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”

Pray for the Dead and Fight like Hell for the Living.

[The Washington Post’s Health 202 Column offered a set of “eulogies” on the fate of the ACA’s individual mandate — the mandate penalty was reduced to zero by the Republican’s newly approved tax-cut legislation.  I had the last word…] 

… So it’s not shocking that’s the part of Obamacare they chose to target in their tax overhaul, especially since their chance at a health-care bill seems to have passed. Democrats and advocates for the ACA have known for a while this was likely coming down the pipeline – and there was not much they could do to stop it.

Yet Republicans have talked for so long about repealing the mandate, election cycle after election cycle, it’s still hard to believe we’re actually standing here.

The Health 202 asked leading health-care wonks — on the right as well as the left – to offer some parting comments. Let’s call a eulogy of sorts.

–Andy Slavitt, former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator under Obama: “The main effect of Republicans’ action today is to raise the cost of insurance for middle class families. The law has proven to be highly resilient and actions against it look increasingly petty. As a larger matter, to Republicans’ chagrin, they have now removed the only unpopular feature of the ACA. The rest of it enjoys overwhelming popular bipartisan support and will be much harder to remove.”

–Chris Jennings, former health-policy advisor to Obama: “Not overly original, but true: You break it, you own it and all the associated increases in premiums, out-of-pocket costs and uninsured Americans. Congratulations.”

–Jim Capretta, former Office of Management and Budget health-care director under George W. Bush: “There’s some exaggeration on both sides of the debate about the individual mandate. Advocates of the mandate say that its repeal will devastate the individual market. There’s not much evidence for this view. On the other hand, opponents of the mandate sometimes say its repeal will have no effect at all.  That’s also not true.

“The individual market under the ACA is already somewhat unstable, and is suffering from an elevated level of adverse selection. The repeal of the mandate is going to make this not-so-great situation slightly worse. But the market is unlikely to collapse, as the ACA subsidies are sufficient to induce significant enrollment even without the mandate.  Republicans now have some responsibility for the functioning of the marketplaces. Unfortunately, it does not seem like GOP leaders in Congress or the Trump administration have a clear idea of what they would like to do once the mandate is repealed.”

–Tom Scully, CMS administrator under George W. Bush: “I don t think the mandate ‘repeal’ will make a big difference. A Trump IRS was not going to enforce the penalties anyway. I am sure that insurers would prefer that it stay in place, but I bet he real behavioral impact will be minimal.”

–Newt Gingrich, former GOP House speaker (who once supported the idea of an insurance mandate): “A bad idea passed in a bad way and repealed in a classic American model of clumsy but correct.”

–John McDonough, Harvard health-policy professor: “As Mark Twain is reported to have said on May 31, 1897, ‘the report of my death was an exaggeration.’ The legislation reduces the penalty for non-compliance with the mandate to zero. The legal requirement remains intact.

“This is not trivial. It will not take long for the damage from the zeroing out of the ACA penalty to become clear. Because Massachusetts still has an enforceable mandate — and penalty — on its books, we will have speedy evidence of the impact of this policy change.

“In 2019 or 2021, a future Congress that cares about the stability and workability of the nation’s individual health insurance market, unlike the current Congress, will revisit this policy and likely re-establish a workable new policy.”

The Republican Tax Cut’s Silver Linings Playbook

[I’ve been super busy this fall and unable to keep up with writing about the ACA.  I’m back in the saddle and here I go again.  This commentary was just published on the Commonwealth Magazine website.]

A CORE TENET of behavioral economics is that most of us are biased toward optimism. I plead guilty. Today’s Exhibit A of my optimism bias is the Republican federal tax cut legislation heading toward the desk of President Trump for his signature.

It is true that the tax cut legislation is rigged to disproportionately benefit rich corporations and wealthy individuals; it expands the federal debt by $1.5 trillion or more; it’s biased against blue states that provide better public services and education; yes, it’s the pits. And yet…

In at least two ways, this new tax cut law will present opportunities and advantages for progressives, one next year, and the other in the future when Democrats recapture control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives, as early as January 2021. In this column, I’ll discuss the first – the tax legislation’s repeal of the so-called “individual mandate” in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In my next column, I’ll explain how the tax cuts may empower Democrats to do a lot of good public policy in the near future.

