How Single Payer Would Make Outbreaks Like Coronavirus Worse

The past several weeks have seen two trends with important implications for health policy: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s burst of momentum following strong political showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire has drawn greater attention to his proposal for single-payer health care, as China struggles to control a coronavirus outbreak that first emerged at the end of last year.

The two events are linked by more than just time. The coronavirus outbreak provides a compelling argument against Sanders’s so-called “Medicare for All” program, which would upend the health-care system’s ability to respond to infectious disease outbreaks.

In an Outbreak, Could You Obtain Care?

For starters, supporters of Sanders’s plan have admitted that under single payer, not all patients seeking care will obtain it. In 2018, People’s Policy Project President Matt Bruenig claimed that while demand for care might rise under single payer, “aggregate health service utilization is ultimately dependent on the capacity to provide services, meaning utilization could hit a hard limit.”

By eliminating virtually all patient payments for their own care, single payer would increase demand for care—demand Bruenig concedes the system likely could not meet, even under normal circumstances. Consider that an outbreak centered more than 6,000 miles from the Pacific coast has already led to a run on respiratory face masks in the United States. During a widespread outbreak on our shores, an influx of both sick and worried-but-well patients could swamp hospitals already facing higher demand for “free” care.

Bureaucrats’ Questionable Spending Priorities

While Sanders’s legislation attempts to provide emergency surge capacity for the health-care system, experience suggests federal officials may not spend this money wisely. Section 601 of the House and Senate single-payer bills include provisions for a “reserve fund” designed to “respond to the costs of treating an epidemic, pandemic, natural disaster, or other such health emergency.” However, neither of the bills include a specific amount for that fund, leaving all decisions for the national health care budget in the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services.

And federal officials demonstrated a questionable sense of policy priorities in the years leading up to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Of the nearly $3 billion from Obamacare’s Prevention and Public Health Fund given to the Centers for Disease Control in the years 2010-2014, only about 6 percent went towards building epidemiology and laboratory capacity. Instead, CDC spent $517.3 million funding grants focused on objectives like “improving neighborhood grocery stores” and “promoting better sidewalks and street lighting.”

Socialized Medicine Brought to Its Knees By…the Flu?

Including a system of global budgets as part of a transition to single payer would leave hospitals with little financial flexibility to cope with a sudden surge of patients. Sanders’s Senate version of single-payer legislation does not include such a payment mechanism, but the House single-payer bill does. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other liberal think-tanks believe the concept, which provides hospitals lump-sum payments to cover the facilities’ entire operating budget, can help reduce health-care costs.

But in its May 2019 report on single payer, the Congressional Budget Office noted that consistently slow growth of global budget payments in Britain’s National Health Service has “created severe financial strains on the health care system.” And how: Rising hospital bed occupancy rates have created longer wait times in emergency rooms, with patients stuck on gurneys for hours. In one example of its annual “winter crisis,” two years ago the NHS postponed 55,000 surgeries due to capacity constraints, with one ER physician apologizing for “Third World conditions of the department due to overcrowding.”

A British health system barely able to cope with a predictable occurrence like a winter flu outbreak seems guaranteed to crumble in the face of a major pandemic. Voters lured by the siren song of socialism should bear that in mind as they ponder news of the coronavirus and Sanders’ “Medicare for All.”

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of Fiscal Year 2018 Budget

Late Monday afternoon, a document briefly appeared on the Department of Health and Human Services website as the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget in Brief. It’s unclear whether the document was a draft of the HHS budget, or merely a case of a staffer posting the official document online too early (our money would be on the latter). It also must be noted that other budget materials—the White House/Office of Management and Budget document, as well as supplemental materials from the Treasury and others—provide more detail and information not present solely within the HHS budget.

That said, based on the review of the document posted, the health budget seems in many respects functionally incoherent:

  • It proposes significant entitlement savings from Medicaid, over and above those included in Obamacare repeal, while proposing no direct savings from Medicare—a program that will spend more than $9 trillion in the coming decade, and which faces insolvency by 2028;
  • It grants states more flexibility with regards to Medicaid reform, while with respect to medical liability reform, it prescribes a solution from Washington—one that conservatives have argued is inconsistent with Tenth Amendment principles; and
  • It assumes $250 billion in savings from Obamacare repeal—more than the most recent estimate of the House legislation—a “magic asterisk” not likely to be achieved, but one on which the budget relies in order to achieve balance within a decade.

A summary of the document follows below.  We will have further information on the budget in the coming days, as more materials get released.

Discretionary Spending
While press reports in recent days have focused on the amount of “cuts” proposed in the President’s budget, it’s worth noting the HHS budget’s overall spending levels. When it comes to budget authority, the budget would spend $1.113 trillion in Fiscal Year 2018, which is a 1.24% reduction compared to the $1.127 trillion preliminary number for the current fiscal year, and a 0.54% reduction compared to the $1.119 trillion for Fiscal Year 2016.

Furthermore, the HHS budget actually increases the number of full-time equivalents (FTEs) within the Department—from 77,499 in FY16, to 79,505 in FY17, to 80,027 in FY18.

When compared to Fiscal Year 2017 amounts, the budget calls for the following changes in discretionary spending by major HHS divisions (tabulated by budget authority):

  • $850 million (31.0%) reduction for the Food and Drug Administration, as the Administration proposes increasing FDA user fees to compensate for reductions in taxpayer funding;
  • $449 million (4.2%) reduction for the Health Services and Resources Administration;
  • $55 million (1.1%) reduction for the Indian Health Service;
  • $1.3 billion (17.2%) reduction for the Centers for Disease Control;
  • $5.78 billion (18.2%) reduction for the National Institutes of Health;
  • $385 million (9.3%) reduction for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; and
  • $379 million (9.6%) reduction for the discretionary portion of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program management account.

Food and Drug Administration:  As noted above, the budget envisions a “recalibration” of how to pay for FDA pre-market review activities. Specifically, the budget would increase industry user fees “to fund 100 percent of cost for pre-market review and approval activities” for brand and generic prescription drugs and medical devices.

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $22.6 Billion, including interactions)

Medicare Appeals:  Proposes new mandatory spending of $127 million in Fiscal 2018, and $1.27 billion over a decade, to address the pending backlog of Medicare appeals.

IPAB Repeal:  Repeals Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), at a cost of $7.6 billion over a decade. While opposing Obamacare’s notion that a board of unelected bureaucrats should be empowered to make rulings lowering Medicare spending nationwide, some conservatives may also oppose efforts to repeal a spending constraint on our nation’s largest health care entitlement without any similar efforts to control the program’s large (and growing) outlays.

Liability Reform:  Achieves Medicare savings of $31.4 billion from medical liability reforms. The reforms would impose caps on non-economic damages, provide safe harbors for physicians based on following clinical guidelines, allow for the creation of health courts, provide for a three-year statute of limitations, eliminate joint and several liability, allow courts to modify contingency arrangements, and provide for periodic payments for large jury awards.

The proposal would yield total savings of $55 billion overall. The largest share of $31.4 billion would come from Medicare—in part because a portion of physician fees are based on medical liability insurance payments. Medicaid savings would total $399 million. Much of the remaining $23.2 billion would come from revenue interactions with the current exclusion from employer-provided health insurance—i.e., a lowering of health insurance costs and premiums resulting in workers receiving slightly less of their compensation as pre-tax health benefits, and slightly more of their compensation as after-tax cash wages.

