aides say he sees his Pfizer tweet as a warning shot to other drug companies — part of a public “shaming” campaign designed to pressure companies to take voluntary steps to lower prices.

That strategy diverges sharply from what Azar is saying publicly — raising doubts about how serious the administration is about cracking down on drugmakers.

The HHS secretary’s rhetoric often targets pharmacy benefits managers — the obscure middlemen who manage the drug side of patients’ health insurance benefits — not drug companies. And targeting the middlemen is a play directly out of pharma’s strategy book — drug companies have long sought to pin patients’ frustration with rising costs on PBMs. HHS has also signaled it wants to overhaul a drug discount program for hospitals that could put money back in pharma’s pocket.

Pfizer CEO Ian Read himself praised the president’s blueprint on the company’s recent second-quarter earnings call, just a few weeks after Trump’s Pfizer tweet.

“I don’t think the administration is gunning for [pharma],” said Ronny Gal, a financial analyst at Sanford Bernstein. Everything they are doing right now is “scratching around the problem,” he said.

“You can tell by the way the stock has performed that investors aren’t too concerned,” Funtleyder said. “They figure, ‘OK, the pharma companies waved the white flag for now, so they’re out of the cross hairs.‘”

Meanwhile, HHS and drug industry officials have worked closely to show Trump they are getting results, administration and pharmaceutical industry sources tell POLITICO.

In private meetings with drug officials, HHS officials ask what steps they’ve taken that they might relay to Trump to keep the president satisfied, said drug company sources.

“They’re also like, ‘Hey, don’t be stupid. If you’re going to do something you feel like we can mutually take some credit for, let us know. … If you can get a good tweet out of it, don’t be an idiot. Let us know [ahead of time],’” said one person familiar with the conversations.

“They’ve said: ‘What would it take for you to lower prices?’” said another top drug industry official.

“There is a real fear that Trump only understands things very simplistically,” said a lobbyist for several drug companies. “So they want to keep tossing treats for him or he will go after blunt instruments,” like government drug price negotiations — steps neither the conservative leadership at HHS nor the drug industry want.

Observers both inside HHS and outside the administration see Azar’s drug pricing team as a buffer for the drug industry.

“To be candid, the secretary is pro-patient, pro-innovation and pro-competition and, quite frankly, really standing in between the industry and some faster ways to lower prices that some would say are not pro-competition,” said HHS’ John O’Brien, a senior adviser to Azar, at a drug cost event one day after Trump’s tweet attacking Pfizer.

Azar prefers the industry and HHS work to make change together, rather than it being adversarial, according to people familiar with HHS’ strategy.

He publicly touts industry price freezes and reversals “in part to show Trump they’re making progress, but also to show the industry that you get recognized for playing ball,” said a person familiar with the discussions.

The White House, meanwhile, was thrilled about the industry’s recent price freezes, even as officials acknowledged the companies’ announcements are only a first step — and promised what one official characterized as a “deluge” of drug price-related regulatory action in the coming months.

“Nothing about what they do or don’t do is going to really turn the tide in a major, major way on a voluntary basis,” the official said of the drug companies’ actions, promising that the administration will take aggressive action.

In the meantime, the White House isn’t ruling out more Twitter shaming.

“You’ll see continuing of the tweeting and announcing different actors doing good or bad things in the market,” the official said.

That will get particularly tricky for the industry come January, when drugmakers would typically take their biggest price increases of the coming year — and when their public concessions sunset.

“They can live with the changes that were made — but they can’t live with not raising prices forever,” Gal said. “It’s a noose they put their head into. In January, we will see what happens with that noose. Does it tighten or not?”


Do States Know the Status of Their Short-Term Health Plan Markets?

Short term plans

The Trump administration this week issued a final rule reversing federal limits on short-term health coverage, allowing such plans to become a long-term alternative to individual market coverage. Starting in October, insurers will be allowed to sell short-term plans for just under 12 months, up from the current federal limit of three months. And in a sharp break from prior regulations, insurers can renew short-term plans for up to 36 months. The rule does strengthen a consumer notice required in application materials, but the notice does not need to inform consumers of all limitations and “fine print.” Importantly, the rule does not preempt state regulation that includes shorter limits on coverage.

Short-term plans are not required to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) consumer protections, meaning insurers that sell these policies can deny coverage to individuals with preexisting conditions and are not required to cover essential health benefits. These plans are typically marketed to healthy consumers, for whom coverage with limited benefits and a low premium may appear attractive.

In the past, many state insurance departments have had to warn residents about deceptive marketing practices sometimes undertaken by short-term plan sellers, which can lead consumers to believe they are buying a comprehensive policy when they are not. During the fall open-enrollment seasons for ACA marketplaces, these plans will be competing for consumers’ premium dollars with comprehensive coverage, introducing the possibility of still greater consumer confusion.

