Health Care Is on Agenda for New Congress

After months of polls, mailbox fliers, debates and seemingly endless commercials, the mid-term elections are over and the results are in. As predicted by many, the Democrats have won back the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, while the Republicans have expanded their majority in the Senate.

This means that for the first time since 2015 we have a divided Congress, which leaves me pondering the possible consequences for Scripps Health and the broader health care sector.

Without a doubt, health care will be on the agenda for both parties over the coming months. That became apparent during pre-election campaigning as voters on both sides of the political spectrum voiced concerns about a wide range of health care-related issues.

Exit polls found that about 41 percent of voters listed health care as the top issue facing the country, easily outpacing other issues such as immigration and the economy.

That’s really no surprise. Health care affects all of us, whether we’re young or old, poor or well off, or identify as more conservative or more liberal. And despite all of the division around the country, most Americans seem to agree on at least a few things – health care costs too much, more needs to be done to rein in those costs, everyone should have access to health insurance, and pre-existing condition shouldn’t be a disqualifier for getting coverage.

When the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3, a wide range of health care issues will be on the agenda.

Here are a few of the issues that I’ll be watching as our lawmakers adjust to the reshuffled political dynamics in Washington.

  • Repealing elements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is likely off the table now that Democrats control the House. Previously, House Republicans had voted to change a number of ACA provisions that required health insurance policies to cover prescription drugs, mental health care and other “essential” health benefits. But even before the election, Republicans had reassessed making changes to measures that protect people with pre-existing conditions as that issue gained traction with voters.
  • Efforts to expand insurance coverage and achieve universal health care will likely increase. A number of newly elected Democrats vowed to push for a vote on the single-payer option, but other less politically polarizing options such as lowering the eligibility age for Medicare and expanding Medicaid likely will draw more support.
  • While Republicans used their majority in the House to reduce the burden of government regulations in health care and other industries, Democrats might use their new-found power to initiate investigations on a wide range of matters such as prescription drug costs.

We could see some significant changes take place at a more local level as well. On Tuesday, voters in three states approved the expansion of Medicaid, the government program that provides health care coverage for the poor.

And here in California, we will be watching newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom to see what plans he will put forward for expanding health care coverage in this state.

At Scripps, we believe everyone should have access to the health care services that they need, and we have worked hard in recent years to do all that we can to bring down the costs of delivering that care to our patients.

In this new world of divided government, gridlock likely will prevail and President Trump’s initiatives will struggle in the Democrat-controlled House. Everyone will be focused on positioning themselves and their party for the next presidential and congressional elections in two years.

Compromise and bipartisanship are clearly the best options for addressing the health care challenges we now face in ways that have the best chance to win wide public support.

If Democrats in the House fail to reach across the aisle to Republicans or try to make too many changes too quickly, they surely will face many of the same pitfalls that confronted Republicans over the last two years.



Here’s What’s Really Driving Healthcare Costs

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The market economy fails when applied to healthcare.

That healthcare expenditures in the US are high and rising rapidly is nothing new, but this study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association identifies the exact components of healthcare that are driving those soaring costs. As F. Perry Wilson, MD points out in this 150 Second Analysis, the data suggest traditional economic forces break down in the US healthcare market.

The US spends the most of any country in the world on healthcare in terms of percent of GDP, sitting around 18% as of the most recent data.

But to address the issue, we need to understand what is driving this increase, and a new study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association does the best job yet in decomposing the factors behind the rising costs.


Health Care Costs Aren’t Just About Economics

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Reimbursement incentives are crucial in health care. The bottom line is, well, the bottom line. But one reason we still have haven’t got a tight handle on health care costs is that they are too often treated only as an issue of economics, rather than medicine.

The limits of this approach are clear. Health care costs in the United States have been rising much faster than inflation for a long time. When Medicare was created in 1965, for example, the United States was spending about 6 percent of GOP on health care. Today the number is about 18 percent, or $3.4 trillion in 2016.

Much of that rise is, happily, due to life-changing and life-saving breakthroughs in care delivered to more people than ever before. Health care was cheaper before hip and knee replacements became common, for instance, but it was also common in the recent past to see the elderly walk with canes and confined to wheel chairs.

Nevertheless, health care costs remain troubling for the average patient. To develop new approaches to providing better and more affordable care, we can’t look just to economists to devise clever price structures and incentive systems. We must also look to caregivers working in the field. The good news is that this effort is underway. Medical schools and health-care systems around the country are quietly revolutionizing how health care is delivered in ways that are likely to reduce costs by improving care.

