Analyzing the Gimmicks in Warren’s Health Care Plan

Six weeks ago, this publication published “Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan…For Avoiding Your Health Care Questions.” That plan came to fruition last Friday, when Warren released a paper (and two accompanying analyses) claiming that she can fund her single-payer health care program without raising taxes on the middle class.

Both her opponents in the Democratic presidential primary and conservative commentators immediately criticized Warren’s plan for the gimmicks and assumptions used to arrive at her estimate. Her paper claims she can reduce the 10-year cost of single payer—the amount of new federal revenues needed to fund the program, over and above the dollars already spent on health care (e.g., existing federal spending on Medicare, Medicaid, etc.)—from $34 trillion in an October Urban Institute estimate to only $20.5 trillion. On top of this 40 percent reduction in the cost of single payer, Warren claims she can raise the $20.5 trillion without a middle-class tax increase.

Repealing “Son of Obamacare”

The election of Donald Trump brings conservatives an opportunity to repeal a misguided piece of health care legislation that cost hundreds of billions of dollars, will blow a major whole in our deficit, has led to thousands of pages of regulations, and will further undermine the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship.

Think I’m talking about Obamacare?

I am — but I’m not just talking about Obamacare.

I’m also talking about the Medicare and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA), which passed last year (with a surprising level of Republican support) and contains many of the same flaws as Obamacare itself.

Just as Republicans are preparing legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, they also need to figure out how to undo MACRA.

Last month, the Obama administration released a 2,398-page final regulation — let me say that again: a 2,398-page regulation — implementing MACRA’s physician reimbursement regime.

In the new Congress, Republicans can and should use the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval revoking this massive new regulation. They can then set about making the changes to Medicare that both Paul Ryan and Donald Trump have discussed: getting government out of the business of 1) fixing prices and 2) micro-managing the practice of medicine.

MACRA’S FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED, STATIST APPROACH

Since the administration released its physician-payment regulations — nearly as long as Obamacare itself – some commentary has emphasized (rightly) the burdensome nature of the new federal regulations and mandates.

But the more fundamental point, rarely made, is that we need more than mere tweaks to free doctors from an ever-tightening grip exercised by federal overseers. After more than a half century of failed attempts at government price-setting and micro-management of medical practice, it’s time to get Washington out of the business of playing “Dr. Sam” once and for all.

In fact, even liberals tend to acknowledge this occasionally. In a May 2011 C-SPAN interview, Noam Levey of the Los Angeles Times asked then-administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Donald Berwick why he thought the federal government could use Medicare as it exists to reform the health-care system:

In nearly half a century of federal-government oversight, the federal government hasn’t succeeded in two really important things: Number one, Medicare costs are still growing substantially more quickly than the economy; and number two, that fragmented [health care] system . . . has persisted in Medicare for 46 years now. . . . Why should the public, when it hears you, when it hears the President say, “Don’t worry, this time we’re going to make it better, we’re going to give you a more efficient, higher-quality health care system,” why should they believe that the federal government can do now what it essentially hasn’t really been able to do for close to half a century? [Emphasis added] 

Dr. Berwick didn’t really answer the question: He claimed that fragmented care issues “are not Medicare problems — they’re health system problems.” But in reality, liberal organizations like the Commonwealth Fund often argue Medicare can be leveraged as a model to reform the entire health care system — and that is exactly what MACRA, in defiance of historical precedent, tries to do.

When a 2012 Congressional Budget Office report examined the history of various Medicare payment demonstrations, it concluded that most had not saved money. A seminal study undertaken by MIT’s Amy Finkelstein concluded that the introduction of Medicare, and specifically its method of third-party payment, was one of the primary drivers of the growth in health-care spending during the second half of the 20th century.

After five decades of failed government control and rising costs driven by the existing Medicare program, the solution lies not in more tweaks and changes to the same program.

The answer lies in replacing that program with a system of premium support that gets the federal government out of the price-fixing business entirely.

The notion that the federal government can know the right price for inhalation therapy in Birmingham or the appropriate reimbursement for a wart removal in Boise is a fundamentally flawed and arrogant premise — one that conservatives should whole-heartedly reject.

Unfortunately, most critics of MACRA have not fully grasped this. A law that prompts the federal bureaucracy to issue a sprawling regulation of nearly 2,400 pages cannot on any level be considered conceptually sound.

Believing otherwise echoes Margaret Thatcher’s famous maxim about consensus politicians and conviction politicians: Some analysts, seeking a consensus among their fellow technocrats, push for changes to make the 2,400-page rule more palatable. But our convictions should have us automatically reject any regulation with this level of micro-management and government-enforced minutiae.

