How a Massive Medicare Regulation Illustrates the Problems of Single Payer

What do provisions in a federal regulation, released on a sleepy Friday in August, have to do with the raging debate regarding single-payer health care? As it turns out, plenty.

By definition, single-payer health care assumes that one payer will finance all the care provided by the nation’s doctors, hospitals, and other medical providers. But this premise comes with an important corollary: Funding all medical providers’ care through a single source means that source—the federal government—must pay those providers the right amount. Paying providers too much wastes taxpayer resources; paying them too little could cause them to close.

The Rural Wage Index and MRI Counting

Consider, for instance, the regulation governing Medicare inpatient hospital payments for 2020, which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released on Friday, August 2. That 2,273-page regulation—no, that’s not a typo—included major changes to Medicare payment policies.

Most notably, the final rule changed the Medicare hospital wage index. For years, hospitals in rural areas have complained that the current wage index exacerbates wage disparities, under-paying hospitals in low-wage and rural areas, while over-paying hospitals elsewhere. According to CMS, the final rule increased the wage index for many rural hospitals, while slightly reducing payment rates to other hospitals, because CMS must implement the change in a budget-neutral manner.

Consider also a comment made several years ago by Donald Berwick, former CMS administrator and a strong advocate of single-payer health care. In a 1993 interview, Berwick said that “I want to see that in the city of San Diego or Seattle there are exactly as many MRI units as needed when operating at full capacity. Not less and not more.”

‘Little Intellectual Elite’

I don’t know whether the wage index change represents a more accurate way of calculating hospital payments, although I suspect it will make some hospitals’ payments more accurate, and some less accurate. But I don’t presume to know the financial situations of each of the United States’ thousands of hospitals, let alone believe I can calculate the change’s effects for each of them.

Conversely, liberals have the arrogance, even hubris, to believe that a massive—not to mention costly—federal bureaucracy can track and micro-manage the health care system to near-perfection. Remember, this is the same federal government that but a few years ago couldn’t build a website for Obamacare. As Ronald Reagan famously said in his “A Time for Choosing” speech 45 years ago:

This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can govern ourselves.

Berwick, and his fellow single-payer supporters want to place our health care system in the care of that intellectual elite—although, given the size of our health care system, the bureaucracy needed to control it may prove far from “little.” (But hey, they’re from the government and they’re here to help.)

Invitation to Corruption

Four years ago, federal prosecutors obtained an indictment of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on bribery charges, for accepting campaign contributions and other gifts from Miami physician Salomon Melgen. Among other things, Menendez repeatedly contacted Medicare officials and asked them to stop seeking $9 million in repayments from Melgen, who was eventually convicted on 67 counts of Medicare fraud.

A U.S. senator receiving nearly $1 million in gifts from a Medicare fraudster seems shocking enough. But increasing the federal government’s influence over health policy will make scenarios like this even more likely—and will make things like hospitals’ yearslong lobbying over the wage index seem like small potatoes.

In “Federalist 51,” James Madison famously wrote that “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Single-payer supporters’ obsession over the former, to the exclusion of the latter, bodes ill for any supposed “efficiency gains” resulting from single payer—to say nothing of the integrity of our government.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Three Things to Know about “Surprise” Medical Bills

In recent months, lawmakers in Washington have focused on “surprise” medical bills. In large part, this term refers to two types of incidents: 1) individuals who received pre-arranged treatment at an in-network hospital, but saw an out-of-network physician (e.g., anesthesiologist) during their stay, or 2) individuals who had to seek care at an out-of-network hospital during a medical emergency.

In both cases, the out-of-network providers can “balance bill” patients—that is, send them an invoice for the difference between an insurer’s in-network payment and what the physician actually charged. Because these bills can become quite substantial, and because patients do not have a meaningful opportunity to consent to the higher charges—many patients never meet their anesthesiologist until the day of surgery, and few people can investigate hospital networks during an ambulance ride to the ER—policy-makers see reason to intervene.

1. Few Hospitals Comprise Most of the ‘Surprise’ Incidents

As a chart from The New York Times demonstrates, most hospitals had zero, or close to zero, out-of-network emergency room bills in 2015, according to a study by three Yale University professors:

“Surprise” bills applied in 22 percent of ER visits, but as a Times reporter noted, they are “not happening to some random set of patients in every hospital. [They’re] happening to a large percentage of patients in certain hospitals.”

As noted above, most hospitals don’t have this problem, because they keep their ER physicians and other doctors in-network. Unfortunately, however, the one-quarter or so of hospitals that have not forced their physicians in-network have made life difficult for the rest of the hospital sector.

The hospital industry should have done a much better job of policing itself and weeded out these “bad actors” years ago. Had they done so, the number of “surprise” bills likely would not have risen to a level where federal lawmakers demand action. However, the fact that these incidents still only occur in a minority of hospitals suggests reason for continued caution—because why should Congress impose a far-reaching solution to a “problem” that doesn’t affect most hospitals?

2. The Federal Government Has Little Reason to Intervene

Over and above the question of whether “surprise” bills warrant a legislative response, lawmakers should also ponder why that response must come from the federal government. Even knowledgeable reporters have (incorrectly) assumed that a solution to the issue must emanate from Washington because only the federal government can address “surprise” bills for self-funded employer plans. Not so.

