24 New Federal Requirements Added to the Graham-Cassidy Bill

Last week, I outlined how a white paper Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) released essentially advocated for Obamacare on steroids. That plan would keep the law’s most expensive (and onerous) federal insurance requirements, while calling for more taxpayer dollars to make that expensive coverage more “affordable.”

Unfortunately, Cassidy also would extend this highly regulatory approach beyond mere white papers and into legislation. A recently disclosed copy of a revised Graham-Cassidy bill—originally developed by Cassidy and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) last fall—imposes two dozen new requirements on states. These requirements would undermine the bill’s supposed goal of “state flexibility,” and could lead to a regime more onerous and expensive than Obamacare itself.

18 New ‘Adequate and Affordable’ Coverage Rules

Specifically, that coverage must:

  • Include four categories of basic services defined in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) statute:
    • Inpatient and outpatient hospital services;
    • Physicians’ surgical and medical services;
    • Laboratory and X-ray services, and
    • Well-baby and well-child care, including age-appropriate immunizations;
  • Include three categories of additional services also defined in the SCHIP statute:
    • Coverage of prescription drugs;
    • Vision services; and
    • Hearing services;
  • Include two other categories of services as defined by Obamacare:
    • Mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment; and
    • Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices;
  • Comply with actuarial value standards set by the SCHIP statute:
    • Cover at least 70 percent of estimated health expenses for the average consumer; and
  • Comply with requirements included in eight separate sections of the Public Health Service Act, as amended by Obamacare:
    • Section 2701—Rating premiums only based on age (with older applicants charged no more than three times younger applicants), family size, geography, and tobacco use;
    • Section 2702—Required acceptance for every individual or employer who applies for coverage (i.e., guaranteed issue);
    • Section 2703—Guaranteed renewability of coverage;
    • Section 2704—Prohibition on pre-existing condition exclusions;
    • Section 2705—Prohibition on discriminating against individuals based on health status;
    • Section 2708—Prohibition on excessive waiting periods;
    • Section 2711—Prohibition on annual or lifetime limits; and
    • Section 2713—Requiring first-dollar coverage of preventive services without cost-sharing (i.e., deductibles and co-payments).

As noted above, “adequate and affordable health insurance coverage” would include many of Obamacare’s insurance requirements, and in at least one way would exceed them. Whereas Section 1302(d) of Obamacare requires selling insurance with an actuarial value—that is, the percentage of medical expenses paid for the average individual—of at least 60 percent, the revised Graham-Cassidy would require “adequate and affordable” coverage with an actuarial value of at least 70 percent.

If asked, Graham and Cassidy might state that these requirements would only apply to a certain subset of the population. After all, the revised bill text indicates that each state “shall ensure access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage (as defined in clause (ii))”—the clause referring to the 18 separate requirements listed above—“for [high-risk individuals].” The bill lists the brackets in the original, which might indicate that Cassidy’s office intends to apply these 18 separate coverage requirements only to plans that high-risk persons purchase.

Thankfully, the new draft removes the “population adjustment factor” allowing CMS to rewrite the block grant formula unilaterally. But even as it took away CMS’ power to alter the funding formula, new language on page 15 of the revised draft allows CMS to cancel states’ block grant funds for “substantial noncompliance.” That provision, coupled with the revised bill’s lack of definition regarding “affordable” coverage and “high-risk individual” provides a future Democratic administration with two clear ways to hijack the block grant program.

For instance, a new administration could define “high-risk individual” so broadly that it would apply to virtually all Americans, subjecting them to the 18 costly coverage requirements. A new administration could also define “affordable” in such a manner—for instance, premiums may not exceed 5 percent of an individual’s income—that states would have to subsidize insurance with sizable amounts of state funds, in addition to the federal dollars included in the block grant. Any state failing to comply with these edicts could see its entire block grant yanked for “substantial noncompliance” with the bureaucratically imposed guidelines.

It seems paradoxical to assert that a bill can be both too prescriptive, imposing far too many requirements on states that undermine the supposed goal of “state flexibility,” and too vague, giving vast amounts of authority to federal bureaucrats. Yet somehow the section on “adequate and affordable health coverage” manages to do both.

Two New Required Uses of Block-Grant Funds

Supporters of the bill would argue that these supposed “guardrails” will prevent states from subsidizing Medicaid coverage, or creating some other government-run health program. But as I noted last week, Obamacare has its own “guardrails” regarding state waivers, which undermine any attempt to deregulate insurance markets.

By adding these new “guardrails,” Graham-Cassidy would essentially replicate Obamacare, albeit with slightly different policy objectives: “The Cassidy plan would give states the ‘flexibility’ to do what Bill Cassidy wants them to do, and only what Bill Cassidy wants them to do. That isn’t flexibility at all.”

Block Grant Reductions with Multiple Risk Pools

On Page 31, the bill includes new language requiring a reduction in block-grant funds, by a percentage not specified, for states electing to create multiple risk pools. Under current law, Section 1312(c) of Obamacare requires insurers to place all individual insurance market enrollees—whether they purchase coverage through the exchange or not—in a single risk pool.

If a state elects to choose multiple risk pools and uses a “substantial portion” of its block grant to subsidize insurance with an actuarial value of under 50 percent, then the state would see an unspecified reduction in its block grant. This language contains many of the flaws of the other provisions described above: It nowhere defines what comprises a “substantial portion” of the block grant, and penalizes states that may choose to create multiple risk pools and subsidize only catastrophic insurance coverage, thus belying Graham-Cassidy’s promise of “state flexibility.”

3 New Requirements for State Waivers

The revised Graham-Cassidy text moves and alters language regarding state waivers of Obamacare’s federal insurance requirements, and in so doing makes three substantive changes. (The original language started in the middle of page 143 of the bill; the new language begins on the top of page 42 of the revised bill.)

First, and perhaps most disturbingly, the revised bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services to waive Obamacare’s insurance requirements for a state only if “such state establishes an equivalent requirement applicable to such coverage in such state.” Taken literally, this provision could mean that states could “opt-out” of Obamacare’s federal requirements if and only if they enshrine those exact same requirements in state law—rendering any supposed “flexibility” under Graham-Cassidy completely nonexistent.

Graham and Cassidy may not have meant to craft language with such a literal interpretation. They may mean to say, for instance, that a state can waive out of Obamacare’s age-rating requirements (which prohibit insurers from charging older people more than three times what they charge younger people) if they establish a more permissive regime—for instance, five-to-one age rating—on the state level.

But taken literally, that’s not what the current bill text says. That vague language raises serious questions about the authors’ intent, and why they chose such unclear, and arguably sloppy, bill language.

Second, the section imposes two new requirements on states selecting multiple risk pools. As noted above, those states would have to comply with the 18 new requirements regarding “adequate and affordable” health coverage, and states creating multiple risk pools could see their block grant reduced as a result.

In addition, however, states must also guarantee that insurers offering coverage in one risk pool offer coverage in all of them. Moreover, premiums charged “by a health insurance issuer for the same health coverage offered in different risk pools in the state [may] not vary by more than 3 to 1.”

The first requirement echoes the Consumer Freedom Amendment offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) last year. That amendment allowed insurers to offer plans that did not comply with Obamacare’s requirements, so long as they continued to offer one Obamacare-compliant plan. The second requirement would effectively limit the extent to which insurers could charge individuals more on the basis of pre-existing conditions or health status.

Two Dozen (More) Reasons for State Concern

Both individually and collectively, these two dozen new requirements inserted into the most recent version of Graham-Cassidy present problems for conservatives. The myriad requirements would sharply limit the bill’s ability to deliver lower premiums to consumers—one major goal of “repeal-and-replace” legislation.

More broadly, though, the revised bill drifts further away from any semblance of conservative objectives. While Graham-Cassidy purports to provide more flexibility to states, the revised bill would instead ensnare them in numerous requirements that would impede any attempt at innovation.

Like the proverbial Lilliputians who attempted to tie down Gulliver, the new bill looks to rob states of their ability to manage their own insurance markets and lower premiums for residents, one federal requirement at a time.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Legislative Bulletin: Summary of Revised Graham-Cassidy Legislation

A PDF version of this document is available on the Texas Public Policy Foundation website.

Summary of CBO Score

On Monday evening, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a preliminary estimate of the Graham-Cassidy bill. CBO concluded that the bill would comply with reconciliation parameters—namely, that it would reduce the deficit by at least as much as the underlying reconciliation vehicle (the House-passed American Health Care Act), reduce the deficit by at least $1 billion in each of its two titles in its first ten years, and not increase the deficit overall in any of the four following decades.

Although it did not include any specific coverage or premium numbers, CBO did conclude that the bill would likely decrease coverage by millions compared to the current policy baseline. The report estimated that the bill’s block grant would spend about $230 billion less than current law—a 10 percent reduction overall (an average 30 percent reduction for Medicaid expansion states, but an average 30 percent increase for non-expansion states). Moreover, CBO believes at least $150 billion in block grant funding would not be spent by the end of the ten-year budget window.

CBO believes that “most states would eventually make changes in the regulations for their non-group market in order to stabilize it and would use some funds from the block grants to facilitate those changes.” Essentially, current insurance regulations mean that markets would become unstable without current law subsidies, such that states would use a combination of subsidies and changes in regulations to preserve market stability.

CBO believes that most Medicaid expansion states would attempt to use block grant funding to create Medicaid-like programs for their low-income residents. However, the analysis concludes that by 2026, those states’ block grants would roughly equal the projected cost of their current Medicaid expansion—forcing them to choose between “provid[ing] similar benefits to people in a [Medicaid] alternative program and extend[ing] support to others” further up the income scale. In those cases, CBO believes “most of those states would then choose to provide little support to people in the non-group market because doing so effectively would be the more difficult task.”

Overall, CBO believes that the bill would reduce insurance coverage, because of its repeal of the subsidies, Medicaid expansion, and the individual mandate. The budget office believes that states with high levels of coverage under Obamacare would not receive enough funds under the revised block grant to match their current coverage levels, while states with lower levels of coverage would spend the money slowly, in part because they lack the infrastructure (i.e., technology, etc.) to distribute subsidies easily. CBO also believes that employment-based coverage would increase under the bill, because some employers would respond to changes in the individual market by offering coverage to their workers.

With respect to the Medicaid reforms in the bill, CBO concludes that most “states would not have substantial additional flexibility” under the per capita caps. Some states with declining populations might choose the block grant option, but the grant “would not be attractive in most states experiencing population growth, as the fixed block grant would not be adjusted for such growth.” States could reduce their spending by reducing provider payment rates; optional benefit categories; limiting eligibility; improving care delivery; or some combination of the approaches.

For the individual market, CBO expresses skepticism about the timelines in the bill. Specifically, its analysis found that states’ initial options would “be limited,” because implementing new health programs by 2020 would be “difficult:”

To establish its own system of subsidies for coverage in the nongroup market related to people’s income, a state would have to enact legislation and create a new administrative infrastructure. A state would not be able to rely on any existing system for verifying eligibility or making payments. It would need to establish a new system for enrolling people in nongroup insurance, verify eligibility for tax credits or other subsidies, certify insurance as eligible for subsidies, and ultimately ensure that the payments were correct. Those steps would be challenging, particularly if the state chose to simultaneously change insurance market regulations.

While CBO believes that states that expanded Medicaid would be likely to create programs for populations currently eligible for subsidies (i.e., those households with incomes between one and four times poverty), it notes that such states “would be facing large reductions in funding compared with the amounts under current law and thus would have trouble paying for a new program or subsidies for those people.”

CBO believes that without subsidies, and with current insurance regulations in place, a “death spiral” would occur, whereby premiums would gradually increase and insurers would drop out of markets. (However, “if a state required individuals to have insurance, some healthier people would enroll, and premiums would be lower.”) To avoid this scenario, CBO believes that “most states would eventually modify various rules to help stabilize the non-group market,” thereby increasing coverage take-up when compared to not doing so. However, “coverage for people with pre-existing conditions would be much more expensive in some of those states than under current law.”

While widening age bands would “somewhat increase insurance coverage, on net,” CBO notes that “insurance covering certain services not included in the scope of benefits to become more expensive—in some cases, extremely expensive.” Moreover, some medically underwritten individuals (i.e., subject to premium changes based on health status) would become uninsured, while others would instead obtain employer coverage.

Finally, CBO estimated that the non-coverage provisions of the bill would increase the deficit by $22 billion over ten years. Specific estimates for those provisions are integrated into the summary below.