To see the difference between reforms advanced by doctors rather than economists consider the widespread concerns regarding the Trump administration’s plan to reconsider “bundled payment” mandates Bundled payments are, on the whole, a good idea that take a traditional economics-first approach. They seek to control costs by setting a single price for all of the care in a particular illness episode. But the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced that it will allow many hospitals to opt out of bundled payment mandates for hip and joint replacements and will eliminate forthcoming mandates regarding certain aspects of cardiac care.

This move is certainly worth debate. CMS’s movement toward more voluntary models could allow more flexibility in trying to achieve the larger goals of transparency and cost containment. But, as critics have noted, it may also make it hard to collect enough data to know whether any approach can be effective across the broad spectrum of care.

Missing from this discussion is the broad effort now underway at medical schools across the country to achieve a central aim of bundled payments: having a wide range of health-care providers leave specialized silos and work in teams to provide comprehensive care.

Fostering such collaboration is the aim of the substantial investments universities are making in Inter-Professional Education programs. The University of Kansas, for example, opened an $82 million Health Education Building in July that will provide interdisciplinary training for all three of KU’s medical centers (medicine, nursing, and the health professions).

In 2015, the school I lead launched The Michigan Center for Interprofessional Education to bring faculty together from across a broad range of disciplines — including dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and social work — to develop and implement new curricula to allow students to collaborate case-based decision making. Our ambitious effort is one of dozens across the nation aimed at training tomorrow’s health-care providers to see themselves as members of teams who must coordinate care to deliver the best care to patients.

The need for such collaboration will only become wider going forward. As technology and the social sciences make their own discoveries, caregivers will increasingly have to understand and interact with highly accomplished engineers, mathematicians, statisticians, chemists, physicists, and computer scientists. As we better understand the influence of culture and lifestyle on health outcomes, the contributions of social workers and psychologist will only increase.

Most patients already know that medicine has become a team sport. Few people today have a single doctor. Many are treated by a group of primary care physicians, specialists, nurses, and pharmacists who must work together. Bringing these health-care professionals together, with their patients — to draw on their various areas of expertise and to identify the best course of treatment — should improve care and reduce costs.

It is still too early to state the full impact of this approach. But early signs are encouraging. Like bundled payments, such shared decision-making has already been shown to reduce costs by putting more options on the table. They also dovetail with efforts to provide patients with a wider range of treatments options, which has also led to cost savings.

These reforms are not being made with an eye toward the bottom line. The incentives driving them are our evolving knowledge about how to improve care. Nevertheless, these medical decisions will pay significant economic dividends.

Healthcare: It’s complicated


It has been a little over seven years since the US began implementing healthcare reform at the national level, following the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. However, the future of the law’s programmes has never seemed more uncertain now that the United States House of Representatives has passed legislation repealing and replacing many of the ACA’s key provisions.

While the ACA and the proposed replacement legislation are fundamentally different in their approaches to financing and regulating healthcare, they do have one thing in common: both are extraordinarily complicated.

Actuaries have had a front-row seat as healthcare reform has unfolded, and they are in a unique position to help address the challenges our complex system presents – whether that involves setting premium rates, calculating reserves, or just trying to explain healthcare policy to their Facebook friends. After all, actuaries were working to promote the financial stability of our complex healthcare system long before the ACA came along.

Even so, one might ask: Why is the American healthcare system so complicated? Does it have to be that way? Most stakeholders acknowledge that our current system has room for improvement, although opinions vary widely on what to do about that. In part, the complexity of our system is rooted in our history.

The healthcare system that we have today wasn’t formed in one fell swoop. Instead, it has been stitched together gradually over the past century by policymakers working to meet the challenges of their times. For example, the prevalence of employer-sponsored insurance was at least partly driven by price-wage controls implemented by the federal government in the 1940s during the Second World War, together with very favourable tax treatment. When the employer-sponsored market began to flourish, healthcare coverage became unaffordable for the non-working population – in particular, low-income workers, seniors, and disabled individuals – and the Medicare and Medicaid programmes were born. Currently, healthcare in the US is provided and funded through a variety of sources:

  • Employer-sponsored insurance – either self-funded by the employer or insured through a carrier
  • Individual major medical insurance – currently subsidised by the federal government for many individuals under the ACA
  • Medicare, Medicaid, and military health coverage – subsidised by federal and state governments and increasingly administered by privately managed care organisations
  • Other – for instance, the Indian Health Service, care provided to correctional populations, and uncompensated care provided to the uninsured.


It’s therefore not surprising that the policies being proposed today are an attempt to fix the problems we currently face, such as expanding access to affordable healthcare, reducing the cost of healthcare, or improving the quality of care received by patients.

