Rescuing the Cheaters

The federal government has been sending tens of billions of dollars in aid to the country’s hospitals under the Provider Relief Fund created by the CARES Act. That’s all well and good. Yet there is an awkward aspect to this: quite a few of the recipients have been accused of cheating the federal government in the past.

I’ve been working closely with the relief fund data in recent days, in order to prepare it for uploading to Covid Stimulus Watch. I’ve noticed that numerous recipients are hospital chains that have been involved in cases brought under the False Claims Act (FCA), the law that is widely used by the federal government to go after healthcare providers and contractors for billing irregularities or other improprieties in their dealings with Uncle Sam.

Matching the Provider Relief Fund recipients to the FCA data my colleagues and I have collected for Violation Tracker, I found more than 100 overlaps for the period extending back to 2010. These include both for-profit and non-profit hospital systems.

The company that has received the most from the basic Provider Relief Fund (there is a separate set of awards to hospitals that have treated large numbers of covid patients) is also the hospital chain that has paid the most in FCA penalties over the past decade: Tenet Healthcare.

In 2016 Tenet and two of its subsidiaries had to pay over $513 million to resolve criminal charges and civil claims relating to a scheme to defraud the United States and to pay kickbacks in exchange for patient referrals. The subsidiaries pled guilty to conspiracy charges.

Community Health Systems, another big for-profit hospital chain participating in the relief fund, has been involved in ten different FCA controversies over the past decade. In 2018 one of its subsidiaries had to pay $260 million to resolve criminal charges and civil claims that it knowingly billed government health care programs for inpatient services that should have been billed as outpatient or observation services; paid remuneration to physicians in return for patient referrals; and submitted inflated claims for emergency department facility fees.

Among the non-profit relief fund recipients with FCA problems is Michigan-based Beaumont Health, one of whose hospitals had to pay $84 million in 2018 to resolve allegations that it made payments to referring physicians that violated the Anti-Kickback Act as well as the FCA.

CommonSpirit Health, the large Catholic health system, has numerous affiliates receiving relief funds that have faced FCA allegations. For example, in 2014 Dignity Health had to pay $37 million to resolve allegations that 13 of its hospitals in California, Nevada and Arizona knowingly submitted false claims to Medicare and TRICARE by admitting patients who could have been treated on a less costly, outpatient basis.

Altogether, at least 103 health systems whose facilities are participating in the relief fund have paid more than $4 billion in False Claims Act settlements and fines over the past decade.

Given the magnitude of the covid crisis, it would be difficult to argue that these providers should be denied assistance. Yet there should at least be additional safeguards put in place to make sure that they do not engage in similar transgressions when it comes to CARES Act funds.

Note: A list of companies receiving $500,000 or more from the Provider Relief Fund can be found here. A list of recipients of the high-impact awards can be found here.

Corporate-Owned Nursing Homes and Covid-19

It was only a few days ago that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that nursing homes will be required to notify residents and their families when coronavirus cases have been discovered in a facility. This comes many weeks after the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington became an early Covid-19 hotspot and deaths started mounting at other nursing homes across the country.

Even before the pandemic began, conditions in the nation’s roughly 15,000 nursing homes, which house some 1.5 million residents, were far from ideal. As a Washington Post investigation recently found, about 40 percent of nursing homes with publicly reported cases of coronavirus — the list of which is far from complete, given varying transparency practices among the states — had been previously cited by government inspectors for violating regulations meant to control the spread of infections. This made them all the more susceptible to coronavirus.

The blame for that poor track record rests to a significant degree with the large corporations, including private equity firms, that control a substantial portion of the country’s nursing homes. While the Washington Post story did not identify the parent companies of the facilities with reported Covid-19 cases, the data in Violation Tracker shows the compliance problems at those corporations.

The nursing home chain with the largest amount of total penalties is Kindred Healthcare, which has had to pay out more than $350 million in fines and settlements.  The bulk of that amount has come from cases in which Kindred and its subsidiaries were accused of violating the False Claims Act by submitting inaccurate or improper bills to Medicare and Medicaid. Another $40 million has come from wage and hour fines and settlements.

Kindred has also been fined more than $4 million for deficiencies in its operations. This includes more than $3 million it paid to settle a case brought by the Kentucky Attorney General over issues such as “untreated or delayed treatment of infections leading to sepsis.”

