Vol. 223 December 15, 2019 A Health Insurance Premium Is Just A Bet

December 15, 2019


“Private insurance is a defective product. Their business model is based on collecting premiums, avoiding sick people, and denying coverage for expensive services whenever possible. Insurers boast in their reports to shareholders about their low “medical loss ratio” (MLR), the low share of premiums they pay for for care.”
-David Himmelstein, MD and Steffie Woolhandler, MD,
Hunter College and Harvard Medical School

I have been covered by Medicare for 15 years and have no complaints about it. Medicare has been “berry, berry good to me”. For 15 years I have also purchased a Medicare Supplement policy and a Part D prescription drug coverage policy from a private insurance company. The combined premium for those two private insurance policies is about $1700 a year. This year, having been attracted by the ads for Medicare Advantage HMO plans providing the same coverage for zero ($0) premiums and being a low utilizer myself  of medical services and prescription drugs, I decided to explore joining a zero premium Medicare Advantage HMO plan.

How hard could that be? I like my primary care physician and the few specialists I go to; my local hospital and the tertiary hospitals I favor all participate in Medicare Advantage plans;  I am a physician, a retired medical care administrator, and I have actually served on the board of a health insurance company so I am familiar with insurance jargon; and I don’t have diabetes, cardiac disease, or chronic pulmonary disease, so I suspect that I will look like a good candidate to an insurance company.  I anticipated that I could readily figure out if joining a Medicare Advantage HMO would save me money while providing the excellent coverage I have grown accustomed to.

It was NOT easy.

I focussed on only two private companies, Blue Cross and Harvard Pilgrim, both reputable companies in Massachusetts. I ignored the other companies that sent me all sorts of spam and junk snail mail during the limited enrollment window. So, why was it not so easy to figure out?

First, I needed to confirm that all my doctors participated in any plan I joined , i.e. would they be reimbursed by either company? When I called my doctor’s office to do that I was told to call the insurance company. Two phone calls later (one to each company) my physicians’ participation was confirmed. The good news was that I avoided lengthy “holds” on the phone calls since during the open enrollment window (deadline of December 7) both companies had an abundance of marketeers ready to answer my questions. My second phone call to both companies was to confirm that my specific prescription medicines were in their formulary, i.e. their cost would be covered. Some of my medicines were in Tier 1 and some in Tier 2 (different copays for each Tier), and there were slight differences between the companies. The short news here is that none were in Tiers 3 and 4 (the much higher copay Tiers), but two of the drugs would need “pre-authorization” of medical necessity by my physician (actually the same requirement as my current policy).

So far so good, but, of course, one never knows what medications you might need in the future, so the first whiff of being in a gambling game wafted into my mind. When I then delved into the morass of copays, deductibles, and co-insurance percentages (all of which are different kinds of “out-of/pocket” payments by the subscriber, i.e. i n addition to the premium ), I really felt like I was in front of a roulette wheel or at a craps table. I didn’t feel at all like I was playing Black Jack where the odds are so well known that  books have been written about how to “beat” them.

In each plan some physician visits had a $20 co-pay, some had $40 a visit. A Medicare-approved outpatient surgery could have a $150 or a $250 copay. An “inpatient” hospital stay was $150 or $360 a day for the first 5 days (no information available on “observation status” or “ER overnight stay”  which are other kinds of hospital stays). Diagnostic X-ray had a $20 co-pay unless it was for an MRI or CT scan and then it was 20% “co-insurance” which means, I think, I would pay 20% of whatever the MRI charges are (I assume both facility and physician charges are counted). One plan dropped the MRI 20% coinsuranse for a straight $200 copay. Chemotherapy medications and “Other Part B Prescription Drugs” (drugs ordered and administered by a physician ) also had 20% coinsurance payments.

