The CBO Report on Single Payer Isn’t the One We Deserve to See

On Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a 30-page report analyzing a single-payer health insurance plan. While the publication explained some policy considerations behind such a massive change to America’s health care market, it included precious few specifics about such a change—like what it would cost.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), perhaps single payer’s biggest supporter, serves as the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. If he asked the budget scorekeepers to analyze his legislation in full to determine what it would cost, and how to go about paying for the spending, CBO would give it high-priority treatment.

But to the best of this observer’s knowledge, that hasn’t happened. Might that be because the senator does not want to know—or, more specifically, does not want the public to know—the dirty secrets behind his proposed health-care takeover?

Hypothetical Scenarios

The CBO report examined single payer as an academic policy exercise, running through various options for establishing and operating such a mechanism. In the span of roughly thirty pages, the report used the word “would” 245 times and “could” 209 times, outlining various hypothetical scenarios.

That said, CBO did highlight several potential implications of a single-payer system for both the demand and supply of care. For instance, “free” health care could lead to major increases in demand that the government system could not meet:

An expansion of insurance coverage under a single-payer system would increase the demand for care and put pressure on the available supply of care. People who are currently uninsured would receive coverage, and some people who are currently insured could receive additional benefits under the single-payer system, depending on its design. Whether the supply of providers would be adequate to meet the greater demand would depend on various components of the system, such as provider payment rates. If the number of providers was not sufficient to meet demand, patients might face increased wait times and reduced access to care.

The report noted that in the United Kingdom, a system of global budgets—a concept included in the House’s single-payer legislation—has led to massive strains on the health-care system. Because payments to hospitals have not kept up with inflation, hospitals have had to reduce the available supply of care, leading to annual “winter crises” within the National Health Service:

In England, the global budget is allocated to approximately 200 local organizations that are responsible for paying for health care. Since 2010, the global budget in England has grown by about 1 percent annually in real (inflation-adjusted) terms, compared with an average real growth of about 4 percent previously. The relatively slow growth in the global budget since 2010 has created severe financial strains on the health care system. Provider payment rates have been reduced, many providers have incurred financial deficits, and wait times for receiving care have increased.

While cutting payments to hospitals could cause pain in the short term, CBO noted that reducing reimbursement levels could also have consequences in the long term, dissuading people from taking up medicine to permanently reduce the capacity of America’s health-care market:

Changes in provider payment rates under the single-payer system could have longer-term effects on the supply of providers. If the average provider payment rate under a single-payer system was significantly lower than it currently is, fewer people might decide to enter the medical profession in the future. The number of hospitals and other health care facilities might also decline as a result of closures, and there might be less investment in new and existing facilities. That decline could lead to a shortage of providers, longer wait times, and changes in the quality of care, especially if patient demand increased substantially because many previously uninsured people received coverage and if previously insured people received more generous benefits.

That said, because the report did not analyze a specific legislative proposal, its proverbial “On the one hand, on the other hand” approach generates a distinctly muted tone.

Tax Increases Ahead

To give some perspective, the report spent a whopping two pages discussing “How Would a Single Payer System Be Financed?” (Seriously.) This raises the obvious question: If single-payer advocates think their bill would improve the lives of ordinary Americans, because the middle class would save so much money by not having to pay insurance premiums, wouldn’t they want the Congressional Budget Office to fully analyze how much money people would save?

During his Fox News town hall debate last month, Sanders claimed a large show of support from blue-collar residents of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for single payer. The ostensible support might have something to do with Sanders’ claim during the town hall that “the overwhelming majority of people are going to end up paying less for health care because they’re not paying premiums, co-payments, and deductibles.”

Where have we heard that kind of rhetoric before? Oh yeah—I remember:

At least one analysis has already discounted the accuracy of Sanders’ claims about people paying less. In scrutinizing Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign plan, Emory University economist Kenneth Thorpe concluded that the plan had a $10 trillion—yes, that’s $10 trillion—hole in its financing mechanism.

Filling that hole with tax increases meant that 71 percent of households would pay more under single payer than under the status quo, because taxes would have to go up by an average of 20 percentage points. Worse yet, 85 percent of Medicaid households—that is, people with the lowest incomes—would pay more, because a single-payer system would have to rely on regressive payroll taxes, which hit the poor hardest, to fund socialized medicine.

Put Up or Shut Up, Bernie

If Sanders really wants to prove the accuracy of his statement at the Fox News town hall, he should 1) ask CBO to score his bill, 2) release specific tax increases to pay for the spending in the bill, and 3) ask CBO to analyze the number of households that would pay more, and pay less, under the bill and all its funding mechanisms.

That said, I’m not holding my breath. A full, public, and honest accounting of single payer, and how to pay for it, would expose the game of three-card monty that underpins Sanders’ rhetoric. But conservatives should keep pushing for Sanders to request that score from CBO—better yet, they should request it themselves.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Single Payer Wouldn’t Make Health Care a “Right”

In talking about his single-payer bill, which he reintroduced in the Senate on Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders often claims that “I want to end the international embarrassment of the United States of America being the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people as a right and not a privilege.”

But his legislation would do no such thing. Understanding why demonstrates the inherent drawbacks of his government-centered approach to health policy.

In our own country, low reimbursement rates in many state Medicaid programs can make finding doctors difficult. One 2011 study found that two-thirds of specialist physicians would not accept Medicaid patients, whereas only 11 percent of patients with private insurance could not obtain appointments. Patients with Medicaid also had to wait an average of three weeks longer for an appointment for the few doctors who would see them.

Medicaid suffers from so many access problems that one former director of a state program called a Medicaid card a “hunting license,” because it “gave you a chance to go find a doctor.” That’s the only “guarantee” the Sanders bill actually provides—the guarantee you can try to go find care, not a guarantee you can receive it.

But “access to a waiting list is not access to care.” So ruled four Canadian justices in a landmark 2005 ruling, Chaoulli v. Quebec. In that case, Canada’s Supreme Court overturned Quebec’s ban on private health insurance, finding that it “interfere[d] with life and security,” because “the government is failing to deliver health care in a reasonable manner.”

Indeed, delays and long waits for care plague Canada’s single-payer health system. One study found that approximately 3 percent of the nation’s population remained on waiting lists for care in 2018. From physician referral to the start of treatment, waiting times averaged five months—double that for orthopedic surgery cases.

Government-run health care systems traditionally attempt to contain costs by limiting the available supply of care. Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) follows the same approach as Canada’s single payer system. So patients wait for care there, also.

Consider what happened just last year, when the winter flu outbreak created a national “crisis”: The NHS had to cancel tens of thousands of operations, emergency rooms resembled “Third World” conditions, and ambulances waited for hours to unload patients—because hospitals had no place to put them.

The language in Sanders’ legislation demonstrates how, instead of making health care a “right,” single payer would instead increase demand for care—demand the system could not fulfill. To add insult to injury, the Sanders bill would ban private health insurance—the same type of ban Canada’s Supreme Court struck down—here to the United States, giving patients little way out of a clogged government health system.

Promises aside, Sanders’ “guarantee” of coverage would quickly turn into a guarantee that patients would wait, and wait, for care. The American people deserve better.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Poll: People Care MORE About Rising Costs Than Pre-Existing Conditions

Now they tell us! A Gallup poll, conducted last month to coincide with the midterm elections and released on Tuesday, demonstrated what I had posited for much of the summer: Individuals care more about rising health insurance premiums than coverage of pre-existing condition protections.

Of course, liberal think tanks and the media had no interest in promoting this narrative, posing misleading and one-sided polling questions to conclude that individuals liked Obamacare’s pre-existing condition “protections,” without simultaneously asking whether people liked the cost of those provisions.

Overwhelming Concern about Premiums

Ironically, a majority of 57 percent said the denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions did not constitute a major concern for them, with only 42 percent agreeing with the statement. Lest one believe that the relative insouciance over pre-existing conditions came because Democrats won a majority in the House, therefore “protecting” Obamacare, Gallup conducted the survey from November 1–11, meaning more than half the survey period came before the American people knew the election outcome.

By comparison, more than three-fifths (61 percent) of respondents viewed rising premiums as a major concern, with only 37 percent not viewing it as such. Not only did premiums register as a bigger concern by 19 percentage points overall, it registered as a larger concern in each and every demographic group Gallup surveyed:

Income under $30,000: +15 percent (70 percent said premiums were a major concern, 55 percent said pre-existing condition coverage was a major concern)

Income between $30,000-$75,000: +19 percent (63 percent premiums, 44 percent pre-ex)

Income above $75,000: +24 percent (57 percent premiums, 33 percent pre-ex)

On Medicare/Medicaid: +16 percent (60 percent premiums, 44 percent pre-ex)

On private insurance: +24 percent (60 percent premiums, 36 percent pre-ex)

Republicans: +25 percent (52 percent premiums, 27 percent pre-ex)

Independents: +19 percent (64 percent premiums, 45 percent pre-ex)

Democrats: +16 percent (68 percent premiums, 52 percent pre-ex)

Aged 18-29: +16 percent (54 percent premiums, 38 percent pre-ex)

Aged 30-49: +23 percent (65 percent premiums, 42 percent pre-ex)

Aged 50-64: +21 percent (67 percent premiums, 46 percent pre-ex)

Aged over 65: +13 percent (57 percent premiums, 44 percent pre-ex)

Men: +18 percent (56 percent premiums, 38 percent pre-ex)

Women: +20 percent (67 percent premiums, 47 percent pre-ex)

With those double-digit margins (i.e., outside the poll’s margin of error) in every demographic group—including among groups more likely concerned about pre-existing conditions, for reasons either practical (i.e., older Americans) or ideological (i.e., Democrats)—Gallup has overwhelming evidence to support its claim that “concerns are greatest about the possibility of having to pay higher premiums.”

