Posts Tagged ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’

Non-Profit Hospital Fundraising Soars in 2011

Monday, October 29th, 2012

According to a report from the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP), that is an 8.2 percent increase over the previous year.  The recent numbers continue a trend that started in 2010 when non-profit hospitals saw an eight percent rise in donations compared with 2009 to more than $8 billion.  Individual donations totaled nearly 60 percent of that amount, according to the AHP.  That was a significant increase over 2009, when donations fell 11 percent or $944 million.

During 2011, the cost of fundraising rose to 31 cents per dollar collected, a two percent rise over the previous year.  Healthcare systems raised $3.24 for every dollar they spent.  University-connected hospitals were the most prolific, with $7.58 raised for each dollar spent.   Approximately 19 percent of donated funds supported community benefits and charity care; an additional 8.6 percent funded training and research.

Annual giving was the primary fundraising source, followed by capital campaigns and special events.  Approximately 70 percent of money raised was in the form of cash contributions, while the remainder was pledges primarily in the form of bequests and planned gifts.

Susan J. Doliner, chair of the AHP board of directors, notes that “It’s interesting to see that the funds raised continue to be predominantly in support of construction and renovations, equipment and program operations.  Stay tuned, as this finding shines a light on the future gap in resources healthcare organizations will face as we begin the implementation of new healthcare financing models.”  The uptick in donations is good news for hospitals and healthcare systems working to accommodate millions of new patients when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) becomes fully effective in 2014.  At present, healthcare systems are relying on capital campaigns to finance new construction rather than bank loans or other debt.   Only 17 percent are using debt, a decline from the 20 percent reported in 2010.  Another 42 percent are financing new facilities with cash reserves.  The use of tax-free bonds is at its lowest level in six years, comprising just 21 percent of new construction financing.

Is It Time to Reform the Fee-for-Service Model?

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Despite the healthcare industry’s attempts to alter the way in which physician reimbursements are determined,  fee-for-service is still the accepted basis for payment.  Typically, physicians are reimbursed according to the number of patients they see and how many procedures and tests they order.  Policymakers have concluded that the “do more, earn more” business model is deeply flawed and one reason why Americans pay so much for healthcare.  In 2012, Americans will pay more than $8,000 per individual on healthcare.  That’s more than double the $3,400 average spent for each person in other industrialized nations.  What’s more, all that spending has not made Americans healthier.

The time may have come to find a new reimbursement model that places less of a financial burden on patients while still rewarding physicians.  An August article in the Journal of the American Medical Association notes that the fee-for-service payment is the foundation of even some emerging accountable-care organizations, including Medicare’s popular shared-savings program, say Drs. Allan Goroll of Harvard University Medical School and Stephen Schoenbaum of the Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation.  The shared-savings program “Promotes accountability for a patient population and coordinates items and services under (Medicare) Part A and B, and encourages investment in infrastructure and redesigned care processes for high quality and efficient service delivery.”

Goroll and Schoenbaum isolate a number of reasons for why fee-for-service endures:  many physicians are risk-averse and so resist change; additionally, skepticism is a “major barrier” to reforming the payment model.  “Transitioning to a new payment system will require new modes of practice, and many physicians feel ill equipped to assume financial or performance risks individually or even collectively,” Goroll and Schoenbaum write.  “The concern is that continued reliance on fee-for-service payment for primary care as well as for specialists, with its emphasis on volume of services, threatens meaningful practice transformation and the very goals of delivery system reform.” The bottom line is that the healthcare industry must develop “robust, scientifically validated risk-adjustment models,” according to Goroll and Schoenbaum.  Payment reform could blend capitation and fee-for-service with a plan to revise the payments over time.

Change must be forced on the medical community, whether or not they are ready for it.  One provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires alterations to payment and delivery systems to control costs and enhance the quality of care.  Rather than basing payment solely on the number of patients a physician sees and tests ordered, these methods promote preventive care and maintain open lines of communication between a patient’s multiple physicians.

