Donald Berwick Rations the Facts With His Eyes Open

Former Medicare chief Dr. Donald Berwick published an op-ed in today’s Boston Globe in which he endorses Professor Elizabeth Warren for her support of Obamacare.  Unfortunately, however, the column reveals that Dr. Berwick must not have learned much about the Medicare program during his time at CMS, given many of his statements:

“Obamacare reduce costs…”  That’s not what Medicare’s own actuary said.  Earlier this year, the actuary published an analysis indicating the law would raise costs by more than $478 billion.  Last year, the actuary testified before Congress, calling “False” the Administration’s stated goal of reducing health care costs.

“It targets waste, fraud, and abuse, reduces unnecessary subsidies to insurance companies…”  Again, that’s not what Medicare’s own actuary said.  He has concluded that over the long-term, up to 40 percent of providers would become unprofitable due to Obamacare, and could “have to withdraw from providing services to Medicare beneficiaries.”  Just this week, an Alabama hospital took a different course – it decided to shut down entirely, due to the impact of Obamacare on its business model.

“President Obama’s health reforms do not cut any guaranteed Medicare benefits…”  This statement is manifestly FALSE, as we have previously demonstrated.  Obamacare cut benefits for wealthy seniors, by forcing them to pay more for their Medicare coverage.  And President Obama’s budget proposed even further benefit cuts – new means-testing, additional co-payments, and higher premiums.  In many cases, these changes are actually good policy, but they’re still cuts to “guaranteed benefits” – and no one should be dishonest enough to claim that they aren’t.

“Thanks to Obamacare, seniors can now get a free annual wellness visit…”  Also incorrect.  These services may be delivered without any out-of-pocket cost-sharing, but they are NOT “free” – someone ends up paying for them.  In fact, all seniors end up paying, as do all Americans – through higher taxpayer spending on Medicare, and higher Part B premiums for seniors.

“Medicare and Medicaid both face challenges today, but not because of Obamacare.  The challenges exist throughout the health care system, mainly in the form of rising costs.”  The implication is that Medicare isn’t the problem – that health costs as a whole are a problem.  But the fact is that Medicare – and particularly its focus on fee-for-service medicine – has been one of the driving elements of rising costs and inefficiency in our health care system.  The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, in a January report analyzing dozens of Medicare demonstration programs, said these programs did not contain health costs, precisely because of the flawed incentives included in fee-for-service medicine: “Demonstrations aimed at reducing spending and increasing quality of care face significant challenges in overcoming the incentives inherent in Medicare’s fee-for-service payment system, which rewards providers for delivering more care.”  In other words, Medicare isn’t the solution to health care costs – it’s the problem.

Dr. Berwick’s tenure at CMS was cut short due to his many controversial remarks, most notably his (in)famous interview in which he claimed that “The decision is not whether or not we will ration care – the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open.”  Given his economies with accuracy in the op-ed, many may wonder if Dr. Berwick has also decided to ration the true facts about Obamacare with his eyes open.

How the Status Quo Leaves Medicare Ripe for Abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence and Ideology in the Medicare Debate

In a New York Times blog post last Friday, former Clinton Administration official Laura D’Andrea Tyson said that “when formulating public policy, evidence should be accorded more weight than ideology, and facts should matter more than shibboleths.”  On that count, she’s right.  But unfortunately for Tyson, the evidence shows that while liberal, top-down proposals to restructure Medicare – and the health care system – have failed, conservative proposals to introduce market forces into America’s failing entitlements could just succeed.

Tyson dismisses premium support proposals for Medicare, arguing that “the facts do not support” any conclusion that “competition would encourage more cost-sensitive behavior by beneficiaries, providers, and insurers.”  Actually, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association just this month found that private plans would “bid an average of 9% below traditional Medicare costs” under a premium support model.  That’s a savings of tens of billions of dollars – coming directly from the positive effects of competition.

Conversely, Tyson claims that because competition won’t reduce health costs, “enforceable payment and cost-containment reforms like those in [Obamacare] are necessary.”  Those are the same payment reforms that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, in a January report analyzing dozens of Medicare demonstration programs over decades, said haven’t worked to contain costs:

The evaluations show that most programs have not reduced Medicare spending: In nearly every program involving disease management and care coordination, spending was either unchanged or increased relative to the spending that would have occurred in the absence of the program, when the fees paid to the participating organizations were considered….Demonstrations aimed at reducing spending and increasing quality of care face significant challenges in overcoming the incentives inherent in Medicare’s fee-for-service payment system, which rewards providers for delivering more care but does not pay them for coordinating with other providers, and in the nation’s decentralized health care delivery system, which does not facilitate communication or coordination among providers.

While the evidence is clear that Obamacare’s focus on payment reform has NOT worked to control costs, the signs for competition as a positive force slowing costs seem promising.  Which means that if Tyson wants to be bound by evidence and not ideology, she has every reason to endorse premium support as opposed to an extension of the failed status quo.

A Review of Deficit Reduction Plans

This Wednesday’s deadline for the fiscal commission to report a deficit reduction plan provides an opportunity to examine the health care components of the three proposals that have been released thus far:

  1. The Simpson-Bowles plan, named for the co-chairs of the fiscal commission, who released their own draft recommendations just after the midterm election;
  2. The Rivlin-Domenici plan, named for former CBO Director Alice Rivlin and former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM), who released their own proposal as chairs of an independent commission operating under the aegis of the Bipartisan Policy Center; and
  3. The Rivlin-Ryan plan, which Alice Rivlin and House Budget Committee Ranking Member Paul Ryan released as an alternative to the Simpson-Bowles proposal, as both Dr. Rivlin and Rep. Ryan also sit on the fiscal commission.

CBO has conducted a preliminary analysis of the Rivlin-Ryan plan (the above link includes both the plan’s summary and score), and the Simpson-Bowles plan incorporates CBO scoring estimates where available.  However, it is unclear where and how the Rilvin-Domenici plan received the scores cited for its proposals.  The timing of the plans also varies; the Rivlin-Domenici plan postpones implementation of its plan until 2012, when the authors believe the economy will be better able to sustain a major deficit reduction effort.

The following analysis examines the similarities and differences of the three plans’ health care components in both the short term and the long term.  Keep in mind however that these are DRAFT proposals, which may a) change and b) be missing significant details affecting their impact.  Note also that the summary below is not intended to serve as an endorsement or repudiation of the proposals, either in general terms or in their specifics.

Short-Term Savings

Liability Reform:  All three plans propose liability reforms, including a cap on non-economic damages.  The Rivlin-Ryan and Simpson-Bowles plans both rely on specifications outlined in CBO’s October 2009 letter to Sen. Hatch; both presume about $60 billion in savings from this approach.  The Rivlin-Domenici plan is less clear on its specifics, but discusses “a strong financial incentive to states, such as avoiding a cut in their Medicaid matching rate, to enact caps on non-economic and punitive damages.”  Rivlin-Domenici also proposes grants to states to pilot new approaches, such as health courts; overall, the plan estimates $48 billion in savings from 2012 through 2020.

Prescription Drug Rebates:  Both the Simpson-Bowles and Rivlin-Domenici plans would apply Medicaid prescription drug rebates to the Medicare Part D program.  The Simpson-Bowles plan estimates such a change would save $59 billion from 2011 through 2020, whereas the Rivlin-Domenici plan estimates this change would save $100 billion from 2012 through 2018.  The disparity in the projected scores is unclear, as both imply they would extend the rebates to all single-source drugs (i.e., those without a generic competitor) in the Part D marketplace.  The Rivlin-Ryan plan has no similar provision.