Summary of Changes Made

On Sunday evening, the bill’s sponsors released revised text of their bill. Compared to the original draft, the revised bill:

  • Strikes language repealing sections of Obamacare related to eligibility determinations (likely to comply with the Senate’s “Byrd rule” regarding budget reconciliation);
  • Changes the short-term “stability fund” to set aside 5 percent of funds for “low-density states,” which some conservatives may view as a carve-out for certain states similar to that included in July’s Better Care Reconciliation Act;
  • Re-writes waiver authority, but maintains (and arguably strengthens) language requiring states to “maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions,” which some conservatives may view as imposing limiting conditions on states that wish to reform their insurance markets;
  • Requires states to certify that they will “ensure compliance” with sections of the Public Health Service Act relating to: 1) the under-26 mandate; 2) hospital stays following births; 3) mental health parity; 4) re-constructive surgery following mastectomies; and 5) genetic non-discrimination;
  • Strikes authority given to the Health and Human Services Secretary in several sections, and replaces it with authority given to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator;
  • Includes a new requirement that at least half of funds provided under the Obamacare replacement block grant must be used “to provide assistance” to households with family income between 50 and 300 percent of the poverty level;
  • Requires CMS Administrator to adjust block grant spending upward for a “low-density state” with per capita health care spending 20 percent higher than the national average, increasing allocation levels to match the higher health costs—a provision some conservatives may consider an earmark for specific states;
  • Imposes new requirement on CMS Administrator to notify states of their 2020 block grant allocations by November 1, 2019—a timeline that some may argue will give states far too little time to prepare and plan for major changes to their health systems;
  • Slows the transition to the new Obamacare replacement block grant formula outlined in the law, which now would not fully take effect until after 2026—even though the bill does not appropriate block grant funds for years after 2026;
  • Gives the Administrator the power not to make an annual adjustment for risk in the block grant;
  • Strikes the block grant’s annual adjustment factor for coverage value;
  • Delays the block grant’s state population adjustment factor from 2020 until 2022—but retains language giving the CMS Administrator to re-write the entire funding allocation based on this factor, which some conservatives may view as an unprecedented power grab by federal bureaucrats;
  • Re-writes rules re-allocating unspent block grant allocation funds;
  • Prohibits states from receiving more than a 25 percent year-on-year increase in their block grant allocations;
  • Makes other technical changes to the block grant formula;
  • Changes the formula for the $11 billion contingency fund provided to low-density and non-expansion states—25 percent ($2.75 billion) for low-density states, 50 percent ($5.5 billion) for non-Medicaid expansion states, and 25 percent ($2.75 billion) for Medicaid expansion states;
  • Includes a $750 million fund for “late-expanding” Medicaid states (those that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare prior to December 31, 2016), which some conservatives may consider an earmark, and one that encourages states to embrace Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied;
  • Includes $500 million to allow pass-through funding under Section 1332 Obamacare waivers to continue for years 2019 through 2023 under the Obamacare replacement block grant;
  • Strikes language allowing for direct primary care to be purchased through Health Savings Accounts, and as a medical expense under the Internal Revenue Code;
  • Strikes language reducing American territories’ Medicaid match from 55 percent to 50 percent;
  • Restores language originally in BCRA allowing for “late-expanding Medicaid states” to select a shorter period for their per capita caps—a provision that some conservatives may view as an undue incentive for certain states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare;
  • Restores language originally in BCRA regarding reporting of data related to Medicaid per capita caps;
  • Strikes language delaying Medicaid per capita caps for certain “low-density states;”
  • Includes new language perpetually increasing Medicaid match rates on the two highest states with separate poverty guidelines issued for them in 2017—a provision that by definition includes only Alaska and Hawaii, which some conservatives may view as an inappropriate earmark;
  • Strikes language allowing all individuals to purchase Obamacare catastrophic coverage beginning in 2019;
  • Strikes language clarifying enforcement provisions, particularly regarding abortion;
  • Allows states to waive certain provisions related to insurance regulations, including 1) essential health benefits; 2) cost-sharing requirements; 3) actuarial value; 4) community rating; 5) preventive health services; and 6) single risk pool;
  • Requires states to describe its new insurance rules to the federal government, “except that in no case may an issuer vary premium rates on the basis of sex or on the basis of genetic information,” a provision that some conservatives may view as less likely to subject the rules to legal challenges than the prior language; and
  • Retains language requiring each waiver participant to receive “a direct benefit” from federal funds, language that some conservatives may view as logistically problematic.

Full Summary of Bill (as Revised)

Last week, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) introduced a new health care bill. The legislation contains some components of the earlier Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), considered by the Senate in July, with some key differences on funding streams. A full summary of the bill follows below, along with possible conservative concerns where applicable. Cost estimates are included below come from prior Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores of similar or identical provisions in BCRA.

Of particular note: It is unclear whether this legislative language has been fully vetted with the Senate Parliamentarian. When the Senate considers budget reconciliation legislation—as it would do should the Graham-Cassidy measure receive floor consideration—the Parliamentarian advises whether provisions are budgetary in nature and can be included in the bill (which can pass with a 51-vote simple majority), and which provisions are not budgetary in nature and must be considered separately (i.e., require 60 votes to pass).

As the bill was released prior to issuance of a CBO score, it is entirely possible the Parliamentarian has not fully vetted this draft—which means provisions could change substantially, or even get stricken from the bill, due to procedural concerns as the process moves forward.

Title I

Revisions to Obamacare Subsidies:             Beginning in 2018, changes the definition of a qualified health plan, to prohibit plans from covering abortion other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision may eventually be eliminated under the provisions of the Senate’s “Byrd rule.” (For more information, see these two articles.)

Eliminates provisions that limit repayment of subsidies for years after 2017. Subsidy eligibility is based upon estimated income, with recipients required to reconcile their subsidies received with actual income during the year-end tax filing process. Current law limits the amount of excess subsidies households with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $98,400 for a family of four in 2017) must pay. This provision would eliminate that limitation on repayments, which may result in fewer individuals taking up subsidies in the first place. Saves $11.7 billion over ten years—$8.5 billion in spending, and $3.2 billion in revenue.

Repeals the subsidy regime entirely after December 31, 2019.

Small Business Tax Credit:             Repeals Obamacare’s small business tax credit, effective in 2020. Disallows the small business tax credit beginning in 2018 for any plan that offers coverage of abortion, except in the case of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother—which, as noted above, some conservatives may believe will be stricken during the Senate’s “Byrd rule” review. Saves $6 billion over ten years.

Individual and Employer Mandates:             Sets the individual and employer mandate penalties to zero, for all years after December 31, 2015. The individual mandate provision cuts taxes by $38 billion, and the employer mandate provision cuts taxes by $171 billion, both over ten years.

Stability Fund:          Creates two state-based funds intended to stabilize insurance markets—the first giving funds directly to insurers, and the second giving funds to states. The first would appropriate $10 billion each for 2018 and 2019, and $15 billion for 2020, ($35 billion total) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “fund arrangements with health insurance issuers to address coverage and access disruption and respond to urgent health care needs within States.” Instructs the CMS Administrator to “determine an appropriate procedure for providing and distributing funds.” Does not require a state match for receipt of stability funds. Some conservatives may be concerned this provision provides excessive authority to unelected bureaucrats to distribute $35 billion in federal funds as they see fit.

Includes new language setting aside 5 percent of stability fund dollars for “low-density states”—a provision which some conservatives may oppose as an earmark for Alaska and other similar states.

Market-Based Health Care Grant Program:       Creates a longer-term stability fund for states with a total of $1.176 trillion in federal funding from 2020 through 2026—$146 billion in 2020 and 2021, $157 billion in 2022, $168 billion in 2023, $179 billion in 2024, and $190 billion in 2025 and 2026. Eliminates BCRA provisions requiring a state match. States could keep their allotments for two years, but unspent funds after that point could be re-allocated to other states. However, all funds would have to be spent by December 31, 2026.

Expands BCRA criteria for appropriate use of funds by states, to include assistance for purchasing individual insurance, and “provid[ing] health insurance coverage for individuals who are eligible for” Medicaid, as well as the prior eligible uses under BCRA: to provide financial assistance to high-risk individuals, including by reducing premium costs, “help stabilize premiums and promote state health insurance market participation and choice,” provide payments to health care providers, or reduce cost-sharing.

However, states may spend no more than 15 percent of their resources on the Medicaid population (or up to 20 percent if the state applies for a waiver, and the Department of Health and Human Services concludes that the state is using its funds “to supplement, and not supplant,” the state Medicaid match). In addition, states must spend at least half of their funds on “provid[ing] assistance” to families with incomes between 50 and 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Some conservatives may believe these restrictions belie the bill’s purported goal of giving states freedom and flexibility to spend the funds as they see fit.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, by doling out nearly $1.2 trillion in spending, the bill does not repeal Obamacare, so much as it redistributes Obamacare funds from “blue states” to “red states,” per the formulae described below. Some conservatives may also be concerned that the bill creates a funding cliff—with spending dropping from $190 billion in 2026 to $0 in 2027—that will leave an impetus for future Congresses to spend massive new amounts of money in the future.

Grant Formula:         Sets a complex formula for determining state grant allocations, tied to the overall funding a state received for Medicaid expansion, the basic health program under Obamacare, and premium and cost-sharing subsidies provided to individuals in insurance Exchanges. Permits states to select any four consecutive fiscal quarters between September 30, 2013 and January 1, 2018 to establish the base period. (The bill sponsors have additional information regarding the formula calculations here.)

Intends to equalize grant amounts, with a phase-in of the new methodology for years 2021 through 2026. Ideally, the bill would set funding to a state’s number of low-income individuals when compared to the number of low-income individuals nationwide. Defines the term “low-income individuals” to include those with incomes between 50 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level (45-133% FPL, plus a 5 percent income disregard created by Obamacare). In 2017, those numbers total $12,300-$33,948 for a family of four.

Adjusts state allocations (as determined above) according to additional factors:

  1. Risk Adjustment:      The bill would phase in risk adjustment over four years (between 2023 and 2026), and limit the risk adjustment modification to no more than 10 percent of the overall allotment. Risk adjustment would be based on clinical risk factors for low-income individuals (as defined above). The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator could cancel the risk adjustment factor in the absence of sufficient data.
  2. Population Adjustment:              Permits (but does not require) the Administrator to adjust allocations for years after 2022 according to a population adjustment factor. Requires CMS to “develop a state specific population adjustment factor that accounts for legitimate factors that impact the health care expenditures in a state”—such as demographics, wage rates, income levels, etc.—but as noted above, does not require CMS to adjust allocations based upon those factors.

Notwithstanding the above, states could not receive a year-on-year increase in funding of more than 25 percent.

Requires the Administrator to adjust block grant spending upward for a “low-density state” with per capita health care spending 20 percent higher than the national average, increasing allocation levels to match the higher health costs—a provision some conservatives may consider an inappropriate earmark for Alaska. Imposes new requirement on the Administrator to notify states of their 2020 block grant allocations by November 1, 2019—a timeline that some may argue will give states far too little time to prepare and plan for major changes to their health systems.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, despite the admirable intent to equalize funding between high-spending and low-spending states, the bill gives excessive discretion to unelected bureaucrats in Washington to determine the funding formulae. Some conservatives may instead support repealing all of Obamacare, and allowing states to decide for themselves what they wish to put in its place, rather than doling out federal funds from Washington. Finally, some may question why the bill’s formula criteria focus so heavily on individuals with incomes between 50-138 percent FPL, to the potential exclusion of individuals and households with slightly higher or lower incomes.

Provides $750 million for “late-expanding” Medicaid states—those that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare prior to December 31, 2015—which some conservatives may consider an earmark, one that encourages states that have embraced Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied. Also includes $500 million to allow pass-through funding under Section 1332 Obamacare waivers to continue for years 2019 through 2023.

Grant Application:  Requires states applying for grant funds to outline the intended uses of same. Specifically, the state must describe how it “shall maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions,” along with “such other information as necessary for the Administrator to carry out this subsection”—language that could be used by a future Democratic Administration, or federal courts, to undermine the waiver program’s intent.

Explicitly requires states to “ensure compliance” with several federal insurance mandates:

  1. Coverage of “dependents” under age 26;
  2. Hospital stays following deliveries;
  3. Mental health parity;
  4. Reconstructive surgery following mastectomies; and
  5. Genetic non-discrimination.

Some conservatives may note that these retained federal mandates belie the notion of state flexibility promised by the legislation.

Contingency Fund:               Appropriates a total of $11 billion—$6 billion for calendar year 2020, and $5 billion for calendar 2021—for a contingency fund for certain states. Half of the funding ($5.5 billion total) would go towards states that had not expanded Medicaid as of September 1, 2017, with the remaining one-quarter ($2.75 billion) going towards “low-density states”—those with a population density of fewer than 15 individuals per square mile—and another one-quarter ($2.75 billion) going towards states that did expand Medicaid.

Implementation Fund:        Provides $2 billion to implement programs under the bill. Costs $2 billion over ten years.

Repeal of Some Obamacare Taxes:             Repeals some Obamacare taxes:

  • Restrictions on use of Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements to pay for over-the-counter medications, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $5.6 billion;
  • Increased penalties on non-health care uses of Health Savings Account dollars, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $100 million;
  • Medical device tax, effective January 1, 2018, lowering revenues by $19.6 billion; and
  • Elimination of deduction for employers who receive a subsidy from Medicare for offering retiree prescription drug coverage, effective January 1, 2017, lowering revenues by $1.8 billion.

Some conservatives may be concerned that the bill barely attempts to reduce revenues, repealing only the smallest taxes in Obamacare—and the ones that corporate lobbyists care most about (e.g., medical device tax and retiree prescription drug coverage provision).

Health Savings Accounts:  Increases contribution limits to HSAs, raising them from the current $3,400 for individuals and $6,750 for families in 2017 to the out-of-pocket maximum amounts (currently $6,550 for an individual and $13,100 for a family), effective January 2018. Allows both spouses to make catch-up contributions to the same Health Savings Account. Permits individuals who take up to 60 days to establish an HSA upon enrolling in HSA-eligible coverage to be reimbursed from their account for medical expenses. Lowers revenues by a total of $19.2 billion over ten years.

Allows for Health Savings Account funds to be used for the purchase of high-deductible health plans, but only to the extent that such insurance was not purchased on a tax-preferred basis (i.e., through the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, or through Obamacare insurance subsidies).

Allows HSA dollars to be used to reimburse expenses for “dependents” under age 27, effectively extending the “under-26” provisions of Obamacare to Health Savings Accounts. Prohibits HSA-qualified high deductible health plans from covering abortions, other than in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother—an effective prohibition on the use of HSA funds to purchase plans that cover abortion, but one that the Senate Parliamentarian may advise does not comport with procedural restrictions on budget reconciliation bills. No separate cost estimate provided for the revenue reduction associated with allowing HSA dollars to be used to pay for insurance premiums.

Federal Payments to States:             Imposes a one-year ban on federal funds flowing to certain entities. This provision would have the effect of preventing Medicaid funding of certain medical providers, including Planned Parenthood, so long as Planned Parenthood provides for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother). CBO believes this provision would save a total of $225 million in Medicaid spending, while increasing spending by $79 million over a decade, because 15 percent of Planned Parenthood clients would lose access to services, increasing the number of births in the Medicaid program by several thousand. Saves $146 million over ten years.

Medicaid Expansion:           Phases out Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied, effective January 1, 2020. After such date, only members of Indian tribes who reside in states that had expanded Medicaid—and who were eligible on December 31, 2019—would qualify for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Indians could remain on the Medicaid expansion, but only if they do not have a break in eligibility (i.e., the program would be frozen to new enrollees on January 1, 2020).

