Ken’s Take on the World


Healthcare: Privilege or Right?

As Republicans struggle to obtain enough votes in the US Senate to pass their version of a bill (Better Care Reconciliation Act) that was originally brought forward to repeal, and replace, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) much focus has been placed upon the economic costs and the personal costs to those who would be affected should this legislation become enacted into law.  As one who has paid attention to the debate over healthcare access for the past three decades, I have been thinking of a much deeper question that we should be asking of ourselves as it would, perhaps, better drive the debate over this legislation.  The question that each of us should ask is this:  Should healthcare be considered a privilege, a commodity, that should be available only to those who can afford such care or, should it be considered a necessary right for every person that must be protected, and assured by government?

 

When I have posed this question to those who express opposition to the ACA, the most common response that I receive is that healthcare should be treated as any other service that a person would seek out.  The most common support offered for this position is that every person receiving services should be required to pay for such services.  To bolster this claim, these critics argue that it is not fair to expect others to pay for services that they receive.  On its face this appears to be a reasonable argument that must be considered.  After all, you wouldn’t take your car to a mechanic and not be expected to pay for repairs or maintenance on your vehicle.  You don’t take your family to a restaurant and expect to receive free food, do you?  You wouldn’t call an air conditioning repair person and expect to not receive a bill for the parts and services provided, would you?  These criticisms appear to suggest that healthcare services and products are no different than whether or not your vehicle or your heating and cooling systems at home are functional.  This is a false and illogical argument.

 

When one dines out at a restaurant, one knows what they can afford and if they are unable to afford to dine at a certain establishment they simply eat dinner at home or at a less expensive restaurant.  When your air conditioner is on the fritz, if you do not have the money available for repairs, you will need to open your windows, use fans, or other methods of staying cool.  For those with underlying health conditions in which extreme heat is dangerous, communities provide cooling centers, or family and friends are often able to step in to provide temporary shelter until the air conditioning is repaired.  Even if a new central air system must be installed, the cost is almost always going to be less than $5,000 USD.  Many heating and cooling companies will also finance this amount to keep costs manageable.  Similarly, if you need repairs on your automobile, you can determine what are the most crucial and pay for those and defer other repairs until later.  Or, your community may have decent public transportation available.  Or, you may be able to car-pool to work or use a ride-sharing service.

 

Healthcare, unlike these other services, is not a commodity that can simply be delayed in many cases.  I have frequently likened the provision of healthcare as an essential service that must be available to every single person.  Similar to a community that provides fire departments and trained personnel to operate this life-saving equipment.  Or, law enforcement agencies that respond to safety or criminal complaints.  Or, military agencies like the Coast Guard who respond to emergencies on our nation’s waterways.  We don’t bat an eye when we are asked to fund these critical services.  As a society, we have come to realize these are critical pieces of infrastructure that exist for the benefit of each of us even if we never need to directly use these services.  Why, then, do we look at healthcare differently?

When I have attempted to discern how so-called conservatives continue to maintain the position that healthcare is a commodity, and not a right, in addition to the arguments about paying for services and the burdens of having to pay for those who cannot afford these services, they remind me that healthcare services are already provided to people in the nation’s Emergency Departments (ED) regardless of one’s ability to pay for such care.  This, then, implies there is, in fact, some existential right to healthcare.  When I point out this inconsistency in logic, one person actually mentioned that fewer (uninsured) people seek medical care as if this implies lower costs to taxpayers.  The problem with this (il)logic is that while uninsured individuals are far less likely to present to a primary care physician in the community setting, they are far more likely to present to an ED for treatment of conditions that can be much more effectively, and economically, managed in a community setting by a primary care physician.  This translates into significantly increased healthcare costs for all of us.  The average cost of an ED visit in the United States is nearly $2,200 based on a study described in “The Atlantic.”  Compare this to the average cost to a primary care provider (PCP) in the US which is only $100 based on an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (ARHQ) study by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

 

A review of multiple studies has demonstrated that access to health insurance is correlated with significantly improved health outcomes.  The review, published recently in the “New England Journal of Medicine” (NEJM), documents that improved healthcare outcomes are especially notable among pediatric patients.  Further, this review notes that not only are healthcare outcomes improved, but other measures of quality of life, including educational achievement, are improved with access to health insurance.  Other studies have demonstrated the significant economic consequences associated with illness.  I am not only speaking of the direct costs associated with providing medically-necessary care, but the impacts that illness and preventable injury have on individual and societal economic stability and growth.

