The Affordable Care Act and the Smokers’ Penalty

Under the ACA smokers  buying insurance in the Exchanges will have to pay a 50% “Premium Surcharge.” For a 55-year-old smoker, the penalty could reach nearly $4,250 a year. http://news.yahoo.com/penalty-could-keep-smokers-health-overhaul-205840155.html Does this mean that Americans who smoke won’t be able to afford coverage?

No. In the end, most smokers should be able to get health insurance without paying a stiff penalty.

For one, it’s up to individual states as to whether they want to let insurers charge smokers more. By early April of 2013, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts and D.C. had voted to eliminate smoking premiums in their health care exchanges:  The American Cancer Society, which is opposed to the surcharge, is working to persuade other states to ban it. (The ACS explains: “We’re anti-smoking, not anti-smoker.”)

I agree with the ACS that the penalty is counter-productive.  If it makes insurance unaffordable for some smokers, this means that they won’t have access to smoking cessation programs, nicotine patches and other drugs that could help them quit.  Keep in mind that most smokers want to quit, and these programs have proved extremely successful.

The good news is that many Americans who are addicted to nicotine will be eligible for Medicaid. In the U.S. 39 percent of adult smokers live below the poverty level. . Many more live below 133 percent of the poverty level. As states expand Medicaid, they, too, will become eligible for the program. Since Medicaid charges no premiums, they will not pay a premium surcharge.

Meanwhile, new research by the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services indicates that including comprehensive tobacco cessation benefits in Medicaid insurance coverage can result in substantial savings for Medicaid. The study found that every dollar spent on tobacco cessation program costs resulted in an average program savings of $3.12, which represents a $2.12 return on investment. 

Under the Affordable Care Act all state Medicaid programs are required to cover tobacco cessation medications, beginning in 2014.

Finally smokers who receive health benefits from their employer are likely to find that they don’t have to pay the premium if they join a smoking cessation program.

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Expanding Medicaid Is Not Enough–Making Medicaid A Federal Program

 Note to readers—please read the post below, “Pulse—More Stories from the Heart of Medicine” (which includes “One More Child Left Behind”) before you read this post.

When I read “One More Child Left Behind,”  all I could think of was how much Aaron’s arm must have hurt during the more than 24 hours that he didn’t receive treatment. I also imagined how frightened and bewildered the six-year-old must have been as he heard his mother and grandmother talk, and realized that they couldn’t persuade a doctor to help him.

This story was published in 2009—one year before the Affordable Care Act was passed.  The ACA extends Medicaid to millions. But even under reform legislation, many children like Aaron will not receive care. This is because Medicaid now pays an average of 34% less than Medicare for exactly the same treatment.

Why on earth would we pay doctors and hospital less to care for poor patients than we would pay them to care for the elderly?

Lower Medicaid fees are part of the legacy of racism. (I write about this in Money-Driven Medicine.)  When the Medicare and Medicaid laws were passed in 1965, Southern Congressmen refused to agree to laws that would pay doctors who treated the poor as much as they reimburse physicians who care for older patients.

At the time, relatively few African-Americans living in the South were over 65.  Most died long before they would be eligible for Medicare. Yet many African-Americans were poor, and would qualify for Medicaid. This is what disturbed Southern legislators. They wanted to make sure that healthcare remained segregated.    

Even under Reform, Specialists Who Treat the Poor Will be Under-Paid   

Medicaid rates vary widely by state, but on average, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the new program will offer PCP’s a 73 percent raise This should open doors for millions of Medicaid patients. In some states that have been paying the lowest rates, the hike will be much higher. (See this map) The ACA guarantees raising Medicaid reimbursements for primary care for just two years (2013-2014). But I expect this program will be extended, although increases may be modified. Once begun, it will be very hard to justify ending it.

At the same time, specialists who care for Medicaid patients will continue to receive about 1/3 less than when treating seniors.  As a result, even under the ACA a great many Medicaid patients will be hard-pressed to find a specialist willing to see them.
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More Stories from “Pulse—voices from the heart of medicine”

Every Friday, thousands of readers smile when they see an e-mail from Pulse: voices from the heart of medicine in their in-box. Pulse is a free, online magazine  that publishes riveting, often moving, sometimes controversial, and occasionally hilarious first-person stories and poems about medicine.  (Click on “hilarious” for a story that will astound you, and, if you share my sense of humor, make you laugh. )

All of these tales are true, and the authenticity of the writers’ voices helps explain their power.  Written by patients and doctors, nurses, caregivers, and students, these unblinkingly honest stories and poems bear witness to the suffering that patients endure, and to the compassion of caregivers — as well as their doubts.  

