Set in the larger context, the current policy debate over a successor to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is grounded in the long term macroeconomics of declining widely shared prosperity and how much federal and state government should chip in to finance the medical care of more lower income households. These are households:
- Hard hit by the 2008 economic downturn that reduced middle class economic security as the nation seeks a new post-industrial, post-WWII prosperity economy.
- Not covered by generous employee benefit plans that were commonplace in decades past while at the same time more working age Americans are self-employed and thus ineligible for employee benefit plans.
- Currently eligible for subsidies for plans sold on state health benefit exchanges and potentially for Medicaid if they live in a state that adopted the Affordable Care Act’s liberalized Medicaid eligibility guidelines.
Members of these households at the low end of the income scale are often lack stable incomes and have members in poor health who utilize a lot of medical services, reinforced by negative social determinants of health. That has contributed to a multi-billion dollar black hole of Medicaid as the program enrollment expanded dramatically, owing to the Affordable Care Act’s expanded eligibility rules.
In a letter to state governors last week, the Trump administration last week explicitly acknowledged the underlying economic challenges contributing to burgeoning Medicaid enrollment. The administration cast Medicaid as complimenting programs to assist low-income adult beneficiaries “improve their economic standing and materially advance in an effort to rise out of poverty,” adding that “[T]he best way to improve the long term health of low income Americans is to empower them with skills and employment.” The letter encourages state Medicaid program proposals “that build on the human dignity that comes with training, employment and independence.”
Heavy medical utilization has also led commercial non-group plan issuers to set premiums so high that those households that purchase non-group coverage are being clobbered by high premiums that rival monthly housing costs. Adding to the sticker shock is the lingering memory of the more generous plans of the HMO salad days of the mid-1970s to the early 2000s as well as individual plans that came with relatively high deductibles in exchange for low premiums. That tradeoff that has since greatly diminished with both premiums and deductibles high, stoking righteous anger against the Affordable Care Act’s non-group market reforms as well as resentment of those who qualify for Medicaid or substantial subsidies for exchange plans.
Simmering beneath the strum und drang of payer side policy is a coming pricing crisis on the provider side. With payers and households feeling pinched and even bankrupted by the cost of medical care and with dollars to pay for it in shorter supply and potentially being more restricted in the current administration and Congress (as well as by employers looking to cut employee benefit costs), substantial pressure will build on providers to reduce what they charge for services. That pressure will take on one or both forms as either falling demand based on the economic principle of price elasticity that holds as prices increase, demand falls — with high out of pocket costs aiding that dynamic. Or government expanding beyond Medicare its role as price arbiter or becoming a monopsony. It would easy to rationalize the latter since under the current split system of payers and providers negotiating reimbursement rates, price signals don’t pass directly between the providers and consumers of medical care and affords individual consumers little in the way of meaningful bargaining power.
Need a speaker or webinar presenter on the Affordable Care Act and the outlook for health care reform? Contact Pilot Healthcare Strategies Principal Fred Pilot by email