The Price Is Wrong — Trump’s Health Secretary Is a Bad Sign for Health Reform

[This column was printed today on Commonwealth Magazine’s website.]

PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP has nominated Rep. Tom Price of George, an orthopedic surgeon and the House Budget Committee chairman, to be his first secretary of health and human services. For those lulled into believing that Trump was moderating his views on the Affordable Care Act because of recent statements on 60 Minutes that he leaned toward supporting ACA provisions on banning pre-existing condition requirements and allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plans, this nomination is a bucket of ice cold water.

UNITED STATES - APRIL 16: Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., right, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., prepare for a hearing in Cannon Building titled "The President's FY2014 Revenue and Economic Policy Proposals," featuring testimony by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES – APRIL 16: Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., right, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., prepare for a hearing  titled “The President’s FY2014 Revenue and Economic Policy Proposals,” . (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Price, a leading member of the House GOP’s “doctor caucus,” and a founding member of the Tea Party caucus, has been a strident ACA critic from the start, issuing and reissuing his own ACA replacement plan – the “Empowering Patients First Act” – on several occasions. He has carved a role as House Speaker Paul Ryan’s strongest ally in proposing a radical reconstruction not just of the ACA but of the entire US health security landscape, seeking not just to obliterate President Obama’s health legacy, but also that of President Lyndon Johnson, who signed Medicare and Medicaid into law way back in 1965.

The Ryan-Price agenda includes four key components:

  1. As far as possible, repealing the ACA’s private health insurance and Medicaid coverage expansions, along with most of the new taxes that finance them;
  2. Reengineering the Medicare program into “premium support” in which enrollees will receive fixed dollar vouchers to purchase health insurance policies;
  3. Reconstructing Medicaid into a “per capita allotment” financing model to drastically limit federal dollars to state governments that would be incentivized to limit eligibility and benefits to low income enrollees while increasing cost sharing; and
  4. Capping the federal employer health insurance tax deduction that would sharply increase insurance costs for workers and their employers.

Continue reading “The Price Is Wrong — Trump’s Health Secretary Is a Bad Sign for Health Reform”

The Future of Public Health under President Trump

[The Q&A below was published in Harvard media this past week.]

How might the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president impact public health over the next four years? John McDonough, professor of the practice of public health at Harvard Chan School, who worked in the Senate on the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), offers his perspective in this Q&A.

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John McDonough

Many are worried that Obamacare will be in deep trouble—and likely be repealed—once Donald Trump is in the White House, working with Republican majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. A week after the election, Trump appears to be hedging on his prior pledge to completely do away with the health reform law. What do you think will happen to the ACA—and to the millions of people who gained health insurance because of it?

The likelihood for total 100% repeal of the ACA is unlikely for two reasons: One is that this would have to be accomplished through regular legislative order in the U.S. Senate and Republicans would not be able to attract the necessary eight votes needed from Democratic senators to do this. Of course, if Republicans choose to abolish the filibuster, that would change. A second reason that repeal is unlikely is that many Republicans appreciate many non-controversial provisions in the ACA and repealing them would be backward steps they would not want to make happen.

Instead, and for now at least, Republicans appear to be moving toward a two-track process of “repeal and replace.” Repeal of the ACA’s essential health insurance coverage provisions, as well as the new taxes that financed the ACA’s expansions, could be achieved through the special “budget reconciliation process,” which only requires 51 votes for passage and cannot be filibustered. This would take some months to achieve, and is doable as long as 50 of the 52 Republican senators are willing to vote to eliminate coverage for as many as 22 million Americans—the number newly insured under the ACA—and their willingness to do that is not yet certain. Republicans did vote to repeal the most important parts of Obamacare in January of this year, but they did it knowing that President Obama would veto the measure. It would be a different vote knowing that President Trump would sign it.

Replacing the ACA with some other sort of health care law would be far more difficult because that legislation would need to proceed through regular legislative order and could and would be filibustered by Democrats, thus blocking the legislation. So it is conceivable that repeal could happen and replace might not follow, which would leave the up-to-22 million most at risk in a most difficult situation.

It’s been reported in the media that President-elect Trump may consider keeping some of the ACA’s more popular provisions, such as the requirement that insurance companies not deny coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions, or that children up to age 26 can be covered under a family’s health plan. How do you think this might play out?

House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Republican leaders, in their “Better Way” document on repeal and replace last summer, indicated that they would continue the ACA’s “guaranteed issue” provisions—those making it illegal for insurers to deny anyone coverage because of health status, age, gender, or other factors—though only for those who are able to maintain “continuous coverage” with no or only short-term coverage breaks. For the millions of Americans who find themselves unable to afford coverage for some period of time, Republicans would, by their own words, return pre-existing condition exclusions and medical underwriting—charging the sick higher prices than the healthy. The provision for children up to age 26 being able to stay on parent’s health insurance policies is most likely not to be repealed.