                                        Some of My Favorites

Long-time readers may remember poems and stories from Pulse that I have cross-posted in the past. 

 –  “Useless (But Needed), A Doctor’s Constant Companion”  – one of my favorites

 – “First Do No Harm,”  a story about how we train doctors that drew thoughtful and provocative comments from both doctors and nurses; 

– “Broken”– a controversial story about what happens when a trauma surgeon overrules an obstetrical resident. The question:  should they have tried to save the baby or the mother? Could either be saved?                                       

                A Stairwell Conversation, And a Unique Magazine is Born

Pulse founder Paul Gross, practices family medicine at Montefiore hospital in the Bronx, New York.  He recalls how Pulse was conceived:

 “What would it be like, I wondered, if there were a magazine that told about health care the way it really is? What if patients and health professionals alike got to tell their stories? 

“Around the same time, I had a stairwell conversation with a hospital director of nursing. It stopped me short. ‘For the first time in my long career,’ she said, ‘I’m ashamed to be in this business.’

“To me, this sounded like a cry for help; it sounded like a system in crisis,” Gross adds. “And yet, for the most part, popular magazines and medical journals seemed oblivious.

“It occurred to me that if we found a way to share our stories—the difficult moments along with the glorious ones—perhaps we could jump-start a national conversation about health care. Maybe this exchange could lead us toward a better health system.”
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Obama to Boehner: “John, I’m Getting Tired of Hearing You Say That”

This was President Obama’s reply, during fiscal cliff negotiations, when House Speaker John Boehner declared, for the umpteenth time, that “ The U.S. has a spending problem.” 

I can understand the president’s irritation. How could anyone believe that we have a “spending problem?’

Look around. Consider the state of our bridges, our roads and our crumbling inner city public schools. Are we spending too much on the nation’s infrastructure?

Next, think about unemployment. During this recovery we have lost 750,000 public sector jobs.  Republicans are intent on “starving the beast” (of government) and as a result Washington has not given states the financial support they need continue delivering public services. Across the nation, public school teachers have been laid off in droves, while class sizes increase at unprecedented rates.  Does this sound like government spending run amuck?

One in five American children now lives in poverty. Seventeen million children find themselves in homes where they can’t be sure of getting enough to eat.  (a.k.a. “food-insecure households.”)  At the end of the month, many kids go to bed hungry because the government Food Stamps program (now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP)  gives families less than $1.50 per person per meal. Are we being overly generous?

During the past two wars, we sent millions of American men and women to Iraq and Afghanistan –many went back for repeated tours. In some cases, their bodies were not  broken–but their minds were.  Now 1.3 million Vets seeking mental health services are told they must wait of 50 days before getting treatment.   A recent government report suggests that 22 Vets die by suicide every day – about 20 percent of all Americans who kill themselves. Are we spending too much on healthcare for Veterans?

Let me suggest that we don’t have a spending problem. We have a revenue problem. Current federal revenue levels are at their lowest levels since the 1950s. 

                      How Anti-Tax Pledges Have Weakened the Nation

In a recent post, Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nailed it: “The tax system doesn’t raise enough revenue.  And that’s not just the recession; it’s also tax policy and anti-tax pledges  . . . The system has become less progressive, with the largest declines in effective tax rates at the top of the income scale.

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Health Wonk Review –Waste, Warnings and the Future

 

Last week I hosted Health Wonk Review for HIO.  This round-up of some of the health care posts published over the past two weeks includes:

–  A piece by Managed Care Matter’s Joe Paduda that takes a hard look at “Flu season and Tamiflu,” and asks “Which one’s more hyped?”

 – A investigative post on Health Care Renewal that reviews “The Tragic Case of Aaron Swartz,”  the young computer activist who faced criminal charges for downloading thousands of scientific scholarly articles from the site JSTOR. After being pursued by a “tough as nails, relentless federal prosecutor,” Swartz committed suicide. Yet blogger Roy Poses notes, this same U.S. Attorney has been “soft as a marshmallow when dealing with top executives of health care corporations.”

– A post by The Hospitalist Leader’s Brad Flansbaum questioning the ACA’s assumption that a high rate of hospital readmissions signals waste. Just how many were preventable?

 –  In  a provocative post on Health Business Blog, David E. Williams asks why Cincinnati hospitals are furious because some employers have signed up for an insurance plan that would pay all hospitals just 40% more than Medicare pays for the same service.  The Hospitals claim  that isn’t enough. Moreover, each hospital would like to set its own prices—quietly. (This allows brand-name hospitals to charge far more than some of their competitors, for exactly the same services. )

 – On Wright on Health, Brad Wright describes a new rule, proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services that could prove “disastrous” for patients on Medicaid: “HHS is now attempting to woo states into participating in the Medicaid expansion by allowing them to increase cost-sharing in Medicaid” for all but the poorest of the poor. (More bloggers and reporters might want to write about this. The proposed rule will be open for comment until Feb. 13.)