Repeals the enhanced federal match (currently 95 percent, declining slightly to 90 percent) associated with Medicaid expansion, effective in 2020. Also repeals provisions regarding the Community First Choice Option, eliminating a six percent increase in the Medicaid match rate for some home and community-based services. Saves $19.3 billion over ten years.

Retroactive Eligibility:       Effective October 2017, restricts retroactive eligibility in Medicaid from three months to two months. These changes would NOT apply to aged, blind, or disabled populations, who would still qualify for three months of retroactive eligibility. Saves $800 million over ten years.

Eligibility Re-Determinations:             Permits—but unlike the House bill, does not require—states, beginning October 1, 2017, to re-determine eligibility for individuals qualifying for Medicaid on the basis of income every six months, or at shorter intervals. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match rate for states that elect this option. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Work Requirements:           Permits (but does not require) states to, beginning October 1, 2017, impose work requirements on “non-disabled, non-elderly, non-pregnant” beneficiaries. States can determine the length of time for such work requirements. Provides a five percentage point increase in the federal match for state expenses attributable to activities implementing the work requirements.

States may not impose requirements on pregnant women (through 60 days after birth); children under age 19; the sole parent of a child under age 6, or sole parent or caretaker of a child with disabilities; or a married individual or head of household under age 20 who “maintains satisfactory attendance at secondary school or equivalent,” or participates in vocational education. Adds to existing exemptions (drafted in BCRA) provisions exempting those in inpatient or intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment and full-time students from Medicaid work requirements. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Provider Taxes:        Reduces permissible Medicaid provider taxes from 6 percent under current law to 5.6 percent in fiscal year 2021, 5.2 percent in fiscal year 2022, 4.8 percent in fiscal year 2023, 4.4 percent in fiscal year 2024, and 4 percent in fiscal year 2025 and future fiscal years—a change from BCRA, which reduced provider taxes to 5 percent in 2025 (0.2 percent reduction per year, as opposed to 0.4 percent under the Graham-Cassidy bill). Some conservatives may view provider taxes as essentially “money laundering”—a game in which states engage in shell transactions solely designed to increase the federal share of Medicaid funding and reduce states’ share. More information can be found here. CBO believes states would probably reduce their spending in response to the loss of provider tax revenue, resulting in lower spending by the federal government. Saves $13 billion over ten years.

Medicaid Per Capita Caps:              Creates a system of per capita spending caps for federal spending on Medicaid, beginning in fiscal year 2020. States that exceed their caps would have their federal match reduced in the following fiscal year.

The cap would include all spending on medical care provided through the Medicaid program, with the exception of DSH payments and Medicare cost-sharing paid for dual eligibles (individuals eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare).

While the cap would take effect in fiscal year 2020, states could choose their “base period” based on any eight consecutive quarters of expenditures between October 1, 2013 and June 30, 2017. The CMS Administrator would have authority to make adjustments to relevant data if she believes a state attempted to “game” the look-back period. Late-expanding Medicaid states could choose a shorter period (but not fewer than four) quarters as their “base period” for determining per capita caps—a provision that some conservatives may view as improperly incentivizing states that decided to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied.

Creates four classes of beneficiaries for whom the caps would apply: 1) elderly individuals over age 65; 2) blind and disabled beneficiaries; 3) children under age 19; and 4) all other non-disabled, non-elderly, non-expansion adults (e.g., pregnant women, parents, etc.). Excludes State Children’s Health Insurance Plan enrollees, Indian Health Service participants, breast and cervical cancer services eligible individuals, and certain other partial benefit enrollees from the per capita caps. Exempts declared public health emergencies from the Medicaid per capita caps—based on an increase in beneficiaries’ average expenses due to such emergency—but such exemption may not exceed $5 billion.

For years before fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to medical inflation for children and all other non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation plus one percentage point for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries. Beginning in fiscal year 2025, indexes the caps to overall inflation for children and non-expansion enrollees, with the caps rising by medical inflation for aged, blind, and disabled beneficiaries—a change from BCRA, which set the caps at overall inflation for all enrollees beginning in 2025.

Eliminates provisions in the House bill regarding “required expenditures by certain political subdivisions,” which some had derided as a parochial New York-related provision.

Provides a provision—not included in the House bill—for effectively re-basing the per capita caps. Allows the Secretary of Health and Human Services to increase the caps by between 0.5% and 3% (a change from BCRA, which set a 2% maximum increase) for low-spending states (defined as having per capita expenditures 25% below the national median), and lower the caps by between 0.5% and 2% (unchanged from BCRA) for high-spending states (with per capita expenditures 25% above the national median). The Secretary may only implement this provision in a budget-neutral manner, i.e., one that does not increase the deficit. However, this re-basing provision shall NOT apply to any state with a population density of under 15 individuals per square mile.

Requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reduce states’ annual growth rate by one percent for any year in which that state “fails to satisfactorily submit data” regarding its Medicaid program. Permits HHS to adjust cap amounts to reflect data errors, based on an appeal by the state, increasing cap levels by no more than two percent. Requires new state reporting on inpatient psychiatric hospital services and children with complex medical conditions. Requires the HHS Inspector General to audit each state’s spending at least every three years.

For the period including calendar quarters beginning on October 1, 2017 through October 1, 2019, increases the federal Medicaid match for certain state expenditures to improve data recording, including a 100 percent match in some instances.

Home and Community-Based Services:             Creates a four-year, $8 billion demonstration project from 2020 through 2023 to expand home- and community-based service payment adjustments in Medicaid, with such payment adjustments eligible for a 100 percent federal match. The 15 states with the lowest population density would be given priority for funds.

Medicaid Block Grants:      Creates a Medicaid block grant, called the “Medicaid Flexibility Program,” beginning in Fiscal Year 2020. Requires interested states to submit an application providing a proposed packet of services, a commitment to submit relevant data (including health quality measures and clinical data), and a statement of program goals. Requires public notice-and-comment periods at both the state and federal levels.

The amount of the block grant would total the regular federal match rate, multiplied by the target per capita spending amounts (as calculated above), multiplied by the number of expected enrollees (adjusted forward based on the estimated increase in population for the state, per Census Bureau estimates). In future years, the block grant would be increased by general inflation.

Prohibits states from increasing their base year block grant population beyond 2016 levels, adjusted for population growth, plus an additional three percentage points. This provision is likely designed to prevent states from “packing” their Medicaid programs full of beneficiaries immediately prior to a block grant’s implementation, solely to achieve higher federal payments.

In a change from BCRA, the bill removes language permitting states to roll over block grant payments from year to year—a move that some conservatives may view as antithetical to the flexibility intended by a block grant, and biasing states away from this model. Reduces federal payments for the following year in the case of states that fail to meet their maintenance of effort spending requirements, and permits the HHS Secretary to make reductions in the case of a state’s non-compliance. Requires the Secretary to publish block grant amounts for every state every year, regardless of whether or not the state elects the block grant option.

Permits block grants for a program period of five fiscal years, subject to renewal; plans with “no significant changes” would not have to re-submit an application for their block grants. Permits a state to terminate the block grant, but only if the state “has in place an appropriate transition plan approved by the Secretary.”

Imposes a series of conditions on Medicaid block grants, requiring coverage for all mandatory populations identified in the Medicaid statute, and use of the Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) standard for determining eligibility. Includes 14 separate categories of services that states must cover for mandatory populations under the block grant. Requires benefits to have an actuarial value (coverage of average health expenses) of at least 95 percent of the benchmark coverage options in place prior to Obamacare. Permits states to determine the amount, duration, and scope of benefits within the parameters listed above.

Applies mental health parity provisions to the Medicaid block grant, and extends the Medicaid rebate program to any outpatient drugs covered under same. Permits states to impose premiums, deductibles, or other cost-sharing, provided such efforts do not exceed 5 percent of a family’s income in any given year.

Requires participating states to have simplified enrollment processes, coordinate with insurance Exchanges, and “establish a fair process” for individuals to appeal adverse eligibility determinations. Allows for modification of the Medicaid block grant during declared public health emergencies—based on an increase in beneficiaries’ average expenses due to such emergency.

Exempts states from per capita caps, waivers, state plan amendments, and other provisions of Title XIX of the Social Security Act while participating in Medicaid block grants.

Performance Bonus Payments:             Provides an $8 billion pool for bonus payments to state Medicaid and SCHIP programs for Fiscal Years 2023 through 2026. Allows the Secretary to increase federal matching rates for states that 1) have lower than expected expenses under the per capita caps and 2) report applicable quality measures, and have a plan to use the additional funds on quality improvement. While noting the goal of reducing health costs through quality improvement, and incentives for same, some conservatives may be concerned that this provision—as with others in the bill—gives near-blanket authority to the HHS Secretary to control the program’s parameters, power that conservatives believe properly resides outside Washington—and power that a future Democratic Administration could use to contravene conservative objectives. CBO believes that only some states will meet the performance criteria, leading some of the money not to be spent between now and 2026. Costs $3 billion over ten years.

Inpatient Psychiatric Services:             Provides for optional state Medicaid coverage of inpatient psychiatric services for individuals over 21 and under 65 years of age. (Current law permits coverage of such services for individuals under age 21.) Such coverage would not exceed 30 days in any month or 90 days in any calendar year. In order to receive such assistance, the state must maintain its number of licensed psychiatric beds as of the date of enactment, and maintain current levels of funding for inpatient services and outpatient psychiatric services. Provides a lower (i.e., 50 percent) match for such services, furnished on or after October 1, 2018; however, in a change from BCRA, allows for higher federal match rates for certain services and individuals to continue if they were in effect prior to September 30, 2018. No separate budgetary impact noted; included in larger estimate of coverage provisions.

Medicaid and Indian Health Service:             Makes a state’s expenses on behalf of Indians eligible for a 100 percent match, irrespective of the source of those services. Current law provides for a 100 percent match only for services provided at an Indian Health Service center. Costs $3.5 billion over ten years.

Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Payments:     Adjusts reductions in DSH payments to reflect shortfalls in funding for the state grant program described above. For fiscal years 2021 through 2025, states receiving grant allocations that do not keep up with medical inflation will have their DSH reductions reduced or eliminated; in fiscal year 2026, states with grant shortfalls will have their DSH payments increased. Costs $17.9 billion over ten years.

High-Poverty States:            Provides for a permanent increase in the federal Medicaid match for two states, based on poverty guidelines established for 2017. Specifically, provides for a 25 percent increase to the state with the “highest separate poverty guideline for 2017,” and a 15 percent increase to the state with the “second highest separate poverty guideline for 2017”—provisions that by definition would apply only to Alaska and Hawaii, respectively. Some conservatives may be concerned first that these provisions represent inappropriate earmarks, and further that they would change federal spending in perpetuity based on poverty determinations made for a single year. Costs $7.2 billion over ten years.

Title II

Prevention and Public Health Fund:             Eliminates funding for the Obamacare prevention “slush fund,” and rescinds all unobligated balances, beginning in Fiscal Year 2019. Saves $7.9 billion over ten years.

Community Health Centers:             Increases funding for community health centers by $422 million for Fiscal Year 2018—money intended to offset reductions in spending on Planned Parenthood affiliates (see “Federal Payments to States” above). Spends $422 million over ten years.

Cost-Sharing Subsidies:      Repeals Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, effective December 31, 2019, and does not appropriate funds for cost-sharing subsidy claims for plan years through 2019. The House of Representatives filed suit against the Obama Administration (House v. Burwell) alleging the Administration acted unconstitutionally in spending funds on the cost-sharing subsidies without an explicit appropriation from Congress. The case is currently on hold pending settlement discussions between the Trump Administration and the House.

Grant Conditions:    Sets additional conditions for the grant program established in Title I of the bill. States may submit applications waiving certain provisions currently in federal statute:

  1. Essential health benefits;
  2. Cost-sharing requirements;
  3. Actuarial value requirements, including plan metal tiers (e.g., bronze, silver, gold, and platinum);
  4. Community rating—although states may not be able to vary premiums based on health status, due to contradictory language in this section;
  5. Preventive health services; and
  6. Single risk pool.

Requires states to submit their revised rules to the federal government, “except that in no case may an issuer vary premium rates on the basis of sex or on the basis of genetic information.” Some conservatives may view this language as less likely to spark new legal challenges than the prior wording, which prohibited insurance changes based on “membership in a protected class.” However, some conservatives may also find that the mutually contradictory provisions over whether and how states can vary insurance rates may spark other legal challenges.

The waivers only apply to an insurer receiving funding under the state program, and “to an individual who is receiving a direct benefit” from the grant—which does not include reinsurance. In other words, each individual must receive some direct subsidy, rather than just general benefits derived from the broader insurance pool. Some conservatives may be concerned that, by tying waiver of regulations so closely to receipt of federal grant funds, this provision would essentially provide limited regulatory relief. Furthermore, such limited relief would require states to accept federal funding largely adjudicated and doled out by unelected bureaucrats.

Some conservatives may be concerned that, while well-intentioned, these provisions do not represent a true attempt at federalism—one which would repeal all of Obamacare’s regulations and devolve health insurance oversight back to the states. It remains unclear whether any states would actually waive Obamacare regulations under the bill; if a state chooses not to do so, all of the law’s costly mandates will remain in place there, leaving Obamacare as the default option.

Some conservatives may view provisions requiring anyone to whom a waiver applies to receive federal grant funding as the epitome of moral hazard—ensuring that individuals who go through health underwriting will receive federal subsidies, no matter their level of wealth or personal circumstances. By requiring states to subsidize bad actors—for instance, an individual making $250,000 who knowingly went without health coverage for years—with federal taxpayer dollars, the bill could actually raise health insurance premiums, not lower them. Moreover, some conservatives may be concerned that—because the grant program funding ends in 2027, and because all individuals subject to waivers must receive grant funding—the waiver program will effectively end in 2027, absent a new infusion of taxpayer dollars.

