Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Health Care First Steps for President Biden and the Democratically Controlled Congress

After four years of the Trump administration's undermining of The Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, what can we expect over the next few months from the new administration?

On the regulatory side, not as much as you might expect.

During the campaign Biden talked about building on the law's success in covering the people it has covered––primarily through the Medicaid expansion and for lower income people who get the best subsidies in the insurance market.

A big difference will be an administration promoting the law, particularly during the fall's open enrollment, rather than decrying it as a complete failure

Democrats were harshly critical of the Trump administration's regulations to end the insurance exchange cost sharing subsidies as well as opening the market to lower cost short-term plans that did not comply with the ACA's benefit minimums.

But Trump's killing the cost sharing subsidies, that went to insurance companies, backfired by increasing consumer subsidies enabling people to buy the best Gold Plans while the carriers just raised the rates for the unsubsidized. If the Biden administration were to now repeal those regulations, before passing new legislation to improve the subsidy structure, it would mean that lower income people would see their subsidies reduced.

The Biden administration will have the same dilemma over the short-term plans. We now have about two million people covered by these plans, that critics often refer to as "junk insurance." These people largely bought these alternative plans because of the prohibitive premiums that those with minimal or no subsidies were faced with under Obamacare. If the Biden administration now repeals those rules, without first expanding the subsidies for these people, they will be left without any kind of insurance.

My sense is that the biggest short-term difference with this new administration will be one of attitude and support for the existing law and some minor regulatory changes around the edges. But, I would expect to see a backing off of Medicaid waivers that gave states the ability to broaden work requirements among other state flexibility that moved away from Medicaid's traditional entitlement promises.

Candidate Biden called for two major health care legislative initiatives: Controlling prescription drug prices through government price negotiation and expanding the ACA's insurance subsidies for the middle-class as well as adding a government-run public option.

The Trump administration began a regulatory process of having the federal government, through a pilot program, use a basket of other nation's negotiated drug prices here as well as to allow the "reimportation" of drugs from nations that have achieved lower prices for the same drugs. I would expect the Biden administration to take a careful look at these first steps in using government negotiation––albeit––another government's negotiation––short of getting the Congress to formally approve drug price regulation.

Candidate Biden also called for ending the income cap on who would be eligible for individual market insurance subsidies and lowering the maximum families would have to pay as a percentage of their incomes. Both of these steps would go a huge way toward making individual health insurance affordable for people who make too much for the best subsidies, or any subsidy.

First, it will likely be later this year before the Democrats can move on any major health care legislation. The slow start the Biden administration has had in the face of the election controversy, plus the time and political oxygen a Trump impeachment trial will take, doesn't make any quick action possible.

The Democrats will also have to use the Senate's budget reconciliation rules in order to move any such legislation with a simple majority.

The need to find a way to pay for any ACA/Obamacare expansion will also mean coupling health efforts with the budget reconciliation and Biden's promised tax increases for the wealthy.

Democrats have lots of spending priorities. Some of them could be wrapped up in an upcoming stimulus bill that will not be paid for with offsetting revenue. But under budget reconciliation rules, there will have to be offsets. The Democrats will have to first settle on just what they will do with the revenue from any tax increases.

None of this will be a slam dunk for a Democratic Congress that has a very slim working majority in the House and only a tie-breaking vice presidential vote in the Senate.

I don't doubt the votes will be there in both chambers to increase the subsidies. But passing a public option, taking on the drug industry lobby, and big tax increases to pay for it all, even on just the wealthy, will be by no means easy.

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