A Big Divergence Is Coming in Health Care Among States


Little by little, the Trump administration is dismantling elements of the Affordable Care Act and creating a health care system that looks more like the one that preceded it. But some states don’t want to go back and are working to build it back up.

Congress and the Trump administration have reduced Obamacare outreach, weakened benefit requirements, repealed the unpopular individual insurance mandate and broadened opportunities for insurers to offer inexpensive but skimpy plans to more customers.

Last week, the administration released its latest proposal along these lines, by changing the definition of so-called short-term plans. These plans don’t need to follow any of the Obamacare requirements, including popular rules that plans include a standard set of benefits, or cover people with pre-existing conditions. If the rule becomes final, these plans could go from short term to lasting nearly a year or longer.

Taken together, experts say, the administration’s actions will tend to increase the price of health insurance that follows all the Affordable Care Act’s rules and increase the popularity of health plans that cover fewer services. The resultcould be divided markets, where healthier people buy lightly regulated plans that don’t cover much health care, lower earners get highly subsidized Obamacare — and sicker middle-class peopleface escalating costs for insurance with comprehensive benefits.

But not everywhere. Several states are considering whether to adopt their own versions of the individual mandate, Obamacare’s rule that people who can afford insurance should pay a fine if they don’t obtain it. A few are looking to tighten rules for short-term health plans. Some states are investing heavily on Obamacare outreach and marketing, even as the federal government cuts back.

The result is likely to be big differences in health insurance options and coverage, depending on where you live. States that lean into the changes might have more health insurance offerings with small price tags, but ones that are inaccessible to people with health problems and don’t cover major health services, like prescription drugs. States pushing back may see more robust Obamacare markets of highly regulated plans, but the price of those plans is likely to remain higher.

 Legislation to replace the individual mandate has already been introduced in Maryland and New Jersey with prominent sponsors. Political leaders in other states, including California, Washington, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut as well as the District of Columbia, are weighing options for replacing the mandate this year, as Stephanie Armour reported in The Wall Street Journal. The mandate was designed to give healthier people an incentive to buy insurance before they fell ill, lowering the cost of insurance for everyone who buys it.

“Clearly, I think the federal administration and Congress are moving in one direction,” said Brian Feldman, a Maryland state senator who leads the state health subcommittee and was the primary sponsor of mandate legislation there. “And I think states like Maryland would like to move in a different direction.”

Mr. Feldman and his colleagues aren’t planning simply to replicate the federal individual mandate. Instead, they are trying a new strategy. People who fail to obtain insurance would still be charged a fine, but they would be allowed to use that money as a “down payment” on a health plan if they wished. Legislators estimate that many people subject to the penalty would not owe anything more to buy health insurance, after federal tax credits are applied.

Other states are hoping to mimic the expiring federal policy more closely. The board governing the insurance marketplace for the District of Columbia voted last week to recommend the adoption of an individual mandate replacement. Connecticut’s governor, Dannel Malloy, is considering a proposal by a Yale health economist.

Those plans are more similar to the Affordable Care Act’s approach, in part for expedience. The federal mandate is set to expire next year, and insurance companies need to develop their health plans and submit 2019 prices by this summer.

“The idea that a state would be able to stand up something, and put out any guidance, and advise stakeholders, and be able to do it by 2019, is pretty infeasible,” said Jason Levitis, a former Obama administration Treasury Department official who has developed legislation to help states draft mandate replacement bills.

Imposing state-level versions of the mandate may be a political challenge even in blue states. But other strategies are in play, too. California is one of a handful of states considering a bill that would effectively ban the short-term insurance plans proposed by the Trump administration. (New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island already effectively block them.)

A number of states across the political spectrum are also considering policies that would provide so-called reinsurance funds, to help protect health insurers from rare, very expensive patients, and help them lower the prices for everyone else.

Alaska, Minnesota and Oregon have already adopted such plans. Washington, New Jersey, Maine, Colorado, Wisconsin and Maryland are working on proposals. Heather Howard, who directs the state health and values strategies program at Princeton University, said that reinsurance plans operated more like a “carrot” in stabilizing insurance markets. They may prove appealing to a broader array of states, while the mandate, a “stick,” may interest politicians only in the most liberal places.

Some Obamacare-averse states are pursuing policies meant to circumvent the health law’s rules for insurance, and broaden options for cheaper, lightly regulated health plans. Idaho has announced a plan to allow insurers to offer health plans that don’t comply with many of Obamacare’s core rules, and one insurer, Blue Cross of Idaho, has said it will begin selling such plans next month.

Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services secretary, has been cagey about whether he will step in to enforce federal law forbidding such products. Meanwhile, the Iowa legislature is considering a bill that would allow a different type of health plan to circumvent Obamacare rules, as The Des Moines Register recently reported. Medica, the only insurer currently offering Obamacare plans, said it might depart the Iowa market if the plan were approved.

The Affordable Care Act was drafted with room for state customization, but one of its primary goals was to make health insurance around the country more uniform. Thanks to state resistance to the health law, varying local conditions and a Supreme Court decision that made the Medicaid expansion optional, results have been much more uneven. Some states have seen much bigger reductions in the share of the uninsured than others. Only some states have seen insurance premiums stabilize.

“Without question I think we’re going to see a natural experiment in the states and a growing divergence in outcomes,” said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute.

Evidence of that divergence is already here. This year, signups for Affordable Care Act health plans were nearly flat compared with last year, despite huge cuts in federal outreach and advertisement. But states that ran their marketplaces and spent heavily on advertising saw stronger signups, while states that were more resistant to the health law experienced drops. The loss of the mandate, and the proliferation of health plans that don’t follow Obamacare’s rules, are likely to widen those gulfs.



20 states sue over Obamacare mandate — again


A man is pictured entering health insurance exchange center. | Getty

Twenty states are suing the Trump administration over Obamacare’s individual mandate — again.

Wisconsin, Texas and several other red states said in a lawsuit filed today that since Congress repealed the individual mandate’s tax penalty for not having coverage, that means the mandate itself — and the whole health care law — is invalid.

The GOP tax law “eliminated the tax penalty of the ACA, without eliminating the mandate itself,” the states argue in a complaint filed today in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Texas. “What remains, then, is the individual mandate, without any accompanying exercise of Congress’s taxing power, which the Supreme Court already held that Congress has no authority to enact.”

The Supreme Court in 2012 upheld Obamacare’s individual mandate in one of the highest-profile court cases in years. The justices did not agree then with the Obama administration’s main argument that the mandate penalty was valid under the Commerce Clause. But the justices did say that the mandate was a constitutional tax. The ruling riled conservatives who felt that Chief Justice John Roberts bent legal reasoning to preserve Obamacare.

Now, the states want to use that same Supreme Court ruling to take down the Affordable Care Act — which has withstood numerous legal challenges but which over the past year has been undermined by executive and regulatory actions the Trump administration has taken.

The states also argue that since the mandate is unconstitutional, the whole law should go. They note that Obamacare did not have a “severability clause” — a provision that says if one part of the law is struck by the courts, the rest would stand — so that once part of it is struck down, the rest in invalid.



Trump’s Budget Would Cut HHS Funding 21%; Azar Approves


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The White House calls for an increase in funding for veterans healthcare services, while proposing cuts to HHS and a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

President Donald Trump released his budget proposalMonday for fiscal year 2019. It includes overall reductions in nondefense spending while also increasing funding for veterans healthcare services.

The White House’s $4.4 trillion budget request to Congress comes days after a two-year, $300 billion bipartisan budget deal was signed into law following the second government shutdown in as many months.

Though Congress is unlikely to vote on a singular budget, the various provisions listed in the executive proposal outline the legislative agenda the Trump administration would like to pursue in 2018.

“I applaud President Trump for laying out his vision for the country in today’s budget request and welcome his partnership as the Energy and Commerce Committee works to tackle several shared priorities,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in a statement. “Many of the administration’s other proposals to lower health care costs complement our continued commitment to addressing the cost drivers across every facet of our nation’s health care system.”

Below is a breakdown of the proposals affecting the healthcare world, including cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Medicare, a repeal-and-replace plan for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and more money for veterans healthcare.

Major cuts to HHS

The proposal features a $68.4 billion budgetary line for HHS, a 21% reduction in funding compared to FY 2017. The budget also proposes a $451 million cut to training programs for health professionals, arguing the initiatives “lack evidence that they significantly improve the nation’s health workforce.”

If adopted, the policies would extend Medicare’s solvency by eight years, according to the budget proposal. Current projections estimate Medicare will become insolvent by 2029. The Trump administration also proposed a limit on Medicaid reimbursements to federal providers at no more than the cost of providing services to beneficiaries.

