Health Care Spending Growth

Background:  Last month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released its annual report projecting health care spending over the next decade.  The report concluded that nationwide health expenditures are expected to rise 6.7% annually in the next ten years, causing health care spending to rise to 19.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2017.  These projections are consistent with a November report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) highlighting the long-term projections for health care spending, which estimated that health expenditures could comprise just under half (49%) of GDP within 75 years.

Ten Year Projections:  The report by the CMS actuaries, released online by the journal Health Affairs, documents the continued growth in health care spending and hints at upcoming trends associated with the retirement of the Baby Boom generation.  In 2007, health care spending is projected to have grown at a 6.7% rate, reaching $2.2 trillion, or approximately 16.3% of GDP.  The report provides a snapshot of current health expenditures, and also cites several projected spending trends over the next decade:

  • Private health insurance premiums grew at a slower rate (6.0%) than overall health care expenditures in 2007, consistent with trends evident since 2004.
  • Prescription drug spending grew by 6.7% in 2007, a measurable slowdown in spending when compared to the increases for the prior two years (12.0% in 2005 and 8.5% in 2006), due in large part to increased price competition and generic drug usage.
  • Private spending on health care is projected to grow more slowly in the latter part of the projection period (2007-2017), while public spending “is expected to accelerate…as the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation becomes eligible for Medicare.”  While the aging population will have minimal effects on overall health expenditures, its effects on public spending, particularly through Medicare, will be significant.
  • Enrollment in private Medicare Advantage plans is expected to rise to 27.5% by 2017, up from 16.4% in 2006.
  • Just over half of the growth in health care spending comes from increases in medical costs, with about one-quarter of the increase due to utilization (volume and intensity of services), and the remainder due to population growth, demographics, and related factors.

Overall, the report’s conclusions indicate that although all health spending continues to rise, the increase in public health spending has accelerated.  While the competition created by the Medicare prescription drug benefit may have contributed to the considerable slowing in pharmaceutical expenditures, an aging population moving to Medicare will only hasten the growth of public spending.

In fact, the true size of the government’s future obligations for health spending is likely underestimated by the model used in the actuaries’ report, which presumes that existing law adjustments in physician reimbursements under the sustainable growth rate mechanism (SGR) will take effect.  If the SGR’s proposed reductions are instead replaced by a 0% increase—in other words, if physician payments are held steady through 2017—Medicare spending will rise by 8.0% annually over the next decade, instead of the 7.4% projected under the trustees’ current law model.

Historical Examples and Long-Term Projections:  The report produced by the CMS actuaries follows on the heels of a study, conducted by CBO and released in November 2007, which examined both historical trends in health care spending and long-term projections for its growth over the next 75 years.  Most notably, the report documents a historical shift in health care expenditures: a significant reduction in out-of-pocket spending, which declined from 31% to 13% of all health expenditures between 1975 and 2005, and the nearly commensurate increase in third-party payment by insurance carriers, which increased from 25% to 37% of health spending nationwide.  While the growth in new technologies and services has helped drive the growth in health spending which CBO documents, the continued rise of third-party payment—which can insulate patients from the marginal costs associated with additional treatments—may well have had inflationary effects.  This shift away from out-of-pocket spending occurred despite the findings of a landmark RAND Institute study, which concluded that higher cost-sharing helped constrain health care spending at little to no adverse effect on patients’ health.

On a forward-looking basis, CBO projects that overall health care spending will more than double in the next thirty years, rising from 14.9% of GDP in 2005 (and 4.7% in 1975) to 31% in 2035, growing thereafter to nearly half the nation’s economy (49% of GDP) in 2081.  The net federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid is projected to rise at a higher rate than overall health spending, growing from 26% of total spending on health care currently to 30% within thirty years, and 38% of total spending by 2082.

These 75-year projections are materially divergent from the projections made by the Medicare trustees in their annual report.  The trustees project Medicare spending to consume nearly 11% of total GDP by the end of the projection period, while CBO estimates that Medicare will consume more than one in six dollars spent in the United States (17% of GDP).  As the Medicare trustees’ projection notes $36 trillion in unfunded liabilities for the program over the next 75 years, the significantly higher projections made by CBO in its study should provide yet another impetus to enact comprehensive entitlement reform that addresses the unchecked growth in health costs.

Excess Cost Growth:  Both the CMS actuaries’ report and the CBO study projecting long-term health expenditures highlight the issue of excess cost growth in health care.  In this context, “excess cost growth” does not imply a value judgment as to whether or not the spending is necessary or appropriate; rather, the term connotes spending that exceeds economic and productivity growth.  For instance, the CMS actuaries project that health spending will rise by 6.7% over the next ten years, while nominal (i.e. non-inflation-adjusted) GDP will rise by 4.7%, resulting in excess cost growth of 2.0% annually for the decade.

The CBO report projects that the growth of overall health care spending will exceed the rate of economic growth by more than 2% annually for at least the next decade, and will continue to exceed economic growth throughout the entire 75-year projection period.  The report also projects that excess cost growth for Medicare and Medicaid will continue at rates far exceeding cost growth within the private sector,  noting that “that aspect of the projections may appear unrealistic, but it highlights the core problem—the unsustainability of current federal law.”

Over and above the unrealistic nature of the promises made in current federal law, and the need for comprehensive entitlement reform to remedy a looming fiscal crisis for Medicare, the excess cost growth discussed in the CBO report could also have significant macroeconomic implications by displacing other spending.  While CBO projects that per capita economic consumption will increase by $15,000 (in current dollars) from 2005-2035, more than three-quarters of that higher spending will be spent on health care.  Absent external action, health care costs could grow to consume all marginal increases in economic productivity—at which point both consumption and growth of other sectors of the economy could stagnate, and standards of living apart from health care (e.g. clothing, housing, etc.) could fall over time.  Although this pessimistic scenario remains somewhat distant, it highlights the need to understand the factors behind the growth in health spending, and substantially reduce excess cost growth in the coming years.

Geographic Variations:  Another CBO report issued in February examined one source of excess cost growth in health care: geographic variations in total spending.  The report notes that state per capita health expenses in 2004 ranged from a low of about $4,000 in Utah to a high of nearly $6,700 in Massachusetts—a more than 50% disparity.  Analysis of Medicare claims data showed a similar disparity among states—ranging from a per-beneficiary expenditure of $5,600 in South Dakota to $8,700 in Louisiana—and additional variations in areas within states.

The report also notes that geographic differences in price inputs (i.e. cost of labor, etc.), health status, and demographic factors (e.g. income, race, education level) likely constitute at most half of the observed deviation in expenditures, meaning that much of the geographic variation in health spending cannot be explained by known factors.  In other words, similar patients with similar diseases, living in areas with similar prices, are likely to receive differing levels of medical treatments and services.  Of particular note is the fact that patients living in areas with higher spending yield no better results with respect to both health processes and outcomes than patients in low-spending areas—and on some measures at least may receive worse care.

While the CBO report cites studies attributing some geographic variations in health spending to areas with a high supply of health providers (particularly hospitals and specialist physicians) creating additional demand for services, competition among a greater number of providers is likely to exert downward pressure on prices, if not the number of services performed.  To the extent that geographic variation in health costs are in fact driven by excess supply, some conservatives may be wary of government efforts—such as a Certificate of Need model for approving new hospital construction, or restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals—that impose bureaucratic regulations to stifle the supply of health providers, as they are likely to have adverse and unintended consequences that reduce access to care.  Many conservatives might prefer a more productive solution focused on mechanisms to place reasonable restraints on demand, by reducing the historical trends that have increased reliance on third-party payment, and making price and quality measures more transparent, so that consumers can have more information about available treatment options—and make a rational choice as to whether or not the additional treatment justifies the marginal cost.

