Health Information Technology

Background:  Over the past several years, Congress and the Administration have focused on ways to improve the adoption of information technology as one way to foster reform within the health care system.  Advocates of health IT and electronic health records believe that their widespread adoption and use by practitioners could improve the quality of care and reduce the incidence of preventable medical errors, which kill up to 100,000 individuals annually.[1]  Some individuals also assert that health IT could generate significant savings within the health care system, though estimates vary and may be based in part on the systems changes that accompany IT adoption.

Legislative Proposals:  Although health IT legislation has been debated in previous Congresses, no proposal was enacted into law.  As a result, several pieces of legislation have been introduced or re-introduced in the 110th Congress.  In the House, the Energy and Commerce Committee approved on July 23, 2008 H.R. 6357, sponsored by Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-MI) and Ranking Member Joe Barton (R-TX).  The bill would codify the Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology (ONCHIT)—previously established by Executive Order in April 2004—within the Department of Health and Human Services, set guidelines for the federal government and relevant stakeholders to develop health IT standards, and authorize grants for adoption of health technology, including electronic health records.  The bill also creates requirements for entities handling medical records to limit the circumstances under which records may be disclosed, and to notify patients in the event of an electronic data breach.

The Ways and Means Committee—which shares jurisdiction over Medicare with Energy and Commerce—is also expected to weigh in with legislative activity.  Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Ranking Member Dave Camp (R-MI) has introduced health IT legislation, H.R. 6179.  The bill would codify ONCHIT into statute, provide for a streamlined process for the promulgation of IT standards (including privacy standards), make permanent a regulatory exception promulgated by the Administration allowing hospitals to purchase IT software for physicians, and create new tax incentives for physicians to expense the cost necessary to implement a system of electronic health records.

In the Senate, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee marked up S. 1693, sponsored by Chairman Ted Kennedy (D-MA), on June 27, 2007.  The bill is broadly similar to H.R. 6357, and includes provisions codifying ONCHIT’s role, authorizing grants for health IT promotion, and incorporating stricter privacy standards.  Press reports indicate that staff attempted to “hotline” the legislation before the August recess, but that objections from several offices precluded passage by unanimous consent.

Implications of Legislation:  While most policy-makers agree on the desirability of additional IT adoption by health practitioners, clarifying the federal role in such activity has proved more problematic.  As Congress considers potential legislative action to promote health IT, four key areas remain subject to controversy surrounding the federal government’s proper role.  These include:

Funding:  Several health IT bills—including both H.R. 6357 and S. 1693—authorize grants to promote interoperability among electronic health record systems and the adoption of health information technology.  H.R. 6357 authorizes $575 million over five years for grants to physicians, states, or local health-related entities to promote the effective use of IT, and an additional $20 million over two years for clinical education grants.   Similarly, S. 1693 authorizes $278 million over two years for grants to providers, states seeking to establish health IT loan programs, and the development of local or regional health IT plans, while including additional authorizations for clinical education grants and grants to promote telehealth services.  Some conservatives may question the need to authorize this additional new spending, and agree with the Administration’s position that market forces, not direct subsidies, are the most effective way to stimulate the growth of electronic health records and related technology.

Another approach discussed to promote the adoption of health IT focuses on adjustments to Medicare reimbursement rates—payment increases for adopters and/or payment reductions for non-adopters.  Such an approach was included in e-prescribing provisions attached to the latest Medicare physician payment legislation (P.L. 110-275).  Some conservatives may have both a specific and a general concern with this approach: first that any reimbursement adjustments be implemented in a budget-neutral manner, and second that any linkage between physician payment levels and health IT adoption could be perceived as a further attempt by the federal government to micro-manage the practice of medicine for physicians nationwide.

A third approach would utilize tax incentives—in the form of accelerated depreciation or increased deductions for the purchase of equipment related to electronic health records—as a means to spur greater health IT adoption.  While some conservatives may believe that tax expenditures constitute a more effective means of encouraging adoption of electronic health records than the direct government spending in the two examples above, others may question the necessity of federal involvement to promote health technology when other industries have adopted technological innovations much more quickly.

Some conservatives may believe that this central question—Why did it take only a few years to develop nationwide ATM networks, but decades to spur health IT adoption?—speaks to one of the fundamental drawbacks of the current health system: the distortionary effects of third-party payment.  While patients may be willing to pay for the benefits associated with an electronic health record, or the convenience of an e-mail consultation with a physician, many private insurance companies’ reimbursement and coverage decisions continue to follow the example of a Medicare program frequently slow to respond to changes in medical care.  Therefore, some conservatives may support initiatives like Health Savings Accounts as one way to minimize the effects of third-party payment and better align patient and physician incentives, improving the quality of care and thereby reducing the growth in costs.

Privacy:  Under current law, electronic health records, along with other paper-based health information, are regulated by standards promulgated pursuant to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA, P.L. 104-191).  The law subjects “covered entities”—health plans, health clearinghouses, and providers who transmit any health information in electronic form—to a series of standards issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, commonly called the HIPAA Privacy Rule.[2]  In general, the Privacy Rule requires covered entities to obtain consent for the disclosure of protected health information—defined as health information that identifies the individual, or can reasonably be expected to identify the individual—except when related to “treatment, payment, or health care operations.”[3]  The regulations include several exceptions to the pre-disclosure consent requirement, including public health surveillance, activities related to law enforcement, scientific research, and serious threats to health and safety.[4]

In addition, current HIPAA regulations include a separate Security Rule, requiring covered entities and their business associates to safeguard protected health information held electronically.  The rule includes administrative, physical, and technical safeguards that covered entities must follow, and permits entities to contract with business associates to implement the regulatory requirements.[5]  Covered entities are not in compliance with the HIPAA Security Rule only if they become aware of “a pattern of an activity or practice” by the business associate in breach of its contract and the HIPAA security standards, yet fail to take remedial action.[6]

While supporting the desirability of personal medical information remaining private, some conservatives may also believe that privacy standards should not be implemented in a way that impedes the functioning of the health care system.  For instance, restrictions on “marketing” could be construed in such a way as to preclude pharmacists from e-mailing patient reminders to refill prescriptions, or consider cheaper generic drugs—both of which could be seen as unfortunate outcomes.  Similarly, requiring patient consent to utilize electronic health information for auditing purposes could be an invitation for patients to commit fraud, thereby encouraging criminal activity that raises costs for all individuals.

