Weekly Newsletter: February 23, 2009

Orszag, Liberal Groups Support Health Care Rationing

Today President Obama will host a “fiscal responsibility summit” at the White House, followed later this week by a submission to Congress of his outline for the federal budget in Fiscal Year 2010 and beyond.  Press reports indicate that health issues will predominate both events, as entitlement spending in Medicare and Medicaid will serve as a focus of the fiscal summit, and health initiatives will be given a prominent place in the President’s budget proposals.

However, some Members may take a skeptical view of comments by Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag and others that health care can be reformed—and the entitlement crisis resolved—primarily through government rationing of health care goods and services.  While head of the Congressional Budget Office, Orszag prepared a report on comparative effectiveness research that advocated rationing’s beneficial effects—while alluding to its potential downsides for patients.  The December 2007 report asserted that such research “could …yield lower health care spending without having adverse effects on health.”  However, the report also admits that “patients who might benefit from more-expensive treatments might be made worse off” as a result of changes in reimbursement patterns.

Orszag’s view of health reform is shared by the left-leaning Commonwealth Fund, which last week released its own report outlining ways to generate savings within the health sector.  The largest chunk of proposed savings—$634 billion over ten years—would come from comparative effectiveness research and subsequent rationing of care.  The report asserts that “merely making information available” about the relative merits of treatments “is unlikely to produce” outcomes yielding sufficient savings—and therefore recommends that the new comparative effectiveness center help “to create financial incentives for patients and physicians to avoid high-cost treatments.”  The Fund proposes that the comparative effectiveness center—similar to the Council established in economic “stimulus” legislation signed into law last week—“make benefit and pricing recommendations to public insurance plans, including Medicare.”

While supporting the need to slow the growth of health spending, and entitlement spending in particular, some Members may be concerned by the implications of these recommendations, which would place government bureaucrats between doctors and patients, leading to denials of critical care.  Some Members may instead support alternatives that would slow the growth of health care costs through additional competition (both inside and outside Medicare), while preserving and enhancing a culture where patients and doctors—not insurance companies or government bureaucrats—determine the appropriate course of medical care.  Some Members may also support means testing for the Medicare Part D benefit—requiring Warren Buffett and George Soros to pay more for their prescription drugs—as an additional way to bring our entitlement obligations in line with projected future revenues.

The Outlook Ahead

The President’s address to Congress Tuesday night, coupled with his submission of a budget outline on Thursday, will commence a six-week period leading up to Congress’ Easter recess where health issues will remain prominent.  As indicated above, the budget may include additional provisions regarding comparative effectiveness research and rationing of health care, as well as proposed cuts to Medicare Advantage plans that have proved popular with seniors—particularly those with low incomes—in recent years.  At this time it remains unclear whether the President will use the budget submission to fulfill his statutory obligation to present Congress with Medicare funding reform legislation, as required by the “trigger” provisions inserted into the Medicare Modernization Act at the behest of House Republicans.

Hearings and other legislative activity are also likely to continue regarding comprehensive health reform; Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced his comprehensive bill on February 5, and Senate Finance Chairman Baucus—who pledged to introduce legislation early in the 111th Congress—may follow suit in short order.  The House may also consider legislation related to food and drug safety, as well as a bill (H.R. 1108 in the 110th Congress) giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to regulate tobacco products, funded by “user fees” on tobacco companies.  Particularly as many Democrats have harshly criticized the FDA for lax enforcement related to food safety matters, some Members may believe now is precisely the wrong time to distract the FDA from its current mission in order to have the agency regulate the tobacco industry—and the wrong time to burden working families with the second tobacco tax increase this year, on the heels of the 62 cent tax increase used to fund the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) expansion.

Weekly Newsletter: November 17, 2008

  • Baucus’ Plan Exposes Democrat Hypocrisy…

    Last Wednesday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) issued a 98-page report outlining his proposals for reforming the health care system. Although his introduction stated that the platform “is not intended to be a legislative proposal,” Baucus did state his hope that the ideas raised would become a starting point for discussions on comprehensive health care reform during the 111th Congress.