Premiums more than doubled from 2013 to 2017, as the law’s major provisions, including the pre-existing condition requirements, took effect. They again rose sharply in 2018, causing approximately 2.5 million individuals to drop their Obamacare-compliant coverage completely.

Not a Surprise Outcome

The Gallup results confirm prior surveys from the Cato Institute, which also demonstrate that support for Obamacare’s pre-existing condition provisions drops dramatically once people recognize the trade-offs—namely, higher premiums and a “race to the bottom” among insurers, reducing access to specialist providers and lowering the quality of care:

But the polling suggests that Democrats have no such mandate, and that they should think again in their approach. Rather than making an already bad situation worse, and potentially raising premiums yet again, they should examine alternatives that can solve the pre-existing condition problem (and yes, it is a problem) by making it easier for people to buy coverage before they develop a pre-existing condition in the first place.

As the polling indicates, the American people—to say nothing of the 2.5 million priced out of the marketplace in the past 12 months—will thank them for doing so.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Florida Democrats’ Campaign to Abolish Seniors’ Medicare

Full disclosure: I have done paid consulting work for Florida’s current governor, Rick Scott, in his campaign against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. And I have provided informal advice to Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for governor. However, neither the Scott nor DeSantis campaigns had any involvement with this article, and my views are—as always—my own.

On Tuesday, Democrats in Florida nominated an unusual candidate for governor, and it has nothing to do with his skin color or background. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who would serve as Florida’s first African-American governor if elected, says on his campaign’s website that the health plan U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has offered at the national level “will help lower costs and expand coverage to more Floridians.”

SEC. 901. RELATIONSHIP TO EXISTING FEDERAL HEALTH PROGRAMS.

(a) MEDICARE, MEDICAID, AND STATE CHILDREN’S HEALTH INSURANCE PROGRAM (SCHIP).—

(1) IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law, subject to paragraphs (2) and (3)—

(A) no benefits shall be available under title XVIII of the Social Security Act for any item or service furnished beginning on or after the effective date of benefits under section 106(a)… [emphasis added].

In case you didn’t know, Title XVIII of the Social Security Act refers to Medicare. Section 901(a)(1)(A) of Sanders’ bill, which he brands as “Medicare-for-all,” would prohibit the Medicare program from paying out any benefits once the single-payer system takes effect. Section 701(d) of his bill would liquidate the Medicare trust funds, transferring “any funds remaining in” them to the single-payer plan.

In other words, Democrats just nominated as a statewide candidate in Florida—a state with the highest population of seniors, and where seniors and near-seniors (i.e., all those over age 50) comprise nearly half of the voting electorate—someone who, notwithstanding Sanders’ claims about his single-payer bill, supports legislation that would abolish Medicare for seniors entirely. Good luck with that.

That’s What ‘Radical Experiment’ Means, Folks

The recent hullabaloo over an estimated budget score of the Sanders plan, which would require tens of trillions—yes, I said trillions—of dollars in tax increases, highlighted only one element of its radical nature. However, as I pointed out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this year, the Sanders experiment would go far beyond raising taxes, by abolishing traditional Medicare, along with just about every other form of insurance.

Everyone else, which is roughly 300 million people, would lose their current coverage. Traditional Medicare, Medicaid, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program would all evaporate. Even the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program would disappear.

With those changes in coverage, people could well lose access to their current doctors. As a study earlier this summer noted, medical providers like doctors and hospitals would get paid at much lower reimbursement rates, of 40 percent lower than private insurance. (A liberal blogger claimed earlier this week that, because other payers reimburse at lower levels than private insurers, the average pay cut to a doctor or hospital may total “only” 11-13 percent.)

Doctors and hospitals would also have to provide more health care services to more people, since “free” health care without co-payments will induce more demand for care. If you think doctors will voluntarily work longer hours for even less pay, I’ve got some land I want to sell you.

Déjà vu All Over Again?

In 1983, the British Labour Party wrote an election manifesto that one of its own members of Parliament famously dubbed “the longest suicide note in history.” That plan pledged unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher taxes on the rich, to abolish the House of Lords, and renationalization of multiple industries.

Although Sanders’ bill weighs in at 96 pages in total, opponents of the legislation can sum up its contents much more quickly: “It abolishes Medicare for seniors.” That epithet could prove quite a short suicide note for Gillum—and the Left’s socialist dreams around the country.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Study Contradicts Claims of California’s Obamacare “Success”

Liberals have cited California as the prototypical Obamacare success story for years now, but a new study puts that assertion very much in doubt. Five years ago, even before Obamacare’s exchanges went live, The New York Times’ Paul Krugman claimed California would prove that “a program designed to help a lot of people can, strange to say, end up helping a lot of people — especially when government officials actually try to make it work.”

Reporters have chimed in with similar stories about Obamacare’s supposed success in California. During the presidential campaign in 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported that “California is emerging as a clear illustration of what the law can achieve.” The article quoted several insurers saying the state “did it right,” and had created stable insurance markets.

Emergency Rooms Are Getting More, Not Less, Use

The study, conducted by the California Health Care Foundation, examined emergency department usage over the ten years from 2006 to 2016. While the report, perhaps quite deliberately, didn’t highlight this conclusion — it mentioned Obamacare once, and only in passing — the data indicate that emergency department usage since Obamacare has not only not decreased, it has accelerated, rising at a faster rate than in prior years.

One chart tells the tale:

The study indicates that ER usage accelerated in the years immediately following Obamacare’s implementation, just as it shows Medicaid patients comprised a larger share of ER visits. From 2006 through 2016, Medicaid patients nearly doubled as a share of ER visitors, while ER visitors with private insurance and no insurance both declined:

Unfortunately, this chart does not reveal data for the years immediately before and after Obamacare implementation in 2014, making it tougher to draw direct conclusions. However, the 20 percentage point increase in ER visits by Medicaid patients (California calls its Medicaid program “Medi-Cal”) more than outweighs the 9 percentage point decline in self-pay and uninsured patients and the 4 percentage point decline in patients with other forms of coverage.

While private patients’ ER usage held relatively flat over the decade, the nearly 4 million increase in ER visits by Medicaid patients swamped the combined 863,000 fewer visits by self-pay and uninsured patients and patients with other coverage.

To put it bluntly, the raw data from the California study suggest the state has less of a problem with an overall increase in ER visits and much more of a problem with an explosion in Medicaid patient ER visits. That inconvenient truth might explain why the California Health Care Foundation didn’t highlight the impact of Medicaid, or Obamacare’s expansion of it, in the report itself.

California Study Echoes Oregon ‘Experiment’

In 2016, a group of economists released an updated analysis from Oregon, which concluded that ER usage increased, not decreased, by 40 percent for participants in the Medicaid expansion. The increased ER usage persisted for at least two years, making it unlikely that it existed solely due to “pent-up demand” — i.e., individuals using their new insurance coverage to have lingering but previously untreated problems examined.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that giving patients a more normal source of coverage would decrease ER utilization, the Oregon study found that usage of health care services increased across-the-board, including emergency department visits.

The California study did not reveal whether access problems resulted in the 170 percent increase in ER visits by Medicaid patients. The state has notoriously stingy payment rates for Medicaid providers, which could impede patients from accessing primary care, forcing them to use the emergency room instead.

At minimum, however, the study once again demonstrates how Obamacare has failed to deliver on its promise to lower the cost of health care by providing that care in a more timely fashion and at the most efficient location. The increase in ER usage by Medicaid patients also raises questions about whether an insurance card provides access to actual health care.

Five years ago, I wrote about how Krugman’s claims of California’s Obamacare success echoed The Mamas and the Papas: little more than California Dreamin’. Last week’s study reiterates how liberal claims that the state represents an Obamacare “success story” remain nothing more than a pipe dream.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Single-Payer Supporters Defy Common Sense

The move to enact single-payer health care in the United States always suffered from major math problems. This week, it revived another: Common sense.

On Monday, the Mercatus Center published an analysis of single-payer legislation like that promoted by socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). While conservatives highlighted the estimated $32.6 trillion price tag for the legislation, liberals rejoiced.

Riiiiiigggggggghhhhhhhhhttttt. As the old saying goes, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Given that even single-payer supporters have now admitted that the plan will lead to rationing of health care, the public shouldn’t just walk away from Sanders’ plan—they should run.

National Versus Federal Health Spending

Sanders’ claim arises because of two different terms the Mercatus paper uses. While Mercatus emphasized the way the bill would increase federal health spending, Sanders chose to focus on the study’s estimates about national health spending.

Although it sounds large in absolute terms, the Mercatus paper assumes only a slight drop for health spending in relative terms. It estimates a total of $2.05 trillion in lower national health expenditures over a decade from single-payer. But national health expenditures would total $59.7 trillion over the same time span—meaning that, if Mercatus’ assumptions prove correct, single-payer would reduce national health expenditures by roughly 3.4 percent.

