The public option is now a reality in 3 states

“Washington state first approved its public option in 2019 and made it available to consumers for enrollment in 2020. The state now has a year of experience getting the Cascade Care program up and running, and it’s already starting to tinker with the policy design. It’s also offering lessons for Colorado and Nevada (the other state to pass a public option this year, one week before Colorado).

As these states have drawn up their plans, one thing has become clear: The potential value of a public option is in keeping health care costs in check by keeping rates lower than those of private insurance plans. But it still remains to be seen whether a public option can expand health coverage to more people.”

“None of the states offer a “public” option like the one Congress contemplated in 2009, where the government sets up and administers its own health insurance plan.

“None of them are true public options in that sense,” says Katie Keith, who writes about insurance reform for Health Affairs and consulted with states as they developed public option legislation.

Instead, she compares them with public-private partnerships. States are contracting with private companies to create new insurance options to be overseen, if not run, by the government. States would face practical challenges to doing a “true” public option — namely, building up the financial reserves they’d need to pay out claims — so they’re taking another approach wherein private insurance companies will run the public option under rules set by the government.”

“The plans will be sold on the ACA marketplaces, alongside ACA-compliant private insurance. Only people who are eligible for ACA coverage through the individual and small-group market can sign up”

“How much to pay health care providers is the most important issue for any health insurance plan — those prices dictate the premiums charged to customers — and these states are taking divergent approaches in their calculations.”

“One challenge in trying to set lower provider rates is that doctors and hospitals might simply choose not to accept the public option plan. That was Washington’s experience in its first year: Some hospitals refused to contract with the public plan, and since an adequate provider network isn’t possible without a hospital, the plan has only been available in 19 of the state’s 39 counties.

Washington is trying to correct that issue through recently signed legislation that will, among other things, require hospitals in large systems to participate in at least one public option plan. Nevada and Colorado, having seen Washington’s network-adequacy issues, are setting up their own provider participation requirements from the start.”

What Obamacare achieved — and didn’t

“The Affordable Care Act’s achievements are clear. People who buy insurance in the individual and small-group markets no longer face discrimination for preexisting conditions. Preventive services for Americans with all types of insurance are free. Combine the marketplaces that provide tax subsidies for private coverage and the Medicaid expansions adopted by 38 states (along with a handful of smaller provisions), and the ACA has provided coverage to about 31 million Americans, according to a new estimate from the Biden administration.

After the rocky rollout of HealthCare.gov in 2014 and a few years of soaring premiums, the law’s private marketplaces have stabilized”

“one of the biggest gaps in the ACA itself: Medicaid. The program’s expansion to cover more low-income adults was supposed to be mandatory for all 50 states, a statutory overreach that was scaled back by the Supreme Court, where two liberal justices joined the conservatives to rule that the expansion must be optional.

As a result, 12 states still refuse to expand Medicaid. An estimated 4 million people who would have been covered by the expansion remain uninsured.”

“Some people who purchase private insurance through the law can still face high out-of-pocket costs. Some of the health plans sold on the marketplaces have deductibles as high as $6,000 for an individual or $13,000 for a family — and those are usually the cheapest plans available. Until this year, people who made too much money to qualify for the law’s subsidies had to pay the full cost for their insurance, making it unaffordable for some.”

“one core problem remains: While every other developed country in the world enjoys universal (or near-universal) health coverage, 1 in 10 people living in the United States still don’t have insurance.

That number is lower than it was before 2010, when it was about 17 percent. But it is an embarrassing outlier among our economic peers. Americans also spend more of their own money on their health care than people in almost every other country.”

“America spends more money on health care for worse outcomes than its peer countries, as researchers have noted time and again. On a global index of health care quality and access, the US trails many more socialized systems. Life expectancy has dipped in recent years, ending decades of progress and dropping the US further behind comparable countries.

There is no denying that the high quality of health care available in the United States — for those who can afford it. The US health care industry can undoubtedly be among the most innovative in the world: It was American science that cured hepatitis-C in the last decade. The success of the country’s Covid-19 vaccine development, production and distribution is undeniable.

But prioritizing innovation above all else creates its own problems, leaving US health policy captive to private interests.”

Medicaid is a hassle for doctors. That’s hurting patients.

