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The “Affordable Care Act” (Obamacare) legislated in 2010 and implemented on January 1, 2014, aims at reducing health care costs while increasing the American population's healthcare coverage in the private and public insurance sectors by requiring that everyone purchase health insurance. To better understand the impact of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on the United States healthcare system, medical students from Switzerland interviewed 14 local health experts who work in diverse healthcare settings. Their reflections are summarized here to give us an idea of what they learned regarding the actual impact these legislative changes have had both nationally and locally. These reflections are also viewed through the lens of Switzerland's healthcare system.
Key implementation measures of the ACA aim to greatly increase the number of Americans who have access to affordable health insurance. This is done by prohibiting insurance companies from setting the price of insurance premiums according to their client's health, pre-existing medical conditions (excluding tobacco smokers), gender, or refusing clients based on those factors. With the ACA only age and area of residence may be taken into account when determining an individual's insurance coverage. The ACA also expands Medicaid and provides tax credits to small employers who cover their employees. Businesses with over 50 employees are required to provide health insurance to their workforce. Under the ACA there is a $750 annual fine for uninsured people who do not purchase health insurance, and insurance companies are required to spend the majority of health insurance premiums on medical care, not on profits and overhead.1
The requirement that all citizens have health insurance, and must pay into the healthcare system that cares for them, has been a contentious issue. The premise is that the expansion of those purchasing insurance provides more money to cover costs as well as increases access to healthcare, improving this country's economic equilibrium overtime. Other measures, like the increased scope of eligibility to Medicare and Medicaid, along with the allocation of subsidies to people in need, promotes accessibility to healthcare for people in precarious social or financial situations.
Some think the ACA law has succeeded. Indeed, it is impressive that by May 2014 over 20 million previously uninsured Americans now have health insurance. The ACA's major coverage provisions went into effect in January 2014 and have led to significant coverage gains. As of the end of 2015, the number of uninsured nonelderly Americans stood at 28.5 million, a decrease of nearly 13 million since 2013.2 However, in our interviews with local health experts some of the problems with this legislative effort are presented.
As noted earlier, 14 local healthcare experts from diverse provider settings were interviewed and several issues were noted regarding the impact of the ACA in Hawai‘i. For example, Family Health Centers as well as Community Health Centers find themselves overwhelmed with the influx of newly insured Americans who finally have the opportunity to see a doctor after years of being uninsured. Additionally, despite the improvements in accessibility to Medicare or Medicaid resources, these patients often find themselves in difficult circumstances if they choose to see a private doctor, as only a limited amount is actually reimbursed by the insurance. A primary care physician (PCP) working in a federally qualified health center (FQHC) in Hawai‘i whose patients are mostly indigenous to the islands reports that even for patients that have Medicaid or MedQuest it can often be difficult to access primary care physicians due to Medicaid currently paying very low amounts for patients to be seen by private practitioners. By low reimbursement amounts, a private practice PCP described how his office receives only eight dollars for a primary care visit which he views as unsustainable. Another PCP from a local FQHC added that such low payments do not begin to address the reality that health care depends not only on doctors but on a healthcare team including nurses, paramedics, and medical assistants. In the end, such small reimbursement rates have led a number of PCP's to refuse seeing Medicaid patients, forcing some to visit over-crowded FQHCs. Against the ambitions of the ACA to deliver real progress concerning health coverage to the population, only a small step forward. Improvements in terms of patient benefits and access to healthcare remain modest.
With the technological progress in medicine and the requirement to establish patient follow up, several doctors report their administrative work load (sending phone calls, emails, filling in insurance forms, reading patient files, etc) increasing by as much as 40%. The sheer volume of various procedures required by insurers has become time consuming and frustrating for doctors. Given each patient has his own insurance, which in turn has its own procedures, forms and pricing system has added to the complexity of care. Doctors are only paid when they see patients. Therefore, time spent on office administrative tasks is unpaid time that also prevents doctors from being available to serve other patients. In order to avoid this paperwork, some medical practitioners have resorted to accepting cash only payments, thus neither participating in the reform, nor in the insurance system in general.
Legal disputes between insurers can also negatively impact both doctors and patients. Doctors who treat patients after a work-related or automobile accident often have to deal with the legal struggle between the various insurance companies who cover costs depending on the place or circumstance of an accident, or pre-existing conditions of the patient. This struggle is clearly articulated by Dr. Scott McCaffrey, the president of the Hawai‘i Medical Association (HMA).
