Three Things to Know about “Surprise” Medical Bills

In recent months, lawmakers in Washington have focused on “surprise” medical bills. In large part, this term refers to two types of incidents: 1) individuals who received pre-arranged treatment at an in-network hospital, but saw an out-of-network physician (e.g., anesthesiologist) during their stay, or 2) individuals who had to seek care at an out-of-network hospital during a medical emergency.

In both cases, the out-of-network providers can “balance bill” patients—that is, send them an invoice for the difference between an insurer’s in-network payment and what the physician actually charged. Because these bills can become quite substantial, and because patients do not have a meaningful opportunity to consent to the higher charges—many patients never meet their anesthesiologist until the day of surgery, and few people can investigate hospital networks during an ambulance ride to the ER—policy-makers see reason to intervene.

1. Few Hospitals Comprise Most of the ‘Surprise’ Incidents

As a chart from The New York Times demonstrates, most hospitals had zero, or close to zero, out-of-network emergency room bills in 2015, according to a study by three Yale University professors:

“Surprise” bills applied in 22 percent of ER visits, but as a Times reporter noted, they are “not happening to some random set of patients in every hospital. [They’re] happening to a large percentage of patients in certain hospitals.”

As noted above, most hospitals don’t have this problem, because they keep their ER physicians and other doctors in-network. Unfortunately, however, the one-quarter or so of hospitals that have not forced their physicians in-network have made life difficult for the rest of the hospital sector.

The hospital industry should have done a much better job of policing itself and weeded out these “bad actors” years ago. Had they done so, the number of “surprise” bills likely would not have risen to a level where federal lawmakers demand action. However, the fact that these incidents still only occur in a minority of hospitals suggests reason for continued caution—because why should Congress impose a far-reaching solution to a “problem” that doesn’t affect most hospitals?

2. The Federal Government Has Little Reason to Intervene

Over and above the question of whether “surprise” bills warrant a legislative response, lawmakers should also ponder why that response must come from the federal government. Even knowledgeable reporters have (incorrectly) assumed that a solution to the issue must emanate from Washington because only the federal government can address “surprise” bills for self-funded employer plans. Not so.

ERISA, in this case, refers to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which regulates employer-provided health insurance. ERISA states that its provisions “shall supersede any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.”

But as that language indicates, ERISA applies only to the regulation of employee benefit plans—i.e., the employer as an insurer. It does not apply to the regulation of providers—i.e., hospitals, doctors, etc. As a Brookings Institution analyst admitted, states can, for instance, require hospitals to issue an in-network guarantee, ensuring that all doctors at an in-network hospital are considered in-network.

For most of the past year, interest groups have lobbied Congress on “surprise” billing. As one might expect, everyone wants a solution that takes patients out of the line of fire in negotiations between doctors, hospitals, and insurers, but no one wants to take a financial haircut in any solution that emerges.

The lack of agreement on a path forward indicates that Congress should take a back seat to the states, and let them innovate solutions to the issue. Indeed, several states have already enacted legislation on out-of-network bills, suggesting that Congress might do more harm than good by weighing in with its own “solution.”

3. Some Republicans Support Socialistic Price Controls

Both the comparatively isolated nature of the problem and the lack of a clear need for federal involvement suggest that some on the left continue to raise the “surprise” billing issue as part of a larger campaign. By establishing that the federal government should regulate the prices of health-care services—even those in private insurance plans—liberals can lay down a predicate for a single-payer health-care system that would do the exact same thing, just on a larger scale.

Sure enough, congressional Republicans, like Oregon Rep. Greg Walden and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, have endorsed legislation establishing a statutory cap on prices for out-of-network emergency services. (Remember: In policy-making, bipartisanship only occurs when conservatives agree to liberal policies.)

Both the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee have introduced proposals that would engage in such federal price-fixing, although lawmakers recently modified the House bill to allow for binding arbitration between doctors and hospitals where the disputed sums exceed certain thresholds. Alexander wants to move his legislation on the Senate floor within weeks.

