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.”

 

Upcoming GOP Reform Package is Just the Start

Up until now, the debate over the repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act has been limited to the reading of tea leaves and, at best, educated guesses. We’re about to get some meaningful data. Earlier this month, House Speaker Paul Ryan promised that Republicans in the House would unveil their health care reform legislation after the mid-February Congressional break. And, in fact, details of the GOP leadership’s Obamacare replacement plan leaked today. (More on that, below).

The introduction of this GOP health care reform proposal is significant, but hardly as earth shattering as you might think based on the news coverage over the leak, let alone the attention the official unveiling will generate. Nor is this proposal necessarily indicative reflective of whats going to emerge from Congress at the end of this process. Think of it as allowing educated guesses to be a bit more educated. That’s important, but it determines nothing.

If you’re interested in what the 106-page document leaked today shows, Sarah Kliff of Vox.com has an excellent analysis. She writes that “In broad strokes, the draft bill hews closely to ideas outlined by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.” However, she does identify one “important shift” from earlier GOP proposals: “This bill … has more generous financial support for those who buy their own plans … and lower penalties for Americans who do not maintain continuous insurance coverage.”

Of course, the first question to ask is whether the leaked document is legitimate. The answer appears to be yes. There’s no bombshell that would suggest it’s only a trial balloon. It hews closely to the long-espoused reforms put forward by Republicans supporting high-risk pools, promoting HSAs and permitting health insurers to sell across state lines. Let’s assume, then, what we’re seeing today is exactly what Speaker Ryan will unveil next week. Does it matter?

Yes, but not much.

Changing America’s health care system will take time, regardless of how many politicians tell you otherwise. There are a lot of reasons why. Here’s just three:

  1. Republicans can’t agree on what they want to do. Just in the House of Representatives there a numerous factions each looking for a different outcome. The (very) conservative Freedom Caucus wants to repeal the entire ACA now and deal with a replacement later (if ever). Establishment members want to work out the replacement plan first and then simultaneously repeal and replace the ACA after a long transition period. Some of the two dozen members who represent districts that went for Hillary Clinton in the recent presidential election (and, I suspect, a percentage of those who endured raucous town hall meetings this week) seem more intent on repairing the ACA as opposed to blowing it up. Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate can’t agree on what should follow the Affordable Care Act either. Many Senators, however, seem certain they don’t like the direction the House is taking. In short, consensus among Republicans is a long way off.
  2. Republicans need Democrats to replace the ACA. Even if Republicans reach a consensus on health care reform, they still need to bring along some Democrats to get the job done. Yes, heavy damage can be inflicted on the ACA through changes to the federal budget that require a simple majority of lawmakers in each chamber to pass. Regulations and executive orders can tear down more of it. Replacing the Affordable Care Act, however, will require at least 60 votes in the Senate (unless Republicans take the highly unlikely step of ending filibusters). With only 52 Republican Senators that means at least eight Democrats have to vote for the replacement legislation. And if Republicans factions in the House get too entrenched, the House Leadership may need some Democratic votes in that chamber to get anything passed. All of which means a lot of negotiating before there’s any hope of getting a new health care reform bill on President Donald Trump’s desk..
  3. The stakes are high–really, really high. As I’ve written previously, if Republicans get health care reform wrong they could destroy the individual health insurance marketplace. And I mean destroy. In fact, it may be too late to save the individual market (a possibility I’ll have another post on soon). Yet the GOP has been promising their base to nuke the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something better since before it was passed. Republicans need to act, but in a way that doesn’t leave their party explaining to voters why the demise of individual coverage is not Republicans’ fault.

Don’t get me wrong. That the GOP House leadership is introducing health care reform legislation is a meaningful milestone along the path to a post-Obama American health care system. If Secretary Price and President Trump sign-on to the bill, it will be a “big league” milestone. At the end of the day, however, it’s a milestone, not the finish line; just the first steps in what will be a long slog through numerous committees, endless public posturing, lobbying by interest groups, tumultuous public demonstrations, and intense negotiation. What Republicans are putting forward now may bear only a passing resemblance to what we get at slog’s end.

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

Is the GOP ACA Repeal Strategy Taking Shape?

GOPThere’s politics then there’s governing. As former New York Governor Mario Cuomo put it, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Republicans have been campaigning against the Affordable Care Act since its enactment with rhetorical flourishes along the lines of “repeal and replace” and “end Obamacare on Day One.” That is poetry (or at least what passes for poetry in politics). Come January, Republicans will need to prove they can handle the prose part. As discussed in my previous post, that won’t be easy.

Repealing the law outright would cause chaos in the health insurance marketplace and take medical coverage away from millions of consumers. However, doing nothing would break a promise central to the GOP’s electoral successes in the past four Congressional elections, not to mention the most recent presidential campaign. Either path could lead to voter retribution that would be devastating to the short- and long-term interests of the Republican party.

A GOP strategy may be emerging that aims to avoid this rock and that hard place. The idea involves passing repeal legislation as close to President Trump’s first day in office that is legislatively possible, but delaying the effective date of that legislation by a year or two. This enables Republicans to keep their promise to repeal Obamacare “on day one,” yet gives them time for the more difficult task of working out a replacement to the ACA. It’s a political two-step Joanne Kenen has dubbed “TBDCare.”

