Seven ways President Biden could now change health care


6. Reviving the CMS

Under President Obama, the CMS was the engine that implemented the ACA and shepherded wider use of value-based reimbursements, which reward providers for quality and outcomes rather than volume.

Under the Trump administration, CMS leadership continued to uphold value-based reimbursement, Dr. Pearl observed. “CMS leadership championed value-based payments, but they encountered a lot of pushback from doctors and hospitals and had to scale back their goals,” he said.

On the other hand, the Trump CMS took a 180-degree turn on the ACA and worked to take it apart. This took a toll on staff morale, according to Donald M. Berwick, MD, who ran the CMS under President Obama. “Many people in CMS did not feel supported during the Trump administration, and some of them left,” Dr. Berwick said.

The CMS needs experienced staff on board to write comprehensible rules and regulations that can overcome court challenges.

Having a fully functioning CMS also requires consistent leadership, which was a problem for Obama. When Mr. Obama nominated Dr. Berwick, 60 Senate votes were needed to confirm him, and Republicans would not vote for him. Mr. Obama eventually brought Dr. Berwick in as a recess appointment, but it meant he could serve for only 17 months.

Since then, Senate confirmation rules have changed so that only a simple majority is needed to confirm appointments. This is important for Biden’s nominees, Dr. Berwick said. “For a president, having your team in place means you are able to execute the policies you want,” he said. “You need to have consistent leadership.”

7. Potentially changing health care without Congress

Even with their newly won control of the Senate, the Democrats’ thin majorities in both houses of Congress may not be enough to pass much legislation if Republicans are solidly opposed.

Democrats in the House also have a narrow path this session in which to pass legislation. The Democratic leadership has an 11-vote majority, but it must contend with 15 moderate representatives in purple districts (where Democrats and Republicans have about equal support).

A bigger problem looms before the Democrats. In 2022, the party may well lose its majorities in both houses. Mr. Whitlock notes that the party of an incoming president normally loses seats in the first midterm election. “The last incoming president to keep both houses of Congress in his first midterm was Jimmy Carter,” he said.

If this happens, President Biden would have to govern without the support of Congress, which is what Barack Obama had to do through most of his presidency. As Mr. Obama’s vice president, Mr. Biden is well aware how that goes. Governing without Congress means relying on presidential orders and decrees.

In health care, Mr. Biden has a powerful policy-making tool, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation (CMMI). The CMMI was empowered by the ACA to initiate pilot programs for new payment models.

So far, the CMMI’s work has been mainly limited to accountable care organizations, bundled payments, and patient-centered medical homes, but it could also be used to enact new federal policies that would normally require Congressional action, Mr. Levitt said.


Expectations have been very high for what President Joe Biden can do in health care. He needs to unite a very divided political system to defeat a deadly pandemic, restore Obamacare, and sign landmark legislation, such as a drug-pricing bill.

But shepherding bills through Congress will be a challenge. “You need to have accountability, unity, and civility, which is a Herculean task,” Mr. Whitlock said. “You have to keep policies off the table that could blow up the bipartisanship.”

A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.


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