The Health Reformers’ Dilemma

[The Milbank Quarterly just published this new commentary that I wrote for their November 2018 edition.]

Ever since the US Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the expansion of Medicaid as required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) must be optional rather than mandatory for states, health care advocates have worked heart and soul to convince their state governments to adopt the expansion. For Virginians, the moment arrived in 2018 after years of frustration—with a catch. The only politically viable pathway to expansion included a detested provision, known as the “work requirement,” that obligates many new enrollees to work or else forfeit coverage. What to do?

I explored this dilemma with health justice advocates in Virginia, the first state to confront work requirements that had not previously expanded Medicaid. In November 2017, Virginia voters elected a respected new Democratic governor named Ralph Northam along with an eye-popping jump in the number of Democrats in the state’s House of Delegates, leaving them just 2 votes shy of majorities in the House and Senate. In May 2018, solid bipartisan majorities formed to enact Medicaid expansion after years of discouraging defeats. The wrinkle was including a work requirement and imposing cost sharing on Medicaid beneficiaries. Continue reading “The Health Reformers’ Dilemma”

Might We See a Medicaid Wave Start Next Week?

[This column appeared on the Health Affairs blog on Thursday, November 1.]

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that states must have an option whether or not to expand Medicaid as authorized in the Affordable Care Act, expansion has been a long, slow slog, state by state, inch by inch.  While blue states had mostly lined up to expand Medicaid by 2013, nearly every purple and red state proved to be a battlefield.  Today, 19 states have yet to expand, with 31 in the “yes” column (plus the District of Columbia) (see table 1).  The last state to expand, #31, was Louisiana in mid-2016.  But, might a mighty Medicaid wave be coming courtesy of the November 6th elections?  The answer is a definite maybe.

Right now, all that’s certain is that Virginia will become state #32 to expand Medicaid in January. The state enacted the 400,000-person expansion last May, albeit with a “work requirement” to be filed with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) sometime in 2019.

Maine is certain to become #33 early next year if Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills wins the Governor’s Chair.  In November 2017, Maine voters approved expansion—59-41 percent—in a state ballot initiative.  Departing Republican Governor Paul LePage refused to implement the expansion in spite of strong legislative support to do so, as well as an order from Maine’s highest court.  In previous years, the Legislature failed by only a small number of votes to override LePage’s vetoes (5 times).  Progressive forces expect to pick up state legislative seats on November 6th, so it’s also possible expansion could happen with a new Republican governor, supportive or not.

State Adoption Of ACA Medicaid Expansion (By Year) 

SOURCE: Advisory Board.  “Where the States Stand on Medicaid Expansion.”  June 8 2018.  Accessed Oct. 29 2018 at: https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/resources/primers/medicaidmap 

Medicaid On the Ballot

Activists in three states—Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah—are standing in the wings hoping to be states #34, 35, and 36 depending on the outcomes of state ballot initiatives in each of them on November 6th. Montana has an initiative on the ballot to continue its expansion with dedicated funding.

While Idaho’s departing Governor Butch Otter fought consistently against Medicaid expansion throughout his tenure, he recently changed his position and announced his support for the Medicaid ballot initiative. Republican gubernatorial candidate Brad Little says he will respect the ballot initiative’s outcome—even though the measure does not specify how to finance the 10 percent financing match states will need to pay by 2020 (7 percent in 2019). Two organizations, Idahoans for Healthcare and Reclaim Idaho raised $594,191 by the late September reporting deadline, while the opposition Work, Not ObamaCare has raised $29,999.  Idaho’s Hospital and Medical Associations contributed nearly $200,000 to the “yes” effort.  Recent polling shows 66 percent support, including 77 percent from independents and 53 percent from Republicans.  The yes campaign co-chair is Republican State Representative Christy Perry.

Nebraska previously did not have enough support to overturn a Governor’s veto against expansion.  Nebraska Governor Pete Rickets maintains his opposition as he coasts toward an easy re-election.  But it’s a spirited race for Nebraska Initiative 427, the Medicaid Expansion Initiative that would cover an estimated 90,000 low-income Nebraskans. The lead organization—Insure the Good Life—has raised $1.69 million as of late September to support a yes vote, versus $0 by the opposition Americans for Prosperity. The “yes” camp’s largest contributor is a national progressive political action committee called the “Fairness Project” which also backed the 2017 Maine Medicaid initiative and which has donated $1.19 million.  Other key supporters include the Nebraska Hospital Association, the state health center association, Nebraska AARP and 24 other organizations.

