Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Doesn’t Understand How Obamacare’s Exchanges Work

On Twitter Sunday evening, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) complained about what she viewed as the daunting prospect of having to choose her health insurance plan for 2020.

It’s not the first time Ocasio-Cortez has taken issue with the health coverage for members of Congress. She griped about the process last year, as a newly elected official just taking her seat.

But, as someone who has gone through the process of buying health insurance as a DC resident for years, I can characterize most of the points she makes in the tweet as inaccurate, or rooted in the special privilege she receives as a member of Congress.

She’s Not Buying ‘Off the Exchange’

To start with, Ocasio-Cortez claimed that “Members of Congress also have to buy their plans off the Exchange.” That statement contains numerous false elements. Most obviously, she cannot buy her insurance off the exchange because the District of Columbia abolished its private insurance market “off the Exchange.”

Upon seeing her tweet, I went to eHealthInsurance, a private market away from the government-run exchange, and tried to search for a plan. (Disclosure: I used to represent eHealth more than a decade ago as a paid lobbyist.) When I typed in a DC-based ZIP code, I found the following:

eHealth doesn’t offer insurance plans in the District of Columbia, because it can’t offer them. DC law prohibits anyone but the exchange from selling insurance to individuals.

Rather than purchasing coverage “off the Exchange,” Ocasio-Cortez buys her health insurance through DC’s small business exchange, as opposed to its marketplace for individuals. As a Congressional Research Service paper on health coverage for members of Congress and their staff explains, both groups buy insurance through the DC small business exchange to obtain their (illegal) employer subsidy.

Admittedly, Ocasio-Cortez may have meant “from the Exchange” when she said “off the Exchange.” But her imprecise language implies that she does not understand the important distinction between buying plans from the Exchange directly and not doing so. (Only Exchange-purchased plans qualify for subsidies under the Obamacare statute.)

She Gets Access to More Plans as a Member of Congress

Ocasio-Cortez complained about having to choose from 66 different insurance plans. She wouldn’t have that problem if she weren’t a member of Congress. People who buy insurance on DC’s individual exchange have far fewer options. I know, because I have to buy coverage there. Take a look at the “choices” my personalized webpage presented to me: Only 23 plans—about one-third the number available to Ocasio-Cortez:

Some may think that 23 plans still represent a large number to choose from, but my reality proved far different. To begin with, those plans come from only two carriers: CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield and Kaiser Permanente, which only offers HMO options. If you don’t want to get locked into an HMO’s provider network—and I don’t—you have exactly one choice of carrier: CareFirst.

Couple my preference for non-HMO coverage with my desire for insurance that includes a health savings account option, and I ended up with only two plans to choose from: CareFirst’s Bronze HSA plan, and its Gold HSA plan.

I would prefer more choices for health insurance. I would particularly appreciate the opportunity to buy coverage that doesn’t need to comply with the Obamacare insurance regulations that have driven up premiums and priced millions of people out of coverage. But DC’s insurance regulators have prohibited carriers from offering non-complaint plans, because they’re from the government and they’re here to help.

She Gets Special Privileges as a Member of Congress

To say that members of Congress and congressional staff receive kid-glove treatment from the DC small business exchange would put it mildly. This flyer (from 2013) shows that the DC exchange conducted no fewer than 12 separate in-person enrollment events for members and staff during Obamacare’s first open enrollment period.

Congressional staff confirmed to me that the in-person enrollment sessions continued on Capitol Hill this year. Congressional staff also confirmed that House and Senate benefits counselors can walk them through the entire enrollment process.

Even as an individual DC exchange participant, I received no fewer than five separate e-mails, starting on Friday afternoon, reminding me that Sunday represented the last day to sign up for coverage taking effect on January 1. The timing of Ocasio-Cortez’ tweet suggests that she waited until the last minute to examine her coverage options, but she can’t say she wasn’t warned. Maybe if she and her colleagues spent less time focused on impeachment, Ocasio-Cortez could have found more time to select her plan sooner?

Ocasio-Cortez Gets an Illegal Subsidy

I and others have made this point before: members of Congress and their staff represent the only group that can receive a subsidy from their employer on the exchange. That subsidy came through a rule promulgated by the Office of Personnel Management in 2013, but several analyses have called that rule illegal.

Ocasio-Cortez claimed that “Members of Congress have to buy their plans off the Exchange.” Just as the off-exchange claim holds no basis in fact, she and other members of Congress do not have to buy plans via the DC small business exchange. Nothing in law forces them to do so—unless they want to receive the (illegal) subsidy.

In fact, at least one member of Congress has turned down the (illegal) congressional subsidy. Dr. Michael Burgess frequently mentions at hearings, including the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on single payer last week, that he buys his own coverage with his own money, not taxpayer funds. As someone who earns less than members of Congress do, and has no access to (illegal) insurance subsidies, I appreciate Burgess’ integrity in this regard.

If Ocasio-Cortez wanted to do something other than complain—and if she didn’t want so many choices—she could ditch the special, and illegal, subsidies she receives as a member of Congress, and buy coverage with the hoi polloi like me. She’s welcome to do so any time she likes, but I’m not holding my breath.

UPDATE: This post was updated after publication to clarify potential interpretations of Ocasio-Cortez’ comments about “off the Exchange” coverage.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

This Presidential Candidate Loves Obamacare–But Won’t Sign Up for It

If the 2020 presidential campaign illustrates anything so far, it’s the yawning chasm between Democrats’ rhetoric and their reality. Not only do the party’s presidential candidates not practice what they preach, they seemingly have little shame in failing to do so.

Last Thursday evening, one of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), appeared on CNN for a town hall discussion. During the discussion, Bennet criticized his fellow senator and presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for his single-payer health-care plan.

Qualifies for Obamacare Subsidy, Yet Won’t Buy a Plan

In his town hall comments, Bennet claimed that “what we would be better off doing in order to get to universal health care quickly is to finish the job we started with” Obamacare. Yet consider this paragraph from Bennet’s op-ed the week previously, in which he outlined health care, and his recent prostate cancer diagnosis, as the reason for announcing his candidacy: “My cancer was treatable because it was detected through preventive care. The $94,000 bill didn’t bankrupt my family because I had insurance through my wife’s employer” (emphasis mine).