Changes to Medicare Benefit:  All three plans propose to re-structure the Medicare benefit to provide a unified deductible for Parts A and B, along with a catastrophic cap on beneficiary cost-sharing.  The Rivlin-Ryan and Simspon-Bowles plans are largely similar, and echo an earlier estimate made in CBO’s December 2008 Budget Options document (Option 83), which provided for a unified deductible for Parts A and B combined, a catastrophic cap on beneficiary cost-sharing, and new limits on first-dollar coverage by Medigap supplemental insurance (which many economists believe encourages patients to over-consume care).  Conversely, the Rivlin-Domenici proposal provides fewer specifics, does not mention a statutory restriction on Medigap first-dollar coverage, and generates smaller savings (an estimated $14 billion from 2012 through 2018, as opposed to more than $100 billion from the Rivlin-Ryan and Simpson-Bowles proposals).

Medicare Premiums:  The Rivlin-Domenici plan would increase the beneficiary share of Medicare Part B premiums from 25 percent to 35 percent, phased in over a five-year period, raising $123 billion from 2012 through 2018. (When Medicare was first established, seniors paid 50 percent of the cost of Part B program benefits; that percentage was later reduced, and has been at 25 percent since 1997.)  The Rivlin-Ryan and Simpson-Bowles plans have no similar provision.

“Doc Fix:  The Simpson-Bowles plan uses the changes discussed above (i.e., liability reform, Part D rebates, and Medicare cost-sharing), along with an additional change in Medicare physician reimbursement, to pay for a permanent “doc fix” to the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula.  The Simpson-Bowles plan would generate the final $24 billion in savings necessary to finance a permanent “doc fix” by establishing a new value-based reimbursement system for physician reimbursement, beginning in 2015.

The introduction to the Rivlin-Domenici plan notes that it “accommodates a permanent fix” to the SGR, but the plan itself does not include specifics on how this would be achieved, nor what formula would replace the current SGR mechanism.  Likewise, the Rivlin-Ryan plan does not directly address the SGR; however, the long-term restructuring in Medicare it proposes means the issue of Medicare physician reimbursement would become a moot point over several decades.  (See below for additional details.)

Other Provisions:  The Rivlin-Domenici plan would impose an excise tax of one cent per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages; the tax would apply beginning in 2012 and would be indexed to inflation after 2018. (This proposal was included in Option 106 of CBO’s December 2008 Budget Options paper.)  The plan estimates this option would raise $156 billion from 2012 through 2020.

The Rivlin-Domenici plan also proposes bundling diagnosis related group (DRG) payments to include post-acute care services in a way that allows hospitals to retain 20 percent of the projected savings, with the federal government recapturing 80 percent of the savings for a total deficit reduction of $5 billion from 2012 through 2018.  Finally, the Rivlin-Domenici plan proposes $5 billion in savings from 2012 through 2018 by removing barriers to enroll low-income dual eligible beneficiaries in managed care programs.

The Simpson-Bowles plan includes a laundry list of possible short-term savings (see Slide 35 of the plan for illustrative savings proposals) in addition to the savings provisions outlined above that would fund a long-term “doc fix.”  Most of the additional short-term savings proposed would come from additional reimbursement reductions (e.g., an acceleration of the DSH and home health reductions in the health care law, and reductions in spending on graduate medical education), or from proposals to increase cost-sharing (e.g., higher Medicaid co-pays, higher cost-sharing for retirees in Tricare for Life and FEHB).

Long-Term Restructuring

Employee Exclusion for Group Health Insurance:  In its discussion of tax reform, the Simpson-Bowles plan raises the possibility of capping or eliminating the current employee exclusion for employer-provided health insurance.  (The Associated Press wrote about this issue over the weekend.)  One possible option would eliminate the exclusion as part of a plan to lower income tax rates to three brackets of 8%, 14%, and 23%; however, this proposal presumes a net $80 billion per year in increased revenue per year to reduce the deficit.  The plan invokes as another option a proposal by Sens. Gregg and Wyden to cap the exclusion at the value of the FEHBP Blue Cross standard option plan, which would allow for three income tax rates of 15%, 25%, and 35%, along with a near-tripling of the standard deduction.  Separately, the Simpson-Bowles plan also proposes repealing the payroll tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance as one potential option to extend Social Security’s solvency.

The Rivlin-Domenici plan would cap the exclusion beginning in 2018, at the same level at which the “Cadillac tax” on high-cost plans is scheduled to take effect in that year.  However, the proposal would go further than the “Cadillac tax” (which would be repealed) by phasing out the income and payroll tax exclusion entirely between 2018 and 2028.  (This proposal would also prohibit new tax deductible contributions to Health Savings Accounts, on the grounds that health care spending would no longer receive a tax preference under any form.)  Notably, the Rivlin-Domenici plan accepts that some employers might stop offering coverage from this change to the tax code, and projects some higher federal spending on Exchange insurance subsidies as a result; however, if more employers drop coverage than the authors’ model predicts, the revenue gain from this provision could be entirely outweighed by the scope of new federal spending on insurance subsidies.

Although Rep. Ryan has previously issued his “Roadmap” proposal that would repeal the employee exclusion, the Rivlin-Ryan plan does NOT address this issue.

Medicare:  The Rivlin-Domenici program would turn Medicare into a premium support program beginning in 2018.  Increases in federal spending levels would be capped at a rate equal to the average GDP growth over five years plus one percentage point.  Seniors would still be automatically enrolled in traditional (i.e., government-run) Medicare, but if spending exceeded the prescribed federal limits, seniors would pay the difference in the form of higher premiums.  Seniors could also choose plans on a Medicare Exchange (similar to today’s Medicare Advantage), with the hope that such plans “can offer beneficiaries relief from rising Medicare premiums.”

The Rivlin-Ryan proposal would turn Medicare into a voucher program beginning in 2021.  (Both the Rivlin-Domenici premium support program and the Rivlin-Ryan voucher program would convert Medicare into a defined benefit, whereby the federal contribution toward beneficiaries would be capped; the prime difference is that the premium support program would maintain traditional government-run Medicare as one option for beneficiaries to choose from with their premium dollars, whereas the Rivlin-Ryan plan would give new enrollees a choice of only private plans from which to purchase coverage.)  The amount of the voucher would increase annually at the rate of GDP growth per capita plus one percentage point – the same level as the overall cap in Medicare spending included in the health care law as part of the new IPAB.  Low-income dual eligible beneficiaries would receive an additional medical savings account contribution (to use for health expenses) in lieu of Medicaid assistance; the federal contribution to that account would also grow by GDP per capita plus one percent.

The Rivlin-Ryan plan would NOT affect seniors currently in Medicare, or those within 10 years of retirement, except for the changes in cost-sharing described in the short-term changes above.  However, for individuals under age 55, the plan would also raise the age of eligibility by two months per year, beginning in 2021, until it reached 67 by 2032.

