KHN’s ‘What The Health?’ California Here We Come

Podcast: KHN’s ‘What The Health?’ California Here We Come

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Health care is a big political issue, but no place more than in California. In San Francisco last week, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure upholding a ban on flavored tobacco products — over the vehement objections of the tobacco industry.

And the state’s activist attorney general, Xavier Becerra, is leading a group of Democratic officials from more than a dozen states defending the Affordable Care Act in a case filed in Texas. That is important given that the Trump administration’s Justice Department decided not to defend the law in full from charges that changes made by Congress in last year’s tax law invalidates the health law.

This week’s panelists for KHN’s “What the Health?” are: Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Anna Maria Barry-Jester of FiveThirtyEight.com, Carrie Feibel of KQED San Francisco and Joanne Kenen of Politico.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Republicans and Democrats had been gearing up for a midterm election debate on who is responsible for higher health insurance costs. But that shifted last week to an argument over whether consumers with preexisting conditions should be guaranteed coverage following the Justice Department’s brief saying changes to the ACA invalidated those protections.
  • In California, there is widespread support among Democrats for a single-payer health system. But the term is somewhat amorphous. For some officials, it is a catch-all phrase that seems to suggest strong efforts with current programs to get the uninsured rate down to zero, while still keeping much of the current insurance system in place.
  • Becerra has filed a suit against Sutter Health, a giant in the hospital industry in Northern California, alleging that consolidation has resulted in anti-competitive pricing practices.
  • San Francisco’s adoption of a referendum to ban flavored tobacco products could lead other local governments to follow suit. The measure included not only products with flavors allegedly geared to young people, but also menthol cigarettes, which make up about 30 percent of the market.

 

The Texas lawsuit could end some of the ACA’s protections for employer coverage

https://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/the-texas-lawsuit-could-end-some-of-the-acas-protections-for-employer-sponsored-coverage/

Image result for health insurance guaranteed issue

The Trump administration’s refusal to defend portions of the Affordable Care Act is shocking enough. Equally shocking is how little it seems to care what happens if it gets what it’s asking for.

One question in particular: what about legal protections for the 160 million people who get insurance through their employers? Will their insurance still cover their preexisting conditions, even if they switch jobs? I honestly have no idea.

In its brief, the Justice Department argues that the community rating and guaranteed issue provisions of the ACA must be invalidated. But it never mentions that those provisions apply not only to individual health plans, but also to employer plans.

So should those rules give way across the board? Or only for individual insurance plans?

Maybe it should be the latter. The mandate isn’t critical to securing the health of the employer market, so the ACA rules that protect employees aren’t inextricably linked to the mandate and shouldn’t be invalidated. But it could also plausibly be the former: if the rules governing community rating and guaranteed issue are inseverable, maybe the court shouldn’t do micro-surgery to save some subpart of those rules.

But guess what? In its brief, the Justice Department doesn’t say which approach it endorses.

Actually, it’s worse than that.  When the Justice Department identifies the rules governing community rating and guaranteed issue, it doesn’t cite the ACA itself (Public Law 111-948). Instead, it cites parts of the U.S. Code that codify portions of the ACA (e.g., 42 U.S.C. 300gg). The implication is that the Justice Department wants the court to enjoin those code provisions.

But the code provisions were on the books long before the ACA was adopted. Prior to the ACA, they listed protections for employer-sponsored plans that had been adopted in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Among other things, HIPAA limited the circumstances under which an employer could refuse to cover an employee’s preexisting conditions. The protections weren’t perfect, but they were something. The ACA patched HIPAA’s gaps by amending those code provisions.

So if the U.S. Code provisions are enjoined altogether—which, again, is what the Justice Department appears to be asking for—some of the HIPAA-era protections would be wiped from the books too.* Is that really what the Justice Department wants? Because that’s the thrust of its brief.

