Posts Tagged ‘Obamacare’

$1,000 Toothbrushes and $140 Tylenols: And You’re Footing the Bill

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

As the debate about the future of Medicare heats up, the program’s chief actuary estimates that 15 percent to 30 percent of healthcare expenditures are wasteful. Cindy Holtzman, a consumer advocate with Medical Billing Advocates of America, cited several examples, such as a Florida patient who was charged $140 for a single Tylenol.  A patient in South Carolina paid $1,000 for a toothbrush.  A patient in Georgia who used one bag of IV saline solution was billed for 41 bags for a total of $4,000.  In the case of the Georgia patient, insurance paid the entire claim.  “Usually any kind of bill under $100,000, they (insurance companies) don’t look at the details.  And that’s where something like this can be paid in error,” Holtzman said.  After Holtzman investigated, the bill was fixed, and the insurance company was refunded its money.

Medicare spending exceeded $500 billion in 2010.  As much as $75 billion to $150 billion could be cut without reducing needed services.  A potential cause is that Medicare’s reimbursement procedures do not track the appropriateness of the care provided.  Medicare farms out its claims administration to private local contractors based on how quickly and cheaply they process claims.  These contractors are not given incentives to audit the taxpayer dollars they spend; even if they wanted to, they would need data that is typically not found on the claim form.

Healthcare spending is wasteful across the board, not just in Medicare.  Writing for Politico, Ralph G. Neas, CEO of the National Coalition on Health Care (NCHC), a non-profit, non-partisan organization working to improve America’s healthcare system, says that “Total expenditures on healthcare represented 17 percent of the gross national product in 2010 and are projected to reach 20 percent by the end of this decade.  The federal government already spends more for health care than for defense, Social Security or any other single spending category.  The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has emphatically identified rising health costs as the greatest threat to our fiscal future.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  Our current system is devastatingly inefficient.  The United States spends 141 percent more on healthcare than other economically advanced nations.  But our far higher bill is not buying us a healthier population.  Roughly 30 percent to 40 percent of medical and hospital costs can be attributed to waste and inefficiency.  That means, America is on a path to squander $10 trillion over the next decade. That hemorrhage would leave our economy — and our cities, states, small businesses and middle-class families — on life support.  Given our financial condition, preventing this kind of spending and the economic drag it represents should be the kind of urgent national problem that overrides ideological differences and encourages us to find common purpose.”

NEHI, an independent non-profit national network for health innovation, has recommended actions that would reduce wasteful healthcare spending by up to $84 billion. The plan was produced in collaboration with the National Priorities Partnership.  One major area for savings is eliminating emergency department overuse.  More than half of the 120 million annual ED visits can be avoided, representing a $38 billion opportunity for savings.  Medication errors add up to seven million inpatient admission and outpatient visits involving serious but avoidable medication errors, representing a $21 billion opportunity for savings.  Unnecessary hospital readmissions is another area where savings can be achieved.  Seven million people are readmitted to hospitals within 30 days of discharge annually but 836,000 of these cases could be avoided, representing a $25 billion opportunity.

Another study believes that healthcare spending waste is much more widespread.  As much as 50 cents of every dollar spent in healthcare is wasted, according to Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s Research Institute. The organization determined that unnecessary price gouging makes up $1.2 trillion of the $2.2 trillion spent on healthcare nationwide.  “Our best estimate is that for the country as a whole, probably half of what we’re spending on healthcare delivery today is technically waste from a patient’s perspective,” said Dr. Brent James, chief quality officer for Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City.  “There are better ways of doing it.”

The Institute of Medicine (IOM), a division of the non-partisan National Academy of Sciences, reports that “excess costs” – which translates to waste — in the American healthcare system cost $810 billion every year. Their findings?  Overly-high insurance administrative costs absorbed by doctors and hospitals cost $190 billion.  Insurance company inefficiencies cost $20 billion.  Unnecessary services (brand name drugs instead of generics, repetitive tests and procedures, etc.) cost $210 billion.  Too-high prices for doctors and hospitals cost $85 billion.  High drug and device prices cost $20 billion.  Errors and avoidable complications cost $75 billion.  Inefficient delivery of services costs $ 80 billion.  Fraud costs $75 billion.  Missed disease-prevention opportunities cost $55 billion.

