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.

SCHIP Enrollment

Background:  The State Children’s Health Insurance Program, established under the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 1997, is a state-federal partnership originally designed to provide low-income children with health insurance—specifically, those children under age 19 from families with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or approximately $40,000 for a family of four.  States may implement SCHIP by expanding Medicaid and/or creating a new state SCHIP program.  In addition, states may expand eligibility requirements by submitting state plan amendments and/or Section 1115 waiver requests to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).[1]  SCHIP received nearly $40 billion in funding over ten years as part of BBA, and legislation recently passed by Congress in December (P.L. 110-173) extended the program through March 2009, while providing additional SCHIP funds for states.

One concern of many conservatives regarding the SCHIP program relates to crowd-out—a phenomenon whereby individuals who had previously held private health insurance drop that coverage in order to enroll in a public program.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of H.R. 3963, a five-year SCHIP reauthorization which the President vetoed (and the House failed to override), found that of the 5.8 million children who would obtain Medicaid or SCHIP coverage under the legislation, more than one-third, or 2 million, would do so by dropping private health insurance coverage.

In order to prevent policies that encourage crowd-out, and ensure that SCHIP funds are more effectively allocated to the low-income beneficiaries for whom the program was created, CMS on August 17, 2007 issued guidance to state health officials about the way it would evaluate waiver proposals by states to expand their SCHIP programs.  Among other provisions, the letter stated that CMS would require states seeking to expand coverage to children with family incomes above 250% of FPL must first enroll 95% of eligible children below 200% of FPL, consistent with the original design and intent of the SCHIP program.  Congressional Democrats have introduced both a bill (H.R. 5998) and a joint resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act (S. J. Res. 44) designed to repeal the Administration’s guidance.

Enrollment of Wealthier Children:  An analysis performed by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), using data provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), provides some indication of the extent to which states are focusing their efforts on enrolling poor children first before expanding their SCHIP programs up the income ladder.  Comparison of Fiscal Year 2006 and 2007 data reveal that in FY06, an estimated 586,117 children from families with incomes above 200% of the federal poverty level—approximately $41,000 for a family of four—were covered under SCHIP by a total of 15 states.

By contrast, in FY07, a total of 17 states and the District of Columbia covered an estimated 612,439 children in their SCHIP programs—an increase of nearly 30,000 children from wealthier families.  Much of this increase stems in part from decisions by three states—Maryland, Missouri, and Pennsylvania—along with the District of Columbia to extend SCHIP coverage to children with family incomes up to 300% of FPL during calendar year 2007, just prior to the release of the Administration’s SCHIP guidance.  In short, the data show no discernable trend by states to target their energies on enrolling lower-income children first before expanding SCHIP up the income scale—a key concern of many conservatives during the debate on children’s health legislation last year.

Enrollment of Adults in Children’s Program:  The CRS report also analyzes the coverage of adults—pregnant women, parents, and childless adults—in the SCHIP program.  The CRS data do indicate that the total number of adults decreased from FY06 to FY07, and the number of childless adults on the SCHIP rolls halved.  However, the number of states covering adults increased, and several states saw expansion of the number of adults, and childless adults, covered under the program:

  • Eight states—Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, and Virginia—saw overall adult populations in SCHIP increase;
  • Three states—Idaho, New Mexico, and Oregon—saw increased enrollment in the number of childless adults;
  • Seven states— Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Oregon—saw increased enrollment in the number of parents covered;
  • Three states—Colorado, Nevada, and Rhode Island—increased SCHIP enrollment for pregnant women.

While many conservatives may support the overall reduction in adults enrolled in a children’s health insurance program, some may still be concerned by the persistence of adult coverage—particularly given decisions by both Arkansas and Nevada to expand coverage to adults during FY07.  In addition, the fact that nearly 75% of the reduction in adult SCHIP enrollment from FY06 to FY07 came from one state’s (Arizona) decision to remove childless adults from the program rolls may lead some conservatives to question whether this welcome development was a one-year anomaly or part of a larger trend.

