Why Pete Buttigieg’s Health Plan Might Be More Radical than Bernie Sanders’

During the most recent Democratic primary debate in New Hampshire, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg claimed that his health-care plan, unlike the single-payer proposal advocated by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, would “not polarize the American people.” But contra the candidate’s claims, Buttigieg’s health plan advocates a policy—government price controls on the entire health-care sector—even more far-reaching than Sanders’s socialist approach.

Others have exposed how Buttigieg’s plan would force people to buy insurance costing thousands of dollars, whether they want it or not. But his proposal for government price controls across a $4 trillion health-care sector represents the most radical idea yet—because, unlike Sanders’s plan, individuals appear to have no way to opt out.

National Price Controls

Buttigieg’s plan, released in September, would “prohibit health care providers from pricing irresponsibly by capping their out-of-network rates at twice what Medicare pays.” (Upon entering the race for the Democratic presidential nomination last November, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also adopted this rate-capping provision in his health plan.) Buttigieg admits that, by capping out-of-network rates, his proposal would give insurers leverage to demand lower prices for in-network care, creating a de facto system of national price controls for the entire health-care sector.

Imposing price controls on nearly 20 percent of the American economy, and linking those price controls to Medicare rates, would have substantial distortionary impacts. For starters, Medicare often does not reimburse medical providers at a rate to recover their costs. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission estimated last March that hospitals would incur a -11 percent margin on their Medicare patients in 2019.

Moreover, because Medicare payment rates reflect the cost of treating the over-65 population—not many Medicare beneficiaries need maternity care, for instance—even supporters of capping rates have questioned the wisdom of linking such caps to Medicare levels.

More broadly, a national system of price controls could create health-care shortages. Facing reductions in pay, doctors could decide to retire early, and aspiring physicians could avoid the profession entirely. With the United States already facing a shortage of up to 121,900 physicians between now and 2032, Buttigieg’s price controls would reduce the physician supply still further.

Pathway to Single Payer—With No Exit

Despite the contrast he attempts to draw with Sanders’s plan, Buttigieg’s price controls would likely lead to a fully government-run system. Buttigieg admits a desire for his plan to provide a “glide path” to single-payer; its price controls provide an easy mechanism for such a transition.

By reducing the payments that private health insurers can offer doctors and hospitals, Buttigieg would slowly sabotage individuals’ existing coverage, throwing all Americans into a government-run health system. Indeed, his price caps provide an easy mechanism to force more and more individuals off their private coverage. While Buttigieg says he wants to cap payments at double Medicare rates, he could lower that cap over time. Of course, capping private health-care reimbursements at less than Medicare rates would all-but-guarantee private health insurance would cease to exist, because few doctors would agree to accept it.

Patients facing long waits for care would have no way to get around queues created by Buttigieg’s socialistic price controls. Sanders’s single-payer legislation allows physicians and patients to contract privately by paying cash for health-care services. But Buttigieg’s plan does not envision a mechanism for Americans to opt out of his price control regime. If Medicare pays $50 for a service, a patient could not pay a physician more than $100 for that service—no matter how experienced or qualified the physician, and no matter how desperate the patient.

The questionable constitutionality of Buttigieg’s plan belies its purportedly moderate nature. On the one hand, he would compel all individuals to pay for health insurance—whether they want it or not, and whether they use it or not. On the other, he would prohibit individuals from engaging in private transactions with their own doctors and hospitals if the amounts of those transactions exceed federally defined limits.

Differences in tone notwithstanding, Sanders and Buttigieg represent two halves of the same general approach to health care, expanding a technocratic leviathan that will attempt to micromanage nearly one-fifth of the economy from Washington. Doctors and patients, take note.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Nancy Pelosi’s Drug Pricing Proposal

During the midterm election campaign, Democrats pledged to help lower prescription drug prices. Since regaining the House majority in January, the party has failed to achieve consensus on precise legislation to accomplish that objective.

However, on Monday a summary of proposals by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)—which became public via leaks from lobbyists, of course—provided an initial glimpse of the Democrat leadership’s policy approach. Party leaders claimed the leaked document describes an old legislative draft (they would say that, wouldn’t they?).

The Good: Realigning Incentives in Part D

Among other proposals, the Pelosi proposal would rearrange the current Part D prescription drug benefit, and “realign incentives to encourage more efficient management of drug spending.” Under current law, once beneficiaries pass through the Part D “doughnut hole” and into the Medicare catastrophic benefit, the federal government pays for 80 percent of beneficiaries’ costs, insurers pay for 15 percent, and beneficiaries pay for 5 percent.

