State Insurance Benefit Mandates

Background:  Since the 1960s, state legislatures have considered—and adopted—legislation requiring health insurance products sold within the state to cover various products and services.  These benefit mandates are frequently adopted at the behest of disease groups advocating for coverage of particular treatments (e.g. mammograms) or physician groups concerned that patients have access to specialists’ services (e.g. optometrists).

A recent survey by the Council for Affordable Health Insurance found that as of 2007, states had enacted a total of 1,961 mandates for benefits and services—an increase of 60 (more than one per state) when compared to the 2006 total.[1]  The number of state mandates varies from a low of 15 in Idaho to a high of 64 in Minnesota.  However, because employer-sponsored health insurance is pre-empted from state-based laws and regulations under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), benefit mandates do not apply to employers who self-fund their health insurance plans; thus state mandates primarily affect policies purchased in the individual and small group markets.

Costs and Impact on Take-up Rates:  The cost and impact of benefit mandates on health insurance premiums have been the subject of several studies in recent years.  For instance, the Heritage Foundation prepared an analysis suggesting that each individual benefit mandate could raise the cost of health insurance premiums by $0.75 monthly.[2]  Although the cost of a single mandate appears small, the aggregate impact—particularly given the recent growth of benefit mandates nationwide—can be significant: For instance, Massachusetts’ 43 benefit mandates would raise the cost of health insurance by more than $30 monthly under the Heritage analysis.

In July, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts released its own study on the impact of state benefit mandates, which was compiled as a result of the health reform law enacted under Gov. Mitt Romney.  The report found that in 2004-05, spending within the Commonwealth on mandated benefits totaled $1.32 billion—or 12% of health insurance premiums—prior to the introduction of a prescription drug benefit mandate likely to increase premium costs further.[3]  Because some of these benefits (e.g. diabetes coverage) likely would have been provided even in the absence of the state mandate, the report calculated that the marginal costs of the mandates could range as high as $687 million—or more than 6% of health insurance premium costs.[4]  The report also noted that some benefit mandates, such as those requiring bone marrow transplants for breast cancer, are ineffective, in part because the mandated benefits no longer match the recommended standard of care, and went on to recommend an ongoing review of the necessity of mandated benefits.[5]

A further level of analysis on the impact of higher premium costs, specifically those associated with benefit mandates, on the number of uninsured Americans, finds some correlation between the costs related to benefit mandates and rising numbers of uninsured.  Some estimates suggest that every 1% increase in premium costs has a corresponding increase in the number of uninsured by approximately 200,000-300,000 individuals nationwide.[6]  Because rising costs are associated with the introduction of a specific new benefit, the price elasticity associated with the mandate will tend to vary based on the benefit’s perceived usefulness—for instance, a single 20-year-old would be more likely to drop coverage if an infertility benefit mandate increased premium costs than would a married couple trying to conceive.  However, based on the studies above, it is reasonable to say that likely several hundred thousand, and possibly a million or more, Americans could obtain coverage if unnecessary benefit mandates were eliminated—and millions more Americans currently with insurance could receive more cost-effective coverage.

Legislative Proposals:  Various legislative provisions introduced in current and prior Congresses attempt to reform state benefit mandates through a variety of mechanisms.  The Health Care Choice Act (H.R. 4460) by Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) would permit individuals to purchase health insurance plans across state lines, which would give individuals living in states where benefit mandates have driven up the cost of insurance the opportunity to purchase more affordable policies.  The legislation could have the secondary benefit of encouraging states to avoid imposing new mandates and to re-think their current mandates, so as to make their policies more affordable and attractive to the citizens of their state—who otherwise may take the new opportunity to purchase coverage elsewhere.

Other options to reform state benefit mandates include Association Health Plans (AHPs) and Individual Membership Associations (IMAs), which would allow small businesses and individuals respectively the opportunity to band together to purchase health insurance.  In so doing, the associations would be exempted from state-based laws regarding mandated coverage of particular services or diseases.  Some conservatives may believe that these types of association plans may deliver value as a result of the pre-emption of the often costly benefit mandates.

A third option, first proposed by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) in a 2004 Senate report and recently drafted into legislative language by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) as H.R. 6280, would require states to permit insurance carriers to offer mandate-free policies alongside their existing menu of coverage options.  As a result, consumers could choose whether to purchase a plan that offers richer coverage or a plan that might offer better value by targeting the type of benefits provided.  Some states, most recently Florida, have already taken steps in this line, passing legislation permitting lower-cost policies that may not offer the full menu of mandated benefits; Massachusetts offers such policies, but only to young adults aged 19-26.

Conclusion:  Although the types of benefit mandates imposed by states can vary from the duplicative (e.g. cancer coverage already provided by virtually all plans) to the costly (e.g. in vitro fertilization) to the frivolous (e.g. hair prosthesis), some conservatives may view them collectively as a failure of government.  In some respects, behavior surrounding state benefit mandates represents a case of moral hazard, whereby benefits (to particular disease or provider groups) are privatized, while costs—in the form of higher insurance premiums—are socialized among all payers.  Although some states have acted recently to study the cost effects of imposing so many benefit mandates, or to offer mandate-free or “mandate-lite” health insurance options to their citizens, the allure of appealing to a particular constituency group—as opposed to the interests of all individuals whose premiums will increase upon imposition of a mandate—often proves too difficult for policy makers to resist.

Although well-intentioned, some conservatives may view the groups who advocate for benefit mandates as operating from fundamentally flawed logic: that individuals should go without health insurance entirely rather than purchase coverage lacking the “consumer protection” of dozens of mandates.  In addition, some conservatives note that the prospect of increasing the number of uninsured through such methods may precipitate a “crisis” surrounding the uninsured, increasing calls for a government-run health system.  In short, many conservatives may believe individuals should have the “consumer protection” to purchase the insurance plan they desire—rather than the “protection” from being a consumer by a government which seeks to define their options, and raise the cost of health insurance in the process.

 

[1] Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2008” and “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2007,” available online at http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/HealthInsuranceMandates2008.pdf and http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/MandatesInTheStates2007.pdf, respectively (accessed July 19, 2008).

[2] Michael New, “The Effect of State Regulations on Health Insurance Premiums: A Revised Analysis,” (Washington, Heritage Center for Data Analysis Paper CDA06-04, July 25, 2006), available online at http://www.heritage.org/Research/HealthCare/upload/CDA_06-04.pdf (accessed July 19, 2008), p. 5.

[3] Massachusetts Division of Health Care Finance and Policy, “Comprehensive Review of Mandated Benefits in Massachusetts: Report to the Legislature,” (Boston, July 7, 2008), available online at http://www.mass.gov/Eeohhs2/docs/dhcfp/r/pubs/mandates/comp_rev_mand_benefits.pdf (accessed July 19, 2008), p. 4.

[4] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

[6] See, for instance, Todd Gilmer and Richard Kronick, “It’s the Premiums, Stupid: Projections of the Uninsured through 2013,” Health Affairs Web Exclusive April 5, 2008, available online at http://content.healthaffairs.org/cgi/content/full/hlthaff.w5.143/DC1 (accessed July 19, 2008), and Government Accountability Office, Impact of Premium Increases on Number of Covered Individuals is Uncertain (Washington, Report GAO/HEHS-98-203R, June 11, 1999), available online at http://archive.gao.gov/paprpdf2/160930.pdf (accessed July 19, 2008), pp. 3-4.

