Weekly Newsletter: September 22, 2008

  • Specialty Hospital Ban a Special-Interest Boondoggle Reports circulated late last week that restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals may be included in mental health parity legislation that could come to the House floor this week. While later press reports indicated that the specialty hospital provisions would be excluded from the mental health parity bill, legislative activity cannot be ruled out.

    Advocates of a specialty hospital ban state that restricting physician ownership will slow the growth of health care costs and improve the solvency of the Medicare program. However, a look at the record of the Democrat-controlled 110th Congress shows little attempt to control the growth of health spending or solve Medicare’s long-term funding shortfalls:

  • Democrats rejected an attempt to make wealthy seniors pay $2 per day more for prescription drug coverage—which would save Medicare $12.1 billion over ten years;
  • Democrats rejected reasonable reforms to the current medical liability reform system that would eliminate the need for defensive medicine practices that raise health care costs—saving the federal government more than $6 billion over ten years;
  • Democrats could not pass structural reforms to the current system of Medicare physician payments—choosing instead to pass a budgetary gimmick that will give physicians a 21% reimbursement cut in January 2010.Given these actions—and an impending floor vote on a bill (HR 758) that will likely increase health care costs by billions of dollars—conservatives may question why Democrats have passed up attempts to save Medicare more than $12 billion by charging billionaires like Warren Buffett more for their prescription drugs and instead remain fixated on saving one-tenth that amount by eradicating a free market for physician-owned facilities.

    Part of the answer may lie in the lobbying activities of entities like the American Hospital Association— which spent nearly $20 million last year alone, and nearly $153 million over the last decade, on federal lobbying activities. Despite the fact that, by one measure, specialty hospitals represent less than 1% of total Medicare hospital spending, traditional hospitals continue their attempts to eradicate this potential source of competition—going so far as to draw a rebuke from Health and Human Services’ Inspector General for “misrepresent[ing]” the IG’s conclusions in a document sent to Congressional staff. Despite— or perhaps because of—these deceptive lobbying practices, some conservatives may support efforts to maintain free markets in health care, and oppose any further efforts by Congressional Democrats to pass a specialty hospital ban.

Medicaid Fraud Will Not Be Addressed by Bailout

Last Tuesday’s New York Times highlighted the case of Staten Island University Hospital, an institution with a history of questionable billing practices—and now one of the largest fraud settlements against a single hospital. This week the hospital agreed to return nearly $90 million to respond to claims of overbilling government programs as a result of two whistle-blower lawsuits and actions by federal prosecutors. The lawsuits and charges alleged among other things that the hospital deliberately inflated bed and patient counts in order to obtain reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid, and come after the hospital had reached two previous settlements—one in 1999 resulting in $45 million in Medicaid repayments, and another in 2005 resulting in $76.5 returned to Medicaid—with state authorities regarding fraudulent billing activity.

Many conservatives may not be surprised by these repeated instances of fraud and graft within the program, given that a former New York state Medicaid investigator estimated that 40% of all Medicaid payments were fraudulent or questionable in nature. However, this episode may only strengthen conservative concerns that a proposed “temporary” increase in federal Medicaid matching funds (HR 5268) would do nothing to combat this fraud and abuse before spending additional federal dollars. Indeed, given that a single hospital has settled more than $200 million in fraud claims, some conservatives may wonder whether, if the Medicaid program had appropriate anti-fraud efforts in place, an additional $10-15 billion “bailout” for states would even be needed at all.

Read the article here.