Category Archives: Year of Policy Change

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!!