While supporting the concept of liability reform generally, some conservatives may be concerned that the budget’s proposals violate the principles of federalism. States can enact liability reforms on their own—and many states like Texas have done so, without any mandates from Washington. Some conservatives may therefore view this proposal as an example of “big government conservatism” inconsistent with the Tenth Amendment.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $627 Billion)

The HHS document notes that “the budget includes a net savings to Medicaid of $627 billion over 10 years, not including additional savings to Medicaid as a result of the Administration’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.”

Medicaid Reform:  Assumes $610 billion in savings (again, over and above Obamacare repeal) from Medicaid reform, giving states the choice between a per capita cap or a block grant beginning in 2020. The document specifically notes that this proposal will allow states to promote solutions that encourage work and promote personal responsibility.

State Children’s Health Insurance Program:  Assumes a two-year reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The budget also proposes eliminating two Obamacare-related provisions—the increase in the enhanced federal match rate for SCHIP, and the maintenance of effort requirements imposed on states—in both cases at the end of the current fiscal year.

The budget would cap the level at which states could receive the enhanced federal SCHIP match at 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($61,500 for a family of four in 2017). Some conservatives would argue that this provision is one way to ensure federal funds are directed towards the vulnerable populations that need them most; guidance issued by the Bush Administration in 2007 provides other examples of potential policies to include.

Finally, the budget also proposes undoing an Obamacare change that required states to transition certain children off of SCHIP and into expanded Medicaid, allowing states to re-enroll these children into SCHIP.

On net, the SCHIP extension would save the federal government $5.8 billion over ten years, reflecting new costs to the SCHIP program ($13.9 billion), savings to Medicaid ($16.7 billion), and savings to other federal health programs ($3 billion).

Liability Reform:  As noted above, the budget assumes an additional $399 million in Medicaid savings from enacting liability reform.

Repeal of Obamacare
The budget assumes a net of $250 billion in savings from an Obamacare repeal/replace measure, savings accruing to both HHS and Treasury. Some conservatives, noting that the most recent score of Obamacare legislation showed a net savings of only $150 billion—with more new spending added since then—may question whether or not this assumption is realistic.

Gov. Jindal Op-Ed: The Facts about Ebola Funding

Yet another American has contracted Ebola, a grim reminder of just how important it is that our public health systems function at the highest possible level. Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric about this deadly disease is misleading, if not dishonest.

In a paid speech last week, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to link spending restraints enacted by Congress—and signed into law by President Obama—to the fight against Ebola. Secretary Clinton claimed that the spending reductions mandated under sequestration “are really beginning to hurt,” citing the fight against Ebola: “The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is another example on the response to Ebola—they’re working heroically, but they don’t have the resources they used to have.”

Consider the Prevention and Public Health Fund, a new series of annual mandatory appropriations created by Obamacare. Over the past five years, the CDC has received just under $3 billion in transfers from the fund. Yet only 6 percent—$180 million—of that $3 billion went toward building epidemiology and laboratory capacity. Especially given the agency’s postwar roots as the Communicable Disease Center, one would think that “ detecting and responding to infectious diseases and other public health threats” warrants a larger funding commitment.

Instead, the Obama administration has focused the CDC on other priorities. While protecting Americans from infectious diseases received only $180 million from the Prevention Fund, the community transformation grant program received nearly three times as much money—$517.3 million over the same five-year period.

The CDC’s website makes clear the objectives of community transformation grants. The program funds neighborhood interventions like “increasing access to healthy foods by supporting local farmers and developing neighborhood grocery stores,” or “promoting improvements in sidewalks and street lighting to make it safe and easy for people to walk and ride bikes.” Bike lanes and farmer’s markets may indeed help a community—but they would do little to combat dangerous diseases like Ebola, SARS or anthrax.

Make no mistake: These types of projects may represent worthwhile endeavors—when funded by states, localities or private charities. And I certainly believe in the goals of wellness as one way to improve health and reduce costs. Here in Louisiana, we’ve launched the Well-Ahead Louisiana program, working with local businesses and organizations on ways to promote healthy lifestyles.

But, as the old saying goes, to govern is to choose. Unfortunately, this administration seems intent on not choosing, instead trying to insinuate Washington into every nook and cranny of our lives. It’s a misguided and dangerous gambit, for two reasons. First, a federal government with nearly $18 trillion in debt has no business spending money on non-essential priorities. Second, a government that attempts to do too much will likely excel at little. And the federal government has one duty above all: To protect the health, safety and well-being of its citizens.

Our Constitution states that the federal government “shall protect each of [the States] against Invasion”—a statement that should apply as much to infectious disease as to foreign powers. So when that same government prioritizes funding for jungle gyms and bike paths over steps to protect our nation from possible pandemics, citizens have every right to question the decisions that got us to this point.

In her speech, Secretary Clinton said, “too often our health care debates are clouded by ideology, rather than illuminated by data.” I couldn’t agree more. But in this case, the data show not that the CDC faced a lack of funding, but misplaced priorities for that funding based on choices made by the Obama administration. I urge Secretary Clinton to put her partisan politics aside, and ensure instead that the federal government focus first and foremost on our most important goal: to keep America, and Americans, safe.
This post was originally published at Politico.

Roll Out the Barrels? Obamacare Funds to Sponsor Bourbon Festivals

Walter Bibikow / DanitaDelimont.com Danita Delimont Photography/Newscom

Danita Delimont Photography/Newscom

One day after The Washington Post reported that federal taxpayer dollars could be used to promote Obamacare through porta-potties, the same outlet posted this e-mail from a Kentucky state official on how the Commonwealth plans to use federal funds to promote Obamacare:

I briefly scanned a schedule of upcoming mobile tour events and below few [sic] that are attended by a large number of young people: regional sporting events, such as the Lexington Legends and Louisville Bats games; the Goettafest and Riverfest in Newport and Covington; the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, Ky.; the Bourbon Chase; Oktoberfest in Newport; the Bourbon and Blues Festival in Owensboro; a couple of half marathons in various locations; the Iron Man competition, etc. We also expect that Navigators will be doing outreach on college campuses.

In other words, Kentucky plans a beer-and-bourbon tour to try to attract young people to enroll in Obamacare. (Maybe that’s what the porta-potties are for.)

The ironies abound in this announcement. Last year, the New York Post reported that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed using community transformation grant funds from Obamacare to “reduc[e] alcohol retail outlet density and illegal alcohol.” So as Kentucky is using Obamacare funds to promote alcohol consumption, New York City wants to use Obamacare funds to discourage it. Apparently, the left hand doesn’t know what the far-left hand is doing.

Second, alcohol abuse costs taxpayers billions of dollars every year. A 2011 Centers for Disease Control study found that alcohol abuse cost federal, state, and local taxpayers a total of $94.2 billion each year. To the extent that these Obamacare promotional activities encourage alcohol abuse, they will inevitably impose new burdens on taxpayers—and raise overall health costs, contradicting the law’s stated purpose.

Just as important, these types of theatrical “marketing” activities represent a misuse of taxpayer dollars at a time of record debt and deficits. Congress should tell the Administration to stop handing out Obamacare grants like drunken sailors and refuse to spend a single dime funding Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.

White House Budget Summary: Obama’s “One Percent” Solution

According to the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent baselines, the federal government will spend a total of $6.87 trillion on Medicare and $4.36 trillion on Medicaid over the next ten years – that’s $11.2 trillion total, not even counting additional state spending on Medicaid.  Yet President Obama’s budget, released today, contains net deficit savings of only $152 billion from health care programs.  That’s a total savings of only 1.35 percent of the trillions the federal government will spend on health care in the coming decade.  Sadly, it’s another sign the President isn’t serious about real budget and deficit reform.

