Medical Loss Ratios

Background:  The term medical loss ratio refers to the percentage of health insurance premium costs used to pay medical claims, as opposed to overhead for various administrative expenses or surplus/profit for the insurance carrier.  For example, a medical loss ratio of 70% indicates that 70 cents of every premium dollar is spent on claims for medical services, with 30 cents dedicated towards administrative expenses, marketing costs, related overhead, and any profit for the carrier.  While the medical loss ratios of publicly-traded insurance carriers are available in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), privately-held and not-for-profit insurers often do not face similar public reporting and disclosure requirements.

Legislative History:  In July 2007, Section 414 of H.R. 3162, the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act, proposed several reporting requirements and restrictions on Medicare Advantage (MA) plans with respect to their medical loss ratios.  Specifically, the bill required MA plans to submit information to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regarding overall expenses on medical claims, marketing and sales, indirect and direct administration, and any medical reinsurance.  The Secretary would be required to publish this information annually.

In addition to the reporting requirements outlined above, the CHAMP Act also proposed punitive measures against MA plans which did not meet new federal requirements with respect to their medical loss ratios.  Subsection (c) of Section 414 proposed sanctions for MA plans which did not spend at least 85% of payments received (both from the federal government and beneficiary premiums) on medical services: plans below the ratio for one year would receive a decrease in their funding rate, plans below the ratio for three years would be banned from enrolling new beneficiaries, and plans below the ratio for five years would be terminated from the Medicare Advantage program.  While the bill passed the House by a 225-204 vote, the Senate has yet to take up the measure.

Presidential and State Proposals:  The actions proposed by House Democrats last year with respect to Medicare Advantage plans are consistent with the proposals advocated by the Democrat candidates for President.  During her campaign, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) proposed an unspecified minimum medical loss ratio for insurers, because “premiums collected by insurers must be dedicated to the provision of high-quality care, not excessive profits and marketing.”[1]   Similarly, the health plan of Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) dedicates a section of his platform to explaining why insurance carriers’ “record profits” constitute “needless waste,” and pledges that “in markets where the insurance business is not competitive enough, [the Obama] plan will force insurers to pay out a reasonable share of their premiums for patient care instead of keeping exorbitant amounts for profits and administration.”[2]  However, the plan does not specify what constitutes a “competitive” state insurance market, nor the level of a “reasonable” medical loss ratio.

In recent months, several state-based efforts to reform health care have incorporated proposals to regulate medical loss ratios by insurers.  Proposals in California, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin have all discussed setting a minimum medical loss ratio, often at 85%.  While some states currently do impose minimum medical loss ratios, these are significantly lower than the proposed new standards; in some cases, minimum ratios are designed to ensure that the policy is a bona fide insurance product, rather than attempting to influence the structure of an insurance policy or the business model of an insurance carrier.

Medicare Advantage Reports:  This week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report requested by Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) regarding profit levels by Medicare Advantage plans.  The report noted that in 2005, Medicare Advantage plans’ actual profits were higher, and their medical and administrative expenditures lower, than originally projected before the start of the contract year.  However, even the lower-than-expected percentage of revenue devoted to medical expenses—85.7%—exceeded the minimum loss ratio proposed by Congressional Democrats under the CHAMP Act.[3]  GAO also conceded that the disparity between actual and projected expenses had no impact on the total payments made to Medicare Advantage plans.[4]

In response to the GAO report, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) pointed out that contract bids for Medicare Advantage plans in 2005 were submitted under a since-replaced bidding formula, and have since been subjected to more stringent actuarial standards with respect to the accuracy of the original projections—both of which would tend to cast doubts on the relevancy of the three-year-old data on the current Medicare Advantage program.  Additionally, the fact that nearly half of the “unexpected” profits arose from a single Medicare Advantage plan raises additional questions as to whether the disparity between projected and actual medical expenditures is a system-wide problem or a relatively confined anomaly.[5]

Some conservatives may view higher-than-projected profits for Medicare Advantage plans as consistent with the free-market principles that encourage companies—in this case, private health insurers—to improve efficiencies in the hope of generating improvements for their customers and a return to their investors.  The fact that nearly half of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries were covered by plans with lower-than-expected administrative and non-medical expenses could suggest that plans took steps to reduce bureaucracies that made their delivery more efficient.[6]  Moreover, to the extent that improved care management tools implemented by insurance carriers resulted in lower-than-expected medical expenditures for plans, conservatives may argue that allowing Medicare Advantage carriers to retain these profits is not only appropriate, but desirable.

Moreover, another GAO report released in February injected a note of caution regarding attempts to use headlines about Medicare Advantage plan profits to regulate medical loss ratios, noting that “there is no definitive standard for what a medical loss ratio should be.”[7]  In the February report, officials at CMS commented that some plans may consider certain care management services an administrative expense, while other plans may classify these costs as medical treatments.  The fact that Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs)—which are traditionally known for intensive care management techniques, and whose per-beneficiary costs are slightly lower than those for traditional fee-for-service Medicare—had the highest percentage of beneficiaries in plans under the 85% threshold ratio included in the CHAMP Act demonstrates the inherent difficulties in applying a single regulatory standard to all types of insurance.[8]

Conclusion:  The issue of regulating medical loss ratios, although not as prominent as other elements of Democrat proposals for health care reform, nevertheless deserves scrutiny.  An article in the journal Health Affairs concluded that medical loss ratios had little correlation to the quality of care provided by carriers; moreover, the article’s discussion of the loss ratio as an inherently arbitrary measure dovetails with the unintended consequences of applying a one-size-fits-all standard for health insurance.  For instance, individual insurance plans face higher administrative charges than group policies, because of the increased costs associated with selling policies on a person-to-person basis, as opposed to the hundreds or thousands of beneficiaries who obtain insurance through a single group employer.  Additionally, regulating medical loss ratios may prompt some insurance carriers to stop offering high-deductible insurance plans—which, due to their smaller premiums, may have greater difficulty meeting a federally-imposed standard—thus diminishing the impact of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which have over the past few years helped slow the growth of health insurance premiums.