To the extent that Congress decides to incorporate a breach notification regime into health IT legislation, some conservatives may support setting clear standards for when notification is required, and safe harbor provisions for entities that act promptly to remedy any breaches that may occur.  Some conservatives may also support federal pre-emption with respect to breach notification provisions, so that covered entities will not be subjected to a patchwork of conflicting state laws.  In that same vein, some conservatives may be concerned by the implications of any attempt to introduce or expand a private right of action for individuals affected by security breaches that could serve as a breeding ground for costly litigation.

Physician Self-Referral:  One of the perceived impediments to wider health IT implementation lay in existing laws regarding physician self-referral.  In general, the so-called Stark law prohibits physicians who receive Medicare payments from referring their patients to entities with whom the physician has a financial relationship.[7]  While the statute contains a number of exceptions to the general prohibition, no portion of existing law would provide a safe harbor for a hospital or health system to donate health IT equipment to physician offices.

In response, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in August 2006 published final regulations under which the Administration used its authority to create a “safe harbor” with respect to the Stark self-referral laws and health IT promotion; the same day, the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services created a similar safe harbor with respect to the federal anti-kickback statute.[8]  Although the exception was intended to encourage the adoption of health IT by physicians and other providers without facing possible adverse legal actions, the regulations contain several potential drawbacks: the exception covers health IT software, but not hardware; requires a 15% payment by physician recipients; and, perhaps most importantly, expires in December 2013.

Some conservatives may support actions that expand the health IT exception created by the Administration to address its limitations and protect physicians from unnecessary regulations and/or legal action by CMS.  The self-referral exception created for electronic prescribing as mandated by Congress in the Medicare Modernization Act (P.L. 108-173) covered electronic hardware, providing little reason to qualify the exception with respect to electronic health records.  The required 15% payment by physician recipients appears contradictory to the exception’s purpose; a gift is either inappropriate or it isn’t—the size of any payment by a physician to the donor bears little semblance to the inherent nature of the relationship.  Finally, some conservatives may believe that eliminating the sunset date would provide important regulatory certainty for both physicians and the health IT community, rather than relying upon a future Administration and future Congresses to determine whether and how the self-referral exception should be extended.

Liability:  Unstated in most discussions about health information technology legislation is the impact which widespread health IT adoption may have on the current medical liability system.  Nevertheless, it may be reasonable to believe that the clarity afforded by electronic health records may have a measurable impact on tort claims—improved coordination of care may eliminate some medical errors before they occur, while the distinctions between frivolous and meritorious claims may become more clear.

Given this dynamic, some conservatives may support provisions in health IT legislation which create safe harbors for providers following accepted standards of care, as one potential way to minimize any increased costs associated with defensive medicine practices.  Additionally, some conservatives may view a health IT bill as a logical vehicle to attach liability reform provisions that reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits, allow for fair and reasonable compensation for individuals with legitimate claims, and encourage providers to utilize adverse events to improve the quality of future care.

Conclusion:  While health IT holds significant progress in terms of its ability to improve the quality of care and its potential to slow the growth in costs, its promise may rise or fall on the regime under which new technology is adopted.  If improperly implemented, costly new health IT mandates could spark senior physicians to take early retirement, depriving patients of well-trained and trusted providers.  Similarly, proposals that impose regulatory burdens that balkanize care in the name of privacy, while encouraging lawsuits against physicians and/or software providers, may well only inhibit the adoption of effective health IT and increase, rather than reduce, the growth of health costs.

Recognizing that the devil does indeed lie in the details, some conservatives may be cautious about assessing the implications of the final legislative product before supporting a health IT bill.  Specifically, while many conservatives may support legislation that reduces unnecessary regulations and avoids imposing new onerous burdens, bills that include significant increases in federal regulations and/or government spending may warrant stricter scrutiny.  Consistent with a belief that smaller government will allow private enterprise to thrive, conservatives may believe that a minimalist approach to health IT provides the best opportunity to allow the health system to create the innovative approaches to care that can slow the growth of costs.

 

[1] 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).

[2] The definition of covered entity can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1320d-1(a); the HIPAA Privacy Rule can be found at 45 C.F.R. 160 and 164.

[3] Definitions of protected health information and individually identifiable health information can be found at 45 C.F.R. 160.103; permitted use for “treatment, payment, or health care operations” can be found at 45 C.F.R. 164.506.

[4] The full list can be found at 45 C.F.R. 164.512.

[5] The safeguards are found at 45 C.F.R. 164.308, 164.310, and 164.312, respectively.

[6] Language can be found at 45 C.F.R. 164.314(a)(1)(ii).

[7] The Stark law can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1395nn.

[8] The regulations can be found at http://www.cms.hhs.gov/PhysicianSelfReferral/Downloads/CMS-1303-F.pdf and http://oig.hhs.gov/authorities/docs/06/OIG%20E-Prescribing%20Final%20Rule%20080806.pdf, respectively (accessed August 25, 2008).

Weekly Newsletter: September 8, 2008

The Outlook Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uninsured Numbers Show Need for Entitlement Reform

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

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

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

Cooking the Books

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

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

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

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

Process for a Vetoed Bill:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Year Statutory

Annual

Update (%)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions for House Democrats on the Medicare Trigger

  • Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark has publicly stated that “Medicare is not in crisis.” Yet the Medicare program faces unfunded liabilities of $86 trillion—more than 70 times the total anticipated losses from subprime mortgages worldwide.  Why do House Democrats believe that a $1.2 trillion “crisis” requires the creation of massive new government programs to help borrowers, while $86 trillion in debt from an existing government program warrants no action at all?
  • Democrats have complained that the trigger is an “arbitrary” calculation of the health of the Medicare program. Since they find Medicare’s $86 trillion in unfunded obligations an “arbitrary” figure too low to prompt any concern, how high will Medicare’s expected losses have to rise before Democrats will take action?  $100 trillion?  $200 trillion?
  • “Fixing” the Medicare trigger this year requires finding less than $2 billion in savings during Fiscal Year 2013—this for a program projected to grow over the next five years from $454 billion to $636 billion in spending. Do Democrats really believe that nothing can be done to reduce Medicare’s growth in spending from $182 billion to a mere $180 billion over the next five years?
  • At a recent House Appropriations Committee markup, attempts to attach language creating a bipartisan commission to examine entitlement spending and make recommendations to Congress was defeated on a largely party-line vote. Why do most House Democrats oppose even creating a commission to study the nation’s impending fiscal crisis due to unsustainable entitlement spending?
  • Why do House Democrats believe that wealthy seniors—including billionaires like Warren Buffett and George Soros—should not be asked to pay $2 per day more in premiums for their prescription drug coverage to help improve the solvency of the Medicare program?
  • A House Democratic aide recently said that the party’s advice to frustrated families dealing with high gas prices consisted of “Drive small cars and wait for the wind.” What will Democrats tell seniors and those individuals looking to retire when the Medicare Hospital Trust Fund goes broke just over a decade from now?