While the Rivlin-Domenici and Rivlin-Ryan plans restructure the Medicare benefit for new enrollees to achieve long-term savings, the Simpson-Bowles plan largely relies on the health care law’s new Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) to set spending targets and propose additional savings.  The Simpson-Bowles plan suggests strengthening the IPAB’s spending targets, extending the IPAB’s reach to health insurance plans in the Exchange, and allowing the IPAB to recommend changes to benefit design and cost-sharing.  The plan also suggests setting a global budget for all federal health spending (i.e., Medicare, Medicaid, exchange subsidies, etc.), and capping the growth of this global budget at GDP plus one percent – the same level that IPAB capped spending in Medicare.  If costs exceed the target, additional steps could be taken to reduce spending, including an increase in premiums and cost-sharing or a premium support option for Medicare.  The plan also suggests overhauling the fee-for-service reimbursement system, or establishing an all-payer model of reimbursement (in which all insurance carriers pay providers the same rate) if spending targets are not met.

Medicaid:  The Rivlin-Domenici plan suggests that in future, Medicaid’s excess cost growth should be reduced by one percentage point annually.  The plan implies some type of negotiation between states and the federal government over which services in the existing Medicaid program that the state should assume and fund and which services the federal government should assume and fund.  While specifics remain sparse, the overriding principle involves de-linking Medicaid financing from the open-ended federal matching relationship as a way to reduce future cost growth by one percentage point per year.

The Rivlin-Ryan plan converts the existing Medicaid program into a block grant to the states, beginning in 2013.  The size of the federal block grant would increase to reflect growth in the Medicaid population, as well as growth in GDP plus one percent.  The costs of the new Medicaid expansion would be covered according to current law through 2020; in 2021 and succeeding years, the Medicaid expansion would be rolled into the block grant.

The Simpson-Bowles plan includes conversion of Medicaid into a block grant as one option to generate additional savings; however, it does not explicitly advocate this course of action.

CLASS Act:  The Rivlin-Ryan plan would repeal the CLASS Act.  The Rivlin-Domenici and Simpson-Bowles plans do not discuss any changes to this program.  This is the ONLY provision in the three deficit reduction plans that proposes elimination of any part of the health care law’s new entitlements.

Hatch Motion to Commit on Medicare Advantage

Senator Hatch has offered a motion to commit that would block cuts to Medicare Advantage from taking effect if more than 1,000,000 seniors are projected to lose their health coverage as a result of those cuts.
Arguments In Favor:
  • Medicare Advantage Offers a Better Value for seniors:  The Medicare Advantage program gives seniors the option of receiving their Medicare benefits from a private plan rather than the government’s fee-for-service program. Seniors have increasingly turned to Medicare Advantage plans because these plans offer a better value and a higher quality of care than traditional fee-for-service Medicare.  Medicare Advantage beneficiaries receive on average $93 per month, or more than $1,100 a year, in additional benefits above traditional fee-for-service Medicare.
  • The so-called overpayments to Medicare Advantage plans don’t go to the plans.  They go to seniors in the form of extra benefits.  Seventy-five percent of additional payments to Medicare Advantage plans are used to provide seniors with extra benefits — including chronic care management, hearing aids and eyeglasses.  The other 25 percent of any extra payments is returned the federal government.
  • Six years ago, when Congress enacted the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA), we intentionally provided new funding to stabilize the Medicare health plan program. This was one of the few issues on which there was strong bipartisan agreement during the 2003 Medicare debate.   In fact, in June 2003 several Democrats- including Senators Schumer and Kerry offered a bipartisan amendment on the Senate floor to provide additional funding for benefits under the Medicare Advantage program.
  • President Obama’s campaign promises of “If you like your current plan, you can keep it” will ring hollow to elderly beneficiaries unable to retain their existing Medicare Advantage plan.  This motion would preserve that promise made to America’s seniors.

Legislative Bulletin: Health Provisions of H.R. 1, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

Order of Business: During the week of January 26, 2009, the House is expected to consider H.R. 1 under a likely structured rule. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Dave Obey (D-WI) on January 26, 2009. The bill was referred to the House Committees on Appropriations and Budget, but was never considered; however, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and other relevant committees marked up provisions within their jurisdiction the week of January 19, 2009.

Summary of Health Provisions: The legislation contains several sections of major health care provisions, including expansions of health care subsidies for the unemployed, a bailout of state Medicaid programs, and new spending on health information technology. Provisions of these titles include:

Health Provisions Affecting Unemployed Workers

Temporary COBRA Premium Subsidy: Provisions of the Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA) provide for separated employees and their dependents to remain on their previous employer’s group policy for 18 months, or up to 36 months in some cases. Employers are permitted to charge former workers electing COBRA coverage the full cost of their group insurance premiums, plus a 2% fee to cover administrative costs.

The bill would provide a 65% premium subsidy to employers to cover the costs of individuals electing COBRA coverage, provided such election comes as a result of the individual’s involuntarily termination from employment during the period from September 1, 2008 to December 31, 2009. The subsidy would continue for a maximum of 12 months, but would terminate once the individual becomes eligible for other employer-based coverage or Medicare.

The bill re-opens the COBRA election period for certain individuals, who had previously declined COBRA coverage, to allow them to accept continuation coverage in light of the new federal subsidy. Any pre-existing condition exclusions as a result of the temporary lapse in coverage would be waived if the former employee chooses to accept the COBRA coverage with the new federal subsidy. The bill imposes various notification requirements on employers to inform their separated workers about the COBRA subsidy program.

The bill includes a 110% penalty for individuals who lose eligibility for the COBRA premium subsidy (due to eligibility for other group coverage), but fail to report their changed status. However, because the reporting mechanism for individuals to report their changed status lacks transparency (i.e. employers may not know their former employees have obtained another job, or whether that job includes an offer of group health insurance), some Members may be concerned that the premium subsidy program could be ripe for abuse by individuals who could obtain a “better deal” by remaining on the COBRA subsidy.

According to the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), this provision would cost the federal government $28.7 billion in reduced revenue over five and ten years, as the subsidy would be paid to employers in the form of a reduction or rebate of taxes (both income and payroll) withheld. JCT estimates that 7 million individuals would receive COBRA subsidies at some point during calendar year 2009.

Permanent COBRA Expansion: The bill also includes a permanent expansion of COBRA in the case of “older or long-term employees.” Specifically, the bill would permit former employees over age 55, or those with at least 10 years of service with the employer, to remain on COBRA until becoming eligible for Medicare. These provisions are similar to language inserted by the House Rules Committee into H.R. 3920, the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) Reauthorization Act, which passed the House by a by a 264-157 vote on October 31, 2007, but was never considered by the Senate.

Particularly as a 2006 study found that employers’ costs for administering the COBRA plan are already double the 2% maximum administrative fee permitted under the statute, some Members may be concerned that permitting former employees to remain on COBRA for decades could result in even higher administrative costs for firms due to the expanded requirements of the unfunded federal mandate.

Because the COBRA statute requires former employees to pay the full cost of their group health insurance, the individuals most likely to elect continuation coverage would be those for whom the coverage has value despite its high cost—i.e. those with significant expected medical expenses. Consistent with this premise, the 2006 employer study also found that workers electing COBRA coverage had overall health costs 45% greater than the active workers employed by the reporting firms. Some Members may be concerned that allowing workers to retain COBRA coverage would further exacerbate these adverse selection concerns, raising costs for all the participants in the group plan and potentially encouraging some employers to drop coverage altogether rather than absorbing these higher costs.

