Wall Street is still selling off health care stocks

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Yesterday, UnitedHealth Group posted $3.5 billion of profit in the first quarter — its second-most profitable quarter ever — and collected more than $60 billion of revenue, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.

Yes, but: UnitedHealth’s stock price tanked by 4%, which consequently dragged down shares of the other major health insurers and hospital chains. Cigna’s stock price plummeted 8%, and Anthem and Humana were close behind. HCA tumbled 10%.

Driving the news: Wall Street remains fearful of “Medicare for All” becoming a reality, and UnitedHealth CEO Dave Wichmann tried to get ahead of the message by telling investors that single-payer would “jeopardize” people’s care.

  • Many investment bank analysts were perplexed by the sell-off, considering that UnitedHealth has more cash than it knows what to do with.
  • Steven Halper of Cantor Fitzgerald wrote to investors: “What more can you ask for? Take advantage of poor sentiment.”

The big picture: Medicare for All discussions matter far more to Wall Street right now, and that makes the industry’s Q1 financial reports a lot less important.

 

 

 

GOP tax law boosts health care profits

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The GOP tax law is padding health care companies’ bottom lines, according to my colleague Bob Herman’s analysis of newly released financial information from the last quarter of 2018. Overall, the industry’s profits were up significantly from the same period a year earlier.

The big picture: The law made it easier to bring home money that was parked abroad. It also eliminated tax provisions that have specifically helped large companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield insurers. But the lower corporate tax rate is the main event.

  • Drug giant Pfizer received a $563 million tax benefit in the fourth quarter, and its corporate income tax rate in all of 2018 was just 6%.
  • Johnson & Johnson’s effective tax rate in the last quarter of 2018 was 2.6%.
  • Almost half of the $551 million tax break recorded by hospital chain HCA Healthcare in 2018 came in the fourth quarter.

Between the lines: The tax law aside, the companies that handle the most revenue — like health insurers collecting premiums or drug distributors shipping products — are not the most profitable.

  • The highest margins still usually belong to pharmaceutical companies and medical-devices.

 

 

 

Medicare buy-in polls better than single-payer

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A Medicare buy-in is more popular than switching to a single-payer health care system, according to a new poll from Quinnipiac University.

By the numbers: Overall, voters were split on the wisdom of single-payer — 45% said it would be a bad idea, and 43% said it would be a good idea.

  • Respondents were more bullish on letting people buy into Medicare, with 51% saying it’s a good idea and 30% saying it’s a bad idea.

Republicans were the difference-makers. They overwhelmingly oppose single-payer (79% against), but a plurality of Republican voters (43%) support a Medicare buy-in.

Between the lines: Although the political battle between these rival plans is playing out primarily as a litmus test in the 2020 Democratic primary, Democrats seem fine with either proposal.

  • 69% of Democrats said single-payer is a good idea, compared to 62% who said the same for a Medicare buy-in.

Yes, but: Even a Medicare buy-in limited to people older than 50 — pretty much the smallest option on the table for Democrats — would still provoke a big fight from industry.

 

 

Justice Dept. now wants the entire ACA struck down

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The Justice Department now wants the courts to strike down the entire Affordable Care Act — not just its protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

This is a stunning escalation, raising both the real-world and political stakes in a lawsuit where both the real-world and political stakes were already very high.

Where it stands: Judge Reed O’Connor ruled in December that the ACA’s individual mandate has become unconstitutional, and that the whole law must fall along with it.

  • At the time, the Trump administration argued that the courts should only throw out the mandate and protections for pre-existing conditions — not the whole law.
  • But in a one-page filing last night, DOJ said the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals should affirm O’Connor’s entire ruling.

Why it matters: If DOJ ultimately gets its way here, the ripple effects would be cataclysmic. The ACA’s insurance exchanges would go away. So would its Medicaid expansion. Millions would lose their coverage.

  • The FDA would lose have the authority to approve an entire class of drugs.
  • The federal government would lose a lot of its power to test new payment models — in fact, the administration is relying on some of those ACA powers as it explores conservative changes to Medicaid.

Politically, this makes no sense. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi must be dancing in the streets.

  • Health care — specifically pre-existing conditions — was overwhelmingly a winning issue for Democrats in 2018.
  • This lawsuit already had Republicans in an unpleasant bind.
  • Now the administration is doubling down, putting even more people’s coverage on the chopping block.