Golden Living Centers, a large chain owned by the private equity firm Fillmore Capital Partners, accounts for more than $200 million in fines and settlements. Golden Living is the current incarnation of Beverly Enterprises, which in the 1990s was the poster child of nursing home misconduct. In 2000 it paid $170 million to settle allegations that it defrauded Medicare by fabricating records to make it appear that staff members were devoting much more time to residents than they actually were.

Golden Living and Beverly have also paid more than $6 million in fines arising out of inspections of their facilities, including $1.5 million paid to the Arkansas Attorney General to resolve allegations of patient neglect.

Another chain with a problematic track record is Life Care Centers of America, operator of the ill-fated facility in Kirkland. The company has paid more than $147 million in fines and settlements, most of which came from a False Claims Act case in which it was accused of improperly billing Medicare for rehabilitation services.

The company has also paid more than $2 million in fines stemming from inspections, including $467,985 for nursing homes in Washington State. Life Care facilities appear numerous times on the Washington Post list of facilities with reported coronavirus cases.

Other chains with substantial penalty totals include Genesis HealthCare ($57 million), Ensign Group ($48 million) and National Healthcare Corp. ($28 million).

Among the many problems that have been brought into sharp relief by Covid-19 — and that will have to be addressed once we have gotten through the pandemic – is the sorry state of our nursing homes, too many of which seem to put profit ahead of safety for one of the most vulnerable parts of our population.

The Rap Sheets of the Big Ventilator Producers

Earlier this year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina announced that a company called ResMed had agreed to pay more than $37 million to settle allegations under the False Claims Act that it illegally paid kickbacks to promote sales of equipment used to treat sleep apnea.

The case did not receive much attention at the time, but ResMed, which also produces ventilators, is now one of the companies involved in the controversy over the distribution of equipment that hospitals desperately need to save lives during the coronavirus pandemic.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state chief executives have been complaining about price-gouging and shipments that fail to materialize, as health systems across the country compete for a woefully inadequate supply of ventilators, some of which have reportedly been exported.

This apparent profiteering should come as no surprise, given the track record of the ventilator industry, in which ResMed is not the only producer with a history of alleged misconduct. In fact, all the big publicly traded companies in the industry have paid millions of dollars in penalties in False Claims Act, kickback and bribery cases.  Along with ResMed, they are Philips, General Electric, Hill-Rom, and Medtronic.

In 2016 a Philips subsidiary called Respironics agreed to pay $34.8 million to settle allegations similar to those faced by ResMed involving the payment of kickbacks to suppliers for the purchase of sleep apnea equipment. In 2013 the Securities and Exchange Commission ordered Philips to pay $4.5 million for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act stemming from improper payments to healthcare officials in Poland.  

In 2011 GE Healthcare agreed to pay $30 million to settle False Claims Act allegations that a subsidiary caused Medicare to overpay for a radiopharmaceutical used in certain cardiac diagnostic imaging procedures by giving the federal government false or misleading information about doses.

Also in 2011 Hill-Rom agreed to pay $41.8 million to settle allegations that for years it knowingly submitted numerous and repeated false claims to the Medicare program for certain specialized medical equipment – bed support surfaces for treatment of pressure ulcers or bed sores – for patients for whom the equipment was not medically necessary.

Since 2006 Medtronic and its subsidiaries have paid more than $160 million in penalties in eight False Claims Act cases. The largest of these was a $75 million settlement agreed to by Medtronic Spine to resolve allegations that its marketing activities caused hospitals to submit false claims for kyphoplasty procedures, minimally-invasive surgeries used to treat compression fractures of the spine caused by osteoporosis, cancer or benign lesions.

Along with the False Claims Act cases, which are civil matters, a Medtronic subsidiary agreed to plead guilty and pay more than $17 million in 2018 to resolve a criminal charge that it promoted a neurovascular device for uses that were not approved by the FDA and were potentially dangerous.

It is true that none of these cases involved mechanical ventilators, but they do suggest something about ethical practices at the five companies. These are corporations accused of putting their own financial interests ahead of those of the federal government and thus the taxpayers. One of them has a subsidiary that is literally a corporate criminal.  

The coronavirus crisis is exposing many vulnerabilities of U.S. society. Among them is that the survival of many thousands of people now depends in large part on the behavior of a group of companies that have been something less than model corporate citizens.

This makes it all the more scandalous that the Trump Administration refuses to make full use of the Defense Production Act to end profiteering in the ventilator industry and force it to serve the needs of the country during this national emergency.

Back Pedaling on Kickbacks?