Four Favorable Assumptions Skew the Results

However, to arrive at their estimate that single-payer would reduce overall health spending, the Mercatus paper relies on four highly favorable assumptions. Removing any one of these assumptions could mean that instead of lowering health care spending, single-payer legislation would instead raise it.

First, Mercatus adjusted projected health spending upward, to reflect that single-payer health care would cover all Americans. Because the Sanders plan would also abolish deductibles and co-payments for most procedures, study author Chuck Blahous added an additional factor reflecting induced demand by the currently insured, because patients will see the doctor more when they face no co-payments for doing so.

Second, the Mercatus study assumes that a single-payer plan can successfully use Medicare reimbursement rates. However, the non-partisan Medicare actuary has concluded that those rates already will cause half of hospitals to have overall negative total facility margins by 2040, jeopardizing access to care for seniors.

Expanding these lower payment rates to all patients would jeopardize even more hospitals’ financial solvency. But paying doctors and hospitals market-level reimbursement rates for patients would raise the cost of a single-payer system by $5.4 trillion over ten years—more than wiping away any supposed “savings” from the bill.

Finally, the Mercatus paper “assumes substantial administrative cost savings,” relying on “an aggressive estimate” that replacing private insurance with one single-payer system will lower health spending. Mercatus made such an assumption even though spending on administrative costs increased by nearly $26 billion, or more than 12.3 percent, in 2014, Obamacare’s first year of full implementation.

Likewise, government programs, unlike private insurance, have less incentive to fight fraud, as only the latter face financial ruin from it. The $60 billion problem of fraud in Medicare provides more than enough reason to doubt much administrative savings from a single-payer system.

Apply the Common Sense Test

But put all the technical arguments aside for a moment. As I noted above, whether a single-payer health-care system will reduce overall health expenses rests on a relatively simple question: Will doctors and hospitals agree to provide more care to more patients for the same amount of money?

Whether single-payer will lead to less paperwork for doctors remains an open question. Given the amount of time people spend filing their taxes every year, I have my doubts that a fully government-run system would generate major improvements.

But regardless of whether providers get any paperwork relief from single-payer, the additional patients will come to their doors seeking care, and existing patients will demand more services once government provides them for “free.” Yet doctors and hospitals won’t get paid any more for providing those additional services. The Mercatus study estimates that spending reductions due to the application of Medicare’s price controls to the entire population will all but wipe out the increase in spending from new patient demand.

If Sanders wants to take a “victory lap” for a study arguing that millions of health care workers will receive the same amount of money for doing more work, I have four words for him: Good luck with that.

Health Care Rationing Ahead

I’ll give the last word to, of all things, a “socialist perspective.” One blog post yesterday actually claimed the Mercatus study underestimated the potential savings under single-payer: “[The study] assumes utilization of health services will increase by 11 percent, but aggregate health service utilization is ultimately dependent on the capacity to provide services, meaning utilization could hit a hard limit below the level [it] projects” (emphasis mine).

In other words, spending will fall because so many will demand “free” health care that government will have to ration it. To socialists who yearningly long to exercise such power over their fellow citizens, such rationing sounds like their utopian dream. But therein lies their logic problem, for any American with common sense would disagree.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Dr. Nick Riviera Explains Obamacare

Dr. Nick Riviera From ‘The Simpsons’ Explains Obamacare

He graduated from Hollywood Upstairs Medical College, thinks “choc-o-tastic” qualifies as a food group, and has a strange habit of jumping out of windows when called to the coroner’s office. He’s also an animated character, for what it’s worth. So what does Dr. Nick Riviera, Springfield’s resident quack on “The Simpsons,” have to do with Obamacare?

As it happens, plenty. Dr. Nick provides a humorous example of what may happen in future years, as cascading reductions in reimbursements due to Obamacare wreak havoc on our health care system—and could make “doctors” like Dr. Nick the only access option for some patients.

Productivity Adjustments Ahead

Most economists consider health care a superior good. That is, as income rises, people want more of it. Moreover, in many cases patients equate price with quality. People generally want the most, and best, health care money can buy, even if the most expensive care does not always equate to the best care. In Springfield, that high-cost care gets provided by giggling physician Dr. Julius Hibbert.

Obamacare included several major changes to reimbursement systems that attempted to change this drive for more, and more expensive, care, but also included arbitrary payment reductions that will lead to abysmally low payment levels. Most notably, the law included so-called “productivity adjustments” to the Medicare formula for hospitals and other providers, reducing the growth of their payments every year.

The CEO of a major hospital trade association admitted back in 2010 that this trade-off—a one-time increase in insured patients for hospitals in exchange for lower payments from Medicare forever—probably didn’t amount to a great deal for his industry in the longer term. Nonpartisan budget experts agree.

The Congressional Budget Office in September 2016 released an analysis showing the Obamacare productivity adjustments could more than double the number of unprofitable hospitals nationwide by 2025. In the longer term, the independent Medicare actuary believes that the productivity adjustments will become unsustainable. As Medicare payment levels keep dropping relative to private insurance, they will make 70 percent of skilled nursing facilities and 80 percent of home health agencies unprofitable, “raising the prospect of access and quality-of-care issues for Medicare beneficiaries.”

Although set by another formula—one created in 2015 rather than in Obamacare itself—Medicare physician payment rates face the same dilemma, as simulations also project payments to decline substantially over time when compared to other forms of coverage.

‘You’ve Tried the Best—Now Try the Rest!’

Into this payment breach steps none other than Dr. Nick Riviera. In season three of “The Simpsons,” the title family had to rely on Dr. Nick to perform open-heart surgery on Homer. Because Homer’s insurance wouldn’t cover the operation, the family turned to Dr. Nick upon seeing his television ad, in which he pledged to undertake any surgery for the ridiculously low price of $129.95. (“Call 1-600-DOCTORB—The B is for bargain!”)

The following scenes show an inept Dr. Nick attempting to learn bypass surgery on the fly. Only a well-timed intervention from smarty-pants daughter Lisa allows Dr. Nick to complete the surgery successfully, resulting in a happy ending for the Simpson clan.

Coming to a Hospital Near You?

Liberals might argue that this episode makes the case for Obamacare, by preventing the kind of care denials that led Homer to Dr. Nick in the first place. But in reality, Obamacare insurance plans currently provide increasingly narrow provider networks that could impede access to care. Moreover, the law’s productivity adjustments, by making hospitals and other providers unprofitable, will increasingly limit access to care for seniors in Medicare over time.

Democrats claim Obamacare made no changes to Medicare, and that reducing reimbursement levels amounts to no more than cutting “waste” out of the system. “Your guaranteed benefits won’t change,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi argues.

That argument only holds merit to the extent that providers will accept lower and lower reimbursement levels in perpetuity. Medicare could lower payments for all surgeries to $129.95, but I doubt anyone other than our good friend Dr. Nick will perform them at that price.

So the next time Democrats try to argue that Obamacare didn’t harm Medicare, or will have a positive effect on our health-care system, think of Dr. Nick. In less time than you expect, his real-life equivalent could be coming to a doctor’s office or hospital near you.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Reforming Medicaid in Louisiana

A PDF of this document is available at the Pelican Institute website.

Two years ago, the incoming administration of Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA) pledged that expanding Medicaid to able-bodied adults, as permitted under Obamacare, would help solve Louisiana’s ongoing structural budget shortfalls. Unfortunately, the Governor’s promises have not come to fruition. Enrollment in the Medicaid expansion has exceeded projections—as have the costs associated with that expansion. As a result, Louisiana faces a scenario plaguing many states that expanded Medicaid: Rising spending on expansion crowding out other important budgetary priorities like education, transportation, and law enforcement.

Democrats have already proposed a series of tax increases to “solve” the state’s fiscal crisis.[1] But that “solution” misses the point—and won’t actually solve the problem. Rather than raising taxes yet again, to pay for more unaffordable health care spending, Louisiana should both right-size and reform its Medicaid program. Right-sizing the program would involve unwinding the massive expansion to the able-bodied—working-age adults without dependent children—to return Medicaid to serving the populations for which it was originally designed—pregnant women, children, senior citizens, and individuals with disabilities.

After right-sizing the Medicaid program, state leaders should then work to reform and modernize Medicaid for the 21st century. Specifically, Louisiana should work with the Trump Administration to enact a comprehensive Medicaid reform waiver. This waiver could include components to improve coordination of beneficiary care, introduce consumer choice elements into Medicaid, provide a smoother transition to work and employer-based coverage for those who are able to work, and improve program integrity to use scarce taxpayer dollars most effectively.

Individually and collectively, the policy solutions outlined in this paper—unwinding Medicaid expansion and embracing a comprehensive waiver to enact additional reforms—would help put Louisiana on a more sustainable fiscal trajectory, eliminating the need for the tax-and-spend battles of the past several years. By so doing, the state could focus more on enacting reforms necessary for the economy to thrive, bringing jobs back to Louisiana.

