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Julie Rovner: Replacing the ACA: Where there’s a will there’s a way



Kaiser Health News

Now that the GOP effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act is in limbo, is there a way to make it work better?

Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much when it comes to the controversial federal health law, but some party leaders from each side of the aisle agree it needs repairs.

“No one ever said the Affordable Care Act was perfect,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D.-N.Y.) on the Senate floor March 27. “We have ideas to improve it. Hopefully our colleagues on the Republican side do as well.”

A day later, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said, “We all want a system in healthcare where everybody can have access to affordable coverage, where we have more choice and competition.” And several GOP senators have moved away from the party’s long-held call for a total repeal and are offering bills that would amend the measure.

Health-policy analysts say that some of the health law’s marketplace problems could be improved with a bipartisan spirit. Here are some of the possibilities:

Stabilize the Insurance Market

Insurance companies have only a matter of weeks before they must tell the federal government and/or individual states whether they plan to offer coverage in 2018 on the health law’s online marketplaces, which serve customers who don’t get job-based or government insurance.

As of now, many companies say the uncertainty of what the market will look like — or the rules under which they will operate — is making that decision difficult. At least one insurer, Humana, has already said it would not offer coverage.

Two key moves that insurers are looking for from the administration are a promise to continue providing certain subsidies for those with lower incomes and enforcing the requirement for most people to either have insurance or pay a tax penalty.

The subsidies — known as “cost-sharing reductions” — are different than the tax-credit subsidies that many marketplace customers get to help pay their premiums. The cost-sharing subsidies help those with incomes between the poverty line ($20,420 for a family of three) and nearly 2½ times that ($50,400 for that same family) pay their deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs. The House  sued the Obama administration in 2014 for providing the subsidies without a formal congressional appropriation for the money, and a federal judge sided with the lawmakers.

The Obama administration appealed the decision, but if the Trump administration were to drop that appeal, the subsidies would disappear. At a House hearing March 29, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, M.D. would not say what the administration plans to do about the lawsuit or the subsidies.

“I’m a party to that lawsuit and I’m not able to comment,” he said. But Ryan, who is also a party to the suit, said March 30 that he believes the administration should continue paying the subsidies until the lawsuit is resolved.

The administration has been similarly quiet about how strictly it will enforce the “individual mandate” that requires most people to have health insurance or pay a fine. On his first day in office, President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing federal agencies to “minimize the unwarranted economic and regulatory burdens” of the health law. But other than the IRS backtracking on a plan to enforce the mandate more strongly, little has happened on that front.

Yet those two provisions together — the cost-sharing subsidies and the individual mandate — could result in 25 to 30 percent increases in premiums if they were to disappear, said Andy Slavitt, who oversaw the health law for the final years of the Obama administration. Assuring that the subsidies will remain and the mandate will be enforced “would send a strong signal to (insurance companies) that they should continue to participate in the market,” he added.

Some GOP health policy analysts — including economist Gail Wilensky, who previously ran the Medicare and Medicaid programs — have proposed replacing the individual mandate with penalties for signing up for insurance late, which is what Medicare does. Republicans did that in their proposed replacement bill, by adding a 30 percent premium surcharge to those with a break in coverage longer than two months. But insurance actuaries and the Congressional Budget Office said that might eventually prompt fewer people to enroll because it would encourage healthy people to remain uncovered.

Entice People to Enroll

Getting young and healthy people to sign up for coverage is not just a benefit for them. If there are not enough healthy people in the insurance pool, then premiums rise for everyone, because risk is being spread across a mostly sicker population. And someday even the healthy people will need medical care.

But it takes more than just the requirement for coverage to get people to enroll. Slavitt said it requires a real effort by both federal and state officials to reach people and help them understand that having health insurance is a good thing, even if they are healthy. “What they should be doing is increasing marketing and the outreach budget,” he said. “You’re trying to reach people who are uninsured and are unsure how it all works, and it does take a lot of hand-holding.”

So far, however, the administration’s only move on that front was to cancel ads encouraging people to sign up at the end of the enrollment period that overlapped with Trump’s first days in office. The HHS Inspector General is now investigating the results of this action. Some analysts have estimated canceling the last-minute push lowered enrollment in the exchanges by as much as a half-million people.