More broadly, some conservatives may be concerned that regulating medical loss ratios represents an effort by Democrats to impose price controls on the health insurance industry.  Proposals such as those included in the CHAMP Act are unlikely to result in higher spending on medical claims, or lower profits for insurance companies; carriers could instead choose to reduce administrative costs in order to comply with a mandated medical loss ratio, resulting in additional delays for beneficiaries seeking to have their claims processed.

An alternative solution could lie in proposals for increased public transparency and disclosure of medical loss ratios.  Applied evenly to for-profit and not-for-profit insurers alike, this information would allow consumers to make an informed choice, considering the percentage of premiums devoted to medical claims payment as one element among many when selecting an insurance policy.  Although some policy-makers may find it politically expedient to criticize the profits of certain insurance carriers, many conservatives would greatly prefer the transparency of a free marketplace to heavy-handed government price controls.


[1] “American Health Choices Plan,” available online at (accessed March 11, 2008), p. 7.

[2] “Barack Obama’s Plan for a Healthy America,” available online at (accessed March 11, 2008), pp 9-10.

[3] “Medicare Advantage Organizations: Actual Expenses and Profits Compared to Projections for 2005,” Letter to Hon. Pete Stark, Report GAO-08-827R, (Washington, DC, Government Accountability Office, June 2008), available online at (accessed June 26, 2008), p. 5.

[4] Ibid., p. 8.

[5] Ibid., pp. 11-14.

[6] Ibid., p. 6.

[7] “Medicare Advantage: Increased Spending Relative to Medicare Fee-for-Service May Not Always Reduce Beneficiary Out-of-Pocket Costs,” Report GAO-08-359 (Washington, DC, Government Accountability Office, February 2008), available online at (accessed March 11, 2008), p. 32n.

[8] Ibid., pp. 27-28.

Medicare Advantage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prime among the reform options would be a pure premium support model—one that would allow Medicare Advantage plans to bid against each other (as they do in the Part D prescription drug benefit), and against traditional Medicare.  This model would convert Medicare into a system similar to the Federal Employees Benefit Health Plan (FEHBP), in which beneficiaries would receive a defined contribution from Medicare to purchase a health plan of their choosing.  Previously incorporated into alternative RSC budget proposals, a premium support plan would provide a level playing field between traditional Medicare and private insurance plans, providing comprehensive reform, while confining the growth of Medicare spending to the annual statutory raise in the defined contribution limit, thus ensuring long-term fiscal stability.

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Department of Health and Human Services, “HHS Budget in Brief: Fiscal Year 2009,” available online at (accessed May 19, 2008), p. 58.

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

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

[6] “Minority Groups Oppose Proposed Reduction in Funds for Medicare Advantage Plans,” Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report March 16, 2007 (Washington, DC: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation), available online at (accessed May 9, 2008).

Comparative Effectiveness Research

Background:  The debate about the growth of health care costs has in recent years begun to focus on disparities in health spending and treatment.  A recent Congressional Budget Office study demonstrated that regional spending on health care varies widely, yet improved care cannot be assumed by higher levels of expenditures.

Amidst rapidly growing health spending and inconsistent levels of care, policy-makers have begun to discuss the development of a research institute to study the comparative effectiveness of medical treatment programs, either by synthesizing and analyzing existing medical data or by conducting firsthand clinical trials to gauge treatments’ efficacy.  Advocates believe that such a center, by generating comprehensive data about the clinical and cost-effectiveness of courses of action for various diseases, could reduce health care cost growth by targeting patients with the most effective treatments and discouraging the use of costly but unproven medical techniques and methods.  While many stakeholders agree that such research should be undertaken, there is less agreement on the composition and funding of the entity that would be empowered to research clinical effectiveness options.

Legislative History:  Last July, the House passed—but the Senate has not considered—health legislation that included the creation of a comparative effectiveness institute.  Section 904 of the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act (H.R. 3162) would create a “Center for Comparative Effectiveness Research” within the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).  The center would be tasked with researching “outcomes, effectiveness, and appropriateness of health care services and procedures in order to identify the manner in which diseases, disorders, and other health conditions can most effectively and appropriately be prevented, diagnosed, treated, and managed clinically.”

The Center would be financed through the establishment of a Health Care Comparative Effectiveness Research Trust Fund within the U.S. Treasury.  The Fund would receive transfers from the Medicare Trust Funds to finance the research program for fiscal years 2008-2010.  Beginning in fiscal year 2011, funding would continue to flow from the Medicare Trust Funds, but it would be supplemented by a new tax on healthcare insurance policies.  The tax would be imposed on most health insurance policies (except for workers’ compensation, tort liabilities, property, credit insurance, or Medicare supplemental coverage) at a per capita amount needed to generate $375 million annually, in conjunction with resources from the Medicare Trust Funds.  The Secretary of the HHS would determine the “fair share” per capita amount, but the bill’s provisions are expected to generate at least $2 billion over ten years.  While H.R. 3162 states that insurance carriers (or the sponsors of self-insured policies) will pay this new tax, it does not (and cannot) account for the fact that this tax will likely be passed along to consumers, raising premium costs and potentially increasing the number of Americans who cannot afford private health insurance.

H.R. 3162 would also draw down substantial funds from the Medicare Trust Funds over time, $300 million over the first three fiscal years and up to $90 million each fiscal year thereafter.  Medicare Part A (hospital services) is financed by payroll taxes, and according to the nonpartisan Medicare Trustees, it is scheduled for bankruptcy in 2019—thus committing its resources for additional research will further expedite its bankruptcy.  In addition, Medicare Part B (supplementary services) is financed in part from beneficiary premiums that rise as the cost of the program rises—thus tapping these funds for research amounts to a tax on every senior enrolled in Medicare Part B.

Future Outlook:  Because provisions unrelated to comparative effectiveness make action on the CHAMP Act unlikely in the Senate, lawmakers and various stakeholder groups continue to engage in discussions about the way to create a research institute.  Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) have discussed introducing stand-alone legislation on this topic; news reports indicate that their bill would fund a comparative effectiveness research institute solely from federal coffers, while House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) believes that a premium tax should help to fund the institute, so that private insurance carriers would have a financial stake in its work product.

