The Choices on Health Reform in the US Presidential and Congressional Elections

The commentary below was published in JAMA Internal Medicine online on October 10 2016 and was written by me and David K. Jones from the Boston University School of Public Health:

Although the outcomes of the US Presidential and Congressional elections in November 2016 will not be determined by attitudes toward the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the results will likely determine its long-term fate. As was the case in 2008 and 2012, the electorate’s decisions on whether the Republicans or the Democrats control the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives will have fundamental consequences for the future of national health reform.

A Republican victory that includes that party’s control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives would likely augur huge shifts in national health policy. A Democratic victory that included the White House and a Senate majority would likely further embed the ACA into state and federal health policy, and perhaps lead to further expansion and reforms. More than 6 years after President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law in 2010, the ACA has yet to become settled policy.

The Republican Agenda

Over the past 4 years, Republican members of Congress and conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Manhattan Institute have advanced numerous proposals to repeal and replace the ACA. As the final stages of the 2016 campaign approach, 2 plans stand out: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s agenda as outlined on his campaign website,1 and the House Republican leadership plan released by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) in June 2016.2 Continue reading

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Explaining the New MassHealth 1115 Waiver Proposal

The article below — Baker’s Big Health Care Move — was published in the October 2016 issue of Commonwealth Magazine:

FOR THE THIRD time since 1996, the Massachusetts Medicaid program, called MassHealth, is preparing for transformation. After submitting a final proposal in July, state officials are anxiously awaiting a decision on the plan from the US Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services. The goals are to: first, transform how medical services are delivered to many of MassHealth’s 1.86 million enrollees (including 40 percent of Massachusetts children); second, guarantee a five-year flow of nearly $8 billion in extra federal dollars into the state’s health care system; and third, better integrate substance abuse, mental health, and long-term services and supports into traditional medical care.

Chances are you have heard nothing about this plan that contains many worthy and some controversial changes. For state leaders, the stakes are high. Between 1997 and 2015, MassHealth’s share of the overall state budget doubled from 18 percent to 36 percent—with federal dollars accounting for more than half of the total share. At $16.4 billion in fiscal year 2017, MassHealth is the state’s biggest budget buster and most important lifeline for the state’s neediest populations. The new federal proposal represents Gov. Charlie Baker’s attempt to slow the growth rate while improving medical care and the health of enrollees.

For those who have been awaiting the Baker administration’s big health policy move, this may be it.


Since 1965, Medicaid has been a federal-state partnership that provides health coverage for low-income Americans. Originally just for poor mothers and kids on public assistance, today it is America’s largest health insurance program, covering more than 70 million people. The federal government provides most of the money, and sets tight rules governing how states run their programs. States can get flexibility from those rules by obtaining waivers from the federal government, the most pliable being the “Section 1115 research & demonstration waiver,” generally granted for 3-5 year terms. Even though federal rules require waivers to be “budget neutral,” states use creative medical and insurance redesigns to obtain substantial and desirable financial flexibility. Massachusetts Medicaid entered the 1115 game in 1997 with a major coverage expansion that transformed it into today’s MassHealth. Baker, then secretary of administration and finance under Gov. Bill Weld, was a key architect.

Since that time, Massachusetts’s 1115 waiver, now in its sixth iteration, has brought flexibility and extra dollars to support the state’s medical infrastructure for disadvantaged populations, chiefly through Boston Medical Center, Cambridge Health Alliance, and the state’s community health centers. It was the threatened loss of those extra federal dollars ($385 million in 2004) that jolted then-Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. Ted Kennedy to formulate the plan leading to passage of the landmark 2006 Massachusetts Universal Health Care law, which in turn helped spark passage of the 2010 federal Affordable Care Act.

The state’s current 1115 funding ends in June 2017, and Baker administration officials, especially Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders and MassHealth chief Daniel Tsai, are eager to lock in the next waiver—and the nearly $8 billion over five years—before Team Obama departs in January. Since arriving on Beacon Hill in January 2015, Team Baker has engaged in intensive planning with stakeholders, including consumer advocates, hospitals, physicians, insurers, and more. State leaders want federal approval by early fall. If federal officials like their plan—and Team Baker is hitting notes Team Obama wants to hear—they may get their wish.