Reeling from this game of variable numbers, which I am not good at (remember I’m just a pediatrician), I then went on to compare some of the “perk” benefits like coverage for eye exams, eyeglasses, hearing exams, hearing aid purchase (from $699 to $999 copay), selected dental, Over-the-Counter allowances, and finally the “wallet benefits” (reimbursements for “qualified health and wellness benefits”). Some were included in one company’s policy and not in the other. There were different copays and different “annual limits” between perks and also between companies. . . . Ahh, “annual limits” ??

So where did I place my bet? I decided it was worth saving $1700 premiums a year to go with a Medicare Advantage Plan with a $0 premium for continued Part A and Part B Medicare coverage while also providing prescription drug coverage and Medicare supplement coverage.

Which of the two private Medicare Advantage HMO plans did I choose? — The one with an annual Out-of-Pocket Limit of $4500 rather than the almost identical . . . I think . . . plan with an Out-of-Pocket limit of $6700. I figured that if I bet wrong on all those deductibles, copays, coinsurances, medication eligibilities, and hospital inpatient days, or if my good health odds really tanked, I would lose $2200 less while trying to save $1700. At least I wouldn’t lose the whole pot. Illness and medical bills contributed to two-thirds of all personal bankruptcies in 2007 (three quarters of those medical debtors had private health insurance).

So, as one saying goes, “Youse pays your money and youse takes your choice.” As another saying goes, this one from one of my medical student buddies when we were a lot younger, “Life insurance? You lose (die), you win ($). You win (live a long life), you lose ($).”

So, did I make the right choice?  I’ll know in a year if I won the bet or the house did.


Vol. 215 June 15, 2019 Sometimes Even Good News is “Fake” News

June 16, 2019

A lesson in evaluation of a cost-reducing health care program:
a learned, scientific critique of a controversial Medicare reimbursement program.

 

“The Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) was established in 2010 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) with a “goal of reducing ‘preventable’ re-hospitalizations by imposing financial penalties on hospitals with higher-than-expected readmission rates in the 30 days after a hospital discharge”. This was one of several new “Pay For Performance” (PFP) programs aimed at lowering federal health care costs by tying Medicare reimbursement to hospitals, physicians, and even home care agencies to the use of more appropriate (read “lower cost”) medical care delivery settings.

After implementation of the HRRP, hospital readmission rates did decrease nationwide for the targeted diagnoses of heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, and pneumonia. So, the federal government ended up reimbursing less money to those hospitals that had higher-then-expected “preventable” patient readmission rates . “Great!”, said some policy makers, “it saved us some money. Let’s expand the program to ALL conditions treated in the hospital.”

“Whoa”, said by a group of research physicians from Harvard and Washington University Medical Schools, both known as liberal academic institutions, ”let’s look at the data.”

  1. The proportion of patients that returned to the hospital within 30 days after discharge actually did NOT change.
    .        .Patients returned to the hospital within 30 days after discharge for care, BUT they weren’t “readmitted”. Instead a significant number of those returning to the hospital were treated for up to 3 days in Observation Beds/Units or overnight in an Emergency Room bed. HRRP did not measure use of Observation Units or overnight stays in the ER. No wonder the “readmission” rates went down.
  2. If a patient dies within 30 days after hospital discharge they obviously can’t be “readmitted”.
    .         .The HRRP statistics did not measure mortality rates. A hospital keeping sicker patients alive by readmitting them for appropriate care rate might have the better outcomes, i.e. a lower death rate, but it would be penalized for having a higher readmission rate. In fact, the financial penalties for higher readmission rates under HRRP are much higher than the penalties for a higher death rate under Hospital Value-Based Purchasing program (HVBP), another federal PFP program.
  3. “Risk adjustment” of patient illness severity is notoriously varied and difficult to standardize.
    .          . “Risk-adjusting” of illness severity, for example, recording the different illness severity between the heart failure patient on two drugs and slightly swollen ankles versus the patient on multiple heart drugs for decompensated heart failure, is very difficult to standardize. Some of the early enthusiasm for HRRP and its reported improvement of risk-adjusted readmission rates may have been the result of improved medical record coding of co-existing conditions. (This is well-known as “gaming the system”, legal and even ethical, sort of like taking advantage of tax code loopholes, but it does nothing to improve the quality of care.)
  4. Social risk factors like patient poverty and poor community resources like lack of public transportation and diminished access to primary care were omitted from risk-adjustment factors.
    .          .Safety-net hospitals (those in poor areas) can be penalized under HRRP as a result of such factors. “The evidence that social risk factors influence readmission rates is incontrovertible.”
  5. HRRP may even have increased the death rates for patients with heart failure.
    .          .Four independent studies showed that the death rates for patients with heart failure INCREASED significantly after implementation of HRRP. The increase was concentrated among the patients who were NOT readmitted, suggesting that the use of ER beds and Observation Units “may adversely affect patients who would benefit from higher-level care.” Two other studies found different results which suggested that HRRP was more beneficIal to patients with acute heart conditions rather than patients with chronic heart failure.The three authors urge several steps to correct what they consider a faulty, positive evaluation of HRRP before jumping into expanding the program to ALL patients admitted to a hospital. This failure to correctly evaluate HRRP “underscores the consequences of implementing national policies after [evaluation that does not include] a control group.”They also urge “policymakers to seek input from frontline clinicians and patients who understand the real-world effects of HRRP. . . . If HRRP is improved it might be transformed from a regressive penalty program to a progressive program that improves patient care.”

