Category Archives: Trump

Congress Must Pony Up to Improve Nation’s Health, Doc Groups Say and Our Politicians Need to Change the Conversation

52585272_1914340792028904_751869742112833536_nIt was an interesting week on so many levels. I guess that we don’t have to worry about another government shut down…. until next September but now Congress, the Senate and the President will fight and get nothing done… Probably not even getting the full wall.

Can any progress be made on health care if we have all this anger, incivility and progressive socialism?!? Let’s have progress in health care and vows to work for a better future!

Medical society leaders come to Capitol Hill to push their funding priorities

News Editor of MedPage, Joyce Frieden remarked that Congress needs to do a better job of funding public health priorities and improving the healthcare system, a group of six physician organizations told members of Congress.

Presidents of six physician organizations — the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Osteopathic Association, and the American Psychiatric Association — visited members of Congress as a group here Wednesday to get their message across. The American Medical Association, whose annual Washington advocacy conference takes place here next week, did not participate.

The physician organizations had a series of principles that they wanted to emphasize during their Capitol Hill visits, including:

  • Helping people maintain their insurance coverage
  • Protecting patient-centered insurance reforms
  • Stabilizing the insurance market
  • Improving the healthcare financing system
  • Addressing high prescription drug prices

The group also released a list of proposed 2020 appropriations for various federal healthcare agencies, including:

  • $8.75 billion for the Health Resources and Services Administration
  • $7.8 billion for the CDC
  • $460 million for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
  • $41.6 billion for the National Institutes of Health
  • $3.7 billion for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

One of the group’s specific principles revolves around Medicaid funding. “Policymakers should not make changes to federal Medicaid funding that would erode benefits, eligibility, or coverage compared to current law,” the group said in its priorities statement.

This would include programs like the work requirements recently approved in Arkansas and other states; the Kaiser Family Foundation reported in January that more than 18,000 Arkansans have been dropped from the Medicaid rolls for failing to meet the work requirements there.

“Our group is very, very supportive of innovation,” said Ana Maria López, MD, MPH, president of the American College of Physicians, at a breakfast briefing here with reporters. “We welcome testing and evaluation, but we have a very strong tenet that any effort should first do no harm, so any proposed changes should increase — not decrease — the number of people who are insured. Anything that decreases access we should not support.”

That includes work requirements, said John Cullen, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “When waivers are used in ways that are trying to get people off of the Medicaid rolls, I think that’s a problem,” he said. “What you want to do is increase coverage.”

Lydia Jeffries, MD, a member of the government affairs committee of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, agreed. “We support voluntary efforts to increase jobs in the Medicaid population, but we strongly feel that mandatory efforts are against our principal tenets of increasing coverage.”

More $$ for Gun Violence Research

Gun violence research is another focus for the group, which is seeking $50 million in new CDC funding to study firearm-related morbidity and mortality prevention. Kyle Yasuda, MD, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, explained that gun research stopped in 1997 after the passage of the so-called Dickey Amendment, which prevented the CDC from doing any “gun control advocacy” — that is, accepting for publication obviously biased articles and rejecting any articles that found any positive benefits to gun ownership. Although the amendment didn’t ban the research per se, the CDC chose to comply with it by just avoiding any gun violence research altogether.

Recently, however, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, “have provided assurances that the language in the Dickey Amendment would allow for [this] research,” said Yasuda. “We didn’t have research to guide us and that’s what we need to go back to.”

The research is important, said Altha Stewart, MD, president of the American Psychiatric Association, because “in addition to the physical consequences related to gun violence, there’s a long-term psychological impact on everyone involved — both the people who are hurt and the people who witness that hurt. It’s a set of concentric circles that emerges when we talk about the psychological effects of trauma. We often think of [these people] as outliers, but for many people, we work with, this has become all too common in their lives.

“This is definitely our lane as physicians and I’m glad we’re in it,” she said, referring to a popular hashtag on the topic.

Yasuda said the effects of gun violence are nothing new to him because he spent half his career as a trauma surgeon in Seattle. “It’s not just the long-term effect on kids, it is the next generation of kids … It’s the impact on future generations that this exposure to gun violence has on our society, and we just have to stop it.”

The high cost of prescription drugs also needs to be addressed, López said. “We see this every day; people come in and have a list of medications, and you look and see when they were refilled, and see that the refill times are not exactly right … People will say, ‘I can afford to take these two meds on a daily basis, these I have to take once a week’ … They make a plan. [They say] ‘I can fill my meds or I can pay my rent.’ People are making these sorts of choices, and as physicians, it’s our job to advocate for their health.”

One thing the group is staying away from is endorsing a specific health reform plan. “We’re agnostic as far as what a plan looks like, but it has to follow the principles we’ve outlined on consumer protection, coverage, and benefits,” said Cullen. “As far as a specific plan, we have not decided on that.”

Also, Politicians Need To Change The Conversation On How To Fix Health Care

Discussions about Medicare for all, free market care, and Obamacare address one issue – how we pay for health care. The public is tired of these political sound bites and doesn’t have faith in either public or private payment systems to fix their health care woes. Changing the payer system isn’t going to fix the real problem of the underlying cost of care and how it is delivered.

The current system is rotting from the inside. Fee for service payment started the trend with rewarding health care providers for the amount of care they deliver. Through the decades, health care organizations learned how to manipulate the system to maximize profit. Remember, at no time has an insurer lost money. They just increase premiums and decrease reimbursements to health care facilities and caregivers and constrict their coverage. Insurers retaliated by creating more hoops to jump through to get services covered. This includes both Medicare and private insurance.

Who is left to deal with the quagmire? The patients. Additionally, the health care professionals who originally entered their profession to take care of people became burned out minions of the health care machine. Now we are left with an expensive, fragmented health care system that costs three times more than the average costs of other developed countries and has much poorer health outcomes.

Our country needs a fresh conversation on how to fix our health care system. The politicians who can simplify health care delivery and provide a plan to help the most people at a reasonable cost will win the day. There are straightforward fixes to the problem.

Provide taxpayer-funded primary care directly and remove it from insurance coverage

About 75% of the population needs only primary care. Early hypertension, diabetes, and other common chronic issues can be easily cared for by a good primary care system. This will reduce the progression of a disease and reduce costs down the line.  Unfortunately, the fee for service system has decimated our primary care workforce through turf wars and payment disparities with specialty care and we now have a severe primary care shortage. Patients often end up with multiple specialists which increases cost, provides unsafe and fragmented care, and decreases patient productivity.

Insurance is meant to cover only high cost or rare events. Primary care is inexpensive and is needed regularly, so it is not insurable. We pay insurance companies  25% in overhead for the privilege of covering our primary care expenses. Plus, patients and their doctors often must fight insurance companies to get services covered. The lost productivity for patients and care providers is immeasurable.

In a previous article, the author shared the proposal of creating a nationalized network of community health centers to provide free primary care, dental care, and mental health care to everyone in this country.

  • Community health centers currently provide these services for an average cost of less than $1,000 per person per year. By providing this care free to all, we can remove primary care from insurance coverage, which would reduce the cost of health insurance premiums.

Free primary care would improve population health, which will subsequently reduce the cost of specialty care and further reduce premiums.

  • Community health centers can serve as treatment centers for addiction, such as our current opioid crisis, and serve as centers of preparedness for epidemic and bioterrorist events.

People who do not want to access a community health center can pay for primary care through direct primary care providers.

  • This idea is not unprecedented – Spain enacted a nationwide system of community health centers in the 1980s. Health care measures, patient satisfaction, and costs improved significantly.

By providing a free base of primary care, dental care, and mental health care to everyone in this country, we can improve health, reduce costs, and improve productivity while we work toward fixing our health care payment system.

Current Community Health Centers

Community health centers currently serve approximately 25 million low-income patients although they have the structural capacity to serve many more. This historical perspective of serving low-income individuals may be a barrier to acceptance in the wider population. In fact, when discussing this proposal with a number of health economists and policy people, many felt the current variability in the quality of care would discourage use of community health centers in all but a low-income population. Proper funding, a culture of care and accountability, and the creation of a high functioning state of the art facilities would address this concern.

There are currently a number of community health centers offering innovative care, including dental and mental health care. Some centers use group care and community health workers to deliver care to their communities. Many have programs making a serious dent in fighting the opioid epidemic. Taking the best of these high functioning clinics and creating a prototype clinic to serve every community in our nation is the first step in fixing our health care system

The Prototype Community Health Center – Delivery of Care

Community health centers will be built around the patient’s needs. Each clinic should have:

  • Extended and weekend hours to deliver both acute and routine primary care, dental care, and mental health care. This includes reproductive and pediatric care.
  • Home visits using community health workers and telemedicine to reach remote areas, homebound, and vulnerable populations such as the elderly.
  • Community and group-based education programs for preventive health, obesity prevention and treatment, smoking cessation, and management of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, musculoskeletal problems, chronic pain, asthma, and mental health.
  • A pharmacy that provides generic medications used for common acute and chronic illnesses. Medication will be issued during the patient’s visit.
  • There will be no patient billing. Centers will be paid globally based on the population they serve.

The standard of care will be evidence-based for problems that have evidence-based research available. If patients desire care that is not evidence based, they can access it outside the community health system and pay for that care directly. For problems that do not have evidence-based research, basic standards of care will apply.

It will be very important that both providers and patients understand exactly what services will be delivered. By setting clear expectations and boundaries, efficiency can be maintained and manipulation of the system can be minimized.

The Prototype Community Health Center – Staffing

The clinics would be federally staffed and funded. Health care providers and other employees will receive competitive salary and benefits. To attract primary care providers, school loan repayment plans can be part of the compensation package.

The “culture” of community health centers must be codified and will be an additional attraction for potential employees. A positive culture focused on keeping patients AND staff healthy and happy, open communication, non-defensive problem solving, and an attitude of creating success should be the standard. Bonuses should be based on the quality of care delivery and participation in maintaining good culture.

One nationalized medical record system will be used for all community health centers. The medical records will be built solely for patient care. Clinical decision support systems can be utilized to guide health care providers in standards of diagnosis and treatment, including when to refer outside the system.

Through the use of telemedicine, basic consultation with specialists can be provided but specialists will consult with the primary care physicians directly. One specialist can serve many clinics. For example, if a patient has a rash that is difficult to diagnose, the primary care doctor will take a picture and send it to the dermatologist for assistance.

For services beyond primary care and basic specialty consultation, insurance will still apply. The premiums for these policies will be much lower because primary care will be excluded from coverage.

How to get “there” from “here”

Think Starbucks – after the development of the prototype design based on currently successful models, with proper funding, centers can be built quickly. Attracting primary care providers, dentists, and mental health care providers will be key to success.

Basic services can be instituted first – immunizations, preventive care, reproductive care, and chronic disease management programs can be standardized and easily delivered by ancillary care providers and community health workers. Epidemic and bioterrorist management modules can be provided to each center. As the primary care workforce is rebuilt, further services can be added such as acute care visits, basic specialty consultations, and expanded dental and mental health care.

