21st Century Health Care Options for the States

A version of this post is available on the Galen Institute website.

Across the country, state legislatures are considering whether or not to expand their existing Medicaid programs.  Last year’s Supreme Court ruling struck down the mandatory nature of Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid to all families with incomes up to approximately $30,000 a year.  Chief Justice Roberts’ June 2012 opinion stated that the health law as originally written engaged in “economic dragooning that leaves the states with no real option but to acquiesce in the Medicaid expansion.”[1]  The Court’s opinion gave states a choice whether or not to expand their Medicaid programs to approximately 20 million new individuals,[2] a decision which states are weighing during their current legislative sessions.

The reasons why states should NOT participate in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion are well-documented[3]: Medicaid patients have worse health outcomes than patients with other forms of insurance, and in many cases worse health outcomes than the uninsured;[4] Medicaid beneficiaries often face difficulty finding doctors who will treat them;[5] and by increasing federal spending funded by massive tax increases, a Medicaid expansion will destroy jobs rather than create them.[6]

Less well known, however, are the innovative programs states have utilized over the past several years to modernize and enhance their health sectors, expanding coverage and improving quality of care while lowering costs.  Rather than utilizing Obamacare’s top-down, government-centric approach of putting more people into a broken Medicaid program, these policy solutions seek to transform Medicaid using market incentives to create a health system that works for patients.

Recently the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a bulletin providing clear evidence that the Obama administration views Medicaid expansion as an all-or-nothing proposition.[7]  The Administration apparently hopes that pressure from hospitals and special interests will force state legislators to approve Obamacare’s massive Medicaid expansion.  However, as Chief Justice Roberts indicated in his opinion last June, states now have a real choice.  Based on the examples presented below, states should choose innovative, market-driven solutions, rather than Obamacare’s bureaucratic approach.

Rhode Island

States seeking to improve their health care system should closely examine Rhode Island’s successful global compact waiver for its Medicaid program.  The waiver, negotiated by then-Gov. Don Carcieri and approved by CMS in January 2009, attempts to reduce expenses by giving the state the flexibility to improve the quality of care.  The Rhode Island waiver focuses on promoting home-and-community-based services as a more affordable (and more desirable) alternative to nursing homes, on improving access to primary care through managed care enrollment, and on other similar methods to provide quality care at better cost.  In December 2011, the non-partisan Lewin Group released an analysis of the Rhode Island global compact waiver.[8]  The Lewin report provides demonstrable examples of the waiver’s policy success, saving money while simultaneously improving care:

  • Shifting nursing home services into the community saved $35.7 million during the three-year study period
  • More accurate rate setting in nursing homes saved an additional $15 million in Fiscal Year 2010 alone
  • Better care management for adults with disabilities and special needs children saved between $4.5 and $11.9 million, and
  • Enrollment in managed care significantly increased the access of adults with disabilities to physician services.

Lewin’s conclusion:

The GW [Global Waiver] initiatives and budget actions taken by Rhode Island had a positive impact on controlling Medicaid expenditures.  The actions taken to re-balance the [Long Term Care] system appear to have generated significant savings according to our estimates.   The mandatory enrollment of disabled members in care management program reduced expenditures for this population while at the same time generally resulting in improved access to physician services.  Continuing the GW initiatives already undertaken by the state and implementing the additional initiatives included in the [Global Waiver] will result in significant savings for the Rhode Island Medicaid program in future years.[9]

All this progress comes despite the Obama administration’s efforts, not because of them.  Pages 14-15 of the Lewin report note that maintenance of effort mandates imposed in Obamacare and the “stimulus” prevented Rhode Island from imposing modest premiums on some beneficiaries, even though the approved waiver was supposed to give the state that flexibility.[10]

Despite the ways in which the Obama administration’s bureaucratic requirements interfered with Rhode Island’s ability to implement its global waiver fully, the state achieved measurable progress in reducing costs while improving care – providing a clear example that other states can emulate.

Indiana

The Hoosier State’s Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP), created in 2008, applied the principles of personal responsibility, consumer-driven health plans, and Health Savings Accounts in its expansion of coverage to low-income populations.  Initiated as part of a Medicaid demonstration waiver, the program requires individuals to make contributions to a Personal Wellness and Responsibility (POWER) account.  No beneficiary pays more than 5% of their income, and the state supplements individual contributions so that all participants will have $1,100 in their accounts to pay for routine expenses.