Remember: The federal Office of Personnel Management promulgated an arguably illegal rule in October 2013 that makes members of Congress eligible for subsidies for Obamacare coverage. Yet even with access to these illegal subsidies, Bennet has no interest in buying an Obamacare plan. That might be because he knows—as I do by being forced onto an exchange plan—that these Obamacare plans are junk insurance, with high premiums, high deductibles, and in many cases poor access to physician networks.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Some may argue that because Bennet does not support Sanders’s single-payer proposal, at least he will not force others to give up their health coverage (even as he refuses to go on to Obamacare). But in 2009, one analysis of a government-run “public option,” which Bennet supports as an alternative to single-payer, concluded that it would lead to a reduction in private insurance coverage of 119.1 million people. This would shrink the employer-provided insurance market by more than half.

Even Bennet’s “moderate” proposal could lead to many millions of Americans immediately losing the coverage they have if employers drop coverage en masse. Yet will Bennet give up his employer coverage and go on to Obamacare? Not a chance.

Some may question why I write about this topic so often. After all, if every member of Congress, or every Democratic presidential candidate, suddenly decided to sign up for Obamacare, it wouldn’t significantly affect the exchange’s overall premiums and coverage numbers. But lawmakers’ coverage decisions have outsized importance because they reveal their true motivations.

Obama’s action, however, represents the exception that proves the rule. Instead, liberals want to order other people to buy Obamacare health insurance while not doing so themselves. They epitomize Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing,” in which he referred to a “little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital,” who believe they “can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

By promising to expand Obamacare even as he fails to enroll in it himself, Bennet demonstrated himself part and parcel of that “little intellectual elite.” So have his fellow Democratic presidential candidates. Americans should take note—and vote accordingly next November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Ocasio-Cortez Suddenly Realizes She Doesn’t Like Paying Obamacare’s Pre-Existing Condition Tax

On Saturday evening, incoming U.S. representative and self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter to compare her prior health coverage to the new health insurance options available to her as a member of Congress.

It shouldn’t shock most observers to realize that Congress gave itself a better deal than it gave most ordinary citizens. But Ocasio-Cortez’ complaints about the lack of affordability of health insurance demonstrate the way liberals who claim to support Obamacare’s pre-existing condition “protections”—and have forcibly raised others’ premiums to pay for those “protections”—don’t want to pay those higher premiums themselves.

She’s Paying the Pre-Existing Condition Tax

I wrote in August about my own (junk) Obamacare insurance. This year, I have paid nearly $300 monthly—a total of $3,479—for an Obamacare-compliant policy with a $6,200 deductible. Between my premiums and deductible, I will face paying nearly the first $10,000 in medical costs out-of-pocket myself.

Of course, as a fairly healthy 30-something, I don’t have $10,000 in medical costs in most years. In fact, this year I won’t come anywhere near to hitting my $6,200 deductible (presuming I don’t get hit by a bus in the next four weeks).

As I noted in August, my nearly $3,500 premium doesn’t just fund my health care—or, more accurately, the off-chance that I will incur catastrophic expenses such that I will meet my deductible, and my insurance policy will actually subsidize some of my coverage. Rather, much of that $3,500 “is designed to fund someone else’s medical condition. That difference between an actuarially fair premium and the $3,500 premium my insurer charged me amounts to a ‘pre-existing conditions tax.’”

Millions of People Can’t Afford Coverage

Because I work for myself, I don’t get an employer subsidy to pay the pre-existing condition tax. (I can, however, write off my premiums from my federal income taxes.) Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet referred to her coverage “as a waitress,” but didn’t specify where she purchased that coverage, nor whether she received an employer subsidy for that coverage.

However, a majority of retail firms, and the majority of the smallest firms (3-9 workers), do not offer coverage to their workers. Firms are also much less likely (only 22 percent) to offer insurance to their part-time workers. It therefore seems likely, although not certain, that Ocasio-Cortez did not receive an employer subsidy, and purchased Obamacare coverage on her own. In that case she would have had to pay the pre-existing condition tax out of her own pocket.

That pre-existing condition tax represented the largest driver of premium increases due to Obamacare, according to a March paper published by the Heritage Foundation. Just from 2013 (the last year before Obamacare) through 2017, premiums more than doubled. Within the last year (from the first quarter of 2017 through the first quarter of 2018) roughly 2.6 million people who purchased Obamacare-compliant plans without a subsidy dropped their coverage, likely because they cannot afford the higher costs.

Lawmakers Get an (Illegal) Subsidy to Avoid That Tax

Unsurprisingly, however, members of Congress don’t have to pay the pre-existing condition tax on their own. They made sure of that. Following Obamacare’s passage, congressional leaders lobbied feverishly to preserve their subsidized health coverage, even demanding a meeting with the president of the United States to discuss the matter.

Senators and representatives do have to purchase their health insurance from the Obamacare exchanges. But the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued a rule allowing members of Congress and their staffs to receive an employer subsidy for that coverage. That makes Congress and their staff the only people who can receive an employer subsidy through the exchange.

Numerous analyses have found that the OPM rule violates the text of Obamacare itself. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) even sued to overturn the rule, but a court dismissed the suit on the grounds that he lacked standing to bring the case.

Liberals’ Motto: ‘Obamacare for Thee—But Not for Me’

Take, for instance, the head of California’s exchange, Peter Lee. He makes a salary of $436,800 per year, yet he won’t buy the health insurance plans he sells. Why? Because he doesn’t want to pay Obamacare’s pre-existing condition tax unless someone (i.e., the state of California) pays him to do so via an employer subsidy.

Ocasio-Cortez’ proposed “solution”—fully taxpayer-paid health care—is in search of a problem. As socialists are wont to do, Ocasio-Cortez sees a problem caused by government—in this case, skyrocketing premiums due to the pre-existing condition tax—and thinks the answer lies in…more government.