Overall, the budget:

  • Proposes a total of $401 billion in savings, yet calls for $249 billion in unpaid-for spending due to the Medicare physician reimbursement “doc fix” – thus resulting in only $152 billion in net deficit savings. (The $249 billion presumes a ten year freeze of Medicare physician payments; however, the budget does NOT propose ways to pay for this new spending.)
  • Proposes few structural reforms to Medicare; those that are included – weak as they are – are not scheduled to take effect until 2017, well after President Obama leaves office.  If the proposals are so sound, why the delay?
  • Requests a more than 50% increase – totaling $1.4 billion – for program management at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, of which the vast majority would be used to implement Obamacare.
  • Includes mandatory proposals in the budget that largely track last year’s budget and the President’s September 2011 deficit proposal to Congress, with a few exceptions.  The largest difference between this year’s budget and the prior submissions is a massive increase in savings from reductions to nursing and rehabilitation facilities – $79 billion, compared to a $32.5 billion estimated impact in September 2011.

A full summary follows below.  We will have further information on the budget in the coming days.

Discretionary Spending

When compared to Fiscal Year 2013 appropriated amounts, the budget calls for the following changes in discretionary spending by major HHS divisions (tabulated by budget authority):

  • $37 million (1.5%) increase for the Food and Drug Administration (not including $770 million in increased user fees);
  • $435 million (4.9%) increase for the Health Services and Resources Administration;
  • $97 million (2.2%) increase for the Indian Health Service;
  • $344 million (5.7%) increase for the Centers for Disease Control;
  • $274 million (0.9%) increase for the National Institutes of Health; and
  • $1.4 billion (52.9%) increase for the discretionary portion of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program management account.

With regard to the above numbers for CDC and HRSA, note that these are discretionary numbers only.  The Administration’s budget also would allocate an additional $1 billion mandatory spending from the Prevention and Public Health “slush fund” created in Obamacare, further increasing spending levels.  For instance, CDC spending would be increased by an additional $755 million.

Obamacare Implementation Funding and Personnel:  As previously noted, the budget includes more than $1.4 billion in discretionary spending increases for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which the HHS Budget in Brief claims would be used to “continue implementing key provisions of [Obamacare].”  This funding would finance 712 new bureaucrats within CMS when compared to last fiscal year – a massive increase when compared to a request of 256 new FTEs in last year’s budget proposal.  Overall, the HHS budget proposes an increase of 1,311 full-time equivalent positions within the bureaucracy compared to projections for the current fiscal cycle, and an increase of 3,327 bureaucrats compared to last fiscal year.

The budget includes specific requests related to Obamacare totaling over $2 billion, including:

  • $803.5 million for “CMS activities to support [Exchanges] in FY 2014,” including funding for the federally-funded Exchange, for which the health law itself did not appropriate funding;
  • $837 million for “beneficiary education and outreach activities through the National Medicare Education program and consumer support…including $554 million for the [Exchanges];”
  • $519 million for “general IT systems and other support,” including funding for the federal Exchange;
  • $3.8 million for updates to healthcare.gov;
  • $18.4 million to oversee the medical loss ratio regulations; and
  • $24 million for administrative activities in Medicaid related to “implement[ing] new responsibilities” under Obamacare.

Exchange Funding:  The budget envisions HHS spending $1.5 billion on Exchange grants in 2013.  That’s an increase of over $300 million compared to last year’s estimate of fiscal year 2013 spending – despite the fact that most states have chosen not to create their own Exchanges.  The budget anticipates a further $2.1 billion in spending on Exchange grants in fiscal year 2014.  The health care law provides the Secretary with an unlimited amount of budget authority to fund state Exchange grants through 2015.  However, other reports have noted that the Secretary does NOT have authority to use these funds to construct a federal Exchange.

Abstinence Education Funding:  The budget proposes eliminating the abstinence education funding program, and converting those funds into a new pregnancy prevention program.

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $359.9 Billion, including interactions)

Bad Debts:  Reduces bad debt payments to providers – for unpaid cost-sharing owed by beneficiaries – from 65 percent down to 25 percent over three years, beginning in 2014.  The Simpson-Bowles Commission made similar recommendations in its final report.  Saves $25.5 billion.

Medical Education Payments:  Reduces the Indirect Medical Education adjustment paid to teaching hospitals beginning in 2014, saving $11 billion.  Previous studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) have indicated that IME payments to teaching hospitals may be greater than the actual costs the hospitals incur.

Rural Payments:  Reduces critical access hospital payments from 101% of costs to 100% of costs, saving $1.4 billion, and prohibits hospitals fewer than 10 miles away from the nearest hospital from receiving a critical access hospital designation, saving $700 million.

Anti-Fraud Provisions:  Assumes $400 million in savings from various anti-fraud provisions, including limiting the discharge of debt in bankruptcy proceedings associated with fraudulent activities.

Imaging:  Reduces imaging payments by assuming a higher level of utilization for certain types of equipment, saving $400 million.  Imposes prior authorization requirements for advanced imaging; no savings are assumed, a change from the September 2011 deficit proposal, which said prior authorization would save $900 million.

Pharmaceutical Price Controls:  Expands Medicaid price controls to dual eligible and low-income subsidy beneficiaries participating in Part D, saving $123.2 billion according to OMB.  Some have expressed concerns that further expanding government-imposed price controls to prescription drugs could harm innovation and the release of new therapies that could help cure diseases.

Medicare Drug Discounts:  Proposes accelerating the “doughnut hole” drug discount plan included in PPACA, filling in the “doughnut hole” completely by 2015.  While the budget claims this proposal will save $11.2 billion over ten years, some may be concerned that – by raising drug spending, and eliminating incentives for seniors to choose generic pharmaceuticals over brand name drugs, this provision will actually INCREASE Medicare spending, consistent with prior CBO estimates at the time of PPACA’s passage.

Post-Acute Care:  Reduces various acute-care payment updates (details not specified) and equalizes payment rates between skilled nursing facilities and inpatient rehabilitation facilities, saving $79 billion – a significant increase compared to the $56.7 billion in last year’s budget and the $32.5 billion in proposed savings under the President’s September 2011 deficit proposal.  Equalizes payments between IRFs and SNFs for certain conditions, saving $2 billion.  Adjusts payments to inpatient rehabilitation facilities and skilled nursing facilities to account for unnecessary hospital readmissions and encourage appropriate care, saving a total of $4.7 billion.  Restructures post-acute care reimbursements through the use of bundled payments, saving $8.2 billion.

Physician Payment:  Includes language extending accountability standards to physicians who self-refer for radiation therapy, therapy services, and advanced imaging services, saving $6.1 billion.  Makes adjustments to clinical laboratory payments, designed to align Medicare with private payment rates, saving $9.5 billion.  Expands availability of Medicare data for performance and quality improvement; no savings assumed.

Medicare Drugs:  Reduces payment of physician administered drugs from 106 percent of average sales price to 103 percent of average sales price.  Some may note reports that similar payment reductions, implemented as part of the sequester, have caused some cancer clinics to limit their Medicare patient load.  By including a similar proposal in his budget, President Obama has effectively endorsed these policies.  Saves $4.5 billion.

Medicare Advantage:  Resurrects a prior-year proposal to increase Medicare Advantage coding intensity adjustments; this provision would have the effect of reducing MA plan payments, based on an assumption that MA enrollees are healthier on average than those in government-run Medicare.  Saves $15.3 billion over ten years.  Also proposes $4.1 billion in additional savings by aligning employer group waiver plan payments with average MA plan bids.

