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Op Ed: Congress Should Work Together to Regain Healthcare Momentum


 
Karen Springer, President & CEO, Saint Thomas Health

The debate in Congress over whether to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been put aside, at least for now. It is time for our federal legislators to shift their focus to other pressing healthcare topics, providing the opportunity both for progress and to work together across the aisle.

At Saint Thomas Health, part of Ascension, when it comes to the challenges we face, we've seen success by segmenting those issues into their component pieces, which enables us to define and solve major issues step by step. By doing so, we often generate better results by building upon a series of smaller successes to achieve the ultimate goal. This approach may work at the federal level on major issues as well. Now that the debate over wholesale changes to healthcare has been set aside, it is time to focus on healthcare issues that need immediate attention. My advice would be to focus on historically bipartisan issues that can be addressed in digestible pieces.

One important issue that needs to be addressed is the need to stabilize the individual insurance market. We applaud the work of Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in developing the Bipartisan Health Care Stabilization Act of 2017, also known as the Alexander-Murray bill. This important bill would shore up the individual health insurance market, provide states like Tennessee more flexibility in covering their residents and allow more widespread availability of catastrophic plans.

It's promising that the Alexander-Murray bill would strengthen the individual insurance markets and restore cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments that help make coverage affordable for lower-income enrollees. Incredibly, this bill would accomplish these goals while also saving taxpayers almost $4 billion. This work demonstrates the type of results possible through thoughtful collaboration.

Saint Thomas Health is committed to providing compassionate, personalized care to all, with special attention to persons living in poverty and those most vulnerable. We also strive to achieve 100 percent access and 100 percent coverage in our communities, which is why we are calling attention to several timely healthcare issues that are worthy of focus.

Federal funding for the recently expired Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is another important issue that needs immediate attention. Both parties have already launched the process to extend funding for this vital program that provides coverage for lower-income children. Another pressing issue is federal support for Community Health Centers, which has always received strong bipartisan support, and we are encouraged by legislation that has been announced. Regardless of what happens with the overall healthcare debate in the future, Community Health Centers will remain an essential component of our healthcare delivery system because of the important role they play in providing healthcare services in underserved communities.

Two more issues - access to care for veterans and prescription drug pricing - also require urgent action. Regarding veterans, Congress in August provided emergency funding for the Veterans Choice Act and continues to depend on bipartisan support for reauthorization. We strongly support this important work, which honors our commitment to those who have served our country. Pharmaceutical pricing continues to be a challenge, and several bipartisan proposals, such as the Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples (CREATES) Act, work to eliminate barriers to generic competition and will reduce prices. Policies like these help to slow the rate of healthcare inflation, a goal supported by both major parties. Lawmakers also have the opportunity to collaborate in preventing reductions in payments to healthcare providers who serve a disproportionate number of patients who are most vulnerable. The ACA included provisions to reduce this funding, but that was predicated on the expansion of Medicaid coverage in every state, which regrettably did not occur.

In Tennessee, our populations are experiencing challenges with access to affordable care. There are still 400,000 uninsured Tennesseans - more than five percent of the state. Many of those who remain uninsured are veterans who have honorably served our country. In addition, Tennessee and other states across our nation have an opioid crisis. After the President recently declared the Opioid Crisis a Public Health Emergency, the epidemic of addiction requires we as Tennesseans to develop a statewide collaborative approach to develop models of prevention and treatment.

While a wholesale healthcare overhaul may present major political challenges, these individual issues can be negotiated as important pieces of the puzzle. We call on Tennessee's federal representatives and senators, with their colleagues across the aisle in Congress, to support the Alexander-Murray bill. We also urge our legislators to continue to fund CHIP, improve the Veterans Choice program, address high drug costs and forestall planned payment reductions to Medicaid disproportionate share hospitals.

Patients in Tennessee are in need. We encourage Congress to act now.

 
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