A Republican Path to ACA Reform

[This commentary, written by me and Dr. William Seligman of the Harvard Chan School, was published today on the Commonwealth Magazine website.]

IF PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP and Congressional Republicans were to decide that fixing rather than destroying the Affordable Care Act, especially its private health insurance marketplaces, was in their self-interest, could they do it?  And, could they do it in a way that aligns with Republican policy preferences?

The answer to both questions is “yes” – if Republicans heed lessons from their two favorite public health insurance programs. The programs are Medicare Part C, called Medicare Advantage, in which enrollees join private health insurance plans, and Medicare Part D, in which enrollees join private outpatient prescription drug plans.

While Republicans defend and brag about both of these reasonably successful programs, they may be surprised to learn that features of both point the way to successful stabilization and growth of the ACA’s private health insurance marketplaces.  Here’s how.

Medicare Advantage: From Bust to Boom

Consider these two quotes:

“People’s premiums are going up 35, 45, 55 percent … The market is disastrous, insurers are leaving day by day, it’s going to absolutely implode.”

“They’re anguished, upset, frustrated and angry by the demise of their plans. … They’re facing increasing premiums and…plans are leaving the market.”

The first quote is President Trump talking recently about the instability of the ACA’s marketplaces.  While most non-partisan observers disagree with the severity of his characterization, most – not all – of the federal, and some state, marketplaces are experiencing undeniable distress.

The second quote is from former congresswoman Nancy Johnson, a Connecticut Republican, talking in 2001 about the “Medicare + Choice” marketplace in which Medicare enrollees join a private health plan instead of participating in traditional fee-for-service Medicare (Parts A & B). Continue reading

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MassHealth Dives into Accountable Care

[I wrote this commentary for the Spring Issue of Commonwealth Magazine to profile Massachusetts’ new move into accountable care organizations, an experiment that deserves watching.  Dr. William Seligman co-wrote with me.]

IN A WILDLY uncertain national health care environment, something new, audacious, and risky is happening in MassHealth, the Medicaid program that provides health coverage to 1.9 million people who are poor, elderly, and persons with disabilities in Massachusetts. Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration is betting that an emerging health care delivery and payment model, called “accountable care organizations,” can restrain rising costs by keeping enrollees healthy and out of expensive settings, especially hospitals. Positive results will have big consequences for the state, for medical providers, and for hundreds of thousands of MassHealth enrollees who will become part of ACOs this year and into the future.

The ACO scheme is the major part of a massive new federal Medicaid waiver that Team Baker won from the outgoing Obama administration days before the November 8

MassHealth spending 17

election that put Donald Trump in the White House. The Obama administration liked the Baker plan because it fit with their mission to move US health care away from expensive fee-for-service payment and toward value-based financing that rewards quality and efficiency. Though no one knows for sure which way the Trump administration will move, right now it’s full speed ahead at MassHealth on the ACO agenda. Continue reading

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Health and Taxes and the Values at Stake in the ACA Debate

[This commentary was published this week on the website of the Milbank Quarterly.]

One of my favorite political scientists, Deborah Stone, wrote that much of the policy process involves debates about values masquerading as debates about numbers and facts.1 Although her construct is abundantly in evidence, it is being overlooked in the current debate over the future of the Affordable Care Act.

How much are premiums rising? How many plans are operating in the exchanges? How much money are accountable care organizations saving? What impact would a per capita cap financing scheme have on Medicaid? How much has the ACA restrained or propelled health cost growth? What do opinion polls show?

Each side furiously hurls data and anecdotes at each other as if by identifying the killer data point, the other side would throw up its hands in surrender and declare: “How could we have been so dumb?” Of course, this never happens in public policy debates. It never happens because numbers and anecdotes don’t motivate people on an issue as charged as the ACA. Values do. Continue reading

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The State of Play Post-Trump/RyanCare

[This column is reprinted from the Commonwealth Magazine website.]

GLOBAL HEALTH EXPERT Michael Reich says that the acid test of any national health reform comes when a new national administration takes over. Only when a new president or prime minister assumes power can we judge the stability and staying power of any health system reform. In the US, that’s this moment. Since November 8, we’ve been learning what parts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have staying power, which do not, and what’s uncertain.

