Let the Individual Mandate Die

In May New Jersey imposed a health-insurance mandate requiring all residents to buy insurance or pay a penalty. More states will feel pressure to follow suit in the coming year as the federal mandate’s penalty disappears Jan. 1 and state legislatures reconvene, some with new Democratic majorities intent on “protecting” Obamacare. But conflicts with federal law will make state-level health-insurance mandates ineffective or unduly onerous, and governors and legislatures would do well to steer clear.

While states can require citizens to purchase health coverage, they will have trouble ensuring compliance. Federal law prohibits the Internal Revenue Service from disclosing tax-return data, except under limited circumstances. And there is no clear precedent allowing the IRS to disclose coverage data to verify compliance with state insurance requirements.

Accordingly, mandates enacted in New Jersey and the District of Columbia earlier this year created their own coverage-reporting regimes. But those likely conflict with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, which explicitly pre-empts “any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.” The point is to protect large employers who self-insure workers from 50 sets of conflicting state laws.

No employer has used ERISA to challenge Massachusetts’ 2006 individual mandate, which includes reporting requirements, but that doesn’t mean it’s legal. Last month a Brookings Institution paper conceded that “state requirements related to employer benefits like health coverage may be subject to legal challenge based on ERISA preemption.”

A 2016 Supreme Court ruling would bolster such a challenge. In Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual, the court struck down a Vermont law that required employers to submit health-care payment claims to a state database. The court said the law was pre-empted by ERISA.

Writing for a six-justice majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted the myriad reporting requirements under federal law. Vermont’s law required additional record-keeping. Justice Kennedy concluded that “differing, or even parallel, regulations from multiple jurisdictions could create wasteful administrative costs and threaten to subject plans to wide-ranging liability.”

Justice Kennedy’s opinion provides a how-to manual for employers to challenge state-level insurance mandates. A morass of state-imposed insurance mandates and reporting requirements would unnecessarily burden employers with costs and complexity. It cries out for pre-emptive relief.

Unfortunately, policy makers have ignored these concerns. Notes from the working group that recommended the District of Columbia’s individual mandate never mention the reporting burden or ERISA pre-emption. And in August the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved New Jersey’s waiver application that relied in part upon funding from that state’s new individual mandate, even though money from the difficult-to-enforce requirement may never materialize.

States already cannot require federal agencies to report coverage. This means their mandates won’t track the 2.3 million covered by the Indian Health Service, 9.3 million receiving health care from the Veterans Administration, 8.8 million disabled under age 65 who are enrolled in Medicare, 9.4 million military Tricare enrollees and 8.2 million federal employees and retirees.

If a successful ERISA challenge also exempts some of the 181 million with employer-based insurance from coverage-reporting requirements, state insurance mandates become farcical. States would have to choose between mandates that run on the “honor system”—thus likely rife with cheating—or taking so much time and energy to verify coverage that administration becomes prohibitively expensive.

States should take the hint and refrain from even considering their own coverage mandates. But if they don’t, smart employers should challenge the mandate’s reporting requirements. They’d likely win.

This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.

Florida Democrats’ Campaign to Abolish Seniors’ Medicare

Full disclosure: I have done paid consulting work for Florida’s current governor, Rick Scott, in his campaign against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. And I have provided informal advice to Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for governor. However, neither the Scott nor DeSantis campaigns had any involvement with this article, and my views are—as always—my own.

On Tuesday, Democrats in Florida nominated an unusual candidate for governor, and it has nothing to do with his skin color or background. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who would serve as Florida’s first African-American governor if elected, says on his campaign’s website that the health plan U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has offered at the national level “will help lower costs and expand coverage to more Floridians.”

SEC. 901. RELATIONSHIP TO EXISTING FEDERAL HEALTH PROGRAMS.

(a) MEDICARE, MEDICAID, AND STATE CHILDREN’S HEALTH INSURANCE PROGRAM (SCHIP).—

(1) IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law, subject to paragraphs (2) and (3)—

(A) no benefits shall be available under title XVIII of the Social Security Act for any item or service furnished beginning on or after the effective date of benefits under section 106(a)… [emphasis added].

In case you didn’t know, Title XVIII of the Social Security Act refers to Medicare. Section 901(a)(1)(A) of Sanders’ bill, which he brands as “Medicare-for-all,” would prohibit the Medicare program from paying out any benefits once the single-payer system takes effect. Section 701(d) of his bill would liquidate the Medicare trust funds, transferring “any funds remaining in” them to the single-payer plan.