Important Points on the Medicare Trigger

Virtually all independent experts have confirmed what most of the public already knows: Rising health care costs and the retirement of the Baby Boomers make Medicare’s financial future precarious.  Yet while Republicans have advanced plans to improve this important program’s solvency, Democrats seem intent on ignoring the looming entitlement crisis until it is too late.

Medicare Comprises a Large—and Growing—Share of Government Spending

In 2006, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reports that Medicare outlays were $408.3 billion.  Comparable 2006 data from other government agencies demonstrates the relative size of Medicare’s budget:

  • If Medicare were its own country, it would have the 17th largest economy of the 180 national economies ranked by the World Bank.
  • Federal Medicare spending exceeds the total national GDP of the 16 countries that comprise southern Africa combined.
  • The federal government spends more money on Medicare than the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Energy, Homeland Security, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs spend combined.
  • The Medicare actuaries predict that over the next decade, Medicare spending will rise by an average 7.4% per year—more if scheduled reductions in physician payments do not take effect.

Medicare Faces a Bleak Financial Future

Projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the annual report issued by the Medicare trustees provide some indication of the scope of the fiscal problems facing Medicare in the future:

  • The Medicare trustees report released in March projected that the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will be exhausted in 2019—just over a decade from now.
  • The trustees also project that overall spending on Medicare will rise from its 2006 level of 3.1% of GDP to reach 7.0% of GDP by 2035 and 10.8% GDP by 2082—nearly twice the size of Social Security, and more than one dollar out of every ten spent (public or private) nationwide.
  • CBO estimates—which, unlike the trustees’ report, presume that health costs will continue to rise at a pace consistent with past trends—that Medicare alone will constitute 17% of GDP by 2082—a nearly sixfold increase from 2006 and equal to all health care spending (private and public) today.
  • A former Medicare trustee found that, in order to solve the program’s funding shortfall, Part B premiums would need to rise to over $3,000-$5,000 per month in today’s money if the share of general revenue Medicare funding remains constant.

Democrats Have No Plan to Restore Medicare’s Solvency

While the Congressional Budget Office has concluded that “the main message [from both reports] is that health care spending is projected to rise significantly and that changes in federal law will be necessary to avoid or mitigate a substantial increase in federal spending on Medicare,” Democrats have not acted to fix the problem:

  • When the Medicare trustees released their report noting that Medicare faces nearly $86 trillion in unfunded obligations, Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark responded by saying, “I don’t think it makes any difference what [the trustees] say” about the precarious state of Medicare’s funding.
  • Former Comptroller General David Walker has noted that each year Congress does not act to reform its entitlement obligations, the size of the debt the next generation of Americans face grows by $2 trillion.
  • Republicans have put forth several proposals to close the size of the Medicare funding gap—but Democrats would rather grow the federal debt than take reasonable steps to slow the growth of America’s massive government programs.

Medical Loss Ratios

Background:  The term medical loss ratio refers to the percentage of health insurance premium costs used to pay medical claims, as opposed to overhead for various administrative expenses or surplus/profit for the insurance carrier.  For example, a medical loss ratio of 70% indicates that 70 cents of every premium dollar is spent on claims for medical services, with 30 cents dedicated towards administrative expenses, marketing costs, related overhead, and any profit for the carrier.  While the medical loss ratios of publicly-traded insurance carriers are available in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), privately-held and not-for-profit insurers often do not face similar public reporting and disclosure requirements.

Legislative History:  In July 2007, Section 414 of H.R. 3162, the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act, proposed several reporting requirements and restrictions on Medicare Advantage (MA) plans with respect to their medical loss ratios.  Specifically, the bill required MA plans to submit information to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regarding overall expenses on medical claims, marketing and sales, indirect and direct administration, and any medical reinsurance.  The Secretary would be required to publish this information annually.

In addition to the reporting requirements outlined above, the CHAMP Act also proposed punitive measures against MA plans which did not meet new federal requirements with respect to their medical loss ratios.  Subsection (c) of Section 414 proposed sanctions for MA plans which did not spend at least 85% of payments received (both from the federal government and beneficiary premiums) on medical services: plans below the ratio for one year would receive a decrease in their funding rate, plans below the ratio for three years would be banned from enrolling new beneficiaries, and plans below the ratio for five years would be terminated from the Medicare Advantage program.  While the bill passed the House by a 225-204 vote, the Senate has yet to take up the measure.

Presidential and State Proposals:  The actions proposed by House Democrats last year with respect to Medicare Advantage plans are consistent with the proposals advocated by the Democrat candidates for President.  During her campaign, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) proposed an unspecified minimum medical loss ratio for insurers, because “premiums collected by insurers must be dedicated to the provision of high-quality care, not excessive profits and marketing.”[1]   Similarly, the health plan of Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) dedicates a section of his platform to explaining why insurance carriers’ “record profits” constitute “needless waste,” and pledges that “in markets where the insurance business is not competitive enough, [the Obama] plan will force insurers to pay out a reasonable share of their premiums for patient care instead of keeping exorbitant amounts for profits and administration.”[2]  However, the plan does not specify what constitutes a “competitive” state insurance market, nor the level of a “reasonable” medical loss ratio.

In recent months, several state-based efforts to reform health care have incorporated proposals to regulate medical loss ratios by insurers.  Proposals in California, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin have all discussed setting a minimum medical loss ratio, often at 85%.  While some states currently do impose minimum medical loss ratios, these are significantly lower than the proposed new standards; in some cases, minimum ratios are designed to ensure that the policy is a bona fide insurance product, rather than attempting to influence the structure of an insurance policy or the business model of an insurance carrier.

