Friday, July 22, 2016

qotd: Medical Economics: Obamacare receives a big, fat 'F' from physicians

Medical Economics
July 25, 2016
Obamacare receives a big, fat 'F' from physicians
By Joanna Haugen, Jordan Rosenfeld

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been a lightning rod for criticism from various healthcare stakeholders, including physicians, since the law's passage six years ago.

With the upcoming presidential election likely to alter the landscape of "Obamacare"—from simple tweaks by Democrats to outright attempted repeal by Republicans—Medical Economics asked healthcare policy experts and our readers to debate the law's effect on U.S. physicians.

Our editorial staff, with the assistance of our physician advisers, selected eight provisions and consequences (both intentional and unintentional) stemming from the law.  Policy analysts provided their thoughts on how Obamacare has shaped the last six years. Then we  asked physicians from our editorial advisory board, our 200-member Reader Reactor Panel (comprised of physician readers nationwide who help direct our content), and our e-newsletter subscribers to grade the various elements based on their own experiences.  Each physician ranked each element in terms of how it assisted their day-to-day work as physicians on a score from 0 (not at all) to 10 (extremely helpful). The average of all respondents was used to derive the letter grade. Physicians also offered short justifications for their ranking.

Medicare bonus for primary care physicians
  Grade: 33 = F

Medicaid-Medicare parity
  Grade: 34 = F

Increased coverage through healthcare insurance exchanges
  Grade: 35 = F

Narrow networks
  Grade: 29 = F

Accountable care organizations
  Grade: 29 = F

Outcomes-based reimbursement
  Grade: 28 = F

Physician ratings via the Physician Compare website
  Grade: 26 = F

Expansion of health IT
  Grade: 31 = F


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Comment by Don McCanne

Celebrations of the success of the Affordable Care Act have to be tempered by the knowledge that it leaves too many uninsured, that health care is still not affordable for far too many, and that the benefits of tighter insurance regulation were largely offset by the insurance design changes of excessive cost sharing and restrictive narrow networks. One other goal was to improve payment systems so that patients would receive greater quality at lower costs. So what do physicians think about the implementation and effectiveness of the design changes in the payment system?

In this survey, physicians gave a grade of F to all eight of the design features evaluated. In trying to improve payment systems, the legislators and bureaucrats have certainly botched things up. Not only have they failed to achieve any improvement, they have made things worse. Not only that, they have compounded physician burnout, now affecting over half of all physicians. Having an unhappy physician negatively impacts patient care.

Much blame can be attributed to the focus of the policy community and the MBAs that guide them. Medicine is about taking care of patients, but the policy community approaches it as a business that can be improved by incentives.

Would a single payer system fix this? It would provide a more equitable, efficient and effective financing system, but it would still be subject the whims of legislators and bureaucrats who do not seem to appreciate the sanctity of the physician-patient relationship. Once we have in place a national single payer system, our work is not done.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

qotd: The adequacy of insurance coverage is under threat

Bloomberg View
July 20, 2016
Obamacare's Other Success, Under Threat
By Editorial Board

Obamacare has made great strides toward its signature goal: to reduce the number of Americans without health insurance. Unfortunately, another important goal -- ensuring that everyone's insurance policy provides adequate coverage -- remains under siege in the courts and Congress.

Before the Affordable Care Act, private health insurers were free to exclude coverage for all sorts of care.

Moreover, if anyone's medical expenses grew too high, insurers could cut them off. A serious or complicated illness or injury could leave people essentially uninsured.

Obamacare changed things by establishing 10 categories of benefits that most insurance plans must cover -- including hospitalization, prescription drugs, laboratory services and mental health care -- and prohibiting annual or lifetime limits on those benefits.

This month, however, a federal appeals court ruled that people can buy plans with far more limited coverage. Yet those who buy such plans risk being surprised twice -- first when they're saddled with the tax penalty for not carrying adequate insurance, and then when they need care and find their coverage doesn't go as far as they thought.

Republicans in Congress have likewise targeted Obamacare's minimum coverage requirements, arguing that consumers, not the government, should determine what services they want insurers to provide.


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Comment by Don McCanne

The majority of Americans believe that everyone should have the health care that they need when they need it, and that we need a financing system that will pay for it. Others believe that they should take care of their own health care needs and not be required to pay into a risk pool that covers the health care of others. So should the health insurance system provide comprehensive coverage for all, or should it allow individuals to purchase coverage for only those benefits they perceive they might need?

"As a man, why should I have to pay for maternity benefits I'll never use?" "As a woman, why should I have to pay for treatment of prostate cancer - a disease that I'll never have?" "I take good care of myself; why should I have to pay for care of disorders of others due to their smoking, illicit drug use, reckless driving, sexual promiscuity or whatever?" "I'm healthy so why can't I wait until I will likely need health care instead of wasting money on insurance now?"

"I want to take care of myself by buying only the insurance I need now, and everyone else can buy whatever they feel they need." But what about that unexpected disorder that racks up medical bills of $350,000? "Well, I didn't mean that. Nobody can pay those bills, so the government should pay it instead."

So we're divided between "we're all in this together" and "I'll take care of myself, and you're on your own." But medical care doesn't work that way. The twenty percent of people who use eighty percent of health care are reliant on pooled funds to pay for their health care. Most of the eighty percent who are relatively healthy will someday shift into the high health care needs group and likewise also be dependent on pooled funds.