Healthy Indiana promotes personal responsibility in several ways.  First, the required beneficiary contributions to the POWER account ensure that all participants have an incentive to take greater responsibility for their own health and health spending.  Second, the program promotes preventive care by providing an additional $500 to fund important preventive screenings.  Moreover, only those beneficiaries who participate in a series of annual screenings may roll over unused POWER account funds from year to year.  Third, Healthy Indiana assesses co-payments for non-urgent visits to the emergency room, attempting to reverse a trend of high ER usage by Medicaid beneficiaries prevalent nationwide.[11]

Overall, Healthy Indiana has achieved many of its policy goals.  Despite the modest incomes of beneficiaries enrolled in the program – all of whom must have incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level, or about $31,000 for a couple in 2013 – nearly four in five contributed to their POWER account.[12]  Nine in ten participants have at least one physician visit in their first year of enrollment, demonstrating that the HIP deductible does not hinder patients from obtaining needed care.[13]  And an analysis by the consulting firm Milliman found that parents in Healthy Indiana “seek preventive care more frequently than comparable commercial populations.”[14]

Healthy Indiana has not only proved successful – it’s been popular as well.  Only about one-quarter of participants ever enrolled in the program during its first two years left the program, “a retention rate much higher than the rate for adults in Indiana’s regular Medicaid managed care program.”[15]  Approximately 70% of beneficiaries considered the required POWER account contributions just the right amount, and 94% of members report being satisfied or highly satisfied with their coverage.[16]

A 2011 policy brief by Mathematica Policy Research commented on the program’s successes:

HIP has successfully expanded coverage for the uninsured, while giving enrolled members an important financial stake in the cost of their health care and incentives for value-based decision making.  Early implementation suggests that members value HIP benefits and that at least some low-income, uninsured adults are willing and able to contribute toward the cost of their care.[17]

Just as important, the program’s increase in preventive care, and decrease in emergency room usage, have achieved measurable savings. Milliman reports that HIP exceeded its targets for budget neutrality, spending nearly $1 billion less than its original spending cap in its first five years.[18]

In the past five years, the market-based incentives of the Healthy Indiana Plan have yielded two-fold success in improving the population while containing overall spending.  It remains to be seen whether CMS will approve an extension of HIP or will instead claim that Obamacare’s bureaucratic mandates preclude the program’s continuation.  The week the law passed, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels publicly worried that Obamacare would force him to plan for HIP’s termination.[19]  State legislators seeking to avoid Obamacare’s requirements and restrictions who are looking instead to market incentives as a way to control costs would be wise to examine the Healthy Indiana Plan approach.

Florida

Earlier this year, CMS granted approval to the state of Florida’s two waivers to alter its Medicaid program.  These waivers, which follow on the heels of a five-county pilot reform program begun in 2006, will roll out over the coming 18 months; both waivers should be fully implemented by October 2014.[20]

One of the two waivers would transform the Medicaid program for low-income beneficiaries. The waiver will allow all Medicaid recipients to enroll in managed care plans; each will have at least two, and as many as 10, Medicaid plans from which to choose.[21]  The waiver allows managed care plans – which are based in one of 11 regions – to create customized benefit packages that meet the unique needs of their local populations.  In applying for its waiver, Florida rightly noted that “each plan will face the competitive pressure of offering the most innovative package,” which will allow beneficiaries “to use their premium [dollars] to select benefit plans that best meet their needs.”[22]

Other features of the waiver likewise seek to reduce costs while improving the quality of beneficiary care.  Managed care plans will be required to “establish a program to encourage and reward healthy behaviors,” similar to the Healthy Indiana Plan incentives discussed above.[23]  Florida also is seeking waiver flexibility from CMS to encourage beneficiaries to enroll in health coverage through their employer when available and require modest cost-sharing for certain populations.[24]

Coupled with another waiver for the state’s long-term care program – one which seeks to place individuals in home and community-based services instead of nursing home facilities – the two waivers collectively will transform the Medicaid program in Florida.  The waivers’ focus on participant choice, competition among plans to enroll beneficiaries, and incentives to promote wellness and preventive care all hold the potential to provide a more personalized experience for Medicaid beneficiaries – and, just as important, a more effective and efficient one as well.

Even as Florida moves ahead on implementing its waivers, state legislators are offering state-based alternatives to Obamacare’s costly Medicaid expansion.  House Speaker Will Weatherford introduced legislation – the Florida Health Choices Plus bill – with Rep. Richard Corcoran, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, to provide incentives for low-income individuals to obtain health insurance.[25]  Under the proposal, individuals with incomes below the federal poverty line would receive $2,000, deposited into a CARE (Contribution Amount for Reasonable Expenses) account.[26]  Beneficiaries would be required to deposit $25 per month, or $300 per year, into the account, and employers could contribute additional amounts as well.  The money could be used to purchase affordable health coverage in the Florida Health Choices insurance clearinghouse, or used directly for health expenses.

Because more than two in three uninsured Americans lack coverage for periods of less than a year, Florida Health Choices Plus would provide bridge funding to the majority of citizens who suffer only short spells without health insurance.[27]  It does so without providing incentives for individuals to drop private health insurance and enroll in a government program – a problem that has plagued past state coverage initiatives.[28]  The proposal includes a personal responsibility component, coupled with incentives for beneficiaries to serve as wise consumers of health care.  And it accomplishes these objectives without relying on Obamacare’s massive new gusher of federal spending.

