Republicans’ SCHIP Surrender

In spring 2015, Senate Republican leaders pressured their members to accept a clean, two-year reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) added as part of a larger health spending measure.

The SCHIP reauthorization added to a larger Medicare bill included none of the reforms Republicans had proposed that year, many of which attempted to turn the program’s focus back toward covering low-income families first, as the George W. Bush administration had done. But Republican leaders said that the two-year extension, rather than the four-year extension Democrats supported, would allow conservatives to fight harder for reforms in 2017.

The press has focused on the disputes over paying for the SCHIP program, which have held up final enactment of a long-term reauthorization. (The House passed its version of the bill in November; the Senate, failing to find agreement on pay-fors, has not considered the bill on the floor.) But the focus on pay-fors has ignored Republicans’ abject surrender on the policy behind the program, because the media defines “bipartisanship” as conservatives agreeing to do liberal things. That occurred in abundance on this particular bill.

So Much for Our Promises, Voters

On the underlying policy, all the groups who pledged to fight for conservative reforms vacated the field. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who brags about how he created the program as part of the Balanced Budget Act in 1997, cut a deal with Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) that, as detailed below, includes virtually no conservative reforms to the program—raising questions about whether Hatch was so desperate for a deal to preserve his legacy that he failed to fight for conservative reforms.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) did not repudiate the agreement Hatch and Wyden struck, even though that agreement maintained virtually the provisions of the 2009 SCHIP reauthorization that Ryan himself, then the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, called “an entitlement train wreck.”

Republicans have thus suffered the worst of both worlds: getting blamed for inaction on a program’s reauthorization, while already having conceded virtually every element of that program, save for its funding.

Details About the SCHIP Proposals

A detailed examination of the Hatch-Wyden agreement (original version here, and slightly revised version in Sections 301-304 of the House-passed bill here) demonstrates how it extends provisions of the 2009 reauthorization passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Obama—which Republicans in large part opposed. Moreover, the Hatch-Wyden agreement and House-passed bill includes none of the reforms the House Energy and Commerce Committee proposed, but were not enacted into law, in 2015.

The only “reform” in the pending reauthorization consists of phasing out an enhanced match for states included in Section 2101(a) of Obamacare—one already scheduled to expire. Even though the enhanced match will end on its own in October 2019, the Hatch-Wyden agreement and the House-passed bill would extend that enhanced match by one year further, albeit at a reduced level, before phasing it out entirely.

Child Enrollment Contingency Fund: Created in Section 103 of the 2009 reauthorization. As I noted then, “Some Members may be concerned that the fund—which does not include provisions making additional payments contingent on enrolling the low-income children­ for which the program was designed—will therefore help to subsidize wealthier children in states which have expanded their programs to higher-income populations, diverting SCHIP funds from the program’s original purpose” (emphasis original). Section 301(c) of the House-passed bill would extend this fund, without any reforms.

Express Lane Eligibility: Created in Section 203 of the 2009 reauthorization, as a way of using eligibility determinations from other agencies and programs to facilitate enrollment in SCHIP. As I noted then, “Some Members may be concerned first that the streamlined verification processes outlined above will facilitate individuals who would not otherwise qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP, due either to their income or citizenship, to obtain federally-paid health benefits.” Section 301(e) of the House-passed bill would extend this option, without any reforms.

Citizenship Verification: Section 211 of the 2009 reauthorization created a new process for verifying citizenship, but not identity, to circumvent strict verification requirements included in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. As I wrote in 2009:

Some Members may echo the concerns of Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, who in a September 2007 letter stated that the verification process proposed in the bill would not keep ineligible individuals from receiving federal benefits—since many applicants would instead submit another person’s name and Social Security number to qualify. Some Members may believe the bill, by laying out a policy of ‘enroll and chase,’ will permit ineligible individuals, including illegal aliens, to obtain federally-paid health coverage for at least four months during the course of the verification process. Finally, some Members may be concerned that the bill, by not taking remedial action against states for enrolling illegal aliens—which can be waived entirely at the Secretary’s discretion—until states’ error rate exceeds 3%, effectively allows states to provide benefits to illegal aliens.

Legal Aliens: Section 214 of the 2009 reauthorization allowed states to cover legal aliens in their SCHIP programs without subjecting them to the five-year waiting period required for means-tested benefits under the 1996 welfare reform law.

As I wrote in 2009, “Some Members may be concerned that permitting states to cover legal aliens without imposing waiting periods will override the language of bipartisan welfare reform legislation passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democrat President, conflict with decades-long practices in other federally-sponsored entitlement health programs (i.e., Medicare), and encourage migrants to travel to the United States for the sole or primary purpose of receiving health benefits paid for by federal taxpayers.” The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this option.

Premium Assistance: Section 301 of the 2009 reauthorization created new options regarding premium assistance—allowing states to subsidize employer-sponsored coverage, rather than enrolling individuals in government-run plans. While that reauthorization contained some language designed to make premium assistance programs more flexible for states, it also expressly prohibited states from subsidizing health savings account (HSA) coverage through premium assistance. The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this prohibition on states subsidizing HSA coverage.

Health Opportunity Accounts: Section 613 of the 2009 reauthorization prohibited the Department of Health and Human Services from approving any new demonstration programs regarding Health Opportunity Accounts, a new consumer-oriented option for low-income beneficiaries created in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this prohibition on states offering more consumer-oriented options.

Covering Poor Kids First: The 2015 proposed reauthorization looked to restore SCHIP’s focus on covering low-income children first, by 1) eliminating the enhanced federal match rate for states choosing to cover children in families between 250-300 percent of the federal poverty level ($61,500-$73,800 for a family of four in 2017) and 2) eliminating the federal match entirely for states choosing to cover children in families above 300 percent of poverty. These provisions were consistent with the policy of the George W. Bush administration, which in 2007 issued guidance seeking to ensure that states covered low-income families first before expanding their SCHIP programs further up the income ladder. The House-passed bill includes no such provision.

Maintenance of Effort: Section 2001(b) of Obamacare included a requirement that states could not alter eligibility standards for children enrolled in SCHIP through October 1, 2019, limiting their ability to manage their state programs. Whereas the 2015 proposed reauthorization would have repealed this requirement, effective October 1, 2015, Section 301(f) of the House-passed bill would extend this requirement, through October 1, 2022. (However, under the House-passed bill, states could alter eligibility for children in families with incomes over 300 percent of poverty, beginning in October 2019.)

Crowd-Out: The 2015 proposed reauthorization allowed states to impose a waiting period of up to 12 months for individuals who declined an offer of, or disenrolled from, employer-based coverage—a provision designed to keep families from dropping private insurance to enroll in a government program. The House-passed bill contains no such provision.

Program Name: The 2009 reauthorization sought to remove the “state” element of the “State Children’s Health Insurance Program,” renaming the program as the “Children’s Health Insurance Program.” While the 2015 proposed reauthorization looked to restore the “state” element to “SCHIP,” the House-passed bill includes no such provision.

Cave, Not a Compromise

For all the focus on paying for SCHIP, the underlying policy represents a near-total cave by Republicans, who failed to obtain any meaningful reforms to the program. Granted, Democrats likely would not agree to all the changes detailed above. But the idea that a “bipartisan” bill should include exactly none of them also seems absurd—unless Republicans threw in the towel and failed to fight for any changes.

The press spent much of 2017 focused on Republican efforts to unwind Obamacare. But the SCHIP bill represents just as consequential a story. The cave on SCHIP demonstrates how many Republicans, after spending the last eight years objecting to the Obama agenda, suddenly have little interest in rolling it back.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Self-Righteous Sanctimony from an Obamacare Hypocrite

Why would someone who never truly believed in repealing Obamacare attack others for wanting to keep it? Maybe because Mitch McConnell asked him to.

Avik Roy’s piece blasting Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) for “preserving every word of Obamacare” contains flawed logic on several fronts. Let’s examine that first, before considering the source.

Roy essentially argues that the 2015 reconciliation bill that Sen. Lee and others supported did not repeal or reform any of the regulations raising premiums, but this year’s Senate Republican bill did. The first point is accurate but misleading, and the second point inaccurate, at least from a conservative perspective.

When it comes to the 2015 reconciliation bill, Republican leaders made a strategic choice—as current White House adviser Paul Winfree noted just after the election—not to litigate with the Senate Parliamentarian whether and what insurance regulations could be repealed under the special budget reconciliation procedures. Conservatives such as myself have argued that, while that 2015 bill represented a good first step—demonstrating that reconciliation could be used to dismantle Obamacare—lawmakers needed to go further and repeal the regulations outright.

It’s unclear from his piece whether Roy knew of this strategical gambit back in 2015, or knows, but doesn’t want to admit it—and to be candid, both could be true. The article contains the following statement of “fact:”

Senate rules require that the reconciliation process can only be used for fiscal policy—taxing and spending—not regulatory policy. To boot, reconciliation can’t be used to change Medicare or Social Security. [Emphasis mine.]

The first part of this argument does not follow: He’s claiming that reconciliation cannot be used for regulatory policy, while also arguing that the bill currently before the Senate—which is a budget reconciliation bill—would make massive changes to Obamacare’s regulatory apparatus, such that it warranted Lee’s support.

The second part of this argument is flat-out false. While the Senate’s “Byrd rule” prohibits changes to Title II of the Social Security Act (as per 2 U.S.C. 644(b)(1)(F) and 2 U.S.C. 641(g)), Congress can—and does—make major changes to Medicare under budget reconciliation. For instance, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997—a bill considered under budget reconciliation—included over 200 pages of legislative changes to Medicare, including major changes to Medicare managed care (then called Medicare+Choice) and the creation of the infamous Sustainable Growth Rate Mechanism for physician payments. Roy has previously argued that lawmakers could not make changes to Medicare under budget reconciliation—he was wrong then, and he’s wrong now.

So why should anyone believe the procedural and tactical arguments of someone who 1) never worked in the Senate and 2) has repeatedly made false claims about the nature of the budget reconciliation process? Answer: You shouldn’t.

Back to the arguments about the Senate bill’s regulatory structure. Roy claims that the bill currently being considered would make significant modifications to those regulations. But from a conservative perspective, the bill doesn’t attack some of the costliest drivers of higher premiums—specifically Obamacare’s guaranteed issue regulations. Moreover, it doesn’t actually repeal any of the regulations themselves, choosing instead to modify or waive only some of them.

If a bill can modify regulations under the budget reconciliation procedures, it can repeal them too—moderate Senators just lack the political will to do so. If you’re like me—a supporter of federalism who doesn’t believe Washington should impose a regulatory apparatus on all 50 states’ health insurance markets—then you might find the Senate bill did not sufficiently dismantle the Obamacare framework to make it worth your support. It appears Sen. Lee also came to that conclusion.

Now it’s worth examining why the article specifically attacks Mike Lee. The piece fails to note until the 16th paragraph of a 19-paragraph story that other Senators came out and opposed the bill as well. Continued concern from moderates—who didn’t want to repeal Obamacare—made it obvious that the bill was going to die—but no one wanted to deliver the coup de grace. Sen. Lee finally came out and did so, along with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS). It’s disingenuous for Roy to claim, as he does for most of the piece, that Senator Lee was solely, or primarily, responsible for killing the bill.

Why might he make such a claim? Jonathan Chait may have sniffed out an answer several weeks ago, when Roy made a winking non-admission admission that he had worked with Senator McConnell’s office on drafting the Senate bill. Given that fact, and the way in which Senate staff promised to “make it rain” on moderates by giving out “candy” in the form of backroom deals, it’s reasonable to ask whether Roy coordinated his attack on Senator Lee with Senator McConnell’s office—and was promised anything for doing so.

Nearly three years ago, Avik Roy published a piece claiming that “conservatives don’t have to repeal Obamacare” and that “there are political benefits to implementing the plan without repeal.” Last night, Roy didn’t even attempt to explain on Twitter how he could reconcile those prior statements with his purported support for Obamacare repeal. Yet now he wants to attack Mike Lee for not sufficiently supporting repeal? It’s a disingenuous argument.

When it comes to Roy’s flip-flopping on repeal, his factual inaccuracies, or his not-so-secret ties to Senate leadership on the legislation, when evaluating his attack on Mike Lee, conservatives would be wise to consider the source.

What You Need to Know About Budget Reconciliation in the Senate

After last week’s House passage of the American Health Care Act, the Senate has begun sorting through various policy options for health care legislation. But looming over the policy discussions are procedural concerns unique to the Senate. Herewith a primer on the process under which the upper chamber will consider an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

How Will the Bill Come to the Senate Floor?

The bill that passed the House was drafted as a budget reconciliation bill. The phrase “budget reconciliation” refers to a process established by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, in which congressional committees reconcile spending in programs within their jurisdiction to the budget blueprint passed by Congress. In this case, Congress passed a budget in January that required health-care committees to report legislation reducing the deficit by $1 billion—the intended vehicle for an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

What’s So Important about Budget Reconciliation?