 

I believe we must frame the debate over access to health insurance as one of a necessary right that must be protected by government actions.  Only then, will we be able to determine the most effective means of financing healthcare in the United States.



Healthcare: Commodity or Essential Right

The recently, spectacularly, failed American Healthcare Act (AHCA), once again, brought to the forefront the debate on whether healthcare access should be considered a commodity, much like an automobile, subject to the whims of a free market and made available to those who can afford it or, rather, that healthcare is an essential right of all Americans that must be guaranteed by government.  Democrats appear united behind the concept that healthcare access is crucial to society and must be available to every US citizen regardless of their economic status.  As the debate over the AHCA progressed, it became obvious that Republicans are divided over this central question.  Polling shows that overwhelming majorities of Americans believe every citizen should have access to high-quality, affordable, healthcare.  In this, it appears the GOP is at odds with the majority of Americans.

 

This week, President Trump signaled the AHCA is not actually dead and that his campaign pledge to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known simply as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or, “Obamacare” continues onward.  The problem with this position is that the President has not articulated what this would look like.  Even with Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress, and without input from Democrats, a coherent plan that would meet the President’s promises of providing affordable health insurance to even more Americans, and at lower costs than the ACA, was not presented.  Competing factions within the Republican Congress ensured that no bill put forth would garner a majority of votes or even entice moderate Democrats to join in support.  Party leadership attempted to rush the bill through the House even prior to scoring by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) which ultimately decided that, although ten-year cost projections would reduce the budget, the result would be more people without health insurance than prior to enactment of the ACA.

 

After the AHCA was pulled prior to a vote, the President commented, “Who would have known that healthcare would be so complicated?”  What?!?!  Besides anyone who has ever studied this topic?  This point underlies a central problem within the Trump Administration.  There is a serious lack of competent Administration leadership that might be able to shepherd complicated proposals through a Congress that is itself lacking in effective leadership that is committed to promoting and implementing legislation that will serve to actually benefit the American people.  Basically, Republicans have demonstrated that, since at least 2010, they lack the ability, or desire, to govern in the best interests of the people.

 

The failure of the AHCA effectively leaves the Republican leadership in Congress with two choices.  They can continue in their efforts to undermine the ACA which will lead to its eventual collapse, or, they can work with Democrats to strengthen the law which is what a majority of Americans currently favor.  It should be noted that the ACA has been effective and would continue to remain viable for at least the next decade but for efforts of the Republican Party over the past seven years.  Elected Republicans, and right-wing talking heads on radio and television, have spent the last seven years misleading the American public.  This has resulted in ballot box gains, however, it has not actually helped the American people.  While the ACA did not seriously further the debate on whether healthcare was an essential right versus a commodity available to the highest bidder, it did suggest that access to insurance to provide for healthcare expenses was a necessary thing that should be promoted by government.  In contrast, the debate among Republicans since 2009 has brought into the open the role of government in healthcare access at all levels.  It should be noted that prior to 2010, there was no question that government should ensure the availability of some access to healthcare for all Americans.  In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the bipartisan Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) into law.  Likewise, COBRA was enacted under the Reagan Administration which provided individuals with a continuity of health insurance coverage.

 

The most recent debate between Republicans over the AHCA has placed a focus on whether government has any role in determining access to health insurance or healthcare itself.  This debate also served to highlight a disconnect between elected Republicans in Congress and their constituents.  Had the AHCA passed, the harms would have been felt significantly more among rural voters who overwhelmingly voted Republican over the past several election cycles.  The more extreme members of the GOP who make-up the Libertarian-wing (aka the Freedom Caucus formerly known as the Tea Party caucus) believe healthcare should be left to the winds of a completely free market.  Health insurers should be let alone to serve only the customers they desire and to charge whatever rates the free market might bear.  Let the buyer beware lest they procure a policy only to find out it lacks the protections necessary when they are needed, or worse, they are dis-enrolled when they become ill or seriously injured.  Somewhat more moderate Republicans seek to provide competition among insurers by removing obstacles to the sale of health insurance policies across state lines.  Theoretically, this appears to be reasonable, however, there are a significant number of realities that make this an unattractive proposal.  The biggest one is that insurance companies establish provider networks where they operate.  Healthcare providers are not likely to want to participate in a network that is out-of-state, perhaps in a different time zone, when they need to have their billing issues resolved or if they need to seek authorization for patient care.  This is inefficient and costly.  Another major issue affecting consumers is relating to the need to, perhaps, sue an insurance company for denial of a claim.  Consumers would be subjected to the laws of a particular state which might be much more favorable to the insurance company in a classic David and Goliath tale.