With the implementation of this primary care system, payment reform can be addressed. Less expensive policies can immediately be offered that exclude primary care. Ideally, we will move toward a value-based payment system for specialty care. The decision on Medicare for all, a totally private payer system, or a public and private option can be made. Thankfully, during the political discourse, 75% of the population will have their needs fully met and our country will start down the road to better health.

Well, this Fox & Friends Twitter poll on “Medicare for All” didn’t go as planned

Christopher Zara reported that in today’s edition of “Ask and Ye Shall Receive,” here’s more evidence that support for universal health care isn’t going away.

The Twitter account for Fox & Friends this week ran a poll in which it asked people if the benefits of Bernie Sanders’s “Medicare for All” plan would outweigh the costs. The poll cites an estimated cost of $32.6 trillion. Hilariously, 73% of respondents said yes, it’s still worth it—which is not exactly the answer you’d expect from fans of the Trump-friendly talk show.

Granted, this is just a Twitter poll, which means it’s not scientific and was almost certainly skewed by retweets from Twitter users looking to achieve this result.

At the same time, it’s not that far off from actual polling around the issue. In March, a Kaiser Health tracking poll revealed that 6 in 10 Americans are in favor of a national healthcare system in which all Americans would get health insurance from a single government plan. Other polls have put the number at less than 50% support but trending upward.

If you’re still unsure, you can read more about Sanders’s plan and stay tuned for more discussion on “Medicare for All”.

Should we all be even concerned about any of these health care problems if AOC is right and the world ends in 12 years? Good young Ocasio Cortez, if she only had ahold on reality!! Her ideas will cost us all trillions of dollars, tax dollars, which we will all pay! Are we all ready for the Green Revolution?

 

 

 

 

House Panel Mulls ACA Fixes, Responses to Trump Policies and Healthcare is a Big Player in State of the Union Speech

50872986_1884394221690228_3042478004111409152_nPresident Trump proposes plans to end AIDS, fight childhood cancer.

Actually, I thought that President Trump did a good job even being conciliatory in his State of the Union speech even covering various aspects of healthcare. Joyce Frieden the News Editor of MedPage stated that Healthcare played a major part in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, with President Trump covering a wide variety of health-related topics.

Only a few minutes into the speech, the president foreshadowed some of his healthcare themes. “Many of us have campaigned the same core promises to defend American jobs and … to reduce the price of healthcare and prescription drugs,” Trump said. “It’s a new opportunity in American politics if only we have the courage together to seize it.”

A few minutes later, he touted some of his administration’s actions so far. “We eliminated the very unpopular Obamacare individual mandate penalty,” Trump said. “And to give critically ill patients access to lifesaving cures, we passed — very importantly — the right to try.”

Drug Prices a Major Player

The subject of drug prices occupied a fair amount of time. “The next major priority for me, and for all of us, is to lower the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs and to protect patients with preexisting conditions,” he said. “Already, as a result of my administration’s efforts in 2018, drug prices experienced their single largest decline in 46 years. But we must do more. It’s unacceptable that Americans pay vastly more than people in other countries for the exact same drugs, often made in the exact same place.”

“This is wrong; this is unfair, and together we will stop it, and we’ll stop it fast,” he said. “I am asking the Congress to pass legislation that finally takes on the problem of global freeloading and delivers fairness and price transparency for American patients, finally.”

He then turned to several other health topics. “We should also require drug companies, insurance companies, and hospitals to disclose real prices, to foster competition, and bring costs way down,” Trump said. He quickly moved on to the AIDS epidemic. “In recent years we’ve made remarkable progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Scientific breakthroughs have brought a once distant dream within reach. My budget will ask Democrats and Republicans to make the needed commitment to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years.”

“We have made incredible strides, incredible,” he added to applause from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. “Together we will defeat AIDS in America and beyond.”

Childhood Cancer Initiative

Although the remarks on HIV had been expected, the president also announced another health initiative that wasn’t as well-known: a fight against childhood cancer. “Tonight I’m also asking you to join me in another fight all Americans can get behind — the fight against childhood cancer,” he said, pointing out a guest of First Lady Melania Trump: Grace Eline, a 10-year-old girl with brain cancer.

“Every birthday, since she was 4, Grace asked her friends to donate to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital,” Trump said. “She did not know that one day she might be a patient herself [but] that’s what happened. Last year Grace was diagnosed with brain cancer. Immediately she began radiation treatment, and at the same time she rallied her community and raised more than $40,000 for the fight against cancer.”

“Many childhood cancers have not seen new therapies in decades,” he said. “My budget will ask Congress for $500 million over the next 10 years to fund this critical life-saving research.”

These health initiatives met with mixed reactions. “President Trump is taking a bold step to design an innovative program and strategy, and commit new resources, to end HIV in the United States … Under the President’s proposal, the number of new infections can eventually be reduced to zero,” Carl Schmid, deputy executive director of The AIDS Institute, said in a statement. Michael Ruppal, the institute’s executive director, added, “While we might have policy differences with the president and his administration, this initiative if properly implemented and resourced, can go down in history as one of the most significant achievements of his presidency.”

But the Democratic National Committee (DNC) wasn’t quite so enthusiastic; it sent an email calling the goal of ending HIV by 2030 “notable” but added, “The Trump administration has consistently undermined advancements in HIV/AIDS research, attacked people living with HIV/AIDS, and sabotaged access to quality healthcare at every opportunity.” Among other things, the administration redirected money from the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program to help fund the separation of immigrant families, and proposed cutting global HIV/AIDS funding by over $1 billion, which could cause 300,000 deaths per year, the DNC said.

Abortion in the Spotlight

As for the childhood cancer initiative, “$500 million over 10 years to solve childhood cancer is … not a lot,” one Bloomberg reporter tweeted. However, Gail Wilensky, Ph.D., a senior fellow at Project HOPE, in Bethesda, Maryland, pointed out that this amount ” is in addition to the National Institutes of Health budget [for cancer] … A lot of money is going to cancer anyway [already] and the National Cancer Institute been one of the more protected parts of government, so it’s not like they have a big deficit to make up.”

Overall, “it was a surprisingly good speech,” said Wilensky, who was the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services under President George H.W. Bush. “It covered a lot of areas, and there were a number of issues that were very hard not to applaud … I thought he did a pretty admirable job of forcing applause and a sense of togetherness by the country, talking about compromise and the common good.”

The president also touched on a more controversial area of healthcare: abortion. He referred to a recent abortion bill that passed in New York State and another that failed in Virginia — both of which dealt with abortion late in pregnancy — adding, “I’m asking Congress to pass legislation to prohibit late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in a mother’s womb. Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life.”

That appeal to the anti-abortion movement “is a position that Republicans have taken in the past, which is the importance of life right after birth and life right before birth,” said Wilensky. Abortion later in pregnancy “is an area that tends to engender a more unified response than most others, even for people who are ambivalent or more supportive of abortion rights. Very late-term abortion makes people uncomfortable … It’s easy to understand why people get uneasy.”

“Already, the biggest move the Trump administration has made to control health care costs and access has been on the regulatory front,” said Bob Laszewski, founder of Health Policy and Strategy Associates, an Alexandria, Virginia, consulting firm, citing the announcement of proposed regulations to end drug rebates under Medicare and Medicaid kickback rules and rules for short-term health plans. “I take it from Trump’s remarks that they will continue with this regulatory approach instead of waiting for any bipartisanship in the Congress,” he said.

“The only area there now seems to be a hint of bipartisanship is over the issue of drug prices being too high,” Laszewski added. “It was clear from Trump’s remarks, and the Democrats’ positive response on this one issue, that this could become an area for cooperation.”

No Large-Scale Reforms Offered

Rosemarie Day, a healthcare consultant in Somerville, Massachusetts, said in an email that the president “certainly did not propose any large-scale reforms to the healthcare system during the speech, and he was short on specifics for most of it. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, health care is the number one issue among voters so this may appear to some as a missed opportunity. It’s increasingly looking like Republicans are leaving the big health care reform ideas to the Democratic presidential candidates.”

The ideas he did propose “were mostly noncontroversial and somewhat vague,” Day continued. “The more interesting proposal was lowering the cost of healthcare and drugs, which is a high priority for consumers. The way he discussed going about it was by requiring drug companies, insurance companies, and hospitals to disclose real prices. This raises many questions, such as what does a ‘real’ price mean? … This will be an interesting area to watch, since ‘real prices’ are currently closely held secrets, and a legal requirement to disclose them would constitute a significant change from the status quo.”

In the Democratic response to the speech, Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully last year for governor of Georgia, lashed out against enemies of Obamacare. “Rather than suing to dismantle the Affordable Care Act as Republican attorneys general have, our leaders must protect the progress we’ve made and commit to expanding healthcare and lowering costs for everyone,” said Abrams, the first black woman to deliver the rebuttal to a State of the Union address.

She also spoke of her personal struggle with healthcare costs for her family. “My father has battled prostate cancer for years. To help cover the costs, I found myself sinking deeper into debt because, while you can defer some payments, you can’t defer cancer treatment. In this great nation, Americans are skipping blood pressure pills, forced to choose between buying medicine and paying rent.”

She also pushed back against state governors and legislators who continue their resistance to Medicaid expansion. “In 14 states, including my home state, where a majority want it, our leaders refused to expand Medicaid which could save rural hospitals, save economies and save lives.”

With Dems now in charge, repeal-and-replace no longer on the table!

Former Rep. John Dingell Left An Enduring Health Care Legacy

If anyone is interested in healthcare and its history here in the U.S. one must include the legacy of former Rep. John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who holds the record as the longest-serving member of the U.S. House, died Thursday night in Michigan. Julie Rovner reviewed his history last week after his death. He was 92.

And while his name was not familiar to many, his impact on the nation, and on health care, in particular, was immense.

For more than 16 years Dingell led the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is responsible for overseeing the Medicare and Medicaid programs, the U.S. Public Health Service, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health.

Dingell served in the House for nearly 60 years. As a young legislator, he presided over the House during the vote to approve Medicare in 1965.

As a tribute to his father, who served before him and who introduced the first congressional legislation to establish national health insurance during the New Deal, Dingell introduced his own national health insurance bill at the start of every Congress.

And when the House passed what would become the Affordable Care Act in 2009, leaders named the legislation after him. Dingell sat by the side of President Barack Obama when he signed the bill into law in 2010.

Dingell was “a beloved pillar of the Congress and one of the greatest legislators in American history,” said a statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Yet, among the vast array of historic legislative achievements, few hold greater meaning than his tireless commitment to the health of the American people.”

He was not always nice. Dingell had a quick temper and a ferocious demeanor when he was displeased, which was often. Witnesses who testified before him could feel his wrath, as could Republican opponents and even other committee Democrats. And he was fiercely protective of his committee’s territory.

In 1993, during the effort by President Bill Clinton to pass major health reform, as the heads of the three main committees that oversee health issues argued over which would lead the effort, Dingell famously proclaimed of his panel, “We have health.”

