How A CBS Video About An Obamacare Victim Misled Millions- Part 2 (What the “Victim” Revealed in Our Final Interview)

“Woman Battling Kidney Cancer Losing Company Health Plan Due To Obamacare.”

That was the headline on a story that CBS’ Washington Bureau sent to its affiliates last fall.

CBS correspondent Susan McGinnis narrates the piece: “During the 10 years that Debra Fishericks has worked at Atkinson Realty, the company has provided group health insurance with manageable premiums,” McGinnis explains –“until owner Betsy Atkinson learned the policy would be terminated because it doesn’t meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

“Debra has scoured the website looking for a new policy,” McGinnis adds, referring to healthcare.gov, but “so far, she cannot afford the premiums.”

“They just keep going up higher and higher when there is a pre-existing condition,” says Fishericks.

McGinnis wraps up the story: “Debra hopes that eventually she will find a plan that fits her budget so that she can still makes trips to Indiana –to visit her grandson.”

The camera then turns to Fishericks, sitting at her desk, looking at a photo of her grandson.  “If I can’t go to see him—that’s the worst,” she says.  And she begins to cry.

I was astonished: I thought most people understood that, under the Affordable Care Act, insurers can no longer charge a customer more because she suffers from a pre-existing condition.

Later, when I interviewed Fishericks, I realized that she honestly believed she was going to have to pay more for coverage because she had been diagnosed with cancer. Like a great many Americans, she didn’t understand how the ACA would protect her. Given how hard Obamacare’s opponents have worked to obscure the law’s benefits, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.

But what shocked me is that no one at CBS’s Washington Bureau seemed to realize that what Fishericks had said just wasn’t true: not the correspondent who narrated the story, not the reporter who went down to Virginia Beach and interviewed Fishericks, not the person who edited the video.

Fifty-eight CBS stations aired the piece. Newspapers and bloggers ran with it. Nationwide, millions of Americans were left with the impression that under Obamacare, cancer patients may not be able to afford insurance.

How had this happened?

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Insurers “Had a Seat at the Table” when Reformers Hammered Out the ACA, but Things Didn’t Work Out Quite As They Expected . . .

What This Means for Health Insurance Stocks–and Your Premiums

When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, liberal critics feared that the Obama administration had “cut a deal” with for-profit insurers.  Single-payer advocates were particularly incensed when reformers invited the insurers’ lobbyists to the table to help hammer out the details of the legislation.  Some charged that, in return for the industry’s support, the administration agreed to a mandate that would force 30 million uninsured to buy private-sector insurance (or pay a penalty,) thus guaranteeing carriers millions of new customers, and billions in new revenues.

“It pays to be one of the few sellers of a product the government is going to force everyone to buy and provides subsidies to help them do it,” one Obamacare opponent sniped. 

Why Health Industry Insiders Were Offered Seats at the Table

At the time, I didn’t believe that the administration was selling out to the health care industry. Reform’s architects offered insurers, drug makers and device-makers seats at the negotiating table, in part because because they hoped to persuade them to help fund reform – and they succeeded.

Ultimately, the industry agreed to shell out over $100 billion in new fees and taxes to help fund the legislation. Those contributions are critical to financing subsidies for low-income and middle-income Americans.

The Obama administration also did not want to watch re-runs of the “Harry & Louise” television ads that helped torpedo “HillaryCare.” Here too, they prevailed.  In a new series of 2009 ads, the make-believe TV couple were all smiles: “A little more cooperation, a little less politics, and we can get the job done this time,” Louise declares.

Still, some feared that the administration was giving away the store. “No wonder the cost of reform keeps going up and up and up,” said  Bill Moyers.  “Could it be” he asked, “that Harry and Louise are happier because, this time, they’re in on the deal?” 

              But Didn’t the  Administration Capitulate On the “Public Option”?

Skeptics on the Left also believed that  reformers agreed to quash the “public option”—a government insurance plan that would compete with private sector carriers.
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Atul Gawande on Obamacare’s Opponents—How Much Damage Can They Do? Will the Exchanges Open Tomorrow?