As the old saying goes, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. If Ocasio-Cortez really wants to get serious, instead of complaining about the pre-existing condition tax, she should work to repeal it, and replace it with better alternatives.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

For Congress, Obamacare Finally Hits Home

The quotes are certainly ominous:

  • Employees are so worried “thanks to Obamacare that they are thinking about retiring early or just quitting.”
  • Workers fear being pushed “on to the government health exchanges, which could make their benefits exorbitantly expensive.”
  • “The chatter about retiring now, to remain on the current health care plan, is constant.”
  • Employees “young and old [are] worried about skyrocketing health care premiums cutting deeply into their already small paychecks.”
  • “The focus right now is…trying to figure out how to offset potential increases in premiums.”

Those quotes could refer to any number of employers and firms dealing with the effects of Obamacare. But, as this morning’s Politico reports, the quotes taken above come from Capitol Hill, where aides are terrified of a provision in Obamacare that dumps them onto the exchanges come January 1.

Federal employees, including those on Capitol Hill, currently receive generous “corporate level” health insurance benefits and a broad range of personal plan choice—from high-cost, comprehensive plans to low-cost, high-deductible plans—that is denied the vast majority of Americans.

Like all enrollees in employer-based coverage, Capitol Hill employees (and all federal workers) get employer subsidies for the cost of their coverage. It’s a flat, fixed-dollar amount and, like all employer-based contributions, is also tax-free.

When Members and staff are forced out of their existing coverage into Obamacare’s exchanges, they will lose both the generous subsidy and the tax break. Many on Capitol Hill will not qualify for subsidies in the exchanges—just like many private-sector employees who will lose their existing coverage.

Members and staff have another big problem. Obamacare was drafted so clumsily that it’s unclear precisely how placing Members of Congress and their staff in exchanges will work. Politico notes that “there has been no guidance” from the Office of Personnel Management on the issue, and fear levels have been rising as a result.

This is what happens when we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.

The Politico story really just shows the broader themes that have been playing out around the country: Regulators causing uncertainty for businesses and their workers? Check. Skyrocketing premiums in the exchanges? Check. Firms dumping their workers onto exchanges? Check. In other words, all of Obamacare’s chickens have finally come home to roost on Capitol Hill.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.

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

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

Overall, the budget:

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

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

Discretionary Spending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Health Care Proposal of Note

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

Obamacare Creating Thousands of Jobs. For Bureaucrats.

Amidst continuing record-high unemployment and economic stagnation, it’s worth looking at the one area of the economy that HAS succeeded in creating jobs under President Obama – the federal government.  According to Office of Personnel Management statistics, from September 2008 (just before President Obama was elected) through December last year, the Department of Health and Human Services grew by 9,424 employeesThat’s a double-digit increase in the number of HHS bureaucrats in just a three-year period.

Judging from the data, it’s very clear that those new bureaucrats are being used to implement Obamacare.  For instance, employment in the Office of the Secretary went up by more than 3,000 (a 22% jump), and the number of bureaucrats at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services increased by over 800 (nearly a 20% increase).  The Office of the Secretary and CMS are two offices most responsible for implementing Obamacare’s stifling new regulations and mandates.

These 9,000+ new bureaucrats have certainly earned their keep.  Through the two-year anniversary of Obamacare just last month, the federal government issued a whopping 12,307 pages of regulations and notices in the Federal Register.  But while writing all these regulations has created thousands of new jobs for government bureaucrats, the regulations themselves have stifled employment for businesses.  A survey released yesterday by the US Chamber of Commerce found that nearly three in four (73%) small businesses believe Obamacare is an obstacle to growing their businesses and hiring additional workers.

So in fairness, Obamacare is creating many thousands of new jobs.  It’s just that those jobs are the wrong kind of jobs – new taxpayer-funded government bureaucrats that hinder private sector economic growth and new hiring.

White House Budget Summary

Overall, the budget:

  • Proposes $362 billion in savings, yet calls for $429 billion in unpaid-for spending due to the Medicare physician reimbursement “doc fix” – thus resulting in a net increase in the deficit. (The $429 billion presumes a ten year freeze of Medicare physician payments; however, the budget does NOT propose ways to pay for this new spending.)
  • Proposes few structural reforms to Medicare; those that are included – weak as they are – are not scheduled to take effect until 2017, well after President Obama leaves office.  If the proposals are so sound, why the delay?
  • Requests just over $1 billion for program management at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, of which the vast majority – $864 million – would be used to implement the health care law.
  • Requests more than half a billion dollars for comparative effectiveness research, which many may be concerned could result in government bureaucrats imposing cost-based limits on treatments.
  • Includes mandatory proposals in the budget that largely track the September deficit proposal to Congress, with a few exceptions.  The budget does NOT include proposals to reduce Medicare frontier state payments, even though this policy was included in the September proposal.  The budget also does not include recovery provisions regarding Medicare Advantage payments to insurers; however, the Administration has indicated they intend to implement this provision administratively.
  • Does not include a proposal relating to Medicaid eligibility levels included in the September submission, as that proposal was enacted into law in November (P.L. 112-56).

 

Discretionary Spending

When compared to Fiscal Year 2012 appropriated amounts, the budget calls for the following changes in discretionary spending by major HHS divisions (tabulated by budget authority):

  • $12 million (0.5%) increase for the Food and Drug Administration – along with a separate proposed $643 million increase in FDA user fees;
  • $138 million (2.2%) decrease for the Health Services and Resources Administration;
  • $116 million (2.7%) increase for the Indian Health Service;
  • $664 million (11.5%) decrease for the Centers for Disease Control;
  • No net change in funding for the National Institutes of Health;
  • $1 billion (26.2%) increase for the discretionary portion of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program management account; and
  • $29 million (5.0%) increase for the discretionary Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control fund.

With regard to the above numbers for CDC and HRSA, note that these are discretionary numbers only.  The Administration’s budget also would allocate additional $1.25 billion in mandatory spending from the new Prevention and Public Health “slush fund” created in the health care law, likely eliminating any real budgetary savings (despite the appearance of same above).

Other Health Care Points of Note

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

Comparative Effectiveness Research:  The budget proposes a total of $599 million in funding for comparative effectiveness research.  Only $78 million of this money comes from existing funds included in the health care law – meaning the Administration has proposed discretionary spending of more than $500 million on comparative effectiveness research.  Some have previously expressed concerns that this research could be used to restrict access to treatments perceived as too costly by federal bureaucrats.  It is also worth noting that this new $520 million in research funding would NOT be subject to the anti-rationing provisions included in the health care law.  Section 218 of this year’s omnibus appropriations measure included a prohibition on HHS using funds to engage in cost-effectiveness research, a provision which this budget request would presumably seek to overturn.

