Medicare Trustees’ Report

Summary:  The report issued by the Medicare trustees notes several funding challenges for the program in both the short and long term.  The Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, which is funded primarily by payroll taxes and finances Medicare Part A, is “not adequately financed over the next ten years” according to the trustees’ assumptions.  The report projects that the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will be exhausted by 2019—the same year of exhaustion as in last year’s report, but at an earlier point within the year, due to lower payroll tax receipts and higher-than-expected expenditures.

While Medicare Parts B and D, financed by the Supplemental Medical Insurance Trust Fund, are considered adequately financed by the trustees, this determination stems largely from the fact that these portions of Medicare can—and do—claim a large and growing share of federal general revenues.  The report notes that Part B costs have risen by an average 9.6% annually over the past five years, and is likely to grow by about 8% annually over the next decade, presuming Congress continues to override scheduled reductions in Medicare physician payment reimbursements.

In the longer term, the trustees project Medicare spending to rise sharply over the next 75 years.  The report projects that by 2082, overall spending on Medicare will more than triple, from 3.2% of national gross domestic product (GDP) to 10.8%—nearly twice the projected size of Social Security, and more than one in every ten dollars spent in the private and public sectors.

Medicare “Trigger”:  For the third consecutive year, the trustees report includes a finding that general revenue Medicare spending—that is, Medicare spending not financed by payroll taxes, or by beneficiary premiums and co-payments—will exceed 45% of total Medicare outlays within the next seven fiscal years.  This “trigger” language was included in Title VIII of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 at the behest of the Republican Study Committee, to provide a mechanism for policy-makers to measure the fiscal soundness of the Medicare program, and for Congress to consider ways to reform its operations should entitlement spending continue to rise.

The trustees’ warning means that, absent a change in current law, the next President will be required to submit legislation to Congress providing a remedy to bring general revenue Medicare spending within 45% of total Medicare outlays.  In addition, the 111th Congress would be required to consider legislation addressing the funding warning by the summer of 2009, with special discharge opportunities available in both the House and Senate should leadership not bring legislation to the floor of each chamber.  However, the “trigger” provision will not apply should Congress enact legislation remedying the trustees’ latest funding warning this year.

Additional Background:  Because of the uncertainties associated with budgetary projections spanning many decades, there are some suggestions that the significant unfunded liabilities included in the trustees’ report may actually underestimate the losses Medicare faces.  A November 2007 report by the Congressional Budget Office released 75-year projections materially divergent from the analysis released by the Medicare trustees.  The trustees’ report projects Medicare spending to consume nearly 11% of total GDP by the end of the 75-year period, while CBO estimates that Medicare will consume more than one in six dollars spent in the United States (17% of GDP).  The disparity in the two projections stems from the trustees’ assumption that excess cost growth—that is, the annual growth in health spending above the growth in GDP—would decline much more rapidly than both current and past levels of health care spending.[1]

Using data from the CBO report, as well as the trustees’ 2007 update, former Medicare public trustee Tom Saving analyzed the size of Medicare’s unfunded obligations.  If the CBO projections are accurate, Medicare faces 75-year obligations of $38.4 trillion and infinite horizon obligations of $84.2 trillion, as opposed to $34 trillion and $74 trillion respectively under the assumptions in last year’s official trustees’ report.[2]

While the specific amounts of Medicare’s future unfunded obligations by definition have yet to be determined, the trustees’ long-range model may make it more likely that the trustees would underestimate rather than overestimate the size of the shortfall which Medicare faces.  Fiscal prudence may therefore dictate that given that uncertainty, Congress should make every effort to restore Medicare’s fiscal solvency now, so that future policy-makers will have a margin for error should further reforms be needed some decades from now.  As the CBO report concludes, “the main message [from both reports] is that health care spending is projected to rise significantly and that changes in federal law will be necessary to avoid or mitigate a substantial increase in federal spending on Medicare.”[3]