The state’s application outlines five goals for the new five-year waiver that would begin in 2017:

  1. Enact payment and delivery system reforms that promote integrated, coordinated care and hold providers accountable for the quality and total cost of care.
  2. Improve integration of physical health, behavioral health, long-term services and supports, and health-related social services.
  3. Maintain near-universal coverage.
  4. Sustainably support safety net providers to ensure continued access to care for Medicaid and low-income uninsured individuals.
  5. Address the opioid addiction crisis by expanding access to a broad spectrum of recovery-focused substance abuse disorder services.

The most controversial goal is the first: inducing Mass-Health medical providers (hospitals, physician groups, home health agencies, community providers, and post-acute providers such as rehabilitation hospitals and nursing homes) to form or expand “accountable care organizations” (ACOs) to assume responsibility for the total cost of care for their MassHealth members.

ACOs were invented in the Affordable Care Act to push providers away from fee-for-service payments that tend to reward volume over quality and efficiency. Since 2010, more than 800 ACOs have formed across the nation in Medicare, private coverage, and, increasingly, Medicaid, with 17 states now using ACOs or looking to do so. In 2012, in that year’s health care cost control law signed by then-Gov. Deval Patrick, the Legislature directed MassHealth to move quickly to adopt “alternative payment models” such as ACOs. So the new waiver will enable MassHealth to meet both federal objectives as well as its legislative mandate.

Currently, about 840,000 of MassHealth’s 1.86 million enrollees obtain care through one of the state’s Medicaid managed care organizations such as Neighborhood Health Plan or Boston Medical Center’s Health Net. About 383,000 others participate in the loosely managed Primary Care Clinician (PCC) program. The rest, especially seniors and persons with disabilities, are in fee-for-service. MassHealth officials want to push as many PCC enrollees as possible into managed care organizations or ACOs by curbing benefits such as eyeglasses, hearing aids, and chiropractic or orthotic care and imposing new out-of-pocket costs on unwilling enrollees who choose to stay with the PCC program.

This aspect concerns patients, advocates, and medical groups. Though ACOs have grown rapidly since 2010, their track record in reducing costs and in improving quality has been modest, and their future is a topic of urgent debate among health policy experts. Some data suggest that PCC enrollees are no more expensive than managed care enrollees. Many PCC enrollees have serious, complex medical needs that can be poorly served by Medicaid managed care organizations with exclusive provider networks.

On the other side, encouraging states to jump into ACO-style “value-based payment”—and away from uncoordinated and unmanaged fee-for-service care—is among the highest priorities of federal officials such as US Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell. If Massachusetts wants any hope of keeping the $8 billion in extra federal dollars flowing, they need to excite federal officials with ambitious designs of this variety.

The second goal—integrating physical health, behavioral health (the combined term for mental health and substance abuse treatment), long-term services and supports (the new term of art for long-term care), and health-related social services—is a major health system improvement goal advocated nationally and in Massachusetts by many, especially Sudders, a former clinical social worker and state mental health commissioner who has long fought to demolish medical care siloes.

Under the new waiver, new MassHealth ACOs will be required to build partnerships with certified “community partner” organizations that provide behavioral health plus long-term services and supports while managing the total cost of care of their enrollees. Providers will operate with per-person capitated payments that require improving the health and well-being of enrollee populations rather than just treating sick patients, a paradigm-shift for providers trained to care—and bill—for one patient at a time.

In response to health care providers worried about adapting to this new system, state officials emphasize the five-year transition to an ACO-centered MassHealth set to launch October 1, 2017. They also note that the $8 billion in federal waiver money will include $1.8 billion in additional federal payments (called Delivery System Reform Incentive Payments) specifically to help providers undertake the transition.


Opaque is a word often applied to 1115 waivers, one the Obama administration has attempted to replace with “transparent.” States must now conduct open public hearings on new waiver applications and make public all sorts of information relating to 1115 applications. MassHealth’s information, including the application, is here.

Noteworthy are 94 stakeholder letters submitted in July, 400 pages of praise and criticism from organizations large (Massachusetts Hospital Association, Massachusetts Medical Society) and small (Home Care Aide Council, Autism Housing Pathways). One letter from Leann DiDomenico, the mother of a 12-year-old adopted foster child, caught my eye:

“My son…spent the first three years of his life in an abusive birth home followed by 18 months in three different foster homes leaving him with a number of behavioral health issues, including PTSD and reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Over the past seven years my husband and I have worked hard alongside [his] primary care provider and various therapists to help [him] to heal and develop the tools he needs to live a full, productive life in spite of his mental health issues. If/when [he] is transitioned to an ACO, I have no confidence that we will be able to keep the professionals we currently have in place that are working well for [him].”