Obamacare Implementation Funding and Personnel:  As previously noted, the budget includes more than $1 billion in discretionary spending increases for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which the HHS Budget in Brief claims would be used to “continue implementing [Obamacare], including Exchanges.”  This funding would finance 256 new bureaucrats within CMS, many of whom would likely be used to implement the law.  Overall, the HHS budget proposes an increase of 1,393 full-time equivalent positions within the bureaucracy.

Specific details of the $1 billion in implementation funding include:

  • $290 million for “consumer support in the private marketplace;”
  • $549 million for “general IT systems and other support,” including funding for the federally-funded Exchange, for which the health law itself did not appropriate funding;
  • $18 million for updates to healthcare.gov;
  • $15 million to oversee the medical loss ratio regulations; and
  • $30 million for consumer assistance grants.

Exchange Funding:  The budget envisions HHS spending $1.1 billion on Exchange grants in 2013, a $180 million increase over the current fiscal year.  The health care law provides the Secretary with an unlimited amount of budget authority to fund state Exchange grants through 2015.  However, other reports have noted that the Secretary does NOT have authority to use these funds to construct a federal Exchange, in the event some states choose not to implement their own state-based Exchanges.

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

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $292.2 Billion)

Bad Debts:  Reduces bad debt payments to providers – for unpaid cost-sharing owed by beneficiaries – from 70 percent down to 25 percent over three years, beginning in 2013.  The Fiscal Commission had made similar recommendations in its final report.  Saves $35.9 billion.

Medical Education Payments:  Reduces the Indirect Medical Education adjustment paid to teaching hospitals by 10 percent beginning in 2014, saving $9.7 billion.  Previous studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) have indicated that IME payments to teaching hospitals may be greater than the actual costs the hospitals incur.

Rural Payments:  Reduces critical access hospital payments from 101% of costs to 100% of costs, saving $1.4 billion, and prohibits hospitals fewer than 10 miles away from the nearest hospital from receiving a critical access hospital designation, saving $590 million.  The budget does NOT include a proposal to end add-on payments for providers in frontier states, which was included in the President’s September deficit proposal.

Post-Acute Care:  Reduces various acute-care payment updates (details not specified) during the years 2013 through 2022, saving $56.7 billion – a significant increase compared to the $32.5 billion in savings under the President’s September deficit proposal.  Equalizes payment rates between skilled nursing facilities and inpatient rehabilitation facilities, saving $2 billion.  Increases the minimum percentage of inpatient rehabilitation facility patients that require intensive rehabilitation from 60 percent to 75 percent, saving $2.3 billion.  Reduces skilled nursing facility payments by up to 3%, beginning in 2015, for preventable readmissions, saving $2 billion.

Pharmaceutical Price Controls:  Expands Medicaid price controls to dual eligible and low-income subsidy beneficiaries participating in Part D, saving $155.6 billion according to OMB.  Some have expressed concerns that further expanding government-imposed price controls to prescription drugs could harm innovation and the release of new therapies that could help cure diseases.

Anti-Fraud Provisions:  Assumes $450 million in savings from various anti-fraud provisions, including limiting the discharge of debt in bankruptcy proceedings associated with fraudulent activities.

EHR Penalties:  Re-directs Medicare reimbursement penalties against physicians who do not engage in electronic prescribing beginning in 2020 back into the Medicare program.  The “stimulus” legislation that enacted the health IT provisions had originally required that penalties to providers be placed into the Medicare Improvement Fund; the budget would instead re-direct those revenues into the general fund, to finance the “doc fix” and related provisions.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $590 million; when included in last year’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $3.2 billion.

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

Additional Means Testing:  Increases means tested premiums under Parts B and D by 15%, beginning in 2017.  Freezes the income thresholds at which means testing applies until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to such premiums.  Saves $27.6 billion over ten years, and presumably more thereafter, as additional seniors would hit the means testing threshold, subject them to higher premiums.

Medicare Deductible Increase:  Increases Medicare Part B deductible by $25 in 2017, 2019, and 2021 – but for new beneficiaries only; “current beneficiaries or near retirees [not defined] would not be subject to the revised deductible.”  Saves $2 billion.

Home Health Co-Payment:  Beginning in 2017, introduces a home health co-payment of $100 per episode for new beneficiaries only, in cases where an episode lasts five or more visits and is NOT proceeded by a hospital stay.  MedPAC has previously recommended introducing home health co-payments as a way to ensure appropriate utilization.  Saves $350 million.

Medigap Surcharge:  Imposes a Part B premium surcharge equal to about 15 percent of the average Medigap premium – or about 30 percent of the Part B premium – for seniors with Medigap supplemental insurance that provides first dollar coverage.  Applies beginning in 2017 to new beneficiaries only.  A study commissioned by MedPAC previously concluded that first dollar Medigap coverage induces beneficiaries to consume more medical services, thus increasing costs for the Medicare program and federal taxpayers.  Saves $2.5 billion.

Lower Caps on Medicare Spending:  Section 3403 of the health care law established an Independent Payment Advisory Board tasked with limiting Medicare spending to the growth of the economy plus one percentage point (GDP+1) in 2018 and succeeding years.  The White House proposal would reduce this target to GDP+0.5 percent.  This approach has two potential problems:

  • First, under the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent baseline, IPAB recommendations would not be triggered at all – so it’s unclear whether the new, lower target level would actually generate measurable budgetary savings.  (In August 2010, CBO concluded an IPAB with an overall cap of GDP+1 would yield $13.8 billion in savings through 2020 – not enough to make a measurable impact on a program spending $500 billion per year.)
  • Second, the Medicare actuary has previously written that the spending adjustments contemplated by IPAB and the health care law “are unlikely to be sustainable on a permanent annual basis” and “very challenging” – problems that would be exacerbated by utilizing a slower target rate for Medicare spending growth.

