Five Worrisome Trends in Healthcare and the VA Seeks to Redirect Billions of Dollars into Private Care and the VA Access to Healthcare

50065252_1872612819535035_7021591760191094784_nAs the idiots in Congress still fight over the wall and continue to act like spoiled children we, the intelligent voters should be looking at healthcare delivery reality. What can we expect from these liberals and their cultural revolution? Joyce Frieden, the News Editor of MedPage Today pointed out last year that a reckoning is coming to American healthcare, said Chester Burrell, outgoing CEO of the CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield health plan, here at the annual meeting of the National Hispanic Medical Association.

Burrell, speaking on Friday, told the audience there are five things physicians should worry about, “because they worry me”:

  1. The effects of the recently passed tax bill.“If the full effect of this tax cut is experienced, then the federal debt will go above 100% of GDP [gross domestic product] and will become the highest it’s been since World War II,” said Burrell. That may be OK while the economy is strong, “but we’ve got a huge problem if it ever turns and goes back into recession mode,” he said. “This will stimulate higher interest rates, and higher interest rates will crowd out funding in the federal government for initiatives that are needed,” including those in healthcare.

Burrell noted that Medicaid, 60 million by Medicare, currently covers 74 million people and 10 million by the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), while another 10 million people are getting federally subsidized health insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) insurance exchanges. “What happens when interest’s demand on federal revenue starts to crowd out future investment in these government programs that provide healthcare for tens of millions of Americans?”

  1. The increasing obesity problem.”Thirty percent of the U.S. population is obese; 70% of the total population is either obese or overweight,” said Burrell. “There is an epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, and coronary artery disease coming from those demographics, and Baby Boomers will see these things in full flower in the next 10 years as they move fully into Medicare.”
  2. The “congealing” of the U.S. healthcare system. This is occurring in two ways, Burrell said. First, “you’ll see large integrated delivery systems [being] built around academic medical centers — very good quality care [but] 50%-100% more expensive than the community average.”

To see how this affects patients, take a family of four — a 40-year-old dad, 33-year-old mom, and two teenage kids — who are buying a health insurance policy from CareFirst via the ACA exchange, with no subsidy. “The cost for their premium and deductibles, copays, and coinsurance [would be] $33,000,” he said. But if all of the care were provided by academic medical centers? “$60,000,” he said. “What these big systems are doing is consolidating community hospitals and independent physician groups, and creating oligopolies.”

Another way the system is “congealing” is the emergence of specialty practices that are backed by private equity companies, said Burrell. “The largest urology group in our area was bought by a private equity firm. How do they make money? They increase fees. There is not an issue of quality but there is a profound issue on costs.”

  1. The undermining of the private healthcare market. “Just recently, we have gotten rid of the individual mandate, and the [cost-sharing reduction] subsidies that were [expected to be] in the omnibus bill … were taken out of the bill,” he said. And state governments are now developing alternatives to the ACA such as short-term duration insurance policies — originally designed to last only 3 months but now being pushed up to a year, with the possibility of renewal — that don’t have to adhere to ACA coverage requirements, said Burrell.
  2. The lackluster performance of new payment models.”Despite the innovation fostering under [Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation] programs — the whole idea was to create a series of initiatives that might show the wave of the future — ACOs [accountable care organizations] and the like don’t show the promise intended for them, and there is no new model one could say is demonstrably more successful,” he said.

“So beware — there’s a reckoning coming,” Burrell said. “Maybe change occurs only when there is a rip-roaring crisis; we’re coming to it.” Part of the issue is cost: “As carbon dioxide is to global warming, the cost is to healthcare. We deal with it every day … We face a future where cutbacks in funding could dramatically affect the accessibility of care.”

“Does that mean we move to move single-payer, some major repositioning?” he said. “I don’t know, but in 35 years in this field, I’ve never experienced a time quite like this … Be vigilant, be involved, be committed to serving these populations.”

VA Seeks to Redirect Billions of Dollars into Private Care

Jennifer Steinhauer and Dave Phillipps reported that The Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing to shift billions of dollars from government-run veterans’ hospitals to private health care providers, setting the stage for the biggest transformation of the veterans’ medical system in a generation.

Under proposed guidelines, it would be easier for veterans to receive care in privately run hospitals and have the government pay for it. Veterans would also be allowed access to a system of proposed walk-in clinics, which would serve as a bridge between V.A. emergency rooms and private providers, and would require co-pays for treatment.

Veterans’ hospitals, which treat seven million patients annually, have struggled to see patients on time in recent years, hit by a double crush of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and aging Vietnam veterans. A scandal over hidden waiting lists in 2014 sent Congress searching for fixes, and in the years since, Republicans have pushed to send veterans to the private sector, while Democrats have favored increasing the number of doctors in the V.A.

If put into effect, the proposed rules — many of whose details remain unclear as they are negotiated within the Trump administration — would be a win for the once-obscure Concerned Veterans for America, an advocacy group funded by the network founded by the billionaire industrialists Charles G. and David H. Koch, which has long championed increasing the use of private sector health care for veterans.

For individual veterans, private care could mean shorter waits, more choices and fewer requirements for co-pays — and could prove popular. But some health care experts and veterans’ groups say the change, which has no separate source of funding, would redirect money that the current veterans’ health care system — the largest in the nation — uses to provide specialty care.

Critics have also warned that switching vast numbers of veterans to private hospitals would strain care in the private sector and that costs for taxpayers could skyrocket. In addition, they say it could threaten the future of traditional veterans’ hospitals, some of which are already under review for consolidation or closing.

 President Trump, who made reforming veterans’ health care a major point of his campaign, may reveal details of the plan in his State of the Union address later this month, according to several people in the administration and others outside it who have been briefed on the plan.

The proposed changes have grown out of health care legislation, known as the Mission Act, passed by the last Congress. Supporters, who have been influential in administration policy, argue that the new rules would streamline care available to veterans, whose health problems are many but whose numbers are shrinking, and also prod the veterans’ hospital system to compete for patients, making it more efficient.

“Most veterans chose to serve their country, so they should have the choice to access care in the community with their V.A. benefits — especially if the V.A. can’t serve them in a timely and convenient manner,” said Dan Caldwell, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America.

In remarks at a joint hearing with members of the House and Senate veterans’ committees in December, Mr. Wilkie said veterans largely liked using the department’s hospitals.

“My experience is veterans are happy with the service they get at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” he said. Veterans are not “chomping at the bit” to get services elsewhere, he said, adding, “They want to go to places where people speak the language and understand the culture.”

Health care experts say that whatever the larger effects, allowing more access to private care will prove costly. A 2016 report ordered by Congress, from a panel called the Commission on Care, analyzed the cost of sending more veterans into the community for treatment and warned that unfettered access could cost well over $100 billion each year.

A fight over the future of the veterans’ health care system played a role in the ousting of the department’s previous secretary, David J. Shulkin, center.

Tricare costs have climbed steadily, and the Tricare population is younger and healthier than the general population, while Veterans Affairs patients are generally older and sicker.

Though the rules would place some restrictions on veterans, early estimates by the Office of Management and Budget found that a Tricare-style system would cost about $60 billion each year, according to a former Veterans Affairs official who worked on the project. Congress is unlikely to approve more funding, so the costs are likely to be carved out of existing funds for veterans’ hospitals.

At the same time, Tricare has been popular among recipients — so popular that the percentage of military families using it has nearly doubled since 2001, as private insurance became more expensive, according to the Harvard lecturer Linda Bilmes.

“People will naturally gravitate toward the better deal, that’s economics,” she said. “It has meant a tremendous increase in costs for the government.”

A spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Curt Cashour, declined to comment on the specifics of the new rules.

“The Mission Act, which sailed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and the strong backing of veterans service organizations, gives the V.A. secretary the authority to set access standards that provide veterans the best and most timely care possible, whether at V.A. or with community providers, and the department is committed to doing just that,” he said in an email.

Veterans’ services organizations have largely opposed large-scale changes to the health program, concerned that the growing costs of outside doctors’ bills would cannibalize the veterans’ hospital system.

Dr. Shulkin, the former secretary, shared that concern. Though he said he supported increasing the use of private health care, he favored a system that would let department doctors decide when patients were sent outside for private care.

The cost of the new rules, he said, could be higher than expected, because most veterans use a mix of private insurance, Medicare and veterans’ benefits, choosing to use the benefits that offer the best deal. Many may choose to forgo Medicare, which requires a substantial co-pay if Veterans Affairs offers private care at no charge. And if enough veterans leave the veterans’ system, he said, it could collapse.

Robert L. Wilkie, the secretary of veterans’ affairs, has repeatedly said his goal is not to privatize veterans’ health care.

One of the group’s former senior advisers, Darin Selnick, played a key role in drafting the Mission Act as a veterans’ affairs adviser at the White House’s Domestic Policy Council and is now a senior adviser to the secretary of Veterans Affairs in charge of drafting the new rules. Mr. Selnick clashed with David J. Shulkin, who was the head of the V.A. for a year under Mr. Trump and is widely viewed as being instrumental in ending Mr. Shulkin’s tenure.

Mr. Selnick declined to comment.

Critics, which include nearly all of the major veterans’ organizations, say that paying for care in the private sector would starve the 153-year-old veterans’ health care system, causing many hospitals to close.

“We don’t like it,” said Rick Weidman, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America. “This thing was initially sold as to supplement the V.A., and some people want to try and use it to supplant.”

Members of Congress from both parties have been critical of the administration’s inconsistency and lack of details in briefings. At a hearing last month, Senator John Boozman, Republican of Arkansas, told Robert L. Wilkie, the current secretary of Veterans Affairs, that his staff had sometimes come to Capitol Hill “without their act together.”

Although the Trump administration has kept details quiet, officials inside and outside the department say the plan closely resembles the military’s insurance plan, Tricare Prime, which sets a lower bar than the Department of Veterans Affairs when it comes to getting private care.

Tricare automatically allows patients to see a private doctor if they have to travel more than 30 minutes for an appointment with a military doctor, or if they have to wait more than seven days for a routine visit or 24 hours for urgent care. Under current law, veterans qualify for private care only if they have waited 30 days, and sometimes they have to travel hundreds of miles. The administration may propose for veterans a time frame somewhere between the seven- and 30-day periods.

Mr. Wilkie has repeatedly said his goal is not to privatize veterans’ health care, but would not provide details of his proposal when asked at a hearing before Congress in December.

Access to VA Health Services Now Better Than Private Hospitals?

So, the question is with the shift of funding to the privatization of VA care is access better? Nicole Lou, contributing writer for the MedPage noted that efforts to stir up access to Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals have cut down on wait times for new patient appointments, according to a report.

In 2014, the average wait for a new VA appointment in primary care, dermatology, cardiology, or orthopedics was 22.5 days, compared with 18.7 days in private sector facilities (P=0.20). Although these wait times were statistically no different in general, there was a longer wait for an orthopedics appointment in the VA that year (23.9 days vs 9.9 days for private sector, P<0.001), noted David Shulkin, MD, former VA secretary under President Trump, and now at the University of Pennsylvania’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, and colleagues.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, found that wait times in 2017 favored VA medical centers (17.7 days vs 29.8 days for private sector facilities, P<0.001). This was observed for primary care, dermatology, and cardiology appointments — but not orthopedics, which continued to produce appointment lags in the VA system (20.9 days vs 12.4 days, P=0.01), the authors stated.

“Although the results reflect positively on the VA, we intend to continue improving wait times, the accuracy of the data captured, and the transparency of reporting information to veterans and the public,” the researchers wrote.

Their study included VA medical centers in 15 major metropolitan areas and compared them with private sector facilities. Wait times were calculated differently based on VA records and secret shopper surveys, respectively, which was a limitation of the study, the team said.

Shulkin and colleagues found that VA wait times trended toward improvement in 11 of 15 regions, whereas private medical centers had significant increases in wait times in 12 of the 15.

Prompting the scrutiny over VA hospital wait times was a 2014 report showing that at least 40 veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA Health Care System in Arizona. Even worse, the wait times had apparently been deliberately manipulated to look better than they were.

“This incident damaged the VA’s credibility and created a public perception regarding the VA health care system’s inability to see patients in a timely manner,” Shulkin and co-authors said. “In response, the VA has worked to improve access, including primary care, mental health, and other specialty care services.”

Meanwhile, VA medical centers continue to suffer from staffing issues such as high turnover and employee vacancies in the tens of thousands.

The study authors noted a modest increase in the number of patients going to VA hospitals for the four services studied, although that number still stayed around five million per year.

From 2014 to 2017, patient satisfaction scores also increased by 1.4%, 3.0%, and 4.0% for specialty care, routine primary care, and urgent primary care, respectively (P<0.05 for all).

Another problem with the methodology of the study was that it failed to address how easily established patients could obtain return appointments, noted an accompanying editorial by Peter Kaboli, MD, MS, of Iowa City Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, and Stephan Fihn, MD, MPH, of the University of Washington in Seattle and JAMA Network Open’s deputy editor.

Furthermore, they pointed out, a patient returning for a 6-month follow-up visit may show up in the scheduling system as having a long delay.

“As this study highlights, measuring access to healthcare remains dodgy. Even so, the seven million veterans who receive care from the VA seem able to obtain routine and urgent care in a time frame that is on par for other Americans despite increasing demand, although there are and always will be exceptions,” Kaboli and Fihn noted.

“As resources in the VA are increasingly diverted to purchase care in the community, it remains to be seen if access to healthcare services can be maintained while access in the private sector continues to deteriorate,” they continued, adding that virtual care may be one way to improve access given the non-infinite supply of face-to-face appointments.

The VA experience seems to say that privatization of healthcare delivery is the way to go with improved access to care. So, onward to discuss universal healthcare and single payer systems of health care delivery. What would they all look like and what are the strategies to develop any of these systems.

 

 

Healthcare in 2019: Divided

 

49279916_1862477230548594_7693435305117876224_nAnd we continue with the shut down of 25% of the government. Maybe it isn’t such a bad deal for us with the waste and deficit. So, what can we anticipate for the New Year regarding healthcare? Miss Luthi reviewed that year one of a divided government in the Trump era begins with the Affordable Care Act again in legal peril. Political rhetoric around the law and healthcare generally will only intensify in the lead-up to the 2020 election cycle, but the industry is most closely watching how the administration will use executive authority to try to beat down soaring costs.

A Texas judge’s decision to overturn the ACA closed out a year where, despite congressional gridlock on healthcare, the Trump administration gained ground on systemic attempts to trim hospital payments and pharmaceutical prices, as well as reshape insurance markets. HHS Secretary Alex Azar maintains he will not bend to corporate pressure as he pushes policies like site-neutral payments and price transparency.

The policy outlook is less straightforward in Congress, where Democrats plan to use their newfound power in the House to blanket the Trump administration with oversight.

