If President Donald Trump wins reelection next week, it seems unlikely he will unveil the health plan he's been promising since before his election in 2016. Still, other aspects of health care could be featured in his second-term agenda.
Not having a replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act may be just fine with many of his supporters and conservatives. Most Republicans don't want the federal government to remake the nation's health system, said Grace-Marie Turner, of the conservative Galen Institute. "It's a different philosophy from Democrats, who think it needs to be a big program," she said. "Conservatives, we think of it in a more targeted way."
Trump, of course, repeatedly promises something big. "We will have Healthcare which is FAR BETTER than ObamaCare, at a FAR LOWER COST – BIG PREMIUM REDUCTION," he tweeted Oct. 12 — hardly the first time he's made a similar promise. "PEOPLE WITH PRE EXISTING CONDITIONS WILL BE PROTECTED AT AN EVEN HIGHER LEVEL THAN NOW. HIGHLY UNPOPULAR AND UNFAIR INDIVIDUAL MANDATE ALREADY TERMINATED. YOU'RE WELCOME!"
But Trump needs a contingency plan if the Supreme Court accepts his argument that the ACA should be overturned. The justices are scheduled to hear the case the week after Election Day. Administration health officials have pledged to have an alternative if the high court does as they ask. But they have refused to publicly share any details.
In September, Trump unveiled a package of health care proposals at a speech in North Carolina. The "America First Healthcare Plan" is less than an actual plan, though. It's a vague set of claims about things that have not happened yet — like bringing down prescription drug prices — along with a laundry list of some of his administration's lesser accomplishments on health issues, such as the initiative to help Americans with severe kidney disease and efforts to improve the availability of health care in rural areas.
As part of that overall health plan, Trump issued an executive order declaring "it has been and will continue to be the policy of the United States … to ensure that Americans with pre-existing conditions can obtain the insurance of their choice at affordable rates." But there is nothing in the order — or in the broader outline — to ensure that would be the case if the ACA were struck down. It would take congressional action to guarantee that.
The current court controversy over the ACA arose because Congress in its 2017 tax bill eliminated the financial penalty for not having health insurance. But Congress didn't have the votes to get rid of the mandate itself under the rules for the tax bill. Republican state officials then sued, arguing that since the Supreme Court had once upheld the ACA's mandate, calling it a tax, once the penalty was gone, the law should also be invalidated.
Trump frequently heralds his actions, erroneously saying he killed the mandate and arguing that he got rid of the most detested part of the law.
"He likes to use words, but I don't think there's been a substantive policy yet," said Len Nichols, a health policy professor at George Mason University. "I have no clue what he would do" in a second term "other than trying to repeal the ACA."
One thing Trump accomplished in his first term is a set of potentially far-reaching regulatory actions, many of which have been challenged in federal courts. Those include allowing states to implement work requirements for people who receive Medicaid health benefits and requiring hospitals and other health providers to make their negotiated prices available to the public.
Legal analysts have doubted the administration's authority to implement many changes Trump has proposed. But considering Trump has appointed hundreds of federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, the legal landscape may be changing and more of those proposals could be allowed to proceed.
Still, Trump faces uphill battles on some of his preferred health initiatives, even if Republicans control Congress.
For example, said Dan Mendelson of the consulting group Avalere Health, "I would expect that if he's reelected there would be a drug pricing agenda he continues to push." Among his proposals is having Medicare pay for drugs based on what the medicines sell for in countries that negotiate prices. That would be complicated, Mendelson said, by the fact that "the broader Republican Party doesn't want to move to a regulatory model in this country."
But the Galen Institute's Turner said not to discount the changes Trump has made, such as allowing broader sales of short-term health plans that are less expensive but offer fewer benefits than ACA plans. She said to expect actions in a similar vein in a second term. "He really has done a lot, using his executive authority, based on trying to make markets work better and give people more choice," she said. "They are strategic, targeted approaches to specific problems."
He'll certainly have a specific problem if the ACA is struck down. Americans losing their insurance won't want to wait to find out if he has a plan.
HealthBent, a regular feature of Kaiser Health News, offers insight and analysis of policies and politics from KHN's chief Washington correspondent, Julie Rovner, who has covered health care for more than 30 years.