On health performance, Mass. is not a shining star

[Commonwealth Magazine published this analysis and commentary on May 4 2019.]

Many Bay State health care cognoscenti and politicos like to brag about Massachusetts health statistics. For years now, Massachusetts has performed well, at or near the top, in surveys of key health indicators among the 50 US states.

For example, the United Health Foundation’s 2016 America’s Health Rankings had Massachusetts in 1st place (though we dropped to 7th in 2018). We were 2nd in the Commonwealth Fund’s State Health System Performance Scorecards in 2018. And we showed up 5th in the U.S. News & World Report’s Best States survey. Not too shabby.
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Maybe we should limit the self-congratulations. Perhaps we’re not as good as we like to believe. What if comparing ourselves with retrograde US states sets the bar too low? By contrast, the Massachusetts education policy community routinely examines benchmarks comparing our state’s performance with that of other advanced nations, not with US states where looking smart is no big challenge. Here’s a recent example:

“If Massachusetts were a nation, it would share the top spot in reading with eight other nations worldwide. In science, the state’s students and those from 10 nations came in second, trailing only students from Singapore. In math, 11 other nations were ahead of the Commonwealth. The results come from the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial international survey designed to assess how well 15-year-old students can apply their knowledge and skills.”

So, how does Massachusetts compare on key health statistics with those of other advanced nations? Are we tops? Do we win the crown or not?

Not.

With research assistance from a diligent graduate student, I examined 12 key health performance indicators for Massachusetts and matched them with comparable stats from 11 advanced nations: the US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. I included core public health measures often included in international and US comparative performance studies:

Obesity among adults
Adult smoking
Population with health insurance
Infant mortality
Life expectancy at birth
Share of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on medical care
Maternal mortality
Suicide mortality
Having a regular physician or place of care
Mortality attributable to health care
Population experiencing cost-related access problems
Population with out-of-pocket health care costs greater than $1,000 in past year

Some argue that it is illegitimate to compare a nation as large as the US with comparatively puny competitors. For comparative purposes, the US population in 2017 was 325.7 million, and the 10 non-US comparators’ combined population was 322.8 million. For this analysis, I examined the 10 non-US nations as a group and individually with the US and with Massachusetts – 12 categories in all. The accompanying table provides data and rankings for Massachusetts, the US, and the average of the other 10 nations. (To see the full table with sources and with details on all 11 examined nations and Massachusetts, click here.)

How does the US come out? On the 12 measures among 12 nations (treating Massachusetts as a nation), the US ranks 12th worst on 8 measures, 10th worst for 2 measures, and 9th and 7th worst for 1 measure each. Looking at the three units – 10 nations, US, and Massachusetts – our nation comes in last on 11 of 12 measures, and best on zero.

What about Massachusetts? On 8 of the 12 measures, we’re in the bottom half; on 4 of those, we come in at #11, one rank better than the US, and worse than everyone else. We’re 11th best out of 12 on health insurance coverage, life expectancy, share of Gross Domestic Product spent on medical care, and having a regular physician or place of care. We are 9th best on maternal mortality and infant mortality.

On the other hand, we are best among the 12 on having a low suicide rate, and 2nd best on mortality attributable to medical care. On the rest, we are in the middle of the pack. When just looking at the 10 non-US nations collectively, the US, and Massachusetts, we are best on 5 indicators, and worse than our competitor nations on 7, though better on all of these than the US.
Surprises? I incorrectly expected that Massachusetts would be better than 4th on adult smoking. I did not realize that the Massachusetts suicide rate would be so positive. It is remarkable that while Massachusetts has the highest rate of health insurance coverage among all 50 states, at 97.3 percent, our rate is lower than the rates in all 10 non-US nations.

Because Massachusetts has such a high level of spending on medical care, I expected we would spend a larger proportion of our state’s GDP on health care than the US and come in dead last. Instead, we’re 11th. What explains this? It’s not so much the numerator (health care spending), as it is the denominator (the state’s high total GDP) which reflects a far more affluent state than most of the other 49. Even though our spending looks high, it is lower than the US average in its burden.

Looking to education policy as a model, Massachusetts should be less concerned with comparisons to other states’ performance, and more attuned to comparing our results with those of other advanced nations. Massachusetts policy experts would do well to pay closer attention to factors that influence the superior performance of these nations to ours. If other nations can kick our butts so convincingly on maternal and infant mortality, life expectancy, health care spending, and other essential measures, then we should focus more on how we can close the gap with these nations than comparing ourselves with our fellow states.

For the past decade, since passage of the state’s 2006 universal health care law and the 2012 cost containment law, Massachusetts has focused on controlling health care cost increases. While this has been a valuable and successful effort, I believe it also has crowded out attention to key determinants of health, especially obesity, that drive up health care spending substantially and harm public health. Perhaps it is time for the Commonwealth to reassess its core health system priorities.

