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Updated: 15 hours 44 min ago

Last-Ditch Effort By Republicans To Replace ACA: 5 Things You Need To Know

September 19, 2017

Republican efforts in Congress to “repeal and replace” the federal Affordable Care Act are back from the dead. Again.

While the chances for this last-ditch measure appear iffy, many GOP senators are rallying around a proposal by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), along with Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.)

They are racing the clock to round up the needed 50 votes — and there are 52 Senate Republicans.

An earlier attempt to replace the ACA this summer fell just one vote short when Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) voted against it. The latest push is setting off a massive guessing game on Capitol Hill about where the GOP can pick up the needed vote.

Use Our ContentThis KHN story can be republished for free (details).

After Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year, Republicans would need 60 votes ­— which means eight Democrats — to pass any such legislation because special budget rules allowing approval with a simple majority will expire.

Unlike previous GOP repeal-and-replace packages that passed the House and nearly passed the Senate, the Graham-Cassidy proposal would leave in place most of the ACA taxes that generated funding to expand coverage for millions of Americans. The plan would simply give those funds as lump sums to each state. States could do almost whatever they please with them. And the Congressional Budget Office has yet to weigh in on the potential impact of the bill, although earlier estimates of similar provisions suggest premiums would go up and coverage down.

“If you believe repealing and replacing Obamacare is a good idea, this is your best and only chance to make it happen, because everything else has failed,” said Graham in unveiling the bill last week.

Here are five things to know about the latest GOP bill: 

1. It would repeal most of the structure of the ACA.

The Graham-Cassidy proposal would eliminate the federal insurance exchange, healthcare.gov, along with the subsidies and tax credits that help people with low and moderate incomes — and small businesses — pay for health insurance and associated health costs. It would eliminate penalties for individuals who fail to obtain health insurance and employers who fail to provide it.

It would eliminate the tax on medical devices. 

2. It would eliminate many of the popular insurance protections, including those for people with preexisting conditions, in the health law.

Under the proposal, states could “waive” rules in the law requiring insurers to provide a list of specific “essential health benefits” and mandating that premiums be the same for people regardless of their health status. That would once again expose people with preexisting health conditions to unaffordable or unavailable coverage. Republicans have consistently said they wanted to maintain these protections, which polls have shown to be popular among voters.

3. It would fundamentally restructure the Medicaid program.

Medicaid, the joint-federal health program for low-income people, currently covers more than 70 million Americans. The Graham-Cassidy proposal would end the program’s expansion under the ACA and cap funding overall, and it would redistribute the funds that had provided coverage for millions of new Medicaid enrollees. It seeks to equalize payments among states. States that did not expand Medicaid and were getting fewer federal dollars for the program would receive more money and states that did expand would see large cuts, according to the bill’s own sponsors. For example, Oklahoma would see an 88 percent increase from 2020 to 2026, while Massachusetts would see a 10 percent cut.

The proposal would also bar Planned Parenthood from getting any Medicaid funding for family planning and other reproductive health services for one year, the maximum allowed under budget rules governing this bill. 

4. It’s getting mixed reviews from the states.

Sponsors of the proposal hoped for significant support from the nation’s governors as a way to help push the bill through. But, so far, the governors who are publicly supporting the measure, including Scott Walker (R-Wis.) and Doug Ducey (R-Ariz.), are being offset by opponents including Chris Sununu (R-N.H.), John Kasich (R-Ohio) and Bill Walker (I-Alaska).

On Tuesday 10 governors — five Democrats, four Republicans and Walker — sent a letter to Senate leaders urging them to pursue a more bipartisan approach. “Only open, bipartisan approaches can achieve true, lasting reforms,” said the letter.

Bill sponsor Cassidy was even taken to task publicly by his own state’s health secretary. Dr. Rebekah Gee, who was appointed by Louisiana’s Democratic governor, wrote that the bill “uniquely and disproportionately hurts Louisiana due to our recent [Medicaid] expansion and high burden of extreme poverty.”