    Q.E.D.

    Reference:
    “The Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program—Time for a Reboot”, Drs. Wadhera, Yeh, and Maddox, NEJM 380;24 June 13, 2019.


Vol. 204 December 1, 2018 “Why Doctors Hate Computers”

December 2, 2018

 

Digitization promises to make medical care easier and more efficient. But are
screens coming between doctors and patients?
 – Atul Gawande

I wished I had thought of this title.
I wished I had written the article in the New Yorker that went with it. (1) But, it was written by a better writer, and a surgeon no less; a proceduralist, not a cognitive doctor like us pediatricians and internists. Atul Gawande nailed the reasons for the frustrations of most doctors in dealing with electronic medical records, including graphic points of special irritation with one specific computer behemoth, Epic.

Epic is the $100 million computer software system now in place in the Partners Health Care system serving 70,000 employees in 12 teaching hospitals with dozens of different medical/surgical specialities as well as thousands of office-based providers and their staff. In Epic I have learned the 6 different ways of using 13 different tabs or, worse still, those tiny little icons stuffed into the margin of the screen to get the information I need to see the next patient in a pediatric office. As I traverse the various and varied screens I usually am exposed to too much data and not enough information. It is clear to most of my colleagues and our staff that Epic is chiefly designed as an “optimizer of insurance reimbursement”; probably one reason that large hospital systems and their associated physician networks buy it. A recent Epic “upgrade” was so devoid of any upgrade in clinical relevance that it did nothing to dissuade our view of it as a “reimbursement optimization tool”.

One of Dr. Gawande’s insight as to why doctors have some much trouble liking the new way of computer documentation of everything is that computers do not handle “surprises” very well. In seeking a diagnosis and determining treatment, not all doctor’s questions and certainly not all patients’ answers can be accurately recorded with a simple click in a box. The computer thrives on all those clicks in all those boxes. Doctors do not. We often meander around in our conversations with a patient guided by chance comments or even subtle physical clues. If we elicit a “surprise” we can pursue it much more intelligently and enlightening than the computer can document it. In Gawande’s words computer programs are “brittle, bureaucratic, inflexible, designed for large data bases, rule-based, inflexible, and very difficult to adapt”; in short, unable to handle “surprises” easily. 

Defenders of Epic view their efforts as optimization of the medical care process – “reconfiguring various functions according to feedback from users.” An Epic VP labeled that as the “Revenge of the Ancillaries”. The “users” of an MRI or a X-ray request from a doctor are radiology techs or radiology department secretaries.  The questions they want answered may have little clinical importance but have multiplied within the computer screen requisition that now requires more data entry, more reading, and more in-the-box clicking by the doctor. Some computer programs allow the doctor to delegate ordering tasks, some don’t, and some, like Epic, allow delegating some tasks but not for others. Doctors who are now embracing the delegation of tasks by hiring nurse practitioners and physician assistants are confronting computer programs which are restricting delegation.

