September Heats Up on the Hill as Congress Turns Back Toward Healthcare

  

As expected, Capitol Hill has turned out to be a beehive of activity in the month of September. With government funding, the debt limit, and hurricane relief funding taken care of, Congress is increasingly turning its eye back toward healthcare reform. Democrats and Republicans have each introduced new healthcare reform bills (which, shockingly, go in drastically different directions), and several House and Senate committees have held hearings on healthcare reform. On a positive note, there seems to be a significant shift toward bipartisan cooperation on healthcare reform (at least with respect to the individual insurance market) since the dramatic collapse of the Senate Republicans’ efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act in the early morning hours of July 28th.

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) Unveil Yet Another Repeal and Replace Plan

Republican Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) introduced a “new” healthcare reform bill this morning – which, it should be noted, is a very long shot for even seeing a vote on the Senate floor. At this point, the ACA repeal and replace effort feels like the movie Groundhog Day, in that we keep seeing the same proposals over and over again. The Graham-Cassidy bill – also supported by Sens. Dean Heller (R-NV) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) – is not substantially different from any of the other repeal and replace bills we have seen from House and Senate Republicans. It repeals Medicaid expansion in 2020; it eliminates the $1 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund; it creates high-risk pools for individuals with pre-existing conditions; it defunds Planned Parenthood for a year; it puts a per-capita cap on Medicaid funding and gives states the option to convert their Medicaid programs into block grants (see ANA’s policy primer on block grants); and it ends premium tax credit assistance and cost-sharing subsidies and puts greater control of healthcare spending in state hands. As with all other repeal and replace proposals to date, the current proposal fulfills none ANA’s 4 principles for health system transformation. Under Senate rules, the Senate must vote on this measure (if it comes to a vote) by September 30th in order to pass with a simple 51 vote majority. We hope that it does not come to that.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) Goes (Medicare For) All-In on Single-Payer

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has introduced his Medicare for All Act of 2017. As the name implies, this plan would extended Medicare eligibility to all Americans and transform the American healthcare system into a government-run, single-payer system. This bill – which has the support of 16 Democratic co-sponsors (though notably no endorsement from party leadership) – would phase in Medicare eligibility by age over 4 years, eventually extending eligibility to Americans of all ages. The Medicare for All Act of 2017 would do away with the country’s current system of employer-based insurance coverage and, it should be noted, significantly increase the amount of money the U.S. government spends on healthcare services. The chances of it passing, however, are non-existent, given that Democrats are in the minority in the Senate and the House, and do not control the White House. Still, the introduction of the Medicare for All Act of 2017 does shift the conversation toward a single-payer healthcare system to a significant degree.

Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Shows Progress

The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) provides healthcare coverage to low-income children whose families do not qualify for Medicaid; it is a crucial source of healthcare coverage for roughly 9 million children each year. CHIP funding is generally reauthorized every few years. The current CHIP authorization is set to expire on September 30th, placing the healthcare coverage of 9 million children at risk. Fortunately, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) of the Senate Finance Committee announced yesterday that they have reached a deal to extend CHIP for five years and would transition CHIP to its traditional federal-state partnership and provide additional protections for low-income children and flexibility for states (full legislative language will be released in the coming days).

Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Holds Hearings on Insurance Premiums

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held hearings on September 6th, 7th, and 12th, focused on stabilizing premiums and helping individuals in the individual insurance market in 2018. The committee also has another hearing scheduled for September 14th on the same subject. Panelists during these hearings have included state insurance commissioners and governors, and the hearings have focused on affordability and state flexibility. The Senate HELP Committee is led by Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) and has begun to move forward in a bipartisan way to stabilize the individual insurance market with the goal of protecting consumers from huge price increases.  

With so much activity happening on Capitol Hall, it can be difficult to keep it all straight. ANA encourages you to engage with your senators and representatives and make clear to them that any healthcare reform effort must align with our principles of health system transformation: universal access to a standard package of essential health benefits for all citizens and residents; utilization of primary, community-based and preventative services while supporting the cost-effective use of innovative, technology-driven, acute, hospital-based services; the economical use of health care services with support for those who do not have the means to share in costs; and a sufficient supply of a skilled workforce dedicated to providing high quality health care services.

Trump Administration Moves Create Major Uncertainty In Healthcare System

  

The Trump administration has toyed for months with the idea of withholding cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments to insurance companies participating in the individual insurance marketplace implemented by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This has injected a great level of risk into the healthcare system which has in turn created a lot of uncertainty and confusion. These CSR payments are intended to help low-income individuals with income between 100% and 250% of the federal poverty level pay for co-pays, co-insurance, and deductibles. The ACA limits to a percentage of their income the amount of cost-sharing these individuals pay. For instance, an individual with an annual income of $17,000 might only have a $125 deductible compared with a $2,500 deductible for someone with a $25,000 annual income under the same insurance plan. (See a detailed description of CSR payments here). The federal government makes CSR payments to insurance companies to balance out the difference between what the individual pays and what the insurance company charges (fortunately, the Trump administration today stated that it will make CSR payments for August).