This existing structure creates two problems. First, beneficiaries’ 5 percent exposure contains no limit, such that seniors with incredibly high drug spending could face out-of-pocket costs well into the thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars.

The Pelosi proposal follows on plans by MedPAC and others to restructure the Part D benefit. Most notably, the bill would institute an out-of-pocket spending limit for beneficiaries (the level of which the draft did not specify), while reducing the federal catastrophic subsidy to insurers from 80 percent to 20 percent. The former would provide more predictability to seniors, while the latter would reduce incentives for insurers to drive up overall drug spending by having seniors hit the catastrophic coverage threshold and thus can shift most of their costs to taxpayers.

The Bad: Price Controls

The Pelosi document talks about drug price “negotiation,” but the policy it proposes represents nothing of the sort. For the 250 largest brand-name drugs lacking two or more generic competitors, the secretary of Health and Human Services would “negotiate” prices. However, Pelosi’s bill “establishes an upper limit for the price reached in any negotiation as no more than” 120 percent of the average price in six countries—Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom—making “negotiation” the de facto imposition of price controls.

Drug manufacturers who refuse to “negotiate” would “be assessed an excise tax equal to 75 percent of annual gross sales in the prior year,” what Pelosi’s office called a “steep, retroactive penalty creat[ing] a powerful financial incentive for drug manufacturers to negotiate and abide by the final price.” Additionally, the “negotiated” price would apply not just to Medicare, but would extend to other forms of coverage, including private health insurance.

But the solution to that dilemma lies in trade policy, or other solutions short of exporting other countries’ price controls to the United States, as outlined in both the Pelosi and Trump approaches. Price controls, whether through the “negotiation” provisions in the Pelosi bill, or related provisions that would require rebates for drugs that have increased at above-inflation rates since 2016, have brought unintended consequences whenever policy-makers attempted to implement them. In this case, price controls would likely lead to a significant slowdown in the development and introduction of new medical therapies.

The Ugly: New Government Spending

While the price controls in the drug pricing plan have attracted the most attention, Democrats have mooted some version of them for years. Price controls in a Democratic drug pricing bill seem unsurprising—but consider what else Democrats want to include:

With enough savings, H.R. 3 could also fund transformational improvements to Medicare that will cover more and cost less—potentially including Medicare coverage for vision, hearing, and dental, and many other vital health system needs.

In other words, Pelosi wants to take any potential savings from imposing drug price controls and use those funds to expand taxpayer-funded health care subsidies. In so doing, she would increase the fiscal obligations to a Medicare program that is already functionally insolvent, and relying solely on accounting gimmicks included in Obamacare to prevent shortfalls in current seniors’ benefits.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Does Andy Slavitt Know Anything about Medicaid?

The debate on health care has seen numerous examples of hyperbolic rhetoric in recent months. But one series of allegations made earlier this month takes the cake, both for its factual ignorance and logical incoherence. That these demonstrably false allegations were made by a former senior official in the Obama administration makes them that much more disconcerting.

While many Americans were enjoying a long Independence Day weekend, former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Andy Slavitt took to Twitter to make the bold claim that Republicans were changing their health-care bill “not just to gut Medicaid, but to allow states to eliminate it.”

Moreover, Slavitt’s allegation reflects not just ignorance of fundamental constitutional principles, but the history of Medicaid itself. Arizona did not join the Medicaid program until 1982, 17 years after Medicaid’s creation, and nearly a decade after every other state joined the program. If, as Slavitt claims, Republicans are concocting some nefarious plot to “allow” states to “eliminate” Medicaid, then why did a Democratic Congress “allow” Arizona not to join Medicaid for nearly two decades after the program’s creation? Again, his allegations are, in a word, nonsense—because he either does not know, or does not wish to know, how Medicaid works.

These Waivers Ain’t New, Buddy

As Slavitt’s general claim is outlandishly ignorant, so too the details supposedly bolstering his assertions. Specifically, he claims that “the new state waiver process in the Senate bill already allows Medicaid to be replaced by giving [people] a subsidy.” Setting aside the question of whether giving some Medicaid beneficiaries access to private insurance coverage represents good policy, this claim likewise lacks any factual basis—because the waiver program he mentions has nothing to do with Medicaid.

