What Lawmakers try to Do to Your Healthcare While You're sleeping

The gears of American government are supposed to grind s l o w l y. Like molasses flowing uphill slowly. In winter. This is to protect us from emotional, knee-jerk policy, and to allow reasoned, public discussion and debate. Under our system, we the people know what a bill says before it passes, and we are given time to consider how it will impact us, our families, our neighbors, and our communities. It's also a good way to tell whether the people we elect are representing our priorities. No matter what they say, nothing shows a politician's agenda better than their voting record.

Our current Congress (the 115th), should know better, but, spurred on by an administration that doesn't understand how government works, it has repeatedly diverged from "regular order." Instead, lawmakers are attempting to rush things through state and Federal legislatures without giving us the opportunity to catch up. In fact, I suspect that it was Senator John McCain's (R-AZ) disgust with this lack of regular order that spared us from the outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) last year, not necessarily any major objection to the bill's purpose.

After the failed ACA repeal, it was a relief to hold on to our rights as patients. Or did we?

A lot has been going on in Washington since then. Amidst news on Russia probes, Olympics, and horrific school shootings, our political leadership has been busy hoping you wouldn't notice a few little bills that slowly chip away at ACA protections as well as parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has been around much longer.

Trump's tax bill already gutted the primary funding mechanism for the ACA. Here are some of the government’s 2018 efforts to both undermine and protect the ACA. For better or worse, each will have a profound effect on large sections of the chronic and autoimmune community:

  • HR 3976: The Access to Marketplace Insurance Act – Probably the most common way to change things is through Federal legislation. The majority passes bills with hidden clauses or new laws and the states have to follow that rule. In this case, the House has introduced a bill to correct a bad loophole in the ACA. It bars charities from helping patients pay for their insurance premiums. For some reason, in at least 42 states, they are interpreting a line in the ACA to mean that only the one specific charity named – the Ryan White Foundation – is allowed to help instead of using that as a precedent to say all charities can help. If you would like to help see this bill passed, contact (write, call, email, Tweet) your Representative in the House. Let them know that you feel strongly that this is a wrong that needs to be righted. It’s nice to write in support of a bill for once.
  • Step Therapy Bills – Another prime example of why we shouldn’t just let the states do what they want (see above). Though the states do good work in a lot of areas, most don’t in healthcare. Many states (14 with existing legislation and another 12 with legislation pending in 2017) allow insurance companies -- which often don’t employ doctors with expertise in your specific condition, and certainly don’t know the intricacies of your case -- to decide that they know better than a patient’s doctor. These states already allow or are trying to allow insurance companies to force patients to try less expensive treatments and fail before allowing access to the prescribed treatment. Some also allow extended prior authorization times. These practices can worsen a patient’s condition and, in extreme cases, cause irreparable harm. With these bills, we have to write our representatives on the state level. The bright side: state level legislators require fewer voter contacts to make an issue a priority and things happen a lot faster in statehouses. Oh, and both Florida and Oregon are doing the right thing, and have introduced state legislation to protect patients against these types of actions.
  • HR 620: The ADA Education and Reform Act – This one’s a doozy. And it has already passed the House. Basically, the bill makes it a lot harder for disabled people to get equal access to buildings. It introduces a process that would allow businesses to potentially wait years to make legally mandated Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations. It also seeks to promote mediation and other “alternative dispute resolution mechanisms” over lawsuits. This is not intended to help the disabled person. The best way to stop this bill is to make sure it doesn’t pass the Senate. So far the House bill has been received in the Senate, but hasn’t been assigned a number yet. Watch this space for updates, and in the meantime send your letters, emails, Tweets, or calls in the direction of both of the Senators for your state. You could even get your friends in other states to do the same.
  • Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) expands short-term insurance plans – Another way for the administration to take away patient rights is to alter the interpretation of some rules and regulations. In this case, they have expanded the period of allowed coverage for short-term insurance plans from three months to 364 days. These are meant to be stopgap measures if you decide to take time off between jobs or after 26-year-olds have to leave their parents’ plans. They often pay out less than half of what consumers pay in, and they are allowed to kick people off their coverage after major diagnoses, like cancer. There’s not a lot to do about policies enacted through the legislative branch except voting the President out of office (he and his appointees set agency agendas). You can always lodge a complaint with the agency, but executive branch employees have less at stake than legislative branch employees.
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Want to take action, but not sure who to contact? Find your Congressional and state representatives here or use this letter writing tool here

Keeping Your Head Above Water in a High-Risk Pool

NOTE: The Affordable Care Act is often referred to as Obamacare. They are the same Act.

