White House pitch to bolster Obamacare includes tough trade-offs for Democrats


The White House is pictured. | Getty

The White House is seeking a package of conservative policy concessions — some of which are certain to antagonize Democrats — in return for backing a legislative package bolstering Obamacare markets, according to a document obtained by POLITICO.

The document indicates the administration will support congressional efforts to prop up the wobbly marketplaces, in exchange for significantly expanding short-term health plans and loosening other insurance regulations.

The document also makes severalreferences to abortion language that will be problematic for Democrats. A potential stumbling block in passing any stabilization package is whether conservatives will insist on including language prohibiting the use of government dollars to pay for abortions.

“Although congressional efforts to provide taxpayer money to prop up the exchanges is understandable, any such efforts must also provide relief to middle-class families harmed by the law and protect life,” the document states.

The source of the document provided to POLITICO isn’t identified and it isn’t dated. The White House declined to comment on the document but didn’t question its authenticity. A spokesperson for HHS said the department does not comment on leaked documents.

Two health policy experts who have been in contact with White House officials indicated that the document is consistent with ideas the administration has discussed for creating more stability and flexibility in the insurance markets.

“It’s legit,” said one former White House policy official.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been in delicate negotiations over a stabilization package that could clear the House and Senate. Democrats want to bolster the federal health care law after Republicans failed in their efforts to repeal it last year.

The list of White House policy requests includes allowing insurers to charge older enrollees up to five times as much as their younger counterparts, as opposed to the current three-to-one cap. That policy would require amending the Affordable Care Act.

The White House is also seeking to allow short-term plans — which offer skimpier benefits with lower premiums — to be renewed. Short-term plans, exempt from Obamacare rules, can deny people coverage or charge them more based on a health condition, in a process known as underwriting. The Trump administration recently proposed expanding the maximum length of these plans from three months to one year. However, the White House document envisions allowing people to renew this coverage “without those individuals going through health underwriting.”

The document doesn’t include support for reinsurance, which insurers have been pushing to shield them from the costs of particularly expensive customers.

The document also reiterates that the administration supports funding for cost-sharing reduction payments, which Trump cut off in October. The president’s budget proposal including funding for the payments, which help insurers reduce out-of-pocket costs for low-income Obamacare customers.

There is at least one item on the White House list that could garner bipartisan support: Expanding the use of health savings accounts. Last week, a bipartisan group of House members introduced a package of potential changes, and business groups have been pushing for HSA proposals to be part of the appropriations package Congress must pass by March 23.

Republicans fear another year of eye-popping premium increases will hit voters just before Election Day — and that they’ll get the blame this time since they’re now in charge.

But the White House asks could further unsettle those talks. In particular, the emphasis on abortion language tripped up earlier negotiations.

Democrats have been seeking a very different list of policies to boost the markets. They want to increase the subsidies provided to Obamacare customers, reinstate funding for outreach and marketing, and prevent the executive branch from expanding the availability of what they deride as “junk” insurance plans.

“People nationwide are looking at higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs as a direct result of the damage President Trump has done on health care,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who has been in the middle of negotiations over a stabilization package, in a statement to POLITICO. “I certainly hope the president and Republican leaders won’t once again sabotage an opportunity to undo some of the damage they’ve done by choosing to play politics with women’s health and making last-minute, harmful demands that would raise families’ costs even more and place an age tax on seniors.”


The Price They Pay



THE BURDEN of high drug costs weighs most heavily on the sickest Americans.

Drug makers have raised prices on treatments for life-threatening or chronic conditions like multiple sclerosis, diabetes and cancer. In turn, insurers have shifted more of those costs onto consumers. Saddled with high deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs that expose them to a drug’s rising list price, many people are paying thousands of dollars a month merely to survive.

For more than a year, President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress have promised to take action on high drug prices, but despite a flurry of proposals, little has changed.

These are the stories of Americans living daily with the reality of high-cost drugs. And there are millions of others just like them.


Americans’ Views on Health Insurance at the End of a Turbulent Year



The Affordable Care Act’s 2018 open enrollment period came at the end of a turbulent year in health care. The Trump administration took several steps to weaken the ACA’s insurance marketplaces. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans engaged in a nine-month effort to repeal and replace the law’s coverage expansions and roll back Medicaid.

Nevertheless, 11.8 million people had selected plans through the marketplaces by the end of January, about 3.7 percent fewer than the prior year.1 There was an overall increase in enrollment this year in states that run their own marketplaces and a decrease in those states that rely on the federal marketplace.