With the current Medicare physician payment “fix” scheduled to expire June 30, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle promising legislative action to address physician reimbursements, it is entirely possible that some form of comparative effectiveness center could be established as part of such legislation.

Implications of Comparative Effectiveness:  Apart from the concerns some conservatives may have regarding any new federal taxes to finance a comparative effectiveness institute, the research undertaken by such a center could well have significant repercussions for the role of the federal government in health care.  Any research undertaken would likely have an impact on the number and types of services covered by Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the treatment options and techniques utilized by physicians desiring reimbursement.  Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag recently admitted that “the big kick” in savings associated with comparative effectiveness research would stem from insurers—and likely the federal government—implementing “changes in financial incentives tied to the research.”[1]  Although the CHAMP Act did not include provisions altering reimbursement levels to reflect comparative effectiveness research, or empowering the ostensibly non-partisan institute to do the same, such legislative measures would be a likely outcome from creation of an effectiveness center.

In addition, examples of comparative effectiveness institutes established overseas have raised concerns about whether such an approach would lead to delays in obtaining care and/or rationing of services.  In the United Kingdom, Sarah Anderson, an ophthalmologist working in Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), recently published an article criticizing the NHS for inhibiting access to care for her critically ill father.  Her father’s kidney tumor could be treated by a new drug—but while the pharmaceutical has been approved for use in Europe for two years, Britain’s National Institute for Clinical Effectiveness (NICE) will not complete its assessment of the drug’s usefulness until January.  Until then, local NHS branches can refuse to provide the drug, leaving Anderson’s family to pay for their father’s treatment on their own, or face the inevitable consequences that will follow if he cannot obtain it.  Anderson’s ultimate verdict on her family’s dilemma is a sobering one: “If Dad should lose his life to cancer, it would be devastating—but to lose his life to bureaucracy would be far, far worse.”

Some conservatives may find these overseas examples of the delays resulting from a publicly-run comparative effectiveness institute a cautionary tale for those who would establish a similar institute under the aegis of the federal government.  Conservatives may not only believe that such an approach would put bureaucrats, and not doctors and patients, at the center of medical policy, but would also result in the types of costly delays and care rationing that put lives at stake.

Conclusion:  While the goals of a comparative effectiveness institute are certainly commendable in an era of rapidly rising health spending, some conservatives may be concerned at both the means of financing an institute and its impact on the federal role in health care.  Although an institute voluntarily created and funded by private insurance or other groups could be useful, a public-private entity financed by premium taxes may only encourage lawmakers to enact additional legislative measures designed to micro-manage the doctor-patient relationship and expand an already considerable bureaucracy within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  In short, some conservatives may be concerned that comparative effectiveness research done by the public sector could become a euphemism for government-rationed health care.

If the federal government wishes to slow the growth of Medicare spending, some conservatives might find a better solution in comprehensive Medicare reform that transforms the current program into a system similar to that under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), whereby beneficiaries would receive a defined contribution from Medicare to select a health plan of their own choosing.  These health plans could employ the results of comparative effectiveness research in their reimbursement policies, and consumers could use those criteria—as well as any “Consumer Reports”-type publications released by private entities—in evaluating both a health plan to purchase and treatment options for a particular medical condition.


[1] Quoted in Fawn Johnson, “Bills Pushed to Gauge Effectiveness of Medical Treatments,” CongressDaily 17 March 2008, available online at (accessed March 18, 2008).

Legislative Bulletin: H.R. 1424, Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act

Order of Business:  The bill is reportedly scheduled to be considered on Wednesday, March 5th, subject to a likely structured rule.

Summary:  H.R. 1424 would amend the Internal Revenue Code, the Public Health Service Act, and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to require equity in the provision of mental health disorder benefits for group health insurance plans that offer both mental health benefits and medical and surgical benefits.  Previously, the Mental Health Parity Act—first enacted in 1996, and extended in subsequent legislation until it lapsed in December 2007—required only that plans choosing to offer both mental health and medical and surgical benefits must have equal annual and lifetime limits on coverage for both types of treatments.  Specific details of the federal mandates in the bill include the following:

Treatment Limits and Beneficiary Financial Requirements:  H.R. 1424 would require group health plans to offer the same financial benefit structure for both mental and physical disorders.  The federal mandate would apply to overall coverage limits on treatment as well as deductibles, out-of-pocket limits, and similar beneficiary financial requirements.

Expansion of Definition:  The bill would expand the definition of “mental health benefits” subject to the federal mandate to include substance abuse and disorder treatments. (See Additional Background section below.)

Minimum Scope of Benefits:  H.R. 1424 would require all group health insurance plans offering mental health benefits to offer coverage for any mental health and substance-related disorder included in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  (See Additional Background section below.)

Out-of-Network Benefits:  The bill would mandate plans that offer out-of-network insurance coverage for medical and surgical benefits to provide out-of-network coverage for mental health benefits, and at the same benefit levels.  This provision exceeds the standards required by the Office of Personnel Management for insurance carriers participating in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP); plans offered through the federal program need only provide mental health parity with respect to in-network benefit packages.

Increased Cost Exemption:  H.R. 1424 would raise the level at which employers whose health insurance costs rise as a result of implementing mental health parity in benefits may claim an exemption from the federal mandate.  The bill would exempt employers whose costs due to mental health claims rise by more than 2% in the first year of implementation, and by more than 1% in subsequent years.  The more limited version of the Mental Health Parity Act first enacted in 1996 exempted employers whose claim costs rose 1%.  Employers with fewer than 50 workers would be exempt from federal mandates under the legislation.

Federal Pre-emption:  H.R. 1424 would not preclude states from imposing on employers who offer group health insurance coverage more stringent requirements with respect to “consumer protections, benefits, methods of access to benefits, rights, or remedies.”  This provision constitutes a significant variation from past federal policy with respect to employer-provided health insurance dating to ERISA’s enactment in 1974.  (See Additional Background section below.)

