Did Obamacare Increase the National Death Rate?

Researchers have raised legitimate questions about whether a policy change included in Obamacare actually increased death levels nationwide.

Some may recall that two years ago, liberals engaged in no small amount of hyperbolic rhetoric insisting that repealing Obamacare would kill Americans. They viewed that fact as a virtual certainty, and spent more time arguing over precisely how many individuals would die under the law’s repeal.

About the Readmissions Program

The Obamacare change sparking the policy debate involves the law’s hospital readmissions program. Section 3025(a) of the law required the Department of Health and Human Services to reduce Medicare payments to hospitals with higher-than-average readmission rates. The program began in October 2012, and since October 2014 has reduced payments by 3 percent to hospitals with high readmission rates for three conditions: heart failure, heart attacks, and pneumonia.

The program intended to make hospitals more efficient, and encourage them to treat patients correctly the first time, rather than profiting on poor care by receiving additional payments for “repeat” visitors. However, several data points have called into question the effectiveness of the policy.

First, a recent article in the journal Health Affairs concluded that data proving the readmissions program’s effectiveness “appear to be illusory or overstated.” The study noted that, right before the readmissions program took effect, hospitals could increase the number of diagnoses in claims submitted to Medicare. After controlling for this difference, the Harvard researchers concluded that at least half of the “reduction” in readmissions came due to this change.

By contrast, a December study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found an even darker outcome. The JAMA study, which examined a total of 8.3 million hospitalizations both before and after the readmissions penalties took effect, found that the program “was significantly associated with an increase in 30-day postdischarge mortality after hospitalization for [heart failure] and pneumonia, but not for” heart attacks. This study suggests that, rather than incurring penalties for “excess” readmissions, hospitals instead chose to stop readmitting patients at all—and more patients died as a result.

Is This ‘Alarmist’ Rhetoric?

In a blog post analyzing the debate at the New England Journal of Medicine, former Obama administration budget director Peter Orszag pointed out the two studies arrive at conclusions that are likely mutually contradictory. After all, if the readmissions policy didn’t affect patient outcomes, as the Health Affairs analysis suggests, then it’s hard simultaneously to argue that it also increased patient mortality, as the JAMA paper concludes.

But Orszag also criticizes The New York Times for an “unduly alarmist” op-ed summarizing the JAMA researchers’ results. That article, titled “Did This Health Care Policy Do Harm?” included a subheading noting that “a well-intentioned program created by the Affordable Care Act may have led to patient deaths.”

  • Washington Post: “Repealing the Affordable Care Act Will Kill More than 43,000 People Annually”
  • Chicago Tribune: “Repealing Obamacare Will Kill More than 43,000 People a Year”
  • Vox: “Repealing Obamacare Could Kill More People Each Year than Gun Homicides”

These headlines don’t even take into consideration the comments from people like former Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), who said, “If you get rid of Obamacare, people are going to die.” Then there were the “analyses” by organizations like the Center for American Progress, helpfully parroted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), that said “getting rid of Obamacare is a death sentence.”

Alongside this rhetoric, the supposedly “alarmist” Times article seems tame by comparison. It didn’t use the word “Obamacare” at all, and it couched its conclusions as part of a “complex” and ongoing “debate.” But of course, the contrast between the mild rhetoric regarding hospital readmissions and the sky-is-falling tone surrounding Obamacare repeal has absolutely nothing to do with liberal media bias or anything. Right?

Democrats, the Science Deniers

The Times article concludes by “highlight[ing] a bigger issue: Why are policies that profoundly influence patient care not rigorously studied before widespread rollout?” It’s a good question that Democrats have few answers for.

Liberals like to caricature conservatives as “science deniers,” uninformed troglodytes who can barely stand upright, let alone form coherent policies. But the recent studies regarding Obamacare’s hospital readmissions policy shows that the Obama administration officials who created these policies didn’t have any clue what they were doing—or certainly didn’t know enough to implement a nationwide plan that they knew would work.

Given this implementation failure, and the staggering level of willful ignorance by the technocrats who would micro-manage our health care system, why on earth should we give them even more power, whether through a single-payer system or something very close to it? The very question answers itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Reforming Medicaid to Serve Wyoming Better

A PDF of this document is available on the Wyoming Liberty Group website.

In the past several years, Wyoming has accomplished several key changes to its Medicaid program. A series of reforms regarding long-term care, and other methods to improve care delivery and coordination, have stabilized the overall spending on Medicaid—and reduced expenditures on a per-beneficiary basis.

However, the commitment by both the new Administration and Congressional leaders to examine Medicaid reform closely presents Wyoming with the possibility to accelerate its current reform efforts. Seema Verma, the new head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and a former Medicaid consultant, has publicly committed to provide states with greater flexibility and freedom to innovate.[1] Likewise, legislation advancing fundamental Medicaid reform has begun to advance in Congress.

Whether through a block grant, per capita allotments, or enhanced waiver authority from the federal government, states like Wyoming can and should receive greater freedom to manage their programs, in exchange for a series of fixed federal payments. Upon receiving this flexibility, Wyoming can put into place additional reforms that will improve care for beneficiaries, encourage transitions to employment and employer-based health coverage where appropriate, reduce health costs, and save taxpayer funds. These reforms would modernize Medicaid to incorporate the best of 21st century medicine, help Baby Boomers as that generation ages into retirement, and alleviate the fiscal challenges Wyoming faces in managing its Medicaid program.

 

The Problem

Enacted into law in 1965, the Medicaid program as originally designed provided federal matching funds to states to cover discrete populations, including the blind, needy seniors, and individuals with disabilities. Over time, expansions of the program to new populations, and changes in the delivery of health care, have made the Medicaid program large, costly, and unwieldy for states to manage. A significant body of evidence demonstrates that, after more than a half-century, Medicaid is long overdue for a modernization.

Cost:    According to government-provided data, Medicaid now approaches Medicare for the title of largest taxpayer-funded health care program. According to non-partisan government actuaries, state and federal taxpayers combined will spend an estimated $595.5 billion on Medicaid in the current fiscal year—$368.9 billion by the federal government, and $226.6billion by states.[2] By comparison, the Congressional Budget Office projects that this fiscal year, Medicare will spend a net of $598 billion, excluding premium payments by enrollees.[3] Even as the Baby Boomers retire in the coming decade, Medicaid will stay on pace with Medicare when it comes to total expenditures—Medicaid spending will total an estimated $57.5 billion in fiscal year 2025, compared to an estimated $1.005 trillion in net Medicare spending the same fiscal year.[4]

On the state level, rising spending on Medicaid has crowded out other key state priorities like education, transportation, and law enforcement. While states often cut back on those other programs during recessions, Medicaid spending continues to grow in both good economic times and bad. For instance, for fiscal year 2017, states adopted a total of $7.7 billion in spending increases on Medicaid when compared to fiscal 2016—less than the growth of K-12 education spending ($8.9 billion increase), but more than spending on higher education or corrections (both $1.1 billion increases).[5] But in fiscal year 2012—as states recovered from the last recession—states sharply cut K-12 education ($2.5 billion decrease) and higher education ($5 billion decrease) to finance a massive increase in Medicaid spending ($15 billion increase).[6]

With program spending growing at a near-constant pace, Medicaid has grown substantially over the past several decades to become the largest line-item in most state budgets. In fiscal year 2016, Medicaid consumed an average of 29.0 percent of state spending from all fund sources, and 20.3 percent of general fund expenditures.[7] By comparison, in fiscal year 1996, Medicaid consumed 20.3 percent of state spending, and 14.8 percent of general fund spending—and in fiscal year 1987, Medicaid consumed only 10.2 percent of state spending, and 8.1 percent of general fund spending.[8] With program spending nearly tripling as a size of their overall budgets from 1987 through 2016, Medicaid growth has limited states’ ability to provide for other critical state priorities—or return some of taxpayers’ hard-earned cash back into their pockets.

Quality:            Unfortunately, many Medicaid programs suffer from poor access to physicians, high rates of emergency room usage, and poor quality outcomes. A New England Journal of Medicine survey using “secret shopper” methods found that two-thirds of Medicaid children were denied appointments with specialty physicians, compared to only 11% of patients with private insurance coverage. Moreover, those Medicaid patients that did receive appointments had to wait an average of more than three weeks longer than privately insured children.[9] Perhaps unsurprisingly, beneficiaries themselves think much less of Medicaid coverage due to their lack of access:

You feel so helpless thinking, something’s wrong with this child and I can’t even get her into a doctor….When we had real insurance, we could call and come in at the drop of a hat.[10]

Even supporters of Medicaid call an enrollment card nothing more than a “hunting license”—a card that grants beneficiaries the ability to go try to find a physician that will actually treat them.[11]

Because of the difficulties beneficiaries face in obtaining timely access to physicians, Medicaid patients often end up with worse outcomes than the general population as a whole. The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment—which compared outcomes for identically situated groups of uninsured individuals, some of whom enrolled in Medicaid and some of whom did not—concluded that patients who enrolled in Medicaid received no measurable improvements in their physical health than those that remained uninsured.[12] Moreover, the newly enrolled Medicaid patients increased their emergency room usage by 40 percent when compared to those who did not obtain coverage—and those disparities persisted over time.[13] Such results tend to bolster previous findings that patients with Medicaid coverage may end up with worse outcomes than uninsured patients.[14]

Impact in Wyoming:  A January 2015 brief by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and a 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Medicaid variations by state, provide helpful metrics comparing Wyoming’s Medicaid program to its peers. The Kaiser brief analyzed per-beneficiary spending in Medicaid for “full-benefit” patients—that is, excluding any partial benefit enrollees.[15] As the table below shows, as of 2011, Wyoming’s spending on aged beneficiaries led the nation—nearly double the national average—and its spending on individuals with disabilities ranked high as well.

Moreover, per-beneficiary spending in Wyoming grew at a rapid, above-average pace for the aged and disabled populations. During the years 2000 to 2011, costs per beneficiary nationally grew by an average of 3.7% for aged beneficiaries and 4.5% for individuals with disabilities. By comparison, in Wyoming spending rose an average of 6.8%—again, nearly twice the national average—for aged beneficiaries, and an above-average 5.45% for individuals with disabilities during the same 2000-2011 period.[16]

 

 

Aged

Individuals with Disabilities  

Adults

 

Children

United States $17,522 $18,518 $4,141 $2,492
Wyoming $32,199 $25,346 $3,986 $1,967
Difference $14,677 $6,828 -$155 -$525
Wyoming Rank Highest 7th Highest 31st Highest 46th Highest

The 2014 GAO report provides additional context as to why Wyoming has relatively high levels of spending on aged and disabled populations.[17] Whereas the Kaiser report studied spending for the years 2000 through 2011, GAO analyzed spending for federal fiscal year 2008 only. However, like Kaiser, GAO also found that Wyoming’s per-enrollee spending on aged ($21,662) and disabled ($24,644) beneficiaries significantly exceeded national averages ($17,609 and $19,135, respectively).[18]

In addition to analyzing per-beneficiary spending by state, the GAO study also examined factors known to influence spending—and on these, Wyoming and its rural neighbors also ranked high. Wyoming ranked more than ten percentage points above the national average for the percentage of aged beneficiaries receiving long-term care services (48.7% in Wyoming vs. 37.7% nationally), and for the percentage of aged Medicaid enrollees ever institutionalized during the year (35.7% in Wyoming vs. 24.5% nationally).[19] Crucially, most of Wyoming’s neighbors—North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Colorado—also have percentages of aged seniors receiving long-term care services, and receiving institutional care, well above national averages, and in some cases higher than Wyoming. These data suggest that the difficulties of life in rural and frontier communities may result in above-average rates of institutionalization, as aged or disabled individuals cannot live far from care support structures.

The prior reports indicating high levels of spending on Wyoming’s Medicaid program do not consider the significant reforms the state has implemented to date. Efforts to increase the percentage of beneficiaries receiving home and community-based services, rather than institutional care, have driven the percentage of members receiving long-term care in the home above 50%.[20] As a result, spending on Medicaid has remained relatively flat from fiscal years 2010 through 2015. Per enrollee costs have actually declined over that period, particularly for the aged population.[21]

However, the Kaiser and GAO studies illustrate the challenges and the opportunities the Medicaid program faces in Wyoming. Despite the reforms put in place to date, spending on the aged and disabled population remains at comparatively high levels. While spending on aged beneficiaries has declined from $32,199 per enrollee in 2011 to $26,222 in fiscal 2015, even that lower level remains higher than the national per-beneficiary average in 2011 ($17,522).

But if Wyoming can build upon its existing Medicaid reforms to improve care for the aged and vulnerable population—coordinating care better, and ensuring that individuals who can be treated at home are not inappropriately diverted into institutional settings—then beneficiaries will benefit, as will taxpayers. If Medicaid enrollees receive better care, their lives will improve in both measurable and immeasurable ways. Likewise, simply bringing spending on aged and disabled beneficiaries down to national averages will drive millions of dollars in savings to the Medicaid program.

 

The Vision

Ultimately, the Medicaid program would work best if transformed into a block grant or per capita allotment to states. Under either of these proposals, states would receive additional flexibility from the federal government to manage their health care programs, in exchange for a series of fixed payments from Washington. The American Health Care Act, passed by the House of Representatives on May 4, contains both options, creating a new system of per capita spending caps for Medicaid, while allowing states to choose a block grant for some of their Medicaid populations.[22]

While fundamental changes to Medicaid’s funding formulae must pass through Congress, the incoming Administration can work from its first days to give states more freedom and flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs. Specifically, Section 1115 of the Social Security Act gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services the power to waive certain requirements under Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for “any experimental, pilot, or demonstration project which, in the judgment of the Secretary, is likely to assist in promoting the objectives” of the programs.[23]

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration often refused or watered down Section 1115 waiver requests from Republican governors. For instance, the last Administration repeatedly refused requests from governors to impose work requirements for able-bodied adults as a condition of participation in the Medicaid program.[24] Ironically, Obamacare actually made the process of obtaining waivers more difficult; one section of the law imposed new requirements, including a series of hearings, that states must undertake when applying for a waiver.[25] In the years since, federal legislative changes have sought to streamline the process for states requesting extensions of waivers already granted.[26]

In the hands of the right Administration, waiver authority could provide states with a significant amount of flexibility to reform their Medicaid programs. Among the finest examples of such reform is the Rhode Island Global Compact Waiver, approved in the waning days of the George W. Bush Administration on January 16, 2009. The waiver combined and consolidated myriad Medicaid waivers into one comprehensive waiver, with a capped allotment on overall spending. Rather than considering the silos of various program requirements, or specific waivers on discrete issues, Rhode Island was able to examine Medicaid reform holistically—focusing on the big picture, rather than specific bureaucratic dictates from Washington.[27]

Given flexibility from Washington, Rhode Island succeeded in controlling Medicaid expenditures—indeed, in reducing them on a per beneficiary basis. Overall spending remained roughly constant from 2010 through 2013, while enrollment grew by 6.6%.[28] Per beneficiary costs declined by 5.2% over that four-year period—a decline in absolute terms, even before factoring in inflation.[29] Perhaps most importantly, an independent report from the Lewin Group found that the Global Compact was “highly effective in controlling Medicaid costs,” while “improving members’ access to more appropriate services.”[30] In other words, Rhode Island reduced its Medicaid costs not by providing less care to beneficiaries—but providing more, and more appropriate, care to them.

The Rhode Island example has particular applicability to Wyoming’s Medicaid program. Just as Wyoming spends above national averages on Medicaid care for the aged and individuals with disabilities, so too did Rhode Island have a highly institutionalized population prior to implementing its Global Compact. Moreover, Wyoming’s current system of discrete waivers—two (including one pending with CMS) under Section 1115, and seven separate long-term care waivers under Section 1915 of the Social Security Act—lends itself towards potential care silos and unnecessary duplication. Consolidating these myriad waivers into one global waiver would allow Wyoming to “see the forest for the trees”—focusing on overall changes that will improve the quality of care. Implementing a global waiver will also give Wyoming the flexibility to accelerate reforms regarding delivery of long-term supports and services to the aged and disabled population, while introducing new consumer-oriented options for non-disabled beneficiaries.

 

Specific Solutions

A block grant, per capita allotment, or waiver along the lines of Rhode Island’s Global Compact provides the vision that will give states the tools needed to reform Medicaid for the 21st century. Fortunately, states have experimented with several specific reforms that can provide more granular details regarding how a reformed Medicaid program might look. Proposals in documents such as House Republicans’ “Better Way” plan, released last year, and a report issued by Republican governors in 2011, provide good sources of ideas.[31] Both individually and collectively, these solutions can 1) improve the quality of care beneficiaries receive; 2) better engage beneficiaries with the health care system, and where appropriate, provide a transition to employment and employer-sponsored coverage; 3) reduce health costs overall; and 4) provide sound stewardship of the taxpayer dollars funding the Medicaid program.

 

Delivery System Reform

With a Medicaid program based around fee-for-service medicine—which pays doctors and hospitals for every service they perform—Wyoming in particular would benefit from reforms that encourage greater value and coordination in health care delivery. As explained above, the state’s above-average spending on aged and disabled beneficiaries speaks to the way in which uncoordinated care can result in health problems for patients—and ultimately, greater expenses for taxpayers.

Promote Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS):         The Lewin Group’s analysis of Rhode Island’s Global Compact Waiver delineated many of the ways in which that state reformed its Medicaid program to de-institutionalize aged and disabled beneficiaries. Between the January 2009 approval of the waiver and the December 2011 report, Rhode Island achieved impressive savings from providing more coordinated, and “right-sized,” care to patients:

  • Shifting nursing home services into the community saved $35.7 million during the period examined by the study;
  • More accurate rate setting in nursing homes saved an additional $15 million in 2010 alone;
  • Better care management for adults with disabilities and special needs children saved between $4.5 and $11.9 million; and
  • Enrollment in managed care significantly increased the access of adults with disabilities to physician services.[32]

The results from the Rhode Island waiver demonstrate the possible savings to Wyoming associated with reform of long-term services and supports (LTSS)—savings that the Lewin report confirms came not from denying care to beneficiaries, but by improving it.

Other states have also taken actions to promote HCBS. Testifying before the Congressionally-chartered Commission on Long-Term Care in 2013, Tennessee’s head of Long-Term Supports and Services proposed several solutions, focused largely on turning the bias in favor of nursing home care toward a bias in favor of HCBS—to use nursing homes as a last resort, rather than a first resort.[33] Her proposals included a possible limit on nursing home capacity; converting nursing home “slots” into HCBS care “slots;” and requiring patients to try HCBS as the default option before moving to a more intense (i.e., institutional) setting.[34] Integrating these proposals into a comprehensive waiver would not only provide Wyoming residents with more appropriate care, it could also save taxpayers money.

Managed Care:            Wyoming could benefit by exploring the use of managed care plans to deliver Medicaid services to beneficiaries. Providing plans with a capitated payment—that is, a flat payment per beneficiary per month—would give them an incentive to streamline care. Moreover, a transition to managed care would provide more fiscal certainty to the state, as payment levels would not change during a fiscal or contract year.

In June 2014, a report commissioned by the Wyoming Legislature and prepared for the Wyoming Department of Health recommended against pursuing full-risk managed care, despite an admitted high level of vendor interest in doing so.[35] Three years later, Wyoming should explore the issue again, as both the Department of Health and medical providers in Wyoming have additional experience implementing other forms of coordinated care. The 2014 report notes that managed care plans have numerous tools available that could help reduce costs, particularly for high-cost patients, including data analytics, case managers, and quality metric incentives. Given the unique capacities that managed care plans bring to the table, it is worth exploring again the issue of whether full-risk plans could improve care to Wyoming beneficiaries while providing fiscal stability to the state.

While managed care could provide significant benefits to Wyoming, the state may be hamstrung by Medicaid’s current requirement that beneficiaries have the choice of at least two managed care plans. Given that Wyoming has only one insurer participating on its insurance Exchange this year, and a heavily rural population, this requirement may not be realistic or feasible. If approved by CMS, a waiver application could enable only one managed care plan to deliver care to rural Wyomingites.

Provider-Led Groups:              In addition to managed care products organized and sold by insurance companies, Wyoming could also explore the possibility of creating groups led by teams of providers to manage care delivery. Similar to the accountable care organization (ACO) model promoted through the Medicare program, these provider-led groups could provide coordinated care to patients, either on a fully- or partially-capitated payment model.

In recent years, at least 18 state Medicaid programs have either adopted or studied the creation of various provider-led organizations.[36] Adopters include neighboring states like Utah and Colorado, as well as southern states like Louisiana and Alabama. Whether a hospital-led ACO, or a group of doctors providing direct primary care to patients, these provider-led organizations would have greater incentives to coordinate care for patients, hopefully resulting in better health outcomes, and reduced spending for the Medicaid program.

Payment Bundling:     One other option for reforming delivery systems lies in bundled payments, which would see Medicaid providing a lump-sum payment for all the costs of a procedure (e.g., a hip replacement and associated post-operative therapy). Such concepts date back more than a quarter-century; a Medicare demonstration that began in the summer of 1991 reduced spending on heart bypass patients by $42.3 million—a savings of nearly 10 percent.[37] More recently, Pennsylvania’s Geisinger Health System helped bring the payment bundle model into the national lexicon, implementing a 90-day “warranty” on heart bypass patients beginning in February 2006.[38]

In recent years, government payers have increasingly adopted the payment bundle as a means to improve care quality and limit spending increases. Beginning in 2011, Arkansas’ Medicaid program worked with its local Blue Cross affiliate to improve health care delivery through payment improvement, and has implemented an episode-of-care payment model (i.e., a payment bundle) as one of its efforts.[39] Likewise, Medicare has moved ahead with efforts to embrace bundled payments—offering providers the option of a retrospective or prospective lump-sum payment for an inpatient stay, post-acute care provided after the stay, or both.[40]

A reformed Medicaid program in Wyoming could offer providers the opportunity to utilize bundled payment models as one vehicle to deliver better care. Ideally, Medicaid need not mandate participation from providers, as Medicare has done for some payment bundles, but instead help to encourage broader trends in the industry.[41] While not as dramatic a change as a move toward managed care, the bundled payment option may appeal to some providers as a “middle ground” for those not yet ready to embrace a fully capitated payment model.

De-Identified Patient Data:   In a bid to harness the power of “big data,” the federal government has made de-identified Medicare patient claims information available to companies that can analyze the information for patterns of care usage. Those initiatives have recently expanded to Medicaid, with one start-up compiling a database of 74 million Medicaid patients.[42] Wyoming could ask outside vendors or consultants to analyze its claims data for relevant patterns and trends—yielding valuable insights into the delivery of care, and potentially improving outcomes for beneficiaries. By releasing its own Medicaid data and encouraging companies to analyze it, Wyoming will encourage the development of Wyoming-specific solutions to the state’s unique health care needs.

 

Consumer-Directed Options

As part of a move towards modernizing Medicaid, Wyoming should adopt several different consumer-directed elements for its health coverage. These provisions would give beneficiaries incentives to act as smart shoppers, using ideas proven to lower the growth of health care costs. Providing appropriate incentives to beneficiaries will also make Medicaid coverage more closely resemble private health insurance plans—providing an easy transition for beneficiaries who move into employer-based coverage as their income rises.

