Democrats Have No Safe Options On Health Care

Democrats Have No Safe Options On Health Care

Even though most of the candidates have committed to some form of universal health care, the Democratic primary is turning into a debate about the future of the country’s health care system. Presidential hopefuls have proposed policies ranging from an ambitious four-year plan to transform Medicare into a universal single-payer system, in which the government pays for everyone’s health care and private insurance plans are effectively eliminated, to a more modest scheme that would leave the existing health care system intact but create a government-administered public insurance plan people could choose to purchase. But some of the candidates have been light on policy specifics, so it’s likely that health care will be a big topic at the debates and beyond.

In the abstract, focusing on health care makes a lot of political sense for Democrats. It was a top issue among Democratic voters in the 2018 midterms, and the Trump administration recently renewed its efforts to strike down the Affordable Care Act in the courts, which means the law could be hanging in the balance throughout the primaries and into the general election. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll also found that Americans, by a 17-point margin, say that President Trump’s handling of health care makes them more likely to oppose him than to support him in 2020. By a similar margin, an Associated Press/NORC poll found that Americans trust Democrats more than Republicans on health care.

All of this means that Democrats are heading into the 2020 election cycle with a serious edge on an issue that has the potential to mobilize their base. But if the candidates pitch big, sweeping changes to the health care system without addressing voters’ concerns about cost and access, that advantage won’t necessarily hold up. And trying to sell Americans on a completely new system carries risks, even in the primaries.

Why do people care about health care so much?

First, it’s important to understand how health care has morphed over the past decade from just another issue to one of the issues voters care most about. In the 2018 exit polls, 41 percent of voters said health care was the most important issue facing the country, up from 25 percent in 2014 and 18 percent in 2012. (It wasn’t asked about in 2016.) And although Democrats are more likely to prioritize health care than Republicans, a Pew Research Center poll from January found that a majority of Republicans say health care costs should be a top priority for Congress and the president.

The reason? Health care is becoming more of a financial burden, according to Mollyann Brodie, executive director for public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Specifically, Americans’ out-of-pocket health care costs have risen significantly over the past decade, even for workers who get insurance through their jobs. In an economy that by many measures is doing well, health care — rather than something like taxes — is becoming one of voters’ most important pocketbook issues, she said. “If you’re worried about whether you or your loved ones can afford your next health care bill, that’s really a matter of life or death, so you can understand why this issue is moving to center stage politically.”

And Americans are increasingly likely to say that the government has an important role to play in ensuring access to health care. In November, Gallup found that 57 percent of Americans said they think it’s the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that everyone has health care coverage, up from a low of 42 percent in 2013. Support for the Affordable Care Act rose over the same period, too. But, notably, support for government intervention in the health care system was even higher before President Obama was elected and the ACA passed — in 2006, 69 percent of Americans thought the government should guarantee health care coverage.

While support for government involvement in health care is rebounding, it’s not clear how much change voters are really asking for. “The average American is first and foremost concerned about the financial problems facing their family,” said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard. “They’re less worried about system-level concerns like health care spending and inequality. They want their existing coverage to be better and more affordable.”

What do voters want politicians to do?

Americans aren’t opposed to the idea of government-run health care, but there’s not a lot of consensus on what that would mean. For example, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that a majority (56 percent) of Americans favor a national “Medicare for All” plan. But according to a March Morning Consult poll, Americans are more likely to favor a plan that offers some kind of public option — a government-sponsored health insurance plan available in addition to existing private plans — over a system where everyone is enrolled in the same plan.

But this apparent contradiction makes sense, according to Brodie, because Americans are risk-averse when it comes to health care, and the switch to single-payer would affect far more people than the ACA did. Tens of millions of previously uninsured people received coverage under the ACA, but that number would be dwarfed by the 156 million people who get their insurance through their employers and could see their coverage change if the country switched to a single-payer plan. “Even if the current system isn’t working, transitions are scary,” Brodie said. “And people aren’t necessarily aware of what a national plan really means. When you start telling people that there might not be any more private insurance companies, that’s actually not a popular position.” For example, a January Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that support for a national Medicare for All plan dropped significantly when respondents were told it would mean eliminating private insurance companies.

And when asked what health care policies they want Congress to prioritize, Americans don’t list Medicare for All first. Instead, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, they want Congress to pass targeted measures that would lower prescription drug costs, continue the ACA’s protections for preexisting conditions and protect people from surprise medical bills. Only 31 percent of Americans say that implementing Medicare for All should be a top priority for Congress, compared to 68 percent who want lowering drug prices to be a top priority. Moreover, prioritizing Medicare for All is politically polarizing: Only 14 percent of Republicans support putting that kind of plan at the top of the to-do list, compared to 47 percent of Democrats.