Medicare Advantage Reports:  This week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report requested by Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) regarding profit levels by Medicare Advantage plans.  The report noted that in 2005, Medicare Advantage plans’ actual profits were higher, and their medical and administrative expenditures lower, than originally projected before the start of the contract year.  However, even the lower-than-expected percentage of revenue devoted to medical expenses—85.7%—exceeded the minimum loss ratio proposed by Congressional Democrats under the CHAMP Act.[3]  GAO also conceded that the disparity between actual and projected expenses had no impact on the total payments made to Medicare Advantage plans.[4]

In response to the GAO report, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) pointed out that contract bids for Medicare Advantage plans in 2005 were submitted under a since-replaced bidding formula, and have since been subjected to more stringent actuarial standards with respect to the accuracy of the original projections—both of which would tend to cast doubts on the relevancy of the three-year-old data on the current Medicare Advantage program.  Additionally, the fact that nearly half of the “unexpected” profits arose from a single Medicare Advantage plan raises additional questions as to whether the disparity between projected and actual medical expenditures is a system-wide problem or a relatively confined anomaly.[5]

Some conservatives may view higher-than-projected profits for Medicare Advantage plans as consistent with the free-market principles that encourage companies—in this case, private health insurers—to improve efficiencies in the hope of generating improvements for their customers and a return to their investors.  The fact that nearly half of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries were covered by plans with lower-than-expected administrative and non-medical expenses could suggest that plans took steps to reduce bureaucracies that made their delivery more efficient.[6]  Moreover, to the extent that improved care management tools implemented by insurance carriers resulted in lower-than-expected medical expenditures for plans, conservatives may argue that allowing Medicare Advantage carriers to retain these profits is not only appropriate, but desirable.

Moreover, another GAO report released in February injected a note of caution regarding attempts to use headlines about Medicare Advantage plan profits to regulate medical loss ratios, noting that “there is no definitive standard for what a medical loss ratio should be.”[7]  In the February report, officials at CMS commented that some plans may consider certain care management services an administrative expense, while other plans may classify these costs as medical treatments.  The fact that Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs)—which are traditionally known for intensive care management techniques, and whose per-beneficiary costs are slightly lower than those for traditional fee-for-service Medicare—had the highest percentage of beneficiaries in plans under the 85% threshold ratio included in the CHAMP Act demonstrates the inherent difficulties in applying a single regulatory standard to all types of insurance.[8]

Conclusion:  The issue of regulating medical loss ratios, although not as prominent as other elements of Democrat proposals for health care reform, nevertheless deserves scrutiny.  An article in the journal Health Affairs concluded that medical loss ratios had little correlation to the quality of care provided by carriers; moreover, the article’s discussion of the loss ratio as an inherently arbitrary measure dovetails with the unintended consequences of applying a one-size-fits-all standard for health insurance.  For instance, individual insurance plans face higher administrative charges than group policies, because of the increased costs associated with selling policies on a person-to-person basis, as opposed to the hundreds or thousands of beneficiaries who obtain insurance through a single group employer.  Additionally, regulating medical loss ratios may prompt some insurance carriers to stop offering high-deductible insurance plans—which, due to their smaller premiums, may have greater difficulty meeting a federally-imposed standard—thus diminishing the impact of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which have over the past few years helped slow the growth of health insurance premiums.

More broadly, some conservatives may be concerned that regulating medical loss ratios represents an effort by Democrats to impose price controls on the health insurance industry.  Proposals such as those included in the CHAMP Act are unlikely to result in higher spending on medical claims, or lower profits for insurance companies; carriers could instead choose to reduce administrative costs in order to comply with a mandated medical loss ratio, resulting in additional delays for beneficiaries seeking to have their claims processed.

An alternative solution could lie in proposals for increased public transparency and disclosure of medical loss ratios.  Applied evenly to for-profit and not-for-profit insurers alike, this information would allow consumers to make an informed choice, considering the percentage of premiums devoted to medical claims payment as one element among many when selecting an insurance policy.  Although some policy-makers may find it politically expedient to criticize the profits of certain insurance carriers, many conservatives would greatly prefer the transparency of a free marketplace to heavy-handed government price controls.

 

[1] “American Health Choices Plan,” available online at http://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/healthcare/americanhealthchoicesplan.pdf (accessed March 11, 2008), p. 7.

[2] “Barack Obama’s Plan for a Healthy America,” available online at http://www.barackobama.com/issues/pdf/HealthCareFullPlan.pdf (accessed March 11, 2008), pp 9-10.

[3] “Medicare Advantage Organizations: Actual Expenses and Profits Compared to Projections for 2005,” Letter to Hon. Pete Stark, Report GAO-08-827R, (Washington, DC, Government Accountability Office, June 2008), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08827r.pdf (accessed June 26, 2008), p. 5.

[4] Ibid., p. 8.

[5] Ibid., pp. 11-14.

[6] Ibid., p. 6.

[7] “Medicare Advantage: Increased Spending Relative to Medicare Fee-for-Service May Not Always Reduce Beneficiary Out-of-Pocket Costs,” Report GAO-08-359 (Washington, DC, Government Accountability Office, February 2008), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08359.pdf (accessed March 11, 2008), p. 32n.

[8] Ibid., pp. 27-28.

Weekly Newsletter: June 30, 2008

Senate Blocks Deep Cuts to Medicare Advantage…

Before recessing for the Independence Day recess, the House passed—and the Senate declined to limit debate on—legislation (H.R. 6331) addressing physician reimbursement levels under Medicare. The bill would prevent for 18 months a reduction in fee schedule levels scheduled to take effect on July 1, and would expand access to certain subsidy programs for low-income beneficiaries. These provisions would be offset largely by cuts to private Medicare Advantage plans, particularly private fee-for-service plans.

Some conservatives may be concerned that the House-passed bill’s significant cuts to Medicare Advantage would have the effect of driving beneficiaries away from a privately-run model of health insurance that has provided enhanced benefits and choice for millions of seniors, especially the 2.2 million beneficiaries in private fee-for-service plans. Some conservatives also may be concerned that the bill fails to address the long-term integrity of the Medicare program, relying on funding gimmicks and government-controlled price-fixing rather than undertaking comprehensive reform that would inject market forces into the program as a means to slow the growth of health care costs.

