Promises Kept? On Health Care, Trump’s Claims of ‘Monumental Steps’ Don’t Add Up
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Promises Kept? On Health Care, Trump’s Claims of ‘Monumental Steps’ Don’t Add Up

President Donald Trump unveiled his “America First Healthcare Plan” on Sept. 24 in Charlotte, N.C. (Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

When it comes to health care, President Donald Trump has promised far more than he has delivered. But that doesn’t mean his administration has had no impact on health issues — including the operation of the Affordable Care Act, prescription drug prices and women’s access to reproductive health services.

In a last-ditch effort to raise his approval rating on an issue on which he trails Democrat Joe Biden in most polls, Trump on Thursday unveiled his “America First Healthcare Plan,” which includes a number of promises with no details and pumps some minor achievements into what the administration calls “monumental steps to improve the efficiency and quality of healthcare in the United States.”

As the election nears, here is a brief breakdown of what Trump has done — and has not done — on some key health issues.

Affordable Care Act

Trump has not managed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, despite his claims that the law is dead.

But his administration, and Republicans in Congress, have made changes to weaken the law while not dramatically affecting enrollment in marketplace plans.

Congress failed to rewrite the law in summer 2017, but Republicans who controlled both the House and Senate at the time included in their year-end tax cut bill a provision that reduced the penalty for failing to have health insurance to zero. That change eliminated what was by far the most unpopular provision of the law.

It also sparked a lawsuit by Republican state attorneys general and governors arguing that the tax change undercuts the law and thus should invalidate it. The case is set to be heard by the Supreme Court the week after the Nov. 3 election. The Trump administration is formally supporting the GOP plaintiffs in that suit.

The administration also used executive and regulatory action to chip away at the law’s efficacy. Trump ended disputed cost-sharing subsidies to help insurers lower out-of-pocket costs for policyholders with low incomes. And the administration shortened the open enrollment period by half and slashed the budget for promoting the plans and paying people to help others navigate the often-confusing process of signing up.

Administration officials have complained that plans sold on the ACA marketplaces are not affordable, so they set new rules that allowed companies to sell competing “short-term” policies that were less expensive than ACA-sanctioned plans. But those plans are not required to provide comprehensive benefits or cover preexisting conditions.

An administration initiative that might strengthen the individual market is a new rule allowing employers who do not offer group health insurance coverage to reimburse workers buying an individual plan that complies with certain ACA requirements. In the past, these “health reimbursement arrangements” more strictly limited the way employers could help workers pay out-of-pocket costs for medical care. The rules took effect this year, shortly before the pandemic emerged, so it’s unclear yet what impact they have had.

Now, weeks before the election, federal officials are taking credit for premiums coming down, slightly, on ACA plans. “Premiums have gone down across all of our programs, including in healthcare.gov, which had been previously seeing double-digit rate increases,” Seema Verma, who runs Medicare, Medicaid and the ACA exchanges, told reporters in a Sept. 24 conference call.

Premiums have come down this past year, confirmed Sabrina Corlette, who tracks the ACA as co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University, but only after many of the Trump administration’s changes had driven them even higher. Insurers were spooked by the uncertainty — particularly in 2017, about whether the law would be repealed — and Trump’s cutoff of federal funding for subsidies.

“The bottom line is, rates have gone up under Trump,” Corlette said.

Women’s Reproductive Health

Before he was elected, Trump pledged his allegiance to anti-abortion activists, who in turn urged their supporters to vote for him. But unlike many previous GOP presidents who called themselves “pro-life” but pushed the issue to the back burner, Trump has delivered on many of his promises to abortion foes.

Foremost, Trump has nominated two justices to the Supreme Court who were supported by anti-abortion advocates. With the help of the GOP Senate, Trump has also placed 200 conservative judges on federal district and appeals courts.

While many of the policy proposals advanced by the Trump administration are tied up in court, the sheer volume of activity has been notable, outstripping in less than four years efforts by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush over each of their two-term presidencies.

Among those actions is a re-implementation and broadening of the “Mexico City Policy” that restricts foreign aid funding to organizations that “perform or promote” abortion. The administration has also moved to push Planned Parenthood out of the federal family planning program and Medicaid program. In addition, it has moved to make private insurance that covers abortion harder to purchase under the Affordable Care Act.

Trump’s efforts on women’s reproductive health reach beyond abortion to birth control. New rules would make it easier for employers with a “moral or religious objection” to decline to offer birth control as a health insurance benefit. Other rules would make it easier for health workers to decline to participate in any procedure to which they personally object.