However, our system has evolved in such a way that trying to implement a solution is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube – it is hard to make progress on one side without introducing new problems into other parts of the puzzle. For a Rubik’s Cube, successful solvers focus on both the local and global picture, and sometimes must make short-term trade-offs to achieve a longer-term solution. Unfortunately, the short-term nature of political pressures make it difficult to implement longer-term strategies for healthcare. Yet, we see many areas where actuaries can be instrumental in addressing the challenges presented by our complex healthcare system.

Complex times call for complex models

The ACA made sweeping changes that impacted almost every source of coverage listed above. The most profound changes, besides the expansion of Medicaid coverage, were the changes made to the individual and small employer health insurance markets. These already small markets were fractured into several separate pieces (grandfathered business from before the ACA became law, ‘transitional’ business issued before 2014, and ‘ACA-compliant’ business issued in 2014 and beyond). The only constant has been change, with many regulatory changes occurring each year (often after premium rates were set by insurers) and with the stabilisation programmes intended to mitigate risk during this time of change often paradoxically increasing uncertainty. This led some to question whether these markets were inherently too unpredictable to be viable, whereas others felt that the markets were finally starting to stabilise before the election changed everything.

Besides predictability problems caused by regulatory or political factors, two challenges facing health actuaries during these transitional years have been (1) the lag between when market changes are implemented and when data on policies subject to the new rules becomes available, and (2) the difficulty in predicting consumer behaviour in reaction to major changes in market rules such as guaranteed issue and community rating. How many of the uninsured would sign up? How price-sensitive would members be when they renewed their coverage each year? How will changes in other sources of coverage (such as Medicaid expansion) impact the individual market? How will potential actions by competitors affect an insurer’s risk?

Despite the daunting nature of these challenges, actuaries have, out of necessity, found ways to try to address them. For example, faced with the data lag problem, they explored ways to augment traditional claim and enrollment data with new data sources such as marketing databases or pharmacy history data available for purchase. Such sources can be used to develop estimates of the health status of new populations not previously covered by an insurer. Many actuaries also developed agent-based stochastic simulation models that attempted to model the behaviour of consumers, insurers and other stakeholders in these new markets. Such models continue to be used to evaluate the potential outcomes of future changes to the healthcare system, and will probably be essential should efforts to repeal and replace the ACA prove successful.

Information problems: what is a rational actor to do?

Most goods and services in the US have a price tag that consumers can use to ‘shop’ for the option that they feel gives them the best value for their dollar. Healthcare is different. If you ask how much a healthcare service will cost in the US, the answer is “it depends”. List prices such as billed charges for hospitals and physicians and average wholesale prices for pharmaceuticals are increasingly meaningless, given the enormous contractual discounts and rebates that typically apply. The same service may have wildly different prices depending on who is paying for it, and prices may not correlate well with either the clinical value the service provides to the patient or the actual cost to the healthcare provider who renders it. Layered on top of this complex foundation are the often arcane policy provisions that determine a member’s ultimate cost for a claim.

Moreover, even if a patient can determine the cost of treatment at different healthcare providers, making an informed choice often requires clinical knowledge the average person is unlikely to possess. Also, many of the most costly services are non-discretionary and often emergent in nature. In other words, even if a consumer wanted to shop they would be hard-pressed to do so.

All of this means that it is exceedingly hard for various stakeholders – patients, doctors, even insurers – to know the true cost of a service at the point of care, much less manage it. Yet a lot of effort has been spent in trying to better align cost incentives for providers and patients. Past efforts have often used crude methods, such as high deductibles paired with health savings accounts, to create incentives. Current efforts such as value-based insurance designs, which vary cost sharing based on a patient’s clinical profile, use more nuanced approaches to encourage patients to use high-value care. Moving from fee-for-service to value-based payment models for reimbursing healthcare providers has been a focus of both private and public payers in the US.

While such initiatives show promise, they come at the price of even more complexity – and it isn’t always clear that this price is worth paying. The proliferation of more complex benefit designs and provider contracting arrangements can exacerbate the price transparency problems that existed even in the relatively simple fee-for-service world.

Actuaries are well equipped to help insurers, providers and consumers navigate these waters. For example, repricing healthcare claims in an equitable way using actuarial techniques, such as comparing reimbursement rates with a standard fee schedule, is

an efficient way for providers and payers to evaluate cost levels consistently across contracts that may use very different reimbursement methodologies.

Actuaries also have a role to play in developing tools to support clinicians and consumers in understanding the financial dimensions of their healthcare decisions.

Technology: the cause of, and solution to, all our cost problems?

For better or worse, Americans seem determined to seek technological solutions to our health problems, even when lifestyle changes in diet and exercise habits might be just as effective.