Slavitt’s claim about a “new state waiver process” references Section 207 of the Senate bill (pages 138-145 here). That language doesn’t create a “new” state waiver process; rather, it amends an existing waiver program created by Section 1332 of Obamacare. Under Section 1332(a)(2) of the law, states can only use the innovation program to waive specific requirements: 1) the individual mandate to purchase coverage; 2) the employer mandate to offer coverage; 3) subsidies for exchange coverage, which states can take as a block grant and distribute to their citizens through other means; and 4) some insurance regulations, such as the definition of a qualified health plan, essential benefits, and actuarial value requirements (see page 98 here). While the Senate bill would change the way states could apply for waivers, it would not change what provisions states could waive.

Credibility: Shot

While at CMS, Slavitt ran an organization which, as the New York Times noted, “finances health care for one in three Americans and has a budget bigger than the Pentagon’s.” For that reason, there’s no other way to say it: Given the number of false statements in Slavitt’s Medicaid Twitter rant, he is either grossly misinformed about how Medicaid operates—in other words, he was never competent to run such a large organization in the first place—or he’s flat-out lying to the American public now.

Either way, his statements deserve much more scrutiny than they’ve received from an otherwise fawning press. Instead of writing pieces lionizing Slavitt as an Obamacare “rabble-rouser,” analysts should focus more on his misstatements and hypocrisy—his apparent failure to go on Obamacare himself while running the law’s exchanges, and his attacks on Republican plans to cap Medicaid spending, even though Obamacare did the exact same thing to Medicare. The American people deserve an honest, serious debate about the future of health care in our country. Unfortunately, they’re not getting it from Andy Slavitt.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.

White House Budget Summary: Obama’s “One Percent” Solution

According to the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent baselines, the federal government will spend a total of $6.87 trillion on Medicare and $4.36 trillion on Medicaid over the next ten years – that’s $11.2 trillion total, not even counting additional state spending on Medicaid.  Yet President Obama’s budget, released today, contains net deficit savings of only $152 billion from health care programs.  That’s a total savings of only 1.35 percent of the trillions the federal government will spend on health care in the coming decade.  Sadly, it’s another sign the President isn’t serious about real budget and deficit reform.

Overall, the budget:

  • Proposes a total of $401 billion in savings, yet calls for $249 billion in unpaid-for spending due to the Medicare physician reimbursement “doc fix” – thus resulting in only $152 billion in net deficit savings. (The $249 billion presumes a ten year freeze of Medicare physician payments; however, the budget does NOT propose ways to pay for this new spending.)
  • Proposes few structural reforms to Medicare; those that are included – weak as they are – are not scheduled to take effect until 2017, well after President Obama leaves office.  If the proposals are so sound, why the delay?
  • Requests a more than 50% increase – totaling $1.4 billion – for program management at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, of which the vast majority would be used to implement Obamacare.
  • Includes mandatory proposals in the budget that largely track last year’s budget and the President’s September 2011 deficit proposal to Congress, with a few exceptions.  The largest difference between this year’s budget and the prior submissions is a massive increase in savings from reductions to nursing and rehabilitation facilities – $79 billion, compared to a $32.5 billion estimated impact in September 2011.

A full summary follows below.  We will have further information on the budget in the coming days.

Discretionary Spending

When compared to Fiscal Year 2013 appropriated amounts, the budget calls for the following changes in discretionary spending by major HHS divisions (tabulated by budget authority):

  • $37 million (1.5%) increase for the Food and Drug Administration (not including $770 million in increased user fees);
  • $435 million (4.9%) increase for the Health Services and Resources Administration;
  • $97 million (2.2%) increase for the Indian Health Service;
  • $344 million (5.7%) increase for the Centers for Disease Control;
  • $274 million (0.9%) increase for the National Institutes of Health; and
  • $1.4 billion (52.9%) increase for the discretionary portion of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program management account.

With regard to the above numbers for CDC and HRSA, note that these are discretionary numbers only.  The Administration’s budget also would allocate an additional $1 billion mandatory spending from the Prevention and Public Health “slush fund” created in Obamacare, further increasing spending levels.  For instance, CDC spending would be increased by an additional $755 million.

Obamacare Implementation Funding and Personnel:  As previously noted, the budget includes more than $1.4 billion in discretionary spending increases for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which the HHS Budget in Brief claims would be used to “continue implementing key provisions of [Obamacare].”  This funding would finance 712 new bureaucrats within CMS when compared to last fiscal year – a massive increase when compared to a request of 256 new FTEs in last year’s budget proposal.  Overall, the HHS budget proposes an increase of 1,311 full-time equivalent positions within the bureaucracy compared to projections for the current fiscal cycle, and an increase of 3,327 bureaucrats compared to last fiscal year.