Under most circumstances, the Senate can only limit debate and amendments by invoking cloture, which requires the approval of three-fifths of all senators sworn (i.e., 60 votes). Because the reconciliation process prohibits filibusters and unlimited debate, it allows the Senate to pass reconciliation bills with a simple majority (i.e., 51-vote) threshold.

Why Does the ‘Byrd Rule’ Exist as part of Budget Reconciliation?

Named for former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV), the rule intends to protect the integrity of the legislative filibuster. By allowing only matters integral to the budget reconciliation to pass the Senate with a simple majority (as opposed to the 60-vote threshold), the rule seeks to keep the body’s tradition of extended debate.

What Is the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Simply put, the rule prohibits “extraneous” material from intruding in budget reconciliation legislation. However, the term “Byrd rule” is technically a misnomer in two respects. First, the “Byrd rule” is more than just a longstanding practice of the Senate. After several years of operation as a Senate rule, it was codified into law beginning in 1985, and can be found at 2 U.S.C. 644. Second, the rule consists of not just one test to define whether material is “extraneous,” but six.

What Are the Six Different Types of Extraneous Material?

So the Various Types of ‘Byrd Rule’ Violations Are Not Necessarily Equivalent?

Correct. While most reporters focus on the fourth test—when a legislative provision has a budgetary impact merely incidental to the provision’s policy change—that is not the only type of rule violation. Nor in many respects is it the most significant.

While violations of the fourth test are fatal to the provision—the extraneous material is stricken from the underlying legislation—violations of the third (material outside the jurisdiction of committees charged with reporting reconciliation legislation) and sixth (changes to Title II of the Social Security Act) tests are fatal to the entire bill.

Who Determines Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ Under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

How Does One Determine Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

In some cases, determining compliance with the rule is relatively straight-forward. A provision dealing with veterans’ benefits (within the jurisdiction of the Veterans Affairs Committee) would clearly fail the third test in a tax reconciliation bill, as tax matters lie within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

However, other cases require a more nuanced, textual analysis by the parliamentarian. Such an analysis might examine Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and other outside scores, to assess the provision’s fiscal impact (or lack thereof), the statute the reconciliation bill seeks to amend, other statutes cross-referenced in the legislation (to assess the impact of the programmatic changes the provision would make), and prior precedent on related matters.

When Does the Senate Assess Whether a Provision Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’?

In some respects, assessing compliance is an iterative process. Often, the Senate parliamentarian will provide informal advice to majority staff as they begin to write reconciliation legislation. While these informal conversations help to guide bill writers during the drafting process, the parliamentarian normally notes that these discussions do not constitute a formal advisory opinion; minority party staff and other interested persons are not privy to the ex parte conversations, and could in time bring her new information that could cause her to change her opinion.

Do Debates about the ‘Byrd Rule’ Take Place on the Senate Floor?

They can, and they have, but relatively rarely. As James Wallner, an expert in Senate parliamentary procedure, notes, over the last three decades, the Senate has formally adjudicated only ten instances of the fourth test—whether a provision’s fiscal impacts are merely incidental to its proposed policy changes.

Because most determinations of “Byrd rule” compliance (or non-compliance) have been made through informal, closed-door “Byrd bath” discussions in the Senate parliamentarian’s office, there are few formal precedents—either rulings from the chair or votes by the Senate itself—regarding specific examples of “extraneous” material. As a result, the Senate—whether the parliamentarian, the presiding officer, or the body itself—has significant latitude to interpret the statutory tests about what qualifies as “extraneous.”

Can the Senate Overrule the Parliamentarian about What Qualifies as ‘Extraneous’ Under the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Yes, in two respects. The presiding officer—whether the vice president as president of the Senate, the president pro tempore (currently Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT), or another senator—can disregard the parliamentarian’s guidance and issue his or her own ruling. Alternatively, a senator could appeal the chair’s decision, and a simple majority of the body could overrule that decision. There is a long history of senators doing just that.

As a practical matter, however, such a scenario appears unlikely during the Obamacare debate, for two reasons. First, some senators may view such a move as akin to the “nuclear option,” undermining the legislative filibuster by a simple majority vote. The recent letter signed by 61 senators pledging to uphold the legislative filibuster indicates that at least some senators in both parties want to preserve the usual 60-vote margin for passing legislation, and therefore may not wish to set a precedent of allowing potentially “extraneous” material on to a budget reconciliation bill through a simple majority.

Second, if the Senate did overrule the parliamentarian on a procedural matter related to budget reconciliation, a conservative senator would likely introduce a simple, one-line Obamacare repeal bill and ask the Senate to overrule the parliamentarian to allow it to qualify as a reconciliation matter. Since many members of the Senate, like the House, do not actually wish to repeal Obamacare, they would likely decline to head down the road of overruling the parliamentarian, for fear it may head in this direction.

Can the Senate Waive the ‘Byrd Rule’?

Yes—provided three-fifths of senators sworn (i.e., 60 senators) agree. In the past, many budget reconciliation bills—like the Balanced Budget Act of 1997—passed with far more than 60 Senate votes, which made waiving the rule easier.

However, Republicans did not agree to waive the rule for extraneous material included in Senate Democrats’ Obamacare “fix” bill in March 2010. That material was stricken from the legislation and did not make it into law. For this and other reasons, it seems unlikely that eight or more Senate Democrats would vote to waive the rule for an Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill.

Didn’t Democrats Pass Obamacare through Budget Reconciliation?

Yes and no. They fixed portions of Obamacare—for instance, the notorious “Cornhusker Kickback”—through a budget reconciliation measure that passed through both houses of Congress in March 2010. But the larger, 2,400-page measure that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009 was enacted into law first.

Once Scott Brown’s election to the Senate in January 2010 gave Republicans 41 votes, Democrats knew they could not go through the usual process of convening a House-Senate conference committee to consider the differences between each chamber’s legislation. A conference report is subject to a filibuster, and Republicans had the votes to sustain that filibuster.

Instead, House Democrats agreed to pass the Senate version of the legislation—the version that passed with 60 votes on Christmas Eve 2009—then have both chambers use a separate budget reconciliation bill—one that could pass the Senate with a 51-vote majority—to make changes to the bill they had just enacted.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Medicare’s Sustainable Growth Rate: Principles for Reform

A PDF of this Backgrounder can be found on the Heritage Foundation website.

Congress may soon revisit the issue of Medicare physician reimbursement payment. Much of the legislative discussion will focus on the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula. The SGR was enacted as part of the Balanced Budget Act in 1997 as a mechanism to update yearly Medicare physician reimbursements. Under that formula, the federal government computes an annual target for Medicare physician spending based in large part on annual changes in economic growth as measured by gross domestic product (GDP). Physician spending exceeding the growth in GDP in any given year will result in a proportional and automatic cut in Medicare physician reimbursement the following year.

In theory, the SGR was a major improvement over the volume control updates that Congress enacted in 1989. In practice, the SGR mandated deep and politically unacceptable cuts in future years’ Medicare payments. The reason: Physician spending routinely exceeded annual targets. It was quickly becoming clear that the SGR was unworkable. Since 2003, majorities in Congress have routinely blocked the fundamentally flawed SGR formula from going into effect because the applicable cuts would threaten seniors’ access to care. For 2014, the formula calls for a Medicare physician reimbursement cut of almost 25 percent. Not surprisingly, many policymakers have concluded that the SGR must be repealed or replaced.

A Chance for Real Reform. The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently released a revised discussion draft of legislation regarding physician payment,[1] on the heels of a statement of principles initially released by the House Ways and Means and the Energy and Commerce Committees in February.[2] Likewise, the chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee recently issued a request for “stakeholder” comment about the future of physician payment.[3]

While Congress’s immediate focus on the SGR is right and proper, it should not be shortsighted. The SGR is merely representative of a much larger problem: Medicare’s outdated system of administrative pricing, price controls, and inefficient central planning. This system both underpays and overpays doctors and other medical professionals, encourages cost shifting and gaming among providers, distorts the medical market, and undercuts the delivery of efficient and effective care. The overriding policy issue is whether Congress will view the SGR narrowly, as something to be “fixed”; or whether the debate can be the platform for a broader discussion of the need for a much better Medicare future, where administrative pricing is replaced by price competition, central planning is replaced by market-driven innovation, and the delivery of high-quality patient care is the product of the best professional judgment of members of the medical profession.

The ultimate policy objective, therefore, should be to transform Medicare into a defined-contribution (“premium support”) system, based on the free-market principles of consumer choice and competition—a system where medical services are priced through private negotiations between plans and providers, reflecting the true market conditions of supply and demand. In the meantime, as part of a transition to such a program, Medicare physician payment should be frozen at current levels for three to five years. Any additional costs to the taxpayer should be offset by savings from well-vetted reforms of the current program, plus a lifting of existing payment caps, a requirement for transparent pricing, and expanded options for doctors and patients.

A Crude and Clumsy Attempt to Break Spending

The SGR mechanism, as noted, links aggregate Medicare payment to changes in the general economy as measured by GDP. If spending exceeds the GDP target, the SGR adjusts physician reimbursements downward; if spending remains below target, the SGR increases physician reimbursements accordingly.[4]

By linking specific Medicare payments to the general performance of the economy, Congress established a fiscal target bearing little resemblance to the actual cost of medical goods and services. Other targets, such as the consumer price index (CPI) or the medical economic index, provide a clearer link to price inflation and general health cost growth. Moreover, the SGR’s explicit link to the size of the economy means that in economic downturns, the target—and thus physician reimbursement levels—will actually decline.

The fact that the SGR remains an aggregate spending target also presents a collective action problem for the Medicare program. Because the SGR targets physician spending as a whole, and not the spending patterns of individual physicians or physician practices, individual doctors have a strong incentive to maximize their own volume of services performed, and thus their own reimbursement levels.[5]

For all these reasons, Congress has consistently modified the SGR targets over the past decade. While the slowdown in health costs surrounding the move to managed care plans in the late 1990s prevented the SGR targets from being hit in the program’s first few years, spending soon exceeded the statutory targets. Although Congress allowed the SGR’s reimbursement cuts to take effect in 2002, in 2003 (and each year since) Congress overrode the statutory reductions with a series of freezes, or modest payment increases, in SGR target levels.[6]

The annual, albeit temporary, payment increases mandated by Congress since 2003 have resulted in a series of fiscal cliffs for physicians and the Medicare program. Because prior Congresses overrode the SGR targets only for short periods, doctors have faced the prospect of increasingly large reimbursement cuts should Congress not forestall the reimbursement cuts.[7] For instance, should Congress not act before January 1, 2014, the SGR will reset at its lower, statutory target, resulting in an immediate reduction in reimbursement levels of over 24 percent, with additional cuts in succeeding years.[8] According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), permanently freezing SGR target levels would cost $139.1 billion over 10 years[9]—a significant sum, but about half the $273.3 billion that the CBO estimated an SGR freeze would cost in July 2012.[10]

As a mechanism to contain costs, therefore, the SGR has fallen short. While physicians have received below-inflation updates in Medicare payment levels since 2003, evidence strongly suggests that doctors have compensated for these lower reimbursement levels by increasing the volume of services provided. According to data from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, while physician updates grew by less than 10 percent between 2000 and 2011, overall physician spending per beneficiary grew by more than 70 percent over the same period, largely because the volume of services provided to beneficiaries rose rapidly.[11]

However, as a mechanism to control overall spending on Medicare, the SGR has provided an impetus for re-examining spending priorities within other portions of the Medicare program. While generally ineffective at controlling physician spending, the annual SGR target has nonetheless forced Washington policymakers continually to re-examine overall Medicare spending, and encouraged continued debate on structural Medicare reform as well as generated intense discussion on incremental but meaningful reforms in the current program.

Members of Congress have generally insisted on paying for the annual “fixes” to the SGR, as such legislation would otherwise raise Medicare spending and increase the deficit. In 2009, the Senate considered legislation that would have permanently increased Medicare physician reimbursements without offsetting spending reductions.[12] When confronted with an unpaid “doc fix,” a bipartisan majority of 53 Senators rejected this legislation,[13] which would have increased federal deficits by $247 billion over 10 years,[14] and up to $1.9 trillion over 75 years.[15]

Over and above the basic principle that Congress should not increase Medicare spending at a time of record deficits, the SGR has provided a vehicle to enact modest reforms to the Medicare program on an annual basis. For instance, legislation addressing the “fiscal cliff” expanded Medicare competitive bidding to diabetes supplies, and enacted new anti-fraud measures, to help finance a one-year “doc fix” for 2013.[16]

When considering SGR legislation this year, Congress must balance the competing interests of the physician community and the Medicare program as a whole. While the SGR has not slowed cost growth, and the annual “doc fix” exercise has caused uncertainty for physicians, the Medicare program as a whole faces massive deficits—the Medicare trust fund lost $105.6 billion over the past five years, deficits that are expected to continue and accelerate as the baby-boom generation retires.[17] Simply repealing the SGR without fundamentally reforming Medicare would have significant unintended consequences for future taxpayers and beneficiaries alike.

More or Less Government Control Over Medical Practice?

Designing a replacement for the SGR formula brings with it many of its own problems. Proposals to replace the SGR with a system of reimbursing doctors based on quality measures—“pay for performance,” for example —will necessitate an even stronger role for the Medicare bureaucracy in dictating physician behaviors than the current flawed system.