 

Massive Expansion

Fewer than two years since Louisiana first expanded Medicaid under Obamacare to able-bodied adults, enrollment in the expansion has already shattered expectations. While officials first projected about 306,000 previously uninsured individuals would gain coverage through expansion, within days of Gov. Edwards signing the executive order authorizing Medicaid expansion, state officials revised their estimates dramatically upward. At that time, officials claimed that as many as 450,000 Louisianans could be added to the Medicaid rolls by expansion.[2] However, even this projection turned out to be an under-estimate, as by December 2017 enrollment reached 456,004, exceeding the higher projection.[3] Louisiana officials admit that, as enrollment exceeds the original 306,000 projection, costs to the state will increase, reducing the state’s supposed fiscal savings.[4]

The fact that Louisiana’s Medicaid expansion has exceeded enrollment projections should come as no surprise. In fact, virtually every state that expanded Medicaid to the able-bodied under Obamacare has seen vastly more enrollees than they had originally planned for. A November 2016 study by the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) showed that 24 states’ Medicaid expansion had within two years exceeded projections for the maximum number of individuals that would ever enroll in the Obamacare expansion by an average of 110%.[5]

An earlier report by FGA, issued in April 2015, found that enrollment had exceeded estimates in 17 states. Collectively, those 17 states exceeded their maximum enrollment projections by an average of “only” 61%.[6] By comparison, just eighteen months later, a total of 24 states had exceeded their maximum enrollment projections by more than 110%—amounting to over 6 million enrollees more than projected.[7] More states continue to enroll many more individuals than projected in Medicaid expansion, even after many states already exceeded projections in the expansion’s first year.

The enrollment explosion in “free” Medicaid contrasts with more limited enrollment in Obamacare’s other venue for coverage expansion—health insurance Exchanges. While Medicaid enrollment vastly exceeded projections, as of the 2017 open enrollment period, effectuated Exchange enrollment stood at only 10.3 million individuals.[8] This enrollment figure represents less than half the 23 million individuals the Congressional Budget Office estimated at the time of Obamacare’s enactment would sign up for Exchange coverage in 2017.[9]

Moreover, studies suggest that only individuals who qualify for the most generous subsidies have joined insurance Exchanges in significant numbers. The consulting firm Avalere Health concluded that more than four in five (81%) eligible individuals with incomes of under 150% of the federal poverty level—who qualify for both the richest premiums subsidies and reduced deductibles and co-payments—have signed up for Exchange coverage.[10] By comparison, only about one-sixth (16%) of those with incomes between three and four times the poverty level—who qualify for much smaller premium subsidies, and receive no help with cost-sharing—purchased Exchange coverage.[11] Put simply, while individuals quickly sign up for “free,” or nearly free, health insurance coverage, including through Medicaid, they have signed up much more slowly for health plans for which they must make a financial contribution.

 

Massive—and Rising—Costs

Even prior to Obamacare, Medicaid had grown exponentially over the past several decades to become a larger and larger share of Louisiana’s state budget. In fiscal year 1985, Medicaid represented 8.9% of Louisiana’s total budgetary expenditures.[12] Thirty years later, in fiscal year 2015, Medicaid had more than tripled as a share of the state budget, rising to 27.6% of total expenditures.[13]

The rising tide of Medicaid spending in Louisiana echoes national trends. In fiscal year 1985, Medicaid consumed an average of 9.7% of total state expenditures across all 50 states.[14] By comparison, in fiscal year 2013, the last year before Obamacare’s expansion took effect, Medicaid represented an average of 24.4% of state spending.[15] Over a quarter-century, then, Medicaid spending more than doubled as a share of state spending—before most of Obamacare’s effects kicked in.

However, even when compared to other states, Louisiana suffered from skyrocketing Medicaid spending prior to Obamacare expansion taking effect. The Pew Charitable Trusts noted that, during the years 2000-2015, Medicaid grew the fastest in Louisiana when measured as a share of the state’s own spending. During that time, Medicaid grew by 12.8 percentage points—from 10.5% of the state’s spending to 23.3% of state dollars.[16] As a result of that growth in Medicaid spending, Louisiana was the state most dependent on federal funds in fiscal year 2015, using money from Washington to comprise 42.2% of its budget—again, before Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion ever took effect in Louisiana.[17]

States like Louisiana that chose to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied face additional rising costs, due to both higher than expected enrollment in Medicaid expansion and higher than expected per-beneficiary spending for those expansion enrollees. In late 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Office of the Actuary released its annual report on the state of the Medicaid program. The report found that, contrary to projections that expansion enrollees would have per-beneficiary costs lower than previously eligible Medicaid beneficiaries, states actually faced higher per-beneficiary costs for the expansion population than their prior enrollees.[18] In 2016, expansion enrollees cost the Medicaid program an average of $5,926, compared to average spending of $5,215 for non-expansion adults.[19]

The higher spending on Medicaid expansion enrollees has now persisted for several years, contrary to predictions before the coverage expansion took effect. At first, the CMS actuary thought that the higher spending came from pent-up demand for health care—previously uninsured enrollees using their newfound Medicaid coverage to cover heretofore-neglected health conditions.[20] However, the 2014, 2015, and 2016 annual reports on Medicaid all demonstrated higher per-beneficiary spending for expansion populations than those eligible prior to Obamacare.[21]

Echoing the national trends, Medicaid per-beneficiary spending in Louisiana remains higher for expansion enrollees than previously eligible beneficiaries. State officials admit that in fiscal year 2017, spending for expansion enrollees totaled $6,712 per adult—more than 20% higher than the $5,575 spent on non-expansion enrollees.[22] Liberal supporters of the expansion claim that the disparity arises from pent-up demand by new enrollees—the same assumption federal actuaries made.[23] However, the higher spending by expansion enrollees over several years at the federal level suggests that higher spending by expansion enrollees may persist in Louisiana as well.

With enrollment higher than initial projections, and spending on those new enrollees averaging more than anticipated, many states now face fiscal crises brought on by their Medicaid expansions. Under the Obamacare statute, states began to pay a share of the costs for the Medicaid expansion in calendar year 2017. Moreover, states’ 5% share of expansion enrollees’ health costs in 2017 will double over the next few years, rising to 6% in calendar year 2018, 7% in calendar year 2019, and 10% in calendar year 2020.[24] Given the vast sums that states already devote to their Medicaid programs, paying five percent—let alone ten percent—of expansion costs will add significant new stresses to state budgets.

Even as Louisiana expanded Medicaid to the able-bodied, other states began facing expansion’s negative effects, with budget shortfalls looming because the expansion exceeded projected costs. Kentucky’s estimated costs of expansion in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 rose from $107 million to $257 million—a more than doubling of costs that will take money away from other state priorities like education, transportation, or law enforcement.[25] Likewise, Ohio’s budget for Medicaid expansion more than doubled compared to the state’s prior projections, leaving legislators scrambling to cut money from other programs to stem the shortfall.[26]

With Medicaid expansion squeezing state budgets, even Democratic state legislators across the country have contemplated what some liberals might consider apostasy—scaling back and right-sizing the Medicaid program to reflect competing fiscal priorities. Consider comments from New Mexico state senator Howie Morales, a Democrat:

When you’re looking at a state budget and there are only so many dollars to go around, obviously it’s a concern. The most vulnerable of our citizens—the children, our senior citizens, our veterans, individuals with disabilities—I get concerned that those could be areas that get hit.[27]

Other legislators agree, with an Oregon Democratic State Senator reflecting on his state’s $500 million budget shortfall by stating that “the only way to keep this [budget situation] manageable is to keep those costs under control, get people off Medicaid.”[28]

The growth in Medicaid spending has resulted in cascading effects across states—including in Louisiana. As the state’s budget history demonstrates, a dollar of spending on Medicaid results in fewer dollars for other programs. For instance, as the share of Louisiana’s budget devoted to Medicaid more than tripled from 1985 through 2015, the share of the budget dedicated to primary and secondary education fell from 23.5% to 18.8%, the share dedicated to higher education fell from 10.9% to 9.9%, and the share dedicated to transportation fell by half, from 11.2% to 5.6%.[29] If Louisiana continues down its current path, schools, universities, and roads will face a continued squeeze as Medicaid consumes more and more state resources.

Moreover, the current Medicaid-imposed woes that states face assume that the enhanced federal match remains static—a far from safe assumption. With the federal debt recently topping $20 trillion, the belief that Washington will continue to pay 90 percent of states’ expansion costs in 2020 and every year thereafter may strike some as an overly rosy scenario.[30] Indeed, President Obama himself once proposed reducing the federal Medicaid match by $100 billion over ten years through a so-called “blended rate” policy.[31] Only an outcry from liberals, combined with the 2012 Supreme Court ruling that made Medicaid expansion optional for states, eventually persuaded President Obama to abandon the proposal.[32] However,  given Washington’s own dire fiscal situation, the concept could well return in future years.

More recently, Congress has begun taking action to rein in another enhanced match provided to states as part of Obamacare. Specifically, Section 2101 of the law provided a 23 percent increase in the federal match to State Children’s Health Insurance Programs (SCHIP) across the country.[33] As a result of the increase, Louisiana’s SCHIP match rate in the current fiscal year ending September 30 stands at 97.58%, instead of the usual 74.58%.[34] A total of 12 states, plus the District of Columbia, currently receive a 100% match for their SCHIP programs, meaning the federal government effectively funds all of the health costs of these states’ SCHIP enrollees.[35]

However, the costs of the enhanced federal SCHIP match on Washington’s budget have led Congress to eliminate that enhanced match within the next few years.  SCHIP legislation signed into law earlier this month will phase out the enhanced match—lowering the 23 percent match to 11.5 percent in fiscal year 2020, while eliminating it altogether in fiscal 2021.[36] With bipartisan agreement within Congress on eliminating Obamacare’s enhanced SCHIP match rate, state lawmakers would do well to consider whether and when Congress will likewise eliminate the enhanced match for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied.