The Supreme Court Takes on the ACA

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

As the Supreme Court begins three days of hearing about the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), Americans have mixed feelings about President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare overhaul.  The individual mandate is extremely unpopular, despite the fact that approximately 80 percent of Americans have healthcare coverage through workplace plans or government insurance such as Medicare and Medicaid.  When the insurance obligation kicks in, the majority of Americans won’t need to buy anything new.  The bottom line appears to be that Americans object to being told how to spend their money, even if it solves the dilemma of the nation’s more than 50 million uninsured.  One critic dismissed the individual mandate by saying “If things were that easy, I could mandate everybody to buy a house and that would solve the problem of homelessness.”

Listen to Republicans describe the law as an attack on personal freedom, and you’d be surprised to learn that the idea originated with them.  Its model is the Massachusetts law enacted in 2006 when Mitt Romney was the governor.  Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich supported an individual mandate as an alternative to President Bill Clinton’s healthcare proposal, which put the burden on employers.  All four GOP candidates have promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which they describe as “Obamacare.”  Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) terms it “the death knell for freedom.”

President Obama and congressional Democrats passed the mandate in 2010, without Republican support, in an effort to create a fair system that assures that all Americans — whether rich or poor, young or old — get the healthcare they need.  One thing that proponents point out is that other economically advanced countries have succeeded at it.  Congress determined that when the uninsured visit a clinic or the emergency room, the care they can’t afford costs roughly $75 billion a year.  A large percentage of that cost ends up adding $1,000 a year to the average family’s insurance premium.

In legal briefs challenging the law, opponents contend that the “minimum coverage requirement” — known as the individual mandate — would set a precedent that could apply to literally anything.  If it’s legal for Americans to be told to buy health insurance, Congress could try to impose “a broccoli mandate, a car-purchase mandate, really any other mandate that you’d want,” said Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University.  “There are lots of interest groups that would love to lobby Congress to require people to buy their products.”

The mandate is intended to ensure that new insurance market reforms in the law work as intended.  Unless younger, healthier people — who often don’t purchase insurance until they get sick — are covered, the costs of those changes would be exorbitant.  In response to opponents’ admonitions that a mandate to buy insurance could lead to other government-required purchases, the Obama administration argued that no such examples exist.  “Respondents acknowledge that states do have the power to enact purchase mandates, but they identify no example of any state ever having compelled its citizens to buy cars, agricultural products, gym memberships or any other consumer product,” according to the Obama administration.

Not surprisingly, 73 percent of Americans believe that the Supreme Court will be influenced by politics when it rules on the constitutionality of the ACA.  The attitude crosses party lines and is particularly popular with independent voters, of whom 80 percent believe that the court will not base its ruling strictly on its legal merits, according to a Bloomberg National Poll.  Seventy-four percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats believe that politics will be a determining factor in the court’s healthcare decision.

“I always worry when the court steps into the political thicket,” said Barbara Perry, a Supreme Court scholar and professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  “It does so at its peril.”  The justices themselves say that politics doesn’t impact their decisions.  “It is a very serious threat to the independence and integrity of the courts to politicize them,” Chief Justice John Roberts said at his 2005 Senate confirmation hearing.  Justice Stephen Breyer told Bloomberg News that politics doesn’t influence the court, even in cases with electoral implications.  “It would be bad if it were there,” he said.  “And I don’t see it.”

In reviewing the ACA, the Supreme Court is entering territory that it hasn’t approached since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: ruling on a president’s signature legislative victory in the midst of his re-election campaign.  Justices are taking more time to listen arguments — six hours over three days — than any other case in the last 44 years.   “This is a central challenge to the modern Constitution, which was fashioned during the New Deal and then elaborated further during the civil rights revolution,” said Bruce Ackerman, a professor at Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut and author of The Decline and Fall of the American Republic.  “This goes to the very foundations of modern American government.”

The closest comparable was 76 years ago, involving Roosevelt’s New Deal, a response to the Great Depression.  It wasn’t a single piece of legislation and included the creation of Social Security.  The court ruled against parts of the New Deal, while leaving others in place.  The principal decision came when the court struck down much of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which allowed industries to create trade associations that set quotas and fixed prices.

Those wishing to tune in and watch the excitement are destined to be disappointed. The Supreme Court will make available same-day audio of the oral arguments.  In its announcement, the court said it is making the audio available because of the “extraordinary public interest” in the case.

