What Will Change if the Supreme Court Overturns Obamacare’s Individual Mandate?

Ezekiel Emmanuel’s op-ed in the New York Times addresses some of the changes that will and will not be affected, if the individual mandate to buy health insurance is overturned as unconstitutional.

The very substantial downside is that 16 million people who would have been insured will not be. This number will rise to 32 million if Medicaid expansion is also deemed unconstitutional. According to Emmanuel, this would also trigger a downward spiral threatening to substantially increase insurance premiums for everyone.

On the other hand, changes such as bundling of payments, which have already begun, lead to better coordinated care and lower costs. These changes will continue apace regardless of what the Supreme Court’s decides.

Tens of thousands of Americans die because of hospital-acquired infections every year, and far more are harmed by medical errors. Last year, authorized by the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration announced a $500 million program called Partnership for Patients aimed at reducing hospital-acquired infections, errors and other preventable complications. The act also requires Medicare to begin posting online each hospital’s rate of certain medical errors and infections, and to cut payments to hospitals with the highest rates.

Consequently, hospitals across the country are working to reduce preventable hospital errors. Once it’s clear that this is a major priority, significant progress can be made. A few years before the health care reform act was passed, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where I work, started paying attention to reducing preventable errors, and it managed to reduce infections from intravenous lines to 1 or fewer per month from 30 to 40 per month. All it took was removing intravenous lines whenever they weren’t necessary, changing them regularly and using a more vigorous sterilizing technique when inserting them. Many other institutions are making similar progress now. All of this has nothing to do with the constitutionality of the individual mandate and will continue no matter what the Supreme Court rules.

The same goes for the problem of hospital readmissions. Right now, nearly 20 percent of Medicare patients who are discharged from a hospital are readmitted within 30 days. Some are scheduled readmissions; others occur for completely unrelated health problems, like falls and accidents. But many could be prevented by paying more attention to the coordination of care between physicians and hospitals and by better follow-up after patients are discharged. Beginning this year, the health care reform act will penalize hospitals that have high readmission rates for three conditions: pneumonia, heart failure and heart attacks. This list will later be expanded. As a result, all hospitals are now scrambling to figure out how to create “the perfect patient discharge” so patients don’t become hospital “frequent fliers.”

If the Supreme Court rules that the individual mandate is unconstitutional — in my opinion, an improbable and legally indefensible decision — it will not end health care reform. Hospitals and doctors will continue to work to improve care and control costs. But tens of millions of Americans will continue to be excluded from the health care system, which is hardly an optimal outcome.