Meanwhile, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) will wrap up their legacies chairing the upper chamber’s two most influential healthcare committees—Finance and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, respectively. Grassley has a history of scrutinizing tax-exempt providers. And Alexander orchestrated a series of hearings in 2017 delving into the high cost of healthcare.

HHS and hospitals: It’s complicated

Hospitals want the Trump administration to more aggressively pushing executive authority to roll back red tape, particularly around the Stark law and accompanying regulations, which providers say stand in the way of some pay-for-value reforms, including building clinically integrated networks.

But hospitals have also been quick to sue over what they claim is an executive overreach, such as in the case of HHS’ sweeping cuts to the controversial 340B drug discount program. Pharmaceutical discounts through the program yield tens of millions of dollars annually for a growing number of hospitals, and it has become a territorial fight.

“This administration pushes the envelope on how far they can go with powers from Congress,” said Erik Rasmussen, a vice president at the American Hospital Association. “It’s a double-edged sword. When they go too far, we sue them.”

Hospitals sued over the government’s substantial clawback of money through a cut to 340B hospitals’ Medicare Part B drug reimbursements. Launched Jan. 1 of last year, the policy is winding its way through courts under ongoing litigation after a late-breaking 2018 win for hospitals in a federal district court. The cuts were extended to hospitals’ off-campus facilities at the beginning of this year.

Hospitals also poured lobbying dollars last year into a fight against Republican-sponsored legislation to cut back the 340B program. With a Democratic takeover of the House, hospitals are expecting a break on Capitol Hill and they plan to use the time to try to forestall political pressures over the program. Hospitals will have to disclose the community benefit funded by their 340B discount money from manufacturers, accurately estimate their discounts, and pledge to stick to the letter of the 340B law.

“We want to use the time while the field is fallow to make sure our fences are strong,” Rasmussen said. “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Hospitals and HHS anticipate a ruling on the so-called site-neutral payment policy, proposed in July and finalized in a watered-down version in November. The AHA, along with several other hospital groups, sued over the policy, again claiming executive overreach.

This administration pushes the envelope on how far they can go with powers from Congress. It’s a double-edged sword. When they go too far, we sue them.”

Under the new policy that starts this month, Medicare will pay off-site clinics the same rate it pays independent physicians for certain services.

Economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office who heads the conservative American Action Forum, said it is unclear how hard the administration will ultimately come down on hospitals in light of the intense pressure.

“It has turned out to be harder than the administration expected,” Holtz-Eakin said of the payment policy. “They keep going back and forth on a policy to pay for the quality of the service, rather than paying the same rate for every site, and they’re just struggling.”

While the administration would like to keep balancing Medicare payments, he added, officials “don’t know where to go next” as they try to work out designs for these policy changes.

Hospital priorities for Congress: DSH payments

Congress has a hard deadline of Sept. 30 to decide how to manage the scheduled disproportionate-share hospital payment cuts, passed with the ACA, but never implemented.

Lawmakers last year authorized a one-year-only delay to billions of dollars in cuts to these payments, teeing up a potential legislative overhaul of the program in 2019. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the states least favored under the current formulas, has already introduced a proposal to start negotiations.

Hospital lobbyists, eager to protect overall DSH funding, have signaled lawmakers could modify the law, which has largely remained untouched since 1992.

“The devil’s in the details,” said Carlos Jackson of America’s Essential Hospitals—a trade group for hospitals that benefit significantly from the program. “We are happy to have conversations about changes, but the details matter.”

Jackson also questioned whether lawmakers in this supercharged political environment would be able to dive into real policy changes by September.

“Will they have the time?” he asked.

A small number of states—Alabama, Missouri, New Jersey, and New York—benefit more than others from DSH. Financially, the payments are a very big deal for hospitals with high numbers of Medicaid patients, such as major university medical centers.

Here, too, ongoing litigation is a complicating factor. Hospitals have challenged an Obama-era rule requiring them to deduct any Medicare or commercial insurance reimbursements from their total DSH allotment.

Hospitals also want the Democratic House to pick up where Republicans left off on a “Red Tape Relief” project targeting Medicare regulations that hospitals say cost them billions a year in extra work and unnecessary or redundant expenses.

Democrats haven’t decided what they will do, but lobbyists think House Republicans may be able to work with the Trump administration on policy work that could gain bipartisan support.

“It’s been a while since we’ve had a GOP minority in the House with a Republican president,” the AHA’s Rasmussen said. “Republicans in the House will still be important because they can work on the administration on this sort of thing.”

Tax-exempt hospitals are also bracing for the spotlight. Grassley—who for years has been investigating whether hospitals with not-for-profit status are producing enough justifying community benefit—is retiring in two years. Former and current aides said his scrutiny of hospitals with massive tax benefits will continue. Throughout this year, he has kept up communication with the IRS on how the agency monitors the activity of not-for-profit hospitals.

Pharmaceuticals: ‘It’ll be busy’

If hospitals are wary about mixed financial prospects in 2019, the pharmaceutical industry is preparing for full-on political war.

Manufacturers lost a key lobbying battle in 2018 when they tried to recoup billions of dollars from the money Congress appropriated through the Medicare Part D coverage gap known as the “donut hole.”

This year will bring much more: the specifics of a proposal to control U.S. drug prices by tying them to an international price index; step therapy in Medicare Part B; and the authority for Medicare Part D insurers to exclude some protected-class drugs that are currently off limits.

If the issue is that we need to protect Medicare, I’m all in as long as Congress looks at where the real money is: hospitals and elsewhere.”

Said James Greenwood, President, and CEO of Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

“We face all of that, and then there’s the change in the majority of the House,” said James Greenwood, CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization trade group. “Democrats have run very hard on the issue of drug pricing and investigation.”

There’s also Grassley, who has long been zealous on Big Pharma oversight.

“It’ll be busy,” Greenwood said.

He said he is focused on messaging and public perception of manufacturers who, he said “shoulder 95% of the rhetoric” for skyrocketing healthcare costs.

“If the issue is that we need to protect Medicare, I’m all in as long as Congress looks at where the real money is: hospitals and elsewhere,” Greenwood said.

Manufacturers are also looking to the administration’s use of executive authority for some wins, specifically on 340B where they clash most intensely with hospitals.

“There’s a lot the administration can do,” Greenwood said. “The powers they are using with the other proposals, like (the CMS Innovation Center), they can apply to the 340B program.”

Insurers: Focus on the individual market

Obamacare’s individual market premiums have stabilized but at a high price. And as Democratic progressives push a single-payer approach in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, insurers want to make sure the individual market can attract people who have ditched or so far avoided the exchanges because of cost.

Justine Handelman of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association wants Congress to try again on reinsurance funding and to look at the expansion of the tax credit subsidy, particularly to draw younger people into the exchanges.

Given the breakdown of bipartisan talks to fund reinsurance and cost-sharing reduction payments in 2018, it’s unlikely the Democratic proposal to further subsidize the exchanges will go anywhere with the Trump administration and Republican Senate.

‘Medicare for all’? This we will discuss more in the next few weeks.

Key to watch as the year unfolds is what the fallout of the ACA litigation—panned by most legal analysts but also possibly headed to the Supreme Court—will herald for both parties for healthcare ahead of 2020 when progressive Democrats want their party to embrace “Medicare for all.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the first Democrat to jump into the presidential race, has already made the policy part of her platform.

Progressive Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna of California and Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, who are leading the way on a new “Medicare for all” draft, plan to push a floor vote on the legislation. They told Modern Healthcare they will introduce the new version once the 676 bill number is available—a nod to the original House legislation from former Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).

Dems hit GOP on health care with additional ObamaCare lawsuit vote

As Jessie Hellmann noted The House on Wednesday passed a resolution backing the chamber’s recent move to defend ObamaCare against a lawsuit filed by GOP states, giving Democrats another opportunity to hit Republicans on health care.

GOP Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), John Katko (N.Y.) and Tom Reed (N.Y.) joined with 232 Democrats to support the measure, part of Democrats’ strategy of keeping the focus on the health care law heading into 2020. The final vote tally was 235-192.

While the House voted on Friday to formally intervene in the lawsuit as part of a larger rules package, Democrats teed up Wednesday’s resolution as a standalone measure designed to put Republicans on record with their opposition to the 2010 law.

A federal judge in Texas last month ruled in favor of the GOP-led lawsuit, saying ObamaCare as a whole is invalid. The ruling, however, will not take effect while it is appealed.

Democrats framed Wednesday’s vote as proof that Republicans don’t want to safeguard protections for people with pre-existing conditions — one of the law’s most popular provisions.

“If you support coverage for pre-existing conditions, you will support this measure to try to protect it. It’s that simple,” said Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) before the vote.

Most Republicans opposed the resolution, arguing it was unnecessary since the House voted last week to file the motion to intervene.

“At best, this proposal is a political exercise intended to allow the majority to reiterate their position on the Affordable Care Act,” said Rep.Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “At worst, it’s an attempt to pressure the courts, but either way, there’s no real justification for doing what the majority wishes to do today.”

The Democratic-led states defending the law are going through the process of appealing a federal judge’s decision that ObamaCare is unconstitutional because it can’t stand without the individual mandate, which Congress repealed.

Democrats were laser-focused on health care and protections for people with pre-existing conditions during the midterm elections — issues they credit with helping them win back the House.

The Trump administration has declined to defend ObamaCare in the lawsuit filed by Republican-led states, which argue that the law’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions should be overturned. It’s unusual for the DOJ to not defend standing federal law.

The House Judiciary Committee, under the new leadership of Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), plans to investigate why the Department of Justice decided not to defend ObamaCare in the lawsuit.

“The judiciary committee will be investigating how the administration made this blatantly political decision and hold those responsible accountable for their actions,” Nadler said.

Democrats are also putting together proposals to undo what they describe as the Trump administration’s efforts to “sabotage” the law and depress enrollment.

“We’re determined to get that case overruled, and also determined to make sure the Affordable Care Act is stabilized so that the sabotage the Trump administration is trying to inflict ends,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over ObamaCare.

One of the committee’s first hearings this year will focus on the impacts of the lawsuit. The hearing is expected to take place this month.

The Ways and Means Committee, under the leadership of Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass), will also hold hearings on the lawsuit and on protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

Those two committees, along with the Education and Labor Committee, are working on legislation that would shore up ObamaCare by increasing eligibility for subsidies, blocking non-ObamaCare plans expanded by the administration and increasing outreach for open enrollment.

GOP seeks health care reboot after 2018 losses

Alexander Bolton reviewed the future strategies of the GOP. He noted that the Republicans are looking for a new message and platform to replace their longtime call to repeal and replace ObamaCare after efforts failed in the last Congress and left them empty-handed in the 2018 midterm elections.

Republican strategists concede that Democrats dominated the health care debate heading into Election Day, helping them pick up 40 seats in the House.

President Trump hammered away on immigration in the fall campaign, which helped Senate Republican candidates win in conservative states but proved less effective in suburban swing areas, which will be crucial in the 2020 election.

While Trump is focused on raising the profile of illegal immigration during a standoff over the border wall, other Republicans are quietly looking for a better strategy on health care, which is usually a top polling issue.

“Health care is such a significant part of our economy and the challenges are growing so great with the retirement of the baby boomers and the disruption brought about by ObamaCare that you can’t just cede a critically important issue to the other side,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

“Republicans need a positive vision about what should happen to lower costs, expand access and protect pre-existing conditions,” he added. “You’ve got to be able to answer the question, ‘So what do you think we should do about health care?’ ”

A recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll showed that 49 percent of respondents nationwide said the government should tackle health care as a top priority, second only to economic concerns.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump vowed to lower prescription drug costs, but the Republican-controlled Congress over the past couple of years focused on other matters. House Democrats who are now in the majority say they are willing to work with the White House on drug pricing, but it’s unclear if Republicans will take on the powerful pharmaceutical industry, long considered a GOP ally.

Republican candidates made the repeal of ObamaCare their main message in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 elections. But after repeal legislation collapsed with the late Sen.John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) famous “no” vote, the party’s message became muddled and Democrats went on the offensive.

Some Republicans continued to work on alternative legislation, such as a Medicaid block grant bill sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham(S.C.) and Bill Cassidy(La.), but it failed to gain much traction and the GOP health care message was left in limbo.

“We should be the guys and gals that are putting up things that make health care more affordable and more accessible,” said Jim McLaughlin, another Republican pollster. “No question Democrats had an advantage over us on health care, which they never should have had because they’re the ones that gave us the unpopular ObamaCare.”

“We need to take it to the next level,” he added. “You can’t get [ObamaCare] repealed. Let’s do things that will make health care more affordable and more accessible.”

Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell(R-Ky.), says finding an answer to that question will be his top priority in the weeks ahead.

Alexander will be meeting soon with Sen. Patty Murray(Wash.), the top Democrat on the Health Committee, as well as Sens. Chuck Grassley(R-Iowa) and Ron Wyden(D-Ore.), the leaders of the Senate Finance Committee, to explore solutions for lowering health care costs.

“I’ll be meeting with senators on reducing health care costs,” Alexander told The Hill in a recent interview. “At a time when one-half of our health care spending is unnecessary, according to the experts, we ought to be able to agree in a bipartisan way to reduce that.”

He recently announced his retirement from the Senate at the end of 2020, freeing him to devote his time to the complex and politically challenging issue of health care reform without overhanging reelection concerns.

Alexander sent a letter to the center-right leaning American Enterprise Institute and the center-left leaning Brookings Institution last month requesting recommendations by March 1 for lowering health care costs.

In Dec. 11 floor speech, Alexander signaled that Republicans want to move away from the acrimonious question of how to help people who don’t have employer-provided health insurance, a question that dominated the ObamaCare debate of the past decade, and focus instead on how to make treatment more affordable.

He noted that experts who testified before the Senate in the second half of last year estimated that 30 to 50 percent of all health care spending is unnecessary.

“The truth is we will never have lower cost health insurance until we have lower cost health care,” Alexander said on the floor. “Instead of continuing to argue over a small part of the insurance market, what we should be discussing is the high cost of health care that affects every American.”

A Senate Republican aide said GOP lawmakers are prepared to abandon the battle over the best way to regulate health insurance and focus instead on costs, which they now see as a more fundamental issue.

“There’s no point in trying to talk about health insurance anymore. Fundamentally, insurance won’t be affordable until we make health care affordable, so we have to do stuff to reduce health care costs,” said the aide.

“There are lots of things that can be done to reduce health care costs that aren’t insurance, that aren’t necessarily partisan,” the source added.

“We’re looking at ideas that aren’t necessarily partisan and don’t advance the cause of single-payer health care and don’t advance the cause of ‘only the market’ but are about addressing these drivers of health care cost and try to change the trajectory.”