Well before the creation of the SGR mechanism for updating reimbursement, Medicare physician payment has, over the past 25 years, been defined by the heavy hand of bureaucratic micromanagement. In 1989, Congress enacted a resource-based relative value system (RBRVS) for determining physician payments, which focused on determining the “right” payment for a particular service by calculating the cost of performing that service when compared to other services.[18]

Based on a “social science” measurement, the RBRVS attempted to quantify the “value units” of providing medical services, such as the time, energy, and effort that goes into providing a medical service, adjusted by geographic costs and malpractice expenses. A patient with a simple ear infection would require different amounts of a physician’s time than a patient with chronic heart failure, for example, and the RBRVS intended to compensate doctors “fairly” for each service. Organized medicine, particularly the American Medical Association, initially endorsed the new fee schedule as a way of redistributing income from high-priced specialists to lower-paid general practitioners.

In theory, the RBRVS was widely hailed by its proponents as a “scientific” answer to the perennial problem of physician payment.[19] In practice, the result has been a highly politicized process of rent-seeking, as lobbyists of different provider groups feverishly scrambled to secure higher reimbursements through the political process. However well-intentioned, the past quarter century has demonstrated the failure of the RBRVS as an accurate method of compensating physicians who participate in Medicare. Even as the federal government attempts to find the “right” price of every physician service, it has seemingly failed to remember the value of any of them. Unsurprisingly, the creation of more than 7,000 separate procedure codes has not ensured that nearly 850,000 Medicare providers are being compensated fairly for their services.[20] Indeed, the RBRVS has failed in one of its central goals: Created 25 years ago to help increase the relative value of allegedly underpriced primary care services, the RBRVS system has only exacerbated price disparities between primary and specialist care.[21]

In the aftermath of this failure, some in Congress have proposed a new system no less audacious—and no less reliant on the hand of government. Instead of the RBRVS method of pricing services partially based on the archaic labor theory of value—that compensation for physician services should be determined by the amount of time and resources put into the work—the new proposals attempt to quantify the “value” to patients of a particular service by measuring its “effectiveness.”

Pay for Performance or Compliance? Generally speaking, the new theory of pay-for-performance medicine attempts to determine physicians’ “value” and thus reimbursement through compliance with, and performance on, a series of metrics and guidelines determined by federal bureaucrats, medical societies, or a combination of the two. For instance, the House’s discussion draft discusses an “update incentive program” under which the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) would be required to publish a “competency measure set” of quality measures, and then “develop and apply…appropriate methodologies for assessing the performance of fee schedule providers” on those measures.[22]

The language in the House discussion draft—linking Medicare physician pay to compliance with government-established guidelines—accelerates a troubling trend reinforced by Obamacare itself. The national health care law, with 165 provisions affecting Medicare,[23] not only retains the SGR, but, like the SGR, it also imposes a hard cap on the growth of all Medicare spending. It creates an Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which will have the power to enforce the cap, and recommend even more Medicare reimbursement cuts for physicians and other medical professionals. It creates new institutions to change Medicare payment and delivery through administrative action, such as the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, with demonstration programs designed to end traditional fee-for-service (FFS) payments. Beyond these new institutions, the health law creates new Medicare “quality” programs and extends the Physician Quality Reporting Initiative (PQRI), which will enforce new bonus and penalty payments for physician compliance. As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported in its first evaluation of the statute, the new law “makes several changes to the Medicare program that have the potential to affect physicians and how they practice in ways both small and large, immediately and over time.”[24]

For example, Obamacare mandates a 2 percent reduction in Medicare physician payments for doctors that do “not satisfactorily submit data” to Washington officials,[25] and a 1 percent reduction for physicians who fail to follow bureaucrat-defined “cost” metrics.[26] In separate legislation also signed by President Obama, the Administration received the authority to reduce payments to physicians by a further 3 percent if they do not follow Washington-imposed guidelines for electronic health records.[27]

To their credit, the authors of the House discussion draft emphasize the role of medical specialty societies in determining quality metrics, thereby hoping to assuage concerns about federal bureaucrats’ direct involvement in the practice of medicine. This does not, however, solve the fundamental problem. The entire premise of a Medicare pay-for-performance regime—which is really a payment for compliance—directly contradicts the opening verbiage of the original Medicare statute:

Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize any federal officer or employee to exercise any supervision or control over the practice of medicine or the manner in which medical services are provided, or over the selection, tenure, or compensation of any officer or employee of any institution, agency, or person providing health services; or to exercise any supervision or control over the administration or operation of any such institution, agency, or person.[28]

The threshold question is this: Should government officials “exercise any supervision or control” over the practice of medicine? It matters not whether some physicians choose to comply with Washington’s mandates on their practices, or whether some leaders of some specialty societies see value in serving as arbiters of some new Medicare pay-for-performance structure. Under the original Medicare statute, all physicians should have the freedom to practice medicine using their own professional judgment in treating a patient, without meddling—whether in the form of new federal mandates, “quality” metrics, or other bureaucratic criteria—from either the federal government or its intermediaries.

The flaws in Medicare’s pay-for-performance approach have been well defined elsewhere.[29] The myriad regulations and mandates that such criteria spawn interfere in the practice of medicine, placing an invisible barrier amid the already attenuated relationship between doctor and patient. Worse, the one-size-fits-all methodologies imposed by Washington-enforced mandates directly contradict the great promise of the growing movement toward personalized medicine.[30]

Despite its inherent flaws, a bureaucracy-driven compliance regime remains a shibboleth of leftist health policy analysts who believe that a new system of federal micromanagement can fix the flaws of the old one. Former Senator Tom Daschle (D–SD), President Obama’s first choice for Secretary of HHS, wrote in 2008 that government interference in medical care was not the problem, it was the solution:

We won’t be able to make a significant dent in health-care spending without getting into the nitty-gritty of which treatments are the most clinically valuable and cost effective. That means taking a harder look at the real costs and benefits of new drugs and procedures.[31]

Obamacare epitomizes this governing philosophy of administrative control, giving the Secretary almost 2,000 separate orders with which to micromanage the health care system.[32] Members of Congress who rightly criticized Obamacare for granting the Secretary nearly unprecedented discretionary authority over the financing and delivery of medical care should be greatly concerned with enacting SGR replacement legislation that would further expand the Secretary’s control.[33]

Principles for Congressional Action

As it has since 2003, Congress likely will consider legislation later this year addressing the deep cut mandated by the SGR formula. Absent changes in current law, a cut of nearly 25 percent will take effect on January 1, 2014.

Based on the proposals released to date, leaders on key committees intend to use this year’s legislation to construct a permanent replacement for the SGR, with a new reimbursement model heavily focused on quality metrics. The goal of securing a higher quality of services for taxpayer dollars is clearly laudable. But Congress should remain mindful of the consequences of additional intrusion in the doctor–patient relationship, and of the fact that the SGR constitutes merely one piece of a larger entitlement structure in need of fundamental reform.

When considering Medicare physician payment legislation, Congress should:

  • Reject any provisions that micromanage the doctor–patient relationship. Whether under the name of pay-for-performance, clinical guidelines, or quality metrics, programs emphasizing physician compliance with government-imposed standards are inconsistent with the original intent of the Medicare statute, which safeguards the professional independence and integrity of the medical profession and sacrosanct character of the doctor–patient relationship. Placing additional authority in the hands of government bureaucrats to dictate the practice of physicians undermines these principles as well as patient trust.
  • Restore balance billing and the right to private contracting. Consistent with a return to free-market principles, Congress should remove the current statutory prohibitions on balance billing—when doctors bill patients for the part of the health-service charge not reimbursed by Medicare—while also repealing the oppressive restriction that prohibits doctors who engage in any transactions with beneficiaries outside Medicare’s parameters from receiving Medicare reimbursements for two years.[34] Keeping the heavy hand of government out of the doctor–patient relationship requires removing regulatory restrictions that prevent senior citizens from engaging physicians on financial terms that both find fair and advantageous. When coupled with transparency guidelines ensuring that seniors clearly understand the prices and the terms of these contractual arrangements, balance billing and private contracting can remove many of the financial pressures imposed by Medicare’s top-down, government-dictated pricing system.
  • Insist that fundamental, long-term SGR reform be paired with fundamental, long-term Medicare reform. Experts on all sides of the political spectrum agree that the flawed SGR mechanism should be replaced. The best replacement for the SGR and the entire system of current Medicare financing lies in a defined-contribution (premium support) system that fundamentally reforms and enhances the entire Medicare program. In the short term, Congress can take several important incremental steps to re-structure the traditional Medicare program as part of a transition to a premium support system.[35] However, Congress should not attempt to enact a fundamental change to the SGR coupled solely with incremental reforms to the larger Medicare program. To do so would remove an impetus for the major structural reforms that Medicare needs in order to ensure its solvency for future generations.

Conclusion

Congress once again appears poised to grapple with a problem of its own making—namely, the SGR formula for physician reimbursement. Members in both the House and Senate have solicited proposals for alternatives, and have committed to considering SGR proposals this year.

However, when constructing alternatives to the SGR, Congress should heed the lessons of experience. The system of administrative pricing for Medicare physician payment, in effect for nearly 25 years, has proven cumbersome, bureaucratic, and unworkable. Moving further in the direction of pay-for-performance medicine, as some proposals have suggested, would merely substitute medical societies for the role currently played by omnipotent government bureaucrats, attempting to impose one-size-fits-all medical care from Washington.

Conversely, while the SGR has not succeeded in its initial goal of containing Medicare physician spending, the perennial “doc fix” bills have forced Congress to enact changes in the Medicare program, many of which constituted real progress in reforming entitlement spending. Completely repealing or replacing the SGR, without first ensuring fundamental reform of the entire Medicare program, would actively subvert attempts to make the program sustainable for future generations.

The SGR debate presents Members of Congress with both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity lies in enacting reforms that can expand market forces in Medicare and enhance the program’s viability. The challenge lies in resisting the siren call that yet another form of federally micromanaged health care can succeed when all past iterations have failed. Seniors and future generations should hope that Congress chooses to embrace the opportunity and rise to the challenge.

 



[1] House Energy and Commerce Committee discussion draft of Medicare physician payment legislation, June 28, 2013, http://energycommerce.house.gov/sites/republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/files/BILLS-113hr-PIH-SGRreform.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[2] House Energy and Commerce Committee and Ways and Means Committee joint framework for Medicare physician payment reform, “Overview of SGR Repeal and Reform Proposal,” February 7, 2013, http://energycommerce.house.gov/sites/republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/files/20130207SGRReform.pdf (accessed July 11 2013).

[3] News release, “Baucus, Hatch Call on Health Care Providers to Pitch in and Provide Ideas to Improve Medicare Physician Payment System,” U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, May 10, 2013, http://www.finance.senate.gov/newsroom/chairman/release/?id=fba99c75-981f-4917-9836-ae49d47453a1 (accessed July 11, 2013).

[4] Mark Miller, “Moving Forward from the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) System,” testimony before the Finance Committee, U.S. Senate, at a hearing on “Advancing Reform: Medicare Physician Payments,” May 14, 2013, p. 2, http://www.finance.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/MedPAC%20SGR%20testimony%20with%20attachments_SFC_5%2014%202013.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[5] Ibid., p. 3.

[6] The full list of statutory adjustments to the SGR conversion factor enacted by Congress since 2003 can be found in amendments to the United States Code, 42 U.S.C. 1395w-4(d)(5) et seq.

[7] Beginning with the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006 (P.L. 109–432), Congress provided that temporary payment increases overriding the SGR cuts would not be used in setting the SGR targets for future years—thus ensuring a “cliff” when the target re-sets at the lower level.

[8] The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has estimated a preliminary SGR conversion factor update of 24.4 percent for calendar year 2014. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Estimated Sustainable Growth Rate and Conversion Factor for Medicare Payments to Physicians in 2014,” April 2013, p. 8, Table 5, http://www.cms.gov/Medicare/Medicare-Fee-for-Service-Payment/SustainableGRatesConFact/Downloads/sgr2014p.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[9] Congressional Budget Office, “Medicare’s Payments to Physicians: The Budgetary Impact of Alternative Policies Relative to CBO’s May 2013 Baseline,” May 14, 2013, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44184_May_2013_SGR.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[10] Congressional Budget Office, “Medicare’s Payments to Physicians: The Budgetary Impact of Alternative Policies Relative to CBO’s March 2012 Baseline,” July 31, 2012, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/43502-SGR%20Options2012.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[11] Miller, testimony before Finance Committee, U.S. Senate, Figures 1 and 2, p. 4.

[12] Medicare Physician Fairness Act of 2009, S. 1776 (111th Congress).

[13] Senate Roll Call 325 of 2009, October 21, 2009, http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=111&session=1&vote=00325 (accessed July 11, 2013).