Conclusion:  Most conservatives support enrollment and funding of the SCHIP program for the populations for whom the SCHIP program was created.  That is why in December the House passed, by a 411-3 vote, legislation reauthorizing and extending the SCHIP program through March 2009.  That legislation included an additional $800 million in funding for states to ensure that all currently eligible children will continue to have access to state-based SCHIP coverage.

However, many conservatives retain concerns about actions by states or the federal government that would reduce private health insurance coverage while increasing reliance on a government-funded program.  To that end, data proving that many states have expanded coverage to wealthier populations without first ensuring that low-income children are enrolled in SCHIP, and that states have in recent months expanded coverage under a children’s health insurance program to adult populations, suggest that some states continue to expand government-funded health insurance, at significant cost to state and federal taxpayers, in a manner that may encourage individuals to drop private coverage.

Particularly given these developments, conservatives may believe that the Administration’s guidance to states remains consistent with the goal of ensuring that SCHIP remains targeted toward the low-income populations for which it was designed.  Therefore, many conservatives will support the reasonable attempts by CMS to bolster the integrity of the SCHIP program while retaining state plans’ flexibility, and question efforts by Congressional Democrats to encourage further expansion of government-funded health insurance financed by federal taxpayers.

 

[1] In general, state plan amendments can expand eligibility to higher income brackets, or otherwise modify state plans, while Section 1115 waivers by definition require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to waive statutory requirements under demonstration authority.  For more information, see CRS Report RL 30473, available online at http://www.congress.gov/erp/rl/pdf/RL30473.pdf (accessed September 8, 2008).

Certificate of Need Programs

History and Background:  In the 1960s, some health care policy makers began to believe that an excess supply of providers was having an inflationary impact on the price of health care.  As a result, several states, beginning with New York in 1964, enacted “certificate of need” (CON) laws giving state agencies the power to evaluate whether a new hospital or nursing home facility was needed prior to its construction.  Prompted in part by support from the American Hospital Association, 20 states enacted certificate of need laws by 1975.[1]

In January 1975, President Ford signed into law the National Health Planning and Resources Development Act (P.L. 93-641), originally sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA).  The Act provided incentives for states to enact approval mechanisms prior to the construction of major facilities. As a result, by 1980 all states but Louisiana had established CON programs.[2]  However, Congress enacted legislation (P.L. 99-660) repealing the federal law in November 1986, which in time led 14 states to abolish their certificate of need programs.  Nevertheless, 36 states and the District of Columbia maintain some form of restriction on the construction of new medical facilities absent a determination of necessity.

Changes within the Hospital Industry:  In the more than four decades since the first certificate of need program was established, the hospital industry has undergone numerous changes and consolidations that may be seen as undermining the original rationale for the certificate of need mechanism.  At the time certificate of need laws were enacted, most hospitals received cost-based reimbursement for services from both the federal government and private insurers.  This payment mechanism, when coupled with a perceived lack of incentives for consumers to become cost-conscious about their health care expenditures, led policy-makers to impose external restrictions on providers’ growth (in an attempt to slow the growth of health expenditures) due to a belief that they would fail to compete on price grounds.[3]  However, the intervening decades have seen a move away from cost-based reimbursement and toward prospective payment for procedures, along with greater incentives—higher deductibles, Health Savings Accounts, co-insurance, etc.—for consumers to demonstrate price sensitivity in health care.  Thus the economic conditions which led regulators to impose certificate of need restrictions have changed appreciably for both consumers and providers, which may prompt a re-evaluation of their usefulness and efficacy.