Five Factors That Could Interfere with Graham-Cassidy’s State Health Care Waivers

Some conservative writers—including others who write for this publication—have opined that the legislation written by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) offers states the ability to innovate and reform their health care systems. Most conservatives, including this one, consider state flexibility an admirable goal.

Certainly reforming Medicaid—through a block grant or per capita cap, coupled with additional flexibility to allow states to manage their programs more freely—would go a long way towards improving care, and reducing health care costs.

1. Subsidizing Moral Hazard

The language on the top of page 15 explicitly links waivers to funding from the new system of block grants the bill creates. Any waiver will only apply to 1) coverage provided by an insurer receiving block grant funding and 2) coverage “provided to an individual who is receiving a direct benefit (including reduced premium costs or reduced out-of-pocket costs)” under the block grant.

This requirement that each and every person subjected to a non-Obamacare-compliant plan must receive a “direct benefit” subsidized by federal taxpayers has several potential perverse consequences. By definition, it encourages moral hazard. Because individuals will know that if they are subjected to health underwriting, or an otherwise noncompliant plan, they must receive federal subsidies, it will encourage them not to buy health insurance until they need it.

It means that either states will have to extend taxpayer-subsidized benefits to highly affluent individuals (allowing them to buy noncompliant plans), or have to permit only low- and middle-income families to buy noncompliant plans (to restrict the subsidies to low-income families). Both scenarios seem politically problematic to the point of being untenable.

When considering the two considerations above—will the bill lower premiums, and will it work?—this provision alone seems destined to preclude either from occurring. The moral hazard could increase premiums, not lower them, driving more healthy people out of the marketplace by telling them they will receive subsidies if and when they become sick and need coverage. The requirement that every person subjected to a waiver must receive subsidized benefits appears potentially destabilizing to insurance markets, while also creating political problems and administrative complexity.

2. Encouraging Lawsuits

The provision on page 12 requiring states applying for waivers to describe “how the state intends to maintain access to adequate and affordable health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions” presents two concerns. First, a future Democratic administration could use rulemaking to define “adequate and affordable health insurance coverage” so narrowly—prohibiting co-payments or cost-sharing of more than $5, for instance—that no state could maintain access to “adequate and affordable” coverage, thereby eliminating their ability to apply for and receive a waiver.

Second, courts have ruled that Medicaid waiver applications are subject to judicial review, a standard that would presumably apply to the Graham-Cassidy waivers as well. While a Congressional Research Service report notes that courts have traditionally given deference to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on waiver applications, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1994 did in fact strike down a California waiver application that CMS had previously approved.

If a state receives a waiver, it seems highly likely that individuals affected, with the strong encouragement of liberal activists, will seek relief in court, and point to the page 12 language to argue that the court should strike down the waiver for not providing “adequate and affordable coverage” to people with pre-existing conditions. At minimum, the ensuing legal uncertainty could place states’ waiver programs in limbo for months or even years. And only one judge, or one circuit court, that views the pre-existing condition language as applying to more than states’ waiver application could undermine the program.

Congress could theoretically include language in Graham-Cassidy precluding judicial review of administrative decisions regarding waivers, as Democrats did 13 separate times in Obamacare. But on this particular bill, such a provision likely would not pass muster with the “Byrd rule” that applies to budget reconciliation measures.

Specifically, language prohibiting judicial review would have no (or a minimal) budgetary impact, and would represent matter outside the committees with jurisdiction over the reconciliation bill (Senate Judiciary versus Senate Finance and HELP Committees), both points of order that would see the provision stricken absent 60 Senate votes (which the bill does not have) to retain it.

Given the ongoing political controversy surrounding pre-existing conditions, some moderates may view the inclusion of this phrase as critical to their support for the bill. But its inclusion could ultimately undermine the entire waiver process and one of conservatives’ prime goals from the “repeal-and-replace” process, namely relief from Washington-imposed regulatory burdens.

3. Encourages Activist Judges and Bureaucrats

4. Allows States to Waive Only Some Regulations

While states may waive some Obamacare regulations, they can’t waive others, an internal inconsistency that belies the promise of “flexibility.” For instance, states cannot waive the under-26 mandate if they so choose. Moreover, language on page 15 prohibiting a waiver of “any requirement under a federal statute enacted before January 1, 2009” precludes states from waiving regulations that preceded Obamacare, such as those related to mental health parity.

If the sponsors believe in state flexibility, they should allow states to waive all federal insurance regulations, even ones, such as the under-26 mandate or mental health parity, they may personally support. Or better yet, they should move to repeal the regulations entirely, and let states decide which ones they want to re-enact on the state level.

5. No Funding Equals No Waivers

Because the bill explicitly ties waivers to federal funding, as noted above, the “cliff” whereby block grant funding ends in 2027 effectively ends waiver programs then as well. Such a scenario would put conservative policy-makers in the perverse position of asking Washington to increase federal spending, because any regulatory relief under Obamacare would otherwise cease.

Meaning of Federalism

The potential concerns above demonstrate how Graham-Cassidy may not provide full flexibility to states. Whether through cumbersome administrative requirements, a future Democratic administration, court rulings, or key omissions, states could find that as written, the bill’s promise of flexibility might turn into a mirage.

Given that, it’s worth remembering the true definition of federalism in the first place. Federalism should not represent states getting permission from Washington to take certain actions (and only certain actions). It should represent the people delegating some authority to the federal government, and some to the states. A bill that looked to do that—to remove the Obamacare regulatory apparatus entirely, and allow states to decide whether and what portions of the law they wish to reimpose—would help to restore the principles of federalism, and a true balance between Washington and the states.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Legislative Bulletin: H.R. 6983, Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act

Order of Business:  The bill is scheduled to be considered on Tuesday, September 23, under a motion to suspend the rules and pass.

Summary:  H.R. 6983 would amend the Internal Revenue Code, the Public Health Service Act, and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to require equity in the provision of mental health disorder benefits for group health insurance plans that offer both mental health benefits and medical and surgical benefits.  Previously, the Mental Health Parity Act—first enacted in 1996, and extended in subsequent legislation—required only that plans choosing to offer both mental health and medical and surgical benefits must have equal annual and lifetime limits on coverage for both types of treatments.  Specific details of the federal mandates in the bill include the following:

Treatment Limits and Beneficiary Financial Requirements:  The bill would require group health plans to offer a financial benefit structure for mental and substance abuse disorders that is no more restrictive than the predominant requirements applied to substantially all medical and surgical benefits.  The federal mandate would apply to overall coverage limits on treatment (e.g. number of days or visits) as well as deductibles, out-of-pocket limits, and similar beneficiary financial requirements.

Expansion of Definition:  The bill would expand the definition of “mental health benefits” subject to the federal mandate to include substance abuse and disorder treatments.

Medical Necessity:  The bill would permit plans to make coverage decisions for mental health and substance abuse disorders based on medical necessity criteria, but would require employers and insurers to disclose such criteria pursuant to regulations.

Out-of-Network Benefits:  The bill would mandate plans that offer out-of-network insurance coverage for medical and surgical benefits provide out-of-network coverage for mental health benefits in a manner consistent with the financial requirements listed above.

Increased Cost Exemption:  The bill would raise the level at which employers whose health insurance costs rise as a result of implementing mental health parity in benefits may claim an exemption from the federal mandate.  The bill would exempt employers whose costs due to mental health claims rise by more than 2% in the first year of implementation, and by more than 1% in subsequent years.  The more limited version of the Mental Health Parity Act first enacted in 1996 exempted employers whose claim costs rose 1%.  Employers with fewer than 50 workers would be exempt from federal mandates under the legislation, consistent with current law.

GAO Study:  The bill would require a study by the Government Accountability Office evaluating the law’s impact on the cost of health insurance coverage, access to mental health care, and related issues.

Worldwide Interest Allocation:  H.R. 6983 would delay by two years (from 2011 to 2013) the implementation of the worldwide allocation of interest, and reduces the first-year implementation of this rule.  In 2004, Congress gave taxpayers the option of using a liberalized rule for allocating interest expense between United States sources and foreign sources for the purposes of determining a taxpayer’s foreign tax credit limitation.  This is a multi-billion-dollar tax increase on Americans, taking particular aim at people who have financial dealings abroad.

Additional Background—Differences from Earlier Legislation:  On March 5, 2008, the House by a 268-148 vote passed mental health parity legislation in the form of H.R. 1424.  Subsequent negotiations with the Senate made modifications to the House-passed language that incorporated several key provisions in bipartisan Senate legislation (S. 558), and removed some provisions objectionable to conservatives.  Specifically, the compromise language in H.R. 6983:

  • Retains ERISA pre-emption for the large employers (those with more than 50 employees) subject to the law—states would not have the option of enacting more stringent and conflicting laws and regulations, as was proposed in H.R. 1424;
  • Remains silent on codifying classes of mental disorders—the compromise language removes provisions included in H.R. 1424 requiring group health plans to offer coverage for all disorders under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, including psycho-sexual disorders many conservatives find objectionable;
  • Does not mandate an out-of-network coverage benefit—plans must offer out-of-network coverage for mental disorders only to the extent they do so for medical and surgical benefits; and
  • Includes language stating that mental health parity provisions do not affect the “terms and conditions” of insurance contracts to the extent they do not conflict with the bill language—permitting employers and carriers to continue making medical necessity and related determinations—while requiring plans to make information on these medical management practices transparent.

While some conservatives may still have concerns with the mandates imposed by mental health parity legislation and the way in which these mandates would increase health insurance premiums, some segments of the business community have embraced the compromise as a reasonable attempt to achieve the goal of both bills without eroding ERISA pre-emption or imposing undue restrictions on benefit plan design.

Additional Background on Benefit Mandates:  Since the 1960s, state legislatures have considered—and adopted—legislation requiring health insurance products sold within the state to cover various products and services.  These benefit mandates are frequently adopted at the behest of disease groups advocating for coverage of particular treatments (e.g. mammograms) or physician groups concerned that patients have access to specialists’ services (e.g. optometrists).

A recent survey by the Council for Affordable Health Insurance found that as of 2007, states had enacted a total of 1,961 mandates for benefits and services—an increase of 60 (more than one per state) when compared to the 2006 total.[1]  The number of state mandates varies from a low of 15 in Idaho to a high of 64 in Minnesota.  However, because employer-sponsored health insurance is pre-empted from state-based laws and regulations under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), benefit mandates do not apply to employers who self-fund their health insurance plans—one reason why H.R. 6983 seeks to impose those mandates on group plans (as well as state-regulated individual plans) on the federal level.

The cost and impact of benefit mandates on health insurance premiums have been the subject of several studies in recent years.  For instance, the Heritage Foundation prepared an analysis suggesting that each individual benefit mandate could raise the cost of health insurance premiums by $0.75 monthly.[2]  Although the cost of a single mandate appears small, the aggregate impact—particularly given the recent growth of benefit mandates nationwide—can be significant: For instance, Massachusetts’ 43 benefit mandates would raise the cost of health insurance by more than $30 monthly under the Heritage analysis.

Although well-intentioned, some conservatives may view the groups who advocate for benefit mandates as operating from fundamentally flawed logic: that individuals should go without health insurance entirely rather than purchase coverage lacking the “consumer protection” of dozens of mandates.  In addition, some conservatives note that the prospect of increasing the number of uninsured due to rising premium costs resulting from benefit mandates may precipitate a “crisis” surrounding the uninsured, increasing calls for a government-run health system.  In short, many conservatives may believe individuals should have the “consumer protection” to purchase the insurance plan they desire—rather than the “protection” from being a consumer by a government which seeks to define their options, and raise the cost of health insurance in the process.

Committee Action:  None; the bill was introduced on September 22, 2008.

Possible Conservative Concerns:  Several aspects of H.R. 6983 may raise concerns for conservatives, including, but not necessarily limited to, the following:

  • Process.  Multiple sources and press reports indicate that numerous stakeholders involved in negotiating the bipartisan Senate compromise have concerns with the House’s consideration of stand-alone mental health parity legislation—as opposed to its inclusion in the tax extenders package.  As recently as Monday, September 22, House Democrat leadership indicated they would not attempt to pass the mental health parity provisions separately; however, the majority later switched course.  Some conservatives may be concerned by reports indicating that this separate House vote is intended to provide “political cover” for Blue Dogs who may oppose the tax extenders bill (with mental health parity included) because it does not include enough tax increases to offset extensions of existing tax relief.
  • Tax Increase.  In order to pay for the nearly $4 billion cost of mental health parity, H.R. 6983 would delay by a further two years a provision allowing taxpayers flexibility in allocating worldwide interest for the purposes of determining a taxpayer’s foreign tax credit limitation.  Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision increases taxes on Americans in order to pay for H.R. 6983’s benefit mandates.
  • Increase Health Insurance Costs and Number of Uninsured.  As noted above, benefit mandates generally have the effect of increasing the cost of health insurance.  Moreover, some estimates suggest that every 1% increase in premium costs has a corresponding increase in the number of uninsured by approximately 200,000-300,000 individuals nationwide.[3]  Therefore, some conservatives may be concerned that H.R. 6983 will actually increase the number of uninsured Americans.
  • Private-Sector Mandates on Businesses; UMRA Violation.  As detailed above, the bill contains multiple new federal mandates on the private sector, affecting the design and structure of health insurance plans.  CBO has previously estimated that mental health parity would impose mandates on the private sector totaling $1.3 billion in 2008, rising to $3 billion in 2012, thus exceeding the annual threshold established in the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act or UMRA ($131 million in FY2007, adjusted annually for inflation).  These costs will ultimately be borne by employers offering health insurance and employees seeking to obtain coverage.

Administration Position:  Although the Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) was not available, the Administration has previously supported the goal of mental health parity—and previously opposed the worldwide interest allocation provision used to pay for H.R. 6983.

Cost to Taxpayers:  A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score of H.R. 6983 was not available at press time.  However, CBO estimates of previously considered (H.R. 1424) mental health parity legislation noted that the bill would cost the federal government nearly $4 billion over ten years.  Direct federal outlays would increase by $820 million through increased Medicaid costs.  In addition, federal revenues would decline by more than $3.1 billion due to increases in the cost of health insurance, as employees with group coverage would exclude more of their income from payroll and income taxes.