Although the Affordable Care Act was a step forward in pooling health care risk, there is a campaign to move us in the other direction. An effort to shut down inadequate plans was reversed by the Supreme Court, even though those plans will unfairly shift costs to others when they do not adequately cover expensive diseases and injuries. Also many politicians want to ensure that people will be able to "buy only the insurance they need" through gimmicks such as private insurance exchanges offering the choice of low benefit plans, purchases out of state to avoid regulatory oversight of insurers, reliance on health savings accounts - usually underfunded, etc.

As a group, those individuals who want to take care of themselves include many individuals who will have high medical expenses. Whatever way they set funds aside - spartan insurance plans, health savings accounts, personal savings - collectively they will not have enough funds set aside to pay for the expensive care some members of their group will need. Besides, they have fragmented much of their funds such that only a limited amount would be available for others, largely through catastrophic plans that have intolerably high deductibles. Whereas those of us who support universal pooling of risk would cover our costs equitably, those who are on their own will dump costs onto the rest of us through taxes we pay for public programs or through higher medical bills due to shifting to us the costs of care provided to those who do not pay their bills.

When people sign up for Medicare, they do not ask for only the Medicare that they need. They expect that they will get essentially the same Medicare that everyone else has (though some may receive similar benefits through the private Medicare Advantage plans). It should be that way not for just Medicare beneficiaries, but for everyone. We should improve Medicare and then make it universal. That will satisfy the majority of us who believe that we are all in this together, and for those who want to be on their own, they will accept the benefits of a Medicare for all program just as they now accept Medicare in their retirement years. Also, they will have paid in their equitable share, based on ability, just like the rest of us.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

qotd: What does the 13% average Covered California premium increase mean for the rest of us?

Kaiser Health News
July 19, 2016
Covered California Health Plan Rates To Jump 13.2 Percent In 2017
By Chad Terhune and Pauline Bartolone

California's Obamacare premiums will jump 13.2 percent on average next year, a sharp increase that is likely to reverberate nationwide in an election year.

The Covered California exchange had won plaudits by negotiating 4 percent average rate increases in its first two years. But that feat couldn't be repeated for 2017, as overall medical costs continue to climb and two federal programs that help insurers with expensive claims are set to expire this year.

Some health-policy experts were surprised by the magnitude of the increase in California. Others said it was inevitable the rates would catch up to the rest of the country after insurers determined their coverage had been priced too low.

Blue Shield of California said its premiums were going up 19.9 percent, the highest statewide increase. Anthem Inc., the nation's second largest health insurer, said it had an average increase of 17.2 percent in its Covered California plans. HMO giant Kaiser Permanente, in contrast, posted an average increase of 6 percent.

"While these rates hikes aren't as bad as the annual double-digit increases before the Affordable Care Act, that's not much comfort to consumers who don't see their paychecks increase by the same percentage," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a consumer advocacy group.

These rate increases apply to people who purchase their own coverage in the individual market, not the majority of Americans who get their health insurance through work or government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.


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Comment by Don McCanne

California has been a leader in establishing and implementing the health insurance exchanges authorized by the Affordable Care Act. Although they did hold down premium rate increases in the first two years to 4 percent (still above the rate of inflation), the higher costs of health care have caught up with them. That requires an average of a 13.2 percent premium increase for the next year (though other regulatory and market factors cause greater year to year fluctuation in the premiums). What does this mean for those enrolled in those plans and for the rest of us who obtain our health care coverage elsewhere?

Some of those enrolled in the Covered California plans will find the premium increases to be beyond their means. Many of them will be able to shop for plans with lower premiums, but they will likely have to pay higher deductibles, though those who are eligible for government subsidies may find that the burden is not too great. In changing plans, many will have to disrupt their current care since their new plans will have different provider networks. The effort to make the insurance premiums more affordable clearly has detrimental effects in physician choice and affordability of actual access to health care.

In California those people purchasing plans in the individual market will have very similar experiences except that they are not eligible for government subsidies that could reduce the impact of the premium increases.

The employee contribution to employer-sponsored plans has been more stable, although that is beginning to change. Starbucks is the latest of employers who are using private insurance exchanges in which the employees use a voucher or equivalent to purchase their plans. The impact will be very similar to the ACA exchanges - less choice in health care providers and greater out-of-pocket costs merely because eventually the voucher will not be enough to cover plans with wider networks and less cost sharing.

Even Medicare may eventually be impacted. The push to private Medicare Advantage plans is succeeding because of government overpayment to these plans. The conservative and neoliberal coalition is advocating for the establishment of a voucher program for private Medicare plans (premium support), crowding out the traditional Medicare program.

Politicians will likely respond to inevitable protests of intolerable increases in the beneficiaries' portion of the Medicare premium by allowing insurer innovations in coverage that will reduce the premiums. We already know what some of these will be: larger deductibles and other cost sharing, narrower provider networks, or intrusive prior authorization designed to limit access to expensive drug products and procedures. But this will be nothing compared to what the insurance industry will likely do once it is granted a free rein to innovate. It's in the DNA of this industry.

ACA supporters are assuring us that we don't have to worry about these high premium increases in the exchange plans because patients are free to shop for cheaper plans. But they have left out the rest of the story.