Random Federal Audits:  The bill would require the Department of Labor to conduct annual audits of a random sample of group health insurance plans to ensure compliance with the federal mandates included in H.R. 1424.

GAO Study:  The bill would require a study by the Government Accountability Office evaluating the law’s impact on the cost of health insurance coverage, access to mental health care, and related issues.

Medicaid Drug Rebate:  The bill would increase the rebate required of pharmaceutical companies offering single source (i.e. protected under federal patent laws) and innovator multiple source (i.e. formerly protected under federal patent law, but now subject to generic competition) pharmaceuticals in the Medicaid program from at least 15.1% of the Average Manufacturer Price (AMP) to at least 20.1% of the AMP.  The increase would apply for the years 2009 through 2015.  (See Additional Background section below.)

Specialty Hospitals:  H.R. 1424 would impose additional restrictions on so-called specialty hospitals by limiting the “whole hospital” exemption against physician self-referral.  Specifically, the bill would only extend the exemption to facilities with a Medicare reimbursement arrangement in place at the time of the bill’s enactment, and generally prohibit facilities from expanding their total number of operating rooms or beds.  Facilities may be able to expand their number of beds by up to 50%, provided that a) the population within the area has grown at more than double the national average over a five-year period; b) the facility has an above-average rate of Medicaid admissions when compared to the statewide average; c) the facility is located in a state with average bed capacity below the national average; and d) average bed occupancy within the area is at least 80%.  The bill also imposes additional reporting and related requirements regarding the nature of physician ownership arrangements.  (See Additional Background section below.)

Additional Background on ERISA Pre-Emption:  The Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) has served as the primary federal standard for the regulation of employee benefit plans since its enactment in September 1974 as Public Law 93-406.  One of its key provisions, Section 514 (29 U.S.C. 1144), states that ERISA “shall supersede any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan,” except in limited instances.  As Rep. John Dent (D-PA), then-Chairman of the House Labor Subcommittee and sponsor of the bill which became the ERISA statute, noted during debate on the conference report:

I wish to make note of what is to many the crowning achievement of this legislation, the reservation to federal authority the sole power to regulate the field of employee benefit plans.  With the pre-emption of the field, we round out the protection afforded participants by eliminating the threat of conflicting and inconsistent state and local regulation. [Emphasis added.]

The strong pre-emption provisions have been upheld by numerous federal courts since the enactment of ERISA more than 30 years ago.  In 2004, the Supreme Court in the case of Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila (542 U.S. 200) ruled that a Texas state law permitting lawsuits against managed care companies could not be enforced against plans provided by private employers due to ERISA’s pre-emption provisions and remedies already available under federal law.  More recently, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals cited ERISA pre-emption as the basis for striking down Maryland’s so-called Wal-Mart bill, which attempted to enact a “pay-or-play” mandate on large employers by requiring them to contribute a percentage of payroll expenses to their employees’ health care.

Over more than three decades, ERISA pre-emption has permitted thousands of employers to offer group health insurance coverage to millions of workers nationwide without the fear of becoming bogged down in complex and conflicting health insurance regulations in the several states.  This system currently provides more than 177 million Americans—more than half the national population—with health insurance coverage, according to Census Bureau data.  If passed, H.R. 1424 would permit states to pass laws with more stringent consumer protections, and could subject group health insurance plans to those state laws, creating the first significant erosion of ERISA pre-emption since its enactment.

Additional Background on Scope of Mental Health Benefits:  H.R. 1424 would incorporate into federal statute the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as the basis for which group health plans offer coverage for mental health conditions.  Specifically, the bill would require plans to cover any mental disorder listed in the most recent edition of the manual, currently in its fourth edition (DSM-IV).

A 1999 executive order signed by President Clinton incorporated DSM-IV into the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program (FEHBP), beginning in January 2001.  However, the Office of Personnel Management requires FEHBP carriers to cover “all categories of…conditions” within DSM-IV, while H.R. 1424 requires overage of “any mental health condition”—a more expansive requirement for plans.  Moreover, plans offering coverage within FEHBP are permitted discretion to require an “authorized treatment plan” based on medical necessity—but are given no discretion to determine necessity under H.R. 1424.  The Office of Personnel Management has estimated that implementation of the executive order increased premium costs by 1.64% for fee-for-service plans participating in FEHBP.

The DSM-IV standards, first published in 1994 and revised slightly in 2000, include a wide variety of classifications for mental disorders, several of which are considered by some in the psychiatric community to have dubious value.  In addition, the number and breadth of declared psycho-sexual disorders included in the DSM have sparked controversy between homosexual activists and traditional values supporters.  Among the more troubling diagnoses incorporated into DSM-IV are:

  • Nightmare disorder;
  • Circadian rhythm sleep disorder (jet lag type);
  • Caffeine-induced sleep disorder;
  • Caffeine intoxication;
  • Substance-induced sexual dysfunction;
  • Gender identity disorder;
  • Transvestic fetishism; and
  • Pedophilia.

Under H.R. 1424, employers offering group coverage would be required to provide benefits related to these and similar diagnoses included in DSM-IV.

The expansive definitions of mental disorders included in DSM-IV have led to charges that psychiatric diagnoses have become politicized.  In response, the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the DSM guidebook, included the following explanation on its website:

Q:        Aren’t some of the diagnoses included in the DSM there for political reasons?

A:        Decisions to include a diagnosis in the DSM are based on a careful consideration of the research underlying the disorder.  This is not to say that decisions are made without regard to other considerations.  Scientific data cannot be interpreted in a vacuum.  Sociological and other considerations must also be taken into account.   For example, each proposed new diagnosis carries with it the risk of making a false positive diagnosis (i.e., making a diagnosis when no disorder is present).  Since false positives can never be completely eliminated, we must consider instead how to balance the advantages of including the diagnosis in the DSM (e.g., increased detection of a treatable disorder with consequent reduction in morbidity and cost to the patient, his or her family, and to society at large) against the risks of making a false positive diagnosis (e.g., risk of stigmatization, cost and potential morbidity of unnecessary treatment, etc.).  However, the overall driving force in the decision to include or exclude a potential diagnosis from the DSM is the availability of scientific data. [Emphasis added.][1]

The American Psychiatric Association is tentatively scheduled to publish the fifth version of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) in 2011 or 2012, and any new disorders included in the revised version will be included in the federal mandate under the provisions of H.R. 1424.