 

I doubt there is anyone who disagrees with the idea that society functions better when people are healthier.  Employee productivity is increased, chronic healthcare expenditures are decreased, and individual satisfaction is improved.  The United States outspends every other developed nation on healthcare but has significantly lower health outcomes on almost every measure.  Civilized societies throughout the world recognize this.  In promoting the well-being of their respective nations, leaders have already debated whether healthcare should be construed as a basic right to be assured by government.  It has been unanimously affirmed by economically- advanced societies that some level of healthcare must be provided for each person as by doing so it benefits every person.  The United States continues to be an outlier.  If, by independent measures, it was demonstrated that our status as an outlier made the health of our nation’s citizens better it would make perfect sense to continue our current system of healthcare delivery.  Unfortunately, this is not the case on ANY measure of national health.  Republicans continue to refuse to acknowledge this and continue to permit healthcare to consume ever-larger amounts of spending and an ever-growing share of our gross domestic product (GDP).

 

It is obvious the Republican Party is incapable, or unwilling to, of addressing this.  We, the people, must continue to demand healthcare access for all.  GOP-led efforts to undo the most significant healthcare reform in a generation is harmful to patients, providers, and insurers.  These efforts undermine the healthcare infrastructure and will lead to a significant collapse that would cause all of us to suffer.  If we recognize that a healthy citizenry makes for a more robust society, we must not maintain the idea of healthcare as a commodity to be enjoyed only by those who can afford it.  Essential healthcare must be available for all people.  This must be ensured by government.



Defunding “Obamacare?!”

Among a string of poor public policy positions advocated by members of the Republican Party, the recent decision to attach an amendment to a Continuing Resolution (CR) that would fund the government but withdraw all funding for various components of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is among the dumbest.  There are several reasons for arriving at this conclusion.  The most dangerous is that it will potentially lead to a partial shutdown of government which affects every single American.

 

First, the amendment that was attached to the Continuing Resolution striking funding for the ACA is purely a political gimmick designed to appease a small, extremely regressive, faction of the Republican base.  It is highly unlikely this amendment will be attached to a Senate resolution for a floor vote.  If it is offered as an amendment, it will likely not be approved.  This means the Bill goes into a Conference Committee.  This will put the House of Representatives into a showdown with the Senate and pushes us closer to a deadline which will result in the stoppage of essential government services.  Think Social Security checks, Military paychecks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which is gearing up for flu season!

 

For the sake of argument, let us say that the amendment does become a part of the final Bill that is presented to the President.  It is extremely likely the President the President would return the Bill to Congress with a bright VETO stamp across the top.  Republicans do not have the votes to overturn a veto and would be left holding the bag on a smelly collection of dog excrement when the deadline for government operational funding passes.  American citizens do not like when there is no one answering the telephone at the Social Security Office!  I personally would be quite pissed off if I found that our Military service members were not getting paid!!

 

Let’s enter the world of a Republican wet dream for a moment.  The amendment that defunds the ACA is passed through both chambers of Congress and the President accidentally signs this wrong-headed piece of legislative bovine-manure.  The Republican Party collectively orgasms all over themselves and claims they have achieved a monumental victory!  Orthopedic surgeons in the Beltway will be extremely happy for with all of the folks patting themselves on the back there are sure to be a few Rotator Cuff tears to deal with.

 

What happens next?

 

This amendment does not repeal the Affordable Care Act.  It does not block the implementation of any of the rules and regulations promulgated by the ACA.  It only does one thing.  It eliminates funding for any of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.  So, what?

 

Hospitals have begun to implement Electronic Health Records (EHR’s) using money provided under the ACA.  Study after study has demonstrated that EHR’s reduce medical errors and have the potential to reduce costs.  The ACA requires that hospitals and physicians adopt the EHR as part of a goal to improve patient safety.  Doctors and hospitals are now left solely on the hook for the expense of this technology.  Failure to comply will result in a loss of eligibility for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.  The hospital I work at receives more than 40% of its reimbursement from these two programs.  Fortunately, we have already completed adoption of an EHR system.  I do not know about all of our affiliate physician groups and individual practice physicians, however.  If our surgeons cannot operate on Medicare patients, a huge piece of our revenue stream disappears.  Hospitals generally operate on extremely thin operating margins (gross revenue over expenses), typically 1 to 3%.  Many hospitals have a much higher percentage of Medicare and/or Medicaid patients and would be impacted even more by a loss of access to these revenue streams.  Loss of Medicare funding will mean the demise of a number of independent hospitals and loss of funding for EHR technology will mean that most independent practice physicians and many physician groups will cease to exist.