Comparison with Prior Year Data:  In addition to the updated projections regarding the date of the Medicare trust funds’ exhaustion, the trustees’ report also includes totals for Medicare’s unfunded obligations for a 75-year budget window and an “infinite horizon” projection.  Comparison charts for those projections follow:

 

Unfunded Obligation Projections for 75-Year Budget Window (2008-2082)

  2007 Trustees’ Report

(in trillions of dollars)

2008 Trustees’ Report

(in trillions of dollars)

Part A (Hospital Insurance) $11.6 (1.6% of GDP) $12.4 (1.6% of GDP)
Part B (Obligations less beneficiary premiums) $13.9 (1.9% of GDP) $15.7 (2.0% of GDP)
Part D (Obligations less beneficiary premiums and state “clawback” payments) $8.4 (1.2% of GDP) $7.9 (1.0% of GDP)
TOTAL $33.9 (4.7% of GDP) $36.0 (4.6% of GDP)

 

Unfunded Obligation Projections for Infinite Horizon

  2007 Trustees’ Report

(in trillions of dollars)

2008 Trustees’ Report

(in trillions of dollars)

Part A (Hospital Insurance) $29.5 (2.6% of GDP) $34.4 (2.6% of GDP)
Part B (Obligations less beneficiary premiums) $27.7 (2.4% of GDP) $34.0 (2.6% of GDP)
Part D (Obligations less beneficiary premiums and state “clawback” payments) $17.1 (1.5% of GDP) $17.2 (1.3% of GDP)
TOTAL $74.3 (6.5% of GDP) $85.6 (6.5% of GDP)

In general, the overall size of the unfunded obligations has remained nearly constant as a percentage of GDP, while growing in absolute dollar terms.  Of particular note is the fact that while Part A obligations remained constant in GDP terms, and Part B obligations rose as a percentage of GDP, the obligations associated with the privately-administered Part D prescription drug benefit remained constant in dollar terms and decreased as a percentage of GDP.  Although introduction of a prescription drug benefit has significantly increased Medicare’s unfunded obligations in absolute terms, the fact that competition among Part D participants has slowed the growth of its costs suggests that similar efforts to inject competition into Medicare Parts A and B could comprise one element of comprehensive Medicare reform.

Revenue-Based “Reform” and Its Impact:  Several studies have examined ways in which the Medicare program could be made fiscally solvent by increasing revenues, and these options appear neither economically viable nor politically palatable.  In 2005, the Heritage Foundation published a report using that year’s trustee data to determine the level of payroll taxes needed to close Medicare’s funding gap.  The report noted that, in order to achieve a 75-year balance, Medicare payroll taxes would need nearly to quintuple—from the current 2.9% up to 13.4%, where they would remain until 2079.  The study also found that this tax increase would sharply affect economic growth, lowering real GDP levels by nearly $200 billion annually (resulting in lower corporate and income tax receipts), and reducing private sector employment levels by more than 2.2 million jobs over the course of a decade.[4]  In other words, by decreasing personal income levels, a significant tax increase to ensure Medicare’s solvency would reduce personal consumption at rates that could have a long-term stagnating effect on the American economy.

Former Medicare public trustee Tom Saving has also published some unofficial projections about the level of beneficiary contributions required for Medicare to achieve fiscal balance, presuming that the share of general revenues used to finance the Medicare program remains constant.  In the case of such a scenario whereby only seniors pay for the increase in Medicare spending, premiums would rise exponentially, such that by 2081, retirees would be paying premiums in a range of $3,000 to $4,900 per month in year 2006 dollars.[5]  Although some additional cost-sharing for beneficiaries may be necessary in the context of overall Medicare reform, the idea that seniors could pay the future equivalent of $30,000-$50,000 annually in premiums alone is unrealistic.

