Podcast: ‘What The Health?’ While You Were Celebrating …

Podcast: ‘What The Health?’ While You Were Celebrating …

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The year in health policy has already begun: The Trump administration Thursday released a long-awaited regulation aimed at making it easier for small businesses and others to form “association health plans.” Now advocates and opponents will be able to weigh in with more specific recommendations.

Meanwhile, in December, the health policy focus was on the tax bill and its repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s “individual mandate” penalty for most people who don’t have health insurance. But some recent key court decisions could reshape the benefits millions of people receive as part of their health coverage.

This week’s “What the Health?” guests are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Paige Winfield Cunningham of The Washington Post, Alice Ollstein of Talking Points Memo and Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times.

They discuss these topics, as well as the prospects for pending health legislation on Capitol Hill.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The Trump administration’s decision to expand association health plans faces a number of obstacles, including the lack of good oversight in many states and the poor track record of many past plans.
  • Consumer advocates fear that growth of association plans could leave many consumers without adequate benefits because some plans will not cover the same essential benefits that Obamacare plans guarantee. They also are concerned that healthy customers will migrate to the new plans and leave the ACA’s marketplace plans with an abundance of enrollees who are ill.
  • The prospects of the bill to stabilize the individual insurance market sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) appear to be dimming.
  • Two federal judges have ruled against the Trump administration rule to change the ACA’s contraception mandate. The decisions, though, are not based on the policy but on faulty rule-making.
  • In another highly watched court case, a federal judge has ruled that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has until 2019 to set new rules on what employers can require of workers in their wellness programs.

Association health plan proposal: Experts wary of weak consumer protections, oversight issues

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/regulatory/association-health-plans-consumer-protections-tim-jost?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTjJRNU5qUXlZVEJqWmpjNCIsInQiOiJOR2V2bEp4NkdoeVB3VndhZE43TVBjZXdaTGJcLzk1Z3hBd1wvZ05teDMrcjZ5UzJhb0tzUkpQbWlaSmVvUmJFazVDcERmajBTREhCTXJxR3BBaGtoY1MrZlVtQW5xeXRSbFwvYVhPOE44VE9uYUhNZWNnbGtoR3c3S0xHUlp5SlwvS2kifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610

stethoscope, coins and calculator

The new proposal to expand association health plans promises to provide more affordable insurance options for small-business owners and employees. But some experts aren’t convinced that this is the right solution.

For one, the proposal’s promises of consumer protections aren’t as strong as they seem, said Timothy Jost, a Washington and Lee University professor emeritus who closely follows the ACA.

Association health plans can’t charge higher premiums or deny coverage based on health status, according to the Department of Labor (DOL). But because AHPs would be subject to large-employer market rules, they wouldn’t have to cover the list of essential health benefits that the Affordable Care Act mandates.

The upshot, Jost told FierceHealthcare, is that insurers could legally weed out those with costly conditions while still complying with regulations that bar them from denying those individuals coverage or hiking their premiums.

“If you can’t exclude someone because they have cancer, it’s easy to just not cover chemotherapy,” he said. “Or if you can’t exclude people who have mental illness, it’s easy to just not cover mental health care.”

And Larry Levitt, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, pointed out in a Twitter post that insurers could still hike premiums based on factors other than health status:

 The association health plan regulation prohibits variation in premiums based on health. It does not prohibit premium variation based on any other factor, such as gender, age, industry or occupation, or business size.
 Cherry-picking enrollees

Association health plans are also likely to be marketed toward the healthiest, youngest individuals, Jost noted.

“I doubt anybody is going to be out there writing association coverage for occupations that are predominantly people who are older or have chronic health problems,” he said.

The problem, then, is that AHPs would siphon more low-risk consumers out of the individual marketplaces—thus skewing that risk pool and likely causing insurers to raise premiums.

“I think everybody understands that this is going to undermine the market for ACA-compliant plans,” Jost said.

Andy Slavitt, the former Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services acting administrator, laid out his own criticisms in a Twitter thread—including pointing out that breaking up risk pools goes against the proposal’s stated purpose of giving small businesses more clout:

 The regulation aims to push the idea of what can be considered an association.

Someone I talked to today referred to it as being able to create an “air breathers association.” Essentially, making it as rude-less as possible.

 Many of the premises of AHPs have been shown not to work in the past.

For example, the rule says AHPs will create “increased buying power”. Breaking up pools does exactly the opposite.

Instead, a “Runners’ Association” just sends a clear signal that these are healthy people.

Limited impact

Merrill Matthews, Ph.D., a resident scholar at the right-leaning Institute for Policy Innovation, praised the new proposed rule, noting that it allows small businesses to do what large employers have long been able to: self-insure.

