Weekly Newsletter: May 19, 2008

Democrats Advance Provisions to Expand SCHIP to Wealthier Families

This past week, Democrats in both the House and the Senate took actions to block guidance from the Administration that would keep the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) on mission. On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee held a hearing on legislation (HR 5998) that would override guidance issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) last August. That guidance is intended to ensure first that individuals with private health insurance do not drop their coverage in order to join a government-funded program, and second that states target their SCHIP funds at the low-income families for whom the program was created before expanding their state health plans to cover children from wealthier families.

That same day, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) attached legislative provisions mirroring HR 5998 to the wartime supplemental appropriations measure. The provisions were attached along with language similar to a House bill (HR 5613) that would suspend several Medicaid anti-fraud regulations. Sen. Lautenberg’s home state of New Jersey—which extends government-funded health insurance to “low-income” families making over $70,000 for a family of four—is one that has taken legal action against CMS to block the SCHIP guidance.

Some conservatives may be troubled, but not surprised, by the Democrat attempts to ensure that states can expand their SCHIP programs up the income ladder—consistent with legislation that passed the House last year permitting “low-income” families with over $80,000 in income to be added to government rolls. Given that the Administration has clarified the guidance to ensure that no child need be dropped off the SCHIP rolls as a result of the CMS policy, many conservatives would support the Administration’s attempts to keep the SCHIP program targeted on the populations for whom it was created, and oppose Democrat efforts to override these reasonable limits.

An RSC Policy Brief on this issue can be found here.

Ways and Means Hearing Examines HSAs

Last week, the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee held a hearing analyzing the growth of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). The Subcommittee heard testimony from the CEO of Alegent Health, a Nebraska-based health system that has implemented consumer-driven health care for its employees.

Since embarking on a consumer-driven model in 2005, Alegent has provided free preventive care and other incentives for healthy behaviors, while increasing price and quality transparency for its employees and patients alike. The results have been impressive: 92% participation by employees in consumer-directed plans, with high contribution rates to HSAs from low-income employees, lower costs, and healthier workers.

Many conservatives may believe that Alegent Health represents a successful model of how the growth of HSAs and consumer-driven health care can reduce rising health care costs. By empowering employees to take control of their lifestyle and health decisions, HSAs can encourage healthy behaviors that will reverse the growth of chronic diseases such as those linked to obesity, while incentivizing workers to accumulate real and portable savings that can be used to pay for health expenses. Some conservatives may believe the testimony at the Ways and Means hearing provided a welcome example of HSAs’ effectiveness, and a reminder why Democrat attempts further to regulate this new form of health care should be viewed with significant caution.

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

Article of Note: Rationed Care Kills

From the United Kingdom comes a story in the Daily Mail by Sarah Anderson, an ophthalmologist fighting twin battles: to save her father’s life and against Britain’s National Health Service. Her father’s kidney tumor could be treated by a new drug—but while the pharmaceutical has been approved for use in Europe for two years, Britain’s National Institute for Clinical Effectiveness (NICE) will not complete its assessment of the drug’s usefulness until January. Until then, local NHS branches can refuse to provide the drug, leaving Anderson’s family to pay for their father’s treatment on their own, or face the inevitable consequences that will follow if he cannot obtain it.

Some conservatives may be concerned by this story’s cautionary tale, particularly in the context of efforts by Democrats to establish a similar “comparative effectiveness” institute under the aegis of the federal government. Conservatives may not only believe that such an approach would put bureaucrats, and not doctors and patients, at the center of medical policy, but would also result in the types of costly delays and care rationing that put lives at stake.

Anderson’s ultimate verdict on her family’s dilemma is a sobering one with which many conservatives would agree: “If Dad should lose his life to cancer, it would be devastating—but to lose his life to bureaucracy would be far, far worse.”

Read the article here: “How the NHS Is Letting My Father Die

SCHIP Crowd-Out

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.