It’s hard not to be suspicious when the Secretary of Health and Human Services promotes a supposed reform by stating that “President Trump has promised American patients a healthcare system with affordable, personalized care, a system that puts you in control, provides peace of mind, and treats you like a human being, not a number. But too often, government regulations have stood in the way of delivering that kind of care.”

Secretary Alex Azar used those dubious statements in a press release about his department’s plan to “modernize and clarify” the regulations that interpret the Physician Self-Referral Law (known as the Stark Law) and the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute.

Azar claims that the rule changes would promote new methods of delivering healthcare based on greater coordination among providers, including those with financial relationships with one another.

The changes are technical in nature, but I cannot help but worry that the scheme would serve to legitimize dubious dealings and enable providers to avoid prosecution under laws that have been in place for several decades.

I have become more familiar with these laws in the course of collecting data for Violation Tracker. The database currently contains more than 360 cases in which kickbacks and bribery are involved as the primary or secondary offense. These cases have resulted in more than $14 billion in fines and settlements involving many of the largest names in pharmaceuticals (Merck, Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, et al.), hospitals (Tenet, HCA, among others) and pharmacies (such as CVS).

The biggest penalty is a $2.2 billion agreement signed by Johnson & Johnson in 2013 to resolve civil and criminal charges of paying kickbacks to physicians to encourage them to prescribe several of its drugs for uses not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

One of those drugs was the anti-psychotic medication Risperdal, which was only approved for schizophrenia but which J&J was allegedly promoting for other less serious conditions among elderly patients through financial inducements to providers.

In an interesting coincidence, the announcement of the new HHS proposal came at almost exactly the same time that a jury in Philadelphia hit J&J with an $8 billion verdict over its marketing of Risperdal for use by children.

It will be interesting to see whether the new HHS rules on kickbacks, if they go through, manage to distinguish between more innocent financial dealings among providers and the corrupt practices that have been so common among the larger players. Given this administration’s track record on healthcare and so many other issues, we cannot give it the benefit of the doubt.

Have Voters Killed the Crappy Coverage Comeback?

Democrats seized the House while Republicans increased their majority in the Senate, but the unambiguous and across-the-board winner in the election was regulation – specifically, regulation of the health insurance industry.

Rarely has the public sent such a clear message that it wanted government to rein in corporations and market forces in favor of consumer and public interest protections. The desire to retain provisions of the Affordable Care Act protecting those with pre-existing conditions was key to Democratic gains. Republicans responded by pretending they agreed with that principle, but few were fooled by this deception.

At the same time, voters in three deep red states – Idaho, Nebraska and Utah – approved ballot initiatives in favor of ACA Medicaid expansion. This amounted to an embrace not just of regulation but of out-and-out government-controlled health coverage.

All these results should put an end to the longstanding Republican crusade to repeal the ACA, but it remains to be seen whether there is also a termination of the Trump Administration’s effort to undermine the law through steps such as allowing wider sale of substandard policies.

One encouraging sign came even before the votes were counted. On November 2 a federal judge in Miami, acting at the request of the Federal Trade Commission, issued an order temporarily shutting down a Florida company called Simple Health Plans LLC, which along with related firms was selling policies the FTC called “predatory” and “worthless.”

The FTC complaint against the companies spells out a variety of deceptive practices meant to make customers think they were buying real coverage when in fact they were getting medical discount memberships of limited value.

It’s telling that one of the websites used by the firms is called Trumpcarequotes.com. Trumpcare is actually an appropriate term for the crappy coverage—both because Trump has been touting such plans and because the Trump name has been involved in previous scams such as Trump University. Let’s not forget that after his election Trump had to pay $25 million to settle litigation related to that venture, a step that the New York State Attorney General called “a major victory for the over 6,000 victims of his fraudulent university.”

The ACA’s provisions relating to protection for pre-existing conditions are inseparable from those setting minimum standards for coverage. Ensuring the right of patients to buy insurance is meaningless if they end up with plans that pay for next to nothing.

The proliferation of junk insurance through the efforts of companies such as Aetna was one of the dismal realities of the U.S. health insurance market that gave rise to the ACA. Republicans have been promoting similar low-cost plans as their solution to the supposed crisis of Obamacare. This is a cynical ploy to use a perverse form of consumerism to restore the old days of limited regulation. Let’s hope the election results have taught them a lesson about the consequences of messing with healthcare.

Capital Punishment or Capital Reward?

When Betsy DeVos  was nominated to head the Department of Education, the main concern was what harm a “choice” crusader would bring to K-12 public schools. Recently we’ve seen that she can also cause damage with regard to post-secondary education.