Yes, this would cast a dark cloud over the health insurance market for some considerable time and raises a host of questions: Is Congress capable of passing workable and meaningful health care reform? What happens if they don’t? What would those reforms look like? Who would the winners and losers be under Republican-style reform?  Not knowing the answers to these questions is terrifying. For GOP leaders trying to avoid the wrath of voters, however, living under a frightening dark cloud for a couple of years might look better than ushering in the health care reform apocalypse.

The repeal part of this two-step strategy is simple: Republicans in Congress eviscerate the financial mechanisms critical to the ACA through the budget reconciliation process. This type of bill requires only 51 votes, which means no Democratic support is needed. Meanwhile, President Trump dismantles other elements of the law by either revoking President Barack Obama’s executive orders or issuing new ones. Both the legislation and executive orders become effective at the end of either 2017 or 2018 to allow for a “smooth transition.”

Then the replace portion of the program would begin. Much of any new health care reform legislation would need to go through the normal legislative process and be completed before the effective date of the repeal. Given the Senate’s filibuster rules this means securing at least eight Democratic votes in the upper chamber. (Here’s a list of the Democratic Senators most likely to be recruited by Republicans).

Both Jennifer Haberkorn on Politico.com and Albert Hunt on Bloomberg.com do a great job in reporting on this evolving strategy.  Meanwhile, opposition to TBDCare is already building as evidenced by this editorial in the Denver Post.

What should not be overlooked in all this pain aversion is that the Affordable Care Act was neither the cause nor the solution to America’s deep-seated health care problems. Long before Senator Obama became President Obama everyone knew the key to successful health care reform was reducing medical costs. A few provisions in the Affordable Care Act address costs, but the legislation focused primarily on health insurance reforms because, well, reforming the health insurance market is a lot easier than reducing health care costs. If you were a politician, who would you rather take on, insurance companies or doctors, hospitals and pharmacy companies?

Whether using poetry or prose then, it would be nice if, once they get past the politics of health care reform, Congress and the new Administration addressed the substance of health care reform. Let’s hope that’s not asking too much.

Please check out my magazine on Flipboard for a curated collection of news and opinion concerning health care reform.

 

Health Care Reform the 2016 Where’s Waldo

At this time in 2011, six months before the Iowa caucuses, health care reform was a big deal. Republicans couldn’t see a live microphone without calling for its repeal. And one would think that the official name of what was commonly referred to as “Obamacare” was “the President’s signature issue” in his first term. Flash forward four years and health care reform is now the “Where’s Waldo” issue of 2016: it’s there somewhere, but darn well hidden.

True, every candidate on the GOP wants to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. They are all happy to haul out the old tropes about how the ACA is a job killing, anti-free market, mess and a government overreach. Many will be happy to explain how it’s all unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, every candidate on the Democratic side is defending the ACA, although some more enthusiastically than, well, at least one. Candidate Bernie Sanders has promised to introduce “Medicare for all” legislation (a euphemism for single payer) soon and would seek a single payer solution were he to become president. Yet even on the Democratic side, the topic of the ACA is pretty well hidden in their campaigns.

In fact, a quick survey of campaign web sites shows a remarkable lack of emphasis on health care reform by presidential candidates. On the Democratic side, health care reform doesn’t make the issues list on the campaign web sites of former Governor Martin O’Malley or Senator Bernie Sanders. Defending the Affordable Care Act is the ninth issue addressed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s web site.

On the Republican side Donald Trump is too busy bullying his opponents and the press to mention any issues other than immigration on his site. Health care reform makes Dr. Ben Carson list of issues, but he devotes just 98 words to the topic — and the only alternative he mentions is his support of health savings accounts. Former Governor Jeb Bush’s site is nearly issues free (there’s a white paper on his tax reform plan in the “news” section, but there is no “issues” tab). I couldn’t find anything about health care reform on the site. Then, I couldn’t find the issue (or any issues) on Carly Fiorina‘s or Senator Ted Cruz‘s sites, either.

Governor Scott Walker announces his intent to repeal Obamacare on his first day in office. And although I couldn’t find it on his web site, to his credit Governor Walker has offered a plan to replace the ACA. Senator Marco Rubio gets around to discussing health care reform on his web site after first mentioning 17 other issues while on Governor John Kasich‘s site it comes in at #3.

Given all that’s going on the world, it’s not surprising health care reform isn’t a driving issue. Which is remarkable. Health care reform arguably gave birth to the Tea Party movement. It cost Democrats the majority in the House in 2010 and helped chip away at their Senate majority until that was lost, too. In short, health care reform moved elections.

Now, not so much. The ACA is a part of America’s landscape now. Too many people are insured under the law to repeal it. Too much physical, digital and process infrastructure has been built out. Too many stakeholders are vested in the ACA continuing and opponents of the reforms have no coherent program to replace it.

This isn’t a bad thing. Because it opens up a real possibility that, once there’s a new President and Congress in 2017, they can accomplish something important: fixing the Affordable Care Act. The law has lots of flaws, but the debate since it’s passage has too often been an all-or-nothing affair: dump it or defend it. Yes, there’s been some tweaking around the edges of the legislation, but not the comprehensive review and modification that’s needed.

Finding Waldo can be hard. Finding a way forward to improve the ACA will be harder still. If little kids can find Waldo, perhaps there’s hope that what passes for adults in Congress can find common ground to improve the ACA. That’s still a long shot, but perhaps a bit more possible now than just a year or two ago.