Indian Health Service Scandal Shows Problems of Government-Run Care

As if voters didn’t have enough reasons to question government-run health care, the Wall Street Journal provided yet another last week. The paper ran a lengthy expose highlighting numerous cases of doctors previously accused of negligence receiving “second chances” in the government-run Indian Health Service (IHS), resulting in incidents wherein at least 66 patients died in IHS care.

Earlier this year, the Journal ran a separate investigative article explaining how the Indian Health Service repeatedly ignored warnings about a physician accused of sexually abusing patients, moving him from hospital to hospital. Together, these articles describe a broken culture within the Indian Health Service, demonstrating how government-run health systems provide poor-quality care, often harming rather than helping vulnerable patients.

Examples of Negligent Physicians Harming Patients

The Journal examined records from the Treasury’s Judgment Fund, which pays awards in malpractice cases wherein the federal government — in this case, the Indian Health Service — functions as the defendant. The reporters then cross-referenced the physicians involved in those cases with prior malpractice cases and disciplinary actions taken prior to the doctors joining the IHS. The results should shock patients:

  • A doctor “thrust into medical exile” after five medical malpractice settlements in five years, including a rejection by a Nevada licensing board, ended up finding work in the Indian Health Service, where the federal government had to pay an additional five malpractice claims on his behalf. The physician, who had previously left a sponge inside a patient’s breast (among other incidents) before going to work with the Indian Health Service, gashed an IHS patient’s bile duct, causing four liters of digestive fluid to leak into her abdomen and sending her into septic shock.
  • An obstetrician with a history of five malpractice settlements totaling $2.7 million, and sanctions from the California medical board stemming from a patient who bled to death following a caesarean section, found employment in the Indian Health Service. A year after his hire, a baby died in the womb because this doctor failed to treat his mother’s high blood pressure. IHS officials later concluded that the doctor’s history “forshadow[ed] the tragic events that transpired in October 2017.” The physician admitted to the Journal, “I just did not address patients’ primary medical needs in a satisfactory way.” But he still applied for and received a position with the IHS.
  • A surgeon sued for malpractice 11 times over an eight-year period while living in Pennsylvania later got a job with the Indian Health Service in New Mexico. There he “allegedly cut a tube connecting a patient’s liver to his stomach and punctured the man’s intestines during a 2008 gallbladder surgery.” The patient later died.
  • A physician disciplined in both Florida and New York for prescribing pain pills for her boyfriend — up to 1,350 oxycodone pills in a single day — was hired by the Indian Health Service because she had a “clean” medical license in Pennsylvania. While working for the IHS, she sent a patient complaining of dizziness home with a diagnosis of pink-eye. Days later, the patient suffered a stroke that has left him confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. The federal government settled the subsequent malpractice case for $1 million because “hospital officials said in interviews that the doctor’s background made the case hard to defend.”
  • Another surgeon with nearly a dozen malpractice suits and a suspension for sexually abusing a patient during an exam received a job with the Indian Health Service. During his time as an IHS employee, the federal government paid a judgment exceeding $600,000 “over a colostomy the doctor performed that spilled fecal matter under a patient’s skin” and a $500,000 settlement for a botched hernia repair.
  • An obstetrician with at least seven reports in the National Practitioner Data Bank, including North Carolina sanctions over a potential sexual relationship with a patient, got a job with the Indian Health Service. In 2013, the doctor “struggled to deliver a baby” at an IHS facility. The baby developed an irregular heartbeat and died. The federal government paid a $900,000 malpractice claim because “a medical board reprimand later said [the doctor] should have resorted to a [caesarean] section ‘hours earlier.’”
  • A surgeon who lost his medical license in Illinois for “gross negligence” got another chance at a New Mexico IHS facility. “Two months after he arrived as the [IHS] hospital’s chief of surgery, he allegedly punctured a patient’s intestines during a surgery.” The patient ended up needing a dozen surgeries — which she wisely obtained outside the Indian Health Service — and a four-month hospital stay to recover.

Bureaucratic Nightmares

The Journal article also explained the circumstances by which all these physicians with histories of multiple malpractice claims or disciplinary actions came to work in the Indian Health Service. First, while the agency’s policies require hiring managers to consult the National Practitioner Data Bank for a physician’s history of malpractice claims or sanctions, the IHS does not monitor compliance with that requirement.

In one case, the CEO of a hospital who fired a surgeon for negligence said she “encourag[ed] him to consider another field of medicine than surgery.” However, the CEO didn’t know the surgeon had ended up practicing at an IHS facility until the Journal contacted her — because IHS apparently failed to investigate the surgeon’s history before hiring him.

Second, the federal government covers physicians’ malpractice claims through the Treasury’s Judgment Fund (the way the Journal reporters researched the hysicians’ history). Because IHS doctors don’t need to pay for malpractice insurance themselves — what one survey of IHS physicians considered the top benefit of working at the agency — it has become an effective “dumping ground” for physicians whose history of prior malpractice claims means they cannot obtain insurance on their own. IHS patients and federal taxpayers often end up paying the price, both literally and figuratively.

Poor Reimbursements Equal Poor Care

One former IHS official admitted that hiring managers have to make compromises when hiring physicians: “You get three candidates who come through and they all seem not great. But what you do is choose the lesser of three evils.” Hiring those “lesser evils” led to disastrous and often fatal consequences for dozens upon dozens of Indian Health Service patients.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., says she wants to extend government-run health care to the rest of the United States. But rather than apologizing to Native Americans for DNA tests, she should instead apologize for the horrid conditions within the Indian Health Service, promise to replace that broken system with something that works, and vow not to wreak on the rest of the American health-care system the kind of havoc Native populations have faced for years.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Reforming Medicaid to Serve Wyoming Better

A PDF of this document is available on the Wyoming Liberty Group website.

In the past several years, Wyoming has accomplished several key changes to its Medicaid program. A series of reforms regarding long-term care, and other methods to improve care delivery and coordination, have stabilized the overall spending on Medicaid—and reduced expenditures on a per-beneficiary basis.

However, the commitment by both the new Administration and Congressional leaders to examine Medicaid reform closely presents Wyoming with the possibility to accelerate its current reform efforts. Seema Verma, the new head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and a former Medicaid consultant, has publicly committed to provide states with greater flexibility and freedom to innovate.[1] Likewise, legislation advancing fundamental Medicaid reform has begun to advance in Congress.

Whether through a block grant, per capita allotments, or enhanced waiver authority from the federal government, states like Wyoming can and should receive greater freedom to manage their programs, in exchange for a series of fixed federal payments. Upon receiving this flexibility, Wyoming can put into place additional reforms that will improve care for beneficiaries, encourage transitions to employment and employer-based health coverage where appropriate, reduce health costs, and save taxpayer funds. These reforms would modernize Medicaid to incorporate the best of 21st century medicine, help Baby Boomers as that generation ages into retirement, and alleviate the fiscal challenges Wyoming faces in managing its Medicaid program.

 

The Problem

Enacted into law in 1965, the Medicaid program as originally designed provided federal matching funds to states to cover discrete populations, including the blind, needy seniors, and individuals with disabilities. Over time, expansions of the program to new populations, and changes in the delivery of health care, have made the Medicaid program large, costly, and unwieldy for states to manage. A significant body of evidence demonstrates that, after more than a half-century, Medicaid is long overdue for a modernization.

Cost:    According to government-provided data, Medicaid now approaches Medicare for the title of largest taxpayer-funded health care program. According to non-partisan government actuaries, state and federal taxpayers combined will spend an estimated $595.5 billion on Medicaid in the current fiscal year—$368.9 billion by the federal government, and $226.6billion by states.[2] By comparison, the Congressional Budget Office projects that this fiscal year, Medicare will spend a net of $598 billion, excluding premium payments by enrollees.[3] Even as the Baby Boomers retire in the coming decade, Medicaid will stay on pace with Medicare when it comes to total expenditures—Medicaid spending will total an estimated $57.5 billion in fiscal year 2025, compared to an estimated $1.005 trillion in net Medicare spending the same fiscal year.[4]

On the state level, rising spending on Medicaid has crowded out other key state priorities like education, transportation, and law enforcement. While states often cut back on those other programs during recessions, Medicaid spending continues to grow in both good economic times and bad. For instance, for fiscal year 2017, states adopted a total of $7.7 billion in spending increases on Medicaid when compared to fiscal 2016—less than the growth of K-12 education spending ($8.9 billion increase), but more than spending on higher education or corrections (both $1.1 billion increases).[5] But in fiscal year 2012—as states recovered from the last recession—states sharply cut K-12 education ($2.5 billion decrease) and higher education ($5 billion decrease) to finance a massive increase in Medicaid spending ($15 billion increase).[6]

With program spending growing at a near-constant pace, Medicaid has grown substantially over the past several decades to become the largest line-item in most state budgets. In fiscal year 2016, Medicaid consumed an average of 29.0 percent of state spending from all fund sources, and 20.3 percent of general fund expenditures.[7] By comparison, in fiscal year 1996, Medicaid consumed 20.3 percent of state spending, and 14.8 percent of general fund spending—and in fiscal year 1987, Medicaid consumed only 10.2 percent of state spending, and 8.1 percent of general fund spending.[8] With program spending nearly tripling as a size of their overall budgets from 1987 through 2016, Medicaid growth has limited states’ ability to provide for other critical state priorities—or return some of taxpayers’ hard-earned cash back into their pockets.

