Reduce Nursing Home Populations to Limit Coronavirus’ Spread

Why have so many nursing home patients died from coronavirus nationwide? The key to answering that question lies in many of the nation’s leading politicians’ policy responses to the pandemic. Most notably, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) issued an ill-conceived order requiring nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients.

Forcing institutions to accept positive patients “seeded” coronavirus in nursing homes, where it spread like wildfire. Although Cuomo eventually rescinded that measure, the decision was too late to save the thousands of nursing home patients who died before it could undo the damage initially wrought. Last Thursday, in a display of callous indifference to the loved ones of deceased patients desperate for answers, Cuomo called the focus on his order a “shiny object” and “pure politics.”

But the high death toll in nursing homes also reflects underlying policy differences that preceded coronavirus: Some states house more individuals in nursing homes than others. These disparities, coupled with the inherent infection risk present in nursing homes, should provide states new motivation to accelerate the movement of seniors and individuals with disabilities out of institutional facilities wherever and wherever possible.

Differences Among States

As of 2017, more certified nursing facilities operated in Florida than in New York. But the larger average size of New York’s facilities means the state has nearly 35 percent more nursing home beds than Florida — even though Florida has 35 percent more seniors older than age 65 than New York does. New York’s nursing homes average 185.1 beds per facility, the highest in the country by far. With a larger nursing home population and larger facilities, the virus had more room to rampage than in other states with smaller facilities and smaller nursing home populations.

During the past several weeks, the growing death toll in nursing homes prompted state and federal officials to surge resources to facilities, from testing to personal protective equipment to infection control specialists. But policymakers should ask a more fundamental question: Why do we still have so many individuals in nursing homes at all? The spread of COVID is likely reduced by home-based care while providing an environment most patients prefer, and often at lower costs than nursing homes.

Over the past several decades, Congress and states have begun to redirect Medicaid spending from institutional care towards home and community-based services. From 1988 to 2016, the percentage of Medicaid long-term care spending directed toward home-based services grew from 10 percent to 57 percent.

But in some states, the powerful nursing home lobby still thwarts policy efforts that would empty facility beds. As of 2016, for one example, New York spent more on institutional care than Florida and California did combined.

A Better Solution

By contrast, Rhode Island’s global compact, approved in January 2009, consolidated myriad Medicaid waivers into a single effort increasing access to home-based care. The state’s experiment succeeded: The number of individuals receiving institutional care declined 6.2 percent, while those receiving community-based care rose by 25.8 percent. Rhode Island’s rebalancing towards community-based care helped keep overall Medicaid spending flat during a time of enrollment growth, and did so by increasing access to care, not limiting it.

States like Rhode Island that have moved individuals needing long-term care out of nursing homes wherever possible have the potential to see fewer incidents of mass deaths. Indeed, vulnerable populations will still need to take precautions to avoid COVID regardless. But moving seniors out of congregate settings like nursing homes would minimize the risk of a “super-spreader” incident in which a single individual infects dozens or even hundreds of patients.

Congress Inhibits Reform

With its ability to reduce health-care spending and the risk of infection, the coronavirus pandemic should have given states added incentive to transition Medicaid beneficiaries into home-based care — had Congress not gotten in the way. Legislation passed in March giving states an increase in the federal Medicaid match conditioned the additional dollars on states not limiting benefits. As a result, more aggressive attempts by states to direct spending to community-based care — for instance, by capping nursing home slots, or requiring beneficiaries to try home-based care first — could jeopardize states’ additional federal matching funds.

When I served on the congressional Commission on Long-Term Care in 2013, one of my colleagues often said the next person who told him she wanted to enter a nursing home would be the first person to express such a desire. That adage holds as true today as it did seven years ago, and this truth should compel states to promote home and community-based care wherever possible at all times. During the coronavirus pandemic, however, such a transition won’t just give seniors better care in a way that saves health-care costs — it could save seniors’ lives.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Medicaid’s Blue State Bailout

In discussing future coronavirus legislation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has taken a skeptical view towards additional subsidies to states, including a potential “blue state bailout.” But current law already includes just such a mechanism, giving wealthy states an overly generous federal Medicaid match that results in bloated program spending by New York and other blue states.

Section 1905(b) of the Social Security Act establishes Federal Medical Assistance Percentages, the matching rate each state receives from the federal government under Medicaid. The statutory formula compares each state’s per capita income to the national average, calculated over a rolling three-year period. Poorer states receive a higher federal match, while richer states receive a lower match.

However, federal law sets a minimum Medicaid match of 50 percent, and a maximum match of 83 percent. No poor states come close to hitting the 83 percent maximum rate, but a total of 14 wealthy states would have a federal match below 50 percent absent the statutory minimum. (In March, Congress temporarily raised the federal match rate for all states by 6.2 percentage points for the duration of the coronavirus emergency.)