Following the House vote, nearly six dozen House Members—including RSC Chairman Hensarling— weighed in asking the Senate to revive bipartisan compromise legislation, crafted by Finance Committee Chairman Baucus and Ranking Member Grassley, that would address physician reimbursements without damaging beneficiary access to Medicare Advantage plans.

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

…While Democrat Political Gamesmanship Prevents Physician Fix

After the Senate vote to limit debate on physician payment legislation that included significant cuts to Medicare Advantage failed on Thursday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell attempted to pass by unanimous consent a 30-day extension of current reimbursement provisions. However, Majority Leader Reid objected, and in so doing referred to several House special election results while commenting that “I don’t know how many people are up here for re-election, but I am watching a few of them pretty closely.” Because Senate Democrats objected to Republicans’ unanimous consent requests to pass a “clean” physician payment bill, physicians will take a 10% cut in their reimbursement levels beginning today unless and until Congress passes a retroactive fix. However, today’s Politico reports that the Administration is considering ways to delay the impact of the reimbursement adjustment, pending efforts by Congress after the recess to address the matter.

Some conservatives may be concerned by the Senate Majority Leader’s actions blocking a “clean” extension of current-law policies on physician reimbursement. Some conservatives may also believe that the short-term nature of current physician reimbursement extensions, coupled with their potential to become entwined in unrelated disputes and/or “held hostage” due to various political considerations, makes a powerful argument for more comprehensive reforms to Medicare, including a long-term solution to physician reimbursement policy.

While it is currently unclear whether Democrats will continue to block Republican attempts to pass noncontroversial physician payment legislation, or what precise form a more bipartisan bill designed to address the reimbursement provisions will take, the RSC will weigh in with conservative concerns and updates on H.R. 6331 and any other physician payment legislation which may be introduced or considered following the recess.

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

Report Could Presage Democrat Efforts at Insurer Price Controls

In a related development, Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark released a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on Tuesday, which noted that in 2005 Medicare Advantage plans had lower medical costs and higher profits than first projected when submitting their bids for that contract year. Although the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) noted that the profit projections were made under a now-defunct bidding process that may have explained much of the disparity, Democrats may attempt to use the GAO study to revive provisions in legislation (H.R. 3162) the House passed last year imposing a minimum “medical loss ratio” that would require Medicare Advantage plans to spend at least 85% of their total revenues on health care expenses.

To the extent that the higher-than-expected profits highlighted in the report are derived from improved care models and administrative and related efficiencies, some conservatives may view these proceeds as consistent with the free-market principles that reward companies who take measures to streamline operations while improving quality of care. Conversely, some conservatives may also believe that efforts to restrict medical loss ratios constitute de facto price controls on the insurance industry that will prove ineffective at controlling the growth of health care costs and could lead to unintended and potentially adverse consequences for enrollees.

The RSC has prepared a Policy Brief on this issue, available here.

Article of Note: Public vs. Private Debate Revolves Around Taxes

A study released last week by researchers affiliated with the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and published online by Health Affairs, studied the relative efficiencies of private and public health insurance models. The authors conclude that public coverage through government programs like Medicaid is more efficient than private insurance, largely because public programs feature less cost-sharing than private coverage.

Given that a similar study released in 2003 found that lower reimbursement rates to providers were the primary reason that public programs had lower medical costs than private insurance, some conservatives may take issue with the study’s findings. The authors admit that providers are paid less under Medicaid than most private payers, and advocate an increase in reimbursement rates that would “improve patients’ access to and quality of care.” Yet the study methodology fails to take into account that medical spending for Medicaid patients is lower than private insurance precisely because beneficiaries in public programs have poorer access to provider care—in other words, that costs for Medicaid patients could be lower because they have coverage they cannot as readily use.

Some conservatives may believe that the authors’ admission that public programs reimburse providers at lower levels highlights the double taxation associated with expansions of Medicaid or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). In addition to the amounts government spends to cover individuals in a public program, the cost-shifting that results from unrealistically low government reimbursement rates represents secondary taxes throughout the economy—on individuals with private insurance who pay more to subsidize health care costs the government will not pay; on Medicaid beneficiaries with reduced access to care; and on providers who are forced to work longer hours, or shorten the amount of time spent with each patient, in order to compensate for costs the government will not pay. For these reasons, many conservatives may believe that market-based reforms to the health care sector represent a far more preferable way to improve the quality of care while controlling the growth of health care costs.

Durable Medical Equipment

Background:  In addition to providing coverage for outpatient physician services, Medicare Part B also helps pay for durable medical equipment, prosthetics, orthotics, and supplies (DMEPOS) needed by beneficiaries.  Currently, Medicare reimburses beneficiaries for supplies using a series of fee schedules, which are generally based on historical prices subject to annual updates or other adjustments.  Medicare finances 80% of the actual costs or the fee schedule amount, whichever less, with the beneficiary paying the difference.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) estimates that about 10 million individuals—or about one-quarter of all beneficiaries—receive medical supplies under Part B in a given year, at a cost to Medicare of approximately $10 billion annually.[1]

In recent years, some conservatives have raised concerns that the prices on the Medicare fee schedule for DMEPOS were in excess of market prices.  In 2002, testimony by the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General revealed that the prices paid by Medicare for 16 selected items of durable medical equipment were higher than prices paid by Medicaid, the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) plans, and consumers purchasing directly from retailers.  The Inspector General projected that using the lower prices by other payers for these 16 common items alone would have saved Medicare more than $100 million annually.[2]

In response to the above findings, Congress in the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) of 2003 (P.L. 108-173) enacted cuts in the fee schedule levels for the 16 specific items studied by the Inspector General’s testimony, while creating a new competitive bidding process for DMEPOS suppliers in Section 302 of the law.  This nationwide program followed on the heels of three demonstration projects, authorized under the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, established during the period 1999-2002 in Florida and Texas.  The pilot programs demonstrated the ability of competitive bidding to reduce the costs of DMEPOS by an average 19.1%—saving the federal government $7.5 million, and $1.9 million in reduced beneficiary co-payments—while maintaining beneficiary access to required items.[3]

In addition to a program of competitive bidding for DMEPOS, the MMA also established a new accreditation process for suppliers designed to review suppliers’ financial records and other related documentation to establish their status as bona fide health equipment suppliers.  A November 2007 CMS estimate indicated that 10.3% of payments to medical equipment suppliers were improper—a rate of questionable payments more than double those of other Medicare providers.[4]  Coupled with the new competitive bidding program, the accreditation mechanism was intended to eliminate “fly-by-night” DMEPOS suppliers from operating within the Medicare program, and thus was included in the anti-fraud title of MMA.