DeVos announced plans to delay the implementation of rules on for-profit colleges that the Obama Administration fought long and hard to bring into being. Calling the plan unfair, DeVos said she wants to redo the rulemaking process from scratch – a clear sign that she wants to weaken or eliminate the restrictions.  That’s the premise of a lawsuit just filed against DeVos by the attorneys general of 18 states and the District of Columbia.

The Obama campaign against predatory colleges was one of the most consequential initiatives of the administration on corporate misconduct. In addition to the rules – one of which is designed to bar federal loans at schools whose graduates don’t earn enough to pay off their debt and another that would make it easier to erase debt incurred at bogus institutions – the Obama Education Department and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau brought enforcement actions that helped bring about the demise of flagrant abusers such as Corinthian Colleges and ITT Educational Services.

And this came after the Obama Administration pushed Congress to get commercial banks out of the student loan business.

Taken together, the Obama era measures against predatory for-profit education represent one of the rare instances in which government action targeted not just an illegitimate practice or a miscreant company but an entire industry. The message was not simply that for-profit colleges needed to be reformed but rather that they should not continue to exist. It was capital punishment for capital.

It comes as no surprise that the billionaire DeVos, who has had personal involvement with dubious business ventures, is seeking to undo the crackdown on for-profit colleges. And it is yet another example of how the Trump Administration is working against the interests of those lower-income voters who put him in office.

The same dynamic can be seen in the healthcare arena. The Republican “solution” to the problems of the Affordable Care Act is to make it easier for insurance companies to offer bare-bones junk insurance while dismantling Medicaid, both in its traditional form and its expansion under the ACA. The latest version of the Senate bill is willing to retain the hated taxes on high-income earners as long as the assault on the socialistic Medicaid program moves forward.

It appears that the right’s desire to protect the interests of corporations – including the most predatory – is even greater than its wish to redistribute income upward. Thus the one thing that Republicans have made sure to do with their stranglehold on the federal government has been to roll back as many business regulations as possible.

It remains to be seen how long Trump and Congressional Republicans can get away with telling their working class supporters that predatory corporations are the ones that deserve relief.

 

 

The Insurance Industry’s No-Lose Situation

Many voices are speaking out about the Republican effort to undo the Affordable Care Act, but one party diligently refrains from public comment: the insurance industry. While the industry is undoubtedly exerting its influence in the closed-door negotiations to restructure the wildly unpopular GOP bill, it is not airing those views more widely.

It doesn’t have to, because the healthcare debate between the two major parties is largely a disagreement on how best to serve the needs of Aetna, Anthem and the other big players.

The ACA, of course, was built on the premise that government should expand coverage largely by providing subsidies to help the uninsured purchase plans from private companies. When those companies became dissatisfied with the composition of their new client base and starting jacking up premiums in response, ACA supporters were put in the position of advocating for new insurer financial incentives.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are seeking to help the industry by rolling back Medicaid expansion and allowing it to return to the pre-Obamacare practice of selling bare-bones junk insurance, which would be the only kind that many people could afford after subsidies are decimated.

This is probably a no-lose situation for the insurers: either they get paid more to provide decent coverage or they are freed to sell highly profitable lousy plans.

All those legislators catering to insurers one way or the other are forgetting that healthcare reform was made necessary by the ruthless behavior of that same industry. If those companies had not been denying coverage whenever possible, it would not have been necessary for the ACA to set minimum standards. And if those firms had not been raising premiums relentlessly, it would not have been necessary for the ACA to take steps — which turned out to be inadequate — to try to restrain costs.

The industry’s unethical practices are not limited to the individual marketplace. The big insurers have also exploited the decision by policymakers to give them a foothold in the big federally funded programs: Medicaid and Medicare.

As Senate Republicans were cooking up their repeal and replace bill, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles joined two cases against one of the industry’s giants, UnitedHealth Group. The whistleblower suits accuse the company of systematically overcharging the federal government for services provided under the Medicare Advantage Program.

The complaints in the cases allege that UnitedHealth routinely scoured millions of medical records, searching for data it could use to make patients seem sicker than they actually were and thus justify bigger payments for the company, which was also accused of failing to correct invalid diagnoses made by providers. Either way, the complaints argue, UnitedHealth was bilking Medicare Advantage, which was created on the assumption that bringing the private sector into a government program would cut costs.

Such assumptions continue to afflict federal health policy as a whole. Too many members of Congress continue to worship the market in the face of all the evidence that the private insurance industry cannot be the foundation of a humane healthcare system.