Summary and Conclusions:  The growth in health care spending projected in the coming decades, following upon years of sustained increases, is likely to place significant and exacting demands on both the private and public sectors of the American economy absent external action.  Many conservatives believe that a discussion of ways to stem the growth in health care costs should be a part of any discussion to achieve so-called universal coverage, as health insurance would become much more affordable for all Americans at the point when premium costs and related expenditures rise at a more modest (and therefore more sustainable) rate.

The geographic variations in Medicare spending, particularly those portions of which cannot be explained by regional differences in income or health status, might prompt some Democrats to call for a centralized, government-controlled mechanism to reduce spending in higher-cost areas, likely through rationed care.  One popular variation on this approach has emerged in the form of comparative effectiveness, which would attempt to conduct research on the cost-effectiveness of various treatment options with an eye towards establishing more uniform practice standards.  While such efforts by the private sector could help reduce costs, many conservatives might have strong concerns as to whether a government-run effectiveness institute—such as the center proposed by Democrats in a wide-ranging health bill last July (H.R. 3162), which would have been funded by tax increases on insurance premiums—would result in a federal bureaucracy micro-managing the doctor-patient relationship, and ultimately, rationing care to patients.

A better alternative might lie in the data showing that private health spending is not rising as dramatically as expenditures on public health programs, suggesting that competition—and placing health care dollars in control of patients—holds the true solution to containing health costs.  The significant decline in out-of-pocket spending over the past three decades, and the escalating rise in costs during that time, demonstrate the perils associated when third-party payment of health expenses, particularly incidental (i.e. non-catastrophic) expenses, insulates patients from the marginal costs of additional treatment.  Likewise, the geographic variations in Medicare spending stem from a publicly-funded system where the costs for additional treatment can be minor—especially in areas where a high percentage of seniors own Medigap policies that can insulate beneficiaries from any increase in marginal costs.

The funding warning issued by the Medicare trustees, and the subsequent action required by Congress to act on legislation addressing this “trigger,” provides an opportunity for conservatives to construct a system designed to address the geographic variations in Medicare costs—with an impact that could stretch throughout the entire health system.  An improved and enhanced Medicare system similar to the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP)—where beneficiaries receive a defined contribution from Medicare to select a health plan of their choosing—would eliminate much of the geographic variations currently present within Medicare, slowing the growth of health costs and restoring the program’s long-term stability.

Weekly Newsletter: March 3, 2008

Mental Health Parity Scheduled for Wednesday Vote

The House Democrat leadership announced last week that the House would be voting Wednesday on a mental health bill (H.R. 1424) sponsored by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI). Some conservatives may have strong concerns about both the principle behind the legislation—a costly federal mandate that will raise the health insurance premiums and increase the number of uninsured Americans—as well as the way in which the expansive House language would mandate coverage for “mental disorders” such as caffeine addiction and jet leg.

In addition, the ways in which Democrats intend to finance its $4 billion price tag may also cause conservatives concern. News reports indicate that the bill will be funded by placing further restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals—hindering the development of a new source of consumer choice, and medical innovation, in health care—and increasing the amount of rebates pharmaceutical manufacturers offering products to Medicaid beneficiaries must pay the federal government—which may lead some drug companies to end their participation in Medicaid altogether.

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.

A Top Ten list of conservative concerns about H.R. 1424 can be found here.

SCHIP Policy Brief Released

Last week the RSC released a policy brief analyzing the proposals in President Bush’s Fiscal Year 2009 budget that would effect the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The brief was released prior to a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing where several state Governors testified in opposition to guidance issued by the Administration that would ensure federal funds are targeted towards the low-income children for whom the SCHIP program was created.

While most conservatives support the Administration’s focus on low-income children, the significant increase in its SCHIP funding request when compared to last year—enough to fund an expansion of program participants—may give some conservatives concern.

The RSC Policy Brief can be found here.

GAO Issues Report on Medicare Advantage

Last week the Government Accountability Office released a report regarding the benefits provided by Medicare Advantage plans. The report highlighted how Medicare Advantage provides enhanced benefits and lower premiums to beneficiaries than traditional fee-for-service Medicare. Specifically, the study noted that nearly 70% of rebate payments provided to plans go directly toward reduced cost sharing for beneficiaries, with the remainder providing additional benefits and lower overall premiums.

While the GAO study generated headlines because it found that some plans in some situations may generate higher cost-sharing for beneficiaries, the true story remains the way in which private plans provide quality benefits and reduce costs for seniors, particularly low-income beneficiaries. If Congressional Democrats wish to object to so-called overpayments to Medicare Advantage plans, they should enact reforms allowing traditional Medicare to compete on a “level playing field” with private plans—which would generate downward pressure on health care costs and help Medicare remain financially viable.

Read the report here.

Article of Note: “One Cheer for the New York Times

Last week, the editorial board of the New York Times weighed in with its verdict on the President’s plan to address the funding warning issued by the Medicare trustees. The paper’s writers agree that Medicare’s funding mechanism needs reform, and think that the additional means-testing in the President’s proposal contains merit. However, the editorial also criticizes proposals for reform of medical liability laws, noting that Congress should instead “reduce the lavish and unjustified subsidies” provided to insurance plans offering Medicare Advantage coverage—or take the “sensible step” of letting the President’s tax relief expire.

While the Times’ writers at least acknowledged what some Congressional Democrats have not—namely, that Medicare needs serious reform if it is to remain financially viable—giving millions of Americans a tax increase will not resolve a problem caused by skyrocketing spending on health care. Nor will causing more than eight million Americans to lose the additional health benefits offered by Medicare Advantage plans improve the health of America’s seniors.

A better solution would transform Medicare into a health insurance system similar to that provided to Members of Congress, where beneficiaries receive a defined contribution from Medicare to select a plan of their choosing. That and other similar ideas for comprehensive reform—and not the tax increases and benefit cuts advocated by the Times—could finally begin to bring down health care costs and ensure Medicare’s long-term solvency.

Read the article here: New York Times: “Constraining the Medicare Debate

SCHIP Proposals in Fiscal Year 2009 Budget

Summary:  In submitting his Fiscal Year 2009 Budget request to Congress, President Bush proposed a number of changes to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).  As part of this package, the Administration requested a $19.7 billion increase in federal funding for SCHIP over the next five years.

Background:  The State Children’s Health Insurance Program, established under the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 1997, is a state-federal partnership originally designed to provide low-income children with health insurance—specifically, those children under age 19 from families with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or approximately $40,000 for a family of four.  States may implement SCHIP by expanding Medicaid and/or creating a new state SCHIP program.  SCHIP received nearly $40 billion in funding over ten years as part of BBA, and legislation recently passed by Congress in December (P.L. 110-173) extended the program through March 2009 while providing additional SCHIP funds for states.

Budget Funding Proposal:  The budget proposes an additional $2.2 billion in SCHIP spending for Fiscal Year 2009, and $19.7 billion over the five year period.  The budget includes outreach grants of $50 million in 2009, and $100 million annually for the four succeeding years, for state and local governments as well as community-based organizations to engage in activities designed to increase enrollment of eligible children.

These funding levels significantly exceed the approximately $5 billion in increased funding proposed by the President in his Fiscal Year 2008 budget last year.  The proposal also exceeds the $1.8 billion in proposed Medicaid savings in Fiscal Year 2009 and $17.4 billion over the next five years achieved by realigning and simplifying the federal matching percentage for various administrative and family planning services, among other proposed changes.