Absent the statutory floor, Connecticut would receive a match rate of 11.69 percent in the current fiscal year, according to Federal Funds Information Service, a state-centered think-tank. At that lower federal match, Connecticut would receive approximately one federal dollar for every eight the state spends on Medicaid, rather than the one-for-one ratio under current law.

Federal taxpayers pay greatly because the overly generous match rate for wealthy states leads to additional Medicaid spending. In fiscal year 2018, Connecticut spent far more on its traditional Medicaid program ($6.5 billion in combined state and federal funds) than similarly sized states like Oklahoma ($4.9 billion) and Utah ($2.5 billion). Those totals exclude the dollars Connecticut received from Obamacare, which guarantees all states a 90 percent Medicaid match for covering able-bodied adults.

The budget crisis in New York that preceded the pandemic stems in large part from Washington’s overly generous match for wealthy states. Absent the statutory floor, the state would receive a Medicaid match of 34.49 percent this fiscal year, meaning it would have to spend approximately two dollars to receive an additional federal dollar.

But the one-to-one Medicaid match guaranteed under federal law led New York to expand its program well beyond most states’. At more than $77 billion in 2018, New York Medicaid cost taxpayers more than three times the $23.4 billion spent by the larger state of Florida. And a federal audit last summer concluded that New York Medicaid spent $1.8 billion on more than 600,000 ineligible enrollees in just a six-month period. Little wonder that Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January called the state’s fiscal situation “unsustainable” after the state announced a $6 billion budget deficit, most of which came from Medicaid.

To his credit, Cuomo proposed changes to crack down on Medicaid fraud and enact other program reforms. He also criticized Congress when it passed legislation to block New York and other states from changing their Medicaid programs during the pandemic. But he has not acknowledged the underlying flaws in federal law that, by encouraging profligate blue state spending, created the problem in the first place.

Of the 14 wealthy states that benefit from the guaranteed 50 percent minimum Medicaid match, Hillary Clinton won 11. If the dramatic drop in oil and commodity prices in recent weeks persists, the three traditionally red states—Alaska, North Dakota, and Wyoming—that benefit from the statutory floor may no longer do so, should those states’ income decline. In the number of states affected and overall spending levels, the 50 percent minimum Medicaid match encourages overspending by blue states at the expense of federal taxpayers in red states.

In December 2018, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that removing the guaranteed 50 percent Medicaid match would save $394 billion over ten years. If McConnell and his colleagues want to tackle rising federal debt while stopping blue state bailouts, they should amend the Medicaid statute accordingly.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

It Shouldn’t Take a Pandemic to Deregulate American Health Care

Over the past several weeks, the media has spent a great deal of time focusing on delays in rolling out and scaling up coronavirus testing across the country. But the understandable frustration over testing delays should not discount the other changes occurring within the federal government to help the virus response.

On Tuesday, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced its approval of two waivers related to the coronavirus outbreak. One allowed Medicare providers to treat more conditions via telehealth, so more seniors can avoid exposure to the virus by having medical exams at home rather than traveling to a doctor’s office. The other gave Florida’s Medicaid program additional flexibility — such as the ability to reimburse claims made by doctors who participate in other state Medicaid or Medicare programs, even if they have not gone through the process of enrolling in Florida’s Medicaid program.

These changes represent real progress against the virus. But they also raise the broader question of why it required an imminent threat to public health to effect common-sense regulatory changes — and why some of these changes may last only for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Emergency Declaration Includes

The regulatory flexibility announced on Tuesday came mere days after President Trump signed a proclamation authorizing the changes. In his remarks in the Rose Garden Friday, the president indicated what kind of changes the declaration would give to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS):

  • “The ability to waive laws to enable telehealth,” which “gives remote doctors’ visits and hospital check-ins;”
  • “The power to waive certain federal license requirements so that doctors from other states can provide services [in] states with the greatest need;”
  • “The ability to waive requirements that critical-access hospitals limit the number of beds to 25 and the length of stay to 96 hours;”
  • “The ability to waive the requirements of a three-day hospital stay prior to admission to a nursing home;”
  • “The authority to waive rules that hinder hospitals’ ability to bring additional physicians on board or obtain needed office space;” and
  • “The authority to waive rules that severely restrict where hospitals can care for patients within the hospital itself, ensuring that the emergency capacity can be quickly established.”

The emergency authorities given to HHS under Section 1135 of the Social Security Act include all these flexibilities and several others — for instance, the power to waive conditions of participation and certification requirements for providers, modify statutory deadlines and timetables, waive out-of-network requirements for Medicare Advantage plans, and waive penalties for certain comparatively minor HIPAA violations, such as not distributing privacy notices.