“Self-insured employers have been able to avoid many of the state and federal mandates imposed on the small group and individual markets, which helped employers keep down the cost of coverage,” he said.

But even Matthews acknowledged that the impact of the proposed policy changes is likely to be limited, as it will only apply to small employers and possibly some self-employed individuals. Since the proposed changes are “unlikely to provide much relief” for those affected by high premiums in the individual market, he said, “Congress still needs to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

Questions about oversight

Perhaps the biggest issue that Jost saw with the new proposal was the fact that AHPs have had past issues with insolvency, bankruptcy and even fraud.

“There’s just a long history of association health plans being formed that are thinly capitalized, that pay large salaries and expenses for their owners, and disappear when the going gets rough,” he said.

For its part, the DOL said it will “closely monitor these plans to protect consumers.” But Jost pointed out that the agency has experienced staff and budget cuts that might undermine that goal.

Even the DOL itself said in the proposed rule that “the flexibility afforded AHPs under this proposal could introduce more opportunities for mismanagement or abuse, increasing potential oversight demands on the department and state regulators.”

Ultimately, what plays out will largely be decided by how states respond to the new regulations once they are implemented, Jost added.

“In states that try to take an aggressive approach to regulating them, there won’t be that much activity,” he said. “And in states that take a hands-off approach and let anything go, there will be probably quite a bit of activity until [AHPs] start going belly up.”

 

No, Trump Hasn’t ‘Essentially Repealed Obamacare’

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/12/20/trump-obamacare-mandate-repeal-taxes-216125

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Killing the mandate doesn’t gut the health care law. Most likely, it will muddle along, because the rest of it is broadly popular.

In July and again in September, Republicans narrowly failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But their newly passed tax legislation included a provision getting rid of Obamacare’s mandate requiring Americans to buy insurance, and President Donald Trump immediately declared victory in the partisan health care wars. “When the individual mandate is being repealed, that means Obamacare is being repealed,” he crowed at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. “We have essentially repealed Obamacare.”

Well, no. The individual mandate is only part of Obamacare. It wasn’t even included in the original health care plan that Barack Obama unveiled during the 2008 campaign. The mandate did become an important element of Obamacare, and the only specific element that a majority of the public opposed. But the more generous elements of the program—like a major expansion of Medicaid, significant government subsidies for private insurance premiums, and strict protections for pre-existing conditions—are still popular, and still the law of the land.

“The death of Obamacare has been exaggerated,” says Larry Levitt, who oversees health reform studies at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Eliminating the mandate creates uncertainty, but all the benefits for people remain in place.”

The Republican ecstasy and Democratic gloom over the death of the mandate reflects the most consistent misperception over the seven-plus years of Affordable Care Act debates, the incorrect assumption that the “Obamacare exchanges,” where Americans can buy private insurance, are synonymous with Obamacare. The vast majority of Americans who get their coverage through Medicare, Medicaid or their employers shouldn’t be affected. Yes, killing the mandate could cause problems for the remaining 6 percent of Americans who have to buy insurance on the open market, but nearly half will remain eligible for subsidies that would insulate them from any premium hikes.

Repealing the tax penalties for Americans who don’t buy insurance would not repeal Obamacare’s perks for Americans who do—like the ban on annual and lifetime caps that insurers previously used to cut off coverage for their sickest customers, or the provision allowing parents to keep their children on their plans until they turn 26. And it would not repeal Obamacare’s “delivery reforms” that are quietly transforming the financial incentives in the medical system, gradually shifting reimbursements to reward the quality rather than quantity of care. The growth of U.S. health care costs has slowed dramatically since the launch of Obamacare, and the elimination of the mandate should not significantly affect that trend.

In fact, during the 2008 campaign, Obama was the only Democratic candidate whose health plan did not include a mandate, because he was the only Democratic candidate who thought the main problem with health care was its cost. “It’s just too expensive,” he explained at an Iowa event in May 2007. Insurance premiums had almost doubled during the George W. Bush era, and Obama believed that was the reason so many Americans were uninsured. He doubted it would be worth the political heartburn to try to force people to buy insurance they couldn’t afford.

But Obama eventually embraced the argument that a mandate was necessary to ensure that young and healthy Americans bought insurance. The fear was that otherwise, insurance markets dominated by the old and sick (who would enjoy the law’s new protections for pre-existing conditions) would have produced even higher premiums, and might scare insurers away from serving Americans who don’t get coverage through their jobs or the government. Killing the mandate will be a step in that direction, boosting Trump’s heighten-the-contradictions effort to sabotage the functioning of Obamacare to build support for a more sweeping repeal.