    In reviewing the report’s contents, some conservatives may note several glaring contradictions present within its pages:

  • The Baucus plan proposes tens of billions in unfunded mandates on states—requiring Medicaid programs to cover 7.1 million new low-income individuals, and further requiring 33 states to expand their State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) eligibility levels—at a time when Baucus and other Congressional Democrats allege that states’ “fiscal crises” require Congress to bail them out of their current obligations.
  • While expressing his support for cutting payments to private Medicare Advantage (MA), Baucus proposes to repeal a planned premium support project within Medicare, because he wants to bring payments to private insurers in line with traditional Medicare costs while opposing a link between Part B premiums and “how much [private] insurers’ costs differ from traditional Medicare.”
  • Senator Baucus, who at a health reform conference in June questioned Congress’ role in overseeing Medicare payments—“How in the world am I supposed to know what the proper reimbursement should be for a particular procedure?”—proposes numerous attempts to tie reimbursement to various actions by physicians (IT adoption, etc.) in the hope that these will achieve purportedly desirable health outcomes.

    …While Proposing More New Spending, Little Cost Control

    Many conservatives may also be concerned by the substance of the Baucus plan’s broader proposals. Similar in many respects to the less-detailed plan offered by President-elect Obama, the platform would expand the role of government in health care in significant, and historic, ways:

  • Expansion of Medicaid and SCHIP to millions of new individuals, as referenced above;
  • Health insurance subsidies for a family of four making $85,000 per year;
  • Repeal of the current five-year waiting period for legal aliens to become eligible for government benefits, increasing government spending on non-citizens;
  • Two new “temporary” entitlement programs, including a buy-in to the Medicare program for those aged 55-64, that many conservatives may be concerned will be anything but “temporary;”
  • A new publicly-run insurance option available to all citizens, whose low reimbursement rates would likely encourage providers to raise rates for private insurers, potentially leading to a “death spiral” of privately-provided coverage options;
  • A health insurance exchange representing another layer of regulation on the health insurance industry;
  • An individual mandate to purchase insurance, requiring the government to pass judgment on the adequacy of individuals’ coverage; and
  • Tax increases on businesses through a “pay-or-play” mandate that could in future years become an easy way for the government to pass off the cost of rising health care on the private sector.

    Just as worrisome to many conservatives are the lack of true cost-containment measures present in the Baucus proposal. Two of the plan’s prime savings targets—an expansion of the Medicaid drug rebate and one-sided cuts to Medicare Advantage plans—constitute little more than government-imposed price controls, which some conservatives may believe both ineffective and detrimental to new innovation.

    Some conservatives may believe that the true answer to reforming health care and slowing the growth of costs lies in harnessing innovation and competition. Implementing, rather than repealing, the Medicare premium support program would allow insurers to compete directly with Medicare to treat seniors in the most cost-effective manner. Additional means-testing for current entitlements would ensure that scarce government resources will go to those most in need of assistance—meaning that Warren Buffett and George Soros should not pay the same prescription drug premium as a senior making $20,000 per year. These efforts, coupled with initiatives to streamline costly state benefit mandates and other regulations, would expand coverage by slowing the growth of health costs, helping to ensure the future viability of our current entitlement programs.