Implementation:  CMS previously announced that, pursuant to the Section 302 requirements, Round 1 of the DMEPOS competitive bidding process would begin on July 1, 2008 in ten Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs): Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Kansas City, Miami, Orlando, Pittsburgh, Riverside, and San Juan.  A further 70 MSAs will be included in the program in 2009, with more expected to be included in subsequent years.

The three-year bids for the first round of MSA sites were submitted in September 2007; CMS notified winning bidders, and accepted contracts from winning bidders, earlier this spring.  Based on the Round 1 bids, CMS has indicated that the Medicare program and beneficiaries will save an average of 26% in the 10 categories of DMEPOS open to competitive bidding—ranging from a 14% savings on negative pressure wound therapy pumps and supplies to 43% savings on mail-order diabetic supplies.  When fully implemented, CMS estimates that competitive bidding will save the Medicare program approximately $1 billion per year.

Concerns Raised:  The introduction of DMEPOS competitive bidding has not been without controversy, and concerns raised by suppliers and other interested parties have generally fallen into two categories.  Some suppliers have raised specific concerns about the way in which CMS’ contractor conducted the Round 1 bidding process.  Many of these concerns have focused on a lack of communication from the contractor to the suppliers, resulting in some suppliers’ bids being rejected for lack of proper financial documentation without the suppliers having an opportunity to provide further information or clarification.  CMS has indicated that approximately 16% of all bids submitted were rejected solely due to a failure to meet proper qualification criteria; by contrast, 61% of all bids submitted were priced outside the winning range.

In response to the concerns raised regarding qualification criteria, CMS has utilized a twin-stage process of review for Round 1 suppliers who raised protests about the way the contractor conducted the bid process.  Both the contractor and CMS have taken steps to re-examine the documentation submitted during the review process, and in some cases, CMS has allowed those suppliers with winning bids who failed to meet accreditation or related requirements due to a lack of communication from the contractor to participate in the Round 1 location areas.  In addition, CMS has extended the accreditation deadline for suppliers participating in Round 2 bidding, and will also seek input from the Program Oversight and Advisory Committee established under the MMA for ways to refine and improve the DMEPOS competitive bidding process for subsequent bidding rounds.

The second group of concerns are broader in scope, and go to the heart of the competitive bidding program itself.  Concerns in this line include the potential impact on suppliers, particularly small businesses, who were not successful on pricing grounds.  Some policy-makers have also questioned the lack of scrutiny given to subcontractors not subject to the same accreditation requirements as DMEPOS contractors.  Lastly, other groups have questioned whether competitive bidding will lead to the sale of lower quality supplies and equipment to beneficiaries, as well as whether beneficiaries will be able to obtain access to DMEPOS equipment in instances where the winning bidders in an MSA had not previously serviced the area in question.

Some conservatives may question the need to delay the competitive bidding process on these grounds.  CMS provided specific opportunities for small businesses to participate in the DMEPOS competitive bidding process, resulting in approximately half of firms who accepted winning bids having revenues of less than $3.5 million.  These small business opportunities occurred in the context of a market-oriented bidding mechanism that, when fully implemented, will save taxpayers approximately $1 billion annually—and will provide additional savings to Medicare beneficiaries in the form of reduced co-payments.  In addition, the accreditation mechanism established by Section 302 of MMA provides a quality check previously lacking for DMEPOS purchases and suppliers.

While transitioning to a new system can create logistical difficulties, the staged implementation process will ensure that beneficiaries in a limited number of areas—only one-quarter of whom receive DMEPOS supplies in a given year—will experience the transition to a competitively bid environment this year.  This phased-in approach stands in contrast to the January 1, 2006 implementation of the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, where tens of millions of beneficiaries received new coverage at a single point in time—with logistical obstacles, though significant, relatively minor on a percentage basis.

Legislative Status:  On June 12, 2008, House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) and Ranking Member Dave Camp (R-MI) introduced H.R. 6252, the Medicare DMEPOS Competitive Acquisition Reform Act.  The legislation would terminate all Round 1 contracts made pursuant to the round of competitive bidding completed this spring, and would direct CMS to re-bid Round 1 at some point during 2009.  Future rounds of competitive bidding would also be delayed, with Round 2 (featuring an additional 70 MSAs) taking place during 2011, and competitive bidding in rural areas and smaller MSAs being delayed until 2015.  The estimated $3 billion cost of the delay would be paid for by an across-the-board reduction of 9.5% for all DMEPOS scheduled to be subjected to competitive bidding.  In addition, the bill would require the CMS contractor to notify suppliers missing financial documentation related to their bids, extend disclosure and accreditation requirements to DMEPOS sub-contractors, and establish an ombudsman within CMS to respond to complaints from suppliers and individuals about the DMEPOS competitive bidding process.

While competitive bidding language was not included in the Medicare legislative package (S. 3101) on which the Senate failed to achieve cloture last week, Finance Committee Chairman Baucus and Ranking Member Grassley have discussed incorporating language delaying the competitive bidding process into their competing packages covering an adjustment to Medicare physician reimbursement levels.

Implications of Delay:  Despite the contracting problems that have led some contractors to raise legitimate process concerns about the implementation of the first bidding round, some conservatives may still be concerned about the implications of the proposed legislative delay, particularly if coupled with a mandate that CMS re-bid the first round of DMEPOS bidding.  Re-opening the bidding process could prejudice entities who won their bids earlier this year, while potentially reducing savings to the federal government by allowing suppliers to bid more strategically, having had experience with the winning range of bids during the initial round.

In addition, some conservatives may be concerned that a delay of more than a few months would result in a new Administration being charged with implementation of competitive bidding, which could allow for further opportunities to undermine the program through the regulatory process.  Chairman Stark has indicated his desire to abolish the competitive bidding program altogether, paid for by the across-the-board cut in DMEPOS reimbursement levels currently being contemplated—so it is entirely possible that a new Administration and a future Congress could decide to make the “temporary” delay permanent and abolish competitive bidding outright.

