Happy about the Supreme Court’s ACA decision? Thank a law professor

By Rachel Sachs

[Originally published on The Conversation].

The core of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has now survived its second trip to the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority in King v Burwell, holding that the federal government may provide subsidies for citizens to purchase health insurance on exchanges that were established by the federal government, rather than by their own state.

A ruling for the challengers (the “King” in King v Burwell) would not only have stopped the flow of subsidies to 6.4 million people currently receiving them, but it would also have disrupted the functioning of the individual insurance markets in the 34 states that have not established their own exchanges. Continue reading

King v. Burwell And A Right To Health Care

Bill of Health contributor Gregory Curfman has a new piece up at the Health Affairs Blog discussing the Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell in the broader context of Americans’ right to care. From the piece:

Do Americans have a fundamental right to health care? This oft-debated question is timely given the Supreme Court’s stunning ruling yesterday in King v. Burwell, in which health insurance subsidies on the federal exchange were upheld in a 6-3 decision.

Here I will place the King v. Burwell opinion in the larger context of to what extent Americans are provided a right to care. The Constitution itself does not stipulate a general right to health care, but a patchwork of rights to certain aspects of health care have emerged over time from both constitutional and statutory law.

Read the full piece at the Health Affairs Blog!

Health Law Year in P/Review: Until Next Year

This new post by Holly F. Lynch, I. Glenn Cohen, and Gregory Curfman appears on the Health Affairs Blog as the final entry in a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015.

It’s been our great pleasure to collaborate with the Health Affairs Blog on this series stemming from theThird Annual Health Law Year in P/Review symposium at Harvard Law School. This annual event takes a look back over the prior year and previews the year to come with regard to hot topics in health law.

After the symposium, we asked our speakers to keep the conversation going online by expanding on their topics from different angles or by honing in on particularly intriguing features. These pieces were published on the Health Affairs Blog through the spring and into summer.

We heard more from Kevin Outterson on how to promote innovation in the development of new antibiotics, from Rachel Sachs on whether the Food and Drug Administration’s proposal to regulate laboratory-developed tests will really stifle innovation, and from Claire Laporte on the impact of recent Supreme Court decisions on bio-IP.

George Annas weighed in on the Ebola outbreak, which has already almost faded from public consciousness but offers important public health lessons, while Wendy Parmet and Andrew Sussman tackled important developments in tobacco control. […]

Read the full post here.

Hobby Lobby Fall Out

By David Orentlicher

[cross-posted at HealthLawProfs blog and orentlicher.tumblr.com]

For those who feared that the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision would open the door for employers to block contraceptive access for women in the workplace, welcome reassurance has come this week from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. According to the Fifth Circuit, when the Affordable Care Act requires that contraception coverage be available for workers at religiously-affiliated institutions, the Act also accommodates the scruples of employers who have religiously-based objections to contraceptive use.

As the Fifth Circuit observed, employers with religious objections to contraception can shift the responsibility for coverage to their insurers or the federal government. Hence, there is no unlawful burden on those employers from the mandate that health care plans cover the costs of contraception. Continue reading

King v. Burwell: Is the ACA Here to Stay?

With Chief Justice Roberts’ remarkably strong decision today for the Supreme Court in King v. Burwell millions of Americans can now rest assured:  affordable health insurance is here to stay.  There may not be a constitutional right to health care in the U.S., and thanks to the Court’s 2012 decision regarding the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, millions of citizens (not to mention non-citizens) remain uninsured; but the ACA’s promise of providing affordable coverage to millions of low income Americans is now secure.

The question before the Court in Burwell was whether individuals in the 34 states that rely on a federally-operated health insurance exchange, rather than a state-created exchange, are eligible for the federal tax credits. Without those credits, most people could not afford to buy insurance on the exchanges. Nor would they be subject to the ACA’s mandate to have coverage. As the Court recognized, as healthy people fled the exchanges, the insurance markets in states with federally-operated exchanges would experience a death spiral.