ERISA, in this case, refers to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which regulates employer-provided health insurance. ERISA states that its provisions “shall supersede any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.”

But as that language indicates, ERISA applies only to the regulation of employee benefit plans—i.e., the employer as an insurer. It does not apply to the regulation of providers—i.e., hospitals, doctors, etc. As a Brookings Institution analyst admitted, states can, for instance, require hospitals to issue an in-network guarantee, ensuring that all doctors at an in-network hospital are considered in-network.

For most of the past year, interest groups have lobbied Congress on “surprise” billing. As one might expect, everyone wants a solution that takes patients out of the line of fire in negotiations between doctors, hospitals, and insurers, but no one wants to take a financial haircut in any solution that emerges.

The lack of agreement on a path forward indicates that Congress should take a back seat to the states, and let them innovate solutions to the issue. Indeed, several states have already enacted legislation on out-of-network bills, suggesting that Congress might do more harm than good by weighing in with its own “solution.”

3. Some Republicans Support Socialistic Price Controls

Both the comparatively isolated nature of the problem and the lack of a clear need for federal involvement suggest that some on the left continue to raise the “surprise” billing issue as part of a larger campaign. By establishing that the federal government should regulate the prices of health-care services—even those in private insurance plans—liberals can lay down a predicate for a single-payer health-care system that would do the exact same thing, just on a larger scale.

Sure enough, congressional Republicans, like Oregon Rep. Greg Walden and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, have endorsed legislation establishing a statutory cap on prices for out-of-network emergency services. (Remember: In policy-making, bipartisanship only occurs when conservatives agree to liberal policies.)

Both the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee have introduced proposals that would engage in such federal price-fixing, although lawmakers recently modified the House bill to allow for binding arbitration between doctors and hospitals where the disputed sums exceed certain thresholds. Alexander wants to move his legislation on the Senate floor within weeks.

Last month, Alexander said he “instinctively” liked the in-network guarantee approach—which requires hospitals to have their physicians in-network, while letting insurers, hospitals, and doctors negotiate those in-network prices without setting them through government fiat. However, he told reporters that he ultimately endorsed the price-fixing approach because the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) called it “the most effective at lowering health care costs.”

The retort to Alexander’s comment seems obvious: Of course, price-fixing will lower health care costs. Indeed, CBO said the price-fixing provision would save by far the greatest amount of money of any section of the nearly 250-page bill, because it “lower[s] payment rates” to physicians.

If Alexander suddenly wants to use price controls to lower health care costs, then why not regulate the prices of all health care services ($129.95 for surgery, anyone?)—or move to full-on single-payer? Because the quality of care will suffer too—as will American patients.

A Spoonful of Socialism, Anyone?

I noted above that the hospital industry caused the “surprise” billing problem in the first place. I have little love for hospital executives, many of whom behave like greedy monopolists, and who represent the single biggest argument for single-payer health care I can think of.

Yet however much hospital executives may have earned opprobrium by their conduct, the American people don’t deserve a single-payer system, with its massive economic disruption and its inferior care, foisted on them. They deserve better than federally imposed price controls as a “solution”—whether as the mere “spoonful of socialism” in the “surprise” billing legislation, or an all-out move to single-payer.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Real Threat to Seniors: Single Payer

No sooner had the president’s budget arrived on Capitol Hill last Monday than the demagoguery began. Within hours of the budget’s release, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) tweeted that “One party wants to expand Medicare and Medicaid and the other wants to cut them.” The facts, however, show a different contrast—one party attempting to keep a promise to seniors, and another abandoning that promise to fund other priorities.

First, the budget would not “cut” Medicare. As multiple administration officials explained during congressional hearings on the budget, Medicare spending would continue to rise every year under the president’s proposals. Only in a government town like Washington could lawmakers say with a straight face that a reduction in projected spending increases constitutes a “cut.”

Third, the budget proposals would yield tangible benefits to seniors through lower Medicare cost-sharing. A proposed rule released in July found that one of these changes would lower beneficiary co-payments by $150 million in one year. If enacted in full, seniors would see billions of dollars in savings over the ten-year budget window.

Fourth, and most importantly, legislation Schatz supports wouldn’t “expand” Medicare and Medicaid, it would eliminate them. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer bill, which Schatz has co-sponsored, would, in addition to ending Medicaid, liquidate the Medicare trust funds, using the proceeds to finance the new government-run program. As I noted last year, that makes Sanders’ bill, as well as similar legislation introduced in the House last month, not “Medicare for All” but “Medicare for None.”

That raid on the Medicare trust funds represents not just an accounting gimmick, but a statement of Democrats’ priorities—or, rather, the lack of them. Medicare has long-term funding problems, which the president’s budget attempts to address. But in using the Medicare trust funds as a piggy bank to finance a single-payer system—the full cost of which Democrats have no idea how to fund—the party shows how, in trying to provide all things to all people, it will abandon the most vulnerable.

Perhaps the best rebuttal to “Medicare for None” came from, of all people, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD). In a speech on the House floor in September 2009, Hoyer said:

At some point in time, my friends, we have to buck up our courage and our judgment and say, if we take care of everybody, we won’t be able to take care of those who need us most. That’s my concern. If we take care of everybody, irrespective of their ability to pay for themselves, the Ross Perots of America, frankly, the Steny Hoyers of America, then we will not be able to take care of those most in need in America.