Some health care issues get only one-sided support

Share of Republicans and Democrats who say each issue should be a top priority for Congress, and the difference between the parties

Dem. Rep. Diff.
Making sure the ACA’s preexisting condition protections continue 82% 47% D+35
Implementing a national Medicare for All plan 47 14 D+33
Expanding government financial help for those who buy their own insurance coverage on the ACA marketplace to include more people 36 18 D+18
Lowering prescription drug costs for as many Americans as possible 77 66 D+11
Protecting people from surprise high out-of-network medical bills 55 45 D+10
Repealing and replacing the ACA 16 52 R+36

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation

However, smaller policy steps like lowering prescription drug costs and protecting people from surprise medical bills get more bipartisan support. Overall, Americans seem to be more concerned with fixing the current health care system than creating a sweeping new replacement — even if that replacement could address the issues they most want fixed in the current system.

What does this mean for the Democrats?

The complexity of Americans’ views on health care doesn’t change the fact that Democrats have a big advantage over Republicans on this issue, but it does mean that the individual candidates are in a tough spot because there’s no obvious unifying message they can adopt for the primary. And embracing a single-payer plan now could hand the GOP a weapon for the general election, allowing Republicans to frame the health care discussion around the Democrats’ controversial plan while glossing over Trump’s efforts to dismantle the ACA.

“The safest bet for a Democrat in the general election is to emphasize Trump’s track record on health care and say you’re going to make the ACA work,” Blendon said. The problem is that while that kind of argument might appeal to moderates, it’s likely to fall flat among a significant sector of the Democratic base that supports prioritizing a national Medicare for All plan over improving and protecting the ACA.

Democrats arguably still have an opening to make a case for a more ambitious health care overhaul, since voters still have relatively little information about what something like Medicare for All means. “It’s fine to support single-payer if you think that’s where the country needs to go, but you can’t just lean on principles like fairness or equality when you’re selling it,” said David Cutler, an economist at Harvard who advised Obama’s campaign on health care strategy. “You also have to tell voters, very specifically, what you are going to do to lower their costs and improve their coverage next year — not in 10 years.”

Even though Americans mostly prefer Democrats’ health care positions to the GOP’s, Democrats still risk alienating voters if they emphasize bumper-sticker slogans over concrete strategies for reducing the financial burden of health care. This is particularly important because their base of support for a single-payer system may be shallower than it appears, even within the party — especially when it comes to getting rid of private insurance. Big changes to the status quo are always politically challenging, but they may be especially risky when many Americans are concerned about losing the protections they already have.

 

 

 

Uninsurance of children, parents inched back up in 2017, report finds

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/uninsurance-of-children-parents-inched-back-up-in-2017-report-finds/554590/

Dive Brief:

  • After improving for several years, insurance gains and participation in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program tilted downward in 2017, a new Urban Institute report shows.
  • In the first three years following implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the uninsurance rate dropped from 7% to 4.3% among children and from 17.6% to 11% among parents, or about 40% for both groups. In 2017, however, the children’s uninsurance rate inched back up to 4.6%, or an additional 281,000 uninsured children, and parents’ coverage rate stalled.
  • Uninsurance rates rose both in states with and without the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, but the increase was more pronounced in states without expansion programs.

Dive Insight:

The findings jibe with recent data from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Health Interview Survey, which showed more than 1.1 million Americans lost health coverage in 2018, pushing the total number of uninsured from 29.3 million in 2017 to 30.4 million last year. Among surveyed adults between 18 and 64 years old, 13.3% were uninsured, 19.4% had public health coverage and 68.9% had private coverage.

The trend coincides with Trump administration efforts to weaken the ACA by eliminating several mechanisms meant to stabilize payers participating in ACA exchanges and pushing stripped-down, noncompliant health plans. The result has been rising premiums and a resurgence in the number of uninsured.

Adding to uncertainty about the ACA’s future is the U.S. Department of Justice’s support for a Texas federal district court that ruled the law unconstitutional without its individual mandate penalty, which a Republican-led Congress removed in 2017. A previous Urban Institute report estimated up to 20 million Americans would lose health insurance if the lawsuit prevails — a majority of whom are currently covered through Medicaid expansions and ACA exchanges.

While the ACA remains in legal jeopardy, Democrats and presidential candidates are looking at ways to increase the numbers of insured Americans, from shoring up the ACA to implementing some type of single-payer system or “Medicaid for All.”

According to the Urban Institute, participation in Medicaid/CHIP among children increased from 88.7% in 2013 to 93.7% in 2016, and from 67.6% to 79.9% for parents. Those gains reversed in 2017, however, with Medicaid/CHIP participation dropping to 93.1% among children and remaining unchanged for parents.