We surveyed the Departments of Insurance (DOIs) in the 17 state-based ACA marketplace states to understand how the market for short-term coverage is working on the eve of this policy shift. We found that most states have little information about the status of their current short-term plan markets. Additionally, inconsistencies in how states have collected and reviewed the premium rates and contracts for short-term plans will make it difficult to assess how the market is responding to the new federal rules.

Most States Do Not Have a Complete Picture of the Current Short-Term Market

With the exception of New York, which doesn’t permit short-term plans, 16 states in our survey require insurers to file for approval in order to sell short-term policies. However, once these policies are approved, few states require annual reapproval unless policies undergo significant rate or benefit design changes. Most DOIs acknowledged that insurers with short-term policies that were approved decades ago could potentially market them to consumers this fall without any additional regulatory approval.

As a first step to prepare for the Trump administration’s rulemaking, some states started to identify their approved short-term sellers and which ones are actively marketing. For example, in Maryland, the legislature directed the DOI to contact every approved short-term plan insurer to determine whether they are actively marketing. Similarly, Oregon is now reviewing advertisements for short-term products, and insurers marketing products that are at least five years old have been asked to refile with the state. However, overall, few states are aware of which short-term insurers are actively marketing. A few DOI officials also explained that with the new rule, more short-term plan insurers are likely to market within their state.

Insurers Marketing Short-Term Plans Are Generally Different Than Those Marketing Individual Plans

We compared the list of 2018 marketplace insurers to those who have been approved to sell short-term policies. Four of the 17 states (Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont) in our survey have no approved short-term sellers because they require such plans to play by some or all of the same rules as traditional coverage. While the data are limited,1 it appears that 11 of the 17 states have more insurers approved to sell short-term plans than individual plans. There tends to be little overlap among the companies, although there are a few approved to sell in both the individual and short-term markets.

This separation poses a risk to individual market stability, as short-term sellers may target healthy marketplace consumers, undercutting ACA-compliant insurers. In return, ACA-compliant insurers may be incentivized to start selling short-term policies in order to shift and maintain their healthy enrollees in those plans. Indeed, the Trump administration expects that as many as 500,000 individual market enrollees will migrate to short-term plans in 2019. Because they will be relatively healthy, their departure will cause premiums in the individual market to increase by a projected 5 percent. This increase will come on top of other projected increases resulting from the repeal of the ACA’s individual mandate penalty and the expansion of association health plans.

Looking Forward

The final rule allowing short-term policies to be sold for longer durations puts enrollees at financial risk, as they unknowingly enroll in the skimpier policies that do not meet their health needs. In turn, the shift of large numbers of healthy consumers to the short-term market will increase prices for those remaining in the individual market. As a new market of long-term short-term plans emerges, states need to understand their short-term market in order to protect consumers and maintain a stable individual market. This can begin with an assessment of which insurers are actively marketing in the state. States also may want to ensure that any short-term plan sellers seeking to offer coverage that mimics the 12-month duration of ACA-compliant coverage submit plan designs, rates, and marketing materials for review and approval, as Vermont has done recently. Doing so will allow states to have a firmer understanding of the insurance products being sold to their residents, and will better position them to reduce consumer confusion and monitor for potential fraud.


California Employer Health Benefits: Workers Shoulder More Costs

Image result for California Employer Health Benefits: Workers Shoulder More Costs

From 2000 to 2017, the percentage of employers offering health insurance coverage has declined from 69% to 56%. At the same time, workers are shouldering more of the costs for their health care with increasing premiums and higher deductibles and copays.

California Employer Health Benefits: Workers Shoulder More Costs presents data compiled from the 2017 California Employer Health Benefits Survey.

Key findings include:

  • From 2016 to 2017, health insurance premiums for family coverage increased by 4.6%, slightly higher than the 3.0% inflation rate.
  • Average monthly premiums, including the employer portion, were significantly higher in California than the national average. In 2017, the average premium was $604 for single coverage and $1,643 for family coverage.
  • California workers paid an average of 17% of the total premium for single coverage and 27% for family coverage.
  • One in 4 workers had an annual deductible of at least $1,000 for single coverage. Large deductibles were more common among workers in small firms (3 to 199 workers) than larger firms. Nearly 60% of workers had no deductible.
  • In 2017, 25% of California firms reported increasing cost sharing for workers in the past year, and 37% reported that they are very or somewhat likely to increase their workers’ share of premiums in the next year.

The full report, all of the charts found in the report, and the data files are available under Related Materials. These materials are part of CHCF’s California Health Care Almanac, an online clearinghouse for key data and analyses describing the state’s health care landscape.

The California Employer Health Benefits Survey is a joint product of CHCF and the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. The survey was designed and analyzed by researchers at NORC and administered by National Research.