ACA Is Fixing U.S. Healthcare Delivery: Donald Berwick

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Dr. Donald Berwick, who oversaw Medicare and Medicaid until recently said the programs are trapped in a health system that promotes wasteful spending and inefficient care. “Healthcare is broken,” Berwick, who headed the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), said.  “We have set up a delivery system that is fragmented, unsafe, not patient-centered, full of waste and unreliable.  Despite the best efforts of the workforce, we built it wrong. It isn’t built for modern times.”  Berwick said the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is changing how physicians and hospitals are paid and deliver care through such innovative arrangements as accountable care organizations (ACOs), which improve coordination and lower costs.”

According to Berwick, it is not clear whether these efforts will produce results quickly enough to silence the critics who want to make more radical changes that would shift the majority of the burden onto beneficiaries.  “That is the central question, the nub…whether that will happen fast enough, I just don’t know.”

To read the full transcript of Berwick’s remarks, click this link:

Berwick defended his tenure as CMS administrator. Even though he failed to win Senate confirmation, that did not impact his ability to get things done, though he would have preferred a longer term.  “An agency of this size will do better with longer-term leadership commitment,” he said.  With the knowledge that his tenure was likely to be short, Berwick felt a greater sense of urgency to achieve things.  Berwick’s most challenging decisions involved state requests to cut Medicaid benefits and writing regulations to encourage doctors and hospitals to form ACOs, while not making the requirements overly burdensome.

Berwick took exception to state’s efforts to limit hospital coverage for Medicaid recipients, which is presently under review by federal regulators.  Hawaii has proposed a 10-day limit on some enrollees; Arizona has proposed a 25 day limit.  “It’s a nonsensical idea.  If a patient needs 20 days, the patient should get 20 days,” he said.

According to the Bangor Daily News, Berwick’s departure from CMS is “an unnecessary loss.” Berwick’s parting words should help Americans understand how their health system is in the process of being improved.  The article notes that “Waste is a broad term, including needless medical procedures, failure of adequate preventive measures, duplication and inefficiency, as well as outright fraud.  Hospital-acquired infections have caused the deaths of almost 100,000 Americans each year and the illness of millions more, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Dr. Berwick has reported that these complications have added as much as $45 billion a year to hospital costs borne by taxpayers, insurers and customers.  He said that some hospitals have virtually eliminated some infections that other hospitals still consider inevitable.  Under the Affordable Care Act, sometimes called Obamacare, financial incentives will go to hospitals that excel in fighting these infections starting in 2015.

Unnecessary hospital readmissions add another $12 billion a year, estimates the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.  It says half or more of these readmissions could be prevented through better coordination and patient education, permitting them to recover at home rather than re-entering the hospital with complications.  ‘Integrated care’ will also reduce costs, said Dr. Berwick, by protecting patients from having to tell their stories over and over to different providers and letting a doctor know what medication they had already been given.  No figure is available for the savings from automated record keeping, but it is becoming substantial.  Preventive medicine is already reducing waste, for example by detecting diseases at early stages for prompt treatment.  The Affordable Care Act makes preventive benefits like cholesterol tests, mammograms and screening for colon and rectal cancer free for everyone with Medicare.”

States to Determine Their Own ACA Coverage Levels

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

The Obama administration averted a potentially vicious lobbying battle over the medical benefits insurers must cover under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) when it handed the decision to the states.  The ruling gives states the power to set coverage levels for the policies uninsured people will purchase through exchanges, starting in 2014.  Business groups will make a case for a narrow set of benefits to save costs while consumer advocates want expanded coverage.  The decision shifts the issue to the states and away from the White House, and lets President Barack Obama say he’s giving governors and legislatures greater flexibility to confront rising medical costs and control changes the 2010 healthcare law is bringing to insurance markets.

“Obama has taken all the grief he can stand over healthcare,” said Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  “He doesn’t want it to give the Republicans any more political ammunition.  He is passing the hot potato to the states.”

“This is significantly more state-flexible and friendly than many would have expected,” said Alan Weil, head of the National Academy for State Heath Policy. What’s to guarantee that the state’s choice of a benchmark plan will be affordable?” asked National Retail Federation Vice President Neil Trautwein.  If coverage is unaffordable today, this doesn’t change the equation.”