Texas

Although it has not yet come to fruition, state thought leaders have begun to consider how additional flexibility from Washington could result in better care for patients and a more predictable and stable Medicaid budget for states.  The Texas Public Policy Foundation recently released a paper outlining its vision for a Medicaid block grant, and how Texas could use the flexibility under a block grant to revamp its existing Medicaid program.[29]  The paper describes how the amount of a block grant might be set, along with the terms and conditions establishing a new compact between the federal government and states – giving states more flexibility, but also requiring accountability for outcomes in the process.

Texas envisions a block grant as providing a way to revamp its Medicaid program for both low-income and elderly beneficiaries.  For lower-income applicants, the state could choose to subsidize private health insurance, with incentives linked to Health Savings Account (HSA) plans.  Beneficiaries would fund the difference between the amount of the state-provided subsidy and the cost of the insurance plan, “provid[ing] strong incentives to the enrolled population to purchase low premium, high value plans.  Beneficiaries selecting coverage that costs less than their premium support entitlement would be allowed to deposit the difference in an HSA.”[30]

With respect to long-term care for the elderly, the Texas paper envisions a series of reforms under a Medicaid block grant.  Incremental reforms – including partial benefits for those who seek to remain in community settings, a competitive bidding process for nursing home care, and greater restrictions on asset transfers, to ensure benefits are targeted toward truly needy individuals – would eventually lead to a fundamental transformation of the long-term care benefit into a defined contribution model.  Under this reform, “the state will provide a pre-determined level of financial support directly to those eligible by establishing and funding an account on each beneficiary’s behalf” to be used for eligible care expenses – maximizing beneficiary choice and flexibility and encouraging the use of community-based service over institutional nursing homes.

Unfortunately, a block grant requires approval from Congress – and neither the Democrat Senate nor President Obama currently appear inclined to grant states the degree of flexibility the Texas paper envisions.  But Rhode Island’s Global Waiver, approved in the final days of the George W. Bush administration, shows that the administration does have the authority to grant global waivers to other states seeking the same control over their Medicaid programs.

Nevertheless, the ideas offered in the paper present a vision where both flexibility and market incentives can provide better quality coverage to residents while providing budgetary stability to federal and state governments alike.

Learning from other states

Other examples of states taking action on their Medicaid programs:

North Carolina:  States first need to be armed with solid information about how the Medicaid program is working.  They need to know who is being helped or harmed and how much is being lost to waste and inefficiency in this ossified, rule-driven program.  In North Carolina, state auditor Beth Wood recently found that the state’s Medicaid program endured $1.4 billion in cost overruns each year, including $375 million in state dollars. As a result, North Carolina has decided not to expand its Medicaid program. Before considering any action, others states should commission objective, independent audits of their Medicaid programs to understand the program and the problems that need fixing.

New York also was able to gain more control over how Medicaid subsidy money is spent in exchange for a global cap on a substantial fraction of its Medicaid expenditures.

West Virginia offers alternative benefit packages that create incentives for beneficiaries to take responsibility for their own health and health care. Kentucky and Idaho are among other states with similar programs.  Patients receive additional benefits if they select a medical home, adhere to health improvement programs, keep and arrive on time for appointments, use the hospital emergency room for emergencies only, and comply with prescribed medications.

Utah fought for and received a waiver that allowed the states to scale back Medicaid’s excessively large benefit package to stretch the money to cover more citizens.

These are a few examples of the creative programs that states could develop if they weren’t forced to jump through Washington’s Mother-May-I Medicaid hoops to get approval to make even minor changes to their Medicaid programs.  

Lessons and Themes

While each state’s Medicaid program is unique, the examples discussed above each contain common themes that should guide policy-makers seeking to transform their state health systems – and avoid the pitfalls of Obamacare’s massive, bureaucratic expansion:

  • Customized Beneficiary Services:  Providing beneficiaries with a choice of coverage options can provide plans an incentive to tailor their benefit packages to best meet individuals’ needs.  Similar incentives promoting competition in the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit helped keep that program’s cost more than 40% below original estimates.[31]
  • Coordinated and Preventive Care:  Several of the reform programs focus on providing individualized, coordinated services to beneficiaries – an improvement to the top-down, uncoordinated care model of old.  In many cases, preventive care interventions for Medicaid recipients suffering from chronic conditions can ultimately save money.
  • Personal Responsibility:  Cost-sharing can be an appropriate incentive, to encourage beneficiaries to take ownership of their health, and discourage costly practices, such as emergency room trips for routine care.  The fact that more than two-thirds of Healthy Indiana Plan participants consider their cost-sharing levels appropriate proves that even families of modest means are both willing and able to provide some financial contribution to their cost of care.
  • Home and Community-Based Services:  Several of the reform programs attempt to continue and accelerate the trend of providing long-term care in patients’ homes, rather than in more cumbersome and costly nursing home settings.
  • No New Federal Funds:  Most importantly, each of the reform projects discussed above neither seek nor require the massive new spending levels contemplated by an Obamacare expansion.  In many cases, the programs above were implemented successfully despite Washington’s interference, not because of it.