Of the three ballot initiative campaigns, Utah’s is the most compelling.  Proposition 3 would raise the state’s sale tax from 4.70 to 4.85 percent to fully finance the expansion for 150,000 low-income Utah residents.  In 2021, that is projected to raise $88 million to cover the state’s projected $78 million share of the $846 million total expansion cost (the federal government pays the rest).  A February 2018 poll showed 68 percent support among Utah voters.  As in Nebraska, the national Fairness Project is driving the campaign, providing $2.7 of the $2.83 million raised as of late September.  A wide array of health care and religious organizations are public supporters. No organization is registered with the state in public opposition to the initiative, as of late September.

To thwart the proposal, in March, Governor Gary Herbert signed House Bill 472 into law to expand Medicaid for individuals with household incomes no higher than 95 percent of the federal poverty line, as opposed to 138 percent in Proposition 3, as authorized under the ACA.  HB472 would also impose work requirements on many enrollees and would cover 90,000 as opposed to the initiative’s 150,000.  Earlier this year, the Trump Administration rejected a plan similar to HB472 that was advanced by Oklahoma to expand Medicaid eligibility no higher than 100 percent of the federal poverty level.  So it is unclear whether the Trump Administration will allow the Utah HB472 expansion to go forward.

Montana is another state with a Medicaid expansion ballot initiative facing the voters on November 6th, but to continue the existing expansion. The state expanded Medicaid in 2015, though only through 2019. The November 6th ballot will present an initiative, I-185, to continue expansion past 2019 by raising tobacco taxes by $2 a pack as the state’s funding source. Healthy Montana for I-185 backers have raised $4.8 million and are battling the tobacco industry in the form of Montanans Against Tax Hikes (MATH) which has invested at least $12 million to defeat the initiative; 97 percent of the MATH’s money has come from Altria Client Services, maker of Marlboro cigarettes and other smoking products. If voters approve, the expansion will continue without restraints. If the referendum fails, the legislature still could pass a new funding law, likely with a work requirement attached.

Other Election Day Impacts

Of the 14 remaining non-expansion states, the November 6th results may have consequential impact.  If Democratic candidates win currently competitive gubernatorial races in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, and Wisconsin, and pick up legislative seats, that could alter the Medicaid expansion equation.  This would be especially true in Kansas where prior expansion efforts were thwarted by a narrow inability to override gubernatorial vetoes by only three votes. In other states, notably North Carolina with Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, significant Democratic gains in the state legislature may also have a consequential impact.

Some noteworthy features of this issue are worth considering.  First, in many of these remaining states with Republican control, the price of expansion is likely to include work requirements on many newly eligible enrollees—as occurred in Virginia this past year. Unless ruled illegal by the federal courts, this national experiment will more than likely run at least for the duration of Republican control of the executive branch. As is apparent from the track record in Arkansas thus far, this is about values and ideology more than dollars and sense.

Second, after six years of fighting the Medicaid expansion wars, it is clear that most expansion opponents are not going to change their minds.  Not much is left to say that hasn’t been said countless times before.  As we saw in Virginia, a change of mind accompanies a change in occupants of legislative and gubernatorial seats.  And in the four November 6th ballot initiative states, if successful, we should anticipate that one or more of the affected Governors may imitate Maine Governor LePage in seeking to block expansion in spite of voter sentiment.

Third, in spite of all the uproar, it is significant that not one expansion state has gone back on it, or even considered doing so.  The closest an expansion came to a rollback was the election of hard right conservative Matt Bevin as Kentucky’s governor in 2015.  Bevin abandoned his pledge to repeal Kentucky’s ground-breaking and successful Medicaid expansion early in his gubernatorial campaign, and never returned to that stance, turning to mandatory work requirements as the next best thing.

Much like how the public’s support for banning pre-existing condition exclusions has become calcified in the public’s mind from the battles of 2017 and 2018, similarly the expansion of Medicaid has become hard-wired into public consciousness in the states that adopted it.

I have yet to read an insider’s account on how and why the U.S. Supreme Court lined up 7 votes to secure their atrocious 2012 ruling to make Medicaid expansion an option for states.  It is true that their decision played a role in compelling Americans to grapple with and understand the rationale and importance for Medicaid expansion.  But at what a damn price!

Continue reading “Might We See a Medicaid Wave Start Next Week?”

Why a “No” Vote on Question 1 on Nurse Staffing Ratios

[I co-wrote this opinion column with Paul Hattis for Commonwealth Magazine.]