Another key player is Cassidy, a physician, and member of the Health and Finance committees, who has co-sponsored at least seven bills to improve access and lower costs.

One measure Cassidy backed is co-sponsored by Sen. Tina Smith(D-Minn.) and would develop innovative ways to reduce unnecessary administrative costs.

Another measure Cassidy co-sponsored with Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) would allow individuals to pay for primary-care service from a health savings account and allow taxpayers enrolled in high-deductible health plans to take a tax deduction for payments to such savings accounts.

He is also working on a draft bill to prohibit the surprise medical billing of patients.

McConnell signaled after Democrats won control of the House in November that the GOP would abandon its partisan approach to health care reform and concentrate instead on bipartisan proposals to address mounting costs, which Democratic candidates capitalized on in the fall campaign.

Asked about whether the GOP would stick with its mission to repeal ObamaCare, McConnell said: “it’s pretty obvious the Democratic House is not going to be interested in that.”

Half the 600,000 residents aided by NYC Care are undocumented immigrants

As John Bacon of USA Today reported the comprehensive health care plan unveiled by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio this week drew applause from the Democrat’s supporters but also skepticism from those in the city who question the value and cost of the effort.

De Blasio said NYC Care will provide primary and specialty care from pediatric to geriatric to 600,000 uninsured New Yorkers. De Blasio estimated the annual cost at $100 million.

“This is the city paying for direct comprehensive care (not just ERs) for people who can’t afford it, or can’t get comprehensive Medicaid – including 300,000 undocumented New Yorkers,” Eric Phillips, spokesman for de Blasio, boasted on Twitter.

State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican representing parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island, criticized the proposal as an example of de Blasio using city coffers “like his personal ATM.”

“How about instead of giving free health care to 300,000 citizens of other countries, you lower property taxes for our senior citizens who are being forced to sell the homes they’ve lived in for decades because they can’t afford to pay your 44 percent increase in property taxes?” she said.

Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal and project director of the NYC Initiative at the Manhattan Institute think tank, noted that the city’s uninsured, including undocumented residents, can receive treatment on demand at city hospitals. The city pays more than $8 billion to treat 1.1 million people through its New York City Health + Hospitals program, he wrote.

Barron said the mayor is simply trying to shift patients away from the emergency room and into clinics. He said that dividing $100 million by 600,000 people comes to about $170 per person, the equivalent of one doctor visit.

“Clearly, the money that the mayor is assigning to this new initiative is intended for outreach, to convince people to go to the city’s already-burdened public clinics instead of waiting until they get sick enough to need an emergency room,” Barron wrote. “That’s fine, as far as it goes, but as a transformative, revolutionary program, it resembles telling people to call the Housing Authority if they need an apartment and then pretending that the housing crisis has been solved.”

The plan expands upon the city’s MetroPlus public option plan, as well as the state’s exchange through the federal Affordable Care Act. NYC Care patients will be issued cards allowing them access to medical services, de Blasio said.

The mayor’s plan has plenty of support. Mitchell Katz, president, and CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals said the plan will help his agency “give all New Yorkers the quality care they deserve.” State Sen. James Sanders Jr., who represents parts of Queens, said he looks forward “to seeing the Care NYC program grow and prosper as it helps to create a healthier New York.”

The drumbeat for improved access to health care is not limited to New York.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday asked Congress and the White House to empower states to develop “a single-payer health system to achieve universal coverage, contain costs and promote quality and affordability.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday proposed Cascade Care, a public option plan under his state’s health insurance exchange.

“We’re going to do all we can to protect health care for Washingtonians,” he said. “This public option will ensure consumers in every part of the state will have an option for high-quality, affordable coverage.”

Newsom pushes sweeping new California health-care plan to help illegal immigrants, prop up ObamaCare

Greg Re noted that shortly after he took office on Monday, California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom unearthed an unprecedented new health care agenda for his state, aimed at offering dramatically more benefits to illegal immigrants and protecting the embattled Affordable Care Act, which a federal judge recently struck down as unconstitutional.

The sweeping proposal appeared destined to push California — already one of the nation’s most liberal states — even further to the left, as progressive Democrats there won a veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature in November and control all statewide offices.

“People’s lives, freedom, security, the water we drink, the air we breathe — they all hang in the balance,” Newsom, 51, told supporters Monday in a tent outside the state Capitol building, as he discussed his plans to address issues from homelessness to criminal justice and the environment. “The country is watching us, the world is watching us. The future depends on us, and we will seize this moment.”

Newsom unveiled his new health-care plan hours after a protester interrupted his swearing-in ceremony to protest the murder of police Cpl. Ronil Singh shortly after Christmas Day. The suspect in Singh’s killing is an illegal immigrant with several prior arrests, and Republicans have charged that so-called “sanctuary state” policies, like the ones Newsom has championed, contributed to the murder by prohibiting state police from cooperating with federal immigration officials.

As one of his first orders of business, Newsom — who also on Monday requested that the Trump administration cooperates in the state’s efforts to convert to a single-payer system, even as he bashed the White House as corrupt and immoral — declared his intent to reinstate the ObamaCare individual mandate at the state level.

ANALYSIS: AS CALIFORNIA’S PROGRESSIVE POLICIES GET CRAZIER, WHAT’S THE SILVER LINING FOR THE GOP?

The mandate forces individuals to purchase health care coverage or pay a fee that the Supreme Court described in 2012 as a “tax,” rather than a “penalty” that would have run afoul of Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Last month, though, a federal judge in Texas ruled the individual mandate no longer was a constitutional exercise of Congress’ taxing power because Republicans had passed legislation eliminating the tax entirely — a move, the judge said, that rendered the entire health-care law unworkable.

As that ruling works its way to what analysts say will be an inevitable Supreme Court showdown, Newsom said he would reimpose it in order to subsidize state health care.

Medi-Cal, the state’s health insurance program, now will let illegal immigrants remain on the rolls until they are 26, according to Newsom’s new agenda. The previous age cutoff was 19, as The Sacramento Bee reported.

Additionally, Newsom announced he would sign an executive order dramatically expanding the state’s Department of Health Care Services authority to negotiate drug prices, in the hopes of lowering prescription drug costs.

In his inaugural remarks, Newsom hinted that he intended to abandon the relative fiscal restraint that marked the most recent tenure of his predecessor, Jerry Brown, from 2011 to 2019. Brown sometimes rebuked progressive efforts to spend big on various social programs.

“For eight years, California has built a foundation of rock,” Newsom said. “Our job now is not to rest on that foundation. It is to build our house upon it.”

Newsom added that California will not have “one house for the rich and one for the poor, or one for the native-born and one for the rest.”

“The country is watching us, the world is watching us.”

In a statement, the California Immigrant Policy Center backed Newsom’s agenda.

“Making sure healthcare is affordable and accessible for every Californian, including undocumented community members whom the federal government has unjustly shut out of care, is essential to reaching that vision for our future,” the organization said. “Today’s announcement is a historic step on the road toward health justice for all.”

The Sacramento Bee reported on several of Newsom’s recent hires, which seemingly signaled he’s serious about his push to bring universal health care to California. Chief of Staff Ann O’Leary worked in former President Bill Clinton’s administration on the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which offers affordable health care to children in families who exceed the financial threshold to qualify for Medicaid, but who are too poor to buy private insurance.

And, Cabinet Secretary Ana Matosantos, who worked in the administrations of Brown and former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has worked extensively to implement ObamaCare in California and also worked with the legislature to expand health-care coverage for low-income Californians.

 This next year should be an exciting time if Congress and the President can figure out how to get along and how to work together to improve health care. I believe that if neither the President nor the Dems come together to solve this wall, fence, or monies for better illegal immigrant deterrents nothing will happen in healthcare and probably nothing will happen on any level. What a bunch of spoiled children!!

Onward!!!

‘Medicare for all’ proposal headed for House hearings and More States Expanding Medicaid

 

 

49025855_1851541661642151_2035183627737759744_nFirst, as we all are frustrated because of the government shutdown, most Federal Health Agencies are OK despite the shutdown. The FDA is feeling the pinch; IHS, ATSDR are affected also. However, it does point out the problems that Congress will face in the next 2 or more years because of political differences and the lack of civility.

News Editor Joyce Frieden pointed out that the partial shutdown of the federal government doesn’t appear to have had an immediate effect on most healthcare-related agencies, but observers expressed concern over what the shutdown might mean for the long term.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), obviously the largest healthcare-related agency, has been largely unaffected by the shutdown, which began at 12:01 a.m. December 22, since most of the department is already funded through fiscal year 2019. However, the FDA is affected because its appropriations fall under a different authorization bill than the rest of HHS, so the agency had to furlough 7,053 staff members; the remaining 10,344 staff members were retained, either because they were performing functions critical to public health and safety, such as protecting ongoing experiments, or because their programs — such as tobacco regulation or new drug development — are funded by user fees.

The Alliance for a Stronger FDA — a group of patient organizations, trade associations, and pharmaceutical and biomedical companies that support adequate funding for the agency — expressed some concerns about the shutdown. “The FDA regulates products that make up 20% of consumer spending,” the organization said in a statement. “The agency’s responsibilities cannot be fully met when 7,000 employees are furloughed. Further, when the FDA is not fulfilling its critical public health responsibilities, there is no backstop to the agency’s work.”

However, “having said that, we have confidence that [FDA Commissioner] Dr. [Scott] Gottlieb and FDA leadership have ensured the emergency and critical public health and safety functions will be covered during a shutdown,” the statement continued. “Consumers should not panic — the FDA is still on the job. The immediate problem, quite a serious one, is the slowing of work on longer-term priorities and items that aren’t absolutely essential. Managing only those items that could turn into an immediate crisis is no way to run an agency that is critical to public health.”

The shutdown also hits the Indian Health Service (IHS), although direct patient care is not affected, HHS explained in its FY 2019 Contingency Staffing Plan, which was issued before the shutdown actually began. In the event of a shutdown, “IHS would continue to provide direct clinical health care services as well as referrals for contracted services that cannot be provided through IHS clinics,” the document noted. As for other IHS services, “many administrative activities are impacted due to the lapse in funding for the IHS,” a spokeswoman said in an email to MedPage Today.

Asked for examples of administrative services that IHS would continue to perform, the spokeswoman said, “The IHS can only perform administrative, oversight, and other functions that are necessary to meet the immediate needs of its patients, medical staff, and medical facilities.” Other media are reporting that some tribes will need to furlough staff and cut back services at their tribally run health clinics if the shutdown continues.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is largely unaffected by the shutdown except for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. There, Superfund Research Program staff are furloughed and oversight work dealing with about 50 grants is suspended, according to the staffing plan. An NIH spokeswoman confirmed in an email that no other NIH divisions have been affected.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta is another HHS division affected by the shutdown. Although the agency, which deals with environmental health threats and emergencies, will continue carrying out emergency-related functions, it cannot “support most environmental health professional training programs, continuous updating of health exposure assessments and recommendations, and technical assistance, analysis, and [provide] other support to state and local partners,” the staffing plan noted.

Susannah Luthi noted that a new single-payer health system concept will have a set of congressional hearings in the new Democratic House, and a new draft of a so-called “Medicare for all” proposal could be released as soon as next week.

Washington state progressive Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who over the summer launched the Medicare for All Caucus, said the hearings, with the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), will start in the House Rules and Budget committees before moving on to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“My goal is that these are opportunities to make the case not to the American people—the American people already had the case made to them—but to members of Congress, to really put forward what the legislation looks like,” Jayapal said Thursday after the new Congress elected Pelosi to the speakership.

Pelosi spokesperson Henry Connelly confirmed the speaker supports holding the hearings, although Jayapal acknowledged House Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) hasn’t yet committed his panel.

“But I have the speaker’s commitment that she will help me do this, and I’ve spoken to Frank Pallone and he is not opposed,” Jayapal said. “He just hasn’t said ‘yes’ yet.”

A Pallone spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Jayapal has not yet discussed possible hearings with the head of the other key health panel, Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) of the House Ways and Means Committee, but Neal said he is open to discussing the policy as one of the “many options that are out there” as part of holding his committee to regular order.

“That’s what committees are supposed to do, to flesh out alternatives,” Neal said.

This will be the first House hearing since the Affordable Care Act debate when the health panel of the House Committee on Education and Workforce looked at the option.

Details of the bill, a draft of which Jayapal said should be available in the next couple of weeks, are under wraps but she said it does vary from the legislation introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in 2017. Sanders catapulted talk of “Medicare for all” to the fore during his 2016 presidential bid and key Democratic senators has signed on to his policy since.

This is a different bill, Jayapal said. It’s largely the work of her staff and the staff of Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

This new momentum for single payer—an issue that sharply divides the party—comes as Democrats are focused on defending Obamacare and as insurers hold out hope for more funding to shore up the law and draw more people into the individual market.

House Democrats will formally intervene in the lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act following a Texas federal judge’s invalidation of the law—largely a political move around litigation that proved to help the Democrats in November’s elections.

In his first hearing announcement of the new Congress on Thursday, Pallone said his panel will focus on the lawsuit and its impacts. “This decision, if it is upheld, will endanger the lives of millions of Americans who could lose their health coverage,” the release from the Energy and Commerce Committee said. “It would also allow insurance companies to once again discriminate against more than 133 million Americans with pre-existing conditions.”

Judge Reed O’Connor, the Texas judge presiding over the case, ordered that the law is to remain in place as the lawsuit winds its way through the courts on appeal. It is headed next to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana.

The lawsuit was a political winner for Democrats in their campaign to reclaim the House in November, denouncing the GOP state attorneys general who filed the lawsuit and the Trump administration, which sided with the plaintiffs and refused to defend the ACA.

New Maine governor orders Medicaid expansion

Harris Meyer pointed out that the new Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order Thursday implementing Maine’s Medicaid expansion, which was overwhelmingly approved by the state’s voters in 2017.The previous governor, Republican Paul LePage, had strongly resisted the expansion, resulting in a court battle that dragged through most of last year and ended with a judge ordering him to move forward with the Medicaid changes. In previous years, he vetoed five bills passed by the legislature to expand the program. An estimated 70,000 low-income adults will be eligible for Medicaid coverage under the expansion. Maine will become the 33rd state to extend the program under the Affordable Care Act to people with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level. Voters in Idaho, Nebraska and Utah approved similar Medicaid expansions.

‘Medicare for all’ advocates emboldened by ObamaCare lawsuit

Nathaniel Weixel looked at the ObamaCare lawsuit and its relationship to Medicare for All. Progressive groups and lawmakers plan to use a Texas judge’s ruling against ObamaCare to jump-start their push for “Medicare for all” in the next Congress.