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would have to provide “strong oversight and enforcement” of the benefit standards as the states implement them.  “It will be important to ensure that adequate coverage across all 10 required benefit categories is provided — marking an improvement over many plans offered today,” he said.  Giving states greater flexibility to determine necessary benefits was perceived as an attempt to defuse criticism that the health reform law gives the federal government too much control over the healthcare system.  A longtime advocate for federal health reform, Pollack also expressed reservations.  “We understand the inclination to balance flexibility, comprehensiveness of coverage, and cost,” he said. “However, flexibility must yield to reliable, comprehensive coverage of benefits for consumers.  It is essential that HHS provide strong oversight and enforcement.”

Under the revised guidelines, state legislature must either set coverage levels in line with widely subscribed small- business plans in their communities, or tie them to benefits included in their state employees’ health plan, federal plans or the largest commercial managed-care plan in the state.  Generally, health plans for small businesses, state employees and federal workers “cover similar services,” including doctors’ visits, hospitalization and outpatient mental health, according to a study conducted by HHS.  Discrepancies arise in areas such as prescription drugs.  While they’re covered as a basic benefit by all government employee plans, only 84 percent of small business plans cover them.  Others require additional premiums.  Small business plans also rarely cover dental care, acupuncture, bariatric surgery and hearing aids, unless states require it.

According to Forbes magazine’s sba.com column, “At a first glance, this seems like it might be a step in the right direction for individuals and small business owners.  However, that is not necessarily the case.  It seems as though the new idea comes with a wide array of new problems.  First, while the new policy will give states flexibility, it imposes more benefit mandates.  The new policy lists 10 ‘essential health benefits’ that the state MUST provide.  Some of these essential benefits are prescription drugs, preventative care, doctor and hospital services, and maternity care.  The new policy allows the states to designate a state-wide ‘benchmark’ health insurance plan, setting the minimum standard of care.  All insurers would then have the ability to change their insurance plans as long as the coverage provided benefits of the same or greater value.  The new ‘more flexible’ plan still seems very rigid and regimented.  Additionally, the new plan would lead to higher-cost insurance premiums, not lower.

“Another long-standing issue with Obama’s idea is that individuals are not clear on what services and benefits are expected to be provided as a minimum.  Instead of clearing up this confusion and spelling out what exactly would be required, Obama has simply put that responsibility on the states – giving them the ‘flexibility’ to design their plans.

“While it may look like Obama is responding to his opponents’ remarks about his previous plan forcing health insurance standards on states, it seems as though this policy change still accomplishes his goals – just through a different means.  Obama can continue to shape and reshape his ideals; however it will be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the government can require Americans to buy health insurance at all.”

ACA Gives 2.5 Million Young Adults Healthcare Coverage

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

The number of young adults who have no medical coverage has contracted by 2.5 million since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) took effect, according to a new analysis by the Obama administration.  That decline is 2½ times larger than earlier government and private estimates, which showed about one million Americans ages 19 – 25 had acquired coverage.

Obama administration officials said they now have more comprehensive data and are slicing the numbers more precisely than the government typically does, in an attempt to identify the impact of a popular provision in the law.  Thanks to the ACA, young adults can remain on their parents’ health insurance plans until their 26th birthdays.  Families have flocked to sign up their offspring, making the transition to work in a challenging economic environment a bit easier.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, 2.5 million more young adults don’t have to live with the fear and uncertainty of going without health insurance,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  “Moms and dads around the country can breathe a little easier knowing their children are covered.”

“This comparison makes it clear that the increase in coverage among 19 to 25 year-olds can be directly attributed to the Affordable Care Act’s new dependent-coverage provision,” according to an Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) brief.  “Furthermore, the coverage gain for young adults was entirely due to an increase in private coverage (from 49 percent to 58 percent), with no change in Medicaid coverage during this period.”

“The increase in coverage among 19- to 25-year-olds can be directly attributed to the Affordable Care Act’s new dependent coverage provision,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  “Initial gains from this policy have continued to grow as…students graduate from high school and college.”

That age group previously recorded the highest uninsured rate. Now, 26- to 35-year-olds have that dubious distinction by a narrow margin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the HHS survey, nearly 36 percent of Americans ages 19 – 25 — more than 10.5 million people — were uninsured in the third quarter of 2010, before the law’s provision took effect.  The majority of employer-based health plans began carrying the provision January 1, 2011.  By the 2nd quarter of 2011, the proportion of uninsured young adults had fallen to slightly more than 27 percent, or about eight million people.