The bill proposes to offset the costs outlined above by delaying by two years (from 2011 to 2013) the implementation of the worldwide allocation of interest, and reducing the first-year implementation of this rule. In 2004, Congress gave taxpayers, beginning in tax years after 2008, the option of using a liberalized rule for allocating interest expense between United States sources and foreign sources for the purposes of determining a taxpayer’s foreign tax credit limitation.

Does the Bill Expand the Size and Scope of the Federal Government?:  Yes, the bill would impose new federal mandates with respect to health insurance coverage requirements.

Does the Bill Contain Any New State-Government, Local-Government, or Private-Sector Mandates?:  Yes, the bill would impose significant new mandates on private insurance carriers (and large employers who self-insure their workers) with respect to the structure and design of their benefit packages.  CBO has previously estimated that the direct costs of the private-sector mandates would total $1.3 billion in 2008, rising to $3 billion in 2012, significantly in excess of the annual threshold ($131 million in 2007, adjusted for inflation) established by the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA).

In addition, the bill would also impose an intergovernmental mandate as defined by UMRA by pre-empting some state laws in conflict with the bill, but CBO estimates that this mandate would impose no significant costs on state, local, or tribal governments.

However, costs to state, local, and tribal governments would increase under the bill, for two reasons.  First, a prior CBO cost estimate indicated that state spending for Medicaid would increase by $235 million between 2008-2012.  Second, while state, local, and tribal governments that self-insure their workers would be able to opt-out of H.R. 6983’s federal mandates, some governments that fully insure their workers (i.e. purchase coverage through an insurance carrier, as opposed to paying benefits directly) would see their costs rise under the legislation.  CBO has estimated that the bill would increase state, local, and tribal expenditures by $10 million in 2008, rising to $155 million by 2012.  However, because these increased costs result from mandate costs initially borne by the private sector and passed on to the governments while purchasing insurance, CBO did not consider them intergovernmental mandates as such.

Does the Bill Comply with House Rules Regarding Earmarks/Limited Tax Benefits/Limited Tariff Benefits?:  A Committee report citing compliance with clause 9 of rule XXI was unavailable.

Constitutional Authority:  A Committee report citing Constitutional authority was unavailable.

 

[1] Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2008” and “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2007,” available online at http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/HealthInsuranceMandates2008.pdf and http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/MandatesInTheStates2007.pdf, respectively (accessed July 19, 2008).

[2] Michael New, “The Effect of State Regulations on Health Insurance Premiums: A Revised Analysis,” (Washington, Heritage Center for Data Analysis Paper CDA06-04, July 25, 2006), available online at http://www.heritage.org/Research/HealthCare/upload/CDA_06-04.pdf (accessed July 19, 2008), p. 5.

[3] See, for instance, Todd Gilmer and Richard Kronick, “It’s the Premiums, Stupid: Projections of the Uninsured through 2013,” Health Affairs Web Exclusive April 5, 2008, available online at http://content.healthaffairs.org/cgi/content/full/hlthaff.w5.143/DC1 (accessed July 19, 2008), and Government Accountability Office, Impact of Premium Increases on Number of Covered Individuals is Uncertain (Washington, Report GAO/HEHS-98-203R, June 11, 1999), available online at http://archive.gao.gov/paprpdf2/160930.pdf (accessed July 19, 2008), pp. 3-4.

Weekly Newsletter: September 22, 2008

  • Specialty Hospital Ban a Special-Interest Boondoggle Reports circulated late last week that restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals may be included in mental health parity legislation that could come to the House floor this week. While later press reports indicated that the specialty hospital provisions would be excluded from the mental health parity bill, legislative activity cannot be ruled out.

    Advocates of a specialty hospital ban state that restricting physician ownership will slow the growth of health care costs and improve the solvency of the Medicare program. However, a look at the record of the Democrat-controlled 110th Congress shows little attempt to control the growth of health spending or solve Medicare’s long-term funding shortfalls:

  • Democrats rejected an attempt to make wealthy seniors pay $2 per day more for prescription drug coverage—which would save Medicare $12.1 billion over ten years;
  • Democrats rejected reasonable reforms to the current medical liability reform system that would eliminate the need for defensive medicine practices that raise health care costs—saving the federal government more than $6 billion over ten years;
  • Democrats could not pass structural reforms to the current system of Medicare physician payments—choosing instead to pass a budgetary gimmick that will give physicians a 21% reimbursement cut in January 2010.Given these actions—and an impending floor vote on a bill (HR 758) that will likely increase health care costs by billions of dollars—conservatives may question why Democrats have passed up attempts to save Medicare more than $12 billion by charging billionaires like Warren Buffett more for their prescription drugs and instead remain fixated on saving one-tenth that amount by eradicating a free market for physician-owned facilities.

    Part of the answer may lie in the lobbying activities of entities like the American Hospital Association— which spent nearly $20 million last year alone, and nearly $153 million over the last decade, on federal lobbying activities. Despite the fact that, by one measure, specialty hospitals represent less than 1% of total Medicare hospital spending, traditional hospitals continue their attempts to eradicate this potential source of competition—going so far as to draw a rebuke from Health and Human Services’ Inspector General for “misrepresent[ing]” the IG’s conclusions in a document sent to Congressional staff. Despite— or perhaps because of—these deceptive lobbying practices, some conservatives may support efforts to maintain free markets in health care, and oppose any further efforts by Congressional Democrats to pass a specialty hospital ban.

Medicaid Fraud Will Not Be Addressed by Bailout

Last Tuesday’s New York Times highlighted the case of Staten Island University Hospital, an institution with a history of questionable billing practices—and now one of the largest fraud settlements against a single hospital. This week the hospital agreed to return nearly $90 million to respond to claims of overbilling government programs as a result of two whistle-blower lawsuits and actions by federal prosecutors. The lawsuits and charges alleged among other things that the hospital deliberately inflated bed and patient counts in order to obtain reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid, and come after the hospital had reached two previous settlements—one in 1999 resulting in $45 million in Medicaid repayments, and another in 2005 resulting in $76.5 returned to Medicaid—with state authorities regarding fraudulent billing activity.

Many conservatives may not be surprised by these repeated instances of fraud and graft within the program, given that a former New York state Medicaid investigator estimated that 40% of all Medicaid payments were fraudulent or questionable in nature. However, this episode may only strengthen conservative concerns that a proposed “temporary” increase in federal Medicaid matching funds (HR 5268) would do nothing to combat this fraud and abuse before spending additional federal dollars. Indeed, given that a single hospital has settled more than $200 million in fraud claims, some conservatives may wonder whether, if the Medicaid program had appropriate anti-fraud efforts in place, an additional $10-15 billion “bailout” for states would even be needed at all.

Read the article here.

Weekly Newsletter: September 8, 2008

The Outlook Ahead

Congress returns from its annual summer vacation today with several health-related issues on the agenda for the month of September. Specifically, additional Medicaid funding could be included in economic “stimulus” legislation, and a massive expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) could come up for another vote. Finally, an agreement-in-principle that negotiators reached on mental health parity legislation could receive a final vote if disputes surrounding the bill’s pay-fors can be resolved.

Many conservatives may be concerned about the Medicaid spending provisions (H.R. 5268), which would provide more than $10 billion in aid to states without providing any “stimulus”—as federal spending would merely supplant state outlays. At a time when the federal government’s budget deficit stands at least eight times the size of states’ combined budget deficits, conservatives may question why the federal government should be asked to bail out states facing fiscal difficulties much smaller by comparison.

Just as important, many conservatives may be concerned that this giveaway to states would not be accompanied by any substantive reforms to a Medicaid program that often fails to provide adequate care to the vulnerable patients it was designed to serve. In many cases, bureaucratic obstacles discourage providers from participating, resulting in limited access and months-long waits for beneficiaries, while fraud remains a persistent problem in several states. Some conservatives may believe that time on the legislative calendar debating a Medicaid bailout should instead be used to discuss more comprehensive structural reforms to the program—so that the poorest beneficiaries are not subjected to more of the same from a government health system that does not work for many.

On SCHIP, many conservatives may retain concerns about a significant expansion of the program— which, according to an Congressional Budget Office score, would now cost significantly more than the $35 billion expansion (H.R. 3963) vetoed by the President last fall. At a time of economic uncertainty for many Americans, conservatives may not support a substantial increase in federal tobacco taxes, which would be borne primarily by working-class families, as a way to increase the government’s role in health care. In addition, many conservatives continue to support Administration guidance designed to ensure that states enroll poor children first before expanding their SCHIP programs to wealthier families, and oppose any efforts by Congressional Democrats to repeal this important principle.

In addition to the concerns that some conservatives may have regarding the increases in insurance premiums caused by mental health parity legislation, conservatives may also be concerned about the way in which the bill’s more than $3 billion price tag will be financed. During House consideration of a mental health parity bill (H.R. 1424) in March, many conservatives objected to provisions—restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals, and increased drug rebates demanded from pharmaceutical companies—that undermined free markets in health care and expanded government price controls. The mental health bill is currently attached to tax extenders legislation in the Senate, which remains deadlocked over unrelated disputes; if the impasse over tax provisions continues, it remains unclear which direction or form the mental health legislation may take.

The RSC has prepared two new Policy Briefs, providing an update on SCHIP enrollment statistics and analyzing the premium support provisions within SCHIP.

Uninsured Numbers Show Need for Entitlement Reform

During the recess, the Census Bureau released its annual report on income and health insurance coverage during 2007. The report found that the number of uninsured declined by 1.3 million in 2007 when compared to the previous year, due largely to a 2.8 million increase in the number of Americans receiving coverage under various public programs, particularly Medicaid and Medicare.

Some conservatives may believe the significant growth in the number of Americans receiving government-run health insurance coverage provides another reason to re-examine entitlement spending and reform the health care system. In particular, market-based health reforms have the potential to slow the growth of health costs that threaten both America’s fiscal future and the financial well-being of many families.

The RSC has released an updated Policy Brief analyzing the new Census data, as well as a new Policy Brief highlighting the impact of illegal immigrants—who constitute as much as one-fifth of the uninsured in America—on the health care system.

Cooking the Books

During the recess, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Inspector General released a report criticizing the auditing process undertaken by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) with respect to the integrity of purchases of durable medical equipment (DME). The report stated that CMS’ guidance to the external auditors hired to examine DME claims failed to implement a rigorous level of scrutiny, and that as a result the level of questionable claims was significantly higher than CMS had first reported. Responding to the IG report, Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) said that “to look better to the public, [CMS] cook[s] the books;” he called the agency “incompetent.”

However, three weeks earlier Mr. Stark himself made dubious claims with respect to Medicare reform and President Bush’s tax relief. During debate on the resolution (H.Res. 1368) turning off the Medicare “trigger” mechanism, Mr. Stark claimed that extending the Bush tax relief would cost $100 trillion over 75 years—about three times’ Medicare’s unfunded obligations over that period—such that forgoing an extension of the tax relief provisions would somehow end Medicare’s long-term financial difficulties. However, a report by the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities cites the 75-year cost of the tax relief as $13.6 trillion—less than one-seventh the number cited by Stark in debate—and explicitly states that Medicare and health costs pose a greater threat to the nation’s fiscal solvency than the President’s tax relief. Asked repeatedly to provide a source of information justifying Stark’s statement, Ways and Means Committee staff could not substantiate his comments, or provide an explanation for the $86 trillion higher figure.

Legislative Bulletin: H.R. 6331, Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act

Order of Business:  The Democratic House Leadership has indicated that the House will likely vote to override the President’s veto of H.R. 6331 today, July 15, 2008.  The vote on H.R. 6331 is to either sustain or override the President’s veto.  For additional information on the process in the House regarding vetoed bills, please see the “Process for a Vetoed Bill” section below.

Process for a Vetoed Bill:

  • The House and Senate pass an identical bill.
  • The President vetoes the bill and sends a veto message to the House.
  • The Speaker “lays a veto message before the House on the day it is received…When the message is laid before the House, the question on passage is considered as pending.”
  • Consideration of a vetoed bill (a privileged matter) generally takes precedence over other floor matters (it can interrupt other floor business), except in certain specific instances: a motion to adjourn, a question of privilege under the Constitution (such as a blue-slip resolution), and unfinished business with the previous question order (such as a bill with the previous question ordered to passage on the day before, but the House adjourned before voting on passage of the bill).
  • If the House does not wish to proceed immediately to reconsider the bill, three motions are in order:

1)     motions to lay on the table (if passed, a motion to take it from the table is in order at any time);

2)     motions to postpone consideration to a day certain (it becomes unfinished business on that day); or

3)     motion to refer to committee (a motion to discharge is highly privileged and in order at any time).

  • If none of the above three motions are offered, the House proceeds to debate the override question under the hour rule and then votes on the question of overriding the veto.
  • If the veto is sustained, the bill is referred to committee. Since the bill has been rejected (when the veto was sustained), a motion to take the bill from committee is not privileged.

The Vote on H.R. 6331—Sustaining the Presidential Veto:  When a vote is requested on a vetoed bill, the question is:  “Will the House, on reconsideration, pass the bill, the objections of the President to the contrary notwithstanding.”  Thus, it is as if the bill is up for normal consideration again, only the threshold for passage is now 2/3 of those votingIf a member opposes the bill and voted NO when it was originally considered and passed, then he would vote NO again (still opposing the bill, thereby voting to sustain the President’s veto).

Summary:  H.R. 6331 eliminates for six months a reduction in Medicare physician payments scheduled to take effect on June 30, 2008, freezing payment levels for the balance of 2008 and providing a 1.1% increase in fee schedule levels for 2009.  H.R. 6331 also reduces payments to and modifies the structure of privately-run Medicare Advantage fee-for-service (FFS) plans that have shown significant growth in recent years.

Medicare:  H.R. 6331 contains many provisions that would alter Titles XVIII (Medicare) and XIX (Medicaid) of the Social Security Act as follows:

Coverage of Preventive Services.  The bill would create a process for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to extend Medicare coverage to additional preventive services under Parts A and B, and would waive the deductible with respect to the initial physical exam provided upon a beneficiary’s enrollment in the Medicare program.  CBO scores this provision as costing $5.9 billion over eleven years.