Studies have documented that doctors spend two hours in front of a computer for every one hour in front of a patient. In response a new “delegated person”, a medical scribe, has been hired by some doctors. A medical scribe is a non-physician that observes the doctor-patient visit and enters information into the computer freeing the doctor up to maximize the face-to-face patient interaction. (In Quality Management, aka Quality Assurance or Performance Improvement, we call this a “work around” – a human adaptation to bypass a problem in a operating system.)

The Clinical Director of the Partners Epic system defends its as being “for the patients, not the doctors.” Patients gain more access to their medical records like their lab test results, their medications, summary of their visits, and increased opportunity for communication with their physicians. Patient access to their medical record is via a “patient portal”; often touted as a successful way to build a practice and be a modern practitioner. Unfortunately the patient portal has not been the slam dunk it was expected to be. It certainly has not been in our pediatric practice. “Why Are Patient Portals Such Duds?” and other recent reviews describe some of both doctor and patient barriers to their adoption.

The Clinical Director of Partners Epic takes the long view that patients will eventually use the EMR as currently hoped and hyped. We shall see, and in the meantime I hope that fewer practicing primary care doctors experience “burn out” and that fewer new medical school graduates shun primary care practice.

References:
1. New Yorker Magazine, November 12, 2018, Atul Gawande


Vol. 178 October 1, 2017 What is Single-Payer Health Insurance?

October 1, 2017

Now that Bernie Sanders is again firing up the discussion about single-payer health insurance, it might be a good idea to review this complex issue. So, here’s a short self-test for you to gauge your understanding of what Bernie, and a lot of other people, are talking about.  The correct answers are supplied right away, so you won’t stay confused for long. Since this is an internet-based test, YOUR ANSWERS, of course, WILL BE COMPLETELY ANONYMOUS. Nothing will  be recorded by NSA , Equifax, or the Russians.

 

“Single-payer” means:

  1. socialized medicine
  2. 100% of health care costs are paid for with taxes
  3. Pop-Pop picks up the dinner bill for everyone
  4. none of the above

Answer: 4. none of the above – In socialized medicine health care facilities and providers are owned by the government. “Socialized medicine” is a pejorative term which is now irrelevant since at least 70% of U.S. healthcare costs are already met by tax dollars  from Medicare, Medicaid, or the Veterans Administration. “Single-payer” is just an insurance scheme for public or privately owned services. In countries with universal health care insurance 77%-87% of costs are met by taxes. In the U.K. private insurance pays for about 13%. Pop-Pop gladly picks up the dinner bill for his children, but health insurance is still on them.

The number of countries with universal health insurance are:

  1.  1
  2.  2
  3.  3
  4. 58

Answer: 4. 58 – Germany in 1883, France in 1945, UK in 1946, Australia in 1975, Canada in 1984, Israel in 1995.

A basic tenet of single-payer insurance is that everyone will be covered without regard to income level:

  1. true
  2. false
  3. true, but …

Answer: 3. True, but … it will take years to bring everyone in the U.S. under “Medicare For All”.  Each year or so another decade of ages will be added to the coverage. States will need to coordinate their income-based Medicaid programs with “Medicare For All”.  Some states could request and receive waivers from the national program. Etc., etc., as incrementally we always go.

Universal health care insurance in other countries is administered:

  1. nationally
  2. regionally
  3. locally (municipalities)
  4. all of the above

Answer: 4. all of the above – Germany has 1100 public and private “sickness funds” with a national standard level of coverage. In the Netherlands health insurance is administered by municipalities that levy local taxes to pay the costs. This  apparently enhances transparency and both taxpayer and patient satisfaction. Conclusion: If you have seen one system of universal health coverage, you have seen ONE. By the way, isn’t “sickness fund” a much more honest name for insurance which pays for medical care and does not necessarily buy “health”. (Leave it to the Germans to say it like it is).