The confusion may reflect a basic legal mistake, one that Tobias Dorsey highlighted in Some Reflections on Not Reading the Statutes: the U.S. Code is a codification of existing laws, but it’s not itself the law. That’s why code provisions shouldn’t themselves be the target of any injunction. Any injunction should run against the ACA itself. If that’s what the Justice Department really wants, then it has to clarify what it’s really asking for. Failing to do so could wreak havoc in the employer-sponsored market.

Even if the injunction only runs against portions the ACA, however, that still wouldn’t resolve whether the ACA’s protections would still apply to employer-sponsored plans. If they don’t, that’s a big deal: HIPAA’s protections are porous.

So far, however, the Trump administration hasn’t said a word—leaving 160 million people in the lurch.

 

Federal appeals court says HHS doesn’t have to make ACA risk corridor payments

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/payer/moda-health-risk-corridor-payments-us-court-appeals-hhs-aca?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTkRBMk5UWXpOemhpT1RsaCIsInQiOiIzbWdsem9qRzZ0RDJPb0pTR1pRVVA1NjgzcmNZd1dnMzNoNWh0N2xVMlwvZXlMN0EyenFKVVFEUU9ZRFFRZXZYMm9acFVcL0creEt5TWpxY3V1aUE2b2tvZU1QcHNBSHFHN1VrUEswYVkxckRoMEh6clhFZ0lsQ3lvR2RzTm5cLzdodiJ9&mrkid=959610

Legal Review

A federal appeals court ruled the federal government does not have to make risk corridor payments, dealing a blow to insurers that claim they are owed billions in payments under the Affordable Care Act.

In a closely watched case brought by Moda Health Plans, the three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a decision by the Court of Federal Claims, ruling that the Department of Health and Human Services is not obligated to make risk corridor payments to insurers under the ACA.

The payments were built into the ACA as a way to protect insurers from extreme gains or losses on the ACA exchanges in a market that was still untested by insurers.

“Although section 1342 obligated the government to pay participants in the exchanges the full amount indicated by the formula for risk corridor payments, we hold that Congress suspended the government’s obligation in each year of the program through clear intent manifested in appropriations riders,” wrote Chief Judge Sharon Proust in the decision (PDF). “We also hold that the circumstances of this legislation and subsequent regulation did not create a contract promising the full amount of risk corridors payments.”

The court acknowledged the section of the ACA requiring the HHS Secretary to establish risk corridor payments is “unambiguously mandatory,” but said Congress included appropriations riders during each of the program’s three years to ensure risk corridor payments were budget neutral.

The court added that the program “lacks the trappings of contractual agreement,” rebuffing Moda Health’s argument that HHS is required to make payments.

In a statement to FierceHealthcare, Moda Health President and CEO Robert Gootee said the insurer plans to appeal the decision.

“We are disappointed by today’s decision,” he said. “If it is upheld on appeal, it will effectively allow the federal government to walk away from its obligation to provide partial reimbursement for the financial losses Moda incurred when we stepped up to provide coverage to more than 100,000 Oregonians under the ACA. We continue to believe, as our trial court did, that the government’s obligation to us is clearly stated in the law and we will continue to pursue our claim on appeal.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Pauline Neman argued that the appropriations riders did not cancel out HHS’s obligation to make risk corridor payments. She said the court’s decision “undermines the reliability of dealings with the government.”

So this isn’t the end of the road for insurers, and there’s some good language in the majority opinion about their statutory entitlement. But it’s a Michigan-size pothole in their path to getting paid.

Dozens of insurers have sued the government to reclaim billions in unpaid risk corridor payments. Moda Health claimed it is owed $214 million, while Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina filed for nearly $150 million in unpaid payments and Humana claims its owed $611 million.

 

 

 

Two Lawsuits with Implications for the Coverage of Millions of Americans

http://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/blog/2018/jun/lawsuits-implications-for-coverage?omnicid=EALERT1421015&mid=henrykotula@yahoo.com

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Significant legal challenges have marked the history of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) since its passage in 2010, and have largely determined the outlines of the law’s current structure. Similarly, as Sara Rosenbaum argues in a brief published this week, the courts have substantially shaped the Medicaid program over its 53-year history. Two recent legal challenges have potentially far-reaching implications for both the Affordable Care Act and the Medicaid program, and the millions of Americans who depend on them for their health insurance. While the plaintiffs take different positions regarding the ACA and Medicaid, the cases and the Trump Administration’s responses to them reveal an executive branch that is consistent in its efforts to reduce the federal government’s role in guaranteeing health insurance coverage for Americans.