“The President’s budget makes investments and reforms that are vital to making our health and human services programs work for Americans and to sustaining them for future generations,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a statement. “In particular, it supports our four priorities here at HHS: addressing the opioid crisis, bringing down the high price of prescription drugs, increasing the affordability and accessibility of health insurance, and improving Medicare in ways that push our health system toward paying for value rather than volume.”

Bundled payments for community-based medication-assisted treatment would see an opportunity to expand through the budget proposal, with the White House highlighting a new Medicare reimbursement for methadone treatment.

Medicare beneficiaries would also be able to save for out-of-pocket costs by allowing tax deductible contributions to health savings accounts associated with high deductible health plans offered by employers or Medicare Advantage.

The budget proposes a ‘$5 returned for every $1 spent’ policy for the Medicare Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control, a $45 million increase compared to FY 2017 which totals $770 million,. The White House believes the additional funding will bolster the program’s efforts to “identify and prevent fraudulent or improper payments from being paid in the first place.”

Two-part ACA repeal

Arguing that “national healthcare spending trends are unsustainable,” the budget offers a solution in the form a two-part repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Modeled on the Graham-Cassidy proposal, the first step would focus on providing block grants to states for healthcare spending plans.

The Market-Based Health Care Grant Program, the new block grant program, would offer states and consumers with options outside of the ACA’s “insurance rules and pricing restrictions.” The administration believes this will address high premium costs and rising deductibles.

The second part of the plan focuses on Medicaid reform, specifically the repeal of Medicaid expansion spurred on by the ACA, as well as reducing “state gimmicks” like provider taxes. This move would shift federal authority over healthcare access to states, which could in turn design individualized plans.

Major increase for veterans healthcare

Continuing with a campaign promise to address issues facing veterans, Trump’s budget proposal includes an increase in spending for veterans healthcare programs over the next three fiscal years.

For FY 2019, the Veterans Health Administration would receive $70.7 billion, a 9.6% increase compared to FY 2017. By 2020, that number rises to $75.6 billion in advance appropriations for VA medical care program costs.

This covers 9.3 million enrollees in the Veterans Affairs health system.

Additionally, the budget provides $8.6 billion for veterans mental health and suicide prevention programs, and $11.9 billion would be used to enhance and expand veterans’ access to high-quality community care.

The administration proposes the consolidation of the Veterans Choice Program and other community care programs into a new, unified program: the Veteran Coordinated Access & Rewarding Experiences program.


Trump budget seeks savings through ObamaCare repeal


Trump budget seeks savings through ObamaCare repeal

The White House budget for fiscal 2019 seeks major savings by repealing ObamaCare and endorsed a Senate GOP bill as the best way to do so.

“The Budget supports a two-part approach to repealing and replacing Obamacare, starting with enactment of legislation modeled closely after the Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson (GCHJ) bill as soon as possible,” the White House said in its budget request.

The legislation from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) would replace ObamaCare with a series of block grants to states.

The budget proposes over $90 billion in savings over 10 years if the policies in the Graham-Cassidy bill were enacted. Combined with other provisions like Medicaid changes, the White House projects there would be nearly $675 billion in savings over a decade tied to repealing ObamaCare.

Advocacy groups were quick to denounce the proposal, which is unlikely to gain traction in Congress.

“By asking Congress to revive the deeply unpopular Graham-Cassidy repeal bill that ended protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions, gutted Medicaid, ripped away coverage from millions, and raised costs for millions more, while also proposing drastic cuts to Medicare, Trump has chosen to ignore the American public’s overwhelming preference for a bipartisan path forward on health care,” said Protect Our Care campaign director Brad Woodhouse.

Republican leaders have signaled that they are not interested in diving back into the contentious ObamaCare repeal fight this year. The Senate last year failed to pass a repeal bill, and there is no indication that the votes have shifted since then.

A number of Republicans have even discussed taking bipartisan actions to stabilize ObamaCare markets and try to bring down premiums through actions such as funding known as reinsurance.

Graham has said he will continue fighting for his bill and is not completely alone. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is also calling for Congress to not give up on repeal this year.


ObamaCare repeal fades from GOP priorities list in new year


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The chances of repealing ObamaCare this year are fading further, with top Republicans saying they hardly discussed repeal of the law during a Camp David retreat last weekend focused on their 2018 agenda.

Meanwhile, Republicans say talk of welfare or entitlement reform this year is also narrowing down to an emphasis on things like job training, not the broad overhaul of Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlements that Democrats have warned against.