 

Difficulties for the Most Vulnerable

In addition to skyrocketing enrollment and costs, the Medicaid expansion has hurt some of the most vulnerable Americans in society, because Obamacare effectively gives state programs financial incentives to discriminate against individuals with disabilities.[37] Traditionally, the federal government provides states with a Medicaid match through a statutory formula comparing a state’s average income to the national average. For their traditional beneficiaries—that is, pregnant women, children, the aged, medically frail, and individuals with disabilities—states receive a federal Medicaid match ranging from 50% to 83%. For the current fiscal year, Louisiana will receive a 63.69% match rate for these populations.[38]

However, as noted above, Obamacare gives states a much greater federal match to cover its expansion population—individuals with incomes of under 138 percent of the poverty level ($34,638 for a family of four in 2017). For calendar year 2017, states received a 95% federal match, which will fall slightly to 94% in 2018, 93% in 2019, and 90% in 2020.[39] Put another way, Louisiana will receive over 30 cents more on the dollar from the federal government to cover the expansion population this year than it will to cover traditional beneficiaries eligible for Medicaid prior to Obamacare.

This yawning disparity in the federal match favoring expansion enrollees over traditional beneficiaries comes despite noteworthy characteristics of the individuals who qualify for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Specifically, the liberal Urban Institute found that nationwide, 82.4% of the expansion population consisted of able-bodied adults of working age.[40] In Louisiana, nearly three-quarters (74.9%) of projected expansion enrollees represented adults without dependent children.[41]

In other words, the federal government offers—and under the current governor, Louisiana accepted—an arrangement whereby states receive a significantly greater federal match to provide services to able-bodied adults of working age than to provide services to the individuals for whom Medicaid was traditionally designed: The medically frail, aged, and individuals with disabilities. Moreover, this disparity comes as many of the latter need critically important services, which they cannot currently obtain from Louisiana’s Medicaid program.

While the federal Medicaid statute requires state programs to provide medical coverage to individuals with disabilities, it does not require them to provide personal care services outside a nursing home setting. Because the law makes such home and community-based services (HCBS) optional, states can utilize waiting lists to control access to such services—and many, including Louisiana, do just that. Overall, more than 640,000 individuals with disabilities remain on lists waiting to access HCBS nationwide—including 62,828 in Louisiana.[42]

Prior to Louisiana accepting Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied, the state prioritized coverage for individuals with disabilities. Instead of pushing to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, efforts instead focused on providing funds necessary to reduce the state’s HCBS waiting list for individuals with disabilities.[43] However, the current administration has taken the exact opposite tack—prioritizing an expansion of coverage for the able-bodied over the personal care needs of the most vulnerable Louisianans. As a result, able-bodied adults with low incomes can qualify for Medicaid immediately, while individuals with developmental disabilities must wait an average of seven years just to be evaluated for home-based care for their personal needs.[44]

Several states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare before Louisiana provide evidence of the damage that expansion has caused for society’s most vulnerable. In Arkansas, while Gov. Asa Hutchinson pledged to reduce his state’s HCBS waiting lists in half under his administration, the rolls have risen 25 percent—even as the state continues its Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied.[45] Since the state expanded Medicaid to the able-bodied, at least 79 individuals with disabilities have died while on waiting lists seeking access to home-based care.[46]

Vulnerable residents in other states have likewise suffered as a result of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. In Ohio, the administration of Gov. John Kasich reduced eligibility for 34,000 individuals with disabilities, even while expanding Medicaid to the able-bodied.[47] In Illinois, lawmakers voted to allow Cook County to expand Medicaid early on the same day in which they also voted to reduce medication access for individuals with disabilities.[48] In that state, at least 752 residents with disabilities have died awaiting access to home-based care since the state embraced Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.[49]

The claims of its proponents to the contrary, any policy that prioritizes able-bodied adults over the most vulnerable in society represents the antithesis of compassion. As more and more individuals crowd on to the Medicaid rolls, literally hundreds of thousands of individuals with disabilities wait for access to care—and in some cases, die well before they receive it. Any compassionate society should focus its greatest efforts on protecting the most vulnerable, meaning no state should expand Medicaid to the able-bodied without first having eliminated entirely its waiting list of individuals with disabilities seeking home-based care.

While disadvantaging the most vulnerable in society, who literally wait for years for access to personal care paid for by Medicaid, expansion of the Medicaid entitlement also disadvantages the expansion’s purported beneficiaries—able-bodied adults within working age—in several respects. Medicaid generally provides poorer health outcomes than most other forms of coverage, such that some analysts have questioned whether its patients fare worse than the uninsured.[50]

In general, states provide low reimbursement levels to doctors and hospitals treating Medicaid patients, in large part due to the fiscal pressures discussed above. However, these low reimbursement rates mean many medical providers do not accept Medicaid patients. One study found that specialty physicians denied appointments for two-thirds of Medicaid patients, compared to only an 11% denial rate for patients with private insurance. Moreover, “the average wait time for Medicaid” enrollees who did obtain an appointment “was 22 days longer than that for privately insured children.”[51] Through their “secret shopper” survey, the authors “found a disparity in access to outpatient specialty care between children with public insurance and those with private insurance.”

Louisiana does not deviate from the general pattern of state Medicaid programs providing poor reimbursements to physicians, as the state’s reimbursement levels stand slightly below the already low national average. Overall, the state pays physicians 70% of Medicare reimbursement levels, below the national Medicaid average of 72% of Medicare levels.[52] In primary care, Louisiana reimburses doctors at 67% of Medicare rates, one percentage point above the national average of 66%.[53] And in obstetrics, Louisiana reimburses doctors 70% of Medicare rates, eleven points below the national Medicaid average of 81%.[54] The comparatively paltry rates that Louisiana pays obstetricians come despite the fact that nearly two-thirds (65%) of babies born in the state in 2015 (i.e., before Medicaid expansion took effect) were paid for by Medicaid—the third highest rate of births paid for by Medicaid nationwide.[55]

The lack of access to physician care helps explain Medicaid’s middling performance in improving health outcomes. Most notably, the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment—which compared the health of individuals randomly selected to enroll in Medicaid with those who remained uninsured—found no measurable improvement in physical outcomes for the former group when compared to the latter.[56] The Oregon study also found that Medicaid beneficiaries utilized the emergency room 40 percent more than uninsured patients, a difference which persisted over time. These data suggest that patients lack a usual access to primary care that could alleviate medical conditions before necessitating emergency treatment—a further indication that Medicaid leaves much to be desired as a form of health coverage.[57]

Both Medicaid administrators and beneficiaries acknowledge the program’s shortcomings in providing access to care. One former program head called a Medicaid card a “hunting license”—a government-granted permission slip allowing beneficiaries to try to find a physician who will treat them.[58] With beneficiaries not even considering Medicaid “real insurance,” some would question the wisdom of consigning such a large—and growing—number of individuals to a program that provides such an uneven quality of care.[59]

 

Discouraging Work

In addition to providing beneficiaries with poor quality care, Medicaid expansion includes an in-built “poverty trap” that discourages entrepreneurship and social advancement. Specifically, the law includes numerous effects that will discourage work, and ultimately keep low-income individuals trapped in poverty for longer periods, while also stunting economic growth. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Medicaid expansion represents one part of a larger Obamacare scheme that will reduce the labor supply nationally by the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time jobs by 2024.[60]

CBO believes that Medicaid expansion will reduce overall incentives to work. Most notably, Medicaid expansion creates an “income cliff,” whereby one additional dollar of income will cause a family to lose Medicaid eligibility entirely—subjecting them to hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in health insurance premiums, deductibles, and co-payments as a result. As a result, CBO believes that the expansion will reduce beneficiaries’ labor force participation by about 4 percent by “creat[ing] a tax on additional earnings for those considering job changes.”[61] In other words, individuals will specifically avoid seeking a promotion, additional hours, or a bonus, because it will cause them to lose eligibility for Medicaid—the definition of a “poverty trap” that discourages low-income individuals from advancing their social strata.

Data from the liberal Urban Institute released prior to Obamacare taking effect suggest that most beneficiaries who qualify for Medicaid expansion represent individuals who could be in work, or preparing for work. In Louisiana, more than seven in eight adults who qualify for the expansion are of prime working age—either ages 19-24 (24.5%), 25-34 (25.7%), or 35-54 (37.4%).[62] With nearly three-quarters of Louisianans who qualify for expansion adults without dependent children, as noted above, many of these individuals should be able to work, or prepare for work.

Unfortunately, national data suggest that most beneficiaries enrolled in Medicaid are not working. Specifically, 2015 Census Bureau data indicate that more than half (52%) of non-disabled, working-age Medicaid beneficiaries are not working.[63] Only about one in six (16%) non-disabled Medicaid beneficiaries work full-time year-round, while about one in three (32%) work part-time, or for part of the year.[64]

If able-bodied individuals who currently qualify for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion pursued full-time employment, many of them would no longer qualify for the expansion. The expansion applies to individuals with household income below 138 percent of the federal poverty level—which in 2018 equals $16,753 for a single individual, $22,715 for a couple, and $34,638 for a family of four.[65] At these levels, a couple each working 35 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, or an individual working 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, making $8.50 per hour, would earn enough income to exceed the Medicaid eligibility thresholds.

