Category Archives: Medicaid

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!!