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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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Georgia, Atlanta USA March 6, 2020.

The Politics of CDC Public Health Guidance During COVID-19

A version of this post first ran in Ms. Magazine on October 28, 2020. It has been adapted slightly for Bill of Health. 

By Aziza Ahmed

In recent months, public health guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has become a site of political reckoning.

The agency has taken an enormous amount of heat from a range of institutions, including the executive and the public, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The former has sought to intervene in public health guidance to ensure that the CDC presents the President and administration’s response to COVID-19 in a positive light. The latter consists of opposed factions that demand more rigorous guidance, or, its opposite, less stringent advice.

Importantly, these tensions have revealed how communities experience the pandemic differently. CDC guidance has produced divergent consequences, largely depending on demographics. These differences have been particularly pronounced along racial lines.

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A calculator, a stethoscope, and a stack of money rest on a table.

Why Our Health Care Is Incomplete: Review of “Exposed” (Part II)

By: Daniel Aaron

Just last month, Professor Christopher T. Robertson, at the University of Arizona College of Law, released his new book about health care, entitled Exposed: Why Our Health Insurance Is Incomplete and What Can Be Done About It. Part II of this book review offers an analytical discussion of “cost exposure,” the main subject of his book with a focus on solutions. Read Part I here.

Baby solutions

Prof. Robertson writes two chapters on solutions. In the first, titled “Fixes We Could Try,” he offers reforms, from mild to moderate, that would make cost exposure less harmful. The chapter largely retains the analytical nature of the prior chapters, but it comes across like a chapter he might have rather not written. This is evident in the following chapter’s title, “What We Must Do.” It’s also evident because some of the proposals do not seem fully considered, and in some ways appear more controversial than the more comprehensive solution offered later. Read More

A calculator, a stethoscope, and a stack of money rest on a table.

Why Our Health Care Is Incomplete: Review of “Exposed” (Part I)

By: Daniel Aaron

Just last month, Professor Christopher T. Robertson, at the University of Arizona College of Law, released his new book about health care, entitled Exposed: Why Our Health Insurance Is Incomplete and What Can Be Done About It. This book review will offer an analytical discussion of “cost exposure,” the main subject of his book.

What is cost exposure in health care?

Cost exposure is payments people make related to their medical care. There are many ways patients pay – here are a few common ones.

  • Deductible – Patient is responsible for the first, say, $5,000 of their medical care; after this point, the health insurance kicks in. Resets each year.
  • Copay – Patient pays a specific amount, say $25, when having an episode of care.
  • Coinsurance – Patient pays a specified percentage, say 20%, of care.

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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

Waiting for Hobby Lobby–A brief refresher of the issues

Cross post from healthlawprof blog

Jennifer S. Bard

Since the likelihood is that many readers of this blog will be asked to comment when the Supreme Court, some time this week, announces its decision in Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialty cases here’s a brief refresher and some links.  The cases are challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers who choose to offer health insurance to their employees must provide policies that include ten essential benefits-including contraception.  The U.S. Supreme Court has heard oral arguments and read the briefs—it’s likely that whatever opinion is issued will reflect at least some of the arguments presented to the Court.

This case is about the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers who offer their employees health insurance must include ten essential benefits, including contraception.  Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are privately held, for-profit companies whose owners have sincerely held religious objections to providing four specific kinds of contraception.  They believe these contraceptives terminate rather than prevent pregnancy.  Many religious organizations and companies have gotten exemptions to these requirements, but this case considers whether private, for-profit companies should qualify as well.

The cases raise three major issues:

  1. Does the Religious Freedom Restoration Act apply to corporations even though it uses the word “person?” (Can companies have religious beliefs?)
  2. Is providing insurance that covers birth control a “substantial burden?” on these two company’s’ religious beliefs?
  3. Does the government have a compelling reason for requiring companies that provide insurance to have it cover birth control?

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