Medicaid Coverage for Unemployed: The bill provides a state option to cover unemployed workers through their Medicaid programs—with the federal government paying 100% of the cost of such coverage. Eligible individuals would include:

  • Individuals currently receiving unemployment compensation;
  • Individuals formerly receiving unemployment compensation whose benefits were exhausted after July 1, 2008;
  • Individuals who were involuntarily separated from employment between September 2008 and January 2011, whose gross family income remains below 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL, $42,400 for a family of four in 2008);
  • Individuals are eligible for food stamp assistance; and
  • Spouses and dependent children under age 19 of the individuals listed above.

The bill states that (except for the income-based criteria for the third group listed above) “no income or resources test shall be applied with respect to” any of the eligible groups. Some Members may be concerned that this provision would therefore allow fired CEOs formerly making millions of dollars in compensation to obtain free health care benefits from the federal government.

The bill makes eligible for Medicaid assistance all individuals in the groups listed above who are “not otherwise covered under creditable coverage.” Some Members may be concerned that because the bill language prohibits participation in the program only for individuals actually covered by another policy—as opposed to all those eligible for other coverage, as with the COBRA premium subsidy listed above—the bill provides eligible individuals with a perverse incentive to remain on federal health insurance rolls and obtain free health insurance, rather than switch to a group plan where higher premiums and co-pays likely would apply.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the temporary Medicaid coverage provision would cost $10.8 billion over five and ten years. CBO estimates that in 2009, 1.2 million individuals (including spouses and children) would obtain health care coverage through this provision.

As noted above, the bill provides a 100% subsidy to states for Medicaid coverage of eligible individuals through January 1, 2011. Some Members may be concerned that having the federal government pay for the entire cost of covering unemployed individuals through Medicaid provides no incentive for states to police fraud and abuse of the program by these populations. Moreover, because the bill does not sunset the program to cover unemployed workers, only the 100% federal match, some Members may be concerned about the implications of a significant expansion of government’s role in providing health care under the guise of a “temporary” stimulus provision.

Health Care Aid to the States

Increase in Federal Medicaid Match: The federal share of spending on states’ Medicaid programs is determined through the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP). Based on a formula that compares a state’s per capita income to per capita income nationwide—a mechanism designed to gauge a state’s relative wealth—the FMAP can range from a low of 50% to a maximum of 83%.

The bill would provide an across-the-board FMAP increase of 4.9% for a total of nine calendar quarters—from October 1, 2008 through December 31, 2010. The bill also includes language providing that no state’s FMAP percentage (exclusive of the 4.9% increase) shall decline during the nine calendar quarter period. Both the scope and the length of the FMAP increase exceed the 2.95% increase in the federal match rate for five fiscal quarters passed to help states during the last economic downturn as part of tax and budget reconciliation legislation (P.L. 108-27).

The bill includes further increases in the FMAP percentage for “high unemployment states,” which are defined by using a 3-month average unemployment rate. If, when compared to any prior 3-month period after January 1, 2006, unemployment in a state has increased 1.5%, the FMAP will be increased by 6%; if unemployment has increased 2.5%, the FMAP will be increased by 12%; and if unemployment has increased 3.5%, the FMAP will be increased by 14%. Once qualifying as having high unemployment, a state’s FMAP increases outlined above will remain until at least July 1, 2010, even if unemployment in that state falls prior to that date.

The bill includes “maintenance of effort” provisions such that states wishing to receive the FMAP increases may not impose more restrictive eligibility standards than those in effect on July 1, 2008 (unless the states retroactively remove such restrictions) and may not deposit any amounts “directly or indirectly” into a state’s rainy day fund or reserve account.

CBO scores the entire FMAP increase package as costing $87.7 billion over five and ten years.

Some Members may have concerns about this increase in FMAP funding, included but not limited to:

  • An increase in the federal Medicaid match by definition provides no “stimulus,” instead substituting federal expenditures for state spending.
  • The provisions as drafted could result in a FMAP rate for some states approaching 100%, meaning that the federal government would be paying nearly the full share of a state’s Medicaid expenses—a significant alteration of the traditional state-federal Medicaid partnership, and one which would give states a strong incentive to shift additional costs (whether directly health related or not) on to the federal government’s books.
  • An increase in the federal Medicaid match provides no incentive for states to reform their Medicaid programs to improve the quality of beneficiary care while reducing the growth in health costs—and by providing additional federal dollars, may provide states with a perverse incentive not to accelerate reform.
  • An FMAP increase will not halt states from expanding their Medicaid programs at an unsustainable rate, as evidenced by one study’s findings that state Medicaid expenditures during the economic “boom years” of 1994-2000 outpaced both state GDP growth and states’ revenue growth.
  • Increasing the federal Medicaid match does nothing to reform the flawed FMAP formula itself. The Congressional Budget Office in its December 2008 Budget Options report noted that the 50% minimum FMAP level results in nearly a dozen wealthy states receiving match rates significantly higher than they otherwise would have received; in one case, a state’s FMAP level would be 12% absent the statutory minimum percentage. Members may therefore be concerned that increasing the federal Medicaid match would not reform a system where studies have indicated that wealthier states spend more on Medicaid than poorer ones—exactly the opposite of FMAP’s intended goal.

Moratoria on Anti-Fraud Regulations: The bill would extend by three months—from April 1, 2009 to July 1, 2009—moratoria on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from issuing six Medicaid regulations designed to bolster the fiscal integrity of the program. The regulations cover intergovernmental transfers, graduate medical education, school-based administrative and transportation services, rehabilitation services, targeted case management, and provider taxes. In addition, the bill extends the moratoria to cover a seventh regulation, relating to the definition of outpatient hospital services. Under a previous agreement between President Bush and Congressional Democrats negotiated in relation to the 2008 wartime supplemental appropriations act (P.L. 110-252), six of the proposed regulations were to be placed under the moratoria, while the outpatient hospital services regulation was to be implemented in full; this provision attempts to undo that agreement. CBO scores these moratoria as costing $200 million over five and ten years.

Some Members may be concerned by attempts to repeal regulations that respond to various state abuses within the Medicaid program that have been documented by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in reports dating back well over a decade. Some Members may also note that even the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has published a report noting that several of the abuses—specifically, intergovernmental transfers and provider taxes, which constitute the majority of the projected $42 billion in 10-year taxpayer savings associated with the regulations—are often “designed primarily to provide a windfall for state governments.” Therefore, some Members may agree with the need to restore the Medicaid program’s fiscal integrity, and be concerned by Democrats’ frequent attempts—including the third extension of these “temporary” moratoria—to undermine regulations that would affect less than 1% of the total Medicaid spending of nearly $5 trillion over the next decade.

Transitional Medical Assistance: The bill extends for 18 months—through December 31, 2010—the Transitional Medical Assistance (TMA) program that provides Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work. Traditionally, the TMA provisions have been coupled with an extension of Title V abstinence education funding during the passage of health care bills. However, the Title V funds were excluded from the bill language, and will expire on July 1, 2009 absent further action. CBO scores the TMA extension as costing $1.3 billion over five and ten years.

Particularly given the Obama Administration’s desire for bipartisan agreement on economic stimulus provisions, some Members may be concerned at the removal of the Title V abstinence education funding and the potential end of this worthwhile program. Some Members may also question whether an extension of TMA funding—which has been included in Medicare and related health bills for several years—constitutes economic “stimulus,” or instead represents additional domestic spending that Democrats simply do not wish to pay for under regular order.

