KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Georgia Turns the Senate Blue

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Surprise Democratic victories in Georgia’s two runoff elections this week will give Democrats control of the Senate, which means they will be in charge of both houses of Congress and the White House for the first time since 2010. Although the narrow majorities in the House and Senate will likely not allow Democrats to pass major expansions to health programs, it will make it easier to do things such as pass fixes for the Affordable Care Act.

Meanwhile, the speedy development and approval of vaccines to protect against covid-19 is being squandered by the lack of a national strategy to get those vaccines into people’s arms. Straightening out and speeding up vaccinations will be a major priority for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Anna Edney of Bloomberg News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico and Mary Ellen McIntire of CQ Roll Call.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The Georgia election results will make it easier for some of Biden’s Cabinet picks to be confirmed, including Xavier Becerra, his choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Among the ACA fixes that congressional Democrats may seek is a restoration of a small penalty for people who do not have health coverage. That could negate the case before the Supreme Court now that was brought by Republican state officials.
  • One strategic error in the covid vaccine distribution efforts was that the release of the vaccine was not coupled with a major messaging campaign to explain what the vaccine does and dispel fears about it.
  • Late last month, a federal court blocked the Trump administration from implementing a plan to tie what Medicare pays for some drugs to the prices in other countries. It’s not clear if the Biden administration will continue the legal fight to keep the program, but the president-elect has suggested he is more interested in bringing down drug prices by negotiating with manufacturers.
  • The Trump administration has sued retail giant Walmart, alleging it unlawfully dispensed opioids from its pharmacies.

Also, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: The New York Times’ “One Hospital System Sued 2,500 Patients After Pandemic Hit,” by Brian M. Rosenthal

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Politico’s “Congress Using COVID Test That FDA Warns May Be Faulty,” by David Lim and Sarah Ferris

Mary Ellen McIntire: Bloomberg News’ “The World’s Most Loathed Industry Gave Us a Vaccine in Record Time,” by Drew Armstrong

Anna Edney: STAT News’ “How It Started: A Q&A With Helen Branswell, One Year After Covid-19 Became a Full-Time Job,” by Jason Ukman

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Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Republican Convention, Day 1: A Campaign-Style Trump Speech and More

Before the prime-time GOP showcase began, President Donald Trump took to the podium Monday afternoon and delivered an approximately one-hour campaign-style speech to delegates after he was officially renominated by the Republican Party as its candidate for president.

His comments were wide-ranging, and our partners at PolitiFact found many to be either wrong, misleading, premature or in need of clarification. Here is the complete rundown from that speech and a wrap-up story detailing the rest of the evening. (PolitiFact also fact-checked former Vice President Joe Biden’s acceptance speech during the Democratic National Convention.)

Monday’s evening broadcast was full of platitudes. Amy Ford, a West Virginia nurse, applauded Trump’s steps during the pandemic to expand telemedicine, saying these policies are “essential” and will “continue to aid many that are unable to find transportation or a way to the doctor for regular checkups. This is especially true in rural America.” Dr. G.E. Ghali, a Louisiana oral surgeon and chancellor of a medical research center, spoke as both a clinician and a patient about how the administration’s efforts to provide emergency-use authorization for emerging treatments saved lives.

Video vignettes heralded Trump’s leadership during the coronavirus, focusing on things like Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s initiative to speed vaccine development, rather than the statistics: nearly 6 million Americans who have contracted COVID-19 or the more than 177,000 who have died. Trump also spoke with a group of first responders — including nurses, postal workers and a police officer from Colorado who said she had contracted COVID-19 in late March and has since recovered. “That means we don’t have to be afraid of you at all, right?” Trump said to her. “Once you’re recovered, we have the whole thing with plasma happening. That means your blood is very valuable, you know that, right?”

What follows are some of Trump’s statements from his afternoon speech geared to health policy issues:

Trump has repeatedly claimed that President Barack Obama left him with an empty national stockpile of emergency supplies. But this is an exaggeration.

The stockpile had a shortage of N95 masks, which were depleted as a result of the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 and not substantially replenished during the Obama or Trump administrations.

ProPublica found that the budget battles during Obama’s tenure after the Republicans won the 2010 election also hurt the stockpile’s budget.