In other words, Democrats just nominated as a statewide candidate in Florida—a state with the highest population of seniors, and where seniors and near-seniors (i.e., all those over age 50) comprise nearly half of the voting electorate—someone who, notwithstanding Sanders’ claims about his single-payer bill, supports legislation that would abolish Medicare for seniors entirely. Good luck with that.

That’s What ‘Radical Experiment’ Means, Folks

The recent hullabaloo over an estimated budget score of the Sanders plan, which would require tens of trillions—yes, I said trillions—of dollars in tax increases, highlighted only one element of its radical nature. However, as I pointed out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this year, the Sanders experiment would go far beyond raising taxes, by abolishing traditional Medicare, along with just about every other form of insurance.

Everyone else, which is roughly 300 million people, would lose their current coverage. Traditional Medicare, Medicaid, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program would all evaporate. Even the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program would disappear.

With those changes in coverage, people could well lose access to their current doctors. As a study earlier this summer noted, medical providers like doctors and hospitals would get paid at much lower reimbursement rates, of 40 percent lower than private insurance. (A liberal blogger claimed earlier this week that, because other payers reimburse at lower levels than private insurers, the average pay cut to a doctor or hospital may total “only” 11-13 percent.)

Doctors and hospitals would also have to provide more health care services to more people, since “free” health care without co-payments will induce more demand for care. If you think doctors will voluntarily work longer hours for even less pay, I’ve got some land I want to sell you.

Déjà vu All Over Again?

In 1983, the British Labour Party wrote an election manifesto that one of its own members of Parliament famously dubbed “the longest suicide note in history.” That plan pledged unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher taxes on the rich, to abolish the House of Lords, and renationalization of multiple industries.

Although Sanders’ bill weighs in at 96 pages in total, opponents of the legislation can sum up its contents much more quickly: “It abolishes Medicare for seniors.” That epithet could prove quite a short suicide note for Gillum—and the Left’s socialist dreams around the country.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Bernie Sanders Proposes Medicare for None

Sen. Bernie Sanders will hold an online town-hall meeting next Tuesday regarding his single-payer health-care legislation. Mr. Sanders calls it “Medicare for All.” But the text of the bill itself reveals a more accurate name: Medicare for None. The Orwellian way in which Mr. Sanders characterizes his plan speaks to the larger problem facing the left, whose plans for health care remain so radical that speaking of them honestly would prompt instant repulsion from most voters.

Last September, the socialist Mr. Sanders and 16 Democratic colleagues introduced what they style the Medicare for All Act. Section 901(a) of the bill explicitly states that “no benefits shall be available under Title XVIII of the Social Security Act”—that is, Medicare—“for any item or service furnished beginning on or after the effective date” of the new single-payer program.

While Mr. Sanders claims that his bill would extend Medicare to all, it would instead create an entirely new program while borrowing the Medicare name. Case in point: Section 701(d) of the Sanders bill would liquidate the existing Medicare trust funds, transferring their entire proceeds into a new “Universal Medicare Trust Fund.”

If the roughly 59 million Medicare enrollees have qualms about giving up their current coverage, at least they’ll have company. The bill would also end Medicaid (except for long-term care), the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, federal employee coverage, and Tricare for the military. And it would prohibit any insurer, including any employer, from covering benefits and services provided through the government system.

Out of nearly 330 million Americans, the only ones who would retain their current coverage are the 2.2 million who receive services from the Indian Health Service and the 9.3 million who get it from the Veterans Administration. Is Mr. Sanders’s decision to preserve VA coverage—in which, as we learned in 2014, veterans died while waiting months for treatment—suggestive of the type of care he has in mind for all Americans?

Selling a bill that would abolish Medicare as “Medicare for All” takes some chutzpah—akin to the promise that if you like your health-care plan, you can keep it. Here’s hoping that the American people, having been subjected once to the disastrous consequences of the left’s reassuring but deceitful rhetoric on health care, don’t get fooled again.

This post was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.

John Kasich’s Obamacare Bailout Plan

On Thursday morning, governors John Kasich (R-OH) and John Hickenlooper (D-CO) released a plan to “stabilize” Obamacare insurance markets. Here’s what you need to know about the details of the proposal.