Universal health insurance is based on which basic insurance principles:

  1. spread the risk over the greatest number of people
  2. use education and regulation (i.e.. fire laws) to reduce the highest risks of loss
  3. if you win (stay healthy), you “lose” (your premiums). If you “lose” (get sick), you win (care is paid for)
  4. use excess premium revenue to build fancy office buildings and pay for expensive lobbyists .

Answer: 1-3 (see subsequent question for further information on #4)

Single payer health insurance will cost less to administer than our present system:

  1. true
  2. false
  3. true, but …

Answer: 3. true, but… maybe not as much reduction as we hope. Administrative costs for the individual provider will probably remain the same because “meaningful criteria” compliance, complex diagnostic coding, need for medical necessity justification, and need for data showing that quality is not being eroded will continue to require significant personnel time and computer capability. Remember also that Medicare is currently administered in large part by “fiscal intermediaries” like Blue Cross. That probably won’t change. Some predict that because of continued pressure on a single-payer to reduce costs, it may, if fact,  get even more complicated for providers to get paid for their services. Of course, the huge consumer advertising, employer marketing, and lobbying expenses of private health insurance companies will be greatly reduced when the market share of private insurance is reduced to 10-15% as has occurred in other countries. If only we could get Visa to run Medicare’s fraud protection system!

Why not “Medicaid For All”;  could individual states institute universal health insurance so that we wouldn’t have to wait for a national consensus?

  1. no
  2. yes
  3. yes, but…

Answer: 3. Yes, but … the hallmark of universal health insurance in other countries is a consistent standard of coverage for all residents. Medicaid programs are state-specific and coverage is extremely variable, as is provider payments. If you see one, you have seen one. Attempts to waive the Obamacare national standards by those wishing to repeal it spotlighted the potential glaring inequities. But, Massachusetts has done it for 90% of its population, and there are bills in its legislature to do it for all. California is attempting to do it. Most California families and businesses, a University of Massachusetts study has said, would pay less for health care than they do now, even with the new taxes, because they would no longer pay premiums, deductibles or co-pays. As Samantha Bee recently noted: “You don’t have to be racist anymore to believe in States’ Rights .”

Why is a single-payer sometimes described as a “double-edged sword”?

  1.  a single-payer could have much greater negotiating leverage with both suppliers (drug companies) and providers (doctors and hospitals)
  2. a single-payer would be perched on the sharpest edge of the cost-quality equation
  3. the standardization of payments by a single-payer could dampen innovation and hamper medical progress
  4. all of the above

Answer: 4. all of the above – More leverage against the drug companies is “good”. More leverage against the providers could be “bad”.  Despite studies that show that good quality care is less costly, many still see a dichotomy between cost and quality. Concern about hampering innovation (“new ways of doing things”) with excessive standardization (“the old ways”) was one reason Obamacare created a Center for Innovation within Medicare as part of the ACA .

Who is in favor of single-payer health insurance?

  1. 60% of those polled
  2. 38% of those polled
  3. depends on the nature of the poll
  4.  all of the above

Answer: 4. all of the above – The 60% in favor of single-payer health insurance dropped to 38% when the question was tied to one about increased taxes. The most recent Harris-Harvard poll (9/17/17) showed that 52% were in favor of single-payer insurance. 69% believe that it would provide more coverage, including 54% of Republicans. . Most of the other questions about a governmental single-payer were 50/50 pro and con. Some physicians, hospitals, and other providers are in favor of single-payer insurance.

What are some of the barriers to implementing single-payer, universal health insurance in the U.S.?:

What does President Trump think?:

 


Vol. 172 June 1, 2017 Why Republicans Dislike Obamacare (simplified)

June 2, 2017

“You pays yer money,
and you takes yer choice.”