Conclusion:  The debate surrounding DMEPOS competitive bidding finds many medical suppliers—some with understandable concerns about a lack of communication from the bidding contractor, others merely disappointed in not achieving a winning price for their bid—seeking redress from Congress for a bidding mechanism Congress established with the intent of creating arm’s-length transactions between the agency purchasing goods (i.e. CMS) and private suppliers.  Yet the alternative to a competitive bidding system where markets set prices for DMEPOS involves arbitrary reductions to inherently arbitrary fee schedules enacted by policy-makers with little proficiency in the minutiae of the myriad health care services for which the federal government acts as a payer.  As Senate Finance Committee Chairman Baucus conceded at a health care summit: “How in the world am I supposed to know what the proper reimbursement should be for a particular procedure?”[5]

For this reason, some conservatives may object to Congress’ frequent attempts to litigate these types of disputes, and may view the controversy surrounding DMEPOS competitive bidding as emblematic of larger problems with the current entitlement system.  In the myriad debates which it is perpetually pressured to referee—from the sustainable growth mechanism (SGR) to reimbursement levels for hospitals and nursing homes to the levels of epogen provided to kidney dialysis patients—Congress’ firsthand expertise is as limited as its jurisdiction is absolute.  The end result has frequently been an imbalance of attention paid to various reimbursement “crises,” with only secondary consideration given to the longer-term health and solvency of the underlying entitlement programs (i.e. Medicare and Medicaid) in question.

Some conservatives may believe that the lesson from these past and current controversies is that Congress has a poor track record in adjudicating provider-related disputes.  Many may find a better solution in a premium support mechanism that would convert Medicare into a system similar to the Federal Employees Benefit Health Plan (FEHBP), in which beneficiaries would receive a defined contribution from Medicare to purchase a health plan of their choosing.  In addition to ensuring long-term fiscal stability by confining the growth of Medicare spending to the annual statutory raise in the defined contribution limit, a premium support mechanism would result in reimbursement decisions being made by private insurance carriers, obviating the need for Congress to micro-manage provider payment levels.  Such a solution would provide a meaningful reform to the underlying problems that have erupted most recently in the DMEPOS competitive bidding controversy, by saving providers from the whims of Congress—and saving Congress from itself.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly Newsletter: June 16, 2008

Durable Medical Equipment Legislation Introduced

Last Thursday, several House Members led by Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) and Ranking Member Dave Camp (R-MI) introduced legislation (H.R. 6252) to delay implementation of competitive bidding for durable medical equipment. The legislation would nullify contracts which suppliers signed with Medicare earlier this spring and delay implementation of the first round of bidding by at least six months, with the second round delayed by over a year.

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

While there have been logistical difficulties associated with the first round of competitive bidding, some conservatives may still be concerned about the implications of a delay to a program that will save the federal government—and Medicare beneficiaries—billions of dollars by aligning the prices paid by Medicare for medical equipment and supplies with those in the private sector. Delays of the type contemplated by the legislation would delay competitive bidding’s implementation to a future Administration, and could enable a future President and future Congresses to take legislative action to eliminate the program altogether.

The RSC has prepared a Policy Brief on this issue, available here.

“Underinsured” Study’s Findings Subject to Interpretation

Last week several researchers associated with the Commonwealth Fund released a new study claiming that the number of “underinsured Americans” has risen sharply in recent years. According to the authors’ measure of “underinsurance”—medical expenses exceeding 10% of income (5% for low-income populations) or an insurance deductible of 5% of income—the number of “underinsured” Americans rose 60% from 2003 to 2007. This survey follows on the heels of a similar 60 Minutes broadcast on health
insurance that termed an individual receiving free care from an outreach clinic as “underinsured” due to his $500 annual deductible.

Some conservatives may have concerns both with the methodology of the study as well as its underlying rationale. The article releasing the study’s findings did not cite a recent Congressional Budget Office report noting that the percentage of out-of-pocket costs paid directly by individuals—as opposed to a third party insurance carrier or government program—declined from 31% to 13% of all health expenditures from 1975 to 2005. In addition, the survey’s authors did not assess the extent of private savings— whether in a Health Savings Account (HSA) or other vehicle—that could be drawn on by “underinsured” individuals to pay for medical expenses.

More fundamentally, the survey did not consider whether the subject individuals knowingly chose to select a plan with higher deductible exposure in order to receive lower premiums. Some conservatives may believe that implicit in the survey methodology are two questionable premises—the first that no rational person would choose to become “underinsured” according to the study’s definition of the term, and the second that policy-makers, particularly the federal government, should craft “solutions” to respond to this perceived problem. Instead, some conservatives may believe that additional reforms to create a true market in health care have the potential to slow the overall growth in health care costs, which may ultimately make the debate over “underinsurance” moot.

Article of Note: Switzerland in Massachusetts?

Last Friday’s monthly Health Matters column in CongressDaily highlighted the recent budgetary difficulties that the rising cost of health care has created for reformers in Massachusetts, which has seen the estimated cost of its comprehensive plan soar in the two years since its creation. Author Julie Rovner notes that both in its construction and its newfound financial obstacles, the Massachusetts plan looks surprisingly similar to a health reform model first adopted in Switzerland in 1994. While the Swiss model has several characteristics that conservatives may applaud—a wide choice of comprehensive plans, including those with higher deductibles that can yield savings on insurance premiums—as a model of consumer-directed health care, it also includes several forms of regulation—a mandate to purchase insurance coverage, guaranteed issue and community rating restrictions, and a prohibition on profit by carriers selling the standard benefit policy—which some conservatives may argue undermine the savings generated from a more open and transparent health system.

Whether in Switzerland, Massachusetts, or all 50 states, many conservatives have argued that health care needs more competition, not less—not just greater choice among policies for individuals and broader access to information about the price and quality of care, but a streamlining of the bureaucratic regulations that have raised the cost of health insurance. With health care costs continuing to rise at a rate that likely could make reforms like the Massachusetts experiment unsustainable, conservatives may argue that a dose of competition is just the novel concept needed to slow their unrestrained growth.

Comparative Effectiveness Research

Background:  The debate about the growth of health care costs has in recent years begun to focus on disparities in health spending and treatment.  A recent Congressional Budget Office study demonstrated that regional spending on health care varies widely, yet improved care cannot be assumed by higher levels of expenditures.