More often than not, when a bill dies in Congress (or is withdrawn due to lack of support), it is not revived until the next Congress. (There is a new Congress every two years.) However, healthcare reform is a big enough priority for the White House and Congressional Republicans that it appears lawmakers will continue to negotiate with various caucuses to find a passable solution as soon as possible.

Recently, after negotiations between moderate and conservative Republicans in the House, an amendment to Paul Ryan’s American Health Care Act was offered. The amendment would keep all of the Essential Health Benefits and several other provisions of the Affordable Care Act, but allow states to opt out of coverage if they could prove that opting out would keep consumer costs down, cover more people, or if it would be in “the public interest of the state.” There is no specific definition of what is considered “the public interest of the state.” Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price would be responsible for approving or denying state waiver requests.

How could the amendment affect you?

With a waiver in hand, a state could get rid of the protections for people with preexisting conditions by establishing high-risk pools. A high-risk pool is exactly what it sounds like: everyone considered a high-risk/high-cost patient is grouped together under less than favorable insurance policies. According to a 2015 analysis by the Commonwealth Fund, high-risk pools would do exactly what Obamacare was trying to prevent: increase costs to the population with the highest medical bills and/or severely limit the coverage offered to those in the high-risk pool.

High-risk pools are not new to health insurance markets. The Affordable Care Act banned high-risk pools, but before that, they were used in 35 states and as a stop-gap measure between the passage of the Act and when it went into effect. Evidence from previous high-risk pools supports findings that state-based programs, while charging high-risk patients up to 250% more than healthy patients, came with insanely high premiums and out-of-pocket maximums.

The government knows it would have to fund states’ high-risk pools. Currently, they plan to offer subsidies totaling $25 billion over 10 years. However, independent estimates place the figure needed to fully fund the pools at $178 billion. In order to control consumer costs at all, coverage offered to high-risk patients might be whittled down to nearly nothing at all.

There are document cases of patients in high-risk pools paying $18,000 and $25,000 premiums, even with limited coverage. According to the Center for American Progress, I could pay an additional $5,600/year. Even people with mild asthma could pay over $4,000 more than they do now. Patients with certain kinds of cancer could end up paying over $142,000 more, and pregnancy could cost up to $17,320 more.

What does this mean in practical terms?

The numbers are good to know, but they're cold. I started this blog hoping that eventually, I would be able to support myself with it. If the above reforms pass, that will become much more difficult. Finding an individual health insurance plan that will cover a diabetic woman who already has complications would be next to impossible for states with waivers, and if I do find one, it will be prohibitively expensive.

Will we have to choose which meds we can afford? Will we have to forego the best treatment because insurance policies are no longer required to cover it? 

The good news is, we can do more than just keep our heads above water. We can swim. Only 17% of Americans approve this plan (poll was taken before the amendment, which doesn't actually change anything in the bill), which is a number so low, it sure includes a majority of healthy people. A smart Senator or Congressman won't vote for a bill that is so unpopular in their district. However, to be on the safe side, we might want to make sure our lawmakers know how we feel about it.

Find the people who represent you in Congress and make a phone call. It's a right guaranteed by the First Amendment (petitioning the government for the redress of grievances), and you may be surprised how effective it can be.

 

Obamacare repair, not replacement: more than a change in messaging

Please note: This blogpost is by Mark Weller and originally appeared February 13, 2017 on Soapbox: A Politics and Policy blog here

Mark is a Partner in the Public Policy & Regulation practice and Health Care practice at Dentons, a multinational law firm. Having worked on and around Capitol Hill for over 30 years, he is an expert in the politics around healthcare and knows the environment from every angle.

Note #2: Obamacare is a common reference to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). They are the same thing.

Last week Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee held a hearing on four Obamacare replacement bills. The move is consistent with recent Republican leadership comments that they plan to replace the Affordable Care Act with a series of small measures instead of one major replacement bill.

But at the same time, President Donald Trump in a Fox interview said that an Obamacare replacement may take until 2018. And now House Speaker Paul Ryan and leading committee chairs are saying they want to “repair” the ACA, not “repeal and replace” the law.

Legislating is hard

What’s going on here? The President is acknowledging what many policymakers already knew. Despite the campaign rhetoric that Obamacare would immediately be repealed and replaced, the process could have serious political repercussions if not done right.

There appears to be general agreement about moving away from the ACA’s insurance benefit mandates. Also, the aforementioned House subcommittee explored popular issues like how to deal with people with pre-existing health conditions, how to spur people to keep continuous coverage throughout their lives, and loosening age-rating bands. Alongside Democratic taunts that Republicans don’t know what to do after the “dog has caught the car,” or in some versions is actually trying to drive the car, the simple fact is finding a consensus on how to replace the ACA will take longer than expected.