SHOULD MASSACHUSETTS 
establish mandated nurse-to-patient ratios in law for all the state’s acute care hospitals? This 25-year-old conflict between the Massachusetts Nurses Association and Massachusetts Hospital Association will be determined at the polls on November 6 as Question 1.

We think not.

We are university professors who care about Massachusetts health care policy. We both connect with Massachusetts’ leading health care consumer advocacy organizations who worry about access, cost, and quality in Massachusetts’ health care system—and we don’t speak for them.

We have advocated publicly for better pay, working conditions, and training for health care workers in hospitals and nursing homes. We know the vital importance of organized labor as representatives of health care workers to meet their needs and to promote a higher quality care for patients. We are not eager to take a position opposed to the Massachusetts Nursing Association.

After seeing data advanced by groups on both sides, especially data and analysis from the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, we believe the evidence, the better policy choice, and the more socially just result—especially for lower income households and communities—points to a no vote. The Legislature should demand that both sides come together to create a more workable set of solutions to improve quality of care in our state’s hospitals. Continue reading “Why a “No” Vote on Question 1 on Nurse Staffing Ratios”

What Does the Beth Israel/Lahey Health Merger Tell Us?

FOR THE BETTER part of this decade, Massachusetts had been on a roll regarding its health system’s performance. Since passage of the 2006 universal health insurance law, we’ve been tops in having the lowest number of uninsured the nation. Recent national surveys on cost, quality, access, and public health from the Commonwealth Fund, the United Health Care Foundation and others show the Bay State to be best or among them. As Michael Widmer noted in his October 7 Upload piece, over the past five or so years, even the state’s performance on controlling costs has also been a national standout.

Still, history teaches that these trends can turn downward on a dime. And self-congratulations can obscure lingering and insidious system weaknesses. The current controversy over the proposed merger of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Lahey Health, and other hospitals and physician organizations into “Beth Israel Lahey Health” (BILH) brings into sharp relief underlying systemic problems that are getting worse, not better.

Last week, the state’s Health Policy Commission released its final analysis of the cost, quality, and access impacts of the merger. They estimate $158.2 to $230.5 million in added annual costs above current projections from this deal. Also last week, the health commission reported on the projected annual costs of Question 1, the November Massachusetts ballot initiative that would set statutory nurse-patient ratios in all acute care hospitals – estimating $679 to $949 million in new annual costs in our $61.1 billion state health system. Continue reading “What Does the Beth Israel/Lahey Health Merger Tell Us?”

Health Reform Realism

[I wrote this new commentary for the Milbank Quarterly.]

In noticeable ways our current health reform period resembles the 2005-2006 era when political leaders, stakeholders, and think tanks began formulating proposals to prepare for a future national effort to achieve comprehensive health reform, a process that came to fruition with the signing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in March 2010. Though those years were also a time of unitary Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress, many foresaw the arrival of a new president and Congress in 2009 as a potential and not-to-be-missed window of opportunity for important reform. Waiting until 2009 to begin planning would have been too late. I propose that in 2018 we embrace this renewed possibility for reform with realism and humility.

Today, we already see a plethora of legislative and policy proposals emerging from elected Democratic officials and progressive think tanks such as the Urban Institute and the Center for American Progress. While Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All bill seeks the holy grail of single-payer reconstruction, others aim for meaningful yet incremental changes to address critical pain points in the current system.

All of these plans rely on an unreliable expectation that, come January 2021, Democrats will control the White House and governing majorities in the US Senate and House of Representatives, as the federal election cycles of 2018 and 2020 come to resemble the blue-wave cycles of 2006 and 2008. All of these plans recognize little potential for meaningful reform until then. However, if Democrats control all 3 power sources come January 2021, public demands on them for far-reaching national health reform may well be overpowering. Continue reading “Health Reform Realism”

Revisiting the Land of the Individual Mandate

[This new commentary was just published by the Milbank Quarterly.]

The years 2013 through 2016 were excruciating for the Massachusetts Health Connector. In 2013, the Connector was among the nation’s most troubled federal/state health insurance exchanges, as it endured an epic collapse of its new website to help consumers purchase individual health insurance. Since then, it has taken a step-by-step and low-key “no news is good news” approach to rebuilding trust and credibility with its 252,000 clients.