Dingell and his health subcommittee chairman, California Democrat Henry Waxman, fought endlessly over energy and environmental issues. Waxman, who represented an area that included western Los Angeles, was one of the House’s most active environmentalists. Dingell represented the powerful auto industry in southeastern Michigan and opposed many efforts to require safety equipment and fuel and emission standards.

In 2008, Waxman ousted Dingell from the chairmanship of the full committee.

But the two were of the same mind on most health issues, and together during the 1980s and early 1990s they expanded the Medicaid program, reshaped Medicare and modernized the FDA, NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It was always a relief for me to know that when he and I met with the Senate in the conference, we were talking from the same page, believed in the same things, and we were going to fight together,” Waxman said in 2009.

Dingell was succeeded in his seat by his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, herself a former auto industry lobbyist.

House Panel Mulls ACA Fixes, Responses to Trump Policies

Now to the article of the week, Ryan Basen, a writer for MedPage noted that focusing on preventive care, expanding subsidies, and regulating association health plans (AHPs) were among the solutions proposed Tuesday to aid Americans with pre-existing health conditions, as the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee held its first hearing under the new Congress.

While the hearing was entitled “Protecting Americans with Pre-Existing Conditions,” much discussion centered around the policies within the Affordable Care Act, Republican efforts to repeal it, and recent reforms that tweaked American healthcare. Many lawmakers used their allotted time to blast other party members for either being too supportive of the ACA or attempting to “sabotage” it. Some lawmakers, however, promised to work together with members of the opposing party to help patients with pre-existing conditions — which some noted includes themselves and family members.

“Protections for people with pre-existing conditions has become the defining feature of the Affordable Care Act,” said witness Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow with the Kaiser Family Foundation; she noted that these protections also enjoy widespread public support.

The ACA forced insurance plans to accept and retain members with pre-existing conditions, many of whom could not afford plans before the legislation was enacted. But Trump administration policies and other reforms worry some experts and lawmakers that the millions of American with pre-existing conditions — ranging from moderate mental health diagnoses to cancer — are gradually being priced out of the healthcare system again, they said.

Protecting patients with pre-existing conditions are linked to controlling costs throughout American healthcare, many said. Recent legislation led to “artificial” cost increases for ACA marketplace plans and pushed some insurers to leave the market altogether, Pollitz said. These policies also have driven up premium prices.

“What we have here is an infrastructure problem,” Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) said. “The disagreements are over how to pay for it.”

“All we are really debating here is who gets to pay,” Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) said. “It’s time for radical rethinking: Are you [Democrats] willing to work with us to break down the barriers to having cost disruption?”

Several who spoke Tuesday offered potential solutions. Witness Keysha Brooks-Coley, of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, suggested lawmakers strengthen the ACA by addressing its so-called “family glitch” and eliminating the “subsidy cliff”; both policies currently withhold subsidies from many Americans who need them to pay for healthcare, she said.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, DPM (R-Ohio), called for turning lawmakers’ focus from squabbling about politics to studying preventative care. “There’s no part of me as a doctor that doesn’t want Americans to have access to quality healthcare,” the podiatrist said. “But I don’t necessarily agree with the direction (the ACA) went.”

“Let’s talk about incentivizing health: What do we have not only for the patient but for the physician?” he added. “Think about who gets rewarded in today’s system. Do we recognize the doctor who prevented the patient from needing open-heart surgery? That’s where we need to go if you want to talk about the cost curve.”

One solution is actually quite simple, according to witness Rob Roberston, secretary-treasurer for the Nebraska Farm Bureau: regulate AHPs and encourage individuals to band together in groups to reduce premium costs, as many farmers and ranchers have in Nebraska. “This is not a political issue,” he said. “This is an issue of hardship, and we need to fix these individual markets and protect pre-existing conditions at the same time.”

Alas, judging by many lawmakers’ tone during a hearing that stretched over four hours, this does appear to be a political issue. “It’s really this long debate over Obamacare,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said. “We really need to work for a solution because Obamacare wasn’t a solution.”

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) then got into it. “What has led us here has been eight years of Republican persistence in trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “It’s great to hear they [Republicans] want to work with us and I hope they do.” The ACA is not perfect, Doggett acknowledged, but he quipped that perhaps “the most pre-existing condition” present Tuesday was “the political amnesia of those who have forgotten what it was like before the Affordable Care Act.”

Raising his voice, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) echoed the point: “If we would have been working together for the last six years to refine the Affordable Care Act, costs would be lower, coverage would be better.”

Many witnesses spoke against the Administration’s policy to loosen regulations on cheaper short-term plans that do not have to abide by ACA strictures. “The expansion of these plans does not help the consumer,” Brooks-Coley said. “It puts them at increased risk. … They are only less expensive upfront because they don’t cover [serious conditions].” In addition, Pollitz noted, many of these plans drop patients once they become ill and “have been shown to increase costs of ACA-compliant plans.”

The witnesses were asked to gauge what would happen if protections for patients with pre-existing conditions were to be removed. Younger women would pay more than men the same age, Pollitz said, and all pre-existing patients “would find it much more difficult to find coverage.”

“True harm would come,” Andrew Stolfi, Oregon Division of Financial Regulation’s insurance commissioner, told the committee. He cited Oregon’s pre-ACA experience: “You were lucky if you were even given the choice to take an insurer’s limited terms.”

Ways and Means chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) ended the hearing with optimism: “Today I heard a lot of members on the other side of the aisle say they support [requiring coverage for] pre-existing conditions, and I welcome that and hope we can work together.”

So, now what do the physicians think is needed to improve our health care system? Next week let’s discuss.

Poll: Support for ‘Medicare-for-all’ fluctuates with details and Medicaid. What is the Answer​?

50065252_1872612819535035_7021591760191094784_nSo, one of the options that the Democrats are pushing is “Medicare-for-All.” But do the voters like the idea? Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar noted that Americans like the idea of “Medicare-for-all,” but support flips to disapproval if it would result in higher taxes or longer waits for care. Then how will the plan be financed?

That’s a key insight from a national poll released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. It comes as Democratic presidential hopefuls embrace the idea of a government-run health care system, considered outside the mainstream of their party until Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders made it the cornerstone of his 2016 campaign. President Donald Trump is opposed, saying “Medicare-for-all” would “eviscerate” the current program for seniors.

The poll found that Americans initially support “Medicare-for-all,” 56 percent to 42 percent.

However, those numbers shifted dramatically when people were asked about the potential impact, pro, and con.

Support increased when people were told “Medicare-for-all” would guarantee health insurance as a right (71 percent) and eliminates premiums and reduce out-of-pocket costs (67 percent).

But if they were told that a government-run system could lead to delays in getting care or higher taxes, support plunged to 26 percent and 37 percent, respectively. Support fell to 32 percent if it would threaten the current Medicare program.

“The issue that will really be fundamental would be the tax issue,” said Robert Blendon, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who reviewed the poll. He pointed out those state single-payer efforts in Vermont and Colorado failed because of concerns about the tax increases needed to put them in place.

There doesn’t seem to be much disagreement that a single-payer system would require tax increases since the government would take over premiums now paid by employers and individuals as it replaces the private health insurance industry. The question is how much.

Several independent studies have estimated that government spending on health care would increase dramatically, in the range of about $25 trillion to $35 trillion or more over a 10-year period. But a recent estimate from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst suggests that it could be much lower. With significant cost savings, the government would need to raise about $1.1 trillion from new revenue sources in the first year of the new program.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., has asked the Congressional Budget Office for a comprehensive report on single-payer. The CBO is a nonpartisan outfit that analyzes the potential cost and impact of legislation. Its estimate that millions would be made uninsured by Republican bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act was key to the survival of President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Mollyann Brodie, director of the Kaiser poll, said the big swings in approval and disapproval show that the debate over “Medicare-for-all” is in its infancy. “You immediately see that opinion is not set in stone on this issue,” she said.

Indeed, the poll found that many people are still unaware of some of the basic implications of a national health plan.

For example, most working-age people currently covered by an employer (55 percent) said they would be able to keep their current plan under a government-run system, while 37 percent correctly answered that they would not.

There’s one exception: Under a “Medicare-for-all” idea from the Center for American Progress employers and individuals would have the choice of joining the government plan, although it wouldn’t be required. Sanders’ bill would forbid employers from offering coverage that duplicates benefits under the new government plan.

“Medicare-for-all” is a key issue energizing the Democratic base ahead of the 2020 presidential election, but Republicans are solidly opposed.

“Any public debate about ‘Medicare-for-all’ will be a divisive issue for the country at large,” Brodie said.

The poll indicated widespread support for two other ideas advanced by Democrats as alternatives to a health care system fully run by the government.

Majorities across the political spectrum backed allowing people ages 50-64 to buy into Medicare, as well as allowing people who don’t have health insurance on the job to buy into their state’s Medicaid program.

Separately, another private survey out Wednesday finds the uninsured rate among U.S. adults rose to 13.7 percent in the last three months of 2018. The Gallup National Health and Well-Being Index found an increase of 2.8 percentage points since 2016, the year Trump was elected promising to repeal “Obamacare.” That would translate to about 7 million more uninsured adults.

Government surveys have found that the uninsured rate has remained essentially stable under Trump.

The Kaiser Health Tracking Poll was conducted Jan. 9-14 and involved random calls to the cellphones and landlines of 1,190 adults. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Trump Seeks Action To Stop Surprise Medical Bills

A healthcare reporter, Emmarie Huettman reported that President Trump instructed administration officials Wednesday to investigate how to prevent surprise medical bills, broadening his focus on drug prices to include other issues of price transparency in health care.

Flanked by patients and other guests invited to the White House to share their stories of unexpected and outrageous bills, Trump directed his health secretary, Alex Azar, and labor secretary, Alex Acosta, to work on a solution, several attendees said.

“The pricing is hurting patients, and we’ve stopped a lot of it, but we’re going to stop all of it,” Trump said during a roundtable discussion when reporters were briefly allowed into the otherwise closed-door meeting.

David Silverstein, the founder of a Colorado-based nonprofit called Broken Healthcare who attended, said Trump struck an aggressive tone, calling for a solution with “the biggest teeth you can find.”

“Reading the tea leaves, I think there’s a big change coming,” Silverstein said.

Surprise billing, or the practice of charging patients for care that is more expensive than anticipated or isn’t covered by their insurance, has received a flood of attention in the past year, particularly as Kaiser Health News, NPR, Vox and other news organizations have undertaken investigations into patients’ most outrageous medical bills.

Attendees said the 10 invited guests — patients as well as doctors — were given an opportunity to tell their story, though Trump didn’t stay to hear all of them during the roughly hourlong gathering.

The group included Paul Davis, a retired doctor from Findlay, Ohio, whose daughter’s experience with a $17,850 bill for a urine test after back surgery was detailed in February 2018 in KHN-NPR’s first Bill of the Month feature.

Davis’ daughter, Elizabeth Moreno, was a college student in Texas when she had spinal surgery to remedy debilitating back pain. After the surgery, she was asked to provide a urine sample and later received a bill from an out-of-network lab in Houston that tested it.

