Sometimes, numbers do tell a story. The Affordable Care Act has no shortage of them, and amid the densely packed provisions, regulations, pilots, demonstrations, fines, and other elements, a few numbers provide a glimpse of the intense wrangling that created both winners and losers in the healthcare reform effort.
One of the biggest numbers is also the mostly hotly contested: whether Obamacare will blow a hole in the nation’s deficit or lead to a trillion dollars or more in savings over the first two decades. In March 2010, the Congressional Budget Office predicted the latter, with savings of $143 billion through 2019 and a hazier guess of savings equivalent to 0.5% of gross domestic product—equal to $1 trillion or more—through the 2020s.
The problem? “That calculation reflects an assumption that the provisions of the legislation are enacted and remain unchanged throughout the next two decades, which is often not the case for major legislation,” the CBO wrote at the time. That prediction, at least, was spot on.
Amid the ongoing political back and forth, one point is often overlooked: Although still unsustainably high, per capita healthcare spending is now increasing at the lowest rate in decades. Robert Berenson, MD, an Institute Fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank focused on social and economic policy, notes that the trend (starting in 2006) predated the recession. Likewise, it is occurring in Medicare, where most beneficiaries have first-dollar coverage. Instead of being a side effect of the sluggish economy, Dr. Berenson believes fundamental change is occurring on the provider side, and that the additional focus on reform may be making a difference.
Some analysts, he says, believe that providers are responding to the anticipation of change in the system and are beginning to change their own behavior accordingly.
“That means we have more time to get it right, in terms of wholesale change in how healthcare is delivered, and, for me, that’s a good thing,” he says.
A few other numbers of note:
The state- and federal-run healthcare exchanges are expected to cost $1.075 trillion through 2023, according to the CBO. That eye-popping number includes spending for “high-risk pools, premium review activities, loans to consumer-operated and -oriented plans, and grants to states for the establishment of exchanges.”
The big question, of course, is whether that investment will pay off, and a big part of the answer will rest with a well-balanced risk pool. In other words, long-term financial stability means getting as many young and healthy people into the exchanges as possible.
The ACA sought to increase competition by supporting the creation of consumer co-ops, despite opposition from the insurance industry. By the end of last year, HHS had doled out roughly $2 billion in loans to nonprofit co-ops in 23 states, as part of its Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan (CO-OP). Backers of these co-ops had initially sought $10 billion, however, based on estimates of what would be required to ensure a higher likelihood of success.
Although preliminary evidence suggests that these newcomers may be helping to drive down costs in some states, a lack of additional funding has prevented other potential co-ops from receiving startup loans. The co-ops also are barred from using any federal money for marketing, cannot jointly negotiate contracts with doctors, and have limited access to the large employer insurance market—casting doubt on their continued viability.
On Sep. 30, 2010, the U.S. comptroller general appointed 15 members to the National Health Care Workforce Commission, an acknowledgment that the country needs more guidance in how to address existing shortages—expected to widen—in doctors and other healthcare providers. The commission, authorized by the ACA, has never met, however. The act didn’t appropriate any money for it, and Congress has yet to approve any funding either, meaning that the commission’s members are legally barred from conducting any work.