The budget includes specific requests related to Obamacare totaling over $2 billion, including:

  • $803.5 million for “CMS activities to support [Exchanges] in FY 2014,” including funding for the federally-funded Exchange, for which the health law itself did not appropriate funding;
  • $837 million for “beneficiary education and outreach activities through the National Medicare Education program and consumer support…including $554 million for the [Exchanges];”
  • $519 million for “general IT systems and other support,” including funding for the federal Exchange;
  • $3.8 million for updates to healthcare.gov;
  • $18.4 million to oversee the medical loss ratio regulations; and
  • $24 million for administrative activities in Medicaid related to “implement[ing] new responsibilities” under Obamacare.

Exchange Funding:  The budget envisions HHS spending $1.5 billion on Exchange grants in 2013.  That’s an increase of over $300 million compared to last year’s estimate of fiscal year 2013 spending – despite the fact that most states have chosen not to create their own Exchanges.  The budget anticipates a further $2.1 billion in spending on Exchange grants in fiscal year 2014.  The health care law provides the Secretary with an unlimited amount of budget authority to fund state Exchange grants through 2015.  However, other reports have noted that the Secretary does NOT have authority to use these funds to construct a federal Exchange.

Abstinence Education Funding:  The budget proposes eliminating the abstinence education funding program, and converting those funds into a new pregnancy prevention program.

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $359.9 Billion, including interactions)

Bad Debts:  Reduces bad debt payments to providers – for unpaid cost-sharing owed by beneficiaries – from 65 percent down to 25 percent over three years, beginning in 2014.  The Simpson-Bowles Commission made similar recommendations in its final report.  Saves $25.5 billion.

Medical Education Payments:  Reduces the Indirect Medical Education adjustment paid to teaching hospitals beginning in 2014, saving $11 billion.  Previous studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) have indicated that IME payments to teaching hospitals may be greater than the actual costs the hospitals incur.

Rural Payments:  Reduces critical access hospital payments from 101% of costs to 100% of costs, saving $1.4 billion, and prohibits hospitals fewer than 10 miles away from the nearest hospital from receiving a critical access hospital designation, saving $700 million.

Anti-Fraud Provisions:  Assumes $400 million in savings from various anti-fraud provisions, including limiting the discharge of debt in bankruptcy proceedings associated with fraudulent activities.

Imaging:  Reduces imaging payments by assuming a higher level of utilization for certain types of equipment, saving $400 million.  Imposes prior authorization requirements for advanced imaging; no savings are assumed, a change from the September 2011 deficit proposal, which said prior authorization would save $900 million.

Pharmaceutical Price Controls:  Expands Medicaid price controls to dual eligible and low-income subsidy beneficiaries participating in Part D, saving $123.2 billion according to OMB.  Some have expressed concerns that further expanding government-imposed price controls to prescription drugs could harm innovation and the release of new therapies that could help cure diseases.

Medicare Drug Discounts:  Proposes accelerating the “doughnut hole” drug discount plan included in PPACA, filling in the “doughnut hole” completely by 2015.  While the budget claims this proposal will save $11.2 billion over ten years, some may be concerned that – by raising drug spending, and eliminating incentives for seniors to choose generic pharmaceuticals over brand name drugs, this provision will actually INCREASE Medicare spending, consistent with prior CBO estimates at the time of PPACA’s passage.

Post-Acute Care:  Reduces various acute-care payment updates (details not specified) and equalizes payment rates between skilled nursing facilities and inpatient rehabilitation facilities, saving $79 billion – a significant increase compared to the $56.7 billion in last year’s budget and the $32.5 billion in proposed savings under the President’s September 2011 deficit proposal.  Equalizes payments between IRFs and SNFs for certain conditions, saving $2 billion.  Adjusts payments to inpatient rehabilitation facilities and skilled nursing facilities to account for unnecessary hospital readmissions and encourage appropriate care, saving a total of $4.7 billion.  Restructures post-acute care reimbursements through the use of bundled payments, saving $8.2 billion.

Physician Payment:  Includes language extending accountability standards to physicians who self-refer for radiation therapy, therapy services, and advanced imaging services, saving $6.1 billion.  Makes adjustments to clinical laboratory payments, designed to align Medicare with private payment rates, saving $9.5 billion.  Expands availability of Medicare data for performance and quality improvement; no savings assumed.

Medicare Drugs:  Reduces payment of physician administered drugs from 106 percent of average sales price to 103 percent of average sales price.  Some may note reports that similar payment reductions, implemented as part of the sequester, have caused some cancer clinics to limit their Medicare patient load.  By including a similar proposal in his budget, President Obama has effectively endorsed these policies.  Saves $4.5 billion.