One concern of many conservatives regarding the SCHIP program relates to crowd-out—a phenomenon whereby individuals who had previously held private health insurance drop that coverage in order to enroll in a public program.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of H.R. 3963, a five-year SCHIP reauthorization which the President vetoed (and the House failed to override), found that of the 5.8 million children who would obtain Medicaid or SCHIP coverage under the legislation, more than one-third, or 2 million, would do so by dropping private health insurance coverage.

Administration Guidance:  In order to prevent policies that encourage crowd-out, and ensure that SCHIP funds are more effectively allocated to the low-income beneficiaries for whom the program was created, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), on August 17, 2007, issued guidance to state health officials about the way CMS would evaluate proposals by states to expand their SCHIP programs to include families with incomes above 250% of the federal poverty level (FPL).  Specifically, CMS included several steps which states should take before contemplating expansions above 250% of FPL:

  • Cost sharing requirements for state plans similar to those for private plans;
  • A one-year period of uninsurance for beneficiaries prior to receiving SCHIP coverage, to ensure that individuals and families are not dropping private coverage in order to receive benefits on government rolls;
  • Monitoring of child beneficiaries’ eligibility for coverage provided by non-custodial parents;
  • Assurance that states have enrolled at least 95% of children in families below 200% of FPL who are eligible for coverage under SCHIP or Medicaid;
  • Data that private insurance coverage for targeted populations has not declined more than two percentage points in the past five years; and
  • Regular monthly reporting of enrollment data monitoring crowd-out in state plans.

The guidance intended to maximize the use of state and federal SCHIP funding by ensuring that scarce resources are targeted at the populations for whom the program was originally created, and that government funds for health insurance are not merely replacing private dollars.  CMS later used the policies embodied in the August letter to reject New York’s application to extend SCHIP to children in families making up to 400% FPL—or nearly $85,000 per year.  New York and other states are suing the federal government to overturn CMS’ decision and allow further expansion of government-funded health insurance.

On May 7, 2008, CMS issued another letter to state health officials providing further clarification on the August 17, 2007 guidance.  The letter indicated that CMS would work with states to evaluate whether the states have effectively enrolled 95% of eligible children below 200% FPL before expanding their programs up the income scale.  It also noted that CMS does not expect states to apply the anti-crowd-out provisions—including the one-year waiting period for SCHIP coverage and cost-sharing requirements comparable to private insurance plans—for unborn children or children with family incomes below 250% FPL—approximately $53,000 for a family of four.  Most importantly, the letter noted that changes made to state procedures need not be applied to current enrollees—meaning that no child need be dropped off the SCHIP rolls as a result of CMS’ August 17, 2007 letter.

Recent Legislative Developments:  On May 15, 2008, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a legislative hearing on H.R. 5998, introduced by Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH).  The legislation would prohibit the Administration from implementing its August 17, 2007 guidance letter to states regarding SCHIP crowd-out.  Press reports indicate that during the hearing, advocates of the legislation argued first that it would negatively impact enrollment in the SCHIP program, and second that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and other experts have concluded that CMS violated the Congressional Review Act by promulgating its policy as a “guidance letter,” rather than issuing a formal rule using notice-and-comment procedures.  In response, Health Subcommittee Ranking Member Nathan Deal (R-GA) noted that the guidance process allowed for more flexibility in responding to any concerns raised by states than would a formal rule.

On the same day, an amendment by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) to nullify the August 17 letter was attached to the wartime supplemental spending bill at a Senate Appropriations Committee markup.  This SCHIP provision was added to legislative provisions overriding seven Medicaid anti-fraud regulations issued by CMS, which were also attached to the House version (H.R. 2642) of the supplemental spending bill.

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 the significant expansions of SCHIP contemplated by House Democrats and their impact on reducing private health insurance coverage while increasing reliance on a government-funded program.  In this vein, the Administration’s guidance to states remains consistent with the goal of ensuring that SCHIP remains targeted toward the low-income populations for which it was designed.  Therefore, many conservatives will support the reasonable attempts by CMS to bolster the integrity of the SCHIP program while retaining state plans’ flexibility, and question efforts by Congressional Democrats—and states like New York—to encourage further expansion of government-funded health insurance financed by federal taxpayers.