by Gregg A. Masters, MPH
Love him or hate him President Barack Obama continues to demonstrate depth, insight, tenacity and a firm grip on the state of the U.S. Healthcare ecosystem dysfunction (and remedies) well beyond his formal training as a Constitutional scholar. Now as arguably one of the most legislatively accomplished President’s in U.S. history, particularly in light of the catastrophic train wreck he inherited from his predecessor and fueled by the nonstop ‘hell no‘ chorus of his disingenuous (often health policy clueless) political opposition he weighs in to set the record straight and for legacy purposes.
On July 11, 2016, JAMA released ‘United States Health Care Reform: Progress to Date and Next Steps‘ a rather scholarly construed unbundling of the state of healthcare then and now (pre and post ACA implementation). As a rather complex piece of legislation with many moving parts, and staggered implementation timelines (some as a result of political accommodation, some merely in tune with operational and prevailing healthcare delivery and financing legacy inertia) he steps up and in classic barrister narrative fashion lays out his case, and simultaneously calls out the next steps to remedy the U.S. healthcare conundrum.
POTUS aka ‘Health Wonk-in-Chief‘ Barack Obama concludes:
Policy makers should build on progress made by the Affordable Care Act by continuing to implement the Health Insurance Marketplaces and delivery system reform, increasing federal financial assistance for Marketplace enrollees, introducing a public plan option in areas lacking individual market competition, and taking actions to reduce prescription drug costs. Although partisanship and special interest opposition remain, experience with the Affordable Care Act demonstrates that positive change is achievable on some of the nation’s most complex challenges.
I strongly encourage you to click on and read the entire piece. It is well worth your time and wholly consistent with the ‘accountable care’ narrative (the subject of this blog) driving Medicare ACOs, their commercial derivatives and large portions of the moving parts of the ACA including the entire spectrum of ‘value based’ healthcare initiatives.
For this piece, I want to focus on four areas of the ‘next steps‘ called out by POTUS, namely: the ‘Health Insurance Marketplaces’, associated ‘delivery system reform’, AND the introduction of ‘a public plan option in areas lacking individual market competition, and finally ‘taking actions to reduce prescription drug costs’.
Health insurance marketplaces
So much of the ACA oppositional cheerleading liked to stress the ‘buying across state lines‘, and ‘malpractice reform‘ as ‘freedom and choice‘ enabled solutions to the health insurance quagmire. Never mind the rampant marketing, churn, double digit premium increases, retrospective rescissions or opportunistic denial rates, coverage limits and lifetime caps so endemic in the space. Not to mention ‘mini-meds‘ or ‘junk insurance’ so prevalent in the market before some baseline notions of what constitutes ‘insurance‘ in the face of typical health, illness or accident challenges one may experience in life. Here again, coverage baselines and the need for consistency to shop, compare and ultimately purchase real health insurance seemed like too much regulatory over-reach in a market where choice absent basic ground rules somehow seemed like a more attractive solution – at least to the often clueless opposition. The entire over-reach narrative was wrapped up, sold and bought as a ‘Government controlled healthcare takeover‘ per the vacuous talking points proffered by ACA oppositional research.
Yet, the value proposition of an ‘insurance market place‘ whether Federally run, ‘facilitated’ or state delegated exchange option makes total sense if a transparent consumer market is to emerge from the chaos that is principally the individual market (non employer sponsored health insurance), though the group, or self funded ASO market ain’t much to cheer about either. Yet such a model was/is a proven way (witness the explosive growth of private exchanges) to introduce orderly competition in an otherwise opaque industry.
If you’ve ever run a health plan, built a managed care organization or contracted for hospital, physician, ancillary and pharmaceutical services (I presided over several employer sponsored health plan initiatives, MSOs, PHOs and IPAs tackling both capitated and discounted fee for service plan launch and operational issues in for-profit, voluntary and academic health systems) you will know that prudent (empowered, informed, etc.) purchasing of health insurance options requires clear apples-to-apples covered services comparisons, exclusions and non-covered item disclosures coupled with understandable pricing transparency and the cost sharing burden associated with your election. Absent this comprehensive clarity, listing guidance and/or requirements that an exchange imposes to ‘qualify’ eligible participants as candidates to choose from is virtually impossible. Standing up the infrastructure (people, process, culture, etc.) to enable informed choice requires such an exchange environment whether public, private or some combination thereof to transparently market their services to the consuming public.
Delivery system reform
This is clearly the ACA’s ‘achilles heel‘ as there ain’t much there, there other than aggregate ‘on the come‘ efforts to tip toe into the waters of ‘clinical integration‘, measured risk assumption and a range of payment reforms collectively recognizing fee-for-service (i.e., do more to earn more) medicine as a burning platform. The most tangible form of this commitment is represented by Secretary Burwell’s call to migrate increasing shares of Medicare beneficiaries (including me, as I turn 65 in August and have elected Kaiser Permanente Senior Plan in San Diego) into Medicare Advantage, ACOs and a broadly cast series of ‘value based‘ healthcare arrangements by certain dates.