Family Planning Services: The bill includes several provisions related to family planning services. Specifically, the bill would amend the definition of a “benchmark state Medicaid plan” to require family planning services for individuals with incomes up to the highest Medicaid income threshold in each state. The bill also permits states to establish “presumptive eligibility” programs for family planning services, which would allow Medicaid-eligible entities—including Planned Parenthood clinics—to enroll individuals in family planning services and “medical diagnosis and treatment services” connected with a family planning service, subject to a later determination of eligibility. CBO scores this provision as costing $200 million over five years, and $700 million over ten.

Some Members may be concerned that these changes would, by altering the definition of a benchmark plan, undermine the flexibility that Republicans established in the Deficit Reduction Act to allow states to determine the design of their Medicaid plans, and would expand the federal government’s role in financing family planning services. Some Members may also be concerned that the presumptive eligibility provisions would enable wealthy individuals to obtain free family planning services—and potentially other health care benefits—financed by the federal government, based on a certification by Planned Parenthood or other clinics. Lastly, some Members may question the “stimulus” behind this family planning expansion, the effects of which on economic growth and recovery would be minimal at best.

Other Provisions: The bill also includes provisions prohibiting Medicaid cost-sharing for Indians receiving care through the Indian Health Service, and related provisions regarding Indians’ eligibility for Medicaid. Some Members may question whether and how these provisions constitute necessary economic stimulus.

The bill includes a 2.5% increase in Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments for those hospitals treating a large percentage of low-income individuals. The increase covers Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010, and sunsets thereafter.

Health Information Technology

The bill contains language amending the Public Health Service Act and the Social Security Act designed to accelerate the adoption of health information technology, including the following:

Federal Office and Standards: The bill codifies the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONCHIT) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which had previously been established by Executive Order. The Coordinator will be charged with updating the federal government’s health IT strategic plan and developing a program for voluntary certification of health information technology, among other duties.

The bill establishes a Policy Committee and a Standards Committee to make recommendations to the Coordinator on national strategy and health IT standards. The Policy Committee will determine which areas require federal standards and certification criteria, and the Standards Committee will recommend to the Coordinator specific standards and criteria in the areas highlighted by the Policy Committee. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) will assist the standards committee in testing implementation specifications to ensure their appropriate use, and develop a program of grants to institutions of higher education to establish multidisciplinary centers for health care information integration.

The bill provides the Department with a 90-day window to adopt or reject the standards proposed by the Standards Committee, and requires the Department to establish an initial set of standards and certification criteria by December 31, 2009. The bill also requires federal agencies and federal contractors to utilize information technology systems and standards consistent with those promulgated by the Department. The bill authorizes $250 million in appropriations for ONCHIT for Fiscal Year 2009.

The bill requires the Coordinator to “support the development, routine updating, and provision” of electronic health record technology, “unless the Secretary determines that the needs and demands of providers are being substantially and adequately met through the marketplace,” and permits the Coordinator to “impose a nominal fee” for providers choosing to use systems so developed. Some Members may be concerned that this provision may permit undue intervention by the federal government in the marketplace for health information technology.

Grant and Loan Funding: The bill would establish new programs designed to fund the implementation of health information technology, and authorizes such sums as may be necessary to carry out the programs for Fiscal Years 2009 through 2013. The bill would require the Department to “invest in the infrastructure necessary” to promote health IT nationwide, including IT architecture, electronic health records, training on best practices, and interoperability, including $300 million for regional efforts to support health information exchange.

The bill creates a Health Information Technology Research Center to provide technical assistance and develop best practices on IT adoption and utilization, as well as additional regional centers affiliated with non-profit organizations that would receive financial assistance from the federal government for up to four years to supplement the national efforts. The bill provides that federal financial support may not exceed 50% of any applying organization’s annual budget, except under certain circumstances.

The bill establishes a grant program for states and other state-designated non-profit entities to “facilitate and expand the electronic movement” of health records, subject to state matching contributions of no more than $1 for every $3 in federal funding. The bill creates another grant program for states or Indian tribes to loan money to providers for adoption of, or training for the use of, electronic health records, and requires that entities receiving grants under this program contribute at least $1 for every $5 in federal funding. Finally, the bill creates two grant programs—one for schools of medicine, the other for institutions of higher education—to develop curricula that integrate electronic health records into clinical training and education, subject to a match by the schools of at least 50%.

Some Members may be concerned that the spending authorized by these various grant and loan programs, coupled with the matching requirements that will result in the federal government shouldering half (and in several cases more than half) the financial cost of projects, will increase the federal deficit to support projects that may hold marginal value. Given the speed with which the private sector has adopted information technology in other industries, some Members may question the need for an intrusive and costly federal role in health IT over and above the establishment of nationwide standards.

Medicare Payments: The bill establishes a system of incentives and penalties related to Medicare reimbursement for providers to encourage the adoption of electronic health records. For physicians not working in a hospital setting, the bill provides for a bonus payment of 75% of Medicare billed claims, subject to total limitations of $41,000, paid out over five years. Incentives will begin in 2011, will be reduced for providers adopting health IT beginning after 2013, and will be eliminated entirely after 2015. The bill makes eligible for bonus payments all physicians receiving Medicare reimbursement, including physicians participating in Medicare Advantage Health Maintenance Organizations.

The bill requires that providers receiving incentives be “meaningful users” of electronic health records, based on a self-attestation by the provider and reporting any various clinical quality measures the Secretary may require, but includes no requirement that such meaningful users bill claims to Medicare on a regular basis. Payment incentives will not be taken into account when calculating the sustainable growth rate (SGR) for Medicare physician payment reimbursement, and limits judicial review of the Secretary’s decisions regarding the enhanced payments.

The bill provides for reductions for non-adopters of health information technology, beginning with a 1% fee reduction in 2016, and continuing with a 2% reduction in 2017, a 3% reduction in 2018, and reductions of up to 5% 2019 and subsequent years. The Secretary may grant limited exceptions from the Medicare penalties for up to five years.

For hospitals (including those affiliated with Medicare Advantage Health Maintenance Organizations), the bill provides a base incentive payment of $2 million for health IT adoption, coupled with a per-discharge payment of $200. Incentive payments (base and per-patient discharge) may total up to $6.37 million per hospital for the first year. (Note that this is an increase of nearly 50% in the maximum per-hospital payment from the originally introduced package.) Payments will be adjusted based on the percentage of Medicare patients treated by the hospital, and phased out entirely over four years, such that the maximum payment a hospital could receive would total more than $15.9 million. Payments would begin in Fiscal Year 2011, but that hospitals who fail to convert to electronic health records by 2016 shall not be eligible for the bonus payments.

The bill further provides for adjustments to the annual “market-basket” hospital update, beginning in 2016. Hospitals who do not adopt electronic health records will see their payments reduced by 0.5% in 2016, 1% in 2017, and 1.5% in 2018 and subsequent years, unless the Secretary grants a limited five-year exception.

The bill provides that the bonus payments outlined above shall not be taken into account when calculating beneficiaries’ premiums under Medicare Parts A and B.

The bill amends the Medicare Improvement Fund to shift funds from Fiscal Years 2016-2018 into Fiscal Years 2014 and 2015. While the Congressional Budget Office has written that this provision is budget-neutral, some Members may consider this timing shift a budgetary gimmick designed primarily to make future legislation compliant with five year PAYGO requirements under House rules. Some Members may therefore question this provision’s relevance in a measure designed to spur economic growth and recovery.