5. The measure would come to the Senate floor with the most truncated process imaginable.

The Senate is working on its Republican-only plans under a process called “budget reconciliation,” which limits floor debate to 20 hours and prohibits a filibuster. In fact, all the time for floor debate was used up in July, when Republicans failed to advance any of several proposed overhaul plans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could bring the bill back up anytime, but senators would immediately proceed to votes. Specifically, the next order of business would be a process called “vote-a-rama,” where votes on the bill and amendments can continue, in theory, as long as senators can stay awake to call for them.

Several senators, most notably John McCain, who cast the deciding vote to stop the process in July, have called for “regular order,” in which the bill would first be considered in the relevant committee before coming to the floor. The Senate Finance Committee, which Democrats used to write most of the ACA, has scheduled a hearing for next week. But there is not enough time for full committee consideration and a vote before the end of next week.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office said in a statement Tuesday that it could come up with an analysis by next week that would determine whether the proposal meets the requirements to be considered under the reconciliation process. But it said that more complicated questions like how many people would lose insurance under the proposal or what would happen to insurance premiums could not be answered “for at least several weeks.”

That has outraged Democrats, who are united in opposition to the measure.

“I don’t know how any senator could go home to their constituents and explain why they voted for a major bill with major consequences to so many of their people without having specific answers about how it would impact their state,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Senate floor Tuesday.

In Stark Contrast To ACA Plans, Premiums For Job-Based Coverage Show Modest Rise

September 19, 2017

Family health insurance premiums rose an average 3 percent this year for people getting coverage through the workplace, the sixth consecutive year of small increases, according to a study released Tuesday.

The average total cost of family premiums was $18,764 for 2017, according to a survey of employers by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust. That cost is generally divided between the employer and workers. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

While overall premium increases remain modest, workers are picking up a greater portion of the tab — this year $5,714 for family coverage, about a third of total cost.

Employer-provided coverage for a single person rose on average 4 percent, to $6,690. Those individuals pay $1,213 on average.

Use Our ContentThis KHN story can be republished for free (details).

Still, the employer market looks remarkably stable compared to the price increases seen in the Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplaces for people who buy their own coverage. Premiums on those plans spiked on average about 20 percent this year, and many insurers dropped out because of financial concerns.

For all the media attention and political wrangling over the  Obamacare exchanges, their share of the market is relatively small. They provide coverage to 10 million Americans while 151 million Americans get health insurance through their employer.

The continued slow rise of employer health premiums identified in the Kaiser survey surprised some analysts who have expected the trend to end as the economy picked up steam, leading to a jump in use of health services and health costs.

Drew Altman, CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said it’s “health care’s greatest mystery” why health insurance costs have continued their slow pace even as the economy has picked up the past few years. “We can’t explain it.”

Another unexpected result was that workers’ deductibles — the health bills that workers must pay before their insurance coverage kicks in — remained stable this year at $1,221. Since 2010, as companies sought to keep premiums in check, deductibles have nearly doubled. Higher deductibles can limit premium increases because costs are shifted to workers and it gives them greater incentive to cut spending.

“Increasing deductibles has been a main strategy of employers to keep premiums down and we will have to watch if this plateauing is a one time thing … or if this portends a sharper increase in premiums in future years,” said Altman. “It could be deductibles are reaching their natural limit or could be the tighter labor market” that’s causing employers to back off, he added.

Meanwhile, a second employer survey released Monday by Mercer, a benefits consulting firm, suggests a modest increase in health costs coming next year, too. Employers said they expect their health costs to increase by an average 4.3 percent in 2018, according to the survey.

To deal with higher medical costs — notably big increases in the prices of prescription drugs — employers are using multiple strategies, including continuing to shift more costs to workers and paying doctors and hospitals based on the value of the services rather than just quantity of services.

Jeff Levin-Scherz, a health policy expert with benefits consultant Willis Towers Watson, said there is a limit on how much employers can shift costs to their workers, particularly in a tight labor market. “Single-digit increases doesn’t mean health care costs are no longer a concern for employers,” he said.

The 19th annual Kaiser survey also found that the proportion of employers offering health coverage remained stable last year at 53 percent. But the numbers have fallen over the past two decades.