And just who are these young adults?  Some are transitioning from school to work. Others are trying to start their careers by working at low-wage jobs that don’t usually come with healthcare coverage.  Some – known as the “invincibles” – pass up job-based health insurance because they don’t think they’ll need it and prefer some extra money in their paychecks.

Similarly, the National Center for Health Statistics has documented a broadly similar trend, only not nearly as spectacular.  According to administration officials, those statistics do not focus on the change from calendar quarter to calendar quarter, as the new HHS report does.  Instead, they pool data over longer time periods; that tends to dilute the law’s perceived impact.

Berwick Laments Washington, D.C., Cynicism About ACA

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

Dr. Donald Berwick, who recently left his job as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) because the Senate refused to confirm his nomination, struck back at his critics who had accused the pediatrician of advocating healthcare rationing.

“The true rationers are those who impede improvement, who stand in the way of change, and who thereby force choices that we can avoid through better care,” Berwick said.  “It boggles my mind that the same people who cry ‘foul’ about rationing an instant later argue to reduce healthcare benefits for the needy, to defund crucial programs of care and prevention, and to shift thousands of dollars of annual costs to people — elders, the poor, the disabled – who are least able to bear them.”

Although Berwick didn’t specifically accuse Senate Republicans, it was clear that he was referring to proposals to drastically slash the nation’s budget deficit by capping federal funding to states for Medicaid.  That proposal could cut billions of dollars that critics have said would lead to cuts in benefits.

During his 16-month tenure at CMS, Berwick studiously avoided using the term “rationing”.  Now, the gloves have come off.  “When the 17 million American children who live in poverty cannot get the immunizations and blood tests they need, that is rationing.  When disabled Americans lack the help to keep them out of institutions and in their homes and living independently, that is rationing.  When tens of thousands of Medicaid beneficiaries are thrown out of coverage, and when millions of seniors are threatened with the withdrawal of preventive care or cannot afford their medications, and when every single one of us lives under the sword of Damocles that, if we get sick, we lose health insurance, that is rationing.”

Berwick also jabbed at those who inaccurately said the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) included so-called “death panels.”  According to Berwick, “If you really want to talk about ‘death panels,’ let’s think about what happens if we cut back programs of needed, life-saving care for Medicaid beneficiaries and other poor people in America.  Maybe a real death panel is a group of people who tell healthcare insurers that is it OK to take insurance away from people because they are sick or are at risk for becoming sick.”

Going even further, Berwick said that the ACA needs more advocates supporting the law. “The law is just a framework,” Berwick said.  “Healthcare in America can improve and it can become sustainable without a tremendous amount of community involvement.”  President Obama has an important role in this, as do healthcare consumers who must push healthcare leaders to rethink the way they work.  “Increasingly, though, that advocacy role is falling to physicians, nurses, and hospital executives.  We need their voices, because they know the system can’t go on the way it is,” he said.

“I think that a lot of the public concern about that law and a lot of the congressional criticism is ill-founded and based on myths,’’ Berwick said.  “I think any chance to air publicly, with conversation and even debate, matters of such concern is healthy.’’

While contemplating what to do next in his career, Berwick said “I’m excited by how much is in motion in healthcare right now.  It’s an incredibly interesting and promising time with many risks, and I want to stay thoroughly engaged in reshaping American healthcare into the high-performance, sustainable system I know it can be.”

Half of Americans Support Obamacare Repeal

Monday, November 28th, 2011

A recent Gallup poll found that 47 percent of Americans support the repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), compared with the 42 percent who want the law kept in place.  The remaining 11 percent offered no opinion.  In an ironic twist, the survey also determined that half of Americans believe the federal government has a responsibility to make certain that all citizens have healthcare coverage, compared with 46 percent who do not.

“Views on this issue are highly partisan, with Republicans strongly in favor of repeal and the large majority of Democrats wanting the law kept in place,” according to Gallup.

Republicans claim that the healthcare law is unconstitutional because of the individual mandate that requires all Americans to purchase health insurance.  Approximately eight in 10 Republicans think Congress should repeal the healthcare law, including 54 percent who want the entire law thrown out.  Democrats have an opposing view: 60 percent support keeping the healthcare law as is.  Independents are split.

Fully 80 percent of Republicans support repeal, while a mere 10 percent support the law.  Democrats, not surprisingly support the healthcare law by 64 – 21 percent.  The intensity of the issue on both sides is also striking.  Among those who favor repeal of the so-called Obamacare, 66 percent say it is a “very important” issue.  Fully 60 percent of the ACA’s supporters described it is a “very important” issue.

