Top 10 Health Care Surprises of the Year
President Donald Trump stormed into office last January confident that he could knock off Obamacare in a nanosecond. It didn’t turn out that way — and from drug prices to the Tom Price travel scandal, a lot of health policy didn’t go according to plan. Here’s a look at 10 health care surprises from 2017.
1. Obamacare survives its seventh year
In control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, Republicans had their best shot ever at Obamacare repeal — and even thought they could have it on Trump’s desk on Inauguration Day. The grand ambitions quickly met roadblocks. Members rebelled over policy details, GOP leaders struggled to find consensus, moderates mutinied, and virtually the entire health care industry — along with Democrats and Obamacare advocates — lined up against every plan that Republicans put forward.
Even so, the GOP eventually squeaked a bill through the House and after several false starts put a proposal on the Senate floor. That’s when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) delivered perhaps the biggest stunner of the year: a late-night thumbs-down that sunk the Senate bill and effectively ended the GOP’s repeal effort … until 2018.
Still, Senate Republicans concede that with an even narrower vote margin, dismantling Obamacare may become, as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) delicately put it, “a little more difficult.”
2. Price jets away from HHS
After years of railing against Obamacare as a member of Congress, Tom Price finally got a chance to do something about it as Health and Human Services secretary. The former orthopedic surgeon would aid Republicans’ effort to repeal the law while simultaneously unraveling Obamacare’s web of regulations. He fell short on both counts. Price all but disappeared during the Senate’s bid to craft a repeal bill, frustrating Republicans and, more importantly, the president. Soon after, POLITICO revealed that he had routinely traveled by chartered private or military aircraft, costing taxpayers $1 million.
The scrutiny over his travel habits, combined with Trump’s irritation on Affordable Care Act repeal, sped Price’s resignation seven months into the job. He left few tangible accomplishments — other than the distinction of being the first Cabinet member to make his exit.
3. Tough talk and no action on drug prices
Trump lobbed insults at a host of health care targets, but perhaps none landed with more rhetorical force than his denunciations of the “disastrous” drug industry.
“The drug companies, frankly, are getting away with murder,” he seethed early on, suggesting he might empower Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies.
It didn’t happen. For all of Trump’s tough talk, he’s made no concrete moves toward cracking down on pharmaceutical prices. A promised executive order never materialized — and a leaked draft of the directive appeared largely pharma-friendly anyway.
In November, Trump nominated Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive, to serve as his next HHS secretary. Azar has already rejected sweeping changes to rein in drug prices, like allowing drug reimportation or giving Medicare greater negotiating power. The administration’s agenda on drug prices now looks smaller, more traditional, and far less of a threat to the pharmaceutical industry.
4. GOP kills the individual mandate — in a tax bill
For all their failures on repealing and replacing Obamacare, Republicans did land a major blow — it just took a tax bill to get the job done. The GOP’s sweeping tax overhaul zeroes out the penalty levied on most people for not purchasing insurance starting in 2019, effectively gutting Obamacare’s individual mandate.
Republicans had long made the mandate a top target for repeal. But it’s also a pillar of the health law — the mechanism that Obamacare supporters contend is crucial to keeping enough healthy people in the market to stabilize premiums.
Yet, in a twist, Senate Republicans who months earlier proved too skittish to dismantle Obamacare jumped at the chance to eliminate the mandate, despite Congressional Budget Office projections that it would drive up premiums 10 percent and leave 13 million more people uninsured over the next decade.
With just 12 days left in a year they’d vowed was Obamacare’s last, Republicans passed their tax bill — and in the process, made their only major legislative change to the health law.
5. Planned Parenthood’s funding goes untouched
The GOP’s sweep into power also placed Republicans on the verge of accomplishing a second top health care goal: defunding Planned Parenthood. Once again, Republicans found themselves foiled by their own members. Moderate Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) used their leverage as Senate swing votes to protect the funding of an organization they ardently support.
When McCain joined them in voting down repeal in July, it also put the defunding efforts on hold indefinitely. And now facing only a two-vote advantage in the Senate in 2018, it’s unclear whether the GOP can find the political will to take federal action against Planned Parenthood.
