President Trump campaigned on making health care better, cheaper and available to all Americans, regardless of ability to pay. Once Mr. Trump was safely in the White House, the Republican “thought leaders” in Congress were quick to supply him with their stale and superficial “plans” to repeal and replace Obamacare, which were written in protest to President Obama’s policies and were never meant to be implemented. When scrutinized by the rank and file of the Republican Party, it turned out that the Ryan/Price American Health Care Act was neither repealing enough for some, nor replacing enough for others. Nevertheless, Mr. Ryan felt a sense of urgency to ram his pet bill down the throats of not only the opposition party and the public at large, but also the throats of his own party and its rookie President.
The Democratic Party lost no time in whipping up public frenzy against the Ryan/Price bill, and Speaker Ryan lost no time in generating a sense of false urgency to pass his bill now, now, now, because for Paul Ryan this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to begin dismantling the welfare state. From the left, it looked like the bill will be withdrawing billions of dollars in health care benefits from the most vulnerable citizens who also happen to be Trump supporters. From the right, the bill looked like Obamacare Lite because it didn’t throw all the poor people under the bus fast enough.
These were the cards President Trump was dealt. If he signs the bill, he breaks his campaign promises and loses his base. If he comes out against the bill, he confirms the worst fears of all Conservatives and loses Republican support in Congress. There is zero chance for this President to appeal to another set of voters anytime soon, and currently, there is zero chance that even one Democrat in Congress will support anything President Trump proposes, no matter how liberal and beneficial that proposal might be. It was a difficult hand to play, but he played it brilliantly, in my view. Or maybe it was just beginner’s luck.
Right now the Democratic Party and its echo-chamber media are celebrating the defeat of the would-be destroyers of Obamacare. The Republicans are in disarray again. Paul Ryan has been humiliated. Trump, the closer, the grand deal maker, lost big league. Nancy Pelosi declares victory without having to fire one parliamentarian shot. The President in the meantime calls the New York Times and Washington Post reporters and doesn’t sound angry at all. No irate tweets. No below-the-belt punches. No fighting back. No nothing. How weird is that? Think about it. Is this how a beaten Donald Trump sounds like? Nope. That’s how a winning Donald Trump sounds like – calm, collected, magnanimous and low-keyed. President Trump passed his first test.
What’s not next?
According to my Twitter list of health care policy experts, the Big Bad President Trump will now “sabotage” Obamacare, so it fails spectacularly, right before the mid-term elections, dragging millions of poor people down with it. Sabotage, espionage, life is good when you are kibitzing from the sidelines. Now, why would a Trump administration want to create huge hardships for millions of people right before the mid-term elections? The thought process here is that if Obamacare collapses, the people will blame the Democratic Party, because as long as Republicans do not repeal and replace anything, Democrats continue to “own” health care. Therefore, the GOP will finally have a mandate to get rid of Obamacare any way they see fit, and will likely increase their majorities in both houses in 2018. There is only one little problem with this logic: when things go wrong, most people blame the currently governing administration, not the previous ones, and rightfully so.
Deliberately blowing up the health care system is a criminal endeavor that must be executed in the public eye, because Secretary Price cannot promulgate secret regulations. No administration can afford to do something like this, and expect to survive. Every new President in recent memory insisted that he “inherited a mess,” and every President then gives a State of the Union Address taking credit for fixing said mess. President Trump will be no different. Obamacare may not be in a “death spiral,” as detractors love to decry, but for millions of people, including those who receive generous subsidies, Obamacare is already a monumental mess. No sabotage needed.
