Democrats Need an ACA Retain and Repair Plan

Even before President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, Republicans in Congress have sworn to repeal it. “Repeal and Replace” became a rallying cry that helped switch 63 House and six Senate seats to the GOP side of the aisle in 2010. Today Republicans have the majority in both chambers of Congress and occupy the White House. the GOP opposition to the ACA is not the only explanation for this pendulum swing, but that opposition was certainly a factor.

Republican votes to repeal the ACA became a Washington staple in the six years after the law’s passage. There’s no official count, but House Republicans may have voted 60 times or more to do away with Obamacare. And why not? With President Obama in the White House they knew their repeal legislation would never become law. Votes to repeal the law were an easy political statement.

Now Republicans hold the power to make repeal real and thing aren’t so easy. The House Republican Leadership, reputedly with input from the White House and Senate Republicans, drafted and put forward the American Health Care Act as the first step in the repeal and replace effort. The AHCA faces an uncertain fate in even in the House of Representatives. And a report by the Congressional Budget Office of the AHCA’s impact on the uninsured, the federal budget, premiums and the affordability of coverage has only narrowed the bill’s path to passage.

Republicans want to keep their promise to repeal Obamacare and fear the political payback if they fail to do so. They know they will own the results of any health care reform they pass. f that result includes higher premiums and fewer insureds, the political price could be both high and painful.

Thus the current Republican civil war. More moderate Republicans worry the AHCA doesn’t do enough to support Medicaid and keep Americans insured. Their conservative counterparts are lining up against the AHCA because they see the bill as creating new entitlements and failing to cut back on Medicaid fast enough. Whether the two sides can be brought together is unknown (although I’m skeptical).

Which leaves Democrats sitting back and enjoying the spectacle of Republican-on-Republican political violence. They’ll occasionally throw a sound bite over the transom keep things interesting and to remind their base that they’re fighting the good fight. Generally, however, Democrats are adhering to adage of avoiding interfering with the enemy when they are in the process of destroying themselves.

This is a dangerous strategy. Politics can take sudden turns and, if they’re not careful, Democrats could find themselves in the same predicament that Republicans are in today.

When attacking the GOP health care proposal, Democrats often recite a mantra along the lines of “Sure, the ACA has some problems. But we shouldn’t repeal the ACA, we should fix it.”  But what does that mean? Democrats are as shy about detailing what “retain and repair” means as Republicans have been about defining “repeal and replace.”

History may show Republican’s failure to devise an ACA alternative in the six years following its passage as political malpractice. Their civil war over the AHCA provides Democrats with a window of opportunity to avoid a similar judgment..

Republicans want Democrats to do more than gloat. The Hill reported that Senator John Cornyn challenged Democrats to offer an alternative to the AHCA. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer response: we have and it’s called the Affordable Care Act.

That’s a good line, but that’s all it is. If Republicans fail to pass health care reform, things as they are remains. That status quo is the ACA, a law Democrats admit is flawed and should be fixed. Democrats can claim the high ground by identifying those flaws and offering remedies. Even if Democrats fail to gain Republican support for retain and repair, there’s a value to building a party consensus around a proposal now.

After all, President Donald Trump prides himself as a deal maker. It’s extremely unlikely, but if the AHCA fails, President Trump might look for an alternative and the Democrats should be ready with one. Again, a deal with President Trump is highly unlikely, but these are not likely political times.

Even if the Democratic retain and repair proposal goes nowhere in 2017, it could be useful later. Democrats will need something to run on in 2018. A consensus retain and repair platform might be helpful.

Then there’s the possibility that Democrats are in control of Congress and the White House come 2020. If so, today’s Republicans offer an important lesson. The year you take control of Washington is not the time to start debating a health care reform plan; it’s the time to present one.

 

Is All Payer Ready for a Comeback?

Congress is debating the American Health Care Act, the first of three steps in Republicans’ march toward repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Things are not going smoothly. GOP conservatives, which have considerable clout in the House of Representatives, want the bill to repeal more and replace less. More moderate Republican Senators, of which there are enough to block any legislation, argue the legislation goes too far in some respects. Attempts to mollify one side hardens opposition on the other. And so far, no real effort has been made to entice Democrats to do more than watch Republicans fight one another.

It’s possible President Donald Trump, Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can corral enough votes in each chamber to push the AHCA through Congress. It’s possible, but I’m skeptical. And what if they can’t?