Conclusion

Functioning in their traditional role as laboratories of democracy, states have provided better solutions for policy-makers seeking to reform their Medicaid programs.  These solutions have expanded coverage, and improved the quality of care, even while reducing costs to taxpayers.  As the Obama administration denies states true flexibility when it comes to Obamacare’s costly Medicaid expansion, states have demonstrated that they can convert a modicum of leeway from Washington into maximum improvements for their citizens – and savings for taxpayers.

The analysis above shows that Chief Justice Roberts was right: states do have a choice when it comes to their Medicaid programs.  They can – and should – choose the options that will reform and revitalize their programs, rather than the massive and costly expansion of the Medicaid monolith included in Obamacare.

States must take the lead in insisting that Washington provide more flexibility over Medicaid spending so they can expand access to care without burdening taxpayers with significant new costs or burdening their citizens with a program that can be worse than being uninsured.

States can show that Medicaid can have a more efficient and effective service delivery system that enhances quality of care and outcomes.  Expanding Medicaid without a guarantee of flexibility would be a major missed opportunity for the states. If states join together, they have more leverage to demand true flexibility than if they try to gain leverage one by one.

 

NOTES

[1] NFIB v. Sebelius, June 28, 2012, http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/11-393c3a2.pdf, p. 52.

[2] Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that Obamacare would expand coverage to 17 million individuals through Medicaid by 2022, while the Office of the Actuary at CMS estimated the Medicaid expansion would cover 25.9 million individuals by 2020.  See CBO, “Estimates for Insurance Coverage Provisions of the Affordable Care Act Updated for the Recent Supreme Court Decision,” July 24, 2012, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/43472-07-24-2012-CoverageEstimates.pdf, Table 1, p. 19, and Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “2011 Actuarial Report on the Financial Outlook for Medicaid,” March 16, 2012, http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Research/ActuarialStudies/Downloads/MedicaidReport2011.pdf, p. 30.

[3] Grace-Marie Turner and Avik Roy, “Twelve Reasons States Should Not Expand Medicaid,” Galen Institute, March 15, 2013, http://www.galen.org/topics/tennessee-should-block-medicaid-expansion/.

[4] Scott Gottlieb, “Medicaid Is Worse than No Coverage at All,” The Wall Street Journal March 10, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704758904576188280858303612.html.

[5] See, for instance, Joanna Bisgaier and Karin Rhodes, “Auditing Access to Specialty Care for Children with Public Insurance,” New England Journal of Medicine June 16, 2011, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1013285.

[6] Chris Conover, “Will Medicaid Expansion Create Jobs?,” Forbes, February 25, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/chrisconover/2013/02/25/will-medicaid-expansion-create-jobs/.

[7] CMS Bulletin, “Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act: Premium Assistance,” March 29, 2013, http://medicaid.gov/Federal-Policy-Guidance/Downloads/FAQ-03-29-13-Premium-Assistance.pdf.

[8] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation of Rhode Island’s Global Waiver,” December 6, 2011, http://www.ohhs.ri.gov/documents/documents11/Lewin_report_12_6_11.pdf.

[9] Ibid., p. 40.

[10] Specifically, the report notes that the maintenance of effort requirements included in the “stimulus” (P.L. 111-5) and Obamacare (P.L. 111-148) “had a profound impact on the flexibility Rhode Island anticipated…The Special Terms and Conditions for the global waiver authorized Rhode Island to charge premiums of up to 5 percent…however, CMS prohibited Rhode Island from using this authority,” citing the maintenance of effort requirements.  Ibid., pp. 11-12.

[11] See, for instance, a 2010 Centers for Disease Control research brief finding Medicaid beneficiaries were nearly twice three times as likely as those with private insurance to visit the ER multiple times in one year.  Tamrya Caroll Garcia, Amy Bernstein, and Mary Ann Bush, “Emergency Department Visitors and Visits: Who Used the Emergency Room in 2007?” National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief No. 38, May 2010, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db38.pdf.

[12] Timothy Lake, Vivian Byrd, and Seema Verma, “Healthy Indiana Plan: Lessons for Reform,” Mathematica Policy Research Issue Brief, January 2011, http://mathematica-mpr.com/publications/pdfs/health/healthyindianaplan_ib1.pdf.