Right now, after Friday’s demise of the Republican repeal and replace plan, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), we know that Medicare, Medicaid, insurance market reforms such as guaranteed issue, and delivery system reforms such as accountable care organizations look TrumpCare3

safe. We know that the private insurance coverage reforms – insurance exchanges, premium and cost-sharing subsidies, the individual mandate – are at risk and in danger even though they dodged full repeal with the AHCA’s demise. And we don’t know the fate of the ACA’s many tax increases. Let’s view these systematically. Continue reading

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Exploring the next phase of U.S. health reform

[This article was published on the website of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health in connection with an executive training program — Preparing for What’s Next in U.S. Health Reform — that I’m running May 31-June 2.]

by Lisa D. Ellis

These are uncertain times in American health care. The Republican Congress and President Trump have vowed to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly called Obamacare. They recently unveiled the American Health Care Act, the replacement plan, which has met with substantial resistance from all parts of the political spectrum. The current political and policy environment has left many health care leaders and other stakeholders wondering what to expect and how best to position their organizations for the next phase of health care reform.

The Potential Effects of Proposed Changes

House Republicans recently introduced legislation intended to create a new health plan, retaining some provisions of Obamacare and eliminating or scaling back others. While the exact details may continue to change in the coming weeks as the bill moves through Congress, there are some specific themes that can be expected in the final version that becomes law, according to John E. McDonough, DrPH, MPA, Program Director of Preparing for What’s Next in U.S. Health Reform and Director of the Center for Executive and Continuing Professional Education at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. McDonough, who served as a Senior Advisor on National Health Reform to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, explains that there are two major components of the ACA that will be affected by whatever legislation is passed. These are access and value.

Two Main Themes: Access and Value

The first area, access, refers to insurance coverage for uninsured and underinsured Americans. While a significant impact of the ACA was that it expanded its Medicaid offerings to states to cover vulnerable residents, a number of Americans are now at risk of losing this support under whatever new plan is ultimately passed.

There are two major components of the ACA that will be affected by whatever legislation is passed. These are access and value.

“Many, many individuals have gotten health insurance coverage from ACA and [some of them] are quite concerned about whether they will still have coverage in three months, six months, or a year,” McDonough says.

The second area, value, refers to a focus started by the ACA to improve the quality, efficiency, and effectiveness of medical care in the United States. “The evidence shows Americans get care from our medical system that is not as high quality as we have a right to expect because of high costs,” McDonough says. The ACA established a number of initiatives to address this fact, including creating Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), providing bundled payment plans, and imposing penalties on hospitals with very high rates of readmissions and hospital-acquired infections.

These types of efforts, which are part of a broader push to transform the health care delivery system to ensure a greater focus on value, are receiving widespread support from both Republicans and Democrats, which means that they should continue, and even grow, under any new health care law, McDonough stresses.

“There seems to be a growing sense in the health care community that [the move to value-based payment and population health management] pushed forward under ACA should continue and expand,” McDonough says, adding that this is one piece of good news in the sea of uncertainty that exists.

Preparing for New Developments

Ashish Jha, MD, MPH, Professor of International Health and Health Policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, and a practicing general internist at the VA, agrees with this assessment. “The journey we began with ACA to move to value-based health care is going to continue,” he says. “But what form it will take, how we will do it, and how much is voluntary verses mandatory” remain to be seen moving forward.

He points out that this means that professionals need to know the range of options in order to be prepared for whatever way the field goes. “They need to ask, ‘What is the range and how do I prepare, so I will be in good shape?’’’ he explains.

Trends to Watch

Jha, who is also faculty on Preparing for What’s Next in U.S. Health Reform, points to a number of other changes also started under the ACA that, regardless of the final health plan passed, will continue to affect organizations over the next few years. For instance, people today are responsible for a growing portion of their own health care costs. This changes the way that organizations collect their money, meaning organizations need to find new ways of operating.

There will be many moral and ethical dilemmas for organizations as access shrinks and many patients lose coverage under the new plan.

“I think health care leaders are very used to a world where they provide services to patients and get paid by insurers, or the government/Medicare or Medicaid. But now they’re waking up to a new model where they are getting a larger chunk from patients. They’re not used to collecting money from patients themselves and that will change their relationships,” Jha says.

With customers footing more of the bill, they now have higher expectations from providers. “The customer is changing, and what will customers want in return now that they’re writing the check? That becomes a really important issue for providers to focus on. It’s part of patient-centered care. Now patients are in the driver’s seat,” he stresses.