Supporters of a single-payer health system are arguing that now is the time to start moving in a new direction from the Affordable Care Act, in part because they feel the 2010 health law will never be safe from Republican attempts to destroy or sabotage it.

“In light of the Republican Party’s assault, a version of Medicare for all is necessary for the future,” said Topher Spiro, vice president for health policy at the Center for American Progress. “There are just too many points of vulnerability in the current system.”

The court decision in Texas that invalidates ObamaCare in its entirety came on the heels of sweeping Democratic victories in the midterm elections, a combination that has energized advocates of Medicare for all.

“We need to do everything we can to ensure every single American has access to affordable, quality healthcare. Medicare for all has the potential to do just that as it can reduce the complexity and cost with a single payer health care system,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), co-chair of the Medicare for All Caucus, said in a statement to The Hill.

Yet the effort could very well create divisions within the Democratic Party, as leaders who want to protect and strengthen the health law are reluctant to completely embrace government-run universal health insurance.

In the House and Senate, leading Democrats have said their priorities should be strengthening ObamaCare, rather than fighting over single-payer.

The lawsuit in Texas is almost certain to be overturned, they argue, and their time is better spent making sure people with pre-existing conditions remain free from discrimination by insurers.

“I think the ruling gets overturned within a couple months, so I’m not sure it matters in the long-term fight over the next generation of health-care reform,” said Sen. Chris Murphy(D-Conn.).

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Democrats should focus on making sure the insurance landscape doesn’t revert to what it was before ObamaCare.

“The first thing we have to do is make sure people don’t lose what they have today — the pre-existing conditions protections — and going back to the days when there was health care for the healthy and the wealthy,” he said.

U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor this month struck down the Affordable Care Act, throwing a new round of uncertainty into the fate of the law.

O’Connor ruled that the law’s individual mandate is unconstitutional, and that because the mandate cannot be separated from the rest of the law, the rest of the law is also invalid.

The court case, brought by 20 GOP-led states, was at the center of this year’s midterm campaign after Democrats attacked Republicans for supporting the lawsuit and seeking to overturn ObamaCare’s protections for pre-existing conditions.

The Trump administration, in a rare move, declined to defend the law in court, arguing instead that the pre-existing condition protections should be overturned.

“This is an outrageous, disastrous decision that threatens the health care and lives of millions of people. It must be overturned,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted shortly after the decision was published. “We must move forward to make health care a right for every American.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who will be vice chairman of the House Progressive Caucus next year, said the decision “absolutely” makes a case for Medicare for all.

“There’s no doubt that would be constitutional. Medicare is already constitutional and what we’re saying is extend it to everyone, so there can be no constitutional argument,” Khanna told The Hill.

Eagan Kemp, a health-care expert with the advocacy group Public Citizen, also noted how uncontroversial Medicare is compared to ObamaCare.

“This is one more example of how tenuous the law really is,” Kemp said. “You don’t see the same type of sabotage to Medicare. So to me it highlights that the Medicare program remains the third rail of politics, so if we’re going to build a new health-care system, it’s something that can be safe.”

Some lawmakers said they understand the need to be pragmatic since centrist Democrats might not take the same message from the Texas ruling as progressives.

Khanna said he doesn’t think protecting ObamaCare from Republican attacks has to be a separate endeavor from Medicare for all.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a member of the Medicare for All Caucus, told The Hill the fallout from the lawsuit “may help us move in an even more bold and aggressive agenda” on health care.

“We’ll see, though. I think this is the kind of issue that needs a broad consensus, may need some more outreach to the public,” Schakowsky said. “But I am interested in pursuing that agenda.”

Judge grants stay after ruling Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, Obamacare stays in effect

William Cummings of USA Today, reviewed the latest wrinkle in the Obamacare sage,  a federal judge on Sunday said his decision declaring the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional will not take effect while the appeals of his ruling move through the courts.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor wrote in a 30-page court filing that while he believes the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals “is unlikely to disagree” with his ruling, he agreed to stay his decision because “many everyday Americans would otherwise face great uncertainty” while the appeals play out.

On Dec. 14, O’Connor sided with a coalition of conservative states in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. He found that the individual mandate requiring people to buy health insurance was unconstitutional and said that meant the rest of the law was invalid as well.

In 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the law on the grounds that mandate fell within Congress’ taxation powers. When Congress removed the tax penalty for not buying insurance, that constitutional foundation was knocked out, O’Connor reasoned.

The Trump administration announced in June that it would not defend the individual mandate and other provisions of the law – such as protections for people with pre-existing conditions. But the Justice Department argued those provisions of the law could be thrown out without striking down the entire. O’Connor disagreed.

A group of Democratic states and congressional Democrats have said they plan to appeal O’Connor’s decision, which will next head to the Fifth Circuit. Although O’Connor did not grant an injunction blocking Obamacare in his initial ruling, the coalition led by California asked the judge on Dec. 17 to issue a stay and make it clear that the law will stay in place pending the appeal.

Many experts expect that appellate court to disagree with O’Connor’s ruling that the individual mandate can’t be separated from the rest of the law. If O’Connor’s ruling is upheld it is expected that the case would head to the Supreme Court.

Calif. Medical Assn. President Shares Medical Horror Story

Cheryl Clark, a contributing writer for MedPage Today wrote that the new president of the California Medical Association was expecting to spend New Year’s at a wedding in Las Vegas.

Instead, David Aizuss, MD, posted on Facebook about his “eye opening” first-hand view of “American medicine at its worst.” (The post is visible only to his Facebook friends and he declined MedPage Today‘s request to elaborate, citing ongoing “medical issues.”)

In his post, Aizuss said he was rushed by ambulance to a hospital Monday morning. “I spent hours in the emergency room where I received inadequate treatment of mind boggling pain, was never touched or examined by a physician, was mixed up with another patient and almost inadvertently transferred to another hospital, (and) was scheduled for emergency surgery based on a third patient’s lab work that was confused with mine,” he wrote.

He “finally signed out of the hospital against medical advice so I could obtain care from physicians that I know and trust.” He did not name the hospital.

Aizuss, an ophthalmologist who practices in Calabasas, northwest of Los Angeles, posted his complaint New Year’s Eve, apparently while at the LAX International airport in Los Angeles, where he said he was “just returning from Las Vegas where we were supposed to attend a wedding.”

Dozens of Facebook friends, several apparently also physicians, expressed their shock that the CMA president could receive such poor emergency room response, and some said they were happy he was speaking out about poor quality of hospital care.

“If you get terrible care like this (at least you know the difference) think about the care that Joe Sixpack gets; he doesn’t have the resources to get better care. This system is broken and we need to fix it,” posted one.

Wrote another, “As president of the CMA, your voice can be loud! Don’t be timid and do not be afraid of making enemies. Remember our patients know and respect us when we stand against poor medicine.”

Aizuss ended the post by saying, “Truly an eye-opening experience for the President of the California Medical Association. Happy New Year to all!”

He began his one-year term as CMA president in mid-October, saying he wanted to focus on physician burnout, practice sustainability, and payment. He is also past chairman of the CMA Board of Trustees.

He is a medical staff member at Tarzana Hospital and West Hills Hospital, in Los Angeles County, and serves as an assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine.

The CMA represents about 43,000 physicians in the state and is the second largest organized medicine group of any state, next to the Texas Medical Association, which represents about 52,000 physicians.

Why did I end with this article? It points out the fact that whatever the politics, we all have to continue to forge a better health care system. We need to get rid of the biases and the politics and strive, no demand a better healthcare delivery system. But we also have to realize that it will take some radicle changes, but it will be worth it in the end.

Let us continue the research and discussion  into what the healthcare system will look like in our future!

Healthcare in 2018. Let’s Review!

48391556_1839791506150500_8003351817255649280_nAs the end of the year approaches I thought that I would try to review some of the progress, if I can find any. Probably the biggest invisible improvements the world sees year to year are essential indicators of overall global public health, like rates of infant mortality, maternal mortality, childhood stunting, and teen pregnancy. These are important, because they represent access the average person alive has to health-care professionals, facilities, medicine, and more. All of these rates have been falling in the past few decades, in some cases dramatically, and every single one fell again in 2018.

The Health of the World In 2018, By The Numbers

Reporter Susan Brink noted that at year’s end, global health numbers offer reason for both hope and despair.

There is one strong positive note. An overriding public health finding is that people are living longer. “If that’s not a bottom line reason for optimism,” says Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute and the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “I don’t know what is.”

And then there are the million-plus cases of cholera in Yemen — deemed “a hideous milestone for the 21st century” by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Note: Because of the way global numbers are gathered, it’s too soon to report on health statistics from the year now drawing to a close. There are only a few yet available for 2018 — polio cases, for example, and Ebola deaths in Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But there has been a constant stream of numbers released from the years just past. Unless otherwise noted, the numbers below represent the worldwide population.

7 Of Our Most Popular Global Health and Development Stories Of 2018

Life Expectancy

Worldwide life expectancy in 2016 was 72 years, up from 66.5 years in 2000.

The gain of 5.5 years in worldwide life expectancy between 2000 and 2016 was the fastest gain since the 1960s and reversed the declines of the 1990s caused by AIDS in Africa and the fall of the Soviet Union.

But life expectancy has been ticking down in the U.S. for three years: it was 78.9 in 2014; 78.8 in 2015; 78.7 in 2016; and 78.6 in 2017. An increase in deaths from opioids and from suicide is a possible reason for the trend.

Child mortality rates for children under five years of age have fallen from 216 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1950; to 93 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990; to 40.5 deaths per 1,000 in 2016; and most recently to 39.1 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2017.

Health Care

3.6 million people died in 2016 because they had no access to health care.

5 million people, despite having access to health care, died in 2016 because the quality of care they received was poor.

In 2010, the year that the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, 49.9 million people in the United States, or 16.3 percent of the population under age 65, were without health insurance. In 2017, that number dropped to 28.9 million uninsured, or 10.7 percent of that segment of the population.

Yet also in 2017, the number of uninsured Americans increased by nearly half a million — the first increase since the Affordable Care Act was implemented.

HIV/AIDS

36.9 million people were living with HIV in 2017.

940,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2017.

35.4 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the epidemic was identified in 1981.

Ebola

11,325 people died of Ebola in the epidemic of 2014-2016 in West Africa.

As of Dec. 23, there have been 347 confirmed deaths so far in the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Air Quality

Pollution contributed to the deaths of some 9.9 million people in 2015 by causing diseases such cancer, heart disease and respiratory illnesses. That’s three times more deaths than the death toll from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

Murder

Roughly 385,000 people were murdered around the world in 2017.

Hunger

Some 821 million people around the world did not get enough to eat in 2017. resulting in malnutrition, and about 151 million children under five experienced stunted growth due to malnutrition.

An estimated 1.9 billion adults were overweight or obese in 2016. 41 million children under five are overweight or obese.

Cholera

There were 1,207,596 suspected cases of cholera in Yemen between April 2017 and April 2018.

The total estimated number of cholera cases worldwide ranges from 1.4 million to 4 million.

Vaccinations

Global vaccination rates against childhood diseases in 2017: 85 percent. That number has stayed steady for several years.

In 2017, about 100,000 children in the U.S. under two, or 1.3 percent of children that age, had not been vaccinated against serious diseases like measles and whooping cough.

The percentage of unvaccinated U.S. children has quadrupled from 0.3 percent in 2001 — shortly after the circulation of erroneous and disproven reports that vaccines cause autism.

Polio

The number of cases of polio worldwide in 2018 as of Dec. 25 was 29, compared to 22 in 2017. There were an estimated 350,000 cases around the world in 1988.

A mysterious polio-like disease, called acute flaccid myelitis that can paralyze patients, mostly children, appeared in the U.S. in 2014 with 120 confirmed cases from August to December. There were 22 confirmed cases in 2015, 149 confirmed cases in 2016, 35 confirmed cases is 2017 and 182 cases as of Dec. 21, 2018.

Guinea Worm

In 1986, guinea worm disease, an incapacitating disease that creates painful lesions, affected some 3.5 million people in Africa and Asia. As of Oct. 1, 2018, there were 25 reported cases of guinea worm disease worldwide: 1 in Angola; 14 in Chad, and 10 in South Sudan. One obstacle to wiping it out entirely: The worm can circulate in dogs.

Mystery Disease

Number of cases of Disease X: Zero. But that doesn’t mean the World Health Organization isn’t worried about it. They use the term Disease X to refer to a pathogen “pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease” but that has the potential one day to trigger a deadly pandemic.

Healthcare in Congress for 2019: All Hat, No Cattle, Experts Say

News Editor, Joyce Frieden, in her end of the year report, noted that the work Congress does on healthcare next year — and even the year after — will be mostly for show without a lot of concrete results, experts said.

“Probably nothing is going to happen legislatively in the next 2 years around healthcare” in terms of legislation that is actually passed by both the House and Senate and signed by the president, said Chris Sloan, a director at Avalere, a healthcare consulting firm, in a phone interview. “I think the Democrats in the House are going to use this as an opportunity to showcase their policy priorities for 2020 — things like ‘Medicare for All’ or a Medicare buy-in, taking votes on those and nailing down some specifics.”

“You will also see Democrats in the House use their oversight power over [the Department of] Health and Human Services (HHS) — to hold hearings, and give pushback around things the administration is doing around the Affordable Care Act (ACA) like the expansion of association health plans and cuts in funding for marketing and outreach in the [health insurance] exchanges,” he said.

Sloan also expects a lot of activity to occur around drug pricing. “I’m not expecting a major piece of legislation around drug pricing coming out, but it’s a huge issue with a lot of traction on the right and the left… so I’d expect in the House and the Senate [to see] hearings on drug pricing,” he said. “There’s always a chance that the Democratic House and the Republican president will come together on some piece of drug pricing — like transparency reporting — but I think it’s unlikely. So the next 2 years won’t be stagnant for healthcare; there will be a lot of policy development but no major bills.”

Julius Hobson, Jr., JD, senior policy advisor at Polsinelli, a consulting firm here, was a little more optimistic — but only a little. “The first thing on my list is prescription drug pricing,” he said in a phone interview. “If there is an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work out something together — provided neither side tries to overreach — that will be the one thing that has the possibility of being enacted.” Possibilities for drug pricing legislation include bills supporting reimportation, pegging U.S. drug prices to those in Europe, or giving HHS the authority to negotiate drug prices under Medicare and Medicaid.

“After that, I can’t find a health issue at the moment that I think the two sides could work on,” Hobson said. “But I think we’ll see more hearings on the oversight of the ACA, especially in the House, as administration officials get dragged in to see what they’re doing.” A House floor vote on a ‘Medicare for All’ bill is also a possibility — although it won’t pass — along with more oversight on veterans’ healthcare, he added.