Additional Means Testing:  Increases means tested premiums under Parts B and D by five percentage points, beginning in 2017.  Freezes the income thresholds at which means testing applies until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to such premiums.  Saves $50 billion over ten years, and presumably more thereafter, as additional seniors would hit the means testing threshold, subjecting them to higher premiums.

Medicare Deductible Increase:  Increases Medicare Part B deductible by $25 in 2017, 2019, and 2021 – but for new beneficiaries only; “current beneficiaries or near retirees [not defined] would not be subject to the revised deductible.”  Saves $3.3 billion.

Home Health Co-Payment:  Beginning in 2017, introduces a home health co-payment of $100 per episode for new beneficiaries only, in cases where an episode lasts five or more visits and is NOT proceeded by a hospital stay.  MedPAC has previously recommended introducing home health co-payments as a way to ensure appropriate utilization.  Saves $730 million.

Medigap Surcharge:  Imposes a Part B premium surcharge equal to about 15 percent of the average Medigap premium – or about 30 percent of the Part B premium – for seniors with Medigap supplemental insurance that provides first dollar coverage.  Applies beginning in 2017 to new beneficiaries only.  A study commissioned by MedPAC previously concluded that first dollar Medigap coverage induces beneficiaries to consume more medical services, thus increasing costs for the Medicare program and federal taxpayers.  Saves $2.9 billion.

Generic Drug Incentives:  Proposes increasing co-payments for certain brand-name drugs for beneficiaries receiving the Part D low-income subsidy, while reducing co-payments for relevant generic drugs by 15 percent, in an attempt to increase generic usage among low-income seniors currently insulated from much of the financial impact of their purchasing decisions.  Saves $6.7 billion, according to OMB.

Lower Caps on Medicare Spending:  Section 3403 of the health care law established an Independent Payment Advisory Board tasked with limiting Medicare spending to the growth of the economy plus one percentage point (GDP+1) in 2018 and succeeding years.  The White House proposal would reduce this target to GDP+0.5 percent.  The Medicare actuary has previously written that the spending adjustments contemplated by IPAB and the health care law “are unlikely to be sustainable on a permanent annual basis” and “very challenging” – problems that would be exacerbated by utilizing a slower target rate for Medicare spending growth.  According to the budget, this proposal would save $4.1 billion, mainly in 2023.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $41.1 Billion)

Limit Durable Medical Equipment Reimbursement:  Caps Medicaid reimbursements for durable medical equipment (DME) at Medicare rates, beginning in 2014.  The health care law extended and expanded a previous Medicare competitive bidding demonstration project included in the Medicare Modernization Act, resulting in savings to the Medicare program.  This proposal, by capping Medicaid reimbursements for DME at Medicare levels, would attempt to extend those savings to the Medicaid program.  Saves $4.5 billion over ten years.

Rebase Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital Payments:  Proposes beginning DSH payment reductions in 2015 instead of 2014, and “to determine future state DSH allotments based on states’ actual DSH allotments as reduced” by PPACA.  Saves $3.6 billion, all in fiscal 2023.

Medicaid Anti-Fraud Savings:  Assumes $3.7 billion in savings from a variety of Medicaid anti-fraud provisions.  Included in this amount are proposals that would remove exceptions to the requirement that Medicaid must reject payments when another party is liable for a medical claim.  A separate proposal related to the tracking of pharmaceutical price controls would save $8.8 billion.

Transitional Medical Assistance/QI Program:  Provides for temporary extensions of the Transitional Medical Assistance program, which provides Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work, along with the Qualifying Individual program, which provides assistance to low-income seniors in paying Medicare premiums.  The extensions cost $1.1 billion and $590 million, respectively.

“Pay-for-Delay:”  Prohibits brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturers from entering into arrangements that would delay the availability of new generic drugs. Some Members have previously expressed concerns that these provisions would harm innovation, and actually impede the incentives to generic manufacturers to bring cost-saving generic drugs on the market.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $11 billion.

Follow-on Biologics:  Reduces to seven years the period of exclusivity for follow-on biologics.  Current law provides for a twelve-year period of exclusivity, based upon an amendment to the health care law that was adopted on a bipartisan basis in both the House and Senate (one of the few substantive bipartisan amendments adopted).  Some Members have expressed concern that reducing the period of exclusivity would harm innovation and discourage companies from developing life-saving treatments.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $3.3 billion.

State Waivers:  Accelerates from 2017 to 2014 the date under which states can submit request for waivers of SOME of the health care law’s requirements to HHS.  While supposedly designed to increase flexibility, even liberal commentators have agreed that under the law’s state waiver programcritics of Obama’s proposal have a point: It wouldn’t allow to enact the sorts of health care reforms they would prefer” and thatconservatives can’t do any better – at least not under these rules.”  No cost is assumed; however, in its re-estimate of the President’s budget last year, CBO scored this proposal as costing $4.5 billion.

Implementation “Slush Fund:”  Proposes $400 million in new spending for HHS to implement the proposals listed above.

FEHB Contracting:  Similar to last year’s budget, proposes streamlining pharmacy benefit contracting within the Federal Employee Health Benefits program, by centralizing pharmaceutical benefit contracting within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), saving $1.6 billion.  However, this year’s budget goes further in restructuring FEHBP – OPM would also be empowered to modernize benefit designs (savings of $264 million); create a “self-plus-one” benefit option for federal employees and extend benefits to domestic partners (total savings of $5.2 billion, despite the costs inherent in the latter option); and adjust premium levels based on tobacco usage and/or participation in wellness programs (savings of $1.3 billion).  Some individuals, noting that OPM is also empowered to create “multi-state plans” as part of the health care overhaul, may be concerned that these provisions could be part of a larger plan to make OPM the head of a de facto government-run health plan.

Other Health Care Proposal of Note

Tax Credit:  The Treasury Green Book proposes expanding the small business health insurance tax credit included in the health care law.   Specifically, the budget would expand the number of employers eligible for the credit to include all employers with up to 50 full-time workers; firms with under 20 workers would be eligible for the full credit.  (Currently those levels are 25 and 10 full-time employees, respectively.)  The budget also changes the coordination of the two phase-outs based on a firm’s average wage and number of employees, with the changes designed to make more companies eligible for a larger credit.  The changes would begin in the current calendar and tax year (i.e., 2013).  According to OMB, these changes would cost $10.4 billion over ten years – down from last year’s estimate of $14 billion over ten years.  Many may view this proposal as a tacit admission that the credit included in the law was a failure, because its limited reach and complicated nature – firms must fill out seven worksheets to determine their eligibility – have deterred American job creators from receiving this subsidy.  Moreover, the reduced score in this year’s budget compared to last year’s implies that even this expansion of the credit will have a less robust impact than originally anticipated.

How the Status Quo Leaves Medicare Ripe for Abuse

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran its second major expose in as many months about abuses in the Medicare program.  Last month’s article was about the way drug companies abused reimbursement for anti-anemia drugs; yesterday’s piece focused on providers “up-coding” – that is, claiming to see patients for longer and more intense visits, so as to claim higher reimbursement from Medicare.  The article notes the practice has become widespread, and costs Medicare billions annually:

Thousands of doctors and other medical professionals have billed Medicare for increasingly complicated and costly treatments over the past decade, adding $11 billion or more to their fees — and signaling a possible rise in medical billing abuse, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity.

