Ken’s Take on the World


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!