Last month, Alexander said he “instinctively” liked the in-network guarantee approach—which requires hospitals to have their physicians in-network, while letting insurers, hospitals, and doctors negotiate those in-network prices without setting them through government fiat. However, he told reporters that he ultimately endorsed the price-fixing approach because the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) called it “the most effective at lowering health care costs.”

The retort to Alexander’s comment seems obvious: Of course, price-fixing will lower health care costs. Indeed, CBO said the price-fixing provision would save by far the greatest amount of money of any section of the nearly 250-page bill, because it “lower[s] payment rates” to physicians.

If Alexander suddenly wants to use price controls to lower health care costs, then why not regulate the prices of all health care services ($129.95 for surgery, anyone?)—or move to full-on single-payer? Because the quality of care will suffer too—as will American patients.

A Spoonful of Socialism, Anyone?

I noted above that the hospital industry caused the “surprise” billing problem in the first place. I have little love for hospital executives, many of whom behave like greedy monopolists, and who represent the single biggest argument for single-payer health care I can think of.

Yet however much hospital executives may have earned opprobrium by their conduct, the American people don’t deserve a single-payer system, with its massive economic disruption and its inferior care, foisted on them. They deserve better than federally imposed price controls as a “solution”—whether as the mere “spoonful of socialism” in the “surprise” billing legislation, or an all-out move to single-payer.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Republicans’ SCHIP Surrender

In spring 2015, Senate Republican leaders pressured their members to accept a clean, two-year reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) added as part of a larger health spending measure.

The SCHIP reauthorization added to a larger Medicare bill included none of the reforms Republicans had proposed that year, many of which attempted to turn the program’s focus back toward covering low-income families first, as the George W. Bush administration had done. But Republican leaders said that the two-year extension, rather than the four-year extension Democrats supported, would allow conservatives to fight harder for reforms in 2017.

The press has focused on the disputes over paying for the SCHIP program, which have held up final enactment of a long-term reauthorization. (The House passed its version of the bill in November; the Senate, failing to find agreement on pay-fors, has not considered the bill on the floor.) But the focus on pay-fors has ignored Republicans’ abject surrender on the policy behind the program, because the media defines “bipartisanship” as conservatives agreeing to do liberal things. That occurred in abundance on this particular bill.

So Much for Our Promises, Voters

On the underlying policy, all the groups who pledged to fight for conservative reforms vacated the field. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who brags about how he created the program as part of the Balanced Budget Act in 1997, cut a deal with Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) that, as detailed below, includes virtually no conservative reforms to the program—raising questions about whether Hatch was so desperate for a deal to preserve his legacy that he failed to fight for conservative reforms.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) did not repudiate the agreement Hatch and Wyden struck, even though that agreement maintained virtually the provisions of the 2009 SCHIP reauthorization that Ryan himself, then the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, called “an entitlement train wreck.”

Republicans have thus suffered the worst of both worlds: getting blamed for inaction on a program’s reauthorization, while already having conceded virtually every element of that program, save for its funding.

Details About the SCHIP Proposals

A detailed examination of the Hatch-Wyden agreement (original version here, and slightly revised version in Sections 301-304 of the House-passed bill here) demonstrates how it extends provisions of the 2009 reauthorization passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Obama—which Republicans in large part opposed. Moreover, the Hatch-Wyden agreement and House-passed bill includes none of the reforms the House Energy and Commerce Committee proposed, but were not enacted into law, in 2015.

The only “reform” in the pending reauthorization consists of phasing out an enhanced match for states included in Section 2101(a) of Obamacare—one already scheduled to expire. Even though the enhanced match will end on its own in October 2019, the Hatch-Wyden agreement and the House-passed bill would extend that enhanced match by one year further, albeit at a reduced level, before phasing it out entirely.

Child Enrollment Contingency Fund: Created in Section 103 of the 2009 reauthorization. As I noted then, “Some Members may be concerned that the fund—which does not include provisions making additional payments contingent on enrolling the low-income children­ for which the program was designed—will therefore help to subsidize wealthier children in states which have expanded their programs to higher-income populations, diverting SCHIP funds from the program’s original purpose” (emphasis original). Section 301(c) of the House-passed bill would extend this fund, without any reforms.