The potential alternative reimbursement models presently being considered include:

•       Bundled payments or fixed amounts paid to healthcare providers for related services a patient needs within a given timeframe.

•       Patient-centered medical homes.  This model would restructure primary-care practices so that their focus is on preventive medicine, patient education and healthcare coordination.

•       Accountable care organizations, in which physicians and other providers share responsibility for providing cost-effective, quality care for patient groups.

GOP VP Candidate Paul Ryan Advocates “Medicare Premium Support”

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Now that Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) has been selected by former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) as his vice presidential running mate, the debate is focusing on the Wisconsin representative’s plan to reform Medicare.  Known as Medicare Premium Support, it “refers to a system under which Medicare enrollees would pick from a menu of competing plans with a fixed government payment to help defray premium costs.  Enrollees would be on the hook for any charges above the government contribution.  But they could save money by selecting a plan with a premium below the federal subsidy.”

Ryan says that under his plan, the government’s contribution toward premiums will equal the cost of the second least expensive plan in any market — or traditional Medicare — whichever costs less.  Ryan believes that his plan is politically feasible because it doesn’t begin until 2022 with the result that it retains traditional Medicare for Americans who were 55 and older in 2011 — meaning that baby boomers are exempt from the changes.  Democrats who oppose the plan contend that Ryan’s Medicare overhaul would subject seniors to the vagaries of the private market, leaving them with little protection against rising premiums and negligible benefits.

So what is the difference between the Democratic and Republican cuts to Medicare?  The ACA stresses government control and central planning. The law creates a panel of 15 unelected government officials, called the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) to direct changes that will shrink spending by cutting physician and hospital reimbursement.  The Wyden-Ryan plan preserves the ACA’s targets for future Medicare spending, but uses competitive bidding.  Seniors would have the same benefits that they do now, and would have the option of choosing from several government-approved private insurance plans.

The Republican budget targets Medicare growth of GDP plus 0.5 percent, just as the 2013 Obama budget does. The difference lies in the fact that the GOP budget repeals the ACA, while maintaining that law’s Medicare cuts.  The Democratic budget leaves the ACA in place.

Writing in the Washington Post, Ezra Klein puts the difference in a nutshell:  “The difference between the two campaigns is not in how much they cut Medicare, but in how they cut Medicare.”

In an exclusive interview with Modern Healthcare magazine, Ryan says that “This is an idea whose time has come.  And it’s a bipartisan idea.  What Representative Ron Wyden (D-OR) and I tried to do was to plant the seeds of a bipartisan consensus.  We knew we weren’t going to pass it because of the politics.  We did this together to get the consensus-building started.”  Ryan believes that the plan’s chances for approval will greatly improve in 2013 — especially if the Romney/Ryan team wins the November 6 presidential election.  “I’m actually pretty optimistic,” he said, noting that the United States should reform healthcare on its own terms and “fix this on our terms” instead of borrowing European ideas.  “We believe there are far superior ways to get back to a patient-centered healthcare system, the nucleus of which is the patient and doctor — and not the government,” Ryan said.  “We believe consumer-driven, market-based reforms do more to alter the cost curve of healthcare inflation.”

If Ryan’s plan is enacted into law, people 55 and younger would see a change from one in which everyone gets the same set of government-paid benefits to one in which the government gives all senior citizens a fixed amount of money.  They could use this to purchase private insurance or pay a portion of the cost of enrolling in traditional Medicare.  Ryan has not said how much the premium support payment would be.  But he would limit the annual growth rate to no more than one-half percent more than the economy’s overall growth rate, even though healthcare costs are rising at a significantly faster pace.  Ryan’s plan would also raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67 from 65 by 2034.

Not so fast,” Democrats warn as partisans from both parties accuse the other side of throwing senior citizens under the bus.  “Make no mistake about it — these Republicans don’t believe in Medicare,” Obama campaign senior adviser David Axelrod said.  “They want to turn it into a voucher program.  And slowly, all the burden is going to shift to seniors themselves.  And that is not an answer to entitlement reform.”