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?”

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”

MassHealth’s New World of ACOs — and a Mighty Upstart

[I wrote this commentary for the spring issue of Commonwealth Magazine.  I am watching the new crop of 17 Accountable Care Organizations — ACOs — with great interest.  This is a nationally important demonstration that also holds risks for the medical care of many MassHealth enrollees.]

ON MARCH 1, the state’s Medicaid program—known as MassHealth—entered a new era with the launch of 17 accountable care organizations, or ACOs, aiming to provide better coordinated care at lower costs to its low-income enrollees. It’s an ambitious effort with lots of risk and big potential rewards. Within this is another compelling effort to redefine how community health centers fit into the changing health care landscape of Massachusetts and the nation.

Christina Severin, CEO of C3, the new accountable care organization formed by community health centers.

It began with a serendipitous encounter at a grocery store. Sometime in the fall of 2014, Christina Severin bumped into Lori Berry at the seafood counter of the Brighton Whole Foods market. Severin, a long-time leader in the MassHealth scene, had been mulling the creation of a community health center-based non-profit to join the cohort of ACOs being planned for as many as two-thirds of the 1.9 million Massachusetts residents who rely on the program. Continue reading “MassHealth’s New World of ACOs — and a Mighty Upstart”

5 Takeaways from Baker’s New Health Reform

[This commentary was published on June 24 on the Commonwealth Magazine website.]

PHASE 2 OF THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION’S ambitious health reform agenda emerged this past week.  It contains good and smart proposals – and worrisome ones needing attention.

Phase 1 is an ambitious effort to transform much of the state’s Medicaid program, known as MassHealth, into “accountable care organizations.” ACOs aim to focus hospitals, physicians, and other providers on improving population health, care integration, and efficiency.  That effort, blessed by the outgoing Obama administration last November, is well underway – unless congressional Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act throw everything into a tailspin.

Phase 2 came last week, when the Baker administration released a set of proposals to Senate and House leaders, a package of changes to MassHealth and other health programs aiming to save $314 million in fiscal year 2018, which starts July 1, and more beyond. All the proposals need state law changes (to be incorporated in the nearly finished FY 2018 state budget) and/or federal approval. Continue reading “5 Takeaways from Baker’s New Health Reform”

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 “MassHealth Dives into Accountable Care”

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.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

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.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

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.

LET THE GAMES BEGIN – OR NOT

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.

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

Guttierez
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 “Behind the Turnaround at the MA Health Connector”

ACA’s Continuing Impact on Business

[This “sponsored content” article was published on bostonglobe.com on February 2nd.]

Six years after the Affordable Care Act (ACA) became law, U.S. health care policy and the delivery of medical services continue to undergo unprecedented change. Rockland Trust’s “Talking Business Advice Series” spoke with John E. McDonough, professor of Public Health Policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, to get his take on what may lie ahead for businesses working with the ACA during this dynamic period.

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Q: You helped write the ACA. It’s an extremely complex law that even today is not fully understood by many Americans, including business owners and leaders. From a high-level perspective, where do things stand with it today?

A: Most people understand that the ACA is moving us toward universal health coverage. For the United States, the ACA is a revolution, an enormous set of changes that many see as a huge step forward and many others see as a wrong turn. Globally, however, all of the world’s advanced nations prior to the ACA already had health care schemes that, to varying degrees, met the insurance needs of their populations. So, while the ACA’s insurance expansions and reforms represent a great leap forward for the U.S., it is also true that when fully implemented by 2018, the U.S. will still have the most inefficient, wasteful, and unfair health insurance system of any advanced nation, even with the ACA reforms.

On the other hand, the ACA is also advancing an agenda of dramatic and necessary change in how medical care is delivered in the U.S. As a nation, we are now moving rapidly away from a financing system based on fee-for-service payments, (which is) a system that rewards hospitals, physicians, and other medical providers based on the quantity of services they provide without regard for the quality, effectiveness, and efficiency of those services. Because of the ACA, we are now moving quickly toward a new financing framework that rewards hospital, physicians, and providers based on the quality and value of the services they provide rather than the quantity.

Q: The public doesn’t necessarily view it in this way, does it?

A: You’re right. This change has gone unrecognized by the broad public, even as it moves forward in rapid and profound ways. A lot of what the ACA envisions is experimental. Some elements are working better than others; some continue to be fiercely debated. The U.S. doesn’t have all the answers in this effort, but we have the most dynamic set of experiments on this evolutionary path of any advanced nation on the planet right now. Health system leaders all around the world are very interested in this set of experiments and watching closely. That is something that corporate leaders, regardless of industry sector, ought to recognize, appreciate, and understand.