According to the budget, this proposal would NOT achieve additional deficit savings.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $70.4 Billion)

Medicaid Provider Taxes:  Reduces limits on Medicaid provider tax thresholds, beginning in 2015; the tax threshold would be reduced over a three year period, to 3.5 percent in 2017 and future years.  State provider taxes are a financing method whereby states impose taxes on medical providers, and use these provider tax revenues to obtain additional federal Medicaid matching funds, thereby increasing the federal share of Medicaid expenses paid while decreasing the state share of expenses.  The Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006, enacted by a Republican Congress, capped the level of Medicaid provider taxes, and the Bush Administration proposed additional rules to reform Medicaid funding rules – rules that were blocked by the Democrat-run 110th Congress.  However, there is bipartisan support for addressing ways in which states attempt to “game” the Medicaid system, through provider taxes and other related methods, to obtain unwarranted federal matching funds – the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities previously wrote about a series of “Rube Goldberg-like accounting arrangements” that “do not improve the quality of health care provided” and “frequently operate in a manner that siphons extra federal money to state coffers without affecting the provision of health care.”  This issue was also addressed in the fiscal commission’s report, although the commission exceeded the budget proposals by suggesting that Congress enact legislation “restricting and eventually eliminating” provider taxes, saving $44 billion.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $21.8 billion.

Blended Rate:  Proposes “replac[ing]…complicated federal matching formulas” in Medicaid “with a single matching rate specific to each state that automatically increases if a recession forces enrollment and state costs to rise.”  Details are unclear, but the Administration claims $17.9 billion in savings from this proposal – much less than the $100 billion figure bandied about in previous reports last summer.  It is also worth noting that the proposal could actually INCREASE the deficit, if a prolonged recession triggers the automatic increases in the federal Medicaid match referenced in the proposal.  On a related note, the budget once again ignores the governors’ multiple requests for flexibility from the mandates included in the health care law – unfunded mandates on states totaling at least $118 billion.

Transitional Medical Assistance/QI Program:  Provides for temporary extensions of the Transitional Medical Assistance program, which provides Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work, along with the Qualifying Individual program, which provides assistance to low-income seniors in paying Medicare premiums.  The extensions cost $815 million and $1.7 billion, respectively.

Limit Durable Medical Equipment Reimbursement:  Caps Medicaid reimbursements for durable medical equipment (DME) at Medicare rates, beginning in 2013.  The health care law extended and expanded a previous Medicare competitive bidding demonstration project included in the Medicare Modernization Act, resulting in savings to the Medicare program.  This proposal, by capping Medicaid reimbursements for DME at Medicare levels, would attempt to extend those savings to the Medicaid program.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $3 billion; when included in the President’s budget last year, these changes were scored as saving $6.4 billion.

Rebase Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital Payments:  In 2021 and 2022, reallocates Medicaid DSH payments to hospitals treating low-income patients, based on states’ actual 2020 allotments (as amended and reduced by the health care law).  Saves $8.3 billion.

Medicaid Anti-Fraud Savings:  Assumes $3.2 billion in savings from a variety of Medicaid anti-fraud provisions, largely through tracking and enforcement of various provisions related to pharmaceuticals.  Included in this amount are proposals that would remove exceptions to the requirement that Medicaid must reject payments when another party is liable for a medical claim.

Flexibility on Benchmark Plans:  Proposes some new flexibility for states to require Medicaid “benchmark” plan coverage for non-elderly, non-disabled adults – but ONLY those with incomes above 133 percent of the federal poverty level (i.e., NOT the new Medicaid population obtaining coverage under the health care law).  No savings assumed.

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

Follow-on Biologics:  Reduces to seven years the period of exclusivity for follow-on biologics.  Current law provides for a twelve-year period of exclusivity, based upon an amendment to the health care law that was adopted on a bipartisan basis in both the House and Senate (one of the few substantive bipartisan amendments adopted).  Some Members have expressed concern that reducing the period of exclusivity would harm innovation and discourage companies from developing life-saving treatments.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $3.8 billion.

FEHB Contracting:  Proposes streamlining pharmacy benefit contracting within the Federal Employee Health Benefits program, by centralizing pharmaceutical benefit contracting within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  Some individuals, noting that OPM is also empowered to create “multi-state plans” as part of the health care overhaul, may be concerned that these provisions could be part of a larger plan to make OPM the head of a de facto government-run health plan.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $1.7 billion.

Prevention “Slush Fund:”  Reduces spending by $4 billion on the Prevention and Public Health Fund created in the health care law.  Some Members have previously expressed concern that this fund would be used to fund projects like jungle gyms and bike paths, questionable priorities for the use of federal taxpayer dollars in a time of trillion-dollar deficits.

State Waivers:  Accelerates from 2017 to 2014 the date under which states can submit request for waivers of SOME of the health care law’s requirements to HHS.  While supposedly designed to increase flexibility, even liberal commentators have agreed that under the law’s state waiver programcritics of Obama’s proposal have a point: It wouldn’t allow to enact the sorts of health care reforms they would prefer” and thatconservatives can’t do any better – at least not under these rules.”  The proposal states that “the Administration is committed to the budget neutrality of these waivers;” however, the plan allocates $4 billion in new spending “to account for the possibility that CBO will estimate costs for this proposal.”

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

The President’s Shrinking Entitlement Savings

The President’s deficit proposal released this morning claims to achieve $320 billion in deficit savings.  As we’ve previously noted, given the size of our entitlement programs, that’s a comparatively insignificant amount – barely enough to finance a long-term “doc fix,” let alone make Medicare and Medicaid solvent for the long term.  But what’s interesting is how the size of the health care savings put forward by the President has actually SHRUNK over time.  The White House’s April “deficit framework” (i.e., a speech) claimed to achieve $340 billion in savings – $20 billion MORE than this morning’s proposal.

So what exactly prompted the President to LOWER his sights for entitlement savings over the last five months?  Was it the unprecedented downgrade of America’s debt rating?  The stock market swoon that quickly followed?  The chaos in Europe as that continent struggles to achieve fiscal discipline and avert a sovereign default crisis?  Or was it the event that happens on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November every fourth year?  You be the judge…

All that said, a detailed summary of the President’s (new) proposal follows below.  Keep in mind that Administration/OMB estimates may vary significantly from CBO scores, so remember that your budgetary mileage may vary.  (All scores are over a ten-year period unless otherwise indicated.)