“I have spent too much time hearing and arguing with administrative judges about these three parameters [place, circumstance and preexisting conditions]. The legal system is built around this resulting in the attorneys making a great deal of money. Meanwhile, the poor patients stay at home injured with whatever malady has befallen him or her and sometimes without any care option at all, unable to access accurate diagnoses or treatment. So, it is very difficult to be a doctor who believes in the ethics of Hippocrates and is dedicated to the patient rather than to such a legal environment as this”
Ultimately, the time spent and the administrative costs result in an increase in the price of healthcare services. McCaffrey states that the costs of a legal conflict can amount to $5,000 per hour which could have been better spent on timely diagnosis and treatment thus increasing the probability of the patient being able to return to work sooner. As a consequence of this, doctors tend to refuse patients who have suffered accidents.
From our perspective, the United States has developed highly innovative healthcare products and technological procedures. As this technology is created and benefits many it also increases healthcare costs. Thus the US has inadvertently created a two-tiered healthcare system; one that is highly innovative yet quite inefficient and costly. Instead of separating different healthcare providers such as doctors, hospitals and pharmacies, the goal should be to make them a continuum directed at meeting the patient's needs notably in terms of both access to quality health care as well as efficiency.
The current United States healthcare system lacks a sufficient number of primary care physicians, which is also an issue in other countries such as Switzerland. One explanation for this lack of PCPs in the United States is the inclination of American medical students to pursue careers in specialized medicine they provide higher salaries. This is understandable as large loans are needed to pay the high tuition costs required to attend American universities, resulting in years of trying to debt. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, the accumulated education debt of a medical student generally averages between $180,000 to $200,000 total.3 In contrast, Switzerland provides medical studies that only cost about $1,100 per year in US dollars.4 Additionally, in the United States, the salaries of surgeons and specialists are much higher than those of PCPs. One reason is that the more a medical practitioner uses technology the more income is generated for the entire healthcare system. One doctor we interviewed communicated: “this problem is amplified by the patients and their insatiable desire to be treated by the latest and best treatment which may not be required.”
As one state leader responsible for improving Hawai‘i's healthcare system pointed out, “one problem with the American healthcare system is that it is structured to benefit healthcare insurance [companies] rather than the health needs of patients.” In this context, the insurance companies have little incentive to change the healthcare system. Against this background, another obstacle to the implementation of the ACA reform resides in the operation of powerful interest groups. Health insurance companies in the United States are numerous and represent a powerful lobby in politics. These companies can strongly interfere with reform implementation, set prices and make profit on almost everything, including basic insurance plans. They enjoy a comfortable position in the current system and it is clear that they do not see much benefit to ACA reform on the premise that it will decrease their profit. They only increase their rates and their income when, alternatively, patients would be better served if the insurance companies would spend more on answering the basic question of how do we improve healthcare? Similarly, pharmaceutical companies are a powerful force. Some feel, therefore that the pharmaceutical companies are benefitting the most from the current US healthcare system, instead of the patients.
Compared to pharmaceutical interests and insurance companies, healthcare practitioners have less access to influencing system-wide change in healthcare. Notably, doctors are not granted the right to organize and negotiate which undermines their ability to craft solutions for improving the healthcare system. Moreover, instead of uniting to form one entity, healthcare providers are separated from each other as they try to impose their view or preferences for the healthcare system through their lawyers. In short, the ability of doctors to induce progress in the American healthcare system is overpowered by other, more powerful interests.
In conclusion, despite criticism and though it remains imperfect, the reforms implemented by President Obama under the ACA offer a first sign of hope for the American healthcare system to become fair and accessible to all Americans. The new measures for Medicare and Medicaid are a start, however other factors like health insurance and pharmaceutical challenges, continue to prevent the United States from having a healthcare system that provides equal quality access for all. Therefore, the investment in Obamacare may have very limited results. One healthcare administrator suggests that a larger national political ideology hinders the path to this ideal: “Many of the politics/political players in the United States are not really focused on the good of society. It is a very individualistic place and people are expected to sink or swim by their own devices. We are not big in helping people who need help.”
To a group of students from Switzerland, where personal health insurance is mandated for all citizens, and physicians accept the state payments, it seems clear to us that the ACA is a step forward, but further healthcare reform is needed in the United States. In addition to giving greater influence to healthcare providers, an investment in the public health infrastructure and preventative health measures would also likely improve the health of many citizens and could decrease overall healthcare costs over time.
None of the authors identify any conflict of interest.