Burgess Hill, West Sussex – 12 January, 2021 Covid-19 home PCR self-test kit.

Pandemic Diagnostics: Present and Future Implications of Self-Testing Reimbursement

By David A. Simon

The process of diagnosing a disease or condition, including detection of SARS-CoV-2 infection, is changing.

Consumers now can not only collect their specimen from their living room couch, but they can test it while watching Netflix. Sampling, testing, and obtaining results all can be done in a patient’s home.

For communicable diseases like COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection, at-home testing has considerable public health benefits. In addition to being more convenient than traditional diagnostics, self-testing can substantially reduce or eliminate the risk that infected individuals will spread the virus en route to a testing site.

This innovation has been spurred, in part, by a powerful incentive: the federal government has all-but guaranteed reimbursement for these tests.

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international connections concept art.

The Prospects for an IP Waiver Under the TRIPS Agreement

By Duncan Matthews and Timo Minssen

The informal meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Council today, July 6, 2021, focuses international attention once more on prospects for a waiver of the TRIPS Agreement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regardless of whether an actual TRIPS waiver ultimately comes to pass, the real significance of these efforts lies in the increased focus they have placed on the role of IP and trade secrets in improving access and affordability, and scaling-up of manufacturing and supply of vaccines and other health-related technologies. These conversations have introduced the possibility of a rethinking of the relationship between IP, innovation, conservation, and access.

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Close-up Of Stethoscope On Us Currency And American Flag.

America’s Underinsurance Crisis in the Age of COVID-19

By Dessie Otachliska

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the underinsurance crisis that has long kept millions of Americans on the precipice of financial disaster — just one unexpected illness or injury away from bankruptcy.

A 2019 Gallup poll showed that 25% of Americans reported delaying treatment for serious medical conditions due to cost concerns — the highest proportion since Gallup first began asking the question in 1991. Even during the pandemic, when medical treatment could mean the difference between life and death, studies show that nearly 1 in 7 Americans would avoid seeking medical care if they experienced key COVID-19 symptoms because of fears associated with the cost of treatment.

These statistics are unsurprising, and the concerns they underscore well-founded: the average treatment costs for COVID patients with symptoms serious enough to require inpatient hospital stays range from $42,486 for relatively mild cases to $74,310 for patients with major complications or comorbidities.

In the pandemic context, hesitance to seek medical treatment due to fear of the associated cost has proved tragically fatal. Darius Settles died after being dissuaded from seeking further COVID-19 treatment due to his uninsured status. The Nashville, TN hospital where Settles originally received care had failed to disclose the possibility that his medical costs would be covered by the federal government. And, despite the availability of reimbursement funds, the hospital nonetheless sent his widow a bill for a portion of his treatment costs.

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Pile of colorful pills in blister packs

Expanding The Right to Try Unproven Treatments: A Dangerous, Deregulatory Proposal

By Richard Klein, Kenneth I. Moch, and Arthur L. Caplan

A new proposal out of the Goldwater Institute (GI), a libertarian think tank, advances an oversimplified critique of the U.S. regulatory process for approving medicines for COVID-19 and other diseases, with the ultimate goal of weakening the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

You may remember the Goldwater Institute as the architect of the initial state “Right to Try” (RtT) legislation from a few years ago. The idea, marketed as increasing access to experimental medicines, was actually calculated to circumvent FDA oversight so that individuals could try still-unproven experimental medicines without what Goldwater viewed as pointless bureaucratic paternalism. RtT legislation was adopted by 41 states and ultimately by the U.S. Congress.

When former President Trump signed the Right to Try bill into federal law with great fanfare on May 20, 2018, he stated that “countless American lives will ultimately be saved.” Three years later, the promise proved to be meaningless, as evidenced by the difficulty in identifying more than a handful of individuals who have even pursued the RtT pathway, much less finding data to show that it has saved lives.

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Close-up Of Stethoscope On Us Currency And American Flag.

Fixing Prices: Immigration and Physician Competition

By Jill Horwitz and Austin Nichols

The Biden administration is off to a roaring start. It is expanding and maintaining coverage during the pandemic by shoring up subsidies, paying premiums for laid-off workers, and otherwise working to reverse the growth in the uninsured (and underinsured) population caused by the last administration. Now it’s time to tackle another, cost.