Help Offset Insurer Losses

Democratic lawmakers who wrote the Affordable Care Act knew that the market might be hard for insurers to navigate for the first few years, and they built in several programs to help reimburse those who lost money.

Republicans, however, blocked funding for one of the major programs, which was intended to reimburse insurance plans that enrolled sicker-than-average populations for the first three years of the marketplace operations. Republicans called the money “insurer bailouts.” The loss of that money was a major reason for the collapse of many of the nonprofit insurance co-ops created under the law and some other insurance companies said it contributed to their decisions to leave the marketplaces.

Now, however, there are indications that Republicans might support some efforts to provide more funding for insurers.

On March 13, Price sent a letter to governors encouraging them to apply for waivers of the ACA rules in order to make insurance more affordable and available in their states. Among the state innovations singled out in the letter is a “reinsurance” program in Alaska that helps insurers pay for extremely high-cost patients. That plan, said Price, “significantly” offset what was a projected 40 percent premium increase in the state, and might be an option elsewhere under the waivers, which could allow states to get federal funding for such a program.

And the GOP health bill, the American Health Care Act, included $100 billion for a “Patient and State Stability Fund” that states with limited insurer competition could use to lower costs and help encourage insurers to stay in the market.

“They have a potential fix staring them in the face,” said Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation of the GOP proposal for a stability fund. “It was a clever mechanism because the states could use it for any of a variety of purposes.” (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent project of the Foundation.)

Assist Patients With High Out-Of-Pocket Costs

Democrats and Republicans agree that people who buy their own insurance are paying too much out-of-pocket, in premiums as well as deductibles and cost sharing.

Democrats mostly want to increase federal subsidies to help with affordability — something Republicans are not likely to embrace.

But there are other ways to lower consumer spending.

For example, Sabrina Corlette of Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms, calls for “smarter, not skimpier benefit design.” One way to do that is to set federal rules to push insurers that offer coverage with high deductibles to add more benefits that would be available without paying thousands of dollars first, like a few trips to the doctor or urgent care center or a few prescriptions. She writes that could keep people from dropping coverage because they feel they are not getting any value for their premiums. And if those mostly healthy people feel they are getting benefits they might use, they are more likely to continue to purchase coverage, thus reducing premiums for everyone.

Another potential way to lower insurance costs is to lower health care costs. Even if there are multiple competing insurers in an area, if there’s one dominant hospital system, it can pretty much charge whatever it wants.

“There’s no other price in the U.S. economy that’s growing as fast as a hospital price,” said Bob Kocher, a former Obama administration health official now at the venture capital firm Venrock. And in areas with not much hospital competition, “prices are 30 to 50 percent higher for everything.”

But how to get hospital prices down is almost as hard as regulating insurance. Kocher said one way would be for federal regulators to be more discriminating about approving hospital mergers, which tend to give hospitals more negotiating power over insurers.

More controversial would be to require hospitals that dominate their markets “to just accept Medicare prices” from marketplace insurers, Kocher suggested. While that would tend to bring prices down, it’s not likely to fly with free-market Republicans.

Tenn. insurer may presage end of ACA pre-existing condition protection



Farm Bureau Health Plans is already selling full-year policies that dispense with the pre-existing-condition part of the law.

Modern Healthcare notes that House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders have indicated “they want to deregulate health insurance, including letting insurers screen for medical conditions if consumers don’t maintain continuous coverage. President-elect Donald Trump, however, has said he wants to keep the ACA’s ban on discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions though he’s offered no other details.”

Modern Healthcare continued:

“Some insurers have been happy to accommodate the demand for cheaper, skimpier plans by selling short-term products that can run for up to 364 days and don’t have to meet ACA rules. In October, however, the HHS issued a final rule limiting the duration of short-term plans to three months and barring insurers from renewing them, effective in 2017. It remains to be seen whether the incoming Trump administration will move to reverse that in response to lobbying pressure from insurers.”


To read the Modern Healthcare article, please hit this link.

If Trump tries to repeal the ACA…


Timothy Jost, a healthcare-law expert and a professor at Washington & Lee University, gives his take in Health Affairs on the implications of Donald Trump being elected president and of the Republicans maintaining their control of Congress.