Weekly Newsletter: September 15, 2008

Medicaid: More Spending Does Not Equal Reform

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

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

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

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

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

    Cautionary Tales from Across the Pond

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

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

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

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

    Article of Note: The Hospital-Industrial Complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Process for a Vetoed Bill:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TMA and Title V Extension.  H.R. 6331 would extend for twelve months (until June 30, 2009), both the authorization for Title V programs (abstinence education programs), and the authorization for Transitional Medical Assistance (Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work).  TMA has historically been extended along with the Title V Abstinence Education Program.  Regarding the Title V grant program, in order for states to receive Title V block grant funds, states must use the funds exclusively for teaching abstinence.  In addition, in order to receive federal funds, a state must match every $4 in federal funds with $3 in state funds.  Costs $1 billion over eleven years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Background on Medicare Physician Reimbursements:  Under current Medicare law, doctors providing health care services to Part B enrollees are compensated through a “fee-for-service” system, in which physician payments are distributed on a per-service basis, as determined by a fee schedule and an annual conversion factor (a formula dollar amount).  The fee schedule assigns “relative values” to each type of provided service.  Relative value reflects physicians’ work time and skill, average medical practice expenses, and geographical adjustments.  In order to determine the physician payment for a specific service, the conversion factor ($37.8975 in 2006) is multiplied by the relative value for that service.  For example, if a routine office visit is assigned a relative value of 2.1, then Medicare would provide the physician with a payment of $79.58 for that service.  ($37.8975 x 2.1)

Medicare law requires that the conversion factor be updated each year.  The formula used to determine the annual update takes into consideration the following factors:

  • Medicare economic index (MEI)–cost of providing medical care;
  • Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR)–target for aggregate growth in Medicare physician payments; and
  • Performance Adjustment–an adjustment ranging from -13% to +3%, to bring the MEI change in line with what is allowed under SGR, in order to restrain overall spending.

Every November, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announces the statutory annual update to the conversion factor for the subsequent year. The new conversion factor is calculated by increasing or decreasing the previous year’s factor by the annual update.

From 2002 to 2007, the statutory formula calculation resulted in a negative update, which would have reduced physician payments, but not overall physician spending. The negative updates occurred because Medicare spending on physician payments increased the previous year beyond what is allowed by SGR.  The SGR mechanism is designed to balance the previous year’s increase in physician spending with a decrease in the next year, in order to maintain the aggregate growth targets.  Thus, in light of increased Medicare spending in recent years, the statutory formula has resulted in negative annual updates.  It is important to note that while imperfect, the SGR was designed as a cost-containment mechanism to help deal with Medicare’s exploding costs, and to some extent it has worked, forcing offsets in some years and causing physician payment levels to be scrutinized annually as if they were discretionary spending.

Since 2003, Congress has chosen to override current law, providing doctors with increases each year, and level funding in 2006.  In 2007, Congress provided a 1.5% update bonus payment for physicians who report on quality of care measures; however, Congress also provided that the 2007 “fix” would be disregarded by CMS for the purpose of calculating the SGR for 2008, resulting in a higher projected cut next year.  The specific data for each year is outlined in the following table.

Year Statutory

Annual

Update (%)

Congressional “Fix” to the Update (%)*
2002 -5.4 -5.4**
2003 -4.4 +1.6
2004 -4.5 +1.5
2005 -3.3 +1.5
2006 -4.4 0
2007 -5.0 +1.5***
2008 -10.1§ 0.5 (proposed)

* The annual update that actually went into effect for that year.

** CMS made other adjustments, as provided by law, which resulted in a net update of – 4.8%; however, Congress did not act to override the -5.4% statutory update.

*** The full 1.5% increase was provided to physicians reporting quality of care measures; physicians not reporting quality of care received no net increase.

  • The Tax Relief and Health Care Act signed last year provided that 2007’s Congressional “fix” was to be disregarded for the purpose of calculating the SGR in 2008 and future years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does the Bill Contain Any New State-Government, Local-Government, or Private-Sector Mandates?: No.

Does the Bill Comply with House Rules Regarding Earmarks/Limited Tax Benefits/Limited Tariff Benefits?:  An earmarks/revenue benefits statement required under House Rule XXI, Clause 9(a) was not available at press time.