Budget figures going back to 2009 show overall funding for the stockpile dropped to its lowest level in 2013, to about $477 million. Allocations have grown steadily since then to a 2020 budget of $705 million.

“We eliminated Obamacare’s horrible and very unfair individual mandate, which basically knocked out Obamacare. We knocked out Obamacare.”

Saying Republicans “knocked out Obamacare” is a stretch. Trump did sign legislation to eliminate the requirement that Americans have health insurance or pay a tax penalty, but eliminating this requirement did not get rid of Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, as it is officially known.

The administration supports a lawsuit by a group of Republican state attorneys general that argues that the ACA should be ruled unconstitutional. The lawsuit’s argument focuses on the Supreme Court’s previous ruling that the ACA was constitutional because it was based on a tax, which Congress has the authority to levy. With the tax penalty now eliminated, the lawsuit argues, the law should be scrapped entirely. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

In the meantime, much of the health law’s key provisions remain in force. In 2020, at least 11.4 million Americans have purchased insurance through the online marketplaces created under the act. More than 10 million others have signed up for Medicaid under the expanded eligibility requirements passed as part of the law. And people who have private insurance have benefited from new rules enacted by the law, from the ability to keep young adults on a parent’s policy to an end to out-of-pocket payments for certain preventive measures.

“So we protected your preexisting conditions, very strongly protected.”

We rated a similar claim as Pants on Fire. Protections for preexisting conditions under Obamacare remain on the books, but it’s not for lack of trying by the Trump administration.

For starters, the administration backs the lawsuit that would eliminate protections for preexisting conditions by getting rid of Obamacare.

In addition, the administration has not put forth any plan that might keep those guarantees in place. Every replacement health bill the administration has endorsed has offered protections less generous than those offered by the ACA.

Finally, the administration has issued a rule loosening restrictions on the length of so-called short-term health plans. While such plans could be more affordable for individuals in the market for insurance, they are not required to provide preexisting condition protections.

PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson, Amy Sherman, Samantha Putterman and Miriam Valverde contributed to this story.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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‘Pennie’-Pinching States Take Over Obamacare Exchanges From Feds

Pennsylvania is rolling out its new “Pennie” this fall: a state-run insurance exchange that officials say will save residents collectively millions of dollars on next year’s health plan premiums.

Since the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces opened for enrollment in fall 2013, Pennsylvania, like most states, has used the federal www.healthcare.gov website for people buying coverage on their own.

But in a move defying the usual political polarization, state lawmakers from both parties last year agreed the cost of using the federal marketplace had grown too high and the state could do it for much less. They set up the Pennsylvania insurance exchange (nicknamed “Pennie”), designed to pass on expected savings to policyholders. Although the final rates for 2021 are not yet set, insurers have requested about a 3% average drop in premiums.

Pennsylvania is one of six states shifting in the next several years from the federal insurance exchange to run their own online marketplaces, which determine eligibility, assist with enrollment and connect buyers with insurance companies. They will join 12 states and the District of Columbia with self-contained exchanges.

The transitions come amid mounting evidence that state marketplaces attract more consumers, especially young adults, and hold down prices better than the federal exchange. They’ve also been gaining appeal since the Trump administration has cut the enrollment period on healthcare.gov and slashed funds for advertising and helping consumers.

State policymakers say they can run their own exchanges more cheaply and efficiently, and can better respond to residents’ and insurers’ needs.

“It comes down to getting more bang for your buck,” said Rachel Schwab, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms in Washington, D.C.

The importance of state-run exchanges was highlighted this year as all but one of them held special enrollment periods to sign up hundreds of thousands of people hurt financially by COVID-caused economic turmoil. The federal exchange, run by the Trump administration, refused to do so, although anyone who has lost workplace insurance is able to buy coverage anytime on either the state or federal exchange.

Like Pennsylvania, New Jersey expects to have its state-run exchange operational for the start of open enrollment on Nov. 1.

In fall 2021, New Mexico plans to launch its own marketplace and Kentucky is scheduled to fully revive its state-run exchange, which was dismantled by its Republican governor in 2015. Maine has also announced it will move to set up its own exchange, possibly in fall 2021.