In his remarks Friday, Trump summarized the effect of these changes: Hospitals and medical providers “can do what they have to do” to treat virus patients. “They know what they have to do. Now they won’t have any problem getting it done.”

Reform Onerous Regulatory Burdens For Good

These changes, while both necessary and welcome, fail to answer the broader question of why some of these regulations existed in the first place. For instance, why does a doctor who lives just north of the Florida-Georgia line have to go through one set of bureaucratic hoops to treat his Georgia Medicaid patients and another set of hoops to treat Medicaid patients who happen to live a few miles south in Florida?

In addition to federal laws and regulations that bog down the practice of medicine, states’ varying and often conflicting requirements create a patchwork of regulations that makes life miserable for doctors, and can prohibit them from practicing in multiple states. Worse yet, scope-of-practice laws often prevent people like nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists from using their full complement of skills because physician groups seeking to maintain their monopoly status lobby state legislatures to enact harmful regulatory burdens.

The Mercatus Center has conducted volumes of research showing that these types of state-imposed laws — whether measures limiting the scope of practice or requiring a certificate of need from a government board before hospitals can construct new facilities — do not improve quality of care, and often harm it. In sum, these laws work less to protect patients than they do to protect incumbent doctors and hospitals looking to eliminate potential competitors.

Lawmakers at both the state and federal levels should examine these unnecessary regulatory burdens with an intent toward rolling them back permanently. The hospital industry has already asked for at least $1 billion as part of the next “stimulus” bill. At minimum, Congress should insist on regulatory reform in exchange for any additional federal dollars. Regulatory reform would both improve the system for patients and ensure Congress gets the most bang for its proverbial buck when providing taxpayer funds to the health-care sector.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Christmas Eve Vote on Obamacare Showed Washington Still Has Shame

A decade ago this morning, 60 Senate Democrats cast their final votes approving the legislation that became Obamacare. The bill took a circuitous route to enactment after Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the Massachusetts Senate contest, which occurred a few weeks after the Senate vote, in January 2010.

Brown’s election meant Republicans gained a 41st Senate seat, giving them the necessary votes to filibuster a House-Senate conference report on Obamacare. Because Democrats lacked the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, they eventually agreed to a process amending certain budgetary and fiscal elements of the Senate bill through the reconciliation process on a 51-vote threshold.

The grubby process leading up to Obamacare’s enactment, full of parochial politics and special interest pork, cost Democrats politically. But many Americans do not realize that such machinations occur all the time in Washington—indeed, occurred just last week. When one party participates in a corrupt process, it becomes a scandal; when both parties partake, few outside the Beltway bother to notice.

Backroom Deals

The process among Democrats leading up to the final health vote resembled an open market, with each Senator making “asks” of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Reid needed all 60 Democrats to vote for Obamacare to break a Republican filibuster, and the parochial provisions included in the legislation showed the lengths he would go to enact it:

Cornhusker Kickback:” The most notorious of the backroom deals came after Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) requested a 100 percent Medicaid match rate for his home state of Nebraska. The final manager’s amendment introduced by Reid included this earmark—Nebraska would have its entire costs of Medicaid expansion paid for by the federal government forever. But the blowback from constituents and the press became so great that Nelson asked to have the provision removed; the reconciliation measure enacted in March 2010 gave Nebraska the same treatment as all other states.

Gator Aid:” This provision, inserted at the behest of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), and later removed in the reconciliation bill, sought to exempt Florida seniors from much of the effects of the law’s Medicare Advantage cuts.

Louisiana Purchase:” This provision, included due to a request from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), adjusted the state’s Medicaid matching formula. Landrieu publicly defended the provision—which she said reflected the state’s circumstances after Hurricane Katrina—and it remained in law for several years, but was eventually phased out in legislation enacted February 2012.

While these three provisions captivated the public’s attention, other earmarks and pork provisions abounded inside Obamacare too—a Medicaid funding provision that helped Massachusetts; exemptions from the insurer tax for two Blue Cross carriers; a $100 million earmark for a Connecticut hospital, and health benefits for miners in Libby, Montana, courtesy of then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).

Not only did senators try to keep these corrupt deals in the legislation—notwithstanding the public outrage they engendered—but Reid defended both the earmarks and the horse-trading process that led to their inclusion:

I don’t know if there’s a senator who doesn’t have something in this bill that’s important to them. And if they don’t have something in it that’s important to them, then it doesn’t speak well for them.

It was a far cry from Barack Obama’s 2008 (broken) campaign promise to have all his health care negotiations televised on C-SPAN, “so we will know who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies.” And it looked like Democrats didn’t really believe in the merits of the underlying legislation, but instead voted to restructure nearly one-fifth of the American economy because they got some comparatively minor pork project for their district back home.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Democrats lost control of the House in the 2010 elections, and political scientists have attributed much of the loss to the impact of the Obamacare vote. One study found that Obamacare cost Democrats 6 percentage points of support in the 2010 midterm elections, and at least 13 seats in Congress.