The bill authorizes and appropriates a total of $540 million—$60 million for each of Fiscal Years 2009 through 2015, and $30 million per year from 2016 through 2019—to allow the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to implement the IT incentive provisions. Some Members may be concerned that the nearly $1 billion in direct spending given to CMS to implement the Medicare and Medicaid provisions of the health IT title may “stimulate” nothing more than the growth of federal bureaucracy.

Some Members may believe that the size and scope of spending contemplated—up to $41,000 for every eligible physician, including practitioners who bill Medicare infrequently, such as chiropractors, and as much as $10.9 million per hospital—represent an inefficient use of government spending, particularly given widespread IT adoption in other industries without such heavy government subsidies. The Congressional Budget Office projects that passage of the bill’s provisions will increase implementation of health IT by only 25%—from the 65% rate of physician adoption in 2019 under current law to 90%, and has stated that it “anticipates near-universal adoption of health IT within the next quarter-century even without legislative action.” Some Members may therefore find the expenditure of $30 billion to achieve this marginal improvement in health IT adoption inefficient, particularly as it would not target subsidies to those providers who otherwise would not have adopted electronic health records.

Some Members may also be concerned that the bill provisions, by including various “carrots and sticks” related to health IT adoption by providers, would further increase the federal government’s role in patient-provider relations, and could encourage providers nearing retirement age to abandon their practices entirely rather than comply with the bill’s requirements. Lastly, some Members may believe that tying the physician payment bonus to the level of billed claims, coupled with the current fee-for-service model of reimbursement, may encourage providers only to increase the amount and intensity of services billed in order to raise their reimbursement levels, resulting in high and inefficient levels of government spending.

Medicaid Funding: The bill includes provides for a 100% federal FMAP match for certain Medicaid providers related to electronic health records technology, and a 90% match for administrative expenses associated with. In order to qualify for the enhanced federal match, providers’ Medicaid patients must exceed 30% of their overall patient load; children’s hospitals, acute care hospitals with at least a 10% Medicaid patient load, and federally qualified health centers with a 30% or greater Medicaid patient load will also qualify for the Medicaid payments. Payments under these provisions may not exceed a total of $75,000—$25,000 for the purchase of electronic health record technology, and up to $10,000 per year for five years for operation and maintenance. Providers receiving Medicaid funds would have to pay 15% of the cost of any electronic health records technology they acquire.

The bill provides that incentives under the Medicaid formula shall not exceed those provided under the Medicare formula established above, except that a provider’s Medicaid patient load may be substituted for its Medicare patient load in determining a higher payment level. However, in order to receive Medicaid funding, providers must decline to accept the Medicare health IT bonus payments discussed above.

The bill authorizes and appropriates a total of $360 million—$40 million for each of Fiscal Years 2009 through 2015, and $20 million per year from 2016 through 2019—to allow CMS to implement the Medicaid incentive provisions. Some Members may be concerned that the nearly $1 billion in direct spending given to CMS to implement the Medicare and Medicaid provisions of the health IT title may “stimulate” nothing more than the growth of federal bureaucracy.

CBO estimates that both the Medicare and Medicaid bonus payments will total $30 billion over ten years—$17.7 billion for Medicare and $12.4 billion for Medicaid—along with $900 million in mandatory administrative funding for CMS. However, CBO estimates that increased IT adoption will yield baseline savings in Medicare, Medicaid, and the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) totaling $12.3 billion over ten years. CBO also estimates that revenues will increase under the health IT provisions, as slightly lower health costs will result in individuals excluding slightly less of their salaries from payroll and income taxes through the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance. Thus CBO scores the net cost of the Medicare and Medicaid bonus payment provisions as $17.1 billion over ten years.

Privacy: The bill extends the privacy and security provisions included in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA, P.L. 104-191), as well as the civil and criminal penalties established in such legislation, from “covered entities”—health plans and other providers who transmit electronic health information—to the “business associates” of those entities. In general, the Privacy Rule requires covered entities to obtain consent for the disclosure of protected health information—defined as health information that identifies the individual, or can reasonably be expected to identify the individual—except when related to “treatment, payment, or health care operations.”[1] The regulations include several exceptions to the pre-disclosure consent requirement, including public health surveillance, activities related to law enforcement, scientific research, and serious threats to health and safety.[2] The HIPAA Security Rule requires covered entities and their business associates to safeguard protected health information held electronically, including administrative, physical, and technical safeguards that covered entities must follow.[3] Some Members may be concerned about the expansion of the full HIPAA privacy and security requirements to business associates, particularly given the additional unfunded mandates placed on businesses elsewhere in the bill.

In general, the bill includes four general categories of privacy provisions:

  1. Breach Notification: The bill requires covered entities holding unsecured personal health information to “notify each individual whose unsecured protected health information has been, or is reasonably believed by the covered entity to have been” disclosed as a result of an information breach within 60 days, and requires business associates of covered entities to notify those entities as a result of a breach of unsecured information. Notification is not linked to a security threat assessment—in other words, the same notification must occur in all instances, regardless of whether the potential for harm is significant or minimal. In cases where more than 500 individuals are believe to have been affected, notice must be provided to appropriate media outlets—a requirement which, coupled with the blanket notification provisions outlined above, some Members may consider unreasonable, costly to businesses, and likely to cause undue public alarm or confusion.

The bill places the burden of proof on the covered entity or business associate to demonstrate that required notifications were made; some Members may be concerned by such a burden of proof lying with the business entity. The bill also creates an education initiative within HHS to advise businesses and the public on their health privacy rights and responsibilities.

The bill establishes a temporary breach notification process for vendors of personal health records and other firms not classified as HIPAA covered entities. Entities must notify “each individual,” as well as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), when information that does not meet security standards approved by the Secretary is breached; third party vendors must notify the entity to whom they provide their services. Failure to notify will be classified as a “unfair and deceptive act or practice” under the Federal Trade Commission Act for purposes of enforcement. The provision will expire when either HHS or the FTC publish standards for entities that are not covered entities to report data breaches. Some Members may be concerned that the bill would impose onerous penalties on entities, particularly as the bill language contains no link between a threat of harm and required notification.

  1. Disclosure: The bill places new restrictions on disclosures of health information related to insurance payment if an individual so requests that the covered entity (in this case, an insurance carrier) not disclose information and instead pays for the service out-of-pocket and in full. The bill requires that entities disclose the minimum amount of personally identifiable information necessary “to accomplish the intended purpose of such disclosure,” and requires entities to compile—and make available to individuals—an accounting of disclosures made with respect to protected information in an electronic health record. Some Members may be concerned that the ongoing compilation of disclosures (as opposed to providing them solely upon an individual’s request) constitutes a burdensome requirement on business, and also note that, because the disclosure requirements apply solely to those entities using electronic health records, this provision could actually discourage entities from adopting health IT.
  2. Operations and Marketing: The bill prohibits the sale of protected health information by entities and business associates without individuals’ express consent to allow entities to sell such information. Certain exceptions to this general prohibition would remain, including treatment of the individual or public health research where the price charged reflects the costs of transmitting the relevant data and ongoing business relationships between a covered entity and business associates. The bill also prohibits the use of personal health information for fundraising, or for paid marketing purposes without an individual’s express written consent, and instructs HHS to compile a list of health care activities “that can reasonably and efficiently be conducted through the use of information that is de-identified,” and remove these activities from the list of health care operations exempt from the HIPAA privacy rule. Some Members may be concerned that these provisions would hinder the ability of covered entities to provide information to individuals about products and services—for instance, cheaper generic drugs or affinity discounts at health clubs—that may be of value to them.
  3. Enforcement and Penalties: The bill includes privacy enforcement provisions, including a clarification that individuals who obtain personal health information from a covered entity, and then discloses said information, will be subject to current law civil and criminal penalties under the HIPAA statute. The bill also creates penalties for non-compliance due to willful neglect, “for which the Secretary is required to impose a penalty.” Penalties obtained due to a general failure to comply with requirements and standards will be transferred to HHS’ Office of Civil Rights for the purposes of enhanced enforcement, except that a certain percentage of penalties may be paid to individuals harmed by the offenses in question—a provision which some Members may view as providing monetary incentives for individuals to join class action lawsuits related to HIPAA non-compliance.