Health Opportunity Accounts:            In 2005, provisions in the Deficit Reduction Act created Health Opportunity Accounts.[43] The language in the statute called for several demonstration projects by states, who could offer non-elderly and non-disabled beneficiaries the choice to enroll in Health Opportunity Accounts on a voluntary basis. The Opportunity Accounts would be used to pay for medical expenses up to a deductible, at which point traditional insurance coverage would take over. While the Opportunity Accounts under the demonstration would function in many respects like a Health Savings Account (HSA)—the state and/or charities would fund the accounts, and beneficiaries could build up savings within them—they included a twist. Upon becoming ineligible for Medicaid, beneficiaries could access most of their remaining Opportunity Account balance for a period of up to three years, to purchase either health insurance coverage or “job training and tuition expenses.”[44]

By creating an HSA-like account mechanism, and giving beneficiaries the flexibility to use their Opportunity Account funds on job training or health insurance expenses upon becoming ineligible for Medicaid, the Opportunity Account demonstration promoted both smart health care shopping and employment opportunities for Medicaid beneficiaries. Unfortunately, in 2009 a Democratic Congress and President Obama passed legislation prohibiting the approval of any new Health Opportunity Account demonstrations— effectively killing this innovative program before it had a chance to take root.[45]

Thankfully, some states have continued to incorporate HSA-like incentives into their Medicaid programs. In the non-Medicaid space, HSAs and consumer-directed options have demonstrated their ability to reduce health care costs. A 2012 study in the prestigious journal Health Affairs found that broader adoption of the HSA model could reduce health care costs by more than $57 billion annually.[46] If extended into the Medicaid realm, slower growth of health costs would save taxpayers—in Wyoming and elsewhere.

The upcoming reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)—currently due to expire on September 30, 2017—gives Congress an opportunity to re-examine Health Opportunity Accounts. Regardless of whether lawmakers in Washington reinstate this particular model, however, account-based health coverage in Medicaid deserves a close look in Wyoming as part of a comprehensive reform waiver. Although the Opportunity Account mechanism was somewhat prescriptive in its approach, allowing beneficiaries to keep some portion of remaining account balances upon becoming ineligible for Medicaid represents an innovative and sound concept. Such a program could represent a true win-win: Both the state and beneficiaries receive a portion of the benefits from lower health spending—cash which the beneficiary can use to help adjust to life after Medicaid.

Right to Shop:              Thanks to several states’ reform of transparency laws, patients can now engage in a “right to shop” in many locations across the country.[47] The movement centers around the basic principle that consumers should share in the benefits of savings from choosing less expensive locations for medical and health procedures. Particularly for non-urgent care—for instance, medical tests or radiological procedures—variations among medical facilities provide patients with the opportunity to achieve significant savings by choosing a less costly provider.

Results from large employers illustrate how price transparency and competition have yielded savings for payers and consumers alike. A California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) program of reference pricing—in which CalPERS set a maximum price of $30,000 for hip and knee replacements—led to savings of $2.8 million ($7,000 per patient) to CalPERS, and $300,000 (nearly $700 per patient) in lower cost-sharing, in its first year alone. The program led hospitals to renegotiate their rates with CalPERS, which expanded its reference pricing program to other procedures the very next year.[48]

Other estimates suggest that the potential savings from transparency and competition could range into the tens of billions of dollars. One study concluded that reference pricing for a handful of specific procedures could reduce health spending by 1.6 percent—or nearly $10 billion, if applied to all individuals with employer-sponsored health coverage.[49] A separate estimate found that eliminating variation in “shoppable” (i.e., high-cost and known in advance) health services could reduce spending on individuals with employer health coverage by $36 billion.[50]

A reformed Medicaid program should look to bring these positive effects of “patient power” to Medicaid—by allowing consumers to share in the savings from choosing wisely among providers. The right to shop could work particularly well in conjunction with an account-based model for Medicaid reform, which provides a ready vehicle for the state to deposit a portion of savings to beneficiaries. Citizens have literally saved millions of dollars using the right to shop; tapping into those savings for the Medicaid program would benefit taxpayers significantly.[51] Moreover, by incentivizing all providers to price their services more competitively, right to shop will exert downward pressure on health costs—an important goal for our nation’s health care system.

Wellness Incentives:   Over the past several years, successful employers have used incentives for healthy behaviors to help control the skyrocketing growth in health care costs. For instance, Safeway used such incentives to keep overall health costs flat over four years—at a time when costs for the average employer plan grew by 38 percent.[52]

Many large employers have increasingly embraced the results of the “Safeway model,” offering employees incentives for participating in healthy behaviors. According to the most recent annual survey of employer-provided health plans, approximately one-third of large employers (those with over 200 workers) offer employees incentives to complete a health risk assessment (32%), undergo biometric screening (31%), or participate or complete a wellness program (35%).[53] Among the largest employers—those with over 5,000 workers—nearly half offer incentives for risk assessments (50%), biometric screening (44%), and wellness programs (48%).[54] The trend of employer wellness incentives suggests Wyoming should bring this innovation to its Medicaid program.

Even though Obamacare passed on a straight party-line vote, expanding employer wellness incentives represented one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement. Language in the law permitted employers to increase the permitted variation for participation in wellness programs from 20 percent of premiums to 30 percent.[55] Medicaid programs should have the flexibility to implement such changes to their programs without requesting permission from Washington—and Wyoming should incorporate incentives for healthy behaviors into its revised Medicaid program as part of a comprehensive waiver.

Premiums and Co-Payments:              In addition to more innovative models discussed above, a revised Medicaid program in Wyoming could look to impose modest cost-sharing on beneficiaries through a combination of premiums and co-payments. Applying cost-sharing to specific services—for instance, unnecessary use of the emergency room for non-urgent care—should encourage beneficiaries to find the most appropriate source of care. Reasonable, enforceable cost-sharing would encourage beneficiaries to take responsibility for their care, making them partners in the road to better health.

 

Transition to Employment and Employer-Based Health Insurance

In many cases, individuals on Medicaid can, and ultimately should, make the transition to employment, and to the employer-based health insurance that comes with many quality jobs. However, the benefits currently provided by Medicaid bear little resemblance to most forms of employer-based coverage. In conjunction with the consumer-directed options discussed above, Wyoming should implement other steps to encourage beneficiaries to make the transition into work, and encourage the adoption of employer-based health insurance.

Work Requirements:               Fortunately, the Trump Administration has indicated a willingness to embrace state flexibility in Medicaid—which with respect to work requirements in particular would represent a welcome change from the Obama Administration.[56] A requirement that able-bodied Medicaid beneficiaries either work, look for work, or prepare for work through enrollment in job-training programs would help transform state economies, as even voluntary job-referral programs have led to some impressive success stories. In the neighboring state of Montana, one participant obtained skills that helped her find not just a job, but a new career:

“I think it’s a success story,” [Ruth] McCafferty says about the [Medicaid] jobs program. “I love this. I’m the poster child!”

McCafferty is a 53-year-old single mom with three kids living at home. Seven months ago, she lost her job in banking, and interviews for new jobs weren’t panning out.…

The jobs component of [her Medicaid coverage] means she also got a phone call from her local Job Service office, saying they might be able to hook her up with a grant to pay for training to help her get a better job than the one she lost. She was pretty skeptical, but came in anyway…

Job Service ended up paying not just for online training, but a trip to Helena to take a certification exam. Now, they’re funding an apprenticeship at a local business until she can start bringing in her own clients and get paid on commission.

“I’m able to support my family,” [McCafferty] says. “I’ve got a career opportunity that’s more than just a job.”[57]

Ruth McCafferty is not the only success story associated with Montana’s Medicaid Job Service program. Five in six individuals who participated in the program are now employed, and with an average 50 percent increase in pay, to about $40,000 per year—enough in some cases to transition off of Medicaid.[58] Unfortunately, however, because the program is not mandatory for beneficiaries, only a few thousand out of 53,000 Medicaid enrollees have embraced this life-changing opportunity.[59]

In December 2015, the Congressional Budget Office noted that Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion will reduce beneficiaries’ labor force participation by about 4 percent, “creat[ing] a tax on additional earnings for those considering job changes” that would raise their income above the threshold for eligibility.[60] Rather than discouraging work, as under Obamacare, Medicaid should encourage work, and a transition into working life. Imposing a work requirement for Medicaid recipients, coupled with appropriate resources for job training and education, would help beneficiaries, taxpayers—and ultimately, Wyoming’s economy.

Flexible Benefits:         Particularly for non-disabled adults and optional coverage populations, Wyoming should consider offering a more flexible and limited set of insurance benefits than the standard Medicaid package. Congress moved down this route in 2005, using a section of the Deficit Reduction Act to create a set of “benchmark” benefits that certain populations could receive.[61] However, the “benchmark” plan section limits eligibility to certain populations, and excludes provisions permitting states to impose modest cost-sharing for beneficiaries.

As part of a comprehensive waiver, Wyoming should request the ability to shift non-disabled beneficiaries into “benchmark” plans. Moreover, the waiver application should include provisions for modest cost-sharing for beneficiaries, and make those cost-sharing payments enforceable. Receiving authority from Washington to customize health coverage options for non-traditional beneficiaries would give the state the ability to innovate, and tailor benefit packages to beneficiary needs and fiscal realities.

Premium Assistance:               Premium assistance—in which Medicaid helps subsidize premiums for employer-sponsored health coverage—could play an important role in encouraging the use of private insurance where available, while also keeping all members of a family on the same health insurance policy. Unfortunately, however, current regulatory requirements for premium assistance have proven ineffective and unduly burdensome. All current premium assistance programs require Medicaid programs to provide wrap-around benefits to beneficiaries.[62] In addition, two premium assistance options created by Congress in 2009 explicitly prohibit states from using high-deductible health plans—regardless of whether or not the state funds an HSA to subsidize beneficiaries’ medical expenses in conjunction with the high-deductible plan.[63]

As part of its comprehensive waiver application, Wyoming should ask for more flexibility to use Medicaid dollars to subsidize employer coverage, without providing additional wrap-around benefits. In addition, the state’s application should require non-disabled adults to utilize premium assistance where available—another policy consistent with maximizing the use of private health coverage.

Preventing “Crowd-Out”:        Many government-run health programs face the problem of “crowd-out”—individuals purposefully dropping their private health coverage to enroll in taxpayer-funded insurance. Prior studies have estimated the “crowd-out” rate for certain coverage expansions at around 60 percent.[64] In these cases, coverage expansions enrolled more people who dropped their private coverage than previously uninsured individuals—a poor use of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.

States like Wyoming should have the ability to impose reasonable restrictions on enrollment as one way to prevent “crowd-out.” For instance, ensuring enrollees do not have an available offer of employer coverage, or only enrolling persistently uninsured individuals (e.g., those uninsured for at least 90-180 days prior to enrollment), would prevent individuals from attempting to “game the system” and ensure efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

 

Program Integrity

Estimates suggest that health care fraud represents an industry of massive proportions, with tens of billions in taxpayer dollars lost every year to fraudulent activities.[65] Medicaid has remained on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) list of “high-risk” programs since 2003 “due to its size, growth, diversity of programs, and concerns about the adequacy of fiscal oversight.”[66] In its most recent update, GAO noted that improper payments—whether erroneous or fraudulent in nature—increased from a total of $29.1 billion in fiscal year 2015 to $36.3 billion in fiscal 2016—an increase of nearly 25 percent.[67]

A reformed Medicaid program in Wyoming would use flexibility provided by the federal government to strengthen programs and methods ensuring proper use of taxpayer dollars. Because any dollar stolen by a fraudster represents one dollar not used to help the patients—many of them aged and vulnerable—that Medicaid treats, policy-makers should work diligently to ensure that scarce taxpayer funds are used solely by the populations for whom Medicaid was designed.

Verify Eligibility and Identity:            A 2015 report by the Foundation for Government Accountability provides numerous cases of ineligible—or in some cases deceased—beneficiaries remaining on state Medicaid rolls:

  • Arkansas identified thousands of individuals not qualified for Medicaid benefits in 2014, including 495 deceased beneficiaries;
  • Pennsylvania removed over 160,000 individuals from benefit rolls in 2011, including individuals in prison and million-dollar lottery winners; and
  • In Illinois, state officials removed over 400,000 ineligible beneficiaries in one year alone, saving taxpayers approximately $400 million annually.[68]

In the past two years, Wyoming has taken decisive action to crack down on fraud. The eligibility checks begun in mid-2015 removed several thousand ineligible individuals from the Medicaid rolls.[69] Moreover, Act 57, passed by the state legislature last year, introduced a new comprehensive program to stop fraud.[70] By verifying eligibility and identity upon enrollment, monitoring eligibility through quarterly database checks, and prosecuting offenders where found, Act 57 should save Wyoming taxpayers, while ensuring that eligible beneficiaries can continue to receive the health services they need.[71]

Asset Recovery:            A 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report raised concerns about whether Wyoming’s Medicaid program is appropriately protecting taxpayer dollars. GAO concluded that Wyoming ranks second in the percentage of Medicaid beneficiaries (20.6%) with additional private health insurance coverage, and third in the percentage of Medicaid beneficiaries (26.02%) with additional public health insurance coverage.[72] By comparison, GAO concluded that only 13.4% of Medicaid beneficiaries nationwide had an additional source of private insurance coverage—meaning Wyoming has a rate of additional private coverage among Medicaid beneficiaries roughly 50 percent higher than the national average.[73]

As with the concept of crowd-out—individuals dropping private coverage entirely to enroll in Medicaid—discussed above, Medicaid should serve as the payer of last resort, not of first instance. If another payer has liability with respect to a Medicaid beneficiary’s claims, the state has the duty—both a statutory obligation under the federal Medicaid law, and a moral obligation to its taxpayers—to avoid incurring those claims, and seek to recover payments already made when it is cost-effective to do so.

Asset recovery can take several forms. Improving recovery for third-party liability claims could involve participation in electronic data matching between Medicaid enrollment files and private insurer files; empowering any managed care organizations contracted to the Medicaid program to adjudicate third-party liability claims; and prohibiting insurers from denying third-party liability claims for purely procedural reasons, such as failure to obtain prior authorization.[74] As part of these efforts, Wyoming should have the freedom to hire contingency fee-based contractors as one means to stem the flow of improper payments to health care providers.

Long-term services and supports represent another area where Wyoming can take steps to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent on the vulnerable populations for whom Medicaid was designed. The state can and should utilize existing authority to recover funds from estates, or impose sanctions on individuals who transferred assets at below-market rates in their efforts to qualify for Medicaid.[75]

 

Conclusion

In the past decade, Wyoming has made numerous reforms to its Medicaid program. The state has begun to re-balance care away from institutional settings where possible, and has implemented several programs to improve care coordination. These changes have helped stabilize Medicaid spending as a share of the budget, and reduce spending on a per-beneficiary basis.

However, given freedom and flexibility from Washington—flexibility which should be forthcoming under the new Administration—Wyoming can go further. This vision would see additional reforms designed to keep patients out of intensive and costly settings—whether the hospital or a nursing home—and an exploration of managed care options. Beyond the aged population, Wyoming would implement consumer-driven principles into Medicaid, giving beneficiaries greater incentives to take responsibility for their own care, and the tools to do so. And many recipients would ultimately transition out of Medicaid entirely, using skills they learned through Medicaid-sponsored job training programs to build a better life.

This vision stands within Wyoming’s reach—indeed, it stands within every state’s reach. All it takes is flexibility from Washington, and the desire on the part of policy-makers to embrace the vision for a modern Medicaid system. With a comprehensive waiver, Wyoming can transform and revitalize Medicaid. It’s time to embrace the opportunity and do just that.

 

[1] Letter by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma to state governors regarding Medicaid reform, March 14, 2017, https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/sec-price-admin-verma-ltr.pdf.

[2] Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “2016 Actuarial Report on the Financial Outlook for Medicaid,” https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/financing-and-reimbursement/downloads/medicaid-actuarial-report-2016.pdf, Table 3, p. 15.

[3] Congressional Budget Office, January 2017 Medicare baseline, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51302-2017-01-medicare.pdf.

[4] 2016 Actuarial Report, Table 3, p. 15; CBO January 2017 Medicare baseline.

[5] National Association of State Budget Officers, Fiscal Survey of States: Spring 2016, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Reports/Spring%202016%20Fiscal%20Survey%20of%20States-S.pdf, Table 11: Fiscal Year 2017 Recommended Program Area Adjustments by Value, p. 16.

[6] National Association of State Budget Officers, Fiscal Survey of States: Spring 2011, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Fiscal%20Survey/Spring%202011%20Fiscal%20Survey.pdf, Table 11: Fiscal Year 2012 Recommended Program Area Adjustments by Value, p. 13.

[7] National Association of State Budget Officers, Fall 2016 Fiscal Survey of States, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Fiscal%20Survey/Fall%202016%20Fiscal%20Survey%20of%20States%20-%20S.pdf, p. 1.

[8] National Association of State Budget Officers, 1996 State Expenditure Report, April 1997, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/SER%20Archive/ER_1996.PDF, Table 3, p. 11.

[9] Joanna Bisgaier and Karin Rhodes, “Auditing Access to Specialty Care for Children with Public Insurance,” New England Journal of Medicine June 16, 2011, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1013285.

[10] Vanessa Fuhrmans, “Note to Patients: The Doctor Won’t See You,” Wall Street Journal July 19, 2007, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB118480165648770935.

[11] Statement by DeAnn Friedholm, Consumers Union, at Alliance for Health Reform Briefing on “Affordability and Health Reform: If We Mandate, Will They (and Can They) Pay?” November 20, 2009, http://www.allhealth.org/briefingmaterials/TranscriptFINAL-1685.pdf, p. 40.

[12] Katherine Baicker, et al., “The Oregon Experiment—Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes,” New England Journal of Medicine May 2, 2013, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1212321.

[13] Amy Finklestein et al., “Effect of Medicaid Coverage on ED Use—Further Evidence from Oregon’s Experiment,” New England Journal of Medicine October 20, 2016, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1609533.

[14] Scott Gottlieb, “Medicaid Is Worse than No Coverage at All,” Wall Street Journal March 10, 2011, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704758904576188280858303612.

[15] Katherine Young et al., “Medicaid Per Enrollee Spending: Variation Across States,” http://files.kff.org/attachment/issue-brief-medicaid-per-enrollee-spending-variation-across-states-2, Appendix Table 1, p. 9.

[16] Ibid., Appendix Table 2, p. 11.

[17] Government Accountability Office, “Medicaid: Assessment of Variation among States in Per-Enrollee Spending,” Report GAO-14-456, June 16, 2014, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/664115.pdf.

[18] Ibid., Appendix II, pp. 40-41.

[19] Ibid., Appendix VII, pp. 53-54.

[20] Wyoming Department of Health, “Introduction to Wyoming Medicaid,” p. 31.

[21] Ibid., pp. 11, 14.

[22] Section 121 of H.R. 1628, the American Health Care Act, as passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on May 4, 2017.

[23] Section 1115 of the Social Security Act, codified at 42 U.S.C. 1315.

[24] Mattie Quinn, “On Medicaid, States Won’t Take Feds’ No for an Answer,” Governing October 11, 2016, http://www.governing.com/topics/health-human-services/gov-medicaid-waivers-arizona-ohio-cms.html.

[25] Section 10201 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148, created a new Section 1115(d) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1315(d)) imposing such requirements.

[26] Section 1115 (e) and (f) of the Social Security Act, codified at 42 U.S.C. 1315(e) and (f).

[27] Testimony of Gary Alexander, former Rhode Island Secretary of Health and Human Services, on “Strengthening Medicaid Long-Term Supports and Services” before the Commission on Long Term Care, August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.org/ltccommission/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Garo-Alexander.pdf.

[28] Ibid., p. 4.

[29] Ibid., p. 4.

[30] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation of Rhode Island’s Global Waiver,” December 6, 2011, http://www.ohhs.ri.gov/documents/documents11/Lewin_report_12_6_11.pdf, p. 3.

[31] House of Representatives Republican Task Force, “A Better Way—Our Vision for a Confident America: Health Care,” June 22, 2016, http://abetterway.speaker.gov/_assets/pdf/ABetterWay-HealthCare-PolicyPaper.pdf, pp. 23-28; Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, “A New Medicaid: A Flexible, Innovative, and Accountable Future,” August 30, 2011, https://www.scribd.com/document/63596104/RGPPC-Medicaid-Report.

[32] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation.”

[33] The author served as a member of the commission, whose work can be found at www.ltccommission.org.

[34] Testimony of Patti Killingsworth, TennCare Chief of Long-Term Supports and Services, before the Commission on Long-Term Care on “What Would Strengthen Medicaid LTSS?” August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.org/ltccommission/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Patti-Killingsworth-Testimony.pdf.

[35] Health Management Associates, “Wyoming Coordinated Care Study,” June 27, 2014, http://legisweb.state.wy.us/InterimCommittee/2014/WyoCoordinatedCareReportAppendices.pdf.

[36] National Academy for State Health Policy, “State ‘Accountable Care’ Activity Map,” http://nashp.org/state-accountable-care-activity-map/.

[37] Health Care Financing Administration, “Medicare Participating Heart Bypass Demonstration,” Extramural Research Report, September 1998, https://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/Reports/downloads/oregon2_1998_3.pdf.

[38] Reed Abelson, “In Bid for Better Care, Surgery with a Warranty,” New York Times May 17, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/17/business/17quality.html?pagewanted=all.

[39] State of Arkansas, “Health Care Payment Improvement Initiative—Episodes of Care,” http://www.paymentinitiative.org/episodesOfCare/Pages/default.aspx.

[40] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Bundled Payments for Care Improvement Initiative: General Information,” https://innovation.cms.gov/initiatives/Bundled-Payments/.

[41] On December 20, 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that participation in new cardiac and orthopedic bundles would be mandatory for all hospitals in selected metropolitan statistical areas beginning July 1, 2017; see https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-12-20.html. Both lawmakers and provider groups have suggested that CMS is imposing too many mandates on providers and exceeding its statutory and constitutional authority; see http://tomprice.house.gov/sites/tomprice.house.gov/files/assets/September%2029%2C%202016%20CMMI%20Letter.pdf.

[42] Steve Lohr, “Medicaid’s Data Gets an Internet-Era Makeover,” New York Times January 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/09/technology/medicaids-data-gets-an-internet-era-makeover.html.

[43] Section 6082 of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, P.L. 109-171, which created a new Section 1938 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1396u-8).

[44] The statute provided that, upon a beneficiary becoming ineligible for Medicaid, 25 percent of state contributions to the Opportunity Account would be returned to the state, but the beneficiary would retain 100 percent of any other contributions to the account, along with 75 percent of state contributions.

[45] Section 613 of the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009, P.L. 111-3.

[46] Amelia Haviland et al., “Growth of Consumer-Directed Health Plans to One-Half of All Employer-Sponsored Insurance Could Save $57 Billion Annually,” Health Affairs May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/31/5/1009.full.

[47] Josh Archambault and Nic Horton, “Right to Shop: The Next Big Thing in Health Care,” Forbes August 5, 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2016/08/05/right-to-shop-the-next-big-thing-in-health-care/#6f0ebcd91f75.

[48] Amanda Lechner et al., “The Potential of Reference Pricing to Generate Savings: Lessons from a California Pioneer,” Center for Studying Health System Change Issue Brief No. 30, December 2013, http://hschange.org/CONTENT/1397/1397.pdf.