 

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Health Wonk Review-The Holiday Edition

On this last holiday week-end, I hope many of you will have the time to read  the  newest edition of Health Wonk Review, a round-up of some of the best health care posts of the past two weeks.

This time Lynch Ryan hosts HWR on  Worker’s Comp Insider. . The posts raise provocative  questions:

Did the LA Times Sensationalize Blue Cross of California’s rate increases?

Why doesn’t President Obama require that CMS negotiate for drug discounts –a move that would take us $200 billion closer to a cliff-avoiding deal?

[My guess is that this will happen sometime this year. Back in April of 2011 Naomi published a HealthBeat post suggesting that Obama had put the idea of letting Medicare negotiate prices back on the table].

How do commercial insurers evaluate physician quality?

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Obama Wins Round One of Budget Negotiations

CNN is reporting that the “Fiscal cliff deal is down to wrangling over the details.” While others in the media continue to say that talks are stalled, everything I know about both the economics and the politics of the situation tells me that CNN is right.

At 4:30 this afternoon, CNN updated its story: “Both sides agree the wealthy will pay more, so now fiscal cliff  talks come down to how much Republicans can wring out of the White House in return for giving in on taxes.

“To President Barack Obama, it’s all about first locking in additional revenue from raising taxes on high-income owners, an outcome the GOP has long rejected.”

President Obama had made it clear that negotiations over government spending on safety nets such as Medicare wouldn’t begin until Republicans accepted a higher marginal tax rate for individuals earning over $200,000 and couples earning over $250,000.

The president dug in, and, according to CNN, he has won round one.

“Retiring Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio told CNN on Thursday that he sensed a shift in the House GOP approach during a conference meeting the day before.

“A GOP source told CNN that talks between staff members on both sides resumed Thursday for the first time this week, after Obama and Boehner spoke by phone the day before.”

A Two-Step Approach

It is not clear whether negotiations over so-called “entitlements” will be concluded before the end of the year. But CNN, reports

“All signs point toward a two-step approach sought by newly re-elected Obama — an initial agreement that would extend lower tax rates for income up to $250,000 for families, while letting rates return to higher levels from the Clinton era on income above that threshold.”  That agreement on taxes will be signed and sealed before the end of the year.

“Even conservatives such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal acknowledge the obvious — taxes on the wealthy are going up despite opposition by Republicans.

“‘Whatever deal is reached is going to contain elements that are detrimental to our economy,’ Jindal wrote Thursday in an opinion piece published by Politico. ‘Elections have consequences, and the country is going to feel those consequences soon.’”

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The Nation is Divided, Not between Whites and Minorities, But between the Past and the Future

Women, minorities, and young people re-elected President Obama. 

Pundits have pointed out that the president won only 39 percent of the vote among whites—down from 43 percent four years ago. But exit polls reveal that among women, Obama enjoyed an 11 percent advantage. “Fifty-five percent of women chose Obama,” Blooomberg observes —and clearly, this group included many white women. Sixty percent of voters ages 18 to 24 favored Obama—again, many were white voters. Among Latinos, the fastest growing demographic in the U.S., Obama won with a 44-point advantage. Romney secured just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, down from the 31 percent who voted for the Republican candidate four years ago. Ninety-three percent of  African-Americans voted for the president, along with 73% of Asians (who now make up 3% of the electorate.)  And in the rust belt, Obama appealed to enough of the Democratic Party’s old blue-collar base  (which is largely white) to carry that section of the country.

Romney captured just two groups:  Americans over 65 and white men.  Romney’s cohort is made up of the people who ran this country in the 1980s. In a word, his supporters represent the past. Obama won among the young people, Latinos and women who will shape this nation’s future. They will be our leaders.  We have reached an inflection point in our history.

                                             Women in the Senate

 When Massachusetts elected Elizabeth Warren this was the first time that the Commonwealth sent a woman to the Senate. Thanks to last night’s election a record number of women will be serving in the U.S. Senate. There are currently 17. While two are retiring, at least four more have won — Democrats Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Warren in Massachusetts, Mazie Hirono in Hawaii, and Republican Deb Fischer in Nebraska.  Claire McCaskill of Missouri, once considered the party’s most vulnerable Senator, held off a challenge by her Republican challenger, U.S. Representative Todd Akin (one of two Republicans who learned that during an election it is never a good idea to talk about rape) 

This is not to say that, going forward white men will not also be in positions of power. But in the future, a more mosaic leadership will reflect a new majority.  As Ross Douthat observed in today’s New York Times: “conservatives must face reality: The age of Reagan is officially over, and the Obama majority is the only majority we have.  (It is worth noting that Douthat describes himself as a conservative, though less “starry-eyed” than George Will.) 