While CBO believes Medicaid expansion will discourage work, evidence suggests that unwinding the expansion would increase employment, and employment-related search activity. A study of the Medicaid program in Tennessee, where the state scaled back the program in 2005 due to significant cost overruns, found that the reduction in Medicaid eligibility encouraged beneficiaries to look for work, and ultimately increased employment, as individuals looked for employment-based coverage.[66] Whereas Obamacare’s skewed incentives discourage work, scaling back Medicaid expansion could have salutary economic effects, by expanding the labor force in ways that could grow the economy.

 

What Lawmakers Should Do

The evidence shows the damage caused by Medicaid expansion, both in Louisiana and across the country. Soaring enrollment and higher-than-expected costs have led to fiscal crises in many states—crises that will only grow as states’ share of expansion costs increase in the coming years. Meanwhile, the urgent needs of many vulnerable citizens have taken a back seat, as Obamacare gives states more incentives to cover able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities.

As the legislature considers its policy options, it should focus on both short-term and long-term solutions. In the short term, Louisiana should begin the process of winding down the Medicaid expansion to able-bodied adults, as one way of alleviating immediate budgetary pressures. In the longer term, the state should take advantage of the flexibility promised by the Trump Administration to consider more innovative reforms to the Medicaid program.

Enrollment Freeze:              The best way to end the high costs associated with the Medicaid expansion would involve freezing enrollment to new entrants.[67] Such a policy would allow individuals who already qualified for the expansion to remain as long as they maintain eligibility for the program. This proposal, passed by legislators in places like Ohio and Arkansas, would provide an orderly wind-down of the expansion, reducing costs to the state over time, while allowing people to transition into employer-sponsored insurance or other coverage as they lose Medicaid eligibility. [68]

One study released in early 2017 calculated the savings from a nationwide Medicaid freeze beginning in fiscal year 2018. Over a decade, this Medicaid freeze would generate approximately $56-64 billion in savings to state Medicaid programs, along with more than half a trillion dollars in savings to the federal government.[69] These savings would come without terminating Medicaid participation for a single beneficiary currently eligible for the program. The sizable savings provided to both the states and the federal government under a potential Medicaid freeze illustrates the need to wind down Medicaid’s expansion to the able-bodied in an orderly way, to restore the program’s focus to the populations for which it was originally intended.

Comprehensive Waiver:     Last March, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and CMS Administrator Seema Verma sent a letter to the nation’s governors indicating their desire to expand state flexibility within the Medicaid program.[70] Since then, several organizations have published reports highlighting elements and policies that states could use to reform their Medicaid programs.[71] A bold waiver incorporating many of these policies could transform Medicaid programs across the country.

Louisiana should consider submitting a comprehensive waiver request to CMS. Such a waiver could include:

Consumer-Oriented Options:              Using Health Savings Account-like mechanisms would encourage beneficiaries to serve as smart shoppers of health care—generating savings that they could use once they leave the Medicaid program. Whether through Health Opportunity Accounts—an innovation passed by Congress in 2005, but effectively repealed under the Obama Administration—“right-to-shop” programs that give beneficiaries a chance to share in the savings from obtaining lower costs for non-emergency medical procedures, or other programs, giving beneficiaries financial incentives to act as smart health care consumers could benefit them as well as the Medicaid program.[72]

Wellness Incentives:                As with the consumer options above, providing incentives for healthy behaviors would encourage beneficiaries to improve their health, while giving them a potential source of financial savings. During the debate on Obamacare in 2009-10, wellness incentives proved one of the few sources of bipartisan agreement, thanks to the way in which Safeway and other firms reduced health costs through such reforms.[73] Particularly given the state’s high rates of obesity, Louisiana should consider bringing the “Safeway model” to the state’s Medicaid program.[74]

Premium Assistance:               Providing more flexible benefits to individuals with an offer of employer-sponsored coverage would allow Medicaid to supplement that coverage, thereby reducing costs and giving individuals access to higher-quality private insurance. Other policies in this vein might include a beneficiary waiting period designed to prevent “crowd-out”—individuals dropping private coverage to enroll in government programs—and Health Savings Account coverage, currently prohibited under two separate premium assistance programs.[75] These changes would help beneficiaries make a smoother transition off of the Medicaid rolls and into a life of work.

Home and Community-Based Services:             Focusing on ways to deliver care to beneficiaries outside of nursing homes could reduce costly Medicaid spending in institutional settings. Most importantly, it would enable patients to stay in their homes—most beneficiaries’ desired outcome. For instance, a state waiver could cap the number of nursing home slots available, or require beneficiaries to try receiving care at home prior to entering a nursing facility.[76] Collectively, these policies should create an affirmative bias in favor of care at home, rather than care at a nursing institution.

Work Requirements:               Unlike the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration has indicated a willingness to accept work requirements as part of a Medicaid waiver request.[77] Earlier this month, CMS issued a letter to state Medicaid directors indicating parameters to guide states as they prepare community engagement requirements—a document that reiterated the positive effects that work can have on beneficiaries’ economic success, self-sufficiency, and overall health.[78] Requiring that appropriate adult populations either work, look for work, or prepare for work, while exempting individuals with disabilities and other medically frail individuals, would further promote a transition from welfare into work.

Program Integrity:     Verifying eligibility on a regular basis would ensure that state and federal resources remain targeted to those most in need—an important priority given the way in which scam artists in Louisiana have sought to abuse the Medicaid program.[79] Increasing penalties for fraud would halt scam artists, and could lower Medicaid’s rate of improper payments.[80] More robust asset recovery measures—ensuring Medicaid remains the payer of last resort, not that of first instance—would help preserve scarce state and federal resources for those who need them most.[81]

The state of Rhode Island demonstrates the power of a comprehensive waiver to transform a Medicaid program. Its global compact waiver, approved in the waning days of President George W. Bush’s Administration in January 2009, allowed that state to improve Medicaid by providing more, better, and more timely care to beneficiaries. Thanks to the global compact waiver, Rhode Island actually reduced its per beneficiary Medicaid costs in absolute (i.e., before-inflation) terms over a four-year period[82]—and did so not by cutting access to care, but by improving it.[83] The success of the Rhode Island experiment illustrates the way in which Medicaid reform, done right, can simultaneously save money and improve health—a lesson the legislature should look to bring to Louisiana.

 

Conclusion

Given the state’s structural budget shortfall, and the significant costs associated with Medicaid expansion, Louisiana stands at a turning point. The legislature could continue down their current path, and hope that yet another series of tax increases will sate the growing health care costs that threaten to consume the state’s entire budget.

Thankfully, legislators have another option. Unwinding the Medicaid expansion gradually, while laying the groundwork to submit a comprehensive Medicaid waiver request to CMS, would in combination help turn the fiscal tide. Freezing Medicaid enrollment for able-bodied adults would re-direct the program towards the most vulnerable in society—those for whom Medicaid was originally designed. Likewise, a comprehensive waiver would re-orient and update Medicaid for a 21st century health care system, saving money by providing better care.

Given the two options, the choice for Louisiana seems clear. The state should use the flexibility promised by Washington to unwind Medicaid expansion for the able-bodied, and modernize and re-orient the program toward the program’s original intended beneficiaries. By so doing, the state can go a long way towards resolving its structural fiscal shortfalls, while also improving the care provided to some of Louisiana’s most vulnerable residents.

 

[1] Melinda Deslatte, “Louisiana Governor Offers Tax Ideas to Close $1 Billion Budget Gap,” Associated Press December 18, 2017, https://apnews.com/58833e0c265f4de6b26e465004c01c25/Louisiana-governor-offer.

[2] Kevin Litten, “Louisiana’s Medicaid Expansion Enrollment Could Grow to 450,000,” Times-Picayune January 20, 2016, http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/01/medicaid_expansion_500000.html.

[3] Louisiana Department of Health, “Louisiana Medicaid Expansion Dashboard,” http://www.ldh.la.gov/HealthyLaDashboard.

[4] Litten, “Louisiana’s Medicaid Expansion Enrollment Could Grow.”

[5] Jonathan Ingram and Nicholas Horton, “Obamacare Expansion Enrollment Is Shattering Projections,” Foundation for Government Accountability, November 16, 2016, https://thefga.org/download/ObamaCare-Expansion-is-Shattering-Projections.PDF, p. 5.

[6] Jonathan Ingram and Nicholas Horton, “The Obamacare Expansion Enrollment Explosion,” Foundation for Government Accountability,” April 20, 2015, https://thefga.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/ExpansionEnrollmentExplosion-Final3.pdf.

[7] Ingram and Horton, “Obamacare Expansion Enrollment Is Shattering Projections.”

[8] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “2017 Effectuated Enrollment Snapshot,” June 12, 2017, https://downloads.cms.gov/files/effectuated-enrollment-snapshot-report-06-12-17.pdf. Effectuated enrollment represents coverage for which individuals have both selected an insurance plan and paid at least one month’s premium.