Between 2001 and 2010, doctors increasingly moved to higher-paying codes for billing Medicare for office visits while cutting back on lower-paying ones, according to a year-long examination of about 362 million claims.  In 2001, the two highest codes were listed on about 25 percent of the doctor-visit claims; in 2010, they were on 40 percent.  Similarly, hospitals sharply stepped up the use of the highest codes for emergency room visits while cutting back on the lowest codes….

Medicare billing data do not indicate that patients are getting more infirm, as their reasons for visiting their doctors were essentially unchanged over time. And annual surveys by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found little increase in the amount of time physicians spend with patients.  That suggests that at least part of the shift to higher codes is due to “upcoding” — also known as “code creep” — a form of bill-padding in which doctors and others bill Medicare for more expensive services than were actually delivered, according to health experts and the data analysis by the center.

Because physicians and hospitals are paid by Medicare in a fee-for-service format according to the services they perform, many have discovered that they can get paid more by billing for more, and/or more intense, procedures and services.  Ironically, the Post article notes that “the aggressive push to electronic medical records” – which Obama Administration officials claimed would lower health costs – “is likely fueling the trend toward higher codes” and greater Medicare spending.

What does Obamacare do to change fee-for-service medicine?  The answer ranges from “precious little” to “not enough.”  The law does include various demonstration programs designed to improve coordination of care, and shift emphasis back towards primary care physicians.  But the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, in a January report analyzing dozens of Medicare demonstration programs over decades, said these programs did not contain health costs – because of the flawed and perverse incentives included in fee-for-service medicine:

The evaluations show that most programs have not reduced Medicare spending….Demonstrations aimed at reducing spending and increasing quality of care face significant challenges in overcoming the incentives inherent in Medicare’s fee-for-service payment system, which rewards providers for delivering more care

Ironically, Medicare premium support could encourage a movement away from fee-for-service medicine – by offering an avenue for providers and insurers to come up with new and innovative payment methods that focus on value and quality rather than performing services.  But President Obama and liberal Democrats have decided to oppose these reforms – which means that, under President Obama, we’re likely to see even more stories about how Medicare providers are manipulating and abusing the reimbursement system to the tune of billions of dollars.

Three Things You Need to Know about Today’s Census Uninsured Report

The Census Bureau released their annual report on poverty, income, and the uninsured this morning; the report is now online and can be found here.  Important facts you need to know from the health insurance section of the report:

  1. Uninsured Numbers Fall Slightly:  The total number of uninsured fell to 48.6 million, a decrease of just over 1.3 million compared to 2010’s level of 50.0 million uninsured.  The uninsured rate fell 0.6 percentage points to 15.7 percent.  It’s also worth noting that the coverage gains, while modest, were relatively consistent across all age, income, and demographic categories – so while the Administration will attempt to attribute most or all of the coverage gains to the under-26 insurance mandate, other factors were also clearly involved.
  2. Public Coverage Rises Significantly:  While the number of individuals with private insurance rose by about 800,000 individuals, with most of that increase coming from employer-based coverage, the number of individuals with government-provided health insurance rose appreciably.  Public insurance coverage increased by 3.9 million, led by an increase in Medicaid enrollment of 2.3 million.  The Medicare population also rose by about 2 million, likely reflecting both the retirement of the first Baby Boomers and an increase in disability claims due to the recession. (Note that some people can be enrolled in multiple public programs, explaining why the increase in public insurance coverage is less than the combined increase in Medicaid and Medicare coverage.)
  3. SCHIP Crowd-Out Grows:  Today’s report saw a continuation of existing trend, in which millions of children have lost private insurance coverage and gained coverage through government programs.  Since 2007, the number of children enrolled in private insurance has fallen by nearly 4 million, while the number of children enrolled in Medicaid (which also includes SCHIP) has risen by nearly 5.4 million, or more than 25%.  As a reminder, a significant expansion of SCHIP was enacted in February 2009.  While it’s unlikely that the entire migration from employer-sponsored coverage to Medicaid was caused by individuals voluntarily dropping out of employer coverage to enroll in government-sponsored coverage, it likely contributed to this ongoing migration.

Also of interest is a breakout of the various cohorts of the uninsured:

  • The number of non-citizens (both legal and illegal) without health insurance rose totaled 9.7 million.  Non-citizens comprise just under one-fifth of the total number of uninsured.
  • According to supplemental data, the number of uninsured individuals with household incomes under $25,000 totaled 19.1 million, or nearly 40% of the 48.6 million uninsured.  Many of these individuals may be eligible for public assistance through Medicaid and SCHIP.  Also, as noted in greater detail below, a significant number of these uninsured may in fact already be enrolled in public insurance programs, but their insurance status is not accurately reported by the Census data.)
  • The number of uninsured individuals with household incomes over $75,000 totaled 7.5 million, or just over 15% of the 48.6 million uninsured.  Many of these individuals may be able to obtain coverage on their own, but may choose not to do so if they do not consider the insurance policies offered to be of value to them.

Both a specific and a general caveat on the Census data.  First, the income-based data cited in the two bullets directly above may have reliability issues, particularly when compared to prior year reports.  For instance, last year’s Census report found 16.1 million uninsured in families with household incomes under $25,000.  For this particular group of uninsured to rise by 3 million (from 16.1 million in last year’s report to 19.1 million today), at a time when the uninsured population as a whole was falling by 1.3 million, seems contradictory.  This potential anomaly may explain why the income-based data were relegated to a supplemental spreadsheet on the Census website this year, rather than being placed in the report itself, as was the custom in prior years.

Second, and more generally, while the Census Bureau figure of uninsured Americans is among the most widely reported, it is far from the only measure used – or the most accurate.  Many indicators confirm that the Census survey represents a “point-in-time” snapshot of the uninsured population at any given moment, and does not reflect the number of individuals without insurance for long periods of time – those in most need of assistance.  For instance, while the Census report found 50.7 million uninsured in 2009, a separate study by the Centers for Disease Control found that 32.8 million Americans were uninsured for one year or longer in 2009, and a survey of health spending conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services found 41.3 million non-elderly Americans lacked coverage for all of 2009.  In 2009, the Census survey saw a larger jump in the number of uninsured than the other two reports, which could be a result of methodological flaws, and/or the fact that many of the uninsured lacked health coverage for periods of less than a year. (For a further discussion of these issues, see also a 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation brief comparing the uninsured surveys, as well as a 2003 CBO analysis of the long-term uninsured.)

It is also worth noting that the Census survey relies on individuals to self-report their insurance status, and some individuals may not remember periods of health insurance coverage.  Adding a “residual” question to the Census survey in 2000 – to confirm that those without employer, individual, or government coverage were in fact uninsured – reduced the number of uninsured Americans by 8 percent.  One survey conducted for the Department of Health and Human Services in 2005 adjusted for the number of individuals which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reported were enrolled in Medicaid, but who did not report insurance coverage for the Census survey.  Such adjustments for the Medicaid undercount reduced the number of uninsured by about 9 million – or one-fifth of the total uninsured – and the number of uninsured children by half.  For these reasons, the Census Bureau report itself admits that “health insurance coverage is underreported [in the Census data] for a variety of reasons,” meaning that by Census’ own admission, the number of uninsured is lower than its report indicates.