The bill establishes new higher, tiered penalties for failure to comply with HIPAA requirements, up to a maximum of $50,000 per violation, and $1,500,000 per year, due to willful neglect that is not corrected. Current law provides for penalties of up to $100 per violation and $25,000 per year. Some Members may be concerned that this 6000% increase in maximum fines for business could have a chilling effect on applicable entities, potentially lessening health IT adoption.

The bill would permit state attorneys general to bring action against companies “in any case in which the attorney general…has reason to believe that an interest of one or more residents of that state has been or is threatened or adversely affected by any person.” Attorneys general may file actions “in a district court of the United States of appropriate jurisdiction” seeking either an injunction or civil penalties for a general failure to comply with standards. State attorneys general must first notify the Secretary of intent to file such action, and may not bring actions against relevant persons if and when the Secretary has a separate action pending. Some Members may be concerned that these provisions, particularly when coupled with the provisions permitting affected individuals to receive a portion of penalties awarded, could lead to a proliferation of lawsuits against applicable individuals and entities for real or perceived security violations, which could discourage the adoption of health information technology that the bill is intended to promote.

The bill maintains current law pre-emption provisions with respect to the HIPAA statute, and includes various study and reporting requirements, including an FTC study on the implications of extending HIPAA’s privacy and security requirements to entities that are not covered entities or business associates under current law. The bill also provides a general exemption for pharmacists to communicate with their patients to improve patient safety and reduce medical errors, provided the pharmacists accepts no additional remuneration (over and above the amount paid for relevant prescriptions).

Other Medicare Provisions: The bill places a one-year moratorium on CMS’ introduction of a wage adjustment related to hospice reimbursement, and halts for one year a phase-out of capital costs paid to certain teaching hospitals in the form of a capital indirect medical education (IME) payment. Some Members may believe that these provisions have little to do with promoting economic recovery and therefore do not belong in a “stimulus” measure.

Lastly, the bill makes certain “technical corrections” regarding long-term care hospitals, specifically as it relates to implementation of a rule for referrals from non co-located facilities. According to CMS, at least one of these “corrections” will affect only three hospitals—two located in North Dakota, and one located in Connecticut. Some Members may believe this provision constitutes an authorizing earmark, and therefore believe its inclusion is inconsistent with President Obama’s pledge that economic recovery legislation should not include any “pork-barrel” spending.

 

[1] Definitions of protected health information and individually identifiable health information can be found at 45 C.F.R. 160.103; permitted use for “treatment, payment, or health care operations” can be found at 45 C.F.R. 164.506.

[2] The full list can be found at 45 C.F.R. 164.512.

[3] The safeguards are found at 45 C.F.R. 164.308, 164.310, and 164.312, respectively.

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).

Weekly Newsletter: July 14, 2008

Veto Expected on Medicare Legislation

News reports indicate that this week Congress will return to legislation addressing physician reimbursement levels under Medicare. President Bush is expected to soon veto legislation (H.R. 6331) which addressed the physician reimbursement levels, while cutting $47.5 billion from privately-run Medicare Advantage plans. Votes on an expected Presidential veto could occur later in the week.

While all parties agree on the need to address the physician reimbursement provisions, Congressional Republicans have called for passage of bipartisan legislation that would forestall the significant cuts to Medicare Advantage plans made in H.R. 6331. Some conservatives may be concerned that the bill would have the effect of driving beneficiaries away from a privately-run model of health insurance that has provided enhanced benefits and choice for millions of seniors, especially the 2.2 million beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage private fee-for-service plans. Some conservatives may also believe that the short-term nature of current physician reimbursement extensions, coupled with their potential to become entwined in unrelated disputes and/or “held hostage” due to various political considerations, makes a powerful argument for more comprehensive reforms to Medicare, including a long-term solution to physician reimbursement policy.

The Legislative Bulletin on H.R. 6331 can be found here.

There are additional RSC Policy Briefs on issues related to the Medicare bill: Physician Payments; Medicare Advantage; Bidding for Durable Medical Equipment; and the Medicare Trustees Report.

Tentative Agreement on Mental Health, but Obstacles Remain

Reports over the Independence Day recess indicated that Congressional negotiators have come close to agreement on compromise mental health parity language after the passage of separate House and Senate legislation (H.R. 1424, S. 558) earlier in the Congress. Multiple sources suggest that the deal will remove two provisions considered particularly onerous by conservatives: a requirement that insurers cover all mental diseases—including many psycho-sexual disorders objectionable to many conservatives—as part of health insurance coverage, and language that would have undermined the strong federal pre-emption provided to group health insurance coverage, potentially subjecting large employers to a variety of conflicting state regulations and lawsuits.

Despite these improvements, some conservatives may still be concerned that imposing a mental health parity mandate on health insurance may raise premiums, resulting in the loss of coverage for some populations. Some conservatives may also be concerned that the bill’s nearly $4 billion cost be paid for in a responsible manner, avoiding the controversial pay-fors—restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals and higher mandatory rebates on Medicaid pharmaceuticals—originally included in the House bill.

Read the Legislative Bulletin on H.R. 1424 here.

Article of Note: Dead Men Prescribing

A report released by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations last week cast new doubts on the extent of anti-fraud efforts within the Medicare program. The report found that since 2000, Medicare paid at least $92 million in claims for wheelchairs and other durable medical equipment prescribed by physicians who had been dead for at least one year. The 500,000 fraudulent claims paid— more than half of which were ascribed to physicians who had died at least five years before the date of the claim—reinforced the Government Accountability Office’s decision to place Medicare on its “high-risk” watch list because of fraud concerns within the program.

Many conservatives may be concerned by the Subcommittee’s findings, and support efforts to strengthen the monitoring of durable medical equipment suppliers as one way to combat the fraudulent claims cited. Some conservatives may also be concerned by Congress’ passage of Medicare legislation, which would delay until the next Administration the implementation of a competitive bidding program that could also reduce the incidence of fraud by ensuring that Medicare pays no more than competitive market rates when acquiring equipment and supplies for seniors’ benefit.

Read the article here: Washington Post: “Billings Used Dead Doctors’ Names

Weekly Newsletter: July 7, 2008

Medicare Votes Likely This Week

After returning from its Independence Day recess, Congress will once again return to debate legislation addressing physician reimbursement levels under Medicare. Because Senate Democrats objected to Republicans’ unanimous consent requests to pass a “clean” physician payment bill before the recess, physicians will take a 10% cut in their reimbursement levels unless and until Congress passes a retroactive fix. Additional Senate votes are likely later in the week on this issue.