Stewart v. Azar

Oral arguments in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia begin today in a class action lawsuit brought by 15 Kentucky Medicaid enrollees. The case challenges the legality of several aspects of Kentucky’s 1115 Medicaid demonstration waiver, which allows the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and states to test time-limited innovations in Medicaid and other public welfare programs without congressional action. Set to go into effect on July 1, the Kentucky waiver’s most controversial provision is the requirement that Medicaid beneficiaries work or perform community service for at least 80 hours per month to retain coverage. The suit also challenges the authority of HHS, now led by Secretary Alex Azar, to both encourage and approve Medicaid work demonstrations generally and the approval of Kentucky’s demonstration in particular.   The suit also challenges the legality of other aspects of the waiver, including the imposition of premiums, the use of six-month lock-out periods for beneficiaries who don’t comply with work requirements or pay their premiums on time, and the elimination of Medicaid’s requirement that new beneficiaries receive three months of retroactive coverage. Three other states have received approval for similar waiversseven states have applications under review at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and several others are developing them. Because the case challenges both the Kentucky waiver and HHS policy, it has implications for these states, as well as the future of the Medicaid program.

A critical issue highlighted by the case goes to the heart of the entitlement nature of the Medicaid program. Under the Medicaid Act and subsequent amendments, Congress has determined certain groups of people to be eligible for Medicaid coverage by virtue of their age, income, or health needs. These mandatory coverage groups include children, pregnant women, and the elderly, blind and disabled. Because working-age adults with low incomes were the least likely to work in a job that comes with health benefits, the ACA created a new mandatory eligibility category for adults with income less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The Supreme Court decision in 2012 effectively made this optional for states. But once a state elects to cover people who fall into this group, individuals at this income level become a mandatory coverage group. Kentucky expanded eligibility for this group in 2014, and most, but not all, of its waiver provisions apply only to this group. The lawsuit argues that suspending a beneficiary’s coverage for failure to comply with the new waiver requirements would be in violation of their entitlement to coverage under the Medicaid Act. In public speeches, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma, also named as a defendant in the suit, has maintained that Congress’s decision to expand eligibility for Medicaid to “able-bodied” adults was a departure from the historical mission of the program and that states should have the opportunity to alter that through work and other requirements. While the vast majority of adults who have coverage through the ACA’s Medicaid expansion have jobs, work requirements will likely impose significant administrative barriers that could trigger eligibility losses even among those working full time. Estimates of coverage losses range from 95,000 to nearly 300,000 people in Kentucky. Because low-income workers remain the least likely group in the U.S. workforce to have coverage through their jobs, many will likely become uninsured.

Texas v. Azar

Secretary Azar is also the defendant in this case, brought by Texas and 19 other Republican-led states. So-called amici, or friend of the court briefs, are due today and several groups have filed briefs. The suit claims that Congress’s repeal of the individual mandate penalty renders the individual mandate — still part of the ACA — unconstitutional. Because the mandate is essential to the operation of the law, the case argues that the entire law is invalid. In an extraordinary departure from executive branch precedent — and as noted by Tim Jost — Attorney General Jeff Sessions notified Congress last Thursday that the administration agreed with the plaintiffs that the individual mandate was unconstitutional. Because of this, the administration argues that insurers selling policies in the individual market can no longer be banned from denying people coverage or charging higher premiums because of their health, gender, or age. However, the administration maintains that other parts of the law, including the Medicaid expansion, are not affected.

Looking forward

Taken together, these cases underscore the Trump Administration’s ongoing interest in reducing the number of people covered under the Affordable Care Act by withdrawing federal support for the law. Today’s oral arguments in the Stewart case will provide early indications as to how the courts will view the administration’s actions. The insurance coverage of millions of Americans and the future of the Medicaid program are at stake.