Leann’s letter gives voice to the concerns advocates have raised about the waiver plan. In 2013, MassHealth launched another ambitious demonstration to move their disabled enrollees into a new managed care program called One Care. Though One Care has made substantial improvements in quality, only about 13,000 of 115,000 MassHealth eligible enrollees have signed up after a rocky implementation (see “No time to go wobbly on One Care,” CW, Fall 2015). The new 1115 waiver is even more ambitious and dicey. Many PCC enrollees and their families have painstakingly built personal provider networks to address their serious and unique needs. ACO implementation risks serious disruption for them. MassHealth should offer these individuals and families a no-penalty “opt-out” until this experiment proves itself.

Baker’s 1115 waiver plan includes major steps forward for Massachusetts health care that may pay important dividends well into the future. Until they have demonstrated the capacity to implement this without harming any of their enrollees, they should proceed with more caution.

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Reframing Prevention in the ACA Era

This article, “Reframing Prevention in the Era of Health Reform,” was co-authored by Dr. Howard Koh, Dr. Rahul Rajkumar, and me in the September 13 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association:

The 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) raised numerous opportunities for disease prevention. Of the 10 legislative titles comprising the ACA legal framework, Title 4 (“Prevention of Chronic Disease and Improving Public Health”) initially held the most promise for delivering new financial resources as well as effective policy for prevention.1 Six years later, Title 4 outcomes show mixed results. In the meantime, however, other ACA innovations are redesigning health systems by incorporating prevention into a range of new care models. Doing so connects the clinic and the community in ways not necessarily envisioned in the statute, thereby broadening possibilities for the future of population health.

Continue reading

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How Might Democrats Try to Expand and Improve the ACA in 2017?

[Below is a new commentary just released by the Milbank Quarterly on their website — to be published in their fall edition.]

In 2017, if Democrats hold the White House and recapture a majority in the US Senate (control of the US House is considered unachievable), how might they try to change the Affordable Care Act (ACA)?

Despite congressional gridlock, changes to the ACA have happened. Six years since its enactment, the ACA has been altered 24 times by Congress and the president, mostly in response to Republican demands that generated some support from Democratic lawmakers as in the 2013 wholesale repeal of the ACA’s Title VIII, a new disability cash assistance program known as Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS—RIP).1

While Democrats and progressive groups have wish lists for ACA improvements, they have kept these low-key, prioritizing instead the need to repel repeated existential threats to the law, such as the 2 anti-ACA lawsuits that reached the US Supreme Court in 2012 and 2015 (National Federation of Independent Business v Sebelius and King v Burwell, respectively). Continue reading

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The Art of the Non-Deal Deal

[This article on the demise of the proposed ballot initiative to address hospital price variation was just published in the new summer issue of Commonwealth Magazine.  I first wrote about this issue in an article the winter issue of Commonwealth Magazine in January 2016.]

On May 31, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a new law to avert a proposed 2016 state ballot initiative that would have redistributed as much as $450 million annually from Partners HealthCare hospitals to most of the state’s other hospitals by establishing stringent limits on hospital price variation.  The new law, “chapter 115 — an act relative to equitable health care pricing,” is less than a shadow of the ballot petition advanced by the state’s health care workers union known as Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).  Is the new law progress? Is it enough?

The clear winners are SEIU and Partners because both got what they most wanted, as well as Baker, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo who deflected the ballot question.  If anyone else wins, that is a matter of dispute. Less disputable are lessons about the state of Massachusetts health care politics and policy in the Baker era. Continue reading

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Obama, Clinton and the New Public Option

The era of Democratic silence on strengthening and improving the Affordable Care Act is officially over.  President Barack Obama’s tour de force review of the ACA’s successes in the new Journal of the American Medical Association is also important for his identification of key ACA improvements needed on insurance affordability, Medicaid, prescription drug prices and more. I note his call for a “public option” health plan to spur competition in states with low numbers of health insurers participating in state ACA exchanges/marketplaces:

“…(I)n the original debate over health reform, Congress considered and I supported including a Medicare-like public plan. … Now, based on experience with the ACA, I think Congress should revisit a public plan to compete alongside private insurers in areas of the country where competition is limited. Adding a public plan in such areas would strengthen the Marketplace approach, giving consumers more affordable options while also creating savings for the federal government.”