[14] Congressional Budget Office, cost estimate for S. 1776, October 26, 2009, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/106xx/doc10674/s1776greggltr.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[15] Andrew Rettenmaier and Thomas Saving, “How the Medicare ‘Doc Fix’ Would Add to the Long-Term Medicare Debt,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2695, November 13, 2009, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2009/11/how-the-medicare-doc-fix-would-add-to-the-long-term-medicare-debt.

[16] American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2013, Public Law 112–240, Sections 636 and 638.

[17] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2013 Annual Report of the Boards of Trustees of the Federal Hospital Insurance and Federal Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Funds, May 31, 2013, p. 58, Table II.B4, http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/ReportsTrustFunds/Downloads/TR2013.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[18] Section 6102 of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1989, Public Law 101–239, established a Medicare physician fee schedule based on the RBRVS, effective in January 1992.

[19] Robert E. Moffit, “Back to the Future: Medicare’s Resurrection of the Labor Theory of Value,” Regulation (Fall 1992), pp. 54–63.

[20] Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, Report to the Congress: Medicare Payment Policy, March 2013, p. 79, http://medpac.gov/documents/Mar13_EntireReport.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[21] Ibid., p. 95.

[22] House discussion draft, pp. 3–5.

[23] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2013 Annual Report of the Boards of Trustees of the Federal Hospital Insurance and Federal Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Funds, p. 2.

[24] Patricia A. Davis et al., “Medicare Provisions in PPACA (P.L. 111–148),” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress No. R41196, April 21, 2010, http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/11-148_20100421.pdf (accessed July 12, 2013).

[25] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Public Law 111–148, Section 3002(b).

[26] Ibid., Section 3007.

[27] American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Public Law 111–5, Section 4101(b).

[28] 42 U.S.C. 1395.

[29] Richard Dolinar and Luke Leininger, “Pay for Performance or Compliance? A Second Opinion on Medicare Reimbursement,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1882, October 5, 2005, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2005/10/pay-for-performance-or-compliance-a-second-opinion-on-medicare-reimbursement.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Tom Daschle, Scott Greenberger, and Jeanne Lambrew, Critical: What We Can Do about the Health Care Crisis (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008), pp. 172–173.

[32] Michael Leavitt, “Health Reform’s Central Flaw: Too Much Power in One Office,” The Washington Post, February 18, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/17/AR2011021705824.html (accessed July 11, 2013).

[33] For further information on the HHS Secretary’s powers, see John S. Hoff, “Implementing Obamacare: A New Exercise in Old-Fashioned Central Planning,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2459, September 10, 2010, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/09/implementing-obamacare-a-new-exercise-in-old-fashioned-central-planning.

[34] Section 4507 of the Balanced Budget Act, Public Law 105–33.

[35] Robert E. Moffit, “The First Stage of Medicare Reform: Fixing the Current Program,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2611, October 17, 2011, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/10/the-first-stage-of-medicare-reform-fixing-the-current-program.

SCHIP Premium Assistance

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.

When originally created, the SCHIP statute included premium assistance provisions designed to encourage the enrollment of children in employer-sponsored coverage, with state and federal dollars being used to pay the employee premium share for the eligible dependent(s).  Implementation of premium assistance programs would reduce crowd-out (i.e. individuals dropping private coverage to join a government health program), maintain children and parents on the same (privately-held) insurance policy, and could result in cost savings to both states and the federal government.

The statute included several tests used to determine whether premium assistance would be appropriate for SCHIP programs to implement.  Chief among these tests are the following:

  • Premium assistance must be cost-effective to the state (and thus the federal government);
  • Plans using premium assistance dollars must meet certain benchmark guidelines, including limits on cost-sharing;
  • Before becoming eligible for premium assistance, state waiting periods must apply;
  • Employers must make minimum contributions to the plan for which premium assistance is being granted.

Analysis:  While the premium assistance provisions were originally designed to facilitate enrollment of eligible children in employer-sponsored coverage where available, in practice the use of premium assistance remains quite limited.  Conflicts between the premium assistance provisions for Medicaid and SCHIP have resulted in only nine states adopting a premium assistance model—leaving more children in public, rather than private, coverage, and potentially resulting in higher costs to the federal government.

An analysis of the provisions at issue reveals several areas where changes to the premium assistance program could encourage the enrollment of additional low-income children in private rather than public coverage.  Areas for potential legislative action include the following:

Cost-Effectiveness:  Under current law, the cost-effectiveness test contains a “family waiver” provision that often impedes enrollment in private coverage, and conflicts with the cost-effectiveness test established under Medicaid.[1]  While the Medicaid test merely requires that the cost of covering an individual under a premium assistance program be less than the cost of public coverage for that individual, the SCHIP test requires that the cost of covering an entire family under premium assistance be less than the cost of public coverage for the child (or children) alone.  This lack of an “apples-to-apples” comparison for the purposes of determining cost-effectiveness can prevent employer coverage from qualifying for premium assistance—and as a result, some conservatives may believe the skewed metrics of determining cost-effectiveness actually increase costs to the federal government and should be changed.

Cost Sharing:  Current law places strict limits on cost-sharing within the SCHIP program, limiting premium assistance eligibility for many employer-sponsored plans.  Specifically, SCHIP plans may not impose any cost-sharing—premiums, deductibles, co-payments, or co-insurance—above a “nominal amount” (as determined by Medicaid guidelines) on children from families with incomes below 150% FPL; children from families with incomes above 150% FPL may only incur total cost-sharing of more than 5% of a family’s income.[2]  Some conservatives may find these cost-sharing limitations particularly onerous with regard to employer-sponsored plans, most of which have co-payments and deductibles that exceed the “nominal” amounts described in the statute.

Benchmark Guidelines:  To be eligible for SCHIP premium assistance, employer-sponsored plans must be actuarially equivalent to one of three SCHIP benchmarks: 1) the Blue Cross Blue Shield Standard Option within the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP); 2) the health insurance plan offered to state employees in a given state; or 3) the Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) with the highest enrollment in the state.[3]  However, the $431 monthly premium charged for the Blue Cross FEHBP option during 2007 exceeded by more than 15% the average cost of group health insurance in the same year, according to the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation—and many state employee plans have similarly high benefit packages.[4]  Therefore, some conservatives may support efforts to create more realistic coverage benchmarks for the SCHIP program, particularly for states where low market penetration by HMOs would have the effect of limiting premium assistance participation to those few employers who could afford to match the rich health insurance coverage provided to state and federal bureaucrats.

Employer Contribution:  Although the existing statute remains silent on this provision, SCHIP regulations require states to set minimum percentage contribution levels for employer-sponsored insurance.  Some conservatives may find this provision unnecessary and redundant, as group health insurance coverage must already be considered cost-effective to the state in order for the plan to qualify for premium assistance.

Waiting Periods:  SCHIP regulations require children eligible for premium assistance to have lacked group health insurance coverage for at least six months prior to enrolling in the program, unless the child had previously been enrolled in Medicaid or the state had received approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to shorten its waiting period.[5]  While these provisions were designed to guard against crowd-out, some conservatives may question whether the waiting periods to join a subsidized private plan may instead encourage individuals to join a government-run plan, and whether states should seek to amend their SCHIP plans to reflect that possible scenario.

Enrollment and Outreach:  Particularly because premium assistance relies on private, rather than public, insurance coverage, many conservatives may support efforts to make participation easy for employers, and encourage eligible families to enroll.  Such steps would maintain private health insurance coverage while saving taxpayer dollars, and minimize the perverse cost-shifting that results from unrealistically low reimbursement levels in some SCHIP programs.

Legislative History:  Title III of SCHIP legislation (H.R. 3963), whose Presidential veto was sustained by the House by a 260-152 vote in January, included several provisions designed to streamline premium assistance programs.  Specifically, the bill modifies the cost-effectiveness language to provide equivalent comparisons between the cost of employer-sponsored and government-run SCHIP coverage, while giving premium assistance programs some flexibility by allowing states to “wrap-around” employer coverage with respect to cost-sharing and employer benefit packages not meeting one of the SCHIP benchmark levels (although it does not address the issue of whether these mandated benefit levels are too high).  However, some conservatives may find the prohibition on using premium assistance subsidies for any high-deductible or Health Savings Account (HSA) option contained in Section 301(a)(1) of the bill an attempt by Congressional Democrats to inhibit the growth of consumer-directed health options that have slowed the growth of health care costs since their introduction.

More fundamentally, Title III did not address the question of whether states should be required to make premium assistance programs available as a condition of receiving federal SCHIP funds—and it explicitly stated that eligible children must retain the option of enrolling in a public program and may not be compelled to participate in a premium assistance plan if available.  Moreover, some conservatives may also support additional provisions designed further to extend SCHIP premium assistance to individual (as opposed to group) health insurance purchased by eligible families, so long as this private insurance is cost-effective from the state and federal perspective.

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.

However, many conservatives retain concerns about actions by states or the federal government that would reduce private health insurance coverage while increasing reliance on a government-funded program.  To that end, conservatives may be inclined to support a more robust premium assistance mechanism for low-income children that keeps children (and their parents) enrolled in private coverage rather than joining a public program.  While the provisions of H.R. 3963 did make some modest changes to encourage this goal, some conservatives may support additional modifications to the premium assistance provisions to ensure that children with access to employer-sponsored insurance are not permitted to decline group coverage in order to join the SCHIP rolls.

 

[1] The Medicaid cost-effectiveness test can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1396e(e)(2), while the SCHIP cost-effectiveness test can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1397ee(c)(3).

[2] The SCHIP cost-sharing provisions are at 42 U.S.C. 1397cc(e)(3); the Medicaid guidelines can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1396o.

[3] SCHIP coverage benchmarks can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1397cc(b).

[4] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Employer Health Benefits: 2007 Annual Survey,” available online at http://kff.org/insurance/7672/upload/76723.pdf (accessed March 15, 2008), p. 2.

[5] The language can be found at 42 C.F.R. 457.810.

SCHIP Enrollment

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.  In addition, states may expand eligibility requirements by submitting state plan amendments and/or Section 1115 waiver requests to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).[1]  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.

One concern of many conservatives regarding the SCHIP program relates to crowd-out—a phenomenon whereby individuals who had previously held private health insurance drop that coverage in order to enroll in a public program.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of H.R. 3963, a five-year SCHIP reauthorization which the President vetoed (and the House failed to override), found that of the 5.8 million children who would obtain Medicaid or SCHIP coverage under the legislation, more than one-third, or 2 million, would do so by dropping private health insurance coverage.

In order to prevent policies that encourage crowd-out, and ensure that SCHIP funds are more effectively allocated to the low-income beneficiaries for whom the program was created, CMS on August 17, 2007 issued guidance to state health officials about the way it would evaluate waiver proposals by states to expand their SCHIP programs.  Among other provisions, the letter stated that CMS would require states seeking to expand coverage to children with family incomes above 250% of FPL must first enroll 95% of eligible children below 200% of FPL, consistent with the original design and intent of the SCHIP program.  Congressional Democrats have introduced both a bill (H.R. 5998) and a joint resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act (S. J. Res. 44) designed to repeal the Administration’s guidance.

Enrollment of Wealthier Children:  An analysis performed by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), using data provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), provides some indication of the extent to which states are focusing their efforts on enrolling poor children first before expanding their SCHIP programs up the income ladder.  Comparison of Fiscal Year 2006 and 2007 data reveal that in FY06, an estimated 586,117 children from families with incomes above 200% of the federal poverty level—approximately $41,000 for a family of four—were covered under SCHIP by a total of 15 states.

By contrast, in FY07, a total of 17 states and the District of Columbia covered an estimated 612,439 children in their SCHIP programs—an increase of nearly 30,000 children from wealthier families.  Much of this increase stems in part from decisions by three states—Maryland, Missouri, and Pennsylvania—along with the District of Columbia to extend SCHIP coverage to children with family incomes up to 300% of FPL during calendar year 2007, just prior to the release of the Administration’s SCHIP guidance.  In short, the data show no discernable trend by states to target their energies on enrolling lower-income children first before expanding SCHIP up the income scale—a key concern of many conservatives during the debate on children’s health legislation last year.

Enrollment of Adults in Children’s Program:  The CRS report also analyzes the coverage of adults—pregnant women, parents, and childless adults—in the SCHIP program.  The CRS data do indicate that the total number of adults decreased from FY06 to FY07, and the number of childless adults on the SCHIP rolls halved.  However, the number of states covering adults increased, and several states saw expansion of the number of adults, and childless adults, covered under the program:

  • Eight states—Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, and Virginia—saw overall adult populations in SCHIP increase;
  • Three states—Idaho, New Mexico, and Oregon—saw increased enrollment in the number of childless adults;
  • Seven states— Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Oregon—saw increased enrollment in the number of parents covered;
  • Three states—Colorado, Nevada, and Rhode Island—increased SCHIP enrollment for pregnant women.

While many conservatives may support the overall reduction in adults enrolled in a children’s health insurance program, some may still be concerned by the persistence of adult coverage—particularly given decisions by both Arkansas and Nevada to expand coverage to adults during FY07.  In addition, the fact that nearly 75% of the reduction in adult SCHIP enrollment from FY06 to FY07 came from one state’s (Arizona) decision to remove childless adults from the program rolls may lead some conservatives to question whether this welcome development was a one-year anomaly or part of a larger trend.