Proposed SCHIP Enrollment Levels:  The Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Fiscal Year 2009 Budget in Brief document notes that CMS exceeded its 2005 goal of enrolling five million children in the SCHIP program by more than a million children.  During FY2006, 4.0 million children on average were enrolled in SCHIP during any given month, and 6.6 million children were enrolled at any time during the year.

In arriving at a top-line budget number for its SCHIP proposal, the budget document also sets assumptions for future year enrollment levels.  The proposal notes the fact that the $19 billion increase in funding proposed by the Administration would fund an average of 5.6 million children in SCHIP per month, and nearly nine million children at some point over the course of a year—both of which constitute increases of nearly a third over 2006 levels.  Much of the additional enrollment and spending would stem from the outreach efforts as a result of the $450 million in grants proposed as part of the Cover the Kids initiative.

The significant increases in enrollment proposed that would result from the Administration’s higher budget request seem to be inconsistent with another document commissioned by HHS to study the number of uninsured children.  In that report, two researchers from the Urban Institute found that in 2003-2004, only 689,000 uninsured children in families with incomes under 200% FPL were eligible for, but not enrolled in, SCHIP coverage.  During the debate over SCHIP’s reauthorization last year, Administration officials utilized these data to reject calls from Congressional Democrats for $35-50 billion in increased SCHIP funding as unnecessary to fund health insurance for all targeted populations.

Focus on Originally Targeted Populations.  The budget notes a guidance letter issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on August 17, 2007 designed to prevent children from dropping private insurance coverage in order to join the government-funded SCHIP—a phenomenon commonly referred to as “crowd-out.”  The letter provided several criteria for states seeking to cover children in families with incomes above 250% FPL, including a one-year waiting period of uninsurance for individuals seeking coverage and assurance that the state has enrolled 95% of children below 200% of FPL who are eligible for coverage through Medicaid or SCHIP.  The letter, which is consistent with the Administration’s stated policy of targeting federal assistance to the low-income children for whom SCHIP was originally created, advised that CMS could pursue corrective action against states that have not worked to implement the guidance within 12 months (i.e. by August 2008).  The budget proposes legislation to extend this standard to any state wishing to expand coverage beyond 200% of FPL—the level below which states were supposed to target their SCHIP coverage, according to the original BBA provisions.

In addition, the budget would tighten SCHIP eligibility by clarifying the definition of income.  This proposal would eliminate the general “income disregard” system that has caused concern for many conservatives by enabling some states to extend government-financed SCHIP coverage to children in families making above 250-300% FPL ($50,000-$60,000 for a family of four).  However, states may still create “income disregards” around specific items (e.g. food, housing, etc.).

Coverage for Adults.  While the Administration’s budget proposes to transition adults out of SCHIP, it also proposes to transition adults into Medicaid coverage.  Although the federal matching percentage is slightly lower for Medicaid than for SCHIP, some conservatives may remain concerned that the budget’s proposed transition out of a program intended for low-income children belies the fact that these adults will remain dependent on public health insurance coverage.  Moreover, this proposal echoes language in the Senate SCHIP “compromise,” which the Administration twice vetoed (H.R. 976, H.R. 3963) last year.

Conclusion:  Most conservatives support enrollment and funding of the SCHIP program for the populations for whom the SCHIP program was created.  That is why in December the House passed, by a 411—3 vote, legislation reauthorizing and extending the SCHIP program through March 2009.  That legislation included an additional $800 million in funding for states to ensure that all currently eligible children will continue to have access to state-based SCHIP coverage.

While the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2009 budget includes several reasonable proposals to ensure that SCHIP funds are targeted toward low-income children, the significant increases in proposed funding levels may give some conservatives pause.  A study funded by the Department of Health and Human Services itself confirms the impossibility of enrolling more than 1.5 million new children to enroll in SCHIP, given current eligibility guidelines.  Therefore, it is an open question whether the nearly fourfold proposed increase in SCHIP funding—coupled with $450 million in outreach grants to states, localities, and community organizations—will only serve to encourage states to expand government-funded health insurance under the aegis of covering uninsured children.

President’s Medicare “Trigger” Proposals

Background:  Title VIII of the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) includes provisions requiring the President to submit legislation within 15 calendar days of his annual budget submission in the event of a funding warning being issued by the Medicare trustees.  Because the trustees last April submitted their second consecutive warning that Medicare is projected to claim a growing share of general revenues within the next seven years, the President put forward his proposals to address the pending funding shortfall.  Under provisions established in statute, the legislative proposals will be introduced by the House Majority and Minority Leaders on the President’s behalf within three legislative days.

During the conference committee’s consideration of MMA, the funding warning mechanism was included at the behest of the Republican Study Committee as one device to help alleviate conservatives’ concerns about Medicare’s long-term solvency and ensure that Medicare’s claims on general budgetary revenues would not overwhelm either other federal budgetary priorities or the national debt.  By providing “fast-track” procedures for considering bills to improve the program’s solvency, the Medicare trigger also provides conservatives with another opportunity to examine more fundamental reforms to the way seniors’ health care is financed and delivered.

Summary of Proposal:  The Administration’s legislative proposal to address the “trigger” contains two titles.  The first title puts forward suggestions to make the Medicare purchasing system more cost-effective from a budgetary standpoint.  The second incorporates liability reforms that will reduce Medicare expenditures, as well as additional means-testing proposals that will increase Medicare revenues by raising premiums on wealthy seniors.  A preliminary summary of the legislation follows:

Value-based Purchasing:  This concept, also known as “pay-for-performance,” would vastly expand the federal government’s role in health care by adjusting physician and provider reimbursement levels to reflect successful patient outcomes on a risk-adjusted basis.  The proposed legislative package would provide for greater transparency of price and quality measures, and would further authorize the Secretary to take steps to adjust reimbursement levels in order to purchase care from those providers which provide the greatest value to beneficiaries and the Medicare program.  The legislation also requires the Secretary to make high-deductible health plans available in the Medicare program, and provide a transition for individuals not yet enrolled in Medicare who own Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).

While policy-makers of all political stripes believe in providing consumers with additional price and quality transparency information, the further step of tying Medicare reimbursement levels crafted by federal bureaucrats to either process or outcome measures could prove much more problematic.  Although its advocates believe pay-for-performance can achieve significant budgetary savings, existing Congressional Budget Office (CBO) models have failed to realize any measurable impact on future Medicare expenditures.  Additionally, some conservatives may be concerned that this methodology would deepen the government’s role in health care by altering the fundamental doctor-patient relationship, leading to a more intrusive federal bureaucracy dictating the terms of patient care.

Medical Liability Reform: This proposal would help bring down health spending both within and outside Medicare by helping to eliminate frivolous lawsuits and providing reasonable levels of compensation to victims of medical malpractice.  Provisions of the bill include a three-year statute of limitations, a cap on non-economic damages of $250,000, and reasonable limits on attorney contingency fees charged to successful claimants.

In 2003, the Congressional Budget Office scored a similar liability reform bill passed by the House (H.R. 5) as lowering Medicare spending by $11.2 billion over a ten-year period.  While CBO staff have indicated that state liability reforms in the intervening time have reduced the savings level below the baseline for federal liability reform, savings from passage of the President’s proposal would likely still generate several billion dollars in savings to Medicare.

Means Testing:  The legislation proposes to establish an income-related Part D premium consistent with the Part B “means testing” included in Title VIII of the Medicare Modernization Act.  The proposal—which was included in the Fiscal Year 2009 budget—would achieve savings of $3.2 billion over five years.  The RSC has previously included similar proposals in its budget documents as one way to constrain costs and ensure consistency between a Part B benefit that is currently means-tested and a Part D benefit that is not.