Therein lies the true flaw in the left’s logic. Whereas the president’s budget would work to protect Medicare for vulnerable seniors, Schatz, Sanders, and their supporters would liquidate the Medicare trust fund to finance “free” health care for Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. The choice between the two paths seems as obvious as it is clear.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Hospital Monopolies Are What’s Wrong with American Health Care

Call it a sign of the times. If Rich Uncle Pennybags (a.k.a. “Mr. Monopoly”) appeared today, he would have little interest in holding properties like the Short Line Railroad. In the 21st century, acquiring railroads, or even utilities, is so Baltic Avenue. The real money—and the real monopolies—lie in health care, specifically in hospitals.

Despite the constant focus on prescription drug prices, pharmaceuticals represent a comparatively small slice of the American health care pie. In 2016, national spending on prescription drugs totaled $328.6 billion. That’s a large sum on its own, but only 9.8 percent of total health care spending. By contrast, spending on hospital care totaled nearly $1.1 trillion, or more than three times spending on prescriptions.

Hospitals’ Monopolistic Tactics

The Journal profiled several under-the-radar tactics that some large hospitals use to deter competition and pad their bottom lines. For instance, some contracts “prevent patients from seeing a hospital’s prices by allowing a hospital operator to block the information from online shopping tools that insurers offer.”

Hospitals use these tactics to oppose transparency, because they fear, correctly, that if patients know what they will pay for a service before they receive it, they may take their business elsewhere. It’s an arrogant and high-handed attitude straight out of Marxism.

Also in hospitals’ toolkits: So-called “must-carry” clauses, which require insurers to keep their hospitals in-network, regardless of the high prices they charge, or poor quality outcomes they achieve. The Journal reported that one of the nation’s largest retailers wanted to kick out the lowest-quality providers, but had no ability to do so.

Officials at Walmart a few years ago asked the insurers that administered its coverage…if the nation’s largest private employer could remove from its health-care networks the 5% of providers with the worst quality performance. The insurers told the giant retailer their contracts with certain health-care providers didn’t allow them to filter out specific doctors or hospitals, even based solely on quality measures.

Surprise! Obamacare Made It Worse

Many of these trends preceded President Obama’s health care law, of course. But it doesn’t take a PhD in mathematics to see how hospital mergers accelerated after 2010, the year of Obamacare’s passage:

Hospitals responded to the law by buying up other hospitals, increasing market share in an attempt to gain more negotiating “clout” against health insurers. That leverage allows them to demand clauses such as those preventing price transparency, or preventing insurers from developing smaller networks that only include efficient or better-quality providers.

Here again, industry consolidation begets higher prices. In many cases, hospitals can charge more for services provided by an “outpatient facility” as opposed to one provided by a “doctor’s office.” In some circumstances, the patient will receive the same service, provided by the same doctor, in the same office, but will end up getting charged a higher price—merely because, by buying the physician practice, the hospital can reclassify the office and procedure as taking place in an “outpatient facility.”

Remember: Hospitals Endorsed Obamacare

In 2010, the American Hospital Association, along with other hospital associations, endorsed Obamacare. At the time the hospital lobbies claimed that the measure would increase the number of Americans with health insurance coverage. For some reason, they neglected to mention how the law would also encourage the consolidation that presents ever-upward pressure on insurance premiums.

But remember too that Obama repeatedly promised his health-care law would lower premiums by $2,500 for the average family. Unfortunately for Americans, however, Obamacare’s crony capitalism—allowing hospitals to grow their operations, and thus their bottom line, in exchange for political endorsements—continues to contribute to higher premiums, putting Obama’s promise further and further away from reality.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Big Hospitals’ Obamacare Hypocrisy

As Republicans prepare legislation to repeal Obamacare, the health care industrial complex has raised a host of concerns. Notably, two hospital associations recently released a report highlighting the supposed negative implications of the reconciliation bill Congress passed, and President Obama vetoed, late last year.

While the hospitals allege that repealing Obamacare would decimate their industry, their report cleverly omits four inconvenient truths.

1. They Pushed Bad Ideas Because They Expect Bailouts

Kahn gave a simple, yet cynical, reply: “You could say, did you make a bad deal, and fortunately, I don’t think I’ll probably be working after 2020 [Laughter.]….I’m glad my contract only goes another six years. [Laughter.]”

Fast-forward those six years to earlier this fall, when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed the effects of various Obamacare provisions on hospital margins. The report concluded that even under the best-case scenario—in which hospitals achieve a level of efficiency non-partisan experts doubt they can reach—the revenue from Obamacare’s coverage expansions will barely offset the negative effects of the productivity adjustments. Under the worst-case scenario, more than half of hospitals could become unprofitable by 2025, and the entire industry could face negative profit margins.

Kahn knew full well in August 2010 that Obamacare would eventually decimate his industry, through the cumulative effect of year-over-year reductions in Medicare payments. The laughter during his comments demonstrates Kahn thought it was one big joke. He and his colleagues cynically calculated first that they wouldn’t be around when those payment reductions really started to bite; and second that Congress would bail the hospitals out of their own bad deal—essentially, that hospitals are “too big to fail.”

