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“While Considering Medicare For All: Policies For Making Health Care In The United States Better”

Robert Kocher and Donald M. BerwickWhile Considering Medicare For All: Policies For Making Health Care In The United States Better,” Health Affairs

Dr. Donald Berwick is the former Director of Medicare and Medicaid who talked about waste in Medicare and Doctors knowing such waste exists.

“It is unlikely that the United States will move quickly to a full publicly financed health insurance when Congress next considers health policy after the 2020 presidential election. Despite its theoretical advantages, passage of Medicare for All would require a massive political battle to make feasible the shift from private to public funding, to develop enough public trust to expand an entitlement program for all Americans, and to mitigate the disruption for many of substituting public insurance for familiar, existing health insurance policies. The transition will take time.”

Improving Affordability

Donald Berwick’s direction on Medicare was this: While US health care can and should be made more affordable by attacking waste, innovating in delivery system design, and improving productivity, these mechanisms are unlikely to achieve affordability quickly. He comes back with other comments which can be quicker in implementing.

• Lower the cost of health insurance for more Americans: Two types of financial assistance were implemented in the form of premium and cost-sharing subsidies. Sliding-scale premium subsidies reduced the monthly cost of insurance substantially when they phase in for people with incomes at 133 percent of the federal poverty level up till 300% FPL and phased out at 400 percent of poverty. 400% of income was $100,400 for a family of four in 2019. With an average silver-level insurance plan, the costs for healthcare insurance were $15,855 or 16 percent of income. It is recommended, no American should spend more than 10 percent of income on insurance premiums.

Cost-sharing subsidies were available to those with incomes up to 250% of poverty, average deductibles have risen to $3,000, and total out-of-pocket costs are capped at $7,900. The deductibles and out-of-pockets was done so as to give patients some skin-in-the-game and not abuse insurance. “Skin-in-the-game,” are regressive actions which disproportionately penalize people with chronic diseases. The authors recommend eliminating all cost sharing for people with incomes below 250% of poverty. For people with incomes from 251 percent to 1,000% of poverty, the authors suggest a sliding-scale of subsidies similar to the current program. Instead of annual appropriations, we would make these subsidies mandatory expenditures to replace annual appropriations and prevent an Executive Branch from using the funding of these benefits as a political weapon.

• Reduce insurance premium growth rates by limiting hospital prices. As I wrote in Again, Healthcare Cost Drivers Pharma, Doctors, and Hospitals, the biggest driver of healthcare cost is simply “pricing” increases reflected in hospitals and pharmaceuticals. These increases are reflected in insurance premiums. As the authors also point out, the biggest driver of premium increases has been in hospital price increases which have risen 42% between 2007 to 2014 and far greater than physician prices.

The ACO strategy has allowed hospitals to exploit the market through consolidation thereby eliminating competition to raise prices and enabling the employment of specialist doctors, making them “must haves” in insurance networks. As planned, the consolidation should have generated administrative cost synergy and quality benefits instead of enabling healthcare to consolidate and control prices. The authors believe no hospital should be able to charge prices that equal more than Medicare prices plus 20 percent, which is far less than many charge today (plus 89% on average) also far, far less than the 200 to 240% for hospitals in Michigan for catastrophic automobile accidents recently signed into law. The authors claim the plus 20% is enough revenue to offset Medicaid underpayments and provide incentive to be more productive. Indexing hospital prices to the Consumer Price Index rather than medical inflation, hospitals are not perversely rewarded for lower levels of productivity improvement than the rest of the economy. It is recommended, hospitals with greater than 40% market share in a given area would be required to contract with all health plans so that they cannot limit choice and competition.

• Make medications more affordable. As I noted in “ Again, Healthcare Cost Drivers Pharma, Doctors, and Hospitals,” from 1996 to 2013 in one JAMA study, healthcare costs increased by ~$1 trillion of which 50% was due solely to pricing increases. The big issue is the change in pricing for in and out patient hospital stays/care and pharmaceuticals. Hospital/clinic consolidations leads to the former even though insurance has been fighting for a reduction in stays. Pharmaceutical has instituted new pricing strategies which we have all read about in the news. Old drugs such as Humalog, Vimovo, and the infamous EpiPens as well as others are now vastly more expensive. This study points to pricing for pharma and service as one of the issues.