Dave Granlund / politicalcartoons.com

Here’s the first way. The tax cut legislation reduces the ACA’s tax penalties under the so-called “individual mandate” to zero. Despite repeated media reports that the law repeals the individual mandate, that’s incorrect. Straight repeal is not permitted under the Senate’s strict “budget reconciliation” rules under which the tax legislation is moving forward, but reducing the mandate’s monetary penalties to zero is kosher.

Many have predicted that disabling the individual mandate will fatally undermine the ACA.  That’s also incorrect. The 13 million people – with incomes between 0-138 percent of the federal poverty line – who got covered because of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion are untouched. Also, the 9 million between 139-400% of poverty who receive private health insurance subsidies will be largely unaffected. Continue reading “The Republican Tax Cut’s Silver Linings Playbook”

A Bipartisan “What’s Next” for U.S. Health Reform

[This past week, I was one of the co-authors of a consensus policy paper on short-term steps that would stabilize the ACA health insurance marketplaces and address some other urgent health policy priorities such as reauthorization of the Childrens Health Insurance Program (CHIP).  The paper was authored by a group of 9 policy experts (5 on the Republican/conservative side and 4 on the Democratic/progressive side).  While the ideas are not revolutionary, we show that bipartisan consensus is possible and offers hope for saner and more balanced policy — we hope!  Here is the paper below:]

The Congressional effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has stalled, sparking urgent questions about what’s next and whether a bipartisan agreement could be achieved to address important U.S. health reform needs. We believe that critical matters relating to health reform must be addressed quickly and that bipartisan approaches are possible.

We are health policy analysts and advocates who join in this agreement. While we hold diverse political views and policy outlooks, we believe that health reform solutions exist that can transcend partisanship and ideology.

In this commentary, we describe our bipartisan agreement on five health policy matters that should be addressed by the end of the federal fiscal year, September 30. These recommendations are designed to provide stability in markets until a longer-term resolution can be achieved and, most importantly, to protect coverage and health care access for those relying on them now. Continue reading “A Bipartisan “What’s Next” for U.S. Health Reform”

MayDay! The ACA Is Still Alive and Still in Danger

Today is May Day and the ACA is still alive.  Donald Trump’s campaign boast that he would sign a bill repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA/ObamaCare) on his inauguration day is long gone and forgotten.  House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s gamble that by April 28th the ACA would be effectively decimated using the expedited budget reconciliation process proved to be a sucker’s bet.

Undeterred, White House and House operatives are trying by Wednesday to line up 216 votes—not to pass the Republicans’ American Health Care Act (AHCA) but to feign signs of progress to dampen the white-hot anger of the Republican base at their Party leaders’ inability to enact the ACA repeal promised since the law’s signing on March 23, 2010.  They want to take a third run at it this week and perhaps succeed after two prior failures.  Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are crossing their fingers hoping that the House fails, sparing the upper chamber the funerary duties.  For the Senate to advance ACA repeal now, a new and wholly unimagined bill would need to be constructed.

The level of legislative malpractice evidenced by Speaker Ryan and his team since January is staggering and perplexing.  They designed a bill that the Congressional Budget Office estimated would cause 24 million Americans to lose health insurance.  They advanced a proposal that provoked public opposition from the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, AARP, and hundreds of other national organizations representing Americans with serious stakes in our health care system.  They invented a plan that generated unprecedented grassroots support for the ACA and fierce opposition aimed at them. For the first time, Ryan’s plan turned most Americans into ACA supporters. His legislation generated support from only 17% of Americans, an unheard of level of non-support.

Why did they do this and why do they persist?

Trump and Ryan both showed their hands in recent public statements linking ACA repeal with their tax cut agenda; Trump’s tax plan was released in one-page outline form this past week.  To Republicans, the ACA’s poison is not the insurance expansion that bears remarkable resemblance to the two public health insurance programs they have always loved: Medicare Part C or Medicare Advantage, and Medicare Part D, the outpatient prescription drug benefit. Continue reading “MayDay! The ACA Is Still Alive and Still in Danger”

A Republican Path to ACA Reform

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

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

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

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

Medicare Advantage: From Bust to Boom

Consider these two quotes:

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

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

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

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