 

 

Medicare Takes Aim At Boomerang Hospitalizations Of Nursing Home Patients

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/13/619259541/medicare-takes-aim-at-boomerang-hospitalizations-of-nursing-home-patients

“Oh my God, we dropped her!” Sandra Snipes said she heard the nursing home aides yell as she fell to the floor.

She landed on her right side where her hip had recently been replaced. She cried out in pain.

A hospital clinician later discovered her hip was dislocated.

That was not the only injury Snipes, then 61, said she suffered in 2011 at Richmond Pines Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center in Hamlet, N.C. Nurses allegedly had been injecting her twice a day with a potent blood thinner despite written instructions to stop.

“She said, ‘I just feel so tired,’ ” her daughter, Laura Clark, said in an interview. “The nurses were saying she’s depressed and wasn’t doing her exercises. I said no, something is wrong.”

Her children also discovered Snipes’ surgical wound had become infected and infested with insects. Just 11 days after she arrived at the nursing home to heal from her hip surgery, she was back in the hospital.

The fall and these other alleged lapses in care led Clark and the family to file a lawsuit against the nursing home. Richmond Pines declined to discuss the case beyond saying it disputed the allegations at the time. The home agreed in 2017 to pay Snipes’ family $1.4 million to settle their lawsuit.

While the confluence of complications in Snipes’ case was extreme, return trips from nursing homes to hospitals are far from unusual.

With hospitals pushing patients out the door earlier, nursing homes are deluged with increasingly frail patients. But many homes, with their sometimes-skeletal medical staffing, often fail to handle post-hospital complications — or create new problems by not heeding or receiving accurate hospital and physician instructions.

Patients, caught in the middle, may suffer. One in 5 Medicare patients sent from the hospital to a nursing home boomerangs back within 30 days, often for potentially preventable conditions such as dehydration, infections and medication errors, federal records show. Such rehospitalizations occur 27 percent more frequently than for the Medicare population at large.

Nursing homes have been unintentionally rewarded by decades of colliding government payment policies, which gave both hospitals and nursing homes financial incentives for the transfers. That has left the most vulnerable patients often ping-ponging between institutions, wreaking havoc with patients’ care.

“There’s this saying in nursing homes, and it’s really unfortunate: ‘When in doubt, ship them out,’ ” said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. “It’s a short-run, cost-minimizing strategy, but it ends up costing the system and the individual a lot more.”

In recent years, the government has begun to tackle the problem. In 2013, Medicare began fining hospitals for high readmission rates in an attempt to curtail premature discharges and to encourage hospitals to refer patients to nursing homes with good track records.

Starting this October, the government will address the other side of the equation, giving nursing homes bonuses or assessing penalties based on their Medicare rehospitalization rates. The goal is to accelerate early signs of progress: The rate of potentially avoidable readmissions dropped to 10.8 percent in 2016 from 12.4 percent in 2011, according to Congress’ Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.

“We’re better, but not well,” Grabowski said. “There’s still a high rate of inappropriate readmissions.”

The revolving door is an unintended byproduct of long-standing payment policies. Medicare pays hospitals a set rate to care for a patient depending on the average time it takes to treat a typical patient with a given diagnosis. That means that hospitals effectively profit by earlier discharge and lose money by keeping patients longer, even though an elderly patient may require a few extra days.

But nursing homes have their own incentives to hospitalize patients. For one thing, keeping patients out of hospitals requires frequent examinations and speedy laboratory tests — all of which add costs to nursing homes.

Plus, most nursing home residents are covered by Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor that is usually the lowest-paying form of insurance. If a nursing home sends a Medicaid resident to the hospital, she usually returns with up to 100 days covered by Medicare, which pays more. On top of all that, in some states, Medicaid pays a “bed-hold” fee when a patient is hospitalized.

None of this is good for the patients. Nursing home residents often return from the hospital more confused or with a new infection, said Dr. David Gifford, a senior vice president of quality and regulatory affairs at the American Health Care Association, a nursing home trade group.

