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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Slightly Hazy: An Insurer’s Emergency Room Policy Draws Congressional Scrutiny

By Oliver Kim

Last year, I had the good fortune to present at the Petrie-Flom Center’s conference on transparency and I started with an anecdote about a congressman who decided to wait rather than take his son immediately to the emergency room after he injured himself. The congressman assumed his son only had a sprain, but he had actually broken his arm. So why the wait? Because of a difference in his co-pay. In an interview, the congressman argued for policies to push consumers to understand—and be exposed to— healthcare costs in order to make better decisions about their care: “Way too often, people pull out their insurance card and they say ‘I don’t know the difference or cost between an X-ray or an MRI or CT Scan.’ I might make a little different decision if I did know (what) some of those costs were and those costs came back to me.”

The congressman’s policy prescription is becoming reality: last year, the largest Blue Cross Blue Shield plan Anthem announced a new policy where it would deny coverage for care provided in an emergency room that was later deemed non-emergent (except in certain circumstances). It seems a far cry from simply charging an ER co-pay, but Anthem argues it has seen a rise in non-emergency care being provided in emergency rooms. How are patients supposed to know if the ache or pain they are experiencing is not an emergency? Apparently there is a spreadsheet of over 1,900 ailments that Anthem considers non-emergent.

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More Than Just the ACA at Stake in King v. Burwell

Guest post by Erin Fuse Brown
[Cross-posted from Center for Law, Health and Society Blog]

Commentators have been weighing in since the Supreme Court decided it would hear King v. Burwell, the case challenging the ability of millions of Americans to receive subsidies to purchase health insurance on federally operated Exchanges under the ACA.  Debate swirls over whether a decision striking down these subsidies will gut the ACA or not, but at the very least a ruling in favor of the petitioners would have grave consequences for ACA the and the millions that currently receive these subsidies.

There is, however, more at stake in the King case than the ACA.  If the Court takes this opportunity to cut down the ACA, it does so at the cost of the principle of separation of powers and the Supreme Court’s institutional legitimacy and credibility.

Chevron

The question in King will be resolved under the Chevron framework, which provides that if a statutory provision is ambiguous, then the court must defer to the agency’s interpretation, so long as it is permissible.  Reasonable, learned minds have been disagreeing on the meaning of the statutory provision. As Adrian Vermeule has pointed out, of the 9 federal judges that have reviewed this question, 6 have agreed with the government’s interpretation or concluded the statute is ambiguous, and 3 have concluded that the statute unambiguously precludes subsidies. This type of judicial disagreement is evidence itself of statutory ambiguity.  Read More

The U.S. Should Cover the Cost of IVF (for Gays and Lesbians Too)

By Dov Fox

Glenn Cohen and I make the case in this morning’s Huffington Post:

This week the United Kingdom joined the ranks of countries like Canada, Israel, and Sweden that provide in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment to citizens under a certain age (42 in the U.K.) who can’t have children without it. That includes gays and lesbians. When it comes to helping people form the families they long for, the United States is woefully behind. The U.S. has among the lowest rates of IVF usage of any developed country in the world, owing in part to boasting the highest cost for the procedure, on average $100,000 for each successful pregnancy.

Among the handful of states that require insurers to cover IVF, many carve out exclusions for same-sex couples and people who aren’t married. These singles, gays, and lesbians are sometimes called “dysfertile” as opposed to “infertile” to emphasize their social (rather than just biological) obstacles to reproduction. The U.S. should expand IVF coverage for the infertile, and include the dysfertile too.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the inability to reproduce qualifies as a health-impairing disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The commitment to universal health care that we renewed in President Obama’s health reform act invites us to understand the infertile and dysfertile alike as needing medicine to restore a capacity—for “[r]eproduction and the sexual dynamics surrounding it”—that is, in the words of the Supreme Court, “central to the life process itself.”

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