The survey highlights that the amount workers pay can vary dramatically by employer size. Workers in small firms — those with fewer than 200 employees — pay on average $1,550 more annually for family premiums than those at large firms. The gap occurs because small firms are much more likely than large ones to contribute the same dollar amount toward a worker’s health benefits whether they’re enrolled in individual or family coverage.

More than one-third of workers at small employers pay at least half the total premium, compared with 8 percent at large employers.

That’s the case at Gale Nurseries in Gwynedd Valley, Pa., where health insurance costs rose 7.5 percent this year. Its 25 workers are paying nearly half the cost of the premium — at least $45 a week for those who choose the base coverage plan offered through Aetna. Employees also have deductibles ranging from $1,000 to $2,500.

A decade ago, the nursery paid the full cost of the premium.

“It’s crazy — we keep paying more and getting less,” said comptroller Candy Koons.

At the Westport (Conn.) Weston Family YMCA, health insurance premiums rose about 7 percent this year, leaving its 50 full-time employees to pay a $156 premium for individual coverage.

“It’s not problematic, but it’s one of our bigger costs associated with payroll,” said Joe Query, the human resources director.

Without Price Breaks, Rural Hospitals Struggle To Stock Costly, Lifesaving Drugs

September 18, 2017

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Ark. — Hospital pharmacist Mandy Langston remembers when Lulabelle Berry arrived at Stone County Medical Center’s emergency department last year.

Berry couldn’t talk. Her face was drooping on one side. Her eyes couldn’t focus.

“She was basically unresponsive,” Langston recalls.

Berry, 78, was having a severe ischemic stroke. Each passing second made brain damage more likely. So, Langston reached for the clot-busting drug Activase, which must be given within a few hours to work.

“If we don’t keep this drug [in stock], people will die,” Langston said.

Berry survived. But Langston fears others could die because of an unintended bias against rural hospitals built into the U.S. health law. An obscure Obamacare provision forces rural hospitals like Langston’s to pay full price for drugs that many bigger hospitals buy at deeply discounted rates.

For example, Langston’s 25-bed hospital pays $8,010 for a single dose of Activase — up nearly 200 percent from $2,708 a decade ago. Yet, just 36 miles down the road, a bigger regional hospital gets an 80 percent discount on the same drug.

This KHN story also ran on NPR. It can be republished for free (details).

White River Medical Center, a 235-bed facility in Batesville, Ark., buys Activase for about $1,600 per dose. White River participates in a federal drug discount program Congress approved in the early 1990s. The program offers significant price breaks on thousands of drugs to hospitals that primarily serve low-income patients. One federal report found the average discount ranged from 20 to 50 percent, though as illustrated with Activase, it can be much higher.

Rural hospitals have long wanted to be part of the so-called 340B program, too, but were blocked from participating until the Affordable Care Act of 2010. That historic health law added rural hospitals to the overall program. But, unlike bigger hospitals, rural hospitals can’t get discounts on expensive drugs that treat rare diseases because of a last-minute exclusion written into the ACA.

That seemingly minor detail in the law has left rural hospital pharmacists and health care workers struggling to keep medicines in stock, and wondering if they will be able to adequately care for patients.

Arkansas, for example, is in the “stroke belt,” where medical staff depend on Activase to help them battle one of the highest rates of stroke deaths in the country. When Langston went to restock Activase this year, it was so expensive she left a reorder unfilled for more than week, anxiously keeping only one dose of the clot-busting drug on hand.

“Usually strokes come in clusters,” Langston said. “I didn’t want two people to come in and we were going to [have to] choose which one we were going to treat.”

In Atlantic, Iowa, pharmacy director Crystal Starlin sparingly stocks oncology drugs at Cass County Memorial Hospital. Newly diagnosed cancer patients might have to wait a couple of days to start treatment.

“We just can’t keep the extra [drugs] on hand,” Starlin said.

In Vermont, North Country Hospital closed its infusion center this spring due to the soaring cost of medicines.

“That was one area we could not afford to be in,” said chief executive Claudio Fort. North Country is the only hospital in a two-county region along the Canadian border and its roughly dozen active chemotherapy patients now must drive 45 minutes away for treatment.