Quality:            Unfortunately, many Medicaid programs suffer from poor access to physicians, high rates of emergency room usage, and poor quality outcomes. A New England Journal of Medicine survey using “secret shopper” methods found that two-thirds of Medicaid children were denied appointments with specialty physicians, compared to only 11% of patients with private insurance coverage. Moreover, those Medicaid patients that did receive appointments had to wait an average of more than three weeks longer than privately insured children.[9] Perhaps unsurprisingly, beneficiaries themselves think much less of Medicaid coverage due to their lack of access:

You feel so helpless thinking, something’s wrong with this child and I can’t even get her into a doctor….When we had real insurance, we could call and come in at the drop of a hat.[10]

Even supporters of Medicaid call an enrollment card nothing more than a “hunting license”—a card that grants beneficiaries the ability to go try to find a physician that will actually treat them.[11]

Because of the difficulties beneficiaries face in obtaining timely access to physicians, Medicaid patients often end up with worse outcomes than the general population as a whole. The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment—which compared outcomes for identically situated groups of uninsured individuals, some of whom enrolled in Medicaid and some of whom did not—concluded that patients who enrolled in Medicaid received no measurable improvements in their physical health than those that remained uninsured.[12] Moreover, the newly enrolled Medicaid patients increased their emergency room usage by 40 percent when compared to those who did not obtain coverage—and those disparities persisted over time.[13] Such results tend to bolster previous findings that patients with Medicaid coverage may end up with worse outcomes than uninsured patients.[14]

Impact in Wyoming:  A January 2015 brief by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and a 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Medicaid variations by state, provide helpful metrics comparing Wyoming’s Medicaid program to its peers. The Kaiser brief analyzed per-beneficiary spending in Medicaid for “full-benefit” patients—that is, excluding any partial benefit enrollees.[15] As the table below shows, as of 2011, Wyoming’s spending on aged beneficiaries led the nation—nearly double the national average—and its spending on individuals with disabilities ranked high as well.

Moreover, per-beneficiary spending in Wyoming grew at a rapid, above-average pace for the aged and disabled populations. During the years 2000 to 2011, costs per beneficiary nationally grew by an average of 3.7% for aged beneficiaries and 4.5% for individuals with disabilities. By comparison, in Wyoming spending rose an average of 6.8%—again, nearly twice the national average—for aged beneficiaries, and an above-average 5.45% for individuals with disabilities during the same 2000-2011 period.[16]

 

 

Aged

Individuals with Disabilities  

Adults

 

Children

United States $17,522 $18,518 $4,141 $2,492
Wyoming $32,199 $25,346 $3,986 $1,967
Difference $14,677 $6,828 -$155 -$525
Wyoming Rank Highest 7th Highest 31st Highest 46th Highest

The 2014 GAO report provides additional context as to why Wyoming has relatively high levels of spending on aged and disabled populations.[17] Whereas the Kaiser report studied spending for the years 2000 through 2011, GAO analyzed spending for federal fiscal year 2008 only. However, like Kaiser, GAO also found that Wyoming’s per-enrollee spending on aged ($21,662) and disabled ($24,644) beneficiaries significantly exceeded national averages ($17,609 and $19,135, respectively).[18]

In addition to analyzing per-beneficiary spending by state, the GAO study also examined factors known to influence spending—and on these, Wyoming and its rural neighbors also ranked high. Wyoming ranked more than ten percentage points above the national average for the percentage of aged beneficiaries receiving long-term care services (48.7% in Wyoming vs. 37.7% nationally), and for the percentage of aged Medicaid enrollees ever institutionalized during the year (35.7% in Wyoming vs. 24.5% nationally).[19] Crucially, most of Wyoming’s neighbors—North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Colorado—also have percentages of aged seniors receiving long-term care services, and receiving institutional care, well above national averages, and in some cases higher than Wyoming. These data suggest that the difficulties of life in rural and frontier communities may result in above-average rates of institutionalization, as aged or disabled individuals cannot live far from care support structures.

The prior reports indicating high levels of spending on Wyoming’s Medicaid program do not consider the significant reforms the state has implemented to date. Efforts to increase the percentage of beneficiaries receiving home and community-based services, rather than institutional care, have driven the percentage of members receiving long-term care in the home above 50%.[20] As a result, spending on Medicaid has remained relatively flat from fiscal years 2010 through 2015. Per enrollee costs have actually declined over that period, particularly for the aged population.[21]

However, the Kaiser and GAO studies illustrate the challenges and the opportunities the Medicaid program faces in Wyoming. Despite the reforms put in place to date, spending on the aged and disabled population remains at comparatively high levels. While spending on aged beneficiaries has declined from $32,199 per enrollee in 2011 to $26,222 in fiscal 2015, even that lower level remains higher than the national per-beneficiary average in 2011 ($17,522).

But if Wyoming can build upon its existing Medicaid reforms to improve care for the aged and vulnerable population—coordinating care better, and ensuring that individuals who can be treated at home are not inappropriately diverted into institutional settings—then beneficiaries will benefit, as will taxpayers. If Medicaid enrollees receive better care, their lives will improve in both measurable and immeasurable ways. Likewise, simply bringing spending on aged and disabled beneficiaries down to national averages will drive millions of dollars in savings to the Medicaid program.

 

The Vision

Ultimately, the Medicaid program would work best if transformed into a block grant or per capita allotment to states. Under either of these proposals, states would receive additional flexibility from the federal government to manage their health care programs, in exchange for a series of fixed payments from Washington. The American Health Care Act, passed by the House of Representatives on May 4, contains both options, creating a new system of per capita spending caps for Medicaid, while allowing states to choose a block grant for some of their Medicaid populations.[22]

While fundamental changes to Medicaid’s funding formulae must pass through Congress, the incoming Administration can work from its first days to give states more freedom and flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs. Specifically, Section 1115 of the Social Security Act gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services the power to waive certain requirements under Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for “any experimental, pilot, or demonstration project which, in the judgment of the Secretary, is likely to assist in promoting the objectives” of the programs.[23]

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration often refused or watered down Section 1115 waiver requests from Republican governors. For instance, the last Administration repeatedly refused requests from governors to impose work requirements for able-bodied adults as a condition of participation in the Medicaid program.[24] Ironically, Obamacare actually made the process of obtaining waivers more difficult; one section of the law imposed new requirements, including a series of hearings, that states must undertake when applying for a waiver.[25] In the years since, federal legislative changes have sought to streamline the process for states requesting extensions of waivers already granted.[26]

In the hands of the right Administration, waiver authority could provide states with a significant amount of flexibility to reform their Medicaid programs. Among the finest examples of such reform is the Rhode Island Global Compact Waiver, approved in the waning days of the George W. Bush Administration on January 16, 2009. The waiver combined and consolidated myriad Medicaid waivers into one comprehensive waiver, with a capped allotment on overall spending. Rather than considering the silos of various program requirements, or specific waivers on discrete issues, Rhode Island was able to examine Medicaid reform holistically—focusing on the big picture, rather than specific bureaucratic dictates from Washington.[27]

Given flexibility from Washington, Rhode Island succeeded in controlling Medicaid expenditures—indeed, in reducing them on a per beneficiary basis. Overall spending remained roughly constant from 2010 through 2013, while enrollment grew by 6.6%.[28] Per beneficiary costs declined by 5.2% over that four-year period—a decline in absolute terms, even before factoring in inflation.[29] Perhaps most importantly, an independent report from the Lewin Group found that the Global Compact was “highly effective in controlling Medicaid costs,” while “improving members’ access to more appropriate services.”[30] In other words, Rhode Island reduced its Medicaid costs not by providing less care to beneficiaries—but providing more, and more appropriate, care to them.

The Rhode Island example has particular applicability to Wyoming’s Medicaid program. Just as Wyoming spends above national averages on Medicaid care for the aged and individuals with disabilities, so too did Rhode Island have a highly institutionalized population prior to implementing its Global Compact. Moreover, Wyoming’s current system of discrete waivers—two (including one pending with CMS) under Section 1115, and seven separate long-term care waivers under Section 1915 of the Social Security Act—lends itself towards potential care silos and unnecessary duplication. Consolidating these myriad waivers into one global waiver would allow Wyoming to “see the forest for the trees”—focusing on overall changes that will improve the quality of care. Implementing a global waiver will also give Wyoming the flexibility to accelerate reforms regarding delivery of long-term supports and services to the aged and disabled population, while introducing new consumer-oriented options for non-disabled beneficiaries.