Medicare Advantage:  Resurrects a prior-year proposal to increase Medicare Advantage coding intensity adjustments; this provision would have the effect of reducing MA plan payments, based on an assumption that MA enrollees are healthier on average than those in government-run Medicare.  Saves $15.3 billion over ten years.  Also proposes $4.1 billion in additional savings by aligning employer group waiver plan payments with average MA plan bids.

Additional Means Testing:  Increases means tested premiums under Parts B and D by five percentage points, beginning in 2017.  Freezes the income thresholds at which means testing applies until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to such premiums.  Saves $50 billion over ten years, and presumably more thereafter, as additional seniors would hit the means testing threshold, subjecting them to higher premiums.

Medicare Deductible Increase:  Increases Medicare Part B deductible by $25 in 2017, 2019, and 2021 – but for new beneficiaries only; “current beneficiaries or near retirees [not defined] would not be subject to the revised deductible.”  Saves $3.3 billion.

Home Health Co-Payment:  Beginning in 2017, introduces a home health co-payment of $100 per episode for new beneficiaries only, in cases where an episode lasts five or more visits and is NOT proceeded by a hospital stay.  MedPAC has previously recommended introducing home health co-payments as a way to ensure appropriate utilization.  Saves $730 million.

Medigap Surcharge:  Imposes a Part B premium surcharge equal to about 15 percent of the average Medigap premium – or about 30 percent of the Part B premium – for seniors with Medigap supplemental insurance that provides first dollar coverage.  Applies beginning in 2017 to new beneficiaries only.  A study commissioned by MedPAC previously concluded that first dollar Medigap coverage induces beneficiaries to consume more medical services, thus increasing costs for the Medicare program and federal taxpayers.  Saves $2.9 billion.

Generic Drug Incentives:  Proposes increasing co-payments for certain brand-name drugs for beneficiaries receiving the Part D low-income subsidy, while reducing co-payments for relevant generic drugs by 15 percent, in an attempt to increase generic usage among low-income seniors currently insulated from much of the financial impact of their purchasing decisions.  Saves $6.7 billion, according to OMB.

Lower Caps on Medicare Spending:  Section 3403 of the health care law established an Independent Payment Advisory Board tasked with limiting Medicare spending to the growth of the economy plus one percentage point (GDP+1) in 2018 and succeeding years.  The White House proposal would reduce this target to GDP+0.5 percent.  The Medicare actuary has previously written that the spending adjustments contemplated by IPAB and the health care law “are unlikely to be sustainable on a permanent annual basis” and “very challenging” – problems that would be exacerbated by utilizing a slower target rate for Medicare spending growth.  According to the budget, this proposal would save $4.1 billion, mainly in 2023.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $41.1 Billion)

Limit Durable Medical Equipment Reimbursement:  Caps Medicaid reimbursements for durable medical equipment (DME) at Medicare rates, beginning in 2014.  The health care law extended and expanded a previous Medicare competitive bidding demonstration project included in the Medicare Modernization Act, resulting in savings to the Medicare program.  This proposal, by capping Medicaid reimbursements for DME at Medicare levels, would attempt to extend those savings to the Medicaid program.  Saves $4.5 billion over ten years.

Rebase Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital Payments:  Proposes beginning DSH payment reductions in 2015 instead of 2014, and “to determine future state DSH allotments based on states’ actual DSH allotments as reduced” by PPACA.  Saves $3.6 billion, all in fiscal 2023.

Medicaid Anti-Fraud Savings:  Assumes $3.7 billion in savings from a variety of Medicaid anti-fraud provisions.  Included in this amount are proposals that would remove exceptions to the requirement that Medicaid must reject payments when another party is liable for a medical claim.  A separate proposal related to the tracking of pharmaceutical price controls would save $8.8 billion.

Transitional Medical Assistance/QI Program:  Provides for temporary extensions of the Transitional Medical Assistance program, which provides Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work, along with the Qualifying Individual program, which provides assistance to low-income seniors in paying Medicare premiums.  The extensions cost $1.1 billion and $590 million, respectively.

“Pay-for-Delay:”  Prohibits brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturers from entering into arrangements that would delay the availability of new generic drugs. Some Members have previously expressed concerns that these provisions would harm innovation, and actually impede the incentives to generic manufacturers to bring cost-saving generic drugs on the market.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $11 billion.

Follow-on Biologics:  Reduces to seven years the period of exclusivity for follow-on biologics.  Current law provides for a twelve-year period of exclusivity, based upon an amendment to the health care law that was adopted on a bipartisan basis in both the House and Senate (one of the few substantive bipartisan amendments adopted).  Some Members have expressed concern that reducing the period of exclusivity would harm innovation and discourage companies from developing life-saving treatments.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $3.3 billion.

