It was interesting to read such a wonky OpEd by Doug Badger in the 3/14/17 edition of Twin Cities Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com/2017/03/14/doug-badger-have-20-million-people-gained-coverage-under-the-aca/, later reprinted in The Record http://www.recordnet.com/opinion/20170314/guest-view-that-20-million-figure-impact-of-obamacare-often-overstated. He raises interesting questions about the accuracy of the mostly politically sourced data about the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, and the new Trump-Ryan-Bannon-Price Withdrawel of Care program humorously called the American Health Care Act or AHCA. He challenges the numbers tossed around about estimates of who gained coverage under the ACA. Doug’s assessment that the number of individuals who benefited from the ACA may be overstated is one piece of the puzzle that warrants further discussion. While an understanding of the number of people that gained coverage under the ACA, and how many more will lose it under any Republican idea proposed so far, including the AHCA, is essential to planning and to the metrics of success or failure, Doug kind of misses the forest for the trees.
Health care is complicated, and not something that lends itself to simplified political positions and silly slogans. It needs thoughtful analysis from many angles. There are so many moving parts including building, operating, and maintaining health care facilities, the location of such facilities, duplication of really expensive equipment for the sake of “being competitive,” the complicated business and clinical systems that deliver care, the training and licensing of the people who are “providers” of care, the health, mental and physical condition of the clients, their method of payment, and so much more. All of this so far has been paid for under the system of “Fee for Service” through the channels of private payments and insurance benefit remuneration. While Fee for Service is not a perfect system, and leads to a great deal of inefficiency, unnecessary duplication of equipment and facilities, and potentially massive overtreatment and profiteering, it secures a predictable flow of cash for providers and health care systems.
Deconstructing the “health care system” by looking at any one factor really doesn’t paint an accurate picture unless one understands the system as a whole. “Insurance coverage” is one such factor, and though very important, it has little to say directly about the “effects” of coverage. Whether the number of people who gained some level of coverage increased by 20 million, or something less, is really not the issue. The real issue is what happened in the last seven years when those folks gained coverage. A transfer of wealth in the form of taxes from the top 1% provided insurance subsidies and directly funded Medicaid eligibility for millions of the poorest Americans. To determine what effects that investment had on the system overall requires the analysis of huge amounts of data about each of the moving parts mentioned above, and many more. That analysis is important because it speaks directly to what will collapse when those now receiving coverage lose it, and the taxes flow back into the wallets of the extremely wealthy, which is really all Trump-Ryan Care promises.
Let’s look at just two effects, and the benefits derived on a system-wide level from these effects. Many of those who received new coverage under the ACA were unemployed poor or working class poor with marginal employment. Many qualified for either good quality employer based plans under the employer mandates, or an affordable individual plan, maybe with subsidies, from an exchange, or became eligible or aware of eligibility for Medicaid under the exchanges. Suddenly, the whole picture of health care delivery shifted dramatically in participating states. There was new and predictable remuneration infusing into a system that previously was required to provide services for “free.” One effect was emergency departments suddenly had far fewer patients needing to be treated for free, and those formerly lost fees no longer had to be subsidized by private paying patients and insurance covered patients. So hospital and community clinics could actually plan, based upon expected (and discounted) fee revenue, and shift operations by creating more appropriate facilities and systems. Some of them expanded or bifurcated their emergency departments to create spaces designed more like outpatient clinics. Others added new drop-in outpatient services.
A second effect was fewer really sick people. Suddenly, people who had never before seen a physician, began seeking care instead of remaining undiagnosed. Some specialty clinics that formerly treated mainly uninsured people in publically owned, university, or not-for-profit facilities, such as cancer treatment centers, are now seeing patients who have a new source of payment for services. This predictability of payment has allowed the expansion of cancer centers and other surgical facilities in participating centers. While the “Fee for Service” model is not necessarily the most efficient or appropriate, it is at least predictable when you can identify the source of payment for every patient and every procedure.
The other side of this coin is the sudden loss of coverage looming under all of the Republican proposals so far. Trump/Ryan Care-AHCA is not about delivering more health care at all. It is first a repeal of the ACA, and secondly, a “replacement” piece that is not replacement at all. It appears to be a tragic loss of coverage for some of the most vulnerable people in the land. The loss of funding for coverage is a transfer of wealth from insurance benefits, back to the most privileged Americans, the top 1% of wage earners and asset holders. Whether 5 million or twenty-four million lose their coverage isn’t the issue. The issue is the possible wholesale collapse of the health care systems that expanded under the ACA.