John Kasich Doesn’t Want to Repeal Obamacare

It’s worth repeating that, as recently as three years ago, Kasich said the following regarding the health care law: “From Day One, and up until today and into tomorrow, I do not support Obamacare. I never have, and I believe it should be repealed.”

Governors Want Trump to Violate the Constitution

The plan calls on the Trump administration to “commit to making cost-sharing reduction payments.” But as this space has previously described, the United States has an interesting document—you may have heard of it—called the Constitution. That Constitution places the “power of the purse” with Congress, not the executive.

If Congress does appropriate funds—for cost-sharing reductions or anything else—the executive cannot refuse to spend that money, per a prior Supreme Court ruling. But if Congress does not appropriate funds, the executive cannot spend money. To do otherwise would violate a criminal statute.

Asking the Trump administration to violate the Constitution may seem like a natural request to someone like Kasich, a big-government liberal who ran into legal trouble for expanding his state’s Medicaid program unilaterally. But our nation is a government of laws, not men, which makes obeying the law an obligation of all citizens, let alone the chief executive.

A Selective History on Reinsurance

The claims by the governors defy facts, particularly on reinsurance. The Government Accountability Office concluded last year that the Obama administration violated the law to give insurance companies billions more dollars in reinsurance funds than they deserved—prioritizing corporate welfare to insurers over statutorily required payments back to the U.S. Treasury.

But even after the Obama administration violated the law to give insurers billions more than they were due, the governors still feel the need to propose two separate “stability” (read: bailout) funds to prop up Obamacare. It demonstrates the massive “cash suck” that Obamacare has placed on the federal fisc.

An Impractical Proposal on Federal Employee Coverage

The plan also suggests that Congress should “allow residents in underserved counties”—defined as those with only one insurer on the exchange—“to buy into the federal employee benefit program, giving residents in rural counties access to the same health care as federal workers.”

FEHBP has such high premiums because it provides far richer benefits than the Obamacare exchanges. A 2009 Congressional Research Service report found that the Blue Cross Blue Shield standard option pays an average percentage of health expenses—in technical terms, the plan’s actuarial value—of 87 percent. By contrast, Obamacare links its insurance subsidies to the second-least-costly silver plan, which has an actuarial value of 70 percent.

Because the federal employee plan provides such generous coverage, opening it up to exchange customers would necessitate massive new increases in subsidies, which the governors’ plan also alludes to (“provide adequate and effective subsidies”). Combined with the reinsurance and cost-sharing reduction payments, it amounts to propping up Obamacare on taxpayers’ dime.

Millions of Americans found out in 2013 that when it comes to Obamacare, if you like your plan, you may not be able to keep it. But with respect to both Obamacare and the governors’ proposal, regardless of whether you like the plan, you’ll definitely be required to pay for it.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

For Congress, Obamacare Finally Hits Home

The quotes are certainly ominous:

  • Employees are so worried “thanks to Obamacare that they are thinking about retiring early or just quitting.”
  • Workers fear being pushed “on to the government health exchanges, which could make their benefits exorbitantly expensive.”
  • “The chatter about retiring now, to remain on the current health care plan, is constant.”
  • Employees “young and old [are] worried about skyrocketing health care premiums cutting deeply into their already small paychecks.”
  • “The focus right now is…trying to figure out how to offset potential increases in premiums.”

Those quotes could refer to any number of employers and firms dealing with the effects of Obamacare. But, as this morning’s Politico reports, the quotes taken above come from Capitol Hill, where aides are terrified of a provision in Obamacare that dumps them onto the exchanges come January 1.

Federal employees, including those on Capitol Hill, currently receive generous “corporate level” health insurance benefits and a broad range of personal plan choice—from high-cost, comprehensive plans to low-cost, high-deductible plans—that is denied the vast majority of Americans.

Like all enrollees in employer-based coverage, Capitol Hill employees (and all federal workers) get employer subsidies for the cost of their coverage. It’s a flat, fixed-dollar amount and, like all employer-based contributions, is also tax-free.

When Members and staff are forced out of their existing coverage into Obamacare’s exchanges, they will lose both the generous subsidy and the tax break. Many on Capitol Hill will not qualify for subsidies in the exchanges—just like many private-sector employees who will lose their existing coverage.

Members and staff have another big problem. Obamacare was drafted so clumsily that it’s unclear precisely how placing Members of Congress and their staff in exchanges will work. Politico notes that “there has been no guidance” from the Office of Personnel Management on the issue, and fear levels have been rising as a result.