[9] Congressional Budget Office, estimate of H.R. 4872, Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, in concert with H.R. 3590, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, March 20, 2010, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/111th-congress-2009-2010/costestimate/amendreconprop.pdf, Table 4, p. 21.

[10] Avalere Health, “The State of Exchanges: A Review of Trends and Opportunities to Grow and Stabilize the Market,” report for Aetna, October 2016, http://go.avalere.com/acton/attachment/12909/f-0352/1/-/-/-/-/20161005_Avalere_State%20of%20Exchanges_Final_.pdf, Figure 3, p. 6.

[11] Ibid.

[12] National Association of State Budget Officers, “The State Expenditure Report,” July 1987, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/SER%20Archive/ER_1987.PDF, Medicaid Expenditures as a Percentage of Total Expenditures, p. 30.

[13] National Association of State Budget Officers, “State Expenditure Report,” November 2016, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/SER%20Archive/State%20Expenditure%20Report%20(Fiscal%202014-2016)%20-%20S.pdf, Table 5: State Spending by Function as a Percentage of Total State Expenditures, p. 13.

[14] National Association of State Budget Officers, “The State Expenditure Report.”

[15] National Association of State Budget Officers, “Fiscal Survey of States: Spring 2014,” https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Fiscal%20Survey/NASBO%20Spring%202014%20Fiscal%20Survey%20(security).pdf, p. xi.

[16] Pew Charitable Trusts, “Fiscal 50: State Trends and Analysis,” http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/multimedia/data-visualizations/2014/fiscal-50#ind7, Change in State Medicaid Spending as a Share of Own-Source Revenue, 2000 and 2015.

[17] Ibid., http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/multimedia/data-visualizations/2014/fiscal-50#ind1, Percentage of State Revenue from Federal Funds, Fiscal Year 2015.

[18] For an analysis of the ways that the CMS actuary and the Congressional Budget Office have changed their baseline projections of Medicaid spending over time, see Brian Blase, “Evidence Is Mounting: The Affordable Care Act Has Worsened Medicaid’s Structural Problems,” Mercatus Center, September 2016, https://www.mercatus.org/system/files/mercatus-blase-medicaid-structural-problems-v1.pdf, pp. 15-20.

[19] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Office of the Actuary, “2016 Actuarial Report on the Financial Outlook for Medicaid,” report to Congress, 2016, https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/financing-and-reimbursement/downloads/medicaid-actuarial-report-2016.pdf, p. 22.

[20] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Office of the Actuary, “2014 Actuarial Report on the Financial Outlook for Medicaid,” report to Congress, 2014, https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/financing-and-reimbursement/downloads/medicaid-actuarial-report-2014.pdf, pp. 36-38.

[21] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Office of the Actuary, “2015 Actuarial Report on the Financial Outlook for Medicaid,” report to Congress, 2015, https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/financing-and-reimbursement/downloads/medicaid-actuarial-report-2015.pdf, p. 27.

[22] Cited in Jeanie Donovan, “Setting the Record Straight on Medicaid,” Louisiana Budget Project, August 4, 2017, http://www.labudget.org/lbp/2017/08/setting-the-record-straight-on-medicaid/.

[23] Ibid.

[24] 42 U.S.C. 1396d(y)(1), as codified by Section 2001(a) of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148.

[25] Christina Cassidy, “Rising Cost of Medicaid Expansion is Unnerving Some States,” Associated Press October 5, 2016, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/4219bc875f114b938d38766c5321331a/rising-cost-medicaid-expansion-unnerving-some-states.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Christina Cassidy, “Medicaid Enrollment Surges, Stirs Worry about State Budgets,” Associated Press July 19, 2015, http://www.bigstory.ap.org/article/c158e3b3ad50458b8d6f8f9228d02948/medicaid-enrollment-surges-stirs-worry-about-state-budgets.

[28] Ibid.

[29] “The State Expenditure Report,” Primary and Secondary Education Expenditures as a Percentage of Total Expenditures, Higher Education Expenditures as a Percentage of Total State Expenditures, and Transportation Expenditures as a Percentage of Total State Expenditures; “State Expenditure Report,” Table 5: State Spending by Function.

[30] United States Treasury, “The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It,” total public debt outstanding as of October 26, 2017, https://www.treasurydirect.gov/NP/debt/current.

[31] White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Fact Sheet: The President’s Framework for Shared Prosperity and Shared Fiscal Responsibility,” April 13, 2011, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2011/04/13/fact-sheet-presidents-framework-shared-prosperity-and-shared-fiscal-resp.

[32] NFIB v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519 (2012), https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/11-393c3a2.pdf; Sam Baker, “White House Drops Support for Major Medicaid Cut,” The Hill December 10, 2012, http://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/272041-white-house-drops-support-for-major-medicaid-cut; Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Frequently Asked Questions on Exchanges, Market Reforms, and Medicaid,” December 10, 2012, https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Files/Downloads/exchanges-faqs-12-10-2012.pdf.

[33] 42 U.S.C. 1397ee(b), as amended by Section 2101(a) of PPACA.

[34] Department of Health and Human Services, “Federal Financial Participation in State Assistance Expenditures,” Federal Register November 15, 2016, pp. 80078-80080, Table 1, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-11-15/pdf/2016-27424.pdf.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Section 3005 of the HEALTHY KIDS Act, P.L. 115-120.

[37] See also Chris Jacobs, “How Obamacare Undermines American Values: Penalizing Work, Citizenship, Marriage, and the Disabled,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2862, November 21, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/11/how-obamacare-undermines-american-values-penalizing-work-marriage-citizenship-and-the-disabled.

[38] “Federal Financial Participation in State Assistance Expenditures.”

[39] 42 U.S.C. 1396d(y)(1), as codified by Section 2001(a) of PPACA.

[40] Genevieve M. Kenney et al., “Opting in to the Medicaid Expansion Under the ACA: Who Are the Uninsured Adults Who Could Gain Health Insurance Coverage?” Urban Institute, August 2012, http://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/alfresco/publication-pdfs/412630-Opting-in-to-the-Medicaid-Expansion-under-the-ACA.PDF, p. 9, Appendix Table 2.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Waiting List Enrollment for Medicaid Section 1915(c) Home- and Community-Based Services Waivers,” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured 2015 survey, http://kff.org/health-reform/state-indicator/waiting-lists-for-hcbs-waivers/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D.

[43] Bobby Jindal, “Obamacare Is Anything But Compassionate,” Politico February 9, 2014, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/02/obamacare-costs-jobs-hurts-most-vulnerable-103299?paginate=false.

[44] Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, “Medicaid Waiver Services,” http://www.dhh.la.gov/index.cfm/page/1555.

[45] Jason Pederson, “Waiver Commitment Wavering,” KATV June 15, 2016, http://katv.com/community/7-on-your-side/waiver-commitment-wavering.

[46] Chris Jacobs, “Obamacare Takes Care from Disabled People to Subsidize Able-Bodied, Working-Age Men,” The Federalist November 18, 2016, http://thefederalist.com/2016/11/18/obamacare-takes-care-disabled-people-subsidize-able-bodied-working-age-men/.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Nicholas Horton, “Illinois’ Medicaid Expansion Enrollment Continues to Climb, Putting Vulnerable at Risk,” Illinois Policy Institute, November 1, 2016, https://www.illinoispolicy.org/illinois-medicaid-expansion-enrollment-continues-to-climb-putting-vulnerable-at-risk/.

[49] Nicholas Horton, “Hundreds on Medicaid Waiting List in Illinois Die While Waiting for Care,” Illinois Policy Institute, November 23, 2016, https://www.illinoispolicy.org/hundreds-on-medicaid-waiting-list-in-illinois-die-while-waiting-for-care-2/.

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

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

[52] Stephen Zuckerman, et al., “Medicaid Physician Fees after the ACA Primary Care Fee Bump,” Urban Institute March 2017, https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/88836/2001180-medicaid-physician-fees-after-the-aca-primary-care-fee-bump_0.pdf, Table 1, p. 5.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Births Financed by Medicaid,” State Health Facts, https://www.kff.org/medicaid/state-indicator/births-financed-by-medicaid/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22%25%20Births%20Financed%20by%20Medicaid%22,%22sort%22:%22desc%22%7D.

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

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

[58] Statement by DeAnn Friedholm, Consumers Union, at Alliance for Health Reform Briefing on “Affordability and Health Reform: If We Mandate, Will They (and Can They) Pay?” November 20, 2009, http://www.allhealthpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/TranscriptFINAL-1685.pdf, p. 40.

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

[60] Congressional Budget Office, “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024,” February 2014, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/45010-Outlook2014_Feb.pdf, Appendix C: Labor Market Effects of the Affordable Care Act: Updated Estimates, pp. 117-27.

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

[62] Kenney, “Opting in to the Medicaid Expansion,” Appendix Table 1, p. 8.

[63] Cited in Nic Horton and Jonathan Ingram, “The Future of Medicaid Reform: Empowering Individuals Through Work,” Foundation for Government Accountability, November 14, 2017, https://thefga.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/The-Future-of-Medicaid-Reform-Empowering-Individuals-Through-Work.pdf, p. 4.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Department of Health and Human Services, notice regarding “Annual Update of the HHS Poverty Guidelines,” Federal Register January 18, 2018, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2018-01-18/pdf/2018-00814.pdf, , pp. 2642-44.

