To his credit, over the course of his long-standing effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Price has offered numerous replacement plans and of unmatched detail, with his Empowering Patients First Act being 242 pages in length. However, absent from his legislation is adequate guarantees against loss of coverage from which over 20 million who gained insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act and who those benefited its associated Medicaid expansion.
Those Who Are Younger but Sick May Suffer
In lieu of the marketplace plans, according to his Empowering Patients First Act, individuals would be offered tax credits on the basis of their age rather than their income, with those tax credits allotted toward the payment of health insurance in the private market. This is based largely on the fact that health insurance premiums are determined based on age, with older people expected to use more healthcare, and in turn requiring a more substantial tax credit to support payment for insurance. This, of course, makes important assumptions that those who are younger will also be healthier and thus require less in the way of coverage.
Yet there has been in recent years a documented rise in the prevalence of chronic illnesses among children in the United States, rising from 12.8% in 1994 to 26.6 in 2006, in particular with respect to such issues as asthma, obesity, and behavioral conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and rates of many conditions have since risen further. The last decade has seen only greater attention to issues of childhood obesity and relatedly, type II diabetes, with the additional rises in teen depression. (It is worth noting also that mental health conditions often have an age-of-onset in teens and twenties, both age groups allotted the lowest tax credits but potentially in need of many services within this domain). This is not the only time that Mr. Price’s policies have gone against the interest of investing in children’s healthcare. Indeed, in 2007 he voted against the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides medical care to approximately 8 million low-income children. This Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid combine to provide health coverage to approximately 1 in 5 Americans.
“Block Granting of Medicaid” = Medicaid Cuts
It is presently the case that the federal and state governments share the cost of Medicaid allocations, with 32 states adopting the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. In addition to an ACA repeal doing away with its expansions of Medicaid and CHIP, Medicaid block grant proposals (which Price supports) have been estimated to reduce the extent of Medicaid spending, with Medicaid spending currently having a 7% growth rate compared to an estimated 3% when delivered via block grants. Indeed, in the 2017 House Budget, which Mr. Price oversaw as Budget Chair, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the block grants would reduce Medicaid spending by $1 trillion over the course of a decade.
While the role of government in program delivery is an issue over which well-reasoned partisans disagree, it is important to note the medical consequences of these program outcomes, particularly in light of Mr. Price’s medical expertise. But The Medicaid programs that Price seeks to restrict not only are more cost-effective in the long run to administer – with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimating that Medicaid coverage expansion reduced hospitals’ uncompensated care by 21 percent, with states saving in costs of caring for the uninsured – but have had demonstrably positive health outcomes for vulnerable populations. For example:
A Health Affairs study revealed that in the aftermath of Wisconsin’s 2009 creation of a new public insurance program for low-income adults, not only did outpatient medical appointments increase 29% – indicating a greater access to care among this population – but preventable hospitalizations fell 48%. Thus, the introduction of this government program had a cost-saving outcome of shifting care from hospitalization to outpatient treatment, in addition to expanding overall care to those in need.
The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act not only reduced the uninsured rates of those states, but in many (though not all) cases improved access to care and utilization of some physical health as well as behavioral health services.
Moreover, the Urban Institute’s 2012 report on outcomes related to Medicaid revealed striking differences between the Medicaid and the uninsured patient populations, with 89% of Medicaid recipients having had an outpatient doctor’s visit in the last 12 months compared with 53% among those without insurance; 8% of Medicaid recipients delaying medical care due to cost, compared with 34% of the uninsured delaying care due to cost; and 27% of Medicaid recipients having unmet healthcare needs due to cost, compared with 56% among the uninsured. There are few if any policies in which the human consequences of policy delivery are so bold. Indeed, it can be difficult to reconcile restricting this access to medical care with the principle of “do no harm,” a central tenet of the Hippocratic Oath, according to which Mr. Price presumably operated as a practicing physician.
Continuing Protection of Those with Pre-Existing Conditions Won’t Be Easy (Feasible)
In the aftermath of his meeting with President Obama, President-Elect Trump indicated some interest in preserving some of the more favorable aspects of the Affordable Care Act – namely, ensuring that people not be denied insurance coverage due to preexisting conditions, as well as the ability for one to stay on their parents’ insurance plan until age 26. A challenge in doing this, however, is the reality that insurers’ ability to guarantee coverage regardless of preexisting conditions came in no small part from the ACA’s mandate that all individuals enroll in at least some baseline level of coverage, the effect of which was to bring healthy patients into the risk pool. Absent the mandate, of which the Republican Party has been vocally critical, and thus with a sicker risk pool, much of the Act becomes infeasible.
Within Mr. Price’s Empowering Patients First Act, there is minimal discussion of pre-existing conditions, and while it provides that insurers will not deny on those grounds, it does not guard against insurers charging patients with pre-existing conditions higher rates if they do not maintain continuous coverage for at least 18 months. Thus, should should one not have a lapse in coverage, one would not be adversely affected in this regard, but should one be rendered unemployed for some period of time and unable to afford coverage in between jobs (e.g., through COBRA, which is very costly), they would be rendered vulnerable under the Empowering Patients First Act if they have a history of medical conditions.