[49] Paul Fronstin and Christopher Roebuck, “Reference Pricing for Health Care Services: A New Twist on the Defined Contribution Concept in Employment-Based Health Benefits,” Employee Benefit Research Institute Issue Brief No. 398, April 2014, https://www.ebri.org/pdf/briefspdf/EBRI_IB_398_Apr14.RefPrcng.pdf.

[50] Bobbi Coluni, “Save $36 Billion in U.S. Health Care Spending through Price Transparency,” Thomson Reuters, February 2012, https://www.scribd.com/document/83286153/Health-Plan-Price-Transparency.

[51] Archambault and Horton, “Right to Shop.”

[52] Steven Burd, “How Safeway is Cutting Health Care Costs,” Wall Street Journal June 12, 2009, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB124476804026308603.

[53] Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust, “Employer Health Benefits: 2016 Annual Survey,” September 14, 2016, http://files.kff.org/attachment/Report-Employer-Health-Benefits-2016-Annual-Survey, Exhibit 12.20, p. 227.

[54] Ibid.

[55] PPACA Section 1201, which re-wrote Section 2705 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 300gg-4).

[56] Quinn, “States Won’t Take Feds’ No.”

[57] Eric Whitney, “Montana’s Medicaid Expansion Jobs Program Facing Scrutiny,” Montana Public Radio November 21, 2016, http://mtpr.org/post/montanas-medicaid-expansion-jobs-program-facing-scrutiny.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Edward Harris and Shannon Mok, “How CBO Estimates Effects of the Affordable Care Act on the Labor Market,” Congressional Budget Office Working Paper 2015-09, December 2015, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/workingpaper/51065-ACA_Labor_Market_Effects_WP.pdf, p. 12.

[61] Section 6044 of the Deficit Reduction Act, P.L. 109-171, codified at Section 1937 of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1396u-7.

[62] Joan Aiker et al., “Medicaid Premium Assistance Programs: What Information Is Available about Benefit and Cost-Sharing Wrap-Around Coverage?” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured Issue Brief, December 2015, http://files.kff.org/attachment/issue-brief-medicaid-premium-assistance-programs-what-information-is-available-about-benefit-and-cost-sharing-wrap-around-coverage; Joan Aiker, “Premium Assistance in Medicaid and CHIP: An Overview of Current Options and Implications of the Affordable Care Act,” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured Issue Brief, March 2013, https://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/8422.pdf.

[63] Section 301 of the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009, P.L. 111-3, codified at 42 U.S.C. 1397ee(c)(10)(B)(ii)(II) and 42 U.S.C. 1396e-1(b)(2)(B).

[64] Jonathan Gruber and Kosali Simon, “Crowd-Out 10 Years Later: Have Recent Public Insurance Expansions Crowded Out Private Health Insurance?” Journal of Health Economics February 21, 2008, http://economics.mit.edu/files/6422.

[65] “Medicare Fraud: A $60 Billion Crime,” 60 Minutes October 23, 2009, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/medicare-fraud-a-60-billion-crime-23-10-2009/.

[66] Government Accountability Office, “High-Risk Series: An Update,” Report GAO-15-290, February 2015, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/668415.pdf, p. 366.

[67] Government Accountability Office, “High-Risk Series: Progress on Many High-Risk Areas, While Substantial Efforts Needed on Others,” Report GAO-17-317, February 2017,  http://www.gao.gov/assets/690/682765.pdf, p. 579.

[68] Jonathan Ingram, “Stop the Scam: How to Prevent Welfare Fraud in Your State,” Foundation for Government Accountability, April 2, 2015.

[69] Wyoming Department of Health, “Introduction to Wyoming Medicaid,” p. 13.

[70] Enrolled Act 57, Wyoming Legislature, 63rd Session.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Government Accountability Office, “Medicaid: Additional Federal Action Needed to Further Improve Third Party Liability Efforts,” GAO Report GAO-15-208, January 2015, http://gao.gov/assets/670/668134.pdf, Appendix II, Table 3, pp. 27-28.

[73] Ibid., Figure 1, p. 10.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Kirsten Colello, “Medicaid Financial Eligibility for Long-Term Services and Supports,” Congressional Research Service Report R43506, April 24, 2014, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43506.pdf.

Fulfilling the Promise of Obamacare Repeal

A PDF of this document is available here.

 

For years, the American people have suffered from the ill effects of Obamacare’s federal intrusions into the health care system. Millions of Americans received cancellation notices telling them that the plans they had, and liked, would disappear—a direct violation of President Obama’s repeated promises.[1] Insurance premiums have skyrocketed, rising nearly 50 percent in 2014, followed by another increase of over 20 percent this year.[2] Insurance options have disappeared, with Americans in approximately one-third of all U.S. counties having the “choice” of only one insurer in 2017.[3]

But as the 115th Congress begins, the new Republican majority, and President-elect Donald Trump, have pledged to bring the American people desperately needed relief, by fulfilling their long-stated promise to repeal Obamacare. Congressional leaders have stated their intention to bring forward legislation that repeals key portions of Obamacare using budget reconciliation procedures. Such legislation would likely resemble the reconciliation bill that the prior 114th Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed on January 8, 2016.

That legislation, H.R. 3762 of the last Congress, repealed funding for Obamacare’s new entitlements—Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied, and coverage subsidies for individuals of low and moderate incomes purchasing coverage on insurance Exchanges—effective January 1, 2018, approximately two years after enactment. It repealed all of the law’s tax increases—including the tax penalties associated with the individual and employer mandates—beginning January 1, 2016, effectively coinciding with the date of enactment. The bill also included other important provisions, restricting federal Medicaid payments to certain providers.[4]

Critics have argued that, having voted for this legislation once under President Obama, Members of Congress should not pass this bill again, sending it to President Trump’s desk for immediate signature.[5] These critics argue that Congress cannot repeal Obamacare’s costly insurance regulations under the special budget reconciliation procedures, which require all provisions in reconciliation legislation to have a significant budgetary impact. The critics fear that passing such legislation would effectively nullify Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates immediately, and its subsidies eventually, while keeping in place its costly insurance regulations that have significantly raised premiums. They believe that these steps would exacerbate adverse selection—a scenario whereby only sick individuals purchase health insurance coverage—de-stabilize insurance markets, and lead more insurers to drop out of insurance Exchanges altogether.

Those concerns, while legitimate, are misplaced on several fronts. First, Congress has not yet litigated whether or not some or all of the major Obamacare insurance regulations are budgetary in nature, and can be considered as part of reconciliation legislation. Second, Congress can and should take steps to modify last year’s reconciliation bill in ways that will stabilize insurance markets in the near-term, and create a transition to alternative legislation Congress constructs. Third, the incoming Trump Administration has significant regulatory powers within its purview, which can minimize the adverse selection effects critics fear from repeal legislation, and modify the federal mandates that have driven up premiums in recent years.

While not perfect, and less ideal than starting from scratch, last year’s reconciliation legislation represents a solid base from which to construct a legislative and regulatory framework for repealing Obamacare. It also represents the fastest approach for Congress to deliver on the promise it has made to its constituents for over six years: Unwinding an unaffordable and unworkable health care law.

 

What Congress Should Do

Last year’s reconciliation measure provides a good starting point for Congress when drafting repeal legislation to consider this year. However, Congress should attempt both to expand and revise the measure. These efforts would both mitigate against any adverse selection concerns, and stabilize insurance markets while Congress considers alternative legislation.

Expand Reconciliation to Insurance Regulations:               Critics have claimed that Obamacare’s major insurance regulations “were not altered in H.R. 3762; they could not be altered in a reconciliation bill taken up in 2017, either,” due to procedural restrictions inherent in the budget reconciliation process.[6] Such a definitive assertion is at best premature. Observers have noted that “Congress chose not to litigate” the issue of whether and what restrictions are budgetary in nature, and therefore eligible for repeal in reconciliation legislation, when considering H.R. 3762 in the fall of 2015.[7]

However, Congress can, and should, choose to litigate those issues with the Senate parliamentarian now. Rulings by the Senate parliamentarian will guide lawmakers as they determine which provisions of repeal legislation meet budget reconciliation guidelines, and can therefore be approved using a simple, 51-vote majority without being subject to the 60-vote threshold used for other legislation subject to a filibuster.

The Congressional Budget Office, think-tanks, and other actuarial organizations have produced estimates showing the significant costs of many of Obamacare’s insurance mandates—including requirements related to pre-existing conditions; essential health benefits; community rating requirements; actuarial value; medical loss ratios; preventive care coverage requirements; and other major mandates. The Obama Administration itself has produced cost estimates for several of the law’s mandates—and argued twice before the Supreme Court that its regulatory mandates are critical to the law’s structure.[8]

Congress can and should expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation bill to include the major insurance regulations. Doing so would be consistent with both the existing scoring estimates and past practice under budget reconciliation. Moreover, expanding the scope of repeal to include the largest insurance mandates would mitigate against adverse selection effects that might result if Congress repealed the individual mandate while leaving the major insurance regulations in place.

Freeze Enrollment in Entitlements:            Consistent with the transition period provided for in the 2015 reconciliation legislation, any repeal measure should also include steps to freeze enrollment in the law’s new entitlements. Such actions would be particularly pertinent to Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid—the source of most of the law’s spending, and the vast majority of its coverage expansions.[9]

Research indicates that past states that froze enrollment in Medicaid allowed the vast majority of enrollees to transition off of the program, and into work, within a short period of time.[10] Moreover, another study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that Tennessee’s decision to roll back its unsustainable Medicaid expansion in 2005 led to “large increases in [the] labor supply” and increases in employment, as individuals dis-enrolled from Medicaid looked for—and obtained—employment, and employer-sponsored health insurance.[11] Freezing enrollment would hold existing beneficiaries harmless, while beginning to transition away from Obamacare’s unsustainable levels of spending—and encouraging economic activity and job growth.

Beginning this year, states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare will also face added fiscal burdens, as they must finance a portion (in 2017, 5 percent) of the cost of coverage for the first time. Even Democratic state legislators in “blue states” like Oregon and New Mexico have raised concerns about what the cost of this massive expansion of Medicaid to the able-bodied will do to other important state programs targeting “the most vulnerable of our citizens.”[12] For all these reasons, Congress should insert language into the reconciliation freezing enrollment upon enactment—or perhaps shortly after enactment, to allow expansion states time to submit amendments to their existing state plans reflecting this legislative change.

Congress should also explore freezing enrollment in the law’s program of Exchange subsidies. In the spring of 2015, as the Supreme Court considered the case of King v. Burwell—which affected subsidies provided to individuals in states using the federal insurance Exchange, healthcare.gov—multiple Members of Congress introduced legislation that would have frozen enrollment. These bills would have allowed individuals who qualified for subsidies prior to the Court’s ruling to continue to receive them for a transitional period of time, but made other individuals ineligible for such subsidies.[13]

Though the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the subsidies in King v. Burwell, ruling that the words “an Exchange established by the State” also referred to an Exchange run by the federal government, Congress could utilize a similar regime in the reconciliation bill with respect to insurance subsidies—that is, freezing eligibility and enrollment effective the date of the bill’s enactment.[14] However, Congress should only act to freeze eligibility for insurance subsidies if it believes doing so would not cause existing insurance market risk pools to deteriorate during the transition period.

Appropriate Cost-Sharing Subsidies:            Any repeal measure should include a temporary, time-limited appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies currently in dispute. Those subsidies reimburse insurers for the expense of cost-sharing reductions—lower deductibles and co-payments—provided to certain low-income enrollees under Obamacare. In the case of House v. Burwell, the House of Representatives has argued that the text of Obamacare nowhere provides an explicit appropriation for the cost-sharing subsidies, and that the Obama Administration violated the Constitution by funding this spending without an express appropriation.

On May 12, 2016, United States District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed with the House’s position, imposing an injunction (stayed pending appeal) prohibiting the Administration from appropriating funds for the cost-sharing subsidies.[15] The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is currently considering the Obama Administration’s appeal of Judge Collyer’s ruling, with further actions on hold until the new Administration takes office.

Some insurers argue that, should the incoming Trump Administration withdraw the cost-sharing subsidies, they have the right to terminate their plans from the Exchanges immediately. The arguments that insurers can withdraw from the markets in 2017 lack merit.[16] Furthermore, analysts have warned for months that an incoming Administration could withdraw the cost-sharing subsidies unilaterally upon taking office.[17] Insurers saw fit to ignore those warnings, and signed up to offer 2017 coverage knowing full well that the cost-sharing subsidies could disappear on short notice, through either court rulings or regulatory action by a new Administration.

However, to provide certainty, Congress should appropriate funds for the cost-sharing subsidies as part of the repeal bill—but only for the length of the transition period provided for in that measure. The Trump Administration should encourage Congress to appropriate funds for the transition period. Once Congress does so, the Trump Administration’s Justice Department can move to dismiss the Obama Administration’s appeal of the case against the House of Representatives, conceding the point that the executive never had authority to appropriate funds for cost-sharing subsidies absent express direction by Congress.

Utilize the Congressional Review Act:            The election outcome notwithstanding, President Obama’s outgoing Administration continues to use the regulatory process to attempt to “box in” his successor. On December 22, 2016, the Administration published a Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for the 2018 plan year.[18] In doing so, the Administration specifically waived provisions of the Congressional Review Act, which generally requires a 60-day delayed effective date for major rules. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) claimed that such a delay was impracticable for good cause reasons.[19] The 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters will therefore take effect 30 days following its display, on January 17, 2017—during President Obama’s last week in office. As a result, President Trump will be unable simply to revoke this regulation unilaterally upon taking office.

However, the Congressional Review Act does provide a vehicle for Congress, in concert with a President Trump, to take action revoking the newest Obamacare regulation. Specifically, the Act provides that a resolution of disapproval, passed by both houses of Congress, will have the effect of nullifying the rule or administrative action proposed.[20] Of particular import, the Congressional Review Act provides for expedited consideration of resolutions of disapproval in the Senate; those limits on debate preclude filibusters, meaning that resolutions of disapproval require a simple, 51-vote majority to pass, rather than the usual 60 votes for legislation subject to a filibuster.

Congress should explore using the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval nullifying the Obama Administration’s last-minute 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters. Regardless of whether or not Congress strikes down this last-minute rule, the Trump Administration should act expeditiously—including through use of the “good cause” exemption the Obama Administration cited to rush through its own regulations last month—to provide needed relief to consumers.

 

What the Administration Should Do

The Trump Administration can also play its part in bringing about the promise of repeal, by acting in concert with Congress to undo the effects of Obamacare’s major insurance mandates. Consistent with the actions Congress should take listed above, the incoming Administration should immediately use flexibility to provide relief from Obamacare’s regulatory regime. Whether through a new 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, a series of interim final regulations, or both, these regulations would provide a vehicle for incorporating many of the changes needed to undo Obamacare’s harmful effects, including those listed below.

While the Administration cannot unilaterally change the law—such actions lie solely within the purview of Congress—it can and should take steps to soften the impact of existing mandates, and provide maximum flexibility wherever possible. These steps would stabilize insurance markets during the period following repeal, and provide for an orderly transition to an alternative regime.

Limit Open Enrollment:      Obamacare gives the Secretary of HHS the authority to “require an Exchange to provide for…annual open enrollment periods, as determined by the Secretary for calendar years after the initial enrollment period.”[21] The law requires insurers to accept all applicants without regard to pre-existing conditions or health status—in industry parlance, guaranteed issue—but only within certain limits. Specifically, health insurers may “restrict enrollment in coverage described in such subsection [i.e., guaranteed issue coverage] to open or special enrollment periods.”[22] In other words, the requirement that insurers accept all applicants only applies during open enrollment periods—and the HHS Secretary has the sole power to determine when, and for how long, those open enrollment periods run.

The existing Code of Federal Regulations states that for the 2018 benefit year, open enrollment for individual health insurance will run from November 1, 2017 through January 31, 2018—the exact same three-month period as the 2016 and 2017 open enrollment periods.[23] The incoming Administration can—and should—issue new regulations limiting those open enrollment periods to a much narrower window, to prevent individuals from “gaming the system” and enrolling only after they incur costly medical conditions.

At minimum, it appears eminently reasonable for the new Administration to shorten the open enrollment window down to 30 days—a significant reduction from 2016 and 2017, which saw open enrollment last for one-quarter of the year. If logistical obstacles can be overcome—i.e., could Exchanges process applicants in a shorter period?—the Administration could restrict the open enrollment period even further, to a period of perhaps a couple of weeks. Other observers have suggested tying open enrollment to a period surrounding an individual’s birth date, thus preventing a surge of applicants at one particular point in the year.

Narrowing the length of open enrollment periods, coupled with restrictions on special enrollment periods outlined below, will provide a more controlled and contained environment for insurers to issue policies. Limiting enrollment periods will mitigate against an insurance market that requires carriers to issue policies without imposing financial penalties on individuals who fail to purchase insurance—indeed, will mitigate against the adverse selection insurers suffer from currently, even with the individual mandate in full effect. Because Obamacare gives the Secretary of HHS extremely broad authority to define “open enrollment periods”—other than stating these must occur annually, the statute includes few prescriptions on administrative authority—the Trump Administration should use this authority to maximum effect.

Restrict Special Enrollment Periods:            Insurers have raised numerous complaints about individuals using special periods outside open enrollment to obtain coverage, incur large medical claims, and then drop that coverage upon regaining health. Early in 2016, Blue Cross Blue Shield calculated that special enrollment period customers were 55 percent more costly than those enrolling during the usual annual enrollment period. Likewise, Aetna found that one-quarter of its entire enrollment came from these “special” enrollment periods, and that said enrollees remained on the rolls for an average of fewer than four months—an indication that many only enrolled in the first place to obtain coverage for a specific medical condition or ailment.[24]

Even as insurers demonstrate that individuals have abused special enrollment periods to incur costly medical bills and subsequently cancel coverage, the Obama Administration actually exacerbated the problem its last-minute 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters. That rule expanded the number of special enrollment periods, codifying an additional five exemptions allowing eligible individuals to qualify for coverage outside of open enrollment periods.[25]

That said, the Obama Administration has taken some steps to restrict abuse of special enrollment periods. In June 2016, it implemented a process announced in February 2016, which requires documentation from applicants seeking special enrollment periods for the most common conditions—a move, loss of coverage, marriage, birth, or adoption.[26] The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) claims this documentation requirement reduced the number of special enrollment period applicants by 20 percent.[27] However, a separate effort to require verification of special enrollment period eligibility prior to enrollment will not begin until this coming June, with results only coming in spring 2018.[28]

With respect to special enrollments, the incoming Administration should 1) eliminate all special enrollment periods, other than those required under existing law; and/or 2) accelerate the process of pre-enrollment verification for all special enrollment periods.[29]

Use Exchange User Fees to Lower Premiums:     In its Notice of Benefit Parameters, the Obama Administration has annually imposed a 3.5 percent surcharge, dubbed an “Exchange user fee,” on issuers offering coverage using healthcare.gov, the federally-run Exchange, which those insurers then pass on to consumers. The 2018 version of the document, released December 22, specifically suggested that the 3.5 percent fee paid by insurers (and ultimately by consumers) now exceeds the costs associated with running the federal Exchange:

We have received feedback suggesting that the FFEs [federally-facilitated Exchanges] would be able to increase enrollment by allocating more funds to outreach and education, a benefit to both consumers and issuers. We sought comment on how much funding to devote to outreach and education, and on whether HHS should expressly designate a portion or amount of the FFE user fee to be allocated directly to outreach and enrollment activities, recognizing the need for HHS to continue to adequately fund other critical Exchange operations, such as the call center, healthcare.gov, and eligibility and enrollment activities.[30]

Some commenters regarding the Exchange user fee proposal specifically requested that the Exchange “user fee rate should decrease over time.” HHS rejected this approach for 2018. It did note that “we do anticipate gaining economies of scale from functions with fixed costs, and if so, may consider reducing the FFE user fee based on increased enrollment and premiums in the future.”[31]

Upon taking office, the Trump Administration should act immediately to ensure that the Exchange user fee funds essential Exchange operations only. With the Exchanges now in their fourth year of operation, HHS will not need to spend as much on technological infrastructure as the Department did while standing up the Exchange—and should not, as the Obama Administration suggested, spend the difference on new “slush funds” designed to promote enrollment outreach.

Because the Exchange user fee is based on a percentage of premium, this year’s 20 percent spike in premiums for Obamacare plans has significantly increased funding for the federal Exchange as it is.[32] Moreover, the vast majority of Exchange participants—84 percent, per the most recent enrollee data—receive federal subsidies for their health insurance premiums.[33] Because those federal subsidies directly relate to premium costs, federal taxpayers—and not enrollees themselves—are in many cases paying for any additional, and unnecessary, spending undertaken by the federal Exchange.

To save taxpayers, and to lower premiums for all consumers, the Trump Administration should take immediate steps to reduce the Exchange user fee to the minimum necessary to support Exchange operations—and instruct insurers to rebate the difference to consumers in the form of lower premiums.

Revise Medical Loss Ratio:  Obamacare requires insurers to spend a minimum percentage of premiums on medical claims—a medical loss ratio (MLR).[34] Insurers in the individual market face an 80 percent MLR, while employer plans have an 85 percent requirement. Plans that do not meet the minimum MLR thresholds must return the difference to beneficiaries in the form of rebates.

During Obamacare’s first several years, the MLR requirements have not proven a concern to insurers—largely because they significantly under-estimated premiums for 2014, 2015, and 2016. In fact, the average MLR for individual market plans skyrocketed from 62.3% in 2011 to 93.3% in 2015.[35] Because enrollees proved sicker than anticipated, insurers have paid out a high percentage of premiums in medical claims—indeed, in some cases, have paid out more in claims than they received in premium payments from enrollees (i.e., an MLR over 100%).

However, should the Trump Administration desire to provide additional flexibility for insurers, it could take a more expansive view of “activities that improve health care quality,” considered equivalent to medical claims paid under the MLR formula.[36] Obamacare required the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to, by December 31, 2010, “establish uniform definitions of the activities” under the MLR, including the definition of activities to improve health care quality.[37] However, the statute makes those definitions “subject to the certification of the Secretary,” and while then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius accepted the NAIC recommendations, the new Administration is not necessarily obliged to do so.

The interim final rule regarding the medical loss ratio requirement provides a roadmap for a Trump Administration to provide regulatory flexibility regarding the MLR, including the definition of “activities that improve health care quality.”[38] The new Administration could also provide relief regarding agents’ and brokers’ fees and commissions—an issue HHS acknowledged in the rule, but did little to ameliorate—and taxes and fees paid by insurers due to regulatory and other requirements.