Such tests rarely cost more than $200, a fraction of what the lab charged Moreno and her insurance company. But fearing damage to his daughter’s credit, Davis paid the lab $5,000 and filed a complaint with the Texas attorney general’s office, alleging “price gouging of staggering proportions.”

Davis said White House officials made it clear that price transparency is a “high priority” for Trump, and while they didn’t see eye to eye on every subject, he said he was struck by the administration’s sincerity.

“These people seemed earnest in wanting to do something constructive to fix this,” Davis said.

Dr. Martin Makary, a professor of surgery and health policy at Johns Hopkins University who has written about transparency in health care and attended the meeting, said it was a good opportunity for the White House to hear firsthand about a serious and widespread issue.

“This is how most of America lives, and [Americans are] getting hammered,” he said.

Trump has often railed against high prescription drug prices but has said less about other problems with the nation’s health care system. In October, shortly before the midterm elections, he unveiled a proposal to tie the price Medicare pays for some drugs to the prices paid for the same drugs overseas, for example.

Trump, Azar, and Acosta said efforts to control costs in health care were yielding positive results, discussing, in particular, the expansion of association health plans and the new requirement that hospitals post their list prices online. The president also took credit for the recent increase in generic drug approvals, which he said would help lower drug prices.

Discussing the partial government shutdown, Trump said Americans “want to see what we’re doing, like today we lowered prescription drug prices, the first time in 50 years,” according to a White House pool report.

Trump appeared to be referring to a recent claim by the White House Council of Economic Advisers that prescription drug prices fell last year.

However, as STAT pointed out in a recent fact check, the report from which that claim was gleaned said “growth in relative drug prices has slowed since January 2017,” not that there was an overall decrease in prices.

Annual increases in overall drug spending have leveled off as pharmaceutical companies have released fewer blockbuster drugs, patents have expired on brand-name drugs and the waning effect of a spike driven by the release of astronomically expensive drugs to treat hepatitis C.

Drugmakers were also wary of increasing their prices in the midst of growing political pressure, though the pace of increases has risen recently.

Since Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives this month, party leaders have rushed to announce investigations and schedule hearings dealing with health care, focusing in particular on drug costs and protections for those with preexisting conditions.

Last week, the House Oversight Committee announced a “sweeping” investigation into drug prices, pointing to an AARP report saying the vast majority of brand-name drugs had more than doubled in price between 2005 and 2017.

The Ground Game for Medicaid Expansion: ‘Socialism’ or a Benefit for All?

One of the other options is that of expanding Medicaid but is that socialism or a benefit for all. Michael Ollove noted that a yard sign in Omaha promotes Initiative 427, which would expand Medicaid in Nebraska. Voters in the red states of Idaho and Utah also will decide whether to join 33 states and Washington, D.C., in extending Medicaid benefits to more low-income Americans as envisioned by the Affordable Care Act. Montana voters will decide whether to make expansion permanent.

Nati Harnik noted that on a sun-drenched, late October afternoon, Kate Wolfe and April Block are canvassing for votes in a well-tended block of homes where ghosts and zombies compete for lawn space with Cornhusker regalia. Block leads the way with her clipboard, and Wolfe trails behind, toting signs promoting Initiative 427, a ballot measure that, if passed, would expand Medicaid in this bright red state.

Approaching the next tidy house on their list, they spot a middle-aged woman with a bobbed haircut pacing in front of the garage with a cellphone to her ear.

Wolfe and Block pause, wondering if they should wait for the woman to finish her call when she hails them. “Yes, I’m for Medicaid expansion,” she calls. “Put a sign up on my lawn if you want to.” Then she resumes her phone conversation.

Apart from one or two turndowns, this is the sort of warm welcome the canvassers experience this afternoon. Maybe that’s not so surprising even though this is a state President Donald Trump, an ardent opponent of “Obamacare,” or the Affordable Care Act, carried by 25 points two years ago.

Although there has been no public polling, even the speaker of the state’s unicameral legislature, Jim Scheer, one of 11 Republican state senators who signed an editorial last month opposing the initiative, said he is all but resigned to passage. “I believe it will pass fairly handily,” he told Stateline late last month.

Anne Garwood (left), a tech writer, and April Block, a middle school teacher, review voter lists in preparation for canvassing an Omaha neighborhood in favor of Initiative 427, which would expand Medicaid in Nebraska.

The Pew Charitable Trusts

Bills to expand eligibility for Medicaid, the health plan for the poor run jointly by the federal and state governments, have been introduced in the Nebraska legislature for six straight years. All failed. Senate opponents said the state couldn’t afford it. The federal government couldn’t be counted on to continue to fund its portion. Too many people were looking for a government handout.

Now, voters will decide for themselves.

Nebraska isn’t the only red state where residents have forced expansion onto Tuesday’s ballot. Idaho and Utah voters also will vote on citizen-initiated measures on Medicaid expansion. Montana, meanwhile, will decide whether to make its expansion permanent. The majority-Republican legislature expanded Medicaid in 2015, but only for a four-year period that ends next July.

untitledmedicaid.1.

Polling in those three states indicates a majority supports expanding Medicaid. Like Nebraska, all are heavily Republican states easily captured by Trump in 2016.

Last year’s failed attempt by Trump and congressional Republicans to unravel Obamacare revealed the popularity of the ACA with voters. Health policy experts said it also helped educate the public about the benefits of Medicaid, prompting activists in the four states to circumvent their Republican-led legislatures and take the matter directly to the voters.

Activists also were encouraged by the example of Maine, where nearly 60 percent of voters last year approved Medicaid expansion after the state’s Republican governor vetoed expansion bills five times.

“Medicaid has always polled well,” said Joan Alker, executive director of the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown. “When you explain what it does, they think it’s a good idea. What has changed is the intensity and growing recognition that states without expansion are falling further behind, especially in rural areas where hospitals are closing at an alarming rate.

“And all of the states with these ballot initiatives this year have significant rural populations.”

For many in Nebraska, the argument — advanced in one anti-427 television ad — that Medicaid is a government handout to lazy, poor people simply doesn’t square with what they know.

“These aren’t lazy, no-good people who refuse to work,” said Block, a middle school teacher, in an exasperating tone you can imagine her using in an unruly classroom. “They’re grocery store baggers, home health workers, hairdressers. They are the hardest workers in the world, who shouldn’t have to choose between paying for rent or food and paying for medicine or to see a doctor.”

Extending Benefits to Childless Adults

The initiative campaign began after the Nebraska legislature refused to take up expansion again last year. Its early organizers were, among others, a couple of Democratic senators and a nonprofit called Nebraska Appleseed.

Calling itself “Insure the Good Life,” an expansion of the state slogan, the campaign needed nearly 85,000 signatures to get onto the ballot. In July, the group submitted 136,000 signatures gathered from all 93 Nebraska counties.

The initiative would expand Medicaid to childless adults whose income is 138 percent of the federal poverty line or less. For an individual in Nebraska, that would translate to an income of $16,753 or less. Right now, Nebraska is one of 17 states that don’t extend Medicaid benefits to childless adults, no matter how low their income.

Under Medicaid expansion, the federal government would pay 90 percent of the health care costs of newly eligible enrollees, and the state would be responsible for the rest. The federal match for those currently covered by Medicaid is just above 52 percent.

The Nebraska Legislative Fiscal Office, a nonprofit branch of the legislature, found in an analysis that expansion would bring an additional 87,000 Nebraskans into Medicaid at an added cost to the state of close to $40 million a year. The current Medicaid population in Nebraska is about 245,000.

The federal government would send an additional $570 million a year to cover the new enrollees. An analysis from the University of Nebraska commissioned by the Nebraska Hospital Association, a backer of the initiative, found the new monies also would produce 10,800 new jobs and help bolster the precarious financial situation of the state’s rural hospitals.

For economic reasons alone, not expanding makes little sense, said state Sen. John McCollister, one of two Republican senators openly supporting expansion and a sponsor of expansion bills in the legislature, over coffee in an Omaha cafe one day recently.

“Nebraska is sending money to Washington, and that money is being sent back to 33 other states and not to Nebraska,” he said. “It’s obviously good for 90,000 Nebraskans by giving them longevity and a higher quality of life, but it also leads to a better workforce and benefits rural hospitals that won’t have to spend so much on uncompensated care.”

He said the state could easily raise the necessary money by increasing taxes on medical providers, cigarettes and internet sales. If 427 passes, those will be decisions for the next legislature.

Among the measure’s opponents are Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian advocacy group funded by David and Charles Koch that has been running radio ads against the initiative. Jessica Shelburn, the group’s state director in Nebraska, said her primary concern is that expansion would divert precious state resources and prompt cutbacks in the current optional services Medicaid provides.

“While proponents have their hearts in the right place,” Shelburn said, “we could end up hurting the people Medicaid is intended to help.”

Georgetown’s Alker, however, said that no expansion state has curtailed Medicaid services.

When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, it mandated that all states expand Medicaid, but a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made expansion optional for the states. As of now, 33 states and Washington, D.C., have expanded, including states that tend to vote Republican, such as Alaska, Arkansas, and Indiana.

Expansion is not an election issue only in the states with ballot initiatives this year. Democratic gubernatorial candidates are making expansion a major part of their campaigns in Florida and Georgia.

Ashley Anderson, a 25-year-old from Omaha with epilepsy, is one of those anxiously hoping for passage in Nebraska. A rosy-faced woman, she wears a red polo shirt from OfficeMax, where she works part-time for $9.50 an hour in the print center. She aged out of Medicaid at 19, and her single mother can’t afford a family health plan through her employer.

Since then, because of Anderson’s semi-regular seizures, she says she can’t take a full-time job that provides health benefits, and private insurance is beyond her means.

Because Anderson also can’t afford to see a neurologist, she is still taking the medication she was prescribed as a child, even though it causes severe side effects.

Not long ago, Anderson had a grand mal seizure, which entailed convulsions and violent vomiting, and was taken by ambulance to the emergency room. That trip left her $2,000 in debt. For that reason, she said, “At this point, I won’t even call 911.”

Anderson might well qualify for Social Security disability benefits, which would entitle her to Medicaid, but she said the application process is laborious and requires documentation she does not have. As far as she is concerned, the initiative is her only hope for a change.

“You know what, I even miss having an MRI,” she said. “I’m supposed to have one every year.” She can’t remember the last time she had one.

For the uninsured, the alternatives are emergency rooms or federally qualified health centers, which do not turn away anyone because of poverty.

While the clinics provide primary care, dental care, and mental health treatment, they cannot provide specialty care or perform diagnostic tests such as MRIs or CAT scans, said Ken McMorris, CEO of Charles Drew Health Center, the oldest community health center in Nebraska, which served just under 12,000 patients last year.

Almost all its patients have incomes below 200 percent of poverty, McMorris said. Many have little access to healthy foods and little opportunity for exercise.

William Ostdiek, the clinic’s chief medical officer, said he constantly sees patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease whose symptoms are getting worse because they cannot afford to see specialists.