Other Reform Options:  The legislative package advanced by the Administration comes on the heels of a Fiscal Year 2009 budget that proposed $178 billion in Medicare savings over the next five years, largely through adjustments to provider reimbursements.  In addition to the various proposals put forward by the Administration and described above, the opportunity afforded by the trigger could be used to advance other comprehensive proposals to reform Medicare, which could include:

Premium Support:  This model would convert Medicare into a system similar to the Federal Employees Benefit Health Plan (FEHBP), in which beneficiaries would receive a defined contribution from Medicare to purchase a health plan of their choosing.  Previously incorporated into alternative RSC budget proposals, a premium support plan would provide a level playing field between traditional Medicare and private insurance plans, providing comprehensive reform, while confining the growth of Medicare spending to the annual statutory raise in the defined contribution limit, thus ensuring long-term fiscal stability.

Restructure Cost-Sharing Requirements:  This concept would restructure the existing system of deductibles, co-payments, and shared costs, which currently can vary based on the type of service provided.  Additionally, Medicare currently lacks a catastrophic cap on beneficiary cost-sharing, leading some seniors to purchase Medigap policies that insulate beneficiaries from deductibles and co-payments and therefore provide little incentive to contain health spending.  Reforms in this area would rationalize the current system, generating budgetary savings and reducing the growth of health spending.

Increase Medicare Part B Premium:  The RSC has previously proposed increasing the Part B premium from 25% to 50% of total Medicare Part B costs, consistent with the original goal of the program.  This concept would not impact low-income seniors, as Medicaid pays Medicare premiums for individuals with incomes under 120% of the federal poverty level.

Bipartisan Commission:  This proposal would provide an expedited mechanism requiring Congress to hold an up-or-down vote on the recommendations of a bipartisan commission examining ways to reform Medicare and other federal entitlements.

Sequestration Mechanism: This proposal would cap the growth of overall Medicare spending levels, and provide adjustments in benefit structures in the event that spending exceeded statutory levels.  The budget submission to Congress did include the proposal that physician payments be reduced 0.4% for every year in which general tax revenues cover more than 45% of Medicare costs—the level at which the Medicare Modernization Act required that a funding warning be issued, and action taken by Congress.  The Administration proposal is designed to provide Congress with an impetus to embrace comprehensive entitlement reform by requiring across-the-board cuts absent pre-emptive legislative action.

Conclusion: The Medicare funding warning issued by the trustees last year provides an opportunity to re-assess the program’s structure and finance.  While competition among drug companies has ensured that expenditures for the MMA’s prescription drug benefit remain below the bill’s original estimates, introduction of pharmaceutical coverage has dramatically increased the overall growth of health care costs within the Medicare program, leading to the trustees’ funding warning.  The confluence of these two events should prompt Congress to consider the ways in which competition could be used to reduce the growth of overall Medicare costs, similar to the way in which the market for pharmaceutical coverage reduced the estimated cost of the Part D prescription drug benefit.

The Administration has put forward two separate proposals—the first in its budget submission to Congress last week, the second as part of its formal “trigger” submission this week—to address Medicare’s long-term solvency issues and begin a process of comprehensive reform.  Many conservatives are likely to view the President’s proposals as a positive first step in the discussions about ways to curb soaring entitlements, while considering additional proposals described above to advance the discussion further and to ensure Medicare’s long-term fiscal stability.

Rep. Hensarling Op-Ed: Medicare and Entitlements

It’s become an annual ritual — almost as much a herald of springtime in Washington as the cherry blossoms along the Potomac: President Bush advances a plan for entitlement reform, and Democrats in Congress proclaim it “dead on arrival.” It happened with Social Security reform three years ago, it happened with the president’s proposed savings from Medicare last year, and now it’s about to happen again with the new and enhanced Medicare proposals that the White House has delivered to Capitol Hill. But things are a bit different this time — for better and for worse.

The worsening news comes from the Medicare trustees themselves, whose latest report details the precarious financial situation of the trust funds that finance Medicare expenditures. The trustees warn that Medicare faces collective unfunded obligations of more than $74 trillion — more than six times the current size of the American economy. And those obligations are not getting smaller; they keep increasing. The Government Accountability Office estimates that for each year that Medicare and Social Security entitlements go unreformed, their projected shortfall grows by an additional $2 trillion.

The implications of these warnings from the trustees could not be more stark to the 200 million Americans under age 54 — who, according to the latest trustees’ report, will not be able to retire with full Medicare benefits. The Medicare Part A trust fund is scheduled to be “exhausted” — in plain English, flat broke — in 2019. This means that tens of millions of Baby Boomers face an uncertain retirement rife with questions about the future of health care.

If there is a silver lining to be found amid the darkening fiscal clouds, it lies in statutory provisions that ensure that proposals to curb Medicare spending will live to see the light of a fair vote in Congress. Fortunately, my Republican Study Committee colleagues and I added a little-known provision into the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 — the overarching law that added prescription drug benefits to Medicare — that requires the independent Medicare trustees to issue a funding warning if Medicare expenditures are projected to grow to levels that will take away from other important national priorities. The president has now responded to that warning by submitting proposals that will help save the Medicare system by slowing its growth and empowering concerned Americans to demand comprehensive entitlement reform.

The president’s budget constituted a good first step toward Medicare reform, proposing to slow the growth of Medicare by nearly $178 billion over the next five years. Contrary to the mythical rhetoric of congressional Democratic leaders, the president’s budget proposal would not “cut” Medicare. Instead, his proposal allows Medicare to grow by 5 percent, instead of the 7.2 percent currently projected. Since most providers would continue to receive increased reimbursements from the federal government, the level, number and intensity of services provided would still continue to grow. And therein lies one of the keys to true Medicare reform: ensuring that budgetary savings derive from wise choices by patients and doctors about the most cost-effective treatment options.

In addition to the White House budget proposals, there are additional, more comprehensive solutions that have the potential to yield greater savings and slow the growth of the health costs that threaten to cripple our future. Solutions that would restructure Medicare cost-sharing and increase means-testing for wealthy beneficiaries would ensure the program’s sustainability by making beneficiaries more cost-conscious. Solutions like medical liability reform that would reduce providers’ costs associated with legal claims, saving money for Medicare and the general public. Solutions that would transform Medicare into a health care system similar to that which members of Congress have so that all seniors receive better care at a lower cost.

The president’s proposals have advanced the discussion of Medicare reform, and the trigger mechanism which we instituted five years ago provides Congress with a golden opportunity to conduct a thorough, stem-to-stern review of the way seniors receive health care and ensure that we can maintain our promises to baby boomers and future retirees alike.

The current race for the White House is teaching us many things about the American people. They are clamoring for change and yearn for leaders who will not only speak the truth about the problems facing our nation but work to provide solutions to them. Congress has an opportunity to do just that without waiting for a new president.

We have 2 trillion — that’s 2,000,000,000,000 — reasons to act on comprehensive entitlement reform, and to act this year. The American people expect no less.

This post was originally published in The Washington Times.

Health Care Proposals in Fiscal Year 2009 Budget

Summary:  In submitting his Fiscal Year 2009 Budget request to Congress, President Bush proposed a number of health-related changes that would achieve budgetary savings to both mandatory and discretionary spending.  As part of this package, the Administration has proposed a package that would reduce the growth of Medicare spending from 7.2% to 5.0% to meet requirements under the Medicare Modernization Act.

