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King v. Burwell: Finding A Path Forward After An Executive Overreach


March 5th, 2015

Editor’s note: Watch Health Affairs Blog for more posts on King v. Burwell and the Supreme Court oral arguments in the case by Tim Jost and others.

The Supreme Court justices had a lively discussion today during arguments in King v. Burwell about who Congress intended to get health insurance subsidies and under what conditions.

The central question is whether the Internal Revenue Service had the authority to write a rule authorizing subsidies to go to millions of people in the 37 states now operating under federal exchanges.

The plaintiffs say the language of the law is clear:  Subsidies are allowed in “an Exchange established by the State under [section] 1311of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” It doesn’t just say this once, but nine times in various linguistic forms.

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King v. Burwell: Unpacking The Supreme Court Oral Arguments


March 5th, 2015

Editor’s note: Watch Health Affairs Blog for more posts by Grace-Marie Turner and others on King v. Burwell and the Supreme Court oral arguments in the case.

One March 4, 2015, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in King v. Burwell.  As every reader of this Blog knows, the issue in the case is whether the Internal Revenue Service rule that allows the federally facilitated marketplaces to grant premium tax credits is valid.

If it is not, millions of individuals in the 34 states served by the FFMs will lose their tax credits.  Without the credits, they will no longer be able to afford health insurance.  The cost of insurance to those remaining in the nongroup market will rise precipitously, causing even more Americans to lose coverage.  As the number of uninsured increases, providers will bear an increased burden of uncompensated care.  A decision for the plaintiffs, that is, will be disaster for the American health care system.

The challengers argue that this is a result Congress intended.  They contend that the subsection of the Affordable Care Act dealing with the calculation of premium tax credits limits the credits to individuals enrolled in an “Exchange established by the State.”  The government argues that this is a term of art — that Congress intended this phrase to include the federally facilitated exchanges that the ACA requires the Department of Health and Human Services to create as a fallback where the states elect not to operate their own exchange.  Dozens of other provisions of the ACA support the government’s position.

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Where Is HITECH’s $35 Billion Dollar Investment Going?


March 4th, 2015

On April 16, 2013, we released “REBOOT: Re-examining the Strategies Needed to Successfully Adopt Health IT,” outlining concerns with implementation of the Health Information Technology and Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act. Specifically, we asked: What have the American people gotten for their $35 billion dollar investment?

Two years after releasing the white paper, and six years since enactment of the HITECH Act, the question remains. There is inconclusive evidence that the program has achieved its goals of increasing efficiency, reducing costs, and improving the quality of care.

We have been candid about the key reason for the lackluster performance of this stimulus program: the lack of progress toward interoperability. Countless electronic health record vendors, hospital leaders, physicians, researchers, and thought leaders have told us time and again that interoperability is necessary to achieve the promise of a more efficient health system for patients, providers, and taxpayers.

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The Latest Health Wonk Review


March 4th, 2015

David Williams has the tenth anniversary edition of the Health Wonk Review up at Health Business Blog. David’s interesting review includes Tim Jost’s series of Health Affairs Blog posts unpacking the final 2016 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters rule and final 2016 Letter to Issuers in the federal exchange.

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New On GrantWatch Blog


March 4th, 2015

Health Affairs GrantWatch Blog brings you news and views of what foundations are funding in health policy and health care.

Here are the most recent posts:

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Open Payments: Early Impact And The Next Wave Of Reform


March 3rd, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015. The conference brought together leading experts to review major developments in health law over the previous year, and preview what is to come. A full agenda and links to video recordings of the panels are here.

The Physician Payments Sunshine Act, a provision in the Affordable Care Act, seeks to increase the transparency of the financial relationships between medical device and drug manufacturers, physicians, and teaching hospitals. Launched on September 30, 2014 by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the Open Payments database collects information about these financial relationships and makes that information available to the public.

As of early February, the Open Payments database includes documentation of 4.45 million payments valued at nearly $3.7 billion made from medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturers to 546,000 doctors and 1,360 teaching hospitals between August 2013 and December 2013. This included 1.7 million records (totaling $2.2 billion) without the names of physicians or teaching hospitals who received the payments.