Republicans counter that $716 billion in cuts to Medicare are already a part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).  An online video created by the Republican National Committee features Ryan saying that Democrats “have refused to make difficult decision because they are more worried about their next election than they are about the next generation.”  According to Ryan, “We won’t duck the tough issues; we will lead.”

Uwe Reinhardt, a healthcare economist at Princeton University disagrees, saying that rather than motivating insurers to control their costs, the Ryan plan will not benefit seniors.  “You’re essentially shoving these guys out on a boat, saying, ‘We’ll give you a push, but if the waves are rough, you’re on your own,” he said.  “It would really worry me if I were a middle-class American.”

Is End-of-Life Care Worthwhile?

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Even in the age of advanced healthcare directives and living wills, Americans still must cope with a dilemma when it comes to end-of-life healthcare for themselves or their loved ones.  Consider the fact that Medicare pays as much as $55 billion annually for physician and hospital bills during the last two months of patients’ lives.  That’s more than the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, or the Department of Education.  Estimates are that 20 to 30 percent of these medical expenses usually have no meaningful impact.  The federal government pays for a majority of the bills with no questions asked.  Medicare spends nearly 30 percent of its budget on beneficiaries in their final year of life.

Given this information, the question is whether extending someone’s life is worth the money it can potentially cost.  The solution potentially could have been a snap for Congress when it passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Unfortunately, the previously bipartisan issue quickly became a political hot potato.

According to Dr. Ira Byock, it costs as much as $10,000 a day to maintain someone in the intensive-care unit, even if the patient remains there for weeks or even months.  “This is the way so many Americans die. Something like 18 to 20 percent of Americans spend their last days in an ICU,” Byock said.  This discussion raises the philosophical issue of the value of human life.   According to Byock, “While many people question spending a lot of money to prolong the life of an elderly, frail patient, it was perfectly logical for a frail person to value life extension as much as a perfectly healthy person.  With advances in medical care, it can be argued that the value of hope has been increasing along with the statistical odds of staying alive until a cure is found.”

Over-treatment, according to Byock, is an unfortunate side effect of medical advances.   “We have enormous scientific prowess and remarkable diagnostic and treatment,” so that when you are admitted to the hospital, the system “moves you quickly towards the next diagnosis and then the next diagnosis after that for the next component problem in a whole picture that few people will see.  It’s a dysfunctional system that feels like a conveyor belt.  We have a disease-treatment system rather than a healthcare system caring for human beings.”  Byock notes that the same system can lead doctors and patients to regard any reduction in treatment, or even accepting that patients are going to eventually die, as failure.  There are amazing ways to combat disease and extend life.  “That’s all well and good.  The problem is, we have yet to make even one person immortal,” Byock concluded.

Dana Goldman, director of the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California and founding editor of the Forum for Health Economics and Policy, has a difference approach.  According to Goldman, “We think of healthcare as an expense, but we really should be thinking of healthcare as an investment.  We want to invest where we have the greatest return. I would put prevention in that bucket.  But the way we do it now, no one has an incentive to invest in things with a long-term return.”

ACOs Double in Size

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

While the fate of Obama Care hung in the balance, the ACO became the voluntary dance that nobody wanted to show up to too early. Defined by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) as “an organization of health care providers that agrees to be accountable for the quality, cost, and overall care of Medicare beneficiaries who are enrolled in the traditional fee-for-service program who are assigned to it,” ACOs (Accountable Care Organizations) were promoted as a bigger, better model that allowed providers to get paid in a number of ways (capitation, fee-for-service, shared savings) in return for managing health at the population level across a broader swathe of the healthcare spectrum. But ACOs were tough, requiring greater accountability with providers having to report on 33 different performance measures to ensure they’re not skimping on care.  And then there was the little issue of whether reform would be repealed and make it all null and void. Well, a mere week and a half after John Roberts cast the tiebreaker to make the individual mandate — and essentially, Obama Care — a reality, the ACO program has doubled in size.  Eighty-nine participants joined 27 existing ACOs in the program. “The Medicare ACO program opened for business in January, and already, more than 2.4 million beneficiaries are receiving care from providers participating in these important initiatives,” acting CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner said in a statement.