White House Budget Summary

Overall, the budget:

  • Proposes $362 billion in savings, yet calls for $429 billion in unpaid-for spending due to the Medicare physician reimbursement “doc fix” – thus resulting in a net increase in the deficit. (The $429 billion presumes a ten year freeze of Medicare physician payments; however, the budget does NOT propose ways to pay for this new spending.)
  • Proposes few structural reforms to Medicare; those that are included – weak as they are – are not scheduled to take effect until 2017, well after President Obama leaves office.  If the proposals are so sound, why the delay?
  • Requests just over $1 billion for program management at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, of which the vast majority – $864 million – would be used to implement the health care law.
  • Requests more than half a billion dollars for comparative effectiveness research, which many may be concerned could result in government bureaucrats imposing cost-based limits on treatments.
  • Includes mandatory proposals in the budget that largely track the September deficit proposal to Congress, with a few exceptions.  The budget does NOT include proposals to reduce Medicare frontier state payments, even though this policy was included in the September proposal.  The budget also does not include recovery provisions regarding Medicare Advantage payments to insurers; however, the Administration has indicated they intend to implement this provision administratively.
  • Does not include a proposal relating to Medicaid eligibility levels included in the September submission, as that proposal was enacted into law in November (P.L. 112-56).

 

Discretionary Spending

When compared to Fiscal Year 2012 appropriated amounts, the budget calls for the following changes in discretionary spending by major HHS divisions (tabulated by budget authority):

  • $12 million (0.5%) increase for the Food and Drug Administration – along with a separate proposed $643 million increase in FDA user fees;
  • $138 million (2.2%) decrease for the Health Services and Resources Administration;
  • $116 million (2.7%) increase for the Indian Health Service;
  • $664 million (11.5%) decrease for the Centers for Disease Control;
  • No net change in funding for the National Institutes of Health;
  • $1 billion (26.2%) increase for the discretionary portion of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program management account; and
  • $29 million (5.0%) increase for the discretionary Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control fund.

With regard to the above numbers for CDC and HRSA, note that these are discretionary numbers only.  The Administration’s budget also would allocate additional $1.25 billion in mandatory spending from the new Prevention and Public Health “slush fund” created in the health care law, likely eliminating any real budgetary savings (despite the appearance of same above).

Other Health Care Points of Note

Tax Credit:  The Treasury Green Book proposes expanding the small business health insurance tax credit included in the health care law.   Specifically, the budget would expand the number of employers eligible for the credit to include all employers with up to 50 full-time workers; firms with under 20 workers would be eligible for the full credit.  (Currently those levels are 25 and 10 full-time employees, respectively.)  The budget also changes the coordination of the two phase-outs based on a firm’s average wage and number of employees, with the changes designed to make more companies eligible for a larger credit.  According to OMB, these changes would cost $14 billion over ten years.  Many may view this proposal as a tacit admission that the credit included in the law was a failure, because its limited reach and complicated nature – firms must fill out seven worksheets to determine their eligibility – have deterred American job creators from receiving this subsidy.

Comparative Effectiveness Research:  The budget proposes a total of $599 million in funding for comparative effectiveness research.  Only $78 million of this money comes from existing funds included in the health care law – meaning the Administration has proposed discretionary spending of more than $500 million on comparative effectiveness research.  Some have previously expressed concerns that this research could be used to restrict access to treatments perceived as too costly by federal bureaucrats.  It is also worth noting that this new $520 million in research funding would NOT be subject to the anti-rationing provisions included in the health care law.  Section 218 of this year’s omnibus appropriations measure included a prohibition on HHS using funds to engage in cost-effectiveness research, a provision which this budget request would presumably seek to overturn.

Obamacare Implementation Funding and Personnel:  As previously noted, the budget includes more than $1 billion in discretionary spending increases for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which the HHS Budget in Brief claims would be used to “continue implementing [Obamacare], including Exchanges.”  This funding would finance 256 new bureaucrats within CMS, many of whom would likely be used to implement the law.  Overall, the HHS budget proposes an increase of 1,393 full-time equivalent positions within the bureaucracy.

Specific details of the $1 billion in implementation funding include:

  • $290 million for “consumer support in the private marketplace;”
  • $549 million for “general IT systems and other support,” including funding for the federally-funded Exchange, for which the health law itself did not appropriate funding;
  • $18 million for updates to healthcare.gov;
  • $15 million to oversee the medical loss ratio regulations; and
  • $30 million for consumer assistance grants.

Exchange Funding:  The budget envisions HHS spending $1.1 billion on Exchange grants in 2013, a $180 million increase over the current fiscal year.  The health care law provides the Secretary with an unlimited amount of budget authority to fund state Exchange grants through 2015.  However, other reports have noted that the Secretary does NOT have authority to use these funds to construct a federal Exchange, in the event some states choose not to implement their own state-based Exchanges.

Abstinence Education Funding:  The budget proposes eliminating the abstinence education funding program, and converting those funds into a new pregnancy prevention program.

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $292.2 Billion)

Bad Debts:  Reduces bad debt payments to providers – for unpaid cost-sharing owed by beneficiaries – from 70 percent down to 25 percent over three years, beginning in 2013.  The Fiscal Commission had made similar recommendations in its final report.  Saves $35.9 billion.

Medical Education Payments:  Reduces the Indirect Medical Education adjustment paid to teaching hospitals by 10 percent beginning in 2014, saving $9.7 billion.  Previous studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) have indicated that IME payments to teaching hospitals may be greater than the actual costs the hospitals incur.

Rural Payments:  Reduces critical access hospital payments from 101% of costs to 100% of costs, saving $1.4 billion, and prohibits hospitals fewer than 10 miles away from the nearest hospital from receiving a critical access hospital designation, saving $590 million.  The budget does NOT include a proposal to end add-on payments for providers in frontier states, which was included in the President’s September deficit proposal.

Post-Acute Care:  Reduces various acute-care payment updates (details not specified) during the years 2013 through 2022, saving $56.7 billion – a significant increase compared to the $32.5 billion in savings under the President’s September deficit proposal.  Equalizes payment rates between skilled nursing facilities and inpatient rehabilitation facilities, saving $2 billion.  Increases the minimum percentage of inpatient rehabilitation facility patients that require intensive rehabilitation from 60 percent to 75 percent, saving $2.3 billion.  Reduces skilled nursing facility payments by up to 3%, beginning in 2015, for preventable readmissions, saving $2 billion.

Pharmaceutical Price Controls:  Expands Medicaid price controls to dual eligible and low-income subsidy beneficiaries participating in Part D, saving $155.6 billion according to OMB.  Some have expressed concerns that further expanding government-imposed price controls to prescription drugs could harm innovation and the release of new therapies that could help cure diseases.

Anti-Fraud Provisions:  Assumes $450 million in savings from various anti-fraud provisions, including limiting the discharge of debt in bankruptcy proceedings associated with fraudulent activities.

EHR Penalties:  Re-directs Medicare reimbursement penalties against physicians who do not engage in electronic prescribing beginning in 2020 back into the Medicare program.  The “stimulus” legislation that enacted the health IT provisions had originally required that penalties to providers be placed into the Medicare Improvement Fund; the budget would instead re-direct those revenues into the general fund, to finance the “doc fix” and related provisions.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $590 million; when included in last year’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $3.2 billion.

Imaging:  Reduces imaging payments by assuming a higher level of utilization for certain types of equipment, saving $400 million.  Also imposes prior authorization requirements for advanced imaging; no savings are assumed, a change from the September deficit proposal, which said prior authorization would save $900 million.

Additional Means Testing:  Increases means tested premiums under Parts B and D by 15%, beginning in 2017.  Freezes the income thresholds at which means testing applies until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to such premiums.  Saves $27.6 billion over ten years, and presumably more thereafter, as additional seniors would hit the means testing threshold, subject them to higher premiums.