The Crappy Coverage Solution

If Congressional Republicans succeed in enacting either the Senate or the House bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they will have carried out one of the most brazen bait and switch moves in the history of U.S. public policy.

They and Donald Trump campaigned on the idea that Obamacare exchange premiums were rising uncontrollably, yet neither of the bills does anything to address that problem. They did not vow to repeal and replace Medicaid — Trump, in fact, promised not to touch it or Medicare or Social Security — yet that is what the bills would in effect do, both for the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and traditional Medicaid.

It’s been widely noted that the Republicans seem preoccupied with repealing the taxes the ACA imposed on high earners to help pay for the cost of expanding coverage. Yet less attention is being paid to the other giveaway in the bills: the repeal of the ACA’s employer mandate. This provision should be called the Wal-Mart Windfall Act, because it would allow large low-road employers to avoid ACA rules that oblige firms with 50 or more full-time employees to provide health coverage or else pay a penalty.

The mandate is far from draconian, yet it was at least a partial remedy for the situation in which millions of workers at big-box retailers, fast-food outlets and similar workplaces were not provided affordable coverage and were encouraged to enroll in programs such as Medicaid. Now the Republicans seek to remove any obligation on the part of employers to provide coverage while also undermining the social safety net alternative.

To the extent that the Republicans have a solution to the healthcare problem it is this: bring back junk insurance. It is often forgotten that the ACA was designed not just to address the problem of the uninsured but also the underinsured.

Starting in the 1990s, large insurers such as Aetna began selling bare-bones individual policies to low-income individuals who did not get employer coverage and could not qualify for Medicaid. These policies had relatively low premiums but sky-high deductibles and numerous exclusions. In cases of a serious accident or illness, they were all but worthless. The ACA put an end to this predatory market by establishing a set of essential benefits that all plans would have to include.

Republicans don’t like to admit that they are promoting a return to crappy coverage, so they dress up their arguments with misleading phrases such as “patient-centered reforms.” Many of them also realized that the idea of lowering standards directly was not very popular, so they have returned to their favorite panacea of giving states more flexibility. This allows them to pretend they are not scrapping essential benefits while knowing that many governors and state legislatures would be all too willing to do so if given the opportunity.

The cynicism of Congressional Republicans is matched by that of the big insurance companies, for whom the ACA was tailored and are now doing nothing to defend the law. Instead, they still seem to be sulking about the two anti-competitive mergers (Aetna-Humana and Anthem-Cigna) that were opposed by Obama Administration and shot down in the courts. Having seen their oligopolistic dreams go up in smoke, they now seem to want to give up the ACA market in favor of selling bare-bones policies.

It is unclear whether the dystopian vision of the ACA opponents will come to pass, but in the meantime the wellbeing of millions of Americans is being unnecessarily endangered.

The Junk Insurance Lobby

The ACA repeal-and-replace effort, given up for dead two weeks ago, may or may not be getting resurrected. Whether that happens seems to depend on satisfying the desire of Tea Party Republicans to grant Americans the right to purchase the crappiest health coverage possible.

Whereas Paul Ryan and President Trump initially wanted to retain the ACA’s popular provisions on essential benefits and pre-existing conditions, they now seem open to trading them away to win over the Freedom Caucus.

The position of the hardliners is often dismissed as some kind of bizarre misanthropy, but it is actually the logical conclusion of the mainstream Republican notion that deregulation is the solution to all problems. That notion has been embraced by Trump, who repeatedly bashes agencies such as the EPA and claims that weakening business oversight is the key to job growth.

The members of the Freedom Caucus seem to believe that removing all restrictions on insurance companies will result in lower premium costs. That may be true but only because the insurance that people would be purchasing would cover as little as possible.

While the Freedom Caucus presents this as a bold new approach, it is really nothing more than a return to the situation before the enactment of the ACA. Republicans of all stripes would have us forget how awful and oppressive health insurance used to be.

Thirty years ago, the House Select Committee on Aging was warning that, in addition to the millions of Americans who were uninsured, millions more were underinsured. As traditional insurance was increasingly replaced by health maintenance organizations — whose business model was to deny as much coverage as possible — subscribers had to fight constantly to get prior approval for many procedures and to get reimbursed for medical fees already paid.