Reform State Innovation Waivers:            Section 1332 of Obamacare provides for “state innovation waivers,” which can take effect beginning on or after January 1, 2017. The waivers allow states to obtain exemptions from most of the law’s major insurance requirements, as well as the employer and individual mandates, to provide an alternative system of health insurance for its residents. However, the statute requires that any waiver must:

  1. “Provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as the coverage” defined under the law, as certified by the Medicare actuary;
  2. “Provide coverage and cost-sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are at least as affordable” as the law;
  3. “Provide coverage to at least a comparable number of its residents;” and
  4. “Not increase the federal deficit.”[39]

The Obama Administration released a final rule regarding the process for applying for a Section 1332 waiver in early 2012.[40] However, it did not release information regarding the substance of the waivers themselves until late 2015—and then did so only through informal guidance, not a formal regulation subject to notice-and-comment.[41]

The December 2015 guidance exceeded the requirements of the statute in several ways. First, it said the Administration would not consider potential combined savings from a Section 1332 state innovation waiver when submitted in conjunction with a Medicaid Section 1115 reform waiver. In other words, when meeting the deficit neutrality requirement of Section 1332, Medicaid savings could not be used to offset higher costs associated with Exchange reforms, or vice versa.[42]

The guidance also said the Obama Administration would impose additional tests with respect to coverage and affordability—not just examining the impact on state populations as a whole, but effects on discrete groups of individuals.[43] For instance, the guidance noted that “waivers that reduce the number of people with insurance coverage that provides both an actuarial value equal to or greater than 60 percent and an out-of-pocket maximum that complies with Section 1302(c)(1) of [Obamacare] would fail” the affordability requirement.[44] These new mandates effectively prohibit states from using waiver programs to expand access to more affordable catastrophic coverage for individuals.

Due to the four statutory requirements listed above, the Section 1332 waiver program suffers from inherent shortcomings.[45] But because the added restrictions proposed in December 2015 came through informal regulatory guidance, the Trump Administration can and should immediately withdraw that guidance upon taking office. It should also work immediately to establish a more flexible rubric for states wishing to utilize Section 1332 waivers—with respect to both the application process itself and more flexible insurance design that can expand access and affordability for a state’s residents.

Withdraw Contraception Mandate:            Among the “early benefits” of the law taking effect six months after its enactment was a mandate for preventive care. Specifically, the law requires first-dollar coverage (i.e., without cost-sharing) of several preventive services, including women’s preventive health screenings.[46]

On December 20, 2016, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) released the most recent women’s preventive services guidelines. These guidelines, as before, required that “the full range of female-controlled U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved contraceptive methods, effective family planning practices, and sterilization procedures be available as part of contraceptive care.”[47]

The Trump Administration should upon taking office withdraw the HRSA benefit mandates—including the requirement to provide contraception coverage. While these particular mandates may have a slight impact on premiums, removing them would reduce premiums nonetheless. More importantly, they would restore the rights of conscience to those individuals and organizations who have been forced to violate their deeply-held religious beliefs to cover contraception and other procedures they object to.[48]

Modify Essential Health Benefits and Actuarial Value:        Among Obamacare’s many new mandated insurance benefits, two in particular stand out. First, the law provides for a series of “essential health benefits”—ten categories of health services that all qualified plans must cover.[49] While the essential health benefits address the breadth of health insurance coverage, actuarial value—or the percentage of annual health expenses paid by an insurance policy on average—addresses the depth of that coverage. The law categorizes individual health plans in four “tiers” based on actuarial value: Bronze plans with an average actuarial value of 60 percent; silver plans, 70 percent; gold plans, 80 percent; and platinum plans, 90 percent.[50]

Both directly and indirectly, the essential health benefits and actuarial value requirements raise premiums—by forcing individuals to buy richer coverage, and then by inducing additional demand for health care through that richer coverage. The Administration’s own rule regarding essential health benefits admitted that the law’s requirements include provisions not previously covered by most forms of health insurance, including “rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices.”[51] Likewise, a study in the journal Health Affairs concluded that the actuarial value requirements would raise premiums, as most pre-Obamacare individual market policies did not meet the new mandated benefit thresholds.[52]

However, the final rules regarding essential health benefits and plan actuarial value provide opportunities to expand benefit flexibility.[53] For instance, the new Administration could provide states with more options for declaring benchmark plans that meet the essential health benefit requirements under the statute. The new Administration could also expand the de minimis variation standards for actuarial value measures required by the law.[54] Allowing for additional variation and flexibility could have a significant impact in reducing premiums, as the Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2009 that the essential benefits and actuarial value standards would collectively raise premiums by 27 to 30 percent, all else equal.[55]

Enhanced Flexibility for Businesses:             On September 13, 2013, the Treasury Department issued Notice 2013-54, which stated that an arrangement whereby an employer reimburses some or all of an employee’s expenses for the purchase of individual health insurance—whether through a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) or some other means—would be considered a group health plan.[56] As a result, businesses using HRAs need to meet all of Obamacare’s regulatory reforms, such as prohibiting annual limits on the dollar value of essential health benefits.[57] Group health plans failing to meet those requirements trigger a penalty of $100 per day, per individual.[58]

This provision sparked widespread uproar when it first went into effect in July 2015, as the Obama Administration threatened fines of $36,500 per employee for employers who helped fund their employees’ health coverage.[59] Members of Congress introduced standalone legislation exempting small businesses from this requirement.[60] This provision was eventually incorporated into the 21st Century Cures Act, which President Obama himself signed into law on December 13, 2016.[61] As a result, small businesses with under 50 employees can now provide contributions to their workers’ individual health insurance premiums without triggering Obamacare’s regulatory regime.

Expanding upon the precedent of a law President Obama himself signed, the Trump Administration should withdraw Notice 2013-54, build on Congress’ actions, and allow businesses of all sizes the ability to reimburse employees’ premium costs without triggering massive fines. Actions in this vein would have salutary benefits in two respects: They would remove more businesses from Obamacare’s onerous regulatory requirements, while encouraging the use of defined contribution health insurance for employees.

 

Next Steps and the Pathway Forward

Following more than six years of frustration for the American people, the promise of repealing Obamacare is finally within reach. While passing legislation that unwinds Obamacare in an orderly, stable manner will require policy-makers to act with care, Congress and the new Trump Administration can use last year’s reconciliation legislation as the basis for action. Specifically, Congress should:

  • Seek to expand the scope of last year’s reconciliation legislation to encompass Obamacare’s major insurance regulations, consistent with budgetary scores and past practice and precedents within the Senate;
  • Add a provision to last year’s reconciliation legislation freezing enrollment in Medicaid expansion, effective either upon enactment or shortly thereafter;
  • Explore adding a provision to last year’s reconciliation legislation freezing enrollment in Exchange subsidies, provided doing so will not de-stabilize insurance markets;
  • Appropriate funds for the cost-sharing subsidies in reconciliation legislation, but only for the defined length of the Obamacare transition period; and
  • Explore use of the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval nullifying the Obama Administration’s last-minute Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2018.

Likewise, the Trump Administration can take several regulatory steps to enhance flexibility and provide certainty during the transition period:

  • Limit annual open enrollment to the shortest period feasible, and in no case longer than one month;
  • Restrict the use of special enrollment periods, by withdrawing all those added by the Obama Administration and not included in statute, and/or requiring pre-enrollment verification for all special enrollment periods;
  • Provide that, for states using the federal Exchange, any portion of the 3.5 percent Exchange user fee not used to cover annual operating costs be refunded to enrollees, thus lowering their premiums;
  • Revise the medical loss ratio requirements to provide more flexibility for insurers;
  • Immediately withdraw the December 2015 guidance regarding Section 1332 state innovation waivers, and provide maximum flexibility within the existing statutory requirements for states seeking to mitigate the harmful effects of Obamacare’s insurance mandates;
  • Withdraw the contraception mandate that raises premiums and hinders freedom of conscience;
  • Modify essential health benefits and actuarial value requirements to provide maximum flexibility within the statutory framework;
  • Expand upon Congress’ efforts allowing small businesses to reimburse their employees’ health insurance premiums without facing massive fines, by withdrawing the September 2013 IRS notice and extending flexibility to as many employers as possible; and
  • Drop the Obama Administration’s appeal of House v. Burwell once Congress provides a temporary, time-limited appropriation for cost-sharing subsidies as part of the repeal reconciliation bill.

Collectively, this menu of actions would help to unwind most of Obamacare’s harmful effects, provide for an orderly transition, and pave the way for Congress to consider and pass alternative legislation designed to lower health care costs. The promise of Obamacare repeal is within reach; it’s time for Congress and the new Administration to seize it.

 

 

[1] “Policy Notifications and Current Status, by State,” Associated Press December 26, 2013, http://finance.yahoo.com/news/policy-notifications-current-status-state-204701399.html; Angie Drobnic Holan, “Lie of the Year: ‘If You Like Your Health Care Plan, You Can Keep It,’” Politifact December 12, 2013, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2013/dec/12/lie-year-if-you-like-your-health-care-plan-keep-it/.

[2] Drew Gonshorowski, “How Will You Fare in the Obamacare Exchanges?” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4068, October 16, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/10/enrollment-in-obamacare-exchanges-how-will-your-health-insurance-fare; Department of Health and Human Services, “Health Plan Choice and Premiums in the 2017 Health Insurance Marketplace,” ASPE Research Brief, October 24, 2016, https://aspe.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/212721/2017MarketplaceLandscapeBrief.pdf.

[3] Cynthia Cox and Ashley Semanskee, “Preliminary Data on Insurer Exits and Entrants in 2017 Affordable Care Act Marketplaces,” Kaiser Family Foundation, August 28, 2016, http://kff.org/health-reform/issue-brief/preliminary-data-on-insurer-exits-and-entrants-in-2017-affordable-care-act-marketplaces/.

[4] Section 206 of H.R. 3762 had the effect of preventing Medicaid plans from providing reimbursements to certain providers, including Planned Parenthood.

[5] Joe Antos and Jim Capretta, “The Problems with ‘Repeal and Delay,’” Health Affairs January 3, 2017, http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2017/01/03/the-problems-with-repeal-and-delay/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Paul Winfree and Brian Blase, “How to Repeal Obamacare: A Roadmap for the GOP,” Politico November 11, 2016, http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2016/11/repeal-obamacare-roadmap-republicans-000230.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Congressional Budget Office, baseline estimates for federal subsidies for health insurance, March 2016, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51298-2016-03-healthinsurance.pdf, Table 3, p. 5; Edmund Haislmaier and Drew Gonshorowski, “2015 Health Insurance Enrollment: Net Increase of 4.8 Million, Trends Slowing,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4620, October 31, 2016, http://thf-reports.s3.amazonaws.com/2016/IB4620.pdf.

[10] Jonathan Ingram, Nic Horton, and Josh Archambault, “Welfare to Work: How States Can Unwind Obamacare Expansion and Restore the Working Class,” Forbes December 3, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2014/12/03/welfare-to-work-how-states-can-unwind-obamacare-expansion-and-restore-the-working-class/#455cad6923ec.

[11] Craig Garthwaite, Tal Gross, and Matthew Notowidigdo, “Public Health Insurance, Labor Supply, and Employment Lock,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 19220, July 2013, http://www.nber.org/papers/w19220.

[12] Christina Cassidy, “Medicaid Enrollment Surges, Stirs Worry about State Budgets,” Associated Press July 19, 2015, http://www.bigstory.ap.org/article/c158e3b3ad50458b8d6f8f9228d02948/medicaid-enrollment-surges-stirs-worry-about-state-budgets.

[13] See for instance Section 4 of Winding Down Obamacare Act, S. 673 (114th Congress), by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), and Section 4(b) of Preserving Freedom and Choice in Health Care Act, S. 2016 (114th Congress), by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI).

[14] King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. __ (2015).

[15] United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 14-1967, House v. Burwell, ruling by Judge Rosemary Collyer, May 12, 2016, https://ecf.dcd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2014cv1967-73.

[16] The contract between CMS and insurers on the federal Exchange notes that insurers developed their products based on the assumption that cost-sharing reductions “will be available to qualifying enrollees,” and can withdraw if they are not. However, under the statute, enrollees will always qualify for the cost-sharing reductions—that is not in dispute. The House v. Burwell case instead involves whether or not insurers will receive federal reimbursements for providing the cost-sharing reductions to enrollees. This clause was poorly drafted by insurers’ counsel, and therefore has no applicability to House v. Burwell; insurers have no ability to withdraw from Exchanges in 2017, even if the Trump Administration stops reimbursing insurers. See https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Regulations-and-Guidance/Downloads/Plan-Year-2017-QHP-Issuer-Agreement.pdf, V.b, “Termination,” p. 6.

[17] Chris Jacobs, “What if the Next President Cuts Off Obamacare Subsidies for Insurers?” Wall Street Journal May 5, 2016, http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2016/05/05/what-if-the-next-president-cuts-off-obamacare-subsidies/.

[18] Department of Health and Human Services, interim final rule regarding “2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters,” Federal Register December 22, 2016, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-12-22/pdf/2016-30433.pdf.

[19] Ibid., pp. 94159-60.

[20] 5 U.S.C. 802. For more information, see Maeve Carey, Alissa Dolan, and Christopher Davis, “The Congressional Review Act: Frequently Asked Questions,” Congressional Research Service Report R43992, November 17, 2016, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43992.pdf.

[21] 42 U.S.C. 13031(c)(6)(B), as codified by Section 1311(c)(6)(B) of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148.

[22] Section 2702(b)(1) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-1(b)(1), as modified by Section 1201(2)(A) of PPACA.

[23] 45 C.F.R. 155.410(e)(2).

[24] Paul Demko, “Gaming Obamacare,” Politico January 12, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/01/gaming-obamacare-insurance-health-care-217598.

[25] 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, pp. 94127-31.

[26] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Fact Sheet: Special Enrollment Confirmation Process,” February 24, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-02-24.html.

[27] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Pre-Enrollment Verification for Special Enrollment Periods,” https://www.cms.gov/cciio/resources/fact-sheets-and-faqs/downloads/pre-enrollment-sep-fact-sheet-final.pdf.

[28] Ibid.

[29] 42 U.S.C. 13031(c)(6)(C), as codified by Section 1311(c)(6)(C) of PPACA, requires the Secretary to establish special enrollment periods for individual coverage as specified by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) for group coverage, codified at 26 U.S.C. 9801.

[30] 2018 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters, p. 94138.

[31] Ibid., p. 94138.

[32] HHS published an average 2017 premium increase for healthcare.gov states of 25 percent, and a median increase of 16 percent. See HHS, “Health Plan Choice and Premiums in 2017,” Table 2, p. 6.

[33] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “First Half of 2016 Enrollment Snapshot,” October 19, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-10-19.html.

[34] Section 2718 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-18, as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[35] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “The 80/20 Rule Increases Value for Consumers for Fifth Year in a Row,” November 18, 2016, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Forms-Reports-and-Other-Resources/Downloads/Medical-Loss-Ratio-Annual-Report-2016-11-18-FINAL.pdf.

[36] Section 2718(a)(3) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg18(a)(3), as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[37] Section 2718(c) of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-18(c), as revised by PPACA Sections 1001(1) and 10101(f).

[38] Department of Health and Human Services, interim final rule regarding “Implementing Medical Loss Ratio Requirements under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” Federal Register December 1, 2010, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2010-12-01/pdf/2010-29596.pdf.

[39] 42 U.S.C. 18052(b)(1)(A), as codified by Section 1332(b)(1)(A) of PPACA.

[40] Departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services, final rule regarding “Application, Review, and Reporting Process for Waivers for State Innovation,” Federal Register February 27, 2012, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-02-27/pdf/2012-4395.pdf.

[41] Departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services, guidance regarding “Waivers for State Innovation,” Federal Register December 16, 2015, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-12-16/pdf/2015-31563.pdf.

[42] Ibid., p. 78134.

[43] Ibid., p. 78132.

[44] Ibid., p. 78132.

[45] Chris Jacobs, “What’s Blocking Consensus on Health Care?” Wall Street Journal July 17, 2015, http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2015/07/17/whats-blocking-consensus-on-health-care/.

[46] Section 2713 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 300gg-13, as revised by PPACA Section 1001(1).

[47] Health Resources and Services Administration, “Women’s Preventive Services Guidelines,” December 20, 2016, https://www.hrsa.gov/womensguidelines2016/index.html.

[48] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The HHS Mandate for Contraception/Sterilization Coverage: An Attack on Rights of Conscience,” January 20, 2012, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/conscience-protection/upload/preventiveqanda2012-2.pdf.

[49] 42 U.S.C. 18022, as codified by Section 1302 of PPACA.

[50] 42 U.S.C. 18022(d), as codified by Section 1302(d) of PPACA.

[51] Department of Health and Human Services, final rule on “Standards Related to Essential Health Benefits, Actuarial Value, and Accreditation,” Federal Register February 25, 2013, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-02-25/pdf/2013-04084.pdf, pp. 12860-61.

[52] Jon Gabel, et al., “More Than Half of Individual Health Plans Offer Coverage That Falls Short of What Can Be Sold through Exchanges as of 2014,” Health Affairs May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/early/2012/05/22/hlthaff.2011.1082.abstract.

[53] HHS, final rule on “Essential Health Benefits and Actuarial Value.”

[54] 42 U.S.C. 18022(d)(3), as codified by Section 1302(d)(3) of PPACA.

[55] Congressional Budget Office, letter to Sen. Evan Bayh regarding health insurance premiums, November 30, 2009, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/111th-congress-2009-2010/reports/11-30-premiums.pdf, pp. 9-10.

[56] Internal Revenue Service, Notice 2013-54, September 13, 2013, https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-13-54.pdf.

[57] Section 1563(f) of PPACA added Section 9815 to the Internal Revenue Code, which incorporated most of the regulatory requirements of the law to group health plans.

[58] 26 U.S.C. 4980D(b)(1).

[59] Grace-Marie Turner, “Small Businesses Threatened with $36,500 IRS Fines for Helping Employees with Health Costs,” Forbes June 30, 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/gracemarieturner/2015/06/30/small-businesses-threatened-with-36500-irs-fines-for-helping-employees-with-health-costs/#53750b3d4a0e.

[60] The Small Business Healthcare Relief Act, introduced by Reps. Charles Boustany (R-LA) and Mike Thompson (D-CA), H.R. 2911 of the 114th Congress; a companion measure was introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) as S. 1697 of the 114th Congress.

[61] Section 18001 of 21st Century Cures Act, P.L. 114-255.

The Problem with Health Care Costs: Third Party Payment

Several recent studies have illustrated the root of health care’s cost problem: In most cases, no one person—let alone one organization—bears sole responsibility for paying the bill. Slowing the growth of health costs may well involve changing those financial incentives—but also requires changing the culture that supports the status quo.

Two examples: A paper by University of Pennsylvania researchers found that 2,300 physicians “submitted claims for service codes that would translate into more than 100 hours per week on services” for Medicare beneficiaries alone; 600 doctors submitted claims totaling more than 168 hours per week—alleging to Medicare that they were working more than 24 hours per day, seven days per week. When it comes to drug costs, another researcher noted an interesting discrepancy: While pharmaceutical prices have increased by double-digit margins the past three years, drug prices net of rebates—that is, drug spending after discounts provided from manufacturers to pharmaceutical benefit managers (PBMs), have grown at much slower rates.

In both cases, the opacity of health care finance—individuals and businesses not knowing what things cost, and benefits not getting passed to consumers—results in hidden gains for intermediaries. In the drug scenario, PBMs negotiate rebates with manufacturers—rebates which they may or may not pass on to insurers, and which insurers may or may not ultimately pass on to consumers. Likewise, the Medicare insurance system—in which most seniors pay little-to-nothing out-of-pocket—can encourage some physicians to “up-code” their claims, knowing their patients will not incur any direct financial penalty.

Additional price transparency would help reveal the pricing disparities created by this “middle-man” issue. For instance, a recent Health Affairs article showed wide variations within states for common medical procedures such as ultrasounds. But transparency alone might not change behavior—or could even push it in the wrong direction.

A JAMA study released last week found that, among patients exposed to a price transparency tool, spending actually increased. As an accompanying editorial noted, “If patients are comparing services based on price for which their share of the cost is $0, the use of a price transparency tool may lead directly to patients selecting the higher-cost options given their likely perception that higher price is a proxy for higher quality and the lack of an incentive to price shop.”

Much of the problem with rising health costs stems from system actors—doctors, insurers, employers, and even patients—all believing that they’re spending other people’s money. Fixing that requires changing incentives so that patients can receive financial benefits from acting as smart purchasers of health care. But it also requires changing the culture, such that patients do not automatically equate the most expensive option as “best.”

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

What’s Going on with Spending on Health Insurance Overhead?

Even as federal regulators take steps to constrain administrative spending by private health insurers, government overhead on health coverage has soared.

In a Health Affairs blog post published Wednesday, David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler use actuarial estimates from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to project that between 2014 and 2022, national spending on private insurance overhead and government administration will rise by $273.6 billion related to the health-care overhaul.

The authors both favor single-payer health insurance; Mr. Himmelstein co-founded Physicians for a National Health Program, an advocacy organization directed to that end. They close their piece by saying that “In health care, public insurance gives much more bang for each buck.”

Yet overhead in the public sector is growing much faster than in the private sector.

Mr. Himmelstein and Ms. Woolhandler combine two categories of spending—government administration and the net cost of private insurance (i.e., overhead)—to reach their estimates of administrative costs. Combining the two categories masks significant differences. While private insurance overhead is projected to rise at an average annual rate of 8.2% between 2014 and 2022, government administration is projected to rise at a 22.7% annual rate—nearly three times as fast. That’s consistent with my 2012 analysis, which noted that federal actuaries projected double-digit increases in spending on government administration for three of the first four years of Obamacare implementation (2011, 2012, and 2014).

This week federal regulators proposed extending medical-loss ratio requirements—a price control on overhead spending—to Medicaid managed-care plans. Meanwhile, several state-run insurance exchanges face financial difficulties, with structural challenges to their ability to attain self-sufficiency while limiting their charges on consumers to only a small share of premiums. The growing spending on bureaucracy reported in Health Affairs suggests that regulators should perhaps focus first on increasing efficiency and reducing government’s own costs before issuing more requirements on the private sector—such as the 653-page regulations issued Wednesday—that attempt to pass them on to consumers.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

The Flaw in Using Medicare Price Caps as a Cost Control Model

Recent articles have suggested capping health-care prices at a percentage above Medicare payment levels as a way to bring down health costs. But evidence suggests that, rather than reducing overall spending levels, Medicare’s price caps don’t effectively control health costs.

The August blog post proposing the idea, published on the Health Affairs site, suggested that “every patient and every insurance company” should have the option of paying 125% of what Medicare charges for a given service, as a way to rationalize reimbursement systems notorious for their lack of transparency. Ironically, the authors of the Health Affairs post are affiliated with the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, a project that attempts to explain geographic variations in health spending (why Medicare spends much more per patient in Miami than in Minneapolis, for example). Much of its analysis has concluded that differences in physician behavior may account for much of the unexplained variations.

And therein lies the problem: Medicare’s payment system may be to blame for the higher levels in spending. Providers, when paid less per procedure, have sought to increase their incomes by performing more procedures over the past decade. According to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, while price levels rose 9% between 2000 and 2012, overall physician spending per Medicare patient skyrocketed by 72.4% in the same period–because doctors provided more services to beneficiaries.

These problems of low prices driving volume increases seem most acute in Medicare itself. In 2009, the town of McAllen, Tex., became famous after a New Yorker article by Atul Gawande profiled its high-spending health system. McAllen was shown to have abnormally high rates of Medicare per-patient spending than comparable areas. Yet research published in 2010 found that when it came to private health insurance, McAllen actually spent less per patient than the similarly situated town of El Paso. The researchers concluded that “health care providers respond quite differently to incentives in Medicare compared to those in private health insurance programs.”