In addition, a wave of consolidation within the hospital sector has attracted the attention of antitrust regulators, who have examined the impact of hospital mergers on health care.  As of 2001, nearly 54% of hospitals nationwide had joined a larger hospital system, with a further 12.7% working in looser affiliations.  Combined, two-thirds of hospitals nationwide (66.7%) participated in some form of network or system affiliation—more than double the 31% two decades previously, in 1979.[4]

In 2004, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) conducted a series of fact-finding hearings that culminated in a joint study analyzing the antitrust implications of health care policy, which featured several chapters specifically devoted to the changes within the hospital industry.[5]  Reports submitted to the panel cited the “extensive consolidation” within the health care industry, “at times creating virtual monopolies in geographic submarkets” that allowed hospitals to “exert greater leverage in managed care contract negotiations” while pressuring physicians to join a particular system.[6]  Other witnesses noted the way in which hospital systems attempt to include at least one “must have” hospital in each geographic market, which will allow the system to demand price increases.[7]

Both the FTC-DOJ report and other independent studies have noted the link between high levels of consolidation within the hospital industry and higher prices.  Best estimates indicate that hospital mergers tend to increase prices from 5-40%—while also resulting in decreases in quality.[8]  A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper found that, by resulting in a loss of consumer surplus of $42.2 billion over a decade (most of which went to providers), hospital mergers had the net effect of raising insurance premiums 3-5%, thus increasing the number of uninsured by almost 5.5 million life-years from 1990 through 2003.[9]

Effect of CON on Competition, Price, and Quality:  Conservatives who believe in free markets may not object to consolidation within the hospital industry, or any other industry, provided that no other external factor interferes with the operation of the economic market.  However, if the market has been distorted through public policy actions by legislators—as in the case of the 36 states and the District of Columbia with certificate of need laws—some conservatives may view such laws with caution, due to the potential negative implications which a state-granted oligopoly for existing providers may have on the ability of new entrants to improve the health care marketplace through innovative practices and techniques.

The same FTC-DOJ report that noted the correlation between hospital consolidation and rising prices also criticized the state certificate of need model as anticompetitive and not in consumers’ best interest.  Witnesses testified that the barriers to entry presented by certificate of need requirements impeded rapid implementation of new health care technologies, with significant adverse effects on overall health care spending—rising prices due to more limited access to care, and/or re-directing spending to other areas of health care (i.e. a restriction on development of new beds leading to increased investment in radiological or other equipment).[10]  The report concluded:

The Agencies believe that CON programs are generally not successful in containing health care costs and that they can pose anticompetitive risks….CON programs risk entrenching oligopolists and eroding consumer welfare.  The aim of controlling costs is laudable, but there appear to be other, more effective means of achieving this goal that do not pose anticompetitive risks.[11]

Because of the “serious competitive concerns” that outweighed the purported benefits, the agencies advised states to re-evaluate whether their certificate of need programs in fact serve the public good.

In addition to the impact of certificate of need programs on price and market penetration, the stubbornly high rates of medical errors and hospital-acquired infections may be symptomatic of quality control difficulties rooted in a lack of competition.  The 1999 Institute of Medicine study To Err Is Human estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die annually in hospitals due to preventable medical errors, creating a total economic cost of as much as $29 billion, and a November 2006 report utilizing data from a new infection-reporting regime in Pennsylvania found 19,154 cases of hospital-acquired infections in 2005 alone, representing an infection incident rate of more than 1 in 100 hospitalizations.[12]  With consolidation having eroded the breadth of competing hospitals in some markets, and state certificate of need programs presenting a significant barrier for potential new entrants, the prime driver of quality improvement within the hospital sector may be fear of litigation—a process which some conservatives may find economically inefficient and poor public policy.

The impact of certificate of need programs on quality improvements was illustrated in data from an October 2003 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study examining physician-owned specialty hospitals.  According to GAO, 83% of all specialty hospitals—and all specialty hospitals then under development—were located in states without certificate of need requirements.[13]  The FTC-DOJ study also cited the example of a Florida law enacted in 2003, which barred single-practice specialty hospitals while simultaneously eliminating certificate of need requirements for various cardiac programs at general hospitals.[14]  Some conservatives may therefore be concerned first that the innovation and quality improvements which physician-owned specialty hospitals have introduced are being denied to residents in many states due to certificate of need restrictions, and second that this archaic and bureaucratic mechanism has become a political football that existing facilities attempt to manipulate in order to maintain existing oligopolies.[15]

Security Impact:  The September 11 attacks and subsequent concerns regarding incidents of mass terrorism, bioterrorism, or pandemic outbreaks have raised the prominence of the need for “surge capacity” in the event of a major public health disaster.  Although such surge capacity need not be located within the confines of a hospital, specialized medical centers may play a significant role in any response to a large-scale incident.