While all parties agree on the need to address the physician reimbursement provisions, Senate Republicans have called for passage of bipartisan legislation that would forestall the significant cuts to Medicare Advantage plans made in House-passed legislation (H.R. 6331). Some conservatives may be concerned that the House-passed bill’s significant cuts to Medicare Advantage would have the effect of driving beneficiaries away from a privately-run model of health insurance that has provided enhanced benefits and choice for millions of seniors, especially the 2.2 million beneficiaries in private fee-for-service plans. Some conservatives may also believe that the short-term nature of current physician reimbursement extensions, coupled with their potential to become entwined in unrelated disputes and/or “held hostage” due to various political considerations, makes a powerful argument for more comprehensive reforms to Medicare, including a long-term solution to physician reimbursement policy.

While it is currently unclear whether Democrats will continue to block Republican attempts to pass noncontroversial physician payment legislation, or what precise form a more bipartisan bill designed to address the reimbursement provisions will take, the RSC will weigh in with conservative concerns and updates on H.R. 6331 and any other physician payment legislation which may be introduced or considered.

The Legislative Bulletin on H.R. 6331 can be found here.

There are additional RSC Policy Briefs on issues related to the Medicare bill: Physician Payments; Medicare Advantage; Bidding for Durable Medical Equipment; and the Medicare Trustees Report.

Article of Note: Report Finds Comparative Effectiveness Rationing Not So NICE

A report released in Great Britain last week on the occasion of the National Health Service’s (NHS’) 60th anniversary noted the need for reforms in the way the NHS administers care based on comparative effectiveness research. Health Minister Lord Darzi’s study admitted problems with the existing National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), established in 1999 to review the effectiveness of drugs and other therapies. Specifically, the report conceded that “it has sometimes taken too long for NICE appraisal guidance to be made available on newly licensed drugs” and that “there remains unexplained variation in the way local decisions are made on the funding of new drugs before the appraisal takes place.”

With the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) holding up the British establishment of NICE as one model way to achieve comparative effectiveness research in the United States, some conservatives may be concerned by the implications such an institute would present. At a time when the British government has admitted that NICE’s introduction has led to years-long delays in drug approval times and inherently arbitrary rationing of access to drugs from location to location, some conservatives may believe that such a heavy-handed—to say nothing of bureaucratically ineffective—role for government to play in American health care would be both counter-productive and inappropriate.

Read a summary of the clinical effectiveness provisions from BBC News here.

The RSC has prepared a Policy Brief on comparative effectiveness research, which can be found here.

Medicare Physician Payment Policy

History and Background:  In 1989, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (P.L. 101-239) established a new physician fee schedule for Medicare, replacing the reasonable charge payment formula that had existed since the program’s inception.  The fee schedule was designed to alleviate perceived disparities in physician reimbursement levels by more closely tying payment to the amount of resources used for a given service or procedure.  The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (P.L 105-33) modified the fee schedule formula, creating the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) mechanism as a means to incorporate cumulative physician spending into reimbursement levels.  In addition to slowing the growth of Medicare spending by setting an overall target for physician expenditure levels, the SGR was also intended to eliminate the fluctuations associated with setting annual (as opposed to cumulative) spending targets.

Payment Formula:  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 the fee schedule and an annual conversion factor (a formula dollar amount).  The fee schedule assigns “relative values” to each type of provided service, reflecting 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 ($38.0870 through June 2008) 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 $79.98 ($38.0870 x 2.1) for that service.

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 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, and legislation enacted in December 2007 (P.L. 110-173) provided a 0.5% update for January through June of 2008.  The specific data for each year are 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 (Jan.-June)

* 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.

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.

Participation and Assignment:  When treating Medicare beneficiaries, physicians may choose to accept assignment on a claim, agreeing to accept Medicare’s payment of 80% of the approved fee schedule amount—with the beneficiary paying the remaining 20% as coinsurance—as payment in full for the claim of service.  Physicians who agree to accept assignment on all Medicare claims in a given year are classified as participating physicians.  Physicians classified as non-participating—those who may accept assignment for some, but not all, claims in a given year—only receive 95% of the fee schedule amount for participating physicians on those claims for which they accept assignment.  The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) reports that 93.3% of physicians and other providers who bill Medicare agreed to participate in Medicare during 2007, with 99.4% of allowed charges being accepted on assignment from physicians (both participating and non-participating).[1]

In cases where a physician considers the Medicare payment level under the fee schedule and SGR formula an insufficient reimbursement for the time and resources necessary to perform the relevant service, the physician’s opportunities to charge beneficiaries the full value of the service performed are extremely limited.  Non-participating physicians may “balance bill” beneficiaries for charges above the Medicare fee schedule amount on claims where the physician does not accept assignment from Medicare.  However, physicians may not bill beneficiaries in excess of 115% of the non-participating fee schedule amount—which, because Medicare fees are lower for non-participating physicians, has the effect of limiting “balance billing” to 9.25% above the fee schedule amount for participating physicians.  Moreover, providers who wish to “balance bill” their beneficiaries in some cases will therefore be classified as non-participating, resulting in a 5% reduction in fee schedule amounts for all claims—including those for which the provider is willing to accept assignment—in a given year.

Conclusion:  The Medicare funding warning issued by the plan’s trustees last year, and again this past March, 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.

Viewed through this prism, the current Medicare physician reimbursement fee schedule may be perceived by some conservatives as symptomatic of the program’s larger problems.  While the SGR mechanism has provided several opportunities in recent years to review physician payment levels, the changes made by Congress as a result of such reviews have generally only made minor, temporary adjustments to the current system of government-dictated fee schedules.  These legislative vehicles have not revamped or repealed the fee schedule formula to take market forces into account, instead delving into the minutiae of provider reimbursement levels to arrive at a short-term fix that meets budgetary muster.  However, as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Baucus recently 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?”[2]  Therefore, even though supporting actions that yield budgetary offsets slowing the growth of Medicare spending, some conservatives may still view legislative outcomes that do not comprehensively address the lack of market forces in a government-dictated fee schedule as lacking.

Some conservatives may support legislative provisions designed to repeal prohibitions on “balance billing” by providers, either for all Medicare beneficiaries or only for those beneficiaries already subject to means-testing for their Part B premiums.  Such a measure, which has been introduced by several RSC Members in various forms in recent Congresses, would inject some free-market principles into Medicare, by allowing providers to charge reasonable levels for their services rather than adhering to government-imposed price controls.  Additionally, this policy change could have the potential to slow the growth of health costs at the margins, by providing slightly greater beneficiary exposure to the true cost of care, which in some cases may be subsidized by the monopsony power Medicare exercises over providers.

On a more fundamental level, some conservatives may also support a premium support model 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.  Previously incorporated into alternative RSC budget proposals, a premium support plan would provide 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.  Just as important, by potentially shifting the focus of Medicare from a government-run program to a series of private payers, it would reduce or eliminate the need for the seemingly annual ritual of adjustments to Medicare fee schedule amounts, and may ensure that providers receive more reasonable and consistent reimbursement levels.  By confining the growth of Medicare spending and limiting the opportunities for Congress to tinker with physician and other reimbursement policies, some conservatives may view a premium support model as a return to the principle of more limited government.

 

[1] 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 June 16, 2008), pp. 110-11.

[2] 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).