Senate Blocks Deep Cuts to Medicare Advantage…
Before recessing for the Independence Day recess, the House passed—and the Senate declined to limit debate on—legislation (H.R. 6331) addressing physician reimbursement levels under Medicare. The bill would prevent for 18 months a reduction in fee schedule levels scheduled to take effect on July 1, and would expand access to certain subsidy programs for low-income beneficiaries. These provisions would be offset largely by cuts to private Medicare Advantage plans, particularly private fee-for-service plans.
Some conservatives may be concerned that the House-passed bill’s significant cuts to Medicare Advantage would have the effect of driving beneficiaries away from a privately-run model of health insurance that has provided enhanced benefits and choice for millions of seniors, especially the 2.2 million beneficiaries in private fee-for-service plans. Some conservatives also may be concerned that the bill fails to address the long-term integrity of the Medicare program, relying on funding gimmicks and government-controlled price-fixing rather than undertaking comprehensive reform that would inject market forces into the program as a means to slow the growth of health care costs.
Following the House vote, nearly six dozen House Members—including RSC Chairman Hensarling— weighed in asking the Senate to revive bipartisan compromise legislation, crafted by Finance Committee Chairman Baucus and Ranking Member Grassley, that would address physician reimbursements without damaging beneficiary access to Medicare Advantage plans.
The Legislative Bulletin on H.R. 6331 can be found here.
…While Democrat Political Gamesmanship Prevents Physician Fix
After the Senate vote to limit debate on physician payment legislation that included significant cuts to Medicare Advantage failed on Thursday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell attempted to pass by unanimous consent a 30-day extension of current reimbursement provisions. However, Majority Leader Reid objected, and in so doing referred to several House special election results while commenting that “I don’t know how many people are up here for re-election, but I am watching a few of them pretty closely.” Because Senate Democrats objected to Republicans’ unanimous consent requests to pass a “clean” physician payment bill, physicians will take a 10% cut in their reimbursement levels beginning today unless and until Congress passes a retroactive fix. However, today’s Politico reports that the Administration is considering ways to delay the impact of the reimbursement adjustment, pending efforts by Congress after the recess to address the matter.
Some conservatives may be concerned by the Senate Majority Leader’s actions blocking a “clean” extension of current-law policies on physician reimbursement. Some conservatives may also believe that the short-term nature of current physician reimbursement extensions, coupled with their potential to become entwined in unrelated disputes and/or “held hostage” due to various political considerations, makes a powerful argument for more comprehensive reforms to Medicare, including a long-term solution to physician reimbursement policy.
While it is currently unclear whether Democrats will continue to block Republican attempts to pass noncontroversial physician payment legislation, or what precise form a more bipartisan bill designed to address the reimbursement provisions will take, the RSC will weigh in with conservative concerns and updates on H.R. 6331 and any other physician payment legislation which may be introduced or considered following the recess.
Report Could Presage Democrat Efforts at Insurer Price Controls
In a related development, Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark released a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on Tuesday, which noted that in 2005 Medicare Advantage plans had lower medical costs and higher profits than first projected when submitting their bids for that contract year. Although the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) noted that the profit projections were made under a now-defunct bidding process that may have explained much of the disparity, Democrats may attempt to use the GAO study to revive provisions in legislation (H.R. 3162) the House passed last year imposing a minimum “medical loss ratio” that would require Medicare Advantage plans to spend at least 85% of their total revenues on health care expenses.
To the extent that the higher-than-expected profits highlighted in the report are derived from improved care models and administrative and related efficiencies, some conservatives may view these proceeds as consistent with the free-market principles that reward companies who take measures to streamline operations while improving quality of care. Conversely, some conservatives may also believe that efforts to restrict medical loss ratios constitute de facto price controls on the insurance industry that will prove ineffective at controlling the growth of health care costs and could lead to unintended and potentially adverse consequences for enrollees.
The RSC has prepared a Policy Brief on this issue, available here.
Article of Note: Public vs. Private Debate Revolves Around Taxes
A study released last week by researchers affiliated with the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and published online by Health Affairs, studied the relative efficiencies of private and public health insurance models. The authors conclude that public coverage through government programs like Medicaid is more efficient than private insurance, largely because public programs feature less cost-sharing than private coverage.
Given that a similar study released in 2003 found that lower reimbursement rates to providers were the primary reason that public programs had lower medical costs than private insurance, some conservatives may take issue with the study’s findings. The authors admit that providers are paid less under Medicaid than most private payers, and advocate an increase in reimbursement rates that would “improve patients’ access to and quality of care.” Yet the study methodology fails to take into account that medical spending for Medicaid patients is lower than private insurance precisely because beneficiaries in public programs have poorer access to provider care—in other words, that costs for Medicaid patients could be lower because they have coverage they cannot as readily use.
Some conservatives may believe that the authors’ admission that public programs reimburse providers at lower levels highlights the double taxation associated with expansions of Medicaid or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). In addition to the amounts government spends to cover individuals in a public program, the cost-shifting that results from unrealistically low government reimbursement rates represents secondary taxes throughout the economy—on individuals with private insurance who pay more to subsidize health care costs the government will not pay; on Medicaid beneficiaries with reduced access to care; and on providers who are forced to work longer hours, or shorten the amount of time spent with each patient, in order to compensate for costs the government will not pay. For these reasons, many conservatives may believe that market-based reforms to the health care sector represent a far more preferable way to improve the quality of care while controlling the growth of health care costs.