Another finding of the survey is that 56 percent of respondents prefer an insurance system run by private companies; while 39 percent prefer a government-run system.

Writing for CBS News, Jennifer De Pinto says that “Even though overall support for the healthcare law is mixed, majorities have favored some individual elements of the law, including requiring health insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions and allowing children to stay on their parents’ healthcare plan until age 26.  However, the provision that requires all Americans get health insurance is not as popular.  A CNN/ORC Poll conducted this past summer found 54 percent of Americans oppose that provision.”

In a poll taken by the Kaiser Foundation, 34 percent said they view the law either “very” (12 percent) or “somewhat” (22 percent) favorably while 51 percent saw it in either as “somewhat” (20 percent) or “very” (31 percent) unfavorably.  In April 2010, the favorable view of the law was 50 percent only one time (July 2010).  With the exception of the October dip, support has generally been between 39 and 43 percent since the start of this year.  Even as the overall bill remains consistently unpopular, parts of it — including the individual mandate, which would require all Americans to carry health insurance — are viewed more positively.

Even if the Supreme Court overturns the ACA or it is repealed, President Barack Obama said that the healthcare law he signed in 2010 represents “a reform that will finally make sure that nobody goes bankrupt in America just because they get sick.”  Obama said the law assures coverage for people with preexisting medical conditions and is the kind of change he promised during the 2008 presidential campaign.  “Everything we fought for in the last election is now at stake in the next election,” Obama said.  “The very core of what this country stands for is on the line.”

Supreme Court to Decide Healthcare Reform

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

The Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the fate of President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) healthcare law, with an election-year ruling due by July on the most comprehensive overhaul in nearly a half century.  The decision had been widely expected because the Obama administration asked the nation’s highest court to uphold the landmark legislation and 26 states asked that the law be ruled unconstitutional.

President Obama expressed confidence that the court would uphold the law when the decision is handed down, just four months prior to the 2012 election.  “Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, one million more young Americans have health insurance, women are getting mammograms and preventive services without paying an extra penny out of their own pocket and insurance companies have to spend more of your premiums on healthcare instead of advertising and bonuses,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director.  “We know the Affordable Care Act is constitutional and are confident the Supreme Court will agree,” Pfeiffer said.  The administration pointed out that other landmark legislation, such as the Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, all faced similar legal challenges that failed.

Republicans have vowed to repeal “Obamacare,” but that promise will have to be modified if the high court undercuts the law as written.  A Supreme Court victory would make President Obama even more confident that the law is the major accomplishment of his first term.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-KY) said “this misguided law represents an unprecedented and unconstitutional expansion of the federal government into the daily lives of every American.”  The majority of Americans agree,” McConnell said.  “In both public surveys and at the ballot box, Americans have rejected the law’s mandate that they must buy government-approved health insurance, and I hope the Supreme Court will do the same.”

Despite Republicans’ insistence that the ACA is unconstitutional, only one of the four federal appeals courts that have heard cases on healthcare reform has struck down even a part of the law.

One of the ACA’s most vocal opponents is Karen Harned of the National Federation of Independent Business, who said: “We are confident in the strength of our case and hopeful that we will ultimately prevail.  Our nation’s job-creators depend on a decision being reached before the harmful effects of this new law become irreversible.”

Legal experts believe that the healthcare vote will be close on the nine-member court, which is comprised of five conservatives and four liberals.  Moderate conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often is the swing vote, and could well cast the decisive vote.  Paul Heldman, senior analyst at Potomac Research Group, which provides Washington policy research for the investment community, said he still leaned toward the view that the law’s requirement that individuals buy insurance will be upheld.  “We continue to have a high level of conviction that the Supreme Court will leave much of the health reform law standing, even if finds unconstitutional the requirement that individuals buy coverage,” he wrote.

An impressive 5 ½ hours of oral arguments will be held in late February or March. The primary issue is whether the “individual mandate” section – which requires virtually all Americans to buy health insurance by 2014 or face fines — is an improper exercise of federal authority.  According to the states, if that linchpin provision is unconstitutional, the entire law must be also be overturned.  Joining Florida in the challenge are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.  Virginia and Oklahoma have filed their own challenges, along with other groups and individuals opposed to the law.