THE NEED FOR COMPREHENSIVE REFORM

It bears worth repeating that, in addition to perpetuating the statist nature of Medicare, MACRA raised the deficit by over $100 billion in its first ten years — and more thereafter — while not fundamentally solving the long-term problem of Medicare physician-payment levels.

More than a decade ago, after President Bush and a Republican Congress passed the costly Medicare Modernization Act (MMA), creating the Part D prescription-drug entitlement, conservatives argued even after the law’s passage that the new entitlement should not take effect. If the MMA was “no Medicare reform” for including only a premium-support demonstration project, conservatives should likewise reject MACRA, which includes nothing – not even a demonstration project — to advance the premium-support reform Medicare truly needs.

Any efforts focused on building a slightly better government health-care mousetrap distract from the ultimate goal: removing the mousetrap entirely. In his 1964 speech A Time for Choosing, Reagan rejected the idea “that a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves” — and Republicans should do the same today.

In the context of health care, this means not debating the details of MACRA but replacing it, sending power back to where it belongs — with the people themselves.

Last week’s election results give the new Congress an opportunity to do just that, by disapproving the MACRA rule and moving to enact comprehensive Medicare reform in its place. After more than five decades of the same statist health care policies, it’s finally time for a new approach. Here’s hoping Congress agrees.

This post was originally published at National Review.

What the VA Scandal and Medicare Cost Issues Have in Common

The federal government adjusts its payment policies, the health-care system tailors its practices to meet those new policies, and a variety of unexpected—and perverse—consequences result.

This isn’t just one aspect of the VA scandal. It also describes the effects of physician payment policies in Medicare.

In the case of the Department of Veterans Affairs, decisions to tie performance bonuses to patient waiting times apparently resulted in attempts to manipulate the appointment system. Incidents reported in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and New Mexico illustrate how compensation and bonuses drove decisions about patient care. The New York Times reported that one Albuquerque whistleblower alleged:

Clinic staff were instructed to enter false information into veterans’ charts because it would improve the data about clinic availability. . . . The reason anyone would care to do this is that clinic availability is a performance measure, and there are incentives for management to meet performance measures.

In Medicare, the sustainable growth rate (SGR) mechanism established in 1997 placed an overall cap on physician spending, with an eye toward cutting payments in future years if Medicare spending exceeded the defined thresholds. But this measure, ostensibly to cut costs, only pushed the problem elsewhere. Doctors have responded to the prospect of cuts in reimbursement rates by increasing the volume of services provided. Physician spending per beneficiary increased more than 70 percent from 2000 to 2011, while reimbursement rates grew only 11 percent in the same period. Congress routinely acts to undo the projected reimbursement cuts, and the SGR has not appreciably reduced Medicare’s overall costs.

So how do these stories tie together? Clearly, health-care systems respond to incentives set by the federal government. But Washington has not proved nimble enough to avert the unintended consequences of those responses. While Gen. Eric Shinseki’s resignation as secretary of veterans affairs may stanch the political bleeding for the Obama administration, the underlying problems go far beyond one man—and even the VA. Both issues will take big-picture thinking, and actions, to repair.

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

Medicare’s Sustainable Growth Rate: Principles for Reform

A PDF of this Backgrounder can be found on the Heritage Foundation website.

Congress may soon revisit the issue of Medicare physician reimbursement payment. Much of the legislative discussion will focus on the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula. The SGR was enacted as part of the Balanced Budget Act in 1997 as a mechanism to update yearly Medicare physician reimbursements. Under that formula, the federal government computes an annual target for Medicare physician spending based in large part on annual changes in economic growth as measured by gross domestic product (GDP). Physician spending exceeding the growth in GDP in any given year will result in a proportional and automatic cut in Medicare physician reimbursement the following year.

In theory, the SGR was a major improvement over the volume control updates that Congress enacted in 1989. In practice, the SGR mandated deep and politically unacceptable cuts in future years’ Medicare payments. The reason: Physician spending routinely exceeded annual targets. It was quickly becoming clear that the SGR was unworkable. Since 2003, majorities in Congress have routinely blocked the fundamentally flawed SGR formula from going into effect because the applicable cuts would threaten seniors’ access to care. For 2014, the formula calls for a Medicare physician reimbursement cut of almost 25 percent. Not surprisingly, many policymakers have concluded that the SGR must be repealed or replaced.

A Chance for Real Reform. The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently released a revised discussion draft of legislation regarding physician payment,[1] on the heels of a statement of principles initially released by the House Ways and Means and the Energy and Commerce Committees in February.[2] Likewise, the chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee recently issued a request for “stakeholder” comment about the future of physician payment.[3]

While Congress’s immediate focus on the SGR is right and proper, it should not be shortsighted. The SGR is merely representative of a much larger problem: Medicare’s outdated system of administrative pricing, price controls, and inefficient central planning. This system both underpays and overpays doctors and other medical professionals, encourages cost shifting and gaming among providers, distorts the medical market, and undercuts the delivery of efficient and effective care. The overriding policy issue is whether Congress will view the SGR narrowly, as something to be “fixed”; or whether the debate can be the platform for a broader discussion of the need for a much better Medicare future, where administrative pricing is replaced by price competition, central planning is replaced by market-driven innovation, and the delivery of high-quality patient care is the product of the best professional judgment of members of the medical profession.