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Affordable Care, the Supreme Court, and the Wisdom of Crowds

By David Orentlicher

[cross-posted at HealthLawProfs blog and orentlicher.tumblr.com]

How will the Supreme Court rule on the challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies that help millions of lower- and middle-income Americans afford their health care coverage? According to FantasySCOTUS’s court watchers, who have correctly predicted more than 70 percent of Supreme Court decisions so far this year, Obamacare should remain intact.

This result is not surprising. The arguments in favor of the government are much stronger than are those for the challenger. To be sure, the challengers cite to two lines in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that authorize subsidies for insurance bought on state-operated health insurance exchanges, without mentioning federally-operated state exchanges. Hence, argue the challengers, subsidies should be provided only for insurance purchased on state-operated exchanges, which means in only about 1/3 of states. But other language in ACA indicates that the subsidies are available for insurance purchased on all exchanges. When a statute’s language is ambiguous and there are reasonable alternative interpretations, courts are supposed to defer to the executive branch’s interpretation, not substitute their own interpretation. Continue reading

Tackling Medicaid In Massachusetts

This new post by Jeffrey Sánchez appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) provides a number of tools to address longstanding problems in our fragmented health care system. At the national level, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are redefining Medicare through initiatives that promote payment and delivery reform, such as Shared Savings and Value-Based Purchasing. States are also seeking their own opportunities to move away from inefficient systems that reward volume over quality. In particular, state Medicaid programs have the potential to play a major role in these efforts.

Given the number of individuals Medicaid covers, it has the biggest potential impact in improving health care. Medicaid covers more than 1 in 5 Americans, funding more than 16 percent of total personal health spending in the United States. With ACA Medicaid expansion, enrollment increased in 2014 by 8.3 percent and led to an increased overall Medicaid spending growth of 10.2 percent. Total Medicaid spending growth in 2015 is expected to be 14.3 percent with a 13.2 percent enrollment growth. This is not an insignificant portion of both state and federal health care dollars. Thoughtful and concerted reforms to Medicaid have the potential to reduce spending and improve care quality. […]

Read the full article here.

How law professors helped the Supreme Court understand the Affordable Care Act

By Rachel Sachs

[Originally published on The Conversation].

In March, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in King v Burwell, a case that could broadly impact the functioning of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The central question in King v Burwell is whether the federal government may provide subsidies for citizens to purchase health insurance on exchanges that were established by the federal government, rather than by their own state. If the court rules for the government, these subsidies will remain in place. If the court rules against the government, subsidies may no longer be provided to people living in states that have not established their own exchanges.

A decision is expected by the end of June, and a ruling against the government could harm not only the 6.4 million people receiving these subsidies, but also the individual insurance markets in the 34 states that have not established their own exchanges. These markets would likely descend into an actuarial “death spiral,” in which healthier people exit the market in cycles, leaving sicker patients to pay ever-higher premiums. Continue reading

How Institutional Review Boards Can Support Learning Health Systems While Providing Meaningful Oversight

This new post by Mildred Solomon appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015.

Increasingly, health systems are studying their own practices in order to improve the quality of care they deliver. But many organizations do not know whether the data they collect at the point of care constitutes research, and if so, whether it requires informed consent. Further, many investigators report that institutional review boards (IRBs) place unreasonable burdens on learning activities, impeding systematic inquiry that is needed to enhance care.

As a result, some commentators have argued that our human research participant protection regulatory framework needs a dramatic overhaul. Yet, it is not the regulations that must change.

Instead, IRBs should educate themselves about quality improvement and comparative effectiveness research, exempt studies that qualify for exemption, and provide waivers to informed consent, when that is appropriate. At the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) must clarify the regulations that have an impact on this type of research, create better guidance about how IRBs should regulate such research, including illustrative case studies to guide IRBs.

Read the full post here.

Who needs to be involved in creating community health?

