Editor’s Note: Listen to Robert Blendon talk more about the health policy implications of the 2016 election.
In some ways, the national election of 2016 is an unprecedented one for health policy. Six years ago, Democrats passed a massive healthcare reform bill without Republican support, which has been central to partisan ire ever since. “Repeal and replace” has become a GOP mantra synonymous with Obamacare. This could be the year the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is marked to expire or the year it sets course for exponential growth.
One thing is certain: The outcome of this year’s election will usher in profound change for the American healthcare system. It also means a great deal of uncertainty for physicians, hospital systems, insurers, patients, and healthcare providers more broadly for weeks, months, or even years to come.
The Policy Proposals
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has vowed to keep, strengthen, and “fix” the ACA, with proposals that include allowing people to begin buying into Medicare at age 55 and eliminating the Cadillac tax, plus a vow to defend access to reproductive healthcare. Republican nominee Donald Trump has the seven-point “Healthcare Reform to Make America Great Again,” which has as its first pillar to “completely replace Obamacare.”
While Clinton’s platform is highly detailed, Trump has offered few specifics with regard to its replacement, “just a set of general principles,” says Robert Blendon, the Richard L. Menschel Professor of Public Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) and a professor of health policy and political analysis at HSPH and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “His supporters are just not focused on what the healthcare bill of the future would look like,” he adds.
Under majority Republican leadership, “it’s absolutely clear,” Blendon says, that the party would attempt to repeal the ACA. That would mean millions of people could lose insurance coverage or face higher levels of cost-sharing, benefits would be less comprehensive, and government regulation would decrease, leading to fewer directives for physicians and providers, he says.
A Democratic sweep of the executive and legislative branches would likely bring more funding for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It might also lead to the introduction of a government alternative insurance plan that would compete with private insurance for those under age 65, Blendon explains.
“There’d be more money spent, but there’d be much more government regulation, including discussions of Medicare price limits on certain types of drugs,” he says.
Healthcare, though, has been caught in the middle of a host of broader issues, Blendon says.
“Put very simply, you almost have three parties that are running,” he says. “You have Democratic, which is [the] more liberal-moderate party, which is basically running on a health platform that is continuing Obama’s eight years but enlarging it in a number of areas. You have the party of the Republicans strictly in the Congress, which are running as a conservative party, which is to get rid of part of the ACA, to slow Medicare costs, and very concerned with a tax cut broadly and restraining federal optional expenditures in the future.
“The third is Mr. Trump, but it’s not widely understood unless you follow European political situations a lot,” Blendon says. “Mr. Trump is actually running what would be called in Europe a nationalist party. Their issues are a bit different.”
Key components of Trump’s seven-point healthcare plan embrace some historical or current Republican policy ideas. These include using tax-free health savings accounts, allowing tax deductions for insurance premiums, and providing Medicaid block grants to states (though he has vowed not to cut overall Medicaid spending).