The New Year brings new leadership in the United States, with President-elect Donald Trump taking office later this month. With a Republican-controlled Congress, party leaders have the opportunity to shape the nation’s policies around conservative ideals. This includes health care.
Since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was passed in 2010, Republicans have vowed to repeal and replace it. This could be their opportunity.
However, “there is no clear coalescence around specific policy reforms that would replace the Affordable Care Act,” says Christine Eibner, PhD, a senior economist at Rand and a professor at the Pardee Rand Graduate School.
As a candidate, Trump did little to advance policy ideas around health care. Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and others have, over the years, proposed reforms with which Trump may or may not agree.
“The Republicans now have a hard issue in their hands,” says Allison Hoffman, JD, professor of law at UCLA School of Law and an expert on health care law and policy. “It was hard before the Affordable Care Act, and it will be hard after. There is not an easy solution.”
By 2016, the ACA had expanded health coverage to 20 million people through Medicaid and private insurance on health care marketplaces. It extended the solvency of the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund. It accelerated the pace of delivery system and payment reform through creation of the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation.
The law, however, has not been without its challenges.
“It was a strong achievement to get 20 million people insured, but it’s not clear that it bent the cost curve,” says Dr. Eibner. “There are high premiums on the individual market and still 31 million people without coverage. There is still opportunity to improve.”
Where we stand January 2017
Whether the Republicans can or will repeal the ACA in its entirety and improve it remains unknown. But, the experts say, the landmark law has left its mark on the American health care system.
“Everyone is complaining about the uncertainty created by the election, but we have been dealing with a highly uncertain environment for many years,” says Ron Greeno, MD, FCCP, MHM, senior advisor for medical affairs at TeamHealth, chair of the SHM Public Policy Committee, and SHM president-elect. “There will be changes, but things were going to change no matter the outcome of the election. It continues to require tolerance for change and tolerance for uncertainty.”
In an analysis for the Commonwealth Fund, Dr. Eibner investigated the economic implications of aspects of Trump’s plans as a candidate. Using a computer model that incorporates economic theory and data to simulate the effects of health policy changes, Dr. Eibner found that Trump’s plans (full repeal alone or repeal with tax deductions for health care premiums, Medicaid block grants, or selling health insurance across state lines) would increase the number of uninsured people by 16 million to 25 million, disproportionately impact low-income and sicker patients, expose individual market enrollees to higher out-of-pocket costs, and increase the federal deficit by $0.5 billion to $41 billion.1 The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates full repeal could increase the federal deficit by $137 billion to $353 billion by 2025.2 Rep. Ryan’s plan, A Better Way, proposes providing people more control over their health care, giving tax credits instead of subsidies for premiums, capping the employer-sponsored health insurance tax exclusion, and expanding use of health savings accounts.3 However, Rep. Ryan’s plan “doesn’t reduce the cost of health care. It puts more onus on individuals, and their costs go up,” Ms. Hoffman says. “The weight of that will be more on people who have preexisting conditions.”
Dr. Eibner says there is “a clear implication” that physicians may lose patients, care for a greater share who are uninsured, and see a return of higher rates of uncompensated hospital care. The experts say Republicans are unlikely to restore cuts to disproportionate-share hospitals that were made under the ACA because more patients were insured.
Joshua Lenchus, DO, RPh, FACP, SFHM, a member of SHM’s Public Policy Committee and hospitalist at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital in Florida, is no fan of entitlement programs like Medicaid but says, “The safety-net hospital where I work would rather have people covered with something than nothing.”
Dr. Lenchus is optimistic that economic reforms under Trump will lead to more jobs, increasing the number of people covered by employer plans. “The economy drives health care reform,” he says. “He has to up his ante now and show people that he can stimulate job growth in this country so we don’t have this middle class that is continuously squeezed.”
Dr. Greeno and Ms. Hoffman, who is also a faculty associate at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and vice chair of the Insurance Law Section of the Association of American Law Schools, suggest hospitalists get involved as rules are being shaped and written.
“We want to help reform the delivery system, and we want it to be done right and to be done fairly. We want to have say in how our patients are treated,” Dr. Greeno says.