Tomorrow, millions of Americans will find out how much healthcare will cost in their state marketplaces as the Exchanges begin enrolling new customers.  On the eve of that event, Dr. Atul Gawande writes about the forces lined up to oppose healthcare reform. The essay, which appears in the newest issue of the New Yorker, quite rightly compares those who are fighting the Affordable Care Act to those who, so many years ago, tried to block the Civil Rights Act.  In each case, conservatives refused to recognize a basic human right.

Gawande is not worried that Republicans will succeed in stopping the Affordable Care Act. Already, the reform is rolling forward on the ground, affecting peoples’ lives. Even if the extreme right wing of the Republican party manages to shut down the government tomorrow, the legislation is largely funded through mandatory appropriations that cannot be curtailed through Congressional  Nevertheless those who are blinded by rage can do great harm.

                                  Who Will Be Hurt? –Paul Sullivan’s Story  

Gawande opens his essay by reminding us of who will suffer—Americans like Paul Sullivan. “Sullivan was in his fifties, college-educated, and ran a successful small business in the Houston area. He owned a house and three cars. Then the local economy fell apart. Business dried up. He had savings, but, like more than a million people today in Harris County, Texas, he didn’t have health insurance. ‘I should have known better,’ he says. When an illness put him in the hospital and his doctor found a precancerous lesion that required treatment, the unaffordable medical bills arrived. He had to sell his cars and, eventually, his house. To his shock, he had to move into a homeless shelter, carrying his belongings in a suitcase wherever he went.”

Under the ACA, this would never happen. His out-of-pocket spending would be capped at $6,350–as long as he signed up for insurance. (If he earned less than $45,650, the cap would be considerably lower.) This is how the legislation helps even those who are too wealthy to qualify for a subsidy. They are protected against financial ruin.
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Under Obamacare, Will You Receive a Subsidy to Help You Buy Your Own Insurance? We Now Have Real Numbers That Will Let You Calculate How Much You Will Receive

 

Note to Readers: A longer version of this post appeared yesterday on HealthInsurance.org.

Up until now, when Obamacare’s supporters and reform’s opponents squabbled over what insurance will cost in 2014, they had to rely on estimates and national averages. But now we have real numbers.

Eleven states have announced the rates that insurers will be charging in their Exchanges-marketplaces where individuals who don’t have employer-sponsored coverage can shop for their own insurance.

Subsidies Will Be Based On the Cost Of A Silver Plan Where You Live,

Middle-income as well as low-income people buying coverage in the Exchanges will be eligible for government subsidies that will come in the form of tax credits. Anyone earning between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) (now $11,490 to $45,960 for a single person, and up to $126, 360 for a family of six) will qualify.

Most people who are forced to buy their own insurance earn less than 400% of FPL. More affluent Americans usually work  for companies that offer comprehensive coverage.

The graph below shows average Silver plan rates in the eleven states that have disclosed premiums. (Note that these are only state averages. Premiums vary widely within a state: In some cities and counties silver plan rates will be much lower, even before you apply the subsidy.

Silver plan premiums

It’s worth noting that in these 11 states the least expensive Silver Plan costs 18% less than the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projected last year. 
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If You Buy Your Own Insurance in the Exchanges, Will You Receive a Government Subsidy? How Much Will it Be for Couple, or a Family of Five?

ACA tax credits

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source:

No doubt you have read that if you are single, and earn less than 400% of the Federal Poverty threshhold (roughly $46,000 for an individual or $94,200 for a family of four) you will be eligible for a tax credit to help you cover the cost of insurance premiums.

But most of us don’t fit into one of those two categories. What if you are a couple, or a family of three? What happens if you have four kids?.

As the table above reveals, if a couple has  four children  and earns less  than $126,360 (400% of the FPL), they will be elibigle for the tax credits. Note: these credits are available only if you are self-employed, unemployed, or work for a company that does not offer affordable, comprehensive insurance. “Affordable” is defined as individual coverage that costs less than  9.5% of your income.