 Individual mandate is instructive

The repeal of the individual insurance mandate provides a perfect example of the dilemma Republicans face. The mandate that individuals purchase health insurance or face a penalty is a core feature of Obamacare. Republicans hate mandates and see the provision as symbolic of Obamacare's overreach in attempting to correct deficiencies in the individual insurance market.

There is broad agreement that the law should bar insurers from discriminating against people with medical problems as long as they remained enrolled in an insurance plan. But if you eliminate the mandate that that people buy insurance, you’re left with a worsening and dysfunctional market that attracts high-risk enrollees and leaves insurers with a pool of customers who are older and less well.

To cover those with existing health conditions, Republicans have floated the idea of continuous coverage–requiring everyone to maintain health coverage throughout their lives–although that sounds like a mandate to many and the GOP is still figuring out how to do it. Other ideas, like levying a surcharge on those who fail to sign up for insurance or to automatically enroll individuals eligible for subsidized coverage who don’t sign up, don’t sit well with the more conservative wing of the GOP.

Crowded Congressional Calendar

The Congressional calendar looms large in the analysis of how to repair or replace Obamacare. During the Republican retreat in Philadelphia, Speaker Ryan said he planned to bring a budget reconciliation package–that requires only 50 votes to pass rather than the usual 60–to the House floor by the end of March. This measure is expected to contain repeal and some replacement elements.  But a leaked recording from the same GOP retreat last month shows a party that remains divided and uncertain about how to move forward.

The delay on ACA “repair” pushes back legislative activity on almost every other priority. In addition to action on Obamacare, Republicans want to address an overhaul of the tax code and a massive infrastructure bill. On top of that, Republicans hope to pass all 12 fiscal year 2018 appropriation bills before Oct. 1, including funding for a wall on the Mexican border. Congress hasn’t passed its appropriations bills in two decades. In addition, there are several must-pass deadlines. Congress needs to fund the government before money runs out on April 28 and raise the debt ceiling by this summer. There is widespread concern that Trump and GOP leadership have simply identified too many big-ticket, politically thorny items to tackle in year one.

On Obamacare, expect a drawn out fight, not just between Republicans and Democrats, but within the GOP. The Obamacare alternatives being considered may not prove any more popular.

Updates by Claire Sachs: March 13, 2017

House Speaker Paul Ryan introduced the American Health Care Act (AHCA) on March 6, 2017. It was referred to the Ways and Means Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee on March 8, 2017, both of which approved it on March 9, 2017. The main differences between this law and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) are that:

  • The Medicaid expansion would be phased out by 2020
  • The individual mandate (tax penalties for not being insured) would be replaced by age-based refundable tax credits.
  • Insurance companies could charge older patients up to 5x more than they charge younger patients instead of 3x.
  • Insurance companies could charge a 30% penalty to people who let their coverage lapse.
  • Taxes on health insurers, pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers, and high-cost employer health plans (aka Cadillac plans) would be repealed.
  • Medicaid would be barred from reimbursing Planed Parenthood.

Also on March 13, 2017, the Congressional Budget Office released its report on the AHCA. It would cut $337 billion from the deficit over 10 years, but it would also cut coverage to 14 million people by 2018, increasing to 24 million by 2026. Under the AHCA, insurance premiums would be 15-20% higher in the first year compared Obamacare, and 10 percent lower on average after 2026.

March 23, 2017

The House of Representatives was due to vote on the AHCA this evening. Earlier today, members of the House Freedom Caucus, the conservative wing of the Republican party, met with leadership and the President to negotiate last minute amendments to sway caucus members. They discussed rolling back maternity coverage and other possibilities, but negotiations were unsuccessful. Ultimately, the vote was postponed because there were not enough votes to pass the bill.

March 24, 2017

Late yesterday, President Trump issued an ultimatum to Congress: vote on the AHCA or he moves on to the next item on his agenda.

Congressional Republicans agreed and scrambled to negotiate with the Freedom Caucus. In order to make the bill more appealing, they removed the 10 essential health benefits Obamacare required in every plan. These benefits cover: outpatient services, emergency room care, hospitalization, maternity costs, mental health/substance abuse services, prescription drugs, rehabilitative and habilitative services, lab tests, preventive care such as vaccines and annual physicals, and pediatric vision and dental care.

In the end, it wasn't enough. Speaker Ryan pulled the bill off the floor after over three hours of debate because he could only afford to lose 22 Republican votes, and 36 Representatives had declared their opposition, with an additional 15 leaning toward a "no" vote.

Republicans can modify the bill and reintroduce it, but without significant changes, it is unlikely to win enough support to pass this congress.