 

Specific Solutions

A block grant, per capita allotment, or waiver along the lines of Rhode Island’s Global Compact provides the vision that will give states the tools needed to reform Medicaid for the 21st century. Fortunately, states have experimented with several specific reforms that can provide more granular details regarding how a reformed Medicaid program might look. Proposals in documents such as House Republicans’ “Better Way” plan, released last year, and a report issued by Republican governors in 2011, provide good sources of ideas.[31] Both individually and collectively, these solutions can 1) improve the quality of care beneficiaries receive; 2) better engage beneficiaries with the health care system, and where appropriate, provide a transition to employment and employer-sponsored coverage; 3) reduce health costs overall; and 4) provide sound stewardship of the taxpayer dollars funding the Medicaid program.

 

Delivery System Reform

With a Medicaid program based around fee-for-service medicine—which pays doctors and hospitals for every service they perform—Wyoming in particular would benefit from reforms that encourage greater value and coordination in health care delivery. As explained above, the state’s above-average spending on aged and disabled beneficiaries speaks to the way in which uncoordinated care can result in health problems for patients—and ultimately, greater expenses for taxpayers.

Promote Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS):         The Lewin Group’s analysis of Rhode Island’s Global Compact Waiver delineated many of the ways in which that state reformed its Medicaid program to de-institutionalize aged and disabled beneficiaries. Between the January 2009 approval of the waiver and the December 2011 report, Rhode Island achieved impressive savings from providing more coordinated, and “right-sized,” care to patients:

  • Shifting nursing home services into the community saved $35.7 million during the period examined by the study;
  • More accurate rate setting in nursing homes saved an additional $15 million in 2010 alone;
  • Better care management for adults with disabilities and special needs children saved between $4.5 and $11.9 million; and
  • Enrollment in managed care significantly increased the access of adults with disabilities to physician services.[32]

The results from the Rhode Island waiver demonstrate the possible savings to Wyoming associated with reform of long-term services and supports (LTSS)—savings that the Lewin report confirms came not from denying care to beneficiaries, but by improving it.

Other states have also taken actions to promote HCBS. Testifying before the Congressionally-chartered Commission on Long-Term Care in 2013, Tennessee’s head of Long-Term Supports and Services proposed several solutions, focused largely on turning the bias in favor of nursing home care toward a bias in favor of HCBS—to use nursing homes as a last resort, rather than a first resort.[33] Her proposals included a possible limit on nursing home capacity; converting nursing home “slots” into HCBS care “slots;” and requiring patients to try HCBS as the default option before moving to a more intense (i.e., institutional) setting.[34] Integrating these proposals into a comprehensive waiver would not only provide Wyoming residents with more appropriate care, it could also save taxpayers money.

Managed Care:            Wyoming could benefit by exploring the use of managed care plans to deliver Medicaid services to beneficiaries. Providing plans with a capitated payment—that is, a flat payment per beneficiary per month—would give them an incentive to streamline care. Moreover, a transition to managed care would provide more fiscal certainty to the state, as payment levels would not change during a fiscal or contract year.

In June 2014, a report commissioned by the Wyoming Legislature and prepared for the Wyoming Department of Health recommended against pursuing full-risk managed care, despite an admitted high level of vendor interest in doing so.[35] Three years later, Wyoming should explore the issue again, as both the Department of Health and medical providers in Wyoming have additional experience implementing other forms of coordinated care. The 2014 report notes that managed care plans have numerous tools available that could help reduce costs, particularly for high-cost patients, including data analytics, case managers, and quality metric incentives. Given the unique capacities that managed care plans bring to the table, it is worth exploring again the issue of whether full-risk plans could improve care to Wyoming beneficiaries while providing fiscal stability to the state.

While managed care could provide significant benefits to Wyoming, the state may be hamstrung by Medicaid’s current requirement that beneficiaries have the choice of at least two managed care plans. Given that Wyoming has only one insurer participating on its insurance Exchange this year, and a heavily rural population, this requirement may not be realistic or feasible. If approved by CMS, a waiver application could enable only one managed care plan to deliver care to rural Wyomingites.

Provider-Led Groups:              In addition to managed care products organized and sold by insurance companies, Wyoming could also explore the possibility of creating groups led by teams of providers to manage care delivery. Similar to the accountable care organization (ACO) model promoted through the Medicare program, these provider-led groups could provide coordinated care to patients, either on a fully- or partially-capitated payment model.

In recent years, at least 18 state Medicaid programs have either adopted or studied the creation of various provider-led organizations.[36] Adopters include neighboring states like Utah and Colorado, as well as southern states like Louisiana and Alabama. Whether a hospital-led ACO, or a group of doctors providing direct primary care to patients, these provider-led organizations would have greater incentives to coordinate care for patients, hopefully resulting in better health outcomes, and reduced spending for the Medicaid program.

Payment Bundling:     One other option for reforming delivery systems lies in bundled payments, which would see Medicaid providing a lump-sum payment for all the costs of a procedure (e.g., a hip replacement and associated post-operative therapy). Such concepts date back more than a quarter-century; a Medicare demonstration that began in the summer of 1991 reduced spending on heart bypass patients by $42.3 million—a savings of nearly 10 percent.[37] More recently, Pennsylvania’s Geisinger Health System helped bring the payment bundle model into the national lexicon, implementing a 90-day “warranty” on heart bypass patients beginning in February 2006.[38]

In recent years, government payers have increasingly adopted the payment bundle as a means to improve care quality and limit spending increases. Beginning in 2011, Arkansas’ Medicaid program worked with its local Blue Cross affiliate to improve health care delivery through payment improvement, and has implemented an episode-of-care payment model (i.e., a payment bundle) as one of its efforts.[39] Likewise, Medicare has moved ahead with efforts to embrace bundled payments—offering providers the option of a retrospective or prospective lump-sum payment for an inpatient stay, post-acute care provided after the stay, or both.[40]

A reformed Medicaid program in Wyoming could offer providers the opportunity to utilize bundled payment models as one vehicle to deliver better care. Ideally, Medicaid need not mandate participation from providers, as Medicare has done for some payment bundles, but instead help to encourage broader trends in the industry.[41] While not as dramatic a change as a move toward managed care, the bundled payment option may appeal to some providers as a “middle ground” for those not yet ready to embrace a fully capitated payment model.

De-Identified Patient Data:   In a bid to harness the power of “big data,” the federal government has made de-identified Medicare patient claims information available to companies that can analyze the information for patterns of care usage. Those initiatives have recently expanded to Medicaid, with one start-up compiling a database of 74 million Medicaid patients.[42] Wyoming could ask outside vendors or consultants to analyze its claims data for relevant patterns and trends—yielding valuable insights into the delivery of care, and potentially improving outcomes for beneficiaries. By releasing its own Medicaid data and encouraging companies to analyze it, Wyoming will encourage the development of Wyoming-specific solutions to the state’s unique health care needs.

 

Consumer-Directed Options

As part of a move towards modernizing Medicaid, Wyoming should adopt several different consumer-directed elements for its health coverage. These provisions would give beneficiaries incentives to act as smart shoppers, using ideas proven to lower the growth of health care costs. Providing appropriate incentives to beneficiaries will also make Medicaid coverage more closely resemble private health insurance plans—providing an easy transition for beneficiaries who move into employer-based coverage as their income rises.

Health Opportunity Accounts:            In 2005, provisions in the Deficit Reduction Act created Health Opportunity Accounts.[43] The language in the statute called for several demonstration projects by states, who could offer non-elderly and non-disabled beneficiaries the choice to enroll in Health Opportunity Accounts on a voluntary basis. The Opportunity Accounts would be used to pay for medical expenses up to a deductible, at which point traditional insurance coverage would take over. While the Opportunity Accounts under the demonstration would function in many respects like a Health Savings Account (HSA)—the state and/or charities would fund the accounts, and beneficiaries could build up savings within them—they included a twist. Upon becoming ineligible for Medicaid, beneficiaries could access most of their remaining Opportunity Account balance for a period of up to three years, to purchase either health insurance coverage or “job training and tuition expenses.”[44]

By creating an HSA-like account mechanism, and giving beneficiaries the flexibility to use their Opportunity Account funds on job training or health insurance expenses upon becoming ineligible for Medicaid, the Opportunity Account demonstration promoted both smart health care shopping and employment opportunities for Medicaid beneficiaries. Unfortunately, in 2009 a Democratic Congress and President Obama passed legislation prohibiting the approval of any new Health Opportunity Account demonstrations— effectively killing this innovative program before it had a chance to take root.[45]

Thankfully, some states have continued to incorporate HSA-like incentives into their Medicaid programs. In the non-Medicaid space, HSAs and consumer-directed options have demonstrated their ability to reduce health care costs. A 2012 study in the prestigious journal Health Affairs found that broader adoption of the HSA model could reduce health care costs by more than $57 billion annually.[46] If extended into the Medicaid realm, slower growth of health costs would save taxpayers—in Wyoming and elsewhere.