Well, they could do nothing, leaving enough uncertainty laying about that the individual market, at least, collapses. That could make 2018 a tough election year for Republicans. Or they could offer AHCA version 2.0 and hope for better results. Wishful thinking is a great past time, but hardly a vehicle for making public policy.

All of which argues for doing something outside the proverbial box. Maybe Congress could even address the core problem facing America’s health care system: the cost of medical care. What might that look like? One option would be to look at an idea that’s been around since the 1990s if not longer: an all payer system. It would certainly be an interesting debate.

One idea that fits that bill is an all payer system. To oversimplify, under this arrangement providers and payers (usually the government) establish a price for each medical treatment and service. Every provider accepts this rate as payment in full and every payer (government, private insurance, self-funded plans and individuals) pays this rate.

As noted by The Hill, several states experimented with one version or another of all payer systems in the 1990s, although today only Maryland’s remains. As recently as 2014, academics at Dartmouth proposed using 125 percent of Medicare reimbursement rates for a national all payer program. Pricing transparency advocates like all payer systems because everyone knows the cost of care – the ultimate transparency. And this system eliminates the wide variance in pricing for identical treatment so prominent today.

A pure all payer system would be difficult to pass, however. Free market Republicans will not accept the government setting the price for all medical care payments. And pharmaceutical companies, doctors, hospitals and other providers are not going to take kindly to having anyone set a one-size fits all cost structure. There are variations on the all payer theme that might make such a system more palatable — and allow for a healthy (and entertaining) debate..

For example, consider an all-payer system in which Medicare reimbursement rates are simply a starting point; the benchmark used by all providers in setting their costs and all payers in determining their reimbursement levels. No more Alice in Wonderland pricing by hospitals and other providers. Each service provider would describe their fees as a multiple of Medicare. Insurers would offer plans that cap reimbursements at different multiples of Medicare.If the doctor’s charges are at a lower or the same multiple as an insurance policy’s, that provider would be fully reimbursed by the carrier and no charges beyond co-payments, deductibles and co-insurance (if any) would be required of the patient. If the practice has set a higher Medicare multiple than a patient’s policy covers then the patient is liable for the additional cost. The key, however, is that the consumer would know this before incurring the charge. (Which is why emergency care would be treated somewhat differently).

An all payer system requires higher cost providers to justify the extra expense. It eliminates the helter skelter of ever-changing networks. Health insurance premiums would reflect reimbursement rates and would correlate with the number of providers whose services would be covered in full.

Conservatives can’t claim all payer systems is a government takeover of health care. On the contrary, the only role Medicare plays is providing the baseline for reimbursement … a common language all providers and payers speak.  What they do with that baseline is up to them. Liberals won’t like that insurance companies remain in the health care system and will object to limiting, as a practical matter, poorer Americans to low reimbursement policies.

Right now, all attention is on the American Health Care Act. That’s as it should be. After all, it’s not dead yet. Given there’s a good chance the legislation will crash and burn, there’s no harm in thinking about what could come next. I’m rooting for something that isn’t just a rehash of the 2009 debate, but rather something bolder. An all payer proposal is just one idea and there are no doubt many better ones.

What’s your favorite?

The Math of Health Care Reform

The House Leadership’s plan for repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act is now public for all the world to describe, dissect and debate. Entitled the American Health Care Act, the legislation first stop will be the House Energy and Commerce Committee. At the same time, the House Ways & Means committee will consider budget language to support the Republican repeal and replace effort. For articles on what it does, please check out my Flipboard magazine.

To call the legislation dead on arrival is unfair. However, even ahead of its first hearings, the proposal is looking under the weather. Conservatives in the House have long expressed their displeasure with key elements of the Leadership’s proposal like the inclusion of refundable tax credits to help Americans pay their health insurance premiums. And four Republican Senators with what the House bill would do to Medicaid. If the four Republican Senators hang together and together they could block any health care reform bill. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell needs at least 50 votes in the Senate to repeal the financial aspects of Obamcare through the budget reconciliation process. There are 52 GOP Senators in his caucus. If he loses four of them he’ll need two Democrats to come to his rescue. The price for their assistance will be extremely high.

In short, as I’ve posted previously, what Speaker Paul Ryan and the Republican Leadership put forward this week is highly unlikely to be what emerges from Congress … assuming health care reform does emerge from Congress.