Medicare Deductible Increase:  Increases Medicare Part B deductible by $25 in 2017, 2019, and 2021 – but for new beneficiaries only; “current beneficiaries or near retirees [not defined] would not be subject to the revised deductible.”  Saves $2 billion.

Home Health Co-Payment:  Beginning in 2017, introduces a home health co-payment of $100 per episode for new beneficiaries only, in cases where an episode lasts five or more visits and is NOT proceeded by a hospital stay.  MedPAC has previously recommended introducing home health co-payments as a way to ensure appropriate utilization.  Saves $350 million.

Medigap Surcharge:  Imposes a Part B premium surcharge equal to about 15 percent of the average Medigap premium – or about 30 percent of the Part B premium – for seniors with Medigap supplemental insurance that provides first dollar coverage.  Applies beginning in 2017 to new beneficiaries only.  A study commissioned by MedPAC previously concluded that first dollar Medigap coverage induces beneficiaries to consume more medical services, thus increasing costs for the Medicare program and federal taxpayers.  Saves $2.5 billion.

Lower Caps on Medicare Spending:  Section 3403 of the health care law established an Independent Payment Advisory Board tasked with limiting Medicare spending to the growth of the economy plus one percentage point (GDP+1) in 2018 and succeeding years.  The White House proposal would reduce this target to GDP+0.5 percent.  This approach has two potential problems:

  • First, under the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent baseline, IPAB recommendations would not be triggered at all – so it’s unclear whether the new, lower target level would actually generate measurable budgetary savings.  (In August 2010, CBO concluded an IPAB with an overall cap of GDP+1 would yield $13.8 billion in savings through 2020 – not enough to make a measurable impact on a program spending $500 billion per year.)
  • Second, the Medicare actuary has previously written that the spending adjustments contemplated by IPAB and the health care law “are unlikely to be sustainable on a permanent annual basis” and “very challenging” – problems that would be exacerbated by utilizing a slower target rate for Medicare spending growth.

According to the budget, this proposal would NOT achieve additional deficit savings.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $70.4 Billion)

Medicaid Provider Taxes:  Reduces limits on Medicaid provider tax thresholds, beginning in 2015; the tax threshold would be reduced over a three year period, to 3.5 percent in 2017 and future years.  State provider taxes are a financing method whereby states impose taxes on medical providers, and use these provider tax revenues to obtain additional federal Medicaid matching funds, thereby increasing the federal share of Medicaid expenses paid while decreasing the state share of expenses.  The Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006, enacted by a Republican Congress, capped the level of Medicaid provider taxes, and the Bush Administration proposed additional rules to reform Medicaid funding rules – rules that were blocked by the Democrat-run 110th Congress.  However, there is bipartisan support for addressing ways in which states attempt to “game” the Medicaid system, through provider taxes and other related methods, to obtain unwarranted federal matching funds – the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities previously wrote about a series of “Rube Goldberg-like accounting arrangements” that “do not improve the quality of health care provided” and “frequently operate in a manner that siphons extra federal money to state coffers without affecting the provision of health care.”  This issue was also addressed in the fiscal commission’s report, although the commission exceeded the budget proposals by suggesting that Congress enact legislation “restricting and eventually eliminating” provider taxes, saving $44 billion.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $21.8 billion.

Blended Rate:  Proposes “replac[ing]…complicated federal matching formulas” in Medicaid “with a single matching rate specific to each state that automatically increases if a recession forces enrollment and state costs to rise.”  Details are unclear, but the Administration claims $17.9 billion in savings from this proposal – much less than the $100 billion figure bandied about in previous reports last summer.  It is also worth noting that the proposal could actually INCREASE the deficit, if a prolonged recession triggers the automatic increases in the federal Medicaid match referenced in the proposal.  On a related note, the budget once again ignores the governors’ multiple requests for flexibility from the mandates included in the health care law – unfunded mandates on states totaling at least $118 billion.

Transitional Medical Assistance/QI Program:  Provides for temporary extensions of the Transitional Medical Assistance program, which provides Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work, along with the Qualifying Individual program, which provides assistance to low-income seniors in paying Medicare premiums.  The extensions cost $815 million and $1.7 billion, respectively.

Limit Durable Medical Equipment Reimbursement:  Caps Medicaid reimbursements for durable medical equipment (DME) at Medicare rates, beginning in 2013.  The health care law extended and expanded a previous Medicare competitive bidding demonstration project included in the Medicare Modernization Act, resulting in savings to the Medicare program.  This proposal, by capping Medicaid reimbursements for DME at Medicare levels, would attempt to extend those savings to the Medicaid program.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $3 billion; when included in the President’s budget last year, these changes were scored as saving $6.4 billion.

Rebase Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital Payments:  In 2021 and 2022, reallocates Medicaid DSH payments to hospitals treating low-income patients, based on states’ actual 2020 allotments (as amended and reduced by the health care law).  Saves $8.3 billion.

Medicaid Anti-Fraud Savings:  Assumes $3.2 billion in savings from a variety of Medicaid anti-fraud provisions, largely through tracking and enforcement of various provisions related to pharmaceuticals.  Included in this amount are proposals that would remove exceptions to the requirement that Medicaid must reject payments when another party is liable for a medical claim.

Flexibility on Benchmark Plans:  Proposes some new flexibility for states to require Medicaid “benchmark” plan coverage for non-elderly, non-disabled adults – but ONLY those with incomes above 133 percent of the federal poverty level (i.e., NOT the new Medicaid population obtaining coverage under the health care law).  No savings assumed.

“Pay-for-Delay:”  Prohibits brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturers from entering into arrangements that would delay the availability of new generic drugs.  Some Members have previously expressed concerns that these provisions would harm innovation, and actually impede the incentives to generic manufacturers to bring cost-saving generic drugs on the market.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $11 billion.

Follow-on Biologics:  Reduces to seven years the period of exclusivity for follow-on biologics.  Current law provides for a twelve-year period of exclusivity, based upon an amendment to the health care law that was adopted on a bipartisan basis in both the House and Senate (one of the few substantive bipartisan amendments adopted).  Some Members have expressed concern that reducing the period of exclusivity would harm innovation and discourage companies from developing life-saving treatments.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $3.8 billion.

FEHB Contracting:  Proposes streamlining pharmacy benefit contracting within the Federal Employee Health Benefits program, by centralizing pharmaceutical benefit contracting within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  Some individuals, noting that OPM is also empowered to create “multi-state plans” as part of the health care overhaul, may be concerned that these provisions could be part of a larger plan to make OPM the head of a de facto government-run health plan.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $1.7 billion.

Prevention “Slush Fund:”  Reduces spending by $4 billion on the Prevention and Public Health Fund created in the health care law.  Some Members have previously expressed concern that this fund would be used to fund projects like jungle gyms and bike paths, questionable priorities for the use of federal taxpayer dollars in a time of trillion-dollar deficits.

State Waivers:  Accelerates from 2017 to 2014 the date under which states can submit request for waivers of SOME of the health care law’s requirements to HHS.  While supposedly designed to increase flexibility, even liberal commentators have agreed that under the law’s state waiver programcritics of Obama’s proposal have a point: It wouldn’t allow to enact the sorts of health care reforms they would prefer” and thatconservatives can’t do any better – at least not under these rules.”  The proposal states that “the Administration is committed to the budget neutrality of these waivers;” however, the plan allocates $4 billion in new spending “to account for the possibility that CBO will estimate costs for this proposal.”

Implementation “Slush Fund:”  Proposes $400 million in new spending for HHS to implement the proposals listed above.