A slew of organizations, including most notably the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, are talking about creating a “culture of health” as a new way forward in US health policy. The underlying thinking assumes that legislative fixes, including the Affordable Care Act, will continue to be vehemently fought if attitudes towards health do not in some ways fundamentally change. Inherent in the idea of building a culture is incorporating unconventional actors and voices into discussions about how to improve outcomes at a local level. This has led public health strategists to ask new questions about who to involve in community health building efforts with an eye towards employers, small businesses, social service organizations and community institutions.

With this in mind, I recently spoke with Peter Doliber, Executive Director of the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCA about how he sees the Ys fitting into a plan to create health. His background is in public health and hospital administration, having worked in a range of communities to develop programs that increase access to health care, improve health outcomes and create a return on investment. Here’s an abbreviated version of our conversation.

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Grading the ACA as Equal Protection Statute

The Affordable Care Act is sprawling.  Some of its myriad provisions may (or may not!) reduce healthcare costs.  Think of accountable care organizations, the hospital readmission reduction program, or even the preventive services mandate.  And so, the Act’s success is often evaluated by asking whether it has helped reduce healthcare costs.  (See, e.g., David Cutler here.)

Other of the ACA’s provisions are intended to promote financial security in the face of illness.  The Act’s most litigated provisions, requiring that people buy insurance, expanding Medicaid, and creating exchanges, can be understood primarily in this light.  And so, the Act’s success is also often evaluated by asking whether it has truly promoted financial security.  (See today’s New York Times piece from Margoret Sangor-Katz on the subject of underinsurance post-ACA, or Aaron E. Carroll’s take from December.)

A third way of understanding the ACA’s reforms–and evaluating its success or failure–too often gets left out (as it was by the NY Times here): The ACA can perhaps most coherently be thought of as an equal protection statute.

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Regulating Wellness Through Employers: Mitigating the Knowledge Gap

Some of the behavioral changes that the Affordable Care Act seeks to bring about are prompted directly by the Act or a federal agency acting pursuant to the Act.  The “individual mandate” that people buy health insurance is one example; individuals who do not change their behavior to comply with that particular provision of the law are subject to a tax penalty imposed by the IRS.

But much of the work of the ACA is done through regulatory intermediaries that are themselves incentivized by the Act to find ways to bring about the end-user behavioral changes that the ACA is really after.  Medicaid expansion is a straightforward example–under the ACA the federal government does not provide insurance coverage to those who make less than 133% of the federal poverty line, rather, it incentivizes states to do so.  Accountable Care Organizations are another somewhat more roundabout example: the Act incentivizes doctors to form organizations that will themselves incentivize doctors to coordinate care and patients to obtain more value-maximizing services.

Like any principal-agent relationship, regulating through an intermediary has benefits and costs.  The intermediary (state, employer, insurer, doctor, etc.) may be differently positioned than the federal government to obtain information about, and influence the behavior of, the actors whose collective behavior we ultimately care about, for better or worse.  And certain intermediaries may be differently responsive to the concerns of those impacted by the policies they enact than the federal government, again for better or worse. Continue reading

Exploring The Significant State-To-State Variation In Marketplace Enrollment

This new post by the Petrie-Flom Center’s Academic Fellow Matthew J. B. Lawrence appears on the Health Affairs Blog, as part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015.

What role did geography, advertising, community, Navigators, and the controversy surrounding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) play in consumers’ decisions whether to purchase health insurance in the individual marketplaces? The percentage of potential exchange marketplace enrollees who actually made use of the marketplace to purchase insurance varied widely from state to state for 2014 and 2015.

As of February 22, 2015, for example, there were eight states with enrollment at 50 percent or greater and eight states with enrollment at 25 percent or lower. (Per the Kaiser Family Foundation, the top eight were Vermont, Florida, Maine, DC, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. The bottom eight were Colorado, Ohio, Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Iowa).