The upcoming reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)—currently due to expire on September 30, 2017—gives Congress an opportunity to re-examine Health Opportunity Accounts. Regardless of whether lawmakers in Washington reinstate this particular model, however, account-based health coverage in Medicaid deserves a close look in Wyoming as part of a comprehensive reform waiver. Although the Opportunity Account mechanism was somewhat prescriptive in its approach, allowing beneficiaries to keep some portion of remaining account balances upon becoming ineligible for Medicaid represents an innovative and sound concept. Such a program could represent a true win-win: Both the state and beneficiaries receive a portion of the benefits from lower health spending—cash which the beneficiary can use to help adjust to life after Medicaid.

Right to Shop:              Thanks to several states’ reform of transparency laws, patients can now engage in a “right to shop” in many locations across the country.[47] The movement centers around the basic principle that consumers should share in the benefits of savings from choosing less expensive locations for medical and health procedures. Particularly for non-urgent care—for instance, medical tests or radiological procedures—variations among medical facilities provide patients with the opportunity to achieve significant savings by choosing a less costly provider.

Results from large employers illustrate how price transparency and competition have yielded savings for payers and consumers alike. A California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) program of reference pricing—in which CalPERS set a maximum price of $30,000 for hip and knee replacements—led to savings of $2.8 million ($7,000 per patient) to CalPERS, and $300,000 (nearly $700 per patient) in lower cost-sharing, in its first year alone. The program led hospitals to renegotiate their rates with CalPERS, which expanded its reference pricing program to other procedures the very next year.[48]

Other estimates suggest that the potential savings from transparency and competition could range into the tens of billions of dollars. One study concluded that reference pricing for a handful of specific procedures could reduce health spending by 1.6 percent—or nearly $10 billion, if applied to all individuals with employer-sponsored health coverage.[49] A separate estimate found that eliminating variation in “shoppable” (i.e., high-cost and known in advance) health services could reduce spending on individuals with employer health coverage by $36 billion.[50]

A reformed Medicaid program should look to bring these positive effects of “patient power” to Medicaid—by allowing consumers to share in the savings from choosing wisely among providers. The right to shop could work particularly well in conjunction with an account-based model for Medicaid reform, which provides a ready vehicle for the state to deposit a portion of savings to beneficiaries. Citizens have literally saved millions of dollars using the right to shop; tapping into those savings for the Medicaid program would benefit taxpayers significantly.[51] Moreover, by incentivizing all providers to price their services more competitively, right to shop will exert downward pressure on health costs—an important goal for our nation’s health care system.

Wellness Incentives:   Over the past several years, successful employers have used incentives for healthy behaviors to help control the skyrocketing growth in health care costs. For instance, Safeway used such incentives to keep overall health costs flat over four years—at a time when costs for the average employer plan grew by 38 percent.[52]

Many large employers have increasingly embraced the results of the “Safeway model,” offering employees incentives for participating in healthy behaviors. According to the most recent annual survey of employer-provided health plans, approximately one-third of large employers (those with over 200 workers) offer employees incentives to complete a health risk assessment (32%), undergo biometric screening (31%), or participate or complete a wellness program (35%).[53] Among the largest employers—those with over 5,000 workers—nearly half offer incentives for risk assessments (50%), biometric screening (44%), and wellness programs (48%).[54] The trend of employer wellness incentives suggests Wyoming should bring this innovation to its Medicaid program.

Even though Obamacare passed on a straight party-line vote, expanding employer wellness incentives represented one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement. Language in the law permitted employers to increase the permitted variation for participation in wellness programs from 20 percent of premiums to 30 percent.[55] Medicaid programs should have the flexibility to implement such changes to their programs without requesting permission from Washington—and Wyoming should incorporate incentives for healthy behaviors into its revised Medicaid program as part of a comprehensive waiver.

Premiums and Co-Payments:              In addition to more innovative models discussed above, a revised Medicaid program in Wyoming could look to impose modest cost-sharing on beneficiaries through a combination of premiums and co-payments. Applying cost-sharing to specific services—for instance, unnecessary use of the emergency room for non-urgent care—should encourage beneficiaries to find the most appropriate source of care. Reasonable, enforceable cost-sharing would encourage beneficiaries to take responsibility for their care, making them partners in the road to better health.

 

Transition to Employment and Employer-Based Health Insurance

In many cases, individuals on Medicaid can, and ultimately should, make the transition to employment, and to the employer-based health insurance that comes with many quality jobs. However, the benefits currently provided by Medicaid bear little resemblance to most forms of employer-based coverage. In conjunction with the consumer-directed options discussed above, Wyoming should implement other steps to encourage beneficiaries to make the transition into work, and encourage the adoption of employer-based health insurance.

Work Requirements:               Fortunately, the Trump Administration has indicated a willingness to embrace state flexibility in Medicaid—which with respect to work requirements in particular would represent a welcome change from the Obama Administration.[56] A requirement that able-bodied Medicaid beneficiaries either work, look for work, or prepare for work through enrollment in job-training programs would help transform state economies, as even voluntary job-referral programs have led to some impressive success stories. In the neighboring state of Montana, one participant obtained skills that helped her find not just a job, but a new career:

“I think it’s a success story,” [Ruth] McCafferty says about the [Medicaid] jobs program. “I love this. I’m the poster child!”

McCafferty is a 53-year-old single mom with three kids living at home. Seven months ago, she lost her job in banking, and interviews for new jobs weren’t panning out.…

The jobs component of [her Medicaid coverage] means she also got a phone call from her local Job Service office, saying they might be able to hook her up with a grant to pay for training to help her get a better job than the one she lost. She was pretty skeptical, but came in anyway…

Job Service ended up paying not just for online training, but a trip to Helena to take a certification exam. Now, they’re funding an apprenticeship at a local business until she can start bringing in her own clients and get paid on commission.

“I’m able to support my family,” [McCafferty] says. “I’ve got a career opportunity that’s more than just a job.”[57]

Ruth McCafferty is not the only success story associated with Montana’s Medicaid Job Service program. Five in six individuals who participated in the program are now employed, and with an average 50 percent increase in pay, to about $40,000 per year—enough in some cases to transition off of Medicaid.[58] Unfortunately, however, because the program is not mandatory for beneficiaries, only a few thousand out of 53,000 Medicaid enrollees have embraced this life-changing opportunity.[59]

In December 2015, the Congressional Budget Office noted that Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion will reduce beneficiaries’ labor force participation by about 4 percent, “creat[ing] a tax on additional earnings for those considering job changes” that would raise their income above the threshold for eligibility.[60] Rather than discouraging work, as under Obamacare, Medicaid should encourage work, and a transition into working life. Imposing a work requirement for Medicaid recipients, coupled with appropriate resources for job training and education, would help beneficiaries, taxpayers—and ultimately, Wyoming’s economy.

Flexible Benefits:         Particularly for non-disabled adults and optional coverage populations, Wyoming should consider offering a more flexible and limited set of insurance benefits than the standard Medicaid package. Congress moved down this route in 2005, using a section of the Deficit Reduction Act to create a set of “benchmark” benefits that certain populations could receive.[61] However, the “benchmark” plan section limits eligibility to certain populations, and excludes provisions permitting states to impose modest cost-sharing for beneficiaries.

As part of a comprehensive waiver, Wyoming should request the ability to shift non-disabled beneficiaries into “benchmark” plans. Moreover, the waiver application should include provisions for modest cost-sharing for beneficiaries, and make those cost-sharing payments enforceable. Receiving authority from Washington to customize health coverage options for non-traditional beneficiaries would give the state the ability to innovate, and tailor benefit packages to beneficiary needs and fiscal realities.

Premium Assistance:               Premium assistance—in which Medicaid helps subsidize premiums for employer-sponsored health coverage—could play an important role in encouraging the use of private insurance where available, while also keeping all members of a family on the same health insurance policy. Unfortunately, however, current regulatory requirements for premium assistance have proven ineffective and unduly burdensome. All current premium assistance programs require Medicaid programs to provide wrap-around benefits to beneficiaries.[62] In addition, two premium assistance options created by Congress in 2009 explicitly prohibit states from using high-deductible health plans—regardless of whether or not the state funds an HSA to subsidize beneficiaries’ medical expenses in conjunction with the high-deductible plan.[63]

As part of its comprehensive waiver application, Wyoming should ask for more flexibility to use Medicaid dollars to subsidize employer coverage, without providing additional wrap-around benefits. In addition, the state’s application should require non-disabled adults to utilize premium assistance where available—another policy consistent with maximizing the use of private health coverage.