“And they never quite get back to normal,” he said.

‘She Looked Like A Wet Washcloth’

Communication lapses between physicians and nursing homes is one recurring cause of rehospitalizations. Elaine Essa had been taking thyroid medication ever since that gland was removed when she was a teenager. Essa, 82, was living at a nursing home in Lancaster, Calif., in 2013 when a bout of pneumonia sent her to the hospital.

When she returned to the nursing home — now named Wellsprings Post-Acute Care Center — her doctor omitted a crucial instruction from her admission order: to resume the thyroid medication, according to a lawsuit filed by her family. The nursing home telephoned Essa’s doctor to order the medication, but he never called them back, the suit said.

Without the medication, Essa’s appetite diminished, her weight increased and her energy vanished — all indications of a thyroid imbalance, said the family’s attorney, Ben Yeroushalmi, discussing the lawsuit. Her doctors from Garrison Family Medical Group never visited her, sending instead their nurse practitioner. He, like the nursing home employees, did not grasp the cause of her decline, although her thyroid condition was prominently noted in her medical records, the lawsuit said.

Three months after her return from the hospital, “she looked like a wet washcloth. She had no color in her face,” said Donna Jo Duncan, a daughter, in a deposition. Duncan said she demanded the home’s nurses check her mother’s blood pressure. When they did, a supervisor ran over and said, “Call an ambulance right away,” Duncan said in the deposition.

At the hospital, a physician said tests showed “zero” thyroid hormone levels, Deborah Ann Favorite, a daughter, recalled in an interview. She testified in her deposition that the doctor told her, “I can’t believe that this woman is still alive.”

Essa died the next month. The nursing home and the medical practice settled the case for confidential amounts. Cynthia Schein, an attorney for the home, declined to discuss the case beyond saying it was “settled to everyone’s satisfaction.” The suit is still ongoing against one other doctor, who did not respond to requests for comment.

Dangers In Discouraging Hospitalization

Out of the nation’s 15,630 nursing homes, one-fifth send 25 percent or more of their patients back to the hospital, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of data on Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare website. On the other end of the spectrum, the fifth of homes with the lowest readmission rates return fewer than 17 percent of residents to the hospital.

Many health policy experts say that spread shows how much improvement is possible. But patient advocates fear the campaign against hospitalizing nursing home patients may backfire, especially when Medicare begins linking readmission rates to its payments.

“We’re always worried the bad nursing homes are going to get the message ‘Don’t send anyone to the hospital,’ ” said Tony Chicotel, a staff attorney at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, a nonprofit based in San Francisco.

Richmond Pines, where Sandra Snipes stayed, has a higher than average rehospitalization rate of 25 percent, according to federal records. But the family’s lawyer, Kyle Nutt, said the lawsuit claimed the nurses initially resisted sending Snipes back, insisting she was “just drowsy.”

After Snipes was rehospitalized, her blood thinner was discontinued, her hip was reset, and she was discharged to a different nursing home, according to the family’s lawsuit. But her hospital trips were not over: When she showed signs of recurrent infection, the second home sent her to yet another hospital, the lawsuit alleged.

Ultimately, the lawsuit claimed that doctors removed her prosthetic hip and more than a liter of infected blood clots and tissues. Nutt said if Richmond Pines’ nurses had “caught the over-administration of the blood thinner right off the bat, we don’t think any of this would have happened.”

Snipes returned home but was never able to walk again, according to the lawsuit. Her husband, William, cared for her until she died in 2015, her daughter, Clark, said.

“She didn’t want to go back into the nursing home,” Clark said. “She was terrified.”

 

 

 

The fight over preexisting conditions is back. Here’s why the Obamacare battle won’t end.

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/6/11/17441858/obamacare-repeal-debate-lawsuit

 

There is a persistent divide in the US: Is insurance a privilege to be earned through hard work? Or is it a right?

President Trump and Republicans are so committed to killing Obamacare they’ve decided, just months before the midterm elections, to take aim at the most popular part of the law: coverage for preexisting conditions.

