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High Time to Trust Patients, Physicians

The days of trusting your legislators to have your best interests at heart are in the rearview mirror. Apparently, their main interest is parroting the buzzwords of the moment to get elected and then being too busy banking lobbying money to listen to the voters. Our legislators have become spectators who wait for the perfect moment to pounce on their political enemy and then go on cable news shows to boast about it.

The “us against them” attitude, punctuated by hyperbolic, apocalyptic rhetoric, closes the door to finding solutions. Our interests would be better served by having town hall meetings where voters could state their concerns, air their differences and learn what legislators are doing about their issues. Caution: Meetings at 9 a.m. on Wednesday ,when paid activists are guaranteed to outflank the working general public, are prohibited.

There are strong differences of opinion on how to attain a healthy citizenry. Educating potential patients about what drives up medical care expenditures can start the conversation. Well-informed patients would demand solutions based not on corporate interests or government or political agendas but on a fair, competitive market that maximizes choices and achieves lower costs.

Eight years of the Affordable Care Act have borne out Congressional Budget Office predictions that abandoning basic principles of insurance—which compensates only for events beyond the insured’s control and is priced according to the degree of risk—would lead to higher and higher premiums, fewer participating insurers and unsustainable government expenditures to subsidize insurance premiums. The data in three recent Centers for Medicare and Medicaid reports on ACA exchanges show “individual market erosion and increasing taxpayer liability.” The average monthly premium for coverage purchased through the exchanges rose 27% in 2018, and federal premium subsidies increased 39% from 2017 to 2018.

See also: 10 Reasons Healthcare Won’t Be Disrupted  

A less frequently discussed cost driver is the disturbing trend of private doctors’ offices being scooped up by hospitals, health insurance companies and venture capital groups. Prices tend to rise when health systems merge, because of decreased competition. And not only do hospitals and health systems generally charge more than private physicians’ offices, the government compounds this problem by paying more to hospitals than independent offices for the same service. A review of 2015 Medicare payments showed that Medicare paid $1.6 billion more for basic visits at hospital outpatient clinics than for visits to private offices. Patients are the biggest losers: They paid $400 million more out of pocket and had their tax dollars wasted. The study also found hospital-employed physicians’ practice patterns in cardiology, orthopedic and gastroenterology services led to a 27% increase in Medicare costs. This translated to a 21% increase in out-of-pocket costs for patients.

Similarly, a U.C. Berkeley School of Public Health study of consolidation of California’s hospital, physician and insurance markets from 2010 to 2016 concluded: “Highly concentrated markets are associated with higher prices for a number of hospital and physician services and Affordable Care Act (ACA) premiums.” In consolidated markets (defined by the Federal Trade Commission’s Horizontal Merger Guidelines), prices for inpatient procedures were 79% higher, and outpatient physician prices ranged from 35% to 63% higher (depending on the physician specialty) than less concentrated markets.

Big medicine and third-party financing are taking the cost curve in the wrong direction. This speaks to the urgency of encouraging cash-friendly practices that bypass insurance and supporting direct primary care (DPC) practices. With DPC, all primary care services and access to low-priced commonly used medications are included in an affordable upfront price. Importantly, DPC’s time-intensive and individualized management of chronic diseases decrease hospital admissions, paring Medicare’s $17 billion spent on avoidable readmissions.

See also: How to Optimize Healthcare Benefits  

Why corporations want to marginalize private practice seems clear; the government’s motive is open to debate. Surveys consistently find that patients overwhelmingly want “personalized provider interactions.” Thus, herding patients into government-directed programs is not the solution. One core problem with government systems is their reliance on the goodwill of politicians. As President Ford said, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take everything you have.”

It’s time for Congress to scrutinize anti-competitive health system mergers. It’s time to bring to the floor more than a dozen bills to expand and improve Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) to give patients more control over all facets of their medical care.

Congress, the clock is ticking on this legislative session. Stand up for patients. Or did the dog eat your courage?

How a GOP Congress Could Fix Obamacare

Republicans are primed to take over Congress. A new FiveThirtyEight.com projection gives the GOP a 60% chance of winning the Senate this fall. And, according to RealClearPolitics, there’s virtually no chance Democrats will take the House.

If the GOP succeeds, public displeasure with Obamacare may be why. A recent poll from Bankrate.com found that more than two-thirds of voters say that Obamacare will play a role in how they vote in the coming election. Nearly half said it would influence them “in a major way.”

Of course, the next Congress has little hope of repealing Obamacare outright. The president would just issue a veto. Overriding it — though technically possible — would be difficult with an intransigent Democrat minority.

A GOP majority should instead focus on incremental reforms with bipartisan support — like tax cuts, regulatory reforms and repeal of some of Obamacare’s most unpopular mandates. That’s the most effective way for lawmakers to move our health care system toward one that puts markets and patients at its center.

Step one? Repeal Obamacare’s medical-device tax. This 2.3% excise charge on all device sales is expected to collect $29 billion over the next decade, according to government data.

Device firms are compensating by cutting jobs. Stryker, for instance, has cut 5% of its workforce — about 1,000 people. Zimmer Holdings has chopped 450 jobs. In total, Obamacare’s device tax could kill 43,000 jobs, according to Diana Furchtgott-Roth, an economist at the Hudson Institute.

Getting rid of the tax is a no-brainer. In March 2013, 79 senators — including 34 Democrats — approved a non-binding resolution calling for its repeal. It’s time to make that vote binding.

Second, a GOP-controlled Congress should strengthen health savings accounts. These financial vehicles allow patients to stow away money tax-free for medical expenses. HSAs are typically coupled with high-deductible health insurance. Patients bear the cost of routine care, and coverage kicks in when needed, like in the event of a medical emergency.

HSAs give patients a financial incentive to avoid unnecessary medical expenses. Converting someone to HSA-based insurance drops her annual health expenses by an average of 17%.

This year, 17.4 million people are enrolled in HSA-eligible plans — a nearly 14% increase over 2013. Among large employers, 36% now offer HSA/high-deductible plans, up from 14% five years ago.

Annual HSA contributions are currently capped at $3,350 for an individual and $6,550 for a family. Congress should raise them to $6,250 and $12,500, respectively. And patients with HSA coverage through the exchanges should be eligible for a one-time, $1,000 refundable tax credit to be deposited directly into their account.

Third, the new Congress should reform medical malpractice. Frivolous lawsuits and the threat of baseless litigation are increasing health costs and degrading quality of care.

Excessive malpractice suits drive “defensive” medicine, in which doctors order unnecessary procedures and tests simply to shield against accusations of negligence. This practice costs the country an estimated $210 billion every year, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Injecting common sense into the medical tort system would bring down that bill.

Earlier this year, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a bill that restricted lawsuits against doctors by, among other things, limiting non-economic damage judgments to $250,000. It was effectively ignored once it moved out of committee. Republicans should dust it off and pass it.

Finally, the GOP should repeal Obamacare’s employer mandate, which slaps midsize and large companies with a fine if they don’t provide sufficiently “robust” health coverage to full-time employees.

The mandate is destroying jobs. Employers are holding off on hiring and ratcheting back workers’ hours to avoid additional insurance costs. A Gallup poll found that 85% of businesses are not looking to hire. Nearly half cited rising healthcare costs.

There’s ample political support for repealing the employer mandate. The administration has already unilaterally — and maybe illegally — delayed its implementation. Several prominent backers have openly called for repeal.

All of these reform ideas are imminently actionable. They could find broad bipartisan backing and avoid a veto. Most importantly, they would move U.S. healthcare closer to a consumer-driven system, with patients empowered to control their own spending and market forces pushing costs down.