The Case for Medicaid Reform

Beneficiaries Do Not View a Medicaid Card as “Real Insurance”

Although Medicaid in theory provides health coverage to more than 50 million Americans, beneficiaries often find their coverage lacking when they need it most.  Poor reimbursement levels can result in months-long waits for specialist visits, while arcane bureaucracies discourage providers from participating in Medicaid—and patients from obtaining necessary care:

  • A recent Centers for Disease Control study found that Medicaid patients visit the emergency room at nearly twice the rate of uninsured patients—suggesting that a Medicaid card does not mean that beneficiaries are receiving adequate primary care.[1]
  • In Maryland, reports regarding 12-year-old Deamonte Driver—who died last February when a tooth infection spread to his brain—found that it took his mother, a lawyer, three call center workers, and a call center supervisor to schedule one dentist’s appointment for Deamonte’s brother—who then had to wait five months to have his teeth pulled.[2]
  • One Michigan mother quoted in The Wall Street Journal last July expressed exasperation with the Medicaid program: “You feel so helpless thinking, something’s wrong with this child and I can’t even get her into a doctor….When we had real insurance, we would call and come in at the drop of a hat.”[3]

Beneficiaries Who Do Get Care Do Not Receive Quality Treatment

The lack of transparency and care coordination within many state Medicaid programs, coupled with frequent waits to obtain care, yield poor health outcomes, as a review of one state’s Medicaid claims data demonstrates:

  • Only 17% of women over age 50 received annual mammograms—well below the 100% recommended.
  • Less than half of children received check-ups—a lack of preventive care which could result in undetected problems and costly episodes of acute care in the future.
  • One beneficiary visited the emergency room 405 times within a three-year span—an indicator of poor or un-coordinated primary care, resulting in increased costs to the state.[4]

Taxpayer Funds Are Not Being Spent Prudently

Despite the poor outcomes demonstrated by many Medicaid participants, numerous reports suggest that programs do not spend their taxpayer funds wisely.  In addition to inefficiencies resulting from poor or non-existent co-ordination of care, outright fraud and abuse remains systemic in many state programs:

  • Reports by The New York Times in 2005 found that the state Medicaid program had reimbursed a Brooklyn dentist who billed Medicaid for 991 procedures in one day—even as the same newspaper found a poor teenager turned away three times without being asked to fill out a Medicaid application.[5]
  • A former New York state investigator estimated that up to 40% of all state Medicaid claims paid—representing nearly $18 billion for New York alone—are questionable.[6]
  • The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has frequently criticized the lack of accountability within the Medicaid program, including a May 2008 study where GAO could not provide a total amount of supplemental payments by state Medicaid programs—because state reporting on the billions of dollars spent was incomplete.[7]

Given the structural deficiencies associated with many state Medicaid programs, conservatives may view any attempt to give states a “blank check” to spend more on Medicaid without new accountability or reforms as a disservice to both the federal taxpayer and the needy beneficiaries which the program is designed to serve.

 

[1] National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey: 2006 Emergency Department Summary (Hyattsville, MD, National Center for Health Statistics, August 2008), available online at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr007.pdf (accessed September 13, 2008), Figure 3, p. 3.

[2] Testimony of Laurie Norris, Public Justice Center, before House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Domestic Policy, “The Story of Deamonte Driver,” May 2, 2007, available online at http://oversight.house.gov/documents/20070516164514.pdf (accessed September 13, 2008), pp. 5-6.

[3] Vanessa Fuhrmans, “Note to Medicaid Patients: The Doctor Won’t See You,” Wall Street Journal July 19, 2007.

[4] All data cited in testimony of Jim Frogue, Center for Health Transformation, before House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, “State Fiscal Relief,” available online at http://energycommerce.house.gov/cmte_mtgs/110-he-hrg.072208.Frogue-Testimony.pdf (accessed September 13, 2008).

[5] Clifford Levy and Michael Luo, “New York Medicaid Fraud May Reach into Billions,” New York Times July 18, 2005, available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/18/nyregion/18medicaid.html?_r=1&oref=slogin (accessed September 13, 2008); Richard Perez-Pena, “Trying to Get, and Keep, Care Under Medicaid,” New York Times October 18, 2005, available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/18/nyregion/nyregionspecial4/18jennifer.html (accessed September 13, 2008).

[6] Levy and Luo, “Fraud May Reach into Billions.”

[7] “Medicaid: CMS Needs More Information on the Billions of Dollars Spent on Supplemental Payments,” (Washington, Government Accountability Office, Report GAO-08-614), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08614.pdf (accessed September 13, 2008), p. 14.

Health Information Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] Institute of Medicine, To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System, summary available online at http://www.iom.edu/Object.File/Master/4/117/ToErr-8pager.pdf (accessed March 1, 2008).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCHIP Premium Assistance

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

When originally created, the SCHIP statute included premium assistance provisions designed to encourage the enrollment of children in employer-sponsored coverage, with state and federal dollars being used to pay the employee premium share for the eligible dependent(s).  Implementation of premium assistance programs would reduce crowd-out (i.e. individuals dropping private coverage to join a government health program), maintain children and parents on the same (privately-held) insurance policy, and could result in cost savings to both states and the federal government.

The statute included several tests used to determine whether premium assistance would be appropriate for SCHIP programs to implement.  Chief among these tests are the following:

  • Premium assistance must be cost-effective to the state (and thus the federal government);
  • Plans using premium assistance dollars must meet certain benchmark guidelines, including limits on cost-sharing;
  • Before becoming eligible for premium assistance, state waiting periods must apply;
  • Employers must make minimum contributions to the plan for which premium assistance is being granted.

Analysis:  While the premium assistance provisions were originally designed to facilitate enrollment of eligible children in employer-sponsored coverage where available, in practice the use of premium assistance remains quite limited.  Conflicts between the premium assistance provisions for Medicaid and SCHIP have resulted in only nine states adopting a premium assistance model—leaving more children in public, rather than private, coverage, and potentially resulting in higher costs to the federal government.

An analysis of the provisions at issue reveals several areas where changes to the premium assistance program could encourage the enrollment of additional low-income children in private rather than public coverage.  Areas for potential legislative action include the following:

Cost-Effectiveness:  Under current law, the cost-effectiveness test contains a “family waiver” provision that often impedes enrollment in private coverage, and conflicts with the cost-effectiveness test established under Medicaid.[1]  While the Medicaid test merely requires that the cost of covering an individual under a premium assistance program be less than the cost of public coverage for that individual, the SCHIP test requires that the cost of covering an entire family under premium assistance be less than the cost of public coverage for the child (or children) alone.  This lack of an “apples-to-apples” comparison for the purposes of determining cost-effectiveness can prevent employer coverage from qualifying for premium assistance—and as a result, some conservatives may believe the skewed metrics of determining cost-effectiveness actually increase costs to the federal government and should be changed.

Cost Sharing:  Current law places strict limits on cost-sharing within the SCHIP program, limiting premium assistance eligibility for many employer-sponsored plans.  Specifically, SCHIP plans may not impose any cost-sharing—premiums, deductibles, co-payments, or co-insurance—above a “nominal amount” (as determined by Medicaid guidelines) on children from families with incomes below 150% FPL; children from families with incomes above 150% FPL may only incur total cost-sharing of more than 5% of a family’s income.[2]  Some conservatives may find these cost-sharing limitations particularly onerous with regard to employer-sponsored plans, most of which have co-payments and deductibles that exceed the “nominal” amounts described in the statute.

Benchmark Guidelines:  To be eligible for SCHIP premium assistance, employer-sponsored plans must be actuarially equivalent to one of three SCHIP benchmarks: 1) the Blue Cross Blue Shield Standard Option within the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP); 2) the health insurance plan offered to state employees in a given state; or 3) the Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) with the highest enrollment in the state.[3]  However, the $431 monthly premium charged for the Blue Cross FEHBP option during 2007 exceeded by more than 15% the average cost of group health insurance in the same year, according to the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation—and many state employee plans have similarly high benefit packages.[4]  Therefore, some conservatives may support efforts to create more realistic coverage benchmarks for the SCHIP program, particularly for states where low market penetration by HMOs would have the effect of limiting premium assistance participation to those few employers who could afford to match the rich health insurance coverage provided to state and federal bureaucrats.

Employer Contribution:  Although the existing statute remains silent on this provision, SCHIP regulations require states to set minimum percentage contribution levels for employer-sponsored insurance.  Some conservatives may find this provision unnecessary and redundant, as group health insurance coverage must already be considered cost-effective to the state in order for the plan to qualify for premium assistance.

Waiting Periods:  SCHIP regulations require children eligible for premium assistance to have lacked group health insurance coverage for at least six months prior to enrolling in the program, unless the child had previously been enrolled in Medicaid or the state had received approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to shorten its waiting period.[5]  While these provisions were designed to guard against crowd-out, some conservatives may question whether the waiting periods to join a subsidized private plan may instead encourage individuals to join a government-run plan, and whether states should seek to amend their SCHIP plans to reflect that possible scenario.

Enrollment and Outreach:  Particularly because premium assistance relies on private, rather than public, insurance coverage, many conservatives may support efforts to make participation easy for employers, and encourage eligible families to enroll.  Such steps would maintain private health insurance coverage while saving taxpayer dollars, and minimize the perverse cost-shifting that results from unrealistically low reimbursement levels in some SCHIP programs.