Q: What are some of the effects of these experiments on businesses?

shutterstock_267836885A: The immediate effects of the ACA depend on the context of the business itself. For example, the ACA’s impact is different for larger businesses with more than 50 full-time workers, companies with new responsibilities under the ACA’s employer mandate. It’s different for smaller employers and it provides some opportunities for many of them. It’s a unique new context for start-up businesses because of the health insurance marketplaces that provide new businesses with a new way to provide health insurance for their workers, enabling them to outsource their health coverage needs for themselves and their employees. And it enables all employees to get health care coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions, which was not possible in 45 states prior to the ACA.

So it’s contextual. It depends on the size and nature of the business as to whether there will be advantages or disadvantages—or both—to the Affordable Care Act.

Q: Would you expand on how smaller companies can outsource their health care responsibilities?

A: The ACA required the development of government-regulated health care exchanges (or marketplaces) across the nation. States had right of first refusal and 13 have chosen to establish their own exchanges while the rest are run by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). These exchanges offer coverage to all eligible individuals who can’t obtain insurance elsewhere, and many workers are eligible for financial subsidies to keep premiums and cost sharing affordable.

Alongside these public exchanges, new private health insurance exchanges have emerged. Unlike the public exchanges, which largely provide insurance to individuals seeking to buy non-group coverage, these private entities are aimed straight at the employer community. These private exchanges can enable employers to address their responsibilities under the ACA’s mandate to provide health insurance for their workers and do it in ways that are far less onerous for employers than in the past. It’s a way to outsource these responsibilities and to provide employees with a range of coverage choices. This is a significant change from the environment that existed prior to the ACA’s passage in 2010.

Q: How are larger businesses affected by the ACA?

A: Prior to the ACA’s passage, larger businesses were concerned about not being heavily shaped by the new law because most of these businesses already covered most of their employees. The impact of the ACA on larger businesses—especially those that self-insure—is far less than what they would experience in the standard commercial insurance market were they to go out and purchase traditional coverage.

Nonetheless, there are important new coverage requirements that impact the large employer market—whether self-insured or not. For example, lifetime or annual benefit limits on workers coverage is no longer permitted. Employer plans must cover the “essential health benefits” specified in the law. A worker’s insurance premium cannot exceed 9.5 percent of his or her household income or else the employer mandate penalty can be triggered. All employers must allow their workers to keep adult children on their family policies up to age 26. The ACA also sets a 90-day maximum waiting period before full-time workers are eligible for coverage.

There are also some elements of the law that many employers appreciate, including the ability to vary worker premiums by 30-50 percent in relation to workers’ use of tobacco products and participation in workplace wellness programs. Clinically proven preventive care services, such as mammography, must be provided to workers without any cost sharing.

The ACA’s impact is far more substantial in the traditional commercial health insurance market—but the impact on large self-insured employers is also meaningful.

Q: Are all the details of the ACA settled at this point?

A: This law is changing every day. There are at least three dozen things changing in relation to this law almost daily—in Congress, in federal agencies, in states, in the private sector—changes shaping how this law is unfolding across American society. And the pace of change hasn’t slowed, even now when we’re in the sixth year since the law was enacted.

857b31fa-2754-4722-91af-eb44dbc47690-acaThe ACA is likely to change even further next January when a new president and administration takes office, regardless of which party controls the White House and Congress. We can see an evolving agenda for changes from both sides of the political spectrum. Congressional Republicans have been united in their determination to dismantle the ACA for some time. In January, President Obama vetoed an attempt to cripple the ACA that was included in a budget reconciliation bill. The fact that this initiative passed Congress demonstrates that if Republicans control the White House, House, and Senate next January, there is a strong likelihood of significant dismantling of the law.

Conversely, if the Democrats hold the White House next year they also will have an agenda for significant changes to the ACA, though far less dramatic than what would happen under Republican control. Either way, we can anticipate some significant changes coming in 2017.

Q: How do business leaders prepare for that?

A: They need to keep abreast of whatever changes occur. Many organizations help businesses to stay on top of what’s changing or likely to change. It’s important for executives and managers who focus on a company’s health coverage to stay up-to-speed on what’s happening, and it’s important for those in the C-suite to understand the changes to factor these new variables into their strategic planning calculus.

As a nation, we are on a path of rapid and deep systemic change to our health system, and it’s going to unfold for some time to come. It is already transforming the fundamental nature of the U.S. medical care delivery system. The implications of it are vast and it will continue to unfold well into the future in positive, not-so-positive, and surprising ways.

It’s important for corporate executives to understand the nature of these changes as they happen.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health will present a conference titled “Beyond the Affordable Care Act: The Next Frontiers for US Health Reform” on April 25-27. Visit https://ecpe.sph.harvard.edu/ for more information.