[66] Craig Garthwaite, Tal Gross, and Matthew Notowidigdo, “Public Health Insurance, Labor Supply, and Employment Lock,” National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper 19220, July 2013, http://www.nber.org/papers/w19220.

[67] Chris Jacobs, “Putting Obamacare in a Deep Freeze,” National Review December 7, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/442820/obamacare-repeal-replace-enrollment-freeze-first-step.

[68] Kim Palmer, “Ohio Lawmakers Vote to Freeze Medicaid Expansion,” Reuters June 28, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ohio-budget/ohio-lawmakers-vote-to-freeze-medicaid-expansion-idUSKBN19K0B8; Caleb Taylor, “House Passes Medicaid Expansion Freeze,” The Arkansas Project March 1, 2017, http://www.thearkansasproject.com/house-passes-medicaid-expansion-freeze/.

[69] Foundation for Government Accountability, “Freezing Medicaid Expansion Enrollment Will Save Taxpayers More Than Half a Trillion,” February 2017, https://thefga.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/MedEx-Freeze-Savings-Table.pdf.

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

[71] See for instance Chris Jacobs, “Reforming Medicaid to Serve Wyoming Better,” Wyoming Liberty Group Wyoming Policy Review Issue 101, June 2017, https://wyliberty.org/images/PDFs/Wyoming_Policy_Review-Jacobs-Reforming_Medicaid-101.pdf, and Naomi Lopez Bauman and Lindsay Boyd, “Medicaid Waiver Toolkit,” State Policy Network, August 2017.

[72] 42 U.S.C. 1396u-8, as codified by Section 6082 of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, P.L. 109-171; Section 613 of the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009, P.L. 111-3; Josh Archambault and Nic Horton, “Right to Shop: The Next Big Thing in Health Care,” Forbes August 5, 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2016/08/05/right-to-shop-the-next-big-thing-in-health-care/#6f0ebcd91f75.

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

[74] Louisiana currently ranks fifth in the nation for adult obesity, with an obesity rate of 35.5%. See Trust for America’s Health, “The State of Obesity,” https://stateofobesity.org/states/la/.

[75] 42 U.S.C. 1397ee(c)(10)(B)(ii)(II) and 42 U.S.C. 1396e-1(b)(2)(B), as codified by Section 301 of CHIPRA.

[76] See for instance testimony of Patti Killingsworth, TennCare Chief of Long-Term Supports and Services, before the Commission on Long-Term Care on “What Would Strengthen Medicaid LTSS?” August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.org/ltccommission/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Patti-Killingsworth-Testimony.pdf. The author served as a member of the Commission.

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

[78] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Opportunities to Promote Work and Community Engagement Among Medicaid Beneficiaries,” State Medicaid Director letter SMD-18-002, January 11, 2018, https://www.medicaid.gov/federal-policy-guidance/downloads/smd18002.pdf

[79] Louisiana Office of the Attorney General, “Over $2 Million in Medicaid Fraud Uncovered in New Orleans,” October 16, 2017, https://www.ag.state.la.us/Article/3470/5.

[80] Jonathan Ingram, “Stop the Scam: How to Prevent Welfare Fraud in Your State,” Foundation for Government Accountability, April 2, 2015, https://thefga.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Stop-The-Scam-research-paper.pdf.

[81] See for instance Government Accountability Office, “Medicaid: Additional Federal Action Needed to Further Improve Third Party Liability Efforts,” GAO Report GAO-15-208, January 2015, http://gao.gov/assets/670/668134.pdf.

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

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

Medicaid as a “Persistently Inferior” Form of Health Coverage

How many individuals would knowingly want to enroll in a form of health coverage with “persistently inferior” outcomes? It’s a good question, as a new study released last week suggests that Medicaid provides those persistently inferior outcomes in the nation’s largest state, raising more questions about the program that represents the bulk of the coverage expansion under Obamacare.

What This Study Looked Into

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Oncology, used a California data registry to compare cancer survival outcomes across multiple forms of insurance and nearly two decades (1997-2014). The study classified patients based on four forms of insurance: Private coverage; Medicare; other public coverage, about three-quarters (74 percent) of whom were Medicaid patients; and the uninsured.

The study examined five-year cancer survival rates for the five most common cancers in California: breast, prostate, lung, colorectal, and melanoma. As the chart demonstrates, the study looked at survival rates over three separate periods (1997-2002, 2003-2008, and 2009-2014) to determine trends over time.

And The Results Were

Overall, the study found “substantial and persistent disparities in survival for patients with either no or other public insurance compared with private insurance for all 5 of the cancer sites examined.” In general, these disparities increased rather than decreased over time: “with few exceptions, survival disparities were largest among those diagnosed during 2009-2014 relative to the two earlier time periods.”

As to whether patients with Medicaid coverage suffered worse health outcomes than the uninsured, the study provided a decidedly mixed verdict:

Our findings suggest that, while survival falls short of that achieved by patients with private insurance, public insurance such as Medicaid does confer a survival benefit over no insurance for breast, prostate, and lung cancer. However, there was little or no benefit of public insurance over no insurance for colorectal cancer or melanoma, and the lack of improvement in survival is a concern. These findings suggest that the health care provided to publically [sic] insured patients with cancer in California is not adequately meeting their needs.

Overall, the authors concluded that Medicaid provided “persistently inferior survival” outcomes for cancer patients—far from a ringing endorsement.

Why This Medicaid Study Matters

To be fair, the study’s harsh conclusions could stem in part from circumstances determined by the state the researchers studied. While Medicaid programs generally offer physicians low reimbursement rates, California has a reputation for notoriously stingy payments.

That said, the results certainly do not provide much encouragement to the many people newly enrolled in Medicaid as a result of Obamacare. While enrollment in Medicaid has exploded under the law, the program’s health outcomes leave much to be desired. Beneficiaries may sign up for Medicaid because the program offers few out-of-pocket costs to them, but to borrow the old phrase, they may be getting exactly what they paid for.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

CBO Reveals Its Bias

Since the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its analysis of the House-passed health-care bill just before Memorial Day, conservatives have questioned CBO’s assumptions on several fronts—most notably scorekeepers’ almost dogmatic belief that an individual mandate holds the key to enticing tens of millions of Americans to purchase health coverage. But the CBO report revealed another key issue—the budget office’s inherent bias towards liberal cost-saving solutions rather than conservative ones.

That bias stems from one conclusion: Under the bill, a “few million people [CBO didn’t provide a more specific number] would buy policies that would not cover major medical risk.” In these cases, “the policies [purchased] would not provide sufficient financial protection to meet CBO’s definition of insurance coverage,” and “would not provide enough financial protection in the event of a serious and costly illness to be considered insurance.”

More importantly, though, at no point has CBO attempted to quantify whether and to what extent Americans—particularly those in government programs—are under-insured due to their inability to obtain medical treatment. Largely due to poor reimbursement levels for physicians and hospitals, some participants in programs like Medicaid may have great financial protection in theory, but little access to care in practice.

Conservative Versus Liberal Goals For Health Care

At the risk of stereotyping, conservatives often prefer less-comprehensive insurance—coverage largely for catastrophic expenses, with patients paying for many routine expenses out-of-pocket. Right-leaning analysts believe that by making costs explicit to patients—to use the wonky phrase, giving patients “skin in the game”—they will make smarter health care choices. By contrast, liberals generally make costs and tradeoffs opaque, supporting generous coverage of most medical procedures, while reducing costs to government through lower provider reimbursement levels often not visible to patients.

Obamacare provides an excellent example of the contrast. Two months after the law passed—while attempting to deflect the criticism that Democrats took money from Medicare to pay for Obamacare—Nancy Pelosi noted that the law included “no change in guaranteed benefits.”

In government programs, low reimbursement levels can make treatment hard for patients to obtain. At a briefing on “under-insurance” several years ago, an official who used to run one state’s Medicaid program acknowledged the access problem in government programs, admitting that “a Medicaid card [is] a hunting license…a chance to go try to find a doctor.”

Obamacare Made A Bad Situation Worse

On provider reimbursement, Obamacare made a bad situation worse. The nonpartisan Medicare actuary considers a series of payment reductions included in the law so Draconian—by 2040, half of all hospitals, and 90 percent of home health agencies, would be unprofitable—that they will not go into effect, “to ensure Medicare beneficiaries continue to have access to health care services.”

CBO has acknowledged the limitations on access created by Obamacare. In 2014, it noted that the new Exchange plans created that year had lower physician reimbursement levels and narrower provider networks than most employer plans. It has also estimated last fall that, thanks to the Medicare payment reductions included in Obamacare, up to half of all hospitals nationwide could be operating in the red by 2025—which could harm access to care, not just for seniors but all Americans.

Some critiques of CBO’s work on the House health care bill appear opportunistic. Protesting that many fewer Americans than CBO projects will drop coverage upon repeal of the individual mandate, without acknowledging that such a scenario would likely obliterate the budgetary savings in the House legislation, seems incongruous at best. But a budget office that examines only one side of the “under-insured” coin—Americans who face high out-of-pocket costs, but not those who cannot access care—likewise seems out of whack. Republicans in Congress should press CBO to quantify both sides of this important health-care issue.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.