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The ACA’s Hospital Tax-Exemption Rules And The Practice Of Medicine


March 3rd, 2015

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) and related regulations include obligations for nonprofit (and some government) hospitals to provide benefits, such as free care, to their communities. On their face, these new obligations seem a valuable response to longstanding concerns of some legislators, litigators, and scholars that some nonprofit hospitals are really ‘for-profits in disguise’ and to the related calls to eliminate tax-deductions for gifts to nonprofit hospitals. Moreover, the requirements have been lauded for their potential to improve public health, particularly in leading to better consultation and collaboration with local public health officials.

However, the new requirements are likely to have unintended, undesirable consequences. In particular, the amount that hospitals will spend on new services may be substantial, and that could ultimately affect how medicine is practiced.

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Health Affairs’ March Issue: The Benefits And Limitations Of Information


March 2nd, 2015

The March issue of Health Affairs contains papers focusing on the benefits—and the limitations—of information-gathering processes as a way to solve health system problems. Studies in this variety issue examine US hospital rating systems, disclaimers on dietary supplements, state prescription drug monitoring programs, the value of US versus Western European cancer care and other topics.

National hospital rating systems show little agreement — what’s a consumer to do?

Matt Austin of Johns Hopkins Medicine and coauthors compared four well-known national hospital rating systems designed for use by US consumers: U.S. News & World Report’s Best Hospitals; HealthGrades’ America’s 100 Best Hospitals; Leapfrog’s Hospital Safety Score; and Consumer Reports’ Health Safety Score. They analyzed ratings covering the time period from July 2012 to July 2013.

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How Many Americans Will Lose Coverage If The Supreme Court Kills The ACA Tax Credits?


March 2nd, 2015

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court is slated to hear King v. Burwell, a case that challenges the authority of the federal government to provide tax credits and other financial assistance to people who buy Affordable Care Act (ACA) coverage through the federal health insurance marketplace. The federal government runs the health insurance marketplace in 34 states where states chose not to set up a state-based exchange.

Estimates on how many people could lose tax credits in these 34 states vary widely from 4.5 million to 13 million. After talking to executives and lobbyists for health care related entities in 20 of the 34 states affected, I believe that about 6.5 million people who have tax credits in 2015 will lose them. The difference in these numbers will be important to policymakers, since politicians are likely to make decisions on how to respond to a Court ruling based on the actual number of their constituents who are receiving tax credits or other support.

In addition, the impact of a Court ruling will be affected by state action. Some observers have questioned whether states will set up exchanges if the Court eliminates tax credits from the federal exchange. These observers have said that establishing a state exchange is costly and time consuming and that most federal exchange states will not take this step. I argue in the following post that setting up a state exchange could be easy and inexpensive if the federal exchange operations are used.

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Building A Framework To Assess The Impact Of Change


February 27th, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of several posts related to the 4th European Forum on Health Policy and Management: Innovation & Implementation, held in Berlin, Germany on January 29 and 30, 2015. For updates on the Forum’s results please check the Center for Healthcare Management’s website or follow on Twitter @HCMatColumbia.

Health care systems and organizations need to adapt to a rapidly changing societal and technical environment. In theory, this seems simple to do: policymakers and boards of organizations assess the nature of the developments, analyze the gap between the present and the desired situation, design a policy to reduce this gap, translate the policy in concrete measures, implement them, and reap the fruits of successful change — then start the cycle all over.

However, in the reality of daily practice, policies rarely have the intended effect and policy measures can lose effectiveness before they reach the intended point of impact. Sometimes, they may have the opposite impact than expected, raising costs for example, instead of reducing them.

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New Health Policy Brief: Risk Corridors (Updated)


February 26th, 2015

The latest Health Policy Brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) provides an update to an earlier brief on the Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s risk corridor program, which allows the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to collect and make payments to qualified health plans. As the brief explains, a recent amendment to federal appropriations raises questions as to whether insurers will receive their full risk corridor payments for 2014.

While the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015, which funded the government for the 2015 fiscal year, did give HHS the authority to collect user fees, an amendment was included that specifically prohibited HHS from transferring money from either trust fund.

The amendment did not eliminate the risk corridor program, nor did it prevent HHS from using payments received from insurers to pay out claims under the program (that is, user fees), but it effectively made the risk corridor program budget neutral unless HHS can find another source of funding. As a result, insurers expecting payments from HHS may not receive the full amount due.

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What Happens When A Retail Pharmacy Decides To Stop Selling Cigarettes?


February 26th, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015. The conference brought together leading experts to review major developments in health law over the previous year, and preview what is to come. A full agenda and links to video recordings of the panels are here.

The sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at retailers with pharmacies has received considerable attention over the past year. The national debate reignited in February 2014, when CVS/pharmacy announced that we would quit the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products in our 7,800 pharmacies nationwide. In September 2014, we announced we were officially tobacco free — one month earlier than planned. This was met with kudos from the media, public health officials, and even the President of the United States.

But one question that did not receive anywhere near that level of attention was whether or not our actions would make a difference in the prevalence of smoking and, ultimately, in the public health.

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State Expectations: Setting The Record Straight In King v. Burwell


February 25th, 2015

On Wednesday, March 4th, the Supreme Court will hear the latest attack on the Affordable Care Act (ACA): the case King v. Burwell. The King petitioners allege that the Internal Revenue Service overstepped its authority by issuing regulations authorizing residents of states with federally run exchanges to access premium tax credits. The petitioners claim that Congress intentionally limited access to premium tax credits to residents of state-based exchanges as a way to encourage states to run their own exchanges.

In support, some state officials claim that they interpreted the law in this manner and that it impacted their state’s decision not to operate a state-run exchange. These assertions, like their analysis of the statutory language, fall flat under any serious scrutiny, however.

Between October 2012 and March 2013, with the support of the Commonwealth Fund, the Center on Health Insurance Reforms (CHIR) conducted a comprehensive review of publicly available information in 50 states pertaining to their decisions to operate either a state or federally run exchange.

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Implementing Health Reform: Beginning The Cadillac Tax Regulatory Conversation And Other ACA News (Updated)


February 24th, 2015

The Cadillac high-cost health plan excise tax, which goes into effect in 2018, is one of the last-to-be-implemented provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It was one of the most controversial provisions of the ACA, which contributed to its delayed effective date. But 2018 is now getting closer, and the Internal Revenue Services (IRS) is beginning a discussion about implementation of the Cadillac plan tax.

The Cadillac plan provision of the ACA will impose a 40 percent excise tax on the cost of employer-sponsored health plans when that cost exceeds certain thresholds. It is projected to be one of the biggest sources of revenue under the ACA; the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in its 2015 Budget and Economic Outlook Report estimated that it would account for $149 billion in revenue between 2018 and 2225. Of this, however, only one quarter will come from the tax itself, while three quarters will come from increases in taxes on income as employers shift compensation from health benefits to taxable wages.

While the tax will affect few plans initially, it is likely to affect many more plans over time as the cost of health care continues to grow faster than inflation generally. The tax is expected to reduce health care expenditures by individuals, as it will drive employers to increase employee cost sharing as they cut the cost of coverage, and employees are likely to spend less on health care if they have to purchase it out-of-pocket rather than drawing on insurance coverage.

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How Menu Labeling Could Spark Change Beyond The Menu Board


February 24th, 2015

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about catalyzing changes that prevent illness in the first place, it’s that passage of a single policy can be like lighting a match — illuminating the way towards strategies with greater impact and igniting the energy of leaders. The success of a menu labeling might be the match needed to inspire further policy change to shift the trend of increased diet-related chronic disease in the United States.

In November, the Food and Drug Administration released the final rule guiding calorie labeling of menu items at chain food service establishments with 20 or more outlets nationally. The rule will apply to fast-food and sit-down restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores and movie theaters, and will take effect on December 1, 2015.

Once implemented, calorie counts will be posted for all items (including alcoholic drinks) on menus and menu-boards, and on display tags for salad bars, bakery items, and soda dispensers. A companion rule requiring calorie labeling for vending machines will take effect one year later.

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Putting Humpty Dumpty Together Again: Consolidating Regulatory Authority Over Food Safety


February 23rd, 2015

The fragmented nature of regulatory authority over food in the United States is well known. More than a dozen federal agencies are responsible for the safety of the nation’s food supply. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) have the lion’s share of responsibility, together overseeing over 80 percent of the nation’s food safety.

Generally, the USDA regulates meat, and the FDA regulates everything else, but overlaps, exceptions, gaps, and therefore examples of resulting absurdities abound: the FDA regulates frozen pizza, unless it has pepperoni. The FDA regulates seafood, unless it’s catfish. The USDA has jurisdiction over packaged open-face meat sandwiches, but if the sandwiches are closed, authority shifts to the FDA.

This division in regulatory authority is neither planned nor rational. It is instead a historical accident, originating in the early twentieth century. When the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act were passed on the same day in 1906, both targeting the adulteration of the food supply, their oversight was assigned to different departments within the USDA. The fissure widened when the FDA was moved out of the USDA in 1940. This divided regulatory framework is not the only reason for the fragmentation of regulatory authority over food in the US, but it is a main driver.