 

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $248 Billion)

Bad Debts:  Reduces bad debt payments to providers – for unpaid cost-sharing owed by beneficiaries – from 70 percent down to 25 percent over three years, beginning in 2013.  The Fiscal Commission had made similar recommendations in its final report.  Saves $20.2 billion.

Medical Education Payments:  Reduces the Indirect Medical Education adjustment paid to teaching hospitals by 10 percent beginning in 2013, saving $9.1 billion.  Previous studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) have indicated that IME payments to teaching hospitals may be greater than the actual costs the hospitals incur.

Rural Payments:  Ends add-on payments for providers in frontier states, saving $2.1 billion.  Reduces critical access hospital payments from 101% of costs to 100% of costs, saving $1 billion, and prohibits hospitals fewer than 10 miles away from the nearest hospital from receiving a critical access hospital designation, saving $3 billion.

Post-Acute Care:  Reduces various acute-care payment updates (details not specified) during the years 2014 through 2021, saving $32.5 billion.  Equalizes payment rates between skilled nursing facilities and inpatient rehabilitation facilities, saving $4.5 billion.  Increases the minimum percentage of inpatient rehabilitation facility patients that require intensive rehabilitation from 60 percent to 75 percent, saving $2.6 billion.  Reduces skilled nursing facility payments by up to 3%, beginning in 2015, for preventable readmissions, saving $2 billion.

Pharmaceutical Price Controls:  Expands Medicaid price controls to dual eligible and low-income subsidy beneficiaries participating in Part D, saving $135 billion according to OMB.  However, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s March 2011 Budget Options (Option 25), this proposal would generate smaller savings ($112 billion).  Some have expressed concerns that further expanding government-imposed price controls to prescription drugs could harm innovation and the release of new therapies that could help cure diseases.

MA Repayment Provisions:  Recovers payments to insurers participating in the Medicare Advantage (MA) program.  MA plans are currently paid on a prospective basis, with those payments adjusted according to the severity of beneficiaries’ ill health.  Some sample audits have discovered instances where plans could not retrospectively produce the necessary documentation to warrant the prospective coding adjustment that some beneficiaries received.  The deficit plan would apply this adjustment, currently contemplated for some beneficiaries based on the sample audit, to ALL beneficiaries.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $2.3 billion; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $6.2 billion.

Anti-Fraud Provisions:  Assumes $600 million in savings from various anti-fraud provisions, including limiting the discharge of debt in bankruptcy proceedings associated with fraudulent activities.

EHR Penalties:  Re-directs Medicare reimbursement penalties against physicians who do not engage in electronic prescribing beginning in 2020 back into the Medicare program.  The “stimulus” legislation that enacted the health IT provisions had originally required that penalties to providers be placed into the Medicare Improvement Fund; the budget would instead re-direct those revenues into the general fund, to finance the “doc fix” and related provisions.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $500 million; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $3.2 billion.

Imaging:  Reduces imaging payments by assuming a higher level of utilization for certain types of equipment, saving $400 million.  Also imposes prior authorization requirements for advanced imaging, saving $900 million.

Additional Means Testing:  Increases means tested premiums under Parts B and D by 15%, beginning in 2017.  Freezes the income thresholds at which means testing applies until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to such premiums.  Saves $20 billion over ten years, and presumably more thereafter, as additional seniors would hit the means testing threshold, subject them to higher premiums.

Medicare Deductible Increase:  Increases Medicare Part B deductible by $25 in 2017, 2019, and 2021 – but for new beneficiaries only; “current beneficiaries or near retirees [not defined] would not be subject to the revised deductible.”  Saves $1 billion.

Home Health Co-Payment:  Introduces a home health co-payment of $100 per episode for new beneficiaries only, in cases where an episode lasts five or more visits and is NOT proceeded by a hospital stay.  MedPAC has previously recommended introducing home health co-payments as a way to ensure appropriate utilization.  Saves $400 million.

Medigap Surcharge:  Imposes a Part B premium surcharge equal to about 15 percent of the average Medigap premium – or about 30 percent of the Part B premium – for seniors with Medigap supplemental insurance that provides first dollar coverage.  Applies beginning in 2017 to new beneficiaries only.  A study commissioned by MedPAC previously concluded that first dollar Medigap coverage induces beneficiaries to consume more medical services, thus increasing costs for the Medicare program and federal taxpayers.  Saves $2.5 billion.

Lower Caps on Medicare Spending:  Section 3403 of the health care law established an Independent Payment Advisory Board tasked with limiting Medicare spending to the growth of the economy plus one percentage point (GDP+1) in 2018 and succeeding years.  The White House proposal would reduce this target to GDP+0.5 percent.  This approach has two potential problems:

  • First, under the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent baseline, IPAB recommendations would not be triggered at all – so it’s unclear whether the new, lower target level would actually generate measurable budgetary savings.  (In August 2010, CBO concluded an IPAB with an overall cap of GDP+1 would yield $13.8 billion in savings through 2020 – not enough to make a measurable impact on a program spending $500 billion per year.)
  • Second, the Medicare actuary has previously written that the spending adjustments contemplated by IPAB and the health care law “are unlikely to be sustainable on a permanent annual basis” and “very challenging” – problems that would be exacerbated by utilizing a slower target rate for Medicare spending growth.

According to the Administration document, this proposal would NOT achieve additional deficit savings.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $72 Billion)

Medicaid Provider Taxes:  Reduces limits on Medicaid provider tax thresholds, beginning in 2015; the tax threshold would be reduced over a three year period, to 3.5 percent in 2017 and future years.  State provider taxes are a financing method whereby states impose taxes on medical providers, and use these provider tax revenues to obtain additional federal Medicaid matching funds, thereby increasing the federal share of Medicaid expenses paid while decreasing the state share of expenses.  The Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006, enacted by a Republican Congress, capped the level of Medicaid provider taxes, and the Bush Administration proposed additional rules to reform Medicaid funding rules – rules that were blocked by the Democrat-run 110th Congress.  However, there is bipartisan support for addressing ways in which states attempt to “game” the Medicaid system, through provider taxes and other related methods, to obtain unwarranted federal matching funds – the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities previously wrote about a series of “Rube Goldberg-like accounting arrangements” that “do not improve the quality of health care provided” and “frequently operate in a manner that siphons extra federal money to state coffers without affecting the provision of health care.”  This issue was also addressed in the fiscal commission’s report, although the commission exceeded the budget proposals by suggesting that Congress enact legislation “restricting and eventually eliminating” provider taxes, saving $44 billion.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $26.3 billion; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $18.4 billion.