Which may be a good thing. Because the American Health Care Act fails to address in any meaningful way what should be a critical goal of any health care reform proposal: making health care affordable. Washington is fixated on how Americans get health care coverage. Should there be government exchanges?. Should premiums be subsidized? Should there be restrictions on how insurers set premiums for coverage? And so on. All of these are vital, important issues. But they’re playing around the edges of public policy when the real solution is at the core.

This isn’t just opinion. It’s math. Consider: the Affordable Care Act requires carriers to spend the vast majority of every premium dollar they collect for medical care. In the individual and small group markets, 80% of premiums must go to cover medical care or carriers must refund enough premium to reach that level. For larger employers, the medical expense target is 85% of premium. The remaining premium dollars are what carriers can use for paying claims, customer service, negotiating discounts with medical providers, advertising, legal expenses, staffing, HR departments, distribution costs, profit (or retained earnings for non-profits) and any other administrative costs. (Incidentally, I don’t see any reference to these provisions of the ACA, which, I assume, means they stay in place. If I’m wrong, please let me know in the comments section.)

If lawmakers want to make health insurance coverage affordable, they’re going to have to make medical care affordable, because that’s where the money is. Zero out insurer’s operational expense and overall premiums would go down less than 20%. That’s a sizeable amount. However, in three or four years we’re back where we are today thanks to medical inflation. And there’s no way to eliminate all administrative costs. Someone has to process the claims or answer consumer’s questions. And they expect to get paid. And someone has to pay for their phone, desk and computers. And someone has to support their equipment. And so on.

Yet medical care representing 80-to-85 percent of health insurance premiums. Reduce this side of the ledger by 20% and premiums fall 17% — roughly the same as eliminating 100% of insurer’s operational costs.

If President Donald Trump and Congress are serious about reducing the cost of health insurance, they need to figure out how to reduce the cost of medical care. There’s plenty of ideas out there (a topic for a future post). And, to be fair, they’ve mentioned a few. But there’s a political reality that explains why most of the rhetoric around Pennsylvania Avenue concerns the cost of coverage: no one has lost an election by attacking health insurance companies. They’re one of the safest pinatas in American politics. On the other hand, doctors and hospitals are politically dangerous to take on. Voters actually like them.

Regulating health insurance so consumers get a fair deal is important. Lowering the cost of medical care is critical while also reducing insurance premiums. It’s just harder.Perhaps that’s why the Republican proposal is called the American Health Care Act. It would be wrong to use the word “affordable.”

 

Trump’s ACA Reform Principles and What They May Mean

President Donald Trump gave a speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night. A significant portion of his speech dealt with his commitment to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. What did he say, what does what he said mean, and what will be the impact on the ACA?

What He Said

President Trump devoted considerable time to discussing his goal to repeal and replace Obamacare. Here is what the President said, “Tonight, I am also calling on this Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare with reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better Healthcare.”

Then, after reciting his criticism of the Affordable Care Act he proclaimed, “We must act decisively to protect all Americans.  Action is not a choice — it is a necessity. “So I am calling on all Democrats and Republicans in the Congress to work with us to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster.”

He then cited five principles that “should guide the Congress as we move to create a better healthcare system for all Americans:

“First, we should ensure that Americans with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, and that we have a stable transition for Americans currently enrolled in the healthcare exchanges.

“Secondly, we should help Americans purchase their own coverage, through the use of tax credits and expanded Health Savings Accounts — but it must be the plan they want, not the plan forced on them by the Government.

“Thirdly, we should give our great State Governors the resources and flexibility they need with Medicaid to make sure no one is left out.

“Fourthly, we should implement legal reforms that protect patients and doctors from unnecessary costs that drive up the price of insurance — and work to bring down the artificially high price of drugs and bring them down immediately.

“Finally, the time has come to give Americans the freedom to purchase health insurance across State lines — creating a truly competitive national marketplace that will bring cost way down and provide far better care.”

What He Meant

I hesitate to try interpret what President Trump means when he, well, uses words. We’re talking a moving target here.  However, given the gravity of the speech, I assume what he said was thoroughly vetted and intentional.  So, I’ll go try to interpret the President’s message. Full disclosure, however, Republicans are already fighting over the meaning of his five health care reform principles, so there’s clearly room for differing interpretations.