Legislative History:  Title III of SCHIP legislation (H.R. 3963), whose Presidential veto was sustained by the House by a 260-152 vote in January, included several provisions designed to streamline premium assistance programs.  Specifically, the bill modifies the cost-effectiveness language to provide equivalent comparisons between the cost of employer-sponsored and government-run SCHIP coverage, while giving premium assistance programs some flexibility by allowing states to “wrap-around” employer coverage with respect to cost-sharing and employer benefit packages not meeting one of the SCHIP benchmark levels (although it does not address the issue of whether these mandated benefit levels are too high).  However, some conservatives may find the prohibition on using premium assistance subsidies for any high-deductible or Health Savings Account (HSA) option contained in Section 301(a)(1) of the bill an attempt by Congressional Democrats to inhibit the growth of consumer-directed health options that have slowed the growth of health care costs since their introduction.

More fundamentally, Title III did not address the question of whether states should be required to make premium assistance programs available as a condition of receiving federal SCHIP funds—and it explicitly stated that eligible children must retain the option of enrolling in a public program and may not be compelled to participate in a premium assistance plan if available.  Moreover, some conservatives may also support additional provisions designed further to extend SCHIP premium assistance to individual (as opposed to group) health insurance purchased by eligible families, so long as this private insurance is cost-effective from the state and federal perspective.

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

However, many conservatives retain concerns about actions by states or the federal government that would reduce private health insurance coverage while increasing reliance on a government-funded program.  To that end, conservatives may be inclined to support a more robust premium assistance mechanism for low-income children that keeps children (and their parents) enrolled in private coverage rather than joining a public program.  While the provisions of H.R. 3963 did make some modest changes to encourage this goal, some conservatives may support additional modifications to the premium assistance provisions to ensure that children with access to employer-sponsored insurance are not permitted to decline group coverage in order to join the SCHIP rolls.

 

[1] The Medicaid cost-effectiveness test can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1396e(e)(2), while the SCHIP cost-effectiveness test can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1397ee(c)(3).

[2] The SCHIP cost-sharing provisions are at 42 U.S.C. 1397cc(e)(3); the Medicaid guidelines can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1396o.

[3] SCHIP coverage benchmarks can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1397cc(b).

[4] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Employer Health Benefits: 2007 Annual Survey,” available online at http://kff.org/insurance/7672/upload/76723.pdf (accessed March 15, 2008), p. 2.

[5] The language can be found at 42 C.F.R. 457.810.

SCHIP Enrollment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Deconstructing the Uninsured

Summary:  Various proposals introduced in Congress and by the 2008 Presidential candidates have attempted to reduce the number of Americans lacking health insurance.  Measures of the number of uninsured vary, but the most widely quoted estimate of 46 million Americans comes from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), released every summer.  However, a closer look at the CPS data, along with other surveys and studies relating to health insurance coverage, demonstrates that the number of Americans unable to purchase coverage may be smaller than first believed, and that addressing the needs of several distinct segments of the uninsured will require a tailored approach from policy-makers.

Background on Census Methodology:  While the Census Bureau’s annual report utilizing the CPS data constitutes the most widely cited figure for the number of uninsured Americans, the report itself has been a subject of scholarly debate and discussion.  For more than two decades, academics have considered whether the Census data comprise a “point-in-time” snapshot of the uninsured or represent the number of Americans lacking health insurance for an entire year.  Part of the difficulty with the CPS data stems from the fact that individuals self-report their insurance status, making the data subject to flaws of both memory and survey design.  For instance, when the Census Bureau in 2000 added a question to its survey verifying that an individual did in fact lack health insurance—as opposed to the past practice of presuming that an individual not enrolled in private or public coverage was automatically uninsured—the reported number of uninsured suddenly dropped 8%.[1]

Another flaw with the CPS data stems from the known under-reporting of public health insurance coverage.  For many years, the number of individuals covered through Medicaid using state and federal claims data has significantly exceeded the number of individuals who self-report Medicaid coverage in the CPS survey—and this disparity appears to be growing.  An analysis of this issue by the Department of Health and Human Services found that as of 2003, approximately nine million individuals who reported themselves as uninsured in fact were covered through Medicaid—reducing the total number of uninsured by 20%, and the number of uninsured children in half.[2]

Taken together, these limitations on the CPS data indicate that a larger perspective is needed by policy-makers looking for ways to deal with the uninsured issue—for the problem, while significant, may not in fact be as large as commonly believed.  Indeed, the Census Bureau report citing a figure of 46 million uninsured notes that “health insurance coverage is underreported [in the survey data] for a variety of reasons,” including response errors due to changes in insurance coverage during the preceding year.[3]

Cohorts of the Uninsured:  In addition to reporting the aggregate number of uninsured, the CPS data provide an interesting analysis about the various segments of the population lacking health insurance.  Critical factors to examine when analyzing the uninsured include:

Age:  In general, the Census data suggest an uninsured population younger than the American population as a whole.  Nearly 60%, or about 26.5 million, of the uninsured are under age 35, with the highest rates of uninsurance amongst those Americans aged 18-24 (28.1% uninsured) and aged 25-34 (25.7% uninsured).[4]  Conversely, the very high rates of health insurance coverage among seniors over age 65 (only 1.9% uninsured) demonstrate the near-universality of Medicare coverage for elderly populations.

To the extent that age can be utilized as a rough approximation of health status, the uninsured data suggest that many uninsured Americans could obtain coverage at relatively affordable rates—policies in the individual market for applicants under 34 may cost about $1,000-$1,500 annually, with lower rejection rates and fewer exclusions on coverage than policies issued to older applicants.  In addition, the high rates of uninsurance for individuals in their 20s and 30s raises questions as to whether segments of this population cannot afford health insurance, or whether some “young invincibles” choose not to make its purchase a priority.

Income:  While the Census report indicates higher rates of uninsurance among poorer populations, the data also show a significant number of high-income Americans lacking insurance coverage.  Individuals making over $75,000 now constitute nearly one-fifth (over 9.1 million) of the uninsured, with nearly another 8.5 million uninsured making more than $50,000 but less than $75,000.

While increased outreach to low-income populations about the availability of public programs like Medicaid has marginally reduced the number of uninsured making under $25,000 annually, the rising numbers of higher-income uninsured individuals suggest that another approach may be in order for these populations.  Specifically, efforts should focus on ensuring these populations do not become “priced out” of the market for coverage due to costly state benefit mandates and related regulations.

Immigration Status:  The Census data indicate that more than one-fifth—over 9.7 million—of the uninsured are foreign-born residents of the United States lacking American citizenship.  This category—which includes both legal residents not yet citizens as well as undocumented aliens—contains the highest percentage of uninsured Americans (43.8%) of any age, race, income, or other cohort included in the Census survey.

While the Census Bureau reports do not contain specific data on the uninsurance rate among illegal immigrants, a 2005 study using data from the Los Angeles area provides greater insights regarding this population.[5]  The study found statistically significant disparities in the uninsured rate of illegal immigrants when compared to similar rates for legal immigrants and native-born citizens—and this disparity persisted even after controlling for socioeconomic factors such as income and industry of employment.  In total, 68% of illegal immigrants in Los Angeles were uninsured, four times the uninsured rate of native-born citizens; 65% of aliens lacked health insurance for all of the preceding two years.  These high uninsurance rates occurred despite the fact that illegal immigrants in California have several avenues to health insurance not available in other states: California permits illegal aliens to enroll in a limited-benefit version of Medicaid (financed entirely by state funds), and Blue Cross of California will accept applications for private insurance using cards issued by the Mexican consulate as the only form of identification.  Thus the study’s 68% uninsured rate among illegal aliens in Los Angeles can be considered in many respects a conservative estimate when discussing the national uninsured rate for the undocumented.

The data on citizenship and national origin, while not widely reported, illustrate another reason why the concept of universal health insurance coverage may prove ineffective.  Extrapolating the 68% uninsured rate for aliens found in the Los Angeles study to a nationwide undocumented population of 12 million would yield approximately eight million uninsured who are illegally present.  Democrat proposals for an individual mandate to purchase coverage would prove ineffective for this population, who by their very presence have already violated United States law.  Although the uninsured population is not limited to undocumented aliens, a truly comprehensive solution to this health care issue must address the significant demands on the health care system placed by illegal immigrants.