It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of this impact for those who lack the income to support potentially dramatically increased healthcare premiums. After all, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2012 that about half of the American population (117 million) had at least one chronic health condition, with one in four adults having two or more chronic health conditions, with seven of the top ten causes of death being chronic diseases.
Consider the magnitude for only the 20 million who newly obtained insurance through the Affordable Care Act. In expectation, 10 million would be subjected to higher (potentially unfeasibly higher) healthcare premiums with Mr. Price’s replacement option. Indeed, the Government Accountability Office investigated numerous studies of pre-exiting conditions and found ranges of estimates ranging from 20 percent to 66 percent, neither of which is a trivial share of American adults. And should an individual who is deemed to be “high risk” suffer a lapse in coverage, such as a period of time between jobs, the Empowering Patients First Act would allow insurers to charge the individual up to 150 percent of their standard premium. Amid high costs of prescription drugs and other treatments for their conditions, such a marked premium increase could in some cases be devastating.
The Mental Health Care Expansion of the ACA will Face Setbacks
Within the context of pre-existing conditions, it is worth emphasizing also that the CDC estimate above focused on behavioral and not mental health, the diagnosis of which would also constitute a pre-existing condition. Yet it is estimated that 16.1 million Americans had a major depressive episode in the past year, a rate that does not account for milder forms of depression, or other behavioral health conditions such as anxiety or psychotic disorders. Indeed, it has been estimated that 1 in 5 American adults will struggle with mental illness in a given year. Mental health – for reasons pertaining to both access and stigma – remains woefully undertreated, though the Affordable Care Act provided a marked expansion in access to care, requiring that most individual and small group plans and all marketplace plans provide mental health benefits. Price’s repeal of the Affordable Care Act both leaves the state of mental health care very much in question, and renders particularly vulnerable those who have capitalized on the ACA’s access to mental health coverage and in doing so, accumulated preexisting conditions.
Consequences of Price’s Opposition to Reproductive Rights
Within the domain of women’s health, Mr. Price is far from the first Republican to be outspokenly opposed to federal funding of Planned Parenthood given a staunchly pro-life political standpoint. Indeed, Republican majorities and other social conservatives have coalesced strongly around the issue. However, it is worth emphasizing a couple of points that make Mr. Price’s case unique. First, he did not simply vote for the legislation to defund Planned Parenthood (HR 3134 in 2015), but co-sponsored it. But Mr. Price is also a physician, and thus – while an orthopedic surgeon and not an OB-GYN – possesses the medical expertise to balance against his partisan preferences.
Abortion introduces many political and religious conflicts, with many holding deep personal religious convictions as to when life begins. Mr. Price has signed on to the more extreme elements of this domain, cosponsoring his first term in Congress the Right to Life Act, which afforded 14th Amendment personhood to a fertilized egg, without providing exceptions such as rape, incest, or the health of the woman. But even beyond the realm of abortion, his efforts to defund Planned Parenthood have broader public health ramifications given the wealth of other services that they provide, such as contraception, STD testing, cancer screenings, and prenatal care. Indeed, increasing access to these services helps to curb rates of teen childbearing and sexually transmitted diseases, both of which are highly costly to American taxpayers, both in treatment and in costs associated with teen childbearing such as welfare and increased chance of incarceration.
To be sure, women can in theory obtain contraceptive care from many sources, particularly in more urban regions in which there are broader ranges of services at one’s fingertips. Yet nonpartisan analysis revealed that in two-thirds of the 491 counties surveyed, Planned Parenthood clinics served at least half of the women who obtained contraceptive care from safety-net health centers, with Planned Parenthood being the sole provider in one fifth of those counties. And unsurprisingly, increased contraceptive use has been the main cause of observed declines in teen pregnancy in recent decades. Thus, while tabling the more controversial issue of abortion, with Planned Parenthood serving as the sole provider of contraception for many women, the impact on women’s health and in turn, the American healthcare system and economy, could potentially be dramatic absent the introduction of legislation to provide comparable women’s health services absent the provision of abortions. Such an addition to his healthcare agenda would be a welcome form of moderation of his efforts to scale back access to women’s healthcare, though such legislation has not yet been crafted.
Which Patients Are Empowered? (Probably Wealthy and Healthy)
While Mr. Price may seek to respond to some physicians’ frustrations with respect to the arduousness of the American healthcare system’s complex reimbursement procedures and associated administrative burdens, his challenges to much of the healthcare status quo has sparked outrage among many in the medical community. In the aftermath of the American Medical Association’s endorsement of Mr. Price, an open letter by physicians was drafted to challenge the AMA’s support of Mr. Price, and the letter has since received over 5,000 signatories in the American physician community.
Mr. Price’s vision for American healthcare is one that is market-based and restricts the extent of government involvement. Such an approach is by all means consistent with the preferences of those within his party. However, the empirical evidence in favor of the programs that he seeks to scale back or eliminate altogether, and his medical expertise having treated patients who may have benefitted from receiving these health programs, should temper the vigilance with which he is approaching the overhaul of the American healthcare system. Such tempering is not yet apparent. How Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans – perhaps those in states that accepted and benefited from Medicaid expansion – respond to Price in the looming confirmation battle may provide some answers to who is empowered first under Mr. Price’s leadership.
Note: An abridged version of this piece appeared in The Conversation on December 8.