That effort has already produced some damaging results for the exchanges. Insurers have increased their premiums for 2018, repeatedly citing uncertainty over Trump’s efforts to blow up Obamacare as well as his decision to cut off promised payments to insurers who cover lower-income families. Several insurers left the exchanges even before the elimination of the mandate, and others could follow.

But the widespread warnings that wide swaths of America would have no insurers on the exchanges were wrong; there are zero “bare counties” with no insurers for 2018. And a Kaiser review found the exchanges have gotten more profitable for insurers this year,despite Trump’s efforts to damage them. This year’s enrollment period appears to have gone fairly well even though the Trump administration shortened it by half and slashed its promotional budget.

The fear is that eliminating the mandate could produce a “death spiral” for the exchanges, where higher premiums scare away healthier customers, leading to even higher premiums and even sicker customers—until eventually,the insurers decide to bail. It could also encourage insurers to try to lure healthier customers with cheaper but skimpier plans that don’t provide protections for pre-existing conditions, since those customers would no longer have to pay a tax penalty.

But it is also possible that younger and healthier customers who initially bought insurance because they were required to do so will now buy insurance because they want to; surveys show that more than 75 five percent of Americans covered on the exchanges are happy with their coverage. And as a political matter, repealing the unpopular mandate could make it even harder for Republicans to pass legislation repealing insurance protections, Medicaid expansions and the rest of Obamacare, because the rest of Obamacare is popular. It’s not surprising that Republicans managed to kill the law’s vegetables, but it won’t be as easy to kill dessert.

Trump thinks congressional Democrats will soon be begging him to come up with a replacement for Obamacare, and even many Republicans who don’t embrace that fantasy believe the demise of the mandate will ratchet up pressure for a permanent solution to a seven-year political war. It could happen. But there hasn’t been a lot of bipartisanship in Washington lately, and after the Doug Jones upset in Alabama, it seems unlikely that a Senate with one fewer Republican will be more amenable to a Republican-only repeal bill.

The most likely outcome seems to be at least a few more years of Obamacare muddling through, and at least a few more years of Obamacare political warfare.

 

AP-NORC Poll: Health Care Is the Issue That Won’t Go Away

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As President Donald Trump completes his first year in office, Americans are increasingly concerned about health care, and their faith that government can fix it has fallen.

A new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that 48 percent named health care as a top problem for the government to focus on in the next year, up 17 points in the last two years.

The poll allows Americans to name up to five priorities and found a wide range of top concerns, including taxes, immigration and the environment. But aside from health care, no single issue was named by more than 31 percent.

And 7 in 10 of those who named health care as a top problem said they had little to no confidence that government can improve matters. The public was less pessimistic in last year’s edition of the poll, when just over half said they lacked confidence in the problem-solving ability of lawmakers and government institutions.

“We are way up there on the cost, and as far as giving good health care, we are way down,” said Rebekah Bustamante of San Antonio, a retired medical imaging technician. “Now in health care, you’re a number.”

Bustamante said she voted for Trump, but “he’s learning on the job, and he’s got a long way to go.”

Trump initially promised his own plan that would deliver “insurance for everybody” and “great” health care, “much less expensive and much better.” But the White House never released a health care proposal from the president.

GOP legislation to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s health care law failed in Congress, although the tax bill scraps the Obama requirement that most people get health insurance. Bloodied on both sides, Republicans and Democrats seem to have battled to an uneasy draw on health care.

Meanwhile, conflicting policy signals from Washington, including an abrupt White House decision to cancel insurer subsidies, roiled insurance markets. Premiums on health plans purchased by individuals jumped by double digits. Progress reducing the number of uninsured stalled, and one major survey found an uptick this year.

“There is zero bipartisanship, and it’s frustrating,” said Eric Staab, a high school teacher from Topeka, Kansas. “It seems like we have thrown everything at this dartboard, and nothing is improving the coverage.”

Rumblings of discontent have political repercussions for next year’s midterm elections and the presidential contest in 2020, said Robert Blendon, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who follows opinion trends on health care.

“It’s the issue that won’t go away,” said Blendon. “Given the news cycle, taxes should be first, the economy should be second, and this health care thing should be buried.”

Three in 10 Americans listed taxes among their top priorities, about double the percentage who said that last year. About a quarter mentioned immigration, and just under 2 in 10 mentioned environmental issues and education. Meanwhile, concerns about unemployment plunged to 14 percent, about half the mentions as last year.