How might the new president’s policies impact women’s health? He has said he would nominate a conservative Supreme Court justice who would be in favor of a pro-life agenda. Could this lead to Roe v. Wade being overturned? What other ways might women’s health be impacted under the Trump administration?

Even with a Trump appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, there are five current votes, including Justice Anthony Kennedy, opposed to a Roe v. Wade repeal. So President Trump would need at least one additional replacement of those five to have a chance at repeal.

Other aspects of women’s health coverage are at risk because of Republican plans to repeal large portions of the ACA. Republicans want to return all discretion over required benefits to states, including the ACA’s mandates on benefits such as birth control, mammography, prescription drugs, behavioral health, and much more. So it’s possible that women could lose coverage for services that are currently free, such as contraception, mammograms, folic acid supplements during pregnancy, and screenings for gestational diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, and cervical cancer.

Trump broke with conservative orthodoxy when he said that he’s in favor of Medicare being able to negotiate drug prices. He also has said that he would take on the Big Pharma lobby in order to reduce high prescription drug costs. Do you think he’ll be able to follow through on these pledges?

President Trump’s administration would only be able to negotiate drug prices or make other significant changes in pharmaceutical policies with the consent of Congress, which is most unlikely to provide that authority to him.  Also, though the health policy section on his campaign website included drug-related proposals, the health policy section on his presidential transition website includes no mentions of these.

There were a number of health-related ballot initiatives across the nation. Three states, including Massachusetts, voted to legalize recreational marijuana and another three voted in favor of medicinal pot; voters in California, Washington, and Nevada approved various gun control measures; Californians raised cigarette taxes; and four cities voted to tax sugar-sweetened beverages. Also, Colorado rejected the establishment of a single-payer health insurance system in that state. How are these ballot initiatives changing the public health landscape?

On recreational marijuana, the tide of public opinion is changing the national landscape in spite of bipartisan opposition to this liberalization from elected officials all over the nation. It feels somewhat like the fast-changing tide a few years ago on gay marriage. And it feels unstoppable.

Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, at least on the local level, seem to be approaching the level of public acceptance we have seen in prior years with relation to tobacco taxes. The public seems supportive, at least in cities, especially when the revenues raised are clearly defined in terms of spending targets, such as public education. We have yet to see this approach pushed at a state initiative level, which would be a much more challenging proposition.

Regarding the vote against single-payer health insurance in Colorado, it seems that the U.S. sees one of these single-payer ballot initiatives every decade or so, and in each case, they start with some robust public support and then lose in a landslide: California in 1994, 73% to 27% no; Oregon in 2002, 77% to 23% no, and now Colorado in 2016, 80% to 20% no. It has always been a difficult sell and the Colorado results demonstrate that it still is.

Karen Feldscher

Explaining our Health Care Dilemma to the World

I co-wrote the article below for the British Medical Journal with John Park, a Kennedy Scholar at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health:

America’s HealthCare Dilemma

The insurance of at least 22 million Americans hangs in the balance

The election of Donald Trump as 45th president of the United States has triggered concerns in many globally important areas of public policy, including climate change. But for Americans, one of the most unsettling challenges is the future of domestic healthcare policy and the fate of the 2010 health reform law, the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

For 45 years, the US healthcare system has been accurately characterized as the most expensive among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as mediocre regarding quality and effectiveness, as inadequate in that it left nearly 50 million Americans uninsured, and as substandard in core outcomes such as infant mortality and life expectancy. In short, the only category at which Americans seemed to excel was in spending the most money.1

Between 2005 and 2008, many sectors in American society became vocal in calling for comprehensive healthcare reform to address failings in access, quality, cost, and outcomes. Between January 2009 and March 2010, new President Barack Obama worked with hefty Democratic majorities in the US Senate and House of Representatives to fashion comprehensive reform to tackle these deficiencies, signing the ACA on 23 March 2010. Though some Republican members of Congress initially expressed support for reform, objections to the Democratic approach and political resistance from their grassroots left zero Republican supporters by the time that the ACA was signed. Continue reading “Explaining our Health Care Dilemma to the World”

Pre-Election Reflections on Health Reform in the 2016 Campaign

[This post appeared in the Health Affairs blog on November 7 2016.  Happy election day, everyone!]

We are nearing the grand finale of our long and disheartening election opera, one we dare not ignore because the outcomes matter so much. While the election results will not be determined by public reactions to the Affordable Care Act, the ACA’s fate will be mightily determined by Tuesday’s outcomes. What have we learned about our collective health future over the past 18 months and what might this mean for our health system’s future?