Length of Uninsurance:  As noted above, the question of whether the CPS data represent a yearlong or “point-in-time” snapshot of the uninsured remains a subject for debate among statisticians.  However, a 2003 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on the uninsured utilized additional government-provided data, including from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) and the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS), to determine how long individuals lack health insurance.

The CBO study found that between 21 and 31 million individuals lacked health insurance for an entire year, a figure over 25% lower than the Census number of uninsured Americans.  The study also went on to note that just under half (44.5%) of uninsured spells lasted under four months, with an additional 26.2% lasting more than four months, but less than one year.

While any period of uninsurance creates concerns from a policy perspective, the fact that a significant segment of the uninsured regain coverage relatively quickly inserts a note of caution to policy-makers eager to advance various proposals.  In some cases, brief periods of uninsurance may represent a conscious decision by an individual not to purchase temporary coverage between jobs or in similar short-term situations.  Creating new government-run health programs to subsidize coverage in these cases is likely to be both fiscally costly and economically inefficient.

Conclusion:  There are limitations inherent in any analysis of data on the uninsured, particularly those surveys that involve self-reporting of insurance status by individuals.  Nevertheless, the data examined above yield several important trends:

  • Many of the young uninsured could obtain affordable health insurance at a reasonable cost, but some do not view insurance coverage as a priority;
  • A large segment of the population with higher incomes is choosing not to purchase health insurance, perhaps because of premium increases due in part to costly state regulations;
  • Illegal and undocumented aliens constitute a significant segment of the uninsured;
  • The number of long-term uninsured is measurably lower than the reported Census Bureau estimate of 46 million uninsured—and, particularly given the limitations of the Census survey methodology, may be a better metric for policy-makers to use when considering solutions to increase health insurance coverage.

 

[1] Cathi Callahan and James Mays, “Estimating the Number of Individuals in the United States without Health Insurance,” (Working Paper, Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, March 2005), available at http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/reports/05/est-uninsured/report.pdf (accessed February 23, 2008).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007” (Washington, Census Bureau, August 2008), available online at http://www.census.gov/prod/2008pubs/p60-235.pdf (accessed August 26, 2008), p. 27.

[4] All Census data cited hereinafter are from Ibid., Table 6, p. 30.

[5] Dana Goldman, James Smith, and Neeraj Sood, “Legal Status and Health Insurance among Immigrants,” Health Affairs 24:6 (November/December 2005), 1640-1653.

Health Care for Undocumented Immigrants

Background:  Data from this year’s Census Bureau report on the uninsured indicate that more than one-fifth—over 9.7 million—of the uninsured are foreign-born residents of the United States lacking American citizenship.  This category—which includes both legal residents not yet citizens as well as undocumented aliens—contains the highest percentage of uninsured Americans (43.8%) of any age, race, income, or other cohort included in the Census survey.[1]

While the Census Bureau reports do not contain specific data on the uninsurance rate among illegal immigrants, a 2005 study using data from the Los Angeles area provides some insight regarding this population.[2]  Extrapolating the 68% uninsured rate for aliens found in the Los Angeles study to a nationwide undocumented population of 12 million would yield approximately eight million uninsured—about one-sixth of the total number of uninsured Americans—who are illegally present.

Impact on Federal Programs:  In general, provisions in Title IV of the 1996 welfare reform law (P.L. 104-193) prohibit the provision of health care or other services to aliens illegally present in the United States.[3]  However, federal health care programs address the issue of verifying identity and nationality as a condition of providing care in various ways, while other programs attempt indirectly to offset the impact of uncompensated care for illegal aliens on health care providers.  The most important of these include:

Medicare:  Under Title XVIII of the Social Security Act, Medicare benefits are available to eligible citizens, as well as to legal aliens continually resident in the United States for at least five years prior to application for benefits.[4]  The five-year residency requirement was challenged on due process grounds, and eventually upheld by the Supreme Court in June 1976; Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for a unanimous Court, stated “it is obvious that Congress has no constitutional duty to provide all aliens with the welfare benefits provided to citizens.”[5]

The Social Security Administration (SSA) determines eligibility for Medicare benefits, including the process of verifying an applicant’s identity and citizenship (or legal resident status).  The standards used by SSA are found in federal regulations, and include evidence of age (e.g. birth certificate or hospital record), identity (e.g. driver’s license, school record, or other documents identifying an individual), and citizenship (e.g. birth certificate, passport, or certificate of naturalization).[6]

Medicaid:  Under the provisions of the welfare reform law, states may only receive federal Medicaid matching funds for legal U.S. citizens or qualified aliens (subject to a five-year waiting period in most cases.[7]  However, while the Medicaid statute has required since 1986 that applicants declare their nationality under penalty of perjury, until recently most states relied on self-attestation to verify citizenship status.[8]  A 2005 report by the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General found that 40 states (including the District of Columbia) allowed self-declaration, with an additional seven states sometimes permitting self-declaration of citizenship status; of these 47 states, 27 did not verify the accuracy of the citizenship attestation.[9]

As a result of this report, Congress in the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA, P.L. 109-171) eliminated the ability of state Medicaid programs to rely on self-declarations by beneficiaries as the sole means of citizenship verification.  Specifically, Section 6036 of the Act requires states receiving federal Medicaid funds to verify participants’ identity and citizenship on the basis of appropriate documentation (e.g. passport, birth certificate, etc.).  The verification provisions do not apply to dual eligible (i.e. enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid) beneficiaries, or to Medicaid beneficiaries receiving SSI benefits, as the Social Security Administration verifies the identities of these beneficiaries, as outlined above.

Shortly after the DRA provisions took effect, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued an interim final rule on July 12, 2006, using discretionary authority included in the DRA to expand the list of eligible documents that could be used to verify citizenship and/or identity, in order to ease the transition to the new verification regime.[10]  In addition, the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006 (P.L. 109-432) exempted children in foster care from the DRA documentation provisions.  While the verification requirements were sharply criticized by some organizations at the time of their enactment, many conservatives may note the relative lack of controversy surrounding Medicaid verification two years after the provisions took effect as proof that citizenship verification can be implemented in an effective manner that ensures aliens do not have access to federal benefits while preserving existing programs for eligible individuals.

SCHIP:  Because of the hybrid nature of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), only some children undergo citizenship verification as part of the application process.  The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-33), which created SCHIP, gave states the option to use SCHIP funds to expand their Medicaid programs, create a new program for SCHIP beneficiaries, or some combination of the two approaches.  The eight states (and the District of Columbia) which chose Medicaid expansion programs—as well as Medicaid participants in the 24 states with combination programs—are subject to the citizenship verification requirements enacted as part of DRA.[11]  However, the 18 states with separate SCHIP programs currently have no requirement to verify the identity and nationality of individuals before enrolling beneficiaries.

EMTALA:  Enacted in 1986 as part of the Combined Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (P.L. 99-272), the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) imposes requirements on hospitals accepting Medicare payments to treat patients in emergency conditions.  The Act’s requirements apply to all patients, regardless of their Medicare eligibility status, ability to pay, or immigration status.[12]  The Act also includes significant penalties: violations of EMTALA can result in fines of up to $50,000 and exclusion from the Medicare program in repeated or egregious cases, as well as lawsuits by patients adversely harmed by an EMTALA violation.

In recognition of the rising costs to providers associated with the EMTALA unfunded mandate, particularly as it relates to care for illegal aliens, Section 1011 of the Medicare Modernization Act (P.L. 108-173) provided a total of $1 billion in grants directly to providers (though on the basis of state-based formulae) for uncompensated emergency care given to illegal aliens—$250 million for each of Fiscal Years 2005 through 2008.

Community Health Centers:  Under the Public Health Service Act, the federal government provides competitive grants to federally qualified health centers, including migrant health centers.  In 2007, health centers treated 16.3 million patients, while the health centers grant program received $2.065 billion in the Fiscal Year 2008 omnibus appropriations bill (P.L. 110-161).[13]  Subsequent legislation passed in the House (H.R. 1343) and Senate (S. 901) would increase health center authorization levels to $15 billion over the FY09-FY13 period.

The statute authorizing the health centers grant program requires that care not be denied to patients based on an inability to pay for services.[14]  In addition, the Congressional Research Service reports that grant recipients are not required to verify the citizenship status of their patients.  Given that the authorizing statute is silent with respect to enforcing the prohibition against federal benefits being provided to illegal immigrants, some conservatives therefore may be concerned that federal tax dollars are being used to provide aliens with health care services.

Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Payments:  While not providing care to illegal aliens, the section of the Medicaid statute related to DSH payments implicitly recognizes the impact this population can have on providers.  In particular, the statute deems hospitals with a low-income utilization rate of 25% as qualifying for DSH payments, without limiting the low-income population to citizens normally eligible for federally-funded care.[15]  As a result, states may allocate portions of their Medicaid DSH payments—estimated to total $8.8 billion in Fiscal Year 2008—to offset care provided by hospitals to illegal aliens.[16]

Legislative Proposals:  Much of the debate surrounding health care for aliens during the 110th Congress has focused on SCHIP reauthorization.  While many Democrats have attempted to use reauthorization as a vehicle to limit or repeal the Medicaid citizenship verification provisions enacted in DRA, many conservatives believe that a reauthorized SCHIP program should incorporate the Medicaid documentation requirements to improve the integrity of the program.

More specifically, H.R. 3162, passed by the House in July 2007, would make Medicaid citizenship verification a state option for children under 21, retroactive to the July 2006 effective date of the DRA provisions.  In addition, Section 112 of the bill would also establish “Express Lane” agencies to enroll beneficiaries in Medicaid and SCHIP, without including citizenship verification or documentation requirements; Section 136 would require states to conduct audits on a sample caseload to ensure that federal Medicaid and SCHIP funds “are not unlawfully spent” on illegal aliens.  Some conservatives may be concerned that the removal of the mandatory Medicaid verification language for children, along with the “Express Lane” provisions, would effectively undermine the important reforms enacted as part of DRA, and that sample audits would not be sufficient to ensure compliance with provisions of the 1996 welfare law cited above stating that no illegal alien may receive federal health or welfare benefits.

H.R. 3963, vetoed by the President in October 2007, would extend citizenship verification requirements to both the SCHIP program has a whole and the “Express Lane” mechanism outlined in H.R. 3162 above.  However, the bill would provide an alternative verification process to the DRA provisions that would instead rely upon name and Social Security number validation—a process which, according to a September 2007 letter from Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue, would not keep an applicant from fraudulently receiving coverage under Medicaid or SCHIP (if they claimed they were someone they were not).  Some conservatives may therefore be concerned that this provision—coupled with the incentive to states provided by a greatly enhanced federal match to establish this more lenient verification system—would weaken the process put in place by the Deficit Reduction Act.

Conversely, several proposed Republican SCHIP alternatives (H.R. 3176, H.R. 3888, and S. 2193) would apply the Medicaid citizenship verification requirements, as created by the DRA, to the SCHIP program, with an enhanced federal match for administrative costs.  Some conservatives would support the extension of the reasonable Medicaid DRA provisions to the SCHIP program, along with an enhanced administrative match to reimburse states for any increase in overhead costs associated with citizenship verification.

More recently, press reports indicate that the Democratic “Tri-Caucus” of Hispanic, Black, and Asian Members have written to Speaker Pelosi asking her to include provisions repealing the five-year waiting period for qualified aliens to become eligible for Medicaid or SCHIP coverage as part of any SCHIP bill considered by the House this fall.[17]  This change would alter provisions in the 1996 welfare reform law—which also prohibited illegal aliens from receiving federal benefits—that limited access to benefits for most “qualified aliens” for five years.[18]  Some conservatives may be concerned that this provision would increase costs while encouraging would-be immigrants to file claims for asylum in order to obtain federal health care coverage.

Implications for Comprehensive Health Reform:  In light of reports suggesting that illegal immigrants represent a significant—and fast-growing—component of the uninsured in America, some conservatives may focus on two elements necessary to address this issue in any comprehensive health care bill that may be considered.  First, consistent with the debate surrounding SCHIP legislation during this Congress, many conservatives may believe that any reform package must include provisions similar to those in the DRA that impose verification requirements for all applicants to preserve the integrity of federal programs and avoid providing incentives for illegal immigration.  For instance, while the Healthy Americans Act (S. 334) by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) excludes access to new state-based health plans for illegal immigrants, it contains no enforcement or verification provisions to implement this restriction.

Secondly, some conservatives may be concerned about the impact which uncompensated care given to illegal immigrants may impose on providers, particularly hospitals.  The unfunded mandate created by EMTALA has a significant impact on providers treating illegal immigrants, who are less likely to have the health insurance necessary to pay catastrophic expenses.  The combination of DSH payments and the $1 billion uncompensated care fund created by MMA, scheduled to sunset at the end of the fiscal year, only partially defer the uncompensated care cost paid by providers who treat illegal aliens.

Consistent with the conservative concerns about uncompensated care is the relatively new phenomenon of lawsuits against hospitals initiated by illegal immigrants.  The New York Times recently reported on a case from Florida where a hospital, having provided $1.5 million in uncompensated care to a Guatemalan alien, asked for and obtained a court order to return the immigrant to Guatemala; no nursing home in the United States would accept an alien patient without insurance and ineligible for Medicaid, while the hospital could not release a patient with brain injuries into the general population without arranging post-discharge care.[19]  In a case with potentially far-reaching implications, relatives for the alien had the Florida court order reversed after deportation—and subsequently filed suit against the hospital for false imprisonment.

Though tragic on multiple levels, the Florida case highlights a reality a growing number of providers may face—offer virtually unlimited care to illegal aliens, even when an inability to pay is glaringly apparent, or face legal action initiated by the aliens or their caretakers.  Therefore, some conservatives may support actions designed to ensure that providers offering reasonable emergency care to illegal aliens need not be subjected to additional and costly lawsuits.

Conclusion:  The Census data breaking down the uninsured by citizenship and national origin, while not widely publicized, illustrate one reason why the concept of universal health insurance coverage may prove ineffective.  Democrat proposals for an individual mandate to purchase coverage would prove ineffective for this population, who by their very presence have already violated United States law.  Although the uninsured population is not limited to undocumented aliens, many conservatives may believe that a truly comprehensive solution to this health care issue must address the significant demands on the health care system placed by illegal immigrants in a way that preserves the fiscal integrity of existing entitlement programs while protecting providers from liability imposed upon them by aliens illegally present.

 

[1] “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007” (Washington, Census Bureau, August 2008), available online at http://www.census.gov/prod/2008pubs/p60-235.pdf (accessed August 26, 2008), Table 6, p. 30.

[2] Dana Goldman, James Smith, and Neeraj Sood, “Legal Status and Health Insurance among Immigrants,” Health Affairs 24:6 (November/December 2005), 1640-1653.

[3] Illegal aliens are eligible for emergency care (as defined by the EMTALA statute discussed below) provided under Medicaid, and for public health assistance with respect to immunization for, and treatment of, communicable diseases.  Some groups of qualified aliens—excluding those illegally present—are eligible for other federal benefits, as discussed below.

[4] Available at 42 U.S.C. 1395o.

[5] Mathews v. Diaz, 426 U.S. 82 (1976).

[6] Some examples of documentation can be found at 20 CFR 422.107.  In addition, SSA’s Program Operations Manual System (POMS) includes guidelines for workers in SSA field offices; the section of the manual relating to citizenship, alien status, and residency can be found online at https://s044a90.ssa.gov/apps10/poms.nsf/lnx/0200303000 (accessed August 25, 2008).

[7] According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 17 states provide benefits funded solely by state dollars to illegal aliens and/or aliens subject to the waiting period.  See “Health Insurance Coverage and Access to Care for Low-Income Non-Citizen Adults,” (Washington, Kaiser Policy Brief #7651, June 2007), available online at http://www.kff.org/uninsured/upload/7651.pdf (accessed August 26, 2008), p. 3.

[8] The requirement is in Section 1137 of the Social Security Act, available at 42 U.S.C. 1320b-7(d)(1)(A).

[9] Daniel Levinson, “Self-Declaration of U.S. Citizenship for Medicaid,” (Washington, DC, HHS Office of the Inspector General, Report OEI-02-03-00190, July 2005), available online at http://oig.hhs.gov/oei/reports/oei-02-03-00190.pdf (accessed August 20, 2008), pp. 16-18.

[10] A final rule incorporating comments to the July 12, 2006 interim final rule was published in the Federal Register on July 13, 2007 and can be found online at http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2007/pdf/07-3291.pdf (accessed August 20, 2008).

[11] A state-by-state breakdown of SCHIP program status can be found in Congressional Research Service, The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP): An Overview, Report RL 30473, available online at http://www.congress.gov/erp/rl/pdf/RL30473.pdf (accessed August 21, 2008), Table 1, Column 1, pp. 18-21.