But did the rebuke Democrats received for their behavior prompt them to change their ways? Only to the extent that, when they want to ram through a massive piece of legislation no one has bothered to read, they include Republicans in the taxpayer-funded largesse.

Consider last week’s $1.4 trillion spending package: Two bills totaling more than 2,300 pages, which lawmakers introduced on Monday and voted on in the House 24 hours later. Democrats wanted to repeal one set of Obamacare taxes—and in exchange, they agreed to repeal another set of taxes that Republicans (and their K Street lobbying friends) wanted gone. The Obamacare taxes went away, but the Obamacare spending remained, thus increasing the deficit by nearly $400 billion.

And both sides agreed to increase spending in defense and non-defense categories alike. Therein lies the true definition of bipartisanship in Washington: An agreement in which both sides get what they want—courtesy of taxpayers in the next generation, who get stuck with the bill.

It remains a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the nation’s capital that the Obamacare debacle remains an anomaly—the one time when the glare of the spotlight so seared Members seeking pork projects that they dared consider forsaking their ill-gotten gains. To paraphrase the axiom about casinos, in Washington, The Swamp (almost) always wins.

Indian Health Service Scandal Shows Problems of Government-Run Care

As if voters didn’t have enough reasons to question government-run health care, the Wall Street Journal provided yet another last week. The paper ran a lengthy expose highlighting numerous cases of doctors previously accused of negligence receiving “second chances” in the government-run Indian Health Service (IHS), resulting in incidents wherein at least 66 patients died in IHS care.

Earlier this year, the Journal ran a separate investigative article explaining how the Indian Health Service repeatedly ignored warnings about a physician accused of sexually abusing patients, moving him from hospital to hospital. Together, these articles describe a broken culture within the Indian Health Service, demonstrating how government-run health systems provide poor-quality care, often harming rather than helping vulnerable patients.

Examples of Negligent Physicians Harming Patients

The Journal examined records from the Treasury’s Judgment Fund, which pays awards in malpractice cases wherein the federal government — in this case, the Indian Health Service — functions as the defendant. The reporters then cross-referenced the physicians involved in those cases with prior malpractice cases and disciplinary actions taken prior to the doctors joining the IHS. The results should shock patients:

  • A doctor “thrust into medical exile” after five medical malpractice settlements in five years, including a rejection by a Nevada licensing board, ended up finding work in the Indian Health Service, where the federal government had to pay an additional five malpractice claims on his behalf. The physician, who had previously left a sponge inside a patient’s breast (among other incidents) before going to work with the Indian Health Service, gashed an IHS patient’s bile duct, causing four liters of digestive fluid to leak into her abdomen and sending her into septic shock.
  • An obstetrician with a history of five malpractice settlements totaling $2.7 million, and sanctions from the California medical board stemming from a patient who bled to death following a caesarean section, found employment in the Indian Health Service. A year after his hire, a baby died in the womb because this doctor failed to treat his mother’s high blood pressure. IHS officials later concluded that the doctor’s history “forshadow[ed] the tragic events that transpired in October 2017.” The physician admitted to the Journal, “I just did not address patients’ primary medical needs in a satisfactory way.” But he still applied for and received a position with the IHS.
  • A surgeon sued for malpractice 11 times over an eight-year period while living in Pennsylvania later got a job with the Indian Health Service in New Mexico. There he “allegedly cut a tube connecting a patient’s liver to his stomach and punctured the man’s intestines during a 2008 gallbladder surgery.” The patient later died.
  • A physician disciplined in both Florida and New York for prescribing pain pills for her boyfriend — up to 1,350 oxycodone pills in a single day — was hired by the Indian Health Service because she had a “clean” medical license in Pennsylvania. While working for the IHS, she sent a patient complaining of dizziness home with a diagnosis of pink-eye. Days later, the patient suffered a stroke that has left him confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. The federal government settled the subsequent malpractice case for $1 million because “hospital officials said in interviews that the doctor’s background made the case hard to defend.”
  • Another surgeon with nearly a dozen malpractice suits and a suspension for sexually abusing a patient during an exam received a job with the Indian Health Service. During his time as an IHS employee, the federal government paid a judgment exceeding $600,000 “over a colostomy the doctor performed that spilled fecal matter under a patient’s skin” and a $500,000 settlement for a botched hernia repair.
  • An obstetrician with at least seven reports in the National Practitioner Data Bank, including North Carolina sanctions over a potential sexual relationship with a patient, got a job with the Indian Health Service. In 2013, the doctor “struggled to deliver a baby” at an IHS facility. The baby developed an irregular heartbeat and died. The federal government paid a $900,000 malpractice claim because “a medical board reprimand later said [the doctor] should have resorted to a [caesarean] section ‘hours earlier.’”
  • A surgeon who lost his medical license in Illinois for “gross negligence” got another chance at a New Mexico IHS facility. “Two months after he arrived as the [IHS] hospital’s chief of surgery, he allegedly punctured a patient’s intestines during a surgery.” The patient ended up needing a dozen surgeries — which she wisely obtained outside the Indian Health Service — and a four-month hospital stay to recover.