While some conservative groups and select lawmakers are pushing for ObamaCare repeal in 2018, President Trump and GOP leaders have signaled a desire to move on, at least for now, after unsuccessful repeal efforts sucked up months of the legislative calendar in 2017. Trump also declared after signing the GOP tax overhaul in December, which did away with the mandate that most people buy health insurance or face a tax penalty, that Republicans had “essentially repealed ObamaCare.”“There’s some work we need to do on the health-care front, but I would hope we’re in a position to do things on a bipartisan basis,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of the GOP leaders who huddled with Trump at Camp David to discuss the 2018 agenda.

Asked if ObamaCare repeal was discussed in the meetings over the weekend, Cornyn — the Senate’s No. 2 Republican — replied flatly, “No.”

A source familiar with the conversations at Camp David confirmed that ObamaCare repeal was hardly discussed, except for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saying that he did not want to do a partisan bill like ObamaCare repeal or entitlement reform through the fast-track process of reconciliation this year.

ObamaCare repeal has largely fallen off the GOP agenda for 2018, in part due to the realities of a narrower Senate majority than one that already failed to pass a repeal bill. Reopening the divisive issue in an election year would also be tough.

McConnell’s office pointed to his comments at a press conference at the end of December. The GOP leader said then that he wanted to focus on areas of bipartisan agreement in 2018.

When asked about trying to repeal ObamaCare again, McConnell responded that 51-49 is a “pretty tight majority” and noted that “the sensitivity of entitlements is such that you almost have to have a bipartisan agreement in order to achieve a result.”

Democrats have also pointed to comments Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) made late last year about reining in entitlement spending to warn that Republicans could try to cut Medicare and Medicaid in 2018.

But the source familiar with the Camp David meetings said any welfare or entitlement push this year would likely not be through the fast-track reconciliation process aimed at preventing a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

Instead, the push would be narrower and focus on areas like job training that could potentially get bipartisan support, not Medicare or Medicaid changes.

“It was a little different than what I anticipated,” Cornyn said of the Camp David discussions on welfare reform. “In other words, it’s not Medicare, Social Security, entitlement reform; it is more, workforce training.”

Ryan outlined this emphasis in a press conference on Tuesday, where he made no mention of ObamaCare, Medicare or Medicaid in talking about an agenda for 2018.

Instead, Ryan said, “We’ve got more work to do to work on people, getting them the skills they need so they can get the careers that they want so they can get the lives that they deserve.”

Trump likewise pushed aside the idea of partisan welfare reform in a press conference at Camp David, which was dominated by the president lashing out at a new, critical book about his young administration.

“We’ll try and do something in a bipartisan way, otherwise we’ll be holding it for a little bit later,” Trump said when asked about welfare reform.

It is still possible, though, that some Republican lawmakers could push to bring back ObamaCare repeal this year. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for example, pushed back against McConnell last month when McConnell suggested moving on from repealing the law.

“To those who believe — including Senate Republican leadership — that in 2018 there will not be another effort to Repeal and Replace Obamacare — you are sadly mistaken,” Graham said on Twitter last month.

Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham, said on Tuesday that those comments still stand.

Conservative groups are also pressuring Republicans to try again on ObamaCare repeal this year. A range of leading groups, including Heritage Action, Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform, wrote to Trump last week urging him to push for ObamaCare repeal this year.

The groups want the fast-track reconciliation process, which is needed to avoid Democrats blocking a bill with a filibuster, to be used for ObamaCare repeal. That is essentially the only way to give repeal a chance of passing.

However, it is in doubt whether the reconciliation process can even be used for anything this year. Using the process requires first adopting a budget, which would be hard for Republicans to agree on, especially in an election year.

With ObamaCare repeal out of focus for 2018, most of the law, including its Medicaid expansion and subsidies to help people buy coverage, remains in place.

Republicans have hailed their victory in repealing ObamaCare’s individual mandate as part of the tax bill, which takes out a central feature of the law and one of the most unpopular parts. Still, some experts have warned that removing the mandate will destabilize markets and cause premium increases.

It is possible that Congress could pass measures aimed at stabilizing ObamaCare in the coming weeks, though House conservatives are opposed to those bills.

Push for return to ACA repeal


Affordable Care Act highlighted

While lawmakers’ most pressing priority right now is to prevent a government shutdown, it’s not too early to start asking: Is the push to repeal the Affordable Care Act over?

The answer to that question, however, depends upon which Republican you ask.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that while he wants to unwind more of the healthcare law, he’s doubtful that Republicans will have enough votes to do so now that their majority has gotten even slimmer.