Technological advances drive a significant portion of healthcare cost increases, and while many do result in profoundly valuable new therapies, some provide only marginal benefit over existing options at a significantly higher cost. Finding ways to leverage our love of technology to achieve health outcomes more cheaply would be a worthy goal, and one where an actuary could make a difference. Work to use machine learning (for example, in radiology), smarter medical devices, and other data-intensive methods to improve healthcare are still in their infancy, but show promise. From a policy perspective, actuaries could assist in designing novel approaches toward rethinking the incentives for clinical innovation, such as linking payment for new therapies to their clinical value relative to alternatives.

Will the US ever change its relationship status with healthcare from “it’s complicated” to something less ambiguous? In the near term, the answer seems to be “no.” But perhaps we can hope that – with a little help from actuaries – even a complicated relationship can be a good one.

Why an Open Market Won’t Repair American Health Care

How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
406 pp. Penguin Press. $28.

A few years back, the future of American health policy appeared to hinge on how similar medical care was to broccoli. It was March 2012, and the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) was before the Supreme Court. Justice Antonin Scalia zeroed in on its controversial requirement that all Americans purchase health insurance. Yes, everybody needs health care, Scalia conceded, but everybody needs food too. If the government could make people buy insurance, why couldn’t it “make people buy broccoli”?

The Affordable Care Act survived, of course — though not before a fractured court made the expansion of Medicaid optional, leaving millions of poorer Americans without its promised benefits. But the question Justice Scalia asked remains at the heart of a debate that has only intensified since: Why is health care different? Why does it create so much more anxiety and expense, heartache and hardship, than does buying broccoli — or cars or computers or the countless other things Americans routinely purchase each day?

For those leading the charge to roll back the 2010 law, the question has a one-word answer: government. President Trump’s point man on health policy, the former congressman (and ultrawealthy orthopedic surgeon) Tom Price, has said that “nothing has had a greater negative effect on the delivery of health care than the federal government’s intrusion into medicine through Medicare.” Senator Rand Paul (another surgeon) and House Speaker Paul Ryan have claimed that the affordability of Lasik eye surgery — generally not covered by health insurance — shows that a much freer health care market would be much less expensive. Their idea of “reform” is to cut back public and private insurance so consumers have “more skin in the game” and thus shop more wisely.

The physician-turned-journalist Elisabeth Rosenthal offers a very different answer in her eye-opening “An American Sickness.” Rosenthal — formerly a reporter for The New York Times, now the editor in chief of the nonprofit Kaiser Health News — is best known for a prizewinning series of articles, “Paying Till It Hurts.” In them, Rosenthal chronicled the seemingly endless pathologies of America’s medical-industrial complex, from prescription drugs that grew more costly as they became more dated to hip-replacement surgery so expensive it was cheaper for a patient to fly to a hospital in Belgium.

Rosenthal thinks the health care market is different, and she sums up these differences as the “economic rules of the dysfunctional medical market.” There are 10 — some obvious (No. 9: “There’s money to be made in billing for anything and everything”); some humorous (No. 2: “A lifetime of treatment is preferable to a cure”) — but No. 10 is the big one: “Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.” To Rosenthal, that’s the answer to Scalia’s question. The health care market doesn’t work like other markets because “what the market will bear” is vastly greater than what a well-functioning market should bear. As Rosenthal describes American health care, it’s not really a market; it’s more like a protection racket — tolerated only because so many different institutions are chipping in to cover the extortionary bill and because, ultimately, it’s our lives that are on the line.

Consider the epicenter of America’s cost crisis: the once humble hospital. Thanks in part to hit TV shows, we think of hospitals as public-spirited pillars of local communities. Yet while most are legally classified as nonprofits, they are also very big businesses, maximizing surpluses that can be plowed into rising salaries and relentless expansion even when they are not earning profits or remunerating shareholders. And they have grown much bigger and more businesslike over time.

Rosenthal tells the story of Providence Portland Medical Center, a Northwest hospital system founded by nuns. Four decades ago, its operational hub in Portland, Ore., consisted of two modest hospitals: Providence and St. Vincent. As it happens, my mother was a nurse at St. Vincent for more than half those years, and thus had a front-row seat as Providence transformed from a Catholic charity into one of the nation’s largest nonprofit hospital systems, with annual revenues of $14 billion in 2015.

Along the way, Providence jettisoned most of its original mission, replacing nuns with number crunchers. Once run mainly by doctors, it filled its growing bureaucracy with professional coders capable of gaming insurance-reimbursement rules to extract maximum revenue. Meanwhile, Providence stopped paying doctors as staff and reclassified them as independent contractors (though not so independent they could skip a “charm school” designed by its marketers). Yet even as its C.E.O. earned more than $4 million, Providence touted itself as a “not-for-profit Catholic health care ministry” upholding the “tradition of caring” started by the nuns (now listed as “sponsors” in promotional materials). Rosenthal sums up the result as “a weird mix of Mother Teresa and Goldman Sachs.”