COVID-19

Trump often claims that his decision in February to stop most travel from China was a critical factor in keeping the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. from being worse than it has been. But the “travel ban” not only failed to stop many people from entering the U.S. from China anyway, scientists would later determine that the virus that spread widely in New York and other cities on the East Coast most likely came from Europe.

Although the White House has a coronavirus task force, the administration primarily has allowed states and localities to determine their own restrictions and timetables for closing and opening. The administration also had difficulty distributing medical supplies from a stockpile established for exactly this purpose. The president’s son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, said at one point that the purpose of the stockpile was to supplement state supplies, not provide them.

Testing was also a problem. An early test developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention turned out to be faulty, and despite continued promises by administration officials, testing remains less available six months into the pandemic than most experts recommend. Meanwhile, Trump has claimed repeatedly — and falsely — that if the U.S. did less testing there would be fewer cases of the virus.

But many public health observers say the administration’s biggest failing during the pandemic has been the lack of a single national message about the coronavirus and the best ways to prevent its spread.

More than 200,000 people in this country have died. Although the United States has only 4% of the world’s population, it has recorded 21% of the fatalities around the globe.

Prescription Drug Costs

Trump pledged to attack high drug costs as one of his main campaign themes in 2016 and again this year. But he has not had the success he hoped for.

In one of the administration’s biggest moves, the Department of Health and Human Services approved a rule last week that allows states to set up programs to import drugs from Canada, where they are cheaper because the Canadian government limits prices. Yet, it’s unclear if the program will get off the ground, given drug industry opposition and resistance from the Canadian government.

In his health care policy speech Thursday, Trump promised to send each Medicare beneficiary a $200 discount card over the next several months to help them buy prescription drugs. The initiative is being done under a specific innovation program and must not add to the deficit. Administration officials Friday could not answer where they will get the nearly $7 billion to pay for what is perceived by many observers as a last-ditch stunt to win votes from older Americans.

The president previously signed an executive order that seeks to tie the price Medicare pays for drugs to a lower international reference price. The administration, however, hasn’t released formal regulations to implement the policy, which could take years, and the policy is expected to be challenged in court by the drug industry.

In addition, Medicare will cap the price of insulin at $35 per prescription starting in 2021 for people getting coverage through some drug plans. More than 3 million Medicare beneficiaries use insulin to control their diabetes.

Trump also signed a law banning gag clauses used by health plans and pharmacy benefit managers to bar pharmacists from telling consumers about lower-priced drug options.

The administration’s plan to require drug companies to provide prices in pharmaceutical advertising has been beaten back in court.

The administration points to the increased number of generic drugs that have been approved since Trump was elected, but many of those drugs are not on the market. That’s because generic companies sometimes make deals with brand-name manufacturers to delay introducing lower-cost versions of their medicines.

At the same time, several bills the president supported to lower prices have stalled in Congress because of partisan differences and industry opposition.

“I don’t think there has been any meaningful action that has had meaningful effect on drug prices,” said Katie Gudiksen, a senior health policy researcher at The Source on Healthcare Price and Competition, a project of UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

Yet, she said, it’s possible Trump’s harsh criticism of the industry has had a chilling effect that led to lower prices.

Still, out-of-pocket costs for many individuals continue to climb as private and government insurance shifts more responsibility to the patient via higher cost sharing. Good Rx, an online site that tracks drug prices, noted this month that prescription drug prices have increased by 33% since 2014, faster than any other medical service or product.

Medicaid

The Trump administration has tried — but largely failed — to make many major changes to the state-federal health insurance program that covers more than 70 million low-income Americans.

Efforts by Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act would have ended the federal funding for the District of Columbia and the 38 states that expanded their programs for everyone with incomes under 138% of the federal poverty level, or about $17,609 for an individual. About 15 million people have gained coverage through the expansion.

Trump administration officials have argued that Medicaid should be reserved for the most vulnerable Americans, including traditional enrollees such as children, pregnant women and the disabled, and not used for non-disabled adults who gained coverage under the ACA’s expansion. Since Trump took office, seven states have expanded Medicaid — Idaho, Maine, Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Utah and Virginia.

In 2018, federal officials allowed states for the first time to require some enrollees to work as a condition for Medicaid coverage. The effort resulted in more than 18,000 Medicaid enrollees losing coverage in Arkansas before a federal judge halted implementation in that state and several others. The case has been appealed to the Supreme Court.