[12] The full EMTALA statute can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1395dd.

[13] Fiscal Year 2009 HHS Budget in Brief, available online at http://www.hhs.gov/budget/09budget/2009BudgetInBrief.pdf (accessed August 20, 2008), pp. 21-25.

[14] The statutory language is available at 42 U.S.C. 254b(k)(3)(G)(iii)(I).

[15] The definitions of Medicaid DSH institutions can be found at 42 U.S.C. 1396r-4(b).

[16] March 2008 CBO Medicaid baseline, available online at http://www.cbo.gov/budget/factsheets/2008b/medicaidBaseline.pdf (accessed August 20, 2008).

[17] Mike Soraghan, “Minority Caucuses to Press for Two SCHIP Provisions,” The Hill August 13, 2008, available online at http://thehill.com/leading-the-news/minority-caucuses-to-press-for-two-schip-provisions-2008-08-12.html (accessed August 21, 2008).

[18] Title IV of P.L. 104-193 did contain some exceptions to the “qualified alien” waiting period—most notably for legal permanent residents with a substantial work history (i.e. 40 qualifying quarters of Social Security coverage) and for those with a military connection (i.e. veterans, active-duty servicemen, and their spouses and dependents).

[19] Deborah Sontag, “Immigrants Facing Deportation by U.S. Hospitals,” New York Times August 3, 2008, available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/us/03deport.html?_r=1&sq=jimenez&st=cse&adxnnl=1&oref=slogin&scp=10&adxnnlx=1219331895-evIAEOYXEq2SKfB7dLGcEg&pagewanted=print (accessed August 21, 2008).

Question and Answer: Tobacco Regulation Bill

The House may soon be faced with a vote on a measure (H.R. 1108) to include tobacco products under the regulatory authority of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  The RSC has prepared the following analysis providing background information on the legislation, as passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on April 2, 2008.

What is the purpose of the provisions of H.R. 1108 regulating tobacco products? 

Both the stated purpose and expansive scope of the proposed FDA regulation of tobacco under H.R. 1108 can be observed in Title I of the bill: “The Secretary [of Health and Human Services] may by regulation require restrictions on the sale and distribution of a tobacco product, including restrictions on the access to, and the advertising and promotion of, the tobacco product, if the Secretary determines that such regulation would be appropriate for the protection of the public health.”  Under the bill, the definition of the public health is extended to both users and non-users of tobacco products.

Some conservatives may note that this language is a significant modification from the original justification for tobacco regulation—namely, the need to protect children from gaining access to tobacco products.  In fact, while children are mentioned several times in the findings section of H.R. 1108, the word “children” appears only four times in the remaining 176 pages of the bill.  Some conservatives may be concerned that this new focus on a more expansive goal of protecting the public health may divert energy away from efforts to combat underage consumption of tobacco products.

Does H.R. 1108 contain a tax increase?

Many conservatives may be concerned that it does.  The bill includes assessments on tobacco companies, ostensibly termed “user fees,” to finance the FDA’s work regulating tobacco products.  However, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that tobacco regulation will reduce the number of smokers—thus decreasing the amount of revenue derived to the federal government from tobacco taxes.

While the version of H.R. 1108 reported from full Committee attempted to address this matter by including a finding that the bill’s scope was not intended to intrude upon any authority under the Internal Revenue Code, the House Ways and Means Committee has requested a referral on the grounds that the fee ultimately constitutes a tax.  As Ways and Means Chairman Rangel wrote to Speaker Pelosi on April 3, 2008:

The amount of money raised by the assessment of the user fee is more than the amount of money being made available to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) for the regulation of tobacco….Since the bill forbids the funds from being spent on anything other than tobacco regulation, [the funds] would in fact revert back to the general fund of the U.S. Treasury.  The Committee on Energy and Commerce would then be financing the costs of government generally, which is clearly the jurisdiction of the Committee on Ways and Means.

Therefore, many conservatives may be concerned that, following Chairman Rangel’s own logic, the “user fee” in H.R. 1108 in fact constitutes a tax increase on tobacco companies.

Under what standard would tobacco be regulated under H.R. 1108?

The bill would re-institute standards first proposed in 1996 to regulate tobacco as a medical device.  However, it remains unclear how these standards can be reconciled with the inherent nature of tobacco products.  For instance, Title I of H.R. 1108 deems a tobacco product as “adulterated” if “it consists in whole or in part of any filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance, or is otherwise contaminated by any added poisonous or added deleterious substance that may render the product injurious to health.”  Based on this description, it is unclear how any tobacco product would fail to qualify as “adulterated,” raising questions as to how the standards can be appropriately applied.

Will H.R. 1108 impede the introduction of reduced-risk tobacco products?

H.R. 1108 places stringent restrictions on the introduction and marketing of new products that would reduce or modify the inherent risks associated with the consumption of tobacco.  The bill states that a reduced risk product may be marketed only if the product will “significantly reduce harm and the risk of tobacco-related disease to individual tobacco users” and also will “benefit the population as a whole,” including persons who do not consume tobacco products.  Other reduced risk products may be approved for distribution, but will be subjected to further marketing restrictions, post-market surveillance, and potential revocation of the distribution license after a five-year period.  Some conservatives may be concerned that such onerous restrictions on the introduction of new reduced risk tobacco products could have the effect of inhibiting the introduction of products that could reduce the risks associated with tobacco consumption while potentially serving as a barrier to entry for new market competitors.

How would tobacco advertising be regulated under H.R. 1108?

In addition to codifying federal restrictions, which tobacco companies agreed to in their 1998 settlement with state Attorneys General, H.R. 1108 places additional federal restrictions on tobacco advertising, while simultaneously eliminating federal pre-emption by allowing states to enact legislation “imposing specific bans or restrictions on the time, place, and manner, but not content, of the advertising or promotion” of tobacco products.  Some of the federal restrictions on advertising content in H.R. 1108 include the following specifications for the size of warning labels on tobacco products:

The text of such label statements shall be in a typeface pro rata to the following requirements: 45-point type for a whole-page broadsheet newspaper advertisement; 39-point type for a half-page broadsheet newspaper advertisement; 39-point type for a whole-page tabloid newspaper advertisement; 27-point type for a half-page tabloid newspaper advertisement; 31.5-point type for a double page spread magazine or whole-page magazine advertisement; 22.5-point type for a 28 centimeter by 3 column advertisement; and 15-point type for a 20 centimeter by 2 column advertisement.

Some conservatives may be concerned that the highly prescriptive restrictions described above, and elsewhere in H.R. 1108, constitute an undue intrusion on companies’ constitutional free speech rights to advertise a product that most Americans already know is unhealthy.

What implications might consumers draw from FDA’s proposed role in regulating tobacco?

As FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in October 2007, the FDA has heretofore been structured as an agency to promote and protect the public health.  In the Commissioner’s opinion, requiring FDA to “approve” tobacco products as a result of H.R. 1108 would dramatically change the agency’s focus: “Associating any agency whose mission is to promote public health with the approval of inherently dangerous products would undermine its mission and likely have perverse incentive effects.”

Is FDA competent to regulate tobacco products?

The statements of several Congressional Democrats—who have criticized the agency’s handling of food and drug safety, particularly with regard to imported products—raise questions as to why they would support granting new and broad authority to FDA with regard to tobacco regulation.  For instance, Energy and Commerce Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-MI), in holding a hearing on FDA’s decision to approve an antibiotic despite receiving false clinical trial data, called the incident “a microcosm of the failure by all FDA stakeholders—FDA, pharmaceutical sponsors, and third-party monitors—to ensure the integrity of clinical trials used to support the safety and approval of new drug applications.”  On top of questions which Democrats themselves have raised regarding FDA’s competence, some conservatives may question whether the food safety concerns that have arisen in recent months make now an appropriate time significantly to expand the agency’s regulatory remit and mission.

Health Insurance Connectors and Exchanges

History and Background:  The 2006 Massachusetts health reform act signed into law by Republican Gov. Mitt Romney contained several concepts designed to expand insurance coverage and access.  These ideas included a health insurance “Connector,” which would allow employees at businesses not offering coverage to their workers to purchase insurance on the same tax-free basis as those covered under a group insurance plan.[1]  Because the Connector’s structure ensures that participants would be eligible for the federal tax subsidies provided to employer-sponsored coverage through the use of cafeteria plans (also named Section 125 plans after their location in the Internal Revenue Code), the state-based program provides a “back door” way to equalize the tax treatment of health insurance in the absence of federal legislation to do so.