Express Lane Eligibility: Created in Section 203 of the 2009 reauthorization, as a way of using eligibility determinations from other agencies and programs to facilitate enrollment in SCHIP. As I noted then, “Some Members may be concerned first that the streamlined verification processes outlined above will facilitate individuals who would not otherwise qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP, due either to their income or citizenship, to obtain federally-paid health benefits.” Section 301(e) of the House-passed bill would extend this option, without any reforms.

Citizenship Verification: Section 211 of the 2009 reauthorization created a new process for verifying citizenship, but not identity, to circumvent strict verification requirements included in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. As I wrote in 2009:

Some Members may echo the concerns of Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, who in a September 2007 letter stated that the verification process proposed in the bill would not keep ineligible individuals from receiving federal benefits—since many applicants would instead submit another person’s name and Social Security number to qualify. Some Members may believe the bill, by laying out a policy of ‘enroll and chase,’ will permit ineligible individuals, including illegal aliens, to obtain federally-paid health coverage for at least four months during the course of the verification process. Finally, some Members may be concerned that the bill, by not taking remedial action against states for enrolling illegal aliens—which can be waived entirely at the Secretary’s discretion—until states’ error rate exceeds 3%, effectively allows states to provide benefits to illegal aliens.

Legal Aliens: Section 214 of the 2009 reauthorization allowed states to cover legal aliens in their SCHIP programs without subjecting them to the five-year waiting period required for means-tested benefits under the 1996 welfare reform law.

As I wrote in 2009, “Some Members may be concerned that permitting states to cover legal aliens without imposing waiting periods will override the language of bipartisan welfare reform legislation passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democrat President, conflict with decades-long practices in other federally-sponsored entitlement health programs (i.e., Medicare), and encourage migrants to travel to the United States for the sole or primary purpose of receiving health benefits paid for by federal taxpayers.” The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this option.

Premium Assistance: Section 301 of the 2009 reauthorization created new options regarding premium assistance—allowing states to subsidize employer-sponsored coverage, rather than enrolling individuals in government-run plans. While that reauthorization contained some language designed to make premium assistance programs more flexible for states, it also expressly prohibited states from subsidizing health savings account (HSA) coverage through premium assistance. The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this prohibition on states subsidizing HSA coverage.

Health Opportunity Accounts: Section 613 of the 2009 reauthorization prohibited the Department of Health and Human Services from approving any new demonstration programs regarding Health Opportunity Accounts, a new consumer-oriented option for low-income beneficiaries created in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. The House-passed bill includes no provisions modifying or repealing this prohibition on states offering more consumer-oriented options.

Covering Poor Kids First: The 2015 proposed reauthorization looked to restore SCHIP’s focus on covering low-income children first, by 1) eliminating the enhanced federal match rate for states choosing to cover children in families between 250-300 percent of the federal poverty level ($61,500-$73,800 for a family of four in 2017) and 2) eliminating the federal match entirely for states choosing to cover children in families above 300 percent of poverty. These provisions were consistent with the policy of the George W. Bush administration, which in 2007 issued guidance seeking to ensure that states covered low-income families first before expanding their SCHIP programs further up the income ladder. The House-passed bill includes no such provision.

Maintenance of Effort: Section 2001(b) of Obamacare included a requirement that states could not alter eligibility standards for children enrolled in SCHIP through October 1, 2019, limiting their ability to manage their state programs. Whereas the 2015 proposed reauthorization would have repealed this requirement, effective October 1, 2015, Section 301(f) of the House-passed bill would extend this requirement, through October 1, 2022. (However, under the House-passed bill, states could alter eligibility for children in families with incomes over 300 percent of poverty, beginning in October 2019.)

Crowd-Out: The 2015 proposed reauthorization allowed states to impose a waiting period of up to 12 months for individuals who declined an offer of, or disenrolled from, employer-based coverage—a provision designed to keep families from dropping private insurance to enroll in a government program. The House-passed bill contains no such provision.