2. Hospitals Supported Raiding Medicare to Pay for Obamacare

Last year’s reconciliation bill essentially undid the fiscal legerdemain that allowed Obamacare to pass in the first place. In the original 2010 legislation, Democrats used savings from Medicare both to improve the solvency of Medicare (at least on paper) and to fund the new entitlements.

The reconciliation bill would have repealed the new entitlements, and—in a truly novel concept—used Obamacare’s Medicare savings to…save Medicare. Instead, the hospital industry wants to continue the budget gimmickry that allows Medicare money to be spent twice and used for other projects.

3. Hospitals Believe Entitlements Are for Them, Not You

In theory, individuals receiving cash contributions in lieu of Medicaid coverage could improve their health in all sorts of ways—buy healthier food, obtain transportation to a higher-paying job, move to a better apartment closer to parks and recreation. But who would object to giving patients cash to improve their health instead of insurance? You guessed it: Hospitals.

Hospitals view Medicaid as their entitlement, not their patients’. That’s why hospitals have worked so hard for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. It’s also why they wouldn’t support diverting money from coverage into other programs (e.g., education, housing, nutrition, etc.) that could actually improve patients’ health more than insurance, which has been demonstrated not to improve physical health outcomes.

4. Insisting Health Care Is Their Personal Jobs Program

Hospitals will claim that repealing Obamacare will cost industry jobs, just as they pushed for states to expand Medicaid as a way to create jobs. But economic experts on both sides of the aisle find this argument frivolous at best. As Zeke Emanuel, a former Obama administration official, has noted: “Health care is about keeping people healthy or fixing them up when they get sick. It is not a jobs program.”

The health-care sector seems to believe they have a God-given right to consume at least one-sixth of the economy (and growing). Rebutting hospitals’ argument—that they, and only they, can create jobs—might represent the first step in lowering health costs, which would help non-health sectors of the economy grow more quickly.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Report Every State Legislator Should Read

Regardless of the outcome of November’s elections, health care will likely return to the forefront of policy debates in 2017 — both in Washington and in state capitals across the country. Should Hillary Clinton capture the White House, liberal groups, proclaiming that Obamacare is here to stay, will likely push to expand Medicaid in the states that have rejected the program’s massive expansion under Obamacare. Hospital groups will no doubt work hand-in-glove with the Left on these efforts, claiming that only Medicaid expansion will allow hospitals to remain viable, particularly in rural areas.

That’s why a report released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) earlier this month should be read by every state legislator in every state likely to debate expansion next year. In analyzing profit margins over the coming decade, the nonpartisan CBO concluded that Medicaid expansion will not make a material difference in hospitals’ overall viability.

The CBO paper modeled the impact of various provisions of Obamacare in 2025, and compared those outcomes with hospitals’ profitability in 2011, before the law’s major provisions took effect. Each scenario allowed CBO analysts to isolate the effects of separate provisions — for instance, the law’s reduction in Medicare payments to reflect improved productivity, expanded health-insurance coverage through Medicaid and the exchanges, and other payment changes.

By analyzing the effects of expanded insurance coverage, and examining whether expanding Medicaid in more states would impact hospitals’ financial condition, CBO shows that such an expansion will not materially improve their solvency:

Differing assumptions about the number of states that expand Medicaid coverage have a small effect on our projections of aggregate hospitals’ margins. That is in part because the hospitals that would receive the greatest benefit from the expansion of Medicaid coverage in additional states are more likely to have negative margins, and because in most cases the additional revenue from the Medicaid expansion is not sufficient to change those hospitals’ margins from negative to positive. Moreover, the total additional revenue that hospitals as a group would receive from the newly covered Medicaid beneficiaries…is not large enough relative to their revenues from other sources to substantially alter the projected aggregate margins.

A “small effect” and “not large enough…to substantially alter” projections — far from the panacea hospitals claim Medicaid expansion will be for their bottom lines.

The report provides several reasons why Medicaid expansion will not cure hospitals’ financial woes. Whereas CBO assumed that exchange plans would reimburse hospitals above their average costs, “Medicaid’s payment rates are below hospitals’ average costs.” Medicaid revenues will likely grow more slowly over time, as Medicaid payment rates cannot exceed Medicare levels — and Obamacare dramatically slowed those Medicare reimbursement levels. Moreover, CBO estimated “that the use of hospitals’ services among the newly insured will increase by about 40 percent as a result of having insurance.” If Medicaid pays hospitals less than their average costs, then inducing additional patient demand by expanding coverage could actually exacerbate hospitals’ shortfalls, not improve them.

To put it bluntly, hospitals made a horrible deal by endorsing Obamacare in 2009. The industry agreed to annual reductions in their Medicare payments forever in exchange for a one-time increase in the number of insured patients. The CBO report quantifies how badly the hospital industry missed its target. Even if hospitals revolutionize their productivity — a standard nonpartisan experts doubt they will achieve — the added revenue from Obamacare’s coverage expansions will barely offset the effects of the Medicare-reimbursement reductions. Under the worst-case scenario, as many as half of all hospitals could become unprofitable within a decade — and the entire industry could face negative profit margins.

Medicaid expansion cannot save hospitals from the financial woes they inflicted upon themselves by endorsing Obamacare — but it can make both federal and state governments less solvent in the process. Prior research has shown how the Medicaid rolls in states that did expand drastically exceeded projections — and a new Mercatus Center report released earlier this month noted that costs per beneficiary have grown as well.