Bureaucratic Nightmares

The Journal article also explained the circumstances by which all these physicians with histories of multiple malpractice claims or disciplinary actions came to work in the Indian Health Service. First, while the agency’s policies require hiring managers to consult the National Practitioner Data Bank for a physician’s history of malpractice claims or sanctions, the IHS does not monitor compliance with that requirement.

In one case, the CEO of a hospital who fired a surgeon for negligence said she “encourag[ed] him to consider another field of medicine than surgery.” However, the CEO didn’t know the surgeon had ended up practicing at an IHS facility until the Journal contacted her — because IHS apparently failed to investigate the surgeon’s history before hiring him.

Second, the federal government covers physicians’ malpractice claims through the Treasury’s Judgment Fund (the way the Journal reporters researched the hysicians’ history). Because IHS doctors don’t need to pay for malpractice insurance themselves — what one survey of IHS physicians considered the top benefit of working at the agency — it has become an effective “dumping ground” for physicians whose history of prior malpractice claims means they cannot obtain insurance on their own. IHS patients and federal taxpayers often end up paying the price, both literally and figuratively.

Poor Reimbursements Equal Poor Care

One former IHS official admitted that hiring managers have to make compromises when hiring physicians: “You get three candidates who come through and they all seem not great. But what you do is choose the lesser of three evils.” Hiring those “lesser evils” led to disastrous and often fatal consequences for dozens upon dozens of Indian Health Service patients.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., says she wants to extend government-run health care to the rest of the United States. But rather than apologizing to Native Americans for DNA tests, she should instead apologize for the horrid conditions within the Indian Health Service, promise to replace that broken system with something that works, and vow not to wreak on the rest of the American health-care system the kind of havoc Native populations have faced for years.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

President’s Executive Order Shows Two Contrasting Visions of Health Care

As Washington remains consumed by impeachment fever, President Trump returned to the issue of health care. In an executive order released Thursday, and a speech at The Villages in Florida where he spoke on the topic, the president attempted to provide a vision that contrasts with the left’s push for single-payer socialized medicine.

This executive order focused largely on the current Medicare program, as opposed to the existing private insurance marketplace. By promoting new options and focusing on reducing costs, however, the president’s actions stand in opposition to the one-size-fits-all model of the proposed health care takeover.

The Administration Wants To Explore These Proposals

One fact worth repeating about Thursday’s action: As with prior executive orders, it will in and of itself not change policy. The more substantive changes will come in regulatory proposals issued by government agencies (most notably the Department of Health and Human Services) in response to the executive order. While only the regulations can flesh out all of the policy details, the language of the order provides some sense of the proposals the administration wants to explore.

Modernized Benefits: The executive order promotes “innovative … benefit structures” for Medicare Advantage, the program in which an estimated 24 million beneficiaries receive Medicare subsidies via a network of private insurers. It discusses “reduc[ing] barriers to obtaining Medicare Medical Savings Accounts,” a health savings account-like mechanism that gives beneficiaries incentives to serve as smart consumers of health care. To accomplish that last objective, the order references broader access to cost and quality data, “improving [seniors’] ability to make decisions about their health care that work best for them.”

Expanded Access: The order seeks to increase access to telehealth as one way to improve seniors’ ability to obtain care, particularly in rural areas. It also looks to combat state-imposed restrictions that can limit care options, and can lead to narrow physician and provider networks for Medicare Advantage plans.

More Providers: The order discusses eliminating regulatory burdens on doctors and other medical providers, a continuation of prior initiatives by the administration. It also references allowing non-physician providers, such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants, to practice to the full scope of their medical licenses and receive comparable pay for their work.

Entitlement Reform: Last, but certainly not least, the order proposes allowing seniors to opt out of the Medicare program. This proposal would not allow individuals to opt out of Medicare taxes, but it would undo current regulations that require seniors to opt into the Medicare program when they apply for Social Security.

As I had previously explained, this proposal stands as a common-sense solution to our entitlement shortfalls: After all, why should we force someone like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett to accept Medicare benefits if they are perfectly content to use other forms of health coverage?