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Implementing Health Reform: Final 2016 Letter To Federal Exchange Issuers


February 22nd, 2015

Each year the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) releases a letter to issuers (insurers) in the federally facilitated marketplace (FFM) setting out the ground rules for coverage through the FFM for the coming year.  A draft letter is published for comments, followed by the final letter.  The letter addresses insurers that issue qualified health plans (QHPs) in the FFM, including stand-alone dental plans (SADPs), and covers the small business (FF-SHOP) marketplace as well as the individual marketplace.

On December 19, 2014, CMS  published the draft 2016 letter which I covered here.  On February 20, 2015, CMS published the final letter to issuers in the federally facilitated marketplace.  Not surprisingly, since it  covers the third year of operation of the marketplace, the 2016 letter is quite similar to those of preceding years.   The letter is based on previously published rules governing QHPs and the marketplaces, as well as on the final 2016 Benefit and Payment Parameters Rule, covered here (CITE) and here (CITE), from which it incorporates many provisions.

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Implementing Health Reform: 2016 Benefit And Payment Final Rule, Insurance Provisions


February 22nd, 2015

On November 21, 2014, the Centers on Medicare and Medicaid Services of the Department of Health and Human Services released its final 2016 Benefit and Payment Parameter (BPP) Rule.  (Fact sheet here.)  My first post examined the provisions of this rule that relate to consumers and providers.  This post will analyze the parts of the rule that deal with the insurance market reforms; the reinsurance, risk adjustment, and risk corridor programs; health insurance rate review; and the individual and SHOP exchanges.

New Definitions Of ‘Plan’ And ‘State’

The regulation begins with a modified definition of the term “plan.”   The new definition defines a “plan” as the pairing of a set of health insurance benefits under a “product” with a particular cost-sharing structure, provider network, and service area.  A “product” is a set of plans sharing a network type (HMO, PPO, etc.), package of benefits, and service area.  Under this new definition, plans that differ in their cost-sharing structure (deductibles, copayments, or coinsurance) or provider networks are different plans, even if they are offered at the same metal tier.  Plan variations for different cost-sharing subsidy levels are not different plans under this definition.

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Implementing Health Reform: 2016 Benefit And Payment Final Rule, Consumer & Provider Provisions


February 22nd, 2015

On February 20, 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) of the Department of Health and Human Services published its massive Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters (BPP rule) for 2016 Final Rule, accompanied by a fact sheet.  This rule addresses a host of issues involving the continuing implementation of the Affordable Care Act for 2016.  A few provisions, however, affect the 2015 year as well and a number of provisions will not be implemented until 2017.

The BPP rule amends and updates existing rules; thus, it must be read in tandem with rules that have been promulgated earlier, which are catalogued in the preface to the rule.

CMS released also on February 20 its Final 2016 Letter to Issuers (Insurers) in the Federally-Facilitated Marketplace (FFM).   This letter sets the ground rules for insurer participation in the FFM for 2016 and covers many of the same topics covered by the BPP rule.

These documents are very lengthy and will be covered in three posts over the next few days.  This first post will focus on issues in the BPP rule that directly affect consumers.  The second post will focus more on issues that affect health plans.  The third post will examine the letter to issuers.

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Implementing Health Reform: Multi-State Plan Program; Benefits And Payment Rule, Letter To Issuers To Follow


February 20th, 2015

Late in the day on February 20, 2015, HHS issued its 476 page final 2016 Benefit and Payment Parameters Rule.   It also issued a lengthy final 2016 Letter to Issuers  and a fact sheet on the BPP rule.  These will govern health insurance coverage and the premium stabilization programs, as well as participation in the federally facilitated marketplace, for 2016.

More specifically, the BBP governs the premium stabilization programs; the cost-sharing reduction payment program; user fees for the Federally-facilitated Exchanges; the open enrollment period; the essential health benefits; qualified health plans; network adequacy; quality improvement strategies for qualified health plans; the SHOP program; guaranteed availability and renewability; minimum coverage; rate review; the medical loss ratio program; and other issues. The letter to issuers governs participation in the federally facilitated marketplace for 2016.

I will be reviewing the BPP rule and Letter to Issuers over the next few days and providing a series of posts on them; this post covers the amended Multi-State Plan Program (MSPP) rules issued earlier in the day.

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