As the year winds down, STAT reporters are taking a look at the stories they’re most eager to track in 2018. Find all our “three to watch” series here

Hospitals and health providers suffered minimal damage in this year’s political collision over Obamacare. But 2018 will bring a series of equally high-stakes debates that will affect the financial viability of hospitals and the future of how care is measured and delivered.

And by the way, the war over Obamacare is hardly over — it’ll start up again next year with proposals to stabilize insurance markets and renewed GOP repeal efforts.

Here are some additional issues to watch:

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Redefining value

The Trump administration is promising to set a new course for medicine’s value movement. Seema Verma, the chief of Medicare and Medicaid, is evaluating proposals for ways to link government reimbursement to patient outcomes. She is moving away from the mandatory payment programs created under President Obama — in which hospitals received lump sum payments for repairing fractured hips and other services — in favor of voluntary models with more flexible arrangements created by doctors and hospitals.

Greater leeway from the federal government might make it easier for hospitals to experiment with novel ideas, like pushing for new payment arrangements in specialty areas such as gastroenterology, behavioral health, and cancer care. But the additional flexibility could also take the teeth out of reforms and fatten providers’ margins without delivering corresponding cost and quality benefits.

It is unclear when the Trump administration will unveil its plans for new payment programs, but keep an eye out for news in the first half of 2018.

Medicaid, Medicaid, Medicaid

The federal program that provides care for the poor and disabled will remain a Republican target next year. The prospects of sweeping federal legislation appear dim, with strong Democratic opposition against a razor-thin GOP majority in the Senate. But the Trump administration may cut the program anyway, by giving states more flexibility to reshape their programs. That could mean swift approvals of popular GOP reforms, such as work requirements and premium-like payments by beneficiaries.

The implications couldn’t be bigger for providers, or their low-income patients. The underlying goal of these efforts is to reduce enrollments in the $500 billion program, an outcome that would increase uncompensated care and financial instability for struggling hospitals and households. But Republicans argue that cuts are necessary to keep federal spending in check and free states from mandates that are crowding out other budget priorities. That clash of interests will generate skirmishes across the country in 2018.

FDA regulation of medical technology

The Food and Drug Administration is redefining what it means to be a medical device in the digital age — a process that will have implications for the health care facilities that are the primary purchasers of such devices.

The FDA recently proposed streamlining the regulation of many health software products. The move will broaden providers’ arsenal of digital tools, such as decision support programs that helps doctors detect and respond to infections or diagnose rare diseases.

However the agency did not take a firm position on machines that rely on artificial intelligence, an area poised to generate plenty of debate in coming months. Products like Watson, IBM’s supercomputer, still fall in a regulatory gray area, as do others that rely on algorithms whose inner workings are shielded from users.

The key question is this: Should the FDA require companies to prove their products deliver safe and effective advice, or can they unleash these machines in health care with minimal oversight?

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