Democrats’ Health Care Vision Is Medicare for None

Of course, many on the socialist left have made their vision plain for quite some time: They want the government to run the entire health-care system. Ironically enough, however, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer legislation would abolish the current Medicare program in the process:

(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)

As I first noted nearly two years ago, this language makes Sanders’ proposal not “Medicare for All,” but “Medicare for None.” It speaks to the radical nature of the socialist agenda that they cannot come clean with the American people about the implications of their legislation, such that even analysts at liberal think-tanks have accused them of using dishonest means to sell single-payer.

Just as important, “Medicare for None” would take away choices for seniors and hundreds of millions of other Americans. As of next year, an estimated 24 million seniors will enroll in Medicare Advantage plans to obtain their Medicare benefits. As I outline in my book, Medicare Advantage often provides better benefits to seniors, and at a lower cost to both beneficiaries and the federal government. Yet Sanders and his socialist allies want to abolish this popular coverage, to consolidate power and control in a government-run health system.

The actions the administration announced on Thursday represent the latest in a series of steps designed to offer an alternative to the command-and-control vision promoted by the left. The American people don’t deserve socialized medicine, but they don’t deserve the broken status quo either. Only true patient-centered reforms can create a health-care environment that works for seniors and the American people as a whole.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

One Way for Florida’s Legislature to Respond to a Medicaid Expansion Referendum

Last week, Politico reported on a burgeoning effort by unions and other groups to collect signatures on a ballot initiative designed to expand Medicaid in Florida. As the article notes, the effort comes after last fall’s approval of Medicaid ballot initiatives in Utah, Idaho, and Nebraska.

The effort comes as liberals try to extend “free” health care to more and more Americans. But that “free” health care comes with significant costs, and policymakers in Florida have opportunities to make those costs apparent to voters.

‘Free’ Money Isn’t Free

By contrast, the petition being circulated in Florida includes no source of funding for the state’s 10 percent share of Medicaid expansion funding under Obamacare. The failure to specify a funding source represents a typical liberal tactic. Advocates seeking to expand Medicaid have traditionally focused on the “free” money from Washington available for states that do expand. “Free” money from Washington and “free” health care for low-income individuals—what’s not to like?

Of course, Medicaid expansion has very real costs for states, without even considering the effects on their taxpayers of the federal tax increases needed to fund all that “free” money from Washington. Every dollar that states spend on providing health care to the able-bodied represents another dollar that they cannot spend elsewhere.

I have previously noted how spending on Medicaid has crowded out funding for higher education, thus limiting mobility among lower-income populations, and encourages states to prioritize the needs of able-bodied adults over individuals with disabilities, for whom states receive a lower federal Medicaid match.

Taxes Ahead? Oh Yeah, Baby

Proposing a state income tax to fund Medicaid expansion would certainly make the cost of expansion readily apparent to Florida voters, especially the retirees who moved to the Sunshine State due to its combination of warm weather and no individual income tax. Voters would likely think twice if Medicaid expansion came with an income tax—which of course lawmakers could raise in the future, to fund all manner of government spending.

Prior efforts suggest that making the costs of Medicaid expansion apparent to voters appreciably dampens support. Utah approved its ballot initiative, which included a sales tax increase, with a comparatively small (53.3 percent) approval margin. In Montana, a referendum proposing a tobacco tax increase to fund a continuation of that state’s Medicaid expansion (which began in 2016) went down to defeat in November.

New Taxes Are an Uphill Battle

Liberal groups already face challenges in getting a Medicaid ballot initiative approved in Florida. The state constitution requires 60 percent approval for all initiative measures intended to change that document, a higher bar than advocates for expansion have had to clear elsewhere. Of the four states where voters approved Medicaid expansion—Maine, Nebraska, Utah, and Idaho—only the margin in Idaho exceeded 60 percent, and then just barely (60.58 percent).

Disclosure: While the author served on the health care transition advisory committee of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the views expressed above represent his personal views only.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Exclusive: Inside the Trump Administration’s Debate over Expanding Obamacare

Last August, I responded to a New York Times article indicating that some within the Trump administration wanted to give states additional flexibility to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Since then, those proposals have advanced, such that staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) believe that they have official sign-off from the president to put those proposals into place.

My conversations with half a dozen sources on Capitol Hill and across the administration in recent weeks suggest that the proposal continues to move through the regulatory process. However, my sources also described significant policy pitfalls that could spark a buzz-saw of opposition from both the left and the right.

The Times reported that some within the administration—including CMS Administrator Seema Verma and White House Domestic Policy Council Chairman Andrew Bremberg—have embraced the proposal. But if the plan overcomes what the Times characterized as a “furious” internal debate, it may face an even tougher reception outside the White House.