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A Centrist Perspective: Makers and Takers, Obamacare, and the Path Forward

Below, a guest post from Stephen Reid, Managing Partner at Pharmspective, a market research firm that provides advisory services to healthcare and pharmaceutical companies on strategic issues including the Affordable Care Act. (ACA)

I don’t  agree with Reid on every point. (For example, if Republicans take both the White House and the Senate, I believe that they could and would eliminate both the premium subsidies that will make insurance affordable for middle-class Americans and the mandate.) Nevertheless, when he sent his Op-ed to me I was impressed by how well he understands the legislation. A great many moderates have been confused by the arguments coming at them both from the left and from the right.  A combination of misinformation, half-truths and fear-mongering has created so much “noise” that it has become extremely difficult to separate fact from fiction.

By contrast, Reid does a very good  job of explaining the reasoning behind the Affordable Care Act, and how its “checks and balances” work. I agree with him that the legislation is far from perfect, but it represents a good beginning.

 There is just one major aspect of reform that I think Reid doesn’t understand: the rationale for expanding Medicaid. See my note at the end of his post.

                   A Centrist Perspective: Makers, Takers and Obamacare

by Stephen Reid

With a few days left before we elect a president, the prevailing belief is that an Obama win would propel the Affordable Care Act (ACA) forward with little delay and a Romney win would kill it. Both parties have gone to great lengths to characterize healthcare reform; the Democrats tout the legislation as essential to addressing a broken healthcare system that results in the U.S. spending twice as much as most developed countries on healthcare while leaving 50 million people without coverage; the Republicans cite the ACA as an example of hopeless dependency on government and contrary to free-market principles and individual rights.

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Medicare, Medicaid, Global Warming and Gun Control– Can Liberals and Conservatives Find Middle Ground? Should They? Part 1

 In a nation divided, “compromise” has become an extraordinarily appealing idea. Weary of the acrimony and endless wrangling, more and more Americans are asking: Why can’t conservative and liberal politicians come together and forge bipartisan solutions to the problems this nation faces?

Keep in mind that it is not only our elected representatives who are having trouble finding common ground. The Pew Research Center’s latest survey of “American Values” reveals that as voters head to the polls this November, their basic beliefs are more polarized than at any point in the past 25 years. In particular, when it comes to the question of government regulation and involvement in our lives, the average Republican has gravitated to the right. In 1987, 62% of Republicans agreed that “the government should take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” Now just 40% support this proposition. Democrats haven’t changed their views on this issue: most continue to believe “there, but for fortune . . .”

In Congress, where polarization has led to paralysis, some argue that Republican leaders are responsible for creating gridlock by insisting on “party discipline.” But liberals in Washington also are accused of “dividing the nation.” Even President Obama, who set out to unite the country, has been described as “the most polarizing president ever.” During his third year in office, Gallup reports, “an average of 80 percent of Democrats approved of the job he was doing, as compared to 12 percent of Republicans who felt the same way. That’s a 68-point partisan gap, the highest for any president’s third year”–though this may say more about the temper of the times than the man himself. Nevertheless, many commentators believe that progressives, like conservatives, need to cede ground. The debate has become too contentious, too “political,” they say. I disagree. There are times when we cannot “split the difference.” Too much is at stake. We must weigh what would be won against what would be lost.

But reporters who have been taught that they must be “fair” and “balanced” often write as if all points of view are equally true. After all, they don’t want to be accused of “bias.” Thus they fall into the trap of what veteran Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse calls “he said, she said” journalism. To them, the “middle ground” seems a safe place– a fair place– to position a story.

This may help explain why so many bloggers and newspaper reporters are calling for “bi-partisan consensus” as they comment on some of the most important issues of the day.

Global Warming

Writing about global warming, Huffington Post senior writer Tom Zeller Jr. recently declared: “Compromise is the necessary first step to tackling the problem. What ordinary Americans really want is for honest brokers on all sides to detoxify and depoliticize the global warming conversation, and then get on with the business of addressing it. That business will necessarily recognize that we all bring different values and interests to the table; that we perceive risks and rewards, costs and benefits differently; and it will identify solutions through thoughtful discussion and that crazy thing called compromise.” [ my emphasis] (Hat tip to David Roberts (Twitter’s “Dr. Grist”) for calling my attention to this post.)

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