With the costs of Medicaid growing in states that did expand, and CBO showing meager financial benefits to hospitals as a result of expansion, state legislators have every reason to resist the temptation to dramatically expand the welfare state under Obamacare.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Big Hospitals’ Obamacare Deal Betrays Seniors and the Poor

A backroom deal made during the writing of Obamacare will harm seniors and the poor, according to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

During their closed-room dealings with the Obama Administration, the hospital industry’s lobbyists agreed to support Obamacare—provided that the law placed restrictions on physician-owned “specialty” hospitals, noted WSJ. These innovative specialty hospitals frequently have quality outcomes better than most traditional facilities, but no matter—the big hospital lobbyists wanted to eliminate a source of competition. So Obamacare prohibits new physician-owned hospitals from receiving Medicare payments — and prohibits most existing facilities from expanding if they wish to keep treating Medicare patients.

WSJ highlighted the actions specialty hospitals have been forced to take in response to these Obamacare restrictions:

Forest Park Medical Center in Dallas has stopped accepting Medicare patients, allowing it to escape the law’s restrictions entirely…. Rejecting Medicare ‘was a big leap, but we felt like the law gave us no choice,’ said J. Robert Wyatt, a Forest Park founder….

Other doctor-owned facilities are asking the federal government to let them duck the law’s restrictions altogether. Doctors Hospital at Renaissance near McAllen, Texas, is trying to get a waiver allowing it to expand as more than 53% of its payments come through the Medicaid federal-state insurance program for the poor.

In other words, because hospital lobbyists cut a backroom deal to support Obamacare, seniors and low-income patients have fewer health care options. Think that these examples of Americans losing access to care would prompt the hospital-industrial complex to reconsider its backroom deal? Not a chance:

Any effort to undo the expansion limits faces an uphill battle with Democrats, because the restrictions were a deal-breaker for hospitals when the White House sought their support for the law in 2009, industry lobbyists say.

Obamacare’s backroom deals (the “Louisiana Purchase,” the “Gator Aid,” and the “Cornhusker Kickback”) represented the worst in politics—well-heeled lobbyists seeking to obtain government largesse through pork-barrel spending and regulatory loopholes. The Wall Street Journal story reminds us how those backroom deals have real-world consequences when it comes to medical access—another example of how Obamacare has harmed patient care.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.

Weekly Newsletter: September 22, 2008

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

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

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

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

Medicaid Fraud Will Not Be Addressed by Bailout

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

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

Read the article here.

Weekly Newsletter: September 15, 2008

Medicaid: More Spending Does Not Equal Reform

Today, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt will be addressing a conference on Medicaid reform in Washington. The symposium comes at a time when some want Congress to pass legislation (H.R. 5268) providing more than $10 billion in Medicaid spending to states as a way to “fix” the program’s problems. However, many conservatives may believe that policy-makers should not use additional spending as a way to shirk from their duties to reform what is often an outmoded model of care.

In the past few years, several states have embarked upon novel and innovative reforms to improve the quality of care provided in the Medicaid program. Most recently, Rhode Island submitted a waiver application to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), asking for flexibility to revamp its program. Notable elements of this reform proposal include:

  • Incentives to promote wellness and prevention, including consumer-directed accounts and Health Savings Accounts (HSAs);
  • A shift to home and community-based care instead of a traditional nursing home setting for elderly populations;
  • Incentives to purchase long-term care insurance, so as to eliminate the need for Medicaid long-term care financing;
  • Competitive bidding for durable medical equipment; and
  • A novel financing model that ensures that total Medicaid expenses will rise by up to 5% per year.

    Many conservatives may support these and other similar reform initiatives proposed by states, as one way to slow the growth of health care costs and thereby reduce America’s unsustainable entitlement spending. Moreover, some conservatives may believe that time on the legislative calendar debating a Medicaid bailout should instead be used to discuss these types of comprehensive structural reforms to the program—so that the poorest beneficiaries are not subjected to more of the same from a government health system that does not work for many.

    The RSC has prepared a one-pager highlighting the need for comprehensive Medicaid reform based on examples from several states; the document can be found here.

    Cautionary Tales from Across the Pond

    This past week, a British think-tank published a paper that spoke the heretofore unthinkable: the policy group Reform advocated replacing the single-payer National Health Service with a voucher-based private health system. Under the proposal, individuals would receive a £2,000 voucher to purchase private insurance—injecting competition into a health system previously dominated by government, and bringing with it the potential to slow the growth of costs while achieving better value through improved care.

    The Reform proposal comes on the heels of several disturbing developments regarding the National Health Service last month. One survey found that a quarter of cancer specialists are purposely keeping their patients “in the dark” about treatment options—in order to avoid upsetting those patients when they find out the NHS will not pay for their treatments. Several weeks earlier, the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE)—Britain’s comparative effectiveness institute—adopted a policy of refusing to pay for four kidney cancer drugs, even though the pharmaceuticals made “significant gains” in survival times, because NICE did not believe the drugs were cost-effective.

    Conservatives may not be surprised by any of these developments—as the rationing of care frequently leads to demands to reform or abolish the governmental bureaucracies that deny life-saving treatments to patients. Some conservatives may also believe that the type of changes advocated by Reform with respect to the National Health Service, if applied to Medicare, could allow seniors a wide range of options to receive their health care, while achieving cost-savings through competition that could slow the growth of skyrocketing health and entitlement costs.