The authors recommend; a ban on rebates to all insurance markets and not just Medicare; reducing the period of market exclusivity for biologic drugs from 13 years to 7 years to enable generic competition sooner since biologic drugs are the most expensive drugs accounting for 70 percent of spending growth from 2010 to 2015; and adopting the Trump administration’s proposed international market basket pricing approach to set the upper limit for drug prices.

Improving Access

Improve the risk pool of people buying coverage and make Medicaid more universal.

• Create larger, lower-cost, healthier risk pools to reduce premiums. Reimpose the Individual Mandate to create larger, lower-cost, and healthier risk pools thereby reducing premiums. Since subsidies would be more generous, the penalty for not buying insurance would be larger. Short-term three-year plans would be eliminated. Reinstate the coverage of essential health benefits in all plans.

• Expand the use of reinsurance. Reinsurance lowers premiums by reimbursing plans for medical expenses for the most expensive patients These expenses do not have to be offset by premium increases from healthier patients.

• Improve Medicaid access. Medicaid provides comprehensive insurance for 74 million Americans and in some states, coverage is dropping as a result of work requirements besides other barriers to enrollment and reenrollment. The authors would eliminate Medicaid cost sharing as even small amounts of cost sharing can reduce the use of necessary services and increase wait times for enrolling in Medicaid coverage after losing commercial insurance. We would encourage the 14 states that have not expanded Medicaid to accept federal funds to expand their programs and urge the administration to accept waivers from these states, with the exception of work requirements, cost sharing, or other policies that undercut the core mission of Medicaid.

Improve Health Care Quality

The provisions in the ACA were designed to switch “volume” (fee for service) to “value” (getting paid for better outcomes). Accountable care organizations and bundled payments were two such innovations put in place to do such. They appear to have had mild and directionally desirable impact on both quality and cost. There is still more to learn.

The Institute of Medicine has categorized six defects in the quality of care resulting in excess cost. Problems in patient safety, unscientific variations in care leading to ineffective treatment, lack of patient-focus, unwarranted delays due to poor system designs, excessive prices due to lack of transparency and open competition, and fraud all of which lead to wasted resource, bad patient outcomes, and decreased value. The switch from volume to value will alleviate these defects.

The authors endorse the creations of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to sponsor tests of new payment models and delivery system designs such as home and community-based alternatives to hospitalization, telemedicine, and the integration of behavioral health into the care mainstream. Renewed efforts to improve patient safety through innovations in training, equipment, and job roles.

Stakeholders have become enthusiastic in spending health care dollars to mitigate the power of “social determinants of health” such as housing, food availability, exercise patterns, precursors of substance abuse, early childhood trauma, and more. The authors strongly favor action and funding in that direction.

Other Issues

• Reform medical malpractice policy. Eliminate the excuse medical malpractice necessitates wasteful extra tests and treatments encouraging doctors to adopt risk-based payment models and more parsimonious approaches to care. I do have a problem with this as many states have put in place limits to malpractice. The authors have suggested a safe-harbor when doctors adhere to clinical guidelines and evidence-based care. Is malpractice a big issue? Public Citizen’s “ The Medical Malpractice Scapegoat;” details the data from 2015, (most recent full year for available data) the medical malpractice payments on behalf of doctors amounted to about 0.2 percent of costs for hospital and physician services and about 0.1 percent of all healthcare costs. The number of payments on behalf of doctors in 2015 was the lowest on record and is lower than what it was during Clinton or Bush.

• Protect Americans from surprise bills. The authors would require all doctors who provide care at in-network hospitals or outpatient facilities to bill patients at average in-network prices.

The authors believe this portfolio represents a set of policies that could be supported at least somewhat on a bipartisan basis and believe are likely to be effective and in the short term more politically viable than Medicare for All.

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