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.

However, many conservatives retain concerns about actions by states or the federal government that would reduce private health insurance coverage while increasing reliance on a government-funded program.  To that end, data proving that many states have expanded coverage to wealthier populations without first ensuring that low-income children are enrolled in SCHIP, and that states have in recent months expanded coverage under a children’s health insurance program to adult populations, suggest that some states continue to expand government-funded health insurance, at significant cost to state and federal taxpayers, in a manner that may encourage individuals to drop private coverage.

Particularly given these developments, conservatives may believe that the Administration’s guidance to states remains consistent with the goal of ensuring that SCHIP remains targeted toward the low-income populations for which it was designed.  Therefore, many conservatives will support the reasonable attempts by CMS to bolster the integrity of the SCHIP program while retaining state plans’ flexibility, and question efforts by Congressional Democrats to encourage further expansion of government-funded health insurance financed by federal taxpayers.

 

[1] In general, state plan amendments can expand eligibility to higher income brackets, or otherwise modify state plans, while Section 1115 waivers by definition require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to waive statutory requirements under demonstration authority.  For more information, see CRS Report RL 30473, available online at http://www.congress.gov/erp/rl/pdf/RL30473.pdf (accessed September 8, 2008).

Legislative Bulletin: H.R. 6331, Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act

Order of Business:  The Democratic House Leadership has indicated that the House will likely vote to override the President’s veto of H.R. 6331 today, July 15, 2008.  The vote on H.R. 6331 is to either sustain or override the President’s veto.  For additional information on the process in the House regarding vetoed bills, please see the “Process for a Vetoed Bill” section below.

Process for a Vetoed Bill:

  • The House and Senate pass an identical bill.
  • The President vetoes the bill and sends a veto message to the House.
  • The Speaker “lays a veto message before the House on the day it is received…When the message is laid before the House, the question on passage is considered as pending.”
  • Consideration of a vetoed bill (a privileged matter) generally takes precedence over other floor matters (it can interrupt other floor business), except in certain specific instances: a motion to adjourn, a question of privilege under the Constitution (such as a blue-slip resolution), and unfinished business with the previous question order (such as a bill with the previous question ordered to passage on the day before, but the House adjourned before voting on passage of the bill).
  • If the House does not wish to proceed immediately to reconsider the bill, three motions are in order:

1)     motions to lay on the table (if passed, a motion to take it from the table is in order at any time);

2)     motions to postpone consideration to a day certain (it becomes unfinished business on that day); or

3)     motion to refer to committee (a motion to discharge is highly privileged and in order at any time).

  • If none of the above three motions are offered, the House proceeds to debate the override question under the hour rule and then votes on the question of overriding the veto.
  • If the veto is sustained, the bill is referred to committee. Since the bill has been rejected (when the veto was sustained), a motion to take the bill from committee is not privileged.

The Vote on H.R. 6331—Sustaining the Presidential Veto:  When a vote is requested on a vetoed bill, the question is:  “Will the House, on reconsideration, pass the bill, the objections of the President to the contrary notwithstanding.”  Thus, it is as if the bill is up for normal consideration again, only the threshold for passage is now 2/3 of those votingIf a member opposes the bill and voted NO when it was originally considered and passed, then he would vote NO again (still opposing the bill, thereby voting to sustain the President’s veto).

Summary:  H.R. 6331 eliminates for six months a reduction in Medicare physician payments scheduled to take effect on June 30, 2008, freezing payment levels for the balance of 2008 and providing a 1.1% increase in fee schedule levels for 2009.  H.R. 6331 also reduces payments to and modifies the structure of privately-run Medicare Advantage fee-for-service (FFS) plans that have shown significant growth in recent years.

Medicare:  H.R. 6331 contains many provisions that would alter Titles XVIII (Medicare) and XIX (Medicaid) of the Social Security Act as follows:

Coverage of Preventive Services.  The bill would create a process for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to extend Medicare coverage to additional preventive services under Parts A and B, and would waive the deductible with respect to the initial physical exam provided upon a beneficiary’s enrollment in the Medicare program.  CBO scores this provision as costing $5.9 billion over eleven years.

Mental Health Parity.  The bill would reduce over five years the co-payment for outpatient psychiatric services to 20%, consistent with the co-payment rate for physician visits under Medicare Part B.  CBO scores this provision as costing $3 billion over eleven years.

Marketing Restrictions on Private Plans.  The bill would impose restrictions with respect to the marketing tactics used by private Medicare Advantage and prescription drug plans.  The bill would eliminate unsolicited direct contact to beneficiaries, restrict the provision of gifts to nominal values, require annual training of agents and brokers licensed under state law, and impose related marketing restrictions.  No net cost.

Low-Income Programs.  H.R. 6331 would extend the Qualifying Individual program under Medicare and Medicaid for eighteen months, through December 2009, at a cost of $500 million.  The bill would also expand eligibility for enrollment in the low-income subsidy program by altering the asset test for the Medicare Savings Program, and engaging in further outreach to beneficiaries eligible for participation but not currently enrolled.  Other provisions in this section would codify current guidance eliminating the Part D late enrollment penalty for individuals eligible for low-income subsidies, and require the translation of the enrollment form into at least 10 languages other than English.  Total cost of these provisions is $7.7 billion over eleven years.

Hospital Provisions.  The bill includes several hospital-related provisions, including the extension of rural hospital flexibility program, new grants for the provision of mental health services to Iraq war veterans in rural areas, new grants to certain critical access hospitals, a re-adjustment of target payment amounts for sole community hospitals, a new demonstration program for integrating care in certain rural communities, and the reclassification of certain hospitals.  Total cost of these provisions according to CBO is $600 million over eleven years.

Physician Services.  The bill makes several adjustments to physician payment rates, including the following:

Conversion Factor:  The bill would extend the 0.5% update to the conversion factor for physician reimbursements, currently due to expire on June 30, 2008, through the end of calendar year 2008, effectively freezing payment levels for the balance of the year.  For 2009, the conversion factor will be 1.1%.  The bill also provides that the adjustments made for 2008 and 2009 will be disregarded for the purposes of computing the sustainable growth rate (SGR) conversion factor in 2010 and future years, which would necessitate a 21% reduction in reimbursement levels in 2010.

Quality Reporting:  H.R. 6331 would revise and extend existing quality reporting language to provide a 1.5% bonus payment in 2008, and 2.0% bonus payments in 2009 and 2010, to those physicians reporting selected quality data measurements.  Cost of both the quality reporting and conversion factor provisions is $6.4 billion over six years, and $4.5 billion over eleven.

Electronic Prescribing:  The bill provides bonus payments for physicians who participate in electronic prescribing and report relevant quality measures—2.0% in 2009 and 2010, 1.0% in 2011 and 2012, and 0.5% in 2013.  Physicians not participating in the electronic prescribing program will receive reimbursement reductions of 1% in 2012, 1.5% in 2013, and 2% in 2014 and thereafter.  Saves $1.4 billion over eleven years.

Other provisions:  With respect to physician services, the bill also revises a medical home demonstration project, extends the floor for Medicare work geographic adjustments under the physician fee schedule through December 2009, imposes accreditation requirements on the payment of diagnostic imaging services, and increases payment levels for teaching anesthesiologists.  H.R. 6331 also includes a requirement for the Secretary to report to Congress on the creation of a new system of value-based purchasing for physician services.  Total cost of $1.9 billion over eleven years.

Other Part B Adjustments.  The bill would make several other adjustments to the Part B program, among which are an extension through December 2009 of the exceptions process for Medicare therapy caps (costs $1.2 billion over eleven years), the inclusion of speech-language pathology services as a service for which providers can bill Medicare directly ($100 million cost), the establishment of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation programs ($500 million cost), a repeal of the transfer of ownership with respect to oxygen equipment, repeal of a competitive bidding demonstration project for clinical laboratory services coupled with other adjustments for lab services ($2 billion savings), increased payments for ambulance services ($100 million cost), payment clarification for clinical laboratory tests made at critical access hospitals ($300 million cost), and increased payment limits for federally qualified health centers treating Medicare patients ($100 million cost).

Kidney Disease and Dialysis Provisions.  H.R. 6331 makes several adjustments to the end-stage renal disease program, including new coverage for kidney disease education services, a 1% increase in dialysis reimbursement rates for 2009 and 2010, and a requirement that the Secretary develop a bundled rate payment system for renal dialysis by January 2011, to be phased in over four years, that includes payment for drugs and tests related to dialysis treatment for which Medicare currently reimburses providers separately.  Costs $1.5 billion over eleven years.

Delay of Durable Medical Equipment Competitive Bidding.  The legislation would terminate all Round 1 contracts for Medicare durable medical equipment made pursuant to the initial round of competitive bidding completed this spring, and would direct CMS to re-bid Round 1 at some point during 2009.  Future rounds of competitive bidding would also be delayed, with Round 2 taking place during 2011, and competitive bidding in rural areas and smaller metropolitan areas being delayed until 2015.  The approximately $3 billion cost of the delay would be paid for by an across-the-board reduction of 9.5% for all supplies scheduled to be subjected to competitive bidding.  In addition, the bill would require the CMS contractor to notify suppliers missing financial documentation related to their bids, extend disclosure and accreditation requirements to sub-contractors, and establish an ombudsman within CMS to respond to complaints from suppliers and individuals about the competitive bidding process.

Medicare Advantage Provisions.  H.R. 6331 would cut Medicare Advantage payments, primarily through two adjustments.  The first would phase out duplicate payments related to indirect medical education (IME) costs at teaching hospitals.  Currently, IME costs are incorporated into the benchmark which Medicare Advantage plans bid against, even though Medicare also makes IME payments to teaching hospitals in association with hospital stays for Medicare Advantage beneficiaries.  The Administration incorporated this proposal into its Fiscal Year 2009 budget submission to Congress.

The bill also would repeal “deeming” authority language for private fee-for-service plans within Medicare Advantage, which currently can reimburse providers at the traditional Medicare rate and “deem” these providers part of their network.  Instead, H.R. 6331 would require private fee-for-service plans to adopt physician networks in areas where at least two other types of coordinated care plans (e.g. Health Maintenance Organizations Preferred Provider Organizations, etc.) operate.

Preliminary data from CMS indicate that the provisions in H.R. 6331 would result in private fee-for-service plans losing their “deeming” authority in 96% of counties in which they currently operate, potentially resulting in loss of beneficiary access to a type of Medicare Advantage plan which has experienced significant growth in recent years.  The Congressional Budget Office confirms that the provision would reduce both Medicare outlays and enrollment in the Medicare Advantage program.  In a Statement of Administration Policy on the Senate bill (S. 3101) incorporating these provisions, the Office of Management and Budget opposed the changes as a “fundamental restructuring” of this segment of the Medicare Advantage program that would result in beneficiaries losing access to the enhanced benefits which Medicare Advantage plans provide.  The IME provision and the deeming language collectively cut Medicare Advantage by $12.5 billion over six years, and $47.5 billion over eleven years.

H.R. 6331 includes several other provisions relating to Medicare Advantage plans, including an extension of and revisions to plans for special needs individuals (costs $500 million over eleven years), garnishment of the remaining funds left in the Medicare Advantage stabilization fund (saves $1.8 billion over eleven years), and two studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) regarding Medicare Advantage quality data and payment formulae.

Pharmacy Provisions.  The bill makes changes to the Part D prescription drug program, most notably requiring “prompt payment” by drug plans to pharmacies for prescriptions within 14 days for electronic claims and 30 days for all other claims, at a cost of $700 million over eleven years.

Release of Part D Data.  The bill would permit the Secretary to utilize Part D claims data from private plans in order to improve the public health as the Secretary determines appropriate, and would further allow Congressional support agencies to obtain the data for oversight and monitoring purposes.  No net cost.

Medicare Improvement Fund.  H.R. 6331 would establish a Medicare Improvement Fund to allow the Secretary to make enhancements to Medicare Parts A and B, and appropriates funding from FY2014 through FY2017 to fund such efforts.  Costs $24.2 billion over eleven years.

Federal Payment Levy.  The bill would expand the federal payment levy—which provides for the recoupment of taxes owed the federal government by private contractors—to Medicare provider and supplier payments.  Saves $400 million over eleven years.

TMA and Title V Extension.  H.R. 6331 would extend for twelve months (until June 30, 2009), 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).  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.  Costs $1 billion over eleven years.

Other Extensions.  The bill also adjusts the federal Medicaid matching rate for foster care and related services provided by the District of Columbia, and extends certain other provisions, including Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments, TANF supplemental grants, and special diabetes grant programs.  Total cost of $1 billion over eleven years.

Additional Background on Senate Legislation:  H.R. 6331 closely resembles legislation (S. 3101) originally introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).  At least one circulating draft of H.R. 6331 includes “Sense of the Senate” language, despite the fact that the bill is ostensibly an original House measure.  On June 12, 2008, the Senate by a 54-39 vote failed to invoke cloture on a motion to proceed to consideration of S. 3101.

