Emerging healthcare policy group pushes for reform agenda

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(Bloomberg)—Some big names in healthcare want to fix what they see as a broken system. First, they are mending fences.

Last year, a ferocious partisan battle in Congress left the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health law, fractured but largely intact. Andy Slavitt, a former top health official in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services during the Obama administration, was one of the fiercest defenders of the law, rallying his nearly 200,000 Twitter followers to fight Republican efforts to overturn it.

Now, Slavitt is leading a new nonpartisan group of politicians, policy makers, executives and other public figures, called United States of Care, that will push for policy changes based on the idea that despite deep political divisions, Americans want many of the same things when it comes to their health.

“The reality is that there are tons of details that almost everyone agrees on; we just don’t focus on them,” said Slavitt, who will serve as the USC’s chairman. “Public sentiment is fairly well unified in ways that Washington isn’t.”

The group is starting out as steadily rising costs reshape healthcare. Companies are striking unconventional deals, such as the proposed acquisition of insurer Aetna by pharmacy chain CVS Health. Corporate giants Amazon.com, JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway are joining to try to push down employee health expenses. And hospitals led by Utah’s Intermountain Health Care are considering forming a not-for-profit arm to make generic drugs.

Such developments underline a broad dissatisfaction with the healthcare system, said Mike Leavitt, a former Republican governor of Utah and secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration, who is among the group’s members.

“What you see with Berkshire and JPMorgan and Amazon, those are data points that say there’s energy behind the collaborative improvement of healthcare,” he said. “What you’re sensing is common pain that is ultimately bringing people together.”

United States of Care, the newly formed not-for-profit, includes top hospital executives and former lawmakers, as well as actors Bradley Whitford and Andy Richter, entrepreneur Mark Cuban and physician and writer Atul Gawande. It will seek to advance economically and politically sustainable policies that assure access to affordable care.

It plans to start small, providing support for policy changes at the state level. The aim is to develop and test ideas that could eventually be applied in other states and nationwide. The Obama-era ACA law, which drew on a Massachusetts healthcare overhaul under Republican Governor Mitt Romney, is a precedent for such an approach.

Looking for solutions at the state level, and sidestepping what he sees as dysfunction at the federal level, is what helped draw Rod Hochman of Providence St. Joseph Health, which is among the biggest U.S. health systems, to the project. “There’s a sense of some frustration at the way D.C. is going about it,” he said. “We’re not getting anywhere.”

Mark McClellan, a top health official in the administration of president George W. Bush and director of the Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University, is working with the group and anticipates focusing on curbing costs and improving quality, particularly in state Medicaid programs.

“It’s very hard to have sustainable access to affordable care for people if the cost of healthcare is so high and rising,” McClellan said. But costs for one segment of the healthcare industry often can’t be easily slashed, because they represent income for another segment. “There may well be some difficult discussions ahead.”

The organization is trying to prepare for an eventual opening for bipartisan policy making, while heading off increasingly volatile swings in health policy when political fortunes shift in Washington. Already, potential Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidential election are signing on to Senator Bernie Sanders’ ‘Medicare for All’ bill, which has more than a dozen co-sponsors in the Senate.

Elena Hung, an immigration lawyer and activist who co-founded the group Little Lobbyists last year to protect healthcare for children with complex medical needs, is on the advisory council for United States of Care. While Little Lobbyists has found more allies among progressives, Hung says it isn’t partisan. “When decisions are made for our children, there needs to be a seat at the table for our families,” she said.

Former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and former Obama adviser Kristie Canegallo, two Democrats closely tied to the Affordable Care Act, are on the group’s board, as is former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Jim Douglas, a former Republican governor of Vermont, and Dave Durenberger, a former Republican Senator from Minnesota.

Among other health-care executives taking part are Bernard Tyson of Kaiser Permanente, David Torchiana of Partners Healthcare, Tony Tersigni of Ascension Health, Steve Safyer of Montefiore Medical Center, Judy Rich of Tucson Medical Center, BlueCross BlueShield North Carolina Chief Executive Officer Patrick Conway, Dignity Health’s Lloyd Dean, and Richard Gilfillan of Trinity Health. Rhonda Medows, an executive vice president at Providence St. Joseph, is also on the board.

The group won’t disclose its donors and said it won’t take money from partisan groups or for-profit companies. Providence St. Joseph is providing some backing, said CEO Hochman, and Slavitt said he’s putting up money as well.

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