Even worse than the HMOs were the individual plans labeled as “limited benefit” or “mini-medical.” Targeted to lower-income people who were self-employed or had jobs that provided no coverage, these policies could cost as little as $40 a month but they had strict limits on both routine expenses and hospitalization costs. These plans existed for a long time on the fringes of the health insurance world, but eventually large companies such as Aetna, Cigna and UnitedHealth Group entered the market with their own bare-bones offerings.

Those subscribing to such plans were gambling they would remain healthy. If instead someone had a serious accident or illness, the plans were useless and often pushed people into personal bankruptcy.

Junk policies are the healthcare analogue to payday loans and other forms of predatory lending. They appear to serve a need and initially appear to be inexpensive, but they can have disastrous consequences.

The ACA was designed to protect people from those consequences, but the Obama Administration did not do enough to explain the change. In a climate of rightwing demagoguery, many people who had to give up their low-cost junk insurance were led to think they were losing something valuable. Moreover, Medicaid expansion, which provided free, decent coverage for low-wage workers who might otherwise have had to depend on junk policies, was blocked in many states for ideological reasons.

Now the Freedom Caucus would have us believe that bare-bones coverage is the way forward for the individual marketplace. That might be the case if we want a society in which those few people with no significant health needs get a bargain while everyone else has to risk financial ruin.

Catastrophic Plans

During his private-sector career Donald Trump floated many dubious business ventures, and now as president he is pushing his biggest bait-and-switch scheme yet. Having run for office on promises that he would improve healthcare and protect safety net programs such as Medicaid, he is now embracing and promoting a Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act that would do exactly the opposite.

Throughout the campaign, Trump made it abundantly clear that he wanted to repeal the ACA, which he repeatedly described as a disaster, and with his typical hyperbole promised voters: “You’re going to have such great healthcare at a tiny fraction of the cost, and it is going to be so easy.” During the transition he said that the replacement plan would seek to provide “insurance for everybody.”

Trump exploited the real frustrations of many people with the ACA — frustrations that were largely the result of Republican intransigence that prevented the inclusion of a public option, blocked any legislative fixes and precluded Medicaid expansion in many states. He implicitly promised that a replacement plan would do more.

When Trump stated on February 27 that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he was in effect signaling that the bait phase of his con was over and he was moving on to the switch. Now he has dropped the extravagant promises and has joined the House Republican rush to enact a repeal and replace plan supposedly made urgent by the imminent collapse of Obamacare.

The House legislation has not yet been officially scored by the Congressional Budget Office, but it is widely anticipated that it will result in a loss of coverage for millions of people and sharp increases in premiums for many of those who hold onto their plans.

Yet there is another issue that is receiving less attention: the quality of coverage for those who remain in the individual marketplace. For now, the Republican plan retains the ACA’s list of essential benefits (preventive care, etc.) that must be included in any individual or small group plan, but it is possible that could be bargained away to placate social conservatives who don’t like the provisions relating to reproductive health.

Trumpcare does not, however, include the ACA’s cost-sharing provisions that cap out-of-pocket expenses in plans obtained through the exchanges by persons with income below 250 percent of the federal poverty line. As a result, these people could very well be subjected to sharply higher deductibles and co-pays.

This points to the little-acknowledged aspect of the assault on the ACA: at the heart of the Republican “solution” to rising premiums is giving people the ability to purchase lower-cost but substandard coverage. In other words, they want to return to the pre-ACA situation in which insurers could sell bare-bones policies that provided little or no cost reimbursement except in cases of major illnesses or accidents — and might be skimpy in those situations as well.

It is significant that Republicans keep quoting Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini in perpetuating the bogus claim that the ACA is in a “death spiral.” Bertolini is hardly an objective observer. He used misleading negative comments about the ACA to try to deter the Obama Administration from its opposition to Aetna’s anti-competitive acquisition of its rival Humana, which was recently blocked by a federal judge who accused the company of dropping out of the ACA marketplace in several states to “improve its litigation position” in the merger dispute.

Aetna is also the company that was one of the biggest promoters of bare-bones policies in the pre-ACA period. It got into the business, also known as junk health insurance, two decades ago through the purchase of U.S. Healthcare, an HMO whose bare-knuckles practices Aetna adopted in full and thus found itself the target of a series of class-action lawsuits brought by patients as well as providers.

The substandard policies sold by Aetna made up a substantial portion of the plans that were banned by the ACA. The people who had to give up that “coverage” became symbols of the supposed oppression of Obamacare.

Although they try hard to hide the fact, Republicans — and now Trump — are setting the stage for a resurgence of the bare-bones policies under the banner of affordability. That will be catastrophic coverage in every sense of the word.