“It’s becoming a vicious cycle,” he said. “They face financial barriers to the treatments they need, which would enable them to have full, productive lives. Instead, they just get sicker and sicker.”

Expansion, McMorris said, would make all the difference for many of those patients.

Some county officials also hope for passage. Mary Ann Borgeson, a Republican county commissioner in Douglas County, which includes Omaha, said her board has always urged the legislature to pass expansion. “Most people don’t understand — for counties, the Medicaid is a lifeline for many people who otherwise lack health care.”

Consequently, she said, the county pays about $2 million a year to reimburse providers for giving care to people who don’t qualify for Medicaid and can’t afford treatment, money that would otherwise be in the pockets of county residents.

‘That Is Socialism’

Insure the Good Life has raised $2.2 million in support of 427, according to campaign finance reports and Meg Mandy, who directs the campaign. Significant contributions have come from outside the state, particularly from Families USA, a Washington-based advocacy organization promoting health care for all, and the Fairness Project, a California organization that supports economic justice.

Both groups are active in the other states with expansion on the ballot. Well-financed, the proponents have a visible ground game and a robust television campaign.

The opposition, much less evident, is led by an anti-tax Nebraska organization called the Alliance for Taxpayers, which has filed no campaign finance documents with the state.

Marc Kaschke, former mayor of North Platte, said he is the organization’s president, but referred all questions about finances to an attorney, Gail Gitcho, who did not respond to messages left at her office.

Gitcho had previously told the Omaha World-Herald that the group hadn’t been required to file finance reports because its ads only provided information about 427; it doesn’t directly ask voters to cast ballots against the initiative.

Last week, the Alliance for Taxpayers began airing its first campaign ads. One of them complains that the expansion would give “free health care” to able-bodied adults. It features a young, healthy-looking, bearded man, slouched on a couch and eating potato chips, with crumbs spilled over his chest.

In a phone interview, Kaschke made familiar arguments against expansion. He said the state can’t afford the expansion, that it would drain money from other priorities, such as schools and roads. He said he fears the federal government would one day stop paying its share, leaving the states to pay for the whole program.

He also said, repeating Shelburn’s claim, that with limited funds, the state would be forced to cut back services to the existing population.

“We feel the states would be in a better position to solve this problem of health care,” Kaschke said. He didn’t offer suggestions on how.

Outside influence ruffles many Nebraska voters. Duane Lienemann, a retired public school agricultural teacher from Webster County near the Kansas line, said he resents outside groups coming to the state telling Nebraskans how to vote.

And he resents “liberals” from Omaha trying to shove their beliefs down the throats of those living in rural areas.

Their beliefs about expansion don’t fly with him.

“I think history will tell you when you take money away from taxpayers and give it to people as an entitlement, it is not sustainable,” Lienemann said. “You cannot grow an economy through transferring money by the government. That is socialism.”

It’s a view shared by Nebraska’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts. He is on record opposing the expansion, repeating claims that it would force cutbacks in other government services and disputing claims, documented in expansion states, that expansion leads to job growth. But Ricketts has not made opposition to expansion a central part of his campaign.

Whether he would follow in the path of Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, and seek to block implementation of the expansion if the initiative passed, is not clear. Ricketts’ office declined an interview request and did not clarify his position on blocking implementation.

For his part, Scheer, the speaker of the legislature, said he would have no part of that. “We’re elected to fulfill the wishes of the people,” he said. “If it passes, the people spoke.”

Rural Hospitals in Greater Jeopardy in the Non-Medicaid Expansion States

Michael Ollove reported that after marching 130 miles from rural Belhaven, North Carolina, to the state Capitol in Raleigh, protesters in 2015 rally against the closing of their hospital, Vidant Pungo. Medicaid expansion could be the difference between survival and extinction for many rural hospitals.

In crime novelist Agatha Christie’s biggest hit, “And Then There Were None,” guests at an island mansion die suspicious deaths one after another.

So you can forgive Jeff Lyle, a big fan of Christie’s, for comparing the 36-bed community hospital he runs in Marlin, Texas, to one of those unfortunate guests. In December, two nearby hospitals, one almost 40 miles away, the other 60 miles away, closed their doors for good.

The closings were the latest in a trend that has seen 21 rural hospitals across Texas shuttered in the past six years, leaving 160 still operating.

Lyle, who is CEO, can’t help wondering whether his Falls Community Hospital will be next.

“Most assuredly,” he replied when asked whether he could envision his central Texas hospital going under. “We’re not using our reserves yet, but I can see them from here.”

It’s not just Texas: Nearly a hundred rural hospitals in the United States have closed since 2010, according to the Center for Health Services Research at UNC-Chapel Hill. Another 600-plus rural hospitals are at risk of closing, according to an oft-cited 2016 report by iVantage Health Analytics.

Texas had the most hospitals in danger of closing (75), the health metrics firm said. And Mississippi had the largest share of hospitals at risk (79 percent).

Neither state has expanded Medicaid eligibility to more of its low-income residents under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. In fact, the closures and at-risk hospitals are heavily clustered in the 14 states that have not expanded.

Those state decisions not to expand have deprived rural hospitals, which already operate with the slimmest of margins, of resources that could be the difference between survival and closure.

That is why Lyle and administrators of other rural hospitals in Texas and other non-expansion states are so adamant about their states joining the ranks of those that have expanded.

“It would mean a fair number of people we see who have no insurance would have insurance,” Lyle said. “And for us, a dollar is better than no dollar.”

untitledmedicaid.2

In Texas, the expansion would make 1.2 million more people eligible for Medicaid, according to a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation analysis. An Urban Institute study in 2014 estimated that not expanding Medicaid would deprive Texas hospitals of $34.3 billion in federal reimbursements over 10 years.

Without that money, many rural hospitals in Texas and other non-expansion states have closed obstetrics units and other expensive services, forcing patients to travel long distances to seek treatment at the next-closest hospital, which is sometimes hours away.

By shedding those services, the hospitals diminish their reason for existing, said Maggie Elehwany, head of government affairs and policy for the National Rural Health Association.

The office of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the most recent Republican chairmen of the health committees in the Texas legislature (the legislature has yet to make committee assignments for the current legislative session), Sen. Charles Schwertner and Rep. Four Price, did not return calls requesting comment for this story.

But not everyone believes Medicaid expansion is the answer to the problems facing rural hospitals. “Medicaid is as likely to prop up inefficient and wasteful hospitals as anything else,” said Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Another rural hospital in Texas, Goodall-Witcher in Clifton, which also operates two community health clinics and a nursing room, risked closing until residents of Bosque County voted in November to create a hospital taxing district.

“I’m not saying we would have closed the day after the election,” said Adam Willmann, the hospital’s CEO, “but I don’t know how much longer we could have gone.”

The additional taxes will bring the hospital an estimated $2.5 million a year and perhaps take it out of the red, but they won’t necessarily lift Goodall-Witcher out of financial peril, Willmann said.

“Medicaid expansion,” Willmann said. “That is one of the key things we could do to help us deal with the tough financial demands we face.”

The burden of Uncompensated Care

As envisioned by the ACA when it passed Congress in 2010, expansion states would extend benefits to all adults — including childless adults — whose income was at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line. (In 2019, that would be an average individual income of $12,140, depending on the state.)

Initially, the federal government paid 100 percent of the health care costs of the expansion population. The federal share falls to 90 percent in 2020.

To date, 36 states plus Washington, D.C., have expanded Medicaid. By 2017, expansion under the ACA had covered 17 million new enrollees. Roughly another 4 million people would qualify in the remaining states, according to a 2018 Kaiser report.

Instead, many of those low-income residents remain uninsured or underinsured in plans with high deductibles and copayments.

But that doesn’t mean people don’t receive health care. Without health insurance, low-income people are less likely to get preventive care, which often results in worsening health conditions that frequently bring them to hospitals where they are guaranteed treatment. Under federal law, hospitals must stabilize and treat anyone showing up at the emergency room, regardless of their ability to pay.

Rural hospitals, like their urban counterparts, are forced to absorb those costs. But unlike bigger hospitals, their patient volumes, and operating margins are so low that “uncompensated care” burdens can be crippling.

For instance, Willmann said his hospital’s uncompensated tab last year was about $4.2 million, or 11 to 12 percent of his overall budget.

According to the Oklahoma Hospital Association, the state’s rural hospitals carried about $170 million in bad debt from charitable care and patients’ unpaid bills. Five rural hospitals have closed in the state since 2016.

A 2018 study in the journal Health Affairs found that the rate of closures of rural hospitals increased significantly in non-expansion states after 2014 when states began implementing the expansion. At the same time, closure rates decreased in expansion states.

Many administrators of rural hospitals are quick to say that Medicaid expansion alone will not solve their financial problems. Rural hospitals faced steep challenges long before the ACA.

Rural Americans tend to be older, in poorer health and less insured than those living elsewhere, the latter resulting in a greater share of uncompensated care for rural hospitals. Because of declining populations in rural areas, hospitals there often have empty beds, which means less revenue.

“It’s been a long, slow bleed,” said Fred Blavin, a health policy expert at the Urban Institute.

Automatic federal budget cuts beginning in 2013 (known as sequestration) reduced Medicare reimbursements, which are a particularly important source of revenue for hospitals. Congress has cut back on the amount hospitals can deduct for bad debt. Congress, in its budget tightening, reduced other forms of assistance to rural hospitals as well.

“You can put a Band-Aid on, but you still have 99 other wounds,” Willmann said.

Elehwany, of the National Rural Health Association, said that rural communities where hospitals are forced to close might be able to meet residents’ health needs by opening a new urgent care facility or maternal care center.

The loss of rural hospitals not only means patients having to travel longer distances to the next medical providers, but the closures also can often have a crippling effect on the local economy.

Goodall-Witcher Hospital is the largest employer in Bosque County. “Our payroll is bigger than the county’s entire budget,” Willmann said. “Can you imagine what it would do to this county to lose $9 million from the economy a year?”

A Health Services Research journal report found that when a rural area’s only hospital closes, income per capita falls by 4 percent and unemployment rises by 1.6 percent.

Willmann was relieved voters in his district supported the measure to create a hospital taxing district, but he acknowledged that it wasn’t a good deal for his county’s taxpayers. Their federal taxes help pay for the expansion in other states but not in Texas.

“Basically, you’re asking them to pay twice,” he said.

Rural hospital officials appear not to have the slightest hope that the deep red Texas legislature and the governor will get behind expansion.

“There is no likelihood of Medicaid expansion in Texas in the near term,” said John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals.

The government shutdown is over, but for how long? The New York Times finally got it correct when they wrote:

‘Our Country Is Being Run by Children’: Shutdown’s End Brings Relief and Frustration

 

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!!!

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!!

 

 

Thousand Oaks and Our Peculiarly American Affliction. And will the Dems get Gun Control?

46485261_1790193274443657_9120295823932915712_n

 

Be shocked by the massacre at a bar. It’s not normal.