Another issue worth paying attention to on the value side of the equation is that participation in some Medicare bundled payment programs will be voluntary for now, but is ultimately expected to become mandatory in the not-too-distant future. This raises some interesting questions for organizations, as they grapple with whether to use the voluntary program to get acclimated. Organizations that don’t participate now could end up having a lot of catching up to do in the future, which could “have very serious consequences three to five years down the road,” Jha says.

Issues to Watch

On the access side of things, Jha points out that there will also be many moral and ethical dilemmas for organizations as access shrinks and many patients lose coverage under the new plan. Five years ago, many people were uninsured and had no contact with the health care system. “Now, these people have been covered and have become part of the organizations [that serve them]. They have developed relationships with their doctors, so it’s a big difference now when they lose coverage,” he says. “Are organizations really going to walk away from these patients? [And if not], how will health systems manage the financial debt they will incur to care for the uninsured?”

Another important trend that will impact many health organizations moving forward revolves around consolidation. “Doctors are being bought out by big hospitals. We have no idea how the Trump Administration will feel about that. Consolidation is a strategy that provider organizations have used to survive, getting bigger. But that gravy train for providers is coming to an end. Now, with more people uninsured, and more focus on value, there are broader market issues around consolidation and integration that will be challenging for providers,” Jha says.

Other Trends Worth Following

Other trends that will continue to impact organizations include the growing push for providers to use interconnected Electronic Health Records (EHR). This is an important tool to help track and achieve key benchmarks of value-based care and improve coordination among providers for increased efficiency and better outcomes. “While everyone thinks this is a good thing, and most organizations have made the leap into EHRs, people, especially frontline doctors and nurses, are very frustrated with these systems.  How organizations will manage the transition between simply adopting the EHR and using it in ways that lead to meaningfully better care is the challenge ahead,” Jha says.

In addition, Jha says that the Trump Administration’s tougher restrictions on immigration may have a real effect on health systems that needs to be addressed up front. “Twenty-five percent of doctors in our country are foreign medical graduates, as are a large population of our nurses and other health professionals,” he says. “As immigration gets tighter, there’s a question as to whether we will have a harder time attracting the best and brightest in the world. So health care will have a hard time building their ranks” in the future. With an aging population, this means that health systems may have challenges creating a good workforce to care for them.

The Importance of Staying Up-to-Date

With so many fluctuations expected in how the health care system will do business in the coming months and years, both Jha and McDonough say that it is crucial for health care leaders to stay abreast of the latest developments as they progress.

One of the most important things is for health care leaders to stay in touch with what is happening out there and pay attention to the coverage in the media.

“One of the most important things is for health care leaders to stay in touch with what is happening out there and pay attention to the coverage in the media,” McDonough says. “If you work in a hospital, [you will need to] follow the national organizations, such as the American Hospital Association, and stay alert to the opinions of experts as to what might happen,” he says. But that alone will not be enough, says Jha. Understanding the nuances of policy changes will be critical for leaders to stay on top of the shifting requirements—and opportunities—that exist in the current environment so they can strategically position their organizations for success.


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Preparing for What’s Next in U.S. Health Reform, which offers key lessons involving health reform from the nation’s leading policy experts under the new federal administration. To learn more about this opportunity, click here.

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24 Million May Lose Health Insurance to Pay for Tax Cuts for Wealthy Americans

[This commentary, “GOP Cuts Are Moral Challenge for America,” was published on Commonwealth Magazine’s website on March 14.]

THE BIG NEWS IS, of course, Monday’s “score” from the Congressional Budget Office detailing that the House Republican bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare will result in 14 million Americans losing health insurance by 2018 and 24 million by 2026.

Before that, something else caught my eye from the Bangor Daily News. It’s a blog post from a woman named Crystal Sands who writes about how the ACA enabled her and her young family to take a chance and find a new life as farmers. Her post, “The ACA makes a simpler farming life possible for our family,” says this:

“I’m a writer, an online professor, a farmer, a wife, and a mom. None of these jobs offer health insurance for me and my family, so our family purchases our health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. We work hard, but we try to work differently. If you read my blog, you know we’re learning to grow and raise our own food, and our health insurance through the ACA makes this possible.