The ultimate policy objective, therefore, should be to transform Medicare into a defined-contribution (“premium support”) system, based on the free-market principles of consumer choice and competition—a system where medical services are priced through private negotiations between plans and providers, reflecting the true market conditions of supply and demand. In the meantime, as part of a transition to such a program, Medicare physician payment should be frozen at current levels for three to five years. Any additional costs to the taxpayer should be offset by savings from well-vetted reforms of the current program, plus a lifting of existing payment caps, a requirement for transparent pricing, and expanded options for doctors and patients.

A Crude and Clumsy Attempt to Break Spending

The SGR mechanism, as noted, links aggregate Medicare payment to changes in the general economy as measured by GDP. If spending exceeds the GDP target, the SGR adjusts physician reimbursements downward; if spending remains below target, the SGR increases physician reimbursements accordingly.[4]

By linking specific Medicare payments to the general performance of the economy, Congress established a fiscal target bearing little resemblance to the actual cost of medical goods and services. Other targets, such as the consumer price index (CPI) or the medical economic index, provide a clearer link to price inflation and general health cost growth. Moreover, the SGR’s explicit link to the size of the economy means that in economic downturns, the target—and thus physician reimbursement levels—will actually decline.

The fact that the SGR remains an aggregate spending target also presents a collective action problem for the Medicare program. Because the SGR targets physician spending as a whole, and not the spending patterns of individual physicians or physician practices, individual doctors have a strong incentive to maximize their own volume of services performed, and thus their own reimbursement levels.[5]

For all these reasons, Congress has consistently modified the SGR targets over the past decade. While the slowdown in health costs surrounding the move to managed care plans in the late 1990s prevented the SGR targets from being hit in the program’s first few years, spending soon exceeded the statutory targets. Although Congress allowed the SGR’s reimbursement cuts to take effect in 2002, in 2003 (and each year since) Congress overrode the statutory reductions with a series of freezes, or modest payment increases, in SGR target levels.[6]

The annual, albeit temporary, payment increases mandated by Congress since 2003 have resulted in a series of fiscal cliffs for physicians and the Medicare program. Because prior Congresses overrode the SGR targets only for short periods, doctors have faced the prospect of increasingly large reimbursement cuts should Congress not forestall the reimbursement cuts.[7] For instance, should Congress not act before January 1, 2014, the SGR will reset at its lower, statutory target, resulting in an immediate reduction in reimbursement levels of over 24 percent, with additional cuts in succeeding years.[8] According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), permanently freezing SGR target levels would cost $139.1 billion over 10 years[9]—a significant sum, but about half the $273.3 billion that the CBO estimated an SGR freeze would cost in July 2012.[10]

As a mechanism to contain costs, therefore, the SGR has fallen short. While physicians have received below-inflation updates in Medicare payment levels since 2003, evidence strongly suggests that doctors have compensated for these lower reimbursement levels by increasing the volume of services provided. According to data from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, while physician updates grew by less than 10 percent between 2000 and 2011, overall physician spending per beneficiary grew by more than 70 percent over the same period, largely because the volume of services provided to beneficiaries rose rapidly.[11]

However, as a mechanism to control overall spending on Medicare, the SGR has provided an impetus for re-examining spending priorities within other portions of the Medicare program. While generally ineffective at controlling physician spending, the annual SGR target has nonetheless forced Washington policymakers continually to re-examine overall Medicare spending, and encouraged continued debate on structural Medicare reform as well as generated intense discussion on incremental but meaningful reforms in the current program.

Members of Congress have generally insisted on paying for the annual “fixes” to the SGR, as such legislation would otherwise raise Medicare spending and increase the deficit. In 2009, the Senate considered legislation that would have permanently increased Medicare physician reimbursements without offsetting spending reductions.[12] When confronted with an unpaid “doc fix,” a bipartisan majority of 53 Senators rejected this legislation,[13] which would have increased federal deficits by $247 billion over 10 years,[14] and up to $1.9 trillion over 75 years.[15]

Over and above the basic principle that Congress should not increase Medicare spending at a time of record deficits, the SGR has provided a vehicle to enact modest reforms to the Medicare program on an annual basis. For instance, legislation addressing the “fiscal cliff” expanded Medicare competitive bidding to diabetes supplies, and enacted new anti-fraud measures, to help finance a one-year “doc fix” for 2013.[16]

When considering SGR legislation this year, Congress must balance the competing interests of the physician community and the Medicare program as a whole. While the SGR has not slowed cost growth, and the annual “doc fix” exercise has caused uncertainty for physicians, the Medicare program as a whole faces massive deficits—the Medicare trust fund lost $105.6 billion over the past five years, deficits that are expected to continue and accelerate as the baby-boom generation retires.[17] Simply repealing the SGR without fundamentally reforming Medicare would have significant unintended consequences for future taxpayers and beneficiaries alike.