Despite sharing similar language, H.R. 6331 and S. 3101 differ in a few respects.  The House bill excludes cuts to reimbursement of oxygen supplies and power-driven wheelchairs included in the Senate version, instead incorporating the federal payment tax levy and other provisions to compensate for the lost budgetary savings.  In addition, H.R. 6331 includes legislation (H.R. 6252) introduced by Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) and Ranking Member Dave Camp (R-MI) to postpone competitive bidding of durable medical equipment.  Chairman Baucus had attempted to add these provisions to his Senate legislation, but was unable to persuade enough Senate Republicans to support cloture in order to allow him to do so, largely because Republicans objected to the Medicare Advantage cuts envisioned by his legislation.

Additional Background on Medicare Advantage:  The Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 made several changes to the bidding and payment structure for private Medicare Advantage plans to deliver health care to beneficiaries.  As currently constructed, plans receive capitated monthly payments that are subject to risk adjustment—so that plans caring for older, sicker beneficiaries receive higher payments than those with healthier populations.  In order to determine the capitated payment amount, plans submit annual bids to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  The bids are compared against a benchmark established by a detailed formula—but the comparison against the benchmark does not directly allow plans to compete against each other, or against traditional Medicare, when CMS evaluates plan bids.

In the event a plan’s bid is below the annual benchmark, 75% of the savings is returned to the beneficiary in the form of lower cost-sharing (i.e. premiums, co-payments, etc.) or better benefits, with the remaining 25% returned to the federal government.  If a plan’s bid is above the benchmark, beneficiaries pay the full amount of any marginal costs above the benchmark threshold.

Most Medicare Advantage plans use rebates provided when bidding below the benchmark to cover additional services over and above those provided by traditional Medicare, and in so doing reduce beneficiaries’ exposure to out-of-pocket costs.  A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in February 2008 documented that in most cases, beneficiaries receive better benefits under Medicare Advantage than they would under traditional Medicare.  The GAO study found that beneficiary cost-sharing would be 42% of the amounts anticipated under traditional Medicare, with beneficiaries saving an average of $67 per month, or $804 annually.[1]  These savings to MA beneficiaries occurred because plans dedicated 89% of their rebates from low bids to reduced cost-sharing or lower premiums.  The remaining 11% of rebates were used to finance additional benefits, such as vision, dental, and hearing coverage, along with various health education, wellness, and preventive benefits.[2]  Due in part to the increased benefits which Medicare Advantage plans have provided, enrollment in MA plans is estimated to rise to 22.3% of all Medicare beneficiaries in 2008, up from 12.1% in 2004.[3]

Some independent studies have suggested that Medicare Advantage plans incur higher costs than the average annual cost of providing coverage through traditional Medicare, though estimates vary as to the disparity between the two forms of coverage.  However, to the extent that MA plans in fact receive payments in excess of the costs of traditional Medicare, this discrepancy remains inextricably linked to two features of the Medicare Advantage program—the increased benefits for beneficiaries, and the complexity of the MA plan bidding mechanism.  Because of the problems inherent in the statutory benchmark design, plans have little incentive to submit bids less than the cost of traditional Medicare, as plans that bid above the costs of traditional Medicare but below the benchmark receive the difference between traditional Medicare costs and the plan bid as an extra payment to the plan.[4]

Some conservatives would also argue that a discussion focused solely on Medicare Advantage “overpayments” ignores the significant benefits that MA plans provide to key underserved beneficiary populations.  Medicare Advantage plans have expanded access to coverage in rural areas.  Moreover, the disproportionate share of low-income and minority populations who have chosen the MA option suggests that the comprehensive benefits provided are well-suited to beneficiaries among vulnerable populations.  Data from the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey demonstrate that almost half (49%) of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries have incomes less than $20,000, and that 70% of Hispanic and African-American Medicare Advantage enrollees had incomes below the $20,000 level.[5]

Additional Background on Medicare Physician Reimbursements:  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.

Because the Tax Relief and Health Care Act (P.L. 109-432), signed into law in December 2006, provided that 2007’s Congressional “fix” was to be disregarded for the purpose of calculating the SGR in 2008 and future years, the 10.1% negative annual update for 2008 will be restored once the December 2007 legislation expires on July 1, 2008, absent further Congressional action.  In addition, H.R. 6331 includes a similar provision noting that the “fix” proposed would be disregarded for the purpose of calculating the SGR in 2010 and future years, resulting in a projected 21% reduction in fee schedule levels in January 2010.

Additional Background on Durable Medical Equipment:  In addition to providing coverage for outpatient physician services, Medicare Part B also helps pay for durable medical equipment, prosthetics, orthotics, and supplies (DMEPOS) needed by beneficiaries.  Currently, Medicare reimburses beneficiaries for supplies using a series of fee schedules, which are generally based on historical prices subject to annual updates or other adjustments.  Medicare finances 80% of the actual costs or the fee schedule amount, whichever less, with the beneficiary paying the difference.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) estimates that about 10 million individuals—or about one-quarter of all beneficiaries—receive medical supplies under Part B in a given year, at a cost to Medicare of approximately $10 billion annually.[6]

In recent years, some conservatives have raised concerns that the prices on the Medicare fee schedule for DMEPOS were in excess of market prices.  In 2002, testimony by the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General revealed that the prices paid by Medicare for 16 selected items of durable medical equipment were higher than prices paid by Medicaid, the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) plans, and consumers purchasing directly from retailers.  The Inspector General projected that using the lower prices by other payers for these 16 common items alone would have saved Medicare more than $100 million annually.[7]

In response to the above findings, Congress in the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) of 2003 (P.L. 108-173) enacted cuts in the fee schedule levels for the 16 specific items studied by the Inspector General’s testimony, while creating a new competitive bidding process for DMEPOS suppliers in Section 302 of the law.  This nationwide program followed on the heels of three demonstration projects, authorized under the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, established during the period 1999-2002 in Florida and Texas.  The pilot programs demonstrated the ability of competitive bidding to reduce the costs of DMEPOS by an average 19.1%—saving the federal government $7.5 million, and $1.9 million in reduced beneficiary co-payments—while maintaining beneficiary access to required items.[8]

In addition to a program of competitive bidding for DMEPOS, the MMA also established a new accreditation process for suppliers designed to review suppliers’ financial records and other related documentation to establish their status as bona fide health equipment suppliers.  A November 2007 CMS estimate indicated that 10.3% of payments to medical equipment suppliers were improper—a rate of questionable payments more than double those of other Medicare providers.[9]  Coupled with the new competitive bidding program, the accreditation mechanism was intended to eliminate “fly-by-night” DMEPOS suppliers from operating within the Medicare program, and thus was included in the anti-fraud title of MMA.

In recent months, the competitive bidding program has come under criticism due both to procedural concerns as to how the bidding process was conducted—several of which CMS is working to address—and broader concerns as to whether the program will adversely affect beneficiary access to supplies and/or DMEPOS suppliers, particularly small businesses, whose bids were priced unsuccessfully.  Some conservatives may question the need to delay the competitive bidding process, particularly on the latter grounds.  CMS provided specific opportunities for small businesses to participate in the DMEPOS competitive bidding process, resulting in approximately half of firms who accepted winning bids having revenues of less than $3.5 million.  These small business opportunities occurred in the context of a market-oriented bidding mechanism that, when fully implemented, will save taxpayers approximately $1 billion annually—and will provide additional savings to Medicare beneficiaries in the form of reduced co-payments.  In addition, the accreditation mechanism established by Section 302 of MMA provides a quality check previously lacking for DMEPOS purchases and suppliers.

Cost to Taxpayers:  A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score for H.R. 6331 was unavailable at press time.  However, a CBO estimate on a similar bill (S. 3101) introduced and considered in the Senate noted that that legislation would increase spending on physician and related services by $19.8 billion over six years and $62.8 billion over the 2008-2018 period.  These spending increases would be offset by spending cuts in other health spending, primarily Medicare Advantage plans.  Overall, S. 3101 was projected to reduce direct spending by $5 million over the six- and eleven-year budget windows.

Committee Action:  The bill was introduced on June 20, 2008, and referred to the Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means Committees, neither of which took official action on the legislation.  The House passed the bill under suspension of the rules on June 24, 2008 by a 355-59 vote, and the Senate passed the bill by voice vote after invoking cloture by a vote of 69-30 on July 9, 2008.

Possible Conservative Concerns:  Numerous aspects of H.R. 6331 may raise concerns for conservatives, including, but not necessarily limited to, the following:

  • Government Price Fixing.  By making alterations in physician and other Medicare fee schedules, H.R. 6331 would reinforce a system whereby Congress, by adjusting various reimbursement levels, permits the government, rather than the private marketplace, to set prices for medical goods and services.  Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus admitted some disquiet about this dynamic—and Congress’ lack of expertise to micro-manage the health care system—at a health care summit on June 16: “How in the world am I supposed to know what the proper reimbursement should be for a particular procedure?”[10]  Yet H.R. 6331, based on legislation Chairman Baucus himself introduced, would retain the current system of price-fixing—while repealing a competitive bidding demonstration project for clinical laboratory services and delaying a competitive bidding program designed to inject market forces into the purchase of durable medical equipment and supplies.
  • Budgetary Gimmick.  Because language in H.R. 6331 stipulates that the conversion factor adjustments in the bill shall not be considered when determining future years’ SGR rates, physician reimbursement rates will be reduced 21% in 2010—an action which, given past trends, many observers would consider highly unlikely.  Therefore, some conservatives may be concerned that this language is designed to mask the true cost of the physician reimbursement adjustments included in the bill, creating a budgetary gimmick that future Congresses will feel pressured to remedy.
  • Undermines Medicare Advantage.  H.R. 6331 includes several provisions designed to “reform” private fee-for-service plans operating within Medicare Advantage that would reduce their payments by $47.5 billion over eleven years, effectively ending their “deeming” authority, and requiring virtually all private fee-for-service plans to contract with health care providers.  Some conservatives may be concerned that these changes would undermine the effectiveness of the Medicare Advantage program, which has grown in popularity among seniors due to the benefit enhancements that private coverage can provide.
  • Creates New Medicare Fund.  The bill would establish a new Medicare Improvement Fund, which would receive $19.9 billion for the “enhancement” of traditional Medicare Parts A and B during Fiscal Years 2014-2017.  Some conservatives may consider this account a new “slush fund” that will be used to finance further expansions of government-run health programs, rather than to bolster Medicare’s precarious financial future.
  • Release of Part D Data.  H.R. 6331 would authorize the Secretary to utilize Part D claims data from private health plans for any use deemed by the Secretary as relating to the public health, and would further authorize Congressional support agencies to utilize the same data for oversight purposes.  Some conservatives may be concerned that these wide-ranging provisions could lead to the public release of private and proprietary information related to the claims and bidding practices of private health plans providing prescription drug coverage under Part D, and could be used to initiate “fishing expedition” investigations at the behest of Democrats philosophically opposed to having private entities provide coverage to Medicare beneficiaries.
  • Delays Competitive Bidding.  H.R. 6331 would delay the first round of competitive bidding for durable medical equipment, and would nullify contracts signed by CMS for the first round of bidding this spring.  Re-opening the bidding process could prejudice entities who won their bids earlier this year, while potentially reducing savings to the federal government by allowing suppliers to bid more strategically in a re-bid scenario.  Some conservatives may be concerned that the delay contemplated by H.R. 6331 would allow a new Administration to take steps undermining the competitive bidding program through the regulatory process, and/or allow a new Administration and a future Congress to make the “temporary” delay permanent and abolish competitive bidding outright.

Administration Position:  Although a formal Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) was unavailable at press time, reports indicate that the Administration opposes the legislation and will likely issue a veto threat on the bill.

Does the Bill Expand the Size and Scope of the Federal Government?:  Yes, the bill would expand eligibility for participation in the Medicare Savings Program.

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.

 

[1] Government Accountability Office, “Medicare Advantage: Increased Spending Relative to Medicare Fee-for-Service May Not Always Reduce Beneficiary Out-of-Pocket Costs,” (Washington, Report GAO-08-359, February 2008), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08359.pdf (accessed May 19, 2008), p. 23.

[2] Ibid., pp. 17-20.

[3] Department of Health and Human Services, “HHS Budget in Brief: Fiscal Year 2009,” available online at http://www.hhs.gov/budget/09budget/2009BudgetInBrief.pdf (accessed May 19, 2008), p. 58.

[4] The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) has alleged that the formula-driven benchmarks themselves exceed the cost of traditional Medicare.  See Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, Report to the Congress: Medicare Payment Policy (Washington, DC, March 2008), available online at http://www.medpac.gov/documents/Mar08_EntireReport.pdf (accessed May 9, 2008), Table 3-3, p. 247.

[5] America’s Health Insurance Plans, “Low Income and Minority Beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage Plans,” (Washington, DC, AHIP Center for Policy and Research, February 2007), available online at http://www.ahipresearch.org/PDFs/FullReportAHIPMALowIncomeandMinorityFeb2007.pdf (accessed May 19, 2008), p. 3.