It would be an interesting and challenging task to explain this variation empirically. Generating reliable statistical inferences from inter-state comparisons is notoriously difficult, and the variables at play here range from the easily measured (percent of population eligible for subsidies, navigator grant amounts, number of participating insurers, premiums) to the not-so-easily measured (enthusiasm for Obamacare, efficacy of state or federal outreach efforts, geography, education, availability and usefulness of charity care and emergency Medicaid, functionality of state exchange website, population health, availability of health services). […]

Read the full post here.

How to Fix Our Hospital Pricing Problem (and How Not To)

Guest post by Erin Fuse Brown
[Cross-posted from Center for Law, Health and Society Blog]

Last month, Slate columnist Reihan Salam wrote a provocative article about outrageous hospital prices that are driven, according to Salam, by greed, avarice, and market power. Salam gets a few things dead right, namely his diagnosis that we have a massive hospital pricing problem that is bleeding us dry and that the problem is largely caused by growing hospital market power. However, he misses the mark when laying out policy recommendations to curb monopoly-driven hospital prices.

The solutions

Antitrust:  Salam favors using antitrust enforcement to prevent health care consolidation and to reduce barriers to entry for competition. The biggest problem with antitrust enforcement is that it can do little to reverse or break up existing monopolies. Antitrust laws will be unable to help the vast majority of hospital markets that are already concentrated. Second, even with its improving success rate in court, the FTC simply cannot prevent or police the ongoing wave of hospital mergers, resulting in price increases up to 40% price increases in some areas. To be sure, increased antitrust enforcement is a necessary element of the strategy to control hospital prices to stem the tide of consolidation that is driving prices upward. But antitrust is no silver bullet, especially for hospital markets that have already become noncompetitive. Continue reading

Mainstreaming Medical Legal Partnerships (MLPs)

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at the 10th Annual Summit of the National Center for Medical Legal Partnership in McLean, Virginia. The summit brought together more than 400 people working to “mainstream” medical legal partnerships (MLPs). The theory of change is that through these partnerships, the health care sector can begin to more systematically address social, behavioral and environmental determinants of health. Particularly on behalf of patients who are low-income, legal professionals address root causes of illness by working with utilities companies, landlords, social service agencies and the court system.

Concretely, MLPs are programs in which civil legal aid agencies, health care organizations and public health departments cooperate to train their staffs, treat individuals and identify population level problems. Most often, it is civil legal aid agencies that provide expertise in the laws around housing and public benefits, and spend their resources to ensure access to housing subsidies, food benefits, health insurance and employment. Some law firms also contribute pro bono time to the cause, as do some law schools in the form of clinics.

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Ending Institutional Corruption Conference, May 1 & 2

On Friday, May 1, and Saturday, May 2, several Petrie-Flom Center affiliates will participate in the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University conference “Ending Institutional Corruption,” held in the Milstein Rooms in Wasserstein Hall at Harvard Law School. Participants include:

  • Christopher T. Robertson, Academic Fellow alumnus, speaking on “The Institutional Advantages of Courts, and the Potential of Litigation, as a Solution to Institutional Corruption”
  • Christine Baugh, 2014-2015 Student Fellow, conference co-organizer
  • Aaron S. Kesselheim, affiliated faculty member, speaking on “Trends in the Use of Expedited Drug Review and Approval Designations at the FDA”
  • Judge Nancy Gertner, affiliated faculty member, speaking on “The Limits of the Criminal Sanction”

For a full description of the conference, a complete agenda, and registration information, click here!

Replacing the Affordable Care Act?

By David Orentlicher

[cross-posted at HealthLawProfs blog]

With the future of the Affordable Care Act in doubt after last week’s hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, Republican lawmakers are busily preparing back-up legislation. New options should not be necessary—the government should prevail against those challenging its interpretation of the Act’s premium subsidy provisions. But it is prudent to consider alternatives in the event that the Court rules against the government.