The Trump administration signed on to a long-shot lawsuit this week that would overturn the parts of the law that require insurers to cover preexisting conditions and not charge more for them.

The lawsuit, which you can read more about from Vox’s Dylan Scott, is, in some ways, a perplexing move mere months before midterm elections. Polling finds that both Democrats and Republicans think it’s a good idea to ensure that sick people have access to health insurance.

Politically, though, Republicans spent eight years campaigning on a promise to repeal Obamacare. They believe they have a responsibility to do something, even if the something doesn’t poll well.

But after eight years of covering the Affordable Care Act, I think there is a much deeper tension that keeps the fight over Obamacare alive. It is a persistent, unresolved split in how we think about who deserves health insurance in the United States: Is insurance a privilege to be earned through hard work? Or is it a right?

The United States hasn’t decided who deserves health insurance

Since World War II, the United States has had a unique health insurance system that tethers access to medical care to employment. Changes to the tax code created strong incentives for companies to provide health coverage as a benefit to workers. Now most Americans get their insurance through their employer, and, culturally, health insurance is thought of as a benefit that comes with a job.

Over time, the government did carve out exceptions for certain categories of people. Older Americans, after all, wouldn’t be expected to work forever, so they got Medicare coverage in 1965. Medicaid launched the same year, extending benefits to those who were low-income and had some other condition that might make it difficult to work, such as blindness, a disability, or parenting responsibilities.

Then the Affordable Care Act came along with a new approach. The law aimed to open up the insurance market to anybody who wanted coverage, regardless of whether he or she had a job.

It created a marketplace where middle-income individuals could shop on their own for private health coverage without the help of a large company. It expanded Medicaid to millions of low-income Americans. Suddenly, a job became a lot less necessary as a prerequisite for gaining health insurance.

This, I think, is the divide over health insurance in America. It’s about whether we see coverage as part of work. In my reporting and others’, I’ve seen significant swaths of the country where people push back against this. They see health as something you ought to work for, a benefit you get because of the contribution you make by getting up and going to a job each day.

This came out pretty clearly in an interview I did in late 2016 with a woman I met on a reporting trip to Kentucky whom I’ll call Susan Allen. (She asked me not to use her real name because she didn’t want people to know that she uses the Affordable Care Act for coverage.)

Allen used to do administrative work in an elementary school but now is a caregiver to her elderly mother. Her husband has mostly worked in manual labor jobs, including the coal industry.

Allen told me a story about when she worked in the school. At Christmas, there would be a drive to collect present for the poorest families, presents she sometimes couldn’t afford for her own kids. It made her upset.

”These kids that get on the list every year, I’d hear them saying, ‘My mom is going to buy me a TV for Christmas,’” Allen says. “And I can’t afford to buy my kid a TV, and he’s in the exact same grade with her.”

Allen saw her health insurance as the same story: She works really hard and ends up with a health insurance plan that has a $6,000 deductible. Then there are people on Medicaid who don’t work and seem to have easier access to the health care system than she does.

”The ones that have full Medicaid, they can go to the emergency room for a headache,” she says. “They’re going to the doctor for pills, and that’s what they’re on.”

Is health insurance a right or a privilege?

More recently, Atul Gawande wrote a piece for the New Yorker exploring whether Americans view health care as a right or a privilege.

He reported the story in his hometown in Appalachian Ohio, where he kept running into this same idea: that health insurance is something that belongs to those who work for it.

One woman he interviewed, a librarian named Monna, told him, “If you’re disabled, if you’re mentally ill, fine, I get it. But I know so many folks on Medicaid that just don’t work. They’re lazy.”

Another man, Joe, put it this way: “I see people on the same road I live on who have never worked a lick in their life. They’re living on disability incomes, and they’re healthier than I am.”

As Gawande noted in his piece, “A right makes no distinction between the deserving and undeserving.” But he often found this to be the key dividing line when he asked people whether everyone should have health coverage. Often, it came down to whether that person was the type who merited such help.