[6] Cited in Government Accountability Office, “Medicare: Competitive Bidding for Medical Equipment and Supplies Could Reduce Program Payments, but Adequate Oversight Is Critical,” (Washington, Report GAO-08-767T), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08767t.pdf (accessed June 9, 2008), p. 3.

[7] Testimony of Janet Rehnquist, Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, before Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, and Education, June 12, 2002 hearing, available online at http://www.oig.hhs.gov/testimony/docs/2002/020611fin.pdf (accessed June 16, 2008).

[8] Testimony of Thomas Hoerger, Senior Fellow, Research Triangle Institute International, before House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, May 6, 2008 hearing on Durable Medical Equipment Competitive Bidding, available online at http://waysandmeans.house.gov/hearings.asp?formmode=printfriendly&id=6906 (accessed June 9, 2008).

[9] Cited in Government Accountability Office, “Medicare Competitive Bidding,” pp. 10-11.

[10] Quoted in Anna Edney, “Bernanke: Health Care Reform Will Require Higher Spending,” CongressDailyPM June 16, 2008, available online at http://www.nationaljournal.com/congressdaily/cdp_20080616_8602.php (accessed June 16, 2008).

Medicare Physician Payment Policy

History and Background:  In 1989, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (P.L. 101-239) established a new physician fee schedule for Medicare, replacing the reasonable charge payment formula that had existed since the program’s inception.  The fee schedule was designed to alleviate perceived disparities in physician reimbursement levels by more closely tying payment to the amount of resources used for a given service or procedure.  The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (P.L 105-33) modified the fee schedule formula, creating the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) mechanism as a means to incorporate cumulative physician spending into reimbursement levels.  In addition to slowing the growth of Medicare spending by setting an overall target for physician expenditure levels, the SGR was also intended to eliminate the fluctuations associated with setting annual (as opposed to cumulative) spending targets.

Payment Formula:  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 the fee schedule and an annual conversion factor (a formula dollar amount).  The fee schedule assigns “relative values” to each type of provided service, reflecting 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 ($38.0870 through June 2008) 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 $79.98 ($38.0870 x 2.1) for that service.

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 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, and legislation enacted in December 2007 (P.L. 110-173) provided a 0.5% update for January through June of 2008.  The specific data for each year are 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 (Jan.-June)

* 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.

Because the Tax Relief and Health Care Act (P.L. 109-432), signed into law in December 2006, provided that 2007’s Congressional “fix” was to be disregarded for the purpose of calculating the SGR in 2008 and future years, the 10.1% negative annual update for 2008 will be restored once the December 2007 legislation expires on July 1, 2008, absent further Congressional action.

Participation and Assignment:  When treating Medicare beneficiaries, physicians may choose to accept assignment on a claim, agreeing to accept Medicare’s payment of 80% of the approved fee schedule amount—with the beneficiary paying the remaining 20% as coinsurance—as payment in full for the claim of service.  Physicians who agree to accept assignment on all Medicare claims in a given year are classified as participating physicians.  Physicians classified as non-participating—those who may accept assignment for some, but not all, claims in a given year—only receive 95% of the fee schedule amount for participating physicians on those claims for which they accept assignment.  The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) reports that 93.3% of physicians and other providers who bill Medicare agreed to participate in Medicare during 2007, with 99.4% of allowed charges being accepted on assignment from physicians (both participating and non-participating).[1]

In cases where a physician considers the Medicare payment level under the fee schedule and SGR formula an insufficient reimbursement for the time and resources necessary to perform the relevant service, the physician’s opportunities to charge beneficiaries the full value of the service performed are extremely limited.  Non-participating physicians may “balance bill” beneficiaries for charges above the Medicare fee schedule amount on claims where the physician does not accept assignment from Medicare.  However, physicians may not bill beneficiaries in excess of 115% of the non-participating fee schedule amount—which, because Medicare fees are lower for non-participating physicians, has the effect of limiting “balance billing” to 9.25% above the fee schedule amount for participating physicians.  Moreover, providers who wish to “balance bill” their beneficiaries in some cases will therefore be classified as non-participating, resulting in a 5% reduction in fee schedule amounts for all claims—including those for which the provider is willing to accept assignment—in a given year.

Conclusion:  The Medicare funding warning issued by the plan’s trustees last year, and again this past March, provides an opportunity to re-assess the program’s structure and finance.  These two consecutive warnings—coupled with the trustees’ estimate that the Medicare trust fund will be exhausted in just over a decade’s time—should prompt Congress to consider ways to reduce the growth of overall Medicare costs, particularly those which utilize competition and consumer empowerment to create a more efficient and cost-effective Medicare program.

Viewed through this prism, the current Medicare physician reimbursement fee schedule may be perceived by some conservatives as symptomatic of the program’s larger problems.  While the SGR mechanism has provided several opportunities in recent years to review physician payment levels, the changes made by Congress as a result of such reviews have generally only made minor, temporary adjustments to the current system of government-dictated fee schedules.  These legislative vehicles have not revamped or repealed the fee schedule formula to take market forces into account, instead delving into the minutiae of provider reimbursement levels to arrive at a short-term fix that meets budgetary muster.  However, as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Baucus recently conceded at a health care summit: “How in the world am I supposed to know what the proper reimbursement should be for a particular procedure?”[2]  Therefore, even though supporting actions that yield budgetary offsets slowing the growth of Medicare spending, some conservatives may still view legislative outcomes that do not comprehensively address the lack of market forces in a government-dictated fee schedule as lacking.

Some conservatives may support legislative provisions designed to repeal prohibitions on “balance billing” by providers, either for all Medicare beneficiaries or only for those beneficiaries already subject to means-testing for their Part B premiums.  Such a measure, which has been introduced by several RSC Members in various forms in recent Congresses, would inject some free-market principles into Medicare, by allowing providers to charge reasonable levels for their services rather than adhering to government-imposed price controls.  Additionally, this policy change could have the potential to slow the growth of health costs at the margins, by providing slightly greater beneficiary exposure to the true cost of care, which in some cases may be subsidized by the monopsony power Medicare exercises over providers.

On a more fundamental level, some conservatives may also support a premium support model that 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 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.  Just as important, by potentially shifting the focus of Medicare from a government-run program to a series of private payers, it would reduce or eliminate the need for the seemingly annual ritual of adjustments to Medicare fee schedule amounts, and may ensure that providers receive more reasonable and consistent reimbursement levels.  By confining the growth of Medicare spending and limiting the opportunities for Congress to tinker with physician and other reimbursement policies, some conservatives may view a premium support model as a return to the principle of more limited government.

 

[1] Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, “Report to the Congress: Medicare Payment Policy,” (Washington, DC, March 2008), available online at http://www.medpac.gov/documents/Mar08_EntireReport.pdf (accessed June 16, 2008), pp. 110-11.

[2] Quoted in Anna Edney, “Bernanke: Health Care Reform Will Require Higher Spending,” CongressDailyPM June 16, 2008, available online at http://www.nationaljournal.com/congressdaily/cdp_20080616_8602.php (accessed June 16, 2008).

Durable Medical Equipment

Background:  In addition to providing coverage for outpatient physician services, Medicare Part B also helps pay for durable medical equipment, prosthetics, orthotics, and supplies (DMEPOS) needed by beneficiaries.  Currently, Medicare reimburses beneficiaries for supplies using a series of fee schedules, which are generally based on historical prices subject to annual updates or other adjustments.  Medicare finances 80% of the actual costs or the fee schedule amount, whichever less, with the beneficiary paying the difference.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) estimates that about 10 million individuals—or about one-quarter of all beneficiaries—receive medical supplies under Part B in a given year, at a cost to Medicare of approximately $10 billion annually.[1]

In recent years, some conservatives have raised concerns that the prices on the Medicare fee schedule for DMEPOS were in excess of market prices.  In 2002, testimony by the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General revealed that the prices paid by Medicare for 16 selected items of durable medical equipment were higher than prices paid by Medicaid, the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) plans, and consumers purchasing directly from retailers.  The Inspector General projected that using the lower prices by other payers for these 16 common items alone would have saved Medicare more than $100 million annually.[2]

In response to the above findings, Congress in the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) of 2003 (P.L. 108-173) enacted cuts in the fee schedule levels for the 16 specific items studied by the Inspector General’s testimony, while creating a new competitive bidding process for DMEPOS suppliers in Section 302 of the law.  This nationwide program followed on the heels of three demonstration projects, authorized under the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, established during the period 1999-2002 in Florida and Texas.  The pilot programs demonstrated the ability of competitive bidding to reduce the costs of DMEPOS by an average 19.1%—saving the federal government $7.5 million, and $1.9 million in reduced beneficiary co-payments—while maintaining beneficiary access to required items.[3]

In addition to a program of competitive bidding for DMEPOS, the MMA also established a new accreditation process for suppliers designed to review suppliers’ financial records and other related documentation to establish their status as bona fide health equipment suppliers.  A November 2007 CMS estimate indicated that 10.3% of payments to medical equipment suppliers were improper—a rate of questionable payments more than double those of other Medicare providers.[4]  Coupled with the new competitive bidding program, the accreditation mechanism was intended to eliminate “fly-by-night” DMEPOS suppliers from operating within the Medicare program, and thus was included in the anti-fraud title of MMA.

Implementation:  CMS previously announced that, pursuant to the Section 302 requirements, Round 1 of the DMEPOS competitive bidding process would begin on July 1, 2008 in ten Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs): Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Kansas City, Miami, Orlando, Pittsburgh, Riverside, and San Juan.  A further 70 MSAs will be included in the program in 2009, with more expected to be included in subsequent years.

The three-year bids for the first round of MSA sites were submitted in September 2007; CMS notified winning bidders, and accepted contracts from winning bidders, earlier this spring.  Based on the Round 1 bids, CMS has indicated that the Medicare program and beneficiaries will save an average of 26% in the 10 categories of DMEPOS open to competitive bidding—ranging from a 14% savings on negative pressure wound therapy pumps and supplies to 43% savings on mail-order diabetic supplies.  When fully implemented, CMS estimates that competitive bidding will save the Medicare program approximately $1 billion per year.

Concerns Raised:  The introduction of DMEPOS competitive bidding has not been without controversy, and concerns raised by suppliers and other interested parties have generally fallen into two categories.  Some suppliers have raised specific concerns about the way in which CMS’ contractor conducted the Round 1 bidding process.  Many of these concerns have focused on a lack of communication from the contractor to the suppliers, resulting in some suppliers’ bids being rejected for lack of proper financial documentation without the suppliers having an opportunity to provide further information or clarification.  CMS has indicated that approximately 16% of all bids submitted were rejected solely due to a failure to meet proper qualification criteria; by contrast, 61% of all bids submitted were priced outside the winning range.

In response to the concerns raised regarding qualification criteria, CMS has utilized a twin-stage process of review for Round 1 suppliers who raised protests about the way the contractor conducted the bid process.  Both the contractor and CMS have taken steps to re-examine the documentation submitted during the review process, and in some cases, CMS has allowed those suppliers with winning bids who failed to meet accreditation or related requirements due to a lack of communication from the contractor to participate in the Round 1 location areas.  In addition, CMS has extended the accreditation deadline for suppliers participating in Round 2 bidding, and will also seek input from the Program Oversight and Advisory Committee established under the MMA for ways to refine and improve the DMEPOS competitive bidding process for subsequent bidding rounds.

The second group of concerns are broader in scope, and go to the heart of the competitive bidding program itself.  Concerns in this line include the potential impact on suppliers, particularly small businesses, who were not successful on pricing grounds.  Some policy-makers have also questioned the lack of scrutiny given to subcontractors not subject to the same accreditation requirements as DMEPOS contractors.  Lastly, other groups have questioned whether competitive bidding will lead to the sale of lower quality supplies and equipment to beneficiaries, as well as whether beneficiaries will be able to obtain access to DMEPOS equipment in instances where the winning bidders in an MSA had not previously serviced the area in question.

Some conservatives may question the need to delay the competitive bidding process on these grounds.  CMS provided specific opportunities for small businesses to participate in the DMEPOS competitive bidding process, resulting in approximately half of firms who accepted winning bids having revenues of less than $3.5 million.  These small business opportunities occurred in the context of a market-oriented bidding mechanism that, when fully implemented, will save taxpayers approximately $1 billion annually—and will provide additional savings to Medicare beneficiaries in the form of reduced co-payments.  In addition, the accreditation mechanism established by Section 302 of MMA provides a quality check previously lacking for DMEPOS purchases and suppliers.

While transitioning to a new system can create logistical difficulties, the staged implementation process will ensure that beneficiaries in a limited number of areas—only one-quarter of whom receive DMEPOS supplies in a given year—will experience the transition to a competitively bid environment this year.  This phased-in approach stands in contrast to the January 1, 2006 implementation of the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, where tens of millions of beneficiaries received new coverage at a single point in time—with logistical obstacles, though significant, relatively minor on a percentage basis.