Reform Options:  In light of the difficulties discussed above with revenue-based options to solve Medicare’s fiscal woes, a more feasible alternative might couple targeted opportunities for increased beneficiary cost-sharing with reforms designed to empower beneficiaries with the information and incentives needed to direct and control their health spending.  Comprehensive proposals to reform Medicare in this vein could include:

Premium Support:  This model would convert Medicare into a system similar to the Federal Employees Benefit Health Plan (FEHBP), in which beneficiaries would receive a defined contribution from Medicare to purchase a health plan of their choosing.  Previously incorporated into alternative RSC budget proposals, a premium support plan would provide a level playing field between traditional Medicare and private insurance plans, providing comprehensive reform, while confining the growth of Medicare spending to the annual statutory raise in the defined contribution limit, thus ensuring long-term fiscal stability.

Consumer-Driven Health Options:  These reforms would build on the success of the Health Savings Account (HSA) model in reducing health care cost growth for the under-65 population.  Reforms in this area would alter the existing prohibition forbidding holders of HSAs from contributing additional funds to their accounts once they become Medicare-eligible.  A new payment mechanism could allow these beneficiaries to keep their HSA-compatible insurance policy into retirement, with Medicare financing a portion of the premium.  In addition, reforms to Medicare Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs) could make them more attractive to beneficiaries who do not have an existing HSA, providing additional incentives for seniors to become more cost-conscious when considering health care treatment options.

Restructure Cost-Sharing Requirements:  This concept would restructure the existing system of deductibles, co-payments, and shared costs, which can vary based on the service provided.  Additionally, Medicare currently lacks a catastrophic cap on beneficiary cost-sharing, leading some seniors to purchase Medigap policies that insulate beneficiaries from out-of-pocket costs and provide little incentive to contain health spending.  Reforms in this area would rationalize the current system, generating budgetary savings and reducing the growth of health spending.

Means Testing:  This idea would establish an income-related Part D premium consistent with the Part B “means testing” included in Title VIII of the Medicare Modernization Act.  The proposal—which was included in the President’s Fiscal Year 2009 budget proposal—would achieve savings of $3.2 billion over five years.  The RSC has previously included similar proposals in its budget documents as one way to constrain costs and ensure consistency between a Part B benefit that is currently means-tested and a Part D benefit that is not.

Increase Medicare Part B Premium:  The RSC has previously proposed increasing the Part B premium from 25% to 50% of total Medicare Part B costs, consistent with the original goal of the program.  This concept would not impact low-income seniors, as Medicaid pays Medicare premiums for individuals with incomes under 120% of the federal poverty level.

Conclusion: The Medicare funding warning issued by the trustees last year, and again this year, provides an opportunity to re-assess the program’s structure and finance.  These two consecutive warnings—coupled with the trustees’ estimate that the Medicare trust fund will be exhausted in just over a decade’s time—should prompt Congress to consider ways to reduce the growth of overall Medicare costs, particularly those which utilize competition and consumer empowerment to create a more efficient and cost-effective Medicare program.

The Administration has put forward two separate proposals—the first in its Fiscal Year 2009 budget submission to Congress, the second as part of its formal submission of legislation (H.R. 5480) required under the MMA “trigger”—to address Medicare’s long-term solvency issues and begin a process of comprehensive reform.  Many conservatives are likely to view the trustees’ warning as providing another impetus for action on proposals that curb soaring entitlement spending, using the measures described above to advance the discussion beyond annual funding warnings and toward actions that ensure Medicare’s long-term fiscal stability.

 

[1] Congressional Budget Office, “The Long-Term Outlook for Health Care Spending,” (Washington, DC, November 2007), available online at http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/87xx/doc8758/11-13-LT-Health.pdf (accessed March 24, 2008), p. 16.

[2] Andrew Rettenmaier and Tom Saving, “Medicare’s Future Burden: Trustees versus CBO Estimates,” (College Station, TX, Private Enterprise Research Center, Texas A&M University, March 2008), available online at http://www.heritage.org/research/HealthCare/upload/Medicares_Future_Burden.pdf (accessed March 25, 2008), pp. 16-19.

[3] CBO, “Long-Term Outlook,” p. 16.

[4] Tracy Foertsch and Joe Antos, “The Economic and Fiscal Effects of Financing Medicare’s Unfunded Liabilities,” (Washington, DC, Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Paper CDA05-06, October 11, 2005), available online at http://www.heritage.org/Research/HealthCare/upload/83702_1.pdf (accessed March 24, 2008), pp. 7-9.