Here is a tiny example. Remember that poor 64 year old, making $26,500 per year who, according to the CBO, ended up paying $1,700 under Obamacare and would have had to pay $14,600 under the Ryan plan? Well, that’s only part of the story, because those dollar amounts are just for premiums. Thus a fully subsidized healthy 64 year old is indeed paying “only” $1,700 for the cheapest Silver plan currently available on the Obamacare marketplace (in my zip code). A sicker 64 year old, making $26,500, with high medical expenses is projected to have over $7,500 in total yearly costs, which is almost 30% of his gross income. I would like to humbly suggest to the Washington DC jet-setters that for this gentleman, there is no difference whether he needs to pay $7,500 or $14,600, or $140,000 or $14,000,000. He can’t come up with any of this. He is uninsured for all practical purposes. The only difference is that under Obamacare, they may have talked him into donating $1,700 to some insurance company.
What is next?
I know conservatives and libertarians abhor the sheer existence of Medicare and Medicaid, but a savvy Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) could use the girth and might of these government programs to nurture the reemergence of a relatively free market in medical services, and minor bi-partisan legislation could create a relatively less predatory market in medical products. These two efforts will do more to reduce the price (and costs) of health care than any Obamacare folly or any Obamacare repealing and replacing idiocy. Furthermore, the effects could be framed in terms of freedom, choice, access and even deficit reduction, in addition to quality and affordability for those less fortunate, pleasing people on both sides of the ideological aisle.
Here is my very modest wish list for Secretary Price. All I’m asking for is that from this point onward, we start practicing evidence-based health care reform.
Independent evaluation. Between CMS itself, CMMI, HRSA and other agencies, HHS has billions of discretionary dollars in its budget to try new things, and even more billions to implement statutory experimentations. Traditionally, large sums of money have been spent on health system “transformation” to patient-centered, team-based, coordinated, value-based, managed care (feel free to insert your favorite buzzword if I left something out). Many, but not all, of these “demonstration programs,” pilots, innovation models, etc. include evaluation studies to assess performance and so far the results have been tepid at best, but artfully spun as inconclusive. I want independent evaluations of all CMS funded “initiatives,” and I want programs that do not deliver on promised fantasies to be wound down immediately and the money reallocated to better thought out projects.
Practice research. For the last decade or more, it has been the unequivocal position of HHS that better health care at lower costs necessitates large integrated delivery systems. There is not one iota of bona fide research to support this assertion. And yet, the Federal government has engaged in massive direct and indirect efforts to dismantle the so-called “cottage industry” of small independent physician practices. I want CMS to fund several serious comparative-effectiveness studies across various medical practice models before it’s too late and we have nothing left but monopolistic chains for medicine. And I want CMS to follow through and undertake the deconstruction of all infernal medical factories where nobody knows your name, but everybody knows your risk score.
Hospital research. I remember reading something a couple of years ago about someone trying to study the effectiveness of hospitalist care compared to community doctors who are allowed to admit and care for their own hospitalized patients. Hospitalists are another pre-Obamacare “innovation” based solely on hospital profitability arguments. As such, it caught on like wildfire and we have very few community physicians left who follow their patients inside the hospital walls. I want to see that study performed immediately, before the last dinosaurs die off and we forget that continuity and coordination were once built into health care, by default.
That’s it. That’s all I want for Christmas. Disappointed? Don’t be. A comprehensive, well-researched report on our health care delivery models (shall we call it The Price Report?) could change the trajectory of health care in America and the entire world. I did not forget about Medicaid, the ludicrous deductibles, the device taxes, the pharma bidding and all those big huge things every pundit is reciting on cable news channels. These are important things of course, but they are temporary solutions at best. Single payer, if implemented tomorrow, is going to implode just as quickly as Obamacare did, and end up rationing care worse than the British system does. The various free market solutions are even more vulnerable to the ominous crescendo of unchecked profit extraction and incompetence engulfing our health care system.
Health care cannot be sustainably fixed in broad political strokes. If we want a real and lasting solution, we will need to step away from the political theater and engage in painstakingly detailed work on fundamentals. Health care is about medicine, and medicine is about applying science to the bodies and souls of people. We know how to do it. We do have the best health care in the world. We just forgot where it is, so now we have to systematically look around until we find it again. Hopefully Dr. Tom Price understands the historic moment he finds himself in.
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