Public vs. Private:  Although one of the more innovative concepts behind the Massachusetts plan, some conservatives may view the Connector as one of the least necessary.  While the head of a leading organization supporting the Massachusetts plan called the Connector concept “fairly unprecedented in US insurance history” for its ability to allow individuals to comparison shop between and among plans online, the private marketplace has provided that service to consumers for over a decade.[2]  Companies like eHealthInsurance, created in 1998, and Revolution Health have served for years as online insurance clearing-houses, enabling and empowering consumers to compare the features of plans offered in their area and select a plan best meeting their needs.

Given the private marketplace’s willingness to offer services comparable to the Massachusetts Connector, some conservatives may therefore view its creation as a symptom of two larger problems: the inequitable tax treatment of health insurance by the federal government and costly regulations imposed by state governments.  In an attempt to encourage younger individuals to take the step of buying insurance coverage, the Connector does sell streamlined benefit packages to 19-26 year-olds at lower costs—but some conservatives may believe that these individuals, and all Massachusetts residents, would be better served by more comprehensive insurance reform that repeals costly benefit mandates entirely, rather than loosening them only for certain populations under certain conditions.

Likewise, while the Connector concept provides an innovative way to extend current-law tax incentives for the purchase of health insurance to all individuals, some conservatives may be concerned that, should such an idea extend to other states, such a development would have the effect of perpetuating a system that depresses cash wages, encourages over-consumption of care, and results in hundreds of billions of dollars of tax subsidies annually—more than $168 billion in FY09, and more than $1.05 trillion over the next five years.[3]  Were the tax subsidies reformed, and the state benefit mandates streamlined, pre-empted, or eliminated, some conservatives may believe that the need for a government-run bureaucratic entity such as the Connector to administer health insurance plans would be minimized.

Legal Issues:  Although the Connector received significant attention from both the press and policy-makers at the time the Massachusetts plan was unveiled, some within the insurance community have raised potential concerns about the implications of super-imposing the Connector purchasing model on the existing legal framework for health insurance.  The National Association of Health Underwriters has released a paper raising several questions about the ramifications of Connector-based coverage, including whether Connector-purchased policies meets the current definition of group health insurance under applicable federal laws.

It is also possible that state-based health insurance Connectors, whether in Massachusetts or other states, could have provisions interfering with language in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) pre-empting “any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee health benefit plan.”[4]  Given the potential legal scrutiny, as well as the implications for individuals who may need to transfer their Connector-based coverage to another state or employer, some conservatives may urge caution with any state efforts to enact other versions of Massachusetts’ creation.

Connector vs. Regulator:  The relative novelty of the Connector concept has resulted in several attempts in the two years since the Massachusetts plan was first adopted to capitalize upon its perceived success by creating similar sounding models in other states and venues.  However, these models often vary widely in their structure and approach, with the major differences lying in the extent to which the Connector or Exchange represents an attempt by a bureaucratic entity to use its collective purchasing power to regulate or otherwise influence private insurance markets.

Sen. Barack Obama’s health care plan would establish a National Health Insurance Exchange, to allow individuals who do not wish to purchase coverage through his proposed new public health insurance program a choice of privately-run plans from which to buy a policy.  However, the language of his proposal makes clear that the Exchange would perform a highly active role as both a facilitator of coverage and a regulator of those plans participating in it:

The Exchange will act as a watchdog and help reform the private insurance market by creating rules and standards for participating insurance plans to ensure fairness and to make individual coverage more affordable and accessible….Insurers would have to issue every applicant a policy, and charge fair and stable premiums that will not depend upon health status.  The Exchange will require that all the plans offered are at least as generous as the new public plan and meet the same standards for quality and efficiency.  Insurers would be required to justify an above-average premium increase to the Exchange.  The Exchange would evaluate plans and make the differences among the plans, including the cost of services, transparent.[5]

The clear language of the Obama plan may give some conservatives pause that a purported health insurance “Exchange” will in fact serve more as a regulator than a mere facilitator for the purchase of insurance policies, imposing additional mandates and controls on carriers that will stifle the innovation of new insurance products and raise the cost of coverage.  Some conservatives may also be concerned that the Obama plan could in time turn into a government-run monopsony, where the Exchange as the largest and/or sole purchaser of health insurance would use its power to dominate the insurance marketplace, imposing arbitrary and damaging price controls on plans as a precondition to their participation in a venue where many Americans would seek to purchase coverage.

By contrast, several Republican Senators produced legislation (S. 1886) last year with language ensuring that state-based Connectors serve only as a purchasing tool and not as a blunt instrument to allow the federal government to intervene in health insurance markets.  The legislation provides that the health insurance tax credits created under the bill would be refundable (i.e. extended to those individuals with tax liability less than or equal to the amount of the credit) only in the case of policies purchased through a state-based Exchange.  Title II of the legislation establishes strict parameters on the actions that an Exchange may take with respect to insurance policies offered through it, prohibiting the Exchange from setting prices, imposing additional benefit mandates or guidelines, or restricting participation for any state-licensed plan.  The legislation also provides the opportunity for health insurance plans or other third parties to contract with states to organize the exchange, rather than forcing states to spend additional taxpayer resources to create something readily available in the private marketplace, as occurred in Massachusetts.

Conclusion:  Although a significant element of the Massachusetts reform law, some conservatives may believe that the Connector’s creation achieved little in practice that the private marketplace was not already working to develop—namely, an easy method for individuals to find, compare, and purchase health insurance plans.  While the tax advantages of purchases made through the Connector (as opposed to on the individual market) cannot be denied, the advisability of using the Connector as anything more than a stopgap solution until Congress debates and passes fundamental tax reform—including reform of the inequities of the tax treatment of health insurance—may be questioned.  Moreover, Internal Revenue Service guidance released last August found that individual health insurance policies purchased through tax-free Section 125 cafeteria plans established by employers need not be acquired solely by means of a Connector mechanism to receive favorable tax treatment, raising additional questions as to whether an additional state-based bureaucracy for the purchase of health insurance is necessary or desirable.[6]

To the extent that Connector-like mechanisms provide additional information and transparency to potential purchasers of health insurance, some conservatives may support these efforts as one way to replicate the information and advice which individuals may previously have received solely from employers.  However, to the extent state or federal lawmakers seek to utilize the Connector concept in an attempt for government to dominate the private insurance marketplace, many conservatives may oppose these efforts as antithetical to the principles of freedom and likely unworkable in practice.

 

[1] While the Massachusetts Connector also offers access to state-subsidized Commonwealth Care plans for low-income individuals, references to “Connectors” in this paper speak solely to mechanisms that facilitate the purchase of unsubsidized insurance from the private marketplace.

[2] Statement of John McDonough, Executive Director, Health Care for All, Alliance for Health Reform briefing on “Massachusetts Health Reform: Bragging Rights and Growing Pains,” (Washington, DC, May 19, 2008), available online at http://www.allhealth.org/briefingmaterials/Transcript-1219.pdf (accessed July 1, 2008), p. 9.

[3] Table 19-1, Estimates of Total Income Tax Expenditures, Analytical Perspectives, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2009, available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2009/pdf/spec.pdf (accessed July 1, 2008), p. 302.

[4] 29 U.S.C. §1144a.

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

[6] Internal Revenue Service Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued August 6, 2007 and available online at http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2007/pdf/E7-14827.pdf (accessed July 1, 2008).  Language relating to reimbursement of individual health insurance premiums is in proposed 26 CFR §1.125-7(m) at pp. 43952-53.