“For many low-income people in the US, getting insured isn’t enough to get health care: Patients with Medicaid can struggle to find a doctor willing to take their health insurance.

And this happens in large part because, for doctors and providers, billing Medicaid is a pain.

A recent study by researchers from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, the University of Chicago, and the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco found providers run into more obstacles when trying to bill Medicaid than they do with other insurers, and that these administrative hurdles explain the access problems experienced by Medicaid patients as much as the program’s payment rates.”

“About 19 percent of the initial claims submitted to Medicaid are not paid in full. For Medicare and for the private insurers, that share is much lower: 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

The health care providers then must invest time and money to sort out any rejected or disputed claims.”

“the study makes a strong case that solving access problems for Medicaid patients does not require jacking up the program’s payment rates, a difficult sell in a time of strained state budgets, in the country already with the world’s highest health care costs.

The researchers instead present this solution to the problem they identified: “To increase access to care, regulators could implement or require a simpler, cheaper administration of payment processes, without raising prices.”

So if we simply made it easier for doctors to receive payment for the services they provide, it could make a big difference for Medicaid patients.”

Why Democrats’ ambitions for health care are shrinking rapidly

“America still has the highest uninsured rate in the developed world and the highest health care costs. So long as the health care industry wields a veto pen over any plan that would cut into its profits to address those problems, little is going to change.”

Joe Biden is stretching Obamacare as far as it can go

“We are about to witness, for the first time, the power of a fully operational Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The American Rescue Plan made 3.7 million more people eligible for the ACA’s premium subsidies. The Biden administration had already opened up enrollment after taking office, and 200,000 Americans signed up in the first two weeks. Now the administration is extending enrollment until August 15, backed by millions of dollars in advertising.

Insurers are expanding into new markets, and some who abandoned it long ago in the law’s fraught early years are now reentering. The individual mandate is gone, but, as it turns out, it may not be as important to the law’s long-term viability as originally thought. The law had been weakened since its passage by the Supreme Court and Republican opposition. So this is a new beginning of sorts.

“The ACA is right now much closer to what its advocates hoped it would be from the start,” Larry Levitt, executive vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), told me. “This is a true test of how effective a juiced-up ACA can be at getting us closer to universal coverage.

Taken together, come Labor Day, the country should have the clearest idea yet of how the ACA functions at full strength — and where holes in the US health system remain.”

The GOP’s attack on trans kids’ health care, explained

“Nowadays, doctors recommend taking a humane and affirming approach when a child expresses that their gender may not match their assigned sex at birth. This affirmation includes allowing trans kids to socially transition (i.e., use whichever name, pronouns, and clothing make them comfortable). Medical interventions — like puberty suppression or gender-affirming hormones like estrogen or testosterone — are only recommended for adolescents who have been insistent, persistent, and consistent in their gender identity over long periods.

The affirming model has been recommended by nearly every major American medical association, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the Endocrine Society, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and many others.

While the affirming model is often willfully misconstrued as instructing parents to accept a child’s gender identity and rush them off into medical interventions, it’s really more about creating a space for trans kids to explore their own gender expression and more thoroughly understand their dysphoria before deciding on whether to transition or not. Allowing a trans adolescent to go on puberty blockers is a decision most parents don’t take lightly. Transitioning is a slow, deliberative process for minors.

Puberty blockers merely act as a pause on an adolescent’s natal puberty, so that adolescents ages 9 to 14 can be more mentally mature before deciding on the course of their permanent treatment when the time comes”

“puberty… brings along its own permanent changes, which could only partially be reversed through painful and expensive medical treatments in adulthood. Trans women forced through male puberty would then have to undergo painful and expensive electrolysis to remove facial hair and may be left with a body frame (shoulder and hip width) that would be unchangeable by any surgeries. Trans men would have to have surgery to remove their breasts and, like their trans female counterparts, be forced to live in an unwanted body frame for their entire lives.”

Medicaid for Kids could pay for itself

“examining how the rollout of Medicaid in the late 1960s affected people who were children at the time.

If you got health insurance through the program as a child, he found, you were less likely to die young; you were likelier to be employed and less likely to have a disability as an adult; and all these benefits actually wound up saving the government money.”

