doctor holding clipboard.

Transformation of Behavioral Health Care Through Section 1115 Waivers

By John Jacobi

As the Biden administration works to improve health access and transform health delivery, behavioral health reform should be at the front of the queue.

People with severe mental illness and opioid use disorder are dying young for lack of routine health care. Much of the work that needs to be done in behavioral health is developed or developing at the state level. But the Biden administration has a powerful tool for encouraging state-level innovation in the § 1115 Medicaid waiver process.

Reform through state waivers

Section 1115 waiver authority permits the Department of Health and Human Services to approve pilots and demonstrations if they are found likely to promote the objectives of the Medicaid program. Waivers, which do not require Congressional or formal regulatory enactments, permit relatively rapid cycling of innovation, in contrast to the lumbering pace of legislative or regulatory change.

While applications for waivers originate with the states, presidents have set the agenda by signaling what categories of waivers will be looked upon favorably, offering the administration the ability to put its stamp on the development of care for low-income and disabled people.

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Biden’s Early Focus: Durable and Attainable Private Insurance

By Zack Buck

Though health policy debates during the 2020 presidential primaries centered around expanding access to public health insurance programs (e.g., “Medicare-for-All”), the focus of the nascent Biden administration has been on making private health insurance more durable, not deconstructing it.

While these changes are likely to make private insurance plans more affordable and attainable, choosing to reinforce private insurance plans puts global systemic reform, the goal of many advocates, further out of reach.

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Hand holding pencil drawing a path.

Roll Back Harmful Section 1115 Waivers: Charting the Path Forward

By Sidney D. Watson

On March 18, 2021, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sent formal notices to Arkansas and New Hampshire that it was withdrawing their Section 1115 waivers that allowed the states to require poor adults to work as a condition of Medicaid coverage.  

This appears to be the first time that HHS has invoked its authority to rescind an approved 1115 waiver. It won’t be the last. 

Waiver withdrawals provide a path forward for the Biden administration to end a grab bag of Trump-era Section 1115 waivers that create a risk of loss in coverage and harm to Medicaid beneficiaries.  

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCT. 8, 2019: Rally for LGBTQ rights outside Supreme Court as Justices hear oral arguments in three cases dealing with discrimination in the workplace because of sexual orientation.

Now Is the Time for a Sex-Based Civil Rights Movement in Health Care

By Valarie K. Blake

The Biden administration and all three branches of government are poised to finally deliver a sex-based civil rights movement in health care that generations have waited for.

Sex discrimination is prevalent in health care, but especially so for LGBTQ people. Combine this with other forms of discrimination that LGBTQ people experience, and the result is a population that suffers from serious health disparities, including heightened risks of mental health conditions, substance use disorders, and suicide.

A much needed ban on sex discrimination in health care finally passed in 2010, as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Section 1557 of the ACA prohibits health care entities that receive federal money from discriminating on the basis of sex, along with race, age, and disability. Specifically, Section 1557 bans sex discrimination in health care by way of extending Title IX, which previously applied to educational entities only. Section 1557 reaches most hospitals, providers, and insurers. Sex equality in health was a long time coming. Similar bans on discrimination by recipients of federal money had passed decades earlier: race discrimination in 1964, disability discrimination in 1973, and age discrimination in 1975.

Despite its historic nature, Section 1557 has yet to deliver on its promise, owing to delays and volatility in rulemaking and near-constant litigation. The statute was barebones, requiring interpretation, but the Obama administration only promulgated a rule and began full enforcement six years after the passage of the ACA. The Obama rule broadly banned gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination, but the part of the rule banning gender identity discrimination was judicially stayed only months later in Franciscan Alliance v. Burwell.

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Hand arranging wood block pyramid with health icons on each block.

ERISA Preemption Reform: Unlocking States’ Capacity for Incremental Reform

By Elizabeth McCuskey

For the past 46 years, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) has preempted state regulation that “relates to” employer-sponsored health benefits. 

Much has changed in health care and society over that time; but ERISA’s preemption abides — widely maligned, yet unaltered. An ERISA preemption waiver thus presents a long-overdue update to health care regulation with a lot to recommend it to the Biden Administration’s health care agenda: it enables states to “strengthen and build on the Affordable Care Act,” it offers a modest incremental step that could pave the way for bigger structural change, it prompts no federal spending, and it has bipartisan political support. 

The preemption provision in 1974 was supposed to entice multistate employers to offer benefits by creating some federal uniformity in benefit regulation. For health benefits, however, that uniformity has been largely deregulatory.

