ObamaCare: Not Promoting Quality Care As Planned

At The Health Care Blog, Jeff Goldsmith and Bruce Henderson of Navigant Healthcare offer a grim assessment of ObamaCare’s performance that is worth quoting at length:

The historic health reform law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in March, 2010 was widely expected to catalyze a shift in healthcare payment from “volume to value” through multiple policy changes. The Affordable Care Act’s new health exchanges were going to double or triple the individual health insurance market, channeling tens of millions of new lives into new “narrow network” insurance products expected to evolve rapidly into full risk contracts.

In addition, the Medicare Accountable Care Organization (ACO) program created by ACA would succeed in reducing costs and quickly scale up to cover the entire non-Medicare Advantage population of beneficiaries (currently about 70% of current enrollees) and transition provider payment from one-sided to global/population based risk. Finally, seeking to avoid the looming “Cadillac tax” created by ACA, larger employers would convert their group health plans to defined contribution models to cap their health cost liability, and channel tens of millions of their employees into private exchanges which would, in turn, push them into at-risk narrow networks organized around specific provider systems. 

Three Surprising Developments
Well, guess what? It is entirely possible that none of these things may actually come to pass or at least not to the degree and pace predicted. At the end of 2015, a grand total of 8.8 million people had actually paid the premiums for public exchange products, far short of the expected 21 million lives for 2016. As few as half this number may have been previously uninsured. It remains to be seen how many of the 12.7 million who enrolled in 2016’s enrollment cycle will actually pay their premiums, but the likely answer is around ten million. Public exchange enrollment has been a disappointment thus far, largely because the plans have been unattractive to those not eligible for federal subsidy. 

Moreover, even though insurers obtained deep discounts from frightened providers for the new narrow network exchange products (70% of exchange products were narrow networks), the discounts weren’t deep enough to cover the higher costs of the expensive new enrollees who signed up. Both newly launched CO-OP plans created by ACA and experienced large carriers like United and Anthem were swamped in poor insurance risks, and lost hundreds of millions on their exchange lives. As for the shifting of risk, it looks like 90% plus of these new contracts were one-sided risk only, shadowing and paying providers on the basis of fee-for-service, with bonuses for those who cut costs below spending targets. Only 10% actually penalized providers for overspending their targets.

The Medicare Accountable Care Organization/Medicare Shared Savings Program, advertised as a bold departure from conventional Medicare payment policy, has been the biggest disappointment among the raft of CMS Innovation Center initiatives. ACO/MSSP enrollment appears to have topped out at 8.3 million of Medicare’s 55 million beneficiaries. The first wave, the Pioneer ACOs, lost three-fourths of their 32 original participating organizations, including successful managed care players like HealthCare Partners, Sharp Healthcare, and Presbyterian Healthcare of New Mexico and others. The second, much larger wave of regular MSSP ACO participants lost one third of their renewal cohort. Only about one-quarter of ACO/MSSP participants generated bonuses, and those bonuses were highly concentrated in a relative handful of successful participants. 

Of the 477 Medicare ACO’s, a grand total of 52, or 11%, have downside risk, crudely analogous to capitation. As of last fall, CMS acknowledged that factoring in the 40% of ACO/MSSP members who exceeded their spending targets and the costs of the bonuses paid to the ACOs who met them, the ACO/MSSP programs have yet to generate black ink for the federal budget. And this does not count the billions care systems have spent in setting up and running their ACOs. It is extremely unlikely that the Medicare ACO program will be made mandatory, or voluntarily grow to replace DRGs and the Medicare Part B fee schedule. 

And the Cadillac Tax, that 40% tax imposed by ACA on high cost employee benefit plans, a potentially transformative event in the large group health insurance market, which was scheduled to be levied in 2018, was “postponed” for two years (to 2020) by an overwhelming Congressional vote. In the Senate, a 90-10 bipartisan majority actually voted to kill the tax outright, strongly suggesting that strong opposition from unions and large employers will prevent the tax from ever being levied. Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has announced her support for killing the tax. So the expected transformative event in the large group market has proven too heavy a lift for the political system. 

As a result, the enrollment of large group workers in private health exchanges, the intended off-ramp for employers with Cadillac tax problems, has arrested at about 8 million, one-fifth of a recent forecast of 40 million lives by 2018. Thus, the conversion of the enormous large group market members to narrow network products seems unlikely to happen. As a recent New York Times investigation revealed, the reports of the demise of traditional group health insurance coverage (based on broad network PPO models) have been greatly exaggerated.