This is what happens when we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.

The Politico story really just shows the broader themes that have been playing out around the country: Regulators causing uncertainty for businesses and their workers? Check. Skyrocketing premiums in the exchanges? Check. Firms dumping their workers onto exchanges? Check. In other words, all of Obamacare’s chickens have finally come home to roost on Capitol Hill.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.

SCHIP Premium Assistance

Background:  The State Children’s Health Insurance Program, established under the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 1997, is a state-federal partnership originally designed to provide low-income children with health insurance—specifically, those children under age 19 from families with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or approximately $40,000 for a family of four.  States may implement SCHIP by expanding Medicaid and/or creating a new state SCHIP program.  SCHIP received nearly $40 billion in funding over ten years as part of BBA, and legislation recently passed by Congress in December (P.L. 110-173) extended the program through March 2009, while providing additional SCHIP funds for states.

When originally created, the SCHIP statute included premium assistance provisions designed to encourage the enrollment of children in employer-sponsored coverage, with state and federal dollars being used to pay the employee premium share for the eligible dependent(s).  Implementation of premium assistance programs would reduce crowd-out (i.e. individuals dropping private coverage to join a government health program), maintain children and parents on the same (privately-held) insurance policy, and could result in cost savings to both states and the federal government.

The statute included several tests used to determine whether premium assistance would be appropriate for SCHIP programs to implement.  Chief among these tests are the following:

  • Premium assistance must be cost-effective to the state (and thus the federal government);
  • Plans using premium assistance dollars must meet certain benchmark guidelines, including limits on cost-sharing;
  • Before becoming eligible for premium assistance, state waiting periods must apply;
  • Employers must make minimum contributions to the plan for which premium assistance is being granted.

Analysis:  While the premium assistance provisions were originally designed to facilitate enrollment of eligible children in employer-sponsored coverage where available, in practice the use of premium assistance remains quite limited.  Conflicts between the premium assistance provisions for Medicaid and SCHIP have resulted in only nine states adopting a premium assistance model—leaving more children in public, rather than private, coverage, and potentially resulting in higher costs to the federal government.

An analysis of the provisions at issue reveals several areas where changes to the premium assistance program could encourage the enrollment of additional low-income children in private rather than public coverage.  Areas for potential legislative action include the following:

Cost-Effectiveness:  Under current law, the cost-effectiveness test contains a “family waiver” provision that often impedes enrollment in private coverage, and conflicts with the cost-effectiveness test established under Medicaid.[1]  While the Medicaid test merely requires that the cost of covering an individual under a premium assistance program be less than the cost of public coverage for that individual, the SCHIP test requires that the cost of covering an entire family under premium assistance be less than the cost of public coverage for the child (or children) alone.  This lack of an “apples-to-apples” comparison for the purposes of determining cost-effectiveness can prevent employer coverage from qualifying for premium assistance—and as a result, some conservatives may believe the skewed metrics of determining cost-effectiveness actually increase costs to the federal government and should be changed.

Cost Sharing:  Current law places strict limits on cost-sharing within the SCHIP program, limiting premium assistance eligibility for many employer-sponsored plans.  Specifically, SCHIP plans may not impose any cost-sharing—premiums, deductibles, co-payments, or co-insurance—above a “nominal amount” (as determined by Medicaid guidelines) on children from families with incomes below 150% FPL; children from families with incomes above 150% FPL may only incur total cost-sharing of more than 5% of a family’s income.[2]  Some conservatives may find these cost-sharing limitations particularly onerous with regard to employer-sponsored plans, most of which have co-payments and deductibles that exceed the “nominal” amounts described in the statute.

Benchmark Guidelines:  To be eligible for SCHIP premium assistance, employer-sponsored plans must be actuarially equivalent to one of three SCHIP benchmarks: 1) the Blue Cross Blue Shield Standard Option within the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP); 2) the health insurance plan offered to state employees in a given state; or 3) the Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) with the highest enrollment in the state.[3]  However, the $431 monthly premium charged for the Blue Cross FEHBP option during 2007 exceeded by more than 15% the average cost of group health insurance in the same year, according to the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation—and many state employee plans have similarly high benefit packages.[4]  Therefore, some conservatives may support efforts to create more realistic coverage benchmarks for the SCHIP program, particularly for states where low market penetration by HMOs would have the effect of limiting premium assistance participation to those few employers who could afford to match the rich health insurance coverage provided to state and federal bureaucrats.

