Picture of north star in starry night sky.

Health Justice as the Lodestar of Incremental Health Reform

By Elizabeth McCuskey

Health justice is the lodestar we need for the next generation of health reform. It centers justice as the destination for health care regulation and supplies the conceptual framework for assessing our progress toward it. It does so by judging health reforms on their equitable distribution of the burdens and benefits of investments in the health care system, and their abilities to improve public health and to empower subordinated individuals and communities. Refocusing health reform on a health justice gestalt has greater urgency than ever, given the scale of injustice in our health care system and its tragic, unignorable consequences during the coronavirus pandemic.

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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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United States Capitol Building - Washington, DC.

Congress Should Insulate the Indian Health Service from the Next Government Shutdown

By Matthew B. Lawrence

Contributors to Bill of Health’s symposium on Recommendations for a Biden/Harris Health Policy Agenda have made a number of excellent suggestions. I have one more policy suggestion to add and endorse: Congress should adopt the Biden Administration’s recent proposal to insulate the Indian Health Service from future government shutdowns.

A service population of 2.5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives rely on the federally-funded Indian Health Service (IHS). The IHS is one of several trust obligations that the U.S. government owes Native peoples as a result “of Native Americans ceding over 400 million acres of tribal land to the United States pursuant to promises and agreements that included providing health care services,” as the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights put it.

Yet the IHS is dependent entirely on annual one-year appropriations from Congress. That means that the House and the Senate must come together, on time, every single year on an appropriations package, for the IHS to continue all its operations.

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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.

The Many Harms of State Bills Blocking Youth Access to Gender-Affirming Care

By Chloe Reichel

State legislation blocking trans youth from accessing gender-affirming care puts kids at risk, thwarts physician autonomy, and potentially violates a number of federal laws, write Jack L. Turban, Katherine L. Kraschel, and I. Glenn Cohen in a viewpoint published today in JAMA.

So far this year, 15 states have proposed bills that would limit access to gender-affirming care. One of these bills, Arkansas’ HB1570/SB347, already has become law.

This legislative trend should be troubling to all, explained Cohen, Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. In an email interview, he highlighted “how exceptionally restrictive these proposed laws are,” adding that they are “out of step with usual medical, ethical, and legal rules regarding discretion of the medical profession and space for parental decision-making.”

Turban, child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine also offered further insight as to the medical and legal concerns these bills raise over email.

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Map of the United States.

Health Reform via State Waiver

By Erin Fuse Brown and Chelsea Campbell

The path to systemic health reform in the U.S. may run through the states. To get there, the Biden/Harris administration should use its existing waiver authority under federal health care statutes to facilitate progressive state health reform efforts, including a state-based public option or single-payer plan.

One of the benefits of the United States’ federalist system, in which the power to enact policy and govern is divided between the national government and the states, is that we can test policies at the state level, and if we can establish a proof of concept there, it smooths the way for federal reform.

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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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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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