Public opinion on health reform is as frozen today as it was in spring, 2015

Kaiser monthly tracking polls show reliably unfavorable attitudes toward the ACA, slightly beating favorables, and stuck since 2014 in 40 percent purgatory. The advantages millions of Americans feel from ACA insurance coverage expansions and other access reforms are balanced by those who now blame the ACA for everything bad that happens in health care. The misnamed Pottery Barn rule—“if you break it, you own it”—applies here even though the dish was broken well before the ACA. Beyond this, if there is one thing on which both sides of the new Republican divide concur, it is a deep hostility towards ObamaCare. The election cycle seems to have only hardened these views.

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The essential differences between Democrats and Republicans are now more clear

We know more about the preferences of both parties with respect to the ACA than we did 18 months ago. Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, have released health reform planks that clarify their intentions — regardless of Congressional feasibility.

Clinton wants to maintain and strengthen the ACA by improving premium affordability and by addressing excessive cost sharing in the Exchanges and beyond. She has an eight-point plan to address pharmaceutical prices. She will emphasize women’s health, and much more. Her campaign has articulated the first full agenda of any leading Democrat to improve and advance the ACA, helping to define the arena of possibility, whether far-fetched or not.

After early teasing about his admiration for the Canadian and Scottish single-payer systems, Trump embraced standard Republican orthodoxy on ObamaCare, most recently announcing his intention to call a special Congressional session as soon as possible to repeal the law. Two independent research institutes (Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Commonwealth Fund) have concluded that Trump’s agenda, if implemented, would result in 20 million Americans losing health insurance and would increase the federal deficit by $330-550 billion over 10 years.

Meanwhile, Speaker Ryan announced in September his intention—if Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House in January—to expedite budget reconciliation legislation that would repeal as much of ObamaCare as possible. Though Ryan’s plan is more ambitious than Trump’s, of the latter’s seven health policy planks, five also show up on the Speaker’s agenda.

The final week’s fireworks over premium increases in the individual health insurance market only emphasize that the political volatility of the ACA/ObamaCare has not diminished at all.

Differences involving the ACA are not about facts or data, but about fundamental values

One of my favorite political scientists, Deborah Stone, in her book Policy Paradox, writes that much of the policy process involves debates about values masquerading as debates about data and facts. That sure describes the past eight years of health reform. As my colleague Robert Blendon showed in his pre-election special report for The New England Journal of Medicine:

The political parties fundamentally differ over the role the federal government should play in intervening in the U.S. health care system, (and) the desirability of the federal government moving ahead with future efforts aimed at universal coverage…

blendonnejm

Source: POLITICO, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Poll. Voters and health care in the 2016 election. September 14–21, 2016.

The notion that these differences might be leavened, for example, by changing the age-rating bands (the maximum amount an insurer can charge in premiums for young people versus older enrollees) in the Exchanges from three-to-one up to six-to-one, is delusional. Six and a half years after its signing, the ACA has yet to become settled policy because the differences are simply too deep and neither side of the political divide can risk the backlash of surrender.

Republicans don’t want to fix the ACA car at any cost; they are determined to smash it

The excessively high premium increases in 2017 in the ACA Exchanges, more than anything, are tied to elimination in 2017 of risk corridors and reinsurance, as well as the undermining of risk adjustment. This past summer, Alaska’s Republican Legislature established its own reinsurance mechanism to stabilize rates, and immediately saw premium increases drop from over 40 percent to under 10 percent.

In my time as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives (1985-1997), I learned that when political partners like and respect each other, the most difficult challenges could be met with seeming ease; and conversely, when parties disliked and disrespected each other, the easiest chores were impossible to achieve. And thus it is with the ACA Exchanges, eminently fixable technically, and utterly unfixable politically.

And ACA demolition is advanced with no clearly defined replacement alternative. Yes, Speaker Ryan advanced a health reform agenda this past summer; yet he and his team did not put their ideas into legislative language that could be scored by the Congressional Budget Office, perhaps because they knew that the results on both lost insurance coverage and rising costs would turn the public against them.

“The future, like everything else, is no longer quite what it used to be.” (Paul Valery, 1937, not Yogi Berra).

As I write this on November 3rd, the most likely outcome from November 8 is divided government, with a Senate majority hanging by a thread. (Please recall that Senator Al Franken (D-MN) took his U.S. Senate seat for the first time in July 2009 after an eight-month recount process.) Republicans know that the electoral map in 2018, all things being equal, will offer substantial gains in both the Senate and the House, particularly if their political base is pleased. Democrats know that they will need to deliver on at least some of their promises, and not allow the signal accomplishment of the Obama Administration to fall apart.

Dare I say it: we’re going to need some statesmanship at a time when that commodity is in short supply.