21 Ideas for Addressing the Affordable Care Act

The future of the Affordable Care Act is at the top of the news. Frequently, it is said that there are no credible proposals on the table for an effective replacement. This writer feels it is time to focus on costs, as I have stated in the past.

What follows is a series of detailed suggestions, with some commentary, with the goal of reducing costs. Some promote increased competition, some suggest increased regulation in markets that are too thin to support competition.

There are 2 broad philosophies behind these points- first, that health care is a right (with some exceptions), but PROVIDING health care is the privilege. I feel we have it backwards in this country, where providers of all types have the right to provide services, and we are lucky if we have the privilege of seeing them.

Second, I feel that all parties are to blame. By this I mean that we should not gang up on one sector, such as insurers or doctors. All parties are misbehaving, including hospitals, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, insurers and yes, consumers.

What follows is a series of recommendations, by category, for finally controlling costs:

Require full transparency on prices. Hospitals should publicly post “list” prices for common procedures or bundles of procedures. What is included in the bundle should also be posted. The requirement to post prices should not be clouded by the statement that “hospitals are actually reimbursed different amounts by different insurers”. While this is a true statement, it is a distraction and list prices should still be posted.

Crack down on sham Joint Ventures. These are the joint ventures where a hospital purchases a physician’s practice. They then designate the physician’s office to be an “outpatient satellite of the hospital”. They then receive increased reimbursements from insurers and the government because services are reimbursed more generously when provided in a hospital setting versus a physician’s office. Notice, nothing has changed except the sign on the door, that now says “part of the University Hospital Network” or something similar. Literally nothing has changed except the sign on the door and the reimbursement, which has increased dramatically. In some cases the increased prices are justified on the basis of “rolling the new practice into the Electronic Medical Record of the hospital”. EMRs were supposed to reduce costs. Weren’t they?

Limit “empire building”, where every hospital in a community feels they need to provide all things to all people- this results in “a cath lab on every corner”, low utilization for all, and increased prices to cover high fixed costs.

Broaden the scope of practice for physician assistants, nurse practitioners and similar professionals, known as “physician extenders”. This means that these extenders are allowed to do more, which allows costs to decline. A concrete example would be for the Minute Clinics at CVS to be able to provide a broader range of services.

Implement a mandate for providers of all types to accept government plans. (Philosophically, this is where we need to understand that it is PROVIDING health care that is the privilege). Physicians, hospitals and other providers should not be able to pick and choose whom they see based on finances- a government plan should be sufficient. Providers who decline should not be eligible for government grants, tax subsidies, meaningful use payments or other government programs.

Create a national provider network. This will become important when insurance can be purchased across state lines. The challenge here is not the selling of insurance, but the delivery. If Blue Cross of Ohio sells a policy to someone who lives in Kentucky, but has no provider network in Kentucky, the person who bought the policy would need to go to Ohio for all of their care. A national provider network would address this. In practice, this is no more complicated than accepting Medicare, though I am not suggesting we combine the ACA with Medicare.

Pharmaceutical Companies
Implement price controls for very expensive drugs. In general, I am talking about “Specialty Pharmacy”, where we see drugs of $1000 per dose or $100,000 per year or more. Frequently the number of patients on a particular drug, or the patent protection held by the manufacturer, does not allow for a competitive market to exist. This is one of the rare cases where I support direct regulation.

Device Manufacturers and other suppliers
Similar to Pharma, above, some level of regulation is appropriate here to prevent price gouging, particularly for new devices and technologies that are protected.

Allow the sale of policies across state lines (see comment on National Provider Network under Physicians above).

Maintain limitations on exclusions for pre-existing conditions.

Maintain MLR requirements (Medical Loss Ratio) for insurers. Currently, insurers are required to spend 85% to 90% of revenues on actual medical expenses, as opposed to marketing and administrative costs. If and when medical costs decline, as this ratio is preserved, the costs of the actual policy must decline too, instead of increasing profits.

Allow walk-in testing without a physician order.

Allow (require) a-la-carte pricing

Dialysis, Chemotherapy, Surgery and Imaging Centers
Require price transparency at the point of service.

Use government purchasing power to negotiate these prices downward.

Require consumers to take more responsibility. Smokers should pay increased rates.

The Federal and State Governments
Allow government payors to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies.

Create a public option to provide insurance competition in all markets.

Plan Design
Reduce the breadth of services required for minimum plans.

-Offer catastrophic only coverage.

-Offer maternity and pediatric coverage as a rider, directed towards those planning families. This is generally, though not always a planned event. Today, it is treated as an “unforeseen illness”, which it is not. This might be one area where government subsidies are helpful, as the pool of people purchasing this coverage will be smaller than 100% of the population.

Increase funding for expansion of Community Health Centers, funded through the Health Resources and Services Admistration (HRSA).

Expand the infrastructure for Remote Medicine. The vision here is diabetics testing themselves and corresponding with professionals remotely, e.g. email; or a patient with Congestive Heart Failure using a digital scale to remotely transmit their daily weight to professionals. This vision is less geared towards telemedicine, which envisions a specialist having a real-time discussion with a patient using expensive video technology and other devices.

These recommendations are designed to reduce the actual costs in the system, as well as to increase the cost effectiveness of the system (e.g. Community Health Centers).

Bending the so-called cost curve is simply not enough. Traditional cost shifting is not enough. We need to reduce actual costs significantly below the level of where they are today.

The time is now!