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.” 

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Vol. 163 January 16, 2017 From Zero to $7,500: One Consequence of Obamacare Repeal.

January 16, 2017

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“As a doctor, I will take it and make it my mission
to heal the nation, reverse the course of Obamacare,
and repeal every last bit of it. ”
-Rand Paul

What exactly could happen if Obamacare was taken away? My daughter’s recent landing of a second part-time job offered an opportunity for me to understand the possible result in one case.

As a singer-songwriter, energy healer, and part-time retail clerk my daughter shares a common situation with many on Cape Cod; an annual income of less than $16,000, which is the current federal definition of poverty.  She is therefore eligible for Medicaid in Massachusetts. She pays no premium, has no deductible, and except for some named prescription medicines she has no co-pays. Preventative, pre-natal, and behavioral health services are covered. Her out-of-pocket cost per year is essentially zero. Some Obamacare repealers want to roll back the extension of Medicaid eligibility financed by federal subsidies. In many states that would strip this kind of  coverage from many of those newly covered under the ACA, but that is not a possibility in Massachusetts.

In my daughter’s case her new, second part-time job may push her annual income over $16,000. If so, she will no longer be eligible for Medicaid. As a part-time worker she is not be eligible for an employer-sponsored (and partially paid for) health plan. Her employer’s HR department told her she could buy a basic policy with a $2700 annual deductible for $226 a month through the school. “Co-pays varied and are difficult to predict.”  For her that is a new potential cost of $5400 out-of-pocket per year.

She got married last year and her spouse is in the same “low-income” bracket, so she inquired about a family policy (“for 2”). The answer: $400 a month at the same $2700 deductible amount for a $7,500 potential out-of-pocket cost. A $7,500 out-of-pocket cost “exposure” per year is a big nut for a family earning less than $22,000 a year.

Her other choice (besides going uninsured and paying a fine of $300-$2,085 in 2017 depending on income level) is buying an individual policy through an ACA Health Insurance Exchange. Under Obamacare any individual that is making less than 138% of the federal poverty level (about $22,000) can shop for a policy via a state or federal health insurance marketplace (also called health insurance exchange).  The exchanges can offer federally-financed subsidies of up to 60% of premium for eligible “working poor”. After lengthy website surfing, face-to-face help from the Health Connecter facilitator at a local hospital, and several phone calls with prolonged holding periods, she discovered that she could buy about the same basic policy of $2700 deductible for $226 a month through the health insurance exchange. BUT, despite providing all sorts of financial info they could not tell her…”yet” … what the premium would be and whether she was eligible for a premium subsidy. She was told that “things were in flux”, and that she could get a “call back in a week or two about that”. The enrollment deadline for signing up is January 31.

Just “for the fun of it” and to satisfy my curiosity I masqueraded online as my daughter to experience the health insurance application process via the Mass Health Connector. Over three different days I persisted on the internet and on the telephone to try to get the answer to : ”What would it cost to buy a basic individual health insurance policy?”  After reviewing and clicking on 5 to 7 different logos with unfamiliar company names, after entering the same information on multiple screens, after holding for more than 20 minutes on three separate phone calls, after being passed on to three different “responders” on one phone call, and after twice being hung up on after saying that “I was currently on Medicaid, but was looking for insurance to start February 1 when I would become ineligible”, I GAVE UP THE QUEST WITHOUT AN ANSWER.

Different sites had different definitions of “basic” and most had three or more different levels of benefits (coverage). Descriptions of benefits were quite lengthy and often complex.  For instance, the Bronze (basic) Level of “Access Blue Saver II“ (from Blue Cross; the easiest comparison charts to read) offered a 9 page policy offering no preventative or prenatal care with a $3,350 deductible and $60 co-pay for office visit and $1000 co-pay for an ER visit. Silver, Gold, and Platinum “Access” policies had different benefits. I could not get any information about actual premiums without further phone calls to “licensed brokers.”

Why is this so convoluted and confusing in contrast to the simpler processes of Medicaid and Medicare? One answer is that individual insurance policies are a gamble. For instance, a life insurance policy is really a bet between you and the insurance company. If you lose (die), you win (receive all the premiums back). If you win (out live the term), you lose and the company wins (keeps all the premiums). Another answer is that 400,000 people more than 2015  are flocking to sign up through health insurance exchanges.(1)

Obamacare has not changed the basic premise of individual health insurance policies, and the insurance companies are trying to make their  “best bets”. The betting odds are not as clear as the 1:6 of Russian Roulette, though we know that lack of health insurance can be lethal. The betting odds are more like those of Black Jack. The dealer (health insurance company) is using multiple decks, other players (consumers) at the table can affect your odds, the best odds are not always intuitively obvious, and the dealer (health insurance company) can change the betting rules every year.

Medicaid and Medicare are insurance programs based on large populations and therefore need less of the gambling “tricks of the trade” of writing individual polices. Hence my support for a health insurance program based on a large population, sometimes called a single-payor system. If not “Medicare For All”, then how about state-based programs of “Medicaid For All.” (2)

References:
1. Boston Globe, pg.2, December 22, 2016, from the NY Times.
2. NEJM, 375;26, December 29, 2016, “Maintaining Insurance Access Under Trump – A Strategy”


Vol. 98 October 1, 2013 “Today’s The Day” for Obamacare*

September 30, 2013

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Today is the day that Obamacare really begins.