One co-author of the 2010 study concluding that Medicare creates different provider incentives than does private insurance was Jonathan Skinner, who also co-wrote the August Health Affairs blog post calling for Medicare’s price caps to be extended to all medical providers. Unfortunately, the former questions the wisdom of the latter. Price caps could well function as a politically appealing “solution” whose knock-on effects mean it won’t ultimately solve much of anything.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

One Way to Control Health Costs: Health Savings Accounts

Last week’s release of the largest annual survey of employer-provided health insurance drew renewed attention to the ongoing debate about ways to slow the growth of health costs. The survey, conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, provided further evidence of one model making an important contribution in reducing health costs.

The survey found that health savings accounts tied to high-deductible plans with lower premiums have grown in popularity. Overall, 14% of all those with employer-provided insurance participate in health savings account (HSA) options.

While some employees may initially blanch at the high-deductibles associated with HSA-eligible insurance policies, most employers make cash contributions to the tax-preferred health savings accounts to help their employees pay for routine health expenses. The Kaiser survey found that more than three in four workers participating in HSA plans receive account contributions from their employers—an average of $769 for single policies, and $1,347 for family plans.

Even after accounting for employer contributions to workers’ accounts, HSA-eligible plans feature much lower premiums than other forms of insurance. The average family HSA plan costs $960 less than the national average for employer plans, and $1,330 less than plans without consumer-driven features. These results are consistent with a 2012 study in the influential journal Health Affairs, which found that further expansion of the HSA model could reduce health spending by as much as $73.6 billion a year.

The overall news on health spending remains mixed: While spending has grown at below-average rates in recent years, costs continue to rise faster than inflation and wages—and may accelerate further as the economy improves. However, the sustained popularity and effectiveness of health savings accounts since their introduction in 2004 could represent a critical piece of the puzzle in slowing health spending.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

The Freedom and Empowerment Plan for American Health Care

A PDF of the full health care plan is available on the America Next website.

The Problem of American Health Care

By many measures, the American system of health care is the best in the world. It is a source of incredible innovation at the cutting edge of medical science, providing high quality care to people who need it. We have some of the best doctors, nurses, researchers, and provider systems on earth. When world leaders need complex surgery and lifesaving treatment, they fly to us. It is here, in America, where treatments are discovered, methods are improved, and diseases are cured.

But by all sorts of other measures, the American system of health care is the worst of both worlds – and that was true before Obamacare. For starters, it is extraordinarily expensive. This is partly because we aren’t interested in just managing pain, but in curing diseases; partly because market-warping government policies and regulations drive costs higher and incentivize monopolization over competition; partly because Americans have a limited choice of health insurance options; and partly because patients and providers are insulated from the true costs of health care services.

Imagine for a moment if other forms of insurance worked the same way as American health insurance does today. Say you arrive home one day and find that the lightbulb on your front porch has burned out. This happens every couple of months, and it’s predictable as clockwork – or a chronic condition. But because your homeowners insurance policy works like health insurance does, you can’t just drive to a store and buy a lightbulb, oh no. Instead, you have to call and set up an appointment with a highly-paid and highly-educated expert lightbulb specialist.

You go in the waiting room wait for two hours so the specialist can spend five minutes examining the lightbulb and telling you what new one you need to buy. The specialist used to be in a small practice, but now he’s in a big group, because there are all sorts of government regulations he has to deal with, and only big systems can afford to deal with them. He also has to overcharge your private insurer for this brief visit, because he spends a third of his time seeing people on government entitlement programs who dramatically underpay for his services.

The specialist gives you a nearly illegible prescription for a new lightbulb, but you can’t buy it just anywhere – your homeowners insurance has a network of stores, and going out of network means you’ll face penalties. You have to drive across town to an in-network hardware store, and then wait for someone to get the right lightbulb out of the back. You have no idea how much the lightbulb actually costs, or if it would be cheaper at the store ten minutes away – you just have a small co-pay for it, and the rest is covered by your insurer – or how much the specialist is paid to tell you which one to buy. And in a few months when the light burns out again, you’ll have to go through all of this all over again.

When you start to think about the American health insurance system in this context, you start to understand why things are so upside down when it comes to the costs of care. At each stage, everyone is insulated from costs, and most people have no incentive to shop and compare prices and services as they do in every other market. And government policies and sweeping regulations have only served to make it worse.

Health care represents one of the most complex arenas of public policy. It was an animating interest for me from a young age, in part because it is an area that touches every American during the course of their lives in profound ways. I worked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.  During my lifetime, many attempts have been made to try and fix the broken aspects of our system, some more successful than others. President Obama’s health care law is just the latest in a long line of wrongheaded steps – but it is by far the worst yet.

As someone who believes in empowering patients and using market forces to improve American health care, I oppose President Obama’s law and believe we must repeal all of it—no matter what the conventional wisdom in Washington says. But we must also enact positive reforms to move our health system in the right direction, because the status quo of American health care and insurance is simply not defensible.

What the President said in the course of selling his signature legislation actually sounded good to me – it’s what he did that was awful. The President sold his law as a path to lower premium costs, promising that he’d cut them by $2,500 by the end of his first term. He said he wanted people to be able to keep their health plans and their doctors if they liked them. He said he wanted to bend the cost trajectory down while improving quality. I’m for all of that – but unfortunately that’s not what his law does.  At best the President was horribly naïve about how our health care system works, and how to reform it.  At worst he was deliberately untrue, and sold his government-centric plan as a “conservative” proposal because he knew the American people would never accept the truth.

We want to make sure that people have access to affordable high quality healthcare. We want to create a solid safety net for the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. This is, according to President Obama, what he wants, too. But from my perspective, he never stepped back and really looked at what’s wrong with our system, and asked what we want it to look like if we can tear down the existing market-warping problems and start afresh.

America needs a health care system where it is easy for the consumer to be in control, and where government won’t get in between you and your doctor. Sometimes on the right we’re blind to the fact that health care bureaucracy isn’t just Medicare and Medicaid personnel – it also could be a big insurance bureaucrat, and they’re little better. At each point, this system of bureaucracy, monopolization, and the lack of price transparency serves to drive costs higher and higher for all of us. The most fundamental question in health care policy is: do you want the patient to be in control, working with their doctor and health care provider, or do you want a bureaucrat – whether from the government or your insurer – to be in control?

The left has its answer to this question: empowering government. Instead, we should be empowering patients. How should we go about doing that? Well, there are several things that have to change, steps that will push health care in this country toward being a true competitive marketplace, and which make providers understand once again that the individual patient is their customer.

Big changes never happen organically in Washington, and many of the big stakeholders were heavily invested in Obamacare just a few years ago. But as President Obama’s monopartisan program has stumbled, it presents the opportunity for conservatives to make the case for real reform. It is now obvious to everyone that his plan simply won’t deliver on the many promises he made along the way. And that’s because, from the beginning, his approach was wrongheaded. He trusted the government to fix the problems and get everything right, instead of trusting the American people to know what’s best. We shouldn’t make that mistake twice.

A Conservative Alternative

In the debate surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more commonly referred to as Obamacare, conservatives have consistently faced one myth, perpetuated by President Obama himself and his political allies: That there is no alternative to Obamacare, and that opponents of the law have offered no solutions on health care themselves.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  In November 2009, House Republicans offered their alternative to Obamacare during a debate on the House floor; not a single Democrat voted for the legislation.[1]  One more recent compilation lists more than 200 pieces of health care legislation offered by conservative Members of Congress in 2013 alone.[2]  Conservatives have consistently proposed alternatives to Obamacare, and publicly advocated on their behalf, yet the President finds it easier to peddle untruths than to engage the American people on why his unpopular law is “better” than alternative reforms.

One reason President Obama fails to recognize conservative alternatives to Obamacare lies in a fundamental dispute about the root problems plaguing the American health care system.  Conservatives believe that the best way to improve access to health insurance coverage is to make that coverage more affordable.  Many conservatives may agree with then-Senator Obama, who stated during his 2008 presidential campaign: “I believe the problem is not that folks are trying to avoid getting health care.  The problem is they can’t afford it.”[3]

Candidate Obama may have talked like a conservative in his rhetoric highlighting health costs and opposing mandates, but President Obama has governed as a liberal.  Instead of tackling the root of the health care problem, and lowering costs first, Obamacare focused on spending trillions of dollars to expand health coverage, creating massive new entitlements in the process.  Rather than making health care more affordable for all Americans, Obamacare gave America a law it can’t afford to keep.  The law is fiscally unsustainable, its tax increases economically damaging, and its enshrinement of greater government control of every aspect of health care is more dangerous than some in Washington appreciate.

For these reasons and more, any conservative health reform must start with repealing Obamacare.  But conservative health reform must not end there.  Even prior to Obamacare, the status quo was, and remains, unacceptable.  Many Americans struggle every day with the high cost of health care, and Americans with pre-existing conditions cannot access the care they need.  America’s health care system does need reforms—but it needs the right reforms.

The policy solutions put forward by America Next in this paper focus on preserving what’s right with American health care, while fixing what’s wrong.  Fixing what’s wrong involves restoring one basic American principle—freedom—that has been eroded due to Obamacare  While it is wise for any individual to have health insurance coverage, Washington cannot—and should not—attempt to compel such behavior.

After restoring those freedoms, we can enact the reforms the American health system needs.  We focus first and foremost on reducing health care costs—because while most Americans want to buy health care and health insurance, many of them struggle to afford it.  We also work to preserve and strengthen the safety net for the most vulnerable in our society, including those with pre-existing conditions.  And we focus on enhancing patient choice, removing obstacles to portability and consumer selection, including many put into place by Obamacare itself.  These principles should form the foundation for true health reform—one that puts doctors and patients, not government bureaucrats, at the heart of all policy decisions.

 

Principle #1: Lowering Health Costs

When running for President in 2008, candidate Obama promised that his health plan would lower premiums—in fact, he promised on numerous occasions that his plan would reduce costs for the average family by $2,500 per year.[4]  Unfortunately, the law President Obama signed bears little resemblance to that campaign pledge.  Obamacare moves American health care in the opposite direction—raising health costs and premiums, not lowering them.  The non-partisan Medicare actuary has concluded that Obamacare will raise total health spending by $621 billion dollars in its first decade alone.[5]  Likewise, independent analysts at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that Obamacare would raise premiums for those buying health insurance on the individual market by an average of $2,100 per year.[6]

The higher premiums due to Obamacare are discouraging many people from enrolling in coverage under the law.  A recent survey by analysts at McKinsey found that only 27 percent of Americans selecting insurance plans were previously uninsured—the group Obamacare intended to target for expanded coverage.[7]  The same survey found that half of those individuals who shopped for insurance coverage but did not select a plan cited affordability reasons in deciding not to purchase coverage: “I could not afford to pay the premium.”[8]  For many Americans, the measure dubbed the “Affordable Care Act” has proven anything but affordable.

Obamacare is raising health costs because its mandates and regulations force customers to buy health insurance products they may not want or need, merely because a government bureaucrat tells them they must.  Conversely, true reform would provide incentives for consumers to serve as smart health care shoppers, saving money by engaging in healthy behaviors and taking control of their health care choices.

Tax Equity:  When it comes to health insurance, today’s tax code contains two notable flaws.  First, it includes a major inequity: workers can purchase employer-provided coverage using pre-tax funds, but individuals who buy coverage on their own must use after-tax dollars to do so.  Second, because cash wages provided by an employer are taxable, but health insurance benefits are not taxed, no matter how generous the benefit, the tax code currently gives a greater value to health insurance than increases in cash wages.  This disparity has resulted in employers scaling back pay raises to help fund rapidly rising health plan costs.  The Congressional Budget Office has also noted that this disparity has exacerbated the growth in health costs, and that capping the tax subsidy for employer-provided insurance would help slow cost growth.[9]  Reforms could result in employers raising cash wages if their health costs grow more slowly over time.—and slowing the growth of health care costs would yield benefits for the broader economy.

A conservative health reform would transform the existing tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance into a standard deduction for all forms of health insurance, regardless of where they are purchased.  First proposed in 2007, this concept was also recently introduced in legislative form in the House of Representatives.[10]  This proposal would not raise taxes; following Obamacare’s repeal, total government revenues would remain at pre-Obamacare levels.  In other words, this proposal would not repeal Obamacare’s tax increases, only to replace them with other tax hikes.

Under this model, the standard deduction would grow at higher rates initially, but as the other efficiencies take effect and the growth in health spending slows, the deduction would in time rise annually according to consumer price inflation.  Much as the current exclusion for employer-provided coverage applies to both income and payroll taxes, the standard deduction would apply towards income and payroll taxes as well.

These reforms would solve several problems with our current tax code.  The standard deduction would create equity between those who buy health coverage through their employer, and those who buy health coverage on their own.  In 2007, one analysis noted this change could reduce the number of uninsured Americans by 9.2 million.[11]  Over time, this policy might encourage more individuals to buy coverage independent of their employer plans, but such a change would likely be gradual and voluntary—as opposed to the millions of Americans who lost their existing health coverage last fall, because their plan did not meet Obamacare’s bureaucratic standards.

Just as importantly, the new standard deduction would contain in-built mechanisms to slow the growth of health costs.  Individuals who purchase insurance costing less than the amount of the standard deduction would still retain the full tax benefit from it—giving them reason to act as smart health care shoppers.  In addition, the slower growth rate of the deduction would give both insurance companies and consumers a greater incentive to maximize efficiencies in the health care system.  For decades, the tax code’s perverse incentives have accelerated spiraling health costs, but creating a standard deduction will help reduce costs rather than raising them.

State Health Insurance Program:  Although millions of Americans without access to employer-sponsored health coverage will benefit from the standard deduction for health insurance, some individuals with minimal tax liability—primarily those with incomes under about 150 percent of the federal poverty level—will receive little benefit from a tax deduction.  Instead, eligible individuals should receive an explicit government subsidy to purchase affordable health insurance.

This health reform plan proposes a pool of $100 billion in federal funding over the next ten years for states to subsidize affordable health insurance for low-income individuals and individuals with pre-existing conditions.  The funding would be provided to states with minimal restrictions:

  1. States must achieve measurable reductions in average health insurance premiums in the individual and small group markets, and must ensure that individuals have access to affordable health insurance—with premiums that do not exceed a defined percentage of that state’s median income.
  2. States must establish and maintain a form of guaranteed access for individuals with pre-existing conditions—a high-risk pool, a reinsurance fund, or some other risk transfer mechanism.  States could use some of their federal allotment to help fund the costs of covering high-risk individuals.
  3. Obamacare reduced disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payments by half to finance expensive, unaffordable health coverage; this plan would instead restore that funding to help fund more affordable health insurance options. [12]  In order to access state grants, states must direct this restored funding toward covering eligible populations, reducing the amount of uncompensated care provided by instead subsidizing health insurance.  States will receive about $10 billion per year in DSH funding; re-directing some of these funds would supplement the $100 billion provided by the federal government.[13]

This reform model relies on federalism to promote innovation in health care and health insurance.  The federal government sets key goals—keeping insurance premiums affordable, and expanding access to low-income individuals and those with pre-existing conditions—and allows states to meet those goals in the manner they believe will work best for their state.  For example, if a state wants to incorporate an account-like savings mechanism to promote healthy behaviors, as Indiana has done, it can pursue that option.

Empowering states with flexibility and freedom can be a powerful tool in reducing health costs.  Analyzing a similar proposal put forward as part of the House Republican alternative to Obamacare in 2009, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that state innovation grants, coupled with liability reform and other common-sense solutions, would lower small business health insurance premiums by 7 to 10 percent, and would lower individual health insurance premiums by 5 to 8 percent.[14]  This reduction is even more stark when compared to the premium increases CBO predicted will occur (and are occurring) due to Obamacare.  Overall, estimates suggest that, when compared to Obamacare, this state-based approach could reduce premiums on the individual health insurance market by nearly $5,000 per family.[15]

Washington has tried a top-down approach to health care; it hasn’t worked.  Allowing states to serve as laboratories of innovation could slow the growth in health insurance costs and premium increases.  In addition, the $100 billion in federal funding, coupled with the matching funds from state DSH payments, would expand health care access for low-income individuals who do not benefit from the standard insurance deduction and those with pre-existing conditions.  This state-based model, not more Washington mandates and regulations, represents the best route to true health care reform.

Health Savings Accounts:  One of the innovations over the past decade that has helped slow the growth in health care costs has been Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which couple a high-deductible health plan with a tax-free savings account.  The high deductible plans provide lower premiums for consumers, who can then deposit the savings in their HSAs to use for routine health expenses.  And because funds in an HSA accumulate from year to year tax-free, they provide motivation for consumers to serve as smart purchasers of health care.

First made available in 2004, HSAs have grown in popularity; more than 15 million Americans are now covered by HSA-eligible health plans.[16]  Many are using tools provided by these plans to take better control of their health and health spending, seeking out preventive care, using generic drugs more frequently, and utilizing plan-provided decision support tools.[17]  These plans are also saving Americans money; in 2013, the average HSA plan provided by an employer cost $1,318 less per family than non-HSA plans—even after firms placed an average of $1,150 per family into the HSA to fund health expenses.[18]  A recent study found that more widespread adoption of HSA coverage could reduce health spending by as much as $73.6 billion per year.[19]

Obamacare moves in the opposite direction by placing limits on the effectiveness of HSAs.  For example, it prohibits the use of funds from an HSA to purchase over-the-counter medications without a prescription.[20]

Conservative health reforms should build upon the success of HSAs by offering new options to make HSA plans more flexible for patients and consumers.  Congress should allow HSA funds to be used to purchase health insurance in all cases, making it easier for consumers who save to fund their health coverage.  Another possible reform would create more flexible insurance policies, linking the size of the deductible for an HSA plan to customers’ account balances, incomes, or other assets; in this way consumers with sizable savings could choose coverage with an even lower premium in exchange for a higher deductible.  These changes would further accelerate a health coverage model that has already helped slow the growth of health costs for millions of Americans.

Greater Incentives for Wellness:  One of the few areas of bipartisan agreement during the Obamacare debate was a consensus around the “Safeway model”—namely, providing financial incentives for individuals and employees to engage in healthy behaviors.[21]  At the time, employers could vary premiums by up to 20% to reward participation in various wellness programs.  However, then-Safeway CEO Steve Burd noted that a 20% premium variation did not allow the company to recoup all the higher costs associated with unhealthy behaviors like smoking.

Congress can and should do more to enhance these innovative efforts to reduce health costs.  First, it can provide explicit statutory authority for premium variations of up to 50%.  It can also allow employers (or insurance companies selling individual insurance plans) to offer any financial incentives for healthy behaviors on a tax-free basis, by placing the money in new Wellness Accounts.  As with HSAs, the money in these accounts could then be used tax-free for health expenses, or withdrawn for other purposes.  This reform would marry two proven successes—HSAs and wellness incentives—turbo-charging efforts to slow the growth in health costs by encouraging Americans to engage in healthy behaviors.

Crack Down on Fraud:  Health costs have grown at a rapid rate at least in part due to widespread fraud in government health programs.  Unfortunately, a recent case in which 49 Russian diplomats were charged with fraudulently obtained Medicaid benefits—lying about their immigration status and income on application forms, even as they purchased goods from Tiffany’s and Jimmy Choo—is not an aberration.[22]  Several years ago, the New York Times cited expert analysis that as much as 40 percent of that state’s Medicaid spending was either questionable or outright fraudulent.[23]  The Medicare program for the elderly also faces widespread fraud—$60 billion per year, according to a 60 Minutes investigation.[24]

While the private sector has a series of programs and protocols in place to combat fraud, government health programs have traditionally lagged; their focus has been on paying claims quickly, whether real or fraudulent.  In recent years, some government programs have improved their efforts to combat fraud; for instance, Louisiana’s new Bayou Health managed care model built in robust savings from fraud detection, requiring plans participating in Bayou Health to crack down on suspicious transactions or face financial penalties.  But Congress should do more to end the current “pay and chase” model, which attempts to track down fraud after-the-fact, and enhance penalties for those who steal or traffic in Medicare patient numbers and other personal health information.

Price and Quality Transparency:  In many cases, consumers who wish to serve as “smart shoppers” of health care do not have the information to do so.  For far too long, price and quality transparency data have been lacking in the health sector, meaning patients face a dearth of information when they have to make potentially life-altering decisions about their care.  The good news is that these trends are slowly changing, and that transparency has provided consumers with useful, and powerful, information:

There is emerging evidence that when hospitals publish prices for surgical procedures, costs decrease without a loss of quality.  The Surgery Center of Oklahoma, for example, has been publishing its prices for various procedures for the past four years.  Because the center’s prices tend to be lower than those of other hospitals, patients started coming from all over the country for treatment.  In order to compete, other hospitals in Oklahoma began listing surgical prices; patients were able to comparison shop, and hospitals lowered their prices.[25]

Further efforts at transparency could help to reduce an estimated $105 billion paid in health costs annually due to uncompetitive pricing levels by medical providers.[26]  Just as importantly, patients could have more objective sources of information about doctors and medical treatments than recommendations from friends or acquaintances.  Online posting of price and quality data can easily lead to new Consumer Reports-type rating systems, which will empower patients with trusted data and provide providers an greater incentive to improve their quality practices.

 

Principle #2: Protect the Most Vulnerable

In trying to provide all Americans with health insurance, Obamacare may actually detract from efforts to protect those who need health care most.  The law provides a more sizable federal match for states to expand their Medicaid programs to childless adults than it does for states to cover their disabled populations.[27]  At a time when more than half a million disabled Americans are on state lists waiting to qualify for long-term supports and services, it is both uncompassionate and unfair for the Administration instead to focus on covering childless adults, most of whom are able to work or prepare for work.[28]

True health reform would focus first and foremost on targeting government resources to the most vulnerable in our society—protecting the safety net rather than stretching it past its breaking point.  These reforms would help individuals with pre-existing conditions, senior citizens, the disabled, and the unborn.  Making these populations the centerpiece of coverage efforts would meet one of Obamacare’s core goals—providing access for individuals with pre-existing conditions—without necessitating the upheaval caused by the President’s 2,700-page health law.

Guaranteed Access for Pre-Existing Conditions:  Obamacare was sold as a way to address the very real problem of Americans with pre-existing conditions—but the size of the problem did not warrant such a massive overhaul.  One estimate found that approximately 2-4 million individuals under age 65 may face difficulties purchasing health insurance.[29]  The Obama Administration has attempted to claim that up to 129 million Americans “could be denied coverage” due to pre-existing conditions.[30]   But when Obamacare created a high-risk pool to provide temporary coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, under 150,000 Americans ever enrolled in it[31]—far fewer than the 600,000-700,000 originally projected to seek enrollment in the program.[32]

Ironically enough, Obamacare has failed to deliver on its promise for individuals with pre-existing conditions.  The Administration froze enrollment in the law’s high-risk pools due to funding constraints,[33] and the unintended consequences of over-regulation meant that 17 states lost access to child-only health insurance plans.[34]  Some patients have also found that their Obamacare plans don’t include the specialists or hospitals they need; for instance, many plans do not offer access to advanced cancer centers.[35]

Conversely, conservative health reform would ensure that states have the incentive of funding to provide guaranteed access for Americans with pre-existing conditions.  Many states use various vehicles to cover these individuals—whether high-risk pools, reinsurance programs, or some other risk transfer mechanism.[36]  The incentive pool of federal dollars would allow states to determine the best mechanism for providing access to those with pre-existing conditions, and a stable source of funding for those endeavors.