Mental Health Parity.  The bill would reduce over five years the co-payment for outpatient psychiatric services to 20%, consistent with the co-payment rate for physician visits under Medicare Part B.  CBO scores this provision as costing $3 billion over eleven years.

Marketing Restrictions on Private Plans.  The bill would impose restrictions with respect to the marketing tactics used by private Medicare Advantage and prescription drug plans.  The bill would eliminate unsolicited direct contact to beneficiaries, restrict the provision of gifts to nominal values, require annual training of agents and brokers licensed under state law, and impose related marketing restrictions.  No net cost.

Low-Income Programs.  H.R. 6331 would extend the Qualifying Individual program under Medicare and Medicaid for eighteen months, through December 2009, at a cost of $500 million.  The bill would also expand eligibility for enrollment in the low-income subsidy program by altering the asset test for the Medicare Savings Program, and engaging in further outreach to beneficiaries eligible for participation but not currently enrolled.  Other provisions in this section would codify current guidance eliminating the Part D late enrollment penalty for individuals eligible for low-income subsidies, and require the translation of the enrollment form into at least 10 languages other than English.  Total cost of these provisions is $7.7 billion over eleven years.

Hospital Provisions.  The bill includes several hospital-related provisions, including the extension of rural hospital flexibility program, new grants for the provision of mental health services to Iraq war veterans in rural areas, new grants to certain critical access hospitals, a re-adjustment of target payment amounts for sole community hospitals, a new demonstration program for integrating care in certain rural communities, and the reclassification of certain hospitals.  Total cost of these provisions according to CBO is $600 million over eleven years.

Physician Services.  The bill makes several adjustments to physician payment rates, including the following:

Conversion Factor:  The bill would extend the 0.5% update to the conversion factor for physician reimbursements, currently due to expire on June 30, 2008, through the end of calendar year 2008, effectively freezing payment levels for the balance of the year.  For 2009, the conversion factor will be 1.1%.  The bill also provides that the adjustments made for 2008 and 2009 will be disregarded for the purposes of computing the sustainable growth rate (SGR) conversion factor in 2010 and future years, which would necessitate a 21% reduction in reimbursement levels in 2010.

Quality Reporting:  H.R. 6331 would revise and extend existing quality reporting language to provide a 1.5% bonus payment in 2008, and 2.0% bonus payments in 2009 and 2010, to those physicians reporting selected quality data measurements.  Cost of both the quality reporting and conversion factor provisions is $6.4 billion over six years, and $4.5 billion over eleven.

Electronic Prescribing:  The bill provides bonus payments for physicians who participate in electronic prescribing and report relevant quality measures—2.0% in 2009 and 2010, 1.0% in 2011 and 2012, and 0.5% in 2013.  Physicians not participating in the electronic prescribing program will receive reimbursement reductions of 1% in 2012, 1.5% in 2013, and 2% in 2014 and thereafter.  Saves $1.4 billion over eleven years.

Other provisions:  With respect to physician services, the bill also revises a medical home demonstration project, extends the floor for Medicare work geographic adjustments under the physician fee schedule through December 2009, imposes accreditation requirements on the payment of diagnostic imaging services, and increases payment levels for teaching anesthesiologists.  H.R. 6331 also includes a requirement for the Secretary to report to Congress on the creation of a new system of value-based purchasing for physician services.  Total cost of $1.9 billion over eleven years.

Other Part B Adjustments.  The bill would make several other adjustments to the Part B program, among which are an extension through December 2009 of the exceptions process for Medicare therapy caps (costs $1.2 billion over eleven years), the inclusion of speech-language pathology services as a service for which providers can bill Medicare directly ($100 million cost), the establishment of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation programs ($500 million cost), a repeal of the transfer of ownership with respect to oxygen equipment, repeal of a competitive bidding demonstration project for clinical laboratory services coupled with other adjustments for lab services ($2 billion savings), increased payments for ambulance services ($100 million cost), payment clarification for clinical laboratory tests made at critical access hospitals ($300 million cost), and increased payment limits for federally qualified health centers treating Medicare patients ($100 million cost).

Kidney Disease and Dialysis Provisions.  H.R. 6331 makes several adjustments to the end-stage renal disease program, including new coverage for kidney disease education services, a 1% increase in dialysis reimbursement rates for 2009 and 2010, and a requirement that the Secretary develop a bundled rate payment system for renal dialysis by January 2011, to be phased in over four years, that includes payment for drugs and tests related to dialysis treatment for which Medicare currently reimburses providers separately.  Costs $1.5 billion over eleven years.

Delay of Durable Medical Equipment Competitive Bidding.  The legislation would terminate all Round 1 contracts for Medicare durable medical equipment made pursuant to the initial round of competitive bidding completed this spring, and would direct CMS to re-bid Round 1 at some point during 2009.  Future rounds of competitive bidding would also be delayed, with Round 2 taking place during 2011, and competitive bidding in rural areas and smaller metropolitan areas being delayed until 2015.  The approximately $3 billion cost of the delay would be paid for by an across-the-board reduction of 9.5% for all supplies scheduled to be subjected to competitive bidding.  In addition, the bill would require the CMS contractor to notify suppliers missing financial documentation related to their bids, extend disclosure and accreditation requirements to sub-contractors, and establish an ombudsman within CMS to respond to complaints from suppliers and individuals about the competitive bidding process.

Medicare Advantage Provisions.  H.R. 6331 would cut Medicare Advantage payments, primarily through two adjustments.  The first would phase out duplicate payments related to indirect medical education (IME) costs at teaching hospitals.  Currently, IME costs are incorporated into the benchmark which Medicare Advantage plans bid against, even though Medicare also makes IME payments to teaching hospitals in association with hospital stays for Medicare Advantage beneficiaries.  The Administration incorporated this proposal into its Fiscal Year 2009 budget submission to Congress.

The bill also would repeal “deeming” authority language for private fee-for-service plans within Medicare Advantage, which currently can reimburse providers at the traditional Medicare rate and “deem” these providers part of their network.  Instead, H.R. 6331 would require private fee-for-service plans to adopt physician networks in areas where at least two other types of coordinated care plans (e.g. Health Maintenance Organizations Preferred Provider Organizations, etc.) operate.

Preliminary data from CMS indicate that the provisions in H.R. 6331 would result in private fee-for-service plans losing their “deeming” authority in 96% of counties in which they currently operate, potentially resulting in loss of beneficiary access to a type of Medicare Advantage plan which has experienced significant growth in recent years.  The Congressional Budget Office confirms that the provision would reduce both Medicare outlays and enrollment in the Medicare Advantage program.  In a Statement of Administration Policy on the Senate bill (S. 3101) incorporating these provisions, the Office of Management and Budget opposed the changes as a “fundamental restructuring” of this segment of the Medicare Advantage program that would result in beneficiaries losing access to the enhanced benefits which Medicare Advantage plans provide.  The IME provision and the deeming language collectively cut Medicare Advantage by $12.5 billion over six years, and $47.5 billion over eleven years.

H.R. 6331 includes several other provisions relating to Medicare Advantage plans, including an extension of and revisions to plans for special needs individuals (costs $500 million over eleven years), garnishment of the remaining funds left in the Medicare Advantage stabilization fund (saves $1.8 billion over eleven years), and two studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) regarding Medicare Advantage quality data and payment formulae.

Pharmacy Provisions.  The bill makes changes to the Part D prescription drug program, most notably requiring “prompt payment” by drug plans to pharmacies for prescriptions within 14 days for electronic claims and 30 days for all other claims, at a cost of $700 million over eleven years.

Release of Part D Data.  The bill would permit the Secretary to utilize Part D claims data from private plans in order to improve the public health as the Secretary determines appropriate, and would further allow Congressional support agencies to obtain the data for oversight and monitoring purposes.  No net cost.

Medicare Improvement Fund.  H.R. 6331 would establish a Medicare Improvement Fund to allow the Secretary to make enhancements to Medicare Parts A and B, and appropriates funding from FY2014 through FY2017 to fund such efforts.  Costs $24.2 billion over eleven years.

Federal Payment Levy.  The bill would expand the federal payment levy—which provides for the recoupment of taxes owed the federal government by private contractors—to Medicare provider and supplier payments.  Saves $400 million over eleven years.

TMA and Title V Extension.  H.R. 6331 would extend for twelve months (until June 30, 2009), both the authorization for Title V programs (abstinence education programs), and the authorization for Transitional Medical Assistance (Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work).  TMA has historically been extended along with the Title V Abstinence Education Program.  Regarding the Title V grant program, in order for states to receive Title V block grant funds, states must use the funds exclusively for teaching abstinence.  In addition, in order to receive federal funds, a state must match every $4 in federal funds with $3 in state funds.  Costs $1 billion over eleven years.

Other Extensions.  The bill also adjusts the federal Medicaid matching rate for foster care and related services provided by the District of Columbia, and extends certain other provisions, including Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments, TANF supplemental grants, and special diabetes grant programs.  Total cost of $1 billion over eleven years.

Additional Background on Senate Legislation:  H.R. 6331 closely resembles legislation (S. 3101) originally introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).  At least one circulating draft of H.R. 6331 includes “Sense of the Senate” language, despite the fact that the bill is ostensibly an original House measure.  On June 12, 2008, the Senate by a 54-39 vote failed to invoke cloture on a motion to proceed to consideration of S. 3101.

Despite sharing similar language, H.R. 6331 and S. 3101 differ in a few respects.  The House bill excludes cuts to reimbursement of oxygen supplies and power-driven wheelchairs included in the Senate version, instead incorporating the federal payment tax levy and other provisions to compensate for the lost budgetary savings.  In addition, H.R. 6331 includes legislation (H.R. 6252) introduced by Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) and Ranking Member Dave Camp (R-MI) to postpone competitive bidding of durable medical equipment.  Chairman Baucus had attempted to add these provisions to his Senate legislation, but was unable to persuade enough Senate Republicans to support cloture in order to allow him to do so, largely because Republicans objected to the Medicare Advantage cuts envisioned by his legislation.

Additional Background on Medicare Advantage:  The Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 made several changes to the bidding and payment structure for private Medicare Advantage plans to deliver health care to beneficiaries.  As currently constructed, plans receive capitated monthly payments that are subject to risk adjustment—so that plans caring for older, sicker beneficiaries receive higher payments than those with healthier populations.  In order to determine the capitated payment amount, plans submit annual bids to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  The bids are compared against a benchmark established by a detailed formula—but the comparison against the benchmark does not directly allow plans to compete against each other, or against traditional Medicare, when CMS evaluates plan bids.

In the event a plan’s bid is below the annual benchmark, 75% of the savings is returned to the beneficiary in the form of lower cost-sharing (i.e. premiums, co-payments, etc.) or better benefits, with the remaining 25% returned to the federal government.  If a plan’s bid is above the benchmark, beneficiaries pay the full amount of any marginal costs above the benchmark threshold.

Most Medicare Advantage plans use rebates provided when bidding below the benchmark to cover additional services over and above those provided by traditional Medicare, and in so doing reduce beneficiaries’ exposure to out-of-pocket costs.  A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in February 2008 documented that in most cases, beneficiaries receive better benefits under Medicare Advantage than they would under traditional Medicare.  The GAO study found that beneficiary cost-sharing would be 42% of the amounts anticipated under traditional Medicare, with beneficiaries saving an average of $67 per month, or $804 annually.[1]  These savings to MA beneficiaries occurred because plans dedicated 89% of their rebates from low bids to reduced cost-sharing or lower premiums.  The remaining 11% of rebates were used to finance additional benefits, such as vision, dental, and hearing coverage, along with various health education, wellness, and preventive benefits.[2]  Due in part to the increased benefits which Medicare Advantage plans have provided, enrollment in MA plans is estimated to rise to 22.3% of all Medicare beneficiaries in 2008, up from 12.1% in 2004.[3]

Some independent studies have suggested that Medicare Advantage plans incur higher costs than the average annual cost of providing coverage through traditional Medicare, though estimates vary as to the disparity between the two forms of coverage.  However, to the extent that MA plans in fact receive payments in excess of the costs of traditional Medicare, this discrepancy remains inextricably linked to two features of the Medicare Advantage program—the increased benefits for beneficiaries, and the complexity of the MA plan bidding mechanism.  Because of the problems inherent in the statutory benchmark design, plans have little incentive to submit bids less than the cost of traditional Medicare, as plans that bid above the costs of traditional Medicare but below the benchmark receive the difference between traditional Medicare costs and the plan bid as an extra payment to the plan.[4]

Some conservatives would also argue that a discussion focused solely on Medicare Advantage “overpayments” ignores the significant benefits that MA plans provide to key underserved beneficiary populations.  Medicare Advantage plans have expanded access to coverage in rural areas.  Moreover, the disproportionate share of low-income and minority populations who have chosen the MA option suggests that the comprehensive benefits provided are well-suited to beneficiaries among vulnerable populations.  Data from the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey demonstrate that almost half (49%) of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries have incomes less than $20,000, and that 70% of Hispanic and African-American Medicare Advantage enrollees had incomes below the $20,000 level.[5]

Additional Background on Medicare Physician Reimbursements:  Under current Medicare law, doctors providing health care services to Part B enrollees are compensated through a “fee-for-service” system, in which physician payments are distributed on a per-service basis, as determined by a fee schedule and an annual conversion factor (a formula dollar amount).  The fee schedule assigns “relative values” to each type of provided service.  Relative value reflects physicians’ work time and skill, average medical practice expenses, and geographical adjustments.  In order to determine the physician payment for a specific service, the conversion factor ($37.8975 in 2006) is multiplied by the relative value for that service.  For example, if a routine office visit is assigned a relative value of 2.1, then Medicare would provide the physician with a payment of $79.58 for that service.  ($37.8975 x 2.1)

Medicare law requires that the conversion factor be updated each year.  The formula used to determine the annual update takes into consideration the following factors:

  • Medicare economic index (MEI)–cost of providing medical care;
  • Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR)–target for aggregate growth in Medicare physician payments; and
  • Performance Adjustment–an adjustment ranging from -13% to +3%, to bring the MEI change in line with what is allowed under SGR, in order to restrain overall spending.