This isn’t a debate that happens in most other industrialized countries. If you asked a Canadian who deserves health care, you’d probably get a baffled look in return. Our northern neighbors decided decades ago that health insurance is something you get just by the merit of living in Canada. It’s not something you earn; it’s something you’re entitled to.

But in the United States, we’ve never resolved this debate. Our employer-sponsored health care system seems to have left us with some really deep divides over the fundamental questions that define any health care systems.

Those are the questions we’ll need to resolve before the debate over Obamacare ever ends.

 

 

CBO’s Revised View Of Individual Mandate Reflected In Latest Forecast

https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20180605.966625/full/?utm_term=Read%20More%20%2526gt%3B%2526gt%3B&utm_campaign=HASU&utm_content=email&utm_source=06-10-18&utm_medium=Email&cm_mmc=Act-On%20Software-_-email-_-Health%20Affairs%20June%20Issue%3A%20Hospitals%2C%20Primary%20Care%20%2526%20More%3B%20ACA%20Round-Up%3B%20Harassment%20In%20Medicine-_-Read%20More%20%2526gt%3B%2526gt%3B

On May 23, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released updated projections of federal spending and tax expenditures related to supporting enrollment in health insurance, along with a new forecast of the number of Americans younger than age 65 who will have coverage or will be uninsured in the coming years.

The bottom line: The CBO continues to expect that the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) markets will have relatively stable enrollment, more states will expand their Medicaid programs, and per-person health costs will rise at rates that exceed economic growth. Federal spending on subsidies for health insurance enrollment, along with tax breaks for employer coverage, will continue to grow at a rapid rate, thus intensifying pressure within the overall federal budget.

While the CBO’s new forecast looks in many ways quite similar to previous projections, the agency has revised its views on one very important aspect of its forecast—the effectiveness of the individual mandate—and also updated its forecast to reflect the effects of relevant executive decisions and proposed regulations by the Trump administration. These revisions and updates to the forecast are the primary reasons the current baseline does not differ more than it does from those issued by the CBO previously.

CBO’s Revised View Of The Individual Mandate

The most notable change in the CBO’s new forecast is the agency’s revised view of the effectiveness of the ACA’s individual mandate. During 2017, as Republicans in Congress attempted to pass legislation substantially rolling back and replacing the ACA, the CBO estimated that these efforts would dramatically increase the number of Americans going without insurance coverage. For instance, in July 2017, the CBO estimated that the version of repeal and replace assembled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would have increased the number of uninsured from 28 million in 2017 to 41 million in 2018 and 50 million in 2026. There were several reasons that the McConnell proposal would have led to more people going without coverage, but the CBO specifically cited the planned repeal of the individual mandate as the most important factor.

In December, Congress repealed the penalty associated with the individual mandate as part of the sweeping individual and corporate tax reform law. At the time of enactment, the CBO estimated that the repeal would eventually lead to an increase in the number of people going without health insurance by 13 million people annually.

The CBO’s new forecast, however, places less weight on the importance of the mandate. The agency states that, for a number of reasons, it now believes that the mandate’s role in expanding coverage after 2013 is only about two-thirds of what it previously assumed. So instead of repeal adding 13 million more people to the ranks of the uninsured, the CBO now estimates the effect at slightly more than 8 million people.

The CBO cites a number of considerations for making this important revision to its forecast. Among other things, the agency is placing more emphasis on the financial reasons for expanded enrollment into coverage after 2013, such as the ACA’s subsidy structure, instead of nonfinancial factors, such as the expectation, or social norm, of insurance enrollment that the mandate was intended to create.

Summing Up 

In the aggregate, the CBO’s updated projections of health insurance enrollment and federal subsidies for coverage do not differ all that much from previous projections. What’s different are some of the assumptions. The CBO expects there will be more uninsured in the future than is the case today, but the agency does not expect a reversion back to the uninsured levels of the pre-ACA era. Furthermore, because of changes in policies set in motion by the Trump administration, there are likely to be more people enrolled in non-ACA compliant insurance plans than is the case today, and that coverage, while different, will still provide a reasonable level of financial protection to enrollees.