[5] Rettenmaier and Saving, “Medicare’s Future Burden,” p. 8.

President’s Medicare “Trigger” Proposals

Background:  Title VIII of the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) includes provisions requiring the President to submit legislation within 15 calendar days of his annual budget submission in the event of a funding warning being issued by the Medicare trustees.  Because the trustees last April submitted their second consecutive warning that Medicare is projected to claim a growing share of general revenues within the next seven years, the President put forward his proposals to address the pending funding shortfall.  Under provisions established in statute, the legislative proposals will be introduced by the House Majority and Minority Leaders on the President’s behalf within three legislative days.

During the conference committee’s consideration of MMA, the funding warning mechanism was included at the behest of the Republican Study Committee as one device to help alleviate conservatives’ concerns about Medicare’s long-term solvency and ensure that Medicare’s claims on general budgetary revenues would not overwhelm either other federal budgetary priorities or the national debt.  By providing “fast-track” procedures for considering bills to improve the program’s solvency, the Medicare trigger also provides conservatives with another opportunity to examine more fundamental reforms to the way seniors’ health care is financed and delivered.

Summary of Proposal:  The Administration’s legislative proposal to address the “trigger” contains two titles.  The first title puts forward suggestions to make the Medicare purchasing system more cost-effective from a budgetary standpoint.  The second incorporates liability reforms that will reduce Medicare expenditures, as well as additional means-testing proposals that will increase Medicare revenues by raising premiums on wealthy seniors.  A preliminary summary of the legislation follows:

Value-based Purchasing:  This concept, also known as “pay-for-performance,” would vastly expand the federal government’s role in health care by adjusting physician and provider reimbursement levels to reflect successful patient outcomes on a risk-adjusted basis.  The proposed legislative package would provide for greater transparency of price and quality measures, and would further authorize the Secretary to take steps to adjust reimbursement levels in order to purchase care from those providers which provide the greatest value to beneficiaries and the Medicare program.  The legislation also requires the Secretary to make high-deductible health plans available in the Medicare program, and provide a transition for individuals not yet enrolled in Medicare who own Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).

While policy-makers of all political stripes believe in providing consumers with additional price and quality transparency information, the further step of tying Medicare reimbursement levels crafted by federal bureaucrats to either process or outcome measures could prove much more problematic.  Although its advocates believe pay-for-performance can achieve significant budgetary savings, existing Congressional Budget Office (CBO) models have failed to realize any measurable impact on future Medicare expenditures.  Additionally, some conservatives may be concerned that this methodology would deepen the government’s role in health care by altering the fundamental doctor-patient relationship, leading to a more intrusive federal bureaucracy dictating the terms of patient care.

Medical Liability Reform: This proposal would help bring down health spending both within and outside Medicare by helping to eliminate frivolous lawsuits and providing reasonable levels of compensation to victims of medical malpractice.  Provisions of the bill include a three-year statute of limitations, a cap on non-economic damages of $250,000, and reasonable limits on attorney contingency fees charged to successful claimants.

In 2003, the Congressional Budget Office scored a similar liability reform bill passed by the House (H.R. 5) as lowering Medicare spending by $11.2 billion over a ten-year period.  While CBO staff have indicated that state liability reforms in the intervening time have reduced the savings level below the baseline for federal liability reform, savings from passage of the President’s proposal would likely still generate several billion dollars in savings to Medicare.

Means Testing:  The legislation proposes to establish an income-related Part D premium consistent with the Part B “means testing” included in Title VIII of the Medicare Modernization Act.  The proposal—which was included in the Fiscal Year 2009 budget—would achieve savings of $3.2 billion over five years.  The RSC has previously included similar proposals in its budget documents as one way to constrain costs and ensure consistency between a Part B benefit that is currently means-tested and a Part D benefit that is not.