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on August 15th released an analysis on the impact that withholding the CSR payments would have on insurance premiums and insurance coverage. According to the CBO report, insurance premiums for individual insurance coverage would increase by 20 percent in 2018 and by 25 percent by 2020, while 5 percent of people would live in areas that would have no insurers in the non-group market in 2018.

Furthermore, withholding CSR payments would increase the federal deficit by $194 billion from 2017 through 2026, largely as a result of higher federal premium tax credit payments. Higher federal deficits would also put pressure on existing federal healthcare and social services programs, including Medicaid, and would further threaten the ability of the federal and state governments to provide health care services to the nation’s vulnerable populations.

In addition to the chaos and uncertainty the Trump administration is causing with respect to CSR payments, it is also making moves to undo some of the progress made under the ACA toward achieving quality outcomes and a higher degree of care coordination. A recent rule proposal published on the website of the Office of Management and Budget would eliminate the mandatory implementation of the bundled payment models for cardiac care coordination and cardiac rehabilitation, as well as implement changes to the comprehensive care joint replacement model. These advanced payment models promote care coordination and place an emphasis on patient outcomes and quality of care; elimination of these models would be a detriment to patients and nurses alike.

Stable payment systems and innovative payment models which emphasize care coordination and patient outcomes will better enable nurses to provide quality care and ensure that patients are able to receive the best quality of care in a timely fashion and with better outcomes. As such, the American Nurses Association strongly supports both the federal CSR payments and the implementation of the aforementioned advanced payment models.

Congress and White House Continue to Threaten Americans’ Healthcare

  

The healthcare of millions of Americans is currently under threat from multiple branches of government. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on July 13 released its analysis of President Trump’s proposed FY 2018 federal budget; it continues to threaten the healthcare access of the most at-risk populations of Americans. President Trump’s proposed cuts to Medicaid would result in a $610 billion reduction in Medicaid spending by 2027. This number presumably does not include the additional potential cuts to Medicaid – such as the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 (BCRA) repeal of Medicaid expansion – included in the anticipated $1.25 trillion in spending reductions by 2027 associated with the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. The Trump budget would severely impact vulnerable populations’ access to vital health care services. These vulnerable populations include children and adults with disabilities, low-income elderly individuals, individuals with chronic conditions, individuals with mental health conditions and substance use disorders, and individuals who need long-term supports, such as home and community-based services and skilled nursing facilities. Medicaid is a critical source of funding for these services and it has broad public support. Such enormous reductions in Medicaid spending would inevitably force states to make tough decisions as to which services to provide to which of these vulnerable populations, ripping away from millions of Americans their only source of healthcare coverage.

Congress, meanwhile, has its own plans for reducing Americans’ access to critical healthcare services. According to the CBO, the Senate’s BCRA would also reduce Medicaid spending dramatically – by $756 billion through 2026. The plan would roll back Medicaid expansion and would create a per-capita cap on the amount of federal Medicaid funding states receive, limiting the amount of Medicaid funding available to states even beyond 2026. These reductions would impact vulnerable populations in a way similar to those under President Trump’s budget. Furthermore, the BCRA would reduce subsidies to pay for individual health insurance coverage by $396 billion by 2026. These changes would leave an additional 22 million Americans without healthcare coverage by 2026. The numbers are even worse for a straight repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which the CBO estimates would leave 32 million more American uninsured and cause insurance premiums to double through 2026. Meanwhile, the Republican Study Committee – the House Republicans’ conservative policy making arm – has released its budget priorities for the FY 2018 budget. These include a complete repeal of the ACA, a conversion of Medicaid into a block grant or per-capita cap program (see ANA’s policy primers on Medicaid block grants here), and phases in an increase in the Medicare eligibility age.

These developments are bad enough on their own. But they have also overshadowed the fact that the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides healthcare coverage to 8 million American children, is up for reauthorization this year. If CHIP is not reauthorized by September, federal CHIP funds will not be available to states and current funds would run out within a year, thus putting healthcare access for those 8 million children at risk. CHIP reauthorization has been overlooked in the battles over healthcare reform in the House and Senate, and only one hearing on the subject has been held in either house during this Congress.

The Senate is still in the process of deliberating healthcare reform and the dismantling of the ACA. All of these healthcare reform proposals fly in the face of ANA’s 4 core principles of health system transformation and place our nation’s most vulnerable populations at risk of losing vital healthcare services. While the prospects for any bill to pass still look dim, ANA urges you to keep the pressure on your senators and representatives to ensure that they know that nurses do not support these reform efforts. Contact your elected officials today to let your voice be heard!