One area that gets little attention is healthcare costs at the Department of Defense, which is the fastest-growing portion of the budget, said Hobson. “Having been in wars for 17 years, our healthcare costs are going through the roof.” Both President George W. Bush and President Obama pushed for having military members pay more of their costs under the Tricare health insurance program for military families, “but Congress refused to do that.”

Instead of action in Congress, most of the activity on the healthcare front will probably be within the Trump administration, he continued. “There will be more attempts to get things done — things [the administration] can do that Congress is unable to do.” Expect more efforts to come from the Office of Regulatory Reform at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, “which is consistent with an executive order from last year to come up with lists of regulations they could do away with to make the system less burdensome,” Hobson predicted.

Rodney Whitlock, vice president for health policy at ML Strategies, a consulting firm here, said in a phone interview that he expected some effort to pass a bill related to Texas vs. the United States of America — the court case questioning the constitutionality of the ACA — “and I think there’s something that looks a little more like ACA stabilization in the works… [The question is] what is the difference between the things where they’re trying to make a point versus what might be actually statutorily possible.”

Bob Laszewski, president of Health Policy and Strategy Associates, a consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., agreed with the idea that both parties will be focused on the drug pricing issue. “This seems to be about the only bipartisan interest and it will be interesting to see if there is any real agreement between them,” he said in an email. “Trump’s reference pricing proposal could be an interesting spot — will he find more Democratic allies than Republicans?”

Healthcare-related taxes imposed by the ACA but not yet implemented — including taxes on “Cadillac” health insurance plans and medical devices — are another possible area of cooperation, he said. “These have only been postponed and will have to be dealt with. There does seem to be broad agreement they should not be restarted.” And the pharmaceutical industry will be pushing back against a proposal to have it pay a larger share of drug costs in the Medicare Part D “donut hole,” he added.

Finally, “Democrats will have as their top priority rubbing salt into the Republican wounds on pre-existing conditions and the recent Texas court case,” Laszewski said. “I don’t see any opportunity for bipartisan fixes. With the Supreme Court more than a year away in terms of any final decision, this will be a very dark cloud in 2019.”

Bookended by Obamacare, 2018 was the year of policy change

As Susannah Luthi points out in 2018 tith Congress’ attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act dead by the end of 2017, any relief the law’s supporters felt were likely short-lived, as 2018 was the year the Trump administration began significantly remolding a law it fundamentally opposes.

Led by HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who took the reins of the $1.2 trillion department last January, the administration charted an overarching strategy to lower drug prices and reduce spending on hospital care. Moreover, by the end of 2018, the entire Affordable Care Act was back in legal peril when a federal judge in Texas struck it down and blocked immediate appeal.

Here’s a look at the major healthcare political issues of 2018, a year when the public political drama slowed down, but activity aiming to overhaul the ACA sped up.

Drug prices

During Azar’s confirmation hearing last January, he faced skeptical Senate Democrats who argued his tenure as a top executive with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. could blunt the Trump administration’s promised plan to lower drug prices.

The skepticism didn’t abate when White House in May unveiled its blueprint. But as the policy bones gained muscle, Azar’s ideas have won over some doubters and drawn manufacturer ire.

“The biggest news item of the year is that the drug blueprint wasn’t hot air and that they’re really trying to do big things,” said Michael Adelberg, a healthcare consultant with the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels. “Like many others, I assumed it was mostly PR, but I think the administration deserves credit for taking this seriously.”

Among the most controversial policies: a mandatory international pricing index model for Part B physician-administered drugs to align prices with those in other countries.

Critics on the left who want Medicare to negotiate directly said the policy falls short. Investment analysts hope the proposal is a tactic to bring manufacturers to the negotiating table.

Critics on the right say it’s price-fixing.

“Proposing to effectively accept the pricing decisions of other countries, while having the chutzpah to brand the policy ‘market-based’ is beyond disappointing,” said Benedic Ippolito of the American Enterprise Institute.

Last month the administration also proposed a significant change to Medicare Part D that sparked outcry: room for price negotiation for drugs in protected classes, where Medicare costs are exceptionally high. Patient groups are fighting back over concerns about access, but the administration says Part D has substantial patient protections in place, and the chronically ill will always be able to get critical medications.

Site-neutral payments

HHS has also took action on site-neutral payments for Medicare, and despite pending litigation, analysts believe the political winds on the issue may have changed.

Last month the administration finalized a rule that will slash payments for office visits at hospital outpatient clinics to match the rate for independent physicians’ offices. In response, two powerful industry groups sued.

But nonpartisan experts have wanted to see this policy move—not only to address rising Medicare expenses but also consolidation and the rising costs that stem from that trend. “In an era of growing consolidation of providers and increasing physician employment by hospitals, site-neutral payments are critical on all dimensions,” said Paul Ginsberg, director of the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Hospitals will keep fighting hard against them, Ginsberg added. But from his vantage point, analysts’ views on the issue have expanded to what’s at stake for the entire healthcare system in terms of this policy, and they are increasingly bipartisan.

“I’ve had the sense that (the administration) has long seen the issue of healthcare competition as something they can work with Democrats on,” he added. “And I think Democrats are much more comfortable using competition than they have been historically. So that’s a political dimension that makes it more promising that this policy could be sustained.”

340B program

The administration also trimmed reimbursement in the 340B drug discount program, which avoided congressional reforms despite Senate hearings and introduction of several House bills.

Hospitals had a key win late this year when HHS jumped ahead of its stated deadline and said it will start capping the prices manufacturers can charge providers for drugs. Regulation over ceiling prices for 340B has been delayed for years and early this fall hospitals sued over the latest postponement.

But litigation over the sweeping cuts to Part B drug reimbursements for 340B hospitals is still pending, and the administration has expanded those cuts to hospital systems’ off-campus facilities.

Affordable Care Act

A proposal to stabilize the individual market with a federal funding boost fell apart early in the year as a band of Republican-led states sued to overturn the law following the effective elimination of the individual mandate penalty for 2019.

Still, Obamacare may survive this attack. Sabrina Corlette, from Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms, said that in 2018 the law proved the doubters wrong. “It revealed remarkable resilience in the face of some pretty dramatic attempts to roll back or undo the law,” she said.

The individual market remains in a holding pattern. Shortly before open enrollment started this year, CMS Administrator Seema Verma touted the fact that premiums dropped for the first time since the law was implemented.

Premiums for benchmark silver plans on the federal individual market exchanges will drop in 2019, marking the first decrease since the Affordable Care Act was implemented, CMS Administrator Seema Verma announced on Thursday.

Verma attributed the 1.5% overall drop to looser regulations, the Trump administration’s market stabilization rule and the seven 1332 State Innovation Waiver approvals that launched reinsurance programs.

Tennessee will see the sharpest premium decline, as average monthly premiums for silver plans fell more than 26%, from more than $600 last year to $449. North Dakota had the greatest increase, with average premiums rising more than 20% from $312 per month to $375. Sixteen of the 39 states using the federal exchange will see declines, two states will have no change and the majority of the remaining states will face marginal, single-digit increases.

Verma dismissed the idea that President Donald Trump’s cut-off last year of the cost-sharing reduction payments hurt the market, although the action was followed by a nearly 40% jump in average premiums as insurers added the cost to benchmark silver plans in a move known as “silver loading.”

Analysts have credited the slim premium increases insurers have announced so far this year as a correction to excessive 2018 rate hikes.

But Verma defended the expansion of short-term, limited duration plans as an affordable option for people who can’t afford Obamacare plans. Potentially, they could appeal to the 20 million Americans who don’t have coverage, she added.

“The prediction was that the offering of short-term plans would have negative impact on the market and increase premiums, but we’re not seeing the impact on the market,” Verma said.

The administrator also announced the administration will be writing new guidance for 1332 waivers to allow states to broaden exchange plan design “to create more affordable options,” but said the new reinsurance programs are a key part of the overall drop in premiums.

Federal exchange states that launch reinsurance programs in 2019 will see decreases in premiums as expected, but prices will not fall to pre-2018 levels. Wisconsin, which had its 1332 waiver approved earlier this year, will see a drop in averages from $464 in 2018 to $440 for 2019. In 2017, average silver plan premiums in the state were just over $300. Maine’s average premiums will decline from $482 in 2018 to $446 in 2019, still more than $100 per month higher than the $316 in 2017.

New Jersey will see the sharpest decrease with its reinsurance waiver. In 2017, average silver premiums were $286 per month, rising to $339 per month this year. With reinsurance, they will settle in at $286 per month in 2019.

Last year, Alaska — which has the highest insurance premiums in the country — saw a drastic decline after implementation of its waiver. Average monthly premiums fell from $759 in 2017 to $595 in 2018. Next year they will drop again to $576.

The CMS hasn’t made enrollment projections for 2019 based on these new numbers, but Verma added that more people may opt for the federal exchanges “when we’re not seeing double-digit rate increases.”

Verma said the administration still wants changes to Obamacare’s exchange rules.

“For millions of people, the law needs to change,” she told reporters. ” While some have publicly been accusing us of sabotage, we have been doing everything we can to mitigate problems of Obamacare.”

The high cost of stabilization continues to trouble many. “ACA markets have stabilized at an unsatisfactory point,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a conservative economist and former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

He said the deep cuts to marketing and other changes “all do matter at the margins” and that the slower enrollments noted this year have borne this out. “You have to decide what the administration’s objective is politically,” he added. “They don’t want to expand enrollment: they want it stabilizing,” but it’s coming at a high cost.

Adelberg said while plans aren’t “hemorrhaging money and going out of business” as they were in the early years, the exchange market still very much depends on subsidies and looks more like a tier of Medicaid.

“The exchange market is starting to look like Medicaid expansion-expansion,” he said.

The CMS has tweaked guidance for Section 1332 state innovation waivers, sparking criticism that the administration opened the door to trimming protections.

Potential actions from the administration take on extra weigh in light of the late-breaking court decision over Obamacare.

But even strong critics of the law doubt the administration would use the murky legal situation to cross statutory lines with waiver approvals in the meantime.

“No one wants to do anything in the interim, and both sides are waiting for the final, final decision,” said conservative policy analyst Chris Jacobs.

Medicaid public option

States this year started a serious push for their own form of the public option through Medicaid and some in Washington have started paying attention.

Minnesota, Nevada and New Mexico are some of the states that have forged ahead with studies on this policy. And with congressional activity on healthcare likely on hold until after the 2020 presidential election, advocates see this year’s progress on the state level with this policy as significant—even if the industry is on the alert about potential revenue hits.
Adelberg said he is tracking the discussion closely and is particularly interested in the option if it’s offered outside the Obamacare exchanges

I have previously stated and I will restate my opinion, that unless civility, maturity, and a dedication to do what is best for the voters, nothing will get done in healthcare in the next 2 years with the Democrats using the failure as one of many talking points to get elected. These will be depressing 2 or more years of frustration. But I will continue my discussion regarding the options for our healthcare system and hopefully offer what I believe is the best form of healthcare delivery for all in our wonderful country.

Happy New Year to All!!

 

 

What You Need To Know About The Affordable Care Act After Texas Ruling

 

48420647_1837094313086886_3282827685415354368_nDanella Cheslow wrote that the Affordable Care Act faces a new legal challenge after a federal judge in Texas ruled the law unconstitutional on Friday. The decision risks throwing the nation’s health care system into turmoil should it be upheld on appeal. But little will be different in the meantime.

“Nothing changes for now,” says Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent of Kaiser Health News.

“If you need to sign up for health insurance you should,” Rovner tells NPR’s Michel Martin. “If you’re in one of the several states where it’s extended where you can sign up through January, you have time to do that too.”

Below are some questions and answers about the ACA.

  1. What was the Texas ruling?

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that the Affordable Care Act was not constitutional. O’Connor made his decision after 18 Republican state attorneys general and two GOP governors brought their case, Rovner reports. They claimed that the Supreme Court upheld the ACA in 2012 because it included an individual mandate — or a tax penalty for Americans who did not buy health insurance. After Congress repealed the individual mandate in 2017, O’Connor said the rest of the law fell apart.

  1. Who might this ruling affect?

The Affordable Care Act runs for more than 1,000 pages and includes many provisions — the exchanges for individuals that are frequently political footballs — and a long list of other measures and protections designed to expand insurance coverage.

NPR’s Alison Kodjak reports that the ACA expanded Medicaid, which has allowed more than 10 million people to get coverage in states that chose to expand the program. The law also protects people with pre-existing conditions and allows people up to age 26 to be covered under their parents’ insurance; requires calorie counts at restaurants and gives protections to lactating mothers. The ACA also secured more money for Native American health care and made significant changes to allow for generic drugs and to provide funding for Medicare.

Rovner says people should act as if the ACA is still in place, but the ruling opens a possibility for “an enormous disruption.”

“It would really plunge the nation’s health care system into chaos,” Rovner says. “The federal government wouldn’t be able to pay for Medicare because all the Medicare payments have been structured because of the Affordable Care Act.”

  1. What next?

Judge O’Connor did not rule the law has to be enjoined immediately. Saturday was the last day of open enrollment for the ACA in most states. NPR’s Kodjak reports people can still enroll in health plans in states with extended deadlines. She says even the newest ACA insurance policies will go into effect until more legal action plays out in courts. The federal site for insurance, Healthcare.gov, is running a banner that reads, “Court’s decision does not affect 2019 enrollment coverage.”

NPR’s Kodjak says the state of California has already said it will appeal the ruling. Other states will likely join California in the fight to preserve the law, Kodjak reports. Rovner says the case will probably reach the Supreme Court, though lower courts may reject O’Conner’s ruling first.

  1. What are the political stakes in this decision?

The political stakes are great. Voters saw health care as an important issue in November’s midterm elections. Kodjak notes Congress voted multiple times in 2017 to repeal the ACA but did not succeed.

“Lots of Republicans were running ads during the midterms saying they were the ones who were going to protect people’s health care, and specifically protect people with pre-existing conditions,” Kodjak says.

The challenge to the ACA brought by Republican attorneys general is aimed at eliminating protections for pre-existing conditions, Kodjak says.

“So now you have Republicans trying to play both sides, which is going to be difficult,” she says.

Attorneys general seek clarification from judge on ACA ruling

Pearl of the New York Times looked at the ACA ruling and the reports states supporting the ACA asked Judge Reed O’Connor of the Federal District Court in Fort Worth, “to protect current health care coverage for millions of Americans while courts sort out the implications of his ruling that the Affordable Care Act was invalid in its entirety.” The states warned that their citizens would face “devastating harm from the invalidation” of the ACA. HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley “said Monday that because Judge O’Connor had not issued a final judgment or an injunction, the department ‘will continue administering and enforcing all aspects of the A.C.A. as it had before the court issued its decision.’”