Employer Contribution:  Although the existing statute remains silent on this provision, SCHIP regulations require states to set minimum percentage contribution levels for employer-sponsored insurance.  Some conservatives may find this provision unnecessary and redundant, as group health insurance coverage must already be considered cost-effective to the state in order for the plan to qualify for premium assistance.

Waiting Periods:  SCHIP regulations require children eligible for premium assistance to have lacked group health insurance coverage for at least six months prior to enrolling in the program, unless the child had previously been enrolled in Medicaid or the state had received approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to shorten its waiting period.[5]  While these provisions were designed to guard against crowd-out, some conservatives may question whether the waiting periods to join a subsidized private plan may instead encourage individuals to join a government-run plan, and whether states should seek to amend their SCHIP plans to reflect that possible scenario.

Enrollment and Outreach:  Particularly because premium assistance relies on private, rather than public, insurance coverage, many conservatives may support efforts to make participation easy for employers, and encourage eligible families to enroll.  Such steps would maintain private health insurance coverage while saving taxpayer dollars, and minimize the perverse cost-shifting that results from unrealistically low reimbursement levels in some SCHIP programs.

Legislative History:  Title III of SCHIP legislation (H.R. 3963), whose Presidential veto was sustained by the House by a 260-152 vote in January, included several provisions designed to streamline premium assistance programs.  Specifically, the bill modifies the cost-effectiveness language to provide equivalent comparisons between the cost of employer-sponsored and government-run SCHIP coverage, while giving premium assistance programs some flexibility by allowing states to “wrap-around” employer coverage with respect to cost-sharing and employer benefit packages not meeting one of the SCHIP benchmark levels (although it does not address the issue of whether these mandated benefit levels are too high).  However, some conservatives may find the prohibition on using premium assistance subsidies for any high-deductible or Health Savings Account (HSA) option contained in Section 301(a)(1) of the bill an attempt by Congressional Democrats to inhibit the growth of consumer-directed health options that have slowed the growth of health care costs since their introduction.

More fundamentally, Title III did not address the question of whether states should be required to make premium assistance programs available as a condition of receiving federal SCHIP funds—and it explicitly stated that eligible children must retain the option of enrolling in a public program and may not be compelled to participate in a premium assistance plan if available.  Moreover, some conservatives may also support additional provisions designed further to extend SCHIP premium assistance to individual (as opposed to group) health insurance purchased by eligible families, so long as this private insurance is cost-effective from the state and federal perspective.

Conclusion:  Most conservatives support enrollment and funding of the SCHIP program for the populations for whom the SCHIP program was created.  That is why in December the House passed, by a 411-3 vote, legislation reauthorizing and extending the SCHIP program through March 2009.  That legislation included an additional $800 million in funding for states to ensure that all currently eligible children will continue to have access to state-based SCHIP coverage.

However, many conservatives retain concerns about actions by states or the federal government that would reduce private health insurance coverage while increasing reliance on a government-funded program.  To that end, conservatives may be inclined to support a more robust premium assistance mechanism for low-income children that keeps children (and their parents) enrolled in private coverage rather than joining a public program.  While the provisions of H.R. 3963 did make some modest changes to encourage this goal, some conservatives may support additional modifications to the premium assistance provisions to ensure that children with access to employer-sponsored insurance are not permitted to decline group coverage in order to join the SCHIP rolls.

 

[1] The Medicaid cost-effectiveness test can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1396e(e)(2), while the SCHIP cost-effectiveness test can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1397ee(c)(3).

[2] The SCHIP cost-sharing provisions are at 42 U.S.C. 1397cc(e)(3); the Medicaid guidelines can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1396o.

[3] SCHIP coverage benchmarks can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1397cc(b).

[4] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Employer Health Benefits: 2007 Annual Survey,” available online at http://kff.org/insurance/7672/upload/76723.pdf (accessed March 15, 2008), p. 2.

[5] The language can be found at 42 C.F.R. 457.810.

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).

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).

Durable Medical Equipment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly Newsletter: June 16, 2008

Durable Medical Equipment Legislation Introduced

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

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

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

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

“Underinsured” Study’s Findings Subject to Interpretation

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

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

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

Article of Note: Switzerland in Massachusetts?

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

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