Additional Background on Specialty Hospitals:  The past few years have seen the significant growth of so-called specialty hospitals.  These facilities, which generally concentrate on one medical practice area (often cardiac or orthopedic care), are often able to provide higher-quality care than general hospitals due to their focused mission.  Critics of specialty hospitals claim that, by “cherry-picking” the best—and therefore most lucrative—candidates for surgical procedures, they siphon off revenues from general and community hospitals, threatening their future viability.

The ownership arrangements of many specialty hospitals have also been questioned.  While federal law against physician self-referral prohibits doctors from holding an ownership stake in a particular department of a hospital facility, the “whole hospital” exemption permits physicians to hold an ownership stake in an entire facility.  Because many specialty hospitals are physician-owned in whole or in part, some critics believe that physicians owning a stake in a specialty hospital may be inclined to perform additional tests and procedures on patients due to a stronger profit motive.

In July 2007, Section 651 of H.R. 3162, the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act, proposed several modifications to the “whole hospital” exemption for physician self-referral.  Most notably, the bill applied the exemption only to those facilities with Medicare provider agreements in place prior to July 2007—excluding new specialty hospitals or other facilities, including those currently under construction, from protection under the self-referral statute—and prohibited existing facilities from expanding their number of operating rooms or beds.  While the bill passed the House by a 225-204 vote, the Senate has yet to take up the measure.

Amidst spiraling costs and uneven quality, some conservatives may believe that the health sector warrants more competition, not less: new entrants to introduce innovative techniques and practices improving the quality of care; greater transparency of both price and quality information, so patients can make rational choices about the nature of their treatment options; and a funding system that reduces where possible the distortionary effects of third-party payment and empowers consumers to take control of their health.  Viewed from this perspective, opposition to undue and onerous restrictions on the specialty hospitals that have driven innovation within health care may strike many conservatives as a return to first principles.

Additional Background on Medicaid Drug Rebates:  As part of a drug payment policy designed to ensure that Medicaid paid the “best price” available, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 included provisions requiring manufacturers of pharmaceuticals desiring to offer their products to Medicaid enrollees to enter into rebate agreements with the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).  As of 2003, over 550 manufacturers have entered into rebate agreements, which apply to all pharmaceuticals separately billed to Medicaid.  In 2005, states reported receiving $11.1 billion in federally required drug rebates, constituting 26% of all outpatient pharmaceutical spending.  In addition, many states have their own additional rebate policies in effect; in 2005, 22 states reported collecting an additional $1.3 billion in supplemental rebates.  However, a 2005 survey by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation reported that nearly half of states surveyed (17 of 37) do not return their rebates to Medicaid, choosing instead to apply rebates to the general fund to finance other state spending.[2]

In determining rebate levels, federal law establishes two classes of pharmaceuticals.  For single source drugs (those still under federal patent protection) and “innovator” multiple source drugs (those formerly marketed under a patent, but where generic competition now exists), rebate amounts are determined by comparing the Average Manufacturer Price (AMP) to the “best price”—the lowest price offered by the manufacturer to any retailer, wholesaler, or other entity.  The basic rebate is equal to either 15.1% of the AMP or difference between the AMP and the “best price,” whichever greater.  Additional rebates for these drugs are required if their price rises faster than inflation, as measured by the consumer price index for urban areas.  For “non-innovator” multiple source (i.e. generic) drugs, rebates are equal to 11% of AMP; “best prices” are not considered, and there are no additional rebates linked to price inflation.

The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA) made several changes related to the Medicaid rebate system, particularly with respect to reporting of prices used to compute the pharmaceutical rebates owed.  Specifically, DRA required states to report data regarding certain physician-administered outpatient pharmaceuticals, in an attempt to ensure that rebates for chemotherapy and other drugs administered in physician settings were properly paid.  In addition, the DRA required that, for manufacturers who both produce a brand-name drug and license another manufacturer to produce a generic version, that the manufacturer-reported price include the price of these “authorized generics.”  In its cost estimate for DRA, CBO scored these changes as generating $220 million in additional federal revenues over five years, and $720 million over ten years.

Additional Background on Senate Legislation:  On September 18, 2007, the Senate passed its version of the Mental Health Parity Act.  This legislation, S. 558, sponsored by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), contains significant variations when compared to H.R. 1424.  Specifically, the Senate-passed language:

  • Retains ERISA pre-emption for the large employers (those with more than 50 employees) subject to the law—states would not have the option of enacting more stringent and conflicting laws and regulations;
  • Remains silent on codifying classes of mental disorders—the language does not require group health plans to offer coverage for all disorders under DSM-IV;
  • Does not mandate an out-of-network coverage benefit—plans must offer out-of-network coverage only to the extent they do so for medical and surgical benefits, while the House bill mandates out-of-network coverage for all plans offering mental health benefits; and
  • Permits group health insurance plans to utilize medical management practices, including utilization review, authorization, medical necessity and appropriateness criteria, and use of network providers—the House bill includes no such “safe harbor” for plans.

While some conservatives may still have concerns with the mandates imposed by the Senate legislation and the way in which these mandates would increase health insurance premiums, many segments of the business community have embraced the Senate compromise as a reasonable attempt to achieve the goal of both bills without eroding ERISA pre-emption or imposing undue restrictions on benefit plan design.  Many of those same trade organizations are opposing H.R. 1424, as listed below, as a legislative over-reach that will impede their ability to offer quality coverage through group health insurance plans.

