Weekly Newsletter: April 7, 2008

Democrats Plot Restrictions on Health Savings Accounts

Reports surfaced this week that the Democratic majority may be attempting to enact new restrictions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) as part of upcoming health legislation. The proposal being discussed would require that all HSA account holders submit information showing what portion of their HSA expenditures in a given year have been independently verified as constituting qualified medical expenses.

Available data suggest that the percentage of HSA funds being used for non-medical expenses is comparatively low—particularly upon close examination. For instance, purchases in a grocery store may at first blush appear irrelevant to HSA use—but in reality many of these transactions could involve permissible medical items (over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, prescriptions, medical supplies, etc.). And in those instances when individuals do use their HSA funds to make major non-health expenditures, the Internal Revenue Service has audit procedures in place to ensure that account-holders pay income taxes on non-qualified distributions—plus a 10% penalty to discourage such behavior.

When drafting the regulations implementing Health Savings Accounts in 2004, the Treasury Department attempted to create a framework that would ensure that HSA funds would be used for bona fide medical expenses, while avoiding burdensome regulations that would inhibit the growth of this innovative consumer-driven health product. The proposal under discussion places an additional burden on account holders to document their purchases—even the $3 bottle of cough syrup an individual might choose to buy at a grocery store like Safeway rather than at a CVS or other pharmacy—and may have a similarly chilling effect on insurance carriers and banks currently offering account-based products to individuals and employers.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this proposal represents the first of many impending attempts by the Democrat majority to enact burdensome and bureaucratic regulations undermining HSAs, which in a few short years have proven successful at slowing the growth of health costs and insurance premiums for millions of individuals and small businesses. Some conservatives may also be concerned that this particular provision, brought to the attention of the Democratic Ways and Means Committee staff by a former Republican staffer-turned-lobbyist, may constitute a legislative “earmark” drafted specifically to benefit one company (Evolution Benefits) seeking to market its substantiation technology to HSA administrators.

The attached policy brief explains the issue in further detail. The RSC will continue to monitor this or any similar attempts to enact burdensome restrictions on HSAs, and will weigh in to protect the important consumer-driven health programs which Republicans have succeeded in establishing in recent years.

House Committee Attempts to Override Medicaid Regulations Restoring Fiscal Integrity…

This past Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a Subcommittee hearing on legislation (H.R. 5613) that would impose moratoria on several proposed regulations issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to restore fiscal integrity to the Medicaid program. The regulations come as a response to more than a dozen Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports released since 1994 highlighting the various ways states have attempted to “game” the Medicaid program, reducing their share of program spending through various mechanisms designed primarily to increase the amount of federal matching funds received. The Energy and Commerce Committee may mark up legislation overriding the regulations as soon as this week.

While several state officials testified about the impact that the proposed regulations would have on their Medicaid programs in the current economic downturn, many conservatives may be concerned about the ways in which various questionable financing schemes—some of which have been used by states for more than a decade—have left Medicaid paying for non-health-related activities, such as trips to grocery stores and bingo games. With the proposed regulations reducing the federal share of Medicaid spending by only 1% over the next five years, some conservatives may have concerns should Congress attempt to override CMS’ modest attempts to restore fiscal integrity to Medicaid. However, some conservatives may embrace the opportunity presented by this discussion to advance concepts for more comprehensive reform of Medicaid program financing, to control health care costs and set clear fiscal priorities for the use of scarce federal dollars.

RSC Policy Briefs on the federal-state Medicaid relationship can be found here and here.

…While Marking Up New Regulations on Tobacco

Thursday’s hearing in the Health Subcommittee followed Wednesday’s full Energy and Commerce Committee markup of legislation (H.R. 1108) that would impose authority on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate tobacco. While the bill as modified in Committee altered proposed “user fee” language, some conservatives may remain concerned that the bill would impose additional free speech and marketing restrictions on tobacco companies, and could increase black market activity of tobacco products. Some conservatives may also echo the statements of FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, who has stated that tobacco regulation is not in line with FDA’s core mission—and question why Congressional Democrats who have criticized the FDA’s handling of various matters related to food and drug safety now consider the agency competent to regulate tobacco products.

The RSC will be monitoring this legislation as it makes its way to the House floor, and will be weighing in during the process to express conservatives’ concerns.

Interview of Note: “Crisis? What Crisis?”

This past week, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Pete Stark (D-CA) appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to discuss the Medicare trustees’ report released during the congressional recess. When asked about the impact of the trustees’ projection that the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund would become insolvent in 2019—just over one decade from now—Stark answered: “I don’t think it makes any difference what they say.” This followed on the heels of his statement at Tuesday’s Health Subcommittee hearing that “Medicare is not in crisis.”

Many conservatives may be concerned by Chairman Stark’s insouciance at a time when the federal government faces spiraling costs for Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security that both the Medicare trustees and most independent observers agree are unsustainable. Many conservatives believe that the time has long since arrived for the federal government to place its own fiscal house in order, because, as countless homeowners have observed in recent months, further delay will do nothing to prevent the problem—and will only make the ultimate solution harder on all parties.