According to the CMS, the selected ACO programs operate in a range of areas nationwide and nearly half are physician-led organizations that serve fewer than 10,000 beneficiaries, which indicates smaller organizations are interested in participating. Four hundred more organizations have already submitted a notice of intent to apply next month, according to the CMS. The application period is Aug. 1-Sept. 6, 2012 for organizations that want to participate in the Medicare shared-savings program starting in January 2013.

Now that reform has the imprimatur of the Supreme Court judges, the next court that the Administration will have to focus its efforts on is the court of provider and public opinion. According to a survey of 24,000 U.S. physicians by Medscape, WebMD’s flagship site for medical professionals, only about 3% of physicians participate with ACOs ; only another 5% say that they plan to become involved in the coming year.  52% percent of physicians believe that ACOs will cause a decline in income, while 12% say they will have little or no effect.  Overcoming that natural resistance to change may be the toughest part of putting the ACO in place.

HHS Sets November 16 Deadline for Healthcare Marketplace Details

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

States must give detailed information to the federal government by November 16 – just 10 days after the 2012 presidential election – on how they intend to run their online insurance marketplaces, according to Kaiser Health News.  States that miss the deadline — or can’t operate their own marketplaces – will have it done for them by the federal government, starting in January 2014.

The marketplaces, which are mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), are designed to increase competition among insurers and make coverage more affordable.  States can opt to run the exchanges, perform limited services, or yield control to the federal government.  The Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) “will seek to harmonize…policies with existing state programs and laws wherever possible.”  Although the guidance does not state whether there will be a governing board overseeing the federal exchanges, it does say the federally-overseen marketplaces will accept any insurer that meets the basic requirements.  Consumer groups, such as the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, wanted the federal government to be more selective, in hopes that it would make insurers compete more on pricing and quality measures.

Steve Larsen, the federal official overseeing the federal exchange creation, said the initial approach will be an open marketplace, although in the future, other options may be explored.  States that operate their own exchanges are free to choose whichever model they prefer.  While many states are moving forward – 34 have received federal grants to fund planning efforts – others are moving slowly or not at all.  Six states — Illinois, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee and Washington – recently received additional grants totaling more than $181 million.

Officials in some state say they are holding back pending the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of the ACA.  The court could uphold the entire law, strike it down entirely or eliminate some parts of it.  Other state lawmakers have said they want to hold off on creating marketplaces until after the November election.  Larsen reiterated the government’s stance that the court will uphold the law and that President Obama will be re-elected, noting that “states should turn their attention to moving forward.”

The ACA requires states to establish exchanges that offer federally subsidized health coverage to an estimated 16 million people who currently lack healthcare insurance.  The exchanges let consumers purchase their insurance from an easily readable menu of competing plans, at premiums set on a sliding scale according to the buyer’s income.

“What this shows is that states are making real progress in delivering quality, affordable health coverage to their residents and they want to be up and running by January 2014,” said Kathleen Sebelius, HHS Secretary.  She said that 34 states — including some that want the ACA overturned — and the District of Columbia have accepted federal grant money to help establish the insurance exchanges.  Approximately 15 states have moved to establish exchanges, either through legislation or executive order.

HHS also released guidelines for helping states that might not be able to offer full exchange services by 2014 and for establishing federal exchanges in states that refuse to participate.  According to officials, the administration will partner with state governments in two realms: certifying health insurance providers for the exchanges and helping consumers apply for coverage and enroll in the chosen plan.

