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.

Republican Health Care Reform: Destruction or Refinement?

capitol-at-dusk

With the (surprising) election of Donald Trump as America’s next president I’ve been asked by quite a few folks what this might mean for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, especially as it relates to individual health insurance. It’s been over seven months since I posted anything in this blog (been busy launching a couple of companies), but I thought I’d use this space to provide my perspective on the answer.

For the impatient among you, that answer is: either a complete disaster or some modest fixes that actually improve the ACA. Dramatic, but non-lethal changes, are unlikely.

As for the details: Mr. Trump’s call to repeal and replace the ACA was core to his campaign. His official health care reform platform promised to:

  1. Repeal Obamacare in its entirety.
  2. Permit the sale of health insurance across state lines.
  3. Allow individuals to fully deduct their health insurance premiums.
  4. Promote Health Savings Accounts.
  5. Require all health care providers to publish their pricing.
  6. Provide block-grants to states for Medicaid expenses.
  7. Remove barriers that delay the introduction of new drugs.

Some of these ideas, such as promoting HSAs and increasing pricing transparency, have merit. Some, like enabling carriers to sell across state lines, are nonsensical for several reasons I described in a February LinkedIn post. None, however, offer much solace to the 20+ million consumers in danger of losing their individual coverage if the ACA is repealed. Mr. Trump and his Republican allies in Congress will need to do more.

I hesitate to predict how Mr. Trump will lead as president. He seems to be  a “big picture guy” who leaves details to others. So let’s assume he lets Congress take the lead on repeal and replace. In December 2015, Republicans in Congress passed legislation aimed at gutting the ACA. President Barack Obama vetoed the bill, but its major provisions are instructive:

  1. Repeal the federal government’s authority to run health care exchanges.
  2. Eliminate premium subsidies available to individuals purchasing through the exchange.
  3. Eliminate penalties on individuals for not buying coverage and employers who failed to offer their worker’s health insurance.

Combined with Mr. Trump’s campaign promises, these elements of the Republicans’ repeal and replace legislation, give a glimpse to the starting point of GOP-style health care reform. Add House Speaker Paul Ryan’s call earlier this year for high-risk pools and the hazy outlines of a possible reform package begins to emerge.

Given Mr. Trump’s commitment to start the repeal and replace process on the first day of his administration and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s statement yesterday that getting rid of the ACA was “pretty high on our agenda,” health care reform is coming — and soon.

Whether the result will be an outright, actual repeal of President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment is no sure thing. Supporters of the ACA are already vowing to defend the law. And while Republicans will hold majorities in both chambers of the new Congress, they are a long way from having 60 votes in the Senate. And that’s problematic.

Senate filibuster rules require 60 votes to cut-off debate and allow legislation to come to a vote. This means the most powerful person in Washington on health care reform may not be President Trump, Speaker Ryan, or Senator McConnell, but the Senator needed for that all important 60th vote. Yes, the first through 59th supporters are important, but their support means little if a 60th vote is not found. As a result, the 60th Senator can have a tremendous impact on the final language in the bill simply by offering (implicitly or explicitly) a favorable vote in exchange for whatever is important to that Senator.

In 2017, the 60th Senator for repeal and replace will be a Democrat. A Republican is expected to win Louisiana’s run-off election giving the GOP a 52 seat majority in the upper chamber. Assuming Republicans vote as a block — something they’ve become quite adept at in the past eight years — eight Democratic votes will be needed to end a filibuster. The requests of each of the first seven will need to be considered and addressed, but it’s the demands of the eighth Senator, that 60th vote, that ultimately matters. Unless …

The Senate can temporarily eliminate the possibility of a filibuster against a bill under the rules of budget reconciliation. However, reconciliation bills must address the federal budget; a vague definition that Congress has interpreted with varying strictness throughout the years. Clearly, eliminating funding for exchanges, taxes, and monetary penalties impact the budget. Much of the ACA, however, doesn’t. For example, requiring carriers to issue individual policies to all applicants regardless of their health conditions (what’s called “guarantee issue”) has no impact on the budget.