State Waivers:  Accelerates from 2017 to 2014 the date under which states can submit request for waivers of SOME of the health care law’s requirements to HHS.  While supposedly designed to increase flexibility, even liberal commentators have agreed that under the law’s state waiver programcritics of Obama’s proposal have a point: It wouldn’t allow to enact the sorts of health care reforms they would prefer” and thatconservatives can’t do any better – at least not under these rules.”  No cost is assumed; however, in its re-estimate of the President’s budget last year, CBO scored this proposal as costing $4.5 billion.

Implementation “Slush Fund:”  Proposes $400 million in new spending for HHS to implement the proposals listed above.

FEHB Contracting:  Similar to last year’s budget, proposes streamlining pharmacy benefit contracting within the Federal Employee Health Benefits program, by centralizing pharmaceutical benefit contracting within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), saving $1.6 billion.  However, this year’s budget goes further in restructuring FEHBP – OPM would also be empowered to modernize benefit designs (savings of $264 million); create a “self-plus-one” benefit option for federal employees and extend benefits to domestic partners (total savings of $5.2 billion, despite the costs inherent in the latter option); and adjust premium levels based on tobacco usage and/or participation in wellness programs (savings of $1.3 billion).  Some individuals, noting that OPM is also empowered to create “multi-state plans” as part of the health care overhaul, may be concerned that these provisions could be part of a larger plan to make OPM the head of a de facto government-run health plan.

Other Health Care Proposal of Note

Tax Credit:  The Treasury Green Book proposes expanding the small business health insurance tax credit included in the health care law.   Specifically, the budget would expand the number of employers eligible for the credit to include all employers with up to 50 full-time workers; firms with under 20 workers would be eligible for the full credit.  (Currently those levels are 25 and 10 full-time employees, respectively.)  The budget also changes the coordination of the two phase-outs based on a firm’s average wage and number of employees, with the changes designed to make more companies eligible for a larger credit.  The changes would begin in the current calendar and tax year (i.e., 2013).  According to OMB, these changes would cost $10.4 billion over ten years – down from last year’s estimate of $14 billion over ten years.  Many may view this proposal as a tacit admission that the credit included in the law was a failure, because its limited reach and complicated nature – firms must fill out seven worksheets to determine their eligibility – have deterred American job creators from receiving this subsidy.  Moreover, the reduced score in this year’s budget compared to last year’s implies that even this expansion of the credit will have a less robust impact than originally anticipated.

Fact Check: Access to Physician Services

In reviewing the transcript of the President’s speech before AARP, there was one dubious statement we overlooked, and it’s this: “A new study says that under their [premium support] plan, if just 5 percent of seniors switch to private plans, 40 percent of doctors who currently take Medicare would stop accepting it.  So think about that.  Millions of seniors would be forced to change doctors.”  As one might expect, there are several problems with this statement:

  • First, it wasn’t a “study” in any sense of the term – and it certainly wasn’t independent.  The President was referring to a back-of-the-envelope calculation by his former budget director in a Bloomberg column this weekOne might argue that the author of the study, Peter Orszag, might be slightly biased towards the President this November, seeing as how he used to work for him.
  • Second, Obama himself mis-characterized the Orszag column.  Here’s what Orszag actually wrote: “About 10 percent of the U.S. population is now enrolled in traditional Medicare, and an additional 5 percent has private Medicare plans.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Ryan plan would cause another 5 percent of the population to shift…”  Orszag based his conclusions on 5 percentage of the entire American public switching away from Medicare, whereas the President said Orszag’s conclusions were based on 5 percent of seniors switching away from Medicare – a much lower bar.  So the President over-stated the impact of Orszag’s “study” and its effects on physician access.
  • Most importantly, Orszag’s conclusions – which were over-estimated by the President – aren’t borne out by recent evidence.  Medicare Advantage enrollment HAS gone up by leaps and bounds in recent years – since 2003, it has more than doubled in both absolute terms and as a percentage of Medicare beneficiaries.  In other words, seniors have switched plans, as the chart below shows.  Yet the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission said this year that “overall, beneficiary access to [Medicare physician] fee schedule services is good.”  If Orszag believes that beneficiaries switching to private plans would cause doctors to stop seeing Medicare patients, then why did a 100 percent increase in Medicare Advantage enrollment not have a significant effect on access to physician services in traditional Medicare?

