Did Obamacare Raise The Nationwide Death Rate?

Did Obamacare Raise The Nationwide Death Rate?

Researchers have raised legitimate questions about whether an Obamacare change actually increased death levels nationwide. Will we see chants of ‘Obama lied, people died’?
Christopher Jacobs
By

Researchers have raised legitimate questions about whether a policy change included in Obamacare actually increased death levels nationwide.

Some may recall that two years ago, liberals engaged in no small amount of hyperbolic rhetoric insisting that repealing Obamacare would kill Americans. They viewed that fact as a virtual certainty, and spent more time arguing over precisely how many individuals would die under the law’s repeal.

Somehow, however, the media that breathlessly covered claims about how repealing Obamacare would kill Americans hasn’t exactly rushed to highlight claims that the law could have increased the death rate.

About the Readmissions Program

The Obamacare change sparking the policy debate involves the law’s hospital readmissions program. Section 3025(a) of the law required the Department of Health and Human Services to reduce Medicare payments to hospitals with higher-than-average readmission rates. The program began in October 2012, and since October 2014 has reduced payments by 3 percent to hospitals with high readmission rates for three conditions: heart failure, heart attacks, and pneumonia.

The program intended to make hospitals more efficient, and encourage them to treat patients correctly the first time, rather than profiting on poor care by receiving additional payments for “repeat” visitors. However, several data points have called into question the effectiveness of the policy.

First, a recent article in the journal Health Affairs concluded that data proving the readmissions program’s effectiveness “appear to be illusory or overstated.” The study noted that, right before the readmissions program took effect, hospitals could increase the number of diagnoses in claims submitted to Medicare. After controlling for this difference, the Harvard researchers concluded that at least half of the “reduction” in readmissions came due to this change.

In other words, patients’ health may not have actually improved. Instead, doctors used the coding change to input more illnesses into patient records, making them appear “healthier” after Medicare adjusted readmission rates to reflect this greater “risk.”

By contrast, a December study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found an even darker outcome. The JAMA study, which examined a total of 8.3 million hospitalizations both before and after the readmissions penalties took effect, found that the program “was significantly associated with an increase in 30-day postdischarge mortality after hospitalization for [heart failure] and pneumonia, but not for” heart attacks. This study suggests that, rather than incurring penalties for “excess” readmissions, hospitals instead chose to stop readmitting patients at all—and more patients died as a result.

Is This ‘Alarmist’ Rhetoric?

In a blog post analyzing the debate at the New England Journal of Medicine, former Obama administration budget director Peter Orszag pointed out the two studies arrive at conclusions that are likely mutually contradictory. After all, if the readmissions policy didn’t affect patient outcomes, as the Health Affairs analysis suggests, then it’s hard simultaneously to argue that it also increased patient mortality, as the JAMA paper concludes.

But Orszag also criticizes The New York Times for an “unduly alarmist” op-ed summarizing the JAMA researchers’ results. That article, titled “Did This Health Care Policy Do Harm?” included a subheading noting that “a well-intentioned program created by the Affordable Care Act may have led to patient deaths.”

If Orszag finds that Times article—which states the researchers’ conclusion in the form of a question, and calls the readmissions policy “well-intentioned”—“unduly alarmist,” he must have forgotten these headlines from 2017:

  • Washington Post: “Repealing the Affordable Care Act Will Kill More than 43,000 People Annually”
  • Chicago Tribune: “Repealing Obamacare Will Kill More than 43,000 People a Year”
  • Vox: “Repealing Obamacare Could Kill More People Each Year than Gun Homicides”

These headlines don’t even take into consideration the comments from people like former Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), who said, “If you get rid of Obamacare, people are going to die.” Then there were the “analyses” by organizations like the Center for American Progress, helpfully parroted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), that said “getting rid of Obamacare is a death sentence.”

Alongside this rhetoric, the supposedly “alarmist” Times article seems tame by comparison. It didn’t use the word “Obamacare” at all, and it couched its conclusions as part of a “complex” and ongoing “debate.” But of course, the contrast between the mild rhetoric regarding hospital readmissions and the sky-is-falling tone surrounding Obamacare repeal has absolutely nothing to do with liberal media bias or anything. Right?

Democrats, the Science Deniers

The Times article concludes by “highlight[ing] a bigger issue: Why are policies that profoundly influence patient care not rigorously studied before widespread rollout?” It’s a good question that Democrats have few answers for.

Even to take the most benign interpretations of the Health Affairs and JAMA studies, it remains unclear—nearly a decade after their enactment, and more than six years after they took effect—whether the hospital readmissions program actually accomplished its intended goal. To call that a damning indictment of the “science” behind the policy change represents a tremendous understatement.

Liberals like to caricature conservatives as “science deniers,” uninformed troglodytes who can barely stand upright, let alone form coherent policies. But the recent studies regarding Obamacare’s hospital readmissions policy shows that the Obama administration officials who created these policies didn’t have any clue what they were doing—or certainly didn’t know enough to implement a nationwide plan that they knew would work.

Given this implementation failure, and the staggering level of willful ignorance by the technocrats who would micro-manage our health care system, why on earth should we give them even more power, whether through a single-payer system or something very close to it? The very question answers itself.

Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, and author of the forthcoming book, "The Case Against Single Payer." He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.
Photo U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Yasmine T. Muhammad

Copyright © 2019 The Federalist, a wholly independent division of FDRLST Media, All Rights Reserved.