What they’re saying:

  • “The bad faith on display here is jaw-dropping,” pro-ACA legal expert Nick Bagley writes.
  • “I was among those who cheered the selection of William Barr as Attorney General and hoped his confirmation would herald the elevation of law over politics within the Justice Department. I am still hopeful, but this latest filing is not a good sign,” said Jonathan Adler, a conservative law professor who helped spearhead the last big ACA lawsuit.

 

 

 

The Trump Administration Now Thinks the Entire ACA Should Fall

https://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/the-trump-administration-now-thinks-the-entire-aca-must-fall/

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In a stunning, two-sentence letter submitted to the Fifth Circuit today, the Justice Department announced that it now thinks the entire Affordable Care Act should be enjoined. That’s an even more extreme position than the one it advanced at the district court in Texas v. Azar, when it argued that the court should “only” zero out the protections for people with preexisting conditions.

The bad faith on display here is jaw-dropping. Does the administration really think that the very position it advanced just month ago is so untenable that it must now adopt an even crazier view?

Much as it may dislike the fact, the Trump administration has an obligation to defend acts of Congress. Absent that obligation, the sitting administration could pick and choose which laws it wants to defend, and which it wants to throw under the bus. Indeed, the decision not to defend is close cousin to a decision not to enforce the law. If the ACA really is unconstitutional, wouldn’t continuing to apply the law would violate the very Constitution that empowers the President to act?

Even apart from that, the sheer reckless irresponsibility is hard to overstate. The notion that you could gut the entire ACA and not wreak havoc on the lives of millions of people is insane. The Act  is now part of the plumbing of the health-care system. Which means the Trump administration has now committed itself to a legal position that would inflict untold damage on the American public.

And for what? Every reputable commentator — on both the left and the right — thinks that Judge O’Connor’s decision invalidating the entire ACA is a joke. To my knowledge, not one has defended it. This is not a “reasonable minds can differ” sort of case. It is insanity in print.

Yet here we are. An administration that claims to support protections for people with preexisting conditions has now called for undoing not only the parts of the ACA that protect such conditions, but also the entire Medicaid expansion and parts of the law that shield those with employer-sponsored insurance from punitive annual or lifetime caps. Not to mention hundreds of rules having nothing to do with health insurance, including a raft of new taxes, mandatory labeling of calorie counts at chain restaurants, and rules governing biosimilars.

Maybe you think this level of disdain for an Act of Congress is to be expected from the Trump administration. Maybe it’s too much to process because of Russia and immigration and North Korea. But this is not business as usual. This is far beyond the pale. And it is a serious threat to the rule of law.

 

 

Insurers don’t pay full price for medicines, why do you?

https://www.letstalkaboutcost.org/

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A new study found net prices for medicines grew just 1.5% last year. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel that way for you. Forty percent of a medicine’s list price is given as a rebate or discount to the government and middlemen, like insurers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs).

These rebates and discounts exceed $150 billion annually, but insurers don’t always share these savings with you.

Visit LetsTalkAboutCost.org to find out more.

 

 

1 big thing: Everything will be a fight

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Insurers and hospitals came out swinging yesterday against Democrats’ proposal to let people older than 50 buy into Medicare — a reminder that almost any expansion of public health coverage will provoke a battle with the health care industry.

Between the lines: Politically, an age-restricted Medicare buy-in is about as moderate as it gets for Democrats in the age of “Medicare for All.”

  • It is not a proposal for universal coverage, and it’s a far cry from trying to eliminate private insurance. It would be optional, only a relatively small slice of people would have the option, and they would need to pay a monthly premium.

Yes, but: Being on the more moderate end of the political spectrum does not shield you from a fight.

  • Expanding Medicare would hurt hospitals’ bottom lines, because Medicare pays hospitals less than private insurance does.
  • That’s why the Federation of American Hospitals said yesterday that the idea “would harm more Americans than it would help.”
  • The buy-in plan would primarily compete with employer-based health coverage (that’s what people between 50 and 65 are likely to have). And America’s Health Insurance Plans said the idea “is a slippery slope to government-run health care for every American.”

The bottom line: Any proposal that would compete with (never mind eliminate) private coverage, particularly employer coverage, will meet this kind of resistance.

That’s why Medicaid is the public program Democrats and industry can agree to love. Expanded access to Medicaid has rarely been an alternative to commercial insurance — it’s usually an alternative to being uninsured.

  • The uninsured were the primary beneficiaries of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, and the Medicaid buy-in proposals now popping in the states are aimed at the people who are most likely to be foregoing private ACA coverage because of its cost.