Mandatory Spending—Medicaid/SCHIP:

The budget proposal includes $1.8 billion in Medicaid savings in Fiscal Year 2009 and $17.4 billion over the next five years.  Budgetary savings would be achieved by realigning reimbursement rates for family planning services at the statutory Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) rate ($3.3 billion in savings over five years), and by aligning reimbursement rates for all administrative services and case management at 50% (total $6.6 billion in savings over the five-year window).  Additional savings over the next five years would be achieved through adjustments to pharmacy reimbursements ($1.1 billion), asset verification ($1.2 billion), and cost allocation ($1.77 billion).

The budget proposes an additional $2.2 billion in SCHIP spending for Fiscal Year 2009, and $19.7 billion over the five year period.  The budget includes outreach grants of $50 million in 2009, and $100 million annually in subsequent years, for state and local governments as well as community-based organizations to engage in activities designed to increase enrollment of eligible children.  Lastly, the budget proposes to simplify SCHIP eligibility by clarifying the definition of income, eliminating the “income disregard” system that has been a source of concern among many conservatives.

Mandatory Spending—Medicare:

The budget includes several proposals to reduce the overall growth in Medicare spending.  Overall, Medicare funding would fall $178 billion below the baseline over the next five years.  These proposals would not constitute overall “cuts” to the Medicare program, but would instead reduce its growth from 7.2% to 5.0%.  Highlights of the budget submission include the following:

Provider Adjustments: The Administration proposal would freeze payment rates for hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, long-term care and outpatient hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers, inpatient rehabilitation facilities, and home health providers through Fiscal Year 2011, and provide a –0.65% annual market basket update thereafter, saving $112.93 billion over five years.  The savings derived from flat-level payments would not mean that providers would not continue to receive increased reimbursements from the federal government, as the level, number, and intensity of services provided would still continue to grow.

Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Payments: Medicare DSH payments, which compensate hospitals that serve large numbers of low-income individuals, would be reduced by 30% over two years, saving $20.7 billion over five years.  This modest reduction in payments to hospitals would recognize the significantly enhanced benefits provided to seniors, particularly those with low incomes, as part of the Medicare Modernization Act.

Medical Education: The budget would eliminate duplicate Indirect Medical Education (IME) payments made to hospitals on behalf of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries, and would reduce the IME add-on by 60% over the next three years, saving a total of $21.75 billion over five years.

Means Testing:  The budget proposes to end annual indexing of income-related Part B premiums and establish an income-related Part D premium consistent with the Part B “means testing” included in Title VIII of the Medicare Modernization Act.  The proposals would achieve total savings of $5.75 billion over five years.  The RSC has previously included similar proposals in its budget documents as one way to constrain costs and ensure consistency between a Part B benefit that is currently means-tested and a Part D benefit that is not.

Other Savings:  Additional savings over the five year budget window would come from a reduction in the rental period for oxygen equipment ($3 billion), extending Medicare Secondary Payor for the End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) program from 30 to 60 months ($1.1 billion), eliminating bad debt payments over four years ($8.5 billion), and other regulatory and administrative actions ($4.7 billion).

Medicare Funding Trigger

Concurrent with the budget submission, the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) requires the President to submit to Congress within 15 days a proposal to remedy the Medicare “excess general revenue Medicare funding” warning announced by the Medicare trustees last spring.  In addition to the savings package described above, the opportunity afforded by the trigger could be used to advance more comprehensive proposals, which could include:

Premium Support: This model would convert Medicare into a system similar to the Federal Employees Benefit Health Plan (FEHBP), in which beneficiaries would receive a defined contribution from Medicare to purchase a health plan of their choosing.  Previously incorporated into alternative RSC budget proposals, a premium support plan would provide a level playing field between traditional Medicare and private insurance plans, providing comprehensive reform, while confining the growth of Medicare spending to the annual statutory raise in the defined contribution limit, thus ensuring long-term fiscal stability.

Restructure Cost-Sharing Requirements:  This concept would restructure the existing system of deductibles, co-payments, and shared costs, which currently can vary based on the type of service provided.  Additionally, Medicare currently lacks a catastrophic cap on beneficiary cost-sharing, leading some seniors to purchase Medigap policies that insulate beneficiaries from deductibles and co-payments and therefore provide little incentive to contain health spending.  Reforms in this area would rationalize the current system, generating budgetary savings and reducing the growth of health spending.

Increase Medicare Part B Premium:  The RSC has previously proposed increasing the Part B premium from 25% to 50% of total Medicare Part B costs, consistent with the original goal of the program.  This concept would not impact low-income seniors, as Medicaid pays Medicare premiums for individuals with incomes under 120% of the federal poverty level.

Medical Liability Reform: This proposal would help bring down health spending both within and outside Medicare by helping to eliminate frivolous lawsuits and providing reasonable levels of compensation to victims of medical malpractice.  In 2003, the Congressional Budget Office scored a liability reform bill (H.R. 5) as lowering Medicare spending by $11.2 billion over a ten-year period.

Bipartisan Commission:  This proposal would provide an expedited mechanism requiring Congress to hold an up-or-down vote on the recommendations of a bipartisan commission examining ways to reform Medicare and other federal entitlements.

Value-based Purchasing:  This concept, also known as “pay-for-performance,” would seek to adjust physician and provider reimbursement levels to reflect successful patient outcomes on a risk-adjusted basis.  While advocates believe pay-for-performance can yet achieve the significant budgetary savings not present in existing Congressional Budget Office models, some conservatives may be concerned that this methodology would deepen the government’s role in health care by altering the fundamental doctor-patient relationship.

Sequestration Mechanism: This proposal would cap the growth of overall Medicare spending levels, and provide adjustments in benefit structures in the event that spending exceeded statutory levels.  The budget submission to Congress did include the proposal that physician payments be reduced 0.4% for every year in which general tax revenues cover more than 45% of Medicare costs—the level at which the Medicare Modernization Act required that a funding warning be issued, and action taken by Congress.  The Administration proposal is designed to provide Congress with an impetus to embrace comprehensive entitlement reform by requiring across-the-board cuts absent pre-emptive legislative action.

Discretionary Proposals:  Overall, the President’s proposed discretionary budget for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is $68.5 billion, $1.7 billion less than last year.  Preliminary highlights of funding levels on health programs include the following:

Centers for Disease Control (CDC): The proposal reduces overall spending by $412 million from current year levels.  Significant reductions within the CDC account include a proposed $111 million reduction for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and an $83 million reduction in the World Trade Center screening and treatment program.

Earmarks: The budget proposes $451 million in savings by eliminating earmarked projects from the HHS budget.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA): The budget provides a $130 million increase for FDA over Fiscal Year 2008 levels.  More than half ($68 million) of the proposed increase comes from additional resources for drug and biologic safety programs, with an additional $33 million increase in the food safety budget.

Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA): A total of nearly $1 billion in reductions in the HRSA account comes from several proposed sources—grants to train nurses and health professionals (reduced by $240 million); training doctors at children’s hospitals (eliminated, saving $302 million); rural health programs (reduced by $150 million); and public health buildings and projects (eliminated, saving $304 million).  Reductions in the rural health and health training accounts have previously been proposed in previous RSC budget documents.  Since that time, reconciliation legislation passed last September (P.L. 110-84) provided student loan forgiveness to public health workers, raising additional questions about the duplicative nature of the HRSA-funded grant programs.

National Institutes of Health (NIH): The National Institutes of Health would receive flat-level funding from Fiscal Year 2008, $29.5 billion in total, after years of substantial increases.  Funding for most institutes within NIH would likewise remain at constant levels for the upcoming Fiscal Year.