Other Reform Options:  The legislative package advanced by the Administration comes on the heels of a Fiscal Year 2009 budget that proposed $178 billion in Medicare savings over the next five years, largely through adjustments to provider reimbursements.  In addition to the various proposals put forward by the Administration and described above, the opportunity afforded by the trigger could be used to advance other comprehensive proposals to reform Medicare, which could include:

Premium Support:  This model would convert Medicare into a system similar to the Federal Employees Benefit Health Plan (FEHBP), in which beneficiaries would receive a defined contribution from Medicare to purchase a health plan of their choosing.  Previously incorporated into alternative RSC budget proposals, a premium support plan would provide a level playing field between traditional Medicare and private insurance plans, providing comprehensive reform, while confining the growth of Medicare spending to the annual statutory raise in the defined contribution limit, thus ensuring long-term fiscal stability.

Restructure Cost-Sharing Requirements:  This concept would restructure the existing system of deductibles, co-payments, and shared costs, which currently can vary based on the type of service provided.  Additionally, Medicare currently lacks a catastrophic cap on beneficiary cost-sharing, leading some seniors to purchase Medigap policies that insulate beneficiaries from deductibles and co-payments and therefore provide little incentive to contain health spending.  Reforms in this area would rationalize the current system, generating budgetary savings and reducing the growth of health spending.

Increase Medicare Part B Premium:  The RSC has previously proposed increasing the Part B premium from 25% to 50% of total Medicare Part B costs, consistent with the original goal of the program.  This concept would not impact low-income seniors, as Medicaid pays Medicare premiums for individuals with incomes under 120% of the federal poverty level.

Bipartisan Commission:  This proposal would provide an expedited mechanism requiring Congress to hold an up-or-down vote on the recommendations of a bipartisan commission examining ways to reform Medicare and other federal entitlements.

Sequestration Mechanism: This proposal would cap the growth of overall Medicare spending levels, and provide adjustments in benefit structures in the event that spending exceeded statutory levels.  The budget submission to Congress did include the proposal that physician payments be reduced 0.4% for every year in which general tax revenues cover more than 45% of Medicare costs—the level at which the Medicare Modernization Act required that a funding warning be issued, and action taken by Congress.  The Administration proposal is designed to provide Congress with an impetus to embrace comprehensive entitlement reform by requiring across-the-board cuts absent pre-emptive legislative action.

Conclusion: The Medicare funding warning issued by the trustees last year provides an opportunity to re-assess the program’s structure and finance.  While competition among drug companies has ensured that expenditures for the MMA’s prescription drug benefit remain below the bill’s original estimates, introduction of pharmaceutical coverage has dramatically increased the overall growth of health care costs within the Medicare program, leading to the trustees’ funding warning.  The confluence of these two events should prompt Congress to consider the ways in which competition could be used to reduce the growth of overall Medicare costs, similar to the way in which the market for pharmaceutical coverage reduced the estimated cost of the Part D prescription drug benefit.

The Administration has put forward two separate proposals—the first in its budget submission to Congress last week, the second as part of its formal “trigger” submission this week—to address Medicare’s long-term solvency issues and begin a process of comprehensive reform.  Many conservatives are likely to view the President’s proposals as a positive first step in the discussions about ways to curb soaring entitlements, while considering additional proposals described above to advance the discussion further and to ensure Medicare’s long-term fiscal stability.

Health Care Proposals in Fiscal Year 2009 Budget

Summary:  In submitting his Fiscal Year 2009 Budget request to Congress, President Bush proposed a number of health-related changes that would achieve budgetary savings to both mandatory and discretionary spending.  As part of this package, the Administration has proposed a package that would reduce the growth of Medicare spending from 7.2% to 5.0% to meet requirements under the Medicare Modernization Act.

Mandatory Spending—Medicaid/SCHIP:

The budget proposal includes $1.8 billion in Medicaid savings in Fiscal Year 2009 and $17.4 billion over the next five years.  Budgetary savings would be achieved by realigning reimbursement rates for family planning services at the statutory Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) rate ($3.3 billion in savings over five years), and by aligning reimbursement rates for all administrative services and case management at 50% (total $6.6 billion in savings over the five-year window).  Additional savings over the next five years would be achieved through adjustments to pharmacy reimbursements ($1.1 billion), asset verification ($1.2 billion), and cost allocation ($1.77 billion).