6. The vaccine controversy that never was
When high-profile vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr. traveled to New York in January to meet with Trump, it looked like the start of a controversial plan to boost the scientifically disproved theory that vaccines can cause autism. Trump had previously suggested vaccines could be dangerous, and Kennedy emerged from Trump Tower touting plans to chair “a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity” at the president-elect’s behest.
“President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and has questions about it,” Kennedy said.
But Trump’s team never confirmed Kennedy’s assertions, and after Inauguration Day any momentum for a vaccine commission appeared to fizzle out. The chiefs of the administration’s Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health all advocate for vaccines, and there hasn’t been a peep from the White House so far about taking any close look at vaccine safety beyond the normal regulatory oversight.
7. Single payer gets serious
At this time last year, single-payer health care was a progressive pipe dream. Now it’s a rallying point for liberal Democrats, a possible litmus test for 2020 hopefuls and a serious policy proposal that’s won the backing of nearly a third of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ universal health care plan vaulted into the mainstream in September, after high-profile Democrats trying to strike a contrast to the GOP’s Obamacare repeal efforts latched onto the goal of universal coverage.
“Quality health care shouldn’t be the providence of people’s wealth. It should be a virtue of us being United States citizens,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of several likely 2020 candidates backing the plan, said at the time.
The single-payer push exposed divisions over how exactly to achieve universal coverage, and several Democrats have put forth their own ideas on how to move more gradually. But the shift in the Democratic platform is clear: Three years after Sanders (I-Vt.) failed to win a single co-sponsor for his plan, universal health care is becoming a defining issue for Democrats in the run-up to 2020.
8. Medicaid as a wedge issue
In a year that was supposed to be all about Obamacare, Congress spent much of its time on Medicaid. The GOP’s Obamacare repeal bills all targeted the low-income health insurance program as well. Their proposals would have profoundly changed the nature of Medicaid — not just the expansion that was part of Obamacare but the traditional parts that predated the ACA by decades.
That’s where the GOP’s health care effort hit perhaps its most intense resistance, as Medicaid — traditionally overshadowed by Medicare — suddenly became a third rail. Democrats seized on projections that capping federal funding would drive deep coverage losses and leave the nation’s most vulnerable worse off. State governors on both sides of the aisle warned that the changes would cripple their ability to deliver crucial services. Swing vote Republicans balked at deep cuts at a time when Medicaid offered the first line of defense against the growing opioid epidemic.
That hasn’t stopped the GOP from taking on Medicaid in other ways. The Trump administration is encouraging states to impose work requirements and has made entitlement and welfare reform — both of which could involve Medicaid — a priority for 2018.
9. Shkreli goes to jail over Hillary’s hair
That Martin Shkreli will finish off this year from prison isn’t a surprise — but it’s what put him there that was unexpected.
The former Turing Pharmaceutical CEO, who gained notoriety for hiking the price of an AIDS drug, was convicted of securities fraud in August. But he was living freely while awaiting sentencing until he offered $5,000 on Facebook for a strand of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s hair. The post qualified as a “solicitation of assault,” a judge ruled, before revoking Shkreli’s bond and sending him to prison.
It’s just one of many strange twists in Shkreli’s saga, which included calling congressmen “imbeciles” on Twitter hours after refusing to answer questions at a House committee hearing; livestreaming on YouTube for hours on end, including right after his conviction; and purchasing the sole copy of a 2015 Wu-Tang Clan album for more than $1 million. He’ll now serve jail time over his request for Clinton’s hair until a mid-January sentencing hearing.
10. Collins, Murkowski play power brokers in the Senate
The most moderate members in a Republican Conference that narrowly controls the Senate, Collins and Murkowski were always going to be crucial players. But GOP leaders may not have anticipated just how much they’d flex that power.
Collins and Murkowski held out throughout the repeal effort over Medicaid cuts and skimpier subsidies they worried would hurt their states — and tanked a top GOP priority. At the end of the day, both voted for the big tax bill, with its individual mandate repeal. Collins got a promise from Senate leaders that two ACA stabilization bills would be included in Congress’ year-end spending agreement — though the bill have been pushed into 2018 and are in trouble, given the House opposition.
With Republicans’ margin in the Senate set to narrow to just 51-49 next year, Collins and Murkowski appear set to exercise even more influence over the party’s direction come 2018.