Conclusion: The Administration’s Fiscal Year 2009 budget includes several reasonable proposals to slow the growth of health spending and thereby help return federal entitlements to a more sustainable trajectory.  Such measures are needed urgently, as Medicare faces $34.1 trillion in unfunded liabilities over the next 75 years, according to the Government Accountability Office.  The need for immediate action is great: the first Baby Boomer becomes eligible for Medicare in 2011, and every year that Congress does not address unfunded entitlement obligations, their size grows an additional $2 trillion, according to Comptroller General David Walker.  Some conservatives may believe that these measures proposed by the Administration to constrain reimbursements to providers, while helpful, can constitute the starting point for a comprehensive discussion about entitlement reform.

Medicare Funding Warning

Background:  Enactment of a prescription drug benefit as part of Medicare proved controversial to certain segments of the conservative community.  While President Bush and a Republican Congress campaigned in 2000 and 2002 on a promise to extend prescription drug coverage to American seniors, some conservatives retained concerns about a significant expansion of government-financed entitlement spending, even though the benefit itself would be delivered through the private sector.  While conservatives generally admired proposals such as Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and other similar innovations designed to control the growth of health care spending, the size of the prescription drug benefit ultimately enacted—$400 billion in spending over ten years, and nearly $8 trillion in unfunded liabilities over 75 years—prompted calls for more comprehensive reforms to Medicare than those included in the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA).

At the behest of the Republican Study Committee, the funding warning mechanism was included as one device to help alleviate conservatives’ concerns about Medicare’s long-term solvency and ensure that Medicare’s claims on general budgetary revenues would not overwhelm either other federal budgetary priorities or the national debt.  By providing “fast-track” procedures for considering bills to improve the program’s solvency, the Medicare trigger also provides conservatives with another opportunity to examine more fundamental reforms to the way seniors’ health care is financed and delivered.

Funding Warning Defined:  Section 801 of the Medicare Modernization Act provides that a funding warning will be issued if two consecutive annual reports by the Medicare trustees determine that general revenue Medicare spending—that is, Medicare spending not financed by payroll taxes, or by beneficiary premiums and co-payments—will exceed 45% of total Medicare outlays for the current fiscal year, or any of the following six fiscal years.  The April 2006 trustees report noted that Medicare outlays minus dedicated revenues were expected to exceed 45% of total outlays in 2012, and the April 2007 report concluded that Medicare outlays minus dedicated revenues are expected to exceed 45% of total outlays in 2013.  Thus, two consecutive trustees reports have indicated that Medicare will be deriving excess revenues from the general fund within the next seven years—triggering the expedited procedures provided as part of MMA.

Democrats have argued that the 45% measure for excess general revenue Medicare spending is “an artificial and misleading measure of Medicare’s fiscal health,” and Section 902 of the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection Act (H.R. 3162)—considered and passed by the House in July—would have repealed the excess funding warning mechanism entirely.[1]  However, the Medicare trustees report indicates that the percentage of Medicare spending taken from general revenues—which to date has never exceeded 45%—“is projected to continue growing throughout the 75-year period, reaching 63% of total outlays in 2031 and 73% in 2081.”[2]  With trustees noting that the Medicare trust funds require an additional $40.9 trillion in funding over the next 75 years to meet current obligations, most conservatives would argue that repealing the trigger provisions—which all Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee opposed in mark-up last year—would not represent sound fiscal policy.[3]

Expedited Procedures:  Sections 802 through 804 of MMA describe the expedited procedures by which the President and Congress will address the Medicare funding warning triggered by the April 2007 trustees report.  The process outlined in the statute includes the following steps:

  • Within 15 days of submitting his next budget to Congress, the President will also propose legislation to respond to the warning.  As the President’s Fiscal Year 2009 budget is expected to be released on February 4, 2008, the Medicare legislation should be received by the end of February.
  • Party leaders in both the House and Senate will introduce the President’s legislation within three legislative days of its submission, and the legislation shall be referred to the relevant Committees (Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce in the House, Finance in the Senate).
  • Committees in both the House and Senate shall report Medicare funding legislation to the floor of each chamber by June 30; if they do not, the relevant Committees may be discharged from consideration under special procedures.
  • In the House, one-fifth of the membership (87 Members) can move to discharge the President’s Medicare funding legislation, or any other legislation that remedies the Medicare funding warning, after July 30.  In the event that the motion to discharge is successful, the Medicare funding legislation shall be considered by the full House within three legislative days under procedures established in statute.
  • In the Senate, any Senator may move to discharge Medicare funding legislation after June 30, and such a motion will be considered under strict time limits precluding a filibuster.

In general, these special procedures seek to ensure that Members in both chambers have the opportunity for an up-or-down vote on whether or not Congress should consider legislation to remedy Medicare’s funding deficiencies.

Conclusion: The Medicare funding warning issued by the trustees last year provides an opportunity to re-assess the program’s structure and finance.  While competition among drug companies has ensured that expenditures for the MMA’s prescription drug benefit remain below the bill’s original estimates, introduction of pharmaceutical coverage has dramatically increased the overall growth of health care costs within the Medicare program, leading to the trustees’ funding warning.  The confluence of these two events should prompt Congress to consider the ways in which competition could be used to reduce the growth of overall Medicare costs, similar to the way in which the market for pharmaceutical coverage reduced the estimated cost of the Part D prescription drug benefit.

It remains to be seen whether the Administration will propose legislation that would constitute fundamental reform—either a mechanism to adjust benefits automatically in the case of funding shortfalls, or to inject greater competition into Medicare through a premium support program that would level the playing field between traditional Medicare and private insurance coverage.  Regardless, the Medicare funding warning being triggered this year affords Congress an opportunity to re-think and re-consider some of the drawbacks of the original MMA and put forth constructive alternatives to ensure Medicare’s long-term fiscal stability.

[1] House Report 110-284, p. 249.

[2] “2007 Annual Report of the Boards of Trustees of the Federal Hospital Insurance and Federal Supplemental Medical Insurance Trust Funds,” available at http://www.cms.hhs.gov/ReportsTrustFunds/downloads/tr2007.pdf (accessed January 20, 2008), p. 37.

[3] Ibid., pp. 190-91; House Report 110-284, p 278.

Medicaid Funding Issues

Background:  The Medicaid program, enacted in 1965, serves as a federal-state partnership providing entitlement health care coverage to certain low-income and disabled populations.  Federal funding for the program is provided on a matching basis, according to a Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) formula established in statute.  The FMAP formula is based on a three-year rolling average that compares a state’s per-capita income to national-per capita income—a formula designed to provide increased federal assistance to poorer states.  For Fiscal Year 2008, 18 states have a match rate of 50% (the statutory minimum), while seven states have match rates at or above 70%.[1]

Concerns about the FMAP Formula: For several years, health policy experts have criticized the current Medicaid FMAP formula as not meeting its original intent, creating distortionary effects on funding levels between states by providing wealthier states with a strong incentive to increase entitlement spending using federal dollars.  An independent analysis of data provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) indicates that states with higher concentrations of poverty actually have lower per-capita Medicaid spending—exactly the opposite result of FMAP’s intended goal.[2]  For instance, Vermont spent $7,508 per capita on Medicaid during 2005—the highest amount nationwide—yet its 2005 poverty level of 10.4% ranks 11th–lowest overall and nearly 30% lower than the national average of 13.3%.[3]

The prime reason for the disparity between states’ per-capita Medicaid spending and relative poverty levels—a disparity which the FMAP formula was intended to remedy—lies in the perverse incentives the Medicaid match provides to states, particularly wealthier states that can more easily finance coverage expansions, to increase entitlement spending.  Because the federal match rate cannot fall below the 50% statutory minimum, states have a diminished incentive to bring their Medicaid programs in line by controlling costs.  A state receiving the minimum 50% match would need to cut overall Medicaid expenditures by $2 million to achieve $1 million in budgetary savings, while a state with a 70% FMAP match would need to cut overall Medicaid expenditures by $3,333,333 in order to achieve the same $1 million in net state savings.  Thus the FMAP formula, by ensuring that federal expenditures will always meet or exceed state outlays, encourages states to increase their Medicaid entitlement spending during strong economic times and discourages states from enacting Medicaid reductions during times of fiscal austerity.