Every November, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announces the statutory annual update to the conversion factor for the subsequent year. The new conversion factor is calculated by increasing or decreasing the previous year’s factor by the annual update.

From 2002 to 2007, the statutory formula calculation resulted in a negative update, which would have reduced physician payments, but not overall physician spending. The negative updates occurred because Medicare spending on physician payments increased the previous year beyond what is allowed by SGR.  The SGR mechanism is designed to balance the previous year’s increase in physician spending with a decrease in the next year, in order to maintain the aggregate growth targets.  Thus, in light of increased Medicare spending in recent years, the statutory formula has resulted in negative annual updates.  It is important to note that while imperfect, the SGR was designed as a cost-containment mechanism to help deal with Medicare’s exploding costs, and to some extent it has worked, forcing offsets in some years and causing physician payment levels to be scrutinized annually as if they were discretionary spending.

Since 2003, Congress has chosen to override current law, providing doctors with increases each year, and level funding in 2006.  In 2007, Congress provided a 1.5% update bonus payment for physicians who report on quality of care measures; however, Congress also provided that the 2007 “fix” would be disregarded by CMS for the purpose of calculating the SGR for 2008, resulting in a higher projected cut next year.  The specific data for each year is outlined in the following table.

Year Statutory

Annual

Update (%)

Congressional “Fix” to the Update (%)*
2002 -5.4 -5.4**
2003 -4.4 +1.6
2004 -4.5 +1.5
2005 -3.3 +1.5
2006 -4.4 0
2007 -5.0 +1.5***
2008 -10.1§ 0.5 (proposed)

* The annual update that actually went into effect for that year.

** CMS made other adjustments, as provided by law, which resulted in a net update of – 4.8%; however, Congress did not act to override the -5.4% statutory update.

*** The full 1.5% increase was provided to physicians reporting quality of care measures; physicians not reporting quality of care received no net increase.

  • The Tax Relief and Health Care Act signed last year provided that 2007’s Congressional “fix” was to be disregarded for the purpose of calculating the SGR in 2008 and future years.

Because the Tax Relief and Health Care Act (P.L. 109-432), signed into law in December 2006, provided that 2007’s Congressional “fix” was to be disregarded for the purpose of calculating the SGR in 2008 and future years, the 10.1% negative annual update for 2008 will be restored once the December 2007 legislation expires on July 1, 2008, absent further Congressional action.  In addition, H.R. 6331 includes a similar provision noting that the “fix” proposed would be disregarded for the purpose of calculating the SGR in 2010 and future years, resulting in a projected 21% reduction in fee schedule levels in January 2010.

Additional Background on Durable Medical Equipment:  In addition to providing coverage for outpatient physician services, Medicare Part B also helps pay for durable medical equipment, prosthetics, orthotics, and supplies (DMEPOS) needed by beneficiaries.  Currently, Medicare reimburses beneficiaries for supplies using a series of fee schedules, which are generally based on historical prices subject to annual updates or other adjustments.  Medicare finances 80% of the actual costs or the fee schedule amount, whichever less, with the beneficiary paying the difference.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) estimates that about 10 million individuals—or about one-quarter of all beneficiaries—receive medical supplies under Part B in a given year, at a cost to Medicare of approximately $10 billion annually.[6]

In recent years, some conservatives have raised concerns that the prices on the Medicare fee schedule for DMEPOS were in excess of market prices.  In 2002, testimony by the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General revealed that the prices paid by Medicare for 16 selected items of durable medical equipment were higher than prices paid by Medicaid, the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) plans, and consumers purchasing directly from retailers.  The Inspector General projected that using the lower prices by other payers for these 16 common items alone would have saved Medicare more than $100 million annually.[7]

In response to the above findings, Congress in the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) of 2003 (P.L. 108-173) enacted cuts in the fee schedule levels for the 16 specific items studied by the Inspector General’s testimony, while creating a new competitive bidding process for DMEPOS suppliers in Section 302 of the law.  This nationwide program followed on the heels of three demonstration projects, authorized under the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, established during the period 1999-2002 in Florida and Texas.  The pilot programs demonstrated the ability of competitive bidding to reduce the costs of DMEPOS by an average 19.1%—saving the federal government $7.5 million, and $1.9 million in reduced beneficiary co-payments—while maintaining beneficiary access to required items.[8]

In addition to a program of competitive bidding for DMEPOS, the MMA also established a new accreditation process for suppliers designed to review suppliers’ financial records and other related documentation to establish their status as bona fide health equipment suppliers.  A November 2007 CMS estimate indicated that 10.3% of payments to medical equipment suppliers were improper—a rate of questionable payments more than double those of other Medicare providers.[9]  Coupled with the new competitive bidding program, the accreditation mechanism was intended to eliminate “fly-by-night” DMEPOS suppliers from operating within the Medicare program, and thus was included in the anti-fraud title of MMA.

In recent months, the competitive bidding program has come under criticism due both to procedural concerns as to how the bidding process was conducted—several of which CMS is working to address—and broader concerns as to whether the program will adversely affect beneficiary access to supplies and/or DMEPOS suppliers, particularly small businesses, whose bids were priced unsuccessfully.  Some conservatives may question the need to delay the competitive bidding process, particularly on the latter grounds.  CMS provided specific opportunities for small businesses to participate in the DMEPOS competitive bidding process, resulting in approximately half of firms who accepted winning bids having revenues of less than $3.5 million.  These small business opportunities occurred in the context of a market-oriented bidding mechanism that, when fully implemented, will save taxpayers approximately $1 billion annually—and will provide additional savings to Medicare beneficiaries in the form of reduced co-payments.  In addition, the accreditation mechanism established by Section 302 of MMA provides a quality check previously lacking for DMEPOS purchases and suppliers.

Cost to Taxpayers:  A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score for H.R. 6331 was unavailable at press time.  However, a CBO estimate on a similar bill (S. 3101) introduced and considered in the Senate noted that that legislation would increase spending on physician and related services by $19.8 billion over six years and $62.8 billion over the 2008-2018 period.  These spending increases would be offset by spending cuts in other health spending, primarily Medicare Advantage plans.  Overall, S. 3101 was projected to reduce direct spending by $5 million over the six- and eleven-year budget windows.

Committee Action:  The bill was introduced on June 20, 2008, and referred to the Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means Committees, neither of which took official action on the legislation.  The House passed the bill under suspension of the rules on June 24, 2008 by a 355-59 vote, and the Senate passed the bill by voice vote after invoking cloture by a vote of 69-30 on July 9, 2008.

Possible Conservative Concerns:  Numerous aspects of H.R. 6331 may raise concerns for conservatives, including, but not necessarily limited to, the following:

  • Government Price Fixing.  By making alterations in physician and other Medicare fee schedules, H.R. 6331 would reinforce a system whereby Congress, by adjusting various reimbursement levels, permits the government, rather than the private marketplace, to set prices for medical goods and services.  Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus admitted some disquiet about this dynamic—and Congress’ lack of expertise to micro-manage the health care system—at a health care summit on June 16: “How in the world am I supposed to know what the proper reimbursement should be for a particular procedure?”[10]  Yet H.R. 6331, based on legislation Chairman Baucus himself introduced, would retain the current system of price-fixing—while repealing a competitive bidding demonstration project for clinical laboratory services and delaying a competitive bidding program designed to inject market forces into the purchase of durable medical equipment and supplies.
  • Budgetary Gimmick.  Because language in H.R. 6331 stipulates that the conversion factor adjustments in the bill shall not be considered when determining future years’ SGR rates, physician reimbursement rates will be reduced 21% in 2010—an action which, given past trends, many observers would consider highly unlikely.  Therefore, some conservatives may be concerned that this language is designed to mask the true cost of the physician reimbursement adjustments included in the bill, creating a budgetary gimmick that future Congresses will feel pressured to remedy.
  • Undermines Medicare Advantage.  H.R. 6331 includes several provisions designed to “reform” private fee-for-service plans operating within Medicare Advantage that would reduce their payments by $47.5 billion over eleven years, effectively ending their “deeming” authority, and requiring virtually all private fee-for-service plans to contract with health care providers.  Some conservatives may be concerned that these changes would undermine the effectiveness of the Medicare Advantage program, which has grown in popularity among seniors due to the benefit enhancements that private coverage can provide.
  • Creates New Medicare Fund.  The bill would establish a new Medicare Improvement Fund, which would receive $19.9 billion for the “enhancement” of traditional Medicare Parts A and B during Fiscal Years 2014-2017.  Some conservatives may consider this account a new “slush fund” that will be used to finance further expansions of government-run health programs, rather than to bolster Medicare’s precarious financial future.
  • Release of Part D Data.  H.R. 6331 would authorize the Secretary to utilize Part D claims data from private health plans for any use deemed by the Secretary as relating to the public health, and would further authorize Congressional support agencies to utilize the same data for oversight purposes.  Some conservatives may be concerned that these wide-ranging provisions could lead to the public release of private and proprietary information related to the claims and bidding practices of private health plans providing prescription drug coverage under Part D, and could be used to initiate “fishing expedition” investigations at the behest of Democrats philosophically opposed to having private entities provide coverage to Medicare beneficiaries.
  • Delays Competitive Bidding.  H.R. 6331 would delay the first round of competitive bidding for durable medical equipment, and would nullify contracts signed by CMS for the first round of bidding this spring.  Re-opening the bidding process could prejudice entities who won their bids earlier this year, while potentially reducing savings to the federal government by allowing suppliers to bid more strategically in a re-bid scenario.  Some conservatives may be concerned that the delay contemplated by H.R. 6331 would allow a new Administration to take steps undermining the competitive bidding program through the regulatory process, and/or allow a new Administration and a future Congress to make the “temporary” delay permanent and abolish competitive bidding outright.

Administration Position:  Although a formal Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) was unavailable at press time, reports indicate that the Administration opposes the legislation and will likely issue a veto threat on the bill.

Does the Bill Expand the Size and Scope of the Federal Government?:  Yes, the bill would expand eligibility for participation in the Medicare Savings Program.

Does the Bill Contain Any New State-Government, Local-Government, or Private-Sector Mandates?: No.

Does the Bill Comply with House Rules Regarding Earmarks/Limited Tax Benefits/Limited Tariff Benefits?:  An earmarks/revenue benefits statement required under House Rule XXI, Clause 9(a) was not available at press time.

Constitutional Authority:  A committee report citing constitutional authority is unavailable.

 

[1] Government Accountability Office, “Medicare Advantage: Increased Spending Relative to Medicare Fee-for-Service May Not Always Reduce Beneficiary Out-of-Pocket Costs,” (Washington, Report GAO-08-359, February 2008), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08359.pdf (accessed May 19, 2008), p. 23.

[2] Ibid., pp. 17-20.

[3] Department of Health and Human Services, “HHS Budget in Brief: Fiscal Year 2009,” available online at http://www.hhs.gov/budget/09budget/2009BudgetInBrief.pdf (accessed May 19, 2008), p. 58.

[4] The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) has alleged that the formula-driven benchmarks themselves exceed the cost of traditional Medicare.  See Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, Report to the Congress: Medicare Payment Policy (Washington, DC, March 2008), available online at http://www.medpac.gov/documents/Mar08_EntireReport.pdf (accessed May 9, 2008), Table 3-3, p. 247.

[5] America’s Health Insurance Plans, “Low Income and Minority Beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage Plans,” (Washington, DC, AHIP Center for Policy and Research, February 2007), available online at http://www.ahipresearch.org/PDFs/FullReportAHIPMALowIncomeandMinorityFeb2007.pdf (accessed May 19, 2008), p. 3.

[6] Cited in Government Accountability Office, “Medicare: Competitive Bidding for Medical Equipment and Supplies Could Reduce Program Payments, but Adequate Oversight Is Critical,” (Washington, Report GAO-08-767T), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08767t.pdf (accessed June 9, 2008), p. 3.

[7] Testimony of Janet Rehnquist, Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, before Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, and Education, June 12, 2002 hearing, available online at http://www.oig.hhs.gov/testimony/docs/2002/020611fin.pdf (accessed June 16, 2008).

[8] Testimony of Thomas Hoerger, Senior Fellow, Research Triangle Institute International, before House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, May 6, 2008 hearing on Durable Medical Equipment Competitive Bidding, available online at http://waysandmeans.house.gov/hearings.asp?formmode=printfriendly&id=6906 (accessed June 9, 2008).

[9] Cited in Government Accountability Office, “Medicare Competitive Bidding,” pp. 10-11.

[10] Quoted in Anna Edney, “Bernanke: Health Care Reform Will Require Higher Spending,” CongressDailyPM June 16, 2008, available online at http://www.nationaljournal.com/congressdaily/cdp_20080616_8602.php (accessed June 16, 2008).

Weekly Newsletter: July 14, 2008

Veto Expected on Medicare Legislation

News reports indicate that this week Congress will return to legislation addressing physician reimbursement levels under Medicare. President Bush is expected to soon veto legislation (H.R. 6331) which addressed the physician reimbursement levels, while cutting $47.5 billion from privately-run Medicare Advantage plans. Votes on an expected Presidential veto could occur later in the week.

While all parties agree on the need to address the physician reimbursement provisions, Congressional Republicans have called for passage of bipartisan legislation that would forestall the significant cuts to Medicare Advantage plans made in H.R. 6331. Some conservatives may be concerned that the bill would have the effect of driving beneficiaries away from a privately-run model of health insurance that has provided enhanced benefits and choice for millions of seniors, especially the 2.2 million beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage private fee-for-service plans. Some conservatives may also believe that the short-term nature of current physician reimbursement extensions, coupled with their potential to become entwined in unrelated disputes and/or “held hostage” due to various political considerations, makes a powerful argument for more comprehensive reforms to Medicare, including a long-term solution to physician reimbursement policy.

The Legislative Bulletin on H.R. 6331 can be found here.