The administration also backed a move in Congress to change the way the federal government funds Medicaid. Since Medicaid’s inception in 1966, federal funding has increased with enrollment and health costs. Republicans would like to instead offer states annual block grants that critics say would dramatically reduce state funding but that proponents say would give states more flexibility to meet their needs.

When the congressional attempt to establish block grants failed, the administration tried through executive action to implement a process allowing states to opt into a block grant. Yet only one state — Oklahoma — applied for a waiver to move to block-grant funding, and it withdrew its request in August, two weeks after voters there narrowly passed a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid to 200,000 residents.

Medicaid enrollment fell from 75 million in January 2017 to about 71 million in March 2018. Then the pandemic took hold and caused millions of people to lose jobs and their health coverage. As of May, Medicaid enrollment nationally was 73.5 million.

The administration’s decision to expand the “public charge” rule, which would allow federal immigration officials to more easily deny permanent residency status to those who depend on certain public benefits, such as Medicaid, has discouraged many people from applying for Medicaid, said Judith Solomon, senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research group based in Washington, D.C. 

Medicare

Seniors were among Trump’s most loyal voters in 2016, and he has promised repeatedly to protect the popular Medicare program. But not all his proposals would help the seniors who depend on it.

For example, invalidating the Affordable Care Act would eliminate new preventive benefits for Medicare enrollees and reopen the notorious “doughnut hole” that subjects many seniors to large out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs, even if they have insurance.

Trump also signed several pieces of legislation that accelerate the depletion of the Medicare trust fund by cutting taxes that support the program. And his budget for fiscal 2021 proposed Medicare cuts totaling $450 billion.

At the same time, however, the administration implemented policies dramatically expanding payment for telehealth services as well as a kidney care initiative for the millions of patients who qualify for Medicare as a result of advanced kidney disease.

Surprise Billing

Trump in May 2019 promised to end surprise billing, which leaves patients on the hook for often-exorbitant bills from hospitals, doctors and other professionals who provide service not covered by insurance.

The problem typically occurs when patients receive care at health facilities that are part of their insurance network but are treated by practitioners who are not. Other sources of surprise billing include ambulance companies and emergency room physicians and anesthesiologists, among other specialties.

An effort to end the practice stalled in Congress as some industry groups pushed back against legislative proposals.

“The administration was supportive of the pretty consumer-friendly approaches, but obviously it doesn’t have any results to speak of,” said Loren Adler, associate director of the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy in Los Angeles.

“At the end of the day, plenty of people in Congress did not really want to get something done,” he said.

Taking a different route, the administration finalized a rule last November that requires hospitals to provide price information to consumers. The rule will take effect Jan. 1. A federal judge shot down an attempt by hospitals to block the rule, although appeals are expected.

Brian Blase, a former Trump adviser, said this effort could soon help consumers. “Arguably, the No. 1 problem with surprise bills is that people have no idea what prices are before they receive care,” he said.

But Adler said the rule would have a “very minor effect” because most consumers don’t look at prices before deciding where to seek care — especially during emergencies.

Public Health/Opioids

Obesity and the opioid addiction epidemic were two of the nation’s biggest public health threats until the coronavirus pandemic hit this year.

The number of opioid deaths has shown a modest decline after a dramatic increase over the past decade. Overall, overdose death rates fell by 4% from 2017 to 2018 in the United States. New CDC data shows that, over the same period, death rates involving heroin also decreased by 4% and overdose death rates involving prescription drugs decreased by 13.5%.

The administration increased funding to expand treatment programs for people using heroin and expanded access to naloxone, a medication that can reverse an overdose, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Meanwhile, the nation’s obesity epidemic is worsening. Obesity, a risk factor for severe effects of COVID-19, continues to become more common, according to the CDC.

Twelve states — Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia — have a self-reported adult obesity prevalence of 35% or more, up from nine states in 2018 and six in 2017.

Benjamin said some of the administration’s other policies, such as reducing access to food stamps and undermining clean air and water regulations, have made improving public health more difficult.

But the pandemic has been the major public health issue this administration has faced.

“We were doing a reasonable job addressing the opioid epidemic until COVID hit,” Benjamin said. “This shows the fragility of our health system, that we cannot manage these three epidemics at the same time.”

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

[Update: This story was updated on Sept. 30, 2020, at 6:15 a.m. PT to add details about the administration’s plan to expand the use of health reimbursement arrangements.]

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