    Read the BBC News article: “Doctors ‘Keep Cancer Drugs Quiet’”

    Article of Note: The Hospital-Industrial Complex

    An article in the Wall Street Journal last month revealed the continuance of a troubling trend: hospitals using their monopoly power to raise prices for consumers—helping to contribute to the growth in health care costs. Consolidations in recent decades—coupled with state certificate-of-need laws that provide government-sanctioned exclusivity in most states—have allowed regional hospitals to tighten their grip on many markets, and the Journal article tells the tale of Carilion Health System in southwest Virginia:

  • Colonoscopy prices four to 10 times higher than a local clinic;
  • Neck CT scans more than double the price of an imaging center;
  • A significant spike in regional health insurance premiums to the highest level in the state; and
  • Over $105 million in net income achieved by a non-profit hospital over the past five years.

One local businessman called the area a “one-market town…in terms of health care,” noting that the hospital “has the leverage”—and the article demonstrates that its impact on both physician practices and the insurance premiums paid by thousands of Virginians has been significant.

The piece comes at a time when the hospital industry is attempting to eradicate one of its few remaining sources of competition, by asking Congress to place a ban on the development of physician-owned specialty hospitals. Some conservatives may oppose this measure as a high-handed approach by Washington policy-makers to interfere with free markets, further solidifying existing hospitals’ monopolies, and stifling the type of innovation in health care that new entrants like specialty hospitals can create to slow the growth of health care costs.

Additionally, conservatives may note a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Inspector General from this April, which publicly rebuked several hospital trade associations for making “several statements that misrepresent our findings and draw[ing] several conclusions that we did not make” in a white paper to Congressional policy-makers on the need for a specialty hospital ban. Some conservatives may therefore be highly skeptical of claims from self-interested parties exhibiting monopolistic tendencies, who have made deceptive and misleading statements to Congress to advance their claims—and apparently lack the integrity to apologize for doing so.

Read the article here: Wall Street Journal: “Non-profit Hospitals Flex Pricing Power

Certificate of Need Programs

History and Background:  In the 1960s, some health care policy makers began to believe that an excess supply of providers was having an inflationary impact on the price of health care.  As a result, several states, beginning with New York in 1964, enacted “certificate of need” (CON) laws giving state agencies the power to evaluate whether a new hospital or nursing home facility was needed prior to its construction.  Prompted in part by support from the American Hospital Association, 20 states enacted certificate of need laws by 1975.[1]

In January 1975, President Ford signed into law the National Health Planning and Resources Development Act (P.L. 93-641), originally sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA).  The Act provided incentives for states to enact approval mechanisms prior to the construction of major facilities. As a result, by 1980 all states but Louisiana had established CON programs.[2]  However, Congress enacted legislation (P.L. 99-660) repealing the federal law in November 1986, which in time led 14 states to abolish their certificate of need programs.  Nevertheless, 36 states and the District of Columbia maintain some form of restriction on the construction of new medical facilities absent a determination of necessity.

Changes within the Hospital Industry:  In the more than four decades since the first certificate of need program was established, the hospital industry has undergone numerous changes and consolidations that may be seen as undermining the original rationale for the certificate of need mechanism.  At the time certificate of need laws were enacted, most hospitals received cost-based reimbursement for services from both the federal government and private insurers.  This payment mechanism, when coupled with a perceived lack of incentives for consumers to become cost-conscious about their health care expenditures, led policy-makers to impose external restrictions on providers’ growth (in an attempt to slow the growth of health expenditures) due to a belief that they would fail to compete on price grounds.[3]  However, the intervening decades have seen a move away from cost-based reimbursement and toward prospective payment for procedures, along with greater incentives—higher deductibles, Health Savings Accounts, co-insurance, etc.—for consumers to demonstrate price sensitivity in health care.  Thus the economic conditions which led regulators to impose certificate of need restrictions have changed appreciably for both consumers and providers, which may prompt a re-evaluation of their usefulness and efficacy.

In addition, a wave of consolidation within the hospital sector has attracted the attention of antitrust regulators, who have examined the impact of hospital mergers on health care.  As of 2001, nearly 54% of hospitals nationwide had joined a larger hospital system, with a further 12.7% working in looser affiliations.  Combined, two-thirds of hospitals nationwide (66.7%) participated in some form of network or system affiliation—more than double the 31% two decades previously, in 1979.[4]

In 2004, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) conducted a series of fact-finding hearings that culminated in a joint study analyzing the antitrust implications of health care policy, which featured several chapters specifically devoted to the changes within the hospital industry.[5]  Reports submitted to the panel cited the “extensive consolidation” within the health care industry, “at times creating virtual monopolies in geographic submarkets” that allowed hospitals to “exert greater leverage in managed care contract negotiations” while pressuring physicians to join a particular system.[6]  Other witnesses noted the way in which hospital systems attempt to include at least one “must have” hospital in each geographic market, which will allow the system to demand price increases.[7]

Both the FTC-DOJ report and other independent studies have noted the link between high levels of consolidation within the hospital industry and higher prices.  Best estimates indicate that hospital mergers tend to increase prices from 5-40%—while also resulting in decreases in quality.[8]  A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper found that, by resulting in a loss of consumer surplus of $42.2 billion over a decade (most of which went to providers), hospital mergers had the net effect of raising insurance premiums 3-5%, thus increasing the number of uninsured by almost 5.5 million life-years from 1990 through 2003.[9]

Effect of CON on Competition, Price, and Quality:  Conservatives who believe in free markets may not object to consolidation within the hospital industry, or any other industry, provided that no other external factor interferes with the operation of the economic market.  However, if the market has been distorted through public policy actions by legislators—as in the case of the 36 states and the District of Columbia with certificate of need laws—some conservatives may view such laws with caution, due to the potential negative implications which a state-granted oligopoly for existing providers may have on the ability of new entrants to improve the health care marketplace through innovative practices and techniques.