Program Name: The 2009 reauthorization sought to remove the “state” element of the “State Children’s Health Insurance Program,” renaming the program as the “Children’s Health Insurance Program.” While the 2015 proposed reauthorization looked to restore the “state” element to “SCHIP,” the House-passed bill includes no such provision.

Cave, Not a Compromise

For all the focus on paying for SCHIP, the underlying policy represents a near-total cave by Republicans, who failed to obtain any meaningful reforms to the program. Granted, Democrats likely would not agree to all the changes detailed above. But the idea that a “bipartisan” bill should include exactly none of them also seems absurd—unless Republicans threw in the towel and failed to fight for any changes.

The press spent much of 2017 focused on Republican efforts to unwind Obamacare. But the SCHIP bill represents just as consequential a story. The cave on SCHIP demonstrates how many Republicans, after spending the last eight years objecting to the Obama agenda, suddenly have little interest in rolling it back.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What’s Congress Doing with SCHIP?

Amidst the wrangling over Obamacare, reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) expired on September 30, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. The two committees of jurisdiction—energy and commerce in the House, and finance in the Senate—each marked up their reauthorization bills last week. But House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) said Monday the bill would not come to the House floor this week.

What’s the holdup? Why the delays in bringing to the floor for votes a bill whose authorization has already expired?

A Mixed House Package

The SCHIP reauthorization text varies little between the House and the Senate versions. On that front, conservatives may have qualms with supporting little more than a straight extension of the status quo. The bill extends—albeit for only one year, as part of a more gradual phase-out—enhanced funding to state SCHIP programs. The full 23 percent match increase would end in 2019, as under current law, while states would receive an additional 11.5 percent increase in 2020. Some states have received a 100 percent federal match for their child enrollees due to this Obamacare provision, which is a clear disincentive for states to fight fraud and improper spending.

Moreover, the bill extends Obamacare’s maintenance of effort requirement—limiting states from making changes to their programs—by an additional three years in most cases, from 2019 to 2022. The bill also does not include reforms the House proposed two years ago, which would require states to focus on covering poor children first—the program’s prime emphasis before the 2009 reauthorization signed by President Obama envisioned states expanding their programs to more affluent families.

On the positive side, however, the House did include good reforms to help pay for the new SCHIP spending. It includes several provisions designed to promote program integrity in Medicaid, including one that would effectively ensure that lottery winners, or others who receive large lump-sum payments, do not maintain coverage for this low-income program. The House bill would also increase Medicare means-testing for affluent families, reducing taxpayer subsidies for Part B (outpatient care) and Part D (prescription drug) coverage for individuals making over $160,000, and eliminating the subsidies entirely for individuals making more than $500,000.

In the Senate, a Stalemate

Meanwhile, over in the Senate—which has yet to decide how to pay for the new SCHIP spending—Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) demanded last week that the Republican majority “immediately bring this bill to the Senate floor for a vote and include much-needed bipartisan provisions to stabilize the markets, lower premiums for 2018,” and extend other programs.

Schumer made those demands despite two inconvenient truths: Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) haven’t yet reached agreement on a bipartisan “stabilization” bill—and most states finalized their 2018 insurance premiums on September 27, weeks ago. In other words, Schumer wants to enact an agreement that doesn’t exist to achieve premium reductions that can’t happen.

A cynic might surmise that, with his talk of “stabilization” measures, Schumer wants to use SCHIP to sneak through tens of billions of dollars in cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers—a provision that might prove unpopular, and controversial, as a stand-alone measure, but could pass through relatively unnoticed as part of a larger, “Christmas tree”-sized bill.

While the policy outcomes seem uncertain, and could range from fair to poor, the political ramifications seem clear. In 2007 and 2008, when President George W. Bush vetoed SCHIP bills due to provisions that would have diverted the program from the low-income children for which it was designed, Democrats organized protests, and ran ads against him. This year, when Democrats are holding up an arguably too-generous SCHIP bill literally because they want to defend the wealthy and insurance companies, Republicans have responded by…negotiating with them.

If one wants reasons behind conservative discontent with Washington, look no further than this bill.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.