[13] Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, Healthy Indiana Plan 1115 Waiver Extension Application, February 13, 2013, http://www.in.gov/fssa/hip/files/HIP_WaiverforPosting.pdf, p. 18.

[14] Cited in Ibid.

[15] “Healthy Indiana Plan: Lessons for Reform.”

[16] Healthy Indiana Plan 1115 Waiver Extension Application, pp. 19, 6.

[17] “Healthy Indiana Plan: Lessons for Reform.”

[18] Milliman letter to Indiana Family and Social Services Administration regarding budget neutrality of Medicaid Section 1115 waiver, January 30, 2013, http://www.in.gov/fssa/hip/files/041115_Budget_Neutrality_Waiver_Renewal.pdf.

[19] Mitch Daniels, “We Good Europeans,” The Wall Street Journal March 26, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704094104575144362968408640.html.

[20] Frequently Asked Questions on Statewide Medicaid Managed Care Program, Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, http://ahca.myflorida.com/medicaid/statewide_mc/pdf/FAQ_MC-SMMC_general.pdf.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Florida Agency for Health care Administration, Section 1115 waiver submission to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, http://www.medicaid.gov/Medicaid-CHIP-Program-Information/By-Topics/Waivers/1115/downloads/fl/fl-medicaid-reform-pa.pdf.

[23] Ibid., p. 16.

[24] A summary of the specific federal authorities Florida seeks to waive can be found on the state Agency for Health Care Administration website, http://ahca.myflorida.com/medicaid/statewide_mc/pdf/Summary_of_Federal_Authorities_01232013.pdf.

[25] “Florida Health Choices PLUS+: Creating a Stronger Marketplace for Better Health, More Choices, and Expanded Coverage,” Floriday House Majority Office, April 2013, http://myfloridahouse.gov/Handlers/LeagisDocumentRetriever.ashx?Leaf=housecontent/HouseMajorityOffice/Lists/Other%20Items/Attachments/6/Florida_Heath_Choices_Plus.pdf&Area=House.

[26] Available online at http://myfloridahouse.gov/Sections/Documents/loaddoc.aspx?PublicationType=Committees&CommitteeId=2738&Session=2013&DocumentType=Proposed%20Committee%20Bills%20%28PCBs%29&FileName=PCB%20SPPACA%2013-03.pdf.

[27] Congressional Budget Office, “How Many People Lack Health Insurance and for How Long?” May 2003, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/42xx/doc4210/05-12-uninsured.pdf, Table 4, p. 11.  For a further discussion of the cohorts comprising the uninsured, see Chris Jacobs, “Deconstructing the Uninsured,” Republican Study Committee Policy Brief, August 26, 2008, http://rsc.scalise.house.gov/uploadedfiles/pb_082608_uninsured%20analysis.pdf.

[28] See for instance Jonathan Gruber and Kosali Simon, “Crowd-Out Ten Years Later: Have Recent Public Insurance Expansions Crowded Out Private Insurance?” Journal of Health Economics, February 2008, http://economics.mit.edu/files/6422.  The study found that about three in five individuals enrolled in government health programs dropped their private coverage to do so.

[29] James Capretta, Michael Delly, Arlene Wohlgemuth, and John Davidson, “Save Texas Medicaid: A Proposal for Fundamental Reform,” Texas Public Policy Foundation, March 2013, http://www.texaspolicy.com/sites/default/files/documents/2013-03-RR05-MedicaidBlockGrants-Final.pdf.

[30] Ibid., p. 10.

[31] Robert Moffit, “Medicare Drugs: Why Congress Should Reject Government Price Fixing,” The Heritage Foundation Issue Brief 3880, March 18, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/03/medicare-drugs-why-congress-should-reject-government-price-fixing. ­­­

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

Weekly Newsletter: May 12, 2008

War Supplemental Attempts to Override Medicaid Fiscal Integrity Regulations

News reports surfaced in recent days that House Democrats will attempt to attach to the wartime supplemental appropriations bill provisions of legislation (H.R. 5613) that would impose moratoria on several proposed regulations issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to restore fiscal integrity to the Medicaid program. Other reports also suggest that much of the increase in Medicaid spending on anti-fraud oversight, inserted into the legislation at the behest of Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Joe Barton (R-TX), will not be included in the appropriations measure.

In addition to the concerns many conservatives may have about unnecessary domestic spending provisions being attached to a bill funding troops in harm’s way overseas, some conservatives may also be concerned by congressional actions to block regulations that respond to more than a dozen Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports released since 1994 highlighting the various ways states have attempted to “game” the Medicaid program and increase the amount of federal matching funds received. The history of these abuses has prompted the Administration to threaten a veto of any measure attempting to block CMS’ attempts to restore the fiscal integrity of the Medicaid program.