Karen Ignani, President of America’s Health Insurance Plans, is taking a wait-and-see attitude According to Ignani, “Exchanges work best when they are true marketplaces that maximize choice and competition so that individuals, families, and small businesses can purchase plans that are right for them.  States are in the best position to establish exchanges because they have the experience and local-market knowledge to meet the consumers’ needs.  If a state chooses not to establish its own exchange, any exchange that is implemented should seek to preserve consumer choice and avoid regulatory duplication that will add complexity and increase costs for consumers.  We appreciate that the Department has prioritized minimizing administrative burdens, encouraging choice, and preserving the states’ traditional role of regulating health insurance as these exchanges are developed.  Allowing all health plans that meet new quality and performance standards to offer coverage in an exchange will help ensure competition and preserve consumer choice.  Moreover, we agree that exchanges should be developed with input from all stakeholders to ensure they are able to provide individuals, families, and small businesses with the most accurate and up-to-date information about all of their coverage options.”

Dying for Coverage

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

More than 26,000 working-age adults die prematurely in the United States every year because they lack health insurance, according to a study published by Families USA.  The consumer advocacy group study, estimates that a record high of 26,100 people aged 25 to 64 died for lack of health coverage in 2010, up from 20,350 in 2005 and 18,000 in 2000.  That adds up to a rate of approximately 72 deaths per day, or three per hour.

The non-profit group based its report on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and a 2002 Institute of Medicine (IOM) study that showed that Americans who lack insurance face a 25 percent higher risk of death than those with coverage.  The findings are in line with a study by the Urban Institute think tank that estimated 22,000 deaths nationwide in 2006.

“Lives are truly on the line,” said Ron Pollack, Executive Director of Families USA, who supports the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).  “If the Affordable Care Act moves forward and we expand coverage for tens of millions of people, the number of avoidable deaths due to being uninsured will decrease significantly.”  Pollack is not the only healthcare advocate to predict that the number of uninsured will continue to rise without reform as healthcare costs accelerate, employers cut benefits, and the social safety net unravels because of fiscal pressures.

The Affordable Care Act was passed by Congress to address an American tragedy and an American shame,” Pollack said.  “The fact remains that for the millions of Americans without health coverage, only the Affordable Care offers the promise of access to affordable coverage and to a longer and healthier life.”

According to the report, the reasons for being uninsured differ, but many without health insurance were denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition.  Others have been priced out of the market at a time when keeping their homes and feeding their families take priority over holding on to insurance in the face of rising premiums.  Some lost their benefits when employers stopped providing coverage.

Census Bureau data show that 50 million Americans lack healthcare coverage, and experts say that these people do without medical care, physician visits and preventive tests including cancer and blood pressure screenings.  “The uninsured get healthcare about half as often as insured Americans, on average,” said Dr. Arthur Kellermann, director of the think tank RAND Health and co-chairman of the committee that wrote the 2002 IOM study.  “There is an overwhelming body of evidence that they get less preventive care, less chronic disease care and poorer quality hospital in-patient care,” he said.

The $2.6 trillion American healthcare system, which totals nearly 18 percent of the economy, is accessible to a majority of working-age Americans only through private health insurance.  But insurance costs – premiums, deductibles, co-pays and co-insurance – are unaffordable for many.

Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the national trade association that represents the insurance industry said the rising cost of care must be addressed.  “Health plans have long supported reforms to give all Americans the peace of mind and financial security that healthcare coverage provides.  The nation must also address the soaring cost of medical care that is adding a financial burden on families and employers and threatening the long-term sustainability of our vital safety net programs.”

Families USA counters that the current delivery system is stacked against Americans who lack insurance.  They pay more for care because they lack the ability to negotiate discounted prices on physician and hospital charges like insurance companies can.

Writing in Forbes, Matthew Herper points out that “This estimate is 19 years old, and this number doesn’t tell us much that’s new about what is wrong with our healthcare system.  If anything, it emphasizes how our total lack of information about what works and what doesn’t is trapping us in an economic and social death spiral around health costs.  If anything, available data seem to point to this estimate being low.  The real story is that we care so little about how much insurance matters to people’s life spans that we haven’t really bothered to find out.  It’s possible that the number is actually higher.  A 2009 article in the American Journal of Public Health actually found a 40 percent increase in the risk of death for those who lack insurance.  The IOM notes this finding, and that using it would have substantially increased the 26,000 number.  So how many people do die from lack of health insurance?  The short answer is that we don’t know, because we don’t look.  We should have data collection systems in place to answer questions about how healthcare is performing.  This should translate into more transparency, so that voters and consumers can find out how well the system is doing.  Instead, we tend not to track data about the healthcare system, and to keep it completely siloed.  And then we wonder why the system doesn’t work.”