Preventing “Crowd-Out”:        Many government-run health programs face the problem of “crowd-out”—individuals purposefully dropping their private health coverage to enroll in taxpayer-funded insurance. Prior studies have estimated the “crowd-out” rate for certain coverage expansions at around 60 percent.[64] In these cases, coverage expansions enrolled more people who dropped their private coverage than previously uninsured individuals—a poor use of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.

States like Wyoming should have the ability to impose reasonable restrictions on enrollment as one way to prevent “crowd-out.” For instance, ensuring enrollees do not have an available offer of employer coverage, or only enrolling persistently uninsured individuals (e.g., those uninsured for at least 90-180 days prior to enrollment), would prevent individuals from attempting to “game the system” and ensure efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

 

Program Integrity

Estimates suggest that health care fraud represents an industry of massive proportions, with tens of billions in taxpayer dollars lost every year to fraudulent activities.[65] Medicaid has remained on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) list of “high-risk” programs since 2003 “due to its size, growth, diversity of programs, and concerns about the adequacy of fiscal oversight.”[66] In its most recent update, GAO noted that improper payments—whether erroneous or fraudulent in nature—increased from a total of $29.1 billion in fiscal year 2015 to $36.3 billion in fiscal 2016—an increase of nearly 25 percent.[67]

A reformed Medicaid program in Wyoming would use flexibility provided by the federal government to strengthen programs and methods ensuring proper use of taxpayer dollars. Because any dollar stolen by a fraudster represents one dollar not used to help the patients—many of them aged and vulnerable—that Medicaid treats, policy-makers should work diligently to ensure that scarce taxpayer funds are used solely by the populations for whom Medicaid was designed.

Verify Eligibility and Identity:            A 2015 report by the Foundation for Government Accountability provides numerous cases of ineligible—or in some cases deceased—beneficiaries remaining on state Medicaid rolls:

  • Arkansas identified thousands of individuals not qualified for Medicaid benefits in 2014, including 495 deceased beneficiaries;
  • Pennsylvania removed over 160,000 individuals from benefit rolls in 2011, including individuals in prison and million-dollar lottery winners; and
  • In Illinois, state officials removed over 400,000 ineligible beneficiaries in one year alone, saving taxpayers approximately $400 million annually.[68]

In the past two years, Wyoming has taken decisive action to crack down on fraud. The eligibility checks begun in mid-2015 removed several thousand ineligible individuals from the Medicaid rolls.[69] Moreover, Act 57, passed by the state legislature last year, introduced a new comprehensive program to stop fraud.[70] By verifying eligibility and identity upon enrollment, monitoring eligibility through quarterly database checks, and prosecuting offenders where found, Act 57 should save Wyoming taxpayers, while ensuring that eligible beneficiaries can continue to receive the health services they need.[71]

Asset Recovery:            A 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report raised concerns about whether Wyoming’s Medicaid program is appropriately protecting taxpayer dollars. GAO concluded that Wyoming ranks second in the percentage of Medicaid beneficiaries (20.6%) with additional private health insurance coverage, and third in the percentage of Medicaid beneficiaries (26.02%) with additional public health insurance coverage.[72] By comparison, GAO concluded that only 13.4% of Medicaid beneficiaries nationwide had an additional source of private insurance coverage—meaning Wyoming has a rate of additional private coverage among Medicaid beneficiaries roughly 50 percent higher than the national average.[73]

As with the concept of crowd-out—individuals dropping private coverage entirely to enroll in Medicaid—discussed above, Medicaid should serve as the payer of last resort, not of first instance. If another payer has liability with respect to a Medicaid beneficiary’s claims, the state has the duty—both a statutory obligation under the federal Medicaid law, and a moral obligation to its taxpayers—to avoid incurring those claims, and seek to recover payments already made when it is cost-effective to do so.

Asset recovery can take several forms. Improving recovery for third-party liability claims could involve participation in electronic data matching between Medicaid enrollment files and private insurer files; empowering any managed care organizations contracted to the Medicaid program to adjudicate third-party liability claims; and prohibiting insurers from denying third-party liability claims for purely procedural reasons, such as failure to obtain prior authorization.[74] As part of these efforts, Wyoming should have the freedom to hire contingency fee-based contractors as one means to stem the flow of improper payments to health care providers.

Long-term services and supports represent another area where Wyoming can take steps to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent on the vulnerable populations for whom Medicaid was designed. The state can and should utilize existing authority to recover funds from estates, or impose sanctions on individuals who transferred assets at below-market rates in their efforts to qualify for Medicaid.[75]

 

Conclusion

In the past decade, Wyoming has made numerous reforms to its Medicaid program. The state has begun to re-balance care away from institutional settings where possible, and has implemented several programs to improve care coordination. These changes have helped stabilize Medicaid spending as a share of the budget, and reduce spending on a per-beneficiary basis.

However, given freedom and flexibility from Washington—flexibility which should be forthcoming under the new Administration—Wyoming can go further. This vision would see additional reforms designed to keep patients out of intensive and costly settings—whether the hospital or a nursing home—and an exploration of managed care options. Beyond the aged population, Wyoming would implement consumer-driven principles into Medicaid, giving beneficiaries greater incentives to take responsibility for their own care, and the tools to do so. And many recipients would ultimately transition out of Medicaid entirely, using skills they learned through Medicaid-sponsored job training programs to build a better life.

This vision stands within Wyoming’s reach—indeed, it stands within every state’s reach. All it takes is flexibility from Washington, and the desire on the part of policy-makers to embrace the vision for a modern Medicaid system. With a comprehensive waiver, Wyoming can transform and revitalize Medicaid. It’s time to embrace the opportunity and do just that.

 

[1] Letter by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma to state governors regarding Medicaid reform, March 14, 2017, https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/sec-price-admin-verma-ltr.pdf.

[2] Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “2016 Actuarial Report on the Financial Outlook for Medicaid,” https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/financing-and-reimbursement/downloads/medicaid-actuarial-report-2016.pdf, Table 3, p. 15.

[3] Congressional Budget Office, January 2017 Medicare baseline, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51302-2017-01-medicare.pdf.

[4] 2016 Actuarial Report, Table 3, p. 15; CBO January 2017 Medicare baseline.

[5] National Association of State Budget Officers, Fiscal Survey of States: Spring 2016, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Reports/Spring%202016%20Fiscal%20Survey%20of%20States-S.pdf, Table 11: Fiscal Year 2017 Recommended Program Area Adjustments by Value, p. 16.

[6] National Association of State Budget Officers, Fiscal Survey of States: Spring 2011, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Fiscal%20Survey/Spring%202011%20Fiscal%20Survey.pdf, Table 11: Fiscal Year 2012 Recommended Program Area Adjustments by Value, p. 13.

[7] National Association of State Budget Officers, Fall 2016 Fiscal Survey of States, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Fiscal%20Survey/Fall%202016%20Fiscal%20Survey%20of%20States%20-%20S.pdf, p. 1.

[8] National Association of State Budget Officers, 1996 State Expenditure Report, April 1997, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/SER%20Archive/ER_1996.PDF, Table 3, p. 11.

[9] Joanna Bisgaier and Karin Rhodes, “Auditing Access to Specialty Care for Children with Public Insurance,” New England Journal of Medicine June 16, 2011, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1013285.

[10] Vanessa Fuhrmans, “Note to Patients: The Doctor Won’t See You,” Wall Street Journal July 19, 2007, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB118480165648770935.

[11] Statement by DeAnn Friedholm, Consumers Union, at Alliance for Health Reform Briefing on “Affordability and Health Reform: If We Mandate, Will They (and Can They) Pay?” November 20, 2009, http://www.allhealth.org/briefingmaterials/TranscriptFINAL-1685.pdf, p. 40.

[12] Katherine Baicker, et al., “The Oregon Experiment—Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes,” New England Journal of Medicine May 2, 2013, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1212321.

[13] Amy Finklestein et al., “Effect of Medicaid Coverage on ED Use—Further Evidence from Oregon’s Experiment,” New England Journal of Medicine October 20, 2016, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1609533.

[14] Scott Gottlieb, “Medicaid Is Worse than No Coverage at All,” Wall Street Journal March 10, 2011, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704758904576188280858303612.

[15] Katherine Young et al., “Medicaid Per Enrollee Spending: Variation Across States,” http://files.kff.org/attachment/issue-brief-medicaid-per-enrollee-spending-variation-across-states-2, Appendix Table 1, p. 9.

[16] Ibid., Appendix Table 2, p. 11.

[17] Government Accountability Office, “Medicaid: Assessment of Variation among States in Per-Enrollee Spending,” Report GAO-14-456, June 16, 2014, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/664115.pdf.

[18] Ibid., Appendix II, pp. 40-41.

[19] Ibid., Appendix VII, pp. 53-54.

[20] Wyoming Department of Health, “Introduction to Wyoming Medicaid,” p. 31.

[21] Ibid., pp. 11, 14.

[22] Section 121 of H.R. 1628, the American Health Care Act, as passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on May 4, 2017.

[23] Section 1115 of the Social Security Act, codified at 42 U.S.C. 1315.