Thirty million uninsured and underinsured Americans can start signing up today for affordable health care insurance through healthcare insurance exchanges. A key factor for the success of the Affordable Care Act (ACA – the real name for Obamacare) is the addition of these new insurance premiums to the national health insurance pool from Americans assumed to be younger and healthier than people already insured by Medicare or Medicaid.

Though government “defunding” is hanging in the balance today, this day is pretty tame compared to that day in 1965 when Medicare was implemented. Several states actually mobilized their National Guard then in fear of the predicted “hordes of people descending on hospitals seeking medical care”. It never happened, of course, and Medicare benefits, as political candidates found out this past year, have become a “political sacred cow”, resistant to most attacks.

Obamacare elements that have already been implemented include requirements that insurance companies cover “essential benefits”and can not reject coverage of pre-existing conditions. As we muddle through this next stage of Obamacare implementation, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. If you are on Medicare, Medicaid, an employer’s health insurance plan, you don’t have to do a thing. Just sit tight and let the dust settle.

2. You have until March 31, 2014 to buy insurance (“enroll”) through an exchange. The only other deadline is December 15, 2013 if you want your coverage to begin on January 1, 2014.

3. Don’t try to enroll in the first month. Let the glitches in websites get ironed out and wait for “navigators” to appear to help you understand your eligibility for and coverage of the various plans offered. Navigator training funding has been delayed by Congress. Navigators, by regulation, can NOT give you a specific recommendation, but will clarify your choices via internet and even “live chats”.

4. In those thirty-six states which have opted not to set up state exchanges the federal government has taken on the responsibility for providing this service. Unfortunately, the feds have a different name for these exchanges, “marketplace”, but they will offer the same help in finding the right health care insurance for you. Establishment of federal “marketplaces’ has been delayed in some states by “subpeona harrassment” from Congressional Committees trying to distract, or even cripple, the fledgling efforts of healthcare insurance marketplaces.

5 . If you are not eligible for Medicaid or Medicare and have no insurance now you may be eligible for a federal subsidy of your premium. To find out just plug in your own figures at the Kaiser Family Foundation website at http://www.kff.org and see what you could get. The short list of your information the website requests is : 1. income, 2. family size, 3. age, and 4. tobacco use (That last one is really interesting)

6. Verification of income for eligibility (by the IRS) will not be operational until 2015. In 2014 it will be based on the “honor system, so you can count on some tabloid bombshells about individual insurance frauds under the headline of “We Told You So!”.

7. The tax penalty for the individual who can afford health insurance, but opts out this first year is a paltry $95, so don’t sweat it.

8. The state exchanges and the federal marketplaces will be offering comparisons of four levels of insurance (Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum) with increasing premiums and decreasing predicted out-of-pocket costs from different insurance companies. The plans offered in these exchanges will be better than 98% of current policies available to individuals according to www.healthpocket. com, a free website that collects no personal information.

The hoped-for long-range result is less of a tax burden on taxpayers who are currently paying for medical care for the uninsured via state and federal taxes.

During dinner the other night the conversation drifted to Obamacare, gradually became more intense, and with a soupçon of agitation one Obamacare opponent ** blurtd out, “How can anyone vote for a bill that is 3000 pages long?! Who the hell would read the whole thing?” The rejoinder, “How many pages does the Bible have?” was a non-sequitur conversation-stopper, but it got me to thinking.

Like the Bible, Obamacare is open to interpretation, and your view of it may depend on your political party rather than your religion. Both are vulnerable to quoting out of context in support of opposing viewpoints. Both have overall, encompassing goals which can often be lost, or at least obscured, by the minute details of excess verbiage.. Both have, and will continue to have, “unintended consequences” (like the Inquisition or the Crusades) that we mere mortals have to deal with.

Everyone certainly agrees that Obamacare is NOT divinely inspired. Congress has clearly rejected the idea of a central authority (the Pope, or Donald Berwick, MD as “Czar” of CMS). The Bible is no longer chained in the dark in the back of the church, and Obamacare is now out in public, out in the market place. We shall see eventually how well it meets the needs of our citizens for affordable health care.

It’s success or failure will be clear only after Obama is out of office .
What will we call it then?
ACA won’t stick because we have learned to distrust most three letter acronyms like FBI, CIA, and NSA.
“Christicare” might do, but it sounds awfully religious.
“Cruzcare” sounds like an automobile speed controller.
If Hilary becomes President, she’ll probably put up with the name Obamacare as it is successfully implemented during her first term. Then, during her second term, she’ll dust-off her previous plan for universal health care and call it, what else but, “Clintoncare”.

By the time the Republicans win the presidency the Affordable Care Act will have so many beneficiaries (voters) that they won’t dare to kill it, and they will have to rename it.

I wonder WWJD? ***

* This was Mel Fisher’s  rallying cry every day for 16 years when he and his crew set out in boats searching for sunken Spanish treasure in Florida waters. He found the treasure of the Atocha  with the help of an archeologist named R. Duncan Mathewson.

** I call them “opponents” not “critics” because they really do desire Obamacare to die. In my mind “critics” suggest ways to improve plays, films, books, or programs and rarely ask for their abolishment. We should all act as “critics” of Obamacare in the coming years.

*** “What Would Jesus Do?”


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