More or Less Government Control Over Medical Practice?

Designing a replacement for the SGR formula brings with it many of its own problems. Proposals to replace the SGR with a system of reimbursing doctors based on quality measures—“pay for performance,” for example —will necessitate an even stronger role for the Medicare bureaucracy in dictating physician behaviors than the current flawed system.

Well before the creation of the SGR mechanism for updating reimbursement, Medicare physician payment has, over the past 25 years, been defined by the heavy hand of bureaucratic micromanagement. In 1989, Congress enacted a resource-based relative value system (RBRVS) for determining physician payments, which focused on determining the “right” payment for a particular service by calculating the cost of performing that service when compared to other services.[18]

Based on a “social science” measurement, the RBRVS attempted to quantify the “value units” of providing medical services, such as the time, energy, and effort that goes into providing a medical service, adjusted by geographic costs and malpractice expenses. A patient with a simple ear infection would require different amounts of a physician’s time than a patient with chronic heart failure, for example, and the RBRVS intended to compensate doctors “fairly” for each service. Organized medicine, particularly the American Medical Association, initially endorsed the new fee schedule as a way of redistributing income from high-priced specialists to lower-paid general practitioners.

In theory, the RBRVS was widely hailed by its proponents as a “scientific” answer to the perennial problem of physician payment.[19] In practice, the result has been a highly politicized process of rent-seeking, as lobbyists of different provider groups feverishly scrambled to secure higher reimbursements through the political process. However well-intentioned, the past quarter century has demonstrated the failure of the RBRVS as an accurate method of compensating physicians who participate in Medicare. Even as the federal government attempts to find the “right” price of every physician service, it has seemingly failed to remember the value of any of them. Unsurprisingly, the creation of more than 7,000 separate procedure codes has not ensured that nearly 850,000 Medicare providers are being compensated fairly for their services.[20] Indeed, the RBRVS has failed in one of its central goals: Created 25 years ago to help increase the relative value of allegedly underpriced primary care services, the RBRVS system has only exacerbated price disparities between primary and specialist care.[21]

In the aftermath of this failure, some in Congress have proposed a new system no less audacious—and no less reliant on the hand of government. Instead of the RBRVS method of pricing services partially based on the archaic labor theory of value—that compensation for physician services should be determined by the amount of time and resources put into the work—the new proposals attempt to quantify the “value” to patients of a particular service by measuring its “effectiveness.”

Pay for Performance or Compliance? Generally speaking, the new theory of pay-for-performance medicine attempts to determine physicians’ “value” and thus reimbursement through compliance with, and performance on, a series of metrics and guidelines determined by federal bureaucrats, medical societies, or a combination of the two. For instance, the House’s discussion draft discusses an “update incentive program” under which the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) would be required to publish a “competency measure set” of quality measures, and then “develop and apply…appropriate methodologies for assessing the performance of fee schedule providers” on those measures.[22]

The language in the House discussion draft—linking Medicare physician pay to compliance with government-established guidelines—accelerates a troubling trend reinforced by Obamacare itself. The national health care law, with 165 provisions affecting Medicare,[23] not only retains the SGR, but, like the SGR, it also imposes a hard cap on the growth of all Medicare spending. It creates an Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which will have the power to enforce the cap, and recommend even more Medicare reimbursement cuts for physicians and other medical professionals. It creates new institutions to change Medicare payment and delivery through administrative action, such as the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, with demonstration programs designed to end traditional fee-for-service (FFS) payments. Beyond these new institutions, the health law creates new Medicare “quality” programs and extends the Physician Quality Reporting Initiative (PQRI), which will enforce new bonus and penalty payments for physician compliance. As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported in its first evaluation of the statute, the new law “makes several changes to the Medicare program that have the potential to affect physicians and how they practice in ways both small and large, immediately and over time.”[24]

For example, Obamacare mandates a 2 percent reduction in Medicare physician payments for doctors that do “not satisfactorily submit data” to Washington officials,[25] and a 1 percent reduction for physicians who fail to follow bureaucrat-defined “cost” metrics.[26] In separate legislation also signed by President Obama, the Administration received the authority to reduce payments to physicians by a further 3 percent if they do not follow Washington-imposed guidelines for electronic health records.[27]