GOP Proposes Putting Seniors on Congressional Healthcare Plan

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

In a highly controversial move, Republicans critical of Medicare have proposed opening up the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP) to Medicare patients.  “We are going to offer a plan that would give all senior citizens in the country the same congressional healthcare plan that we have,” said Senator Rand Paul (R-KY).  “We are not willing to wait until after the next election to fix the entitlements.”

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) warned that the plan could shake the federal program, while asking seniors to pay more for healthcare.  “This is a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone kind of proposal that would both bring down Medicare as we know it and threaten the stability of the FEHBP,” Joseph A. Beaudoin, NARFE president, said.  Beaudoin said seniors should examine the proposal closely, because it throws open the doors of a stable healthcare program to millions of seniors currently enrolled in Medicare.  “Given the current environment of budget attacks on federal employees, retirees and Medicare, the federal workforce and all Americans should be wary of plans like the one proposed today,” he said.

Called the Congressional Health Care for Seniors Act (CHCSA), the plan’s supporters claim that it would save taxpayers $1 trillion in the first 10 years as well as provide enhanced healthcare benefits, choice, quality and outcomes by moving seniors into the FEHBP.

How would it work?  Federal employees can now choose from approximately 250 plans participating in FEHBP, including 20 nationwide plans.  The large selection provides access to better doctors, better quality healthcare, and the ability to pick plans that best suit the person’s individual needs.  The rationale also is that because Congress uses the plan, it must be the best in the country.  Additionally, the legislation would set up a “high risk pool” for the costliest patients within the FEHBP.  The federal government will directly reimburse healthcare plans for enrolling the most expensive five percent of patients, which keeps premiums low while allowing high-risk patients to get the same quality healthcare as every other enrollee – federal employees and seniors alike.  If the legislation is passed, seniors could enroll in FEHBP starting in 2014.

There is some bipartisan support for this proposal.  In 2004, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) proposed allowing uninsured people, not seniors, to enroll in FEHBP.  “Entitlements are broken,” said Paul.  “It’s not Republicans’ fault; it’s not Democrats fault.  I tell people, ‘It’s your grandparents’ fault for having too many kids and then your fault for not having enough kids.’  It’s a demographic problem.”

Paul said the plan “means-tests the benefits and gradually allows the age of eligibility to go up.”  Currently, Medicare eligibility age is 65; Paul’s plan would gradually increase it to 70 by 2034.  “There is means-testing in this — and the reason you have to do that is: we’re spending more on Medicare than is coming in.”  According to Senator Lindsey Graham, (R-SC), “What I would tell the person near retirement is don’t fear change, embrace it, because you’ll have more doctors available to treat you and your family.  “Think about not just what happens to you…think about where we’ll be as a nation if something doesn’t change pretty quickly with these big programs.”

Virtually everyone in Washington agrees that the federal government must control its deficits and rising debt by finding a way to reduce entitlement spending.  President Bill Clinton’s former budget director, Leon Panetta, now defense secretary, who reproached the Senate Budget Committee: “You can’t meet the challenge that you’re facing in this country” by only cutting discretionary spending, which is less than a third of all spending.  “If you’re not dealing with the two-thirds that is entitlement spending, if you’re not dealing with revenues, and you keep going back to the same place, frankly you’re not going to make it, and you’re going to hurt this country’s security.”