On May 5 and 7, 2008, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held hearings regarding a potential lack of hospital surge capacity.[16]  Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) attempted to assert that the implementation of several proposed Medicaid anti-fraud regulations would compel hospitals to reduce or eliminate trauma centers whose services would be needed in the event of a major terror incident.  In response, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt noted that the need for proper public health capacity to respond to terrorist incidents should not impede the Administration from enacting reasonable controls to ensure that the Medicaid program meets its statutory goal of providing health care to low-income individuals, as opposed to serving as a bioterror response agency.

In addition to agreeing with the Secretary’s assertion that the distinction between public health preparedness and implementation of Medicaid anti-fraud regulations saving $42 billion over a decade is a false dichotomy, some conservatives may also believe that a better way to increase “surge capacity” in 36 states and the District of Columbia would involve a repeal of certificate of need restrictions.  Rather than maintaining bureaucratic regulations that prevent construction of health care facilities of critical importance in a mass-casualty incident—or jeopardizing existing physician-owned trauma centers by enacting new restrictions on physician ownership, as House Democrats have proposed—conservatives may believe that a better alternative would allow free markets to innovate and create new medical centers should capacity for trauma units or other segments of care be lacking in a particular market.

Conclusion:  Proposals to expand the government’s role in health care have frequently been criticized by conservatives as the first step towards rationed care.  However, some conservatives may use the certificate of need model to argue that 36 states and the District of Columbia already ration health care, by limiting the ability of new entrants to provide medical services to their citizens.  For instance, the recent decision of the Michigan Certificate of Need Commission to limit the number of new radiation facilities in the state may have an adverse impact on cancer patients seeking access to a novel form of treatment.[17]

With a McKinsey group study noting that hospitals account for 50% of the excess spending in American health care relative to other countries, some conservatives may argue that the hospital industry in particular warrants the additional innovation and reduced costs which new entrants can provide.[18]  Congress itself recognized this fact in 1980 by passing legislation (P.L. 96-499) making ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs) eligible for Medicare reimbursement, believing that new ASCs could perform certain medical procedures more cost-effectively than general hospitals.[19]  Yet the exhaustive FTC-DOJ study, as well as related literature, have documented the ways in which state-based certificate of need laws have undermined market-based efforts at cost control—by resulting in less competition, higher prices, and a diminished emphasis on quality that new market entrants can elicit.  In addition, the changed environment of a post-9/11 world raises questions as to whether states with certificate of need programs are denying to their citizens facilities that could be of critical importance in a public health crisis.  Viewed from these perspectives, the certificate of need model may look less like an effective mechanism to contain the growth of health care costs than an outdated shibboleth that ultimately harms the citizens whom it was designed to protect.

Some conservatives may believe that the nearly 100,000 deaths annually due to preventable medical errors constitute proof positive that the certificate of need model should be permanently dismantled, and that the billions of dollars in hospital expenditures made by the federal government may warrant a federal role in persuading recalcitrant states to do so.  This fiscal year alone, the federal government will spend at least $27.1 billion on payments to hospitals not directly attributable to patient care—including Medicare and Medicaid disproportionate share hospital payments, and graduate and indirect medical education costs.[20]  Some conservatives may therefore support policies intended to link some or all of these payments to states’ repeal of certificate of need laws, in the belief that the abolition of such measures will improve competition, drive down prices, and enhance the quality of health care nationwide.

 

[1] “Certificate of Need State Laws 2008,” (Washington, DC, National Council of State Legislatures, updated May 8, 2008), available online at http://www.ncsl.org/programs/health/cert-need.htm (accessed May 11, 2008).