Now the silent period is ending. In 2006, Massachusetts was the first and only state to enact an individual health insurance mandate, the essential model for the federal individual mandate included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 and implemented in 2014. In last December’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, President Trump and Congress neutered the ACA mandate by reducing the financial penalty to 0. Despite widespread reports to the contrary, the mandate was not repealed, and the law, with its mandatory reporting requirements, remains on the books.

Thus, Massachusetts now returns to the spotlight as the nation prepares to examine the impact of the federal action, testing 1 state’s experience against that of the other 49. In 2015, the last year for which tax data is publicly available, only 3% of adult tax filers in Massachusetts reported not having insurance meeting state standards, corroborating other data sources indicating that it has the lowest rate of uninsurance in any state (the most recent US Census data shows Massachusetts at 97.5% coverage). Depending on an uninsured person’s household income, the monetary penalty ranges between $21 and $96 for each month without coverage. As of early February, at least 9 other Democratic-leaning states are considering adopting a similar mandate. Continue reading “Revisiting the Land of the Individual Mandate”

Looking Back on the Desegregation of U.S. Hospitals in 1966

[Last summer, I wrote the following review of  The Power to Heal: Civil Rights, Medicare, and the Struggle to Transform America’s Health Care System by David Barton Smith.  The review just came out in The Common Reader.  I still think the book is required reading in our times.  And I love the cartoon!]

On a Saturday morning in January 1967 Dr. Jean Cowsert, an African-American physician, was found shot to death in front of her home in Mobile, Alabama, after a stone had been thrown through her front window and she went out to investigate. Though police concluded that she had accidentally shot herself, in the months prior to her death she had been a key confidential informant to officials from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) concerning the Mobile Infirmary’s publicized efforts to thwart patient desegregation of its facilities. A HEW official’s carelessness may have inadvertently disclosed her identity to desegregation opponents.

Dr. Cowsert’s is one of many compelling stories in David Barton Smith’s powerful account of U.S. hospital desegregation in 1966, triggered by the convergence of national civil rights mobilization, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 enactment of Medicare. In The Power to Heal: Civil Rights, Medicare, and the Struggle to Transform America’s Health Care System Smith tells how federal health officials—with backing from President Lyndon Johnson, HEW Secretary John Gardner, and other federal officials—mobilized to achieve a startlingly rapid transformation of America’s hospitals, erasing the stain of racial segregation that had always prevailed across the nation, North, South, East, and West.

Smith’s account stands in vivid contrast to the equally compelling and failed story of American public school desegregation, best told in the 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning Simple Justice: The History of Brown vs. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality by Richard Kluger. In that case, the 30-year struggle to overturn “separate but equal” racial segregation in public education, culminating in a landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s 9-0 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, to this day has been mostly unachieved. A bold court decision was fatally undermined by a subsequent enforcement ruling committing the nation to an unsuccessful implementation strategy called “with all deliberate speed.” The contrast between successful desegregation of U.S. hospitals versus failed desegregation in public education is instructive.

Smith writes: “In four months, civil rights activists … transformed the nation’s hospitals from our most racially and economically segregated institutions to our most integrated. In four years, they changed patterns of use of health services that had persisted for half a century. The fundamental moral imperative—that those needing medical care should receive it—began for the first time to reflect actual use of services. A profound transformation, now taken for granted, happened almost overnight.”

A bold court decision was fatally undermined by a subsequent enforcement ruling committing the nation to an unsuccessful implementation strategy called “with all deliberate speed.” The contrast between successful desegregation of U.S. hospitals versus failed desegregation in public education is instructive.

As with so many aspects of American society prior to the 1960s, segregation ruled. A 1952 report by the South Conference Education Fund titled “The Untouchables: The Meaning of Segregation in Hospitals” documented 12 deaths of African Americans denied admission to white-only hospitals governed by white physicians and white dominated medical associations. In most of the nation, black-only hospitals were under-staffed, under-financed, and under-equipped.

Beginning in the 1940s, black health professionals who were systematically excluded from the white medical mainstream, supplied backbone in the struggle for civil rights in hospitals, in schools and across American society. Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard, MD, Sonnie Wellington Hereford III MD, Reginald Hawkins DDS, W Montague Cobb MD PhD, Charles Watts MD, George Simkins Jr. DDS—these are long-forgotten names of physicians who stood up for justice in their communities and in courts.

Though the 1946 Hill-Burton Act banned racial discrimination in new and expanded hospitals for which it provided ample federal funds, the law explicitly sanctioned “separate but equal” facilities. A 1962 federal lawsuit, Simkins vs. Moses Cone, attacked the constitutionality of that provision, winning crucial support from the Kennedy Administration, and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in March 1964 just as Congress was passing that year’s landmark Civil Rights Act. That law’s Title VI, for the first time, prohibited using federal funds for racial segregation.

