Sunday, September 29, 2013
What can we really expect from ObamaCare? A lot, actually.
Despite the constant refrain heard from many (particularly Republicans, particularly in Congress, and particularly from the particularly self-promoting Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas) that “ObamaCare” (the Affordable Care Act, ACA) is the first sign of the coming apocalypse, and concerns from people like me that it is a great deal for insurance companies and will still leave many people without coverage, it is going to happen and it is going to be a good thing for the health of many people. It’s too bad that the crêpe being hung by the nay-sayers is believed by so many, largely a result of it being so well funded. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Sen. Cruz is going to change his tune or that I am going to stop worry about those who continue to be without insurance (especially in states that don’t expand Medicaid, like mine).
Some have suggested that the biggest fear Republicans have is that it will work, and people will benefit, and that now is the time to scare people to try to get rid of it, since once it is in place people will not want to give it up (see: Medicare). Right now, satirist Andy Borowitz can make fun of the right’s hyperbole with bits like “Fox News: Obama In Plot To Force Americans To Live Longer”, but when people actually do get health care, and the costs do go down, and maybe they do live longer, or at least live in better health (longer “healthy life expectancy”, or HALE; see The State of US Health: improved over 20 years, but not nearly enough”, July 14, 2013), they are going to be happy with it. When you can get health insurance even though you have a pre-existing condition, when you can get health insurance on the exchange marketplace even though your employer hasn’t offered health insurance to you, when you can afford the premiums because those between 133% and 400% of the poverty level will get federal subsidies, it is not likely to make you unhappy and you are very unlikely to want to give it up.
Of course, those who are under 133% of poverty were to have been covered by Medicaid expansion, and this is not going to happen in a lot of states, so these folks will be left out. Chang and Davis, writing in the Sept-Oct issue of the Annals of Family Medicine examined “Potential Adult Medicaid Beneficiaries Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Compared With Current Adult Medicaid Beneficiaries”. Using a large federal database (NHANES) they compared over 13 million people in each category, and found that the potential beneficiaries were more likely to be male and white and to have about the same level of educational attainment as current recipients. They also had better self-reported health status, and were less likely to be obese or depressed. The prevalence of diabetes and hypertension were about the same, and the potential beneficiaries were more likely to be smokers and heavier drinkers. So, in general, expanding Medicaid to this larger population would result in a healthier (and thus less costly) group to care for, although with significant risk factors. This is related to the argument I have for expanding Medicare to include everyone (a single-payer health system): the highest cost utilizers, the old and disabled, are already in it and expanding it will, thus, not cost as much more as one might think (or certainly not as much as using the private insurance market as we currently do, or even under the Obamacare expansion).
Two editorials accompany this article. Danel Derksen discusses how the ACA will offer opportunities for (and challenges to) both family physicians and public health, while J.P. Silvers compares the objectives of the plan and the results that it is likely to achieve in the real (“imperfect”) world, with emphasis on the potential for “market failure” as the limiting factor. He lists the 3 main objectives of the ACA as 1) reforming the private insurance market, 2) expanding Medicaid, and 3) changing the way that medical decisions are made. The first, the effort to get those currently left out of the insurance market primarily because they are self-employed or work for small companies, is to be accomplished by the subsidized health insurance exchanges, with quite significant subsidies; the idea is that competition will lead to lower prices and better coverage. If this doesn’t happen (“market failure”) then the goal is not going to be achieved. So far, I note, in most states it seems to be working.
Expansion of Medicaid to cover people who are below 133% of poverty and yet not currently eligible was a cornerstone of the program, and the one that the Supreme Court made optional; per this map from the www.Bankrate.com website, 23 states + DC will be expanding Medicaid, 21 will not be, and 6 are undecided. The fact that the federal government will be paying for it seems to have convinced several Republican-controlled states (e.g., Arkansas, Kentucky, North Dakota, and Arizona) that it would be a good idea. Of course, it is a good idea, and not doing it is a way for those who are themselves “feeding at the public trough” (legislators who get publicly-funded insurance) to punish the needy, falsely cloaking themselves in the language of conservatism. As Silvers notes, to really improve health, Medicaid rates will need to be high enough that providers will actually care for beneficiaries.
The third area is changing medical decision making, to both improve the quality of care and lower the cost, issues about which I have often written (see, for example, Controlling the cost of health care by doing the right thing, Sept 22, 2013). Silvers cites, in particular, comparative effectiveness research (CER) which will show us which things work and which things cost the least to achieve comparable results, and which, it is to be hoped, would actually change medical practice. He then goes on to describe the factors which exist in our “imperfect world” that threaten the achievement of these goals, because “There are serious problems in the way the US health system is organized and paid, in the information and choices available, and in the ability of participants to respond to the pressures and incentives provided in reform.” The three classes of problems he discusses are “when decisions are delegated to someone who is supposed to act strictly in our interest as an agent, but doesn’t”, such as brokers who are paid commissions from someone else for signing us up; limits on potential competitors (as arising from pharmaceutical patent protection); and “when one party in a transaction has differential information that allows them to dominate or exploit decisions”, in play with regard to physicians, hospitals, drug companies, insurance companies, and almost everyone involved in health care compared to regular folks. He notes “Finally, the plethora of perverse payment incentives is the most obvious problem in having informed free choice leading to the optimal outcomes desired.”
And this is the real point. The web of multiple strategies for achieving coverage are incredibly complicated, with roots in both the Clinton plan and Massachusetts’ “Romneycare’ and (ironically) in the ideas of right-wing think tanks over the last several decades. This patchwork of fixes has always been a Republican (and conservative Democratic) hallmark. While Silvers titles his final section “What does it mean for the future and what can be done?”, in fact he mostly tells us what the risks are rather than what could be done. There are many who suggest (or fear) that the biggest threat from a potential failure of Obamacare would be that it would make the fact that a single-payer system would be much simpler and effective more obvious; see Morici “First Obamacare, Then a Single Payer System” on www.breitbart.com, cited by Don McCanne in Quote of the Day.
That’d be nice.