[2] Cited in Improving Health Care: A Dose of Competition (Washington, DC, Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission Joint Report, July 2004), available online at http://www.ftc.gov/reports/healthcare/040723healthcarerpt.pdf (accessed May 11, 2008), p. 301.

[3] Ibid., pp. 302-303.

[4] Ibid., pp. 133-134.

[5] Background information, agendas, and transcripts for the hearings can be found online at http://www.ftc.gov/bc/healthcare/research/healthcarehearing.htm (accessed May 12, 2008).

[6] Cara Lesser and Paul Ginsburg, “Back to the Future?: New Cost and Access Challenges Emerge,” (Washington, DC, Center for Studying Health System Change Issue Brief No. 35, February 2001), available online at http://www.hschange.com/CONTENT/295/ (accessed May 11, 2008).

[7] Cited in Dose of Competition, p. 138.

[8] William Vogt and Robert Town, “How Has Hospital Consolidation Affected the Price and Quality of Hospital  Care?” (Princeton, NJ, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Research Synthesis Project No. 9, February 2006), available online at http://www.rwjf.org/pr/synthesis/reports_and_briefs/pdf/no9_researchreport.pdf (accessed May 12, 2008), pp. 8-10.

[9] Robert Town et al., “The Welfare Consequences of Hospital Mergers,” (Cambridge, MA, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 12244), available online at http://www.nber.org/papers/w12244.pdf?new_window=1 (accessed May 13, 2008), Tables 8-10, pp. 48-50.

[10] See ibid., pp. 301-306.

[11] Ibid., p. 306.

[12] Institute of Medicine, To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System, summary available online at http://www.iom.edu/Object.File/Master/4/117/ToErr-8pager.pdf (accessed March 1, 2008); Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, Hospital Acquired Infections in Pennsylvania, available online at http://www.phc4.org/reports/hai/05/docs/hai2005report.pdf (accessed March 1, 2008).

[13] “Specialty Hospitals: Geographic Location, Services Provided, and Financial Performance,” (Washington, Government Accountability Office, Report GAO-04-167), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04167.pdf (accessed May 11, 2008), pp. 20-21.

[14] Cited in Dose of Competition, p. 146, note 116.

[15] The Center for Responsive Politics notes that from 1998 through March 2008, the hospital and nursing home industry spent more than $610 million on federal lobbying alone, placing it ninth among 121 industry categories.  Data available online at http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php?indexType=i (accessed May 12, 2008).

[16] Information about the hearings can be found at http://oversight.house.gov/story.asp?ID=1929 (accessed May 10, 2008).

[17] Andrew Pollack, “States Limit Costly Sites for Cancer Radiation,” New York Times May 1, 2008, available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/01/technology/01proton.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&8br=&oref=slogin&adxnnlx=1210543656-RJG4oNSF434Dh4b52KfeFA&pagewanted=print (accessed May 11, 2008).

[18] Cited in Regina Herzlinger, Who Killed Health Care? America’s $2 Trillion Medical Problem—and the Consumer Driven Cure (New York, McGraw-Hill, 2007), p. 62.

[19] Cited in Dose of Competition, p. 148.

[20] Congressional Budget Office March 2008 baselines for Medicare and Medicaid, available online at http://www.cbo.gov/budget/factsheets/2008b/medicare.pdf and http://www.cbo.gov/budget/factsheets/2008b/medicaidBaseline.pdf, respectively  (accessed May 12, 2008).

The Pitfalls of Guaranteed Issue

Background:  Beginning in the early 1990s, some states began to consider various policy solutions to reduce the number of uninsured Americans.   One such solution required insurance carriers in a state to accept all applicants, regardless of their age or health status.  Advocates believed that these guaranteed issue regulations would improve access to health insurance coverage for those individuals with chronic health conditions for whom policies had heretofore been unobtainable.

