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Health reform action shifts to Senate, exacerbated by poor AHCA CBO score


 

With a highly anticipated impact analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the much maligned American Health Care Act seems relegated to a Capitol Hill recycling bin and repeal/replace focus has moved to the Senate.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has reached out to physicians’ organizations to learn their priorities.

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Any reform legislation “should maintain key insurance market reforms, such as coverage for pre-existing conditions, guaranteed issue, and parental coverage for young adults, as well as stabilize and strengthen the individual insurance market, ensure that low- and moderate-income patients are able to secure affordable and meaningful coverage, and guarantee that Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and other safety net programs are adequately funded,” James Madara, MD, executive vice president and CEO of the American Medical Association wrote in a May 23 letter to the chairman. AMA has “consistently recommended that any proposals to replace portions of the current law should pay special attention to ensure that individuals currently covered do not become uninsured.”

The organization also called for the reduction of regulatory burdens and increased cost transparency.

Additional recommendations include

• Support for advanceable, refundable tax credits to help individuals purchase private health care coverage, with the current tax credit structure in the ACA maintained.

• Maintenance of the ACA cost-sharing reductions for 2017 and 2018.

• Enhanced tax credits for young adults aged 19-30 years and modest funding of health savings accounts to help counter high deductibles.

The AMA also supports maintenance of the current Medicaid expansion while offering states even more flexibility for innovation.

Similarly, the American Osteopathic Association noted that any policy changes “should be to expand or at least maintain access to comprehensive, affordable coverage and care. With that said, we are also concerned about the growing potential for market instability and the deleterious effect that a collapse would have on patients’ access to insurance coverage and health care services,” according to a May 23 letter from Boyd Buser, DO, president of AOA.

The organization called for continued coverage of preventive care services with no copayment and expressed concern that “the changes being considered for the Medicaid program as part of health reform discussions will significantly impact coverage for these Americans.”

The House-passed American Health Care Act (H.R. 1628) would repeal the ACA’s Medicaid expansion provisions and implement a per-capita funding scheme for state Medicaid programs. “The AOA is concerned that this will leave states with insufficient funds to provide care to the most vulnerable in our society,” Dr. Buser wrote.

AOA recommended a number of consumer protections, including adequate funding of an invisible risk-sharing program that is maintained by an organization outside of the government; efforts to improve health literacy, and other cost-containment recommendations, particularly the maintenance of the cost-sharing reduction payments.

Even if the Senate were able to incorporate these recommendations, its leaders face an uphill battle to get enough support for passage.

“If, on the Republican side, they can come to an agreement on the bill, I think they have a chance of passing it,” Julius Hobson, senior policy analyst at the Washington law firm Polsinelli, said in an interview. “The GOP is not taking up the House-passed AHCA but is proceeding with writing its own reform legislation.

However, he pointed out that there is very little margin for error because the party only holds a two-seat majority and moderates Republican senators have expressed concerns about cuts to Medicaid.

If Senate Republicans do pass a bill that appeals to its more moderate members, that legislation is likely to face stiff opposition in the House.

“Given what we just saw the House go through, I don’t know” if a more moderate bill could pass in that chamber, he said, adding that, if “they don’t do this by the end of the calendar year, you can forget it.”

The potential death blow to the AHCA came in the form of a financial impact “score” from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

The government budget watchdog estimated the AHCA would reduce the budget deficit by $119 billion from 2017 to 2026, with the largest savings coming from “reductions in outlays for Medicaid and from the replacement of the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies for nongroup health insurance with new tax credits for nongroup health insurance. Those savings would be partially offset by other changes in coverage provisions – spending for a new Patient and State Stability Fund, designed to reduce premiums, and a reduction in revenues from repealing penalties on employers who do not offer insurance and on people who do not purchase insurance.”

The CBO score also predicted that an additional 23 million patients would be uninsured by 2026 – for a total of 51 million – compared with a total of 28 million uninsured under the ACA.

CBO analysts predicted that nongroup health insurance markets would stabilize before 2020 under the AHCA, but instability could increased if states seek waivers to modify the essential health benefits and community rating requirements.

Although premiums overall would decrease under the AHCA, certain subpopulations could see substantial increases under state waivers.

Additionally, the waivers could also impact the provision of care.

Analysis of the impact of the waiving of essential health benefits is the part doctors should be paying most attention to, Laura Wooster, AOA senior vice president of public policy, said in an interview.

“They would start seeing patients who potentially would have insurance plans that only cover certain benefits,” she said. That would “prevent them from providing certain services or care for their patients under the patients’ coverage. Even a more immediate administrative aspect of it that things would become more complicated if there isn’t a uniform standard, then it is going to be even more complicated for patients to navigate what’s covered, what’s not, and, if the physician takes the insurance, which services are they able to provide.”

She added that, if states waive any or all of the essential health benefits, those benefits would no longer be subject to lifetime and annual caps on spending.

Mr. Hobson suggested that the biggest part of the CBO score that doctors should be worried about is the spike in uninsured that could result from any reform effort.

“The concern for physicians will be that they are more likely to see more patients who don’t have insurance depending on the specialty,” Mr. Hobson said. “Primary care will certainly see a lot of that. Physicians in emergency departments will see more of them because, as you well know, when people don’t have insurance, that’s where they show up when they are at their sickest.”

He added that a “patient can come in, a physician can diagnose the problem, but, if the patient doesn’t have the insurance, he or she may not have the ability to spend the money to do what they need to do, which means they will be back.”

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