 

 

The #1 reason is that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) expanded health insurance to at least 23 million voters in the name of Obama, a Democrat.

The #2 reason is that Obamacare is costing the federal government more than the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicted.

That is because more of the uninsured enrolled in Medicaid than predicted and less than predicted bought policies through the health insurance exchanges. I am sure that there are all sorts of complex economic reasons for that, but to my mind it seems pretty simple.  If Medicare is the Gold Card of health insurance, Medicaid is at least the Silver Card.  The Medicaid card is accepted by all hospitals and ERs (by law) and many physician specialists. Even some behavioral health services can be paid for with the card. Medicaid insurance is always state-funded, and each state develops their own program.”If you know one Medicaid program, you know just one Medicaid program.”

Obamacare increased federal subsidies to states that expanded people’s eligibility ( i.e.; by raising eligible income levels) for Medicaid insurance. Federal subsidies existed for the first few years, but Medicaid costs would eventually be borne by the individual states’ taxpayers. If you are the Republican governor of a state running for reelection every four years you’re probably not enthusiastic about that. However, one Republican Governor ( Romney of Massachusetts) had already expanded that state’s Medicaid eligibility to achieve nearly 100% insured. The present Republican Governor (Baker of Massachusetts) will be very unhappy if he loses the federal subsidies to Medicaid under Trumpcare.

Health insurance exchanges were supposed to recruit into the health insurance risk pool a lot of healthy young people not covered by employer-based plans. These healthy young people would need less health care than their elders, so their premiums would be a “net plus revenue” to the insurance companies. When that “net revenue” did not appear as large as expected several companies withdrew from the exchanges with much media attention. The “individual mandate” tax which was supposed to “incentivize” the uninsured to buy policies through the exchanges was apparently too low to work.

So, the essential elements of the Republican “replacement” of Obamacare are to:
1) roll back federally subsidized Medicaid expansion and
2) do away with the health insurance exchanges with their federal subsidy of premiums and the associated “individual mandate”.

Of course, Republicans propose to keep the more popular benefits like required coverage for pre-existing conditions and coverage for children up to age 26 living at home. Obamacare also established a new standard definition of “essential benefits” such as pregnancy and other maternal benefits and put a maximum cap on premiums for the elderly. One Republican proposal would define pregnancy as a “preexisting condition” and deny coverage. Watch for further developments in evolving Senate proposals.

The predictions of the CBO in the past (since Nixon created it on the way out the Oval Office door) have been more nearly correct than those of most other agencies and organizations. It’s reputation as bipartisan and objective remains intact. The publication of Republican “replacements” before the CBO’s analysis could be carried out clearly hurt the credibility of their proposals.

Multiple evidence-based studies and the experience of all other developed countries with government-based health insurance (does NOT have to be a “single payer”) have shown that providing universal health insurance in the long run saves money;
-by providing access to medical care for all citizens,
-by enhancing the cost-effective introduction of new technology,
-and by rationalizing the resource allocation of a defined budget.

We have a history of difficulty in taking the long view. For example, the initial enthusiasm for preventative/wellness programs exhibited by the early HMOs eroded considerably when they realized that the policy holder might not be with the same insurance company when the time came years later to reap the benefits of good health (less medical care expenses).  Certainly Governors, congressmen, and other public officials with short 2, 4, or 8-year terms have little incentive to always appreciate the long-term cost benefits down the road. (“No regulations to fight against climate change” comes to mind)

So as “they”say, being either the British magazine Punch in 1846 or Mark Twain in 1884 in “Huckleberry Finn”,
“You pays yer money, and you takes yer choice.” 


Vol. 169 April 15, 2017 “Free-market Health Care Doesn’t Work”

April 17, 2017

“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”
-Donald Trump 2/27/17

Stephen Colbert responded with: “There was at least one person who knew that it was complicated, that tall, thin, greying guy who used to be in your office, Donald.”