According to USA Today’s Joan Biskupic, “The leading question before the justices is whether in requiring most Americans to buy insurance, Congress exceeded its power to regulate interstate commerce.  The case is on track to be heard by March, and a ruling would come by the end of June, just before the Republican and Democratic conventions for the 2012 presidential election. The law known as the Affordable Care Act, intended to extend medical care nationwide, is the centerpiece of the Obama domestic agenda, and all major GOP presidential candidates oppose it.  The legal challengers, including a group of 26 states, say the law went beyond federal power and, if allowed to stand, would hurt small businesses and compromise individual choices on medical care.”

Writing in The Hill, Sam Baker says that “As they weigh the mandate, the justices will have to consider how it affects other parts of the law.  If they find the coverage requirement unconstitutional, they will have to decide whether to strike it down on its own or instead strike down the entire law.  The justices also will determine whether a separate federal law bars them from reaching a decision on the mandate before it takes effect.  People can’t challenge a tax before they have to pay it, and the Obama administration has defended the mandate by invoking Congress’s taxing power.  But it has also said the court should bypass procedural issues and rule directly on the mandate.”

Obama to Sign Executive Order Releasing $1 Billion to Cut Medical Fraud

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

President Barack Obama will once again sidestep a fractious Congress and sign an executive order designed to cut fraud from Medicare and Medicaid.  The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will administer the changes, such as testing changes to obsolete hospital billing systems to prevent overbilling, administration officials said.

The billion-dollar initiative will reward the “most compelling new ideas” for cutting costs and improving care of Medicare and Medicaid patients with rewarding federal grants.  Called the Health Care Innovation Challenge, the initiative will provide between $1 million and $30 million over three years to individual organizations or coalitions that develop sustainable, new approaches to improving healthcare quality and efficiency.  “We’ve taken incredible steps to reduce healthcare costs and improve care, but we can’t wait to do more,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  “Both public and private community organizations around the country are finding innovative solutions to improve our healthcare system, and the Health Care Innovation Challenge will help jump-start these efforts.”

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) administrator Dr. Donald M. Berwick, M.D. said, “When I visit communities across the country, I continually see innovative solutions at the very ground.  By putting more programs like this in place and more ‘boots on the ground,’ these types of programs can truly transform our healthcare system.”

This program is part of the Obama Administration’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative, which is a series of legal Executive Branch steps designed to move America forward while Congressional Republicans block critical and necessary legislation.

To demonstrate that its campaign to cut government waste is working, the White House said the administration cut improper payments by nearly $18 billion in 2011, largely in such programs as Medicare, Medicaid, Pell Grants and food stamps.  Budget chief Jack Lew ordered federal agencies to tighten their oversight of contractors and grant recipients to reduce the potential for taxpayer waste.

Not surprisingly, there was some immediate opposition to the initiative, with Republican critics calling it a “$1 billion experiment.”  “On the day the Supreme Court decided to review the constitutionality of ‘Obamacare,’ the president is asking for another $1 billion in taxpayer dollars to pay for another healthcare experiment that will continue taking us in the wrong direction,” said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.  “We already spent $2.6 trillion on his job-killing health care bill.  Another $1 billion Executive Order is just more words for a president more interested in campaign talking points than creating jobs.”

With the Supreme Court preparing to hear arguments for and against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) next March, it is important to note that even the 26 states suing to have the law overturned are hedging their bets.  Only four states have refused all federal money to plan for the changes that are scheduled to take place.

Several healthcare industry leaders expressed their support for the ACA. “The system is transforming itself,” said Charles N. Kahn III, president of the Federation of American Hospitals.  “But the success of these changes depends a lot on whether there is sufficient funding.”  Nationally, hospital systems are anticipating an influx of federal funds and patients as the law goes into full effect.  “If the law is struck down, healthcare reform will have to continue one way or another,” said Patricia Brown, president of Johns Hopkins HealthCare.

U.S. Supreme Court Is Likely to Decide On the ACA This Term

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

As of the first Monday of October, the United States Supreme Court is back in session and likely to make what could be a momentous decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The nation’s highest court will consider President Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare overhaul, which impacts almost everyone in the country.  The Obama administration’s request last week that the justices resolve whether or not the healthcare law is constitutional makes it more likely than not that they will deliver their verdict by next June, shortly before the president and his Republican opponent move into the fall general election campaign.