Also, De Vogue, Luhby of CHH, reports that  California Attorney General Xavier Becerra also asked the court to take the legal steps necessary to allow the states to appeal the decision “expeditiously.” HHS said in a statement, “This decision does not require that HHS make any changes to any of the ACA programs it administers or its enforcement of any portion of the ACA at this time,” but added, “as always, the Trump administration stands ready to work with Congress on policy solutions that will deliver more insurance choices, better healthcare, and lower costs while continuing to protect individuals with pre-existing conditions.”

Why some conservatives don’t like the ruling against ObamaCare

Howard Kurtz of Fox News noted  that Conservatives who have long despised ObamaCare might be expected to rejoice now that a federal judge in Texas has ruled the law unconstitutional.

But few of them are popping champagne corks, at least in the media.

“No one opposes ObamaCare more than we do,” says The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, but the ruling “is likely to be overturned on appeal and may boomerang politically on Republicans.”

ObamaCare was a “misbegotten law,” says National Review. “Yet we cannot applaud Judge Reed O’Connor’s decision. Indeed, we deplore it. It will not lead to the replacement of Obamacare, as much as we desire that outcome. It will instead give Republicans another opportunity to dodge their responsibility to advance legislation toward that end … it is very likely to be overturned on appeal because it deserves to be.”

ObamaCare coverage remains intact amid federal court ruling

.I have stated before that ObamaCare was flawed  legislation, to say the least, that drove up premiums for some people and, despite the former president’s promises, caused others to lose their doctors and their plans.

But there’s a reason that a Republican Congress, with President Trump’s backing, failed in three attempts to repeal and replace the law. Much of the GOP didn’t want to take the political heat for causing millions of Americans to lose their health insurance.

The law has become more popular now that its namesake is out of office, and especially the provision that bars insurance companies from rejecting people with preexisting conditions. Many Republicans spent the campaign vowing to preserve that part of the law (even some who had voted to abolish ObamaCare or moved to weaken it at the state level).

Not everyone on the right agrees. The Federalist says the judge’s ruling is overdue because “the blunt reality that Obamacare was always at heart a bad-faith proposition. The basic operation of the law, never stated or acknowledged by its authors, was to force younger, healthier people to subsidize health insurance for older, sicker people. It was a redistribution scheme, plain and simple.”

By the way, it’s no coincidence that the decision came from O’Connor, a controversial and conservative Bush appointee who frequently ruled against the Obama administration. Nor is it happenstance that the states that filed the suit did so in Texas, where the courts are more conservative — the flip side of Trump complaining about lawsuits in the liberal 9th District in San Francisco.

When the John Roberts court upheld the law in 2012, it said Congress couldn’t force people to buy insurance through the individual mandate, but that was okay because it could tax people for not buying coverage.

What’s next for ObamaCare after Texas judge’s ruling?

Last year, as part of tax reform, Congress set the penalty tax at zero, effectively eliminating the mandate. O’Connor ruled that the whole law must be tossed out because it’s based on a tax-slash-mandate that no longer exists.

It’s doubtful that the Supreme Court will buy this argument, but the political impact, in the short term, is clear. Democrats see a boost in their effort to pass some version of Medicare for All, although the ruling should freeze things and the GOP Senate won’t go along in any event. Republicans have to navigate a path between rhetorical opposition to ObamaCare and not taking steps that would cause a health care crisis and blow up the preexisting conditions ban.

Trump, while tweeting that the law is an “UNCONSTITUTIONAL DISASTER,” was quick to add: “Now Congress must pass a STRONG law that provides GREAT healthcare and protects pre-existing conditions. Mitch and Nancy, get it done!”

But getting it done would have been easier when Nancy was minority leader. Ultimately, a divided Congress, not the courts, must figure out a way out of this mess.

Obamacare unconstitutional? That’s a cruel mistake, not ‘great news for America’

Opinion’s Andy Slavitt noted that President Donald Trump apparently hasn’t had enough of the health care fueled butt-kicking handed to him and his party in the midterm elections. He heralded as “Great news for America!” a ruling from a Texas judge Friday that found the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. Once again, Trump and Republicans have put taking away health care at the top of the agenda, this time for the 2020 presidential election.

Let’s look at what this ruling would do if it were allowed to stand. What part would be great for America, as Trump claims?

Seventeen million people would lose their coverage in a single year. Not great.

Americans with pre-existing conditions — as many as 130 million — would lose the law’s protections against unaffordable insurance policies and denials of coverage. This was not a small issue in the midterms. Also not great.

The expansion of Medicaid to more low-income families would end  — causing real damage to millions of people, states and community hospitals that have made so much progress since it passed. Again, not great.

Insurance companies would no longer have to offer coverage of kids up to age 26 on their parents’ plan. Annual and lifetime limits would be back. Women and people over 50 would see higher prices and discrimination would be legal again. Is that great?

The closing of the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap (the “donut hole”), which has saved seniors thousands of dollars on their medications, would be gone. Is it great, yet?

Which part, Mr. Trump, is the great part, other than the opportunity for you to send out a nasty tweet and put people in agony?

Republicans in Congress, starting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have defended this lawsuit even as Republican candidates all over the country “pledged” their support for pre-existing condition protections during the midterms. Now that those campaign ads are over, we get to see them wink at the camera.

Make no mistake, with few exceptions, this is a ruling supported by the near entirety of the Republican Party — from Trump to congressional leaders to governors and state attorneys general. It’s their dream come true.

Even conservatives say ACA ruling won’t stand and I am in agreement.

The part of “repeal and replace” Republicans never liked was the “replace” part. The Republican health care position is to let insurance companies charge as much as they like and cover as little as they like.

They voted to kill or sabotage the ACA over 70 times with no replacement, and their preferred approach after Trump was elected was “repeal and delay.” Now a judge in Texas would deliver all that Republicans couldn’t deliver in Congress, and more.

Politically, Republicans may try to use the ruling to try to get Democrats to compromise their principles and bait them into supporting some weak cover story of a health care bill. Democrats, and likely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, won’t bite. To most Americans, the ACA doesn’t go far enough and Democrats know that.

Conservative legal scholar Jonathan Adler, no ACA supporter, calls the Texas judge’s ruling “weak,” “insane” and so full of legal holes that appellate court judges and even the more conservative Supreme Court wouldn’t support it.

Fortunately, one judge in Texas doesn’t get to undo the Affordable Care Act. The case will make its way through the courts and has the potential to end up in Chief Justice John Roberts’ Supreme Court in 2020 during the throes of an election year.

By pushing this through the courts, Trump has now ensured that this deeply unpopular GOP position to strip away pre-existing condition coverage will stay in the news. These reminders will be loud enough to break through all the other noise and turn the 2020 election into yet another referendum on health care, even on top of the growing list of serious crimes in which the president is implicated.

GOP is inflicting nonstop terror on Americans

Even if this case goes nowhere, as most observers expect, it causes damage. Trump and the Republicans are inflicting a kind of nonstop terror on the American public. Year after year, millions of people wonder whether eventually, by hook or by crook, Republicans will succeed in overturning the ACA and the coverage and protections they rely on.

Sleepless nights are supposed to be reserved for crying babies, not wondering if your own government will pull the rug out from under you. There are many pundits and experts reacting to this news, but it’s the real people in communities across the country who now face more years of uncertainty.

Alison Chandra, whose son Ethan was born with a rare genetic disorder, spoke for many in an interview on CNN. She sees this case as “the continuation of a nightmare.” She lamented that the president, in his tweet, “celebrated the fact that so many of the most vulnerable potentially will not be able to access life-saving care.”

It’s what Allison said next, as she held 4-year old Ethan on her lap, calmly looked at the camera and considered Trump celebrating her uncertainty, which should haunt Trump and his party: “And I will never forget that.” Trump is making sure of it.

But the Dems are also inflicting nonstop terror as they now blame everything wrong with the present healthcare system, as well as everything else on the GOP and orf course, President Trump.

5 Ways Nixing The Affordable Care Act Could Upend U.S. Health System

Julie Rovner noted that if last Friday’s district court ruling that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional were to be upheld, far more than the law’s most high-profile provisions would be at stake.

In fact, canceling the law in full — as Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth, Texas, ordered in his 55-page decision — could thrust the entire health care system into chaos.

“To erase a law that is so interwoven into the health care system blows up every part of it,” says Sara Rosenbaum, a health law professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health. “In law they have names for these — they are called super statutes,” she says. “And [the ACA] is a superstatute. It has changed everything about how we get health care.” (That concept was developed by Abbe Gluck, a professor at Yale Law School.)

O’Connor’s decision is a long way from implementation. He still must rule on several other aspects of the suit brought by 18 Republican attorneys general and two GOP governors. And a group of state Democratic attorneys general has promised to appeal O’Connor’s decision, which would send it to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and, possibly, the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court has rejected two previous efforts, in 2012 and 2015, to find the law unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, here are five ways that eliminating the ACA could upend health care for many, if not most, Americans:

Millions could lose coverage directly

More than 20 million Americans who previously were uninsured gained coverage from 2010 to 2017. Some of that was due to an improving economy, but many also gained the ability to buy their own coverage, thanks to the law’s federal subsidies to defray the cost of insurance. Other provisions of the Affordable Care Act played a significant role, including its ban on restrictions for people with pre-existing medical conditions, expansion of the Medicaid program to more low-income adults and allowing adult children to stay on their parents’ health plans until reaching age 26.

If the law were reversed, federal funding for Medicaid and individual insurance subsidies would stop, and insurers could once again refuse coverage to or charge more for people who have health problems.

Fundamental changes to the health care system could be stymied

The impact of eliminating the ACA could be felt well beyond those people who are the direct beneficiaries of the law.

Gail Wilensky, who ran the Medicare and Medicaid programs under President George H.W. Bush, says such a change “would be very disruptive because so much [of the ACA] has affected the way health care is organized and delivered, and the way insurance is provided.”

For example, says Rosenbaum, the increase in health coverage meant that “suddenly it became possible for health care systems to care for, by and large, an insured population.”

Previously many hospitals, doctors and other health providers spent considerable time and effort figuring out how to treat — without going broke —people who lack insurance.

After the ACA kicked in, these providers began to worry less about whether they would get paid. And the federal government started pushing them to create new initiatives aimed at improving the quality of care.

Those include, for example, measures that base some federal payments on patients’ health outcomes rather than on each individual procedure performed. Under the ACA, the government also encouraged strategies that improve health across the U.S. — like improving the availability of healthful food, bicycle paths and preventive care.

If millions of people lost insurance, Rosenbaum says, those health providers “would have to go back to wondering how they will be able to pay their bills.”

Medicare and Medicaid would be dramatically altered

The popular Medicare program, which covers an estimated 60 million seniors and people with disabilities, was a major focus of the ACA.

Elimination of the federal health law would take away some popular benefits the ACA conferred — everything from free preventive care to the closing of the “doughnut hole” in Medicare’s prescription drug coverage. The doughnut hole refers to a coverage gap that had previously exposed large numbers of beneficiaries to thousands of dollars in drug costs.

The law also changed the way Medicare paid for hospital, home health and outpatient care. Many current payment policies are based on authority provided by the ACA, and if it went away, Medicare would have to rewrite those payment regulations. Millions of beneficiaries belong to accountable care organizations that were created under the health law, and it is unclear how their care would be affected.

The biggest change in the Medicaid program would be the elimination of the expansion of coverage. Loss of the ACA would also roll back a 23-percentage-point boost in Medicaid prescription drug rebates, which has saved states billions of dollars, according to Cindy Mann. She ran Medicaid under President Barack Obama and is now a partner at the health consulting firm Manatt Health.

The ACA required states to calculate Medicaid eligibility differently — changing what counts as income — so all the work states did to alter their information systems would have to be recalculated, she says.

Wide array of health programs at risk

Shorthand descriptions of the health law often stop at its provisions providing consumer protections and expanding Medicaid. But the ACA included sweeping changes to other parts of the health system that rarely get mentioned.

For example, it created the first pathway for Food and Drug Administration approval of generic copies of expensive biologic drugs, by incorporating the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act of 2009. Biologic drugs are more difficult to reproduce than other types of medications.

Also hitching a ride on the ACA was a long-delayed bill providing permanent spending authority for programs provided by the Indian Health Service, which serves Native Americans.

And the law included a series of grant programs to help train more health professionals who would be needed to treat the millions of newly insured Americans.

All those programs would be thrust into doubt by invalidating the law.

Loss of the ACA also would impact a popular program that predates Obamacare: the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

The ACA’s protections for pre-existing conditions — banning insurers from charging people with health problems higher premiums or refusing to sell to them altogether — built on similar protections for people with employer insurance. Congress included those protections in HIPAA, which was enacted in 1996. And far more people are touched by HIPAA than by the ACA, because far more people get health insurance through their employer than through the individual market.

However, when Congress wrote the ACA, it incorporated HIPAA safeguards into the pre-existing-condition provision. That means if the ACA is struck down, the HIPAA protections might disappear as well.

Even the Trump administration’s health agenda could be compromised

President Trump has railed against the health law, but his Department of Health and Human Services has a priority list that relies in some significant ways on the continued existence of the ACA.

For example, efforts to address the opioid epidemic — one of the administration’s top health challenges — could be seriously set back if the Medicaid expansion were to end. Medicaid is the largest single payer for mental health and substance abuse treatments.

Much of the president’s effort to limit drug prices flows through the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation, which was created by the ACA and would lose its legal authority if the law became invalid.

Similarly, the administration is using this center to pursue “bundling” payments for certain surgical procedures — an effort to try to get more value for dollars spent.

I’m not sure that any of this all matters because for the next 2 years the Democrats are going to impeach or indict President Trump and if nothing else make him and the GOP look like a bunch of incompetent boobs not worth an additional term on office. So, get ready for a contentious 2 years or more unless someone or groups of the Congress put on their grownup pants and realize that they were voted in by the voters, their employers who expect improvement in our economy, our environment, our healthcare and our country.

Oh, and more importantly Merry Christmas and Hopes and Wishes for a great successful New Year. My hope is that during this busy Holiday season, I hope that you all will find time to rekindle old acquaintances, renew and strengthen bonds with family and friends and reflect on the past year as we all wish and hope for an even better year to come despite the incivility and  anger pervasive in our country.

Ho, Ho, Ho!!

Texas Judge Rules Affordable Care Act Unconstitutional, But Supporters Vow To Appeal and On to the New Year!

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Now I am not a big fan of the Affordable Care Act, that is the way it was originally written but it was a step in the right direction if only the “idiots” in our Congress had considered the idea of financial sustainability and forcing our young struggling healthy people to sign on and pay for everyone else. So, then the Republicans decided to remove the Individual Mandate, a good first step to modifying and improving choice and the future of the ACA.

So, now another fly in the ointment as Julie Rovner points out as now a federal district court judge in Texas has threatened the future of the Affordable Care Act.