Blended Rate:  Proposes “replac[ing]…complicated federal matching formulas” in Medicaid “with a single matching rate specific to each state that automatically increases if a recession forces enrollment and state costs to rise.”  Details are unclear, but the Administration claims $14.9 billion in savings from this proposal – much less than the $100 billion figure bandied about in previous reports this summer.  It is also worth noting that the proposal could actually INCREASE the deficit, if a prolonged recession triggers the automatic increases in the federal Medicaid match referenced in the proposal.  On a related note, the deficit plan once again ignored the governors’ multiple requests for flexibility from the mandates included in the health care law – unfunded mandates on states totaling at least $118 billion.

Limit Durable Medical Equipment Reimbursement:  Caps Medicaid reimbursements for durable medical equipment (DME) at Medicare rates, beginning in 2013.  The health care law extended and expanded a previous Medicare competitive bidding demonstration project included in the Medicare Modernization Act, resulting in savings to the Medicare program.  This proposal, by capping Medicaid reimbursements for DME at Medicare levels, would attempt to extend those savings to the Medicaid program.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $4.2 billion; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $6.4 billion.

Third Party Liability:  Removes exceptions to the requirement that Medicaid must reject payments when another party is liable for a medical claim, saving $1.3 billion.

Rebase Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital Payments:  In 2021, reallocates Medicaid DSH payments to hospitals treating low-income patients, based on states’ actual 2020 allotments (as amended and reduced by the health care law).  Saves $4.1 billion.

Medicaid Anti-Fraud Savings:  Assumes $110 million in savings from a variety of Medicaid anti-fraud provisions, largely through tracking and enforcement of various provisions related to pharmaceuticals.

Amend MAGI Definition:  Amends the health care law to include Social Security benefits in the new definition of Modified Adjusted Gross Income used to determine eligibility for Medicaid benefits.  As previously reported, this “glitch” in the law would make millions of early retirees – who receive a large portion of their income from Social Security – eligible for free taxpayer-funded benefits, and would discourage work by providing greater subsidies to those relying on Social Security, as opposed to wage earnings, for their income.  Saves $14.6 billion.

Flexibility on Benchmark Plans:  Proposes some new flexibility for states to require Medicaid “benchmark” plan coverage for non-elderly, non-disabled adults – but ONLY those with incomes above 133 percent of the federal poverty level (i.e., NOT the new Medicaid population obtaining coverage under the health care law).  No savings assumed.

“Pay-for-Delay:”  Prohibits brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturers from entering into arrangements that would delay the availability of new generic drugs.  Some Members have previously expressed concerns that these provisions would harm innovation, and actually impede the incentives to generic manufacturers to bring cost-saving generic drugs on the market.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $2.7 billion; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $8.8 billion.

Follow-on Biologics:  Reduces to seven years the period of exclusivity for follow-on biologics.  Current law provides for a twelve-year period of exclusivity, based upon an amendment to the health care law that was adopted on a bipartisan basis in both the House and Senate (one of the few substantive bipartisan amendments adopted).  Some Members have expressed concern that reducing the period of exclusivity would harm innovation and discourage companies from developing life-saving treatments.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $3.5 billion; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $2.3 billion.

FEHB Contracting:  Proposes streamlining pharmacy benefit contracting within the Federal Employee Health Benefits program, by centralizing pharmaceutical benefit contracting within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  Some individuals, noting that OPM is also empowered to create “multi-state plans” as part of the health care overhaul, may be concerned that these provisions could be part of a larger plan to make OPM the head of a de facto government-run health plan.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $1.6 billion; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $1.8 billion.

Prevention “Slush Fund:”  Reduces spending by $3.5 billion on the Prevention and Public Health Fund created in the health care law.  Some Members have previously expressed concern that this fund would be used to fund projects like jungle gyms and bike paths, questionable priorities for the use of federal taxpayer dollars in a time of trillion-dollar deficits.

State Waivers:  Accelerates from 2017 to 2014 the date under which states can submit request for waivers of SOME of the health care law’s requirements to HHS.  While supposedly designed to increase flexibility, even liberal commentators have agreed that under the law’s state waiver programcritics of Obama’s proposal have a point: It wouldn’t allow to enact the sorts of health care reforms they would prefer” and thatconservatives can’t do any better – at least not under these rules.”  The proposal states that “the Administration is committed to the budget neutrality of these waivers;” however, the plan allocates $4 billion in new spending “to account for the possibility that CBO will estimate costs for this proposal.”

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

The Latest in Obamacare’s Comedy of Errors

Last night Investor’s Business Daily published a story regarding yet another potential “glitch” in the drafting of Obamacare that could have BIG implications for states and the American people.  Specifically, page 110 of the statute specifies that insurance subsidies should be paid only to individuals enrolled “through an Exchange established by the state under [Section] 1311” of the law.  If a state decides not to establish an Exchange, the federal government will establish one on states’ behalf – under authority granted in Section 1321(c) of Obamacare, NOT Section 1311.  But the statute states that ONLY those enrolled in Exchanges established under Section 1311 are eligible for subsidies.  This creates three possible scenarios:

Force Individuals to Buy Insurance They Cannot Afford:  Individuals enrolled in federally-run Exchanges will not be eligible for subsidies, meaning many fewer people may obtain coverage than first projected – and individuals will be forced to buy coverage under the individual mandate even though they may not be able to afford it absent premium subsidies.

Force States to Create Exchanges:  This latest “glitch” – and/or strong-arm tactics from the Administration through the regulatory process – imposes additional pressure on states to create Exchanges, despite the fact that they may not wish to incur the expense to do so, particularly given the ongoing legal uncertainty surrounding the law.