Committee Action:  On March 9, 2007, the bill was introduced and referred to the Energy and Commerce Committee, the Education and Labor Committee, and the Ways and Means Committee.  On July 18, 2007, the Education and Labor Committee reported the bill to the full House by a vote of 33-9.  On September 26, 2007, the Ways and Means Committee reported the bill to the full House by a vote of 27-13.  On October 16, 2007, the Energy and Commerce Committee reported the bill to the full House by a vote of 32-13.

Possible Conservative Concerns:  Numerous aspects of this legislation may raise concerns for conservatives, including, but not necessarily limited to, the following:

  • Increase Health Insurance Costs.  As noted below, CBO estimates that H.R. 1424 would impose mandates on private insurance companies totaling $3 billion annually by 2012.  These costs will ultimately be borne by employers offering health insurance and employees seeking to obtain coverage.  Moreover, by increasing the cost of health insurance, H.R. 1424 will lead directly to an increase in the number of uninsured Americans.
  • Private-Sector Mandates on Small and Large Businesses.  As detailed below, the bill contains multiple new federal mandates on the private sector, affecting the design and structure of health insurance plans.   Among other mandates, the bill would require plan sponsors to provide out-of-network benefits for mental health services if the sponsors provide out-of-network benefits for medical and surgical services, exceeding the standard mandated of insurance carriers participating in the FEHBP.
  • Decrease in Mental Health Coverage.  While the bill imposes several new federal mandates on those employers who choose to offer mental health coverage, there is nothing in H.R. 1424 that would impose a mental health mandate on all group health plans.  Thus H.R. 1424 could have the perverse effect of actually decreasing mental health coverage, by encouraging employers frustrated with the bill’s onerous burdens to drop mental health insurance altogether.
  • Intergovernmental Mandate.  The bill would pre-empt state laws governing mental health coverage that conflict with the bill—but would not pre-empt laws providing more stringent consumer protections for employees.  Additionally, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) notes that some state and local governments would face increased costs for health insurance provided to their employees.  However, as these higher costs would be in the form of increased insurance premiums borne by government entities, CBO does not consider these higher costs a direct intergovernmental mandate.
  • Violation of UMRA.  CBO estimates that the costs of the mandates to the private sector in the bill would be at least $1.3 billion in 2008, rising to $3 billion in 2012 and thus exceed the annual threshold established in the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act or UMRA ($131 million in FY2007, adjusted annually for inflation).
  • Codification of Treatment Mandate for Health Plans.  H.R. 1424 would incorporate into federal law the DSM-IV classification definitions as the parameter of mental health treatment for health plans.  The broad parameters included in the DSM-IV categories will obligate employers to cover “disorders” such as “jet lag” and “caffeine intoxication.”  The DSM-IV standards incorporated into federal law would also require employers to cover a broad array of sexual “disorders” that many conservatives may find objectionable, as noted above.
  • Lack of Conscience Clause.  H.R. 1424 would subject all employers with over 50 employees—including faith-based organizations—to federal mandates to cover all diagnoses under DSM-IV.  The bill does not include an exemption for faith-based groups to exclude coverage of mental disorders, particularly psycho-sexual disorders, for which they have religious or moral objections.
  • Erode Federal Pre-emption for Employers under ERISA.  While H.R. 1424 does pre-empt state laws that conflict with the bill, it also explicitly permits additional state laws that provide more stringent consumer protections.  This provision could undo a history of strict federal pre-emption dating to ERISA’s enactment in 1974, creating a patchwork of laws across all 50 states with which major employers would have to comply.  Some employers could decide to drop group health insurance coverage altogether rather than face a potentially conflicting array of state mandates and regulations to which they could be subjected under H.R. 1424.
  • Lack of Medical Management Tools.  H.R. 1424 does not include language explicitly permitting group health plans to negotiate separate reimbursement rates or provider payment rates and delivery service systems for different benefits.  These tools would empower plans to utilize medical management practices in order to reduce claim costs.

  • Decreased Access to Pharmaceuticals for Medicaid Patients.  H.R. 1424 increases from 15.1% to 20.1% the minimum rebate amount which certain pharmaceutical manufacturers must pay to offer their drugs to patients within the Medicaid program.  These tightened government price controls may cause some manufacturers to leave the program altogether, resulting in the loss of available prescription drugs for low-income beneficiaries.
  • Restrictions on Specialty Hospitals.  The bill would limit the “whole hospital” exemption under physician self-referral laws, such that any new specialty hospital—including those currently under development or construction—would not be eligible for the self-referral exemption, and any existing specialty hospital would be unable to expand its facilities, except under very limited circumstances.  Given the advances which several specialty hospitals have made in increasing quality of care and decreasing patient infection rates, these additional restrictions may impede the development of new innovations within the health care industry.
  • Budgetary Gimmick.  In order to comply with PAYGO rules, H.R. 1424 would rely upon an increase in the Medicaid rebate for pharmaceuticals lasting from 2009 through 2015.  The fact that the rebate levels are scheduled to increase and then return to current levels suggests that the legislative change proposed has as its primary motive the financing of the costs associated with an expansion of mental health parity.  Some conservatives may believe this temporary increase violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the PAYGO requirement under House rules.

Administration Position:  Although the Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) was not available at press time, reports indicate that the SAP will strongly oppose the legislation; a veto threat is possible but not certain.  In September 2007, Labor Secretary Chao and HHS Secretary Leavitt wrote to the Senate HELP Committee expressing support for the Senate mental health legislation (S. 558), and stating “concern” with the bill introduced in the House (H.R. 1424).

Cost to Taxpayers:  A final score of the substitute bill presented to the Rules Committee was not available at press time.  However, according to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score of the bill as marked up before the Ways and Means Committee, H.R. 1424 would cost the federal government nearly $4 billion over ten years.  Direct federal outlays would increase by $820 million through increased Medicaid costs.  In addition, federal revenues would decline by more than $3.1 billion due to increases in the cost of health insurance, as employees with group coverage would exclude more of their income from payroll and income taxes.