Reports also suggesting that the Senate version of the supplemental may attempt to pay for part of the costs associated with the Medicaid regulations by enacting additional restrictions on physician-owned hospitals. Some conservatives may therefore be concerned that Senate Democrats are attempting to override critical regulations to restore integrity to the Medicaid program—and paying for the moratoria by enacting bureaucratic restrictions that will stifle an important source of innovation in health care.

RSC Briefs on the federal-state Medicaid relationship can be found here, here, here, and here.

An RSC Policy Brief on physician-owned hospitals can be found here.

Ways and Means Hearing Scheduled on HSAs

This Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee will hold a hearing designed to undermine the growth of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). The hearing comes on the heels of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report requested by Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) that Democrats used to assert that HSAs are nothing more than a tax shelter for wealthy individuals.

Some conservatives may be strongly skeptical of the Democrat conclusions, particularly as the GAO report utilized tax data from a year when the number of HSA policy-holders was one-sixth its current level. In addition, many conservatives may applaud the data demonstrating that individuals are building real savings in their HSA accounts to use for health expenses—money that consumers, not insurance companies or government bureaucrats, can control and spend for health care needs. These data on the amount of savings accumulated by HSA holders fly in the face of statements by Subcommittee Chairman Stark that HSAs are “woefully inadequate” as a means to provide health care coverage.

What is clear is that HSAs have proved tremendously popular in the four years since their introduction. America’s Health Insurance Plans recently reported that more than 6.1 million individuals are covered by HSA-eligible insurance, and that enrollment in HSA plans had increased by 35% during 2007 alone. Given the widespread adoption of this new consumer-directed product, and its impact on reducing the growth of health care costs, many conservatives may object to any Democrat proposals to eliminate HSAs or make them unattractive through unnecessary bureaucratic regulations.

An RSC Policy Brief providing background on HSA enrollment can be found here.

Articles of Note: Washington’s Other Health Care Mess

Two articles in The Washington Post in the past week highlighted growing opposition to a measure designed to provide universal health care in the District of Columbia. The proposed program, similar to one enacted in Massachusetts two years ago, would impose an individual mandate on all individuals to purchase health insurance coverage, and would expand public insurance subsidies for those individuals not eligible for current government-run health care programs.

Much opposition has centered on the new taxes necessary to finance the expansion of government-run health care—a doubling of the District’s tobacco tax, a new tax on Health Maintenance Organizations, and an increase in taxes on all health insurance premiums. The health insurer with whom the District had expected to contract for the program has also expressed reservations about its willingness to participate.

Advocates of the District’s health care plan face the same obstacles that have plagued the Massachusetts experiment: unpopular new taxes that can stifle economic growth, an individual mandate that can prove difficult to enforce, and few controls on spiraling health care costs that form the root cause of many access and coverage shortcomings in the current system. Some conservatives would therefore advise District leaders that, rather than establishing a new entitlement program with unknown future obligations, policy-makers would be best advised to reform health care markets to create the kind of consumer-oriented innovations that can slow the growth of health care costs, thereby increasing affordability of coverage.

Read the articles here: “Speakers Express Division on Bill to Mandate Health Care Coverage
Provider, Doctors May Pull Out of Program

Weekly Newsletter: May 5, 2008

Democrat Attacks on HSAs Miss the Mark

This past week, Democrats attempted to use a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to cast aspersions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). The Democrats who requested the GAO report—which analyzed data from HSA contributions made in 2005—asserted that the study proved that HSAs are nothing more than a tax shelter for wealthy individuals.

However, some conservatives may be strongly skeptical of these conclusions, particularly as the report utilized tax data from a year when the number of HSA policy-holders was one-sixth its current level. In addition, many conservatives may applaud the data demonstrating that individuals are building real savings in their HSA accounts to use for health expenses—money that consumers, not insurance companies or government bureaucrats, can control and spend for health care needs.

What is clear is that HSAs have proved tremendously popular in the four years since their introduction. America’s Health Insurance Plans reported Wednesday that more than 6.1 million individuals are covered by HSA-eligible insurance, and that enrollment in HSA plans had increased by 35% during 2007 alone. Given the widespread adoption of this new consumer-directed product, and its impact on reducing the growth of health care costs, many conservatives may object to any Democrat proposals to eliminate HSAs or make them unattractive through unnecessary bureaucratic regulations.

The RSC Policy Brief summarizing the HSA reports can be found here.

Leavitt Speech Highlights Need for Entitlement Reform

Last Wednesday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt used a speech at the Newseum to advance the cause of Medicare reform, outlining some over-arching principles to guide policy-makers looking to curb the spiraling growth of federal entitlements. In his speech—and a subsequent briefing before RSC Members and staff—he compared the federal government’s looming entitlement obligations as a whirlpool threatening to consume growing amounts of the economy, and advocated for increased competition in Medicare Parts A and B as one measure to stem the spiraling costs.