Peter Orszag has made ludicrous claims before.  He previously said that Obamacare’s CLASS act would be “on a firm financial footing of its own,” only to watch as the program collapsed even before it began.  Given the evidence above, his claims about physician access appear as logical as his claims about the CLASS Act, and should be taken just as seriously.

“Medicare Quantitative Easing:” Sebelius Channels Ben Bernanke

The Administration announced today its projection that Medicare Advantage enrollment will rise next year.  What it did NOT mention in its announcement is why the program’s enrollment may climb: Because of a Medicare Advantage demonstration program costing more than $8 billion, and implemented solely by executive fiat, that looks suspiciously like an attempt to avoid the effects of Obamacare’s $300 billion in Medicare Advantage cuts prior to the 2012 election.  In other words, even as the Administration implements the cuts with one hand, its demonstration program – which amounts to a three-year Obamacare waiver for seniors – temporarily undoes the cuts with the other, because Secretary Sebelius has decided to spend an additional $8 billion purely on her say-so.

This attempt by the Administration to essentially print money so its Medicare Advantage problem goes away before the 2012 election has not escaped criticism.  Both the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission and the Government Accountability Office have raised serious questions about the demonstration program.  One report by GAO suggested the program may exceed the Administration’s statutory authority.  The Associated Press also reported on the Medicare Advantage demonstration last year, noting that the program “could head off service cuts that would have been a [political] headache for Obama and Democrats in next year’s elections.”  Even a former Democrat staffer who worked in the Clinton Administration admitted that the effort amounted to a political stunt: “It’s fair to say that [Medicare] could not tolerate dislocation, given the political climate.”

Some conservatives have criticized Chairman Bernanke’s latest efforts at quantitative easing, noting that the Federal Reserve’s initiatives to print money could prove difficult to unwind in the longer term and lead to inflation.  Likewise, Secretary Sebelius’ efforts to print $8 billion to solve a political problem could prove the tip of the iceberg in its long-term fiscal effects.  The Administration assumes all the Medicare spending reductions will go into effect, but the Medicare Advantage demonstration program illustrates how the Obama White House has already reversed one of the major spending reductions – the Medicare Advantage cuts – to fend off political dissent during the President’s re-election campaign.  So either seniors will lose access to Medicare Advantage plans, the Obama Administration will continue to undo the cuts – thus causing the deficit to increase – or some combination of the two will take place.  Either way, Secretary Sebelius’ “political quantitative easing” when it comes to Medicare Advantage is not likely to end well for seniors, or for taxpayers.

President Obama’s Twofold Dishonesty on Cutting Medicare Benefits

Amidst the debate on the campaign trail, there’s been a lot of heated rhetoric of late about Medicare “benefits” and who’s doing what (or not) to them.  For instance, in a recent speech the President said that “I’ve proposed reforms that will save Medicare money by getting rid of wasteful spending in the health care system.  Reforms that will not touch your Medicare benefits.”

There’s only one problem: That statement is flat-out FALSE.  The President HAS enacted cuts to Medicare benefits – namely, additional means-testing in Obamacare – and proposed even more Medicare benefit cuts.  For instance, in his budget submitted to Congress this spring, the President proposed:

  • Increasing means-tested premiums under Parts B and D by 15%, and freezing the income thresholds at which means testing applies until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to such premiums;
  • Increasing the Medicare Part B deductible by $25 in 2017, 2019, and 2021;
  • Introducing a home health co-payment of $100 per episode in cases where an episode lasts five or more visits and is NOT proceeded by a hospital stay; and
  • Imposing a Part B premium surcharge equal to about 15 percent of the average Medigap premium – or about 30 percent of the Part B premium – for seniors with Medigap supplemental insurance that provides first dollar coverage.

The problem is not necessarily the policy proposals for these particular benefit cuts, which many may find meritorious.  The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) has previously recommended introducing home health co-payments as a way to ensure appropriate utilization.  Congresses controlled by both Republicans and Democrats have enacted some (limited) means-testing in Medicare.  And Medigap reform has been an element of bipartisan proposals to extend Medicare’s solvency and make the program more efficient.

Instead, the fundamental problem is the President’s twofold dishonesty when it comes to cutting Medicare benefits.  First, in saying that he hasn’t proposed cutting Medicare benefits when he has.  Second, and just as importantly, in the way he has proposed cutting those benefits – all the benefit changes the President proposed in his budget would not take effect until 2017, after he leaves office.  Just like with the Cadillac tax – scheduled to take effect in 2018 – or the massive changes to Exchange insurance subsidies that will make health care less affordable after 2019, Barack Obama wants to give away all the government “goodies” while he’s in office – and stick the next President with the bill after he leaves.  That’s not leadership; that’s the antithesis of leadership.