Passage of the bold 1964 law, though, was insufficient to compel hospital desegregation. The critical catalyst was the passage of Medicare in July 1965 providing many millions of dollars in payment for medical services for senior citizens for the first time. Though Title VI clearly applied, its remedies and enforcement powers were meager. The question became: Would President Lyndon Johnson enforce Title VI compliance in Medicare by blocking payments to racially segregated hospitals? An initial push for voluntary desegregation failed as surveys conducted by civil rights activists had proven in mid-1965.

With only six months until the July 1, 1966, inauguration of Medicare, “Gardner was launching perhaps the riskiest domestic policy initiative in the nation’s history. It tied together the fate of Johnson’s two signature pieces of legislation—the Civil Rights Act and Medicare,” Smith writes.

In December 1965, HEW Secretary Gardner distributed a memo declaring that Medicare compliance with Title VI “is too important to be treated as anything less than the highest of priorities in our total program,” committing staff and resources to the task. With only six months until the July 1, 1966, inauguration of Medicare, “Gardner was launching perhaps the riskiest domestic policy initiative in the nation’s history. It tied together the fate of Johnson’s two signature pieces of legislation—the Civil Rights Act and Medicare,” Smith writes.

The challenges were daunting. A January 1966 review concluded that at least two-thirds of Southern and border state hospitals were out of compliance, while many Northern hospitals operated as de facto segregated facilities.

Gardner’s team quickly concluded that success would require “no ‘all deliberate speed’ pass for hospitals wishing Medicare funds. No money should go to any facility where race played any role in the treatment of patients, employees, or medical staffs.” Compliance was handed to HEW’s Public Health Service managed by U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart and the new HEW Office of Equal Health Opportunity. But with months before Medicare’s rollout and more than 4,000 noncompliant hospitals, how could they achieve this seemingly impossible task?

When HEW leaders put out a call for volunteer temporary federal employee transfers to perform compliance, more than 1,000 employees, mostly from the Social Security Administration and the Public Health Service, answered yes. They included “bench scientists from NIH, veterinarians, pharmacists, managers of Social Security field offices, venereal disease investigators, even a ‘medical officer from the Indian Health Service complete with an Eskimo secretary.’”

The challenges were daunting. A January 1966 review concluded that at least two-thirds of Southern and border state hospitals were out of compliance, while many Northern hospitals operated as de facto segregated facilities. On March 4, 1966, Surgeon General Stewart sent a letter to all U.S. hospitals with this message: “To be eligible to receive Federal assistance or participate in any federally-assisted program a hospital must be in compliance with Title VI … Representatives from the Department of Health Education and Welfare Regional office will be visiting hospitals on a routing periodic basis …”  Three weeks later, Dr. Martin Luther King offered his historic judgment: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

Smith provides many anecdotes of intransigent hospital officials who tried to hoodwink inspectors, concluding that “the vast majority of the hospitals chose to comply in order to get the Medicare payments, and it was remarkable how fast and dramatic the changes were.”

Smith provides many anecdotes of intransigent hospital officials who tried to hoodwink inspectors, concluding that “the vast majority of the hospitals chose to comply in order to get the Medicare payments, and it was remarkable how fast and dramatic the changes were.” Literally overnight, the blood supply from the Louisiana Red Cross Blood Bank, previously labeled “white” and “colored,” was integrated. At a June 15 White House meeting with hospital officials, President Johnson declared: “The federal government is not going to retreat from its clear responsibility … and I hope that you will not retreat either.” By June 15, more than 80 percent of hospitals were complying, and by June 30, the number had risen to 94 percent. “By January 1967,” Smith reports, “the mopping up, with only a few exceptions, had been completed.”

Not all changes were welcome. According to Smith, “within two decades of the implementation of Medicare, all but four of the more than 400 20th century historically black hospitals had closed or converted to other purposes.” The Office of Equal Health Opportunity was disbanded by President Richard Nixon. And the problems of racial and ethnic inequities and disparities in health and health care are enduring national concerns.

Still, the rapid and effective desegregation of U.S. hospitals is one of our nation’s—and our health care system’s—shining moments. Smith’s book is the authoritative source to understand the political, social, economic, and cultural context of this transformation. Perhaps as monuments to Confederate generals are demolished, we might find space for a monument to Dr. Jean Cowsert.