Of course, there are lots of people who know how complicated it is. One of them is my old boss, Jim Lyons, founder and past-CEO of Cape Cod Healthcare, Inc. He is retired now and hasn’t lost his knack of making sense of the morass. He did just that in a recent Op Ed piece in the Cape Cod Times, and I’m shamelessly plagiarizing parts of it (in bold) for today’s blog.

“The fallacy [of the health care debate] is that necessary healthcare services is a free-market choice, as with buying a car, a house, or a kitchen table. If you have a stroke, break your hip or have an automobile accident [you don’t make] the same free-market choice for service”.

You could argue that if you want an elective procedure like a new knee, a new hip, or cancer treatment there is the opportunity for more choice, and that is true. Just take a look at the burgeoning advertising budgets of competing medical centers. The say they are competing on “quality”, and they are competing for your dollar, or more nearly correct the insurance company’s and the federal Medicare dollar. So far, in no U.S. health care market region has this “competition” led to lower costs. We recently wrote about the growing “lower-cost” market of medical tourism.

The two biggest reasons that health care costs keep rising are 1) we are all living longer and 2) better medical technology (both electronic and “better living through chemistry”).

 “New technology in health care almost always results in increased costs. In industry, new technology often lowers the cost of production. This is not the case for health care innovations.”

In fact, The Hastings Center estimates that 50% of our increasing health care costs is due to new technology. MRI exams have replaced  CT scans and other x-ray procedures in many instances, even in mammography; coronary surgery is being replaced in some instances by “simpler” medical devices inserted through a blood vessel; newer drugs with marginally better effects for heart disease and cancer are selling at much higher prices; PET scans are becoming the standard of care in certain cancer treatment protocols, etc.

Many years ago I remember the responses of a delegation of physicians and administrators from Great Britain who were touring American medical centers looking at our health care facilities. They were impressed, of course, with the MRIs and cardiac surgery units in Boston, but they “were just like what we had in London.” But, then they saw the same facilities in Worcester, Springfield, even Winchester and Burlington, and impossibly, Cape Cod, and they were impressed.

Efforts to control health care costs continue to be futile. “Republicare” was a political disaster and only attained a 17% approval rate in public polls. “Medicare For All” which calls for an incremental extension of Medicare coverage to those below 65 years of age has been in the House of Representatives (HR 676) since 2015. In Massachusetts there are now no less than four separate bills in the legislature calling for a single-payer Medicare For All in Massachusetts.

“One reason that it’s probably not politically possible to make a change to a single-payer system at this time is the more than 1,000 great buildings for servicing health insurance companies all over the country, full of many workers, many executives, and billions of forms.”

“Whether health care is a privilege or a right, we have made such great progress in the past 50 years that I don’t want to see any new health care plan that slows or reverses our progress. Please remember, health care is not a free-market choice like many of our other important decisions.”


Vol. 167 March 15, 2017 AHCA (RepubliCare) Revealed

March 15, 2017

WINNERS: Young, Wealthy, Healthy, “Blue States” (urban millennials)
LOSERS: Older, Poor, Sick, “Red States” (rural working poor)

The American Health Care Act (AHCA) was developed by Paul Ryan (R) who has been publicly promising a Republican health care act since 2009!  He apparently does not want his name attached to this one. Neither does Trump. So I choose to call it “RepubliCare”.

The Congressional Budget Office’s “quick and dirty” analysis of the American Health Care Act (actually two bills still in committee) estimates that 14 million people will lose their health insurance in 2018 if it “replaces” the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Of all the projections, this one is probably the most crucial, since it will be a factor in the mid-term elections.

The CBO is a non-partisan, independent body created by President Richard Nixon in his last act before resigning in 1974. The CBO aids Congress in developing their own budget proposals, in objectively costing out their proposed bills, and in analyzing budgets developed by the Executive branch. The Commonwealth Fund (a liberal think tank) has determined that all financial projections of ACA costs were inaccurate, but that the CBO was closest to the actual. This current CBO report was done in association with the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. It is “quick and dirty” because the sudden appearance of the two bills surprised them. The CBO states it had insufficient time to project the cost effects on states and other “macroeconomic” effects, as required by the House of Representative rules for any “major legislation”.  The published projections actually represent the mid-point between low and high estimates, neither of which have been made public.