Among those who did not enroll in Medicaid/CHIP in 2017, 2 million children and 1.7 million parents were eligible for the programs — versus 1.9 million and a steady 1.7 million, respectively, in 2016.

More than half of the uninsured children and parents who were eligible for the Medicaid/CHIP lived in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, according to combined 2016-2017 data.

Parents were more than twice as likely to be uninsured as children in 2017. For example, children’s uninsurance rate was less than 5% in most states and under 10% in nearly every state, while parents’ uninsurance was less than 5% in just four states and over 10% in close to half the states, the report says.

The decline in improvement was worse among certain subgroups. “In 2017, the uninsurance rate was nearly 6% or higher among adolescents, Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Native children, citizen children with noncitizen parents, and noncitizen children,” according to the report. “And consistent with prior years, one in six parents or more who were ages 19 5o 24, Hispanic or American Indian/Alaska Native, below 100 percent of FPL [federal poverty level], receiving SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits, or noncitizen were uninsured in 2017.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Democrats Draw up their Healthcare Battle Lines

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Now that former Vice President Joe Biden has thrown his hat in the ring for the 2020 Presidential race, the healthcare policy differences between moderate and progressive factions of the Democratic party are becoming clearer. On Monday, Biden revealed the broad outlines of his healthcare platform, coming out in favor of a “public option” that would allow Americans to buy into the Medicare program, but would leave the existing employer-sponsored insurance framework largely intact. “If the insurance company isn’t doing right by you, you should have another choice,” Biden said in a campaign rally in Pittsburgh. Although his campaign did not announce details of the proposal, Biden seems to support the idea of offering a Medicare plan to employers and individuals through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces.

As the frontrunner in the primary race, Biden’s support for this more moderate approach to coverage expansion will surely make him the favored candidate of healthcare industry interests, who have come out swinging hard against “Medicare for All” (M4A) proposals.

But his position earned him a swipe from progressive candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who’s running second among Democrats in early polling. “It doesn’t go anywhere near far enough,” said Sanders of Biden’s proposal, “it will be expensive, [and] it will not cover a whole lot of people.” Sanders instead favors eliminating private insurance altogether and moving quickly toward a single-payer system built around universal Medicare coverage.

As the Presidential race takes shape, expect candidates to orient around one of these two poles: Biden’s moderate approach (O’Rourke, Buttigieg, Klobuchar); and Sanders’s more aggressive position (Warren, Harris, Booker).

Either position will present a stark contrast in the general election, as the Trump administration looks to reinvigorate the effort to strike down the ACA entirely. The 2020 elections are shaping up to be a pivotal moment for healthcare.

Digging into the details of single-payer healthcare

Click to access 55150-singlepayer.pdf

Digging into the details of single-payer healthcare
 
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill rolled up their sleeves this week and began to explore what a shift to Bernie Sanders-style “single payer” healthcare would really mean. In a hearing before the House Rules Committee on Tuesday, Congress heard from proponents of M4A and policy experts about the implications of single-payer health coverage, at least as envisioned by a recent bill authored by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA).

Although the committee does not have direct jurisdiction over Medicare, and Jayapal’s bill may never be introduced onto the floor of the House (since it lacks support from the Democratic leadership there), the hearing gave lawmakers their first chance to publicly probe the proposal, with predictable positions staked out by Democrats and Republicans on the committee.

More hearings are likely later this year, including by the House Budget Committee, which this week received a report it requested from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on the topic of single-payer healthcare. While the report does not address specific details about the cost or tax implications of a shift to single payer, it nonetheless provides an outstanding primer on the key questions that will have to be answered as part of any serious attempt to pursue M4A.

The graphic below, taken from the CBO document, poses those questions in a clear and helpful way, and the full report lays out a framework for approaching them. It’s a sober look at the hard problems that need to be faced: provider payment levels, increased wait times, public vs. private financing, access to unproven treatments.

Whatever your view on the topic, we’d highly recommend reading the CBO report in full.

The CBO analyzed what it would take to shift to a single-payer system. Here are 5 takeaways

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/payer/5-takeaways-from-cbo-s-analysis-a-single-payer-system?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTURRNU5HTmpZbU5tT1RFeiIsInQiOiJLcVdxN0dKUU5iaEdMTGtaMG9xbFdtdEgxdXJBbndhTUNyMWN6UTZzbGJhTHFkS3Z4eTRBZkFGNUxcLzlyZUxvMHpOUDRDbmptdGE4aHVoMk4wS1NTYUlWMFVPMmFxNEEzTkJcL1RDODhYa3psN0VkNFhFdTVqYjlDSHltaTdPMUFxIn0%3D&mrkid=959610

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As chatter about “Medicare-for-All” ideas heats up—at least among the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls—the Congressional Budget Office decided to offer its own take.