 

States are required to begin enrolling individuals in Health Insurance Exchanges (HIE’s) beginning on October 1.  Funding to set up these exchanges was allocated through provisions of the Affordable Care Act.  In a number of Republican-led states, the legislature and executive refused to participate in an HIE.  In these states, the Federal government is operating the exchange.  The money to administer these programs is eliminated as a result of the defunding amendment.  Insurance companies are participating in these exchanges anticipating a new influx of customers seeking health insurance.  From a business standpoint, health insurance companies know that having a broad base of customers allows them to spread risk among a broad base of payers.  This means that insurance rates can be maintained at an affordable rate for all consumers.  In a number of states that have already started operating these exchanges, insurance rates, including premiums and deductibles have been lower than suggested by certain folks on the right of the political spectrum.  Many of the folks enrolling are doing so in anticipation of subsidies available as part of the ACA.  Those subsidies are gone as a result of the amendment.

 

Under the Affordable Care Act, which, by the way, remains the law, insurance companies cannot deny coverage or charge exaggerated rates to individuals based on health status.  With the defunding amendment, Health Insurance Exchanges have been hobbled and not able to reach out to customers.  Since they will not be able to obtain, potentially 30 million additional customers, insurance companies will be forced to drastically raise the cost of premiums for all of their customers.  Except for the wealthiest among us, individuals will find they are unable to afford monthly premiums and will be forced to drop their coverage.  Businesses will find it increasingly difficult to afford the cost of health insurance for their employees and will begin to drop insurance coverage.  Instead of stable, affordable premiums, I would anticipate much more expensive premiums.  The result, millions more uninsured Americans!

 

This wrong-headed amendment to defund the Affordable Care Act would be dangerous for patient safety, health insurance companies, hospitals, doctors, taxpayers, and businesses.  The proponents of this legislation have failed to grasp the tremendous negative consequences of such a thing happening.

 

I am absolutely certain the Republican leadership in Congress is fully aware that they are playing political gimmickry with this amendment to defund the Affordable Care Act.  They know, completely, that this amendment will not make it to the President’s desk.  Speaker-of-the-House John Boehner knows this as does every member of the US Senate.  The absolute worst possible outcome for Speaker Boehner, and every Republican member of Congress would be for this to land on the President’s desk as part of a Continuing Resolution and actually be approved by President Obama.  The resulting collapse of the Affordable Care Act will lead to a collapse of the health insurance industry, hospitals and physician practices, and culminate in the establishment of a universal, single-payer healthcare system in the United States.  Speaker Boehner would be credited, single-handedly, with bringing Socialized medicine to the United States of America!



Hear ye, hear ye

Within the next two weeks the United States Supreme Court will issue its ruling on the Affordable Care Act (ACA). There is much speculation as to what the Court has decided (yes, the case has already been decided) when it issues its ruling on the Constitutional questions raised by the Affordable Care Act. Some think it will be completely struck down while others (you have to love dreamers) believe it will be completely upheld. Most of us who have actually read the Act, believe it is quite likely that the Justices have decided that parts of it fail to pass Constitutional muster and must be struck down while leaving large portions of the ACA intact. In any event, the ruling of the nine men and women who comprise the highest court in our land, will have far reaching effects on the lives of everyday Americans. Not only will their decision(s) affect average folks, the impact will be felt by healthcare providers, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and medical device manufacturers.

For the President, the ideal situation would be for the Justices to decide that the entire Act is Constitutional, thus bouncing any attempts to modify or repeal all, or part, of it to Congress which is unlikely to muster the support for doing so. I, personally, think this scenario is unlikely for two reasons. First, I can see a lack of Constitutional backing for the individual mandate that is a key provision of the Act. Second, given the current make-up of the Court, I do not see a majority of its respected members agreeing that this provision is Constitutional. Certain members of the Court are not especially keen on having the Government require individuals to do certain things. In many ways, this is a very good thing.