ERISA preemption currently prevents states from fully enforcing a wide variety of health reforms, ranging from claims data collection to state-level employer mandates. And it casts a pall of private litigation challenges over even the ones that should be enforceable, like surprise billing regulation, prescription drug pricing measures, and state and local public option plans.  

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stethoscope, pills, ampules, and notepad with "claim denied" written on it.

Preserving Meaningful External Review Despite Insurers’ Rulification of Medical Necessity

By Daniel Schwarcz and Amy B. Monahan

Increasingly, health insurers are crafting their coverage terms in ways that undermine a vital consumer protection created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA): the right to appeal health plan claim denials that are based on medical judgments to an independent, external reviewer. The ACA extended this right to all health plans to protect consumers against the risk of unreasonable coverage determinations — a risk that is all too familiar given insurers’ financial incentives to deny claims.

Yet, as revealed by our new article, Rules of Medical Necessity, this essential consumer protection is becoming increasingly illusory as health insurers shift from broad standards to concrete rules for defining when care is medically necessary. For that reason, this post proposes that the Biden/Harris administration should promulgate rules allowing external reviewers to set aside insurers’ rules of medical necessity even when they are contained in insurance policies or formal health plan documents. Instead, federal regulations should make clear that the ACA requires external reviewers to apply traditional, standard-based, definitions of medical necessity when reviewing denials of coverage that are premised on medical judgments.

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U.S. Capitol Building at Night

A Legislative Override Could Save the ACA (and Fix Other Misapplications of Health Laws)

By John Aloysius Cogan, Jr.

The Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration need not wait for the Supreme Court to determine the fate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in California v. Texas; they can take charge of the case today by enacting and signing into law overriding legislation. 

Since the threat to the ACA is based on the interpretation of a federal statute — the ACA’s “inseverability clause” — Congress is within its rights to take charge of the case. Why? Because courts are not the final word on the meaning of a statute, Congress is.

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Medical bill and health insurance claim form with calculator.

Price Transparency: Progress, But Not Yet Celebration

By Wendy Netter Epstein

Price transparency has long eluded the health care industry, but change — fueled by rare bipartisan support — is afoot. 

The Trump Administration promulgated new rules relating to health care price transparency, and the Biden Administration seems poised to keep them. Though patients have grown accustomed to going to the doctor and agreeing to pay the bill — whatever it ends up being — they aren’t happy about it. The majority of the public (a remarkable 91%) supports price transparency. And lack of access to pricing has long been a significant glitch in a system that relies on markets to bring down prices. 

Though recent rulemaking looks like progress, it is still too soon to celebrate. Questions remain about consumer adoption, the role that providers will be willing to play, and the impact that transparency will have on pricing. The possibility that transparency will worsen existing inequities also requires careful observation.

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Emergency department entrance.

Be a Transformational President, Mr. Biden: Launch a Commission to Create an Ethical Health Care System

By William M. Sage

My message for President Joe Biden and his administration is a simple one. Invite physicians to create an ethical health care system. Demand that physicians take seriously that mission and work closely with other health professions and the public, sharing their power and authority.  

Physicians’ silence in the face of massive health injustice, inefficiency, and waste must be called out by leaders of the medical profession for what it is: complicity. Commitment to an ethically indefensible status quo has made much-needed reform proposals seem morally threatening, rather than representing opportunities for ethical introspection and improvement. All those who profit from the current system — a large group, given $4,000,000,000,000 of annual U.S. health care spending — use physician complacency to justify their own resistance to change.

The U.S. health care system will not change without permission from health professionals, especially America’s physicians. Permission must be built on principle, and it should take the form of re-envisioning and reaffirming medical ethics. The need to do so has been evident for over two decades, but COVID-19 has increased its urgency.

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Fairview Heights, IL—Jan 5, 2020; Sign on medical clinic announces Planned Parenthood branch is now open, the southern Illinois clinic was built to serve St Louis after Missouri restricted abortions.

Financing Reproductive Justice Through Title X

By Elizabeth Sepper

The Trump administration left Title X in tatters. In the last year, its capacity to finance family planning and reproductive health services for the poor was cut in half. Many family planning providers, including Planned Parenthood, whose clinics alone served 40% of patients, were forced out of the program. Six states were left with no active Title X providers at all. 1.5 million people lost access to care.

The Biden administration has said it will undo the harm. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has promulgated new rules to restore the family planning network. But more than restoration is in order. The administration must actively pursue reproductive justice. Doing so will require Congress. But failure to do so will leave Title X’s poor and uninsured patients to serve as a political football once again.

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