Virginia’s legislature passed an exchange bill this year and hopes to start it in 2022 or 2023.

Nationwide, about 11 million people get coverage through the state and federal exchanges, with more than 80% receiving federal subsidies to lower their insurance costs.

“Almost across the board, states with their own exchanges have achieved higher enrollment rates than their federal peers, along with lower premiums and better consumer education and protection,” according to a study published this month in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law.

Controlling ‘Their Own Destiny’

Since 2014, states using the federal marketplaces have had a rise in premiums of 87% while state exchanges saw 47% growth, the study found.

In one key metric, from 2016 to 2019 the number of young enrollees in state exchanges rose 11.5%, while states using the federal marketplace recorded an 11.3% drop, a study by the National Academy for State Health Policy found.

Attracting younger enrollees, who tend to be healthy, is vital to helping the marketplaces spread the insurance risk to help keep premiums down, experts say.

When the Affordable Care Act was debated, Republicans and some Democrats in Congress were cautious about a one-size-fits-all approach to insurance and accusations about a federal takeover of health care. So the law’s advocates gave states more control over selling private health coverage. The law’s framers included a provision that allowed states to use millions in federal dollars to launch their own insurance exchanges.

Initially, 49 states took the money. But in 2011, conservative groups convinced Republican-controlled states that forgoing state-run exchanges would help undermine Obamacare.

As a result, most GOP-controlled states defaulted to the federal marketplace.

In the ensuing years, several states that had started their own marketplaces, such as Oregon, Nevada and Hawaii, reverted to the federal exchange because of technological problems. Nevada relaunched its exchange last fall.

“States want to control their own destiny, and the instability of healthcare.gov in the Trump administration has frustrated states,” said Joel Ario, managing director for the consulting firm Manatt Health Solutions and a former Obama administration official, who helped set up the exchanges. States running their own platform can use data to target enrollment efforts, he said.

An Effort to Hold Down Premium Increases

Marlene Caride, New Jersey commissioner of Banking and Insurance, said that “the beauty of [a state-based exchange] is we can tailor it to New Jersey residents and have the ability to help [them] when they are in dire need.”

About 210,000 New Jersey residents enrolled in marketplace health plans for this year.

New Jersey has been spending $50 million a year in user fees for the federal exchange. After startup costs, the state estimates, it will cost about $7.6 million a year to run its own exchange enrollment platform and $7 million a year for a customer service center.

Open enrollment on the New Jersey exchange — called Get Covered NJ — will run from Nov. 1 to Jan. 31.

New Jersey plans to provide additional government subsidies for lower-income enrollees. Those would supplement federal subsidies.

Kentucky officials said insurers there were paying $15 million a year in user fees for healthcare.gov, a cost passed on to policyholders. When the state switches to its own operation, it plans to collect $5 million in its first year to cover the startup costs to revive its Kynect exchange and another $1 million to $2 million in annual administrative costs. So insurers will pay lower fees and those savings will help cut premium costs, said Eric Friedlander, secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

States using the federal marketplace this year paid either a 2.5% or 3% surcharge to the federal government on premiums collected.

In Pennsylvania, where about 330,000 residents buy coverage through an exchange plan, those fees accounted for $90 million a year. State officials estimate they can run their own exchange for about $40 million and will use the savings for a reinsurance program that pays insurers to help cover the cost of extremely expensive health care needed by some customers. Removing those costs from the insurers’ responsibility allows them to drop premiums by 5% to 10%, the state projects.

“When we talk about bringing something back to state control, that is a real narrative that can appeal to both sides of the aisle,” said Jessica Altman, the state’s insurance commissioner. “There is nothing political about making health insurance more affordable.” (Altman is the daughter of Drew Altman, CEO of KFF. KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

Without the savings from running its own exchange, Pennsylvania would not have been able to come up with the more than $40 million needed for the reinsurance program, state officials said.

In addition, Pennsylvania has extended its enrollment period to run an extra month, until Jan. 15 (federal marketplace enrollment ends Dec. 15). Pennie also plans to spend three to four times the $400,000 that the federal government allocated to the state for navigators to help with enrollment, said Zachary Sherman, who heads Pennie.

“We think increased outreach and marketing will bring in a healthier population and broaden enrollment,” he said.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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