There are additional RSC Policy Briefs on issues related to the Medicare bill: Physician Payments; Medicare Advantage; Bidding for Durable Medical Equipment; and the Medicare Trustees Report.

Tentative Agreement on Mental Health, but Obstacles Remain

Reports over the Independence Day recess indicated that Congressional negotiators have come close to agreement on compromise mental health parity language after the passage of separate House and Senate legislation (H.R. 1424, S. 558) earlier in the Congress. Multiple sources suggest that the deal will remove two provisions considered particularly onerous by conservatives: a requirement that insurers cover all mental diseases—including many psycho-sexual disorders objectionable to many conservatives—as part of health insurance coverage, and language that would have undermined the strong federal pre-emption provided to group health insurance coverage, potentially subjecting large employers to a variety of conflicting state regulations and lawsuits.

Despite these improvements, some conservatives may still be concerned that imposing a mental health parity mandate on health insurance may raise premiums, resulting in the loss of coverage for some populations. Some conservatives may also be concerned that the bill’s nearly $4 billion cost be paid for in a responsible manner, avoiding the controversial pay-fors—restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals and higher mandatory rebates on Medicaid pharmaceuticals—originally included in the House bill.

Read the Legislative Bulletin on H.R. 1424 here.

Article of Note: Dead Men Prescribing

A report released by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations last week cast new doubts on the extent of anti-fraud efforts within the Medicare program. The report found that since 2000, Medicare paid at least $92 million in claims for wheelchairs and other durable medical equipment prescribed by physicians who had been dead for at least one year. The 500,000 fraudulent claims paid— more than half of which were ascribed to physicians who had died at least five years before the date of the claim—reinforced the Government Accountability Office’s decision to place Medicare on its “high-risk” watch list because of fraud concerns within the program.

Many conservatives may be concerned by the Subcommittee’s findings, and support efforts to strengthen the monitoring of durable medical equipment suppliers as one way to combat the fraudulent claims cited. Some conservatives may also be concerned by Congress’ passage of Medicare legislation, which would delay until the next Administration the implementation of a competitive bidding program that could also reduce the incidence of fraud by ensuring that Medicare pays no more than competitive market rates when acquiring equipment and supplies for seniors’ benefit.

Read the article here: Washington Post: “Billings Used Dead Doctors’ Names

Legislative Bulletin: Senate Amendments to H.R. 493, Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act

Order of Business:  The Senate amendments to the bill are reportedly scheduled to be considered on Thursday, May 1, 2008, subject to a closed rule that provides for one hour of general debate on the Senate amendments and waives all points of order against the amendments (except those arising under PAYGO).

Summary:   H.R. 493 would prohibit the use of genetic information by employers in employment decisions and by health insurers and health plans in making enrollment determinations and setting insurance premiums.  The specific provisions of the bill as amended by the Senate are summarized below.

  • Amends the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the Public Health Service Act, and the Internal Revenue Code to prohibit a group health plan, and a health insurance issuer offering group health insurance coverage in connection with a group health plan, from the following:
    • Adjusting premium or contribution amounts for the group covered under the plan on the basis of genetic information;
    • Requiring an individual or a family member to undergo a genetic test;
    • Requesting, requiring, or purchasing genetic information for underwriting purposes; and
    • Requesting, requiring, or purchasing genetic information with respect to any individual prior to that individual’s enrollment under the plan or coverage in connection with their enrollment.

The bill allows for certain research exceptions to the above prohibitions.

  • Defines an individual or a family member for purposes of this Act as:
    • The fetus inside of a pregnant mother; and
    • Any embryo legally held by the individual or family member (with respect to assisted reproductive technology).
  • Defines genetic test as: “an analysis of human DNA, RNA, chromosomes, proteins, or metabolites, that detects genotypes, mutations, or chromosomal changes.”  The definition does not include the following:
    • “An analysis of proteins or metabolites that does not detect genotypes, mutations, or chromosomal changes; or
    • “An analysis of proteins or metabolites that is directly related to a manifested disease, disorder, or pathological condition that could reasonably be detected by a health care professional with appropriate training and expertise in the field of medicine involved.”
  • Imposes a penalty against any plan sponsor or group health plan for failure to meet requirements with respect to genetic information in connection with their health plan.  The penalty would be $100 each day in noncompliance with respect to each participant to whom such failure relates.  Under certain circumstances, the penalty could not be less than $15,000 per participant.  In addition, the Secretary could waive the penalty under certain circumstances.
  • Prohibits a health insurance issuer in the individual market from doing the following:
    • Establishing rules for the eligibility of any individual to enroll in individual health insurance coverage based on genetic information;
    • Adjusting premium or contribution amounts for an individual on the basis of genetic information concerning the individual or a family member;
    • Imposing any preexisting condition exclusion based on the basis of genetic information, with respect to their coverage;
    • Requesting or requiring an individual or family member to undergo a genetic test;
    • Requesting, requiring or purchasing genetic information for underwriting purposes; and
    • Collecting genetic information with respect to any individual prior to the individual’s enrollment under the plan.
  • Prohibits an issuer of a Medicare supplemental policy from the following:
    • Denying or conditioning the issuance of a policy and from discriminating in the pricing of the policy of an individual on the basis of genetic information;
    • Requesting or requiring individuals to undergo genetic tests; and
    • Requesting, requiring, or purchasing genetic information during underwriting.
  • Directs the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to modify its NAIC model regulations to mirror the above prohibitions required by this Act.
  • Directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to revise the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) private regulations to be consistent with provisions in this Act, affecting the use of genetic information.
  • Prohibits employers, employment agencies, and labor organizations from the following:
    • Refusing to hire an employee or discriminating against an employee because of genetic information related to that individual;
    • Limiting, segregating or classifying employees in any way that would deprive or adversely affect the status of the employee due to their genetic information; and
    • Requiring or purchasing genetic information, except in certain circumstances.
  • Requires employers, employment agencies, and labor organizations to maintain any genetic information about employees or members as confidential, subject to certain exceptions.
  • Provides for remedies with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against employers who engage in discriminatory employment practices with respect to their employees’ genetic information.

Additional Background on Senate Amendments:  On March 4, 2008, 11 Senators, led by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), sent a letter to Majority Leader Reid and Senate HELP Committee Chairman Kennedy outlining remaining conservative concerns regarding passage of the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA).  A summary of those concerns, along with the ways in which the compromise language addressed the issues raised in the March 4 letter, follows below.

  • Title I imposes requirements on health plans regarding insurance coverage, while Title II imposes requirements on employers regarding employment and related hiring decisions.  Earlier drafts of the bill did not include language clarifying that group health insurance plan sponsors may not be subjected to the more expansive remedies provided by Title II, which provides for rulemaking by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and remedies before the same body and, ultimately, federal courts.  This “firewall” provision was incorporated into the Senate agreement, which should ensure that the broader remedies available in Title II will be used only against employers who violate their employees’ civil rights, not for employees seeking to litigate group health plan disputes.
  • The Senate agreement maintained language in the original House-passed bill ensuring that entities covered under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy regulations can continue to communicate medical and genetic information consistent with the HIPAA statute without facing a separate and potentially conflicting regulatory regime under GINA.
  • The Senate agreement also includes clear language excluding “manifested” diseases from GINA’s provisions.  In general, health plans can receive information about whether an individual has a manifested disease, and these facts can be used during the underwriting process for individual and small group coverage in some states.  By maintaining current law clarity, the agreement’s language would maintain long-established underwriting processes for already-occurring health conditions—while providing protections for genetic information for diseases not yet manifest in patients.
  • Lastly, as a result of efforts by the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, the Senate agreement maintained language in the House-passed bill extending GINA protections to any fetus carried by pregnant women or any embryos held by individuals or family members.  Maintaining this language ensures that families will not have an economic incentive to abort their unborn children, fearing that they could be discriminated against due to results from prenatal testing.  Groups such as Family Research Council and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops have endorsed the compromise Senate language for this reason. 

To the extent that concerns still remain regarding the GINA language, they revolve primarily around the strength of the “firewall” language, and the lack of a general-purpose “business necessity” exemption for companies that may find a legitimate need to utilize genetic information for a reason not expressly authorized within the statute.  Some business groups also question whether and to what extent genetic non-discrimination legislation is necessary, particularly as insurers are currently prohibited from such discrimination.  Nevertheless, the significant progress made on the concerns outlined by Sen. Coburn and his colleagues outweighed any lingering concerns, leading the Senate to approve the bill by a 95-0 vote.

Legislative History:  H.R. 493 was introduced on January 16, 2007, and referred to the House Committees on Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means.  The Education and Labor Committee held a mark-up and reported the bill, as amended, by voice vote on February 14, 2007.  The Energy and Commerce Committee held a mark-up and reported the bill, as amended, on March 23, 2007.  The Ways and Means Committee held a mark-up and reported the bill, as amended, by voice vote on March 21, 2007.  The bill was passed on April 25, 2007, by a vote of 420-3.  On April 24, 2008, the Senate passed the bill with an amendment by a 95-0 vote.

Cost to Taxpayers:  According to CBO, enacting H.R. 493 “would increase the number of individuals who obtain health insurance by about 600 people per year, nearly all of whom would obtain insurance in the individual market.  The bill would affect federal revenues because the premiums paid by some of those newly insured individuals would be tax-deductible.” As such, CBO estimates that the bill would reduce revenues by less than $500,000 in each year from 2008 through 2017, by $1 million over the 2008-2012 period, and by $2 million over the 2008 through 2017 period.

In addition, CBO states that “the bill’s requirements would apply to Medicare supplemental insurance, which would affect direct spending for Medicare.”  However, CBO estimates that the bill would have no significant effect on direct spending.  Finally, CBO estimates that H.R. 493 would result in discretionary costs of less than $500,000 in FY 2008, and $2 million over the FY 2008 through FY 2017 period.

Does the Bill Expand the Size and Scope of the Federal Government?:  Yes, the bill grants authority to the Secretaries of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury to promulgate regulations and engage in enforcement activities with respect to the Title I provisions relating to health insurance coverage.

Does the Bill Contain Any New State-Government, Local-Government, or Private-Sector Mandates?:   Yes.  According to CBO, the bill would “preempt some state laws that establish confidentiality standards for genetic information, and would restrict how state and local governments use such information in employment practices and in the provision of health care to employees.”  In addition, CBO explains that the bill “contains private-sector mandates on health insurers, health plans, employers, labor unions, and other organizations.”  In both cases, however, CBO does not believe that the cost of the mandates would exceed thresholds established in the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act ($66 million and $131 million in 2007, respectively, adjusted for inflation).

Weekly Newsletter: March 10, 2008

Democrat Budget Fails to Address Medicare’s Woes…

The concurrent budget resolution (H. Con. Res. 312), which Democrats will bring to the House floor this week, does not include provisions providing comprehensive Medicare reform. The budget includes reconciliation provisions instructing the Ways and Means Committee to reduce spending on mandatory programs within their jurisdiction—but by only $750 million over the next five years. An amendment offered during last week’s Budget Committee markup by RSC Chairman Hensarling, which offered reconciliation instructions to ensure that Congress addresses the funding warning issued by the Medicare trustees last year, was defeated on a party-line vote.

Many conservatives will be concerned that, with the Medicare trust funds projected to be exhausted in little more than a decade, the Democrats’ budget will make no substantive effort to address Medicare’s $74 trillion in unfunded liabilities. In addition, some conservatives may be concerned by press reports indicating that the Democrat leadership will use the reconciliation process to justify new spending proposals for health care, rather than using all savings achieved to reduce the deficit and improve Medicare’s long-term viability.

More information on the Medicare trigger—and the President’s proposals for entitlement reform—can be found here.

…And Increases Spending on SCHIP

The Democrat budget also includes a proposed $50 billion reserve fund to finance an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). This reserve fund would be consistent with a bill (H.R. 3162) considered by the House last July, under which nearly two and a half million children would drop private health insurance coverage in order to join a government-financed program—including children in families with incomes of more than $80,000.

Most conservatives support the enrollment and funding of the SCHIP program for the populations for whom it was created. However, continued efforts to extend this government-financed program to wealthier children and families may give some conservatives concern. If Democrats wish to look out for America’s children, some conservatives might argue that the better way to help is to reform Medicare and Medicaid so that future generations will not be saddled with trillions of dollars of debt, not to work to expand public programs for wealthier families.

An RSC Policy Brief discussing Administration proposals on SCHIP can be found here.

Mental Health Parity Bill Passes House

A Top Ten list of conservative concerns about H.R. 1424 can be found here.

Votes on the motion to recommit and final passage can be found here: Motion to Recommit Final Passage

Article of Note: Silence on Medicare Reform

Last week, the New York Times highlighted the absence of plans by Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama to confront the fiscal entitlement crisis our country faces in the coming decade. Although a report issued last month by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimated that federal spending on health care will increase by 7.3% annually for the next decade, neither Democrat candidate has provided details on how to address the trillions of dollars of debt this additional spending will create.

The Times article notes that much of Medicare’s fiscal problem stems from the overall growth in health care costs. Several reports released in recent weeks have highlighted the need for measures to examine, and ultimately slow, excess cost growth within the health sphere. The RSC is preparing a policy brief summarizing these reports and offering some principles for controlling health costs using conservative, free-market solutions. By contrast, proposals by Sens. Clinton and Obama to control health costs contain a heavy emphasis on government-imposed price controls on insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

With the first Baby Boomer scheduled to become eligible for Medicare in fewer than three years, and the winner in November’s election likely to seek re-election, any potential President will have to address this crucial entitlement reform at some point during his (or her) intended term of office. Moreover, the $2 trillion added to America’s collective entitlement obligations every year that Congress and the President fail to take action provides a strong justification for immediate reform. Hopefully the Democratic contenders will embrace the opportunity to propose real, market-oriented solutions that control health care costs, or otherwise, as Robert Reischauer of the Urban Institute notes, “it will be difficult for Senator Clinton and Senator Obama to retain popular support for their plans once the details are supplied.”

Read the article here: New York Times: “About Those Health Care Plans by the Democrats…