First, he notes the obvious:

“President Trump will be able to appoint at least one Supreme Court justice almost immediately and possibly more during his term in office. He will also appoint dozens of district and appellate court judges. Finally, he will presumably replace the cabinet secretaries and most of the political appointees in the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury — that administer the Affordable Care Act. The Republicans  {will} own the national government, and many state governments.”

He goes on:

“Donald Trump states at his website, ‘On day one of the Trump Administration, we will ask Congress to immediately deliver a full repeal of Obamacare.’ If by Obamacare Trump means the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, this will not happen. First, any repeal proposal would be subject to a filibuster in the Senate and the Democrats retain more than enough votes to stop a repeal bill. Second, the Affordable Care Act contains hundreds of provisions affecting Medicare, program integrity, the health care workforce, biosimilars, prevention, and other issues unrelated to what most Americans think of as ‘Obamacare.’ Immediate repeal of the ACA and presumably restoring the law that preceded it would likely bring the Medicare program, for example, to a halt until new rules could be written. The ACA is inextricably interwoven into our health care system and is not going away immediately.”

“Congress and the President, can, however, repeal many of the provisions that are identified by the public as ‘Obamacare’ using the budget reconciliation process. A budget reconciliation bill can be passed by a simple majority and cannot be stopped by a filibuster. The final ACA in 2010 contained provisions passed through the budget reconciliation process after the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority.”

“Importantly, reconciliation legislation could probably not change the insurance reform provisions of the ACA—the ban on preexisting condition exclusions and health status underwriting, caps on annual and lifetime dollar limits, actuarial value requirements, age underwriting restrictions, as they do not affect revenues and outlays. The continued imposition of these requirements without the financing provided by the ACA could cause serious distortions and damage in insurance markets. …”

“Repeal would, moreover, raise the question of what would replace the ACA. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that enacting the 2015 reconciliation legislation would increase the number of uninsured Americans by 22 million. The legislation would have delayed the end of the premium tax credits until 2018 to allow time for replacement legislation, which was not part of the bill.”

To read Mr. Jost’s very useful piece,  please hit this link.

Why Clinton and Trump are wrong about Medicare and drug-price negotiation


Two health-policy experts — Geoffrey F. Joyce, Ph.D., and Neeraj Sood,  Ph.D. — discuss why they think that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are wrong about Medicare’s ability to negotiate drug prices.

To read their essay, please hit this link.

Why this Democratic physician backs Trump

Anish Koka,  M.D., a cardiologist in private practice in Philadelphia, explains in this Medical Economics essay why he will vote for Donald Trump.

He says at the end of his piece:

“To summarize, the current state of the healthcare union is poor and promises to worsen for physicians and patients if we continue on the current trajectory. Trump is not a fascist, and seems to have a proclivity for practical solutions that don’t appear to respect party ideologue, and he appears more immune to the usual lobbying efforts from big industry.

“The question is not, ‘How can you vote for Trump?’ Instead, it’s ‘How can you not?”’

To read Dr. Koka’s essay, please hit this link.

Trump talks about healthcare


Video: In this 60 Minutes interview, Donald Trump talks about his healthcare program.

Medicine needs more people like Donald Trump


Suneel Dhand, M.D., asserts that the medical profession needs more people like Donald Trump. 

He says: “I simply don’t agree with anyone who says the man is just an empty façade. His books, despite sometimes going over the top, do actually contain plenty of good advice and insights into success and thinking like a winner. They also make abundantly clear that Donald Trump is a man who knows how to negotiate and will always push for the best possible deal.”

“Strong advocacy, a clear voice, and persistence are needed to secure the best deal for yourself and what you represent. That’s something that most of the frontline players in health care have consistently failed to get over the last couple of decades. And whether you love him or loathe him, making deals and getting the best out of any situation is something Donald Trump has perfected to an almost art form when it comes to himself and his brand. Indeed, perhaps if people with Donald Trump’s negotiating and branding skills were negotiating an agenda for doctors or patients, there would be more times we would be telling people who are pushing health care in the wrong direction: ‘You’re fired.”‘


GOP candidates oppose ACA …. and so?

A look at what the leading Republican presidential candidates said about healthcare at last week’s debate. They’re all against the Affordable Care Act but were remarkably vague about what they would replace it with. The semi-exception was Donald Trump.

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