In many instances, imposition of guaranteed issue restrictions on insurance carriers was coupled with additional regulation in the form of community-rated premiums.  Community rating provisions generally require insurance carriers to charge all individuals the same premium, with minor variations occasionally permitted due to geographic variations or general age bands.  As with guaranteed issue regulations, community rating attempts to expand access to insurance for those with chronic conditions by ensuring they will pay no higher premiums than healthy individuals.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, both remaining Democratic candidates support guaranteed issue and community rating restrictions on insurance carriers.  Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) notes that his proposed health insurance exchange will “charge fair and stable premiums that will not depend upon health status.”[1]  Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), claiming that “insurance companies in America spend tens of billions of dollars per year figuring out how to avoid costly beneficiaries,” would impose guaranteed issue restrictions on carriers, along with prohibitions on “charging large premium differences based on age, gender, and occupation.”[2]  However, because she accepts the criticism that placing such restrictions on carriers in the absence of a mandate to purchase insurance would only encourage individuals to “game” the system by waiting until they become sick to submit an insurance application, Sen. Clinton has also incorporated an individual mandate to purchase health insurance into her platform.

Problems in Implementation:  Most of the available data from states that have imposed guaranteed issue and community rating restrictions are consistent with the concern articulated by the Clinton campaign—that because individuals can obtain health insurance at any time and at standard rates, they have little incentive to purchase coverage until such time as they become ill.  This rational choice on the part of individuals creates a moral hazard whose burden is borne by insurance carriers—because their insured population is sicker than the population as a whole, they have no choice but to raise premiums across-the-board, as they are prohibited from imposing even slightly higher premiums on sicker populations.  These across-the-board increases further discourage young, healthy individuals from purchasing insurance.

Data from a prominent online broker of health insurance policies nationwide illustrate the disparity in premiums between states with guaranteed issue policies and states lacking them.  A report released last September found that in 2006, the average monthly cost of an individual health insurance policy in two states with guaranteed issue and community rating restrictions—New York and New Jersey—was $338 and $277 respectively.[3]  These numbers are approximately twice the average amount paid for health insurance by individuals in neighboring Pennsylvania—a state without guaranteed issue and community rating restrictions, and whose average premium of $148 per month equals the national average.[4]  Due to the wide difference in premiums created by excessive regulation in some states, some conservatives may support legislation permitting individuals to buy health insurance across state lines, to take advantage of lower premiums in states with more realistic levels of insurance regulation.

The perverse incentives created by guaranteed issue and community rating policies that have driven up premiums have also helped to drive insurance carriers out of states where they have been imposed.  For instance, Kentucky enacted both guaranteed issue and community rating procedures in 1995, but ultimately ended up repealing both, due in large part to the fact that by 1997 most every insurance carrier ceased operations in the state.  The regulations were repealed in 2000, and by May 2007 seven insurance carriers had returned to offer individual insurance products in Kentucky.[5]

Alternatives to Guaranteed Issue:  Instead of imposing additional restrictions on carriers that in many cases have damaged insurance markets, many states have developed alternative solutions for medically high-risk individuals.  In total, 34 states have established reinsurance mechanisms, or high-risk pools, providing approximately 200,000 individuals with chronic conditions access to care.[6]  As a result, overall individual health insurance premiums in states with high-risk mechanisms are significantly lower than the $300 monthly averages seen in guaranteed issue states like New York and New Jersey.

Although premiums are paid by participants in these state-based pools, and the premiums are higher than standard rates (generally 150-200% of rates for standard risks), other sources of revenue can be used to offset the pools’ operating losses.  These mechanisms are financed through means that vary from state to state, but can include per capita surtaxes on insurance plans, state general revenues, or other sources of dedicated funding.  In addition, legislation reauthorized by Congress in 2006 (P.L. 109-172) provides for federal grants to state high-risk pools to offset their operating losses.  The Fiscal Year 2008 omnibus appropriations measure (P.L. 110-161) included nearly $50 million in grants to states appropriated pursuant to the 2006 authorization.