Tim Dominguez sits under the freeway after escaping the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where a gunman killed 12 other people Wednesday night.

According to statistics from the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 307 mass shootings in the 312 days of 2018. They are a commonplace occurrence. This is a horrifying thing to say, but it is the truth. We need to say this truth over and over. We need to face this horror without looking away. We live in a country where there are relatively few restrictions on gun ownership and where our cultural tolerance for mass murder appears to be infinite.

Less than a month ago an author visited California State University Channel Islands, not far from where the shooting on Wednesday night took place. A deeply engaged audience greeted her. They had a thoughtful discussion about sexual violence, justice, trauma, and healing. Some of those students might have been at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Wednesday night, doing what college students are supposed to be doing — dancing and hanging out with friends, having fun. As she read the news Thursday morning, her chest tightened. She read quotes from students from that campus describing the sparks and the smoke they saw. She felt resignation creeping in.

Over the past two years, there has been increased security at his events, armed guards. Sometimes they are there because he had received a threat. Sometimes they are there because she is a black woman with opinions and the threat is already implied. Every time she goes on stage, she looks out into the audience and wonders if there is a man with a gun in the sea of faces. She is not scared of him. She is resigned to the inevitability of him pointing that gun at me, at the crowd, and pulling the trigger. She doesn’t want to be this resigned. She doesn’t want you to be, either.

In an interview, the father of one of the young women who escaped the carnage at the Borderline Bar said his daughter did what he has taught her to do in the event of a mass shooting. It took me a moment to realize what he was saying. We are raising generations of children who are prepared for this kind of crime.

It is a peculiarly American affliction that this epidemic of gun violence doesn’t move us to take any real steps toward curbing gun violence and access to guns.

It is painfully obvious that there is no shooting appalling enough to make American politicians stand up to the National Rifle Association and gun makers. A congressman was shot and critically wounded. Children at Sandy Hook Elementary were murdered. Revelers at the Pulse nightclub were murdered. Concertgoers in Las Vegas were murdered.

Our leaders think and pray their way through the horror. The politicians who rely on N.R.A. donations feign concern and continue taking that money. American voters keep these people in office, perhaps, because it isn’t their loved ones being murdered. Yet. And even if it were, I don’t know that their votes would change. Instead, people treat the Constitution like a fast-food value menu, choosing which amendments are sacrosanct (the First and Second) and which are disposable (any of those giving civil rights to anyone but white men).

The script following these shootings is too familiar — flags at half-staff, hollow words of sympathy — but what chills me is the relatively calm eloquence of the survivors speaking to reporters. How they don’t seem particularly surprised to have survived a mass shooting. That they are able, in the immediate aftermath of trauma, to articulate their experiences. They can do this because they have seen it done.

How do we change this script? How do we convince enough people that we are well past the time for radical action?

We must elect politicians who will ban assault weapons and at the very least enact legislation requiring federal, rigorous background checks for gun owners. But really, that’s not radical. It’s the bare minimum, and by the grace of that kind of legislation in California, the shooter was able to use only a handgun. This massacre where 13 people died could have been much worse.

In late September, I went to a gun range with my brother, who is a gun enthusiast. We spent about an hour shooting guns as he explained the merits of the various weapons. We wore safety goggles, and though it wasn’t my first time shooting a gun, he went over the safety protocols. Before we could even enter the range we watched a safety video. From the moment we entered the facility until the time we left, we were reminded of the danger of these weapons. Each gun was heavy in my hand, hot. Before long, the space around us was thick with the stench of oil and gunpowder. We were shooting at targets, metal, and paper. There was a certain satisfaction when I shot well. I understood the appeal of holding that kind of power in the palm of my hand. I also understood the responsibility of holding a gun. I was awed by it. I was not so enamored that I want to own a gun myself. Yet.

Today I held a 4-month-old baby. He is cute and strong and wide-eyed. He still smells sweet and new. I held him and for a few minutes, I forgot about everything terrible. I forgot about the man with a gun and the 12 other people he killed and the people he injured. I forgot about the man with a gun who walked into a yoga studio and started shooting. I forgot about the man with a gun who walked into a grocery store and started shooting. I forgot about the man with a gun who walked into a synagogue and started shooting. And then I looked at this baby’s tiny face and his wide, gummy smile. I remembered everything terrible. I understood the responsibility of holding a child. I was awed by it. I realized that as horrifying and commonplace and inevitable as mass shootings are, we cannot do nothing. Stare into the horror. Feel it. Feel it so much that you are moved to act.

Deaths From Gun Violence: How The U.S. Compares With The Rest Of The World

Nurith Aizenman reported these statistics about a year ago but I thought that the story and the comparisons were relevant regarding gun violence rates. The timing of that report couldn’t be more apt — or grimmer even today. The statistics were released just as Americans were waking up to the news that a gunman had opened fire the night before at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He killed 12 people and was found dead at the scene.

The attack came just 11 days after the fatal shooting that claimed 11 lives at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Eight months before that, a gunman shot 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. And just over a year ago a gunman massacred 58 people at a music festival in Las Vegas.

As in previous years, the University of Washington’s latest data indicates that this level of gun violence in a well-off country is a particularly American phenomenon.

When you consider countries with the top indicators of socioeconomic success — income per person and average education level, for instance — the United States is bested by just 18 nations, including Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, and Japan.

Those countries all also enjoy low rates of gun violence. But the U.S. has the 28th-highest rate in the world: 4.43 deaths due to gun violence per 100,000 people in 2017. That was nine times as high as the rate in Canada, which had 0.47 deaths per 100,000 people — and 29 times as high as in Denmark, which had 0.15 deaths per 100,000.

The numbers come from a massive database maintained by the University’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which tracks lives lost in every country, every year, by every possible cause of death. The 2017 figures paint a fairly rosy picture for much of the world, with deaths due to gun violence rare even in many countries that are extremely poor — such as Bangladesh, which saw 0.07 deaths per 100,000 people.

Prosperous Asian countries such as Singapore and Japan boast the absolute lowest rates, though the United Kingdom and Germany are in almost as good shape.

“It is a little surprising that a country like ours should have this level of gun violence,” Ali Mokdad, a professor of global health and epidemiology at the IHME, told NPR in an interview last year. “If you compare us to other well-off countries, we really stand out.”

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 12.29.07 PM

To be sure, there are quite a few countries where gun violence is a substantially larger problem than in the United States — particularly in Central America and the Caribbean. Mokdad said a major driver is the large presence of gangs and drug trafficking. “The gangs and drug traffickers fight among themselves to get more territory, and they fight the police,” said Mokdad. And citizens who are not involved are often caught in the crossfire. Another country with widespread gun violence is Venezuela, which has been grappling with political unrest and an economic meltdown.

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 12.30.59 PMMokdad said drug trafficking may also be a driving factor in two Asian countries that have unusually high rates of violent gun deaths for their region, the Philippines and Thailand.

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 12.31.24 PM

With the casualties due to armed conflicts factored out, even in conflict-ridden regions such as the Middle East, the U.S. rate is worse.

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 12.32.00 PM

The U.S. gun violence death rate is also higher than in nearly all countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including many that are among the world’s poorest.

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 12.32.20 PM

One more way to consider these data: The institute also estimates what it would expect a country’s rate of gun violence deaths to be based solely on its socioeconomic status. By that measure, the U.S. should be seeing only 0.46 deaths per 100,000 people. Instead, its actual rate of 4.43 deaths per 100,000 is almost 10 times as high.

Dems vow swift action on gun reform next year

Mike Lillis and Scott Wong wrote that the nation’s latest mass shooting has rekindled the fire under Democrats to use their newly won majority to strengthen federal gun laws in the next Congress.

The issue was off the table for eight years of Republican rule, as GOP leaders have sided with the powerful gun lobby against any new gun restrictions.

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi(D-Calif.), who’s seeking to regain the Speaker’s gavel, vowed to move quickly on gun reform next year, citing Wednesday night’s shooting massacre at a California country music bar as the latest reason Congress should step in with new restrictions on the sale and ownership of firearms.

Universal background checks, Pelosi suggested, would be the likely first step.

“It doesn’t cover everything, but it will save many lives,” Pelosi said Thursday night on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time” program.

“This will be a priority for us going into the next Congress.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), likely the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said this week that he’ll “immediately get to work” on that legislation next year.

That position marks a shift from almost a decade ago when Democrats last controlled the House and party leaders declined to consider tougher gun laws despite entreaties from some rank-and-file members.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a gun reformer from Chicago and member of the Judiciary Committee, had requested hearings on background checks in 2010, only to be refused.

The reasons were largely political: House Democrats, at the time, had a more conservative-leaning caucus, boasting more than 50 Blue Dogs in battleground districts the party was fighting to preserve.

After a 10-year ban on assault weapons signed by former President Clinton was widely viewed as a “third rail” that helped secure George W. Bush’s White House victory in 2000, Democrats didn’t want to repeat history.

Since then, the country has seen a long string of prominent mass shootings, including violence targeting a congresswoman in Tucson, Ariz., elementary school students in Newtown, Conn., nightclubbers in Orlando, churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., country music fans in Las Vegas, high schoolers in Parkland, Fla. and Jews praying at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last month.

The most recent tragedy occurred Wednesday night at a bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where authorities say a Marine combat veteran killed 12 people before fatally shooting himself.

One of the victims, 27-year-old Telemachus Orfanos, survived last year’s Las Vegas massacre but was killed in the Thousand Oaks shooting.

“I don’t want prayers. I don’t want thoughts. I want gun control, and I hope to God nobody else sends me any more prayers,” Orfanos’s mother, Susan Orfanos, said in an emotional interview with KABC that has been viewed millions of times on social media. “I want gun control. No more guns.”

The rash of devastating episodes shifted public sentiment in strong favor of gun reform, and polls show overwhelming support for measures like expanded background checks among voters of all political stripes.

Three Parts Brands Have Come Together

The Ford Motor Company reported that among the host of Democrats elected to the House on Tuesday in conservative districts, many embraced new restrictions on gun purchases without facing the previously feared backlash at the polls.

“The public has evolved on their belief about this, given the magnitude and disparity of gun violence and mass shootings,” Quigley said Friday by phone.

The Democrats’ plans for gun-reform legislation remain unclear.

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), the head of the party’s task force to prevent gun violence, has taken the lead on the background check bill, and will likely do so again next year. There are also dozens of related proposals other lawmakers will surely promote, including bills to ban bump stocks, eliminate assault weapons, spike taxes on guns and ammunition and prohibit high-capacity magazines like the one allegedly used by the shooter in Thousand Oaks.

Quigley is all for pushing bold reforms, including a ban on assault weapons, but is promoting the idea of securing early victories on more popular measures.

“Let’s start where we have some commonality,” he said. “The vast majority of Americans, the majority of gun owners, the majority of NRA [National Rifle Association] members support universal background checks.

“That’s a good place to start.”

That the House will pass some kind of background-checks legislation is clear. But any new gun restrictions face tall odds in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Republicans are near unanimous in their opposition to such reforms.