Health care was by far the top issue mentioned by Democrats and independents. Republicans were about equally likely to mention immigration, health care and taxes.

Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say they have little to no confidence that the government will make progress on health care, 84 percent to 57 percent.

The reason health care doesn’t fade away is that costs aren’t getting any more manageable, said some people who took part in the AP-NORC survey.

Bustamante said she is planning a trip to Mexico for some dental work, because she can obtain quality service for much less there. “Thank God I live in Texas, where getting to Mexico isn’t that far away,” she said. “But everybody doesn’t have that option.”

ShyJuan Clemons of Merrillville, Indiana, said he’s currently uninsured because his previous health plan was costing too much money for the benefit he got from it. He faced his insurance plan’s annual deductible when he went to the doctor, so he’d wind up paying out-of-pocket for visits, on top of premiums.

“You are not constantly worried about taxes, but you are constantly worried about health care — be it major or minor,” said Clemons, a personal care attendant who works with disabled people. “You catch a cold, and you just think about it in passing — ‘I hope it doesn’t develop into a problem.'”

Clemons, a Democrat, said he’s disappointed that Trump and Republicans in Congress seem to be trying to tear down “Obamacare” instead of building on it. “I would like to see them make the thing run smoothly so we can do better, instead of just trying to cripple it,” he said.

The lack of confidence in the ability of government to find pragmatic solutions extended to other problems in the AP-NORC poll, including climate change, immigration, and terrorism.

Just 23 percent said that Trump has kept the promises he made while running for president, while 30 percent said he’s tried and failed, and 45 percent said he has not kept his promises at all.

Nearly 2 in 3 said they were pessimistic about the state of politics in the U.S. About half were downbeat about the nation’s system of government, and 55 percent said America’s best days are behind.

 

Out-of-pocket health spending in 2016 increased at the fastest rate in a decade

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/06/out-of-pocket-health-spending-in-2016-increased-at-the-fastest-rate-in-a-decade/?utm_term=.42b85bdeba98

U.S. health care spending increased to $3.3 trillion in 2016, with out-of-pocket health care costs borne directly by consumers rising 3.9 percent — the fastest rate of growth since 2007.

The findings, published Wednesday by Health Affairs, are considered the authoritative breakdown of American health care spending and are prepared each year by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The overall rate of increase in health care spending experienced a slight slowdown over the previous year, driven in part by the expected moderation in growth after the expansion of insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act. There was also a sharp decrease in the growth of prescription drug expenditures, as hepatitis C treatment costs have declined and fewer patients are receiving them.

The slowdown in spending growth — a 4.3 percent increase in 2016, following a 5.8 percent growth the previous year — stemmed from changes in a broad array of health care sectors.

That ranged from slower growth in Medicaid spending after the surge in enrollment caused by the Affordable Care Act expansion, to a marked slowdown in prescription drug spending growth that had been pushed higher by the approval of a new, expensive treatment for hepatitis C in 2013.

A shift toward insurance plans that transfer more of the burden of health care costs onto patients helped fuel the rise in out-of-pocket costs. In 2016, 29 percent of people who receive insurance through employers were enrolled in high-deductible plans, up from 20 percent in 2014. The size of the deductibles also increased over this time period, a 12 percent increase in 2016 for individual plans, compared with a 7 percent increase in 2014.

Out-of-pocket spending grew the most on medical equipment and supplies and decreased slightly for prescription drugs, according to the analysis.

The most noticeable change was a big slowdown in prescription drug spending growth, which made up 10 percent of the total spending, or $328.6 billion. (That spending number does not include drugs administered by physicians or hospitals.)

That decrease highlights the effect that expensive new treatments used by large numbers of people can have on national spending. A new generation of expensive hepatitis C drugs drove national drug spending 12.4 percent higher in 2014 and 8.9 percent higher in 2015. In 2016, the prescription drug spending increased by 1.3 percent, closer to the rates in the years before the new drugs were approved.

The authors of the report attributed that trend not just to hepatitis C drugs. There were also fewer new, brand name drugs approved in 2016 — 22 new drugs, compared with 45 the previous year. Another factor was a slowdown in the growth of spending on insulin, a lifesaving drug for people with diabetes, in Medicare.

Insulin prices have been under intense scrutiny as drugmakers have increased the list prices of insulin while claiming the true cost to patients has remained flat due to discounts and rebates

Health care spending has been buffeted by unusual changes during the past decade. There was a historic slowdown in growth due to the Great Recession, and then the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of health insurance coverage fueled spending.

The authors said this year’s trend of slower growth could be a sign that things were returning to normal.