Obama Administration Violates Obamacare Statute:  The Administration appears intent on taking this tack.  Page 4 of the proposed premium subsidy regulation states that “a taxpayer is eligible for the [subsidy]…if the taxpayer is…enrolled in one or more qualified health plans through an Exchange established under Section 1311 or 1321” of Obamacare – despite the fact that the statute itself limits subsidy payments to individuals enrolled in Section 1311 Exchanges.  Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the first time the Administration took liberties with the plain text of the statute.  The Administration previously released regulations regarding coverage for children that even Democrats admit violate what Obamacare itself says, and the Office of Personnel Management unilaterally decided to keep Members of Congress in their current health coverage, even though multiple sources cast doubt on OPM’s authority to do so.

Last year, then-Speaker Pelosi famously said we had to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.  Reading the stories about the latest Obamacare “glitch,” the American people have found yet another way in which Obamacare is becoming an implementation nightmare.

Summary of Health Care Portions of Ryan Budget

Long-Term Medicare Changes; Premium Support:  Beginning in 2022, raises the eligibility age for Medicare by two months per year, such that the eligibility age would reach 67 in 2033.  Creates a premium support system for beneficiaries turning 65 in 2022, and all those participating in the program in the years beyond.  Seniors currently participating in Medicare, or those within ten years of doing so, would not have to participate in the premium support program (although they could elect to do so voluntarily in the years after 2022); for those remaining in the existing Medicare program, beneficiaries’ premiums would be held harmless (to prevent premiums from rising as those grandfathered into the existing program become older, sicker, and therefore costlier).

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that in 2022, 65-year old beneficiaries entering the premium support program would receive a payment of about $8,000 per year, which would reflect traditional Medicare’s estimated spending on the average 65-year old in that year.  Premium support payments would be risk adjusted to reflect participants’ age and health status; the amount of the payment would increase each year in line with consumer price inflation.  Private plans participating in the Medicare program and receiving premium support payments would have to issue coverage to all applicants, could not charge seniors of the same age different premiums, and would have to meet benefit standards established by the Office of Personnel Management.

Low income beneficiaries would receive additional funds in a medical savings account to cover health expenses; amounts would total $7,800 in 2022, and would rise in future years according to the growth in consumer prices.  High-income beneficiaries (i.e., those seniors in the top 8 percent of income) would have their premium support payments reduced – those in the top 2 percent of income would receive only 30% of the premium support amount, while those in the next 6 percent of income would receive half of the premium support amount.

Although the Congressional Budget Office has published estimates comparing spending levels under the premium support program and under traditional Medicare, it is worth noting that according to the CBO’s March 2011 baseline, by 2020 the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will be insolvent – meaning the government will be financially able to pay MUCH less of seniors’ health costs in 2022 than the CBO analysis indicates.  It is also worth noting that according to tables released by the House Budget Committee, Medicare spending is projected to grow in every year of the budgetary window (i.e., 2012-2021).

Medicaid Block Grant:  Converts the Medicaid program to a block grant, beginning in 2013.  The block grant would be increased annually to reflect population growth as well as the growth of consumer prices; states would gain additional flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs in the way they see fit.  Beginning in 2022 (i.e., when the Medicare changes presumed in the budget take effect), reduces the size of the block grant to eliminate projected acute care expenses for beneficiaries dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid (who would instead receive additional health care resources through medical savings accounts, as outlined above).  It is worth noting that according to tables released by the House Budget Committee, Medicaid spending is projected to grow in every year of the budgetary window (i.e., 2012-2021).

Health Care Law:  Assumes repeal of the law’s coverage expansions scheduled to take effect in 2014.  Also assumes repeal of the law’s tax increases, including but not limited to the tax on medical devices, the new restrictions on Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Arrangements, the “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans, the expanded payroll taxes on individuals with incomes of over $200,000, the employer mandate penalties, and the taxes on insurers and pharmaceutical companies.  A CBO estimate released in February found that taxes will increase by $813 billion over the 2012-2021 period absent their repeal.

Repeals the CLASS Act, which HHS Secretary Sebelius has admitted is “totally unsustainable” as written in the health care law.  Also repeals the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), a board of unelected bureaucrats empowered to enforce caps on Medicare spending that forms the centerpiece of the President’s attempt to reduce Medicare spending.  In addition, the budget presumes the repeal of the drug discount program scheduled to close the Medicare Part D “doughnut hole” in 2020, and repeals $10 billion of the law’s cuts to Medicare Advantage by creating a stabilization fund to preserve private plan choices within Medicare.

Retains most of the health care law’s other Medicare spending reductions, except as specified above.  However, because the law’s coverage expansions are assumed to be repealed, the Medicare savings will actually be dedicated towards extending Medicare’s solvency, rather than financing new entitlements for other populations.  The Medicare actuary has previously noted that the Medicare savings in the health care law “cannot be simultaneously used to finance other federal outlays…and to extend the [Medicare Part A] trust fund.”  Likewise, the Congressional Budget Office notes that currently, the Medicare reductions in the law “would not enhance the ability of the government to pay for future Medicare benefits.”  The Ryan budget would change this dynamic, ensuring that the Medicare reductions previously enacted will be used to improve the solvency of the Medicare program.

Liability Reform:  Assumes health care savings from enacting limits on medical liability suits.  According to House Budget Committee staff, the proposal will result in a total of $43 billion in deficit reduction in mandatory programs over the 2012-2021 period from enacting such measures, largely through reduced malpractice premiums for providers (which comprise a component of the Medicare physician payment formula) as well as reduced incidence of defensive medicine practices, which CBO previously estimated would reduce health expenditures by about 0.5%.

Health Reform Reserve Fund:  Provides a reserve fund for “any bill, joint resolution, amendment, or conference report that repeals” the health care law, allowing for in spending levels to reflect the composition of a “repeal and replace” bill.

SGR Reserve Fund:  Provides a deficit-neutral reserve fund for legislation “that includes provisions amending or superseding the system for updating payments” under the Medicare sustainable growth rate mechanism, allowing for deficit-neutral adjustments in spending levels to reflect the composition of a “doc fix” bill.