What Will Shape Joe Biden’s Health Care Agenda?


I’m thrilled to have health futurist Jeff Goldsmith back on THCB, and given Biden was only confirmed as President-elect this morning, his article on what to expect is extremely timely!–Matthew Holt

By  JEFF GOLDSMITH

The Trump administration’s health care journey began with a trillion dollar near miss–the failed Repeal and Replacement of ObamaCare- and ended with a full-on train wreck, the catastrophically mismanaged COVID epidemic that will have claimed 300,000 lives by the time he leaves office. After four years of posturing and lethal incompetence, it will be a relief to see caring and professionalism return to the White House health policy under President-Elect Joe Biden.   

Like Inheriting a Badly Managed World War

Like Barack Obama, Joe Biden will be saddled at the beginning of his regime with a damaged national economy. He will also walk in the door to the immediate need to manage the greatest public health catastrophe in a century as well as its economic consequences–a deep and enduring recession. Biden will be inheriting the equivalent of a badly managed World War we are presently losing.

Public health professionals who were marginalized by Trump will be challenged not only to craft coherent policy to contain and extinguish COVID  but also to sell it to a frightened and polarized general public, many of whom reject the need for basic public safety measures.    

Controlling COVID and rebuilding the critical public health agencies–CDC and FDA–that have damaged by political meddling will consume the lion’s share of the administration’s health policy bandwidth in its first year. It will be pressed to address a huge readiness gap–from critical PPE supplies to the development and deployment of testing and tracing capability to public health co-ordination and messaging–for the next pandemic. Increasing the presently inadequate level of public health funding (less than $100 billion a year in a $21 trillion economy) seems inevitable.

The inability of Congress to produce a fall round of COVID relief will create pressure on Biden to take immediate action to help struggling sectors of the economy, like airlines, restaurants and hospitals, as well as further help for the long term unemployed. Only a little more than half of the 22 million jobs lost in the spring have returned by November. Twenty million Americans were stranded by the July expiration of supplemental unemployment benefits as well as countless millions more “free agents” and contractors not eligible for traditional unemployment that are losing coverage at the end of the year. Mortgage, credit card and consumer loan forbearance are ending, and unless Congress acts, acres of rotten credit will turn rapidly into a banking and bond market crisis which the Federal Reserve cannot fix by itself.   

State governments face FY21 deficits equaling $500 billion over the next two years , against a current annual spending base of about $900 billion.  Further assistance to state and local governments will almost certainly include an additional increase in the federal match for Medicaid (FMAP), beyond the 6.2% temporary increase passed in March). Medicaid enrollment will likely top 80 million by mid 2021, almost one-quarter of the US population. Some states will have upwards of 40% of their population on Medicaid by mid-2021.

States laboring under severe revenue shortfalls will be unable to afford the expanded Medicaid program that was part of ObamaCare without a further increase in the FMAP rate.  President Trump and Senate Republicans blamed the state and local government fiscal crisis on profligate Democratic mismanagement, and blocked aid to them during 2020. But Texas, Florida, Georgia and other red states have the same problems New York and California do. 

Serious Fiscal Limitations Push the Health Policy Agenda Away from Coverage Expansion

Barack Obama entered office with a FY08 federal deficit of $420 billion. Joe Biden enters with a FY20 deficit of $3.1 trillion and a baseline FY21 deficit of $1.8 trillion, before adding the cost of the likely additional trillion dollar-plus stimulus package early next year. It will be passed over the dead bodies of Republican Congressional leadership suddenly recommitted to deficit reduction after racking up $8 trillion in deficit spending during the four years they controlled the federal government.

Coverage Expansion via Medicare and Public Option Unlikely

That deficit will significantly constrain a further expansion of health coverage. Not only will “Medicare for All” be off the table. Severe fiscal pressures will cause the new administration to “slow walk” a public option (which would require federal subsidies to implement) and Medicare expansion to people over age 60. These expansions were going to be  controversial and politically costly because they would be fiercely contested by hospitals and other care providers concerned about the erosion of their commercial insured customer base (the source of perhaps 130% of their bottom lines) as well as the use of Medicare as a de facto price control lever. 

By the time Biden addresses the first two problems–COVID and the economic crisis–he will probably have expended his limited stock of political capital and be weakened enough to be unable to take on the large messy issues of health coverage expansion and cost control. The Affordable Care Act exhausted Obama’s store of political capital, by early 2010. His administration’s failure to turn the economy cost the Democrats control of the House of Representatives and 20 (!) state legislatures in 2010.

What Can Biden Do in Health that Does Not Require Federal Spending?

Thus, the focus of Biden health policy is likely to be on items not requiring fresh spending.

Two major candidates for Biden policy activism: facilitating unionization of health care workers and antitrust enforcement. Labor unions were major Democratic supporters in this election cycle. Moreover, they were extremely active this spring and summer as advocates for the safety of health workers. They ran a very effective orchestrated press campaign to pressure large health systems such as HCA and Providence Health. Union leaders were prominent in health policy working groups for the Biden campaign after the conclusion of the primary season. Aggressively pro-union appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and legislation to facilitate union elections are almost certain to be early Biden initiatives.

Antitrust action to slow down or unwind hospital and health insurance mergers are also likely. The California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s settlement of his aggressive anti-trust action against Sutter Health not only resulted in a huge financial payment (useful for reducing California’s budget deficit) but also forbade Sutter from “all or nothing” rate negotiations with health insurers. Spreading this approach nationally would significantly damage the financial position of large multi-hospital systems and complicate the forthcoming rate negotiation cycle with health insurers.  

It is also likely that the Biden administration will continue the push begun during Trump for price transparency and disclosure of patient financial responsibility prior to service, further complicating rate negotiations with health insurers. Resolution of the deadlock over surprise billing is also likely.

Finally, Biden is likely to attack the 5% margins generated by Medicare Advantage carriers who now control 37% of all Medicare lives, and are getting a 50% share of each year’s worth of baby boomers enrolling in the program. Only half of boomers are yet enrolled in Medicare, and cutting Medicare Advantage cap rates will be a juicy target for Biden’s OMB in attempting to control the exploding federal deficit. Cutting health insurer profits is not the same as “cutting Medicare”.

Health care’s corporate sector is presently basking in record valuations and a largely favorable regulatory climate from the outgoing Trump administration, even as the care system has reeled from COVID.  Financial pressures from the COVID health economy and continued slack demand for care will certainly challenge the care system, as it faces renewed regulatory and political pressures from the new administration. 

Jeff Goldsmith is the President of Health Futures, Inc

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