To their credit, the authors of the House discussion draft emphasize the role of medical specialty societies in determining quality metrics, thereby hoping to assuage concerns about federal bureaucrats’ direct involvement in the practice of medicine. This does not, however, solve the fundamental problem. The entire premise of a Medicare pay-for-performance regime—which is really a payment for compliance—directly contradicts the opening verbiage of the original Medicare statute:

Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize any federal officer or employee to exercise any supervision or control over the practice of medicine or the manner in which medical services are provided, or over the selection, tenure, or compensation of any officer or employee of any institution, agency, or person providing health services; or to exercise any supervision or control over the administration or operation of any such institution, agency, or person.[28]

The threshold question is this: Should government officials “exercise any supervision or control” over the practice of medicine? It matters not whether some physicians choose to comply with Washington’s mandates on their practices, or whether some leaders of some specialty societies see value in serving as arbiters of some new Medicare pay-for-performance structure. Under the original Medicare statute, all physicians should have the freedom to practice medicine using their own professional judgment in treating a patient, without meddling—whether in the form of new federal mandates, “quality” metrics, or other bureaucratic criteria—from either the federal government or its intermediaries.

The flaws in Medicare’s pay-for-performance approach have been well defined elsewhere.[29] The myriad regulations and mandates that such criteria spawn interfere in the practice of medicine, placing an invisible barrier amid the already attenuated relationship between doctor and patient. Worse, the one-size-fits-all methodologies imposed by Washington-enforced mandates directly contradict the great promise of the growing movement toward personalized medicine.[30]

Despite its inherent flaws, a bureaucracy-driven compliance regime remains a shibboleth of leftist health policy analysts who believe that a new system of federal micromanagement can fix the flaws of the old one. Former Senator Tom Daschle (D–SD), President Obama’s first choice for Secretary of HHS, wrote in 2008 that government interference in medical care was not the problem, it was the solution:

We won’t be able to make a significant dent in health-care spending without getting into the nitty-gritty of which treatments are the most clinically valuable and cost effective. That means taking a harder look at the real costs and benefits of new drugs and procedures.[31]

Obamacare epitomizes this governing philosophy of administrative control, giving the Secretary almost 2,000 separate orders with which to micromanage the health care system.[32] Members of Congress who rightly criticized Obamacare for granting the Secretary nearly unprecedented discretionary authority over the financing and delivery of medical care should be greatly concerned with enacting SGR replacement legislation that would further expand the Secretary’s control.[33]

Principles for Congressional Action

As it has since 2003, Congress likely will consider legislation later this year addressing the deep cut mandated by the SGR formula. Absent changes in current law, a cut of nearly 25 percent will take effect on January 1, 2014.

Based on the proposals released to date, leaders on key committees intend to use this year’s legislation to construct a permanent replacement for the SGR, with a new reimbursement model heavily focused on quality metrics. The goal of securing a higher quality of services for taxpayer dollars is clearly laudable. But Congress should remain mindful of the consequences of additional intrusion in the doctor–patient relationship, and of the fact that the SGR constitutes merely one piece of a larger entitlement structure in need of fundamental reform.

When considering Medicare physician payment legislation, Congress should:

  • Reject any provisions that micromanage the doctor–patient relationship. Whether under the name of pay-for-performance, clinical guidelines, or quality metrics, programs emphasizing physician compliance with government-imposed standards are inconsistent with the original intent of the Medicare statute, which safeguards the professional independence and integrity of the medical profession and sacrosanct character of the doctor–patient relationship. Placing additional authority in the hands of government bureaucrats to dictate the practice of physicians undermines these principles as well as patient trust.
  • Restore balance billing and the right to private contracting. Consistent with a return to free-market principles, Congress should remove the current statutory prohibitions on balance billing—when doctors bill patients for the part of the health-service charge not reimbursed by Medicare—while also repealing the oppressive restriction that prohibits doctors who engage in any transactions with beneficiaries outside Medicare’s parameters from receiving Medicare reimbursements for two years.[34] Keeping the heavy hand of government out of the doctor–patient relationship requires removing regulatory restrictions that prevent senior citizens from engaging physicians on financial terms that both find fair and advantageous. When coupled with transparency guidelines ensuring that seniors clearly understand the prices and the terms of these contractual arrangements, balance billing and private contracting can remove many of the financial pressures imposed by Medicare’s top-down, government-dictated pricing system.
  • Insist that fundamental, long-term SGR reform be paired with fundamental, long-term Medicare reform. Experts on all sides of the political spectrum agree that the flawed SGR mechanism should be replaced. The best replacement for the SGR and the entire system of current Medicare financing lies in a defined-contribution (premium support) system that fundamentally reforms and enhances the entire Medicare program. In the short term, Congress can take several important incremental steps to re-structure the traditional Medicare program as part of a transition to a premium support system.[35] However, Congress should not attempt to enact a fundamental change to the SGR coupled solely with incremental reforms to the larger Medicare program. To do so would remove an impetus for the major structural reforms that Medicare needs in order to ensure its solvency for future generations.