Legislative History:  Congress has previously supported a temporary increase in the FMAP funding formula.  Title IV of the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief and Reconciliation Act (P.L. 108-27) included $10 billion to fund an enhanced FMAP match for 15 months, along with an additional $10 billion dedicated to “temporary state fiscal relief.”  The Title IV provisions included a 2.95% increase in FMAP rates for the last two quarters of 2003 and the first three quarters of 2004.  These provisions expired October 1, 2004 and were not renewed.

In general, House conservatives opposed this increase in Medicaid social welfare spending, but supported the underlying bill for the $350 billion in tax relief it contained, including reductions to dividend and capital gains rates which stimulated economic growth.  The FMAP provisions were added in the Senate, and maintained in conference at the behest of several Senators who, according to news reports, insisted on its inclusion to vote for the larger package, which passed the Senate on the basis of Vice President Cheney’s tie-breaking vote.

Recent State Actions:  While some states have claimed that their looming budgetary difficulties have been caused by revenue losses related to recent economic uncertainty, unwise fiscal policies in many instances bear more responsibility.  According to a November 2007 study by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation, 31 states have announced Medicaid eligibility expansions during 2008, and 13 states plan benefit package expansions during this year.  By contrast, only four states have proposed Medicaid eligibility reductions this year, and no state has proposed reducing benefits.  In addition, the report notes that “few states have taken advantage of the flexibility to change benefits or impose cost sharing” as a result of provisions included in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-171), demonstrating states’ continued focus on expanding entitlement programs rather than utilizing flexibility provided by Congress to construct new benefit packages that could reduce health costs.[4]

The state Medicaid expansions proposed for the current fiscal year follow on the heels of additional expansions implemented during the last few years of economic growth, and further illustrate the distortionary effects of the FMAP formula.  The promise of a generous federal match of at least 1:1 encourages states to expand their Medicaid populations and benefits beyond prudent limits, and slowing growth in state revenues has prompted calls for the federal government to assume yet more responsibility for states’ poor planning decisions.

Conservative Concerns: Some conservatives may be troubled by talk of another attempt to increase the Medicaid FMAP formula – which some might call a “bailout” for states which over-extended entitlement promises over the last few years.  The temporary FMAP increase enacted in 2003 over conservatives’ concerns was designed to be just that: a one-time series of relief payments to states that over-extended their budgets during the late 1990s.  A second “temporary” increase would only provide additional incentive for states to expand their Medicaid entitlement spending, knowing that the federal government will provide additional funding to make up their own budgetary shortfalls.

Including an FMAP enhancement as part of a “stimulus” package would not result in any actual economic stimulus.  A higher match rate would only substitute federal dollars for state funding, providing no net economic benefit in either the short term or the long term.  The only true effects would be long term, and potentially quite costly—increased entitlement spending at both the federal and state levels.

However, the discussion of Medicaid funding levels does provide conservatives with an opportunity to raise the important issue of entitlement reform.  Rather than providing additional federal funds to states under the current FMAP formula, a more productive solution would entail comprehensive reform of the Medicaid funding mechanism.  One possible solution would see Medicaid converted into a block grant program, allowing for predictable payments to states and enabling Congress to engage in a more rational attempt to control health care costs while setting clear national fiscal priorities.  At a minimum, the existing FMAP formula needs a significant overhaul that would eliminate incentives for states to overspend by ensuring that federal Medicaid resources are directed to targeted low-income and disabled populations, not additional expansions of government-funded health care to other populations.

[1] Fiscal Year 2008 FMAP Table, available at http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/fmap08.htm (accessed January 18, 2008).

[2] Robert Helms, “The Medicaid Commission Report: A Dissent,” (Health Policy Outlook #2, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, January 2007), available at http://www.aei.org/publications/filter.all,pubID.25434/pub_detail.asp (accessed January 18, 2008).

[3] Ibid.; U.S. Census Bureau Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, available at http://www.census.gov/cgi-bin/saipe/national.cgi?year=2005&ascii=  (accessed January 18, 2008).

[4] Kaiser Family Foundation, “State Fiscal Conditions and Medicaid,” (research report 7850-02, November 2007), available at http://kff.org/medicaid/upload/7580-02.pdf (accessed January 18, 2008).

Legislative Bulletin: S. 2499, Medicare, Medicaid, and SCHIP Extension Act

Order of Business:  The bill is scheduled to be considered under suspension of the rules on Wednesday, December 19, 2007.  The Senate introduced and passed the bill on Tuesday, December 18, by unanimous consent.

 

Summary:  S. 2499 eliminates for six months a reduction in Medicare physician payments scheduled to take effect on December 31, 2007, providing a 0.5% increase through June 30, 2008.  S. 2499 also extends the State Children’s Health Insurance Program through March 31, 2009, and provides additional funding to cover currently eligible children, without expanding or extending eligibility definitions beyond current cohorts.

Medicare:  S. 2499 contains many provisions that alter Medicare, Medicaid, and SCHIP law as follows:

Update for Medicare Physician Services.            S. 2499 would provide a 0.5% update to the conversion factor for physician reimbursements for the six months ending June 30, 2008, at a cost of $6.4 billion over ten years.  In November, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that the annual update to the conversion factor for 2008 would be negative 10.1%, as spending on physicians’ services and other Part B services has been growing at a much faster rate than target spending.  Providing a 0.5% update to the conversion factor would ensure that the -10.1% update does not go into effect.  CBO estimates that this provision will cost $6 billion over ten years.  To learn more on the background of this provision and details of the conversion factor and Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR), please read the section below entitled “Additional Background.”

Bonus and Quality Reporting.  The bill extends a physician quality reporting system, as well as 5% bonus payments to physicians practicing in physician shortage areas through June 30, 2008. In recent years there has been a large government push to require pay for performance standards tied to physicians’ Medicare reimbursement payments in order to control spiraling medical costs.  This would require physicians to report on minute aspects of the doctor-patient interaction so the government could review and measure quality of care to set reimbursement levels.  This issue is controversial, as there has been no discussion on who sets the “quality standards” and who would define what quality looks like under such a system.  Opponents of quality reporting provisions would argue that quality of care can only be determined by patients and physicians.

Extension for Other Provider Payments.  In addition to the adjustment to the SGR conversion factor, S. 2499 would extend provisions related to physician pathology services (no net cost), clinical laboratory tests in rural areas (no net cost), and therapy caps (net cost of $200 million) through June 30, 2008.  The legislation also adjusts the reimbursement rate for diabetes laboratory tests approved for home use (net cost of $700 million) and brachytherapy (no net cost) services beginning April 1, 2008.

Medicare Advantage Enrollment.  The bill would extend the authority for certain existing Medicare Advantage plans to count as “special needs plans” – those plans serving institutionalized patients, or beneficiaries with severe or disabling chronic diseases – and target enrollment to specialized populations through December 31, 2009.  However, the bill would also preclude the Secretary from designating any new such plans, and would prohibit beneficiaries from enrolling in any expanded service areas by existing plans through December 2009.  CBO scores this provision as costing $1.4 billion over ten years.