Much of the case for Obamacare was made on the basis of an issue which effects a small portion of consumers: the challenge of pre-existing conditions. Since 1996, federal law included a requirement of guaranteed renewability in the individual health insurance market—so long as you paid for your policy, you were guaranteed the ability to renew your plan.  Policy cancellations—also called rescissions—were rare, and nearly always due to fraud, impacting according to some measures just four-tenths of one percent of the private individual market (which is itself just 10 percent of the insured marketplace).[37]  Though relatively small in number, the issue of pre-existing conditions raised concerns for many Americans—who feared that they, or someone they knew, would be affected if they developed an illness that made them uninsurable.

Obamacare was supposed to solve the problem of pre-existing conditions, but in many respects, the law actually made things worse.  It took away the coverage renewability guarantee, by forcing insurance companies to cancel the policies of millions of Americans. Even as they made the case that if you liked your plan you could keep it, those who favored the president’s legislation knew they were about to repeal the existing guaranteed renewability for millions of Americans. By doing this, Obamacare has completely disrupted the individual market, forcing many people who were satisfied with their coverage and the access they had to doctors and specialists being dumped into more costly and less comprehensive insurance simply because of Obamacare.

This lie should not be allowed to stand. Guaranteed renewability should ensure that patients have the ability to renew their coverage, regardless of their health status, so long as they have not committed fraud. Thus, people who maintain continuous coverage should be protected from premium spikes and have confidence their insurance will be there when they need it.

The central irony of Obamacare is that it hurt the very people it was supposed to help. For Americans signing up for new insurance, guaranteed renewability should offer peace of mind that their insurer cannot drop them merely for getting sick. For those Americans for whom access to guaranteed renewability contracts has been destroyed by Obamacare, the incentive pool of state dollars for more innovative approaches, coupled with greater flexibility for individuals leaving employer plans, will be there to help them get the coverage they need in a post-Obamacare system.

Premium Support:  Medicare faces a dire financial predicament.  According to the annual report by the program’s trustees—including members of the Obama Administration—the Part A trust fund financing hospital care will be insolvent by 2026.  In the short term, the program has taken a hit from the recession and slow economic recovery; the Medicare trust fund ran $105.6 billion in deficits during the years 2008-12.[38]  In the longer term, the outlook is even worse: Medicare faces 75-year unfunded obligations of at least $27.3 trillion, and even this estimate may understate the program’s liabilities, due to various budgetary and accounting gimmicks.[39]

Among the biggest gimmicks understating Medicare’s financial shortfalls is Obamacare itself.  In October 2011, Nancy Pelosi admitted what all Americans realize Democrats did as part of Obamacare: “We took a half a trillion dollars out of Medicare in…the health care bill,” to pay for that law’s new entitlements.[40]  Yet the Obama Administration utilized an “only-in-Washington” logic to argue otherwise, citing trust fund accounting to assert that the Medicare provisions in the law could be used both to “save Medicare” and to “fund health care reform.”[41]  There are two kinds of people in politics—those that want to fix Medicare and those who want to use it to score political points.  Sadly, Obamacare followed the latter course.  Current and future generations of seniors deserve better—they deserve true reform that makes Medicare more sustainable.

One bipartisan solution to Medicare’s fiscal shortfalls would give seniors a choice of plans, with the federal government providing a generous subsidy to purchase coverage.  This premium support concept was developed, and endorsed, by a bipartisan majority in a commission created by Congress and President Clinton, whose Executive Director was Bobby Jindal.[42]  The commission’s work was in turn endorsed by the Democratic Leadership Council.[43]  More recently, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican Chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, submitted a bipartisan health reform plan that included a premium support proposal for Medicare beneficiaries.[44]

The key feature of a premium support proposal is the ability of competition among health plans to bring down costs and provide better care to America’s seniors.  Former Clinton Administration official Alice Rivlin testified before Congress in 2012 that nearly nine in ten seniors live in areas where private health plans have costs lower than traditional, fee-for-service Medicare; under a premium support proposal, these seniors could save money by choosing to enroll in a private plan.[45]  Likewise, the Congressional Budget Office recently analyzed one premium support proposal, and found that it could reduce Medicare spending by $15 billion dollars annually, while also reducing overall out-of-pocket spending by beneficiaries by an average of 6 percent.[46]

As part of the transition to premium support, the traditional Medicare benefit itself should be modernized.  For the first time ever, Medicare should provide a catastrophic cap on out-of-pocket expenses—so that seniors would know their spending.  At the same time, Medigap insurance, which provides supplemental coverage of co-payments and deductibles for some seniors, should also be reformed, so that seniors would no longer be pre-paying their health coverage by over-paying to insurance companies.

Under Medigap reform, seniors’ premium costs would fall substantially.  A 2011 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that under one version of reform, Medigap premiums would plummet by an average of over 60%, from nearly $2,000 per year to only $731.[47]  Because less money from Medigap policy-holders would be diverted to administrative overhead, seniors would be able to keep their own money to finance their own health care.

Medigap reform not only lowers seniors’ premiums, it also lowers their overall health costs.  A 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation study concluded that “the savings for the average beneficiary” under Medigap reform “would be sufficient to more than offset his or her new direct outlays for Medicare cost sharing.”[48]  According to Kaiser, nearly four in five Medigap policy-holders would receive a net financial benefit from this reform – with those savings averaging $415 per senior each year.[49]

What’s more, modernizing traditional Medicare and Medigap would drive greater efficiency within the health care system.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this reform would make Medicare more sustainable for future generations, by as much as $114 billion in its first decade alone.[50]  As with premium support, this package of proposals represents a true “win-win:” Current seniors would save on their health expenses, while seniors-to-be would have greater confidence that the promises made to them can be kept when they prepare to join Medicare themselves.

For all these reasons and others, this modernization of Medicare carries broad support from across the political spectrum.  Bipartisan endorsers of Medigap reform include the Simpson-Bowles Commission,[51] the Rivlin-Domenici commission on debt and deficits,[52] Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT),[53] and even President Obama’s most recent budget.[54]

Seniors deserve the potential savings and better care these reforms can provide.  Seniors’ plan choices would include some of the same options available to Americans under age 65, along with the traditional, government-run fee-for-service model, updated with new and more flexible options.  Likewise, future generations deserve the peace-of-mind that comes from knowing Medicare has been placed on a more sustainable path.  It is long past time for Washington to enact true Medicare reform.

Medicaid Reforms:  Despite Obamacare’s massive new regulations, some states have already acted to reform their Medicaid programs.  For instance, Rhode Island’s global compact waiver—in which the state received additional regulatory flexibility from the federal government in exchange for a cap on its Medicaid budget—has successfully slowed the growth of health costs in that state.  A 2011 Lewin Group report found that the global compact waiver “generated significant savings”—more than $50 million from the small state’s Medicaid budget—and did so not by reducing care, but by improving it:

The mandatory enrollment of disabled members in care management program [sic] reduced expenditures for this population while at the same time generally resulting in improved access to physician services.[55]

Since the Lewin study in 2011, Rhode Island’s success in managing its Medicaid program has continued.  The state has reduced its per capita Medicaid spending by more than five percent over the past three fiscal years, resulting in three straight years of minimal expenditure growth,  even as the state’s Medicaid caseload increased.[56]

These remarkable accomplishments come despite the Obama Administration’s efforts, not because of them.  The 2011 Lewin report notes that passage of Obamacare and the “stimulus” bill, both of which imposed new restrictions on state Medicaid programs, “had a profound impact” on the Rhode Island waiver, because “the flexibility sought did not always materialize.”  For instance, the original waiver gave Rhode Island the authority to assess modest premium charges for some beneficiaries, but the Obamacare mandates took this flexibility away.[57]

Other states have also acted to reform their Medicaid programs.  Louisiana has transitioned its Medicaid program toward a managed care model, named Bayou Health.  The program has furthered the goals of the Birth Outcomes Initiative, claims data for which reveal a reduction of 23,000 in statewide neonatal intensive care unit days paid by Medicaid—meaning more babies were carried to full term.

The Hoosier State’s Healthy Indiana Plan includes a personal responsibility component, and provides incentives to engage in wellness screenings, and imposes co-payments on beneficiaries who make non-urgent visits to the emergency room.  The plan also requires participants to make modest contributions to an account to fund their health needs, ensuring patients have incentives to manage their health spending and health care.  The financial requirements are not onerous; approximately 70% of beneficiaries consider the required account contributions just the right amount, and 94% of members report being satisfied or highly satisfied with their coverage.[58]  Yet, Obamacare could put this innovative plan out of business entirely, due to its Washington-imposed mandates on state Medicaid programs.[59]

Because the federal government provides states with at least a 1:1 match on their Medicaid expenses, states have a built-in incentive to spend more on Medicaid when compared to other state priorities like education, transportation, and corrections.  This open-ended entitlement drastically reduces states’ incentives to make efficient choices in managing their health care systems.  A more conservative approach should better align incentives to focus states’ efforts on improving care and reducing costs, instead of merely “gaming the system.”

Medicaid is not merely a fiscal failure, however. The error of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion was to double down on a program whose health outcomes range from the marginal to the horrendous—the result of paying doctors pennies on the dollar and cramming Medicaid recipients into already overburdened systems. Compared to both those patients with private insurance and those without any insurance at all, Medicaid patients stay in the hospital longer, cost more while they are there, and yet are significantly more likely to die before they leave.[60] The recent Oregon Medicaid study, which offered real-world examples of Medicaid recipients compared to those who were not on the program, answered questions about just how significant the benefits of modern Medicaid are.[61] The study authors found that after two years, Medicaid “had no significant effect” on physical health outcomes compared to being uninsured.[62] Spending nearly half a trillion dollars a year on a program which is so ineffective is unacceptable and immoral.

More than two years ago, Republican governors presented a report laying out common-sense reforms to the Medicaid program—from modernizing benefit design to simplifying accountability to eliminating unnecessary requirements.[63]  While the Obama Administration has not implemented most of the report’s 31 separate suggestions, they represent a good place to start when it comes to updating this important program and prioritizing the actual health care of those who need a safety net.

The best way to reform Medicaid lies in a global grant approach, which empowers states with maximum flexibility in exchange for a fixed funding allotment from the federal government.  The allotment would be adjusted annually for inflation and eligible population growth, and could be adjusted if a state receives a sudden increase in its disabled population.  Rhode Island’s innovative waiver demonstrates how it can be done—and further illustrates that indexing the grant to inflation can be achieved without cutting benefits, or harming beneficiaries’ access to care.

States should have additional flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs in a manner that they believe best meets the needs of their citizens—while facing clear and simple accountability metrics from the federal government.  Rather than focusing on managing processes and completing forms, state Medicaid programs should emphasize improving outcomes.  In return, the federal government should revamp its accountability process to hold states to these higher standards.  Those who want to micro-manage states do so because they do not trust the people and their locally elected leaders.

Pro-Life Protections:  Among its many other flaws, Obamacare represents an intrusion on the moral values many Americans hold dear.  Contrary to prior practice, the law has seen federal tax dollars flow to fund health insurance plans that cover abortions.[64]  The law also forces many Americans to choose between violating the law and violating their consciences, imposing mandates on non-profit and other institutions that violate their deeply-held religious beliefs.  As a result, literally dozens of institutions nationwide have taken Obamacare’s anti-conscience mandate to court; the Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on the issue later this summer.[65]

Repeal of Obamacare will remove the law’s anti-conscience mandates, and the funding of plans that cover abortions.  But true health reform should go further, instituting conscience protections for businesses and medical providers, as well as a permanent ban on federal funding of abortions, consistent with the Hyde Amendment protections passed by Congress every year since 1976.[66]  There is much in health care about which Americans disagree, but protecting all Americans’ religious liberty should be one principle that warrants bipartisan support. The government should not force religious people to abandon their faiths in order to keep their doors open.

 

Principle #3: Portability and Choice

In an address to Congress in September 2009, President Obama attempted to sell Obamacare as offering consumers “competition and choice.”[67]  At least 4.7 million Americans—those who have already received cancellation notices due to the law—would beg to differ with the President.[68]  While the President offered a short-term concession—unilaterally waiving portions of Obamacare, and permitting some who lost health coverage to keep their plan until the 2016 presidential election—the cancellation notices are likely to continue for some time.  A 2010 Administration document admitted that more than half of all workers, and up to four in five employees in small businesses, would lose their pre-Obamacare health coverage.[69]

Obamacare undermines choice by dictating what type of insurance health plans must offer—and then dictating to firms that they must offer, and individuals that they must buy, this type of coverage.  Conversely, true health reform would smooth the problems of portability that occurred prior to the law’s enactment, while offering more personalized choices so consumers can buy the plan they want, not the plan a government bureaucrat tells them to purchase.

State Reforms to Expand Access:  For many decades, many states have held laws on their books that block access to care.  At least 36 states have certificate of need (CON) requirements, which force organizations to obtain clearance from the state before building new health care facilities.  In addition to the offensive nature of this approach—entities must ask government bureaucrats for permission to create a facility that will help patients—CON requirements have proven ineffective at their stated goal of reducing costs.  One recent analysis noted that states without CON requirements have significantly lower health costs than those states with certificate of need mandates.[70]  Congress repealed the law that created CON requirements nearly three decades ago; states can follow suit.[71]

Similarly, state licensing requirements can impose unnecessary burdens on medical practitioners, also limiting access to health care.  Given that the supply of doctors is not expected to keep up with projected demand, policy-makers should allow other medical professionals to utilize more of their expertise to provide more affordable and convenient care for patients.[72]  In 2011, the Institute of Medicine recommended that all professionals should be empowered to practice to the full scope of their professional training.[73]  States should modify their licensing requirements to remove artificial barriers impeding the ability to provide high-quality care.  States must also act prudently to protect patient quality and maintain high standards.  Doing so would expand access to care, allowing Minute Clinics and other similar entities to treat patients quickly and at lower cost than hospital emergency rooms or other sources of care.

Both certificate of need and artificial scope of practice restrictions sometimes prioritize the interests of incumbent members of the health system over the needs of patients.  In 2008, the Justice Department testified that CON laws “create barriers to entry and expansion to the detriment of health care competition and consumers.  They undercut consumer choice, stifle innovation, and weaken markets’ ability to contain health care costs.”[74]  Likewise, a seminal 2004 report on competition in health care by the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department noted that scope of practice laws create anticompetitive risks, have raised costs, and limited mobility of medical providers, all for unclear benefits to health care quality.[75]  At a time when health costs remain high and access for vulnerable populations limited, states should act in both these key areas, initiating reforms that have the potential to reduce costs while simultaneously increasing access to needed care.

Better Access for Individuals Changing Employers:  The fact that so many Americans currently receive health insurance coverage through their employers means that individual health insurance plans have traditionally occupied a smaller segment of the marketplace.[76]  As a result, most individuals transition from one employer plan to another when they switch jobs.  However, moving from employer coverage to an individual plan can often prove more difficult and costly.

While not undermining the employer coverage that many Americans currently have and enjoy, conservative health reforms should also encourage policies that promote greater personal ownership of health insurance.  One key reform would allow individuals who maintain continuous coverage to purchase an individual health insurance plan of their choosing, eliminating the requirement that such individuals first exhaust COBRA coverage before accessing an individual plan.  These and other similar reforms will encourage Americans to purchase coverage they can take with them from job to job.

Cross-State Insurance Purchasing:  Because health insurance is regulated at the state level, many health insurance markets face two major problems.  First, in many states, one or a handful of insurers control most of the market for coverage, and these oligopolies tend to raise premiums.  Obamacare has not helped this trend, and in fact may have worsened it.  According to the New York Times, more than half of all counties in the United States have only one or two health plans participating in their states’ insurance Exchanges.[77]

Second, benefit mandates imposed by state legislatures force individuals to purchase more insurance coverage than they may need or want.  According to the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, states have imposed an average of 44 benefit mandates, each of which raises health costs.[78]  Individually, the mandates may not appear to raise premiums by a significant amount, but estimates suggest that collectively, benefit mandates impose hundreds of dollars in added costs to consumers every year.[79]

One solution to both these problems rests in Congress enacting legislation allowing consumers to purchase health insurance across state lines.  Consumers purchasing insurance across state lines would receive clear disclosures that their health coverage would be regulated by another state with respect to benefit mandates, solvency standards, and other similar requirements.  By using its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce, Congress could give consumers the power—a power they currently lack—to buy the health insurance plan that best meets their needs, regardless of the state in which that plan is offered.  Such a measure would give power from insurance company cartels back to consumers, make health insurance portable across state lines, and reduce the growth of premiums.

Pooling Mechanisms:  In addition to allowing the purchase of health insurance across state lines, Congress should also provide clear protections, similar to those provided in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), for organizations that wish to establish multi-state insurance pools.  These organizations could be churches, fraternal organizations, trade groups for small businesses, alumni groups, or any other type of group with a common interest.  These groups should be permitted to band together and purchase health insurance for their members, providing coverage that fits members’ distinct needs while potentially reducing administrative costs.  Just as importantly, coverage obtained through these pools, unlike employer coverage, would be portable: Individuals would have and own their personal health policy, and would not need to change plans when they change jobs.

Lawsuit Reform:  In many states, medical liability problems present several problems for patients.  First, defensive medicine practices—doctors performing unnecessary tests due to fear of litigation—raise health costs, according to some estimates by more than $100 billion annually.[80]  Second, the seeming randomness of the legal system—in which some frivolous claims receive large awards, but some legitimate claims are dismissed—frustrates patients.  Finally, at a time when America already faces expected physician shortages, the legal climate discourages prospective doctors from pursuing medicine as a career choice.[81]  A recent study found that physicians spend more than 10% of their careers with an outstanding malpractice claim lingering over their practice.[82]  More than three in five physicians claim they or one of their colleagues may retire in the next three years due to frustration with the health care system—a fact likely exacerbated by an overly litigious culture.[83]

Enacting lawsuit reforms—including a cap on non-economic damages, restrictions on attorney contingency fees, discouraging frivolous lawsuits, and other common-sense changes—would reduce health care costs.  Because nearly half of all health spending is controlled by government, largely through the Medicaid and Medicare programs, Congress should take the lead in enacting lawsuit reforms in instances where the federal government is a payer of health services.[84]  If enacted, these changes could have a salutary effect on America’s physicians, just as the passage of tort reform in Texas encouraged more doctors to move to that state.[85]

Freedom for Seniors to Choose:  The doctor-patient relationship is the foundation on which our health care system should be based.  Unfortunately, government requirements often impede the ability for patients to choose the best option for their own care.  For instance, one law dictates that senior citizens may not make their own financial arrangements with their doctors if those arrangements contradict Medicare’s payment rates; any physician who does so is prohibited from receiving any reimbursements from Medicare for two years.[86]

Congress should restore the doctor-patient relationship by repealing this onerous requirement.  It should also restore the ability of Medicare patients to buy procedures on their own, provided seniors receive full disclosure from their physicians and medical providers for the costs of their care.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the number of doctors dropping out of Medicare nearly tripled between 2009 and 2012. [87]  Senior citizens should not have access to the physician of their own choosing—or to procedures their doctors recommend for them—violated due to arbitrary restraints imposed by federal bureaucrats.

 

Taken together, this package of reforms would accomplish the objectives the American people are looking for in their health care system—the objectives President Obama said his legislation would bring, but which Obamacare has not delivered.  Enacting policies that get the incentives right can reduce costs, even while protecting the most vulnerable and enhancing portability and choice for consumers.

The American people deserve true health reform—one that puts patients and doctors first, not government bureaucrats.  After repealing Obamacare, enacting America Next’s plan would point America’s health system in the right direction.

 

 

[1] Vote on Boehner Substitute Amendment to H.R. 3962, Affordable Health Care for America Act, House Roll Call Vote 885, 111th Congress, November 7, 2009, http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2009/roll885.xml.

[2] “Republican Study Committee Policy Brief: Members’ Health Care Initiatives in the 113th Congress,” November 25, 2013, http://rsc.scalise.house.gov/uploadedfiles/113th_112513_rsc_healthcare_menu.pdf.

[3] Remarks in Democratic presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, January 21, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/01/21/debate.transcript2/index.html.

[4] A video compilation of candidate Obama’s remarks on this issue from the 2008 campaign is available at http://freedomeden.blogspot.com/2010/03/obama-20-promises-for-2500.html.

[5] Gigi A. Cuckler, et al., “National Health Expenditure Projections: Slow Growth Until Coverage Expands and Economy Improves,” Health Affairs October 2013, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/32/10/1820.

[6] Congressional Budget Office, Letter to Sen. Evan Bayh regarding premium effects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, November 30, 2009, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/107xx/doc10781/11-30-premiums.pdf.

[7] Amit Bhardwaj, et al., “Individual Market Enrollment: Updated View,” McKinsey Center for U.S. Health System Reform, March 2014, http://healthcare.mckinsey.com/sites/default/files/Individual-Market-Enrollment.pdf.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Congressional Budget Office, Key Issues in Analyzing Major Health Insurance Proposals, December 2008, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/99xx/doc9924/12-18-keyissues.pdf, pp. 84–87.

[10] The White House, “Affordable, Accessible, and Flexible Health Coverage,” January 2007, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/stateoftheunion/2007/initiatives/healthcare.html; Republican Study Committee, “The American Health Care Reform Act,” September 18, 2013, http://rsc.scalise.house.gov/solutions/rsc-betterway.htm.

[11] John Sheils and Randy Haught, “President Bush’s Health Care Tax Deduction Proposal: Coverage, Cost, and Distributional Impacts,” The Lewin Group, January 28, 2007, http://www.lewin.com/~/media/Lewin/Site_Sections/PressReleases/BushHealthCarePlanAnalysisRev.pdf.

[12] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L 111-148), Section 2551.

[13] Congressional Budget Office, Medicaid baseline, May 2013, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44204_Medicaid.pdf.

[14] Congressional Budget Office, analysis of House Republican substitute amendment to H.R. 3962, November 4, 2009, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/107xx/doc10705/hr3962amendmentboehner.pdf.

[15] Press release by House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Dave Camp, November 5, 2009, http://waysandmeans.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=153186.

[16] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “January 2013 Census Shows 15.5 Million People Covered by Health Savings Account/High-Deductible Health Plans (HSA/HDHPs),” June 2013, http://www.ahip.org/HSACensus2013PDF/.

[17] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “Health Savings Accounts and Account-Based Health Plans: Research Highlights,” July 2012, http://www.ahip.org/HSAHighlightsReport072012/.

[18] Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust, “Employer Health Benefits: 2013 Annual Survey,” August 2013, http://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/8465-employer-health-benefits-20132.pdf, Exhibit 8.8, p. 140.

[19] Amelia M. Haviland, M. Susan Marquis, Roland D. McDevitt, and Neeraj Sood, “Growth of Consumer-Directed Health Plans to One-Half of All Employer-Sponsored Insurance Could Save $57 Billion Annually,” Health Affairs, May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/31/5/1009.abstract.

[20] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148), Section 9003.

[21] Steven A. Burd, “How Safeway Is Cutting Health Costs,” Wall Street Journal June 12, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB124476804026308603.

[22] Christopher Matthews, “U.S. Accuses Russian Diplomats of Medicaid Fraud,” Wall Street Journal December 5, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303497804579240163174732486.