Pre-existing conditions: In the past, President Trump has expressed the desire to keep the ACA’s guarantee issue provisions that prevents insurers from declining coverage due to a consumer’s health status.  Last night, however, he said used a different wording, stating that pre-existing conditions should not bar Americans from having “access” to coverage. These are two different things. The ACA requires carriers accept consumers, even those with expensive medical conditions, into any plan for which the consumer is eligible. Calling for access means that, as an alternative, these Americans could be shunted into high-risk pools or plans designed specifically for high cost insureds.

Offering access to high-risk pools means Americans with existing medical conditions would have fewer choices, limited benefits and pay higher premiums than their healthier neighbors. In testimony before a California legislative committee I once referred to high-risk pools as “a ghetto of second-hand coverage.” The author of the legislation establishing the state’s pool sat on the committee. Oops. But I stand by my description.

The President indicating a willingness to accept high-risk pools was good news for House Speaker Paul Ryan, who supports them. However, there are millions of Americans with pre-existing health conditions. How will they react to being removed from the “normal” market? And how will they, and their family and friends, express those feelings at the polls?

Tax Credits and HSAs: Health Savings Accounts have long been a staple of Republican health care reform proposals.  In a draft of Speaker Ryan’s Obamacare replacement bill, leaked last week, tax credits are the primary means of making health insurance premiums affordable. Conservatives have pushed back against tax credits calling them a new non-means tested entitlement program. The President’s backing of this approach will give the Speaker some leverage in negotiations with these members of the GOP caucus in the House.

Medicaid: President Trump’s call for giving governors more say in how their states implement Medicaid seems to support efforts to move federal payments for the program into block grants, which aligns the White House with Republicans in the House.  Currently states receive funds based on Medicaid enrollment (subject to a host of adjustments for a variety of factors, but let’s keep it simple for now). Block grants would give states a fixed amount to spend within very broad federal guidelines. This approach enables the federal government to cap their spending on the program and leaves it to states to manage the program.

Lowering the Cost of Care: Too often the debate over health insurance affordability ignores a harsh reality: the major driver of health insurance premiums is the cost of medical care. Most of the President’s principles concerning health care reform focuses on health care coverage. But he’s also seeking to lower costs through malpractice reform and through taking steps to drive down the cost of prescriptions. That the President is addressing medical expenses at all is a good thing. Hopefully as a replacement to the Affordable Care Act moves through Congress there will be an even greater emphasis placed on reducing the cost of medical treatments and services.

Interstate Sales: President Trump and many Republicans invoke letting consumers buy out-of-state coverage with the same passion as Hogwarts students learning their first spells. They proclaim it will increase competition and lower premiums across the country. Like that school of witchcraft and wizardry, however, this proposal is, unfortunately, a fantasy. I’ll write a post on why soon, but for now consider just one factor. Virtually all health insurance policies sold today rely on discounts offered by “in-network” doctors, hospitals and other providers of care. Plans sold in State A may look good to a consumer in State B, but if that carrier doesn’t have a strong network in State B, what good is that policy? In short,

The Impact

Let’s assume I’ve interpreted what the President said correctly. What will be the impact of his position on whatever Obamacare repeal and replace bill that emerges from Congress and lands on his desk to sign?

First, it is very significant that the President’s health care reform principles align as closely as they do with those of Speaker Ryan. This gives the Speaker a powerful card to play when herding his splintered caucus behind his preferred legislation.

Second, it seems to signal that the White House is ceding to Congress the responsibility to develop an ACA replacement. The President carved out no bold vision for what he wants nor are his principles in conflict with longstanding Republican positions. The only exception is his call for federal action to lower prescription drug costs. But would President Trump veto a bill that meets all of his principles except for this one? Doubtful.

Third, we’re only at the beginning of long, arduous march to reforming or replacing the Affordable Care Act. There’s many more parties will be heard from, including Senate Republicans, insurers, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, hospitals and other special interest groups. The public will have a lot to say on this subject, too. Plus, any reform package will likely require support from Democrats, and negotiations for those votes have not yet begun.

As I’ve written previously, what Republicans are putting forward now may bear only a passing resemblance to the health care reform we get at the end of what will be a very long, messy slog.

Please check out my health care reform magazine on Flipboard for constantly updated, curated articles.