Their Senate majority will be slim as can be, and their margin for error in the House is also quite small. So it’s not going to be easy to get anything done. But it seems likely that the Biden White House and a Democratic Congress will try to pass legislation to expand health coverage.
Regarding what Democrats’ health care agenda would look like if the party enjoyed full control of Congress and the White House, a senior party official told reporters this fall: “If we don’t take full advantage of this moment, we’ll be making a huge mistake.”
The question is how big they will go. A lengthy health care section will likely be part of any new Covid-19 relief and recovery bill. But will that be the end of it, or do Democrats want to try to pass another health care plan through budget reconciliation? Given Senate rules, that process is probably their best chance of passing a major bill.
Taking a cue from my Future Perfect colleagues and their 21 predictions for 2021, I thought I would lay out some of my expectations for the coming two years of health policy. These projections are based on my own reporting, but they are not meant to be definitive — and nothing is 100 percent guaranteed. It’s more like a list of issues I’ll be watching.
Democrats could attempt to take two bites at the health care apple: first as part of a Covid-19 relief bill, and second in a budget reconciliation package that can pass with a bare majority. I think there is a very strong chance both attempts would end up with provisions expanding eligibility for insurance tax subsidies.
The $2.4 trillion HEROES Act passed by the House, a likely starting point for Covid-19 negotiations between the House and the Senate, would have made anybody currently on unemployment insurance eligible for premium tax credits. That would help people who have lost their employer-sponsored coverage afford a new health care plan. A provision like that is likely to become part of whatever Covid-19 bill Congress comes up with.
A reconciliation bill could make that change permanent and universal. Back in spring 2020, Senate Democrats released a list of their health care priorities in response in response to Covid-19. At the top was a plan to raise the current cutoff for Obamacare subsidies, which stands at 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
Under current law, anybody with an annual income above that threshold, which is about $51,000 for an individual or $87,000 for a family of three, is ineligible for any assistance. Democrats have introduced plans to expand eligibility, either by doubling the income cap to 800 percent of the federal poverty level (like in this bill from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen) or by eliminating it entirely so that nobody pays more than a fixed percentage of their income on health insurance (as President-elect Joe Biden proposed). Democrats could also try to make low-income people in states that have not expanded Medicaid eligible for tax credits to buy private coverage.
The people squeezed under Obamacare have been the ones ineligible for the law’s financial aid. Expanding eligibility could insure up to 4 million people, and it seems like the bare minimum Democrats would want to do on health care with their new power.
Much like the 2009 debate over Obamacare, a new government insurance plan would probably be the most hotly debated proposal if Democrats try to approve a major health care bill. Biden embraced the public option in his campaign, but passing it won’t be easy — in fact, I think it’s more likely than not that it doesn’t happen.
One problem for a public option is budget reconciliation. Unless Democrats are willing to eliminate the 60-vote legislative filibuster, they’ll have to use this special procedural tool in order to pass a bill with just 51 votes.
But budget reconciliation comes with limits on what provisions can be included, narrowly targeted to federal spending, and creating this new program may not qualify. Capital Alpha, a health care policy analysis group, thinks there is “virtually zero chance” a public option like that proposed by Biden during his campaign would be enacted because it likely doesn’t satisfy the reconciliation rules.
Progressives will push Democratic leadership to be as aggressive in pursuing a public option as possible, including in how they handle those procedural limits. But the moderate Senate Democrats who will ultimately dictate what the final package will look like have sounded ambivalent about the public option, and Democrats are wary of the party getting dragged into a messy health care fight.
Support for a public option would be substantial — about 70 percent of Americans say they’re for it, polls show — but so would the opposition. The health care industry will surely mobilize against the plan if Democrats look serious about pursuing it.
I suspect that, either because the moderates rule it out from the start or Democratic leaders balk at a drawn-out health care debate, politics will take the policy off the table.
Democrats have campaigned for several election cycles now on a promise to give Medicare more power to negotiate drug prices with pharma companies. This promise was a part of the drug pricing bill that House Democrats passed in the last Congress, a plan that was estimated to cut federal spending by $456 billion over 10 years.
Savings are the reason the policy could be handy for Democrats in crafting a budget reconciliation plan. Democrats will need to include provisions that save the government money to help pay for the new provisions that cost money, like expanding eligibility for tax subsidies.
“We have long believed that pharma faces the greatest risk of drug pricing reforms in conjunction with Democrats’ efforts to expand coverage,” Capital Alpha wrote in a recent analysis.
Those twin incentives — delivering on a campaign promise and finding offsets — could help overcome what would surely be fierce industry opposition.
But the politics of drug pricing have shifted during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is why I think there’s only a slightly better than even chance that Congress will approve Medicare negotiations. Pharma has delivered the Covid-19 vaccines in record time, improving the industry’s relationship with the public in the process. This, in turn, has lowered expectations among the experts for how aggressive Democrats will be on drug prices.
“I think now you don’t have all those stories about insulin and EpiPen, plus you have positive stories about vaccines and other drugs,” Walid Gellad, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh, told me in December. “You don’t have as fertile an environment for more extreme drug measures.”
Thus, my feeling that the odds for Medicare negotiations are closer to 50/50.