President Trump presented his “America First Healthcare Plan” during a speech to healthcare professionals in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Thursday — a plan that mentioned preexisting condition coverage protections and surprise billing but did not seem to include comprehensive changes to the healthcare system.
“Under the America First Healthcare Plan, we will ensure the highest standard of care anywhere in the world, cutting-edge treatments, state-of-the-art medicine, groundbreaking cures, and true health security for you and your loved ones,” Trump said. “And we will do it rapidly, and it’s in very good order, and some of it has already been implemented.”
Executive Order Provisions
The president signed an executive order outlining the plan, but the order contained initiatives in only a few areas, including:
- Preexisting condition coverage. The order says simply: “It has been and will continue to be the policy of the United States to … ensure that Americans with preexisting conditions can obtain the insurance of their choice at affordable rates.” The order does not direct any government agency to enact a regulation nor request Congress to pass legislation. In August 2018, the Trump administration allowed the sale of “short-term, limited duration” insurance plans that could last for up to 3 years; these often exclude coverage for preexisting conditions but also typically cost less than comprehensive coverage.
- Surprise billing. “Recognizing that both chambers of the Congress have made substantial progress towards a solution to end surprise billing, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) shall work with the Congress to reach a legislative solution by December 31, 2020,” the order says. “In the event a legislative solution is not reached by December 31, 2020, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall take administrative action to prevent a patient from receiving a bill for out-of-pocket expenses that the patient could not have reasonably foreseen.”
- Price transparency. “Within 180 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall update the Medicare.gov Hospital Compare website to inform beneficiaries of hospital billing quality, including whether the hospital is in compliance with the Hospital Price Transparency Final Rule … whether, upon discharge, the hospital provides patients with a receipt that includes a list of itemized services received during a hospital stay; and how often the hospital pursues legal action against patients, including to garnish wages, to place a lien on a patient’s home, or to withdraw money from a patient’s income tax refund,” the order reads.
Trump also announced another initiative, this one aimed at seniors. “Under my plan, 33 million Medicare beneficiaries will soon receive a card in the mail containing $200 that they can use to help pay for prescription drugs … The cards will be mailed out in coming weeks,” Trump said. The $6.6 billion cost of the cards will be paid for under the auspices of a Medicare demonstration program. These funds are ostensibly available via savings generated through Trump’s “most favored nation” executive order allowing Medicare to pay no more for certain prescription drugs than the price paid by other developed countries, a White House official said. That executive order has not yet been implemented, however, and court challenges are expected.
Final Rule Issued on Drug Importation
Trump also noted that the FDA issued a final rule on Thursday implementing the president’s July executive order earlier this month to allow for importation of certain less expensive prescription drugs from Canada. “This means a state or whatever — can go to Canada and buy drugs for a fraction of the price that they’re charging right now,” he said.
He also highlighted individual actions his administration had taken that mostly affected particular groups, including lowering insulin prices for certain Medicare beneficiaries, investing in childhood cancer research, and expanding health reimbursement accounts that employers can use to reimburse employees for medical expenses. The COVID-19 pandemic received scant mention other than a reference to slashing red tape to accelerate development of treatments for the disease, and a sentence about how the pandemic had greatly increased the use of telehealth.
During a telephone briefing with reporters Thursday afternoon, HHS Secretary Alex Azar highlighted the surprise billing provision. “The President is saying that all the relevant players — hospitals, doctors, insurance companies — had better get their act together and get legislation passed through Congress that protects patients against surprise medical bills from anybody — hospitals or doctors, doesn’t matter,” he said.
“Those special interest groups need to sort it out and figure out how that would work,” he continued. “There have been legislative packages that have come quite close on the Hill that are bipartisan, but…. the president is saying the time is now. And if they do not get legislation passed by January 1st, he is instructing me to use the full regulatory power of the U.S. government to protect patients against surprise medical bills.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), outgoing chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP) Committee, praised the surprise billing announcement. “The president is right to call on Congress to pass legislation this year to end surprise medical billing,” Alexander said in a statement, adding that a bill currently going through the House and Senate addresses the issue effectively. “Ending surprise medical bills is a problem that requires a permanent solution passed by Congress this year. The American people can’t afford to wait any longer.”
Preexisting Condition Provision Panned
The preexisting condition provision drew scorn from Democratic legislators. The provision “offers no protection not already available through the existing Affordable Care Act (ACA) and no protection for millions of Americans with preexisting conditions if Trump is successful in packing the Supreme Court to destroy the ACA,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), chairman of the House Ways & Means Health Subcommittee, said in a statement.
But Azar said during the briefing that the ACA’s clause requiring insurers to cover preexisting conditions does no good if people aren’t able to afford insurance in the first place. “If you’re a couple, aged 55, living in Missouri, making $70,000 a year, Obamacare is going to cost you $30,000 in premiums and a $12,000 deductible,” he said.
Azar promised that the administration “will work with Congress or otherwise to ensure” that people with pre-existing conditions are protected, but he did not indicate how that would be made affordable to individuals without government subsidies of the sort Republicans have long opposed.
Bob Laszewski, president of Health Policy and Strategy Associates in Alexandria, Virginia, questioned how much good the executive order’s preexisting condition provision would do. “Trump and the Republicans couldn’t pass an alternative to Obamacare in 2017 when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress,” he wrote in a blog post. “But, now he can just sign an executive order and everything is fixed? He has signed a number of healthcare-related executive orders … and just about all of them are tied up in the byzantine federal regulatory process, or have faded away. This is just an election-year gimmick in an attempt to persuade voters that Trump has healthcare policy under control. There are a lot of governments in the world that operate by executive fiat. Ours is not one of them.”