As the long 2016 presidential election season draws on, Republican hopefuls strive to stand out among their fellow party candidates; however, many in the running remain tacit about specific policies on issues ranging from immigration to gun control and healthcare.
“Many of these candidates … do not feel like getting involved in an extensive policy discussion will influence whether they win Iowa and New Hampshire,” says Robert Blendon, ScD, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. “They see it as a distraction, because the people voting are not asking them.”
For physicians and others passionate about healthcare, “it’s very frustrating,” Dr. Blendon says. “People who are on the Republican side want a replacement [for the Affordable Care Act], but they are not driven—I have seen the surveys—to want to really know the details of that replacement.”
GOP candidates share many common ideas about the U.S. health system. Most say they want to allow people under age 26 to remain on their parents’ health plans and believe people with preexisting conditions should have access to coverage, generally through the creation of state-based, high-risk insurance pools. They believe expanded health savings accounts will give patients more skin in the game, and, across the board, they have vowed to “repeal and replace Obamacare.”
Listen to more of our interview with Robert Blendon, ScD
However, “with more than 10 candidates, there is going to be variation,” Dr. Blendon adds.
For instance, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has proposed the Conservative Plan for 21st Century Health, which aims to “lower costs,” “promote innovation,” and “return power to states.”
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson originally suggested he would “abolish” Medicare and instead provide seniors with a $2,000-a-year federal subsidy to purchase private insurance. He has backtracked that idea and, in December 2015, issued a report highlighting the pillars of his health plan, which include creating “health empowerment accounts” and raising the Medicare age to 70.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s plan suggests a priority for veterans, including the formation of a federal Secretary of Veterans Affairs, while Carly Fiorina says that “every healthcare provider “ought to publish its costs, its prices, its outcomes” so patients know what they are buying.
“As the field on the Republican side narrows, I think we will start to see more pressure on them to flesh those principles out a little bit more,” says Joshua Lenchus, DO, RPh, FACP, SFHM, a hospitalist at the University of Miami (Fla.) Jackson Memorial Hospital and a member of SHM’s Public Policy Committee.
Some GOP candidates, like Kentucky Senator and ophthalmologist Rand Paul, have proposed reforming medical malpractice. Some wish to make insurance portable from one job to the next, like former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, or across state lines, as Ohio Governor John Kasich has proposed.
Some of these ideas, says hospitalist and SHM Public Policy Committee member Bradley Flansbaum, DO, MPH, MHM, “have been adequately dismembered, and they’re not going to carry weight.
“Buying insurance across state lines, fixing malpractice—that is not going to fix the healthcare system,” says Dr. Flansbaum, clinical professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine in New York City.
Overall, a Republican-sponsored healthcare system will not guarantee the same level of comprehensive benefits patients have now under the ACA, Dr. Blendon says, and, in general, subsidies and tax credits will be less generous than they are today, in turn reducing federal expenditures.
Most Republican candidates are in favor of some version of free market healthcare, but Dr. Flansbaum points out that “there are so many imperfections in the market, everything from people having asymmetric information—a physician knows a lot more than a patient does—to opaque pricing,” he says. “It’s not exchanging goods like we are used to.”
Republicans are generally committed to “less federal government, less expenditures, more choices, and less expensive benefits,” in healthcare, but Dr. Blendon says the system “would not go back to 2009.”
For hospitalists interested in election-year or other healthcare policy issues, Dr. Flansbaum suggests getting involved in the SHM committee, visiting the advocacy section of the SHM website, and reaching out to local representatives and others who write and vote on laws.
“How do you affect change?” he asks. “It’s not sitting in the breakfast lounge at the hospital bellyaching to your colleagues.” TH
Editor's note: update Jan. 4, 2016.
Kelly April Tyrrell is a freelance writer in Madison, Wis.