The credits are designed to make sure that no one who purchases their own insurance is forced to spend more than 9.5% of their income on health care. For instance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s (KFF’s) new subsidy calculator, coverage for a 35-year-old couple with three children might cost $13,101./(This is an estimate; actual premiums will vary depending on where you live. Healthcare is much more expensive in some states than in others. ) If the parents earned roughly $100,000 a year, they would be asked to pay $9,500 toward their insurance and would receive a tax credit of $3,626.

This assumes that they purchase a “silver plan” which pays for an average of 70% of covered benefits. The family would owe the other 30% in  the form co-pays and deductibles. But keep in mind that preventive care is free, there are no co-pays and the deductible does not apply.

Assuming they need care other than preventive care, total out-of-pocket spending would be capped at $12,750, even if the entire family wound up in a car accident, three of them were hospitalized, and two needed surgery.

If they preferred, the family could purchase a less expensive Bronze plan which would pay for 60% of covered benefits. Their co-pays and deductible would be higher, but once again, preventive care would be free, total cost sharing still would be capped at $12,700, and the premium for a Bronze plan would be lower: KFF estimates that a family of five earning $100,00 would still receive a subsidy of $3,626 and their share of the premium would be just $7,253.

Why is the Government Subsidizing Households That Earn more than $125,000?

 If people choose to have four children, that certainly is their business. But why should I help pay for their healthcare?

The answer is two-fold:

First, people don’t necessarily choose to have 4 children –or more. Some couples are surprised (not to mention overwhelmed) when they disccover that they are having twins or triplets. 

Secondly as a society, we care about children. We don’t want any child to go without needed care.

But there also is a pragmatic reason for supporting large families. If those children don’t receive preventive care such as dental checks as well as  timely treatments when they are sick, down the road, we as a society will pay the price. The health of the population will play a major role in determining how productive we, as a nation, are.  

 

 

 

 

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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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Navigators: The Folks Who Will Help You Surf the New Insurance Exchanges

Over at Healthinsurance.org, I’ve addressed some “frequently asked questions” about the “navigators” who will help individuals and small business find the coverage they want in the new Exchanges. 

– Who Will Become Navigators?

–  Can Insurance Agents and Brokers Apply to Be Navigators? (Wouldn’t that create a conflict of interest?)

–  Just How Will Navigators Help People Sort Out Their Options in the Exchanges?

–  How Much Training Will They Receive?

–Finally, many people worry that the “navigators” just won’t be able to handle the heavy traffic. Giving the American public the information it will need about Obamacare is an enormous task. Will these navigators be up to it?

The answer to that last question is that the navigators will have help.  Patient advocacy groups, the states, and county health agencies will pitch in.  The federal government  also is launching a marketing program, “Enroll America” that will urge mothers to nag their uninsured 20-something and 30-something sons. (Seriously– and I expect that in many cases, this will be effective.)

Meanwhile insurers will be eager to draw young, healthy customers into the Exchanges. This means that they will invest in marketing campaigns designed to let 20-somethings and 30-somethings know that the vast majority will be eligible for generous government subsidies.

Just one example: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois already has launched a “Be Covered Illinois” campaign. The campaign is being funded by the insurer, and carried out by various community groups:  

Keep in mind that if insurers mislead customers about their offerings, those customers will have an opportunity to pick a different plan a year later. And under the ACA, they will have “navigators” to help them make a better choice.

Insurers know this. They  also are well aware  that under the new ACA rules that regulate them, a health insurance company will have to draw—and keep—a large share of the market’s customers in order to survive financially. For that reason, I suspect that savvy insurers will make a major effort to provide information about specific plans that will attract customers who will want to stick with those plans.

For my answers to the first four questions above, go to Health Insurance.org, click on the question and the answer will pop up.

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Obamacare’s Opponents Spread Doubt and Confusion About Small Business Exchanges

In the past, I have reported on misinformation about healthcare reform going viral. It has happened again, and this time, reform’s critics have outdone themselves.

In March, the Obama administration proposed revising the rules governing insurance marketplaces or “exchanges” where small business owners will be able to pool their buying power, and purchase affordable, high quality insurance for their employees. The change to the rules is small, and it is temporary.