[24] Mattie Quinn, “On Medicaid, States Won’t Take Feds’ No for an Answer,” Governing October 11, 2016, http://www.governing.com/topics/health-human-services/gov-medicaid-waivers-arizona-ohio-cms.html.

[25] Section 10201 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148, created a new Section 1115(d) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1315(d)) imposing such requirements.

[26] Section 1115 (e) and (f) of the Social Security Act, codified at 42 U.S.C. 1315(e) and (f).

[27] Testimony of Gary Alexander, former Rhode Island Secretary of Health and Human Services, on “Strengthening Medicaid Long-Term Supports and Services” before the Commission on Long Term Care, August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.org/ltccommission/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Garo-Alexander.pdf.

[28] Ibid., p. 4.

[29] Ibid., p. 4.

[30] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation of Rhode Island’s Global Waiver,” December 6, 2011, http://www.ohhs.ri.gov/documents/documents11/Lewin_report_12_6_11.pdf, p. 3.

[31] House of Representatives Republican Task Force, “A Better Way—Our Vision for a Confident America: Health Care,” June 22, 2016, http://abetterway.speaker.gov/_assets/pdf/ABetterWay-HealthCare-PolicyPaper.pdf, pp. 23-28; Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, “A New Medicaid: A Flexible, Innovative, and Accountable Future,” August 30, 2011, https://www.scribd.com/document/63596104/RGPPC-Medicaid-Report.

[32] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation.”

[33] The author served as a member of the commission, whose work can be found at www.ltccommission.org.

[34] Testimony of Patti Killingsworth, TennCare Chief of Long-Term Supports and Services, before the Commission on Long-Term Care on “What Would Strengthen Medicaid LTSS?” August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.org/ltccommission/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Patti-Killingsworth-Testimony.pdf.

[35] Health Management Associates, “Wyoming Coordinated Care Study,” June 27, 2014, http://legisweb.state.wy.us/InterimCommittee/2014/WyoCoordinatedCareReportAppendices.pdf.

[36] National Academy for State Health Policy, “State ‘Accountable Care’ Activity Map,” http://nashp.org/state-accountable-care-activity-map/.

[37] Health Care Financing Administration, “Medicare Participating Heart Bypass Demonstration,” Extramural Research Report, September 1998, https://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/Reports/downloads/oregon2_1998_3.pdf.

[38] Reed Abelson, “In Bid for Better Care, Surgery with a Warranty,” New York Times May 17, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/17/business/17quality.html?pagewanted=all.

[39] State of Arkansas, “Health Care Payment Improvement Initiative—Episodes of Care,” http://www.paymentinitiative.org/episodesOfCare/Pages/default.aspx.

[40] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Bundled Payments for Care Improvement Initiative: General Information,” https://innovation.cms.gov/initiatives/Bundled-Payments/.

[41] On December 20, 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that participation in new cardiac and orthopedic bundles would be mandatory for all hospitals in selected metropolitan statistical areas beginning July 1, 2017; see https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-12-20.html. Both lawmakers and provider groups have suggested that CMS is imposing too many mandates on providers and exceeding its statutory and constitutional authority; see http://tomprice.house.gov/sites/tomprice.house.gov/files/assets/September%2029%2C%202016%20CMMI%20Letter.pdf.

[42] Steve Lohr, “Medicaid’s Data Gets an Internet-Era Makeover,” New York Times January 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/09/technology/medicaids-data-gets-an-internet-era-makeover.html.

[43] Section 6082 of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, P.L. 109-171, which created a new Section 1938 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1396u-8).

[44] The statute provided that, upon a beneficiary becoming ineligible for Medicaid, 25 percent of state contributions to the Opportunity Account would be returned to the state, but the beneficiary would retain 100 percent of any other contributions to the account, along with 75 percent of state contributions.

[45] Section 613 of the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009, P.L. 111-3.

[46] Amelia Haviland et al., “Growth of Consumer-Directed Health Plans to One-Half of All Employer-Sponsored Insurance Could Save $57 Billion Annually,” Health Affairs May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/31/5/1009.full.

[47] Josh Archambault and Nic Horton, “Right to Shop: The Next Big Thing in Health Care,” Forbes August 5, 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2016/08/05/right-to-shop-the-next-big-thing-in-health-care/#6f0ebcd91f75.

[48] Amanda Lechner et al., “The Potential of Reference Pricing to Generate Savings: Lessons from a California Pioneer,” Center for Studying Health System Change Issue Brief No. 30, December 2013, http://hschange.org/CONTENT/1397/1397.pdf.

[49] Paul Fronstin and Christopher Roebuck, “Reference Pricing for Health Care Services: A New Twist on the Defined Contribution Concept in Employment-Based Health Benefits,” Employee Benefit Research Institute Issue Brief No. 398, April 2014, https://www.ebri.org/pdf/briefspdf/EBRI_IB_398_Apr14.RefPrcng.pdf.

[50] Bobbi Coluni, “Save $36 Billion in U.S. Health Care Spending through Price Transparency,” Thomson Reuters, February 2012, https://www.scribd.com/document/83286153/Health-Plan-Price-Transparency.

[51] Archambault and Horton, “Right to Shop.”

[52] Steven Burd, “How Safeway is Cutting Health Care Costs,” Wall Street Journal June 12, 2009, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB124476804026308603.

[53] Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust, “Employer Health Benefits: 2016 Annual Survey,” September 14, 2016, http://files.kff.org/attachment/Report-Employer-Health-Benefits-2016-Annual-Survey, Exhibit 12.20, p. 227.

[54] Ibid.

[55] PPACA Section 1201, which re-wrote Section 2705 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 300gg-4).

[56] Quinn, “States Won’t Take Feds’ No.”

[57] Eric Whitney, “Montana’s Medicaid Expansion Jobs Program Facing Scrutiny,” Montana Public Radio November 21, 2016, http://mtpr.org/post/montanas-medicaid-expansion-jobs-program-facing-scrutiny.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Edward Harris and Shannon Mok, “How CBO Estimates Effects of the Affordable Care Act on the Labor Market,” Congressional Budget Office Working Paper 2015-09, December 2015, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/workingpaper/51065-ACA_Labor_Market_Effects_WP.pdf, p. 12.

[61] Section 6044 of the Deficit Reduction Act, P.L. 109-171, codified at Section 1937 of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1396u-7.

[62] Joan Aiker et al., “Medicaid Premium Assistance Programs: What Information Is Available about Benefit and Cost-Sharing Wrap-Around Coverage?” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured Issue Brief, December 2015, http://files.kff.org/attachment/issue-brief-medicaid-premium-assistance-programs-what-information-is-available-about-benefit-and-cost-sharing-wrap-around-coverage; Joan Aiker, “Premium Assistance in Medicaid and CHIP: An Overview of Current Options and Implications of the Affordable Care Act,” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured Issue Brief, March 2013, https://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/8422.pdf.

[63] Section 301 of the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009, P.L. 111-3, codified at 42 U.S.C. 1397ee(c)(10)(B)(ii)(II) and 42 U.S.C. 1396e-1(b)(2)(B).

[64] Jonathan Gruber and Kosali Simon, “Crowd-Out 10 Years Later: Have Recent Public Insurance Expansions Crowded Out Private Health Insurance?” Journal of Health Economics February 21, 2008, http://economics.mit.edu/files/6422.

[65] “Medicare Fraud: A $60 Billion Crime,” 60 Minutes October 23, 2009, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/medicare-fraud-a-60-billion-crime-23-10-2009/.

[66] Government Accountability Office, “High-Risk Series: An Update,” Report GAO-15-290, February 2015, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/668415.pdf, p. 366.

[67] Government Accountability Office, “High-Risk Series: Progress on Many High-Risk Areas, While Substantial Efforts Needed on Others,” Report GAO-17-317, February 2017,  http://www.gao.gov/assets/690/682765.pdf, p. 579.

[68] Jonathan Ingram, “Stop the Scam: How to Prevent Welfare Fraud in Your State,” Foundation for Government Accountability, April 2, 2015.

[69] Wyoming Department of Health, “Introduction to Wyoming Medicaid,” p. 13.

[70] Enrolled Act 57, Wyoming Legislature, 63rd Session.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Government Accountability Office, “Medicaid: Additional Federal Action Needed to Further Improve Third Party Liability Efforts,” GAO Report GAO-15-208, January 2015, http://gao.gov/assets/670/668134.pdf, Appendix II, Table 3, pp. 27-28.

[73] Ibid., Figure 1, p. 10.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Kirsten Colello, “Medicaid Financial Eligibility for Long-Term Services and Supports,” Congressional Research Service Report R43506, April 24, 2014, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43506.pdf.

Another Insurer Bites the Obamacare Dust

Late Monday evening, health insurer Aetna confirmed a major pullback from Obamacare’s exchanges for 2017. The carrier, which this spring said it was looking to increase its Obamacare involvement, instead decided to participate in only four state marketplaces next year, down from 15 in 2016. Aetna will offer plans in a total of 242 counties next year — less than one-third its current 778.