[23] Clifford Levy and Michael Luo, “New York Medicaid Fraud May Reach into Billions,” The New York Times, July 18, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/18/nyregion/18medicaid.html.

[24] CBS News, “Medicare Fraud: A $60 Billion Crime,” 60 Minutes, September 5, 2010, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-5414390.html.

[25] Lisa Rosenbaum, “The Problem with Knowing How Much Your Health Care Costs,” The New Yorker December 23, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/12/price-transparency-health-care-costs.html.

[26] Institute of Medicine, The Health Care Imperative: Lowering Costs and Improving Outcomes—Workshop Summary, February 2011, http://www.iom.edu/reports/2011/the-healthcare-imperative-lowering-costs-and-improving-outcomes.aspx.

[27] Chris Jacobs, “How Obamacare Undermines American Values: Penalizing Work, Marriage, Citizenship, and the Disabled,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2862, November 21, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/11/how-obamacare-undermines-american-values-penalizing-work-marriage-citizenship-and-the-disabled.

[28] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Waiting Lists for Medicaid Section 1915(c) Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) Waivers,” December 2012, http://kff.org/medicaid/state-indicator/waiting-lists-for-hcbs-waivers-2010/#table.

[29] James C. Capretta and Tom Miller, “How to Cover Pre-Existing Conditions,” National Affairs Summer 2010, http://www.nationalaffairs.com/doclib/20100614_CaprettaMiller_Web.pdf, pp. 114-15.

[30] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Planning and Evaluation, “At Risk: Pre-Existing Conditions Could Affect 1 in 2 Americans,” November 2011, http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/reports/2012/pre-existing/index.shtml.

[31] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, “Covering People with Pre-Existing Conditions: Report on the Implementation and Operation of the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan Program,” January 31, 2013, http://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Files/Downloads/pcip_annual_report_01312013.pdf.

[32] Congressional Budget Office, letter to Senator Mike Enzi (R–WY), June 21, 2010, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/115xx/doc11572/06-21-high-risk_insurance_pools.pdf.

[33] Department of Health and Human Services, Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, notice of enrollment suspension, February 15, 2013, https://www.pcip.gov/Notifications/021513-ENROLLMENT_SUSPEND.html.

[34] Report by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Ranking Member Mike Enzi, “Health Care Reform’s Impact on Child-Only Health Insurance Policies,” August 2, 2011, http://www.help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Child-Only%20Health%20Insurance%20Report%20Aug%202,%202011.pdf.

[35] Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, “Concerns about Cancer Centers under Health Law,” Associated Press March 18, 2014, http://hosted2.ap.org/apdefault/3d281c11a96b4ad082fe88aa0db04305/Article_2014-03-18-Health%20Overhaul-Top%20Cancer%20Centers/id-d5acff9619ec4bc6aa875800d96fc270.

[36] Information on various state plans for covering high-risk individuals can be found on the website of the National Association of State Comprehensive Health Insurance Plans, www.naschip.org.

[37] John C. Goodman, “Rescissions: Much Ado About Nothing,” Kaiser Health News, May 13, 2010,    http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/Columns/2010/May/051310Goodman.aspx.

[38] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2013 Medicare trustees report, May 31, 2013, http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/ReportsTrustFunds/Downloads/TR2013.pdf, TableII.B4, p. 58.

[39] Suzanne Codespote, memo from Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, to Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions, June 3, 2013.

[40] Maria Bartiromo, “One-on-One with Nancy Pelosi,” CNBC interview, October 28, 2011, http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000054002.

[41] Kathleen Sebelius, testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on “Fiscal Year 2012 HHS Budget,” March 4, 2011, video available at http://archives.republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/hearings/hearingdetail.aspx?NewsID=8281.

[42] The National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare was chaired by Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) and Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA); its work can be found at http://medicare.commission.gov/medicare/index.html.

[43] Testimony of David Kendall, Progressive Policy Institute Senior Analyst for Health Policy, before Senate Finance Committee hearing on “Modernizing Medicare,” May 26, 1999, http://dlc.org/ndol_ci04fb-2.html?kaid=111&subid=141&contentid=1790.

[44] Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Paul Ryan, “Guaranteed Choices to Strengthen Medicare and Health Security for All: Bipartisan Options for the Future,” December 15, 2011, http://budget.house.gov/uploadedfiles/wydenryan.pdf.

[45] Alice Rivlin, testimony before the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee on “A Bipartisan Approach to Reforming Medicare,” April 27, 2012, http://waysandmeans.house.gov/uploadedfiles/rivlin_testimony_final_4-27-2012.pdf, p. 4.

[46] Congressional Budget Office, “A Premium Support System for Medicare: Analysis of Illustrative Options,” September 2013, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/09-18-PremiumSupport.pdf.

[47] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Medigap Reforms: Potential Effects of Benefit Restrictions on Medicare Spending and Beneficiary Costs,” July 2011, http://www.kff.org/medicare/upload/8208.pdf, Exhibit 2, p. 6.

[48] Ibid., p. 8.

[49] Ibid., p. 8.

[50] Congressional Budget Office, “Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2014 to 2023,” November 13, 2013, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44715-OptionsForReducingDeficit-2_1.pdf, Health Option 7, p. 211.

[51] The Moment of Truth, report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, December 2010, http://www.fiscalcommission.gov/sites/fiscalcommission.gov/files/documents/TheMomentofTruth12_1_2010.pdf, p. 39.

[52] Restoring America’s Future, report of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Tax Force, November 2010, http://bipartisanpolicy.org/sites/default/files/BPC%20FINAL%20REPORT%20FOR%20PRINTER%2002%2028%2011.pdf, pp. 52-53.

[53] Overview of Coburn/Lieberman Medicare reform proposal, June 2011, http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=1ea8e116-6d15-46ba-b2e0-731258583305

[54] Office of Management and Budget, Fiscal Year 2015 Budget, March 4, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2015/assets/budget.pdf, pp. 31-32.

[55] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation of Rhode Island’s Global Waiver,” December 6, 2011, http://www.ohhs.ri.gov/documents/documents11/Lewin_report_12_6_11.pdf.

[56] Testimony of Gary Alexander before the Congressional Commission on Long-Term Care, August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.lmp01.lucidus.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Garo-Alexander.pdf.

[57] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation,” pp. 11-12.

[58] Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, Healthy Indiana Plan 1115 Waiver Extension Application, February 13, 2013, http://www.in.gov/fssa/hip/files/HIP_WaiverforPosting.pdf, pp. 19, 6.

[59] Mitch Daniels, “We Good Europeans,” The Wall Street Journal March 26, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704094104575144362968408640.html.

[60] Avik Roy, “The Medicaid Mess: How Obamacare Makes It Worse,” The Manhattan Institute, March 2012,  http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ir_8.htm

[61] Katherine Baicker, Sarah Taubman, Heidi Allen, Mira Bernstein, Jonathan Gruber, Joseph P. Newhouse, Eric Schneider, Bill Wright, Alan Zaslavsky, Amy Finkelstein, and the Oregon Health Study Group, “The Oregon Experiment – Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes” New England Journal of Medicine, May 2013, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1212321

[62] The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, http://www.nber.org/oregon/

[63] Republican Governors Public Policy Committee Health Care Task Force, “A New Medicaid: A Flexible, Innovative, and Accountable Future,” August 30, 2011, http://www.scribd.com/doc/63596104/RGPPC-Medicaid-Report.

[64] Sarah Torre, “Obamacare’s Many Loopholes: Forcing Individuals and Taxpayers to Fund Elective Abortion Coverage,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2872, January 13, 2014, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/01/obamacares-many-loopholes-forcing-individuals-and-taxpayers-to-fund-elective-abortion-coverage.

[65] A full list of the court cases, and further information regarding them, can be found through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, http://www.becketfund.org/hhsinformationcentral/.

[66] Chuck Donovan, “Obamacare: Impact on Taxpayer Funding of Abortion,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2872, April 19, 2010, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/04/obamacare-impact-on-taxpayer-funding-of-abortion.

[67] President Barack Obama, remarks to a Joint Session of Congress on Health Care, September 9, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-to-a-Joint-Session-of-Congress-on-Health-Care.

[68] Associated Press, “Policy Notifications and Current Status, by State,” December 26, 2013, http://money.msn.com/business-news/article.aspx?feed=AP&date=20131226&id=17219856.

[69] Interim final rule by Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services regarding grandfathered health insurance status, released June 14, 2010, http://www.federalregister.gov/OFRUpload/OFRData/2010-14488_PI.pdf Table 3, p. 54.

[70] Jordan Bruneau, “The Great Healthcare CON,” Foundation for Economic Education, January 15, 2014, http://www.fee.org/the_freeman/detail/the-great-healthcare-con#axzz2qbUCvcC2.

[71] There may need to be some very targeted consideration given to specific health care markets so dependent on government programs that taxpayers end up paying for unused capacity.

[72] Association of American Medical Colleges, Center for Workforce Studies, “Recent Studies and Reports on Physician Shortages in the U.S.,” October 2012, https://www.aamc.org/download/100598/data/.

[73] Institute of Medicine, “The Future of Nursing: Focus on Scope of Practice,” Report Brief, October 2010, http://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2010/The-Future-of-Nursing/Nursing%20Scope%20of%20Practice%202010%20Brief.pdf.

[74] Joint Statement of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission before the Illinois Task Force on Health Planning Reform, September 15, 2008, http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/comments/237351.pdf, pp. 1-2.

[75] Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice, Improving Health Care: A Dose of Competition, July 2004, http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/health_care/204694.pdf, pp. 25-28.

[76] According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 170.9 million Americans were covered by employer-based insurance, compared with 30.6 million Americans covered by direct-purchase insurance (including various forms of supplemental coverage).  Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012, U.S. Census Bureau, September 2013, http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p60-245.pdf, Table C-1, p. 67.

[77] Reed Abelson, Katie Thomas, and Jo Craven McGinty, “Health Care Law Fails to Lower Prices for Rural Areas,” New York Times October 24, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/24/business/health-law-fails-to-keep-prices-low-in-rural-areas.html.

[78] CAHI found a total of 2,271 benefit mandates enacted in 50 states and the District of Columbia.  Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2012: Executive Summary,” April 9, 2013, http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/Mandatesinthestates2012Execsumm.pdf.

[79] One study found that benefit mandates raise premiums by an average of $0.75 per month, or $9 per year.  A state with the national average of 44 benefit mandates would therefore have raised premiums by an average of $396 annually.  See Michael J. New, “The Effect of State Regulations on Health Insurance Premiums: A Revised Analysis,” Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. 06-04, July 25, 2006, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2006/07/the-effect-of-state-regulations-on-health-insurance-premiums-a-revised-analysis, p. 5.

[80] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, “Addressing the New Health Care Crisis: Reforming the Medical Litigation System to Improve the Quality of Health Care,” March 2003, http://aspe.hhs.gov/daltcp/reports/medliab.pdf, p. 16.

[81] Association of American Medical Colleges, “Recent Studies on Physician Shortages.”

[82] Seth A. Seabury, et al., “On Average, Physicians Spend Nearly 11 Percent of their 40-Year Careers with an Open, Unresolved Malpractice Claim,” Health Affairs January 2014, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/32/1/111.full.pdf+html.

[83] Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, “Deloitte 2013 Survey of U.S. Physicians,” March 18, 2013, http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/us_chs_2013SurveyofUSPhysicians_031813.pdf, p. 3.

[84] Gigi A. Cuckler, et al., “National Health Expenditure Projections.”

[85] Joseph Nixon, “Why Doctors Are Heading for Texas,” Wall Street Journal May 17, 2008, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB121097874071799863.

[86] Section 4507 of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, P.L. 105-33.

[87] Melinda Beck, “More Doctors Steer Clear of Medicare,” Wall Street Journal July 30, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323971204578626151017241898.

After Repeal of Obamacare: Moving to Patient-Centered, Market-Based Health Care

A PDF of this Backgrounder is available on the Heritage Foundation website.

For a better life, Americans need a health care system that they, not the government, control. Consumers should have the ability to choose how to meet their health insurance needs in a free market for insurance. Taxpayers should benefit from a more efficient and affordable system for helping those who need health care but cannot afford it. Above all, patients, with their doctors, should make their own health care decisions free from government interference.

The important first step is to repeal the Obamacare statute that puts the government in charge of health care. The second step is to let the country move to a patient-centered, market-based system that focuses on citizens and not on the government.

Principles for Reform

To allow Americans to reclaim control of their own health care and benefit from competition in a free market for insurance and health care, Congress should repeal the Obamacare statute and enact patient-centered, market-based reforms based on five principles:

  • Choose, control, and carry your own health insurance;
  • Let free markets provide the insurance and health care services that people want;
  • Encourage employers to provide a portable health insurance benefit to employees;
  • Assist those who need help through civil society, the free market, and the states; and
  • Protect the right of conscience and unborn children.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) moves health care in the wrong direction. It puts government, not patients, in charge of individual health care decisions. Moreover, it fails to meet the promises laid out by President Barack Obama. With each passing day, it becomes clearer that Obamacare will not reduce premiums for average American families, bend the cost curve in health care spending, or bring down the deficit. For these reasons, among others, Obamacare must be repealed.

However, a return to the status quo before Obamacare is not the final step. Policymakers should pursue reforms based on five basic principles. Adopting such reforms would move American health care in the right direction: toward a patient-centered, market-based health care system.

Principle #1: Choose, control, and carry your own health insurance.

True health reform should promote personal ownership of health insurance. While Obamacare uses government-run insurance exchanges to limit individual choice, real reforms would focus on encouraging Americans to purchase insurance policies that they can take with them from job to job and into retirement in a competitive, free market. Policymakers should enact several key changes for this culture of personal health care ownership to take root.

Portability. Most Americans obtain coverage through their place of work. This allows employers to provide tax-free health benefits to their employees, while individuals purchasing health insurance on their own must use after-tax dollars. As a result, most individuals with private health insurance obtain that coverage from their employer.[1]

Rather than following Obamacare’s example of forcing Americans into government-run health insurance exchanges, true patient-centered reform of health care would make insurance more portable. Individuals should be able to purchase an insurance policy when they are young and carry that policy with them throughout their working lives into retirement.

Equal Tax Relief. While Obamacare alters the tax treatment of health insurance, it does so in a way that increases burdens on taxpayers. Its 40 percent tax on so-called Cadillac health insurance plans is but one of 18 separate tax increases included in the law,[2] which, according to the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, will raise $771 billion in revenue from 2013 to 2022.[3]

A better approach would equalize the tax treatment of health insurance without raising new revenues. The Heritage Foundation has previously proposed replacing the existing deduction for employer-provided health coverage with a flat tax credit that individuals could use to purchase a health insurance policy of their own.[4] Another idea, first proposed by then-President George W. Bush, would give all Americans purchasing health coverage—whether through an employer or on their own—the same standard deduction for health insurance.[5] Both proposals assume revenue neutrality over 10 years. Unlike Obamacare, they do not propose using reform to increase net tax revenues.

Both of these proposals would accomplish two important objectives.

First, they would equalize the tax treatment between health coverage provided through an employer and health coverage purchased by an individual. Providing equal tax treatment would remove a major obstacle that discourages individuals from buying and holding their own health insurance policy for years and taking that coverage from job to job. Tax equity would also encourage firms either to provide direct contributions toward their workers’ health coverage or to increase wages in place of health benefits.

Second, limiting the amount of the tax benefit provided, either with a tax credit or with a standard deduction, would encourage individuals to become smarter purchasers of health insurance coverage. Studies have demonstrated that the current uncapped tax benefit for employer-provided health insurance encourages firms to offer richer health plans and individuals to overconsume health care. According to the Congressional Budget Office, reforming the tax treatment of health insurance “would provide stronger incentives for enrollees to weigh the expected benefits and costs of policies” when buying insurance, thus helping to reduce costs.[6]

Choice of Providers. Through its new system of government control, Obamacare restricts choice and access for many patients. The nonpartisan Medicare actuary concluded that the Medicare reimbursement reductions in Obamacare could make 40 percent of all hospitals unprofitable in the long term, thus restricting beneficiary access to care.[7] Moreover, preliminary reports suggest that Obamacare’s insurance exchanges will feature limited provider networks in an attempt to mitigate premium increases for individuals purchasing exchange coverage.[8]

The most important element of any health care system is the trusted relationship between doctor and patient. Any system of truly patient-centered health care should work to preserve those important bonds and to repair the damage to those bonds caused by Obamacare.

Encouraging Personal Savings. Since their creation in 2004, health savings accounts (HSAs) have become a popular way for millions of families to build savings for needed health care expenses. HSA plans combine a health insurance option featuring a slightly higher deductible—but catastrophic protection in the event of significant medical expenses—with a tax-free savings account. As one of several new consumer-driven health options, HSAs encourage patients to take control of their own health care, providing financial incentives for consumers to serve as wise health care purchasers.

Over the past several years, millions of families have taken advantage of the innovative tools that HSA plans offer. The number of people enrolled in HSA-eligible policies has skyrocketed from 1 million in March 2005 to 15.5 million in January 2013.[9] Numerous studies have also shown that individuals with HSA plans have used tools provided by their health insurer to become more involved with their health care—for example, by using online support tools, inquiring about provider cost and quality, and seeking preventive care.[10] As a result, individuals had saved at least $12.4 billion in their HSAs by the end of 2011.[11]

However, HSA holders still face obstacles to building their personal savings. For instance, under current law, funds contributed to an HSA may not be used to pay for insurance premiums, except under very limited circumstances.[12] Changing this restriction and increasing HSA contribution limits would enhance both personal savings and personal ownership of health insurance.

Coverage for Pre-Existing Conditions. The problem of providing access to individuals with pre-existing conditions, while very real, did not necessitate the massive changes in America’s health care system included in Obamacare. In 2011, the Obama Administration suggested that as many as 129 million Americans with pre-existing conditions were “at risk” and “could be denied coverage” without Obamacare’s massive changes in America’s insurance markets.[13]

That claim was wildly untrue. Under prior law, individuals with employer-sponsored coverage (90 percent of the private market) could not be subjected to pre-existing condition exclusions.[14] In fact, prior to Obamacare, the number of individuals with pre-existing conditions who truly could not obtain health coverage was vastly smaller, and the problem existed only in the individual market. It is therefore not surprising that, according to the most recent data, only an estimated 134,708 individuals have enrolled in the supplemental federal high-risk pool program since it was created under Obamacare to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions[15]—still less than the 200,000 individuals originally projected to enroll.[16]

States could use a variety of approaches to provide coverage to individuals who are unable to purchase insurance. For instance, 35 states already operate high-risk pools with a collective current enrollment of 227,000 individuals to ensure access to coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions.[17] Alternatively, states could establish reinsurance or risk transfer mechanisms under which insurance companies would reimburse each other for the cost of treating individuals with high medical expenses without added funding from state or federal taxpayers. Either approach would be far preferable to the massive amounts of regulation, taxation, and government spending under Obamacare.

Principle #2: Let free markets provide the insurance and health care services that people want.

Many individuals have already learned that, due in part to Obamacare, with its government-run health exchanges, new bureaucracies, and other forms of government control, they will not be able to retain their current health insurance.[18] There is a better way, and it involves providing more choice through market incentives rather than undermining markets through centralized bureaucracy.

Cross-State Purchasing. Currently, state insurance markets suffer from two flaws: Many markets are uncompetitive, with up to 70 percent of metropolitan areas considered “highly concentrated,”[19] and costly benefit mandates raise health insurance premiums. A prior Heritage Foundation analysis found that each benefit mandate raises costs by an average of approximately $0.75 per month.[20] Another study found that states have imposed a total of 2,271 benefit mandates—or approximately 45 per state.[21] Taken together, these two studies suggest that the cumulative effect of these mandates could raise premiums by $20–$40 per month, or hundreds of dollars per year.

Congress can help to mitigate these problems by removing federal barriers to interstate commerce in health insurance products. Individuals should have the ability to purchase insurance products across state lines, choosing the health plan that best meets their needs regardless of the location of its issuer.

Pooling Mechanisms. Another way to improve patient choice and make insurance markets more competitive would involve new purchasing arrangements and pooling mechanisms. Small businesses, individual membership associations, religious groups, and fraternal organizations should be able to sell health insurance policies through new group purchasing arrangements. The federal government’s role should be to remove the barriers to such arrangements.

By extending the benefits of group coverage beyond the place of work, these new purchasing arrangements would also encourage portability of health insurance coverage. These reforms would allow individuals to obtain their health plan from a trusted source—one with which they would be likely to have a longer association than they have with their employer—thereby creating a form of health coverage that Americans could truly own.

Medicare Private Contracting. Seniors could also benefit from patient-centered Medicare reforms, one of which should help to restore the doctor–patient relationship. Congress should eliminate the anti-competitive restrictions that prevent doctors and patients from contracting privately for medical services outside of traditional Medicare.[22] Congress can also restructure the Medicare benefit, modernizing the design of a program that has remained largely unchanged since its creation nearly 50 years ago.[23] These changes would enhance patient choice while preserving the program’s solvency for future generations of Americans.

Medicare Reform. Regrettably, Obamacare imposes many its most harmful effects on senior citizens.[24] According to the Medicare actuary, the Medicare reimbursement reductions in Obamacare will make 15 percent of all hospitals unprofitable within the decade and 40 percent unprofitable by 2050.[25] As a result, seniors may face significant obstacles to obtaining health care in the future.

There is a better way. Specifically, Congress should provide seniors with a generous subsidy to purchase a Medicare plan of their choosing. Seniors who choose a plan costing less than the subsidy would pay less, while seniors who choose a plan costing more than the subsidy would pay the difference in price.[26 ]

Consumer Choice and Competition. As part of its system of government control, Obamacare hinders patients’ ability to choose their own health plan. One survey found that the mandates and requirements in the law mean that more than half of all insurance policies purchased directly by individuals will not qualify as “government-approved” under Obamacare.[27] As a result, many Americans are finding that they will not be able to keep the health plan they have and like[28]—despite President Obama’s repeated promises.[29]

True patient-centered reform would bolster HSAs and other consumer-directed health products—such as health reimbursement arrangements and flexible spending accounts—that have the ability to transform American health care. One study published in the prestigious journal Health Affairs in 2012 found that expanding market penetration of consumer-driven health plans from 13 percent to 50 percent of all employers could reduce health costs by as much as $73.6 billion per year—a reduction in health spending of 9.1 percent.[30]

In other words, expanding consumer choice and competition could reduce health care costs and spending—the opposite of Obamacare, which restricts consumer choice and increases health costs and spending.

Principle #3: Encourage employers to provide a portable health insurance benefit.

Because most Americans traditionally have received health insurance from their employers, many individuals have few, if any, choices when selecting a health plan. According to the broadest survey of employer plans, nearly nine in 10 firms (87 percent) offer only one plan type, and only 2 percent offer three or more plan types.[31] As a result, employees have only a very limited ability to choose the plan that best meets their needs.

Defined Contribution. An ideal solution would convert the traditional system of employer-provided health insurance from a defined benefit model to a defined contribution model. Rather than providing health insurance directly, employers instead would offer cash contributions to their workers, enabling them to buy the plans of their own choosing. Combined with changes in the tax treatment of health insurance and regulatory improvements to enhance portability, moving to a defined contribution model for health insurance would allow workers to buy a health insurance policy in their youth and take that policy with them from job to job into retirement. These changes would also enable workers and families to negotiate contributions from multiple employers rather than having just one employer foot the bill.