Nevertheless, Obamacare’s critics pounced, and soon began distorting what the administration said. USA Today quoted the Chamber of Commerce (long a foe of reform), claiming that the small business exchanges “will be of little or no value to employers, or by extension, their employees.”

                                     How Small Business Exchanges Lower Premiums

Before considering the charges, let’s review what the health reform law’s Small Business Health Options (SHOP) exchanges offer. Today, insurers charge small companies 18 percent more because the administrative costs of hand-selling policies to small groups are high.

But in the SHOP Exchanges, small businesses automatically become part of large groups. Some will qualify for tax credits.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates premiums will fall by 2 percent to 11 percent. Meanwhile those premiums will buy far better coverage. (Policies sold in the SHOP Exchanges will have to meet the high standards set for plans in the individual exchanges).

                             The Proposed Change: What the Administration Actually Said

Now consider the proposed change. Originally, the Affordable Care Act called for opening SHOP exchanges to employees in 2014. First, the employer would choose a tier of insurance. (Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum tiers will pay 60 percent to 90 percent of an average group’s covered benefits, with any individual’s out-of-pocket spending capped at roughly $6,000.) Employees would then pick plans from that tier.

But Washington had assumed that states would be eager to help their small businesses by setting up exchanges. Today, only 16 states and the District of Columbia have begun. Now the administration realizes it will need more time to set up the IT that millions of employees will need to navigate exchanges in 34 states.

 HHS still plans to open the exchanges in 2014, but only to employers. They will survey the many plans available, and then pick one for their employees. “Employee Choice” will be delayed – but just for one year. And the postponement will apply only to the 34 states that have not set up exchanges. In 2014, the other 16 states and D.C. can (and probably most will) open exchanges to employees.

Nearly 40% of small businesses in this country do business in the 17 states implementing their own exchanges,” observes John Arensmeyer, president of Small Business Majority (SBM), a non-profit advocacy group. And “starting next year, small employers will still be able to pool their buying power in the exchanges, giving them the kind of clout large businesses currently enjoy.”

“This is not a failure, it’s a bump in the road,” Small Business Majority’s Rhett Buttle told me.

                                               The Attack Begins

Nevertheless, Robert Laszewski, a long-time health reform critic, jumped on the bump, telling Modern HealthCare: “Offering a single employer all of the exchange options is a complex undertaking . . . a delay means that the exchange isn’t going to offer any advantage over the employer simply staying with their existing insurer.”

Laszewski suggests that “a single employer“ will not be able to choose from all of the exchange options.” This is simply not true. Business owners will choose from all plans in the exchange. As for an employer keeping his “existing” coverage – why would he do that? The policies in the exchanges will offer better coverage for less.

Above, the opening of a post that I wrote for HealthInsurance.org.   To find out more about why Lawzewski’s is bashing small business Exchanges–and what what Time’s Joe Klein, the Wall Street Journal and Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff had to say– read the entire post on HIO.   You’ll also find out  why some of us think that the importance of “consumer choice” may be “way overblown.”

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A Doctor Confides, “My Primary Doc is a Nurse”

Last week I interviewed a doctor who told me that his primary care doc is a “physician assistant”  who has been trained to deliver primary care.   He said it casually, dropping the fact into a long conversation.

Dr. David Kauff is an internist at Seattle’s Group Health Cooperative (GHC), an organization that has a fabulous reputation–both among patients and among physicians—for its primary care program.  One reason is that at Group Health, doctors, physicians assistants and nurse practitioners work together in teams. “The success of our model is based on the fact that everyone in this together; we are corralled by a common purpose,” says Kauff, who also serves as GHC’s  Medical  Director for Practice and Leadership. 

I’ll be writing more about Group Health Cooperative in a few days.

 In this post, I would like to focus on the growing role of Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and Physician Assistants (PAs) as clinicians.  NPs are registered nurses who have gone on to earn a master’s or a doctorate. Some specialize in areas such as anesthesiology, pediatrics (pediatric nurses) or Ob-Gyn (certified nurse-midwives). NP’s can run clinics; some run their own practices.     

By contrast, physician assistants (PAs) don’t usually work alone. While physicians may not be on-site, typically doctors oversee their work.  