Liberal Distortion on Medicare Affordability

In an article published by Health Affairs last week, researchers for the liberal Commonwealth Fund reported on a survey that concluded seniors in Medicare were less likely than those with employer-provided coverage to encounter problems with medical bills or experience access problems due to cost.  There’s only one problem with that claim – it’s inherently illogical.  As the Congressional Research Service noted back in a 2009 report, traditional Medicare – that is, Medicare fee-for-service WITHOUT supplemental coverage – covers a percentage of expected health costs (i.e., actuarial value) between five and 15 percent LOWER than the average employer-provided health plan.  So why would seniors report their Medicare coverage – which covers a smaller percentage of health costs – results in fewer cost-related problems?

The answer is simple: Seniors responding to the Commonwealth survey weren’t just responding to their experiences in traditional Medicare – they were responding to their experiences with Medicare supplemental coverage.  This paragraph buried in the Health Affairs article tells the true story:

The Commonwealth Fund survey does not ask Medicare respondents whether they currently have any supplemental coverage.  However, respondents do list all current sources of insurance coverage, and 83 percent of adults age sixty five or older reported having Medicare as well as additional coverage through the individual market, an employer, or Medicaid.  Given the relatively small sample size of those without supplemental coverage, we chose not to compare the experiences of those with and without such coverage.

The fact is, about 93 percent of beneficiaries have Medicare supplemental coverage, or participated in Medicare Advantage plans, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.*  And with many of those supplemental policies offering first-dollar coverage, many seniors can go to any doctor they like, as often as they like, and not pay a single penny out-of-pocket for doing so.  What’s not to like?

Well, when it comes to the integrity of this study, there’s a LOT not to like.  The premise of the article – like the premise of virtually all of Commonwealth’s work – is that government-run coverage is better than private coverage.  And the fact that more than nine in ten seniors feel the need to obtain supplemental coverage to protect them from cost-sharing from the supposedly “affordable” Medicare program proved an inconvenient truth to the article’s researchers.  So Commonwealth deliberately designed their survey not to ask about Medicare supplemental policies, and “chose not to compare the experiences of those with and without such coverage” – because to do so might show that in reality, traditional Medicare on its own, WITHOUT supplemental coverage, is much less popular than private health coverage.  And the organization’s ideological objectives – “government good, private sector bad” – wouldn’t tolerate such a conclusion.

So both the survey, and the article resulting from it, are both inherently flawed and ideologically biased.  The real question is why a journal like Health Affairs would ever publish such a piece in the first place.

 

* The Commonwealth survey noted that 83 percent of seniors have supplemental coverage; the difference between the 93 percent MedPAC number and the 83 percent figure in the Commonwealth survey likely reflects the fact that the latter survey did not specifically ask respondents to report Medicare supplemental policies.

Administration Puts Politics over Taxpayers

This morning the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on a Medicare Advantage demonstration program costing more than $8 billion, and implemented solely by executive fiat, that looks suspiciously like an attempt to avoid the effects of Obamacare’s cuts on the program prior to the 2012 election.  The Associated Press previously reported on the Medicare Advantage demonstration last year, noting that the program “could head off service cuts that would have been a [political] headache for Obama and Democrats in next year’s elections.”  Even a former Democrat staffer who worked in the Clinton Administration admitted that the effort amounted to a political stunt: “It’s fair to say that [Medicare] could not tolerate dislocation, given the political climate.”

Under questioning at today’s hearing, Medicare head Jonathan Blum conceded that not a single outside non-partisan entity has endorsed the Administration’s approach.  By contrast, both the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission and the Government Accountability Office have raised serious questions about the demonstration program.  In fact, a recent follow-up report by GAO suggested the program may exceed the Administration’s statutory authority.  It’s pretty ironic that the Administration that so self-righteously proclaimed its adherence to “sound science” – “It is about letting scientists…do their jobs…and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient; especially when it’s inconvenient” – now ignores all non-partisan experts when it comes to making political decisions in an election year.

Blum also admitted that the Administration wouldn’t actually know whether the multi-billion dollar program will save any money until after it’s completed.  Perhaps not surprisingly, he didn’t commit the Administration to reimbursing taxpayers for the more than $8 billion in additional government spending if the program doesn’t end up saving money.  Three years ago, Vice President Biden famously said we needed to spend more money to keep from going bankrupt.  Based on this morning’s hearing, it would appear that the Administration has now resorted to spending more taxpayer money to keep from losing an election.