This creates a dangerous, even apocryphal, situation. Just one example: Republicans use the reconciliation process to eliminate penalties paid by consumers who fail to purchase health insurance, but not the guarantee issue requirement. Under this situation, few consumers — especially young, healthy consumers — will likely obtain coverage until they get sick or injured. This adverse selection would be cataclysmic and few, if any carriers, would want to participate in such a market. After all, insurers are in the business of spreading risk across a broad population. Guarantee issue without an obligation to buy coverage guarantees a concentration of risk across a narrow population.

President Trump can significantly impact the Affordable Care Act through Executive Orders, but the risk is the same as a partial repeal through legislation. The ACA is a multi-faceted construct with interlocking pieces. The wrong changes can cause devastating unintended consequences.

Republicans in Congress and President Trump may not care. The ACA has taken on nearly mythic proportions as the symbol of all that is evil with the liberal, big government side of politics. However, doing so would not only be irresponsible, it would risk the wrath of millions of voters tossed out of the individual market. Those votes matter. Keep in mind, Donald Trump’s election was close. He lost the popular vote. His leads in Wisconsin and Michigan add up to a combined total of less than 40,000 (as of today).

Yet failing to repeal Obamacare after making it so central to their 2016 campaigns could be a political disaster as well. Republicans jumped on replace and repeal in 2010 and over the past six years this position helped deliver durable GOP majorities in both houses of Congress. Many in their ranks may not care about the consequences of dismantling the law.

Assuming a desire to address health care reform in a responsible way will require the help of at least eight Senate Democrats. Fortunately for Republicans, ten Democrats have an incentive to responsibly neutralize the ACA issue in 2017. All are up for election in 2018 and hail from red or nearly red states.

  • Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin
  • Senator Bob Casey, Jr. of  Pennsylvania
  • Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana
  • Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota
  • Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia
  • Senator Angus King of Maine (officially an Independent, but he caucuses with Democrats)
  • Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia (and arguably the most conservative Democrat in the Senate)
  • Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
  • Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan
  • Senator Jon Tester of Montana

The important question, then, is not what Republicans want to replace the ACA with, but what will it take to get enough of these Senators to come along? A task that could be extremely difficult if new Senate Minority Leader, Charles Schumer, doesn’t make it politically impossible for many of these Senators to break ranks.

Republican then have two choices:1) go nuclear and gut the ACA through the reconciliation process, but keep in place market reforms like guarantee issue; or 2) pass something palatable to eight Democrats, but which they sell as “repeal” to their base. Clearly the first option is irresponsible, but these are not necessarily responsible times. Nuking the ACA will appeal to many in the party, both in Congress and in their districts.

The more responsible choice, repealing the ACA in name only, makes the law more palatable and workable. This last point is critical: once they repeal and replace the ACA, the GOP will own health care reform. It darn well better be clear by say, October 2018, that the new system is working.

Which result — destruction or refinement — is most likely? We’re in a new and wacky world. We’ll find out soon enough.

Health Insurance Brokers to the GOP: “Et Tu?”

Health insurance brokers are appropriately worried about the impact health care reform will have on their livelihood. That’s human nature. Politics is about the management of self-interest. When it comes to health care reform, the list of concerned onlookers is long. Patients, doctors, hospitals, carriers, government bureaucrats, health insurance agents, employers, lawyers, dentists, chiropractors, pharmaceuticalfirms and, well, you get the idea.  Anymeaningful change is going to require sacrifice by most all of these stakeholders. 

When it comes to balancing all these competing interests, the partisan nature of American politics usually comes into play. Public policy flowing from the Democratic party tends to benefit some at the expense of others. The same holds true with the Republican party.

Health insurance brokers, for example, tend to rely on the GOP to promote policies supportive of their profession. One reason for this connection is political. I’ve no empirical data, but long experience in working with health insurance brokers leads me to believe that the majority vote Republican. Another reason, however, is ideological. Republicans tend to support market-based health care reform solutions  and brokers are integral to making the market work. Brokers take competing health plans and interpret them to their prospects and clients. One method they use is to take the different explanations of benefits used by different competitors and put them into a consistent template. They serve as consumer’s advisers and, when needed, their advocates to assure they get full value from their health plans.

As President Barack Obama’s Administration works with the Democratic majority in Congress to fashion health care reform, many brokers are relying on Republicans in Congress to stand firm against a public plan (which most brokers believe would eventually drive private plans out of existence — and take brokers down the drain with them). And they are trusting Republicans will make the case for the value brokers add to the system.