Judge Reed C. O’Connor struck down the law, siding with a group of 18 Republican state attorneys general and two GOP governors who brought the case. O’Connor said the tax bill passed by Congress in December 2017 effectively rendered the entire health law unconstitutional.

So, What’s At Stake In The Latest Affordable Care Act Court Battle

That tax measure eliminated the penalty for not having insurance. An earlier Supreme Court decision upheld the ACA based on the view that the penalty was a tax and thus the law was valid because it relied on appropriate power allowed Congress under the Constitution. O’Connor’s decision said that without that penalty, the law no longer met that Constitutional test.

“In some ways, the question before the Court involves the intent of both the 2010 and 2017 Congresses,” O’Connor wrote in his 55-page decision. “The former enacted the ACA. The latter sawed off the last leg it stood on.”

The decision came just hours before the end of open enrollment for ACA plans in most states that use the federal HealthCare.gov insurance exchange. It is not expected that the ruling will affect the coverage for those people. The final decision isn’t likely to be made until the case reaches the Supreme Court again.

The 16 Democratic state attorneys general who intervened in the case to defend the health law immediately vowed to appeal.

“The ACA has already survived more than 70 unsuccessful repeal attempts and withstood scrutiny in the Supreme Court,” said a statement from Xavier Becerra of California. “Today’s misguided ruling will not deter us: our coalition will continue to fight in court for the health and wellbeing of all Americans.”

It is all but certain the case will become the third time the Supreme Court decides a constitutional question related to the ACA. In addition to upholding the law in 2012, the court rejected another challenge to the law in 2015.

It is hard to overstate what would happen to the nation’s health care system if the decision is ultimately upheld. The Affordable Care Act touched almost every aspect of health care, including Medicare and Medicaid, generic biologic drugs, the Indian Health Service, and public health changes like calorie counts on menus.

The case, Texas v United States, was filed in February. The plaintiffs argued that because the Supreme Court upheld the ACA in 2012 as a constitutional use of its taxing power, the elimination of the tax makes the rest of the law unconstitutional.

In June, the Justice Department announced it would not fully defend the law in court. While the Trump administration said it did not agree with the plaintiffs that the tax law meant the entire ACA was unconstitutional, it said that the provisions of the law guaranteeing that people with preexisting health conditions could purchase coverage at the same price as everyone else were so inextricably linked to the tax penalty that they should be struck.

The administration urged the court to declare those provisions invalid beginning Jan. 1, 2019. That is the day the tax penalty for not having insurance disappears.

The protections for people with preexisting conditions were one of the top health issues in the midterm elections earlier in November. While the issue mostly played to the advantage of Democrats, one of the Republican plaintiffs, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, defeated Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill. Another plaintiff, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, lost to Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin.

President Donald Trump was quick to take a victory lap, and pressed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the presumed incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to fix the problem. The president tweeted Friday night: “As I predicted all along, Obamacare has been struck down as an UNCONSTITUTIONAL disaster! Now Congress must pass a STRONG law that provides GREAT healthcare and protects pre-existing conditions. Mitch and Nancy, get it done!”

But congressional leaders were quick to point out that the suit is far from over. Of course it is as the Democratic dominated House takes on the subject of healthcare.

“The ruling seems to be based on faulty legal reasoning and hopefully it will be overturned,” said a statement from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Many legal experts agreed with that assessment. “This is insanity in print, and it will not stand up on appeal,” tweeted University of Michigan Law School Professor Nicholas Bagley, an expert in health law.

Even some conservatives were left scratching their heads. “Congress acted last year to repeal the mandate, but leave everything else in place and the courts should have deferred to that,” tweeted former congressional GOP aide Chris Jacobs.

Obama pushes for ObamaCare enrollments after Texas judge deems law unconstitutional

Barack Obama took to social media Saturday to urge people to sign up for health care on the final day of Affordable Care Act enrollment. His appeal came a day after a Texas judge struck down the former president’s signature legislation as unconstitutional.

Aside from reminding people that Saturday would be the final day to enroll for affordable health care for 2019, Obama appeared to play down the significance of the ruling.

“You might have heard about a federal court decision on a Republican lawsuit trying to strike down the Affordable Care Act in its entirety,” he said in Facebook post. “As this decision makes its way through the courts, which will take months, if not years, the law remains in place and will likely stay that way.”

The ruling, he said, “changes nothing for now.”

Saturday was the last day of open enrollment. U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor dealt a blow to Obama’s 2012 health care initiative on Friday after 20 states, including Texas, argued that they had been hurt by a jump in the numbers of people utilizing state-backed insurance.

“The remainder of the ACA is non-severable from the individual mandate, meaning that the Act must be invalidated in whole,” O’Connor, whose District Court is based in Texas, wrote in a 55-page opinion, according to Bloomberg.

But Past President Obama still encourages people to sign up for the ACA.

“OBAMACARE RULED UNCONSTITUTIONAL BY TEXAS JUDGE.”

President Trump immediately tweeted following the ruling, urging Congress to pass a “strong” health care bill that would cover pre-existing conditions — a component that Democrats have long criticized Republicans for ignoring.

“A lot of good people are fighting to ensure that nothing about your care will change. The ACA protects your pre-existing conditions, no matter how you get your insurance,” Obama said Saturday.

“But all of this should also be a reminder that Republicans will never stop trying to undo all that. If they can’t get it done in Congress, they’ll keep trying in the courts, even when it puts people’s pre-existing conditions coverage at risk.”

California and other several other stated with opposing views on ObamaCare are likely to challenge the new ruling through an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Health Costs Bear Down On Families Who Don’t Qualify For ACA Subsidies

Steve Findlay pointed out that like millions of Americans in this final week of open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act marketplaces, Diane McCabe is shopping for health insurance.

“At my age, I can’t go without it, even though I’m healthy now,” says McCabe. She’s 62 and a self-employed real estate agent in Luzerne County, Pa. “But the process is frustrating, and the expense significant.”

That’s because McCabe is one of the 5 million people who buy their own coverage (either on or off the ACA marketplace) and pay the full cost. Her income is too high to qualify for a government subsidy that would help defray the cost of the premium.

McCabe this week settled on a $773-a-month policy that has a $4,000 deductible — the amount she’ll have to pay out of pocket before insurance kicks in. She estimates that will account for at least 15 percent of her income in 2019.

Under the ACA, people who earn up to 400 percent of the poverty level (about $48,500 for an individual and $100,400 for a family of four in 2019) are eligible for premium subsidies. Eighty-seven percent of the 10.6 million people with ACA plans this year received a subsidy.

The financial challenge for people like McCabe has come into much sharper focus during the past year, as insurance premiums have spiked.

These increasing costs plus rising deductibles and copayments have driven millions who don’t get a subsidy to drop their coverage or turn to cheaper, less comprehensive — and sometimes inadequate — insurance.

The Trump administration has highlighted the plight of the unsubsidized and said that its regulatory revamp of the health law will give consumers new, more affordable options.

Buyer Beware: New Cheaper Insurance Policies May Have Big Coverage Gaps

One of the key administration efforts is extending the use of short-term insurance plans that have lower premiums but don’t provide the full benefits that the ACA requires, such as continuous coverage of preexisting conditions or maternity care.

Those plans are not eligible for subsidies now, but, under regulations the administration proposed in October, subsidies could be available starting in 2020.

Critics counter that the administration’s approach runs a high risk of undermining core features of the ACA. And a legal battle over the administration’s proposed new rules is likely.

“The subsidy structure is unquestionably a problem,” says Chris Sloan, a director at Avalere Health, a policy and research think tank in Washington, D.C. “It’s a cruel reality for those above the income cutoffs. But it’s not clear that the administration’s actions are the best solution.”

Opponents of the Trump administration’s proposals contend they could lead young, healthy people to abandon ACA coverage and choose less comprehensive and expensive coverage — leaving more people who are older and sicker in the exchanges. That would result in steadily increasing costs for those plans, and could eventually destabilize the ACA marketplaces, policy analysts say.

Overall, about 4.4 million fewer people who buy coverage on their own were insured in 2018 compared to 2015, a decline from 18.8 to 14.4 million. Most of the decline occurred among people who don’t get subsidies.

On and off insurance

Cameron and Lori Llewellyn, of Dover, Del., say they have found insurance just too expensive.

In June 2017, Lori left a job that provided the family with good health coverage. She wanted to start her own business — a clothing boutique. Cameron is a self-employed construction contractor.

The Llewellyns tried to enroll in a plan through the ACA exchange in the summer of 2017. But Cameron’s income was too high to qualify for a subsidy. On the open market, they were quoted rates as high as $2,000 a month, with deductibles of $4,000 or more, for themselves and their 8-year-old daughter, Bryce.

They opted instead to go without coverage until the end of 2017. Then again, for this year, they ended up not qualifying for subsidies and decided to go without insurance.

“We just couldn’t justify the expense, especially with that high of a deductible,” Lori said. “But it wasn’t a comfortable situation. We wanted coverage for all the reasons people know they need it.”

For 2019, the Llewellyns are trying again. They have enrolled through the state ACA exchange in a policy with a premium of $1,286 and a $7,900 deductible, but with a subsidy that will cover the entire premium.

Spencer Ricks, 36, a self-employed attorney in Salt Lake City, is choosing a different path. He, his wife and their 3-year-old daughter bought ACA-compliant coverage in 2016. Their premium rose from around $600 in 2016 to $970 in 2017 with a $10,000 deductible.

Ricks was told his premium for 2018 for the same plan would be $1,200 with a $13,500 deductible. He pulled the plug on the family coverage and instead enrolled his wife — who was pregnant — in a plan costing $570 a month with a $5,000 deductible.

Health Insurers Are Still Skimping On Mental Health Coverage

Ricks and his daughter then joined a Christian Healthcare Ministry plan costing $157 a month, with a $10,000 deductible. For 2019, Ricks is enrolling the whole family is another religious-affiliated plan that’s skimpier in coverage than those sold on the ACA exchange; it costs $529 a month and has a $2,250 deductible.

The Religious Alternative To Obamacare’s Individual Mandate

But for 2019, the most prevalent alternative to an ACA plan for people who don’t get subsidies is likely to be a short-term plan.

Previously available for only 90 days — primarily to bridge gaps in coverage — the Trump administration expanded that time frame to 364 days.

The plans can be bought at any time, but sales are up now because more people are shopping during the ACA’s open enrollment, says Sean Malia, a senior director at eHealth, an online brokerage.

Melanie and Pete Howell, of Austin, Texas, are among eHealth’s newest customers. They had an ACA plan this year costing $1,100 a month with a $7,000 deductible. It covered the couple and their two children, ages 22 and 17.

The Howells’ income is too high to qualify for a subsidy. When their insurer notified them that the premium was going to be $1,400 a month in 2019, they opted for a short-term plan that will cost $380 a month with a deductible of $12,500.

The plan does not cover prescription drugs, and the Howells will pay 30 percent of the costs for doctor, emergency room visits and any surgical procedures.

“This buys us some time at a much more affordable price to figure out what to do for the longer term,” said Melanie Howell.

No easy solutions

Although both ACA critics and advocates say that addressing the high cost of coverage for non-subsidized families should be a priority, there are no easy bipartisan fixes in sight.

Many ACA supporters urge legislation that raises the threshold for subsides above 400 percent of poverty — to, say, 600 percent. But that stokes concerns of added federal spending.

Medicaid Expansion Takes A Bite Out Of Medical Debt

A more realistic approach, for now, could be to permit states to experiment with ways to help those over the 400 percent threshold, says Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at the Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute.

For example, with federal government permission, eight states have already launched, or will in 2019, “reinsurance” programs that redeploy federal dollars to help insurers cover the costs of families with high medical expenses. The programs have kept premium costs down for both people who get subsidies and those who don’t.

Another proposal would permit states more leeway to restructure the ACA subsidies to provide less help to people with high-cost health care needs and more help to those not currently eligible for subsidies.

“Letting states try things out has bipartisan support,” says Corlette, “and there are mechanisms for that already in place. It would seem to have the best chance of yielding something useful to help this population [the unsubsidized] for now.”

ACA Sign-Ups Have Lagged For 2019. But What Does That Mean?

Alison Kodjak reported that Former President Barack Obama released a video earlier this week urging people to hurry up and shop for health insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchange.

“This year I’m giving it to you straight,” Obama says in the video. “It’s important to have health insurance in case, God forbid, you get really sick, or hurt yourself next year.”

As I have already stated the open enrollment ended in most states on yesterday and Obama made the case that people can find a good deal on coverage if they shop around.

“Most folks can find coverage for $50 to $100 per month. That’s probably less than your cell phone bill,” he says.

After the video was released, there was a bump in sign-ups. But overall this year, enrollment in the individual market is moving more slowly than in previous years.

At the end of last week, just over 4.1 million people had chosen a health plan on Healthcare.gov, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs the website. That’s about half a million fewer than at this time last year, an analysis by the advocacy group Protect Our Care shows.

“I hate to panic but I do think we’re going to come in low on the federal exchange, says Rosemarie Day, CEO of Day Health Strategies. Day was the founding COO of Massachusetts’ state exchange, which launched in 2006, long before the Affordable Care Act became law.

She blames the lower enrollment on the Trump Administration’s decision to slash the advertising budget for open enrollment. Outreach, she says, is crucial to making sure that people who need insurance know where and when to get it.

Suicide Kills 47,000 Men, Women and Children a Year. Society shrugs, the Discussion We Need to have and Those Who Suffer the Most; an Association to Screen Time and Social Media?

47430587_1812958915500426_7411626721117470720_nLet us first remember Pearl Harbor Day and the men and women who lost their lives and the battles that followed. Now, let’s continue with the second edition of the suicide post. I am interested in the discussion of the epidemic and those who are left behind to suffer who someone commits suicide. The Editorial Board at USA TODAY noted that though suicide is the 10th leading cause of death, efforts to understand and prevent it falls short. But this could be changing.

If a killer roaming America left 47,000 men, women and children die each year, you can bet society would be demanding something be done to end the scourge.

Well, such a killer exists. It’s called suicide, and the rate of it has steadily risen.

Yet the national response has been little more than a shrug, apart from raised awareness whenever celebrities — fashion designer Kate Spade and renowned chef Anthony Bourdain, to name two this year — are tragically found dead by their own hand.

USA TODAY’s comprehensive look at this public health crisis and its ripple effect, published Wednesday, includes a daughter’s heart-wrenching narrative of losing a mother to suicide, as told by former Cincinnati Enquirer Managing Editor Laura Trujillo.

Although suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America, efforts to understand and prevent it fall dismally short. The National Institutes of Health, by far the world’s largest underwriter of biomedical study, spent $68 million last year on suicide — a relatively small amount compared with NIH funds devoted to other leading killers.