Well, sort of.

Wednesday, the CBO issued a report that dove into the key considerations policymakers might want to think about before they overhaul the U.S. healthcare into a single-payer system. Putting it mildly, they said, the endeavor would be a “major undertaking.”

They don’t actually offer up specific cost estimates on any of the Medicare-for-All bills floating around, though other researchers put Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-All plan at between $32.6 trillion and $38.8 trillion over the first decade.

But the CBO analysts did weigh in on a slew of different approaches to financing, coverage, enrollment and reimbursement that could be built into a single-payer plan.

“Establishing a single-payer system would be a major undertaking that would involve substantial changes in the sources and extent of coverage, provider payment rates and financing methods of healthcare in the United States,” the CBO said.

So what exactly did the CBO have to say about what it would take to create a single-payer system? Here are some key takeaways:

1. There could be a role for private insurance—or not

There has been plenty of heated debate around Medicare for All focused on the role that existing private coverage could—or could not—play in that system. Most insured Americans are enrolled in a private plan today, including about one-third of Medicare beneficiaries.

If they’re allowed, commercial plans could play one of three roles in a single-payer system, according to the report: as supplemental coverage, as an alternative plan or to offer “enhanced” services to members in the government plan. 

Allowing private insurers to offer substitutive plans is unlikely, because they could potentially offer broader provider networks or more generous benefits, which would draw people into them. A solution to this issue could be mandating that providers treat a minimum number of patients who are enrolled in a single-payer plan.

Private payers could also offer coverage for care that is traditionally outside of the purview of government programs, such as dental care, vision care and hearing care.

Supplemental plans like these are offered in the existing Medicare program, and several countries with single-payer systems allow this additional coverage.

For example, in England, private plans offer “enhancements” to members of the government plan, including shorter wait times and access to alternative therapies, But members of these plans must pay for it in addition to tax contributions to the country’s National Health Service. 

2. Other government programs could stick around

In addition to Medicare and Medicaid, the federal government operates several health programs targeting individual populations: the Veterans Affairs health system, TRICARE and Indian Health Services.

A single-payer system could be designed in a way that also maintains these individualized programs, the CBO said. Canada does this today, where its provinces operate the national system while it offers specific programs outside that for indigenous people, veterans, federal police officers and others.

There could also be a continuing role for Medicaid, according to the report. 

“Those public programs were created to serve populations with special needs,” the CBO said. “Under a single-payer system, some components of those programs could continue to operate separately and provide benefits for services not covered by the single-payer health plan.”

On the flip side, though, a single-payer plan could choose to fold members of those programs into the broader, national program as well, the office said. 

3. A simplified system could also mean simplified tech

Taiwan’s government-run health system has a robust technology system that can monitor patients’ use of services and healthcare costs in near real-time, according to the report.  

Residents are issued a National Health Insurance card that can store key information about them, including personal identifiers, recent visits for care, what prescriptions they use and any chronic conditions they may have.  Providers also submit daily data updates to a government databank on service use, which is used to closely monitor utilization and cost. Other technology platforms in Taiwan can track prescription drug use and patients’ medical histories.

However, getting to a streamlined system like this in the U.S. would be bumpy, the CBO said. It would face many of the same challenges the health system is already up against today, such as straddling many federal and state agencies and addressing the needs of both rural and urban providers.

But the payoffs could be significant, according to the report. 

“A standardized IT system could help a single-payer system coordinate patient care by implementing portable electronic medical records and reducing duplicated services,” the agency wrote. 

4. How to structure payments to providers? Likely global budgets

Most existing single-payer systems use a global budget to pay providers, and may also apply in tandem other payment approaches such as capitation or bundled payments according to the report.

How these global budgets operate varies between countries. Canada’s hospitals operate under such a model, while Taiwan sets a national healthcare budget and then issues fee-for-service payments to individual providers. England also uses a national global budget.

Global budgets are rare in the U.S., though Maryland hospitals operate under an all-payer system. These models put more of the financial risk on providers to keep costs within the budget constraints. 

Many international single-payer systems pay based on volume, but the CBO said value-based contracting could be built into any of these payment arrangements.

5. Premiums and cost-sharing are still in play, especially depending on tax structures

A government-run health system would, by its nature, need to be funded by tax dollars, but some countries with a single-payer system do charge premiums or other cost-sharing to offset some of those expenditures.