Paul acknowledges that adding seniors to the federal program would drive costs up for its current 8.5 million enrollees by approximately 24 percent.  “Federal employees are the one group of people who may have a legitimate argument with the Congressional Health Care Plan for Seniors,” according to Paul’s synopsis.  “Asking them to share their healthcare with the elderly will cause their premiums to increase.”  Not surprisingly, as soon as the legislation was announced, the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association expressed concerns that the bill would destabilize the federal workers’ program.

Beaudoin notes that “As for the senators’ notion that America’s seniors should be in the same healthcare system as America’s elected officials, they seem to have forgotten that starting in 2014, members of Congress will no longer be covered by the FEHBP but will be in state-based healthcare exchanges.”

The Individual Mandate Passes: ObamaCare Survives Supreme Court

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

In one of the most significant rulings in recent memory (perhaps since the awarding of the Presidency to George W. Bush in 2000), the Supreme Court upheld President Obama‘s health care law  in a nuanced interpretation of Federal versus states’ rights. The historic 5-4 decision will affect the way 30 million uninsured Americans receive and pay for their personal medical care.   Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote (another surprise since most expected it to be Justice Kennedy if the law passed) and wrote the opinion. The key factor was classifying the penalty for not abiding by the individual mandate — the requirement that most Americans buy health insurance or pay a fine — as a tax and therefore constitutional. “Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness,” wrote Roberts. The court’s four liberal justices, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, joined Roberts in the outcome; Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

The Obama Administration had taken a different approach in its argument, saying that Congress had the authority to pass the individual mandate as part of its power to regulate interstate commerce; the court struck this down, but preserved the mandate as within Congress’ constitutional taxing powers. As Roberts put it, a person who does not wish to carry health insurance is left with a “lawful choice to do or not do a certain act, so long as he is willing to pay a tax levied on that choice.”

The Republican-controlled House will vote July 11 for a full repeal of the health care law. It is a symbolic move that stands little chance of passage in the Democratic controlled Senate. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and GOP congressional leaders have pledged to repeal the law if they take control of Congress and the White House in November elections. The decision may silence critics who have claimed that the Roberts Court has been one of the more partisan in recent memory, particularly with its decision in the 2010 Citizens United case which took the cap off independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. The ACA drew the Supreme Court into the election-year crossfire over the role of government and the concerns about deficit spending,

The court did find one part of the law unconstitutional, saying its expansion of the federal-state Medicaid program threatened states’ existing funding. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the court ruled that the federal government can’t put sanctions on states’ existing Medicaid funding if the states decline to go along with the Medicaid expansion.”

Some reactions:

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.: “It’s up to the American people in the next election and their representatives to determine the fate of this law.”

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio: “The president’s health care law is hurting our economy by driving up health costs and making it harder for small businesses to hire. Today’s ruling underscores the urgency of repealing this harmful law in its entirety.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky: “Today’s decision makes one thing clear: Congress must act to repeal this misguided law.”

The full  impact of the ruling politically remains to be seen. The Wall Street Journal reflected the uncertainty: “The court’s decision, while a relief to Democrats, could further energize voters who dislike the law to back Republicans in November. And it forces the Obama administration to continue defending the unpopular insurance mandate, which the court has now made clear is legally equivalent to a tax on those who refuse to carry health insurance. On the other hand, the court’s blessing could itself shape public opinion of the law, particularly among independents and undecided voters who view the justices as relatively free of the partisan agendas of the government’s elected branches. Polls consistently show that the public places greater confidence in the Supreme Court than either Congress or the presidency, although the justices’ approval ratings have slipped somewhat over the past year.”

6.6 MillionYoung Americans Now Have Healthcare, Thanks to the ACA

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

More than 6.6 million young adults aged 26 and younger were enrolled in their parents’ insurance plans last year because of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), the largest single-year increase in medical coverage for the age group.  The section of the law that allows young people to remain on parental plans helped boost coverage during tough economic times, said Sara Collins, vice president for affordable health insurance at the Commonwealth Fund.