The same FTC-DOJ report that noted the correlation between hospital consolidation and rising prices also criticized the state certificate of need model as anticompetitive and not in consumers’ best interest.  Witnesses testified that the barriers to entry presented by certificate of need requirements impeded rapid implementation of new health care technologies, with significant adverse effects on overall health care spending—rising prices due to more limited access to care, and/or re-directing spending to other areas of health care (i.e. a restriction on development of new beds leading to increased investment in radiological or other equipment).[10]  The report concluded:

The Agencies believe that CON programs are generally not successful in containing health care costs and that they can pose anticompetitive risks….CON programs risk entrenching oligopolists and eroding consumer welfare.  The aim of controlling costs is laudable, but there appear to be other, more effective means of achieving this goal that do not pose anticompetitive risks.[11]

Because of the “serious competitive concerns” that outweighed the purported benefits, the agencies advised states to re-evaluate whether their certificate of need programs in fact serve the public good.

In addition to the impact of certificate of need programs on price and market penetration, the stubbornly high rates of medical errors and hospital-acquired infections may be symptomatic of quality control difficulties rooted in a lack of competition.  The 1999 Institute of Medicine study To Err Is Human estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die annually in hospitals due to preventable medical errors, creating a total economic cost of as much as $29 billion, and a November 2006 report utilizing data from a new infection-reporting regime in Pennsylvania found 19,154 cases of hospital-acquired infections in 2005 alone, representing an infection incident rate of more than 1 in 100 hospitalizations.[12]  With consolidation having eroded the breadth of competing hospitals in some markets, and state certificate of need programs presenting a significant barrier for potential new entrants, the prime driver of quality improvement within the hospital sector may be fear of litigation—a process which some conservatives may find economically inefficient and poor public policy.

The impact of certificate of need programs on quality improvements was illustrated in data from an October 2003 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study examining physician-owned specialty hospitals.  According to GAO, 83% of all specialty hospitals—and all specialty hospitals then under development—were located in states without certificate of need requirements.[13]  The FTC-DOJ study also cited the example of a Florida law enacted in 2003, which barred single-practice specialty hospitals while simultaneously eliminating certificate of need requirements for various cardiac programs at general hospitals.[14]  Some conservatives may therefore be concerned first that the innovation and quality improvements which physician-owned specialty hospitals have introduced are being denied to residents in many states due to certificate of need restrictions, and second that this archaic and bureaucratic mechanism has become a political football that existing facilities attempt to manipulate in order to maintain existing oligopolies.[15]

Security Impact:  The September 11 attacks and subsequent concerns regarding incidents of mass terrorism, bioterrorism, or pandemic outbreaks have raised the prominence of the need for “surge capacity” in the event of a major public health disaster.  Although such surge capacity need not be located within the confines of a hospital, specialized medical centers may play a significant role in any response to a large-scale incident.

On May 5 and 7, 2008, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held hearings regarding a potential lack of hospital surge capacity.[16]  Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) attempted to assert that the implementation of several proposed Medicaid anti-fraud regulations would compel hospitals to reduce or eliminate trauma centers whose services would be needed in the event of a major terror incident.  In response, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt noted that the need for proper public health capacity to respond to terrorist incidents should not impede the Administration from enacting reasonable controls to ensure that the Medicaid program meets its statutory goal of providing health care to low-income individuals, as opposed to serving as a bioterror response agency.

In addition to agreeing with the Secretary’s assertion that the distinction between public health preparedness and implementation of Medicaid anti-fraud regulations saving $42 billion over a decade is a false dichotomy, some conservatives may also believe that a better way to increase “surge capacity” in 36 states and the District of Columbia would involve a repeal of certificate of need restrictions.  Rather than maintaining bureaucratic regulations that prevent construction of health care facilities of critical importance in a mass-casualty incident—or jeopardizing existing physician-owned trauma centers by enacting new restrictions on physician ownership, as House Democrats have proposed—conservatives may believe that a better alternative would allow free markets to innovate and create new medical centers should capacity for trauma units or other segments of care be lacking in a particular market.