Constitutional Authority:  A committee report citing constitutional authority is unavailable.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Durable Medical Equipment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly Newsletter: June 16, 2008

Durable Medical Equipment Legislation Introduced

Last Thursday, several House Members led by Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) and Ranking Member Dave Camp (R-MI) introduced legislation (H.R. 6252) to delay implementation of competitive bidding for durable medical equipment. The legislation would nullify contracts which suppliers signed with Medicare earlier this spring and delay implementation of the first round of bidding by at least six months, with the second round delayed by over a year.

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

While there have been logistical difficulties associated with the first round of competitive bidding, some conservatives may still be concerned about the implications of a delay to a program that will save the federal government—and Medicare beneficiaries—billions of dollars by aligning the prices paid by Medicare for medical equipment and supplies with those in the private sector. Delays of the type contemplated by the legislation would delay competitive bidding’s implementation to a future Administration, and could enable a future President and future Congresses to take legislative action to eliminate the program altogether.

The RSC has prepared a Policy Brief on this issue, available here.

“Underinsured” Study’s Findings Subject to Interpretation

Last week several researchers associated with the Commonwealth Fund released a new study claiming that the number of “underinsured Americans” has risen sharply in recent years. According to the authors’ measure of “underinsurance”—medical expenses exceeding 10% of income (5% for low-income populations) or an insurance deductible of 5% of income—the number of “underinsured” Americans rose 60% from 2003 to 2007. This survey follows on the heels of a similar 60 Minutes broadcast on health
insurance that termed an individual receiving free care from an outreach clinic as “underinsured” due to his $500 annual deductible.

Some conservatives may have concerns both with the methodology of the study as well as its underlying rationale. The article releasing the study’s findings did not cite a recent Congressional Budget Office report noting that the percentage of out-of-pocket costs paid directly by individuals—as opposed to a third party insurance carrier or government program—declined from 31% to 13% of all health expenditures from 1975 to 2005. In addition, the survey’s authors did not assess the extent of private savings— whether in a Health Savings Account (HSA) or other vehicle—that could be drawn on by “underinsured” individuals to pay for medical expenses.

More fundamentally, the survey did not consider whether the subject individuals knowingly chose to select a plan with higher deductible exposure in order to receive lower premiums. Some conservatives may believe that implicit in the survey methodology are two questionable premises—the first that no rational person would choose to become “underinsured” according to the study’s definition of the term, and the second that policy-makers, particularly the federal government, should craft “solutions” to respond to this perceived problem. Instead, some conservatives may believe that additional reforms to create a true market in health care have the potential to slow the overall growth in health care costs, which may ultimately make the debate over “underinsurance” moot.

Article of Note: Switzerland in Massachusetts?

Last Friday’s monthly Health Matters column in CongressDaily highlighted the recent budgetary difficulties that the rising cost of health care has created for reformers in Massachusetts, which has seen the estimated cost of its comprehensive plan soar in the two years since its creation. Author Julie Rovner notes that both in its construction and its newfound financial obstacles, the Massachusetts plan looks surprisingly similar to a health reform model first adopted in Switzerland in 1994. While the Swiss model has several characteristics that conservatives may applaud—a wide choice of comprehensive plans, including those with higher deductibles that can yield savings on insurance premiums—as a model of consumer-directed health care, it also includes several forms of regulation—a mandate to purchase insurance coverage, guaranteed issue and community rating restrictions, and a prohibition on profit by carriers selling the standard benefit policy—which some conservatives may argue undermine the savings generated from a more open and transparent health system.

Whether in Switzerland, Massachusetts, or all 50 states, many conservatives have argued that health care needs more competition, not less—not just greater choice among policies for individuals and broader access to information about the price and quality of care, but a streamlining of the bureaucratic regulations that have raised the cost of health insurance. With health care costs continuing to rise at a rate that likely could make reforms like the Massachusetts experiment unsustainable, conservatives may argue that a dose of competition is just the novel concept needed to slow their unrestrained growth.

Medicare Advantage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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