But others on the right are pushing to keep the repeal effort alive. Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said Tuesday that one of the GOP’s major goals this year is to tackle welfare reform, but “then we’re going to have to work on healthcare again.”

“Look, I’m for repealing and replacing Obamacare,” he said during an interview with Fox & Friends, later adding, “So let’s get back to work on some of those things—like what we passed in the House, that almost passed in the Senate—so that we can get our healthcare system working again [and] rebuild the private marketplace.”

The GOP is also facing external pressure. A collection of conservative groups known as the “Repeal Coalition” sent a letter Tuesday to President Donald Trump, saying that now that he’s reformed the tax code, he now must “deliver on the rest of the promises made to the American people to free them from the shackles of Obamacare.”

Thus, the letter said, healthcare reform must be the focus of lawmakers’ budget reconciliation instructions for 2019. The Trump administration must also help the Senate and the House “design a bill that can muster the votes needed for passage of true health reform,” it added.

Whichever path that Republicans choose to take regarding the ACA this year, however, they will do so without a veteran senator who has played a major role in healthcare policymaking. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced Tuesday that he will not run for an eighth term.

Hatch, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has opposed the ACA and criticized a bill drafted by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray that was designed to stabilize the law. In fact, he floated an alternative to the Alexander-Murray bill that would both temporarily fund cost-sharing reduction payments and ax the individual and employer mandates. Ultimately, he helped repeal the individual mandate via the GOP’s tax reform package.

Hatch also has a history of bipartisanship, however. He was often forced to work with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy when they led what is now known as the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. One of their biggest achievements was creating the Children’s Health Insurance Program—though that program is now on shaky ground since Congress let federal funding for it lapse last fall and has since failed to reauthorize it.



Payer Roundup—Mississippi gets 10-year Medicaid waiver extension; A third of Americans believe ACA is repealed



CMS approves 10-year Medicaid waiver extension for Mississippi

Last week, the federal government approved its first 10-year extension of a Section 1115 Medicaid demonstration program.

The Mississippi program provides family planning services for people ages 13-44 with income of up to 194% of the federal poverty level. To get approval for its 10-year extension, the state agreed to submit monitoring reports and participate in calls with CMS every year.

The lengthy waiver extension, according to CMS Administrator Seema Verma, lets Mississippi administer its Medicaid program “without the inconvenience of obtaining routine approvals from CMS.” The action also shows the agency’s “continuing commitment to giving states the flexibility they deserve to meet the unique needs of their people,” she said.

Alabama won’t freeze CHIP enrollment or stop coverage—for now

Because of the temporary funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program included in Congress’ year-end spending bill, Alabama officials canceled their plans to freeze CHIP enrollment on Jan. 1.

The state will also not follow through with its plan to terminate coverage for current CHIP enrollees by Feb. 1, according to AL.com. But Cathy Caldwell, director of the Alabama Bureau of Children’s Health Insurance, told the publication that “we desperately need Congress to act, hopefully in January.”

Federal funding for CHIP expired Sept. 30, and Congress’ effort to reauthorize funding have been bogged down by partisan disputes. The short-term spending bill passed before the holiday break set aside $2.85 billion to temporarily tide states over.

One-third of Americans believe ACA has been repealed

President Donald Trump was not correct when he said that the GOP tax bill repealed the Affordable Care Act, but a new poll indicates a sizable chunk of Americans believe it nonetheless.

According to the poll (PDF), conducted by The Economist/YouGov, 31% of respondents indicated that Trump has delivered on his promise to repeal the healthcare law. Forty-nine percent said that he didn’t, and 21% were unsure.

The sweeping overhaul to the tax code that Republicans passed before the holiday break did repeal the ACA’s individual mandate, a key part of its insurance market reforms. But experts disagree on how big of an impact that will have, and other core components of the law—like premium subsidies—remain intact.

ACA expert to stop blogging for Health Affairs

Timothy Jost, who has chronicled nearly every Affordable Care Act-related development over the past 8½ years, will no longer contribute to the Health Affairs Blog’s “Following the ACA” series.

Jost, a Washington and Lee University professor emeritus, wrote more than 600 blog posts about the adoption and implementation of the healthcare law, plus the omnipresent political battles surrounding it. Jost wrote in his final post that “I am getting older and believe it is time to slow down.” He will continue to write a monthly “Eye on Reform” column for Health Affairs, however.

Katie Keith, a health policy expert with a law degree from Georgetown University and a master of public health from Johns Hopkins University, will take the helm as the author of the Health Affairs blog series on the ACA.