The budget proposes an additional $2.2 billion in SCHIP spending for Fiscal Year 2009, and $19.7 billion over the five year period.  The budget includes outreach grants of $50 million in 2009, and $100 million annually in subsequent years, for state and local governments as well as community-based organizations to engage in activities designed to increase enrollment of eligible children.  Lastly, the budget proposes to simplify SCHIP eligibility by clarifying the definition of income, eliminating the “income disregard” system that has been a source of concern among many conservatives.

Mandatory Spending—Medicare:

The budget includes several proposals to reduce the overall growth in Medicare spending.  Overall, Medicare funding would fall $178 billion below the baseline over the next five years.  These proposals would not constitute overall “cuts” to the Medicare program, but would instead reduce its growth from 7.2% to 5.0%.  Highlights of the budget submission include the following:

Provider Adjustments: The Administration proposal would freeze payment rates for hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, long-term care and outpatient hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers, inpatient rehabilitation facilities, and home health providers through Fiscal Year 2011, and provide a –0.65% annual market basket update thereafter, saving $112.93 billion over five years.  The savings derived from flat-level payments would not mean that providers would not continue to receive increased reimbursements from the federal government, as the level, number, and intensity of services provided would still continue to grow.

Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Payments: Medicare DSH payments, which compensate hospitals that serve large numbers of low-income individuals, would be reduced by 30% over two years, saving $20.7 billion over five years.  This modest reduction in payments to hospitals would recognize the significantly enhanced benefits provided to seniors, particularly those with low incomes, as part of the Medicare Modernization Act.

Medical Education: The budget would eliminate duplicate Indirect Medical Education (IME) payments made to hospitals on behalf of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries, and would reduce the IME add-on by 60% over the next three years, saving a total of $21.75 billion over five years.

Means Testing:  The budget proposes to end annual indexing of income-related Part B premiums and establish an income-related Part D premium consistent with the Part B “means testing” included in Title VIII of the Medicare Modernization Act.  The proposals would achieve total savings of $5.75 billion over five years.  The RSC has previously included similar proposals in its budget documents as one way to constrain costs and ensure consistency between a Part B benefit that is currently means-tested and a Part D benefit that is not.

Other Savings:  Additional savings over the five year budget window would come from a reduction in the rental period for oxygen equipment ($3 billion), extending Medicare Secondary Payor for the End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) program from 30 to 60 months ($1.1 billion), eliminating bad debt payments over four years ($8.5 billion), and other regulatory and administrative actions ($4.7 billion).

Medicare Funding Trigger

Concurrent with the budget submission, the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) requires the President to submit to Congress within 15 days a proposal to remedy the Medicare “excess general revenue Medicare funding” warning announced by the Medicare trustees last spring.  In addition to the savings package described above, the opportunity afforded by the trigger could be used to advance more comprehensive proposals, which could include:

Premium Support: This model would convert Medicare into a system similar to the Federal Employees Benefit Health Plan (FEHBP), in which beneficiaries would receive a defined contribution from Medicare to purchase a health plan of their choosing.  Previously incorporated into alternative RSC budget proposals, a premium support plan would provide a level playing field between traditional Medicare and private insurance plans, providing comprehensive reform, while confining the growth of Medicare spending to the annual statutory raise in the defined contribution limit, thus ensuring long-term fiscal stability.

Restructure Cost-Sharing Requirements:  This concept would restructure the existing system of deductibles, co-payments, and shared costs, which currently can vary based on the type of service provided.  Additionally, Medicare currently lacks a catastrophic cap on beneficiary cost-sharing, leading some seniors to purchase Medigap policies that insulate beneficiaries from deductibles and co-payments and therefore provide little incentive to contain health spending.  Reforms in this area would rationalize the current system, generating budgetary savings and reducing the growth of health spending.