RepubliCare is projected to trim $337 Billion off the federal deficit over 10 years. According to the CBO most of the increase in the uninsured and the cost savings (federal only) would result from repealing the individual mandate, lowering the federal subsidies for low-income non-group policies, decreasing the federal subsidy to Medicaid by going to “block grants” to states, and stopping any expansion of Medicaid coverage after 2020.

CBO had three weeks to analyze the ACA. They had 5 days with RepubliCare. CBO 2010 projections of the ACA costs were lower than actual because 1) more people opted for Medicaid coverage than expected, 2) actual Medicaid costs per enrollee were higher than expected,  3) the individual mandate (currently a $695 yearly penalty for not buying health insurance) proved too weak an incentive for young people to buy insurance, 4) health insurance exchanges (the private insurers market place) attracted only about half of the projected number of people, and 5) the general economy improved slower than estimated (“did not match the Ronald Reagan Recovery curve.”)

Rather than boring you with repeats of the number of “millions losing health insurance per year” under RepubliCare, here are some “fun facts” about it you can use to punctuate chats with your friends and colleagues:

  • It is 66 pages long. (That calculates out to about 8.25 pages per year for the writing pace of Paul Ryan (R).
  • 6 pages are devoted to changes in Medicaid eligibility rules, including the interesting item prohibiting any Lottery winner from being eligible for Medicaid.
  • replaces the individual mandate ($695 penalty tax) with tax credits worth about 1/12th of the average yearly insurance premium (for anyone, of course, who has a taxable income).
  • eliminates the 2.3% tax on medical devices. (The Advanced Medical Technology Association is the only Massachusetts medical organization that has expressed support of RepubliCare so far)
  • eliminates the 10% tax on tanning stores (Probably a blatant try for support from Trump and ex-senator John Boehner (R). Actually, pale Paul Ryan (R) could use a visit or two, though universities and colleges across the country are limiting student access to tanning stores because of the increased risk of melanoma).
  • removes coverage for substance abuse and mental health services by 2020.
  • eliminates tax surcharge on insurance executives “earning” more than $500,000 a year.
  • eliminates tax on big pharma-manufacturing companies
  • delays implementation of 40% tax on “Cadillac” health insurance policies for high income people until 2025.
  • prohibits Medicaid reimbursement to Planned Parenthood for any of their services. (a major source of revenue for the 97% of preventative and non-abortion treatment services PP provides)
  • retains prohibition against denying pre-existing conditions (but imposes a 30% surcharge for such for 1 year).
  • retains coverage of children under 26 on parents’ policy.
  • retains coverage for contraceptive and maternity benefits.
  • retains prohibition of any surcharges on women’s policies (“gender equivalence”)
  • allows elders to be charged 5 times the premium of younger people. (AARP is all over this one as age discrimination) ACA allowed a 3:1 premium ratio.
  • increases maximum contributions to Health Savings Account (HSA) from $3,400 to $6,500. ( Great , if you are making enough money to save.)

Liberals, Democrats, many Republicans, many governors, hospitals, physicians, the AARP, and even conservatives don’t like the bill.

“The AHCA does what it was intended to do; it lowers federal spending and reduces the number of people with health insurance.” (Michael Chernew, MD, Harvard University)

“ It would repeal far less of ObamaCare than the bill Republicans sent to President Obama one year ago. The House Republican leadership bill does not replace ObamaCare. It merely applies a new coat of paint to a building that Republicans themselves have already condemned.” Cato Institute 

Republicans in Congress are claiming that the CBO did not cover the “whole” plan. “What was not covered was what else we are going to do in terms of ‘regulation reforms’, state Medicaid rules, and future bills.”

I believe we are being asked to buy a hastily produced “pig in a poke”, an even bigger pig in a bigger poke than Obamacare.


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