Already, the GOP presidential candidates are taking advantage of virtually every debate and speech to attack Obama’s major domestic accomplishment, which extends health insurance to more than 30 million people who now lack coverage.  If, as expected, the justices agree to review the law’s constitutionality, those deliberations would define the court’s coming term.  Their decision could rank as the court’s most momentous since the December, 2000, ruling that sent George W. Bush to the White House.

According to the Med Page Today website, “The Obama administration petitioned the Supreme Court to decide on the constitutionality of the ACA, making it very likely that the high court will hear at least one of the cases challenging the landmark healthcare reform law before next year’s presidential election.  The U.S. Appeals Court for the 11th Circuit ruled in August that the individual mandate provision of the ACA is unconstitutional.  The Justice Department had until November to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case, but filing its petition sets the stage for oral arguments in the spring, and a final decision in June — at the height of Obama’s re-election campaign.  The 11th Circuit case was filed by 26 states that object to the ACA on a number of fronts, but opposition to the individual mandate is the main thrust of their argument.  The individual mandate, considered the linchpin of the law, requires everyone to have health insurance by 2014.  In its petition, lawyers for the Obama administration said the appeals court decision is ‘fundamentally flawed.’”

Supreme Court analysts say it is difficult to predict how the court would rule on the conservative challenge to the health care law.  Miguel Estrada argued several cases before the Supreme Court as an official with the Justice Department in the 1990s.  “The issues are really hard. Every time you ask the Supreme Court to overturn an act of Congress, it is a very difficult thing for the court to do. And Congress comes to the Supreme Court with a presumption of deference (to Congress) and constitutionality,” said Estrada.

Writing on the Big Think website, Robert de Neufville writes that “The administration’s decision strongly suggests that it will ask the Supreme Court to hear the case, since it doesn’t want the 11th Circuit’s decision to stand.  That puts the Supreme Court in the difficult position of having to rule on a politically charged piece of legislation during an election year.  Rick Hasen (of the Election Law Blog) that a Supreme Court decision is win-win for Obama: either the court affirms the constitutionality of the law or it seems to overreach by overturning it.  By the same token, ruling on the law may be a lose-lose proposition from the perspective of the court.  Whatever the court decides it will seem to be taking sides in a political struggle.  As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick says,  there may not be five justices who want to want to make the court itself an election-year issue.  Lithwick says that “I don’t think Chief Justice John Roberts wants to borrow that kind of partisan trouble again so soon after Citizens United, the campaign-finance case that turned into an Obama talking point.  And I am not certain that the short-term gain of striking down some or part of the ACA (embarrassing President Obama even to the point of affecting the election) is the kind of judicial end-game this court really cares about.  Certainly there are one or two justices who might see striking down the ACA as a historic blow for freedom.  But the long game at the court is measured in decades of slow doctrinal progress — as witnessed in the fight over handguns and the Second Amendment — and not in reviving the stalled federalism revolution just to score a point.” 

The editors of Bloomberg Business Week fear the collateral damage that overturning the ACA might cause.  They note that “Should the Supreme Court take up healthcare reform this year?  So far, only one appeals court has ruled that the ‘individual mandate’ in ObamaCare — the requirement that virtually everybody must buy insurance, with government assistance if needed — overreaches the federal government’s powers under the commerce clause of the Constitution.  It’s not a trivial argument.  But an affirmative ruling would be a huge departure from our understanding of the commerce clause going back to the New Deal.  If the healthcare law’s individual mandate is unconstitutional, so is much of what the government has been doing for 80 years or so, and it will be the duty of the Supreme Court to sort through the ruins of the federal government as we know it and find a few shards to start building again.  We can’t help but suspect that the court will choose to avoid this opportunity, by not taking the case, by finding some other grounds for ruling, or by upholding ObamaCare.

“Ever since it passed in 2010, ObamaCare has been attacked as a costly and possibly unconstitutional intrusion of the federal government into people’s lives.  Almost the central issue in the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has been the resemblance between ObamaCare and the state healthcare plan enacted in Massachusetts under then-Governor Mitt Romney.  Today, most Democrats feel the less said the better.  But if the new law loses in the Supreme Court, the political ramifications may look very different.  If the Supreme Court kills healthcare reform, it will stay dead a long time.  It took 17 years before anybody felt like scaling that mountain again after Hillary Clinton’s failure two administrations ago.”