Increase Medicare Part B Premium:  The RSC has previously proposed increasing the Part B premium from 25% to 50% of total Medicare Part B costs, consistent with the original goal of the program.  This concept would not impact low-income seniors, as Medicaid pays Medicare premiums for individuals with incomes under 120% of the federal poverty level.

Medical Liability Reform: This proposal would help bring down health spending both within and outside Medicare by helping to eliminate frivolous lawsuits and providing reasonable levels of compensation to victims of medical malpractice.  In 2003, the Congressional Budget Office scored a liability reform bill (H.R. 5) as lowering Medicare spending by $11.2 billion over a ten-year period.

Bipartisan Commission:  This proposal would provide an expedited mechanism requiring Congress to hold an up-or-down vote on the recommendations of a bipartisan commission examining ways to reform Medicare and other federal entitlements.

Value-based Purchasing:  This concept, also known as “pay-for-performance,” would seek to adjust physician and provider reimbursement levels to reflect successful patient outcomes on a risk-adjusted basis.  While advocates believe pay-for-performance can yet achieve the significant budgetary savings not present in existing Congressional Budget Office models, some conservatives may be concerned that this methodology would deepen the government’s role in health care by altering the fundamental doctor-patient relationship.

Sequestration Mechanism: This proposal would cap the growth of overall Medicare spending levels, and provide adjustments in benefit structures in the event that spending exceeded statutory levels.  The budget submission to Congress did include the proposal that physician payments be reduced 0.4% for every year in which general tax revenues cover more than 45% of Medicare costs—the level at which the Medicare Modernization Act required that a funding warning be issued, and action taken by Congress.  The Administration proposal is designed to provide Congress with an impetus to embrace comprehensive entitlement reform by requiring across-the-board cuts absent pre-emptive legislative action.

Discretionary Proposals:  Overall, the President’s proposed discretionary budget for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is $68.5 billion, $1.7 billion less than last year.  Preliminary highlights of funding levels on health programs include the following:

Centers for Disease Control (CDC): The proposal reduces overall spending by $412 million from current year levels.  Significant reductions within the CDC account include a proposed $111 million reduction for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and an $83 million reduction in the World Trade Center screening and treatment program.

Earmarks: The budget proposes $451 million in savings by eliminating earmarked projects from the HHS budget.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA): The budget provides a $130 million increase for FDA over Fiscal Year 2008 levels.  More than half ($68 million) of the proposed increase comes from additional resources for drug and biologic safety programs, with an additional $33 million increase in the food safety budget.

Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA): A total of nearly $1 billion in reductions in the HRSA account comes from several proposed sources—grants to train nurses and health professionals (reduced by $240 million); training doctors at children’s hospitals (eliminated, saving $302 million); rural health programs (reduced by $150 million); and public health buildings and projects (eliminated, saving $304 million).  Reductions in the rural health and health training accounts have previously been proposed in previous RSC budget documents.  Since that time, reconciliation legislation passed last September (P.L. 110-84) provided student loan forgiveness to public health workers, raising additional questions about the duplicative nature of the HRSA-funded grant programs.

National Institutes of Health (NIH): The National Institutes of Health would receive flat-level funding from Fiscal Year 2008, $29.5 billion in total, after years of substantial increases.  Funding for most institutes within NIH would likewise remain at constant levels for the upcoming Fiscal Year.

Conclusion: The Administration’s Fiscal Year 2009 budget includes several reasonable proposals to slow the growth of health spending and thereby help return federal entitlements to a more sustainable trajectory.  Such measures are needed urgently, as Medicare faces $34.1 trillion in unfunded liabilities over the next 75 years, according to the Government Accountability Office.  The need for immediate action is great: the first Baby Boomer becomes eligible for Medicare in 2011, and every year that Congress does not address unfunded entitlement obligations, their size grows an additional $2 trillion, according to Comptroller General David Walker.  Some conservatives may believe that these measures proposed by the Administration to constrain reimbursements to providers, while helpful, can constitute the starting point for a comprehensive discussion about entitlement reform.