While most of the ideas being floated would do little to bring health care insurance to the uninsured, there is an option that really could expand access to coverage while also containing health care spending. And it could be attractive to Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill. Continue reading

King v. Burwell: Appreciating the Stakes of the Case

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in King v. Burwell, and the Justices seemed split on the central issue of whether the Affordable Care Act (ACA) permits health insurance subsidies to flow to citizens of states that have chosen not to establish their own insurance exchanges.  Trying to predict the outcome of a case like this is notoriously difficult, but I do want to highlight briefly an important difference between the Court three years ago, when it decided NFIB v. Sebelius, and the Court yesterday.

In NFIB, seven Justices declared that the ACA’s Medicaid expansion was unconstitutionally coercive, concluding that the Secretary of Health and Human Services could not condition existing Medicaid funds on a state’s failure to expand Medicaid.  However, the Secretary was instead permitted to offer additional funds to states choosing to expand Medicaid, effectively making the expansion optional.  The Court at the time understood that this outcome could result in a national patchwork, in which certain states would adopt the Medicaid expansion and others would not. Continue reading

UPDATE: Death Spirals…Really to the Rescue?

UPDATE: I posted what follows in January, reflecting on the JALSA amicus brief led by Prof. Abigail Moncrieff from BU that argues that petitioners’ interpretation in King v. Burwell would make the ACA unconstitutional by forcing states to choose between establishing exchanges and torpedoing their individual health insurance markets.  In other words, “death spirals to the rescue.”  It looks like that argument got noticed by Justice Kennedy, who pressed the petitioners hard for a response at oral argument this morning.  (See here.)  A very interesting development, and congratulations are in order to Abby and the other JALSA signatories (as well as other amici who pressed this argument) for at the very least helping to call attention to an argument that wound up playing big at argument.  Will be interesting to see how the opinion comes out!

ORIGINAL POST (Jan. 27, 2015):

We’ve heard a lot about “death spirals” and how they could stand in the way of the Affordable Care Act’s goal of a functioning individual health insurance marketplace.  Seth Chandler has an interesting blog devoted to the subject, “ACA Death Spiral.”  And those who have been following King v. Burwell, the Supreme Court’s latest ACA case, have been predicting that a ruling against the government there would be disastrous because it would only exacerbate the “death spiral” threat to individual health insurance markets.  (See a sum-up of such predictions here.)

But could death spirals save the ACA?  According to a fascinating amicus brief filed in the King case by a number of interest groups and co-signed by several prominent law professors and Bill of Health contributors (I understand that Abigail Moncrieff is the driving force behind the brief, joined by Allison Hoffman, Sharona Hoffman, Russell Korobkin, Joan Krause, Stephen Marks,  Kevin Outterson, and Theodore Ruger), the answer might be yes.  The argument boils down to “death spirals to the rescue.”  (Here is a copy: 14-114 bsac JALSA.)

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Open Payments: Early Impact And The Next Wave Of Reform

This new post by Tony Caldwell and Christopher Robertson appears on the Health Affairs Blog, as part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015.

The Physician Payments Sunshine Act, a provision in the Affordable Care Act, seeks to increase the transparency of the financial relationships between medical device and drug manufacturers, physicians, and teaching hospitals. Launched on September 30, 2014 by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the Open Payments database collects information about these financial relationships and makes that information available to the public.

As of early February, the Open Payments database includes documentation of 4.45 million payments valued at nearly $3.7 billion made from medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturers to 546,000 doctors and 1,360 teaching hospitals between August 2013 and December 2013. This included 1.7 million records (totaling $2.2 billion) without the names of physicians or teaching hospitals who received the payments.

These records were intentionally de-identified by CMS because the records had not been available for review and dispute for 45 days, or because the records were not matched by CMS to a single physician or teaching hospital due to missing or inconsistent information within the submitted records. Future reports will be published annually and will include data collections from a full 12 month period. […]

Continue reading here.