“The ACA has helped me to become a better mom, a better wife, a better teacher because I am not so overworked, and it has made it so I can learn to be a farmer. I’m also just a better person. I’m not sick and overworked. I’m more patient and more kind and more helpful to everyone. And this is my story. There’s so much potential here to make lives better. There are many people, including many farmers, who depend on the ACA. I hope we don’t lose sight of that.

And now, CBO’s Cost Estimate of the American Health Care Act. Bottom line — $894 billion in tax cuts financed by $1.2 trillion in cuts to Medicaid and to subsidies/tax credits for private health insurance. Those cuts will produce an increase in numbers of uninsured Americans of 14 million by 2018, 21 million by 2020, and 24 million by 2026. Of the 24 million, 14 million will lose Medicaid and 10 million will lose private coverage, employer-sponsored and individual. Continue reading

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House Republicans Show Their Hand on ACA — and It’s Not Good

[This February 26 2017 commentary was published on the Commonwealth Magazine website.]

LATE LAST WEEK, Politico released a leaked 105-page draft bill defining the House Republican plan to repeal/replace/repair/re-whatever the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare. The draft legislation was dated February 10, so likely it’s already out of date, though it is the best indication yet of their rapidly evolving intentions and fits with many of their prior recent proposals. So a big GOP move is getting close, and it’s not good. What’s important?

First, the ACA’s generous coverage expansion (for many, not all) through Medicaid expansion and private insurance subsidies would be drastically curtailed, leaving most of the 22 million who got either form of coverage without an affordable option.

repeal-replace-720

Second, not only is the ACA Medicaid expansion repealed by 2019 (11 million people and counting), the plan would replace current Medicaid financing with a “per capita cap” by 2019, shrinking funding by hundreds of billions, perhaps more, over 10 years. Continue reading

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“It has saved my life.” Voices from Ohio on Medicaid Expansion

[This commentary was first published on February 15 on the Commonwealth Magazine website:]

OHIO IS ONE of 31 states that expanded Medicaid as permitted by the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare for nearly all low-income citizens. The state’s Republican governor, former presidential candidate John Kasich, has been among the most vocal proponents of the expansion on the Republican side and has taken a lot of grief for it from ACA opponents.

In early January, the state released an evaluation of the impact of the expansion, “Ohio Medicaid Group VIII Assessment: A Report to the Ohio General Assembly“. (Group VIII is the legal name for the ACA Medicaid expansion population.)

ohio-medicaid

The report has a host of quotes from interviews with individuals who benefited from the expansion, and I include a selection of these quotes below, along with a section from the report’s overall summary. This is what Medicaid expansion has meant to real Americans:

“It gives me peace of mind knowing that I don’t have to pay for the medical insurance, and it saves me money being able to afford food and utilities and everyday things you need in life.”

“It’s been a blessing and I thank God that I have Medicaid because I no longer have large payments and I can get my Medicaid medicines.”

“More freedom. Less worries. I was an addict for 3 years before getting Medicaid. Because of Medicaid I’m not an addict.” Continue reading

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Welcome Back to the Medical Underwriting Circle of Hell

[This commentary was posted today (2-15-2017) at RealClearHealth.]

All leading Republicans who are committed to repealing all or key parts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) also emphasize their commitment to maintaining the law’s most popular part: banning pre-existing condition exclusions and medical underwriting by preserving the ACA’s (also known as Obamacare) policy of “guaranteed issue.” But the fine print in Republican proposals betrays that commitment, including legislation filed on January 26 by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) threatening health security for tens of millions of Americans.

Medical underwriting is the insurance industry practice of issuing and pricing health insurance based on an individual’s current or prior medical condition. Insurers use medical underwriting and pre-existing condition exclusions to avoid covering anyone who might cost them money. The Walden bill, called the “Preexisting Conditions Protection and Continuous Coverage Incentive Act,” pretends to continue the ACA’s ban on medical underwriting, but would, in reality, do the opposite.What are pre-existing conditions that can prevent you from obtaining coverage?

What are pre-existing conditions that can prevent you from obtaining coverage? Here is a list of hundreds that are used to exclude or limit health insurance: acne, cancer, domestic violence, leukemia, pregnancy, sleep apnea, and much more. Continue reading

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Vive la ACA Resistance!

[This commentary was published on the Commonwealth Magazine website last week.  If you are supportive of what the Affordable Care Act has achieved and want to help defend it — the time is NOW.  Please go to: http://protectmycare.org/ to learn how you can help, now. Everyone.  Please.]

