Tired of the partisanship and dithering in Congress, voters took matters into their own hands Tuesday and largely embraced initiatives and politicians who vowed to expand Medicaid and protect coverage for pre-existing conditions.
You can’t undo an entitlement.
‘Repeal and replace’ is dead. Drug pricing reforms a likely area of bipartisan consensus.
Democrats can push Medicare For All at their own peril.
For healthcare economist Gail Wilensky, the big message that voters sent to their elected officials during Tuesday’s mid-term elections was straightforward and simple.
“Don’t mess with my healthcare,” says Wilensky, a senior fellow at Project HOPE and a former MedPAC chair.
“It’s as clear as that. There were no subtleties involved here,” she says. “That includes protections for pre-existing conditions and added coverage under Medicaid.”
Consider what happened on Tuesday:
- Overall, Democrats wrested control of the House from Republicans in an election where healthcare was seen as the single biggest issue. Democrats ceaselessly hammered Republicans with the claim that the GOP would eliminate protections for pre-existing conditions.
- Ballot initiatives in three bright-red Republican states all passed with healthy margins. A similar ballot initiative in Montana failed, but observers blamed the failure on an unpopular $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes that would have paid for the expansion.
- Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, a lead plaintiff in a Texas v. Azar, was ousted by Democrat Josh Kaul, who promised to withdraw Wisconsin from the suit.
- Three-term Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker lost a re-election bid to Democrat Tony Evers, likely scuttling that state’s recent waiver approval for Medicaid work requirements. Evers also pledged to expand Medicaid.
- Phil Weiser, Colorado’s Democratic Attorney General-elect, and a former Obama administration staffer, told Colorado Public Radio that one of his first actions would be to join the 17 Democratic attorneys general intervening to defend the ACA in Texas v. Azar.
Wilensky says the mid-terms results reinforce one of the oldest truisms in politics: Once an entitlement is proffered, there’s no going back.
“There is no precedent that I’m aware of in American political history where a benefit can be taken away,” she says. “Once granted, it can be modified, it can be increased, it can be augmented in some way, but there’s no taking it away after it’s been in place.”
When Democrats took control of the House, Wilensky says, they drove a stake through the heart of the “repeal and replace” movement.
“Republicans couldn’t even get that done when they control both houses of Congress, she says. “It’s a non-issue, in part because a lot of Republicans support major provisions of the Affordable Care Act.”
With repealing the ACA off the table, Democrats and Republicans might find common ground on issues such as drug pricing.
“That’s clearly is the most obvious, in general, but the specifics of what you want to do become much more challenging,” Wilensky says. “Typically, Democrats want to use administered pricing the way that we use administer pricing in parts of Medicare. I don’t know how much Republican support there is for that.”
The two parties could reach some sort of bipartisan agreement on Medicare Part B drugs, Wilensky says, because it’s a smaller program and the drugs are generally much more expensive.
“Most members of Congress are not talking about messing around with Part D, the ambulatory prescription drug coverage,” Wilensky says. “So it really has to do either with the expensive infusion drugs that are administered in the physician’s office or maybe something about drug advertising. Even then, it’s going to be hard lift when you actually get down to the specifics.”
Besides, Wilensky says, it’s not the cost of drugs that’s at the heart of voter agitation.
“You have to unpack what they’re saying to figure out what they’re actually pushing for,” she says. “People couldn’t care less about drug prices. They only care about what it costs them. So when they talk about drug prices they mean, ‘I want to spend less for the drugs I want, and I don’t want any constraints about what I can order.’
More likely, she says, common ground could be found in arcane areas such as mandating greater transparency for pharmacy benefits managers, and changing PBMs’ rebate structure.
Wilensky warns that giddy Democrats should learn from the mistakes of Republicans in the mid-terms and not attempt to force a Medicare-For-All solution on a wary public.
“First of all, they’re going to have to define what it means,” she says. “But, you have to be very careful because historically there’s not been warm and fuzzy response to taking away people’s employer-sponsored insurance.”
“Again, historically, when candidates mess around with employer-sponsored insurance they have gotten themselves into trouble,” she says. “Most people would like to keep what they have, because keeping what you have is much safer than going with something as yet to be defined.”
“DON’T MESS WITH MY HEALTHCARE. IT’S AS CLEAR AS THAT. THERE WERE NO SUBTLETIES INVOLVED HERE,”
GAIL WILENSKY, SENIOR FELLOW PROJECT HOPE