Tax Treatment of Health Insurance

History:  The origins of the current income tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance date back to World War II, when large employers successfully pressed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to exempt group health insurance from income and payroll taxes, thus allowing firms to offer health benefit policies as a means to circumvent wartime wage and price controls.  The IRS ruling was codified as part of the re-write of the Internal Revenue Code that took place in 1954 (P.L. 83-591), and remains part of the Code at 26 U.S.C. 106(a).  Largely as a result of this policy, employer-provided health insurance grew significantly during the postwar period, and in 2006 provided coverage to 177.1 million individuals, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.[1]

Budgetary Costs:  The growth in the number of individuals enrolled in group health insurance over the past six decades led to a commensurate rise in the tax expenditures associated with the employee exclusion.  The Office of Management and Budget estimates that, in Fiscal Year 2009, the federal government will forego more than $168 billion in income tax revenue due to the employee exclusion; tax expenditures over the next five years will total more than $1.05 trillion.[2]  The Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) estimates a lower income tax impact for the employee exclusion, at $126 billion per year in FY09, largely because JCT assumes that individuals with high health costs will itemize their health costs over 7.5% of adjusted gross income (AGI).[3]

Employer-sponsored health insurance is also exempt from payroll taxes; however, the budgetary impact of this policy has been less accurately quantified.[4]  A Health Affairs article published in 2006 estimated that in that year, the exclusion resulted in $73.3 billion in foregone payroll tax revenue, along with an additional $23.4 billion in state income tax revenues.[5]  However, because a change in policy subjecting group health insurance coverage to payroll taxes would increase the Social Security wage base for many individuals—leading to a direct increase in promised benefits—the net impact on the federal government is likely significantly less than the estimates cited.

Economic Impact:  Many conservative and liberal economists agree that the employee exclusion, while increasing access to insurance coverage for some populations, has had several adverse and unintended consequences.  Because a marginal dollar of health insurance benefits is untaxed, whereas a marginal dollar of salary can be subject to total tax rates (income, payroll, and state/local taxes) in excess of 40%, additional health benefits are actually more lucrative to workers than an additional dollar’s wages.  Thus the employee exclusion, which is not capped, may encourage workers to consume all the health care they want, rather than the health care they need.

The disparity created by the employee exclusion may explain why the average premium for employer-sponsored insurance is $4,479 for an individual—roughly three times the average $1,500 paid for insurance coverage outside the group market, where premiums paid are generally subject to income and payroll taxes.[6]  It also may help to explain the 157.6% rise in total tax subsidies for health insurance (adjusted for inflation) between 1987 and 2006—while total employment rose somewhat during the period, most of the increase can be attributed to rising premium costs, which an uncapped federal tax subsidy can exacerbate.[7]

The growth in group health insurance coverage, sparked in part by federal tax policy that encouraged employers to offer health benefits, has increased the amount of overall health expenditures made by third-party insurers.  A report released by the Congressional Budget Office in November 2007, which examined both historical trends in health care spending and long-term projections for its growth over the next 75 years, documented a significant shift in health care expenditures: out-of-pocket spending declined from 31% to 13% of all health expenditures (both private and public) between 1975 and 2005, while third-party payment by private insurance carriers increased from 25% to 37% of health spending nationwide.[8]  Although new technologies and services have also helped drive the growth in health spending, the continued rise of third-party payment—which can insulate patients from the marginal costs associated with additional treatments—may well have had inflationary effects.  This shift away from out-of-pocket spending occurred despite the findings of a landmark RAND Institute study, which concluded that higher cost-sharing helped constrain health care spending at little to no adverse effect on patients’ health.

Additionally, the fact that tax policy generally favors employer-provided insurance when compared to health insurance purchased on the individual market tends to have distortionary effects on labor markets.  Although policy-makers have established some other tax benefits for health insurance, these generally have more limitations than the expansive employee exclusion: the self-employed may deduct health insurance premiums from income tax, but are not exempt from 15.3% payroll tax on the cost of policies purchased; Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) allow for pre-tax savings for health expenses, but cannot be used for the purchase of health insurance, except in limited instances; and deductions for medical expenses in excess of 7.5% of AGI only apply to individuals who do not itemize.

The sum total of the effects of the employee exclusion is therefore material from both a fiscal and an economic perspective.  Employees’ inbuilt incentive to over-consume health care encourages rich insurance benefits that insulate consumers from the true costs of care—raising health care costs over time—while depressing cash wages paid.  Moreover, the disparity in the tax treatment of insurance tends to perpetuate “job lock,” whereby individuals gravitate towards positions and industries that offer health coverage to the detriment of those that do not—providing a disincentive for individuals to establish their own businesses and take the entrepreneurial risks that lead to robust economic growth.

Policy Solutions:  In general, some conservatives may support reforms to the current tax treatment of health insurance that accomplish the twin goals of eliminating the disparity between health insurance offered by an employer and non-group coverage and imposing some threshold on the level of tax subsidies provided for health benefits in an attempt to slow the growth of health care costs.  Proposals in this line have varied widely; in his first term, President Bush proposed a tax credit for low-income individuals and families without access to employer-sponsored insurance, as a means to incentivize these populations to purchase health coverage.  Last year, the President proposed a new standard deduction for health insurance, similar to that first proposed by the Tax Reform Panel in 2005, that would provide tax subsidies for coverage purchased up to a set level premium ($7,500 in the case of the budget proposal submitted to Congress).[9]

Other proposals have looked to replace the current exclusion for health insurance with a tax credit available to all individuals, paid for by capping or repealing entirely the current tax subsidy for group health insurance.  Policies in this vein include provisions in the first title of comprehensive health and entitlement reform legislation (H.R. 6110) introduced by Budget Committee Ranking Member Paul Ryan (R-WI), along with the health reform plan promoted by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).  In most cases, the credits would be refundable (i.e. paid to individuals with tax liability less than the amount of the credit) and advanceable (i.e. paid out on the same monthly basis as health insurance premiums, rather than in conjunction with the filing of an annual return).

Conclusion:  Despite—or perhaps because of—the multitude of proposals designed to reform the current tax treatment of health insurance, most conservatives share the over-arching goal of improving an arguably archaic system of tax subsidies, rooted in a wartime bureaucratic decision, that has distorted America’s more than $2 trillion health sector while inhibiting economic growth.  Although the health plan released by Sen. Barack Obama omits any discussion of the damaging and perverse effects of current tax policies on both the health sector and the broader economy, some conservatives may believe that revisiting current tax policy should be at the top of any health reform agenda.

 

[1] U.S. Census Bureau , “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2006,” (Washington, DC, Report P60-233, August 2007), available online at http://www.census.gov/prod/2007pubs/p60-233.pdf  (accessed July 2, 2008), Table C-1, p. 66.

[2] Table 19-1, Estimates of Total Income Tax Expenditures, Analytical Perspectives, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2009, available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2009/pdf/spec.pdf (accessed July 1, 2008), p. 302.

[3] Joint Committee on Taxation, “Estimates of Federal Tax Expenditures for Fiscal Years 2007-2011,” (Washington, DC, Committee Print JCS-3-07, September 2007), available online at http://www.jct.gov/s-3-07.pdf (accessed July 2, 2008), Table 1, p. 36.  For comparison with Treasury estimations, see narrative section at pp. 24-25.

[4] The payroll tax exclusion can be found at 26 U.S.C. 3121(a)(2).

[5] Thomas Selden and Bradley Gray, “Tax Subsidies for Employment-Related Health Insurance: Estimates for 2006,” Health Affairs 25(6), November/December 2006, pp. 1570-71.

[6] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Employer Health Benefits: 2007 Annual Survey,” available online at http://kff.org/insurance/7672/upload/76723.pdf (accessed July 2, 2008), p. 2; eHealthInsurance, “The Cost and Benefits of Individual Health Insurance Plans: 2007,” available online at http://www.ehealthinsurance.com/content/expertcenterNew/CostBenefitsReportSeptember2007.pdf (accessed July 2, 2008), p. 23.  It should also be noted that in recent years, the average premium in the eHealthInsurance survey has remained nearly constant, while the average deductible has risen slightly; this would lend further confirmation to the concept that individuals purchasing health care on their own, particularly on an after-tax basis, make rational choices between potential out-of-pocket costs and overall premium levels when shopping for policies.

[7] Selden and Grey, p. 1577.

[8] Congressional Budget Office, “The Long-Term Outlook for Health Care Spending,” (Washington, DC, Publication #3085, November 2007), available online at http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/87xx/doc8758/11-13-LT-Health.pdf (accessed July 2, 2008), pp. 12-13.

[9] Information on the Standard Deduction for Health Insurance proposed as part of the Fiscal Year 2009 budget can be found in the Treasury Blue Book at http://www.ustreas.gov/offices/tax-policy/library/bluebk08.pdf (accessed July 2, 2008), pp. 22-25.  Details on the Tax Reform Panel proposal can be found at http://www.taxreformpanel.gov/final-report/TaxReform_Ch5.pdf (accessed July 2, 2008), pp. 20-24.