Hospital Impact—The only thing clear about healthcare policy is the continued lack of clarity

Kent Bottles
Kent Bottles

I spent my Labor Day vacation in Monterrey, California, watching the waves crash into the sand and wondering what the future of healthcare will look like in the coming months and years. Some clarity is emerging that we have not seen in the past, and I feel comfortable making some observations and predictions:

  • Congress will not revisit the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act before the end of the year. It is simply dealing with far too many other issues—passing a budget, raising the debt ceiling, approving disaster aid for Harvey and Irma, not to mention its desire for tax reform—that lawmakers must address.
  • While the Senate HELP committee is attempting a bipartisan effort to shore up the ACA, the issues listed above will make it almost impossible for such a law to be passed during this session.
  • The leadership of the Department of Health and Human Services ideologically opposes the very concept of the ACA and is also responsible for implementing the law. The tension between those two facts will lead to confusion and uncertainty for those of us in healthcare.
  • The passage of the ACA changed the terms of debate around healthcare reform. Granting health insurance to more than 20 million Americans has now shifted public opinion so that a solid majority believes the federal government should ensure that its citizens have insurance. 
  • The ACA is not failing, but going forward it can be undermined without congressional action.  

RELATED: Special Report—8 ways to fix the Affordable Care Act

As a former anatomic pathologist, I am always interested in postmortem examination of failures, and the failure of Republicans to repeal the ACA ranks high in any list of stunning political disasters. Pundits have identified several possible causes:

  • Republicans never had a clear replacement plan or goal.
  • Taking away benefits from 22 million Americans is politically unpopular.
  • The ACA was not in a “death spiral.”
  • The president did not exert necessary leadership to get GOP senators to support his unpopular position.
  • Republican governors who had expanded Medicaid did not support the effort.
  • Organized opposition to repeal led to most Americans not supporting repeal.

Autopsy results always arrive too late for those of us who are still alive, and it is more important for those of us in healthcare to interpret the mixed messages coming out of HHS and Congress so that our organizations can continue to care for patients under the current system. 

HHS seems willing and eager to let states experiment with healthcare reform. Alaska has received approval for $323 million over five years to subsidize insurance carriers and stabilize its individual ACA marketplace. Iowa is likely to receive approval for a radical 1332 waiver approach to healthcare reform in the Hawkeye state, and other states are preparing waiver submissions.

Meanwhile, HHS actions that seem to undermine the ACA include refusing to guarantee cost-sharing reduction subsidies to insurance companies and slashing the budget to support ACA enrollment for 2018. HHS recently announced advertising budget cuts of 90% for 2018 and the navigator program cuts of 40%. 

A recent study—detailed in a post on The Incidental Economist blog—compared Kentucky ACA enrollment under a Democratic governor who supported advertising and a Republican governor who cut advertising. It found that lack of TV advertising led to 450,000 fewer page views on the ACA website and 20,000 fewer unique visits to the enrollment website. 

ACA supporters, meanwhile, have recently put together a private enrollment campaign for 2018 to fill in the gap created by HHS decisions, Axios reported.

Last week, the Senate HELP Committee heard from state insurance commissioners and governors about ideas to stabilize the ACA marketplaces. They include:

  • Funding the cost-sharing reduction subsidies to insurance companies.
  • Facilitating reinsurance programs.
  • Expanding the ACA 1332 waiver programs to let states innovate.
  • Funding enrollment activities such as advertising and navigator programs.

Although health policy experts largely support these recommendations, it is hard to see how such a divided Congress could pass such proposals. Even if such legislation were approved, it would likely come too late to impact health insurance company decisions for 2018.  

So, as of early September, we are left with the ACA continuing to be the law of the land, but with those in charge of the federal government not entirely supporting its success. Healthcare organizations have difficulty caring for patients when the rules keep changing and when clarity is hard to come by. It is also discouraging that decisions seem to be made at the last minute without much planning or consideration for unintended consequences.

That said, we still need to keep taking care of patients. My advice is to:

  • Continue to prepare for the transition from fee-for-service to value-based payments, but be aware that the Trump administration might slow down this process.
  • Continue to cut unnecessary costs.
  • Continue to improve the measurable quality of the care you give.
  • Participate in efforts in your individual states to innovate through waiver programs.
  • Collaborate with your physicians who are confused by all the uncertainty.
  • Keep up to date with the frequent changes that nobody can predict.

Kent Bottles, M.D., is a lecturer at the Thomas Jefferson University School of Population Health and chief medical officer of PYA Analytics.