The benefit for young adults is one of the most popular parts of the ACA as young adults face a labor market that makes it difficult to find a job with healthcare coverage.  Unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds is 16.1 percent, almost double the 8.2 percent rate for the nation as a whole.  “The economy is absolutely a factor in both the large number of adults who are without health insurance and likely the number coming onto their parents’ policies,” Collins said.  The ACA “came at a really good time for young adults, in terms of the poor job market.”  Adding young adults to their parents’ coverage was one of the first provisions of the law enacted.  Approximately 71 percent of Americans polled by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they viewed that provision favorably.  The ACA in its entirety is less popular, with an approval rate of 37 percent, and an unfavorable view by 44 percent of those surveyed in May, according to Kaiser’s monthly tracking poll.

President Barack Obama’s $1 trillion, 10-year plan to overhaul the healthcare system was passed by Congress in 2010 without a single Republican vote.  Parts of the law were then challenged as unconstitutional by 26 states.  The Supreme Court is slated to rule on those objections, a decision that could overturn the law.  The head of a caucus of 21 Republican lawmakers with medical backgrounds said that no matter the outcome, he will try to preserve the coverage for young adults and for people with pre-existing medical conditions.  Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA), an obstetrician-gynecologist, believe that the young-adult provision is “a good policy.”

Despite this, the Commonwealth Fund report found that almost 40 percent of young adults between the ages of 19 and 29 did not have health insurance in 2011.  Another finding is that more than 36 percent of young adults had medical bill problems or were in the process of paying off medical debt.  Of those young Americans, 43 percent were experiencing serious financial troubles; 32 percent had trouble making their student loans or tuition payments; 31 percent deferred education or career plans, and 28 percent couldn’t afford food, heat or rent because of medical bills.

Because of the high cost of healthcare, young Americans are not having prescriptions filled, skipping recommended tests or treatments, avoiding doctor visits and failing to get specialist care when they need it.  And, according to doctors. young adults don’t listen to medical advice once they hear how much treatment costs.

Dr. Jeffrey Hausfeld is well aware of the debt problem.  As co-owner for FMS Solutions, a collection agency that specializes in medical debt, Hausfeld has seen a 50 percent increase in the amount of debt held by young adults over the last several years.  He cited “the tremendous cost shift” to patients caused by high-deductible insurance plans, co-payments and co-insurance, said Hausfeld, an ear, nose and throat doctor who no longer practices.  “Getting sick isn’t something that a healthy 26-year-old expected to have to pay for.  They didn’t budget for it,” Hausfeld said.  “Now they’re sitting with a $10,000 hospital bill and they don’t know what to do.”

“While the Affordable Care Act has already provided a new source of coverage for millions of young adults at risk of being uninsured, more help is needed for those left behind,” Collins, said.  “The law’s major insurance provisions slated for 2014, including expanded Medicaid and subsidized private plans through state insurance exchanges, will provide nearly all young adults across the income spectrum with affordable and comprehensive health plans.”

Commonwealth Fund President Karen Davis said that the survey is a hopeful indicator at a time when millions of Americans have trouble getting access to needed healthcare.  “The new report…shows that implementation of the law has already begun to make a difference for young adults, their families and other Americans,” she said.  Allowing young adults, the majority of whom are healthy, to remain on their parents’ health plans is not as expensive as expanding coverage to populations with higher medical costs, although independent analyses estimate the expansion could boost premiums one percent to two percent.

Young Americans who had no healthcare coverage faced the greatest risk: 51 percent with a gap in coverage had a medical bill problem or medical debt.  The costs could be substantial.  One-quarter of young adults paying off medical debt owed $4,000 or more; 15 percent reported $8,000 or more in debt.  Among those who were paying off debt, 31 percent owed $4,000 or more; 21 percent had $8,000 or more; and 11 percent had $10,000 or more.

“There’s no question that young people have cut back on high-value screenings, doctor visits and therapies,” Dr. Mark Fendrick, director of the University of Michigan Center for Value-Based Insurance Design, said.  “You twist your knee playing soccer and you go to get an MRI.  But if the doctor says you have to pay 50 percent of the cost, you’re going to be less likely to go through with it,” he said.