Trump’s Next Phase on Health Care: Everywhere and Nowhere
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A hodgepodge of news this week is telling the confusing and contradictory story of President Donald Trump’s efforts to change American health care.
On Monday, a federal judge blocked the administration’s efforts to force drugmakers to disclose the often astronomical list prices of medicines in their TV ads. It was intended to shame pharma into lowering prices, and would have been the first of the Trump administration’s major drug-cost initiatives to actually take effect. On Tuesday, oral arguments were set for a Department of Justice-backed case that could wipe out the Affordable Care Act. Wednesday will reportedly see the president reveal an ambitious set of initiatives intended to rein in spending on kidney costs.
The kidney initiative is among the administration’s better notions, along with its effort to index some drug costs covered by Medicare to the lower prices available abroad. Yet even when the administration lands on a good idea in health care, it seems to get in its own way. The Trump-backed ACA lawsuit, for example, would directly undermine the kidney initiative and price-indexing plan. And while the president has a variety of other proposals in the works – from an effort to pass drug discounts directly to consumers to a plan to force hospitals to make their pricing transparent – many could be exposed to the kind of legal risks that killed the drug-ad initiative. It’s all part of a scattershot and often incoherent approach that isn’t as effective as it could be.
Take the kidney-care push: this area of treatment is costly in part because the current system incentivizes expensive care at dialysis centers that are largely run by two companies: DaVita Inc. and Fresenius Medical Care AG. (Peter Grauer, the chairman of Bloomberg LP, is the lead independent director at DaVita.) The Department of Health and Human Services reportedly wants to change that dynamic with new payment models intended to shift patients to more cost-effective treatment at home. At least part of the administration’s ability to implement those models comes from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Innovation Center, which was created by the ACA and is threatened by the lawsuit.
The contradictions don’t end there. People with end-stage kidney disease are covered by Medicare, so the lawsuit wouldn’t strip their coverage. However, the administration’s plan reportedly emphasizes intervening before people get to the point where they need dialysis or transplants. Killing the ACA is at direct odds with that goal. It would see millions lose insurance coverage, would eliminate protections for people with pre-existing conditions like chronic kidney disease, and crimp access to preventative care.
Though it is a long shot, the court case demonstrates the administration’s inconsistency in health care. Just about every health initiative would be harmed by the disruption that would result if this lawsuit succeeds, especially considering that the administration doesn’t have a replacement plan. If it were serious about keeping people off of dialysis or curing HIV, it would oppose this suit and stop other ongoing efforts that harm the ACA’s individual market and Medicaid.
The administration hasn’t detailed an ACA alternative because its previous effort to pass one was a political disaster that helped Democrats seize control of the House of Representatives in 2018. Instead, its health-care efforts have largely been confined to executive orders and rule-making. That approach narrows the scope of what the administration can accomplish, and comes with significant risks. If a federal judge thinks that forcing the disclosure of drug prices in ads is an overreach, there’s clearly a chance that the administration’s more ambitious plans will also have issues.
I’m rooting for the kidney effort. It targets a real problem and could have an impact, depending on the details. I’d be more optimistic about the plan’s chances if it were part of a cohesive set of policies that had Congressional backing, rather than the current jumble.
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Max Nisen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, pharma and health care. He previously wrote about management and corporate strategy for Quartz and Business Insider.
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