Coupled with earlier decisions by major insurers Humana and UnitedHealthGroup to reduce their exchange involvement, Aetna’s move has major political and policy implications:

Exchanges are in intensive care
Insurers have lost literally billions selling Obamacare policies since 2014. One estimate found that insurers suffered $4 billion in losses in 2014; other studies that suggest carriers lost the same amount last year as well. And these multi-billion-dollar losses come after taking into account two transitional programs that have used federal dollars to protect insurers — programs that will end this December 31.

Over the weekend, in a report on premium increases for 2017, the New York Times noted that for one Pennsylvania health plan, nearly 250 individuals incurred health-care costs of over $100,000 each — “and then cancelled coverage before the end of the year.” While the administration has proposed some minor tweaks to minimize gaming the system, they will not solve the underlying problem: It takes tens of thousands of healthy enrollees to even out the health costs of 250 individuals with six-figure medical expenses, and Obamacare plans have failed to attract enough healthy individuals.

An opening for Trump?
The Wall Street Journal noted that the Aetna’s pullback means that some areas in Arizona now have no health insurers offering exchange coverage. Individuals there who qualify for insurance subsidies will have nowhere to spend them.

President Obama faced a self-imposed crisis in the fall of 2013 when millions of Americans faced a double whammy: Cancellation of their pre-Obamacare policies was coupled with much higher premiums for exchange coverage to replace it. Hillary Clinton could face an eerily similar dynamic in the weeks just before November 8. It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump’s campaign can capitalize on this potential October surprise hiding in plain sight.

Hillary has a problem
Over and above the obvious political problem that the exchanges present between now and November, their dire situation poses a policy quandary that a potential President Clinton would have to address — and fast — on taking office. Her campaign has proposed increasing federal subsidies for those affected by high out-of-pocket costs. But subsidies to individuals will matter little if insurers will not participate in exchanges to begin with.

So how would Hillary Clinton solve the exchange problem? Would she endorse a bailout of the insurers that liberals love to hate? Conversely, if Republicans retain control of at least one house of Congress, how on earth could she enact a government-run health plan that Barack Obama could not pass with huge, filibuster-proof majorities in both chambers? How would a President Clinton get out of the box that her predecessor has gift-wrapped for her?

Will conservatives stand fast?
As I previously noted, Aetna’s “solution” to the exchange problem is simple: Place taxpayers on the hook for their losses — in short, a permanent taxpayer bailout. But given the billions of dollars that insurers have already lost even after receiving tens of billions in corporate welfare from the federal government, Congress will, we should hope, exercise the good judgement not to throw good money after bad.

No Republican voted for Obamacare in either the House or the Senate — and for good reason. The poor design of its health-insurance offerings has ensured that only very sick individuals, or those qualifying for the richest subsidies, have signed up in any significant numbers. No small legislative changes or regulatory tweaks will change that fundamental dynamic. The question is whether, having seen their predictions proven correct, Republicans will seize defeat from the jaws of victory and view a Hillary Clinton victory as meaning they need to “come to terms” with a law that has destabilized insurance markets across the country. Here’s hoping that sale proves as elusive for Mrs. Clinton as Obamacare itself has been to insurers.

This post was originally published at National Review.

What’s Blocking Consensus on Health Care

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s King v. Burwell ruling, some have argued that a more bipartisan approach to health policy may emerge. But fundamental philosophical disagreements between liberals and conservatives suggest that rapprochement will be difficult.

Philosophical disagreements played into in the debate over pre-Obamacare health coverage. Many conservatives argued that people should be allowed to keep their plans (as the president originally promised). Most also want to liberalize the ACA’s definition of “insurance.” That involves widening the age rating bands—older people will pay a little more, so younger people can buy cheaper policies—and eliminating some benefit requirements so that, to use a frequently cited example, single men don’t have to purchase pregnancy coverage and retired couples don’t have to buy plans that cover well-baby visits.

In a speech in October 2013, just after the failed HealthCare.gov launch, President Barack Obama talked about how some Americans have “cut-rate plans that don’t offer real financial protection in the event of a serious illness or an accident.” The administration had always wanted to eliminate some plans. Political pressure and the technical meltdowns of many exchanges upon their launch that fall forced the administration to extend the period for which some plans were grandfathered. But this was a temporary concession to political reality; its objective has not changed.

Another example of administration flexibility working toward its preferred ends involves the program that allows states to seek years-long waivers from certain provisions of the ACA. By one argument, the “State Innovation Waiver” would allow states to “alter the ACA’s generous ‘minimum essential benefits’ requirements,” which mandate types of coverage. Some of those requirements involve coverage that many people don’t want or need, and that contribute to insurance premium increases. Language in section 1332 of the ACA says that states using a waiver must cover as many individuals, with at least as comprehensive insurance benefits. In other words, states can alter the “minimum essential benefits”—but only in a way that makes them more generous, not less so. If states want to prioritize resources for certain groups—say, individuals with disabilities—over coverage of able-bodied adults, the “flexibility” in Obamacare would prove elusive.

The administration has also been inflexible about some approaches to state Medicaid expansion. Utah proposed adding job search requirements as part of broadening the program, but the administration refused to go along. Last year, Pennsylvania’s then-governor, Tom Corbett (R), proposed a mandatory work/job-search requirement, but administration opposition led to the proposal becoming a voluntary job referral service.

Ideally, states function as laboratories of democracy, and one state’s experiments can spark broader national trends. But when it comes to health care, the administration and Obamacare are offering little flexibility to states whose leaders have differing philosophical objectives. This suggests that, at least in the near term, bipartisan health experiments will remain an elusive goal.

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

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.

Get Ready for the NEXT Obamacare Mandate

Politico Pro reports this afternoon (subscription required) that the Administration and outside groups have begun a series of backroom discussions regarding long-term care and the CLASS Act.  Among the topics being discussed – how to enact something similar to a participation mandate.  One participant said “there have been discussions about incentivizing enrollment in ways that would ‘come close enough to mimicking a mandate.’”  One way could involve taxing all Americans who do not participate in CLASS – a policy the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional not two months ago.

This movement towards a de facto CLASS mandate is entirely predictable – in fact, was predicted – once HHS admitted the program could not be made solvent without a mandate.  After all, Peter Orszag, the former Obama Administration budget director, first referenced the idea of mandatory participation in CLASS last summer; other liberal bloggers have agreed.  The Justice Department likewise conceded in a Pennsylvania courtroom that mandatory long-term care insurance would be constitutional.  And now, mere months after the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare’s individual mandate as a tax – forcing all Americans to purchase a product for the first time ever – the Obama Administration is already wondering how close it can come to enacting yet another purchase mandate on the American people.

It’s also worth noting the “closely guarded” nature of these secret negotiations, and the fact that most participants won’t even say who’s in the (back)room:

Participants wouldn’t discuss which federal officials have attended the meetings.  HHS did not respond to a request for comment by deadline….[One participant] declined to say whether federal officials have joined in the discussions.  Other group members POLITICO spoke with also declined to say who’s participating, citing directions…

Negotiations on C-SPAN, it ain’t, that’s for sure.  But one thing is fairly certain: If HHS is conducting secret backroom discussions, and not telling Republicans, let alone the public, about them, you can practically bet the policy the Administration will try to ram down Congress’ throats – or implement unilaterally – will be government-centered, and far from bipartisan.

Obamacare Skis Down a Slippery Slope

Writing in the New York Times this morning, Richard Thaler attempts to debunk “slippery-slope” arguments claiming Obamacare’s unprecedented individual mandate, if found constitutional, would result in “broccoli mandates” and similar edicts from the federal government.  He concludes:  “We would be better off as a society if we could collectively agree to ignore all slippery-slope arguments that aren’t accompanied by evidence that said slope exists.  If you are opposed to a policy, state your case based on the merits — not on the imagined risk of what else might happen down the road.”

The problem with this attempt to debunk the slippery-slope argument is that Obamacare’s failed CLASS program has already created a slalom-sized example where the federal government could impose more new mandates in order to salvage an otherwise unsustainable program:

  • In October, HHS admitted the CLASS program could not be made solvent without a mandate.  The report specifically concluded that “because the program is voluntary, a disproportionate number of people who are at high risk of needing long-term care services will enroll.”  Mandating participation by all Americans would “fix” this actuarial problem.
  • Former Obama Administration budget chief Peter Orszag, writing in Foreign Affairs last June, called for making participation in the CLASS Act mandatory.  His article argued that the “only solutions” to make the CLASS program solvent may be “to make the purchase of such insurance mandatory or to require employers to provide it by default unless employees opt out.”  Other liberal bloggers have likewise agreed that “if long-term care insurance were subject to an individual mandate, old and sick people would not have been the only people enrolling.”
  • The Justice Department already conceded in a Pennsylvania courtroom last July that mandatory long-term care insurance would be constitutional – meaning that if the Supreme Court upholds a mandate to buy health insurance as constitutional, a mandate to buy long-term care insurance would likewise be permitted by the Constitution.