Conclusion:  Proposals to expand the government’s role in health care have frequently been criticized by conservatives as the first step towards rationed care.  However, some conservatives may use the certificate of need model to argue that 36 states and the District of Columbia already ration health care, by limiting the ability of new entrants to provide medical services to their citizens.  For instance, the recent decision of the Michigan Certificate of Need Commission to limit the number of new radiation facilities in the state may have an adverse impact on cancer patients seeking access to a novel form of treatment.[17]

With a McKinsey group study noting that hospitals account for 50% of the excess spending in American health care relative to other countries, some conservatives may argue that the hospital industry in particular warrants the additional innovation and reduced costs which new entrants can provide.[18]  Congress itself recognized this fact in 1980 by passing legislation (P.L. 96-499) making ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs) eligible for Medicare reimbursement, believing that new ASCs could perform certain medical procedures more cost-effectively than general hospitals.[19]  Yet the exhaustive FTC-DOJ study, as well as related literature, have documented the ways in which state-based certificate of need laws have undermined market-based efforts at cost control—by resulting in less competition, higher prices, and a diminished emphasis on quality that new market entrants can elicit.  In addition, the changed environment of a post-9/11 world raises questions as to whether states with certificate of need programs are denying to their citizens facilities that could be of critical importance in a public health crisis.  Viewed from these perspectives, the certificate of need model may look less like an effective mechanism to contain the growth of health care costs than an outdated shibboleth that ultimately harms the citizens whom it was designed to protect.

Some conservatives may believe that the nearly 100,000 deaths annually due to preventable medical errors constitute proof positive that the certificate of need model should be permanently dismantled, and that the billions of dollars in hospital expenditures made by the federal government may warrant a federal role in persuading recalcitrant states to do so.  This fiscal year alone, the federal government will spend at least $27.1 billion on payments to hospitals not directly attributable to patient care—including Medicare and Medicaid disproportionate share hospital payments, and graduate and indirect medical education costs.[20]  Some conservatives may therefore support policies intended to link some or all of these payments to states’ repeal of certificate of need laws, in the belief that the abolition of such measures will improve competition, drive down prices, and enhance the quality of health care nationwide.

 

[1] “Certificate of Need State Laws 2008,” (Washington, DC, National Council of State Legislatures, updated May 8, 2008), available online at http://www.ncsl.org/programs/health/cert-need.htm (accessed May 11, 2008).

[2] Cited in Improving Health Care: A Dose of Competition (Washington, DC, Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission Joint Report, July 2004), available online at http://www.ftc.gov/reports/healthcare/040723healthcarerpt.pdf (accessed May 11, 2008), p. 301.

[3] Ibid., pp. 302-303.

[4] Ibid., pp. 133-134.

[5] Background information, agendas, and transcripts for the hearings can be found online at http://www.ftc.gov/bc/healthcare/research/healthcarehearing.htm (accessed May 12, 2008).

[6] Cara Lesser and Paul Ginsburg, “Back to the Future?: New Cost and Access Challenges Emerge,” (Washington, DC, Center for Studying Health System Change Issue Brief No. 35, February 2001), available online at http://www.hschange.com/CONTENT/295/ (accessed May 11, 2008).

[7] Cited in Dose of Competition, p. 138.

[8] William Vogt and Robert Town, “How Has Hospital Consolidation Affected the Price and Quality of Hospital  Care?” (Princeton, NJ, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Research Synthesis Project No. 9, February 2006), available online at http://www.rwjf.org/pr/synthesis/reports_and_briefs/pdf/no9_researchreport.pdf (accessed May 12, 2008), pp. 8-10.

[9] Robert Town et al., “The Welfare Consequences of Hospital Mergers,” (Cambridge, MA, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 12244), available online at http://www.nber.org/papers/w12244.pdf?new_window=1 (accessed May 13, 2008), Tables 8-10, pp. 48-50.

[10] See ibid., pp. 301-306.

[11] Ibid., p. 306.

[12] Institute of Medicine, To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System, summary available online at http://www.iom.edu/Object.File/Master/4/117/ToErr-8pager.pdf (accessed March 1, 2008); Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, Hospital Acquired Infections in Pennsylvania, available online at http://www.phc4.org/reports/hai/05/docs/hai2005report.pdf (accessed March 1, 2008).

[13] “Specialty Hospitals: Geographic Location, Services Provided, and Financial Performance,” (Washington, Government Accountability Office, Report GAO-04-167), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04167.pdf (accessed May 11, 2008), pp. 20-21.

[14] Cited in Dose of Competition, p. 146, note 116.

[15] The Center for Responsive Politics notes that from 1998 through March 2008, the hospital and nursing home industry spent more than $610 million on federal lobbying alone, placing it ninth among 121 industry categories.  Data available online at http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php?indexType=i (accessed May 12, 2008).

[16] Information about the hearings can be found at http://oversight.house.gov/story.asp?ID=1929 (accessed May 10, 2008).

[17] Andrew Pollack, “States Limit Costly Sites for Cancer Radiation,” New York Times May 1, 2008, available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/01/technology/01proton.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&8br=&oref=slogin&adxnnlx=1210543656-RJG4oNSF434Dh4b52KfeFA&pagewanted=print (accessed May 11, 2008).

[18] Cited in Regina Herzlinger, Who Killed Health Care? America’s $2 Trillion Medical Problem—and the Consumer Driven Cure (New York, McGraw-Hill, 2007), p. 62.

[19] Cited in Dose of Competition, p. 148.

[20] Congressional Budget Office March 2008 baselines for Medicare and Medicaid, available online at http://www.cbo.gov/budget/factsheets/2008b/medicare.pdf and http://www.cbo.gov/budget/factsheets/2008b/medicaidBaseline.pdf, respectively  (accessed May 12, 2008).