One further nuance on the high-risk pool mechanism involves a risk transfer model based solely on interactions among private insurance companies.  Under this scenario, insurance carriers would resolve claims amongst themselves at year’s end, based upon which carriers had disproportionate numbers of beneficiary claims associated with chronic diseases such as diabetes, chronic heart failure, or breast cancer.  Some conservatives may find this model slightly preferable to the state-run risk pool mechanism, because the lack of state and/or federal funding removes a disincentive for carriers to “game” the system by ceding high-risk patients into a pool with a government backstop attached.

Conclusion:  Based on the examples examined above, some conservatives may be concerned that the twin proposals of guaranteed issue and community rating have served to undermine insurance markets where they have been implemented.  Because these policies serve as a de facto tax on young and healthy individuals—who pay higher rates than they would otherwise be charged in order to finance the coverage of older and sicker individuals—they encourage moral hazard, by making insurance plans prohibitively expensive for those healthy populations who are generally less inclined to purchase coverage in the first place.

Some policy-makers, conceding this point, therefore believe that an individual mandate to purchase coverage would succeed in forcing all healthy risks into purchasing insurance, thereby reducing the perverse effects of guaranteed issue regulations.  However, that argument pre-supposes the efficacy of an individual mandate—and Massachusetts’ experiment with a mandate has already resulted in 15-20% of the population being exempted from it due to cost concerns.  In addition, some conservatives might question whether and how the concept of “personal responsibility” advanced by advocates of an individual mandate comports with community rating policies which would charge smokers with lung cancer, or other individuals with behaviorally-acquired diseases, the same insurance premiums as their healthier counterparts.

While the concept of ending “insurance company discrimination” against less healthy people sounds politically appealing, many individuals who have already developed a chronic condition do not need access to insurance, but rather access to health care—and the existing state-based risk pool mechanisms have helped provide that care for a significant population.  For other individuals, a landmark 1999 book by Wharton economists Mark Pauly and Bradley Herring demonstrated how the individual health insurance market does pool risk—because policies are guaranteed renewable, and one individual’s premium cannot be increased or decreased at the time of renewal based on changes in health status, healthy risks do subsidize sicker risks more effectively and efficiently than critics assert.[7]  For these reasons, some conservatives may therefore view guaranteed issue and community rating as unnecessary policies that would unduly restrict the health insurance marketplace, and actually undermine their stated intention of reducing costs while increasing access to care.

 

[1] “Barack Obama’s Plan for a Healthy America,” available online at http://www.barackobama.com/issues/pdf/HealthCareFullPlan.pdf (accessed April 12, 2008), p. 4.

[2] “American Health Choices Plan,” available online at http://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/healthcare/americanhealthchoicesplan.pdf (accessed April 12, 2008), pp. 6-7.

[3] “The Cost and Benefits of Individual Health Insurance Plans: 2007,” available online at http://www.ehealthinsurance.com/content/expertcenterNew/CostBenefitsReportSeptember2007.pdf (accessed April 12, 2008), p. 23.

[4] Ibid.  Perhaps paradoxically in light of the above evidence, Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) has proposed extending guaranteed issue and community rating restrictions to the Pennsylvania insurance market.  See http://www.gohcr.state.pa.us/prescription-for-pennsylvania/PlainEnglishLegislation.pdf (accessed April 12, 2008), p. 5.

[5] Cited in Anthony Lo Sasso, “An Examination of State Non-Group and Small Group Health Insurance Regulations,” (Washington, DC, American Enterprise Institute Working Paper #140, January 2008), available online at http://www.aei.org/docLib/20080111_LoSassoState.pdf (accessed April 12, 2008), p. 15.

[6] Additional information on state-based high risk pools can be found through the National Association of State Comprehensive Health Insurance Plans at www.naschip.org.

[7] Bradley Herring and Mark Pauly, Pooling Health Insurance Risks (Washington, DC, American Enterprise Institute Press, 1999).  See also Herring and Pauly, “The Effect of State Community Rating Regulations on Premiums and Coverage in the Individual Insurance Market,” (Cambridge, MA, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper #12504, August 2006), available online at http://www.nber.org/papers/w12504.pdf (accessed April 12, 2008).