Canada and England operate on general tax revenues, while Taiwan and Denmark include other types of financing. Danes pay a dedicated, income tax to back the health system, while the Taiwanese have a payroll-based premium. 

The type of tax considered would have different implications on financing, according to the CBO. A progressive tax rate, for instance, would impose higher levies on people with higher incomes, while a consumption tax, such as one added to cigarettes, would affect people more evenly.

Policymakers will also have to weigh when to impose new taxes, shifting the economic burden between generations. 

The CBO did not offer any cost estimates in terms of the amount the federal government would need to raise in taxes to fund a single-payer program.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Considering “Single Payer” Proposals in the U.S.: Lessons from Abroad

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/2019/apr/considering-single-payer-proposals-lessons-from-abroad

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ABSTRACT

  • Issue: When discussing universal health insurance coverage in the United States, policymakers often draw a contrast between the U.S. and high-income nations that have achieved universal coverage. Some will refer to these countries having “single payer” systems, often implying they are all alike. Yet such a label can be misleading, as considerable differences exist among universal health care systems.
  • Goal: To compare universal coverage systems across three areas: distribution of responsibilities and resources between levels of government; breadth of benefits covered and extent of cost-sharing in public insurance; and role of private insurance.
  • Methods: Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Commonwealth Fund, and other sources are used to compare 12 high-income countries.
  • Key Findings and Conclusion: Countries differ in the extent to which financial and regulatory control over the system rests with the national government or is devolved to regional or local government. They also differ in scope of benefits and degree of cost-sharing required at the point of service. Finally, while virtually all systems incorporate private insurance, its importance varies considerably from country to country. A more nuanced understanding of the variations in other countries’ systems could provide U.S. policymakers with more options for moving forward.

Background

Despite the gains in health insurance coverage made under the Affordable Care Act, the United States remains the only high-income nation without universal health coverage. Coverage is universal, according to the World Health Organization, when “all people have access to needed health services (including prevention, promotion, treatment, rehabilitation, and palliation) of sufficient quality to be effective while also ensuring that the use of these services does not expose the user to financial hardship.”1

Several recent legislative attempts have sought to establish a universal health care system in the U.S. At the federal level, the most prominent of these is Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I–Vt.) Medicare for All proposal (S. 1804, 115th Congress, 2017), which would establish a federal single-payer health insurance program. Along similar lines, various proposals, such as the Medicare-X Choice Act from Senators Michael Bennet (D–Colo.) and Tim Kaine (D–Va.), have called for the expansion of existing public programs as a step toward a universal, public insurance program (S. 1970, 115th Congress, 2017).

At the state level, legislators in many states, including Michigan (House Bill 6285),2 Minnesota (Minnesota Health Plan),3 and New York (Bill A04738A)4 have also advanced legislation to move toward a single-payer health care system. Medicare for All, which enjoys majority support in 42 states, is viewed by many as a litmus test for Democratic presidential hopefuls.5 In recent polling, a majority of Americans supported a Medicare for All plan.6

Medicare for All and similar single-payer plans generally share many common features. They envision a system in which the federal government would raise and allocate most of the funding for health care; the scope of benefits would be quite broad; the role of private insurance would be limited and highly regulated; and cost-sharing would be minimal. Proponents of single-payer health reform often point to the lower costs and broader coverage enjoyed by those covered under universal health care systems around the world as evidence that such systems work.

Other countries’ health insurance systems do share the same broad goals as those of single-payer advocates: to achieve universal coverage while improving the quality of care, improving health equity, and lowering overall health system costs. However, there is considerable variation among universal coverage systems around the world, and most differ in important respects from the systems envisioned by U.S. lawmakers who have introduced federal and state single-payer bills. American advocates for single-payer insurance may benefit from considering the wide range of designs other nations use to achieve universal coverage.

This issue brief uses data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Commonwealth Fund, and other sources to compare key features of universal health care systems in 12 high-income countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, and Taiwan.

We focus on three major areas of variation between these countries that are relevant to U.S. policymakers: the distribution of responsibilities and resources between various levels of government; the breadth of benefits covered and the degree of cost-sharing under public insurance; and the role of private health insurance. There are many other areas of variation among the health care systems of other high-income countries with universal coverage — such as in hospital ownership, new technology adoption, system financing, and global budgeting — that are beyond the scope of this discussion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Congress Warns Against Medicaid Cuts: ‘You Just Wait for the Firestorm’

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WASHINGTON — If President Trump allows states to convert Medicaid into a block grant with a limit on health care spending for low-income people, he will face a firestorm of opposition in Congress, House Democrats told the nation’s top health official on Tuesday.