Reduction in Medicare Stabilization Fund.  S. 2499 would remove the remaining $1.5 billion from the Medicare stabilization fund for regional provider organizations in 2012.  It is important to note that unlike numerous Democrat Medicare and SCHIP bills, this legislation does not cut payments to Medicare Advantage plans, which has provoked past veto threats, because doing so would discourage many private plans from participating in the program, perhaps eliminating the private Medicare option in many areas and for many individuals.

Medicare Secondary Payer.  The bill includes additional requirements on group insurance plans and liability insurers to the Secretary to determine that the beneficiary is entitled to benefits under the Medicare Secondary Payer program.  CBO scores this provision as saving $1.1 billion over ten years.

Average Sales Price Computation.  S. 2499 would establish a volume-weighted average sales price for prescription drugs based on average sales volume.  CBO scores this provision as saving $2.6 billion over ten years.

Long-Term Care Provisions.  The bill would freeze the market-basket reimbursement rate for long-term care (LTC) facilities for the last quarter of 2008, saving $1.2 billion over ten years.  Additionally, S. 2499 would establish new review requirements on long-term care facilities to ensure patients are receiving appropriate levels of care, and impose a limited moratorium on the development of additional long-term care facilities.  Some conservatives may be concerned that these provisions, by preventing the development of additional long-term care facilities, represent an unnecessary government intervention in the LTC market.

Reduction in Inpatient Rehabilitation Services.  The legislation reduces the market basket update factor for inpatient rehabilitation facilities (IRFs) at 0% from April 1, 2008 through Fiscal Year 2009, saving $4 billion over ten years.

Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.  S. 2499 would change the status of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) – an agency that submits reports and recommendations to Congress regarding payment policy, access to care, quality of care, and related issues affecting Medicare – from that of an independent agency to an agency of Congress.

Medicaid and SCHIP:

Extension of Qualifying Individual Program.  The bill would extend the qualified individual (QI) program, which provides assistance through Medicaid for low-income seniors in paying their Medicare premiums, through June 30, 2008, at a cost of $200 million over ten years.

TMA and Title V Extension.  S. 2499 would extend for six months (until June 30, 2008), both the authorization for Title V programs (abstinence education programs), and the authorization for Transitional Medical Assistance (Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work), at a cost of $400 million over ten years.  TMA has historically been extended along with the Title V Abstinence Education Program.  Regarding the Title V grant program, in order for states to receive Title V block grant funds, states must use the funds exclusively for teaching abstinence.  In addition, in order to receive federal funds, a state must match every $4 in federal funds with $3 in state funds.

SCHIP Extension and Funding.  The bill extends the State Children’s Health Insurance Program through March 31, 2009, to allow for a reauthorization process that does not become entangled in the 2008 election season.  The bill also provides supplemental funding for states that are expected to exhaust their SCHIP funding at current levels.  (See “Additional Background.”)   This provision has a net cost of $800 million, according to CBO.

Additional Background: 

Medicare.  Under current Medicare law, doctors providing health care services to Part B enrollees are compensated through a “fee-for-service” system, in which physician payments are distributed on a per-service basis, as determined by a fee schedule and an annual conversion factor (a formula dollar amount).  The fee schedule assigns “relative values” to each type of provided service.  Relative value reflects physicians’ work time and skill, average medical practice expenses, and geographical adjustments.  In order to determine the physician payment for a specific service, the conversion factor ($37.8975 in 2006) is multiplied by the relative value for that service.  For example, if a routine office visit is assigned a relative value of 2.1, then Medicare would provide the physician with a payment of $79.58 for that service.  ($37.8975 x 2.1)

Medicare law requires that the conversion factor be updated each year.  The formula used to determine the annual update takes into consideration the following factors:

  • Medicare economic index (MEI)–cost of providing medical care;
  • Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR)–target for aggregate growth in Medicare physician payments; and
  • Performance Adjustment–an adjustment ranging from -13% to +3%, to bring the MEI change in line with what is allowed under SGR, in order to restrain overall spending.

Every November, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announces the statutory annual update to the conversion factor for the subsequent year. The new conversion factor is calculated by increasing or decreasing the previous year’s factor by the annual update.

From 2002 to 2007, the statutory formula calculation resulted in a negative update, which would have reduced physician payments, but not overall physician spending. The negative updates occurred because Medicare spending on physician payments increased the previous year beyond what is allowed by SGR.  The SGR mechanism is designed to balance the previous year’s increase in physician spending with a decrease in the next year, in order to maintain the aggregate growth targets.  Thus, in light of increased Medicare spending in recent years, the statutory formula has resulted in negative annual updates.  It is important to note that while imperfect, the SGR was designed as a cost-containment mechanism to help deal with Medicare’s exploding costs, and to some extent it has worked, forcing offsets in some years and causing physician payment levels to be scrutinized annually as if they were discretionary spending.

Since 2003, Congress has chosen to override current law, providing doctors with increases each year, and level funding in 2006.  In 2007, Congress provided a 1.5% update bonus payment for physicians who report on quality of care measures; however, Congress also provided that the 2007 “fix” would be disregarded by CMS for the purpose of calculating the SGR for 2008, resulting in a higher projected cut next year.  The specific data for each year is outlined in the following table.

Year Statutory

Annual

Update (%)

Congressional “Fix” to the Update (%)*
2002 -5.4 -5.4**
2003 -4.4 +1.6
2004 -4.5 +1.5
2005 -3.3 +1.5
2006 -4.4 0
2007 -5.0 +1.5***
2008 -10.1§ 0.5 (proposed)

* The annual update that actually went into effect for that year.

** CMS made other adjustments, as provided by law, which resulted in a net update of – 4.8%; however, Congress did not act to override the -5.4% statutory update.

*** The full 1.5% increase was provided to physicians reporting quality of care measures; physicians not reporting quality of care received no net increase.

  • The Tax Relief and Health Care Act signed last year provided that 2007’s Congressional “fix” was to be disregarded for the purpose of calculating the SGR in 2008 and future years.

SCHIP.  According to a November Congressional Research Service report, 21 states are projected to face SCHIP shortfalls in the absence of additional funding for Fiscal Year 2008.  However, at least nine of these states’ shortfalls stem in part from their decisions to cover children in families making above 200% of the federal poverty level and/or to cover adults using the enhanced SCHIP funding match.  A Heritage Foundation analysis of the CRS data notes that “these overextended [state] programs…account for the lion’s share of the [SCHIP] shortfall.”  Some conservatives may have concerns that additional funding is being provided to cover the additional expenditures of states that have chosen to exceed the originally intended parameters of the SCHIP program.

Cost to Taxpayers:  S. 2499 eliminates a scheduled 10.1% reduction in payments to physicians effective December 31, 2007, at a cost of $6.4 billion.  The bill also includes $800 million in additional SCHIP funding to eliminate shortfalls through March 31, 2009.  This new spending is offset by rescinding $1.5 billion from the Medicare stabilization fund, which finances payments to regional preferred provider organizations.  S. 2499 also reduces payments to long-term care hospitals and inpatient rehabilitation facilities in 2008, saving an additional $5.2 billion over ten years.  These and other changes make S. 2499 technically compliant with PAYGO rules.

Committee Action:  The bill has not been considered by a House Committee.

Administration Position:  The Administration has indicated no opposition to the measure.

Does the Bill Expand the Size and Scope of the Federal Government?:  No.

Does the Bill Contain Any New State-Government, Local-Government, or Private-Sector Mandates?: No.

Does the Bill Comply with House Rules Regarding Earmarks/Limited Tax Benefits/Limited Tariff Benefits?:  An earmarks/revenue benefits statement required under House Rule XXI, Clause 9(a) was not available at press time.

Constitutional Authority:  A committee report citing constitutional authority is unavailable.