Legislative Status:  On June 12, 2008, House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) and Ranking Member Dave Camp (R-MI) introduced H.R. 6252, the Medicare DMEPOS Competitive Acquisition Reform Act.  The legislation would terminate all Round 1 contracts made pursuant to the round of competitive bidding completed this spring, and would direct CMS to re-bid Round 1 at some point during 2009.  Future rounds of competitive bidding would also be delayed, with Round 2 (featuring an additional 70 MSAs) taking place during 2011, and competitive bidding in rural areas and smaller MSAs being delayed until 2015.  The estimated $3 billion cost of the delay would be paid for by an across-the-board reduction of 9.5% for all DMEPOS scheduled to be subjected to competitive bidding.  In addition, the bill would require the CMS contractor to notify suppliers missing financial documentation related to their bids, extend disclosure and accreditation requirements to DMEPOS sub-contractors, and establish an ombudsman within CMS to respond to complaints from suppliers and individuals about the DMEPOS competitive bidding process.

While competitive bidding language was not included in the Medicare legislative package (S. 3101) on which the Senate failed to achieve cloture last week, Finance Committee Chairman Baucus and Ranking Member Grassley have discussed incorporating language delaying the competitive bidding process into their competing packages covering an adjustment to Medicare physician reimbursement levels.

Implications of Delay:  Despite the contracting problems that have led some contractors to raise legitimate process concerns about the implementation of the first bidding round, some conservatives may still be concerned about the implications of the proposed legislative delay, particularly if coupled with a mandate that CMS re-bid the first round of DMEPOS bidding.  Re-opening the bidding process could prejudice entities who won their bids earlier this year, while potentially reducing savings to the federal government by allowing suppliers to bid more strategically, having had experience with the winning range of bids during the initial round.

In addition, some conservatives may be concerned that a delay of more than a few months would result in a new Administration being charged with implementation of competitive bidding, which could allow for further opportunities to undermine the program through the regulatory process.  Chairman Stark has indicated his desire to abolish the competitive bidding program altogether, paid for by the across-the-board cut in DMEPOS reimbursement levels currently being contemplated—so it is entirely possible that a new Administration and a future Congress could decide to make the “temporary” delay permanent and abolish competitive bidding outright.

Conclusion:  The debate surrounding DMEPOS competitive bidding finds many medical suppliers—some with understandable concerns about a lack of communication from the bidding contractor, others merely disappointed in not achieving a winning price for their bid—seeking redress from Congress for a bidding mechanism Congress established with the intent of creating arm’s-length transactions between the agency purchasing goods (i.e. CMS) and private suppliers.  Yet the alternative to a competitive bidding system where markets set prices for DMEPOS involves arbitrary reductions to inherently arbitrary fee schedules enacted by policy-makers with little proficiency in the minutiae of the myriad health care services for which the federal government acts as a payer.  As Senate Finance Committee Chairman Baucus conceded at a health care summit: “How in the world am I supposed to know what the proper reimbursement should be for a particular procedure?”[5]

For this reason, some conservatives may object to Congress’ frequent attempts to litigate these types of disputes, and may view the controversy surrounding DMEPOS competitive bidding as emblematic of larger problems with the current entitlement system.  In the myriad debates which it is perpetually pressured to referee—from the sustainable growth mechanism (SGR) to reimbursement levels for hospitals and nursing homes to the levels of epogen provided to kidney dialysis patients—Congress’ firsthand expertise is as limited as its jurisdiction is absolute.  The end result has frequently been an imbalance of attention paid to various reimbursement “crises,” with only secondary consideration given to the longer-term health and solvency of the underlying entitlement programs (i.e. Medicare and Medicaid) in question.

Some conservatives may believe that the lesson from these past and current controversies is that Congress has a poor track record in adjudicating provider-related disputes.  Many may find a better solution in a premium support mechanism that 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.  In addition to ensuring long-term fiscal stability by confining the growth of Medicare spending to the annual statutory raise in the defined contribution limit, a premium support mechanism would result in reimbursement decisions being made by private insurance carriers, obviating the need for Congress to micro-manage provider payment levels.  Such a solution would provide a meaningful reform to the underlying problems that have erupted most recently in the DMEPOS competitive bidding controversy, by saving providers from the whims of Congress—and saving Congress from itself.

 

[1] Cited in Government Accountability Office, “Medicare: Competitive Bidding for Medical Equipment and Supplies Could Reduce Program Payments, but Adequate Oversight Is Critical,” (Washington, Report GAO-08-767T), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08767t.pdf (accessed June 9, 2008), p. 3.

[2] Testimony of Janet Rehnquist, Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, before Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, and Education, June 12, 2002 hearing, available online at http://www.oig.hhs.gov/testimony/docs/2002/020611fin.pdf (accessed June 16, 2008).

[3] Testimony of Thomas Hoerger, Senior Fellow, Research Triangle Institute International, before House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, May 6, 2008 hearing on Durable Medical Equipment Competitive Bidding, available online at http://waysandmeans.house.gov/hearings.asp?formmode=printfriendly&id=6906 (accessed June 9, 2008).

[4] Cited in Government Accountability Office, “Medicare Competitive Bidding,” pp. 10-11.

[5] Quoted in Anna Edney, “Bernanke: Health Care Reform Will Require Higher Spending,” CongressDailyPM June 16, 2008, available online at http://www.nationaljournal.com/congressdaily/cdp_20080616_8602.php (accessed June 16, 2008).

Medicare Advantage

History and Background:  For several decades, Medicare has utilized private insurers as one option for beneficiaries to receive health care coverage.  In 1997, the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) created a new Medicare+Choice program intended to control the growth of health care costs and eliminate regional variations in payment and spending levels.  In 2003, the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) converted the Medicare+Choice program into its current form as Medicare Advantage (MA).

Bids and Benchmarks:  The MMA made several changes to the bidding and payment structure for private Medicare Advantage plans to deliver health care to beneficiaries.  As currently constructed, plans receive capitated monthly payments that are subject to risk adjustment—so that plans caring for older, sicker beneficiaries receive higher payments than those with healthier populations.  In order to determine the capitated payment amount, plans submit annual bids to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  The bids are compared against a benchmark established by a detailed formula—but the comparison against the benchmark does not directly allow plans to compete against each other, or against traditional Medicare, when CMS evaluates plan bids.

In the event a plan’s bid is below the annual benchmark, 75% of the savings is returned to the beneficiary in the form of lower cost-sharing (i.e. premiums, co-payments, etc.) or better benefits, with the remaining 25% returned to the federal government.  If a plan’s bid is above the benchmark, beneficiaries pay the full amount of any marginal costs above the benchmark threshold.

Benefits and Services Provided:  Most Medicare Advantage plans use rebates provided when bidding below the benchmark to cover additional services over and above those provided by traditional Medicare, and in so doing reduce beneficiaries’ exposure to out-of-pocket costs.  A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in February 2008 documented that in most cases, beneficiaries receive better benefits under Medicare Advantage than they would under traditional Medicare.  The GAO study found that beneficiary cost-sharing would be 42% of the amounts anticipated under traditional Medicare, with beneficiaries saving an average of $67 per month, or $804 annually.[1]  These savings to MA beneficiaries occurred because plans dedicated 89% of their rebates from low bids to reduced cost-sharing or lower premiums.  The remaining 11% of rebates were used to finance additional benefits, such as vision, dental, and hearing coverage, along with various health education, wellness, and preventive benefits.[2]  Due in part to the increased benefits which Medicare Advantage plans have provided, enrollment in MA plans is estimated to rise to 22.3% of all Medicare beneficiaries in 2008, up from 12.1% in 2004.[3]

Medicare Advantage “Overpayments”:  Some independent studies have suggested that Medicare Advantage plans incur higher costs than the average annual cost of providing coverage through traditional Medicare, though estimates vary as to the disparity between the two forms of coverage.  However, to the extent that MA plans in fact receive payments in excess of the costs of traditional Medicare, this discrepancy remains inextricably linked to two features of the Medicare Advantage program—the increased benefits for beneficiaries, and the complexity of the MA plan bidding mechanism.  Because of the problems inherent in the statutory benchmark design, plans have little incentive to submit bids less than the cost of traditional Medicare, as plans that bid above the costs of traditional Medicare but below the benchmark receive the difference between traditional Medicare costs and the plan bid as an extra payment to the plan.[4]

Last July, House Democrats attempted to “fix” the MA overpayments by passing H.R. 3162, the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act.  Section 401 of the legislation proposed to set Medicare Advantage payments at 100% of the costs of traditional Medicare.  Despite the flaws in the bidding process discussed above, many conservatives opposed the Democrats’ proposal as an attempt to restrict beneficiary choice to private health insurance options by placing arbitrary restrictions on Medicare Advantage plans.  The Senate has not taken up the measure, which President Bush threatened to veto.

Some conservatives would also argue that a discussion focused solely on Medicare Advantage “overpayments” ignores the significant benefits that MA plans provide to key underserved beneficiary populations.  Medicare Advantage plans have expanded access to coverage in rural areas.  Moreover, the disproportionate share of low-income and minority populations who have chosen the MA option suggests that the comprehensive benefits provided are well-suited to beneficiaries among vulnerable populations.  Data from the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey demonstrate that almost half (49%) of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries have incomes less than $20,000, and that 70% of Hispanic and African-American Medicare Advantage enrollees had incomes below the $20,000 level.[5]  For this reason, both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the League of United Latin American Citizens opposed the cuts proposed by House Democrats as part of H.R. 3162.[6]

Reform Options:  To the extent that private plans are paid more than traditional Medicare for beneficiary care, some conservatives would argue that this concern is a symptom of the larger problems in Medicare Advantage bidding procedures—where more competition, not government-imposed price controls that arbitrarily reduce “overpayments,” would provide the most effective route to reforming Medicare.

Prime among the reform options would be a pure premium support model—one that would allow Medicare Advantage plans to bid against each other (as they do in the Part D prescription drug benefit), and against traditional Medicare.  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.

Additional policy changes to improve Medicare Advantage could eliminate the inbuilt bias towards traditional Medicare by reforming the beneficiary enrollment model and expanding consumer-driven Medicare Advantage plans.  Current law provides an inherent bias towards traditional Medicare, by automatically enrolling beneficiaries in the government-run plan; beneficiaries must take an affirmative measure to enroll in an alternative Medicare Advantage plan.  However, some conservatives may support measures that would auto-enroll beneficiaries in randomly assigned plans—both traditional Medicare and private Medicare Advantage plans—below a certain cost threshold, as occurs for dual-eligible beneficiaries randomly assigned to Part D prescription drug plans.  Some conservatives may also support reforms to Medicare Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs) that would make them more attractive to beneficiaries, providing additional incentives for seniors to become more cost-conscious when considering health care treatment options.

Conclusion: The Medicare funding warning issued by the trustees last year, and again this year, provides an opportunity to re-assess the program’s structure and finance.  These two consecutive warnings—coupled with the trustees’ estimate that the Medicare trust fund will be exhausted in just over a decade’s time—should prompt Congress to consider ways to reduce the growth of overall Medicare costs, particularly those which utilize competition and consumer empowerment to create a more efficient and cost-effective Medicare program.

Over and above the significant benefits which Medicare Advantage plans have provided to millions of beneficiaries, some conservatives may believe that private MA plans have the potential to reform Medicare and ultimately slow its overall spending levels.  Although introduction of a prescription drug benefit has significantly increased Medicare’s unfunded obligations in absolute terms, the fact that competition among Part D participants has slowed the growth of its costs suggests that similar efforts to inject competition into traditional Medicare could comprise one element of comprehensive entitlement reform.  As a result, many conservatives would oppose attempts by the Democrat majority to eliminate private MA plans from their important role in delivering Medicare benefits, and would instead support further reforms to streamline the MA bidding process and improve the opportunities for savings generated by competitive forces.

 

[1] Government Accountability Office, “Medicare Advantage: Increased Spending Relative to Medicare Fee-for-Service May Not Always Reduce Beneficiary Out-of-Pocket Costs,” (Washington, Report GAO-08-359, February 2008), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08359.pdf (accessed May 19, 2008), p. 23.

[2] Ibid., pp. 17-20.

[3] Department of Health and Human Services, “HHS Budget in Brief: Fiscal Year 2009,” available online at http://www.hhs.gov/budget/09budget/2009BudgetInBrief.pdf (accessed May 19, 2008), p. 58.

[4] The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) has alleged that the formula-driven benchmarks themselves exceed the cost of traditional Medicare.  See Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, Report to the Congress: Medicare Payment Policy (Washington, DC, March 2008), available online at http://www.medpac.gov/documents/Mar08_EntireReport.pdf (accessed May 9, 2008), Table 3-3, p. 247.

[5] America’s Health Insurance Plans, “Low Income and Minority Beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage Plans,” (Washington, DC, AHIP Center for Policy and Research, February 2007), available online at http://www.ahipresearch.org/PDFs/FullReportAHIPMALowIncomeandMinorityFeb2007.pdf (accessed May 19, 2008), p. 3.

[6] “Minority Groups Oppose Proposed Reduction in Funds for Medicare Advantage Plans,” Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report March 16, 2007 (Washington, DC: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation), available online at http://www.kaisernetwork.org/daily_reports/rep_index.cfm?DR_ID=43645 (accessed May 9, 2008).