The official, Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, endured more than four hours of bipartisan criticism over the president’s budget for 2020, which would substantially reduce projected spending on Medicaid, Medicare and biomedical research. Democrats, confronting Mr. Azar for the first time with a House majority, scorned most of the president’s proposals.

But few drew as much heat as Mr. Trump’s proposed overhaul of Medicaid. His budget envisions replacing the current open-ended federal commitment to the program with a lump sum of federal money for each state in the form of a block grant, a measure that would essentially cap payments and would not keep pace with rising health care costs.

Congress rejected a similar Republican plan in 2017, but in his testimony on Tuesday before the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Mr. Azar refused to rule out the possibility that he could grant waivers to states that wanted to move in that direction.

Under such waivers, Mr. Azar said, he could not guarantee that everyone now enrolled in Medicaid would keep that coverage.

“You couldn’t make that kind of commitment about any waiver,” Mr. Azar said. He acknowledged that the president’s budget would reduce the growth of Medicaid by $1.4 trillion in the coming decade.

Representative G. K. Butterfield, Democrat of North Carolina, said that “block-granting and capping Medicaid would endanger access to care for some of the most vulnerable people” in the country, like seniors, children and the disabled.

Mr. Trump provoked bipartisan opposition by declaring a national emergency to spend more money than Congress provided to build a wall along the southwestern border. If the president bypasses Congress and allows states to convert Medicaid to a block grant, Mr. Butterfield said, he could face even more of an outcry.

“You just wait for the firestorm this will create,” Mr. Butterfield said, noting that more than one-fifth of Americans — more than 70 million low-income people — depend on Medicaid.

As a candidate, Mr. Trump said he would not cut Medicare, but his new budget proposes to cut more than $800 billion from projected spending on the program for older Americans in the next 10 years. Mr. Azar said the proposals would not harm Medicare beneficiaries.

“I don’t believe any of the proposals will impact access to services,” Mr. Azar said. Indeed, he said, the cutbacks could be a boon to Medicare beneficiaries, reducing their out-of-pocket costs.

After meeting an annual deductible, beneficiaries typically pay 20 percent of the Medicare-approved amount for doctor’s services and some prescription drugs administered in doctor’s offices and outpatient hospital clinics.

Mr. Azar defended a budget proposal to impose work requirements on able-bodied adults enrolled in Medicaid. Arkansas began enforcing such requirements last year under a waiver granted by the Trump administration. Since then, at least 18,000 Arkansans have lost Medicaid coverage.

Mr. Azar said he did not know why they had been dropped from Medicaid. It is possible, he said, that some had found jobs providing health benefits.

Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, Democrat of Massachusetts, said it would be reckless to extend Medicaid work requirements to the entire country without knowing why people were falling off the rolls in Arkansas.

If you are receiving free coverage through Medicaid, Mr. Azar said, “it is not too much to ask that you engage in some kind of community engagement.”

Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan, expressed deep concern about Mr. Trump’s proposal to cut the budget of the National Cancer Institute by $897 million, or 14.6 percent, to $5.2 billion.

Mr. Azar said the proposal was typical of the “tough choices” in Mr. Trump’s budget. He defended the cuts proposed for the National Cancer Institute, saying they were proportional to the cuts proposed for its parent agency, the National Institutes of Health.

The president’s budget would reduce funds for the N.I.H. as a whole by 12.6 percent, to $34.4 billion next year.

Mr. Azar was also pressed to justify Mr. Trump’s proposal to cut federal payments to hospitals serving large numbers of low-income patients. Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York, said the cuts, totaling $26 billion over 10 years, would be devastating to “safety net hospitals” in New York and other urban areas.

Mr. Azar said that the Affordable Care Act, by expanding coverage, was supposed to “get rid of uncompensated care” so there would be less need for the special payments.

While Democrats assailed the president’s budget, Mr. Azar relished the opportunity to attack Democrats’ proposals to establish a single-payer health care system billed as Medicare for all.

Those proposals could eliminate coverage provided to more than 20 million people through private Medicare Advantage plans and to more than 155 million people through employer-sponsored health plans, he said.

But Mr. Azar found himself on defense on another issue aside from the president’s budget: immigration. He said he was doing his best to care for migrant children who had illegally entered the United States, were separated from their parents and are being held in shelters for which his department is responsible.

He said he was not aware of the “zero tolerance” immigration policy before it was publicly announced in April 2018 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. If he had known about the policy, Mr. Azar said, “I could have raised objections and concerns.”

Representative Anna G. Eshoo, Democrat of California and the chairwoman of the subcommittee, summarized the case against the president’s budget.

“The Trump administration,” she said, “has taken a hatchet to every part of our health care system, undermining the Affordable Care Act, proposing to fundamentally restructure Medicaid and slashing Medicare. This budget proposes to continue that sabotage.”