Conclusion

Congress once again appears poised to grapple with a problem of its own making—namely, the SGR formula for physician reimbursement. Members in both the House and Senate have solicited proposals for alternatives, and have committed to considering SGR proposals this year.

However, when constructing alternatives to the SGR, Congress should heed the lessons of experience. The system of administrative pricing for Medicare physician payment, in effect for nearly 25 years, has proven cumbersome, bureaucratic, and unworkable. Moving further in the direction of pay-for-performance medicine, as some proposals have suggested, would merely substitute medical societies for the role currently played by omnipotent government bureaucrats, attempting to impose one-size-fits-all medical care from Washington.

Conversely, while the SGR has not succeeded in its initial goal of containing Medicare physician spending, the perennial “doc fix” bills have forced Congress to enact changes in the Medicare program, many of which constituted real progress in reforming entitlement spending. Completely repealing or replacing the SGR, without first ensuring fundamental reform of the entire Medicare program, would actively subvert attempts to make the program sustainable for future generations.

The SGR debate presents Members of Congress with both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity lies in enacting reforms that can expand market forces in Medicare and enhance the program’s viability. The challenge lies in resisting the siren call that yet another form of federally micromanaged health care can succeed when all past iterations have failed. Seniors and future generations should hope that Congress chooses to embrace the opportunity and rise to the challenge.

 



[1] House Energy and Commerce Committee discussion draft of Medicare physician payment legislation, June 28, 2013, http://energycommerce.house.gov/sites/republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/files/BILLS-113hr-PIH-SGRreform.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[2] House Energy and Commerce Committee and Ways and Means Committee joint framework for Medicare physician payment reform, “Overview of SGR Repeal and Reform Proposal,” February 7, 2013, http://energycommerce.house.gov/sites/republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/files/20130207SGRReform.pdf (accessed July 11 2013).

[3] News release, “Baucus, Hatch Call on Health Care Providers to Pitch in and Provide Ideas to Improve Medicare Physician Payment System,” U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, May 10, 2013, http://www.finance.senate.gov/newsroom/chairman/release/?id=fba99c75-981f-4917-9836-ae49d47453a1 (accessed July 11, 2013).

[4] Mark Miller, “Moving Forward from the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) System,” testimony before the Finance Committee, U.S. Senate, at a hearing on “Advancing Reform: Medicare Physician Payments,” May 14, 2013, p. 2, http://www.finance.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/MedPAC%20SGR%20testimony%20with%20attachments_SFC_5%2014%202013.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[5] Ibid., p. 3.

[6] The full list of statutory adjustments to the SGR conversion factor enacted by Congress since 2003 can be found in amendments to the United States Code, 42 U.S.C. 1395w-4(d)(5) et seq.

[7] Beginning with the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006 (P.L. 109–432), Congress provided that temporary payment increases overriding the SGR cuts would not be used in setting the SGR targets for future years—thus ensuring a “cliff” when the target re-sets at the lower level.

[8] The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has estimated a preliminary SGR conversion factor update of 24.4 percent for calendar year 2014. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Estimated Sustainable Growth Rate and Conversion Factor for Medicare Payments to Physicians in 2014,” April 2013, p. 8, Table 5, http://www.cms.gov/Medicare/Medicare-Fee-for-Service-Payment/SustainableGRatesConFact/Downloads/sgr2014p.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[9] Congressional Budget Office, “Medicare’s Payments to Physicians: The Budgetary Impact of Alternative Policies Relative to CBO’s May 2013 Baseline,” May 14, 2013, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44184_May_2013_SGR.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[10] Congressional Budget Office, “Medicare’s Payments to Physicians: The Budgetary Impact of Alternative Policies Relative to CBO’s March 2012 Baseline,” July 31, 2012, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/43502-SGR%20Options2012.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[11] Miller, testimony before Finance Committee, U.S. Senate, Figures 1 and 2, p. 4.

[12] Medicare Physician Fairness Act of 2009, S. 1776 (111th Congress).

[13] Senate Roll Call 325 of 2009, October 21, 2009, http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=111&session=1&vote=00325 (accessed July 11, 2013).

[14] Congressional Budget Office, cost estimate for S. 1776, October 26, 2009, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/106xx/doc10674/s1776greggltr.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[15] Andrew Rettenmaier and Thomas Saving, “How the Medicare ‘Doc Fix’ Would Add to the Long-Term Medicare Debt,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2695, November 13, 2009, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2009/11/how-the-medicare-doc-fix-would-add-to-the-long-term-medicare-debt.

[16] American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2013, Public Law 112–240, Sections 636 and 638.

[17] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2013 Annual Report of the Boards of Trustees of the Federal Hospital Insurance and Federal Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Funds, May 31, 2013, p. 58, Table II.B4, http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/ReportsTrustFunds/Downloads/TR2013.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[18] Section 6102 of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1989, Public Law 101–239, established a Medicare physician fee schedule based on the RBRVS, effective in January 1992.

[19] Robert E. Moffit, “Back to the Future: Medicare’s Resurrection of the Labor Theory of Value,” Regulation (Fall 1992), pp. 54–63.

[20] Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, Report to the Congress: Medicare Payment Policy, March 2013, p. 79, http://medpac.gov/documents/Mar13_EntireReport.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[21] Ibid., p. 95.

[22] House discussion draft, pp. 3–5.

[23] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2013 Annual Report of the Boards of Trustees of the Federal Hospital Insurance and Federal Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Funds, p. 2.

[24] Patricia A. Davis et al., “Medicare Provisions in PPACA (P.L. 111–148),” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress No. R41196, April 21, 2010, http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/11-148_20100421.pdf (accessed July 12, 2013).

[25] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Public Law 111–148, Section 3002(b).

[26] Ibid., Section 3007.

[27] American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Public Law 111–5, Section 4101(b).

[28] 42 U.S.C. 1395.

[29] Richard Dolinar and Luke Leininger, “Pay for Performance or Compliance? A Second Opinion on Medicare Reimbursement,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1882, October 5, 2005, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2005/10/pay-for-performance-or-compliance-a-second-opinion-on-medicare-reimbursement.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Tom Daschle, Scott Greenberger, and Jeanne Lambrew, Critical: What We Can Do about the Health Care Crisis (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008), pp. 172–173.

[32] Michael Leavitt, “Health Reform’s Central Flaw: Too Much Power in One Office,” The Washington Post, February 18, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/17/AR2011021705824.html (accessed July 11, 2013).

[33] For further information on the HHS Secretary’s powers, see John S. Hoff, “Implementing Obamacare: A New Exercise in Old-Fashioned Central Planning,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2459, September 10, 2010, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/09/implementing-obamacare-a-new-exercise-in-old-fashioned-central-planning.

[34] Section 4507 of the Balanced Budget Act, Public Law 105–33.

[35] Robert E. Moffit, “The First Stage of Medicare Reform: Fixing the Current Program,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2611, October 17, 2011, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/10/the-first-stage-of-medicare-reform-fixing-the-current-program.

Legislative Bulletin: S. 2499, Medicare, Medicaid, and SCHIP Extension Act

Order of Business:  The bill is scheduled to be considered under suspension of the rules on Wednesday, December 19, 2007.  The Senate introduced and passed the bill on Tuesday, December 18, by unanimous consent.

 

Summary:  S. 2499 eliminates for six months a reduction in Medicare physician payments scheduled to take effect on December 31, 2007, providing a 0.5% increase through June 30, 2008.  S. 2499 also extends the State Children’s Health Insurance Program through March 31, 2009, and provides additional funding to cover currently eligible children, without expanding or extending eligibility definitions beyond current cohorts.

Medicare:  S. 2499 contains many provisions that alter Medicare, Medicaid, and SCHIP law as follows:

Update for Medicare Physician Services.            S. 2499 would provide a 0.5% update to the conversion factor for physician reimbursements for the six months ending June 30, 2008, at a cost of $6.4 billion over ten years.  In November, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that the annual update to the conversion factor for 2008 would be negative 10.1%, as spending on physicians’ services and other Part B services has been growing at a much faster rate than target spending.  Providing a 0.5% update to the conversion factor would ensure that the -10.1% update does not go into effect.  CBO estimates that this provision will cost $6 billion over ten years.  To learn more on the background of this provision and details of the conversion factor and Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR), please read the section below entitled “Additional Background.”

Bonus and Quality Reporting.  The bill extends a physician quality reporting system, as well as 5% bonus payments to physicians practicing in physician shortage areas through June 30, 2008. In recent years there has been a large government push to require pay for performance standards tied to physicians’ Medicare reimbursement payments in order to control spiraling medical costs.  This would require physicians to report on minute aspects of the doctor-patient interaction so the government could review and measure quality of care to set reimbursement levels.  This issue is controversial, as there has been no discussion on who sets the “quality standards” and who would define what quality looks like under such a system.  Opponents of quality reporting provisions would argue that quality of care can only be determined by patients and physicians.