For Congressional Republicans, an ideal scenario would be for the Court to strike down the entire Act. This would allow them to put forth legislation addressing the provisions of the Act that a majority of Americans have repeatedly identified are quite acceptable to them. This would allow Republicans, with very broad bipartisan support, claim they support meaningful healthcare reform. I also do not believe this scenario is very likely because precedent shows that the Court has supported the right of Congress to enact laws that address interstate commerce. The issue the Court must grapple with here is that there is no specific severability clause that would permit the Justices to only strike portions of the Act. Not that there is no precedent for allowing this, it is, however, interesting that no such clause was included in the final legislation that was sent to the President in March of 2010.

Personally, I am inclined to believe that the Justices have decided that the Act can survive with the removal of the individual mandate. It is not up to the Court to decide that the hardship forced on corporations resulting from a loss of revenue as this is not a question posed by this case. So, what happens if the individual mandate is struck down and the remainder of the Act survives intact?

Medical insurances companies will, initially, face the greatest financial burden. They will (continue to) be forced to provide coverage to anyone regardless of medical condition. Further, they will (still) not be able to drop people when they become ill. These are both extremely important issues for individuals who, inevitably, will require healthcare services at some point in their lives. Pharmaceutical companies are also on the hook for reducing the cost of medications to some groups and this would not change with or without the individual mandate. Hospitals and other healthcare providers will be hurt with the loss of an individual mandate as Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates are slated to be kept under a tight rein under provisions of the Act. With otherwise healthy folks showing up in Emergency Rooms, reduced reimbursement and increased volume will make it a challenge to continue to provide high-quality care.

The impact on businesses and individual purchasers of health insurance will become very noticeable without an individual mandate. These folks can expect their premiums for health insurance to rise significantly especially for those who have pre-existing conditions or who work in inherently dangerous fields. Without the guarantee of a large, relatively low-risk, pool of people purchasing insurance, companies that sell insurance will be forced to raise rates on everyone who does buy in order to maintain a healthy profit-margin and in light of the fact that individuals cannot be denied insurance. Businesses and corporations will likely decide that it may be cheaper to self-insure thus drawing even more customers out of the health insurance marketplace. As this begins to happen health insurance providers will begin to go into bankruptcy leaving millions with insurance policies that are worthless. This is the worst case scenario, however, it is what will ultimately lead to something I have recommended for more than a decade. As insurers fail, healthcare providers become sucked in by a staggering loss of revenue, and they, too become bankrupt. The Government, belatedly, recognizing that healthcare is not a commodity that cannot be satisfied by the traditional laws of supply and demand, will have to take action and a form of Universal Healthcare will be implemented.

Could this be avoided? Not likely. America has the greatest medical technology in the world. The healthcare industry in the United States makes up about 1/6 of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The costs associated with the development of new drugs and medical devices that are designed to improve the quantity, or quality, of life are, well, quite costly. Healthcare in this country is, literally and figuratively, too big to fail. Unfortunately, finding a way to pay for this is an issue. For far too long America and its leaders have acted as though healthcare, and access to it, is a commodity that is to be financed based on free-market principles alone with very limited regulation. American citizens have become so insulated from the actual costs associated with healthcare through employer-provided insurance benefits. We have come to expect the very best in medical innovation even though it is not always necessary. We demand the newest drugs. We know we will receive tests performed on the latest diagnostic machines and that a robotic system can be used for almost every surgical procedure. This is neither cost-effective nor wise. However, when the Affordable Care Act was introduced, critics called attempts to look at the feasibility or appropriateness of care, people balked and critics derided this, quite incorrectly, as the implementation of, “death panels.”

Instead of implementing a Universal Healthcare system, or at least the framework of such a system, when they had the opportunity, Congress attempted to circumvent the inevitable. Healthcare has become a major burden on businesses and individuals. A uniquely American model based on the healthcare systems of every other industrialized, and a significant number of developing, nations should have been seriously discussed and implemented. We had the chance to do this in 2009 (and a number of times in the century prior) and we failed. We were provided legislation that, despite its length, failed to ensure that every citizen had insurance. The final bill failed to provide sufficient cost-containment mechanisms. The expansion portions of the bill were challenged by Attorneys’ General, allegedly, acting in the best interests of their citizens. And this is why we eagerly, and anxiously, await the opinion of nine folks in black robes.

One other prediction. Whatever the ruling(s) that are presented, they will be nearly unanimous. The Court will have considered its own integrity and, realizing the view of the Court in recent years as more in lockstep with their Presidential nominator’s political affiliations, will make sure that whatever conclusion has been reached is supported by a near-unanimous Court.