In 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) authored legislation to expand background checks for firearms purchased online and at gun shows. It fell six votes short of overcoming a GOP-led filibuster, with only four Republicans — Toomey, and Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), John McCain (Ariz.) and Mark Kirk(Ill.) — supporting the measure.

Kirk lost his reelection bid in 2016 and McCain died this year, leaving just two Senate Republicans who back strengthening background checks. Manchin just won re-election this week and Toomey isn’t up for reelection until 2022.

“Senator Toomey is continuing to work with his colleagues in the Senate to find a path forward to 60 votes for his background check legislation,” said Toomey spokesman Sam Fischer.

Complicating the math for gun reform supporters, Tuesday’s midterms added to the GOP Senate majority, and the incoming Republicans are all gun-rights promoters supported heavily by the firearms lobby.

Asked about the appropriate response to the Thousand Oaks shooting, Sen.-elect Marsha Blackburn(R-Tenn.) was terse.

“What we do is say, how do we make certain that we protect the Second Amendment and protect our citizens?” Blackburn told Fox News on Thursday.

President Trump could be a wild card in the coming gun debate. The president has a long and conflicting history on the topic, from the promotion of an assault-weapons ban years ago to a more recent embrace of the Second Amendment protectionism advocated by the NRA.

Gun-reform advocates, long accustomed to congressional inaction on the issue, say they’ve been encouraged by what they’ve heard from Pelosi and other Democratic leaders so far.

“While so many other factors have not been settled, we believe that House Democrats will move universal background checks in early 2019,” said Robin Lloyd, government affairs director for the Courage to Fight Gun Violence, the gun-reform group led by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), the congresswoman shot in the head in Tucson in 2011.

Medical professionals to NRA: Guns are our lane. Help us reduce deaths or move over.

 Megan L. Ranney, Heather Sher, and Dara Kass, Opinion contributors, reported that after the American College of Physicians released a paper last week about reducing firearm injuries and deaths in America, the NRA tweeted the statement: “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.”

A couple of days later, the Centers for Disease Control published new data indicating that the death toll from gun violence in our nation continues to rise. As the NRA demanded that we doctors stay in our lane, we awoke to learn of the 307th mass shooting in 2018 with another 12 innocent lives lost to an entirely preventable cause of death — gun violence.

Every medical professional practicing in the United States has seen enough gun violence firsthand to deeply understand the toll that this public health epidemic is taking on our children, families, and entire communities.

It is long past time for us to acknowledge the epidemic is real, devastating, and has root causes that can be addressed to assuage the damage. We must all come together to find meaningful solutions to this very American problem.

We bear witness to every gun-related trauma

The physicians, nurses, therapists, medical professionals, and other concerned community members signing this letter are absolutely “in our lane” when we propose solutions to prevent death and disability from gun violence.

As the professionals who manage this epidemic, we bear witness to every trauma and attempt to resuscitate, successful or not.

►We cut open chests and hold hearts in our hands in the hopes of bringing them back to life.

►We do our best to repair the damage from bullets to pulverized organs and splintered bones.

►We care for the survivors of firearm injury for decades after they’ve been paralyzed, lost a limb, or been disabled.

►We deliver mental health care to the siblings and parents of the children who have been shot as well as to the survivors of gun violence.

►We treat the anxiety of teachers and students who are already traumatized by the news of mass shootings who are then are asked to participate in active shooter drills in their own schools.

►We prepare for mass casualty shootings with drills ourselves and practice sorting victims by how life-threatening their injuries are while fervently hoping that a mass shooting never touches our own communities.

►We are asked by families, schools, employers and law enforcement to conduct mental health evaluations and threat assessments of individuals who demonstrate dangerous behaviors with legally-owned firearms — yet we have no protocols to decrease firearm risk when they present to us.

►We support our own medical colleagues as they themselves must recover from the psychological trauma of being first responders to mass shootings.

►We design trauma protocols to reduce the loss of life from even the most horrific gunshot wounds.

►We train civilians to carry and use tourniquets to #StopTheBleed, something that should be necessary on battlefields but not in American grade school classrooms.

►We try our best to conduct research to stop the epidemic of gun violence.

►We hold the hands of gunshot victims taking their final breaths.

►We cry, ourselves, as we tell parents that their child has been shot and that we did our best.

►We escort parents into our treatment rooms to take one last look at their dead child before they have been able to process the news.

►We see firsthand how a single moment ends a life and forever changes the lives of survivors, families, and entire communities.

NRA should help us reduce gun death toll

Our research efforts have been curtailed by NRA lobbying efforts in Congress. We ask that the NRA join forces with us to find solutions.

We invite the NRA to collaborate with us to find workable, effective strategies to diminish the death toll from suicide, homicide, domestic violence and unintentional shootings for the thousands of Americans who will one day find themselves on the wrong side of a barrel of a gun.

We are not anti-gun. We are anti-bullet hole. Let’s work together.

Join us, or move over! This is our lane. We as a society must do something about gun violence NOW!

Also, I live in a region where about 70% of the population owns guns. But the homicide and suicide rate is very, very low. Why? I’m not sure at this time but I along with the majority of our country are tired and scared of the gun-related violence.

The holiday of Thanksgiving reminds us that we ought to be thankful for the blessings and the people in our lives. But what do we do when it seems that everything is going haywire? Maybe somebody recently wronged you. An unexpected expense has thrown off your budget. That new role at your job isn’t as shiny as you thought it would be. Or maybe you’ve been trying to do the right things, live the right way, but situations STILL aren’t working out in your favor.

How do you cope? How do you resist the urge to give up? How do you continue to do good even when you’re not seeing any immediate benefits from “living the right way? And HOW IN THE WORLD can you be thankful for all of this? Sometimes we have to be thankful for what we have and enjoy the day and family and friends.

 

What the New Democratic House majority might actually pass on health care; and It Looks Like VA Healthcare Maybe Improving!

 

 

18670832_1206383419491315_6469395384583311089_nI had prepared two posts for tonight and wanted to hold off on the recent shootings until next week as we digest what the effect really is in our country and the future strategies. Now let’s discuss the effect of the election and in looking at the House Democrats, who have a lot to figure out on their signature issue.

Healthcare carried House Democrats to victory on Election Day. But what now?

Remember my past post reminding the Republicans the importance of healthcare in the midterm elections? We, it looks like it was an important factor in the outcomes of the “wave”. Dylan Scott spent some time looking at his prediction of what the new majority will bring to our health care system. In interviews this fall with half a dozen senior House Democratic aides, health care lobbyists, and progressive wonks, it became clear the party is only in the nascent stages of figuring out its next steps on health care.

The new House Democratic majority knows what it opposes. They want to stop any further efforts by Republicans or the Trump administration to roll back and undermine the Affordable Care Act or overhaul Medicaid and Medicare.

But Democrats are less certain about an affirmative health care agenda. Most Democrats campaigned on protecting preexisting conditions, but the ACA has already done that. Medicare-for-all is energizing the party’s left wing, but nobody expects a single-payer bill to start moving through the House. Drug prices offer the rare opportunity for bipartisan work with Senate Republicans and the Trump White House, but it is also a difficult problem with few easy policy solutions — certainly not any silver bullet that Democrats could pull out of the box and pass on day one, or even month one, of the next Congress.

Winning a House majority to ensure Obamacare’s safety is an important turning point after so many years in which health care hurt Democrats much more than it helped.

But the path forward for the party on their signature issue is surprisingly undefined.

The likely first item on the Democratic agenda: Obamacare stabilization

Democrats do have some ideas, of course. Democratic aides emphasized the various investigations they could launch into Trump’s health department, not only looking into any efforts by the White House to sabotage Obamacare but also focusing on more obscure issues like Medicare payment rates.

But wonky oversight inquiries probably aren’t the big-ticket item that new Democratic members and their voters are looking for, especially heading into the 2020 presidential election.

After campaigning in defense of Obamacare, warning about Republicans rolling back preexisting conditions protections and the Trump administration’s sabotage of the health care law, a bill to stabilize the Obamacare insurance markets would be the obvious first item for the new Democratic majority’s agenda.

Several sources pointed to a bill by Democratic Reps. Richard Neal (MA), Frank Pallone (NJ), and Bobby Scott (VA) — who have been serving as the top Democrats on leading health care-related committees — as the likely starting point. The plan is designed to build off Obamacare’s infrastructure to expand federal assistance while reversing the recent Republican efforts to undermine the law.

That bill would expand Obamacare’s premium subsidies, both by extending federal assistance to more people in lifting the current eligibility cutoff and by increasing the size of the tax credits people receive. It would also bolster the cost-sharing reduction subsidies that people with lower incomes receive to reduce their out-of-pocket costs while extending eligibility for those subsidies to people with higher incomes.

The Pallone-Neal-Scott bill would reverse the Trump administration’s recent regulations intended to funnel more people to insurance plans that are not required to meet all of Obamacare’s rules for preexisting conditions. It would also pump more money back into enrollment outreach, cut by the Trump administration, and establish a new program to compensate insurers for high-cost patients, with the hope of keeping premiums down.

Two things stick out about this bill: It would be the most robust expansion of Obamacare since the law first passed, and it is just narrow enough that, with a few sweeteners for Senate Republicans, it could conceivably have a chance to pass. Democrats are waiting to see how the GOP majority in the upper chamber reacts to losing the House.

“Undoing sabotage and bringing stabilization to the ACA markets, that’s something we should really be thinking about,” one House Democratic aide told me. “It depends on what kind of mood the Republicans are in. Maybe they’ll say that actually now that the tables are turned, we should probably sit down.”

Senate Republicans and Democrats did come very close to a narrow, bipartisan deal — it wasn’t even as robust as the Pallone-Neal-Scott bill — to stabilize Obamacare in 2017. It fell apart, ostensibly after a tiff over abortion-related provisions, but that near miss would be the reason for any optimism about a bipartisan deal on the divisive health care law.

Then again Senate Republicans might have no interest in an Obamacare compromise after gaining some seats. Democrats would still likely work on stabilization to send a message to voters on health care ahead of the 2020 campaign.

Shoring up Obamacare is a good start, but what next?

In the case, the Pallone-Neal-Scott bill might be a nice starting point — no Democrat really disagrees about whether they should help the law work better in the short term — but it still lacks any truly ambitious provisions. It is just about as narrowly tailored as an Obamacare stabilization bill offered by Democrats could be, a fact that aides and activists will privately concede.

Missing are any of the bolder policy proposals animating the left. Not even a hint of Medicare-for-all single-payer health care, which is or isn’t a surprise, depending on how you look at it.

Medicare-for-all is quickly becoming orthodoxy among many in the party’s progressive grassroots, and a single-payer bill proposed this Congress in the House (similar to the one offered by Bernie Sanders over in the Senate) has 123 sponsors.

But House Democratic leaders probably don’t want to take up such a potentially explosive issue too soon after finally clawing back a modicum of power in Trump’s Washington.