NIH and NIMH: We’re deeply committed to reducing suicide

Kidney disease leaves about as many dead, yet it receives nine times the research funding. Indeed, the NIH spent more than twice the suicide research sum to better understand inflammatory bowel syndrome and even more on dietary supplements.

Suicide rates across the U.S. (Photo: USA TODAY)

Screen Shot 2018-12-09 at 11.02.10 PM

The NIH says that it spends billions on mental health research and that this indirectly prevents suicide, but that’s misleading: Millions of Americans suffer emotional problems and relatively few resorts to suicide. Society needs to know why this is, and only further study can answer the question.

Federal government priorities often mirror what matters to politicians and, ultimately, the general public, which for too long has seemed mired in complacency about suicide. There have been no concerted campaigns similar to those targeting leading killers such as HIV or breast and prostate cancers.

This could be changing.

A new survey funded by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention shows that 94 percent of Americans believe that suicide is preventable, and the foundation is advocating an increase in NIH suicide funding, to $150 million.

“The public is starting to get it,” says foundation CEO Robert Gebbia.

Even limited investments have borne fruit:

►The military and the Department of Veterans Affairs invested hundreds of millions of dollars after suicide rates tripled in the Army during recent wars, then kept climbing among a generation of young veterans. The VA has developed an algorithm to identify the most at-risk patients as a way to focus more intensive care. Preliminary results have been encouraging, with lower mortality rates.

►Studies show that reducing access to lethal means saves lives, and states with stronger gun control laws now see reduced rates of suicide. Construction began this year on a massive, stainless steel net slung under the Golden Gate Bridge to end that San Francisco landmark’s dark history as a prime site for suicide.

►With proven benefits of intervention, President Donald Trump this year signed a bill to examine the feasibility of creating a 911-style, three-digit emergency number for more easy access to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).

Scientists have established that the self-destructive urge is often fleeting. Where counseling, better coping skills and reduced access to a lethal means help the distraught to endure this moment, people can survive. It’s one of the reasons why nine out of 10 people who attempt suicide, studies show, do not ultimately kill themselves.

Where there is life, there is hope.

We need to talk about suicide more

USA TODAY has published an extensive story by Laura Trujillo on her mother’s suicide. Editor Nicole Carroll explains why and the precautions are taken.

I called Laura the minute I heard.

We had worked together in Phoenix for more than a decade, and she had recently moved to Cincinnati.

She answered, sobbing.

“Oh, Laura, I’m so sorry.”

My heart was broken for Laura, her mom, her family. And over the following years, I watched as Laura tried to absorb, understand and even explain her mother’s suicide. She began writing about it in spurts on Facebook.

“It can feel impossible to understand,” she once posted. “And you can’t until you can. Until you, too, have felt alone in a way so overwhelmingly strong that you would do anything to escape it. It can be gone and return, consuming you. But sometimes there is luck. Good doctors and medicine. Time, people and faith.”

Laura and I talked about how someday when she was ready, she should share her story more widely.

Because every time Laura told her story, others would tell theirs.

And we need to talk about suicide.

On average, there are 129 suicides each day, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And for every person who dies, about 29 more attempt it. It’s the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

We all know someone touched by suicide. Myself included.

I lived with my grandparents until I was 2. I stayed close to my grandfather; he never stopped looking out for me, even as I started college, work, a family. Then, in 2001, he killed himself. It wasn’t a secret, but no one ever talked about it.

That was 17 years ago. And still today, we just don’t talk about suicide.

The media rarely share stories of suicide, in part because we don’t want to make things worse. The practice in newspapers for decades was not to write about suicide at all unless it was done in public or was a public figure.

When the media cover high-profile suicides, especially when they include specific details of the death, the exposure can lead to suicide contagion. In the months after Robin Williams’ death in 2014, suicides rose 10 percent higher than expected, according to a Columbia University study.

But the answer can’t be to ignore suicide and the effect it has on so many. In addition to Laura’s personal essay, we felt it important to explore suicide as a broader public health problem. In our reporting, we learned that while suicide rates are up 33 percent over the past 18 years in the USA, funding for it lags behind that of all other top causes of death, leaving suicide research well behind the nation’s other top killers.

There is much about suicide we don’t know. And in an effort to protect people, news organizations have allowed misconceptions to persist, including the belief that there’s nothing you can do to help someone who is contemplating suicide.

So we know we need to report on suicide, but we must do it carefully. Because when we write about suicide responsibly, we can help save lives.

We’ve talked about this – constantly – in the writing and editing of Laura’s story.

We shared the story with two psychologists who study suicide. They advised us on language to avoid, details to omit and ways to offer support. Stories of survival help, they said. Make sure to include the suicide lifeline number with every story. Talk about warning signs.plans.

Not all psychologists agree on exactly how we should or shouldn’t write about suicide. And we didn’t do everything those experts suggested. We felt it was unrealistic to avoid talking about how Laura’s mother killed herself and to avoid every detail of where it took place. We did, however, avoid descriptions of the method in our other reported stories on suicide. Our intent is to inform, not to sensationalize, and we felt these stories were compelling without them.

We discussed language to use on social media if vulnerable readers reached out to us and how to keep the conversation going after this story published.

We then shared the story with Kelly McBride, senior vice president at the Poynter Institute and an expert on responsible media coverage of suicide. She reviewed the story, headlines, and photos, giving further advice on sensitive phrasing, and suggestions for more details of Laura’s personal journey that could help.

Because the goal of Laura’s story is to help.

Help those who’ve been touched by suicide.

Those who’ve considered suicide.

And those who are worried – right now – that someone they love is thinking about suicide.

So let’s not be afraid. Let’s find ways to share our stories.

Let’s talk.

After a suicide, here’s what happens to the people left behind

To me, this is the most important part of this post. I consider suicide a loser’s way to solve their problems and I have been through it with fellow physicians and friends who have lost family members. The people who suffer are those left behind to wonder what they did wrong or what they could have done to prevent the suicide.

Loss survivors – the close family and friends left behind after a suicide – number six to 32 for each death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning that in 2017 alone, as many as 1.5 million people unwillingly became part of this group.

They are forced to cope with the loss of a loved one and navigate uncertain futures, often caring for confused children as they struggle to accept they may never know “why.”

Suicide can affect a wider community of individuals, including members of a person’s church or school. One study estimates roughly 425 people are exposed to each suicide in this way.

After a loved one’s death, those left behind face an increased risk of suicide themselves. According to a report in 2015 from the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention:

  • Losing any first-degree relative to suicide increased the mourner’s chance of suicide by about threefold.
  • Young people appear to be particularly vulnerable after the suicide of a peer, which can lead to a phenomenon sometimes referred to as suicide clusters or contagion.
  • Men who have a spouse die by suicide have a 46-fold increase in their chances of dying by suicide. Women have a 16-fold increase.

Kim Ruocco, whose husband, Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco, died by suicide in 2005, said she never seriously considered killing herself, but she often wondered how she would make it through each day.

“After his death, I cannot say that I was suicidal, but I can remember being in so much emotional pain that I would think, ‘I really don’t want to wake up,'” Ruocco said. “Because you can’t figure out how to live your life with this kind of grief.”

‘My whole world turned upside down’

When Ruocco’s husband died, she said, she lost her sense of reality.

“My whole world was turned upside down,” she said. “What I thought I knew to be true may not have been true. … It made me question everything in my life, from my spirituality to my instincts, to my decision-making, to my marriage, to my family relationships.”

Grief, she learned, was not linear. Some days were terrible. Some were OK, even good. She had to learn, she said, to embrace it all.

“It’s not one feeling, it’s a whole bunch of feelings, and I think the advice for anybody who’s experiencing grief is that whatever you are feeling, it’s OK, it’s normal, and it’s going to come,” she said. “I let it come, I look at it, I feel it, I express it, and then I try to let it go.”

Stories of hope:

  • Stepping back from the ledge
  • Suicide never entered his mind. Then 9/11 happened.
  • Young, transgender and fighting a years-long battle against suicidal thoughts
  • She worked in suicide prevention. Then one day she had to save herself.

When Debbie Baird lost her 29-year-old son, Matthew, to suicide in 2009, she didn’t think she would ever let go of her grief.

Debbie Baird said she didn’t think she would ever recover from the grief over her son Matthew’s suicide. (Photo: Debbie Baird)

“If you had told me in the early days that I would feel better again, I would never have believed you,” she said.

She went to counseling, found a support group and journaled for years, which the Suicide Prevention Lifeline recommends as a way to process things you weren’t able to say before your loved one’s death. Slowly, Baird said, she began to heal. She could see it in the pages.

“I kept thinking if I could write a letter to him, maybe he’d write back to me. Maybe he’d let me know the reason why this happened. I felt like I needed to find a way to connect with him,” she said. “It went from wanting to know why, and how hurt and sad I felt and how my heart was broken and all the physical pain that I was going through and my depression and how I was feeling too, ‘Hey, Jen’s going to have another baby.’ I could see my life changing.”

Baird is now a community educator and support specialist for loss survivors at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The American Psychological Association said that after a suicide, it’s important for survivors to:

  • Accept your emotions.
  • Not worry about what you “should” feel or do. There’s no standard timeline for grieving and no single right way to cope.
  • Care for yourself. Do your best to get enough sleep and eat regular, healthy meals. Taking care of your physical self can improve your mood and give you the strength to cope.
  • Draw on support systems.
  • Talk to someone. There is often stigma around suicide, and many loss survivors suffer in silence. Speaking about your feelings can help.
  • Join a group.
  • Talk to a professional.

How to help

The bereaved can heal, suicide prevention experts said, but their pain is often underestimated. The stigma around suicide creates an additional burden. Loss survivors commonly experience a range of emotions as they grieve, including shock, fear, shame, and anger. As they work to cope with these feelings, many simultaneously deal with the pressure to keep their loved one’s suicide a secret or with the mistaken belief that they did something to cause their loved one’s death.

Thomas Joiner, who lost his father to suicide and went on to become a leading suicide researcher, wrote in his book “Why People Die by Suicide” that some people’s inability to intellectually make sense of suicide kept them from showing sympathy after his dad’s death.

“To some people … understanding didn’t matter and wasn’t a barrier to acting with a real generosity of spirit,” he wrote. “To others, the lack of understanding seemed an insurmountable barrier, so that instincts toward compassion were short-circuited.”

According to the American Association of Suicidology and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, people can help loss survivors by:

  • Listening without judgment
  • Using the lost loved one’s name to show that person is not forgotten
  • Accepting the loss survivor’s feelings, which can include shock, shame, and abandonment
  • Avoiding phrases such as “I know how you feel,” unless you, too, are a loss survivor
  • Avoiding telling them how they should act or feel
  • Being sensitive during holidays and anniversaries

“People need the education to understand that it is OK to talk about their loved one,” Baird said. “It is OK to mention their name. It is OK to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”

Loss survivors should be encouraged to get help for themselves. Grief counselors, faith leaders, social workers, and doctors may be trained in how to respond to suicide.

Ruocco became vice president of suicide prevention and postvention at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) after her husband’s death. “Postvention” describes efforts to prevent suicide among loss survivors and help them heal. Ruocco said postvention doesn’t just decrease risk, it can help survivors find a new purpose.

“They can really have post-traumatic growth and make meaning out of this kind of loss,” Ruocco said.

It’s impossible for survivors to return to the way things were before their loved one’s death. Ruocco said she misses her husband every day, but she’s managed to build a life for herself that, although not what she imagined is full of joy.

“You look at the world in a different way,” she said. “Not only did I have meaning in my life because of his death, but I also cherished the world in a different way. My relationships with my children were more intense, more purposeful. I was more present and connected to the outside world, whether that’s nature or other people. I found joy in little things and appreciated little things and moments with people that I may not have discovered prior to my husband’s death, and I was able to honor his life lived by telling other people about him and preventing suicide in honor of him.”

Suicide Lifeline: If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.

If you have lost a loved one to suicide, visit Alliance of Hope to find support resources.

If you are grieving the death of a loved one who served, you can contact the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) at 800-959-8277.

‘Screen time’ causing, exacerbating childhood psychiatric disorders

U.S. teens now spend 6 hours, 40 minutes per day using screens for entertainment. Fifty percent report they feel “addicted” to their devices.

Working in the world of child and adolescent psychiatry as an advanced practice nurse, I frequently hear about symptoms of irritability, anger, isolation and poor sleep from my patients. These symptoms are common to many childhood psychiatric disorders. These disruptive symptoms baffle parents, teachers and clinicians alike, and can lead to incorrect diagnoses for these children with dysregulated moods.

I have been a steadfast believer in the importance of good diet, exercise and adequate sleep as being elementary steps one can take to improve moods. I now also consider the fourth tenet for youth mood regulation to be limited electronic screen exposure.

Excessive screen time stresses the brain, and electronic devices of all types have taken over our modern everyday life by storm in an insidious manner. The typical U.S. teen now spends 6 hours, 40 minutes per day using screens for entertainment. Fifty percent of U.S. teens say they feel “addicted” to their devices.

Recently, I saw a 12-year-old male in my office who presented with symptoms of isolation, nightmares, anxiety, anger, academic decline and poor sleep. What followed my evaluation was a discussion about how electronic devices tend to produce mood disturbances. Excessive screen time can disrupt the production of melatonin, which helps to regulate sleep-wake cycles. Light at night has been linked to depression and/or suicide in numerous studies.

Typical gaming and social media interfaces induce stress reactions with hyperarousal, provoking a “wired and tired” state. Gaming interfaces desensitize the brain’s reward system and release the “feel-good” chemical dopamine. Dopamine is critical in regulating focus and moods. Brain scans have shown that those playing video games are similar to those using cocaine.

Screen time overloads the senses

Screen time overloads the senses, fractures attention and depletes mental reserves. Emotional meltdowns can then become a coping mechanism. And lastly, excessive screen time reduces a time for “green time” — physical activity outdoors in a natural setting, which can reduce stress and restore attention.

“Pervasive design” is the practice of combining psychology and technology to change behavior. The pervasive design is increasingly employed by social media and video gaming companies to pull users onto their sites and keep them there for as long as possible. Several Google and Facebook executives have voiced their concerns about social media sites negatively affecting human psychology.

Utilizing an “electronic fast” for children in my practice has shown drastic improvement in psychiatric symptoms. I suspect those without underlying psychiatric disorders may show an even more marked improvement. As parents/guardians of children, please consider the negative impact screen time may be impacting your child.

And it is my impression after reviewing all the data that this increased screen time and social media may be the reason for this increase in suicide rates. Whether you believe President’s Trump’s tweets and outlandish suggestions that the media lies, kids and adults are measuring themselves to impossible comparisons in behavior, aesthetics, levels of social measures etc.