Extension for Other Provider Payments.  In addition to the adjustment to the SGR conversion factor, S. 2499 would extend provisions related to physician pathology services (no net cost), clinical laboratory tests in rural areas (no net cost), and therapy caps (net cost of $200 million) through June 30, 2008.  The legislation also adjusts the reimbursement rate for diabetes laboratory tests approved for home use (net cost of $700 million) and brachytherapy (no net cost) services beginning April 1, 2008.

Medicare Advantage Enrollment.  The bill would extend the authority for certain existing Medicare Advantage plans to count as “special needs plans” – those plans serving institutionalized patients, or beneficiaries with severe or disabling chronic diseases – and target enrollment to specialized populations through December 31, 2009.  However, the bill would also preclude the Secretary from designating any new such plans, and would prohibit beneficiaries from enrolling in any expanded service areas by existing plans through December 2009.  CBO scores this provision as costing $1.4 billion over ten years.

Reduction in Medicare Stabilization Fund.  S. 2499 would remove the remaining $1.5 billion from the Medicare stabilization fund for regional provider organizations in 2012.  It is important to note that unlike numerous Democrat Medicare and SCHIP bills, this legislation does not cut payments to Medicare Advantage plans, which has provoked past veto threats, because doing so would discourage many private plans from participating in the program, perhaps eliminating the private Medicare option in many areas and for many individuals.

Medicare Secondary Payer.  The bill includes additional requirements on group insurance plans and liability insurers to the Secretary to determine that the beneficiary is entitled to benefits under the Medicare Secondary Payer program.  CBO scores this provision as saving $1.1 billion over ten years.

Average Sales Price Computation.  S. 2499 would establish a volume-weighted average sales price for prescription drugs based on average sales volume.  CBO scores this provision as saving $2.6 billion over ten years.

Long-Term Care Provisions.  The bill would freeze the market-basket reimbursement rate for long-term care (LTC) facilities for the last quarter of 2008, saving $1.2 billion over ten years.  Additionally, S. 2499 would establish new review requirements on long-term care facilities to ensure patients are receiving appropriate levels of care, and impose a limited moratorium on the development of additional long-term care facilities.  Some conservatives may be concerned that these provisions, by preventing the development of additional long-term care facilities, represent an unnecessary government intervention in the LTC market.

Reduction in Inpatient Rehabilitation Services.  The legislation reduces the market basket update factor for inpatient rehabilitation facilities (IRFs) at 0% from April 1, 2008 through Fiscal Year 2009, saving $4 billion over ten years.

Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.  S. 2499 would change the status of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) – an agency that submits reports and recommendations to Congress regarding payment policy, access to care, quality of care, and related issues affecting Medicare – from that of an independent agency to an agency of Congress.

Medicaid and SCHIP:

Extension of Qualifying Individual Program.  The bill would extend the qualified individual (QI) program, which provides assistance through Medicaid for low-income seniors in paying their Medicare premiums, through June 30, 2008, at a cost of $200 million over ten years.

TMA and Title V Extension.  S. 2499 would extend for six months (until June 30, 2008), 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), at a cost of $400 million over ten years.  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.

SCHIP Extension and Funding.  The bill extends the State Children’s Health Insurance Program through March 31, 2009, to allow for a reauthorization process that does not become entangled in the 2008 election season.  The bill also provides supplemental funding for states that are expected to exhaust their SCHIP funding at current levels.  (See “Additional Background.”)   This provision has a net cost of $800 million, according to CBO.

Additional Background: 

Medicare.  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.

SCHIP.  According to a November Congressional Research Service report, 21 states are projected to face SCHIP shortfalls in the absence of additional funding for Fiscal Year 2008.  However, at least nine of these states’ shortfalls stem in part from their decisions to cover children in families making above 200% of the federal poverty level and/or to cover adults using the enhanced SCHIP funding match.  A Heritage Foundation analysis of the CRS data notes that “these overextended [state] programs…account for the lion’s share of the [SCHIP] shortfall.”  Some conservatives may have concerns that additional funding is being provided to cover the additional expenditures of states that have chosen to exceed the originally intended parameters of the SCHIP program.

Cost to Taxpayers:  S. 2499 eliminates a scheduled 10.1% reduction in payments to physicians effective December 31, 2007, at a cost of $6.4 billion.  The bill also includes $800 million in additional SCHIP funding to eliminate shortfalls through March 31, 2009.  This new spending is offset by rescinding $1.5 billion from the Medicare stabilization fund, which finances payments to regional preferred provider organizations.  S. 2499 also reduces payments to long-term care hospitals and inpatient rehabilitation facilities in 2008, saving an additional $5.2 billion over ten years.  These and other changes make S. 2499 technically compliant with PAYGO rules.

Committee Action:  The bill has not been considered by a House Committee.

Administration Position:  The Administration has indicated no opposition to the measure.

Does the Bill Expand the Size and Scope of the Federal Government?:  No.

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.