Many conservatives will support Secretary Leavitt’s call for comprehensive reform, and seek an immediate solution to the problems plaguing Medicare. This year’s Medicare trustees report placed the program’s total unfunded obligations at $86 trillion—which will provide some conservatives with a strong impetus to use all available legislative mechanisms to advance the cause of Medicare reform.

The RSC has released Policy Briefs highlighting the Medicare “trigger,” the President’s proposed legislation, and other options for comprehensive entitlement reform.

Genetic Non-Discrimination Act Passes Overwhelmingly

Last Thursday, the House by a 414-1 vote passed the Senate amendments to the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 493), sending the bill to the President’s desk. The compromise language negotiated between Senate sponsors and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) had previously passed the Senate on a 95-0 vote.

The compromise language corrects several issues of concern to conservatives. Insurers and employers will be prohibited from discriminating against individuals on the basis of fetal genetic information, ensuring that individuals will not feel pressured into aborting their unborn children. In addition, existing policies on insurance underwriting for diseases already manifest in individuals will be maintained, and entities subject to existing privacy regulations under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) will not be subject to a new regulatory regime. Lastly, the compromise language improved a conservative concern that employers will not be subject to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) tribunals or lawsuits for decisions they make in their capacity as an insurer for their employees.

The RSC Legislative Bulletin on the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act can be found here.

Question and Answer: Health Savings Account Restrictions

On April 9, 2008, the House Ways and Means Committee passed legislation (H.R. 5719) with provisions placing additional restrictions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).  In anticipation of floor consideration of the measure, the RSC has prepared the following document providing context and background information on the proposal.

What change to Health Savings Accounts are Democrats proposing?

Section 17 of H.R. 5719 requires “substantiation” of all HSA transactions from an independent third party, to ensure that money withdrawn from an HSA pays for qualified medical expenses.  Specifically, the section would make the income tax deduction associated with HSA contributions contingent on substantiation of all withdrawals, beginning in 2011.  This oversight of every single account transaction would make HSAs similar to Flexible Spending Arrangements (FSAs), an earlier consumer-driven health care model.

How are FSAs and HSAs different?

One of the prime differences between the two account-based models lies in the control source for the funds in the account.  The Internal Revenue Code makes clear that FSA accounts are held by employers, while HSA funds remain exclusively the property of the employee.  This distinction explains why unused FSA funds in an employee’s account at the time of departure revert back to the employer, while HSA funds always remain with the employee, and remain portable from job to job and into retirement.  Some conservatives may be concerned about the potential implications of transferring a “substantiation” system designed for employer-owned FSAs to individually-owned HSAs—both in terms of the legal liabilities placed on employers and administrators to verify transactions, and the restrictions placed on individuals to control their HSA account dollars.

How are HSA and FSA withdrawals administered?

Right now, most HSA transactions take place using point-of-sale debit cards that make electronic fund transfers directly from the account.  Conversely, most FSA transactions remain paper-based, requiring out-of-pocket spending by the individual and subsequent reimbursement from the FSA after approval by an administrator.  While Treasury has released new regulations to make FSA reimbursement simpler, some conservatives may remain concerned that the Democrats’ proposed change may make the HSA model less attractive to consumers.

What penalties are currently in place to ensure HSA funds are spent on qualified medical expenses?

Under the Internal Revenue Code, non-qualified withdrawals from an HSA are subject to individual income taxes, as well as a 10% penalty.  HSA account activity is subject to audits from the Internal Revenue Service, and account holders are advised to retain their receipts documenting qualified medical expenses in the event of an audit.

What measures do HSA administrators currently have in place to ensure that withdrawals from the account are made for qualified medical expenses?

Right now, some banks that administer HSAs have electronic debit cards that can “read” the merchant code where the transaction is taking place (e.g. a doctor’s office).  If a request for transaction is occurring at a location not normally associated with qualified medical expenses, the debit card can decline the transaction.  Some administrators have developed more advanced technology to differentiate product codes within a merchant’s offerings—for instance, accepting grocery store transactions for cough syrup (a permissible over-the-counter drug) while rejecting attempts to purchase items within the same store for items without a clear medical use, such as beer or wine.  This advanced technology is in the process of being rolled out; however, many banks and account administrators have expressed their view that enactment of this legislative provision could prompt their withdrawal from the HSA marketplace.

Does the fact that some HSA withdrawals are made at places like grocery stores mean that these withdrawals are not for qualified medical expenses?

Not necessarily.  The list of qualified medical expenses is quite broad, and generally includes most items reimbursable from a Flexible Spending Arrangement or deductible on an individual tax return if total medical expenses exceed 7.5% of an individual’s adjusted gross income.  Under certain circumstances, legal expenses (to authorize mental health care), lodging and travel expenses (related to medical treatment) and even the cost of a telephone (for the hearing impaired) can be considered medical expenses.  Some conservatives may be concerned that the proposal under consideration would essentially shift the burden of proof from the government (to prove that an expenditure was improper in the context of a tax audit) to the consumer to prove compliance at the time of withdrawal, causing additional inconvenience to the HSA holder.