Not only are health expenditures a large and growing share of GDP, crowding out other spending, costs have been increasingly shifted to patients in the form of premiums and ever-growing deductibles, which together have grown much faster than wages over the past decade. Moreover, out-of-pocket spending often hits all at once; about a third of high-spending patients incur half of their annual out-of-pocket spending in a single day. Increasingly, even people with insurance cannot afford to use it, so high cost is undercutting access even for the insured

We can tackle the primary drivers of cost, prices, by dismantling market power. The most salient case is cartel prices charged by physicians, and the natural solution is expanding the supply of physicians. Congress has taken some steps in this direction by expanding Medicare graduate medical education (GME) by 1,000 positions last December. The administration can unilaterally increase supply by via immigration. As others have suggested, increasing immigration of physicians who would accept somewhat lower compensation than current market rates would put “downward pressure on” physician pay.

These steps are important because expenditures for physician and clinical services are key drivers of spending and spending growth. In 2019 they accounted for $772.1 billion or 20% of total health care expenditures, representing a growth rate of 4.6% over 2018. Overuse drives some of these cost increases, but prices are the main story.

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U.S. Capitol Building.

Possibilities and Pitfalls of Health Reform Through Budget Reconciliation

By Nicole Huberfeld

The Biden administration entered office promising health reform. But the evenly-split Senate means ten Republican votes are necessary to move major legislation — cooperation that seems unlikely after years of Republican attempts to repeal and obstruct the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Still, expanding health insurance coverage may be on the menu through budget reconciliation. A budget reconciliation bill progresses with a simple majority vote: special rules limit debate and make filibuster impossible.

The Biden administration has already navigated budget reconciliation to enact speedy health policy measures in response to the pandemic. Signed March 11, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) is a reconciliation bill which, among other things, offers federal money to support states’ and localities’ public health needs; facilitates economic recovery; increases tax subsidies provided through health insurance exchanges to expand affordability; and builds on the ACA and 2020 COVID relief bills by offering Medicaid non-expansion states an enhanced federal match of 5% for each enrollee to encourage expansion and counterbalance costs. The ARPA also addresses determinants of health and health equity, for example by extending the option of maternal Medicaid coverage for a year after the 60-day post-partum period and creating a new child tax credit. Most provisions last no more than two years.

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Grafton, Illinois, USA, June 1, 2019 -Car submerged under flood water in small river town, Grafton, Illinois, as Mississippi River floods roads, businesses and houses. vehicle under water, men in boat

Bail Out Humans

By Christina S. Ho

This past year has sensitized us politically to government’s affirmative obligations, especially the duty to backstop health catastrophes in order to dampen the risks that ordinary people must bear. 

Our government bails out large risks in so many other arenas. Yet we too often fail to backstop the most human risk of all — our vulnerability to suffering and death. 

Throngs of scholars have described our deep tradition of government-sponsored risk mitigation to nurture favored private activities and expectations, and relieve those favored actors from catastrophes beyond what they could be expected to plan for. I have characterized this distinctive political role figuratively as one of “government as reinsurer.”

The federal government provides standard reinsurance for private crop insurers, virtually full risk-assumption for private flood insurance, guarantees for employer pension benefits, robust backstops for bank liquidity risks, FHA mortgage insurance and a federal secondary market to absorb the risks of housing finance.

In these arenas and more, statistically correlated or high-magnitude catastrophic losses are shed onto the state in order to smooth out and shore up the underlying private risk market. We have yet to commit similarly in the health care domain. 

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People protesting with signs that say "healthcare is a human right" and "medicare for all."

A Long View on Health Insurance Reform: The Case for an Employer Public Option

By Allison K. Hoffman

Historically, job-based health insurance coverage was the gold standard. It was broadly available to workers and was comprehensive. It covered the lion’s share of most services someone might need. 

Yet, job-based private health coverage has been in decline. Employers are struggling to maintain plans in the face of escalating health care prices, and indicating the need for government involvement to solve this problem.  

Even before the pandemic, a decreasing share of workers, especially lower wage workers, had health benefits through their jobs. The majority of the currently uninsured are workers, either those whose jobs do not offer them coverage, such as gig workers and part-time workers, or those who are offered coverage but cannot afford their share of the cost. Ironically, some of these workers become ineligible for Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace subsidies because they are offered job-based coverage. 

Even for those who have job-based coverage, health benefits have become less generous over time, leaving households vulnerable to unmanageable health care expenses. The average deductible for a worker-only plan has increased 25% over the last five years and 79% over the last ten years. 

To help address these shortcomings and challenges of job-based coverage, the Biden administration should offer employers a Medicare-based public health insurance option for their employee coverage. It would simultaneously offer an out for employers who want it, and start to build the foundation for a simpler, more equitable financing system down the road.

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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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