How It Would Work

After the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional for states as part of its 2012 ruling upholding Obamacare’s individual mandate, the Obama administration issued guidance interpreting that ruling. While the court made expansion optional for states, the Obama administration made it an “all-or-nothing” proposition for them.

Under the 2012 guidance—which remains in effect—if states want to receive the enhanced 90 percent federal match associated with expansion, they must cover the entire expansion population—all able-bodied adults with incomes under 138 percent of the federal poverty level (just under $35,000 for a family of four). If states expand only to some portion of the eligible population, they would only receive their regular Medicaid match of 50-76 percent, not the enhanced 90 percent match.

The Internal Debate

The August Times article indicated that, after considering partial expansion, the administration postponed any decision until after November’s midterm elections. Since that time, multiple sources disclosed to me a further meeting that took place on the topic in the Oval Office late last year. While the meeting was originally intended to provide an update for the president, CMS staff left that meeting thinking they had received the president’s sign-off to implement partial expansion.

Just before Christmas, during a meeting on an unrelated matter, a CMS staffer sounded me out on the proposal. The individual said CMS was looking for ways to help give states additional flexibility, particularly states hamstrung by initiatives forcing them to expand Medicaid. However, based on my other reporting, I believe that the conversation also represented an attempt to determine the level of conservative opposition to the public announcement of a decision CMS believes the president has already made.

Why Liberals Will Object

During my meeting, I asked the CMS staffer about the fiscal impacts of partial expansion. The staffer admitted that, as I had noted in my August article, exchange plans generally have higher costs than Medicaid coverage. Therefore, moving individuals from Medicaid to exchange coverage—and the federal government paying 100 percent of subsidy costs for exchange coverage, as opposed to 90 percent of Medicaid costs—will raise federal costs for every beneficiary who shifts coverage under partial expansion.

The Medicare actuary believes that the higher cost-sharing associated with exchange coverage will lead 30 percent of the target population—that is, individuals with incomes from 100-138 percent of poverty—to drop their exchange plan. Either beneficiaries will not be able to afford the premiums and cost-sharing, or they will not consider the coverage worth the money. And because 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage, the partial expansion change will save money in a given state—despite the fact that exchange coverage costs more than Medicaid on a per-beneficiary basis.

Why Conservatives Will Object

I immediately asked the CMS staffer an obvious follow-up question: Did the actuary consider whether partial expansion, by shifting the costs of expansion from the states to the federal government, would encourage more states to expand Medicaid? The staffer demurred, saying the actuary’s analysis focused on only one hypothetical state.

However, the CMS staffer did not tell me the entire story. Subsequent to my “official” meeting with that staffer, other sources privately confirmed that the actuary does believe that roughly 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage.

But these sources and others added that both the Medicare actuary and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) agree that, notwithstanding the savings from current expansion states—savings associated with individuals dropping exchange coverage, as explained above—the partial expansion proposal will cost the federal government overall, because it will encourage more states to expand Medicaid.

For instance, the Council of Economic Advisers believes that spending on non-expansion states who use partial expansion as a reason to extend Medicaid to the able-bodied will have three times the deficit impact as the savings associated with states shifting from full to partial expansion.

Because the spending on new partial expansion states will overcome any potential savings from states shifting from full to partial expansion, the proposal, if adopted, would appreciably increase the deficit. While neither CBO nor the Medicare actuary have conducted an updated analysis since the election, multiple sources cited an approximate cost to the federal government on the order of $100-120 billion over the next decade.

One source indicated that the Medicare actuary’s analysis early last summer arrived at an overall deficit increase of $111 billion. The results of November’s elections—in which three non-expansion states voted to accept expansion due to ballot initiatives—might have reduced the cost of the administration’s proposal slightly, but likely did not change the estimate of a sizable deficit increase.

A net cost of upwards of $100 billion, notwithstanding potential coverage losses from individuals dropping exchange coverage in current expansion states, can only mean one thing. CBO and the Medicare actuary both believe that, by lowering the cost for states to expand, partial expansion will prompt major non-expansion states—such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina—to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

Who Will Support This Proposal?

Based on the description of the scoring dynamic my sources described, partial expansion, if it goes forward, seems to have no natural political constituency. Red-state governors will support it, no doubt, for it allows them to offload much of their state costs associated with Medicaid expansion onto the federal government’s debt-laden dime. Once CMS approves one state’s partial expansion, the agency will likely have a line of Republican governors out its door looking to implement waivers of their own.

But it seems unlikely that Democratic-led states will follow suit. Indeed, the news that partial expansion would cause about 30 percent of the target population to drop their new exchange coverage could well prompt recriminations, investigations, and denunciations from Democrats in Congress and elsewhere. Because at least 3.1 million expansion beneficiaries live in states with Republican governors, liberals likely would object to the sizable number of these enrollees who could decide to drop coverage under partial expansion.