Private equity ownership is killing people at nursing homes

“When private equity firms acquire nursing homes, patients start to die more often, according to a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Private equity acquisitions of nursing homes is a pressing topic: Total private equity investment in nursing homes exploded, going from $5 billion in 2000 to more than $100 billion in 2018. Many nursing homes have long been run on a for-profit basis. But private equity firms, which generally take on debt to buy a company and then put that debt on the newly acquired company’s books, have purchased a mix of large chains and independent facilities — making it easier to isolate the specific effect of private equity acquisitions, rather than just a profit motive, on patient welfare.

Researchers from Penn, NYU, and the University of Chicago studied Medicare data that covers more than 18,000 nursing home facilities, about 1,700 of which were bought by private equity from 2000 to 2017.

Their findings are sobering.

The researchers studied patients who stayed at a skilled nursing facility after an acute episode at a hospital, looking at deaths that fell within the 90-day period after they left the nursing home. They found that going to a private equity-owned nursing home increased mortality for patients by 10 percent against the overall average.”

“the increased mortality is concentrated among patients who are relatively healthier. As counterintuitive as that may sound, there may be a good reason for it: Sicker patients have more regimented treatment that will be adhered to no matter who owns the facility, whereas healthier people may be more susceptible by the changes made under private equity ownership.

Those changes include a reduction in staffing, which prior research has found is the most important factor in quality of care. Overall staffing shrinks by 1.4 percent, the study found, but more directly, private equity acquisitions lead to cuts in the number of hours that front-line nurses spend per day providing basic services to patients. Those services, such as bed turning or infection prevention, aren’t medically intensive, but they can be critical to health outcomes.”

“The combination of fewer nurses and more antipsychotic drugs could explain a significant portion of the disconcerting mortality effect measured by the study. Private equity firms were also found to spend more money on things not related to patient care in order to make money — such as monitoring fees to medical alert companies owned by the same firm — which drains still more resources away from patients.”

“The researchers make a point in their opening to stipulate that private equity may prove successful in other industries. But, they warn, it may be dangerous in health care, where the profit motive of private firms and the welfare of patients may not be aligned”

Charging patients just $10 more for medications leads to more deaths

“Researchers at Harvard University and the University of California Berkeley examined what happened when Medicare beneficiaries faced an increase in their out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs. They found that a 34 percent increase (a $10.40 increase per drug) led to a significant decrease in patients filling their prescriptions — and, eventually, a 33 percent increase in mortality.

The rise in deaths resulted from people indiscriminately cutting back on medications when they had to pay more for them, including drugs for heart disease, hypertension, asthma, and diabetes.

“We find that small increases in cost cause patients to cut back on drugs with large benefits, ultimately causing their death,” the authors — Amitabh Chandra, Evan Flack, and Ziad Obermeyer — wrote. “Cutbacks are widespread, but most striking are those seen in patients with the greatest treatable health risks, in whom they are likely to be particularly destructive.””

“This finding challenges an important assumption embedded in American health care policy. In the 1970s and ’80s, the RAND Health Insurance Experiment concluded that small copays encouraged patients to use fewer health care services without leading to worse health outcomes. That helped establish a new economic argument for insurers to ask their customers to put more “skin in the game”: it would encourage more efficient use of health care services with no downside.

But that premise presumed people would be rational. For example, if they are being asked to pay more money for prescription drugs, they would cut back on less-valuable medications first. The Harvard/Cal study didn’t detect any such rationality. When costs went up, people just stopped filling their prescriptions for statins — high-value drugs that are effective in preventing heart attacks.

The researchers explained it like this: The way patients behaved when faced with higher out-of-pocket costs would suggest that they placed very little value on their lives. They literally stopped taking high-value drugs because of the price.”

“If patients can’t make good value judgments, the economic argument for cost-sharing starts to crumble, and it starts to seem like eliminating cost-sharing — increasing the likelihood patients will continue to take the medications they need to stay alive — would be a cheap way to “buy” people more health. As the researchers wrote, “improving the design of prescription drug insurance offers policy makers the opportunity to purchase large gains in health at extremely low cost per life-year.””

“Eliminating out-of-pocket costs would come with a price: Insurers would likely charge higher premiums to offset the loss of the copays and coinsurance that currently reduce their direct costs. But if the goal is better health outcomes, that is arguably a price worth paying.”