For the most part, ACA focused on insurance market place reforms. While delivery system reform was principally invested in ‘nascent’ ACOs (which are mutating as we speak amidst some 5 and 1/2 years of operating experience under the Medicare Shared Savings Program (one I like to call ‘HMO-lite’ which incidentally and inevitably is morphing into its more traditional gatekeeper HMO predecessor vs. the retrospective attribution methodology that undermines successful ACO risk assumption performance).
Additional delivery system reform was to come from pilots, demonstrations and other ‘innovations’ the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) funded via the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) – who’s budget the Republican controlled Congress is determined to cut. Here, I might add at the ACO Summit circa 2012 one of the most seasoned and successful risk savvy players I had the opportunity to work for and with in Dallas, Texas Richard Merkin, MD, the founder and owner of Heritage Medical Systems and Heritage Provider Network described as the ‘hidden jewel’ in the ACA.
As much as we’ve progressed into ‘managed care‘ whether discounted, bundled, case rates, per diems or global or partial per member per month (PMPM) capitation or percent of premium the majority (estimated at 80-90%) of healthcare payments are still of the fee for services variety. Back in the 80s when American Medical International (AMI) retained me to develop and preside over their managed care strategy for the California Region’s 19 hospitals I elected ‘Director of Health System Development‘ vs. Regional Director of Managed Care as a title, since I saw the strategic imperative of building and operating a hospital system as a partnership with payors, health plans and employer groups, in order to create value. Since ‘payors’ (as a group) were our customers to grow market share we needed ‘dots on the map‘ to effectively service their employees, members or insureds. That vision and strategy collapsed before taking root since quarterly earnings per share incentives of the hospital CEOs precluded the longer term strategy of acquisitions and divestitures consistent with a dots on the map game-plan could take hold.
Today, many years later health systems are ‘getting [payor/provider partnership] religion’ at least rhetorically, yet the prevailing provider/payor mindset remains ‘your revenues are my expenses‘ – not much progress! So don’t hold your breath on material delivery system reform other than the equivalent of re-arranging furniture on the deck of the Titanic while the ship sinks. Mergers, acquisitions, the ‘death of independent‘ medicine and rise of mega institutionally led health systems more or less ‘clinically integrated‘ notwithstanding.
A public plan option in areas lacking individual market competition
While POTUS stresses the individual market as the target ‘book of business‘ most at risk and dysfunctional absent effective reform the need for a ‘public option‘ across the board (group, self funded/ASO, fully insured, etc) is rather compelling, in my view. The recent failures of the ACA enabled ‘CO-OPs‘ notwithstanding (i.e., startup insurance companies or health plans rarely if ever achieve profitability in such a short timeline given the threshold need for ‘the law of large numbers‘ for actuarial credibility and the inherent volatility of the underwriting profit/loss cycle) do nothing to undermine the argument and need for a public option writ large.
I’ll go one step further and say ultimately our worshipping of ‘pluralism‘ in healthcare delivery and finance will ultimately give way to a ‘Medicare E‘ version as in Medicare for everyone. If public/private partnerships and business models could successfully manage clinical risk and meet the health and healthcare needs of their constituents we would have solved the problem in the 80s and 90s. Who remembers the ‘Harry and Louise‘ narrative battles (‘if the Government choses, we lose‘) on the Clinton Health Security Act aka ‘HillaryCare‘? So perhaps we’ll get there once we exhaust every other option to avoid ‘single payor‘?
Actions to reduce prescription drug costs
This seems to me the segment the easiest to resolve. Here I’d empower Medicare to negotiate direct and on behalf of it’s entire pool of beneficiaries, rather than dilute the market power via a tapestry of variably (under) performing ‘PDPs’. The political compromise that birthed Medicare Part D (the Prescription Drug Plan) materially undermines the market power of the ‘law of large numbers’ to extract best price from vendors, suppliers or providers of services. This make NO sense, and we’re paying the price! Here, politicos assured Medicare could NOT intervene with such market clout instead they routed the business upside to a pool private participants.
Add to this macro market efficiency undermining the challenges of orphan or rare disease market segments and the egregious and unaccountable pricing practices most recently popularized by ‘bad boy’ Martin Shkreli of Turning Pharma and more recently Valeant‘s abusive pricing admissions.
Yes, specialty pharma is at risk and a major source of heartburn for AHIP and it’s employer allies, yet PHRMA has a point. The drug discovery and commercialization process/pathways to market are unpredictable and fraught will high failure rates. Coupled with the long development runways and high costs, but absent a ‘ceiling’ or ‘pricing accountability framework’ pharma’s management credo will remain ‘whatever the market can bear‘ strategy lest ProPublica‘s (et al) investigational journalism (see their guide to investigating non-profit health systems) marshals sufficient public attention and shame forces reconsideration or retraction of Pharma’s lazy over-reliance on raising ‘P’ (Price) vs. the more complex market challenge of driving ‘U’ (units via share gains) becomes their duty and ultimate measure and basis of ‘success’.
So thanks BO! Despite all odds, you (and Max Baucus et al) pulled it off. And yes, it’s only a beginning and there’s lots of work to do. In the words of then Acting CMS Administrator, Don Berwick, who was wrongly blocked (by you know who) for permanent appointment [I paraphrase below]:
This will require no less than an all hands of deck, full court press to make happen [i.e., the triple aim].