Conversely, conservatives will likely object to the high net cost associated with the proposal, notwithstanding the potential coverage losses in states that have already expanded. Some within the administration view Medicaid expansion, when coupled with proposals like work requirements, as a “conservative” policy. Other administration officials view expansion in all states as something approaching a fait accompli, and view partial expansion and similar proposals as a way to make the best of a bad policy outcome.

But Medicaid expansion by its very nature encourages states to discriminate against the most vulnerable in society, because it gives states a higher match for covering able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities. In addition to objecting to a way partial expansion would increase government spending by approximately $100 billion, some conservatives would also raise fundamental objections to any policy changes that would encourage states to embrace Obamacare—and add even more able-bodied adults to the welfare rolls in the process.

Particularly given the Democratic takeover of the House last week, the multi-pronged opposition to this plan could prove its undoing. Democrats will have multiple venues available—from oversight through letters and subpoenae, to congressional hearings, to use of the Congressional Review Act to overturn any administration decisions outright—to express their opposition to this proposal.

A “strange bedfellows” coalition of liberals and conservatives outraged over the policy, but for entirely different reasons, could nix it outright. While some officials may not realize it at present, the administration may not only make a decision that conservatives will object to on policy grounds, they may end up in a political quagmire in the process.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What the Press Isn’t Telling You about the Politics of Pre-Existing Conditions

For months, liberals have wanted to make the midterm elections about Obamacare, specifically people with pre-existing conditions. Of late, the media has gladly played into that narrative.

Numerous articles have followed upon a similar theme: Republicans claim they want to protect people with pre-existing conditions, but they’re lying, misrepresenting their records, or both. Most carry an implicit assumption: If you don’t support Obamacare, then you cannot want to protect individuals with pre-existing conditions, because defending the law as holy writ has become a new religion for the left.

Covering People Before They Develop Conditions

The Kaiser Family Foundation noted in a study earlier this year that the off-exchange individual insurance market shrank by 38 percent in just one year, from the beginning of 2017 to the beginning of 2018. Overall, enrollment in Obamacare-compliant plans for people who do not qualify for income-based subsidies fell by 2.6 million:

Most of these individuals likely dropped their plan because the rapid rise in insurance rates under Obamacare has priced them out of coverage. As a Heritage Foundation study from March noted, the pre-existing condition provisions represent the largest component of those premium increases.

Or consider the at least 4.7 million people who received cancellation notices a few short years ago, because their plan didn’t comport with Obamacare’s new regulations. The father of a friend and former colleague received such a notice. He lost his plan, couldn’t afford a new Obamacare-compliant policy, then got diagnosed with colon cancer. His “coverage” has consisted largely of a GoFundMe page, where friends and colleagues can help his family pay off tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt.

How exactly did Obamacare “protect” him—by stripping him of his coverage, or by pricing the new coverage so high he and his wife couldn’t afford it, and had to go without at the exact time they developed a pre-existing condition?

In fact, by getting politicians of both parties to claim that they want to cover people with pre-existing conditions, this campaign may actually encourage more healthy people to drop their insurance, thinking they can easily buy coverage if they do develop a costly condition.

Obamacare Plans Discriminate Too

The left’s messaging also ignores another inconvenient truth: Because they must accept all applicants, Obamacare plans have a strong incentive to avoid sick people. They can accomplish this goal through tactics like narrow provider networks. Because plans must offer rich benefits and accept all applicants, shrinking doctor and hospital networks provides one of the few ways to moderate premiums. Of course, keeping a clinic like the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center out of one’s network—which all Texas-based Obamacare plans do—also discourages cancer patients from signing up for coverage, a “win-win” from the insurer’s perspective.

Some plans have used more overt forms of discrimination. For instance, in 2014 a group of HIV patients filed a complaint against several Florida insurers. The complaint alleged that the carriers placed all their HIV drugs into the highest formulary tier, to discourage HIV-positive patients from signing up for coverage.

Problem with Pre-Existing Condition Provisions

More than 18 months ago, I wrote that Republicans could either maintain the status quo on pre-existing conditions, or they could repeal Obamacare, but they could not do both. That scenario remains as true today as it did then.

Also true: As long as the pre-existing condition “protections” remain in place, millions of individuals will likely remain priced out of coverage, and insurers will have reason to discriminate against the sick. In fact, the last several years of premium spikes have already turned the exchanges into a de facto high-risk pool, where only the sickest (or most heavily subsidized) patients bother enrolling.

For individuals with pre-existing conditions, there are several—and, in my view, better—alternatives to both the status quo and the status quo ante that preceded Obamacare. But we will never have a chance to have that conversation if few will examine the very real trade-offs the law has created. Based on the past few months, neither the left nor the media appear interested in doing so.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.