A NEW REPUBLICAN-CONTROLLED Congress is in place. And for the sixth time, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is facing extinction. Indeed, a gripping narrative history of the ACA/Obamacare could be written focused only on its numerous near-death experiences. Maybe the sixth time will be the curse, and maybe not. Let’s recall.

One, in January 2010, the loss of the 60th Democratic vote in the US Senate via the election of Republican Scott Brown to the seat formerly held by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy was almost universally assumed to be the end of the road for President Obama’s health reform agenda. He signed the ACA into law two months later.vive-la-resistance

Two, in June 2012, by a single vote, the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the ACA’s individual mandate and, by extension, the ACA. On the day of the decision, premature news accounts by CNN and Fox News erroneously reported that the court had overturned the law.

Three, in November 2012, thorough ACA repeal would have followed an electoral win by Republican Mitt Romney in that year’s presidential election, well before full implementation in 2014.

Four, between October-December 2013, catastrophic launches of the federal and state Health Exchange websites temporarily made the law a national laughingstock facing stillbirth at its most critical setup moment. The debacle was accompanied by a three-week October shutdown of the federal government in a final Republican spasm to prevent January 1, 2014, implementation.

Five, in June 2015, a second potentially fatal lawsuit that reached the US Supreme Court was laid aside by a 6-3 vote.

Six and lastly, the November 2016 federal elections represented the final life-threatening challenge.  An expected presidential victory by Democrat Hillary Clinton would have sealed the law’s lifespan at least until 2021. Instead, Republican Donald Trump’s victory now is leading many, once again, to predict the law’s effective demise this year.

Except, it ain’t necessarily so.  Here are three reasons why.

First, the Republicans’ ACA playbook is riddled with contradictions and dissent over their “repeal and delay” strategy.  Will delay last two, three, or four years? Once they repeal the law’s financing, how can they pay for even a minimal replacement? Will they do one replacement or a series of replacement bills? How can they keep private insurance companies from abandoning the individual insurance market in soon-to-be demolished health exchanges?  How will they keep preposterous promises that their still-unknown replacement will provide better coverage at lower cost for everyone who has been helped by the ACA? How will they keep Republican governors in line as they seek to slash Medicaid spending by approximately $1 trillion dollars over 10 years? These are just for starters.

For a devastating look at the contradictions in “repeal and delay,” see this week’s Health Affairs blog by conservative analysts Joseph Antos and James Capretta: “The Problems with ‘Repeal and Delay.’” “The most likely end result of ‘repeal and delay,’” they write, “would be less secure insurance for many Americans, procrastination by political leaders who will delay taking any proactive steps as long as possible, and ultimately no discernible movement toward a real marketplace for either insurance or medical services.”

Second, as Americans now focus on Republican non-plans and non-answers, public opinion is turning against them. Recent Kaiser Family Foundation polling shows that even Trump voters – who are far more chronically ill and needy than Clinton backers – support nearly all of the ACA’s essential building blocks except for the individual mandate, and oppose repeal without a replacement plan. As Noam Levey from the Los Angeles Times has shown, not a single nationally recognized patient or health care provider organization supports the Republican repeal agenda. Only the fringes of the Tea Party stand by their sides in this backward quest.

Third, while defenders of Republican drive to end coverage for between 22 to 30 million Americans are few and far between, broad resistance to the first major policy thrust of the Trump era is building.  A broad-based “Protect Your Care” coalition is spearheading national resistance, collaborating with President Obama and congressional Democrats and leading to a day of demonstrations across the nation on January 15. Hospitals, doctor and medical student groups, insurance companies, community health centers, and other health care stakeholders are making clear the damage now threatening the entire US health care system. Meanwhile, former Democratic congressional staffers have developed a blueprint for broad-based resistance to the Trump/Republican agenda, called “Indivisible.”

Republicans may win, though they will rue the day that they set in motion destabilization of the nation’s health care system. Around the globe, universal health coverage is now recognized not just as something governments do to be nice to their people, it is understood as an essential precondition for healthy societies and healthy economies. Over the past eight years, the United States has been moving forward to join the universal consensus of advanced nations, most of whom are far less affluent than the US.

Whether Republicans succeed or fail is not just up to them. It is now up to all Americans. Vive la ACA resistance!

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