“Future health expenditure trends are expected to be mostly influenced by changes in economic conditions and demographics, as has historically been the case,” the authors wrote.

 

Ryan eyes push for ‘entitlement reform’ in 2018

http://thehill.com/homenews/house/363642-ryan-pledges-entitlement-reform-in-2018?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=12524

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House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Wednesday said House Republicans will aim to cut spending on Medicare, Medicaid and welfare programs next year as a way to trim the federal deficit.

“We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan said during an interview on Ross Kaminsky’s talk radio show.

Health-care entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid “are the big drivers of debt,” Ryan said, “so we spend more time on the health-care entitlements, because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.”

Ryan said he’s been speaking privately with President Trump, who is beginning to warm to the idea of slowing the spending growth in entitlements.

During his campaign, Trump repeatedly promised not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security.

“I think the president is understanding choice and competition works everywhere, especially in Medicare,” Ryan said.

House and Senate Republicans are currently working on their plans for tax reform, which are estimated to add more than $1 trillion to the deficit. Democrats have voiced concerns that the legislation could lead to cuts to the social safety net.

Ryan is one of a growing number of GOP leaders who have mentioned the need for Congress to cut entitlement spending next year.

Last week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said that once the tax bill was done, “welfare reform” was up next.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), last week, said “instituting structural changes to Social Security and Medicare for the future” will be the best way to reduce spending and generate economic growth.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, told Bloomberg TV that “the most important thing we can do with respect to the national debt, what we need to do, is obviously reform current entitlement programs for future generations.”

Ryan also mentioned that he wants to work on changing the welfare system, and Republicans have in the past expressed a desire to add work requirements to programs such as food stamps.

Speaking on the Senate floor while debating the tax bill last week, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he had a “rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger and expect the federal government to do everything.”

His comments were echoed by Ryan.

“We have a welfare system that’s trapping people in poverty and effectively paying people not to work,” Ryan said Wednesday. “We’ve got to work on that.”

 

AARP to Congress: Don’t Cut Medicare

https://www.aarp.org/politics-society/advocacy/info-2017/medicaid-medicare-tax-reform-fd.html?cmp=EMC-DSO-NLC-WBLTR—MCTRL-120817-F1-2613065&ET_CID=2613065&ET_RID=33152417&mi_u=33152417&mi_ecmp=20171208_WEBLETTER_Member_Control_Winner_251100_391403&encparam=rGtTYC48LtlDepUYFPD2E6KmzkAw6WgcgwvDlv37DZs%3D

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The tax bill would trigger an automatic funding cut in the vital program.

AARP Chief Executive Officer Jo Ann Jenkins called on congressional leaders Thursday to keep their promise to America’s seniors and prevent a large cut to Medicare that the tax bill now being debated on Capitol Hill would trigger.

The tax measure would result in a $1.5 trillion increase in the federal deficit over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Such a deficit would prompt an automatic $25 billion cut to Medicare as soon as January because of the “pay-as-you-go” law, commonly referred to as PAYGO.

The law was designed to keep the deficit in check by requiring the administration to reduce spending in many mandatory federal programs if Congress enacts a law that increases the deficit but doesn’t provide offsetting revenue.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader Charles Schumer, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Jenkins reminded McConnell and Ryan that they had recently issued a statement promising that “we will work to ensure these spending cuts are prevented.”

In their statement, the Republican leaders pointed out that the PAYGO law has never been enforced since it was passed in 2010 and “we have no reason to believe that Congress would not act again” to forestall the cuts PAYGO would require.

Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps and some other social safety net programs are exempt from the PAYGO law. But Medicare and programs like federal student loans, agricultural subsidies and the operations of U.S. Customs and Border Protection are not exempt.

The law caps how much the government can trim from Medicare at 4 percent. That’s $25 billion the first year, according to CBO. The amount could be higher in subsequent years, depending on the size of the deficit and Medicare’s budget.

The reduction would affect the payments that doctors, hospitals and other health care providers receive for treating Medicare patients. Individual benefits would not be directly cut, but the reduction could have implications for the care beneficiaries receive.

“The sudden cut to Medicare provider funding in 2018 would have an immediate and lasting impact, including fewer providers participating in Medicare and reduced access to care for Medicare beneficiaries,” Jenkins wrote. Health care providers might stop taking Medicare patients, she added, even as 10,000 older adults are enrolling in the health program each day.

In addition, Medicare Advantage plans and Part D prescription drug plans may compensate for the cuts by charging higher premiums or shifting more costs to beneficiaries in future years.

“Our members and other older Americans are counting on you to preserve their access to Medicare services, including their doctors and hospitals,” Jenkins wrote.