 

 

 

 

Medicare for All Emerges as Early Policy Test for 2020 Democrats

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Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke at length this week about her vision for improving the American health care system, like strengthening the Affordable Care Act and making prescription drugs more affordable. Twice, though, she ignored a question posed to her: Would she support eliminating private health insurance in favor of a single-payer system?

“Affordable health care for every American” is her goal, Ms. Warren said on Bloomberg Television, and there are “different ways we can get there.”

To put it another way: I am not walking into that political trap.

Ms. Warren of Massachusetts and three other liberal presidential candidates support a Medicare for All bill, which would create a single-payer health plan run by the government and increase federal spending by at least $2.5 trillion a year, according to several estimates. But Ms. Warren’s determination to sidestep an essential but deeply controversial issue at the heart of the single-payer model — would people lose the choices offered by private insurance? — illustrated one of the thorniest dilemmas for several Democrats as the 2020 primary gets underway.

Their activist base, inspired by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, believes that the party should unabashedly pursue universal health care, ending private insurance entirely. But polls indicate that the broader electorate, particularly the moderate- and high-income voters who propelled the party’s sweeping suburban gains in the midterms, is uneasy about this “Medicare for all” approach in which many would lose their current insurance options and pay higher taxes.

Senator Kamala Harris of California drew immediate attacks from Republicans this week by taking on the issue that Ms. Warren dodged. Ms. Harris breezily acknowledged in a CNN town hall forum that she would “eliminate all of that,” referring to ending private insurance in a country where almost 60 percent of the population receives coverage through an employer.

Her remark triggered an intraparty debate about an issue that until now had been largely theoretical: A decade after Democrats pushed through the most significant expansion of health care since the Great Society, should they build incrementally on the Affordable Care Act or scrap the insurance sector entirely and create a European-style public program?

Four Democratic presidential candidates — Ms. Harris, Ms. Warren, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey — are among the co-sponsors of Mr. Sanders’s Medicare for All bill, which would replace the Affordable Care Act with a single government health plan for all Americans. Medicare is the federal program providing health coverage to people 65 and older.

The concept of Medicare for all has become popular with Democrats: 81 percent support it, according to a recent Kaiser poll. Yet voter opposition to surrendering the insurance they are used to led to a backlash over President Barack Obama’s repeated promise that “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” after it proved false for several million people under his health law. Many Democrats are keenly aware of that backlash, and the 2020 presidential race will be the first where many of the party’s leading candidates will have to explain and defend the meaning of Medicare for all.

For now, as Ms. Warren demonstrated, many candidates do not want to wrestle publicly with the details. After Ms. Harris’s comment, her aides hastened to add that she would also support less sweeping changes to health care; like most other candidates, Ms. Harris declined an interview request. And by Friday, Mr. Booker, hours after announcing his presidential bid, sought to curtail the matter by offering a brisk “no” when asked if he supported eliminating private coverage.

Yet there is one likely 2020 contender who is thrilled to discuss Medicare for all.

Mr. Sanders, in an interview, did not mince words: The only role for private insurance in the system he envisioned would be “cosmetic surgery, you want to get your nose fixed.”

“Every candidate will make his or her own decisions,” Mr. Sanders said, but “if I look at polling and 70 percent of the people support Medicare for All, if a very significant percentage of people think the rich, the very rich, should start paying their fair share of taxes, I think I’d be pretty dumb not to develop policies that capture what the American people want.”

But Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who is considering a 2020 bid on a centrist Democratic platform, said it would be folly to even consider a single-payer system. “To replace the entire private system where companies provide health care for their employees would bankrupt us for a very long time,” Mr. Bloomberg told reporters in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

The Congressional Budget Office has not scored Mr. Sanders’s Medicare for All bill, but a study last year by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University predicted it would increase federal spending by at least $32.6 trillion over the first decade. The cost could be even greater, the study says, if the bill overestimated the projected savings on administrative and drug costs, as well as payments to health care providers.

The divide between Mr. Sanders, a democratic socialist, and Mr. Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, reflects the large chasm in a party that has been reshaped by President Trump.

The president’s hard-line nationalism has simultaneously nudged Democrats to the left, emboldening them to pursue unambiguously liberal policies, and drawn independents and moderate Republicans to the party because they cannot abide his incendiary conduct and demagogy on race. These dueling forces have created a growing but ungainly coalition that shares contempt for Mr. Trump but is less unified on policy matters like health care.

And these divisions extend to what is wisest politically.