At a hearing last year, HHS officials avoided repeated questions about whether or not the Administration supports mandatory participation in the CLASS Act.  The fact that HHS will not unequivocally state that it will NOT consider another unprecedented mandate on all Americans to purchase a product speaks volumes about this Administration’s willingness to impose yet more mandates on the American people should the Supreme Court find the individual mandate constitutional.  Or, to put it another way, Richard Thaler should start looking for nearby sporting goods stores, because if the Court upholds Obamacare, the American people will soon be skiing down slippery slopes – with more frightful outcomes ahead.

What You Missed Over the May Recess

Congress is back today after another week-long constituent work period.  However, news on health care continued; if you were out over the break, here’s what you need to know to get caught up to speed:

Why You WILL Lose Your Current Coverage:  The House Ways and Means Committee released a report analyzing how 71 of the nation’s largest companies would save over $422 billion within a decade by dropping health coverage and dumping their workers on to Obamacare’s Exchanges.  Some observers cited examples from Massachusetts to allege that employers will not drop coverage.  But under the Massachusetts law, individuals whose employers drop health coverage remain ineligible for taxpayer subsidized insurance for six full months, thus giving firms a stronger incentive to maintain coverage.  No such provision exists in Obamacare – firms can drop coverage on June 30, and their workers can apply for taxpayer-funded benefits the very same day.  The Ways and Means study once again illustrates how employers will take advantage of these incentives present in Obamacare to drop coverage for their workers.

Dems Fight for Purity on “Mediscare:”  Former Sen. Russ Feingold blasted Nancy Pelosi on entitlements, claiming Pelosi was willing to reduce Medicare benefits for seniors – a charge Pelosi denied.  Obscured amidst the back and forth were two fundamental facts.  First, Medicare’s trust fund could be exhausted as soon as 2017 – five short years from now – meaning seniors are already facing benefit cuts if we adopt the Left’s position and do nothing to change the program.  Second, Pelosi herself admitted last year that Democrats “took a half a trillion dollars out of Medicare in [Obamacare], the health care bill,” thus worsening the program’s already precarious financial position.

Mandating Health Coverage Essential to Liberty…?  Liberals Jonathan Cohn and David Strauss, author of “The Living Constitution,” published a Bloomberg op-ed claiming that Obamacare’s unprecedented individual mandate “is about liberty,” and that a Supreme Court decision upholding the mandate “would be a powerful defense of liberty in the modern age.” (No, I’m not making this up.)  The authors claim that such a ruling “would be consistent with the spirit of the Constitution, whose architects wished to construct an economically viable union of states.”  Many would question how the Framers’ wish for “an economically viable union of states” can be met by having centrally located bureaucrats in Washington dictate to states, and to individuals, what products they must buy, and when and how they must buy them.

Administration Tries to Defend Unpopular Law:  Buzzfeed obtained a Powerpoint document outlining the supposed “benefits” of Obamacare, part of a continuing strategy by the Administration to attempt to defend their unpopular 2700-page health care law.  The presentation repeats many familiar claims, alleging that new Medicare preventive benefits are free – they’re not: taxpayers will pay, even if seniors don’t – and repeating the dubious and debunked notion that 129 million Americans have pre-existing conditions.  The presentation also lists as a “success story” a 2010 incident where a Massachusetts insurer was limited to a rate increase of ONLY about 12% – a far cry from the $2500 premium reduction candidate Obama repeatedly promised.  With failed pledges like these, it’s no wonder the American public still does not like the law.

Voters to Supremes: Strike Down Obamacare:  Despite – or perhaps because of – the Administration’s supposed salesmanship efforts, a Quinnipiac University poll released on Thursday found that a majority of voters in Florida (51-38%) and Ohio (51-37%), along with a plurality of voters in Pennsylvania (46-43%), want the Supreme Court to strike down Obamacare.  Analysts noted that the phrasing of this particular poll question implies that voters in these key states want the Court to strike the entire law, not just its unpopular and unprecedented individual mandate.

Obamacare’s Mandates and Pre-Existing Conditions

Tomorrow is the deadline for the first round of briefs in the Supreme Court arguments over Obamacare; various briefs will continue to be filed between now and oral arguments in March.  But we got a preview of the tortured logic we’re likely to see from Democrats over Obamacare’s individual mandate when the liberal AARP filed an early amicus brief just before Christmas.  AARP claimed that Obamacare’s mandate is justified because for individuals with chronic conditions, “even when they can get a policy, it frequently contains an exclusion for the pre-existing or chronic condition, leaving many without adequate insurance for the very health problems they are most likely to encounter.”

This assertion is particularly ironic, given that 1) AARP itself discriminates against people with pre-existing conditions, slapping waiting periods on sick individuals who apply for its lucrative Medigap policies, and 2) AARP admits in its brief that it did NOT act to end this discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions in Obamacare, as none of the organization’s “six key priorities” for health “reform” involved accepting all Medigap applicants, regardless of health status.  (It’s also noteworthy that AARP’s “Statement of Interest” in the amicus brief didn’t mention that the organization could receive over $1 billion in new profits thanks to Obamacare.)

All this is to point out that Democrats’ hands are FAR from clean when it comes to pre-existing conditions and insurance regulations, for several reasons.  First, Obamacare did NOT extend all these “essential” insurance reforms to the Medigap marketplace, as noted above.  Second, as we pointed out in October, the Administration proposed all types of discriminatory actions against people with pre-existing conditions when it came to the CLASS Act, because they do not have the political wherewithal to advocate mandatory participation in the program.

Former Obama Budget Director Peter Orszag has endorsed a federally-imposed mandate to participate in long-term care insurance, as have other liberal bloggers.  The Justice Department likewise conceded in a Pennsylvania courtroom that mandatory long-term care insurance would be constitutional.  But Democrats in Congress dare not publicly advocate that “solution.”  Even as some Democrat Members argue that the Administration’s failure to find a way forward to make the voluntary program solvent “is proof that individual insurance mandates…all work,” they refuse to endorse the policy themselves.

So as the briefs get filed in coming weeks, be ready for some side-stepping by the Administration on how CLASS discriminated against people with pre-existing conditions, or whether mandatory participation in the program might be a “solution” to its fiscal woes.  Call that a not-so-subtle hint that if the Supreme Court ever rules Obamacare’s health insurance mandate constitutional, more federal mandates – to participate in CLASS, or engage in other activities – will likely follow in short order.

Mandates and Slippery Slopes

You will by now be aware that the Supreme Court today granted cert to hear arguments on Obamacare – two hours of arguments on the individual mandate, 90 minutes on severability, and one hour each on the Medicaid expansion and Anti-Injunction Act issues.  But when it comes to the individual mandate, a New York Times article this morning talked about its wide-ranging implications on the limits (or lack thereof) of federal power: “If the federal government can require people to purchase health insurance, what else can it force them to do?  More to the point, what can’t the government compel citizens to do?  Those questions have been the toughest ones for the Obama administration’s lawyers to answer in court appearances around the country over the past six months.  And they are likely to emerge again” at the Supreme Court.

Recent months have given just some examples of the requirements Congress, if granted the authority to impose mandates on all Americans due to their very existence:

The CLASS Mandate:  The former Obama Administration budget director first referenced the idea of mandatory participation in CLASS over the summer; other liberal bloggers have agreed.  The Justice Department likewise conceded in a Pennsylvania courtroom that mandatory long-term care insurance would be constitutional.  And seeing as how HHS admitted the program could not be made solvent without a mandate, who does not believe an Obama Administration, emboldened by a Supreme Court ruling upholding the health insurance mandate, would not attempt to require all Americans to participate in this program?

The Home Mandate:  During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama derided the idea of an individual mandate to purchase health insurance: “If a mandate was the solution, we could try that to solve homelessness by mandating everyone buy a house.”  Of course, he later changed positions on the health insurance mandate – and if the housing market remains stagnant in the future, he could change positions to endorse home-buying solutions as well.

The Broccoli Mandate:  In an exchange with Sen. Coburn during her confirmation hearings, now-Justice Elena Kagan pointedly – and repeatedly – declined to say that passing a law requiring individuals to eat three fruits and three vegetables a day would be unconstitutional.  Such a mandate could be imposed on the grounds that it would slow the growth of health costs, thereby saving the federal government money.

Given last week’s controversy over the “Christmas tree tax,” some observed that if the government wanted to promote the Christmas tree industry, it need not impose a tax on conifers to fund a Christmas Tree Promotion Board – it could just force everyone to buy Christmas trees instead.

It is these types of questions, integral to the relationship between individuals and the federal government, which surround the Obamacare case the Supreme Court will consider next year.