Still, the current stabilization bill doesn’t even include a Medicare or Medicaid buy-in, the rebranded public option that never made it into Obamacare but would allow Americans to voluntarily join one of the major government insurance programs. It is an idea that even the more moderate Democratic members tend to support, and polls have found three-fourths of Americans think a Medicare buy-in is a good idea.

The plain truth is House Democrats haven’t reached a consensus yet about what they want to do to cover more Americans. They agree Obamacare was an important first step, and they agree the status quo is unacceptable. But the exact mechanism for achieving those goals — single-payer, a robust public option, or simply a buffed-up version of Obamacare — is still very much up for debate.

“People will want to do something, but any further action is going to be a consensus-building process,” a senior House Democratic aide told me. “Democrats have lots of different ideas on how to continue working to reduce the uninsured.”

That is all well and good, but few issues are exciting the Democratic grassroots right now like Medicare-for-all. During the midterm campaigns, Democratic candidates and even grassroots leaders were happy to let those words mean whatever voters wanted them to mean. For some people, it meant single-payer; for others; it might mean a Medicare buy-in or something more limited.

The unreservedly progressive members who were just elected to Congress will only wait so long before they start pressing Democratic leaders to take more aggressive steps to pick up one of their top campaign issues. That pressure will only intensify as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up and Democrats debate what kind of platform they should run on as they seek to take back the White House.

For now, Democrats have tried to put off a difficult debate and focus on what unites them. But the debate is still coming.

The riddle of high drug prices still needs to be solved too

Even with Obamacare and preexisting conditions mobilizing Democratic voters this year, prescription drug prices remain a top concern for many Americans. That’s another area where Democrats know they want to act but don’t know yet exactly what they can or should do.

The issue could be an opening for serious dealmaking: Trump himself has attacked big pharma since his presidential campaign. His administration has actually launched some interesting initiatives to rein in drug costs — approving a record number of generic drugs, trying to even the playing field between America and foreign countries — that have some policy wonks intrigued, even if the impact is still to be determined.

Democrats have mostly stuck to slamming Trump for feigning to act on drug prices while cozying up to the drug industry. But it’s a top priority for both parties, and there could be some room for compromise. One progressive policy wonk thought a drug prices bill might actually be the first Democratic priority. It helps that drug prices are a populist issue that the new House majority might really be able to pass a bill on.

But first, Democrats have to figure out what exactly they are for — and what would actually make a difference.

The rallying cry for Democrats on drug prices has been letting Medicare directly negotiate prices with drug manufacturers, a proposal that Trump also embraced as a candidate, though he has since softened as president. The problem is the Congressional Budget Office doesn’t think Medicare negotiations would save any money unless the government is willing to deny seniors coverage for certain medications. But adding such a provision would surely invite attacks that Democrats are depriving people’s grandparents of the medications they need.

There are a lot of levers to pull to try to reduce drug prices: the patent protections that pharma companies receive for new drugs, the mandated discounts when the government buys drugs for Medicare and Medicaid, existing hurdles to getting generic drugs approved, the tax treatment of drug research and development. Lawmakers and the public view pharmacy benefits managers, the mysterious middlemen between health insurers and drugmakers, skeptically.

But none of those are silver bullets to lower prices, and they will certainly invite pushback from the politically potent pharmaceutical lobby, focused on the concerns about how much cracking down on drug companies to discourage them from developing new drugs. Democrats also don’t know yet what specific policies could win support from Senate Republicans or the Trump White House.

“How do you take this gargantuan Chinese menu of things and figure out how things fit together in a way that stem some of the abuses?” is how one Democratic aide summarized the dilemma.

It is a problem bedeviling Democrats on more than just drug prices. Health care was a winner on election night this year, and it has always been a priority for Democrats. Now they just need to figure out what to do.

Because tomorrow is Veterans Day I thought that I would include this article.             After A Year Of Turmoil, New VA Secretary Says ‘Waters Are Calmer’ 

Quil Lawrence in his Twitter post reported on a wide-ranging interview with NPR, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie said his department is on the mend after a tumultuous 2018.”I do think it is better because the turmoil of the first half of this year is behind us, the waters are calmer. We’re not where we need to be, but we’re heading in that direction,” he said.

Early in Donald Trump’s presidency, the VA was considered an island of stability in an unpredictable administration.

Secretary David Shulkin was a hold-over from the Obama administration, already familiar with the VA’s massive bureaucracy. Bipartisan reforms moved through Congress with relative speed, and Trump could point to a list of legislative accomplishments.

But the president fired Shulkin last March after weeks of intrigue during which VA political appointees plotted openly to oust him. Trump’s first nominee to replace Shulkin, Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, sank under accusations of misconduct (which are still being investigated by the Pentagon).

Numerous high-ranking officials left the department, and records showed that friends of the president outside of government – who weren’t even veterans – had been lobbying Trump at Mar-a-Lago on how to run the VA.

After a stint as acting VA secretary, Robert Wilkie was confirmed by the Senate last July. Since then, Wilkie says he’s been “walking the post,” visiting as many VA facilities as he can. And he’s reached the same conclusion as many of his predecessors.

“I have been incredibly impressed by the caliber of VA employee I’ve encountered everywhere, from Alaska to Massachusetts to Florida,” Wilkie told NPR’s, Steve Inskeep.

“I have no quarrel with the quality of medical care our veterans receive. My biggest problem is actually getting them into the system so that they can receive that care, which means the problems are primarily administrative and bureaucratic,” said Wilkie, himself a veteran of the Navy and a current Air Force reservist, who counts generations of veterans in his family.

“I am the son of a Vietnam soldier. I know what happened when those men and women came home,” Wilkie said. “So that is incredibly important to me.”

Wilkie is navigating an important moment for the VA – while Congress has already passed major reforms, he’s the one who has to implement them. And plenty of political controversy hides in the details.

The VA Mission Act of 2018 was signed into law in June. It’s intended to consolidate about a half-dozen programs The VA uses to buy veterans private healthcare at a cost of billions of dollars, into one streamlined system.

Critics fear that leaning too much on private care will bleed the VA’s own medical centers, and lead to a drop in quality there – and amounts to a starve-the-beast strategy of privatization.

Wilkie says that won’t happen and is not President Trump’s goal, but he has yet to present a budget for expanded private care to the White House and to Congress.

“You’re not going to privatize this institution. I certainly have never talked about that with anyone in this administration,” Wilkie said.

Wilkie also maintains that he has had little contact with the group of outside advisers who meet with the president at Mar-a-Lago, including CEO of Marvel Comics Ike Perlmutter and Florida doctor Bruce Moscowitz. Records show they had extensive communication with the previous VA secretary, sometimes influencing policy decisions.

“I met with them when I was visiting the West Palm Beach VA – my first week as acting (secretary), and have not had any meetings with them ever since that day,” Wilkie said. “I’ll be clear. I make the decisions here at the department, in support of the vision of the president.”

Despite rumors that Wilkie would clear out many of the Trump political appointees who clashed with former secretary Shulkin, he said he didn’t expect more staffing changes.

The one notable departure is Peter O’Rourke, who was acting secretary for two months while Wilkie went through the confirmation process. O’Rourke clashed repeatedly with Congress and the VA’s inspector general. Wilkie himself cited a Wall Street Journal reports that O’Rourke is poised to go and said he’s “on leave.”

“I think there will be an announcement soon about a move to another department in the federal government – I know that he’s looking for something new,” said Wilkie, “He’s on leave.”

Another major new plan that Wilkie must implement is a $10 billion, 10-year plan to make the VA’s medical records compatible with the Pentagon’s.

He once again mentioned his father’s experience as a wounded combat vet.

“He had an 800-page record, and it was the only copy, that he had to carry with him for the rest of his life. He passed away last year,” said Wilkie.

“One of the first decisions I made as the acting secretary was to begin the process of creating a complete electronic healthcare record that begins when that young American enters the military entrance processing station to the time that that soldier, sailor, airman, Marine walks into the VA.”

But that process has actually been underway for a decade – with little to show and about a billion dollars already spent on the effort. The non-partisan Government Accountability Office says it’s in part because neither the Pentagon nor the VA was put in charge of the effort — which is still the case. Wilkie says he has signed an agreement with the Pentagon to jointly run it with clear lines of authority.

“I think we’ll have more announcements later in the year when it comes to one belly-button to push for that office,” he said.

As for staff shortages, another perennial complaint at the VA, Wilkie acknowledged there are 35- to 40,000 vacancies at the agency.

“We suffer from the same shortages that the private sector and other public health services suffer from, particularly in the area of mental health,” he said.

New legislation passed this year gives Wilkie the authority to offer higher pay to medical professionals.

“I’m using it to attract as many people as we can into the system,” said Wilkie

But Wilkie also added that he was shocked, upon taking the post, that it’s not clear how many additional people are needed – because it’s not even clear how many people are working at VA.

“I had two briefings on the same day and two different numbers as to how many people this agency employs.”

Wilkie says he’s in the process of finding out the answer to that question, and many others, as he starts his second 100 days in office.

And to end this post I must include this note. I was raised in the Bronx, New York and are truly embarrassed to acknowledge that the new Congresswoman Cortes-Ortes who was elected, and not sure how when you look at her qualifications and knowledge. But more, she is a socialist and expects everything to be given to all and the government will foot the bill and now listen to this.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, new youngest Congresswoman, says she can’t afford D.C. apartment

Ashley May, a reporter for the USA TODAY noted that the upset primary win in New York by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a huge moment for the Democratic Party because it shows the left-wing base is energized heading into the midterms, according to AP National Politics Reporter Steve Peoples. (June 27) AP

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman elected to Congress in the midterm elections, is struggling to pay rent, according to a recent interview.

Ocasio-Cortez, 29, told The New York Times she’s not sure how she will be able to afford an apartment in Washington, D.C., without a salary for three months in an interview published online Wednesday.

She told the Times she has some savings from her job earlier this year as a bartender at a Union Square restaurant, and she’s hoping that will hold her over. Living without a paycheck is something she said her and her partner tried to plan for, but it’s a hardship that’s still “very real.”

“We’re kind of just dealing with the logistics of it day by day, but I’ve really been just kind of squirreling away and then hoping that gets me to January,” she told the Times.

Ocasio-Cortez is a New York activist and Democrat who will represent the 14th Congressional district, which covers the Bronx and Queens.

Thursday, she pointed to her lack of income as a reason why some people are not able to work in politics.

“There are many little ways in which our electoral system isn’t even designed (nor prepared) for working-class people to lead,” she said.

She said she hopes she can change that.

Yes, and now if she plays her cards right she has a job, paying better than any job that she is really qualified for life.

Buck it up Ocasio-Cortez, live outside of DC and take public transportation like most people do!

How did you fund your campaign? I don’t want to hear your sob story and yes I am ashamed that the borough of the Bronx has you for their representative. What a joke! You said that when you got to DC you were going to sign a whole lot of bills and laws to make things better. Do you even know anything about the process and have you ever taken a Civics course. You are in for some big surprises… called reality!

On a better note-Happy Veterans Day and thank you all who have served in our military and those who are still out there helping to make this world a better place to live and protecting our freedoms.