PAs are formally trained to provide diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive health care services.  They take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and X- rays, and make diagnoses. In many cases, they did not begin their careers as nurses. They may have been  paramedics, respiratory therapists, or emergency care technicians (EMTs) before becoming PAs.  

Currently, 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, let nurse practitioners operate independently.  In 33 states regulations vary. As this map  reveals, in some places NPs are not allowed to prescribe medication. In others, they may have to consult with a physician when treating patients.

It’s worth noting that NPs enjoy greater freedom in the Northwest, the Upper Middle West, and Northern New England (areas that some healthcare reformers refer to as “Canada South” because these states are in the vanguard of reform) as well as in the Southwest, where many NP’s started working in group practices, and they went out and established their own clinics. Nationwide, about 6,000 nurses operate independent primary-care practices.                                               

                                              Why Physicians Object

Today, 14 states are debating whether NPs should be allowed to practice on their own.  Many emphasize the difference in education and years of training. Though in truth, the length of training is not so different. Becoming a primary care doctor requires four years of medical school plus three years of residency. A nurse practitioner  attends nursing school for four years, then spends two to three years in graduate school, depending on whether he or she is getting an M.A. or a Ph.D. (In 2015, all nurse practitioners will be required to earn a Ph.D.) 

Most NPs also have nursing experience. At the University of Michigan, for instance, the average candidate admitted to the NP program has 7 years of hands-on experience as a nurse.  But while the number of years spent training are not so different, as I explain below, traditionally ,the nature of that training has been very different.   

Doctors say that they are worried about patient safety. “I see it as physicians being true to their oath “  Dr. Adris Hoven, president-elect of the American Medical Association recently told Marketplace Health Care’s Dan Gorenstein.   Hoven insists that doctors are “not threatened” by NPs.  “At the end of the day what they want to do is deliver the best healthcare possible.”  

Dr. John Rowe, a professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia’s School of Public Health, doesn’t buy the argument.  As he points out, nurse practitioners are already working without primary care doctors: “The fact is this is going on in 16-17 states,” he told Gorenstein, “and there is no evidence that it’s not good for the patient.”  A recent Health Policy Brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation backs him up: “studies comparing the quality of care provided by physicians and nurse practitioners have found that clinical outcomes are similar.”

At the same time, Rowe understands why doctors are uncomfortable. “The physicians feel they have something special to offer,” he explains. “And being told there are individuals who are less well trained can do it as well as they could is a very difficult lesson for them.”                                    

When I last wrote about nurse practitioners, back in 2010, one physician/reader (“Sharon M.D.”) was exceptionally candid on this point:

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Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin and why is he saying such terrible things about health reform?

Today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing entitled: Unaffordable: Impact of Obamacare on Americans’ Health Insurance.  (Always nice to know that our elected representatives are keeping an open mind.)

Prominent on the list of witnesses: “Douglas Holtz-Eakin.” Even before reading his testimony, I knew what Holtz-Eakin would say: young, health Americans should brace for “sticker shock.”  Conservatives like Holtz-Eakin tend to stay on script. However stale the rhetoric, they firmly believe that if you repeat a sound-bite often enough, people will believe it.                                     

                                        Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin?

If you recognize the name, it’s probably because Holtz-Eakin has become a familiar figure in the mainstream media, quoted in the New York Times, writing Op-eds for Reuters and Politico.com, and appearing, not only on Fox Business News, but on CNN and the PBS’ Newshour.

Alternatively, “Holtz-Eakin” may ring a bell because he served as a member of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), and as Director of Bush’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO.)

In a remarkably candid 2011 interview, Holtz Eakin recalled his tour in the Bush administration:

“Going into the summer of 2001, things were getting worse. . . When we first went in and talked to the President, Glenn [Hubbard] and Larry Lindsey said, ‘Mr. President . . . We’re probably not going to run a surplus on budget.  We’re going to run a deficit.”

Bush’s reply: “We’re not going to run a deficit. If you come in here with a deficit, you’re both fired. Go fix it.’”

We ended up running a budget surplus of one billion dollars,” Holtz-Eakin confided, “driven by gimmicks of remarkable proportions.”
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