The bill proposes to offset the costs outlined above by increasing the rebate rate required of drug manufacturers participating in the Medicaid program with respect to certain classes of pharmaceuticals.  In addition, the bill places additional restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals.  In July 2007, CBO scored similar provisions included in H.R. 3162, the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act as saving $3.5 billion over ten years by directing more patients from specialty hospitals and to general hospitals, due to CBO’s belief that such a transition would result in overall savings to Medicare based on lower utilization rates for outpatient services and related reimbursement changes.  However, as noted previously, such savings may not be realized.

Does the Bill Expand the Size and Scope of the Federal Government?:  Yes, the bill would authorize the Department of Labor to conduct random audits of plan to ensure they are in compliance with the bill’s requirements, which according to CBO would require estimated appropriations of $330 million over ten years.

Does the Bill Contain Any New State-Government, Local-Government, or Private-Sector Mandates?:  Yes, the bill would impose significant new mandates on private insurance carriers (and large employers who self-insure their workers) with respect to the structure and design of their benefit packages.  CBO estimates that the direct costs of the private-sector mandates would total $1.3 billion in 2008, rising to $3 billion in 2012, significantly in excess of the annual threshold ($131 million in 2007, adjusted for inflation) established by the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA).

In addition, the bill would also impose an intergovernmental mandate as defined by UMRA by pre-empting some state laws in conflict with the bill, but CBO estimates that this mandate would impose no significant costs on state, local, or tribal governments.

However, costs to state, local, and tribal governments would increase under the bill, for two reasons.  First, the CBO cost estimate indicates that state spending for Medicaid would increase by $235 million between 2008-2012.  Second, while state, local, and tribal governments that self-insure their workers would be able to opt-out of H.R. 1424’s federal mandates, some governments that fully insure their workers (i.e. purchase coverage through an insurance carrier, as opposed to paying benefits directly) would see their costs rise under the legislation.  CBO estimates that the bill would increase state, local, and tribal expenditures by $10 million in 2008, rising to $155 million by 2012.  However, because these increased costs result from mandate costs initially borne by the private sector and passed on to the governments while purchasing insurance, CBO did not consider them intergovernmental mandates as such.

Does the Bill Comply with House Rules Regarding Earmarks/Limited Tax Benefits/Limited Tariff Benefits?:  The Education and Labor Committee, in House Report 110-374, Part I, asserts that, “H.R. 1424 does not contain any congressional earmarks, limited tax benefits, or limited tariff benefits as defined in clause 9 of rule XXI.”

Constitutional Authority:  The Education and Labor Committee, in House Report 110-374, Part I, cites constitutional authority in Article I, Section 8, Clauses 1 (the congressional power to provide for the general welfare of the United States) and 3 (the congressional power to regulate interstate commerce). (emphasis added)

Outside Organizations:  The following organizations are opposing H.R. 1424:

  • Aetna;
  • American Association of Physicians and Surgeons;
  • American Benefits Council;
  • America’s Health Insurance Plans;
  • Assurant;
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield Association;
  • CIGNA;
  • Concerned Women of America (*potential key vote);
  • Family Research Council (*potential key vote);
  • National Association of Health Underwriters;
  • National Association of Manufacturers (*key vote);
  • National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (*key vote);
  • National Business Group on Health;
  • National Restaurant Association;
  • National Retail Federation (*key vote);
  • Retail Industry Leaders Association;
  • Society for Human Resource Management;
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce (*key vote).



[1] Available at (accessed February 21, 2008).

[2] Kaiser Family Foundation, State Medicaid Outpatient Prescription Drug Policies: Findings from a National Survey, 2005 Update, available online at (accessed March 3, 2008).

Physician-Owned Hospitals

Background:  The past few years have seen the significant growth of so-called specialty hospitals.  These facilities, which generally concentrate on one medical practice area (often cardiac or orthopedic care), are often able to provide higher-quality care than general hospitals due to their focused mission.  Critics of specialty hospitals claim that, by “cherry-picking” the best—and therefore most lucrative—candidates for surgical procedures, they siphon off revenues from general and community hospitals, threatening their future viability.

The ownership arrangements of many specialty hospitals have also been questioned.  While federal law against physician self-referral prohibits doctors from holding an ownership stake in a particular department of a hospital facility, the “whole hospital” exemption permits physicians to hold an ownership stake in an entire facility.  Because many specialty hospitals are physician-owned in whole or in part, some critics believe that physicians owning a stake in a specialty hospital may be inclined to perform additional tests and procedures on patients due to a stronger profit motive.

Legislative History:  Congressional action on specialty hospitals over the past several years has focused on the “whole hospital” exemption and the issue of physician self-referral.  In December 2003, Section 507 of the Medicare Modernization Act (P.L. 108-173) placed an 18-month moratorium on physician self-referrals to any new specialty hospital and ordered reports to Congress regarding the issue.  Upon expiration of the moratorium in June 2005, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a further suspension in the processing of Medicare enrollment applications for specialty hospitals, pending a CMS review.

In February 2006, Section 5006 of the Deficit Reduction Act (P.L. 109-171) extended the CMS suspension of applications for new specialty hospitals until CMS submitted a report to Congress.  The report, issued in August 2006, summarized the earlier reports on specialty hospitals and outlined a strategic plan for examining the issues raised.  Although the report included no legislative recommendations, CMS did subsequently issue regulations in August 2007 requiring all hospitals, not just specialty hospitals, to notify patients of their physician ownership arrangements beginning in Fiscal Year 2008.

In July 2007, Section 651 of H.R. 3162, the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act, proposed several modifications to the “whole hospital” exemption for physician self-referral.  Most notably, the bill applied the exemption only to those facilities with Medicare provider agreements in place prior to July 2007—excluding new specialty hospitals or other facilities, including those currently under construction, from protection under the self-referral statute—and prohibited existing facilities from expanding their number of operating rooms or beds.  While the bill passed the House by a 225-204 vote, the Senate has yet to take up the measure.

