Editor's Note: Listen to Robert Blendon talk more about the health policy implications of the 2016 election.
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).
But Trump also breaks with the party, promising not to alter Medicare, proposing, like Clinton, to allow Medicare to negotiate pharmaceutical drug prices, and considering the idea of allowing pharmaceuticals to be imported from overseas, also like his Democratic opponent.
“I believe on the healthcare issue, he will be somewhat deferential to what the Republican leaders want their healthcare bill to look like in the future … not necessarily because that’s his particular choice but because he has a whole other agenda, which he says over and over is really important to him, and he needs the Republican leadership [to support it],” Blendon says.
How Will Things Get Done?
According to a Brookings Institution policy document published earlier this year, anyone proposing healthcare policy changes will confront “a daunting negotiation with powerful stakeholders to defend and enhance their varied interests” following the 2016 election.1
Three possible scenarios include a full Democratic president and Congress, a full Republican president and Congress, or a split presidency and Congress (including the two houses going each to the other party).
“If there is a split in the House and Senate, will things get done?” says Bradley Flansbaum, DO, MPH, MHM, a member of SHM’s Public Policy Committee. “Democrats don’t want to indicate the law has flaws and needs fixes. That admission invites the GOP to say, ‘See, it’s broken.’ Conversely, if Republicans do try to work with anyone on the other side of the aisle, they will be branded a pariah.”
One hospitalist sees Congress as the main force behind whether the ACA is kept intact.
“Congress holds the purse strings and has the control to chip away at the financial underpinnings until those toothpicks that hold up the Obamacare elephant break and it comes crashing down,” says Joshua Lenchus, DO, RPh, FACP, SFHM, a hospitalist at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital in Florida and a member of SHM’s Public Policy Committee.
One option Clinton has proposed is a federally administered public alternative to private insurers in the ACA marketplace, particularly as more companies leave exchanges across the country. Blendon says there is some concern over the idea’s viability since, while it could help keep pricing competitive, it might just “attract some of the sickest people because they’ll feel it provides more financial security.”
“A very high priority for a Clinton administration and a Democratic Congress [is] to get in there with a rescue team, and this is an issue of providing wraparound protection for [insurance] companies that basically end up with either older or sicker people than they had at all anticipated and some sort of a financial cushion to carry them into other years,” Blendon says.
In its policy paper, the Brookings Institution says any serious Republican idea to repeal the ACA should offer an alternative to replace the healthcare bill’s spending reductions, particularly since the Congressional Budget Office estimates repeal of the ACA would increase direct Medicare spending by $802 billion over the next decade, possibly accelerating the depletion of the program’s trust fund.1
“I think what would happen would be some amount of what the Republican leadership has talked about, some sort of a partial alternative to the ACA, and it would cover less people and less benefits, but there would be an absolute plan that they would try to have in place,” Blendon says.
But only time will tell how the election will affect hospitalists in their day-to-day work.
“Unfortunately, we’re still not at a stage that you could say to somebody, ‘This is what the next five years are going to look like; that’s how you should think about what your hospital and practice should be thinking,’” Blendon says. “You’re much more stuck with, ‘There is uncertainty here.’” TH
Kelly April Tyrrell is a freelance writer in Madison, Wis.
- Rivlin AM, Reischauer RD. Health policy issues and the 2016 presidential election. Brookings Institution website. Accessed August 31, 2016.