Liberals argue that the only way to drive up turnout among unlikely voters or win back some of the voters uneasy with Hillary Clinton’s ties to corporate interests is to pursue a bold agenda and elevate issues like Medicare for all.

“Those who run on incremental changes are not the ones who are going to get people excited and get people to turn out,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

And by preserving their options, Democrats risk alienating liberal primary voters, some of whom consider support for Medicare for all a litmus test.

“The center is not a good place to be on these policies anymore,” said Mary O’Connor, 61, a substitute teacher and horse farmer in Middleburg, Va., who wants a single-payer system. “I’ll be watching extremely closely, and I will most likely jump on board and volunteer for whoever it is that’s going to be the most forceful for this.”

But moderates believe that most Democratic primary voters are more fixated on defeating Mr. Trump than applying litmus tests — and that terminating employer-sponsored insurance would only frighten the sort of general election voters who are eager to cast out Mr. Trump but do not want to wholly remake the country’s health care system.

“Most of the freshmen who helped take back the House got elected on: ‘We’re going to protect your health insurance even if you have a pre-existing condition,’ not ‘We’re going to take this whole system and throw it out the window,’” said Kenneth Baer, a Democratic strategist.

While polling does show that Medicare for all — a buzz phrase that has lately been applied to everything from single-payer health care to programs that would allow some or all Americans to buy into Medicare or Medicaid — has broad public support, attitudes swing significantly depending on not just the details, but respondents’ age and income.

On the House side, a bill similar in scope to Mr. Sanders’s is under revision and will soon be reintroduced with Ms. Jayapal as the main sponsor. Other Democrats have introduced less expansive “Medicare buy-in” bills, which would preserve the current system but would give certain Americans under 65 the option of paying for Medicare or a new “public option” plan. Another bill would give every state the option of letting residents buy into Medicaid, the government health program for poor Americans.

The buy-in programs would generally cover between 60 and 80 percent of people’s medical costs and would require much less federal spending because enrollees would still pay premiums and not everyone would be eligible. Some proponents, like Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, have described them as a steppingstone on the way to a full single-payer system; some of the Democrats running for president are co-sponsoring these “Medicare for more” bills as well as Mr. Sanders’s.

Mr. Sanders has suggested options to raise the money needed for his plan, such as a new 7.5 percent payroll tax and a wealth tax on the top 0.1 percent of earners. He has also predicted several trillion dollars in savings over 10 years from eliminating the tax exclusion that employers get on what they pay toward their workers’ insurance premiums, and other tax breaks.

But Robert Blendon, a health policy professor at Harvard who studies public opinion, said it would be wise not to delve into financing details for now.

“The reason it failed in Vermont and Colorado was taxes,” Professor Blendon said, referring to recent efforts to move to a near-universal health care system in those states, which flopped resoundingly because they would have required major tax increases. “But Democratic primary voters will not go deep into asking how these plans will work. What they will say is, ‘Show me you have a principle that health care is a human right.’”

The general election will be a different story, Professor Blendon added. If Ms. Harris were to become the Democratic nominee and keep embracing the idea of ending private coverage, he argued, “she’s going to have terrible problems.”

The difficulty for Democrats, added Ezekiel Emanuel, a former Obama health care adviser, is that many voters look at the health care system the same way they view politics. “They say Congress is terrible but I like my congressman,” as Mr. Emanuel put it.

According to the Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans with private insurance rate their coverage as “excellent” or “good;” 85 percent say the same about the medical care they receive. The Kaiser poll found that the percentage of Americans who support a national health plan drops by 19 percentage points when people hear that it would eliminate insurance companies or that it would require Americans to pay more in taxes.

Among those who make over $90,000 a year — the sort of voters in the House districts that several Democrats captured in the midterms — those surveyed in the Kaiser poll were particularly wary of an all-government system: 64 percent in this income group said they would oppose a Medicare for all plan that terminated private insurance.

“My constituents are tired of bumper sticker debates about complex issues,” said Representative Lizzie Pannill Fletcher of Texas, a freshman from an affluent Houston district. “We don’t want ideologues in charge.”

In Vermont, where former Gov. Peter Shumlin shelved his ambitious plan for a single-payer system in 2014 after conceding it would require “enormous” new taxes, advocates for universal health care are now resigned to a more incremental approach.

Dr. Deb Richter, a primary care doctor who helped lead the state’s single-payer movement, said that while the Democratic field is “going to have to face the T word,” being upfront about the required tax increases, she now thinks phasing in a government-run system is a better approach.

“There’s ways of doing this that don’t have to happen all at once,” she said, pointing to a push in Vermont to start with universal government coverage for primary care only. “But you need to talk about the end goal: We are aiming for Medicare for all, and this is a way of getting it done.”