Health Provisions in Labor-HHS Appropriations Measure

As you are probably aware, the House introduced an omnibus appropriations bill early this morning; the Labor-HHS division of the bill can be found here.  A few policy points worth highlighting:

  • The bill includes a ban on HHS funding of needle exchange programs; according to the House Appropriations Committee, this provision had been included in the bill prior to Fiscal Year 2010.
  • The bill also includes a blanket ban on HHS funds being used “in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.”  According to the House Appropriations Committee, this ban had previously been confined solely to Centers for Disease Control funds.
  • The bill rescinds $400 million from the co-operative grant program included in Section 1322 of Obamacare.  As you may recall, $2.2 billion of the original $6 billion in funding was rescinded in the six-month continuing resolution (P.L. 112-10).  This additional rescission means $3.4 billion in co-operative funding would remain available.
  • The bill rescinds $10 million of the $15 million in mandatory funding for the Independent Payment Advisory Board provided in Section 3403 of Obamacare.
  • The bill rescinds approximately $6.4 billion in performance bonuses created in the 2009 SCHIP reauthorization (P.L. 111-3).
  • The bill requires the Secretary to establish “a publicly accessible website to provide information” regarding funds spent in the Prevention and Public Health Fund created by Section 4002 of Obamacare.  Grants over $25,000 would have to be publicly identified within 5 days of award, and recipients would have to provide semi-annual reports on their activities.  Some Members have previously expressed concern first that this fund would be used to fund questionable projects like jungle gyms and bike paths, and second that this fund suffers from accountability problems due to the mandatory, auto-pilot nature of the spending.  The President’s September deficit submission proposed reducing spending on the Fund by $3.5 billion over ten years.
  • The bill also  contains several prohibitions on grant funding from the Prevention and Public Health Fund from being used “for publicity or propaganda purposes,” or to fund the salaries of lobbyists.  This section also includes a prohibition on Prevention Fund monies being used to promote tax increases or “the advocacy or promotion of gun control.”

A full summary featuring several top-line spending numbers for the Labor-HHS bill can be found on the appropriations website here.  One particular note of caution if you’re trying to analyze the bill itself:  The last section of the bill includes an across-the-board rescission of 0.189 percent, so the actual spending levels under the bill would be lower than the bill’s plain text.

A Preview of Tomorrow’s Census Report on the Uninsured

Tomorrow at 10 AM, the Census Bureau will be releasing its annual update on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage for 2010.  Several things to keep in mind ahead of the report’s release:

New Methodology:  Tomorrow’s Census figures on the uninsured will be released using a new method for imputing health coverage to individuals that do not respond to the health insurance survey question.  Liberal groups are claiming this revision will somewhat increase the number of Americans with health insurance, which would tend to reduce the number of reported uninsured.  Past year’s uninsured data will be revised in tomorrow’s report to reflect the new methodological format.  This is not the first time the Census methodology has been revised; many economists and statistical experts have questioned its accuracy of its uninsured estimates.  (See more at the bottom of this e-mail.)

Failed “Stimulus” Means Millions More Uninsured:  One of the prime reasons the number of uninsured is expected to increase again this year (methodological changes notwithstanding) is that the Obama Administration’s “stimulus” failed to bring down unemployment to promised levels.  Because most Americans obtain health coverage through employment, millions more Americans would be insured if the unemployment rate were at the 6.4% level the White House promised it would be today once the “stimulus” passed, rather than the 9.1% it actually stands at.

5,110,000:  Remember Democrats’ repeated claims that “every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage?”  The number was invoked frequently during the health care debate, and President Obama even cited the statistic in his September 2009 speech to Congress.  The statistic hasn’t been repeated often since the law passed, probably because its major coverage expansions don’t take effect until 2014.  But if the Democrat claims were true, and 14,000 Americans lost their health insurance every day, the Census report will show the number of uninsured Americans rose by 5.1 million in 2010.  However, the dubious assumptions behind the statistic make it likely that any potential increase in the number of uninsured won’t match the earlier predictions.  (The short version of the story: The Center for American Progress came up with the 14,000 estimate at a time when the economy was shedding more than 500,000 jobs monthly, which is not the case now.)

Uninsured Number vs. Rate:  While press accounts of the Census report tend to focus on the number of uninsured Americans, the uninsured rate has remained relatively constant for most of the past two decades (last year being an exception).  Economists tend to emphasize the unemployment rate – and not the total number of unemployed workers – as the most accurate picture of economic health, as the former reduces the impact of population growth.  For instance, while there are currently over 2 million more workers unemployed than there were during the 1982-83 recession, the unemployment rate is (slightly) below levels reached during that downturn, because the American workforce has grown by more than 40 million workers over the past three decades.  Some may therefore argue that the uninsured rate, as opposed to the number of uninsured overall, may present a more accurate picture of the health insurance system.

Uninsured Rate vs. Unemployment Rate:  The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ August employment report found a total unemployment rate – including discouraged workers who have left the workforce and part-time workers who cannot find full-time employment – of 16.2 percent.  It is likely that, for the third straight year, the percentage of individuals seeking full-time work who cannot find it will approach or exceed the percentage of individuals without health coverage – a pattern not previously seen for at least two decades.  This dynamic may cause many to question the logic of Obamacare’s more than $800 billion in tax increases at a time of record unemployment.

Cohorts of the Uninsured:  Former National Economic Council Director Keith Hennessey has analyzed the various groups within the uninsured population to ascertain who might need assistance to purchase health coverage.  The numbers are now dated (based on 2007 Census data), but it’s the best explanation out there of groups of the uninsured – those who are enrolled in Medicaid and/or SCHIP but aren’t reported on the Census survey as such, those who are eligible for Medicaid but haven’t enrolled, non-citizens, individuals who could likely afford to buy some form of health insurance, and the “young invincibles.”

More on Survey Methodology:  While the Census Bureau figure of uninsured Americans is among the most widely reported, it is far from the only measure used – or the most accurate.  Many indicators confirm that the Census survey represents a “point-in-time” snapshot of the uninsured population at any given moment, and does not reflect the number of individuals without insurance for long periods of time – those in most need of assistance.  For instance, while last year’s Census report found 50.7 million uninsured in 2009, a separate study by the Centers for Disease Control found that 32.8 million Americans were uninsured for one year or longer in 2009, and a survey of health spending conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services found 41.3 million non-elderly Americans lacked coverage for all of 2009.  In 2009, the Census survey saw a larger jump in the number of uninsured than the other two reports, which could be a result of methodological flaws, and/or the fact that many of the uninsured lacked health coverage for periods of less than a year. (For a further discussion of these issues, see also a 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation brief comparing the uninsured surveys, as well as a 2003 CBO analysis of the long-term uninsured.)

It is also worth noting that the Census survey relies on individuals to self-report their insurance status, and some individuals may not remember periods of health insurance coverage.  Adding a “residual” question to the Census survey in 2000 – to confirm that those without employer, individual, or government coverage were in fact uninsured – reduced the number of uninsured Americans by 8 percent.  One survey conducted for the Department of Health and Human Services in 2005 adjusted for the number of individuals which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reported were enrolled in Medicaid, but who did not report insurance coverage for the Census survey.  Such adjustments for the Medicaid undercount reduced the number of uninsured by about 9 million – or one-fifth of the total uninsured – and the number of uninsured children by half.  For these reasons, the Census Bureau report itself admits that “health insurance coverage is underreported [in the Census data] for a variety of reasons,” meaning that by Census’ own admission, the number of uninsured is lower than its report indicates.