To gauge the perspectives of Americans on the marketplaces, Medicaid, and other health insurance issues, the Commonwealth Fund Affordable Care Act Tracking Survey interviewed a random, nationally representative sample of 2,410 adults ages 19 to 64 between November 2 and December 27, 2017, including 541 people who have marketplace or Medicaid coverage. The findings are compared to prior ACA tracking surveys, the most recent of which was fielded between March and June 2017. The survey research firm SSRS conducted the survey, which has an overall margin of error is +/– 2.7 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. See How We Conducted This Study to learn more about the survey methods.


Adults were asked about:

  • INSURANCE COVERAGE 14 percent of working age adults were uninsured at the end of 2017, unchanged from March–June 2017.
  • AWARENESS OF THE MARKETPLACES 35 percent of uninsured adults were not aware of the marketplaces.
  • REASONS FOR NOT GETTING COVERED Among uninsured adults who were aware of the marketplaces but did not plan to visit them, 71 percent said they didn’t think they could afford health insurance, while 23 percent thought the ACA was going to be repealed.
  • CONFIDENCE ABOUT STAYING COVERED About three in 10 people with marketplace coverage or Medicaid said they were not confident they would be able to keep their coverage in the future. Of those, 47 percent said they felt this way because either the Trump administration would not carry out the law (32%) or Congress would repeal it (15%).
  • SHOULD AFFORDABLE HEALTH CARE BE A RIGHT? 92 percent of working-age adults think that all Americans should have the right to affordable health care, including 99 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of Republicans, and 92 percent of independents.

U.S. Prescription Drug Costs Are a Crime



And just tweaking the system won’t solve the problem.

President Donald Trump has complained that U.S. drug companies are “getting away with murder.” For once the hyperbole is forgivable: It suggests he takes the problem of drug costs seriously and might be willing to do something about it. Unfortunately, his administration’s efforts up to now suggest the opposite.

The White House has proposed tweaks to government health-care programs. Some of these measures are worth trying — they could help at the margin — but tweaks aren’t enough. The underlying problem is drug prices that are indeed murderous: Americans and their insurers often pay many times what people in other developed countries pay for the same medicines. That’s what policy needs to confront.

The administration wants insurers participating in Medicare’s prescription-drug program, for instance, to share more directly with beneficiaries the discounts they arrange with drug companies. Out-of-pocket drug costs for some people on Medicare would be capped, and reimbursement for medicines administered by doctors would be trimmed. In Medicaid, a handful of states would be allowed to decline coverage for certain drugs, increasing their leverage in negotiating discounts.

Such changes could lower drug spending for some Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. But they miss the main point by shifting costs within the health-care system rather pressing down on the costs themselves. Unless this changes, the U.S. will continue to be overcharged for its drugs.

The companies often say that high U.S. prices pay for research into new lifesaving products. Leaving aside why U.S. patients should be asked to shoulder that burden for the entire world, the evidence shows that the argument is false: The premium companies collect in the U.S. market is substantially greater than the amount they spend on research and development.

State legislatures have aimed closer to the mark with efforts to expose the math behind price increases. Vermont, Nevada and California have new lawsrequiring that drug companies provide cost breakdowns to justify big price hikes on popular drugs (including, in Nevada’s case, drugs for diabetes). Several other states are considering doing the same.

Even if these laws stand — they’re being challenged in court — transparency gets you only so far. Pushing prices down will take stronger efforts from the federal government to increase competition.

One good way to do that is to speed the uptake of generics. Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, has been pressuring drug makers to stop trying to extend the monopolies they’ve been granted (via FDA approval and patents) for brand-name drugs. But only Congress can forbid those practices, and it has yet to act on bipartisan legislation that would do the job. Trump could show he’s serious about lowering drug prices by urging Congress to pass the law.

Another way to boost competition would be to let people and pharmacies import some drugs from other countries with sound pharmaceutical regulation, such as Canada. Almost one in 10 Americans say they already do, despite the official prohibition.

The U.S. should also do what so many other countries do: negotiate. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ought to use its enormous purchasing power on behalf of the 42 million Americans in the Medicare drug-benefit program, ensuring that prices better reflect the drugs’ actual medical value. Again, for this to happen, Congress would need to change the law. Incredible as this will seem elsewhere in the world, the U.S. government has denied itself permission to apply pharmaceutical cost-benefit analysis and negotiate prices.

Trump is right to deplore the cost of drugs in the U.S. There’s no great mystery about the causes — and no doubt that much bolder measures than the administration has in mind will be needed to bring prices down.

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.