Serendipitously, Sect. Hillary Clinton is now actively promoting the public option in her White House run, partially to woo backers of her Democratic opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), and also because she has supported this idea since 2008:

“To make immediate progress toward that goal, Hillary will work with interested governors, using current flexibility under the Affordable Care Act, to empower states to establish a public option choice.”

What does the “public option” mean and why now? Continue reading

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House GOP ACA Replacement Plan Is an Empty Backpack

This week, US House Speaker Paul Ryan released a long-promised plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. Most of the plan, “A Better Way: Health Care,” developed by a House task force, includes familiar ideas that have been in Republican rhetoric even prior to the ACA. Coverage of the plan’s basics can be found here and here and here. Is there anything new, important, or revealing in this? Yes. Here is my list:

First, Team Ryan does not want you to know the cost or coverage impact of their proposal. Team Ryan is plenty capable of producing a legislative draft that could be scored by the backpack2Congressional Budget Office, and chose not to do so because that would be telling. Indeed. The ACA repeal legislation they sent to President Obama’s desk (subsequently vetoed) this past January would have eliminated health insurance for 22 million Americans who got it via the ACA. Is this new plan better? Team Ryan doesn’t want you to know.

Second, Team Ryan wants to eliminate income-based subsidies in favor of a flat tax credit. The most important reason people lack health insurance is because they don’t have enough income to afford it. The ACA’s structure is based on income – the most assistance goes to those with the least means, ending at 4 times the federal poverty level, or $97,200 for a household of four. Team Ryan offers a flat tax credit for anyone who can’t get employer coverage that would leave most people under 300% unable to afford coverage. How many? It’s impossible to say because Team Ryan doesn’t indicate the size of the credit. Continue reading

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Back to the Future with Speaker Paul Ryan

This past week at Georgetown University, House Speaker Paul Ryan proposed scrapping an essential component of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that bans health insurance companies from imposing pre-existing condition exclusions on consumers and prohibits the practice of “medical underwriting” to discriminate against anyone with a current or prior medical condition. Instead, he proposed, states could re-establish “high risk pools” from which those with pre-existing conditions could obtain coverage, leaving standard health insurance only for the “healthy.”

Paul Ryan 2Christopher Lloyd

Wow. Ryan may or may not realize it – but his speech just changed the stakes regarding the ACA and the November 8 federal elections.

Prior to Ryan’s speech, conventional wisdom, as evidenced in Republican Congressional and conservative think tank proposals, was to preserve the ACA’s ban on pre-existing conditions, albeit only for those who maintain “continuous coverage.” This stance enabled Republican office-holders to affirm their support for the pre-ex ban, even as their proposals’ fine print would reintroduce medical underwriting. Continue reading

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Behind the Bipartisan Kumbaya on Substance Abuse

[This op-ed was posted yesterday on the website of the Milbank Quarterly.] 

For several years, Republicans and Democrats alike have been concerned about the crisis of opioid and heroin addiction in the United States. It is hard to find anyone who rejects the notion of a serious problem that demands at least a partial governmental response. Across the nation, governors and legislatures are hard at work seeking solutions and avoiding partisan bickering. Numerous current and former presidential candidates in the 2016 campaign cycle got favorable attention explaining how the crisis has affected their families and friends in personal ways.

Behavioral health

The question is whether there is any meaningful difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to substance abuse (and, for that matter, behavioral health—the merger of substance abuse and mental health).

The answer is yes, and the difference comes down to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Continue reading

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Behind the Turnaround at the MA Health Connector

(This article was just published in the Spring Issue of Commonwealth magazine.)

It’s 11:59 PM on October 31, 2015, about 20 nervous state officials and contractors hunched around computer terminals in a non-descript office in the Charles F. Hurley Building near Beacon Hill. Among them was Louis Gutierrez, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Connector, appointed the previous February by newly inaugurated Gov. Charlie Baker. The launch of the third open enrollment since the 2013 implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) was less than a minute away with lots on the line. Would months of hard preparation avoid another website calamity that could jeopardize health insurance for hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents.

As the website opened at midnight and kept humming without a hitch throughout the night and following days, sighs of relief were heard across the Commonwealth as a major governmental embarrassment was averted. By early February 2016, 201,000 state


Louis Gutierrez

residents had successfully enrolled in plans for 2016, including 36,000 new members. Today, the Connector is a marquee success for the still-youngish Baker administration — an ironic twist for a Republican governor who was never a fan of the ACA, Barack Obama’s marquee presidential achievement. Continue reading

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