The rare-disease exclusion was not publicly debated before being added into the ACA. Rather, it was tucked into the law at the very end of the process. How it wound up in the law is a bit of a mystery.

Former PhRMA chief executive Billy Tauzin said he doesn’t recall negotiating the exclusion. But, he said, the industry has consistently raised concerns about the drug discount program’s reach.

“It’s a question of how deeply you can afford to discount drugs that are expensive,” said Tauzin, who abruptly stepped down just before the ACA passed.

After the health law passed, PhRMA battled for years — in federal court — to keep rural hospitals from getting discounts on rare-disease drugs.

Congressman Peter Welch, a Democrat from Vermont who represents North Country, said it is clear whom the law hurts and helps.

“The pharma lobbyists pay attention, and their lawyers pay attention to the fine print,” Welch said. The pharmaceutical industry changes that fine print … [and] many legislators don’t even realize [that it] will have this adverse impact on hospitals in their communities.”

The rare-disease exclusion means that certain types of hospitals — including critical access, sole community and rural referral centers — cannot get discounts on rare-disease drugs, or on drugs that are “designated” to treat a rare disease. (Rare-disease drugs are also known as orphan drugs, which is a federally approved category of drugs that treat a disease affecting fewer than 200,000 people. Often, they carry price tags of up to $100,000 a year or more.)

The Food and Drug Administration gives the designation as a first step when it agrees with a drugmaker’s request to study whether a drug can be used to treat a specific rare disease. This can happen even if a drug is already FDA-approved and on the market for use in treating a common condition. The next step — the ability to market the medicine as an orphan drug — comes once research confirms that the drug is safe and effective in treating a specific, less common condition.

The popular clot-buster Activase has not won final approval to treat a rare disease but, on two separate occasions in 2003 and 2014, the FDA has given it the orphan designation while research is ongoing.

About 450 orphan drugs have been approved by the FDA. But thousands of drugs are “designated” and more are identified every week.

The list includes generic drugs such as the hormone melatonin and the autoimmune drug abatacept. In other words, medicines used to treat everything from sleep troubles to arthritis have ended up “designated.”

The small town of Mountain View, Ark., known for its crafts and music scene, is about two hours north of Little Rock and nestled in the rolling Ozarks. Arkansas’ mountainous terrain makes it essential for local hospitals to stock lifesaving stroke drugs. The state reports some of the nation’s highest rates of stroke deaths. (Sarah Jane Tribble/KHN)

Some drugmakers, such as Janssen Pharmaceuticals, have voluntarily offered discounts to rural hospitals on all of their orphan drugs including Remicade, whether they’re approved or designated. In contrast, drugmaker Genentech sent letters to rural hospitals on Jan. 1 listing dozens of drugs that would not qualify for discounts, including Activase and cancer drug Avastin.

Susan Willson, a Genentech spokeswoman, said the company is “deeply committed to ensuring that people have access to the medicines they need.” But, she added, the company believes the federal drug discount program has “grown well beyond its original intent.”

Several federal reports in recent years from the Medicare advisory board, as well as the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Inspector General, have evaluated the federal drug discount program’s growth. About 40 percent of U.S. hospitals now participate in the program and House Republicans held a hearing this summer questioning the program’s growth.

But for Dana Smith, director of pharmacy at Dallas County Medical Center in Fordyce, Ark., the discount program’s growth and problems are a separate issue.

“Basically, Genentech is saying to me that rural health care and the patients in rural America are not as important as patients in urban areas,” Smith said, adding the pharmaceutical industry “knows we have less manpower to fight them.”

Back at Stone County, emergency room medical director Dr. Barry Pierce paused one recent afternoon at the nursing station and recalled those tense days with just one dose of Activase. Stone County now keeps two doses of the stroke drug on hand.

Pierce noted that Stone County is at least 45 minutes away from the next nearest hospital and, echoing Langston’s concern, he said: “If we don’t have the drugs we need, people will die.”

KHN’s coverage of prescription drug development, costs and pricing is supported in part by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

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