Quality of Care:  Many public and private studies that have examined the specialty hospital issue have compared the quality of care and patient outcomes for both specialty and general hospitals.  Most studies have found that specialty hospitals perform no worse than general hospitals with respect to patient outcomes, and many studies have found measurable performance improvements.  The independent quality review firm HealthGrades found that specialty hospitals constitute a disproportionate share of the highest-quality facilities among the top tier of facilities it surveyed.[1]

The focus on improved quality control comes at a time when the impact of medical errors and hospital-acquired infections has risen to greater prominence.  The landmark 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.[2]  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, and average costs for patients who developed infections nearly six times higher than those who did not ($185,260 vs. $31,389).[3]

For this reason, many specialty hospitals include their physician-owners in all aspects of the planning, design, and implementation of the facility and its treatment delivery systems, so as to minimize the possibility of preventable errors and the spread of infection.  Additionally, regular performance of surgical procedures in specialized settings permits physicians and medical staff to develop expertise and innovative techniques that improve the quality of care delivered.  For instance, physicians in one cardiac specialty hospital developed new procedures to recognize and treat irregular heartbeats following surgery; the new protocol reduced incidence of this dangerous symptom by two-thirds.[4]

Although some critics of specialty hospitals cite concerns about “cherry-picking”—whereby physician-owned facilities attract comparatively healthy patients, leaving general hospitals to treat the sickest cases—reports such as the HealthGrades study have quantified the better care provided by many specialty hospitals on a risk-adjusted basis that controls for patients’ varied health status.  Some specialty hospitals have been found to have patients sicker than average when compared to Medicare claims data are used to compare patients in specialty hospitals and general hospitals.[5]  Moreover, to the extent that specialty hospitals may wish to pick the “easiest” cases, such changes can be resolved by reforms currently being implemented by CMS to reform Medicare’s diagnosis-related group (DRG) classification system and adjust reimbursements to more closely reflect health status upon admission.

Financial Arrangements:  Much of the criticism surrounding specialty hospitals has focused on the potential conflict-of-interest associated with physician ownership, and specifically whether an ownership stake motivates physicians to increase the number and scope of tests and procedures performed, increasing patient costs.  In scoring the additional restrictions proposed by Section 651 of the CHAMP Act, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) asserted that Medicare spends more for outpatient services for patients treated in specialty hospitals than for treatments provided in other facilities.  Based on this assumption and related changes in reimbursements, CBO estimated that the CHAMP Act’s proposed restrictions on specialty hospitals would generate $3.5 billion in savings to the federal government over a ten-year period by diverting patient care to general and community hospitals.

However, the CBO score did not take into account any potential savings due to differential rates of medical errors and acquired infections when comparing costs in specialty and general hospitals.  One study noted that the nearly 9,000 infections acquired by Medicare and Medicaid recipients hospitals during 2004 cost taxpayers nearly $1.4 billion in added costs in Pennsylvania alone—and the study also noted that hospital-acquired infections, and thus the costs associated with them, were likely to be underreported during the report’s time frame.[6]  Given the existing studies documenting better patient outcomes and lower infection rates in physician-owned facilities, reduced costs to the federal government from an expansion of specialty hospitals could well exceed the $3.5 billion in purported savings CBO attributes to lower utilization rates by general hospitals.

In addition, some critics of the ownership arrangements of specialty hospitals have failed to acknowledge the implications of the vast growth of hospital-owned physician networks in the past two decades.  While a 2005 CMS report to Congress noted that “we did not see clear, consistent patterns of preference for referring to specialty hospitals among physician owners relative to their peers,” it also added that “physicians in general are constrained in where they refer patients by several factors.”[7]  Physicians working for networks affiliated with a particular community hospital may be contractually obligated to refer their patients to that hospital.  When viewed from this prism, the significant growth—from 24% in 1983 to 39% in 2001—of physicians directly employed by hospitals or other medical centers is likely to have had a greater impact on physician referral patterns than the growth of approximately 200 specialty hospitals when compared to 60,000 hospitals nationwide.[8]

Conclusion:  The benefits of increased specialization have been examined and analyzed by economists for more than two centuries.  In his seminal work The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith highlighted the benefits of a division of labor to focus on discrete tasks as providing the greatest possible improvement in productivity, and thus economic growth, for all individuals.  In health care, specialization can increase productivity gains, which are the key to controlling the rise of health care costs without relying on heavy-handed rationing of care.  The growth of specialty hospitals—which focus on performing discrete groups of surgical procedures well, improving quality and thus reducing costs—is consonant with the theories which Smith and his adherents used to expound open markets and free trade worldwide.

Amidst spiraling costs and uneven quality, the health sector warrants more competition, not less: new entrants to introduce innovative techniques and practices improving the quality of care; greater transparency of both price and quality information, so patients can make rational choices about the nature of their treatment options; and a funding system that reduces where possible the distortionary effects of third-party payment and empowers consumers to take control of their health.  Viewed from this perspective, opposition to undue and onerous restrictions on the specialty hospitals that have driven innovation within health care may strike many conservatives as a return to first principles.


[1] Cited in David Whelan, “Bad Medicine,” Fortune 10 March 2008, available online at (accessed March 1, 2008).

[2] Institute of Medicine, To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System, summary available online at (accessed March 1, 2008).

[3] Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, Hospital Acquired Infections in Pennsylvania, available online at (accessed March 1, 2008).

[4] Regina Herzlinger and Peter Stavros, “MedCath Corporation (A),” Harvard Business School Case No. 303-041, rev. August 2006, p. 10.

[5] Regina Herzlinger and Peter Stavros, “MedCath Corporation (C),” Harvard Business School Case No. 305-097, rev. May 2006, p. 1.

[6] Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, Reducing Hospital-Acquired Infections: The Business Case (Issue Brief No. 8, November 2005), available online at (accessed March 1, 2008).

[7] Department of Health and Human Services, “Study of Physician Owned Specialty Hospitals Required in Section 507(c)(2) of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003,” available online at (accessed March 1, 2008).

[8] Kaiser Family Foundation, Trends and Indicators in the Health Care Marketplace, Section Five, available online at (accessed March 3, 2008) ; Whelan, “Bad Medicine.”