This trust may be misplaced.

Last week four leading Republicans put forward “The Patients’ Choice Act.” The Act is their call to action for fixing what they refer to as America’s broken health care system while at the same time seeking to preserve much of the current market driven arrangement. The authors of the proposal, Senators Tom Coburn and Richard Burr and by Congressmen Paul Ryan and Devin Nunes, are leading voices within their party on health care reform. It’s not clear whether the Patients’ Choice Act is the official position of the Republican caucuses in Congress, but no other proposal has been forth by the GOP. And the media is certainly treating it as the “Republican health care reform plan.”

Not suprisingly, the GOP lawmakers explicitly reject a public health program. Indeed, while acknowledging other factors leading to runaway costs (new technology, an aging population) their document proclaims the primary reason America’s health care system fails so many patients is “government intervention.”

Nonetheless, there are several elements of the Patients’ Choice Act which occupy common ground with Democrats (more on these in a future post). Some of what’s in The Patients’ Choice Act summary is, suprising and even amusing. For example, Republicans have taken to accusing Democrats of seeking to move America to “European-style socialism.” Yet, in justifying some of their ideas the sponsors of the Act turn to similar programs working in — wait for it — Europe.

Some elements of the reform package are just foolish. For example, under the Patients’ Choice Act carriers to accept all applicants regardless of their health condition (often referred to as “guarantee issue”). However, explicitly reject requiring individuals to obtain coverage stating that “if individuals do not want health insurance, they will not be forced to have it.” In fact, they go so far as to suggest that individuals be able to purchase coverage at any time “through places of employment, emergency rooms, the DMV, etc.”

In taking this position it appears the the Republicans have adopted the greatest flaw in then candidate-Obama’s health care reform plan — and made it worse. Why would anyone purchase coverage before they need it? Any reasonable person would wait until they’re on their way to the doctor, stop by the DMV and purchase coverage. In case of an accident, all they would need to do is go to the emergency room (the most expensive place to receive care), sign up at the receiving desk and enter the facility as a fully insured patient. As soon as they’ve recovered, it would be safe to drop the coverage.

(I find it hard to believe the Republicans are taking such a naive view of insurance. And, to be fair, the Patients’ Choice Act is somewhat lacking in details. However, what I’ve described comes from the Republican lawmakers’ own document. If they are creating safeguards to prevent such gaming of the system, there’s no evidence of it yet.)

As with any health care reform proposal, there’s elements to like and to dislike in the the Patients’ Choice Act. What will be most troubling for brokers, however, is the GOP’s call for creating state-based exchanges. The benefits of such exchanges includes a “one-stop marketplace for health insurance. Individuals would get a hassle-free opportunity to choose the plan that best meets their needs through an Exchange.” Most brokers believe that’s their role in the current system. To have Republicans propose a state agency to take on this responsibility is disconcerting at best; a betrayal at worst.

Then there’s the “auto-enrollment” feature touted by the Republicans allowing individuals to obtain health insurance at the DMV and other locations. Apparently the GOP sees little value in having consumers work with licensed, regulated agents and brokers, not when there’s a clerk at the DMV available.

To be fair, the Republicans are not explicitly excluding brokers from their version of a new health care system. In fact, they are expected to remain a part of the system. In the GOP’s “Patients’ Choice Act Q&As they write, “Whether an individual uses an insurance broker, an internet [sic] comparison page, or calls a toll free number, individuals are provided the information needed to choose a plan tailored to their individuals [sic] needs.” This basically equates the knowledge, skills and expertise of  independent brokers to what can be delivered by an Internet site or a customer service rep at the state Exchange. How comforting.  Perhaps they are relying on the Exchange to standardize health insurance so much that professional guidance is no longer required. Although if coverage is that standardized, then perhaps calling their proposal the Patients’ Choice Act might be somewhat misleading.

The National Association of Health Underwriters, the primary professional organization for health insurance brokers, is working hard to educate lawmakers concerning the value independent brokers add to the system — value which should be preserved in whatever reform package emerges from Washington.  To the extent the Patients’ Choice Act represents Republican thinking on health care reform, relying on the GOP as an ally in this effort could be a painful path to disappointment.