Amidst rapidly growing health spending and inconsistent levels of care, policy-makers have begun to discuss the development of a research institute to study the comparative effectiveness of medical treatment programs, either by synthesizing and analyzing existing medical data or by conducting firsthand clinical trials to gauge treatments’ efficacy.  Advocates believe that such a center, by generating comprehensive data about the clinical and cost-effectiveness of courses of action for various diseases, could reduce health care cost growth by targeting patients with the most effective treatments and discouraging the use of costly but unproven medical techniques and methods.  While many stakeholders agree that such research should be undertaken, there is less agreement on the composition and funding of the entity that would be empowered to research clinical effectiveness options.

Legislative History:  Last July, the House passed—but the Senate has not considered—health legislation that included the creation of a comparative effectiveness institute.  Section 904 of the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act (H.R. 3162) would create a “Center for Comparative Effectiveness Research” within the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).  The center would be tasked with researching “outcomes, effectiveness, and appropriateness of health care services and procedures in order to identify the manner in which diseases, disorders, and other health conditions can most effectively and appropriately be prevented, diagnosed, treated, and managed clinically.”

The Center would be financed through the establishment of a Health Care Comparative Effectiveness Research Trust Fund within the U.S. Treasury.  The Fund would receive transfers from the Medicare Trust Funds to finance the research program for fiscal years 2008-2010.  Beginning in fiscal year 2011, funding would continue to flow from the Medicare Trust Funds, but it would be supplemented by a new tax on healthcare insurance policies.  The tax would be imposed on most health insurance policies (except for workers’ compensation, tort liabilities, property, credit insurance, or Medicare supplemental coverage) at a per capita amount needed to generate $375 million annually, in conjunction with resources from the Medicare Trust Funds.  The Secretary of the HHS would determine the “fair share” per capita amount, but the bill’s provisions are expected to generate at least $2 billion over ten years.  While H.R. 3162 states that insurance carriers (or the sponsors of self-insured policies) will pay this new tax, it does not (and cannot) account for the fact that this tax will likely be passed along to consumers, raising premium costs and potentially increasing the number of Americans who cannot afford private health insurance.

H.R. 3162 would also draw down substantial funds from the Medicare Trust Funds over time, $300 million over the first three fiscal years and up to $90 million each fiscal year thereafter.  Medicare Part A (hospital services) is financed by payroll taxes, and according to the nonpartisan Medicare Trustees, it is scheduled for bankruptcy in 2019—thus committing its resources for additional research will further expedite its bankruptcy.  In addition, Medicare Part B (supplementary services) is financed in part from beneficiary premiums that rise as the cost of the program rises—thus tapping these funds for research amounts to a tax on every senior enrolled in Medicare Part B.

Future Outlook:  Because provisions unrelated to comparative effectiveness make action on the CHAMP Act unlikely in the Senate, lawmakers and various stakeholder groups continue to engage in discussions about the way to create a research institute.  Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) have discussed introducing stand-alone legislation on this topic; news reports indicate that their bill would fund a comparative effectiveness research institute solely from federal coffers, while House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) believes that a premium tax should help to fund the institute, so that private insurance carriers would have a financial stake in its work product.

With the current Medicare physician payment “fix” scheduled to expire June 30, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle promising legislative action to address physician reimbursements, it is entirely possible that some form of comparative effectiveness center could be established as part of such legislation.

Implications of Comparative Effectiveness:  Apart from the concerns some conservatives may have regarding any new federal taxes to finance a comparative effectiveness institute, the research undertaken by such a center could well have significant repercussions for the role of the federal government in health care.  Any research undertaken would likely have an impact on the number and types of services covered by Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the treatment options and techniques utilized by physicians desiring reimbursement.  Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag recently admitted that “the big kick” in savings associated with comparative effectiveness research would stem from insurers—and likely the federal government—implementing “changes in financial incentives tied to the research.”[1]  Although the CHAMP Act did not include provisions altering reimbursement levels to reflect comparative effectiveness research, or empowering the ostensibly non-partisan institute to do the same, such legislative measures would be a likely outcome from creation of an effectiveness center.

In addition, examples of comparative effectiveness institutes established overseas have raised concerns about whether such an approach would lead to delays in obtaining care and/or rationing of services.  In the United Kingdom, Sarah Anderson, an ophthalmologist working in Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), recently published an article criticizing the NHS for inhibiting access to care for her critically ill father.  Her father’s kidney tumor could be treated by a new drug—but while the pharmaceutical has been approved for use in Europe for two years, Britain’s National Institute for Clinical Effectiveness (NICE) will not complete its assessment of the drug’s usefulness until January.  Until then, local NHS branches can refuse to provide the drug, leaving Anderson’s family to pay for their father’s treatment on their own, or face the inevitable consequences that will follow if he cannot obtain it.  Anderson’s ultimate verdict on her family’s dilemma is a sobering one: “If Dad should lose his life to cancer, it would be devastating—but to lose his life to bureaucracy would be far, far worse.”

Some conservatives may find these overseas examples of the delays resulting from a publicly-run comparative effectiveness institute a cautionary tale for those who would establish a similar institute under the aegis of the federal government.  Conservatives may not only believe that such an approach would put bureaucrats, and not doctors and patients, at the center of medical policy, but would also result in the types of costly delays and care rationing that put lives at stake.

Conclusion:  While the goals of a comparative effectiveness institute are certainly commendable in an era of rapidly rising health spending, some conservatives may be concerned at both the means of financing an institute and its impact on the federal role in health care.  Although an institute voluntarily created and funded by private insurance or other groups could be useful, a public-private entity financed by premium taxes may only encourage lawmakers to enact additional legislative measures designed to micro-manage the doctor-patient relationship and expand an already considerable bureaucracy within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  In short, some conservatives may be concerned that comparative effectiveness research done by the public sector could become a euphemism for government-rationed health care.

If the federal government wishes to slow the growth of Medicare spending, some conservatives might find a better solution in comprehensive Medicare reform that transforms the current program into a system similar to that under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), whereby beneficiaries would receive a defined contribution from Medicare to select a health plan of their own choosing.  These health plans could employ the results of comparative effectiveness research in their reimbursement policies, and consumers could use those criteria—as well as any “Consumer Reports”-type publications released by private entities—in evaluating both a health plan to purchase and treatment options for a particular medical condition.

 

[1] Quoted in Fawn Johnson, “Bills Pushed to Gauge Effectiveness of Medical Treatments,” CongressDaily 17 March 2008, available online at http://nationaljournal.com/pubs/congressdaily/dj080317.htm#5 (accessed March 18, 2008).