Principle #4: Assist those who need help through civil society, the free market, and states.

While some health reforms—such as changing the tax treatment of health insurance and reforming the Medicare program—remain fully within the purview of the federal government, states also play a critical role in enacting reforms that can lower costs, improve access to care, and modernize state Medicaid programs. By serving as the “laboratories of democracy,” states can provide examples for other states—and the federal government—to follow. Because many state-based reforms do not rely on Washington’s involvement or approval, states can move ahead with innovative market-based solutions even as federal bureaucrats attempt to implement Obamacare’s government-centric approach.

State Innovation. If given proper time and space by an all-too-intrusive federal government, states can act on their own to open their insurance markets. A few states have already acted to open their insurance markets. In 2011, Georgia enacted legislation allowing interstate purchasing of health insurance, and Maine passed legislation allowing carriers from other New England states to offer insurance products to its citizens.[32] Just before Obamacare was enacted in 2010, Wyoming acted to permit out-of-state insurers to offer products.[33] While it may take some time before a critical mass of states creates a true interstate market for insurance, these nascent efforts demonstrate the nationwide interest in expanding health insurance choice and competition.

Medicaid Premium Assistance. Among various forms of health coverage, the Medicaid program is known for its poor quality and outcomes for patients. Numerous studies have found that Medicaid patients suffer worse outcomes than other patients suffer.[34] A recent study from Oregon concluded that after two years, patients in Medicaid did not achieve measurable health benefits from their insurance coverage.[35] Even participants—recognizing that many physicians, because of the program’s low reimbursement rates, will not treat Medicaid patients—complain that the program is not “real insurance.”[36]

Obamacare makes Medicaid’s problems worse, consigning millions more Americans to this poor government-run program. True reform would instead subsidize private health insurance for low-income Medicaid beneficiaries. The Heritage Foundation has previously promoted such a solution as part of its comprehensive reform of the Medicaid program.[37] Congress should take steps to encourage states to provide premium assistance. Such programs would promote health care ownership and provide beneficiaries with better access to care than the traditional Medicaid program does.

Medicaid Reforms. Despite the looming presence of Obamacare, states should continue wherever possible to seek opportunities to reform their Medicaid programs, moving toward more personalized care and including strong incentives for personal responsibility. States can also seek additional flexibility from Washington to modernize care; many governors have already made such requests.[38]

Congress also should act to reform and modernize Medicaid. Efforts in this vein would include comprehensive reforms—such as a block grant or per capita spending caps—that trade additional flexibility for states in exchange for a fixed spending allotment from Washington.[39] Other reforms could incentivize and subsidize Medicaid beneficiaries to move to private insurance policies that they can own and keep. All of these reforms would focus on modernizing Medicaid to provide better quality care, reduce costs, and promote personal responsibility and ownership.

Reducing Fraud. Regrettably, many government health programs are riddled with fraud. Some estimates suggest that as much as $60 billion in Medicare spending may involve fraud.[40] Similar problems plague many state Medicaid programs. A 2005 New York Times exposé on Medicaid fraud quoted James Mehmet, a former chief investigator in New York State, as saying that 10 percent of the state’s Medicaid spending constituted outright fraud, with another 20 percent to 30 percent comprising “unnecessary spending that might not be criminal.” Overall, Mehmet estimated that “questionable” Medicaid spending totaled $18 billion in New York State alone.[41]

Congress and the states should do more to crack down on the waste, fraud, and abuse that plague America’s health entitlements. Reforms should end the current “pay and chase” model, under which investigators must attempt to track down fraudulent claims and providers after they have already received reimbursement. Other solutions would enhance penalties for those who engage in fraudulent activity—for instance, buying or selling personal patient information, which is often used to perpetrate fraud schemes. These and other reforms would save taxpayer dollars, helping to preserve Medicare and Medicaid for future generations.

Removing Barriers to Care. With studies indicating that America faces a doctor shortage in future years, policymakers should focus on removing barriers that discourage institutions from assisting those who need health care.[42] Regrettably, America’s litigious culture has resulted in the widespread practice of defensive medicine by doctors and other health practitioners. In response, some states have changed their medical liability laws to discourage frivolous lawsuits, prompting doctors to move to those states to practice medicine. Were other states to adopt such reforms, this would encourage doctors—a majority of whom believe the practice of medicine is in jeopardy[43]—to remain in practice and would encourage students to join the profession.

In addition, reforms that improve the liability system could reduce the prevalence of defensive medicine practices and thereby help to reduce health costs. One government estimate found that reasonable limits on non-economic damages could reduce total health spending by as much as $126 billion per year by reducing the amount of defensive medicine practiced by physicians.[44] More recently, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that enacting comprehensive liability reform would reduce health care spending by tens of billions of dollars per year, reducing the federal budget deficit by tens of billions over the next decade.[45]

To help to eliminate barriers to care and reduce health costs, states should reform their liability systems, capping non-economic damages and taking other steps to reduce the incidence of frivolous lawsuits and ensure proper legal protections for health care providers.[46] However, because liability reform and torts in general are properly a state issue, Congress should not impose liability reforms except where the federal government has a clear, constitutionally based federal interest. Examples might include liability reforms with respect to medical products approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration or when the federal government is a payer of health care services, as it is with Medicare and Medicaid.[47]

Reforming Scope-of-Practice and Certificate of Need. State governments control the licensure of both medical professionals and medical practices. By removing artificial obstacles that restrict the supply of medical providers, states can expand access to health services across populations while unleashing new competition that can work to reduce costs.

States can reform their health care systems by re-examining scope-of-practice laws, which frequently limit the ability of nurse practitioners and other health professionals to care for patients. In 2010, the Institute of Medicine concluded that “state regulations often restrict the ability of nurses to provide care legally” and that policymakers should remove “barriers that limit the ability of nurses to practice to the full extent of their education, training, and competence.”[48] Many states have begun to reform their scope-of-practice laws to allow physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and others to treat more patients even as entrenched interests have fought to preserve their preferential treatment.[49] States should follow the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine in reforming their scope-of-practice laws to allow all medical professionals to practice to the full extent of their training.

A total of 36 states also impose certificate-of-need requirements, which impede the introduction of new hospitals and medical facilities. These laws require organizations seeking to build new medical facilities to obtain a certificate from a state board that the facility is “needed” in a particular area.[50] As with scope-of-practice requirements, reforming or eliminating certificate-of-need restrictions would encourage the development of new medical facilities, expanding access to care and giving patients more choices.

Principle #5: Protect the right of conscience and unborn children.

Government should not compel individuals to undertake actions that violate their deeply held religious beliefs. Regrettably, Obamacare imposes just such a requirement on Americans, forcing many employers to offer, and individuals to purchase, health coverage that violates the core tenets of their faith regarding the protection of life.[51]

Congress should ensure that individuals never again are required to violate their religious beliefs to meet a government diktat.

Rights of Conscience. Congress should protect the rights of consumers, insurers, employers, and medical personnel to refrain from facilitating, participating in, funding, or providing services contrary to their consciences or the tenets of their religious faith. Enacting these protections would prevent Americans from facing the moral dilemma presented by Obamacare, which has forced individuals, employers, and religious organizations to choose between violating the law and violating their faith or consciences.

Permanent Prohibition on Taxpayer-Funded Abortion. Congress should make permanent in law the existing annually enacted prohibitions on the use of federal taxpayer funds to finance abortions or health insurance coverage that includes elective abortions. These protections, enacted as the “Hyde Amendment” every year since 1976, prevent the use of taxpayer dollars to fund elective abortions.[52] After nearly 40 years of renewing these protections on an annual basis, Congress should finally make them permanent in law.

A New Vision for Health Reform

Obamacare moves American health care in the wrong direction. Not only does the law raise health costs rather than lowering them, but it creates new bureaucracies that will erode the doctor–patient relationship.[53] The trillions of dollars in new spending for Obamacare will place a massive fiscal burden on future generations of taxpayers.[54] For these reasons and more, Congress should repeal the law in its entirety.

Once this has been done, policymakers should then advance health reforms that move toward patient-centered, market-based health care. Such reforms would promote personal choice and ownership of health insurance; enable the free market to respond to consumer demands; encourage portability of coverage for workers; help civil society, the free markets, and the states to assist those in need; and protect the rights of faith, conscience, and life.

 

 


[1] According to the most recent census data, 86.2 percent of Americans with private health insurance coverage obtained that coverage through an employer. Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011, U.S. Census Bureau, September 2012, p. 65, Table C-1, http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p60-243.pdf (accessed September 20, 2013).

[2] Alyene Senger, “Obamacare’s Impact on Today’s and Tomorrow’s Taxpayers: An Update,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4022, August 21, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/08/obamacares-impact-on-todays-and-tomorrows-taxpayers-an-update.

[3] Joint Committee on Taxation, “Estimated Revenue Effects of a Proposal to Repeal Certain Tax Provisions Contained in the ‘Affordable Care Act (“ACA”)’,” June 15, 2012, and Congressional Budget Office, “Table 2: CBO’s May 2013 Estimate of the Budgetary Effects of the Insurance Coverage Provisions Contained in the Affordable Care Act,” http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44190_EffectsAffordableCareActHealthInsuranceCoverage_2.pdf. The total amount of tax revenue collected from the individual mandate, employer mandate, and 40 percent excise tax on high-cost health plans comes from the CBO’s May 2013 estimate. For all other taxes, the amount of tax revenue totaled comes from the Joint Committee on Taxation’s June 2012 estimation.

[4] Nina Owcharenko, “Saving the American Dream: A Blueprint for Putting Patients First,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3628, June 6, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/06/saving-the-american-dream-a-blueprint-for-putting-patients-first.

[5] The White House, “Affordable, Accessible, and Flexible Health Coverage,” 2007, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/stateoftheunion/2007/initiatives/healthcare.html (accessed September 20, 2013). Recently, the House Republican Study Committee included a standard deduction in its proposal for health reform. See U.S. House of Representatives, Republican Study Committee, “The American Health Care Reform Act,” September 18, 2013, http://rsc.scalise.house.gov/solutions/rsc-betterway.htm (accessed September 25, 2013).

[6] Congressional Budget Office, Key Issues in Analyzing Major Health Insurance Proposals, December 2008, pp. 84–87, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/99xx/doc9924/12-18-keyissues.pdf (accessed September 20, 2013).

[7] John D. Shatto and M. Kent Clemens, “Projected Medicare Expenditures Under Illustrative Scenarios with Alternative Payment Updates to Medicare Providers,” Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Office of the Actuary, May 31, 2013, pp. 8–10, http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/ReportsTrustFunds/Downloads/2013TRAlternativeScenario.pdf (accessed September 20, 2013).

[8] Anna Wilde Mathews, “Many Health Insurers to Limit Choices of Doctors, Hospitals,” The Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323446404579010800462478682.html (accessed September 20, 2013; subscription required).

[9] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “January 2013 Census Shows 15.5 Million People Covered by Health Savings Account/High-Deductible Health Plans (HSA/HDHPs),” June 2013, http://www.ahip.org/HSACensus2013PDF/ (accessed September 20, 2013).

[10] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “Health Savings Accounts and Account-Based Health Plans: Research Highlights,” July 2012, http://www.ahip.org/HSAHighlightsReport072012/ (accessed September 20, 2013).

[11] Devenir, “Health Savings Accounts Surpass $12.4 Billion in 2011,” January 31, 2012, http://www.devenir.com/2012/devenir2011yearendsurvey (accessed September 20, 2013).

[12] For the definition of “qualified medical expenses,” see 26 U.S. Code § 223(d)(2). HSA funds can be used to purchase health insurance only for COBRA continuation health coverage, health insurance purchased during periods of unemployment, Medigap supplemental coverage, or long-term care insurance (within certain limits).

[13] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Planning and Evaluation, “At Risk: Pre-Existing Conditions Could Affect 1 in 2 Americans,” November 2011, http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/reports/2012/pre-existing/index.shtml (accessed September 20, 2013).

[14] Edmund Haislmaier, “HHS Report on Obamacare’s Preexisting Conditions Impact: Say What???” The Heritage Foundation, The Foundry, January 19, 2011, http://blog.heritage.org/2011/01/19/hhs-report-on-obamacare’s-preexisting-conditions-impact-say-what/.

[15] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, “Covering People with Pre-Existing Conditions: Report on the Implementation and Operation of the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan Program,” January 31, 2013, http://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Files/Downloads/pcip_annual_report_01312013.pdf (accessed September 24, 2013).

[16] Douglas W. Elmendorf, letter to Senator Mike Enzi (R–WY), June 21, 2010, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/115xx/doc11572/06-21-high-risk_insurance_pools.pdf (accessed September 20, 2013).

[17] National Association of State Comprehensive Health Insurance Plans, “Pool Membership—2011,” September 2012, http://naschip.org/2012/Quick%20Checks/Pool%20Membership%202011.pdf (accessed September 20, 2013).

[18] Chris Jacobs, “Obamacare: Taking Away Americans’ Health Coverage,” The Heritage Foundation, The Foundry, August 6, 2013, http://blog.heritage.org/2013/08/06/obamacare-taking-away-americans-health-coverage/.

[19] Press release, “New AMA Study Finds Anticompetitive Market Conditions Are Common Across Managed Care Plans,” American Medical Association, November 28, 2012, http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/news/news/2012-11-28-study-finds-anticompetitive-market-conditions-common.page (accessed September 20, 2013).

[20] Michael J. New, “The Effect of State Regulations on Health Insurance Premiums: A Revised Analysis,” Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. 06-04, July 25, 2006, p. 5, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2006/07/the-effect-of-state-regulations-on-health-insurance-premiums-a-revised-analysis.

[21] Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2012: Executive Summary,” April 9, 2013, http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/Mandatesinthestates2012Execsumm.pdf (accessed September 24, 2013).

[22] Chris Jacobs, “Medicare’s Sustainable Growth Rate: Principles for Reform,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2827, July 18, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/07/medicares-sustainable-growth-rate-principles-for-reform.

[23] Robert E. Moffit and Rea S. Hederman, Jr., “Medicare Savings: Five Steps to a Down Payment on Medicare Reform,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3908, April 11, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/04/medicare-savings-5-steps-to-a-downpayment-on-structural-reform.

[24] Alyene Senger, “Obamacare’s Impact on Seniors: An Update,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4019, August 20, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/08/obamacares-impact-on-seniors-an-update.

[25] Shatto and Clemens, “Projected Medicare Expenditures Under Illustrative Scenarios,” pp. 8–10.

[26] Owcharenko, “Saving the American Dream: A Blueprint for Putting Patients First.”

[27] Jon R. Gabel, Ryan Lore, Roland D. McDevitt, Jeremy D. Pickreign, Heidi Whitmore, Michael Slover, and Ethan Levy-Forsythe, “More Than Half of Individual Health Plans Offer Coverage That Falls Short of What Can Be Sold Through Exchanges as of 2014,” Health Affairs, May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/early/2012/05/22/hlthaff.2011.1082 (accessed September 20, 2013; subscription required).

[28] Jacobs, “Obamacare: Taking Away Americans’ Health Coverage.”

[29] For instance, see a 2008 campaign document answering the question “Will I have to change plans?” under the Obama proposal: “No, you will not have to change plans. For those who have insurance now, nothing will change under the Obama plan—except that you will pay less.” Obama for America, “Background Questions and Answers on Health Care Plan,” 2008, http://www.scribd.com/doc/191306/barack-obama-08-healthcare-faq (accessed September 20, 2013).

[30] Amelia M. Haviland, M. Susan Marquis, Roland D. McDevitt, and Neeraj Sood, “Growth of Consumer-Directed Health Plans to One-Half of All Employer-Sponsored Insurance Could Save $57 Billion Annually,” Health Affairs, May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/31/5/1009.abstract (accessed September 20, 2013; subscription required).

[31] Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust, Employer Health Benefits: 2013 Annual Survey, August 2013, p. 56, Exhibit 4.1, http://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/8465-employer-health-benefits-20131.pdf (accessed September 23, 2013).

[32] National Council of State Legislatures, “Out-of-State Health Insurance—Allowing the Purchase (State Implementation Report),” updated September 2012, http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/health/out-of-state-health-insurance-purchases.aspx (accessed September 23, 2013).

[33] Ibid.

[34] For a summary of many of these studies, see Kevin D. Dayaratna, “Studies Show: Medicaid Patients Have Worse Access and Outcomes than the Privately Insured,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2740, November 7, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/11/studies-show-medicaid-patients-have-worse-access-and-outcomes-than-the-privately-insured. See also Scott Gottlieb, “Medicaid Is Worse Than No Coverage at All,” The Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704758904576188280858303612.html (accessed September 23, 2013).

[35] Annie Lowrey, “Study Finds Health Care Use Rises with Expanded Medicaid,” The New York Times, May 2, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/02/business/study-finds-health-care-use-rises-with-expanded-medicaid.html (accessed September 23, 2013).

[36] Vanessa Fuhrmans, “Note to Medicaid Patients: The Doctor Won’t See You,” The Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2007, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118480165648770935.html (accessed September 23, 2013; subscription required).

[37] Nina Owcharenko, “Medicaid Reform: More Than a Block Grant Is Needed,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3590, May 4, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/05/three-steps-to-medicaid-reform.

[38] Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, Health Care Task Force, “A New Medicaid: A Flexible, Innovative, and Accountable Future,” August 30, 2011, http://www.rga.org/homepage/gop-govs-release-medicaid-reform-report/ (accessed September 23, 2013).

[39] Owcharenko, “Medicaid Reform: More Than a Block Grant Is Needed.”

[40] CBS News, “Medicare Fraud: A $60 Billion Crime,” 60 Minutes, September 5, 2010, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-5414390.html (accessed September 23, 2013).

[41] Clifford Levy and Michael Luo, “New York Medicaid Fraud May Reach into Billions,” The New York Times, July 18, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/18/nyregion/18medicaid.html (accessed September 23, 2013).

[42] Nisha Nathan, “Doctor Shortage Could Cause Health Care Crash,” ABC News, November 13, 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/doctor-shortage-health-care-crash/story?id=17708473 (accessed September 23, 2013).

[43] Deloitte, “Deloitte 2013 Survey of U.S. Physicians: Physician Perspectives About Health Care Reform and the Future of the Medical Profession,” 2013, p. 3, http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/us_chs_2013SurveyofUSPhysicians_031813.pdf (accessed September 23, 2013).

[44] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, “Addressing the New Health Care Crisis: Reforming the Medical Litigation System to Improve the Quality of Health Care,” March 2003, p. 16, http://aspe.hhs.gov/daltcp/reports/medliab.pdf (accessed September 23, 2013).

[45] Douglas W. Elmendorf, letter to Senator Orrin Hatch (R–UT), October 9, 2009, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/106xx/doc10641/10-09-tort_reform.pdf (accessed September 23, 2013).

[46] Randolph W. Pate and Derek Hunter, “Code Blue: The Case for Serious State Medical Liability Reform,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1908, January 17, 2006, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2006/01/code-blue-the-case-for-serious-state-medical-liability-reform.

[47] Hans von Spakovsky, “Medical Malpractice Reform: States vs. the Federal Government,” The Heritage Foundation, The Foundry, March 19, 2012, http://blog.heritage.org/2012/03/19/medical-malpractice-reform-states-vs-the-federal-government/.

[48] Institute of Medicine, “The Future of Nursing: Focus on Scope of Practice,” Report Brief, October 2010, http://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2010/The-Future-of-Nursing/Nursing%20Scope%20of%20Practice%202010%20Brief.pdf (accessed September 23, 2013).

[49] Melinda Beck, “Battles Erupt over Filling Doctors’ Shoes,” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323644904578271872578661246.html (accessed September 23, 2013), and Melinda Beck, “Nurse Practitioners Seek Right to Treat Patients on Their Own,” The Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323455104579013193992224008.html (accessed September 23, 2013; subscription required).

[50] National Conference of State Legislatures, “Certificate of Need: State Laws and Programs,” updated March 2012, http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/health/con-certificate-of-need-state-laws.aspx (accessed September 23, 2013).

[51] The Heritage Foundation “Obamacare Anti-Conscience Mandate: An Assault on the Constitution,” Fact Sheet No. 103, February 17, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/factsheets/2012/02/obamacare-anti-conscience-mandate-an-assault-on-the-constitution.

[52] Chuck Donovan, “Obamacare: Impact on Taxpayer Funding of Abortion,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2872, April 19, 2010, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/04/obamacare-impact-on-taxpayer-funding-of-abortion.

[53] Alyene Senger, “Obamacare’s Impact on Doctors—An Update,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4024, August 23, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/08/obamacares-impact-on-doctors-an-update.

[54] Alyene Senger, “Obamacare’s Impact on Today’s and Tomorrow’s Taxpayers: An Update,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4022, August 21, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/08/obamacares-impact-on-todays-and-tomorrows-taxpayers-an-update.

Obamacare Exchanges Launch: What You Need to Know

Today’s launch of Obamacare’s exchanges represents the start of sign-ups for the law’s two new entitlement programs. To guide individuals seeking to understand the process, we’ve compiled answers to some basic questions about the exchanges.

What are exchanges?

In theory, exchanges are just a fancy term for insurance marketplaces, where consumers can shop for the plan that best meets their needs. In practice, however, Obamacare’s exchanges have taken on many regulatory functions that will restrict the choice of plans offered.

Who may use the exchanges?

Any American citizen or legal resident can purchase an exchange policy. However, exchange insurance subsidies are generally restricted to those individuals who 1) do not have access to “affordable” coverage provided by an employer, 2) are not eligible for benefits under Medicare or Medicaid, and 3) earn income under 400 percent of the federal poverty level (about $94,000 for a family of four). Individuals who meet these criteria may qualify for federal insurance subsidies provided on the exchanges.

What kinds of plans are being offered?

Under Obamacare, plans will offer a package of government-mandated “minimum essential benefits” in four tiers—bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. The “richer” the metal level, the lower the enrollee cost sharing—and the higher the premiums. A study in the prestigious journal Health Affairs last year concluded that all of Obamacare’s exchange plans will likely have richer benefits, and potentially higher premiums, than a majority of pre-Obamacare plans sold on the private market.

Will the plans be affordable?

The Congressional Budget Office concluded that premiums on the exchanges could be $2,100 per family higher due to Obamacare. While a recent report by the Administration claimed that premiums will be “lower than projected,” it did not say that premiums will be lower than in the current market. Moreover, many of the people receiving coverage under the law will be enrolled in Medicaid—a government program not accepted by many physicians, where patients often have poor health outcomes.

Will I be able to see my current doctor?

That depends—but in many cases, physician access on exchange plans may be limited. Recent articles in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have emphasized that, to keep down premium increases, many insurance companies have restricted the number of “in-network” doctors or hospitals. Patients may face a choice of traveling longer distances to visit in-network hospitals, or paying higher co-payments to see an out-of-network physician.

What happens if I don’t purchase coverage?

Individuals who do not have insurance through an employer or a government program like Medicare or Medicaid, and who do not buy coverage, may be subject to tax penalties beginning next year for violating Obamacare’s individual mandate. However, because the penalty for violating the mandate starts at $95 in 2014, some may find it preferable to pay a small annual penalty rather than higher monthly premiums.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.