Are withdrawals made for causes other than qualified medical expenses unlawful?

Only if the account holder does not pay income taxes and a 10% penalty.  Under current law, it is the account holder’s obligation to declare such non-qualified withdrawals—a policy comparable to withdrawals from an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).  Account holders who do not pay appropriate taxes and penalties on withdrawals not for qualified medical expenses are subject to an Internal Revenue Service audit.

How many HSA withdrawals are unlawful?

The percentage is unclear for two reasons.  First, estimates of the amount of withdrawals made that do not involve qualified medical expenses vary.  While one HSA administrator claimed that 12% of withdrawals were made at vendors not normally associated with qualified medical expenses, HSA administrators affiliated with the American Bankers Association claim that only 2.7% of their withdrawals took place at such vendors—and, for the reasons explained above, the fact that a vendor is not a qualified health provider does not mean that a transaction itself is not a qualified medical expense.  A 2006 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on HSA usage found that 10% of all withdrawals were made for purposes other than qualified medical expenses; however, GAO had only a single year (2004) of HSA withdrawal data available at the time it compiled its report.

What remains largely unknown is the percentage of transactions not associated with qualified medical expenses for which the account holder does not pay appropriate taxes and penalties.  At the Ways and Means markup, Treasury Department officials presented preliminary data indicating a relatively high rate of compliance with respect to self-attestation of non-qualified withdrawals, which if proven accurate would obviate the need for the legislative change.  Even as the Ways and Means Committee passed the substantiation language, both Democrats and Republicans decried the lack of available evidence to judge the need for this particular provision.

How does this provision save money for the federal government?

The Joint Committee on Taxation notes that Section 17 of H.R. 5719 would save $151 million over five years and $308 million over ten years.  However, the cause for this savings is unclear.  During the Ways and Means markup, Joint Tax staff admitted their inability to determine how much of the savings would result from newly captured penalties and taxes and how much of the savings would come from lower HSA take-up rates and/or lower contribution levels to HSAs.  Some conservatives may be concerned that it remains unclear whether this provision would achieve its stated purpose by increasing oversight of questionable HSA withdrawals—or will instead achieve budgetary savings by making HSAs less attractive to consumers.

Employers contribute money to their employees’ HSAs.  Shouldn’t they have a right to know that their contributions are being spent for medical purposes?

Unlike FSAs, which are considered as being held by the employer, an HSA is considered the employee’s property, and any cash contributions immediately accrue to the worker.  Thus an employer has no more or less right to know the employer’s contributions are spent on qualified medical expenses than a business has a right to determine that the employer’s share of 401(k) contributions is ultimately spent on retirement expenses.  In both cases, the penalties for a non-qualified distribution are the same—income taxes owed, plus a 10% penalty.

In an advisory opinion on the status of HSAs, the Department of Labor (DOL) held that an employer’s transfer of cash contributions into an employee’s HSA does not constitute group coverage under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) because of the employer’s inability to control the funds in the employee’s account.  Many small businesses—who have heretofore not been able to finance health insurance coverage for their workers—have used the flexibility provided by the DOL opinion to place cash contributions into their employees’ HSAs without triggering the regulatory burdens imposed on ERISA group health insurance plans, benefiting both the business and the worker.

What may be the practical implications of this proposed change to HSAs?

In addition to increased inconvenience for end users, introducing a new step of independent “substantiation” may well increase costs for banks and account administrators, who are likely to pass these costs on to employers and/or consumers.  While Democrats have complained in recent months about the charges which banks and other commercial lending institutions pass on to their customers, this provision carries a strong likelihood of increasing those costs further.  In addition, some conservatives may also be concerned that should this proposal pass, an HSA mechanism created to reduce the growth of health care costs—and which has achieved some noteworthy successes in the time since its introduction—would lead to increased costs for businesses and individuals.

What organizations oppose this proposed change to HSAs?

Although some members of the business community support other provisions included in H.R. 5719, many organizations have expressed concern about the substantiation requirements—including the company (Evolution Benefits) that first brought the issue to the Committee’s attention.  A partial list of organizations opposing the HSA substantiation provision includes:

  • America’s Health Insurance Plans
  • Business Roundtable
  • Credit Union National Association
  • Financial Services Roundtable
  • HSA Council (part of American Bankers Association)
  • International Franchise Association
  • National Association of Health Underwriters
  • National Association of Manufacturers
  • National Federation of Independent Business
  • National Restaurant Association
  • National Retail Federation
  • National Taxpayers Union
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce