Will the Trump Administration Help Republicans Expand Obamacare?

For all the allegations by the Left about how the Trump administration is “sabotaging” Obamacare, a recent New York Times article revealed nothing of the sort. Instead it indicated how many senior officials within the administration want to entrench Obamacare, helping states to expand the reach of one of its costly entitlements.

Thankfully, a furious internal battle took the idea off the table—for now. But instead of trying to find ways to increase the reach of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which prioritizes able-bodied adults over individuals with disabilities, the Trump administration should instead pursue policies that slow the push towards expansion, by making the tough fiscal choices surrounding expansion plain for states to see.

What ‘Partial Expansion’ Means

Following the court’s decision, the Obama administration determined expansion an “all-or-nothing” proposition. If states wanted to receive the enhanced match rate for the expansion—which started at 100 percent in 2014, and is slowly falling to 90 percent for 2020 and future years—they must expand to all individuals below the 138 percent of poverty threshold.

However, some states wish to expand Medicaid only for adults with incomes below the poverty level. Whereas individuals with incomes above 100 percent of poverty qualify for premium and cost-sharing subsidies for plans on Obamacare’s exchanges, individuals with incomes below the poverty level do not. (In states that have not expanded Medicaid, individuals with incomes below poverty may fall into the so-called “coverage gap,” because they do not have enough income to qualify for subsidized exchange coverage.)

States that wish to cover only individuals with incomes below the poverty line may do so—however, under the Obama administration guidance, those states would receive only their regular federal match rate of between 50 and 74 percent, depending on a state’s income. (Wisconsin chose this option for its Medicaid program.)

How ‘Partial Expansion’ Actually Costs More Money

The Times article says several administration supporters of “partial expansion”—including Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Administrator (CMS) Seema Verma, and Domestic Policy Council Director Andrew Bremberg—believe that embracing the change would help to head off full-blown expansion efforts in states like Utah. An internal HHS memo obtained by the Times claims that “HHS believes allowing partial expansion would result in significant savings over the 10-year budget window compared to full Medicaid expansion by all.”

In reality, however, “partial expansion” would explode the budget, for at least three reasons. First, it will encourage states that have not embraced expansion to do so, by lowering the fiscal barrier to expansion. While states “only” have to fund up to 10 percent of the costs of Medicaid expansion, they pay not a dime for any individuals enrolled in exchange coverage. By shifting individuals with incomes of between 100-138 percent of poverty from Medicaid to the exchanges, “partial expansion” significantly reduces the population of individuals for whom states would have to share costs. This change could encourage even ruby red states like Texas to consider Medicaid expansion.

Second, for the same reason, such a move will encourage states that have already expanded Medicaid to switch to “partial expansion”—so they can fob some of their state costs onto federal taxpayers. The Times notes that Arkansas and Massachusetts already have such waiver applications pending with CMS. Once the administration approves a single one of these waivers, virtually every state (or at minimum, every red state with a Medicaid expansion) will run to CMS’s doorstep asking for the federal government to take these costs off their hands.

Medicaid expansion has already proved unsustainable, with exploding enrollment and costs. “Partial expansion” would make that fiscal burden even worse, through a triple whammy of more states expanding, existing states offloading costs to the federal government through “partial expansion,” and the conversion of millions of enrollees from less expensive Medicaid coverage to more costly exchange plans.

What Washington Should Do Instead

Rather than embracing the fiscally irresponsible “partial expansion,” the Trump administration and Congress should instead halt another budget gimmick that states have used to fund Medicaid expansion: The provider tax scam. As of last fall, eight states had used this gimmick to fund some or all of the state portion of expansion costs. Other states have taken heed: Virginia used a provider tax to fund its Medicaid expansion earlier this year, and Gov. Paul LePage (R-ME)—who heretofore has steadfastly opposed expansion—recently floated the idea of a provider tax to fund expansion in Maine.

The provider tax functions as a scam by laundering money to generate more federal revenue. Providers—whether hospitals, nursing homes, Medicaid managed-care plans, or others—agree to an “assessment” that goes into the state’s general fund. The state uses those dollars to draw down new Medicaid matching funds from the federal government, which the state promptly sends right back to the providers.

For this reason, politicians of all parties have called on Congress to halt the provider tax gimmick. Even former vice president Joe Biden called provider taxes a “scam,” and pressed for their abolition. The final report of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission called for “restricting and eventually eliminating” the “Medicaid tax gimmick.”

If Republicans in Congress really want to oppose Obamacare—the law they ran on repealing for four straight election cycles—they should start by imposing a moratorium on any new Medicaid provider taxes, whether to fund expansion or anything else. Such a move would force states to consider whether they can afford to fund their share of expansion costs—by diverting dollars from schools or transportation, for instance—rather than using a budget gimmick to avoid those tough choices. It would also save money, by stopping states from bilking the federal government out of billions in extra Medicaid funds through what amounts to a money-laundering scam.

Rhetoric vs. Reality, Take 5,000

But of course, whether Republicans actually want to dismantle Obamacare remains a very open question. Rather than opposing “partial expansion” on fiscal grounds, the Times quotes unnamed elected officials’ response:

Republican governors were generally supportive [of “partial expansion”], but they said the change must not be seen as an expansion of the Affordable Care Act and should not be announced before the midterm elections. Congressional Republican leaders, while supportive of the option, also cautioned against any high-profile public announcement before the midterm elections.

In other words, these officials want to expand and entrench Obamacare, but don’t want to be seen as expanding and entrenching Obamacare. What courage!

Just as with congressional Republicans’ desperate moves to bail out Obamacare’s exchanges earlier this year, the Times article demonstrates how a party that repeatedly ran on repealing Obamacare, once granted with the full levers of power in Washington, instead looks to reinforce it. Small wonder that the unnamed politicians in the Times article worry about conservative voters exacting a justifiable vengeance in November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Rising Costs of Medicaid Expansion in Louisiana

A recent Associated Press story claimed that Louisiana’s Medicaid program is spending less than expected. Don’t you believe it. By multiple measures, Medicaid expansion has proved a budget buster — with worse outcomes ahead.
Take the claim that “more than $535 million of the less-than-projected spending is in the Medicaid expansion program.” But Medicaid expansion’s enrollment, or costs, have not dipped below projections. Far from it, in fact.

In 2015, the state’s Legislative Fiscal Office estimated that expanding Medicaid eligibility would raise spending on benefits by $5.8 billion over five years under moderate enrollment, or $7.1 billion over five years in a high enrollment scenario — roughly $1.2 to $1.4 billion annually.

Compare those numbers to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals’ January estimate. Instead of costing $3.45 billion this fiscal year, Medicaid expansion will “only” cost taxpayers $2.91 billion. In other words, rather than nearly tripling the 2015 cost estimates, expansion will instead exceed the original high-end projections by a mere 108 percent.

First, the Department of Health’s analysis touting purported “savings” to the state ignores the “woodwork effect” — individuals already eligible for Medicaid who only sign up because of the “hoopla” surrounding expansion. The analysis trumpets the individuals previously enrolled in Medicaid for whom the state can receive a higher federal match, saving the state money. However, it does not examine the opposite phenomenon — whether the publicity surrounding expansion has increased enrollment in populations for which the state must pay a larger share of costs.

In 2015, the Legislative Fiscal Office assumed no “woodwork” effect when analyzing the effects of expansion. But since then, enrollment in Medicaid expansion has skyrocketed. While the Edwards administration first claimed only 300,000 would sign up for expansion, enrollment now exceeds 460,000. A serious fiscal analysis would use the exploding enrollment numbers to study the “woodwork” issue afresh; the Department’s did not.

Second, the analysis also ignores the issue of “crowd-out” — individuals dropping private coverage to enroll in government programs. In 2015, the Legislative Fiscal Office assumed that between 67,000 and 89,000 individuals would drop their private coverage to enroll in “free” Medicaid; that coverage would cost $1.3 billion over five years, $99 million of that coming from the state general fund.

Particularly given the higher than projected enrollment since the 2015 estimate, the department should analyze the costs to taxpayers associated with individuals who dropped private coverage to join a government program. It has not.

Third, the proposed savings rest on a budget gimmick: Providers and insurers agreeing to pay higher taxes — because those “taxes” generate themselves money. The doctors, hospitals and insurers agree to give more funds to the state, the state collects federal Medicaid matching dollars on that money, and then gives both the state and federal funds right back to hospitals and insurers.

If this fiscal maneuvering — providers raising taxes on themselves to obtain more government funding — sounds like a scam to you, you’re not alone. None other than Joe Biden called it as much back in 2011. Other liberal researchers have called the gimmick “egregious” and a “national disgrace.”

President Trump’s budget endorsed legislation that would crack down on this “Medicaid tax gimmick,” and in 2010 the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission endorsed eliminating it entirely. With our nation facing trillion-dollar deficits, Washington will soon have to return to fiscal discipline, putting both parts of the Medicaid expansion in Louisiana — Obamacare’s enhanced federal match for able-bodied adults, and the tax gimmick used to pay Louisiana’s portion of expansion costs — under threat.

Far from small or stable, Medicaid expansion in Louisiana has become a sprawling monstrosity built on a fiscal house of cards. Policy-makers should examine ways to unwind the expansion sooner rather than later, before it starts falling down of its own weight.

This post was originally published in the Shreveport Times.

The Freedom and Empowerment Plan for American Health Care

A PDF of the full health care plan is available on the America Next website.

The Problem of American Health Care

By many measures, the American system of health care is the best in the world. It is a source of incredible innovation at the cutting edge of medical science, providing high quality care to people who need it. We have some of the best doctors, nurses, researchers, and provider systems on earth. When world leaders need complex surgery and lifesaving treatment, they fly to us. It is here, in America, where treatments are discovered, methods are improved, and diseases are cured.

But by all sorts of other measures, the American system of health care is the worst of both worlds – and that was true before Obamacare. For starters, it is extraordinarily expensive. This is partly because we aren’t interested in just managing pain, but in curing diseases; partly because market-warping government policies and regulations drive costs higher and incentivize monopolization over competition; partly because Americans have a limited choice of health insurance options; and partly because patients and providers are insulated from the true costs of health care services.

Imagine for a moment if other forms of insurance worked the same way as American health insurance does today. Say you arrive home one day and find that the lightbulb on your front porch has burned out. This happens every couple of months, and it’s predictable as clockwork – or a chronic condition. But because your homeowners insurance policy works like health insurance does, you can’t just drive to a store and buy a lightbulb, oh no. Instead, you have to call and set up an appointment with a highly-paid and highly-educated expert lightbulb specialist.

You go in the waiting room wait for two hours so the specialist can spend five minutes examining the lightbulb and telling you what new one you need to buy. The specialist used to be in a small practice, but now he’s in a big group, because there are all sorts of government regulations he has to deal with, and only big systems can afford to deal with them. He also has to overcharge your private insurer for this brief visit, because he spends a third of his time seeing people on government entitlement programs who dramatically underpay for his services.

The specialist gives you a nearly illegible prescription for a new lightbulb, but you can’t buy it just anywhere – your homeowners insurance has a network of stores, and going out of network means you’ll face penalties. You have to drive across town to an in-network hardware store, and then wait for someone to get the right lightbulb out of the back. You have no idea how much the lightbulb actually costs, or if it would be cheaper at the store ten minutes away – you just have a small co-pay for it, and the rest is covered by your insurer – or how much the specialist is paid to tell you which one to buy. And in a few months when the light burns out again, you’ll have to go through all of this all over again.

When you start to think about the American health insurance system in this context, you start to understand why things are so upside down when it comes to the costs of care. At each stage, everyone is insulated from costs, and most people have no incentive to shop and compare prices and services as they do in every other market. And government policies and sweeping regulations have only served to make it worse.

Health care represents one of the most complex arenas of public policy. It was an animating interest for me from a young age, in part because it is an area that touches every American during the course of their lives in profound ways. I worked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.  During my lifetime, many attempts have been made to try and fix the broken aspects of our system, some more successful than others. President Obama’s health care law is just the latest in a long line of wrongheaded steps – but it is by far the worst yet.

As someone who believes in empowering patients and using market forces to improve American health care, I oppose President Obama’s law and believe we must repeal all of it—no matter what the conventional wisdom in Washington says. But we must also enact positive reforms to move our health system in the right direction, because the status quo of American health care and insurance is simply not defensible.

What the President said in the course of selling his signature legislation actually sounded good to me – it’s what he did that was awful. The President sold his law as a path to lower premium costs, promising that he’d cut them by $2,500 by the end of his first term. He said he wanted people to be able to keep their health plans and their doctors if they liked them. He said he wanted to bend the cost trajectory down while improving quality. I’m for all of that – but unfortunately that’s not what his law does.  At best the President was horribly naïve about how our health care system works, and how to reform it.  At worst he was deliberately untrue, and sold his government-centric plan as a “conservative” proposal because he knew the American people would never accept the truth.

We want to make sure that people have access to affordable high quality healthcare. We want to create a solid safety net for the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. This is, according to President Obama, what he wants, too. But from my perspective, he never stepped back and really looked at what’s wrong with our system, and asked what we want it to look like if we can tear down the existing market-warping problems and start afresh.

America needs a health care system where it is easy for the consumer to be in control, and where government won’t get in between you and your doctor. Sometimes on the right we’re blind to the fact that health care bureaucracy isn’t just Medicare and Medicaid personnel – it also could be a big insurance bureaucrat, and they’re little better. At each point, this system of bureaucracy, monopolization, and the lack of price transparency serves to drive costs higher and higher for all of us. The most fundamental question in health care policy is: do you want the patient to be in control, working with their doctor and health care provider, or do you want a bureaucrat – whether from the government or your insurer – to be in control?

The left has its answer to this question: empowering government. Instead, we should be empowering patients. How should we go about doing that? Well, there are several things that have to change, steps that will push health care in this country toward being a true competitive marketplace, and which make providers understand once again that the individual patient is their customer.

Big changes never happen organically in Washington, and many of the big stakeholders were heavily invested in Obamacare just a few years ago. But as President Obama’s monopartisan program has stumbled, it presents the opportunity for conservatives to make the case for real reform. It is now obvious to everyone that his plan simply won’t deliver on the many promises he made along the way. And that’s because, from the beginning, his approach was wrongheaded. He trusted the government to fix the problems and get everything right, instead of trusting the American people to know what’s best. We shouldn’t make that mistake twice.

A Conservative Alternative

In the debate surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more commonly referred to as Obamacare, conservatives have consistently faced one myth, perpetuated by President Obama himself and his political allies: That there is no alternative to Obamacare, and that opponents of the law have offered no solutions on health care themselves.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  In November 2009, House Republicans offered their alternative to Obamacare during a debate on the House floor; not a single Democrat voted for the legislation.[1]  One more recent compilation lists more than 200 pieces of health care legislation offered by conservative Members of Congress in 2013 alone.[2]  Conservatives have consistently proposed alternatives to Obamacare, and publicly advocated on their behalf, yet the President finds it easier to peddle untruths than to engage the American people on why his unpopular law is “better” than alternative reforms.

One reason President Obama fails to recognize conservative alternatives to Obamacare lies in a fundamental dispute about the root problems plaguing the American health care system.  Conservatives believe that the best way to improve access to health insurance coverage is to make that coverage more affordable.  Many conservatives may agree with then-Senator Obama, who stated during his 2008 presidential campaign: “I believe the problem is not that folks are trying to avoid getting health care.  The problem is they can’t afford it.”[3]

Candidate Obama may have talked like a conservative in his rhetoric highlighting health costs and opposing mandates, but President Obama has governed as a liberal.  Instead of tackling the root of the health care problem, and lowering costs first, Obamacare focused on spending trillions of dollars to expand health coverage, creating massive new entitlements in the process.  Rather than making health care more affordable for all Americans, Obamacare gave America a law it can’t afford to keep.  The law is fiscally unsustainable, its tax increases economically damaging, and its enshrinement of greater government control of every aspect of health care is more dangerous than some in Washington appreciate.

For these reasons and more, any conservative health reform must start with repealing Obamacare.  But conservative health reform must not end there.  Even prior to Obamacare, the status quo was, and remains, unacceptable.  Many Americans struggle every day with the high cost of health care, and Americans with pre-existing conditions cannot access the care they need.  America’s health care system does need reforms—but it needs the right reforms.

The policy solutions put forward by America Next in this paper focus on preserving what’s right with American health care, while fixing what’s wrong.  Fixing what’s wrong involves restoring one basic American principle—freedom—that has been eroded due to Obamacare  While it is wise for any individual to have health insurance coverage, Washington cannot—and should not—attempt to compel such behavior.

After restoring those freedoms, we can enact the reforms the American health system needs.  We focus first and foremost on reducing health care costs—because while most Americans want to buy health care and health insurance, many of them struggle to afford it.  We also work to preserve and strengthen the safety net for the most vulnerable in our society, including those with pre-existing conditions.  And we focus on enhancing patient choice, removing obstacles to portability and consumer selection, including many put into place by Obamacare itself.  These principles should form the foundation for true health reform—one that puts doctors and patients, not government bureaucrats, at the heart of all policy decisions.

 

Principle #1: Lowering Health Costs

When running for President in 2008, candidate Obama promised that his health plan would lower premiums—in fact, he promised on numerous occasions that his plan would reduce costs for the average family by $2,500 per year.[4]  Unfortunately, the law President Obama signed bears little resemblance to that campaign pledge.  Obamacare moves American health care in the opposite direction—raising health costs and premiums, not lowering them.  The non-partisan Medicare actuary has concluded that Obamacare will raise total health spending by $621 billion dollars in its first decade alone.[5]  Likewise, independent analysts at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that Obamacare would raise premiums for those buying health insurance on the individual market by an average of $2,100 per year.[6]

The higher premiums due to Obamacare are discouraging many people from enrolling in coverage under the law.  A recent survey by analysts at McKinsey found that only 27 percent of Americans selecting insurance plans were previously uninsured—the group Obamacare intended to target for expanded coverage.[7]  The same survey found that half of those individuals who shopped for insurance coverage but did not select a plan cited affordability reasons in deciding not to purchase coverage: “I could not afford to pay the premium.”[8]  For many Americans, the measure dubbed the “Affordable Care Act” has proven anything but affordable.

Obamacare is raising health costs because its mandates and regulations force customers to buy health insurance products they may not want or need, merely because a government bureaucrat tells them they must.  Conversely, true reform would provide incentives for consumers to serve as smart health care shoppers, saving money by engaging in healthy behaviors and taking control of their health care choices.

Tax Equity:  When it comes to health insurance, today’s tax code contains two notable flaws.  First, it includes a major inequity: workers can purchase employer-provided coverage using pre-tax funds, but individuals who buy coverage on their own must use after-tax dollars to do so.  Second, because cash wages provided by an employer are taxable, but health insurance benefits are not taxed, no matter how generous the benefit, the tax code currently gives a greater value to health insurance than increases in cash wages.  This disparity has resulted in employers scaling back pay raises to help fund rapidly rising health plan costs.  The Congressional Budget Office has also noted that this disparity has exacerbated the growth in health costs, and that capping the tax subsidy for employer-provided insurance would help slow cost growth.[9]  Reforms could result in employers raising cash wages if their health costs grow more slowly over time.—and slowing the growth of health care costs would yield benefits for the broader economy.

A conservative health reform would transform the existing tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance into a standard deduction for all forms of health insurance, regardless of where they are purchased.  First proposed in 2007, this concept was also recently introduced in legislative form in the House of Representatives.[10]  This proposal would not raise taxes; following Obamacare’s repeal, total government revenues would remain at pre-Obamacare levels.  In other words, this proposal would not repeal Obamacare’s tax increases, only to replace them with other tax hikes.

Under this model, the standard deduction would grow at higher rates initially, but as the other efficiencies take effect and the growth in health spending slows, the deduction would in time rise annually according to consumer price inflation.  Much as the current exclusion for employer-provided coverage applies to both income and payroll taxes, the standard deduction would apply towards income and payroll taxes as well.

These reforms would solve several problems with our current tax code.  The standard deduction would create equity between those who buy health coverage through their employer, and those who buy health coverage on their own.  In 2007, one analysis noted this change could reduce the number of uninsured Americans by 9.2 million.[11]  Over time, this policy might encourage more individuals to buy coverage independent of their employer plans, but such a change would likely be gradual and voluntary—as opposed to the millions of Americans who lost their existing health coverage last fall, because their plan did not meet Obamacare’s bureaucratic standards.

Just as importantly, the new standard deduction would contain in-built mechanisms to slow the growth of health costs.  Individuals who purchase insurance costing less than the amount of the standard deduction would still retain the full tax benefit from it—giving them reason to act as smart health care shoppers.  In addition, the slower growth rate of the deduction would give both insurance companies and consumers a greater incentive to maximize efficiencies in the health care system.  For decades, the tax code’s perverse incentives have accelerated spiraling health costs, but creating a standard deduction will help reduce costs rather than raising them.

State Health Insurance Program:  Although millions of Americans without access to employer-sponsored health coverage will benefit from the standard deduction for health insurance, some individuals with minimal tax liability—primarily those with incomes under about 150 percent of the federal poverty level—will receive little benefit from a tax deduction.  Instead, eligible individuals should receive an explicit government subsidy to purchase affordable health insurance.

This health reform plan proposes a pool of $100 billion in federal funding over the next ten years for states to subsidize affordable health insurance for low-income individuals and individuals with pre-existing conditions.  The funding would be provided to states with minimal restrictions:

  1. States must achieve measurable reductions in average health insurance premiums in the individual and small group markets, and must ensure that individuals have access to affordable health insurance—with premiums that do not exceed a defined percentage of that state’s median income.
  2. States must establish and maintain a form of guaranteed access for individuals with pre-existing conditions—a high-risk pool, a reinsurance fund, or some other risk transfer mechanism.  States could use some of their federal allotment to help fund the costs of covering high-risk individuals.
  3. Obamacare reduced disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payments by half to finance expensive, unaffordable health coverage; this plan would instead restore that funding to help fund more affordable health insurance options. [12]  In order to access state grants, states must direct this restored funding toward covering eligible populations, reducing the amount of uncompensated care provided by instead subsidizing health insurance.  States will receive about $10 billion per year in DSH funding; re-directing some of these funds would supplement the $100 billion provided by the federal government.[13]

This reform model relies on federalism to promote innovation in health care and health insurance.  The federal government sets key goals—keeping insurance premiums affordable, and expanding access to low-income individuals and those with pre-existing conditions—and allows states to meet those goals in the manner they believe will work best for their state.  For example, if a state wants to incorporate an account-like savings mechanism to promote healthy behaviors, as Indiana has done, it can pursue that option.

Empowering states with flexibility and freedom can be a powerful tool in reducing health costs.  Analyzing a similar proposal put forward as part of the House Republican alternative to Obamacare in 2009, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that state innovation grants, coupled with liability reform and other common-sense solutions, would lower small business health insurance premiums by 7 to 10 percent, and would lower individual health insurance premiums by 5 to 8 percent.[14]  This reduction is even more stark when compared to the premium increases CBO predicted will occur (and are occurring) due to Obamacare.  Overall, estimates suggest that, when compared to Obamacare, this state-based approach could reduce premiums on the individual health insurance market by nearly $5,000 per family.[15]

Washington has tried a top-down approach to health care; it hasn’t worked.  Allowing states to serve as laboratories of innovation could slow the growth in health insurance costs and premium increases.  In addition, the $100 billion in federal funding, coupled with the matching funds from state DSH payments, would expand health care access for low-income individuals who do not benefit from the standard insurance deduction and those with pre-existing conditions.  This state-based model, not more Washington mandates and regulations, represents the best route to true health care reform.

Health Savings Accounts:  One of the innovations over the past decade that has helped slow the growth in health care costs has been Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which couple a high-deductible health plan with a tax-free savings account.  The high deductible plans provide lower premiums for consumers, who can then deposit the savings in their HSAs to use for routine health expenses.  And because funds in an HSA accumulate from year to year tax-free, they provide motivation for consumers to serve as smart purchasers of health care.

First made available in 2004, HSAs have grown in popularity; more than 15 million Americans are now covered by HSA-eligible health plans.[16]  Many are using tools provided by these plans to take better control of their health and health spending, seeking out preventive care, using generic drugs more frequently, and utilizing plan-provided decision support tools.[17]  These plans are also saving Americans money; in 2013, the average HSA plan provided by an employer cost $1,318 less per family than non-HSA plans—even after firms placed an average of $1,150 per family into the HSA to fund health expenses.[18]  A recent study found that more widespread adoption of HSA coverage could reduce health spending by as much as $73.6 billion per year.[19]

Obamacare moves in the opposite direction by placing limits on the effectiveness of HSAs.  For example, it prohibits the use of funds from an HSA to purchase over-the-counter medications without a prescription.[20]

Conservative health reforms should build upon the success of HSAs by offering new options to make HSA plans more flexible for patients and consumers.  Congress should allow HSA funds to be used to purchase health insurance in all cases, making it easier for consumers who save to fund their health coverage.  Another possible reform would create more flexible insurance policies, linking the size of the deductible for an HSA plan to customers’ account balances, incomes, or other assets; in this way consumers with sizable savings could choose coverage with an even lower premium in exchange for a higher deductible.  These changes would further accelerate a health coverage model that has already helped slow the growth of health costs for millions of Americans.

Greater Incentives for Wellness:  One of the few areas of bipartisan agreement during the Obamacare debate was a consensus around the “Safeway model”—namely, providing financial incentives for individuals and employees to engage in healthy behaviors.[21]  At the time, employers could vary premiums by up to 20% to reward participation in various wellness programs.  However, then-Safeway CEO Steve Burd noted that a 20% premium variation did not allow the company to recoup all the higher costs associated with unhealthy behaviors like smoking.

Congress can and should do more to enhance these innovative efforts to reduce health costs.  First, it can provide explicit statutory authority for premium variations of up to 50%.  It can also allow employers (or insurance companies selling individual insurance plans) to offer any financial incentives for healthy behaviors on a tax-free basis, by placing the money in new Wellness Accounts.  As with HSAs, the money in these accounts could then be used tax-free for health expenses, or withdrawn for other purposes.  This reform would marry two proven successes—HSAs and wellness incentives—turbo-charging efforts to slow the growth in health costs by encouraging Americans to engage in healthy behaviors.

Crack Down on Fraud:  Health costs have grown at a rapid rate at least in part due to widespread fraud in government health programs.  Unfortunately, a recent case in which 49 Russian diplomats were charged with fraudulently obtained Medicaid benefits—lying about their immigration status and income on application forms, even as they purchased goods from Tiffany’s and Jimmy Choo—is not an aberration.[22]  Several years ago, the New York Times cited expert analysis that as much as 40 percent of that state’s Medicaid spending was either questionable or outright fraudulent.[23]  The Medicare program for the elderly also faces widespread fraud—$60 billion per year, according to a 60 Minutes investigation.[24]

While the private sector has a series of programs and protocols in place to combat fraud, government health programs have traditionally lagged; their focus has been on paying claims quickly, whether real or fraudulent.  In recent years, some government programs have improved their efforts to combat fraud; for instance, Louisiana’s new Bayou Health managed care model built in robust savings from fraud detection, requiring plans participating in Bayou Health to crack down on suspicious transactions or face financial penalties.  But Congress should do more to end the current “pay and chase” model, which attempts to track down fraud after-the-fact, and enhance penalties for those who steal or traffic in Medicare patient numbers and other personal health information.

Price and Quality Transparency:  In many cases, consumers who wish to serve as “smart shoppers” of health care do not have the information to do so.  For far too long, price and quality transparency data have been lacking in the health sector, meaning patients face a dearth of information when they have to make potentially life-altering decisions about their care.  The good news is that these trends are slowly changing, and that transparency has provided consumers with useful, and powerful, information:

There is emerging evidence that when hospitals publish prices for surgical procedures, costs decrease without a loss of quality.  The Surgery Center of Oklahoma, for example, has been publishing its prices for various procedures for the past four years.  Because the center’s prices tend to be lower than those of other hospitals, patients started coming from all over the country for treatment.  In order to compete, other hospitals in Oklahoma began listing surgical prices; patients were able to comparison shop, and hospitals lowered their prices.[25]

Further efforts at transparency could help to reduce an estimated $105 billion paid in health costs annually due to uncompetitive pricing levels by medical providers.[26]  Just as importantly, patients could have more objective sources of information about doctors and medical treatments than recommendations from friends or acquaintances.  Online posting of price and quality data can easily lead to new Consumer Reports-type rating systems, which will empower patients with trusted data and provide providers an greater incentive to improve their quality practices.

 

Principle #2: Protect the Most Vulnerable

In trying to provide all Americans with health insurance, Obamacare may actually detract from efforts to protect those who need health care most.  The law provides a more sizable federal match for states to expand their Medicaid programs to childless adults than it does for states to cover their disabled populations.[27]  At a time when more than half a million disabled Americans are on state lists waiting to qualify for long-term supports and services, it is both uncompassionate and unfair for the Administration instead to focus on covering childless adults, most of whom are able to work or prepare for work.[28]

True health reform would focus first and foremost on targeting government resources to the most vulnerable in our society—protecting the safety net rather than stretching it past its breaking point.  These reforms would help individuals with pre-existing conditions, senior citizens, the disabled, and the unborn.  Making these populations the centerpiece of coverage efforts would meet one of Obamacare’s core goals—providing access for individuals with pre-existing conditions—without necessitating the upheaval caused by the President’s 2,700-page health law.

Guaranteed Access for Pre-Existing Conditions:  Obamacare was sold as a way to address the very real problem of Americans with pre-existing conditions—but the size of the problem did not warrant such a massive overhaul.  One estimate found that approximately 2-4 million individuals under age 65 may face difficulties purchasing health insurance.[29]  The Obama Administration has attempted to claim that up to 129 million Americans “could be denied coverage” due to pre-existing conditions.[30]   But when Obamacare created a high-risk pool to provide temporary coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, under 150,000 Americans ever enrolled in it[31]—far fewer than the 600,000-700,000 originally projected to seek enrollment in the program.[32]

Ironically enough, Obamacare has failed to deliver on its promise for individuals with pre-existing conditions.  The Administration froze enrollment in the law’s high-risk pools due to funding constraints,[33] and the unintended consequences of over-regulation meant that 17 states lost access to child-only health insurance plans.[34]  Some patients have also found that their Obamacare plans don’t include the specialists or hospitals they need; for instance, many plans do not offer access to advanced cancer centers.[35]

Conversely, conservative health reform would ensure that states have the incentive of funding to provide guaranteed access for Americans with pre-existing conditions.  Many states use various vehicles to cover these individuals—whether high-risk pools, reinsurance programs, or some other risk transfer mechanism.[36]  The incentive pool of federal dollars would allow states to determine the best mechanism for providing access to those with pre-existing conditions, and a stable source of funding for those endeavors.

Much of the case for Obamacare was made on the basis of an issue which effects a small portion of consumers: the challenge of pre-existing conditions. Since 1996, federal law included a requirement of guaranteed renewability in the individual health insurance market—so long as you paid for your policy, you were guaranteed the ability to renew your plan.  Policy cancellations—also called rescissions—were rare, and nearly always due to fraud, impacting according to some measures just four-tenths of one percent of the private individual market (which is itself just 10 percent of the insured marketplace).[37]  Though relatively small in number, the issue of pre-existing conditions raised concerns for many Americans—who feared that they, or someone they knew, would be affected if they developed an illness that made them uninsurable.

Obamacare was supposed to solve the problem of pre-existing conditions, but in many respects, the law actually made things worse.  It took away the coverage renewability guarantee, by forcing insurance companies to cancel the policies of millions of Americans. Even as they made the case that if you liked your plan you could keep it, those who favored the president’s legislation knew they were about to repeal the existing guaranteed renewability for millions of Americans. By doing this, Obamacare has completely disrupted the individual market, forcing many people who were satisfied with their coverage and the access they had to doctors and specialists being dumped into more costly and less comprehensive insurance simply because of Obamacare.

This lie should not be allowed to stand. Guaranteed renewability should ensure that patients have the ability to renew their coverage, regardless of their health status, so long as they have not committed fraud. Thus, people who maintain continuous coverage should be protected from premium spikes and have confidence their insurance will be there when they need it.

The central irony of Obamacare is that it hurt the very people it was supposed to help. For Americans signing up for new insurance, guaranteed renewability should offer peace of mind that their insurer cannot drop them merely for getting sick. For those Americans for whom access to guaranteed renewability contracts has been destroyed by Obamacare, the incentive pool of state dollars for more innovative approaches, coupled with greater flexibility for individuals leaving employer plans, will be there to help them get the coverage they need in a post-Obamacare system.

Premium Support:  Medicare faces a dire financial predicament.  According to the annual report by the program’s trustees—including members of the Obama Administration—the Part A trust fund financing hospital care will be insolvent by 2026.  In the short term, the program has taken a hit from the recession and slow economic recovery; the Medicare trust fund ran $105.6 billion in deficits during the years 2008-12.[38]  In the longer term, the outlook is even worse: Medicare faces 75-year unfunded obligations of at least $27.3 trillion, and even this estimate may understate the program’s liabilities, due to various budgetary and accounting gimmicks.[39]

Among the biggest gimmicks understating Medicare’s financial shortfalls is Obamacare itself.  In October 2011, Nancy Pelosi admitted what all Americans realize Democrats did as part of Obamacare: “We took a half a trillion dollars out of Medicare in…the health care bill,” to pay for that law’s new entitlements.[40]  Yet the Obama Administration utilized an “only-in-Washington” logic to argue otherwise, citing trust fund accounting to assert that the Medicare provisions in the law could be used both to “save Medicare” and to “fund health care reform.”[41]  There are two kinds of people in politics—those that want to fix Medicare and those who want to use it to score political points.  Sadly, Obamacare followed the latter course.  Current and future generations of seniors deserve better—they deserve true reform that makes Medicare more sustainable.

One bipartisan solution to Medicare’s fiscal shortfalls would give seniors a choice of plans, with the federal government providing a generous subsidy to purchase coverage.  This premium support concept was developed, and endorsed, by a bipartisan majority in a commission created by Congress and President Clinton, whose Executive Director was Bobby Jindal.[42]  The commission’s work was in turn endorsed by the Democratic Leadership Council.[43]  More recently, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican Chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, submitted a bipartisan health reform plan that included a premium support proposal for Medicare beneficiaries.[44]

The key feature of a premium support proposal is the ability of competition among health plans to bring down costs and provide better care to America’s seniors.  Former Clinton Administration official Alice Rivlin testified before Congress in 2012 that nearly nine in ten seniors live in areas where private health plans have costs lower than traditional, fee-for-service Medicare; under a premium support proposal, these seniors could save money by choosing to enroll in a private plan.[45]  Likewise, the Congressional Budget Office recently analyzed one premium support proposal, and found that it could reduce Medicare spending by $15 billion dollars annually, while also reducing overall out-of-pocket spending by beneficiaries by an average of 6 percent.[46]

As part of the transition to premium support, the traditional Medicare benefit itself should be modernized.  For the first time ever, Medicare should provide a catastrophic cap on out-of-pocket expenses—so that seniors would know their spending.  At the same time, Medigap insurance, which provides supplemental coverage of co-payments and deductibles for some seniors, should also be reformed, so that seniors would no longer be pre-paying their health coverage by over-paying to insurance companies.

Under Medigap reform, seniors’ premium costs would fall substantially.  A 2011 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that under one version of reform, Medigap premiums would plummet by an average of over 60%, from nearly $2,000 per year to only $731.[47]  Because less money from Medigap policy-holders would be diverted to administrative overhead, seniors would be able to keep their own money to finance their own health care.

Medigap reform not only lowers seniors’ premiums, it also lowers their overall health costs.  A 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation study concluded that “the savings for the average beneficiary” under Medigap reform “would be sufficient to more than offset his or her new direct outlays for Medicare cost sharing.”[48]  According to Kaiser, nearly four in five Medigap policy-holders would receive a net financial benefit from this reform – with those savings averaging $415 per senior each year.[49]

What’s more, modernizing traditional Medicare and Medigap would drive greater efficiency within the health care system.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this reform would make Medicare more sustainable for future generations, by as much as $114 billion in its first decade alone.[50]  As with premium support, this package of proposals represents a true “win-win:” Current seniors would save on their health expenses, while seniors-to-be would have greater confidence that the promises made to them can be kept when they prepare to join Medicare themselves.

For all these reasons and others, this modernization of Medicare carries broad support from across the political spectrum.  Bipartisan endorsers of Medigap reform include the Simpson-Bowles Commission,[51] the Rivlin-Domenici commission on debt and deficits,[52] Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT),[53] and even President Obama’s most recent budget.[54]

Seniors deserve the potential savings and better care these reforms can provide.  Seniors’ plan choices would include some of the same options available to Americans under age 65, along with the traditional, government-run fee-for-service model, updated with new and more flexible options.  Likewise, future generations deserve the peace-of-mind that comes from knowing Medicare has been placed on a more sustainable path.  It is long past time for Washington to enact true Medicare reform.

Medicaid Reforms:  Despite Obamacare’s massive new regulations, some states have already acted to reform their Medicaid programs.  For instance, Rhode Island’s global compact waiver—in which the state received additional regulatory flexibility from the federal government in exchange for a cap on its Medicaid budget—has successfully slowed the growth of health costs in that state.  A 2011 Lewin Group report found that the global compact waiver “generated significant savings”—more than $50 million from the small state’s Medicaid budget—and did so not by reducing care, but by improving it:

The mandatory enrollment of disabled members in care management program [sic] reduced expenditures for this population while at the same time generally resulting in improved access to physician services.[55]

Since the Lewin study in 2011, Rhode Island’s success in managing its Medicaid program has continued.  The state has reduced its per capita Medicaid spending by more than five percent over the past three fiscal years, resulting in three straight years of minimal expenditure growth,  even as the state’s Medicaid caseload increased.[56]

These remarkable accomplishments come despite the Obama Administration’s efforts, not because of them.  The 2011 Lewin report notes that passage of Obamacare and the “stimulus” bill, both of which imposed new restrictions on state Medicaid programs, “had a profound impact” on the Rhode Island waiver, because “the flexibility sought did not always materialize.”  For instance, the original waiver gave Rhode Island the authority to assess modest premium charges for some beneficiaries, but the Obamacare mandates took this flexibility away.[57]

Other states have also acted to reform their Medicaid programs.  Louisiana has transitioned its Medicaid program toward a managed care model, named Bayou Health.  The program has furthered the goals of the Birth Outcomes Initiative, claims data for which reveal a reduction of 23,000 in statewide neonatal intensive care unit days paid by Medicaid—meaning more babies were carried to full term.

The Hoosier State’s Healthy Indiana Plan includes a personal responsibility component, and provides incentives to engage in wellness screenings, and imposes co-payments on beneficiaries who make non-urgent visits to the emergency room.  The plan also requires participants to make modest contributions to an account to fund their health needs, ensuring patients have incentives to manage their health spending and health care.  The financial requirements are not onerous; approximately 70% of beneficiaries consider the required account contributions just the right amount, and 94% of members report being satisfied or highly satisfied with their coverage.[58]  Yet, Obamacare could put this innovative plan out of business entirely, due to its Washington-imposed mandates on state Medicaid programs.[59]

Because the federal government provides states with at least a 1:1 match on their Medicaid expenses, states have a built-in incentive to spend more on Medicaid when compared to other state priorities like education, transportation, and corrections.  This open-ended entitlement drastically reduces states’ incentives to make efficient choices in managing their health care systems.  A more conservative approach should better align incentives to focus states’ efforts on improving care and reducing costs, instead of merely “gaming the system.”

Medicaid is not merely a fiscal failure, however. The error of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion was to double down on a program whose health outcomes range from the marginal to the horrendous—the result of paying doctors pennies on the dollar and cramming Medicaid recipients into already overburdened systems. Compared to both those patients with private insurance and those without any insurance at all, Medicaid patients stay in the hospital longer, cost more while they are there, and yet are significantly more likely to die before they leave.[60] The recent Oregon Medicaid study, which offered real-world examples of Medicaid recipients compared to those who were not on the program, answered questions about just how significant the benefits of modern Medicaid are.[61] The study authors found that after two years, Medicaid “had no significant effect” on physical health outcomes compared to being uninsured.[62] Spending nearly half a trillion dollars a year on a program which is so ineffective is unacceptable and immoral.

More than two years ago, Republican governors presented a report laying out common-sense reforms to the Medicaid program—from modernizing benefit design to simplifying accountability to eliminating unnecessary requirements.[63]  While the Obama Administration has not implemented most of the report’s 31 separate suggestions, they represent a good place to start when it comes to updating this important program and prioritizing the actual health care of those who need a safety net.

The best way to reform Medicaid lies in a global grant approach, which empowers states with maximum flexibility in exchange for a fixed funding allotment from the federal government.  The allotment would be adjusted annually for inflation and eligible population growth, and could be adjusted if a state receives a sudden increase in its disabled population.  Rhode Island’s innovative waiver demonstrates how it can be done—and further illustrates that indexing the grant to inflation can be achieved without cutting benefits, or harming beneficiaries’ access to care.

States should have additional flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs in a manner that they believe best meets the needs of their citizens—while facing clear and simple accountability metrics from the federal government.  Rather than focusing on managing processes and completing forms, state Medicaid programs should emphasize improving outcomes.  In return, the federal government should revamp its accountability process to hold states to these higher standards.  Those who want to micro-manage states do so because they do not trust the people and their locally elected leaders.

Pro-Life Protections:  Among its many other flaws, Obamacare represents an intrusion on the moral values many Americans hold dear.  Contrary to prior practice, the law has seen federal tax dollars flow to fund health insurance plans that cover abortions.[64]  The law also forces many Americans to choose between violating the law and violating their consciences, imposing mandates on non-profit and other institutions that violate their deeply-held religious beliefs.  As a result, literally dozens of institutions nationwide have taken Obamacare’s anti-conscience mandate to court; the Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on the issue later this summer.[65]

Repeal of Obamacare will remove the law’s anti-conscience mandates, and the funding of plans that cover abortions.  But true health reform should go further, instituting conscience protections for businesses and medical providers, as well as a permanent ban on federal funding of abortions, consistent with the Hyde Amendment protections passed by Congress every year since 1976.[66]  There is much in health care about which Americans disagree, but protecting all Americans’ religious liberty should be one principle that warrants bipartisan support. The government should not force religious people to abandon their faiths in order to keep their doors open.

 

Principle #3: Portability and Choice

In an address to Congress in September 2009, President Obama attempted to sell Obamacare as offering consumers “competition and choice.”[67]  At least 4.7 million Americans—those who have already received cancellation notices due to the law—would beg to differ with the President.[68]  While the President offered a short-term concession—unilaterally waiving portions of Obamacare, and permitting some who lost health coverage to keep their plan until the 2016 presidential election—the cancellation notices are likely to continue for some time.  A 2010 Administration document admitted that more than half of all workers, and up to four in five employees in small businesses, would lose their pre-Obamacare health coverage.[69]

Obamacare undermines choice by dictating what type of insurance health plans must offer—and then dictating to firms that they must offer, and individuals that they must buy, this type of coverage.  Conversely, true health reform would smooth the problems of portability that occurred prior to the law’s enactment, while offering more personalized choices so consumers can buy the plan they want, not the plan a government bureaucrat tells them to purchase.

State Reforms to Expand Access:  For many decades, many states have held laws on their books that block access to care.  At least 36 states have certificate of need (CON) requirements, which force organizations to obtain clearance from the state before building new health care facilities.  In addition to the offensive nature of this approach—entities must ask government bureaucrats for permission to create a facility that will help patients—CON requirements have proven ineffective at their stated goal of reducing costs.  One recent analysis noted that states without CON requirements have significantly lower health costs than those states with certificate of need mandates.[70]  Congress repealed the law that created CON requirements nearly three decades ago; states can follow suit.[71]

Similarly, state licensing requirements can impose unnecessary burdens on medical practitioners, also limiting access to health care.  Given that the supply of doctors is not expected to keep up with projected demand, policy-makers should allow other medical professionals to utilize more of their expertise to provide more affordable and convenient care for patients.[72]  In 2011, the Institute of Medicine recommended that all professionals should be empowered to practice to the full scope of their professional training.[73]  States should modify their licensing requirements to remove artificial barriers impeding the ability to provide high-quality care.  States must also act prudently to protect patient quality and maintain high standards.  Doing so would expand access to care, allowing Minute Clinics and other similar entities to treat patients quickly and at lower cost than hospital emergency rooms or other sources of care.

Both certificate of need and artificial scope of practice restrictions sometimes prioritize the interests of incumbent members of the health system over the needs of patients.  In 2008, the Justice Department testified that CON laws “create barriers to entry and expansion to the detriment of health care competition and consumers.  They undercut consumer choice, stifle innovation, and weaken markets’ ability to contain health care costs.”[74]  Likewise, a seminal 2004 report on competition in health care by the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department noted that scope of practice laws create anticompetitive risks, have raised costs, and limited mobility of medical providers, all for unclear benefits to health care quality.[75]  At a time when health costs remain high and access for vulnerable populations limited, states should act in both these key areas, initiating reforms that have the potential to reduce costs while simultaneously increasing access to needed care.

Better Access for Individuals Changing Employers:  The fact that so many Americans currently receive health insurance coverage through their employers means that individual health insurance plans have traditionally occupied a smaller segment of the marketplace.[76]  As a result, most individuals transition from one employer plan to another when they switch jobs.  However, moving from employer coverage to an individual plan can often prove more difficult and costly.

While not undermining the employer coverage that many Americans currently have and enjoy, conservative health reforms should also encourage policies that promote greater personal ownership of health insurance.  One key reform would allow individuals who maintain continuous coverage to purchase an individual health insurance plan of their choosing, eliminating the requirement that such individuals first exhaust COBRA coverage before accessing an individual plan.  These and other similar reforms will encourage Americans to purchase coverage they can take with them from job to job.

Cross-State Insurance Purchasing:  Because health insurance is regulated at the state level, many health insurance markets face two major problems.  First, in many states, one or a handful of insurers control most of the market for coverage, and these oligopolies tend to raise premiums.  Obamacare has not helped this trend, and in fact may have worsened it.  According to the New York Times, more than half of all counties in the United States have only one or two health plans participating in their states’ insurance Exchanges.[77]

Second, benefit mandates imposed by state legislatures force individuals to purchase more insurance coverage than they may need or want.  According to the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, states have imposed an average of 44 benefit mandates, each of which raises health costs.[78]  Individually, the mandates may not appear to raise premiums by a significant amount, but estimates suggest that collectively, benefit mandates impose hundreds of dollars in added costs to consumers every year.[79]

One solution to both these problems rests in Congress enacting legislation allowing consumers to purchase health insurance across state lines.  Consumers purchasing insurance across state lines would receive clear disclosures that their health coverage would be regulated by another state with respect to benefit mandates, solvency standards, and other similar requirements.  By using its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce, Congress could give consumers the power—a power they currently lack—to buy the health insurance plan that best meets their needs, regardless of the state in which that plan is offered.  Such a measure would give power from insurance company cartels back to consumers, make health insurance portable across state lines, and reduce the growth of premiums.

Pooling Mechanisms:  In addition to allowing the purchase of health insurance across state lines, Congress should also provide clear protections, similar to those provided in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), for organizations that wish to establish multi-state insurance pools.  These organizations could be churches, fraternal organizations, trade groups for small businesses, alumni groups, or any other type of group with a common interest.  These groups should be permitted to band together and purchase health insurance for their members, providing coverage that fits members’ distinct needs while potentially reducing administrative costs.  Just as importantly, coverage obtained through these pools, unlike employer coverage, would be portable: Individuals would have and own their personal health policy, and would not need to change plans when they change jobs.

Lawsuit Reform:  In many states, medical liability problems present several problems for patients.  First, defensive medicine practices—doctors performing unnecessary tests due to fear of litigation—raise health costs, according to some estimates by more than $100 billion annually.[80]  Second, the seeming randomness of the legal system—in which some frivolous claims receive large awards, but some legitimate claims are dismissed—frustrates patients.  Finally, at a time when America already faces expected physician shortages, the legal climate discourages prospective doctors from pursuing medicine as a career choice.[81]  A recent study found that physicians spend more than 10% of their careers with an outstanding malpractice claim lingering over their practice.[82]  More than three in five physicians claim they or one of their colleagues may retire in the next three years due to frustration with the health care system—a fact likely exacerbated by an overly litigious culture.[83]

Enacting lawsuit reforms—including a cap on non-economic damages, restrictions on attorney contingency fees, discouraging frivolous lawsuits, and other common-sense changes—would reduce health care costs.  Because nearly half of all health spending is controlled by government, largely through the Medicaid and Medicare programs, Congress should take the lead in enacting lawsuit reforms in instances where the federal government is a payer of health services.[84]  If enacted, these changes could have a salutary effect on America’s physicians, just as the passage of tort reform in Texas encouraged more doctors to move to that state.[85]

Freedom for Seniors to Choose:  The doctor-patient relationship is the foundation on which our health care system should be based.  Unfortunately, government requirements often impede the ability for patients to choose the best option for their own care.  For instance, one law dictates that senior citizens may not make their own financial arrangements with their doctors if those arrangements contradict Medicare’s payment rates; any physician who does so is prohibited from receiving any reimbursements from Medicare for two years.[86]

Congress should restore the doctor-patient relationship by repealing this onerous requirement.  It should also restore the ability of Medicare patients to buy procedures on their own, provided seniors receive full disclosure from their physicians and medical providers for the costs of their care.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the number of doctors dropping out of Medicare nearly tripled between 2009 and 2012. [87]  Senior citizens should not have access to the physician of their own choosing—or to procedures their doctors recommend for them—violated due to arbitrary restraints imposed by federal bureaucrats.

 

Taken together, this package of reforms would accomplish the objectives the American people are looking for in their health care system—the objectives President Obama said his legislation would bring, but which Obamacare has not delivered.  Enacting policies that get the incentives right can reduce costs, even while protecting the most vulnerable and enhancing portability and choice for consumers.

The American people deserve true health reform—one that puts patients and doctors first, not government bureaucrats.  After repealing Obamacare, enacting America Next’s plan would point America’s health system in the right direction.

 

 

[1] Vote on Boehner Substitute Amendment to H.R. 3962, Affordable Health Care for America Act, House Roll Call Vote 885, 111th Congress, November 7, 2009, http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2009/roll885.xml.

[2] “Republican Study Committee Policy Brief: Members’ Health Care Initiatives in the 113th Congress,” November 25, 2013, http://rsc.scalise.house.gov/uploadedfiles/113th_112513_rsc_healthcare_menu.pdf.

[3] Remarks in Democratic presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, January 21, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/01/21/debate.transcript2/index.html.

[4] A video compilation of candidate Obama’s remarks on this issue from the 2008 campaign is available at http://freedomeden.blogspot.com/2010/03/obama-20-promises-for-2500.html.

[5] Gigi A. Cuckler, et al., “National Health Expenditure Projections: Slow Growth Until Coverage Expands and Economy Improves,” Health Affairs October 2013, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/32/10/1820.

[6] Congressional Budget Office, Letter to Sen. Evan Bayh regarding premium effects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, November 30, 2009, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/107xx/doc10781/11-30-premiums.pdf.

[7] Amit Bhardwaj, et al., “Individual Market Enrollment: Updated View,” McKinsey Center for U.S. Health System Reform, March 2014, http://healthcare.mckinsey.com/sites/default/files/Individual-Market-Enrollment.pdf.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Congressional Budget Office, Key Issues in Analyzing Major Health Insurance Proposals, December 2008, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/99xx/doc9924/12-18-keyissues.pdf, pp. 84–87.

[10] The White House, “Affordable, Accessible, and Flexible Health Coverage,” January 2007, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/stateoftheunion/2007/initiatives/healthcare.html; Republican Study Committee, “The American Health Care Reform Act,” September 18, 2013, http://rsc.scalise.house.gov/solutions/rsc-betterway.htm.

[11] John Sheils and Randy Haught, “President Bush’s Health Care Tax Deduction Proposal: Coverage, Cost, and Distributional Impacts,” The Lewin Group, January 28, 2007, http://www.lewin.com/~/media/Lewin/Site_Sections/PressReleases/BushHealthCarePlanAnalysisRev.pdf.

[12] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L 111-148), Section 2551.

[13] Congressional Budget Office, Medicaid baseline, May 2013, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44204_Medicaid.pdf.

[14] Congressional Budget Office, analysis of House Republican substitute amendment to H.R. 3962, November 4, 2009, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/107xx/doc10705/hr3962amendmentboehner.pdf.

[15] Press release by House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Dave Camp, November 5, 2009, http://waysandmeans.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=153186.

[16] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “January 2013 Census Shows 15.5 Million People Covered by Health Savings Account/High-Deductible Health Plans (HSA/HDHPs),” June 2013, http://www.ahip.org/HSACensus2013PDF/.

[17] America’s Health Insurance Plans, Center for Policy and Research, “Health Savings Accounts and Account-Based Health Plans: Research Highlights,” July 2012, http://www.ahip.org/HSAHighlightsReport072012/.

[18] Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust, “Employer Health Benefits: 2013 Annual Survey,” August 2013, http://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/8465-employer-health-benefits-20132.pdf, Exhibit 8.8, p. 140.

[19] Amelia M. Haviland, M. Susan Marquis, Roland D. McDevitt, and Neeraj Sood, “Growth of Consumer-Directed Health Plans to One-Half of All Employer-Sponsored Insurance Could Save $57 Billion Annually,” Health Affairs, May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/31/5/1009.abstract.

[20] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148), Section 9003.

[21] Steven A. Burd, “How Safeway Is Cutting Health Costs,” Wall Street Journal June 12, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB124476804026308603.

[22] Christopher Matthews, “U.S. Accuses Russian Diplomats of Medicaid Fraud,” Wall Street Journal December 5, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303497804579240163174732486.

[23] Clifford Levy and Michael Luo, “New York Medicaid Fraud May Reach into Billions,” The New York Times, July 18, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/18/nyregion/18medicaid.html.

[24] CBS News, “Medicare Fraud: A $60 Billion Crime,” 60 Minutes, September 5, 2010, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-5414390.html.

[25] Lisa Rosenbaum, “The Problem with Knowing How Much Your Health Care Costs,” The New Yorker December 23, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/12/price-transparency-health-care-costs.html.

[26] Institute of Medicine, The Health Care Imperative: Lowering Costs and Improving Outcomes—Workshop Summary, February 2011, http://www.iom.edu/reports/2011/the-healthcare-imperative-lowering-costs-and-improving-outcomes.aspx.

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

[28] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Waiting Lists for Medicaid Section 1915(c) Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) Waivers,” December 2012, http://kff.org/medicaid/state-indicator/waiting-lists-for-hcbs-waivers-2010/#table.

[29] James C. Capretta and Tom Miller, “How to Cover Pre-Existing Conditions,” National Affairs Summer 2010, http://www.nationalaffairs.com/doclib/20100614_CaprettaMiller_Web.pdf, pp. 114-15.

[30] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Planning and Evaluation, “At Risk: Pre-Existing Conditions Could Affect 1 in 2 Americans,” November 2011, http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/reports/2012/pre-existing/index.shtml.

[31] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, “Covering People with Pre-Existing Conditions: Report on the Implementation and Operation of the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan Program,” January 31, 2013, http://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Files/Downloads/pcip_annual_report_01312013.pdf.

[32] Congressional Budget Office, letter to Senator Mike Enzi (R–WY), June 21, 2010, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/115xx/doc11572/06-21-high-risk_insurance_pools.pdf.

[33] Department of Health and Human Services, Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, notice of enrollment suspension, February 15, 2013, https://www.pcip.gov/Notifications/021513-ENROLLMENT_SUSPEND.html.

[34] Report by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Ranking Member Mike Enzi, “Health Care Reform’s Impact on Child-Only Health Insurance Policies,” August 2, 2011, http://www.help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Child-Only%20Health%20Insurance%20Report%20Aug%202,%202011.pdf.

[35] Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, “Concerns about Cancer Centers under Health Law,” Associated Press March 18, 2014, http://hosted2.ap.org/apdefault/3d281c11a96b4ad082fe88aa0db04305/Article_2014-03-18-Health%20Overhaul-Top%20Cancer%20Centers/id-d5acff9619ec4bc6aa875800d96fc270.

[36] Information on various state plans for covering high-risk individuals can be found on the website of the National Association of State Comprehensive Health Insurance Plans, www.naschip.org.

[37] John C. Goodman, “Rescissions: Much Ado About Nothing,” Kaiser Health News, May 13, 2010,    http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/Columns/2010/May/051310Goodman.aspx.

[38] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2013 Medicare trustees report, May 31, 2013, http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/ReportsTrustFunds/Downloads/TR2013.pdf, TableII.B4, p. 58.

[39] Suzanne Codespote, memo from Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, to Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions, June 3, 2013.

[40] Maria Bartiromo, “One-on-One with Nancy Pelosi,” CNBC interview, October 28, 2011, http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000054002.

[41] Kathleen Sebelius, testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on “Fiscal Year 2012 HHS Budget,” March 4, 2011, video available at http://archives.republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/hearings/hearingdetail.aspx?NewsID=8281.

[42] The National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare was chaired by Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) and Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA); its work can be found at http://medicare.commission.gov/medicare/index.html.

[43] Testimony of David Kendall, Progressive Policy Institute Senior Analyst for Health Policy, before Senate Finance Committee hearing on “Modernizing Medicare,” May 26, 1999, http://dlc.org/ndol_ci04fb-2.html?kaid=111&subid=141&contentid=1790.

[44] Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Paul Ryan, “Guaranteed Choices to Strengthen Medicare and Health Security for All: Bipartisan Options for the Future,” December 15, 2011, http://budget.house.gov/uploadedfiles/wydenryan.pdf.

[45] Alice Rivlin, testimony before the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee on “A Bipartisan Approach to Reforming Medicare,” April 27, 2012, http://waysandmeans.house.gov/uploadedfiles/rivlin_testimony_final_4-27-2012.pdf, p. 4.

[46] Congressional Budget Office, “A Premium Support System for Medicare: Analysis of Illustrative Options,” September 2013, http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/09-18-PremiumSupport.pdf.

[47] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Medigap Reforms: Potential Effects of Benefit Restrictions on Medicare Spending and Beneficiary Costs,” July 2011, http://www.kff.org/medicare/upload/8208.pdf, Exhibit 2, p. 6.

[48] Ibid., p. 8.

[49] Ibid., p. 8.

[50] Congressional Budget Office, “Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2014 to 2023,” November 13, 2013, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44715-OptionsForReducingDeficit-2_1.pdf, Health Option 7, p. 211.

[51] The Moment of Truth, report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, December 2010, http://www.fiscalcommission.gov/sites/fiscalcommission.gov/files/documents/TheMomentofTruth12_1_2010.pdf, p. 39.

[52] Restoring America’s Future, report of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Tax Force, November 2010, http://bipartisanpolicy.org/sites/default/files/BPC%20FINAL%20REPORT%20FOR%20PRINTER%2002%2028%2011.pdf, pp. 52-53.

[53] Overview of Coburn/Lieberman Medicare reform proposal, June 2011, http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=1ea8e116-6d15-46ba-b2e0-731258583305

[54] Office of Management and Budget, Fiscal Year 2015 Budget, March 4, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2015/assets/budget.pdf, pp. 31-32.

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

[56] Testimony of Gary Alexander before the Congressional Commission on Long-Term Care, August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.lmp01.lucidus.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Garo-Alexander.pdf.

[57] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation,” pp. 11-12.

[58] Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, Healthy Indiana Plan 1115 Waiver Extension Application, February 13, 2013, http://www.in.gov/fssa/hip/files/HIP_WaiverforPosting.pdf, pp. 19, 6.

[59] Mitch Daniels, “We Good Europeans,” The Wall Street Journal March 26, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704094104575144362968408640.html.

[60] Avik Roy, “The Medicaid Mess: How Obamacare Makes It Worse,” The Manhattan Institute, March 2012,  http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ir_8.htm

[61] Katherine Baicker, Sarah Taubman, Heidi Allen, Mira Bernstein, Jonathan Gruber, Joseph P. Newhouse, Eric Schneider, Bill Wright, Alan Zaslavsky, Amy Finkelstein, and the Oregon Health Study Group, “The Oregon Experiment – Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes” New England Journal of Medicine, May 2013, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1212321

[62] The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, http://www.nber.org/oregon/

[63] Republican Governors Public Policy Committee Health Care Task Force, “A New Medicaid: A Flexible, Innovative, and Accountable Future,” August 30, 2011, http://www.scribd.com/doc/63596104/RGPPC-Medicaid-Report.

[64] Sarah Torre, “Obamacare’s Many Loopholes: Forcing Individuals and Taxpayers to Fund Elective Abortion Coverage,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2872, January 13, 2014, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/01/obamacares-many-loopholes-forcing-individuals-and-taxpayers-to-fund-elective-abortion-coverage.

[65] A full list of the court cases, and further information regarding them, can be found through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, http://www.becketfund.org/hhsinformationcentral/.

[66] Chuck Donovan, “Obamacare: Impact on Taxpayer Funding of Abortion,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2872, April 19, 2010, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/04/obamacare-impact-on-taxpayer-funding-of-abortion.

[67] President Barack Obama, remarks to a Joint Session of Congress on Health Care, September 9, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-to-a-Joint-Session-of-Congress-on-Health-Care.

[68] Associated Press, “Policy Notifications and Current Status, by State,” December 26, 2013, http://money.msn.com/business-news/article.aspx?feed=AP&date=20131226&id=17219856.

[69] Interim final rule by Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services regarding grandfathered health insurance status, released June 14, 2010, http://www.federalregister.gov/OFRUpload/OFRData/2010-14488_PI.pdf Table 3, p. 54.

[70] Jordan Bruneau, “The Great Healthcare CON,” Foundation for Economic Education, January 15, 2014, http://www.fee.org/the_freeman/detail/the-great-healthcare-con#axzz2qbUCvcC2.

[71] There may need to be some very targeted consideration given to specific health care markets so dependent on government programs that taxpayers end up paying for unused capacity.

[72] Association of American Medical Colleges, Center for Workforce Studies, “Recent Studies and Reports on Physician Shortages in the U.S.,” October 2012, https://www.aamc.org/download/100598/data/.

[73] Institute of Medicine, “The Future of Nursing: Focus on Scope of Practice,” Report Brief, October 2010, http://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2010/The-Future-of-Nursing/Nursing%20Scope%20of%20Practice%202010%20Brief.pdf.

[74] Joint Statement of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission before the Illinois Task Force on Health Planning Reform, September 15, 2008, http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/comments/237351.pdf, pp. 1-2.

[75] Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice, Improving Health Care: A Dose of Competition, July 2004, http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/health_care/204694.pdf, pp. 25-28.

[76] According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 170.9 million Americans were covered by employer-based insurance, compared with 30.6 million Americans covered by direct-purchase insurance (including various forms of supplemental coverage).  Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012, U.S. Census Bureau, September 2013, http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p60-245.pdf, Table C-1, p. 67.

[77] Reed Abelson, Katie Thomas, and Jo Craven McGinty, “Health Care Law Fails to Lower Prices for Rural Areas,” New York Times October 24, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/24/business/health-law-fails-to-keep-prices-low-in-rural-areas.html.

[78] CAHI found a total of 2,271 benefit mandates enacted in 50 states and the District of Columbia.  Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “Health Insurance Mandates in the States 2012: Executive Summary,” April 9, 2013, http://www.cahi.org/cahi_contents/resources/pdf/Mandatesinthestates2012Execsumm.pdf.

[79] One study found that benefit mandates raise premiums by an average of $0.75 per month, or $9 per year.  A state with the national average of 44 benefit mandates would therefore have raised premiums by an average of $396 annually.  See Michael J. New, “The Effect of State Regulations on Health Insurance Premiums: A Revised Analysis,” Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. 06-04, July 25, 2006, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2006/07/the-effect-of-state-regulations-on-health-insurance-premiums-a-revised-analysis, p. 5.

[80] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, “Addressing the New Health Care Crisis: Reforming the Medical Litigation System to Improve the Quality of Health Care,” March 2003, http://aspe.hhs.gov/daltcp/reports/medliab.pdf, p. 16.

[81] Association of American Medical Colleges, “Recent Studies on Physician Shortages.”

[82] Seth A. Seabury, et al., “On Average, Physicians Spend Nearly 11 Percent of their 40-Year Careers with an Open, Unresolved Malpractice Claim,” Health Affairs January 2014, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/32/1/111.full.pdf+html.

[83] Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, “Deloitte 2013 Survey of U.S. Physicians,” March 18, 2013, http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/us_chs_2013SurveyofUSPhysicians_031813.pdf, p. 3.

[84] Gigi A. Cuckler, et al., “National Health Expenditure Projections.”

[85] Joseph Nixon, “Why Doctors Are Heading for Texas,” Wall Street Journal May 17, 2008, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB121097874071799863.

[86] Section 4507 of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, P.L. 105-33.

[87] Melinda Beck, “More Doctors Steer Clear of Medicare,” Wall Street Journal July 30, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323971204578626151017241898.

White House Budget Summary: Obama’s “One Percent” Solution

According to the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent baselines, the federal government will spend a total of $6.87 trillion on Medicare and $4.36 trillion on Medicaid over the next ten years – that’s $11.2 trillion total, not even counting additional state spending on Medicaid.  Yet President Obama’s budget, released today, contains net deficit savings of only $152 billion from health care programs.  That’s a total savings of only 1.35 percent of the trillions the federal government will spend on health care in the coming decade.  Sadly, it’s another sign the President isn’t serious about real budget and deficit reform.

Overall, the budget:

  • Proposes a total of $401 billion in savings, yet calls for $249 billion in unpaid-for spending due to the Medicare physician reimbursement “doc fix” – thus resulting in only $152 billion in net deficit savings. (The $249 billion presumes a ten year freeze of Medicare physician payments; however, the budget does NOT propose ways to pay for this new spending.)
  • Proposes few structural reforms to Medicare; those that are included – weak as they are – are not scheduled to take effect until 2017, well after President Obama leaves office.  If the proposals are so sound, why the delay?
  • Requests a more than 50% increase – totaling $1.4 billion – for program management at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, of which the vast majority would be used to implement Obamacare.
  • Includes mandatory proposals in the budget that largely track last year’s budget and the President’s September 2011 deficit proposal to Congress, with a few exceptions.  The largest difference between this year’s budget and the prior submissions is a massive increase in savings from reductions to nursing and rehabilitation facilities – $79 billion, compared to a $32.5 billion estimated impact in September 2011.

A full summary follows below.  We will have further information on the budget in the coming days.

Discretionary Spending

When compared to Fiscal Year 2013 appropriated amounts, the budget calls for the following changes in discretionary spending by major HHS divisions (tabulated by budget authority):

  • $37 million (1.5%) increase for the Food and Drug Administration (not including $770 million in increased user fees);
  • $435 million (4.9%) increase for the Health Services and Resources Administration;
  • $97 million (2.2%) increase for the Indian Health Service;
  • $344 million (5.7%) increase for the Centers for Disease Control;
  • $274 million (0.9%) increase for the National Institutes of Health; and
  • $1.4 billion (52.9%) increase for the discretionary portion of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program management account.

With regard to the above numbers for CDC and HRSA, note that these are discretionary numbers only.  The Administration’s budget also would allocate an additional $1 billion mandatory spending from the Prevention and Public Health “slush fund” created in Obamacare, further increasing spending levels.  For instance, CDC spending would be increased by an additional $755 million.

Obamacare Implementation Funding and Personnel:  As previously noted, the budget includes more than $1.4 billion in discretionary spending increases for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which the HHS Budget in Brief claims would be used to “continue implementing key provisions of [Obamacare].”  This funding would finance 712 new bureaucrats within CMS when compared to last fiscal year – a massive increase when compared to a request of 256 new FTEs in last year’s budget proposal.  Overall, the HHS budget proposes an increase of 1,311 full-time equivalent positions within the bureaucracy compared to projections for the current fiscal cycle, and an increase of 3,327 bureaucrats compared to last fiscal year.

The budget includes specific requests related to Obamacare totaling over $2 billion, including:

  • $803.5 million for “CMS activities to support [Exchanges] in FY 2014,” including funding for the federally-funded Exchange, for which the health law itself did not appropriate funding;
  • $837 million for “beneficiary education and outreach activities through the National Medicare Education program and consumer support…including $554 million for the [Exchanges];”
  • $519 million for “general IT systems and other support,” including funding for the federal Exchange;
  • $3.8 million for updates to healthcare.gov;
  • $18.4 million to oversee the medical loss ratio regulations; and
  • $24 million for administrative activities in Medicaid related to “implement[ing] new responsibilities” under Obamacare.

Exchange Funding:  The budget envisions HHS spending $1.5 billion on Exchange grants in 2013.  That’s an increase of over $300 million compared to last year’s estimate of fiscal year 2013 spending – despite the fact that most states have chosen not to create their own Exchanges.  The budget anticipates a further $2.1 billion in spending on Exchange grants in fiscal year 2014.  The health care law provides the Secretary with an unlimited amount of budget authority to fund state Exchange grants through 2015.  However, other reports have noted that the Secretary does NOT have authority to use these funds to construct a federal Exchange.

Abstinence Education Funding:  The budget proposes eliminating the abstinence education funding program, and converting those funds into a new pregnancy prevention program.

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $359.9 Billion, including interactions)

Bad Debts:  Reduces bad debt payments to providers – for unpaid cost-sharing owed by beneficiaries – from 65 percent down to 25 percent over three years, beginning in 2014.  The Simpson-Bowles Commission made similar recommendations in its final report.  Saves $25.5 billion.

Medical Education Payments:  Reduces the Indirect Medical Education adjustment paid to teaching hospitals beginning in 2014, saving $11 billion.  Previous studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) have indicated that IME payments to teaching hospitals may be greater than the actual costs the hospitals incur.

Rural Payments:  Reduces critical access hospital payments from 101% of costs to 100% of costs, saving $1.4 billion, and prohibits hospitals fewer than 10 miles away from the nearest hospital from receiving a critical access hospital designation, saving $700 million.

Anti-Fraud Provisions:  Assumes $400 million in savings from various anti-fraud provisions, including limiting the discharge of debt in bankruptcy proceedings associated with fraudulent activities.

Imaging:  Reduces imaging payments by assuming a higher level of utilization for certain types of equipment, saving $400 million.  Imposes prior authorization requirements for advanced imaging; no savings are assumed, a change from the September 2011 deficit proposal, which said prior authorization would save $900 million.

Pharmaceutical Price Controls:  Expands Medicaid price controls to dual eligible and low-income subsidy beneficiaries participating in Part D, saving $123.2 billion according to OMB.  Some have expressed concerns that further expanding government-imposed price controls to prescription drugs could harm innovation and the release of new therapies that could help cure diseases.

Medicare Drug Discounts:  Proposes accelerating the “doughnut hole” drug discount plan included in PPACA, filling in the “doughnut hole” completely by 2015.  While the budget claims this proposal will save $11.2 billion over ten years, some may be concerned that – by raising drug spending, and eliminating incentives for seniors to choose generic pharmaceuticals over brand name drugs, this provision will actually INCREASE Medicare spending, consistent with prior CBO estimates at the time of PPACA’s passage.

Post-Acute Care:  Reduces various acute-care payment updates (details not specified) and equalizes payment rates between skilled nursing facilities and inpatient rehabilitation facilities, saving $79 billion – a significant increase compared to the $56.7 billion in last year’s budget and the $32.5 billion in proposed savings under the President’s September 2011 deficit proposal.  Equalizes payments between IRFs and SNFs for certain conditions, saving $2 billion.  Adjusts payments to inpatient rehabilitation facilities and skilled nursing facilities to account for unnecessary hospital readmissions and encourage appropriate care, saving a total of $4.7 billion.  Restructures post-acute care reimbursements through the use of bundled payments, saving $8.2 billion.

Physician Payment:  Includes language extending accountability standards to physicians who self-refer for radiation therapy, therapy services, and advanced imaging services, saving $6.1 billion.  Makes adjustments to clinical laboratory payments, designed to align Medicare with private payment rates, saving $9.5 billion.  Expands availability of Medicare data for performance and quality improvement; no savings assumed.

Medicare Drugs:  Reduces payment of physician administered drugs from 106 percent of average sales price to 103 percent of average sales price.  Some may note reports that similar payment reductions, implemented as part of the sequester, have caused some cancer clinics to limit their Medicare patient load.  By including a similar proposal in his budget, President Obama has effectively endorsed these policies.  Saves $4.5 billion.

Medicare Advantage:  Resurrects a prior-year proposal to increase Medicare Advantage coding intensity adjustments; this provision would have the effect of reducing MA plan payments, based on an assumption that MA enrollees are healthier on average than those in government-run Medicare.  Saves $15.3 billion over ten years.  Also proposes $4.1 billion in additional savings by aligning employer group waiver plan payments with average MA plan bids.

Additional Means Testing:  Increases means tested premiums under Parts B and D by five percentage points, beginning in 2017.  Freezes the income thresholds at which means testing applies until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to such premiums.  Saves $50 billion over ten years, and presumably more thereafter, as additional seniors would hit the means testing threshold, subjecting them to higher premiums.

Medicare Deductible Increase:  Increases Medicare Part B deductible by $25 in 2017, 2019, and 2021 – but for new beneficiaries only; “current beneficiaries or near retirees [not defined] would not be subject to the revised deductible.”  Saves $3.3 billion.

Home Health Co-Payment:  Beginning in 2017, introduces a home health co-payment of $100 per episode for new beneficiaries only, in cases where an episode lasts five or more visits and is NOT proceeded by a hospital stay.  MedPAC has previously recommended introducing home health co-payments as a way to ensure appropriate utilization.  Saves $730 million.

Medigap Surcharge:  Imposes a Part B premium surcharge equal to about 15 percent of the average Medigap premium – or about 30 percent of the Part B premium – for seniors with Medigap supplemental insurance that provides first dollar coverage.  Applies beginning in 2017 to new beneficiaries only.  A study commissioned by MedPAC previously concluded that first dollar Medigap coverage induces beneficiaries to consume more medical services, thus increasing costs for the Medicare program and federal taxpayers.  Saves $2.9 billion.

Generic Drug Incentives:  Proposes increasing co-payments for certain brand-name drugs for beneficiaries receiving the Part D low-income subsidy, while reducing co-payments for relevant generic drugs by 15 percent, in an attempt to increase generic usage among low-income seniors currently insulated from much of the financial impact of their purchasing decisions.  Saves $6.7 billion, according to OMB.

Lower Caps on Medicare Spending:  Section 3403 of the health care law established an Independent Payment Advisory Board tasked with limiting Medicare spending to the growth of the economy plus one percentage point (GDP+1) in 2018 and succeeding years.  The White House proposal would reduce this target to GDP+0.5 percent.  The Medicare actuary has previously written that the spending adjustments contemplated by IPAB and the health care law “are unlikely to be sustainable on a permanent annual basis” and “very challenging” – problems that would be exacerbated by utilizing a slower target rate for Medicare spending growth.  According to the budget, this proposal would save $4.1 billion, mainly in 2023.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $41.1 Billion)

Limit Durable Medical Equipment Reimbursement:  Caps Medicaid reimbursements for durable medical equipment (DME) at Medicare rates, beginning in 2014.  The health care law extended and expanded a previous Medicare competitive bidding demonstration project included in the Medicare Modernization Act, resulting in savings to the Medicare program.  This proposal, by capping Medicaid reimbursements for DME at Medicare levels, would attempt to extend those savings to the Medicaid program.  Saves $4.5 billion over ten years.

Rebase Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital Payments:  Proposes beginning DSH payment reductions in 2015 instead of 2014, and “to determine future state DSH allotments based on states’ actual DSH allotments as reduced” by PPACA.  Saves $3.6 billion, all in fiscal 2023.

Medicaid Anti-Fraud Savings:  Assumes $3.7 billion in savings from a variety of Medicaid anti-fraud provisions.  Included in this amount are proposals that would remove exceptions to the requirement that Medicaid must reject payments when another party is liable for a medical claim.  A separate proposal related to the tracking of pharmaceutical price controls would save $8.8 billion.

Transitional Medical Assistance/QI Program:  Provides for temporary extensions of the Transitional Medical Assistance program, which provides Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work, along with the Qualifying Individual program, which provides assistance to low-income seniors in paying Medicare premiums.  The extensions cost $1.1 billion and $590 million, respectively.

“Pay-for-Delay:”  Prohibits brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturers from entering into arrangements that would delay the availability of new generic drugs. Some Members have previously expressed concerns that these provisions would harm innovation, and actually impede the incentives to generic manufacturers to bring cost-saving generic drugs on the market.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $11 billion.

Follow-on Biologics:  Reduces to seven years the period of exclusivity for follow-on biologics.  Current law provides for a twelve-year period of exclusivity, based upon an amendment to the health care law that was adopted on a bipartisan basis in both the House and Senate (one of the few substantive bipartisan amendments adopted).  Some Members have expressed concern that reducing the period of exclusivity would harm innovation and discourage companies from developing life-saving treatments.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $3.3 billion.

State Waivers:  Accelerates from 2017 to 2014 the date under which states can submit request for waivers of SOME of the health care law’s requirements to HHS.  While supposedly designed to increase flexibility, even liberal commentators have agreed that under the law’s state waiver programcritics of Obama’s proposal have a point: It wouldn’t allow to enact the sorts of health care reforms they would prefer” and thatconservatives can’t do any better – at least not under these rules.”  No cost is assumed; however, in its re-estimate of the President’s budget last year, CBO scored this proposal as costing $4.5 billion.

Implementation “Slush Fund:”  Proposes $400 million in new spending for HHS to implement the proposals listed above.

FEHB Contracting:  Similar to last year’s budget, proposes streamlining pharmacy benefit contracting within the Federal Employee Health Benefits program, by centralizing pharmaceutical benefit contracting within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), saving $1.6 billion.  However, this year’s budget goes further in restructuring FEHBP – OPM would also be empowered to modernize benefit designs (savings of $264 million); create a “self-plus-one” benefit option for federal employees and extend benefits to domestic partners (total savings of $5.2 billion, despite the costs inherent in the latter option); and adjust premium levels based on tobacco usage and/or participation in wellness programs (savings of $1.3 billion).  Some individuals, noting that OPM is also empowered to create “multi-state plans” as part of the health care overhaul, may be concerned that these provisions could be part of a larger plan to make OPM the head of a de facto government-run health plan.

Other Health Care Proposal of Note

Tax Credit:  The Treasury Green Book proposes expanding the small business health insurance tax credit included in the health care law.   Specifically, the budget would expand the number of employers eligible for the credit to include all employers with up to 50 full-time workers; firms with under 20 workers would be eligible for the full credit.  (Currently those levels are 25 and 10 full-time employees, respectively.)  The budget also changes the coordination of the two phase-outs based on a firm’s average wage and number of employees, with the changes designed to make more companies eligible for a larger credit.  The changes would begin in the current calendar and tax year (i.e., 2013).  According to OMB, these changes would cost $10.4 billion over ten years – down from last year’s estimate of $14 billion over ten years.  Many may view this proposal as a tacit admission that the credit included in the law was a failure, because its limited reach and complicated nature – firms must fill out seven worksheets to determine their eligibility – have deterred American job creators from receiving this subsidy.  Moreover, the reduced score in this year’s budget compared to last year’s implies that even this expansion of the credit will have a less robust impact than originally anticipated.

Profits Before Principles: How AARP Wins When Seniors Lose

A report originally compiled by staff for Sen. Jim DeMint.

REPORT HIGHLIGHTS

  • AARP functions as an insurance conglomerate with a liberal lobbying arm on the side.  Independent experts and former AARP executives admit that the organization’s billions of dollars raised from its business enterprises – most notably the sale of health insurance plans – have compromised the organization’s mission and independence.
  • AARP depends on profits, royalties, and commissions to make up over 50% of its annual budget.  Membership dues from seniors account for only about 20% of AARP’s revenue.
  • AARP’s $458 million in health insurance revenue in 2011 would rank it as the nation’s sixth-most profitable health insurer.
  • The health care law, which AARP lobbied heavily for, could lead to over $1 billion in new AARP health insurance profits over the next decade by forcing seniors off Medicare Advantage plans into Medigap supplemental coverage.
  • AARP earns more profit the higher premiums rise on seniors in Medigap plans, charging a “royalty fee” of 4.95% of every premium dollar paid by seniors on these plans.
  • In 2011, AARP failed to disclose to its senior membership that it lobbied Congress to oppose Medigap reform, legislation that could lower senior premiums by as much as 60%, and save seniors $415 per year on average.
  • AARP could lose as much as $1.8 billion in revenue over ten years if Medigap reforms pass and successfully lower senior premiums.
  • Documents show close coordination between Obama Administration and AARP, including efforts to deceive the public.  In November 2009, a senior AARP executive wrote to the White House saying “we will try to keep a little space between us” on health care – because AARP’s “polling shows we are more influential when we are seen as independent, so we want to reinforce that positioning….The larger issue is how best to serve the cause.”
  • AARP has benefitted by supporting the Obama Administration’s unpopular health care law.  Unlike other forms of insurance, AARP’s Medigap insurance plans were exempted from many of the health care law’s mandates, including the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination.
  • The Obama Administration has not publicly criticized AARP’s business practices, even though it has publicly attacked other insurance companies with much smaller profit margins than those generated by AARP’s Medigap insurance.
  • Democrats continue to praise AARP – HHS Secretary Sebelius called them the “gold standard” for “accurate information” – even though AARP earns more profit the higher Medigap premiums rise for seniors.

Even though President Obama has criticized Republicans for placing seniors at the mercy of insurance companies, the health care law he signed allows organizations like AARP to continue discriminating against Medigap applicants with pre-existing conditions.

 

Introduction

The AARP bills itself as the nation’s premier senior advocacy group, but has opposed important reforms to Medigap supplemental insurance that would save seniors, on average, hundreds of dollars a year.

Why? There are $1.8 billion reasons.

The reforms currently being proposed to Medigap would drastically reduce the “royalty fees” AARP generates by peddling insurance to its members by an estimated $1.8 billion over ten years. If AARP supported these reforms, which are sure to save seniors money, the lobbying group would lose billions.

This report shows how the AARP has a history of being compromised by its lucrative insurance businesses.  The pressure group’s opposition to Medigap reform is just the latest instance where its financial enterprises have trumped the well-being of its members.

AARP is mounting a “You’ve Earned a Say” campaign to solicit member viewpoints about how to reform entitlements, but our examination of the organization’s actions over the years shows AARP executives, who seek to boost their bottom lines, always have the biggest say.

The AARP Empire

Founded in 1958, AARP is now an organization with an annual budget exceeding $1 billion.  The organization spent $206 million to acquire its headquarters building in Washington, DC more than a decade ago.[1]  According to its most recently filed tax returns, AARP spent more than $246 million on postage, and over $280 million on compensation in 2010.[2]  In that same year, AARP provided compensation of over $100,000 to 543 separate employees, including one senior executive who received nearly $1.2 million in compensation.[3]

While AARP claims to be a membership-driven organization, in reality most of its revenue comes not from member dues but from “royalty fees” generated from the sale of other products, namely health insurance.  “Royalty fees” are payments AARP receives for putting its brand name on certain products and services.  So while insurance companies provide a tangible product and service in exchange for the premiums they charge, AARP receives more than half a billion dollars per year for essentially playing the middle man.

According to its 2011 financial statements, more than half of AARP’s revenue came from royalty fees – over $704 million of its $1.35 billion in total revenue last year.[4]  Revenues from health insurer United Health Group comprised nearly two-thirds of AARP’s total “royalty fee” revenue, or $457.6 million.[5]  By comparison, in 2011 AARP generated only $265.8 million from membership dues – just over half the amount received from the sale of AARP-branded insurance products.[6]

AARP’s royalty fees have risen significantly in recent years, making the organization ever more dependent on the sale of insurance policies to fund AARP’s massive payroll.  Between 2001 and 2011, AARP’s total royalty fees rose by more than 350% – from $196.7 million in 2001 to over $704 million last year.[7]  Much of this increase comes from additional health insurance-related revenue.  Over the past five years, AARP has generated over $2 billion in revenue from United Health Group alone – $284 million in 2007,[8] $414 million in 2008,[9] $427 million in 2009,[10] $441 million in 2010,[11] and $458 million in 2011.[12]

AARP’s $458 million in insurance revenue in 2011 would rank it as the nation’s sixth-most profitable insurer, based on data collected by Fortune magazine.[13]  For instance, insurer Health Net generated only $204 million in net revenue last year – on over $13.6 billion in total revenue.[14]  By contrast, AARP’s $458 million in insurance-based “royalty fees” go directly to the organization’s bottom line.

AARP’s Questionable Insurance Practices

Even as it claims to be a non-profit advocacy organization, AARP has received criticism from many quarters for its heavy reliance on revenue from insurance sales.  Marilyn Moon, a former AARP executive, said “there’s an inherent conflict of interest” because AARP is “very dependent on sources of income.”[15]

AARP’s dependence on “royalty fee” income has resulted in numerous controversies over the years.  For instance, in 2008 a congressional inquiry[16] found that AARP was using potentially misleading language in its marketing materials; seniors thought they were buying comprehensive health insurance, but in reality purchased policies covering only a limited amount of health costs.  Following a public outcry, AARP ordered an investigation,[17] and eventually stopped selling these types of limited benefit plans.[18]

More recently, the tax implications of AARP’s significant “royalty fees” have come under scrutiny.  An investigation by several members of the House Ways and Means Committee last year raised questions about whether or not AARP’s licensing revenue should be considered “royalty fees” or “commissions.”[19]  If the revenue in question should in fact be classified as “commissions,” then AARP could owe significant amounts of back taxes on billions of dollars in revenue.  The Ways and Means members referred the matter to the Internal Revenue Service, and requested an IRS investigation.[20]

The Medigap Cash Cow

The Ways and Means member investigation also made clear that one of AARP’s prime sources of revenue is the sale of Medigap-branded supplemental insurance plans.  AARP does license Medicare Advantage plans, along with a Medicare Part D prescription drug plan.  However, AARP receives a flat financial payment from United Health Group for its Medicare Advantage and Part D plans, regardless of the number of people enrolled in each plan.  Conversely, AARP receives a percentage of total Medigap premiums paid – meaning that while AARP receives no financial benefits if its Medicare Advantage or Part D plan enrollment rises, it will receive a windfall if its Medigap plan generates additional customers, or those customers pay higher premiums.

The health care law includes more than $300 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage.[21]  As a result of these payment reductions, enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans will be cut in half, with 7.4 million fewer seniors enrolled.[22]  Many of these 7.4 million seniors will need supplemental coverage through Medigap, to fund catastrophic expenses not covered by Medicare.

Because the health care law will have the effect of migrating millions of seniors from Medicare Advantage plans – which are less lucrative financially to AARP – to more-lucrative Medigap supplemental coverage, the Ways and Means member report concluded that the organization could receive a windfall exceeding $1 billion over the next ten years thanks to the law.[23]

Medigap Reform with Bipartisan Appeal

The potential Medigap-related windfall for AARP resulting from the health care law is not the only instance in which the organization’s financial interests have coincided with its policy positions.  In recent months, a renewed focus on reforming entitlements, and making Medicare more sustainable, has prompted new attention to various proposals to reform Medigap plans.  While these plans would benefit most seniors financially, they would harm AARP’s financial interests – so perhaps not surprisingly, AARP has decided to oppose them.

Under the proposals being discussed, the traditional Medicare program would be reformed to provide catastrophic coverage, while Medigap would provide limited supplemental coverage.  For the first time in the program’s history, seniors would know their Medicare costs would not exceed a set amount.  In exchange, Medigap supplemental coverage, which covers co-payments and deductibles, would also be reformed, so that seniors would face an out-of-pocket deductible not covered by insurance.

Reform to Medigap insurance plans has generated bipartisan appeal.  Versions of this reform have been proposed by the Simpson-Bowles Commission,[24] the Rivlin-Domenici commission on debt and deficits, [25] Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT),[26] and even President Obama’s most recent budget.[27]  Policy-makers in both parties believe that, by limiting first-dollar coverage of medical expenses through Medigap, seniors would serve as smarter purchasers of health insurance, such that overall spending in Medicare might decline modestly.

Although some seniors might pay slightly more out-of-pocket under these changes, a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation said that “the savings for the average beneficiary” under Medigap reform “would be sufficient to more than offset his or her new direct outlays for Medicare cost sharing.”[28]  According to Kaiser, nearly four in five Medigap policy-holders would receive a net financial benefit from this reform – with those savings averaging $415 per senior each year – because creating a new deductible for all Medigap plans will cause premiums to fall.[29]

Under Medigap reform, seniors would spend much less money on premiums.  Just as with automobile insurance, or with Health Savings Account policies for individuals under age 65, adopting a higher deductible would yield significant premium savings for Medigap policies.  The Kaiser study found that under one proposed reform, Medigap premiums would plummet by an average of over 60%, from nearly $2,000 per year to only $731.[30]  Because less money from Medigap policy-holders would be diverted to administrative overhead, seniors would be able to keep their own money to finance their own health care.

AARP Wins When Seniors Lose

The overall premise of Medigap reform is simple: Less money going to insurance companies means greater financial savings for most seniors.

Unfortunately for AARP, things are not that simple.  As one independent financial adviser has said, AARP’s sales tactics are a “dirty little secret” that are “all about fattening the coffers of the organization.”  And the biggest “dirty little secret” of all is that AARP has a major financial incentive to keep premiums high for seniors.[31]

The House Ways and Means Committee members’ investigation last year found that AARP receives a percentage of each senior’s Medigap premium dollar.[32]  The organization’s “royalty fee” totals 4.95% of every premium dollar paid.  So, similar to a salesman pushing the most expensive product in order to receive a higher commission, regardless of the customer’s needs,  AARP has an incentive to sell more Medigap policies – and to sell the most expensive Medigap policies – even if seniors do not need the insurance.  The higher the cost of seniors’ Medigap policies, the more money AARP makes.

Based on AARP’s existing contractual arrangements and the Kaiser Family Foundation study projections, it is relatively simple to calculate the projected financial loss to AARP under Medigap reform.[33]   If premiums decline by more than $1,200 per year, as the Kaiser study predicted, AARP stands to lose an average of $62 in “royalty fees” for every senior enrolled in its Medigap insurance.  With nearly 3 million seniors enrolled in AARP’s Medigap plan, those numbers add up – over $181 million in one year, and $1.8 billion over the course of a decade.[34]  With the organization generating total revenue of $1.35 billion in 2011, Medigap reform would result in an immediate loss of over 13% of AARP’s annual revenue.[35]

AARP’s Covert Campaign to Kill Medigap Reform

Given its financial interest in keeping Medigap premiums high, it is perhaps unsurprising that AARP engaged in a covert lobbying campaign designed to kill Medigap reform, and keep its existing “royalty fee” regime in place.  Last year AARP wrote to members of the congressional “supercommittee” on deficit reduction, asking them not to include Medigap reforms – which, as noted above, would benefit four out of five Medigap policy-holders, but significantly harm AARP’s financial interests.

AARP published excerpts of their letter to the “supercommittee” on its website.[36]  But AARP has yet to put anything on its website indicating that the organization has been privately contacting Members of Congress, asking them not to reform Medigap – and preserve AARP’s lucrative Medigap commissions.

Two years ago, an AARP spokesman told CNN that the organization doesn’t lobby Congress on Medigap issues “at all.”[37]  While the organization is apparently trying to keep its actions secret, the fact remains that AARP is lobbying Congress against Medigap reform, opposing changes that will just so happen to save AARP members tens of billions, but that would also cost AARP billions.

AARP Works Against Its Members

Whereas last year AARP actively lobbied against Medigap reforms that would help its members but hurt AARP financially, three years ago the organization did NOT lobby for Medigap reforms that would help its members but could hurt AARP financially.  Specifically, even after enactment of the health care law, Medigap plans are still permitted to impose waiting periods on senior citizen applicants with pre-existing conditions.  AARP, despite its stated support for ending pre-existing condition restrictions,[38] imposes waiting periods on its own members applying for Medigap coverage[39] – and stood idly by as an attempt to end this practice within Medigap was stricken from the health care bill before it became law.

Section 1234 of House Democrats’ June 2009 health care discussion draft would have prohibited pre-existing condition discrimination for certain Medigap applicants – achieving one of AARP’s chief goals.[40]  However, last year the Washington Post claimed that the Medigap provision “was dropped from the legislation during congressional negotiations because it would have increased Medicare costs, according to a House Democratic congressional aide.”[41]

The Congressional Budget Office scored provisions eliminating pre-existing condition discrimination in Medigap as costing about $400 million per year.[42]  However, AARP had previously stated that the organization “would gladly forego every dime of revenue to fix the health care system.”[43]  As noted above, its $700 million in “royalty fees” last year far exceeds the $400 million annual cost of ending Medigap pre-existing condition discrimination.  It remains unclear why this provision was dropped from the bill, if AARP was so interested in foregoing profits in order to help its members.

In addition to allowing AARP to continue imposing waiting periods on Medigap applicants, the law enacted in March 2010 also exempted AARP’s lucrative Medigap policies from several other new insurance regulations.[44]  At a December 2009 hearing,[45] AARP’s Board Chair claimed to have no idea that legislation that she and the AARP had previously endorsed included numerous exemptions for Medigap plans, including an exemption from the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination.[46]

After the numerous Medigap-related exemptions included in the health care law were publicly exposed, AARP eventually endorsed legislative changes to end some of the exemptions.[47]  However, despite this public turn-around, AARP has yet to explain to the public why it allowed these exemptions to be enacted in the first place – if the organization is not motivated by its own financial interests, as it claims.  Moreover, the organization has not apologized to its members for failing to act and end pre-existing condition discrimination in Medigap plans two years ago, and the impact such failure has had on AARP’s own members.

Members REVOLT

Documents released by a House Energy and Commerce Committee oversight investigation reveal just how strongly AARP members opposed their organization’s behavior during the health care debate three years ago.  The files show overwhelming opposition from AARP members to the legislation, based on summaries of AARP call center activity:

July 23, 2009 – 77 members support; 1,031 oppose

July 28, 2009 – 36 members support; 4,174 oppose

July 29, 2009 – 23 members support; 2,656 oppose[48]

On a single day (July 28, 2009) during the height of the debate, 1,897 individuals cancelled their membership in AARP to protest its position on the health care bill.[49]

The documents also reveal that AARP members were well aware of the organization’s financial conflicts, and believed that these conflicts were influencing AARP policy.  One member from Oklahoma called in and complained that:

AARP has a conflict of interest between selling insurance and helping senior citizens.  Until it decides which one is more important, the $$$ or the people, it is deceiving old folks into thinking it works for their benefit.  Actually it works for the insurance companies [sic] benefit and interests, which is why it is so gung-ho on the health care reform bill….Not OK with me.[50]

Members also complained about “perceived partisanship on AARP’s part” – and the documents reveal this to be an accurate concern.  In November 2009, a senior AARP executive wrote to the White House saying “we will try to keep a little space between us” on health care – because AARP’s “polling shows we are more influential when we are seen as independent, so we want to reinforce that positioning….The larger issue is how best to serve the cause.”[51]  In other words, the organization was attempting to protect its image by publicly deceiving its members – acting detached in public, even as AARP was frantically lobbying behind the scenes to ram the legislation through for the good of the liberal cause.

AARP’s Misguided Political Focus

It is perhaps unsurprising that AARP would focus on “serv[ing] the cause” of liberalism, because many of its senior executives have strong liberal connections.  When the organization hired its current CEO, Barry Rand, one Capitol Hill publication noted that “New AARP Chief Gave Big to Obama.”[52]  Indeed, Mr. Rand has given tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to liberal Democrats over the years.[53]  Many other members of AARP’s executive team also have strong connections to liberal causes; the head of AARP’s government relations and advocacy program was a senior adviser in the Clinton Administration,[54] while other AARP key executives have worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy,[55] Rep. Geraldine Ferraro,[56] and the National Wildlife Federation, a liberal environmental group.[57]

The political philosophy of the organization’s leadership results in AARP mounting advocacy campaigns trumpeting liberal talking points that frequently have little basis in fact.  For instance, in September 2011 AARP released an advertisement with seniors claiming that “I paid into my Medicare,” and decrying any efforts to “cut our benefits.”[58]  However, the ad did not acknowledge what an Urban Institute study makes clear: Most seniors receive more in Social Security and Medicare benefits than they paid in taxes during their lifetime.[59]  An Associated Press story based on the Urban Institute study – “What You Pay for Medicare Won’t Cover Your Costs” – was initially placed on aarp.org, but was later removed from the website, perhaps because its conclusions represent inconvenient truths to AARP.[60]

Other ads run by the AARP during last year’s debt limit debate were also debunked as false and misleading.  In June 2011, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column awarded an AARP ad four “Pinocchios” for “perpetuat[ing] the worse stereotypes about how easy it would be to balance the budget.  At a time when the nation’s fiscal crisis – amid the looming retirement of the baby-boom generation – demands informed and reasoned debate, the AARP misinforms its members about the choices the nation faces.”[61]

Of course, AARP has a financial interest in misinforming its members – because the organization derives much of its revenue from preserving the status quo.  In launching a “multi-million dollar” ad campaign featuring misleading claims, AARP made clear it wanted no changes to the existing Medicare benefit structure.[62]  As outlined above, changes to the Medicare benefit – such as Medigap reform – would cost AARP billions, while saving many seniors hundreds of dollars per year.  By blocking reforms that would dent its profits, AARP hurts seniors two ways – first, by preventing seniors from saving hundreds of dollars in Medigap premiums, and second, by leaving the Medicare program less solvent for future generations.

Democrats Encourage AARP’s Abuses

Even as AARP racks up billions of dollars in insurance profits by overcharging seniors for Medigap plans, Democrats encourage these abuses by giving AARP special favors, and ignoring its questionable sales tactics.  As noted above, the health care law exempted AARP’s lucrative Medigap insurance plans from the ban on pre-existing condition discrimination, thus allowing AARP to continue to impose waiting periods on individuals applying for coverage.  However, that’s not the only exemption that Medigap coverage received in the law; Medigap insurance was also exempted from:

  • The law’s $500,000 cap on executive compensation for insurance industry executives. [63]  Thanks to this exemption, AARP can continue to pay its senior executives more than $1 million in annual compensation.[64]
  • The tax on insurance companies that will total more than $14 billion per year.[65]   Medigap insurance received this exemption even though AARP generates more money from insurance industry “royalty fees” than it received from membership dues, grant revenues, and private contributions combined.[66]
  • The requirement imposed on other health insurance plans to spend at least 85 percent of their premium dollars on medical claims.[67]  Medigap policies are currently held to a far less restrictive 65 percent standard, and the difference can be used to fund higher profits to AARP paid out of the pockets of its senior citizen members.[68]

In addition to these numerous exemptions for Medigap insurance provided in law, the Administration provided a further exemption for Medigap coverage during the rulemaking process.  The Department of Health and Human Services’ rule on insurance rate review exempted Medigap plans from further scrutiny of their premium increases.[69]  In arriving at this determination, HHS concluded that insurance plans like Medigap coverage “do not appear to be a principal focus of the Affordable Care Act” – meaning that because Medigap plans were exempted from the law’s other regulatory requirements, they should be exempted from rate review as well.[70]

Obama Administration Hypocrisy

The frequent exemptions given to Medigap insurance – a product line where AARP holds the largest market share – directly contradict the claims made by Democrats about the 2,700 page health care law.  For instance, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ official biography claims that she “is implementing reforms that end many of the insurance industry’s worst abuses.”[71]  However, with respect to Medigap insurance, that claim is entirely false.  Because Medigap plans were exempted from the law’s new requirements, organizations like AARP can continue to discriminate against applicants with pre-existing conditions, and overcharge seniors in order to generate greater profits.

Even as the Obama Administration fails to acknowledge that the health care law exempts Medigap insurance from all of its new requirements, it has attacked conservatives’ Medicare reform proposals for granting too much power to insurers.  In her speech to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Secretary Sebelius criticized Republicans for “let[ting] insurance companies continue to cherry-pick who gets coverage and who gets left out, priced out, or locked out of the market.”[72]  And in his speech to the same convention, President Obama said that “no American should have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies.”[73]  Given that the legislation President Obama signed into law exempted Medigap coverage for seniors from virtually all of its new regulatory requirements, it is more than a little hypocritical for his Administration to criticize others for leaving seniors to the mercy of insurers.

The Administration has yet to answer a basic question at the heart of the numerous exemptions granted to Medigap insurers in their 2,700 page health care law: If the law’s protections are so good, then why are seniors left out of its supposed benefits when it comes to their supplemental insurance?  Unfortunately, the answer could be that AARP has been unwilling to forfeit its profits, and so the Obama Administration has looked the other way as the organization continues to take advantage of seniors.

Kathleen Sebelius: Watchdog or Lapdog?

Even as it has been willing to politically strong-arm insurance companies with whom it disagrees, the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services has failed to confront AARP about its questionable business practices.  In March 2010, as the Administration was gearing up to ram through its health care law, Secretary Sebelius asked other insurers to “give up some short-term profits” for the nation’s good.[74]  At the time, estimates by Fortune magazine indicated that health insurer profits averaged about 2.2 percent.[75]  Yet Secretary Sebelius made no such request of AARP to give up some of its revenues – even though its Medigap profit margin was 4.95 percent, more than double that of the insurance industry as a whole.

Shortly after the health law passed, Secretary Sebelius undertook a publicity campaign to “encourage” insurance companies to ban rescissions and extend coverage to young adults under age 26 earlier than was required under the law.  While the Secretary made very public efforts to have insurance companies “abandon…efforts to rescind health insurance coverage from patients who need it most,” she made no attempt to encourage AARP and other Medigap insurers to stop discriminating against applicants with pre-existing conditions.[76]  At an implementation briefing to Congress shortly after the law passed, Senate Republican staff asked HHS officials why the Department was asking other insurers voluntarily to change their business practices, but was not asking AARP to stop discriminating against Medigap applicants.  While Jeanne Lambrew, head of the Department’s Office of Health Reform, promised to look into the matter, the Department never took action.

Rather than ask AARP to reform its business practices, Secretary Sebelius instead has blindly offered the organization praise.  In an October 2010 speech to the AARP convention, she hailed the organization as “the gold standard in cutting through spin and complexity to give people the accurate information they need to make the best choices.”[77]  Even though AARP has a strong financial conflict-of-interest in its Medigap insurance – because the organization earns more profit when seniors pay more in premiums – Secretary Sebelius still claimed that AARP constituted “the gold standard” in giving “accurate information.”

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) has previously expressed strong concerns about the percentage-based compensation model under which AARP receives much of its revenue.  In fact, Section 18 of NAIC’s Producer Model Licensing Act recommends that states require explicit disclosure by insurers, and clear written acknowledgement by consumers, of any percentage-based compensation arrangement, due to the potential for abuse.  As a former insurance commissioner, Secretary Sebelius should be well aware of the financial conflicts inherent when an organization like AARP receives a percentage of every Medigap dollar paid by seniors.  Yet the Secretary apparently ignored these concerns, and went on to praise AARP as a source of impartial advice, even though even former AARP executives have criticized the organization as hopelessly compromised by financial conflicts-of-interest.

In her time heading HHS, Secretary Sebelius has undertaken clearly political actions, including those that violated the law.  Just last week, the Office of the Special Counsel publicly released a report concluding that the Secretary engaged in political activity that violated the Hatch Act prohibitions on federal officials campaigning for partisan political causes.[78]  It is therefore quite reasonable to ask whether Secretary Sebelius has also engaged in a pattern of politically-motivated selective enforcement – attacking other insurers when convenient, but failing to examine AARP’s questionable business practices, because AARP supports the President’s liberal causes.

As noted above, AARP executives e-mailed the White House in November 2009 stating that “the larger issue is how best to serve the cause.”  It would thus appear that both AARP and the Administration recognize their political interests are aligned.  Certainly the Administration’s actions – exemptions for Medigap coverage included both in statute and in rulemaking; attacks on insurers with smaller profit margins than AARP; failure to criticize AARP’s percentage-based compensation model – are consistent with a governing philosophy that permits AARP to engage in questionable and abusive behavior towards seniors, so long as AARP funnels the profits from said behavior back into supporting the Administration’s liberal causes.

In April 2010, Secretary Sebelius wrote to insurers to stop rescinding insurance policies earlier than required under the law, encouraging them “not to wait until the fall to do the right thing.”[79]  America’s seniors have been waiting for years for Secretary Sebelius, and the entire Obama Administration, to do the right thing – to apply the law fairly, without regard to political persuasion.  Unfortunately, the facts suggest that the Administration has knowingly looked the other way, and failed to take on AARP over its business practices – because political advantage outweighs the need for impartial enforcement, or extending the supposed benefits of the health care law to senior citizens.

Conclusion

Though it purports to be a seniors advocacy organization, AARP functions in many respects as an insurance conglomerate with a liberal lobbying arm on the side.  Independent experts and even former AARP executives have admitted that the organization’s billions of dollars raised from its business enterprises – most notably the sale of health insurance plans – have compromised the organization’s mission and independence.  As one consultant put it: “Either you’re a voice for the elderly or you’re an insurance company – choose one.”[80]

As this report has demonstrated, AARP has acted against its members’ interest, but in its own financial interests, on several occasions during the major health care debates of the past several years.  First AARP endorsed a health care law that gave its most lucrative product offering – Medigap insurance – a major opportunity to solicit new members, exempted those Medigap plans from the law’s regulatory regime, and allowed AARP to continue imposing waiting periods on the sickest seniors looking to buy Medigap coverage.  More recently, AARP has engaged in a covert lobbying campaign designed to kill Medigap reforms that would benefit nearly four in five policy-holders and improve Medicare’s solvency – but could cost AARP billions.

This year, AARP has embarked upon a “You’ve Earned a Say” campaign, purportedly designed to solicit members’ opinions on ways to reduce the deficit.  However, the organization has yet to solicit members’ viewpoints about its own actions.  For instance:

  1. How many members know that senior AARP executives have received over $1 million in compensation from the organization – and that 543 individuals received over $100,000 in compensation last year?
  2. How many members know that AARP has generated over $2 billion in revenue from selling health insurance plans in the past five years?
  3. How many members know that AARP imposes waiting periods on Medigap applicants with pre-existing conditions – and stood idly by as provisions to eliminate Medigap pre-existing condition discrimination were stricken from the health care law?
  4. How many members know that nearly four in five Medigap plan holders would financially benefit from reforms, to the tune of several hundred dollars per year?
  5. How many members know that Medigap reforms that would help seniors could cost AARP billions of dollars in lost revenue?

At the very least, AARP should be up-front and honest with its members about the massive financial stake it has in this debate.  Better yet, the organization should start thinking less about its bottom line and more about its members, and endorse reforms that will help the vast majority of Medigap policy-holders.

 

[1]Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know, report by Reps. Wally Herger and Dave Reichert, March 29, 2011,  http://herger.house.gov/images/stories/pdf/20110329aarpreport.pdf, p. 6.

[2]AARP Inc., 2010 Internal Revenue Service Form 990, http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/about_aarp/annual_reports/2010_990_aarp.pdf, p. 1.

[3] Ibid., pp. 8-9.

[4] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements,  http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/about_aarp/annual_reports/2012-05/Consolidated-Financial-Statements-2011-2010-AARP.pdf, p. 3.

[5] Page 9 of the AARP 2011 financial statements notes that “the service provider United Healthcare Corporation accounted for 65% of total royalties earned in 2011 and 2010.”  65% of the total $704 million in royalties equates to $457.6 million received from United Healthcare.

[6] Ibid., p. 3.

[7] Letter from AARP Chief Operating Officer Thomas Nelson to Rep. Dave Reichert, November 2, 2009, pp. 3-4.

[8]AARP Inc., 2008 Consolidated Financial Statements,  http://assets.aarp.org/www.aarp.org_/TopicAreas/annual_reports/assets/AARPConsolidatedFinancialStatements.pdf, pp. 4-9.

[9]Ibid., pp. 3-9.

[10]AARP Inc., 2009 Consolidated Financial Statements, http://assets.aarp.org/www.aarp.org_/cs/misc/2009_aarp_consolidated_financial_statements_12_31_09.pdf, pp. 3-9.

[11] AARP Inc., 2010 Consolidated Financial Statements, http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/about_aarp/annual_reports/2010_aarp_consolidated_financial_statements_12_31_10.pdf, pp. 3-9.

[12] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements.

[13] Fortune 500, Health Care: Insurance and Managed Care, May 23, 2011, http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune500/2011/industries/223/index.html.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Gary Cohn and Darrell Preston, “AARP’s Stealth Fees Often Sting Seniors With Costlier Insurance,” Bloomberg December 4, 2008,  http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&refer=&sid=a4OkPQIPF6Kg.

[16] Letter from Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley to AARP CEO William Novelli, November 3, 2008, http://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/upload/110320081.pdf.

[17] Robert Pear, “AARP Orders Investigation Concerning Its Marketing,” New York Times November 18, 2008,   http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/19/us/19insure.html?_r=1.

[18] Emily Berry, “United Stops Selling AARP Limited-Benefit Insurance,” Amednews.com May 28, 2009,  http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2009/05/25/bisd0528.htm.

[19] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know.

[20] Letter from House Ways and Means Committee Members Wally Herger, Charles Boustany, and Dave Reichert to Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman, December 21, 2011,  http://waysandmeans.house.gov/uploadedfiles/letter_to_irs-shulman_12-15-11.pdf.

[21] Congressional Budget Office, score of H.R. 6079, Repeal of Obamacare Act, July 24, 2012, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/43471-hr6079.pdf.

[22] Robert Book and Michael Ramlet, What Changes will Health Care Reform Bring to Medicare Advantage Plan Benefits and Enrollment?, Medical Industry Leadership Institute- Carlson School of Management, October 2011, http://americanactionforum.org/sites/default/files/Embargoed_Book+Ramlet_MILI-Working-Paper_2011-10-13_Final.pdf.

[23] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know, Table 4, p. 16.

[24] The Moment of Truth, report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, December 2010,

http://www.fiscalcommission.gov/sites/fiscalcommission.gov/files/documents/TheMomentofTruth12_1_2010.pdf, p. 39.

[25] Restoring America’s Future, report of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Tax Force, November 2010, http://bipartisanpolicy.org/sites/default/files/BPC%20FINAL%20REPORT%20FOR%20PRINTER%2002%2028%2011.pdf, pp. 52-53.

[26] Overview of Coburn/Lieberman Medicare reform proposal, June 2011, http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=1ea8e116-6d15-46ba-b2e0-731258583305.

[27] White House Fiscal Year 2013 budget submission to Congress, February 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2013/assets/budget.pdf, p. 35.

[28] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Medigap Reforms: Potential Effects of Benefit Restrictions on Medicare Spending and Beneficiary Costs,” July 2011, http://www.kff.org/medicare/upload/8208.pdf, p. 8.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., Exhibit 2, p. 6.

[31] “AARP’s Stealth Fees Often Sting Seniors With Costlier Insurance.”

[32] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know.

[33] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Potential Effects of Benefit Restrictions on Medicare Spending and Beneficiary Costs,” Exhibit 2, p. 6.

[34] Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know, Table 2, p. 9.

[35] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements, p. 3.

[36] AARP Press Release, “AARP to Super Committee: Don’t Cut Medicare, Social Security Benefits,” October 19, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-10-2011/aarp-to-super-committee-dont-cut-medicare-social-security-benefits.html.

[37] Carol Costello, “150,000 Seniors In Revolt,” CNN American Morning January 6, 2010, http://www.cnn.com/video/?/video/politics/2010/01/06/costello.aarp.health.care.cnn.

[38] AARP Press Release, “AARP Thanks Senate for Passing Health Care Reform,” December 24, 2009,  http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-03-2010/aarp_thanks_senateforpassinghealthcarereform.html.

[39] New York State Department of Financial Services, list of insurers offering Medicare supplemental coverage, http://www.dfs.ny.gov/insurance/caremain.htm#insurer.

[40] House Tri-Committee Health Reform Discussion Draft, June 19, 2009, http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/Press_111/20090619/healthcarereform_discussiondraft.pdf, p. 358.

[41] Susan Jaffe, “Medigap Supplemental Coverage Can Be Too Pricey for Younger Medicare Beneficiaries,” Kaiser Health News March 7, 2011,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/07/AR2011030703978.html.

[42] Congressional Budget Office, preliminary estimate of House Tri-Committee Health Reform Discussion Draft, July 7, 2009, http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/Press_111/20090708/cbomedicare.pdf, p. 4.

[43] Letter from AARP Chief Operating Officer Thomas Nelson to Rep. Dave Reichert, November 2, 2009, p. 4.

[44] Karl Rove, “ObamaCare Rewards Friends, Punishes Enemies,” Wall Street Journal January 6, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704405704576063892468779556.html.

[45] House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health hearing, “Prescription Drug Price Inflation: Are Prices Rising Too Fast?” December 8, 2009, http://energycommerce.house.gov/hearings/hearingdetail.aspx?NewsID=7588.

[46] AARP Press Release, “AARP Endorses Affordable Health Care for America Act,” November 5, 2009, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-11-2009/affordable_health_care_act_endorsement.html.

[47] Letter to the Editor, Wall Street Journal, by AARP President Lee Hammond, January 11, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-01-2011/aarp_letter_to_theeditor.html.

[48] House Energy and Commerce Committee, investigation into closed-door Obamacare negotiations, supplemental materials for June 8, 2012 memorandum, http://archives.republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/Media/file/PDFs/060812relevantdocsmemoIII.pdf, pp. 63-68.

[49] Ibid., p. 73.

[50] Ibid., p. 79.

[51] Ibid., p. 88.

[52] Jeffrey Young, “New AARP Chief Gave Big to Obama,” The Hill March 12, 2009, http://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/3963-new-aarp-chief-gave-big-to-obama.

[53] Ibid.

[54] “AARP Leadership Profile: Nancy LeaMond,” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/executive-team/info-2009/Nancy_Leamond.html.

[55] “AARP Leadership Profile: Debra Whitman,” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/executive-team/debra_whitman/.

[56] “AARP Leadership Profile: Kevin Donnellan,” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/executive-team/info-2009/Kevin_Donnellan.html.

[57] “AARP Leadership Profile: Cindy Lewin,” http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/executive-team/info-2010/cindy_lewin.html.

[58] Michael Muskal, “AARP Ads: Hands Off Social Security and Medicare,” Los Angeles Times September 21, 2011, http://www.standard.net/stories/2011/09/21/aarp-ads-hands-social-security-and-medicare.

[59] Gene Steuerle and Stephanie Rennane, “Social Security and Medicare Taxes and Benefits Over a Lifetime,” Tax Policy Center, June 2011, http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/social-security-medicare-benefits-over-lifetime.pdf.

[60] While the Associated Press story from December 30, 2010 has been removed from the AARP website, it can still be found at http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-204_162-7197847.html.

[61] Glenn Kessler, “AARP’s Misleading Ad about Balancing the Budget,” Washington Post June 20, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/aarps-misleading-ad-about-balancing-the-budget/2011/06/17/AGQKRsYH_blog.html.

[62] AARP Press Release, “AARP Launches New TV Ad Calling on Congress to Protect Medicare and Social Security from Harmful Cuts,” June 16, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-06-2011/aarp-launches-new-tv-ad-calling-on-congress-to-protect-medicare-and-social-security-from-harmful-cuts.html.

[63] Section 9014 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) as amended, http://housedocs.house.gov/energycommerce/ppacacon.pdf, pp. 816-18.

[64] AARP Inc., 2010 Internal Revenue Service Form 990, pp. 8-9.

[65] PPACA, Section 9010(h)(3)(C) as amended, p. 815.

[66] AARP Inc., 2011 Consolidated Financial Statements,  p. 3.

[67] PPACA, Section 1001, p. 22.

[68] Section 1882(r)(1) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395ss(r)(1).

[69] Department of Health and Human Services, Rate Increase Disclosure and Review, Final Rule, Federal Register May 23, 2011, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-05-23/pdf/2011-12631.pdf, pp. 29966-67, 29985.

[70] Department of Health and Human Services, Rate Increase Disclosure and Review, Proposed Rule, Federal Register 23 December 2010, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2010-12-23/pdf/2010-32143.pdf, pp. 81007, 81009, 81026.

[71] Official HHS Biography of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, http://www.hhs.gov/secretary/about/biography/index.html.

[72] Remarks by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at the Democratic National Convention, September 4, 2012, http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=CB187143-9624-3760-BC9CC2DBE9C60BD7.

[73] Remarks by the President at the Democratic National Convention, September 6, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/07/remarks-president-democratic-national-convention.

[74] Jane Norman, “Sebelius Urges Health Care Insurers to Trim Their Profits,” CQ HealthBeat March 10, 2010, http://www.commonwealthfund.org/Newsletters/Washington-Health-Policy-in-Review/2010/Mar/March-15-2010/Sebelius-Urges-Health-Insurers-to-Trim-Their-Profits.aspx.

[75] “Top Industries: Most Profitable,” 2009 Fortune 500, http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune500/2009/performers/industries/profits/.

[76] HHS Press Release, “HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Urges Wellpoint to Immediately Stop Dropping Coverage for Women with Breast Cancer,” April 23, 2010, http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2010pres/04/20100423a.html.

[77] Remarks of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at AARP Orlando@50+ Conference, October 1, 2010, http://www.hhs.gov/secretary/about/speeches/sp20101001.html.

[78] Office of Special Counsel, File No. HA-12-1989 (Kathleen G. Sebelius), September 12, 2012, http://www.osc.gov/documents/hatchact/Hatch%20Act%20Report%20on%20HHS%20Secretary%20Kathleen%20Sebelius.pdf.

[79] HHS News Release, “Momentum Building on Sebelius’ Challenge to Insurers to Ban Rescission Before Law Takes Effect in September,” April 28, 2010, http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2010pres/04/20100428a.html.

[80] Cited in Dan Eggen, “AARP: Reform Advocate and Insurance Salesman,” Washington Post October 27, 2009,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/26/AR2009102603392_pf.html.

 

The Obama Campaign’s Magical Medicare Mystery Tour

Over the weekend, the Obama campaign renewed their refrain of “Mediscare” attacks during a series of speeches in Florida.  The new hook for the President was a Center for American Progress study, which we have already debunked elsewhere.  One of the study’s authors was Harvard economist David Cutler – and a new National Journal piece (subscription required) shows that the “hot shot of the health economics world” has, shall we say, evolved slightly when it comes to reforming Medicare:

  • In an e-mail to staff of the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission back in 2010, Cutler proposed “removing the special status of traditional Medicare.”  In the CAP report he co-authored just last month, Cutler said that “the Romney-Ryan plan increases system-wide costs by promoting private insurance that will be more costly than the existing [traditional] Medicare system.”
  • The introduction to the CAP paper last month said that Governor Romney and Chairman Ryan “want to convert our nation’s Medicare program into a voucher system for people who are under 55 years of age.”  Which is exactly what Cutler himself proposed back in 2010, when he wrote the Simpson-Bowles commission and suggested “moving the Medicare population into the exchanges…that would be the same as the voucher.”  As the National Journal article notes, “Cutler wasn’t just recommending that the Democrats incorporate vouchers into Medicare, something the Obama campaign is squarely against now.  He was also proposing that the federal government move seniors into insurance exchanges through a much-criticized executive-branch Medicare board [i.e., the Independent Payment Advisory Board created by Obamacare].  That is a proposition you won’t hear in talking points from either Cutler or the Obama campaign.”
  • In the CAP paper last month, Cutler wrote that “private insurance that will be more costly than the existing Medicare system.”  Which is the exact opposite of the conclusion reached in another August article, this one in the Journal of the American Medical Association: “beneficiaries must pay more for traditional Medicare or join a private plan.”  And one of the authors of that JAMA piece?  You guessed it – David Cutler.

So the highlight of the Obama campaign’s “Mediscare” mud-slinging argument is an analysis from someone who has flip-flopped on 1) keeping traditional Medicare’s preferred status; 2) converting Medicare into a “voucher” program; and 3) whether traditional Medicare will be more or less costly than private insurance plans (with that last flip-flop taking place in the lengthy time span of three weeks).  When trying to explain away his contortions on Medicare reform, Cutler told National Journal he was “trying to explain health care economics to people who are not economists or health care specialists….I agree, people should read my articles and books.  But if they don’t, I need to communicate in pieces.”  In other words, believe Cutler – or at least some of the “pieces” of his analysis – instead of your own lying eyes.

One thing’s for certain: There’s a whole lot of change in these disingenuous assaults by Team Obama.  But there isn’t a lot of hope in them, that’s for sure.  Nor is there a lot of principle either.

White House Budget Summary

Overall, the budget:

  • Proposes $362 billion in savings, yet calls for $429 billion in unpaid-for spending due to the Medicare physician reimbursement “doc fix” – thus resulting in a net increase in the deficit. (The $429 billion presumes a ten year freeze of Medicare physician payments; however, the budget does NOT propose ways to pay for this new spending.)
  • Proposes few structural reforms to Medicare; those that are included – weak as they are – are not scheduled to take effect until 2017, well after President Obama leaves office.  If the proposals are so sound, why the delay?
  • Requests just over $1 billion for program management at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, of which the vast majority – $864 million – would be used to implement the health care law.
  • Requests more than half a billion dollars for comparative effectiveness research, which many may be concerned could result in government bureaucrats imposing cost-based limits on treatments.
  • Includes mandatory proposals in the budget that largely track the September deficit proposal to Congress, with a few exceptions.  The budget does NOT include proposals to reduce Medicare frontier state payments, even though this policy was included in the September proposal.  The budget also does not include recovery provisions regarding Medicare Advantage payments to insurers; however, the Administration has indicated they intend to implement this provision administratively.
  • Does not include a proposal relating to Medicaid eligibility levels included in the September submission, as that proposal was enacted into law in November (P.L. 112-56).

 

Discretionary Spending

When compared to Fiscal Year 2012 appropriated amounts, the budget calls for the following changes in discretionary spending by major HHS divisions (tabulated by budget authority):

  • $12 million (0.5%) increase for the Food and Drug Administration – along with a separate proposed $643 million increase in FDA user fees;
  • $138 million (2.2%) decrease for the Health Services and Resources Administration;
  • $116 million (2.7%) increase for the Indian Health Service;
  • $664 million (11.5%) decrease for the Centers for Disease Control;
  • No net change in funding for the National Institutes of Health;
  • $1 billion (26.2%) increase for the discretionary portion of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program management account; and
  • $29 million (5.0%) increase for the discretionary Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control fund.

With regard to the above numbers for CDC and HRSA, note that these are discretionary numbers only.  The Administration’s budget also would allocate additional $1.25 billion in mandatory spending from the new Prevention and Public Health “slush fund” created in the health care law, likely eliminating any real budgetary savings (despite the appearance of same above).

Other Health Care Points of Note

Tax Credit:  The Treasury Green Book proposes expanding the small business health insurance tax credit included in the health care law.   Specifically, the budget would expand the number of employers eligible for the credit to include all employers with up to 50 full-time workers; firms with under 20 workers would be eligible for the full credit.  (Currently those levels are 25 and 10 full-time employees, respectively.)  The budget also changes the coordination of the two phase-outs based on a firm’s average wage and number of employees, with the changes designed to make more companies eligible for a larger credit.  According to OMB, these changes would cost $14 billion over ten years.  Many may view this proposal as a tacit admission that the credit included in the law was a failure, because its limited reach and complicated nature – firms must fill out seven worksheets to determine their eligibility – have deterred American job creators from receiving this subsidy.

Comparative Effectiveness Research:  The budget proposes a total of $599 million in funding for comparative effectiveness research.  Only $78 million of this money comes from existing funds included in the health care law – meaning the Administration has proposed discretionary spending of more than $500 million on comparative effectiveness research.  Some have previously expressed concerns that this research could be used to restrict access to treatments perceived as too costly by federal bureaucrats.  It is also worth noting that this new $520 million in research funding would NOT be subject to the anti-rationing provisions included in the health care law.  Section 218 of this year’s omnibus appropriations measure included a prohibition on HHS using funds to engage in cost-effectiveness research, a provision which this budget request would presumably seek to overturn.

Obamacare Implementation Funding and Personnel:  As previously noted, the budget includes more than $1 billion in discretionary spending increases for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which the HHS Budget in Brief claims would be used to “continue implementing [Obamacare], including Exchanges.”  This funding would finance 256 new bureaucrats within CMS, many of whom would likely be used to implement the law.  Overall, the HHS budget proposes an increase of 1,393 full-time equivalent positions within the bureaucracy.

Specific details of the $1 billion in implementation funding include:

  • $290 million for “consumer support in the private marketplace;”
  • $549 million for “general IT systems and other support,” including funding for the federally-funded Exchange, for which the health law itself did not appropriate funding;
  • $18 million for updates to healthcare.gov;
  • $15 million to oversee the medical loss ratio regulations; and
  • $30 million for consumer assistance grants.

Exchange Funding:  The budget envisions HHS spending $1.1 billion on Exchange grants in 2013, a $180 million increase over the current fiscal year.  The health care law provides the Secretary with an unlimited amount of budget authority to fund state Exchange grants through 2015.  However, other reports have noted that the Secretary does NOT have authority to use these funds to construct a federal Exchange, in the event some states choose not to implement their own state-based Exchanges.

Abstinence Education Funding:  The budget proposes eliminating the abstinence education funding program, and converting those funds into a new pregnancy prevention program.

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $292.2 Billion)

Bad Debts:  Reduces bad debt payments to providers – for unpaid cost-sharing owed by beneficiaries – from 70 percent down to 25 percent over three years, beginning in 2013.  The Fiscal Commission had made similar recommendations in its final report.  Saves $35.9 billion.

Medical Education Payments:  Reduces the Indirect Medical Education adjustment paid to teaching hospitals by 10 percent beginning in 2014, saving $9.7 billion.  Previous studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) have indicated that IME payments to teaching hospitals may be greater than the actual costs the hospitals incur.

Rural Payments:  Reduces critical access hospital payments from 101% of costs to 100% of costs, saving $1.4 billion, and prohibits hospitals fewer than 10 miles away from the nearest hospital from receiving a critical access hospital designation, saving $590 million.  The budget does NOT include a proposal to end add-on payments for providers in frontier states, which was included in the President’s September deficit proposal.

Post-Acute Care:  Reduces various acute-care payment updates (details not specified) during the years 2013 through 2022, saving $56.7 billion – a significant increase compared to the $32.5 billion in savings under the President’s September deficit proposal.  Equalizes payment rates between skilled nursing facilities and inpatient rehabilitation facilities, saving $2 billion.  Increases the minimum percentage of inpatient rehabilitation facility patients that require intensive rehabilitation from 60 percent to 75 percent, saving $2.3 billion.  Reduces skilled nursing facility payments by up to 3%, beginning in 2015, for preventable readmissions, saving $2 billion.

Pharmaceutical Price Controls:  Expands Medicaid price controls to dual eligible and low-income subsidy beneficiaries participating in Part D, saving $155.6 billion according to OMB.  Some have expressed concerns that further expanding government-imposed price controls to prescription drugs could harm innovation and the release of new therapies that could help cure diseases.

Anti-Fraud Provisions:  Assumes $450 million in savings from various anti-fraud provisions, including limiting the discharge of debt in bankruptcy proceedings associated with fraudulent activities.

EHR Penalties:  Re-directs Medicare reimbursement penalties against physicians who do not engage in electronic prescribing beginning in 2020 back into the Medicare program.  The “stimulus” legislation that enacted the health IT provisions had originally required that penalties to providers be placed into the Medicare Improvement Fund; the budget would instead re-direct those revenues into the general fund, to finance the “doc fix” and related provisions.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $590 million; when included in last year’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $3.2 billion.

Imaging:  Reduces imaging payments by assuming a higher level of utilization for certain types of equipment, saving $400 million.  Also imposes prior authorization requirements for advanced imaging; no savings are assumed, a change from the September deficit proposal, which said prior authorization would save $900 million.

Additional Means Testing:  Increases means tested premiums under Parts B and D by 15%, beginning in 2017.  Freezes the income thresholds at which means testing applies until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to such premiums.  Saves $27.6 billion over ten years, and presumably more thereafter, as additional seniors would hit the means testing threshold, subject them to higher premiums.

Medicare Deductible Increase:  Increases Medicare Part B deductible by $25 in 2017, 2019, and 2021 – but for new beneficiaries only; “current beneficiaries or near retirees [not defined] would not be subject to the revised deductible.”  Saves $2 billion.

Home Health Co-Payment:  Beginning in 2017, introduces a home health co-payment of $100 per episode for new beneficiaries only, in cases where an episode lasts five or more visits and is NOT proceeded by a hospital stay.  MedPAC has previously recommended introducing home health co-payments as a way to ensure appropriate utilization.  Saves $350 million.

Medigap Surcharge:  Imposes a Part B premium surcharge equal to about 15 percent of the average Medigap premium – or about 30 percent of the Part B premium – for seniors with Medigap supplemental insurance that provides first dollar coverage.  Applies beginning in 2017 to new beneficiaries only.  A study commissioned by MedPAC previously concluded that first dollar Medigap coverage induces beneficiaries to consume more medical services, thus increasing costs for the Medicare program and federal taxpayers.  Saves $2.5 billion.

Lower Caps on Medicare Spending:  Section 3403 of the health care law established an Independent Payment Advisory Board tasked with limiting Medicare spending to the growth of the economy plus one percentage point (GDP+1) in 2018 and succeeding years.  The White House proposal would reduce this target to GDP+0.5 percent.  This approach has two potential problems:

  • First, under the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent baseline, IPAB recommendations would not be triggered at all – so it’s unclear whether the new, lower target level would actually generate measurable budgetary savings.  (In August 2010, CBO concluded an IPAB with an overall cap of GDP+1 would yield $13.8 billion in savings through 2020 – not enough to make a measurable impact on a program spending $500 billion per year.)
  • Second, the Medicare actuary has previously written that the spending adjustments contemplated by IPAB and the health care law “are unlikely to be sustainable on a permanent annual basis” and “very challenging” – problems that would be exacerbated by utilizing a slower target rate for Medicare spending growth.

According to the budget, this proposal would NOT achieve additional deficit savings.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $70.4 Billion)

Medicaid Provider Taxes:  Reduces limits on Medicaid provider tax thresholds, beginning in 2015; the tax threshold would be reduced over a three year period, to 3.5 percent in 2017 and future years.  State provider taxes are a financing method whereby states impose taxes on medical providers, and use these provider tax revenues to obtain additional federal Medicaid matching funds, thereby increasing the federal share of Medicaid expenses paid while decreasing the state share of expenses.  The Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006, enacted by a Republican Congress, capped the level of Medicaid provider taxes, and the Bush Administration proposed additional rules to reform Medicaid funding rules – rules that were blocked by the Democrat-run 110th Congress.  However, there is bipartisan support for addressing ways in which states attempt to “game” the Medicaid system, through provider taxes and other related methods, to obtain unwarranted federal matching funds – the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities previously wrote about a series of “Rube Goldberg-like accounting arrangements” that “do not improve the quality of health care provided” and “frequently operate in a manner that siphons extra federal money to state coffers without affecting the provision of health care.”  This issue was also addressed in the fiscal commission’s report, although the commission exceeded the budget proposals by suggesting that Congress enact legislation “restricting and eventually eliminating” provider taxes, saving $44 billion.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $21.8 billion.

Blended Rate:  Proposes “replac[ing]…complicated federal matching formulas” in Medicaid “with a single matching rate specific to each state that automatically increases if a recession forces enrollment and state costs to rise.”  Details are unclear, but the Administration claims $17.9 billion in savings from this proposal – much less than the $100 billion figure bandied about in previous reports last summer.  It is also worth noting that the proposal could actually INCREASE the deficit, if a prolonged recession triggers the automatic increases in the federal Medicaid match referenced in the proposal.  On a related note, the budget once again ignores the governors’ multiple requests for flexibility from the mandates included in the health care law – unfunded mandates on states totaling at least $118 billion.

Transitional Medical Assistance/QI Program:  Provides for temporary extensions of the Transitional Medical Assistance program, which provides Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work, along with the Qualifying Individual program, which provides assistance to low-income seniors in paying Medicare premiums.  The extensions cost $815 million and $1.7 billion, respectively.

Limit Durable Medical Equipment Reimbursement:  Caps Medicaid reimbursements for durable medical equipment (DME) at Medicare rates, beginning in 2013.  The health care law extended and expanded a previous Medicare competitive bidding demonstration project included in the Medicare Modernization Act, resulting in savings to the Medicare program.  This proposal, by capping Medicaid reimbursements for DME at Medicare levels, would attempt to extend those savings to the Medicaid program.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $3 billion; when included in the President’s budget last year, these changes were scored as saving $6.4 billion.

Rebase Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital Payments:  In 2021 and 2022, reallocates Medicaid DSH payments to hospitals treating low-income patients, based on states’ actual 2020 allotments (as amended and reduced by the health care law).  Saves $8.3 billion.

Medicaid Anti-Fraud Savings:  Assumes $3.2 billion in savings from a variety of Medicaid anti-fraud provisions, largely through tracking and enforcement of various provisions related to pharmaceuticals.  Included in this amount are proposals that would remove exceptions to the requirement that Medicaid must reject payments when another party is liable for a medical claim.

Flexibility on Benchmark Plans:  Proposes some new flexibility for states to require Medicaid “benchmark” plan coverage for non-elderly, non-disabled adults – but ONLY those with incomes above 133 percent of the federal poverty level (i.e., NOT the new Medicaid population obtaining coverage under the health care law).  No savings assumed.

“Pay-for-Delay:”  Prohibits brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturers from entering into arrangements that would delay the availability of new generic drugs.  Some Members have previously expressed concerns that these provisions would harm innovation, and actually impede the incentives to generic manufacturers to bring cost-saving generic drugs on the market.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $11 billion.

Follow-on Biologics:  Reduces to seven years the period of exclusivity for follow-on biologics.  Current law provides for a twelve-year period of exclusivity, based upon an amendment to the health care law that was adopted on a bipartisan basis in both the House and Senate (one of the few substantive bipartisan amendments adopted).  Some Members have expressed concern that reducing the period of exclusivity would harm innovation and discourage companies from developing life-saving treatments.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $3.8 billion.

FEHB Contracting:  Proposes streamlining pharmacy benefit contracting within the Federal Employee Health Benefits program, by centralizing pharmaceutical benefit contracting within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  Some individuals, noting that OPM is also empowered to create “multi-state plans” as part of the health care overhaul, may be concerned that these provisions could be part of a larger plan to make OPM the head of a de facto government-run health plan.  OMB scores this proposal as saving $1.7 billion.

Prevention “Slush Fund:”  Reduces spending by $4 billion on the Prevention and Public Health Fund created in the health care law.  Some Members have previously expressed concern that this fund would be used to fund projects like jungle gyms and bike paths, questionable priorities for the use of federal taxpayer dollars in a time of trillion-dollar deficits.

State Waivers:  Accelerates from 2017 to 2014 the date under which states can submit request for waivers of SOME of the health care law’s requirements to HHS.  While supposedly designed to increase flexibility, even liberal commentators have agreed that under the law’s state waiver programcritics of Obama’s proposal have a point: It wouldn’t allow to enact the sorts of health care reforms they would prefer” and thatconservatives can’t do any better – at least not under these rules.”  The proposal states that “the Administration is committed to the budget neutrality of these waivers;” however, the plan allocates $4 billion in new spending “to account for the possibility that CBO will estimate costs for this proposal.”

Implementation “Slush Fund:”  Proposes $400 million in new spending for HHS to implement the proposals listed above.

Health Provisions in House Payroll Tax Bill

As you know, the House introduced their payroll tax bill earlier today; text can be found here.  With regard to health care provisions, the bill provides for a two year Medicare physician payment update of 1 percent, costing just under $39 billion.  This spending is more than offset by spending reductions – including several included in the President’s deficit proposal, such as additional Medicare means-testing – meaning that the health care provisions collectively reduce the deficit by $32.9 billion.

A summary of the bill follows below; the full CBO score is online here.

 

Medicare Physician Payment:  Provides for a 1 percent update in reimbursement levels for 2012 and 2013.  Provides that these updates shall not be considered when calculating the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) reimbursement levels in 2014 and future years.  Costs $35 billion over five years and $38.9 billion over ten years.

Mandates three studies related to physician payments – an HHS study (due January 1, 2013) regarding bundled or episodic-based payments, a GAO report (due January 1, 2013) of private payer initiatives to promote quality and efficiency, and a MedPAC report (due March 1, 2013) on aligning payment incentives between Medicare and private payers.  Commits the committees of jurisdiction to spend the balance of the 112th Congress reviewing options, with an eye toward replacing the SGR mechanism.

Medicare “Extenders:”  Extends for one year increases in ground and rural ambulance reimbursement rates scheduled to expire at year’s end.  Requires an updated GAO report and MedPAC study on ambulance reimbursement levels.  Costs $100 million over five and ten years.

Extends for two years the Medicare therapy caps exception process scheduled to expire at year’s end.  Inserts a new requirement that claims processed under the exception process include an appropriate modifier indicating the claims are medically necessary as justified by medical records documentation.  Beginning in July 2012, subjects claims over $3,700 to a manual medical review process; the $3,700 threshold for review shall apply separately to physical therapy services (including speech-language pathology services) and occupational services.  Requires a report from MedPAC on the therapy benefit, data from HHS on the therapy payment system, and a study from GAO on the manual review process implementation.  Costs $700 million over five years, but saves $1.7 billion over ten.

Extends for one year the Medicare geographic floor for work scheduled to expire at year’s end.  Requires a MedPAC report by June 1, 2012 on work geographic adjustments.  Costs $500 million over five and ten years.

Extends for one year the Qualifying Individual program, which provides assistance to low-income seniors in paying Medicare premiums.  Costs $700 million over five and ten years.

Extends for one year Transitional Medical Assistance (TMA), which provides Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work.  Beginning in 2012, provides a process for terminating TMA benefits if a family’s income over a three-month period exceeds 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($41,347 for a family of four in 2011).  Costs $1.2 billion over five and ten years.

Physician-Owned Hospitals:  Modifies requirements on physician-owned hospitals included in last year’s health care law (PPACA, P.L. 111-148).  Permits hospitals under construction as of the date of enactment of PPACA to retain physician ownership; under current law, only those facilities that actually had a Medicare provider agreement in place as of the date of PPACA’s enactment may retain physician ownership.  Removes several restrictions currently in effect that limit the number of physician-owned facilities that may expand.  Costs $100 million over five years, and $300 million over ten; background information on CBO’s scoring practices with respect to physician-owned hospitals can be found here.

Health Insurance Subsidy Recapture:  Modifies the repayment levels for insurance subsidies provided under PPACA.  Under the health law, new health insurance subsidies are based on an individual’s (or family’s) most recent tax return – so that subsidy levels beginning in January 2014 will be based on reported income for 2012.  However, a family’s circumstances can change significantly during this time lag for a variety of reasons – a change in job, significant raise, divorce, birth, or death, to name just a few.

PPACA established a reconciliation process intended to recapture any subsidy over-payments – but the law capped the amount of such repayments at $250 for individuals and $400 for families for all families with incomes under 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL, $89,400 for a family of four); above 400% FPL, no limits applied.  Both the “doc fix” that passed in December 2010 (P.L. 111-309), and the 1099 repeal bill enacted earlier this year (P.L. 112-9), modified these levels; the House proposal would modify those levels still further.  The below spreadsheet shows the maximum repayment amounts (for individuals and families) under the original law, the current law (as modified), and the proposed changes:

Percentage of Poverty PPACA as Enacted December 2010 “Doc Fix”           (P.L. 111-309) Current Law (P.L. 112-9) House Proposal
Under 100% FPL $250/$400 $300/$600 $300/$600 $300/$600
100-150% FPL $250/$400 $300/$600 $300/$600 $400/$800
150-200% FPL $250/$400 $300/$600 $300/$600 $500/$1,000
200-250% FPL $250/$400 $500/$1,000 $750/$1,500 $750/$1,500
250-300% FPL $250/$400 $750/$1,500 $750/$1,500 $1,100/$2,200
300-350% FPL $250/$400 $1,000/$2,000 $1,250/$2,500 $1,250/$2,500
350-400% FPL $250/$400 $1,250/$2,500 $1,250/$2,500 $1,600/$3,200
400-450% FPL* Full subsidy $1,500/$3,000 Full subsidy Full subsidy
450-500% FPL* Full subsidy $1,750/$3,500 Full subsidy Full subsidy
Above 500% FPL* Full subsidy Full subsidy Full subsidy Full subsidy

(*While subsidies are only available to individuals and families with incomes below 400% FPL, the recapture penalties would apply to individuals who received subsidies, yet were not eligible for ANY subsidies based on their income.)

Saves $2.8 billion over five years, and $13.6 billion over ten (including both outlay and revenue effects).

Democrat claims notwithstanding, many may argue that the subsidy recapture provision does NOT represent a tax increase, on the grounds that individuals will be repaying a subsidy they received in error.  In addition, most of the subsidies provided under PPACA are refundable in nature, and some would argue that limiting refundable subsidies reduces government spending, rather than increasing taxes.  While some Democrats in the House have previously expressed concern about the higher repayment requirements, it is worth noting that last December’s increase in subsidy repayments passed the Senate by voice vote, and passed the House by the overwhelming margin of 409-2, with 243 House Democrats supporting what they later criticized as a “tax increase.”

Prevention “Slush Fund:”  Caps spending for the Prevention and Public Health Fund created in the health care law at $640 million annually, beginning in 2013.  Under current law, the Fund is granted $2 billion in mandatory appropriations for Fiscal Year 2015 and every year thereafter.  Some Members have previously expressed concern that this fund would be used to fund projects like jungle gyms and bike paths, questionable priorities for the use of federal taxpayer dollars in a time of trillion-dollar deficits.  Saves $2.5 billion over five years, and $8 billion over ten.

Hospital Outpatient Evaluation and Management:  Provides that, beginning in 2012, hospital facility fees for outpatient department evaluation and management services shall be paid at the facility practice rate associated with the physician fee schedule.  Saves $2.7 billion over five years, and $6.8 billion over ten.

Medicare Bad Debt:  Reduces bad debt payments to providers – for unpaid cost-sharing owed by beneficiaries – from 45 percent down to 25 percent over three years, beginning in 2013.  Applies changes to skilled nursing facilities and all other providers receiving payments for bad debt.  Differing versions of this proposal have previously been included in the President’s September deficit submission, and the Fiscal Commission’s final reportSaves $3 billion over five years, and $10.6 billion over ten.

Rebase Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital Payments:  In 2021, reallocates Medicaid DSH payments to hospitals treating low-income patients, based on states’ actual 2020 allotments (as amended and reduced by the health care law).  No budgetary impact in the first five years, but saves $4.1 billion over ten.

Additional Means Testing:  Increases means tested premiums under Parts B and D by 15%, beginning in 2017.  Freezes the income thresholds at which means testing applies until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to such premiums.  This proposal was previously included in the President’s September deficit submissionNo budgetary impact in the first five years, but saves $31 billion over ten.

The President’s Shrinking Entitlement Savings

The President’s deficit proposal released this morning claims to achieve $320 billion in deficit savings.  As we’ve previously noted, given the size of our entitlement programs, that’s a comparatively insignificant amount – barely enough to finance a long-term “doc fix,” let alone make Medicare and Medicaid solvent for the long term.  But what’s interesting is how the size of the health care savings put forward by the President has actually SHRUNK over time.  The White House’s April “deficit framework” (i.e., a speech) claimed to achieve $340 billion in savings – $20 billion MORE than this morning’s proposal.

So what exactly prompted the President to LOWER his sights for entitlement savings over the last five months?  Was it the unprecedented downgrade of America’s debt rating?  The stock market swoon that quickly followed?  The chaos in Europe as that continent struggles to achieve fiscal discipline and avert a sovereign default crisis?  Or was it the event that happens on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November every fourth year?  You be the judge…

All that said, a detailed summary of the President’s (new) proposal follows below.  Keep in mind that Administration/OMB estimates may vary significantly from CBO scores, so remember that your budgetary mileage may vary.  (All scores are over a ten-year period unless otherwise indicated.)

 

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $248 Billion)

Bad Debts:  Reduces bad debt payments to providers – for unpaid cost-sharing owed by beneficiaries – from 70 percent down to 25 percent over three years, beginning in 2013.  The Fiscal Commission had made similar recommendations in its final report.  Saves $20.2 billion.

Medical Education Payments:  Reduces the Indirect Medical Education adjustment paid to teaching hospitals by 10 percent beginning in 2013, saving $9.1 billion.  Previous studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) have indicated that IME payments to teaching hospitals may be greater than the actual costs the hospitals incur.

Rural Payments:  Ends add-on payments for providers in frontier states, saving $2.1 billion.  Reduces critical access hospital payments from 101% of costs to 100% of costs, saving $1 billion, and prohibits hospitals fewer than 10 miles away from the nearest hospital from receiving a critical access hospital designation, saving $3 billion.

Post-Acute Care:  Reduces various acute-care payment updates (details not specified) during the years 2014 through 2021, saving $32.5 billion.  Equalizes payment rates between skilled nursing facilities and inpatient rehabilitation facilities, saving $4.5 billion.  Increases the minimum percentage of inpatient rehabilitation facility patients that require intensive rehabilitation from 60 percent to 75 percent, saving $2.6 billion.  Reduces skilled nursing facility payments by up to 3%, beginning in 2015, for preventable readmissions, saving $2 billion.

Pharmaceutical Price Controls:  Expands Medicaid price controls to dual eligible and low-income subsidy beneficiaries participating in Part D, saving $135 billion according to OMB.  However, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s March 2011 Budget Options (Option 25), this proposal would generate smaller savings ($112 billion).  Some have expressed concerns that further expanding government-imposed price controls to prescription drugs could harm innovation and the release of new therapies that could help cure diseases.

MA Repayment Provisions:  Recovers payments to insurers participating in the Medicare Advantage (MA) program.  MA plans are currently paid on a prospective basis, with those payments adjusted according to the severity of beneficiaries’ ill health.  Some sample audits have discovered instances where plans could not retrospectively produce the necessary documentation to warrant the prospective coding adjustment that some beneficiaries received.  The deficit plan would apply this adjustment, currently contemplated for some beneficiaries based on the sample audit, to ALL beneficiaries.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $2.3 billion; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $6.2 billion.

Anti-Fraud Provisions:  Assumes $600 million in savings from various anti-fraud provisions, including limiting the discharge of debt in bankruptcy proceedings associated with fraudulent activities.

EHR Penalties:  Re-directs Medicare reimbursement penalties against physicians who do not engage in electronic prescribing beginning in 2020 back into the Medicare program.  The “stimulus” legislation that enacted the health IT provisions had originally required that penalties to providers be placed into the Medicare Improvement Fund; the budget would instead re-direct those revenues into the general fund, to finance the “doc fix” and related provisions.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $500 million; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $3.2 billion.

Imaging:  Reduces imaging payments by assuming a higher level of utilization for certain types of equipment, saving $400 million.  Also imposes prior authorization requirements for advanced imaging, saving $900 million.

Additional Means Testing:  Increases means tested premiums under Parts B and D by 15%, beginning in 2017.  Freezes the income thresholds at which means testing applies until 25 percent of beneficiaries are subject to such premiums.  Saves $20 billion over ten years, and presumably more thereafter, as additional seniors would hit the means testing threshold, subject them to higher premiums.

Medicare Deductible Increase:  Increases Medicare Part B deductible by $25 in 2017, 2019, and 2021 – but for new beneficiaries only; “current beneficiaries or near retirees [not defined] would not be subject to the revised deductible.”  Saves $1 billion.

Home Health Co-Payment:  Introduces a home health co-payment of $100 per episode for new beneficiaries only, in cases where an episode lasts five or more visits and is NOT proceeded by a hospital stay.  MedPAC has previously recommended introducing home health co-payments as a way to ensure appropriate utilization.  Saves $400 million.

Medigap Surcharge:  Imposes a Part B premium surcharge equal to about 15 percent of the average Medigap premium – or about 30 percent of the Part B premium – for seniors with Medigap supplemental insurance that provides first dollar coverage.  Applies beginning in 2017 to new beneficiaries only.  A study commissioned by MedPAC previously concluded that first dollar Medigap coverage induces beneficiaries to consume more medical services, thus increasing costs for the Medicare program and federal taxpayers.  Saves $2.5 billion.

Lower Caps on Medicare Spending:  Section 3403 of the health care law established an Independent Payment Advisory Board tasked with limiting Medicare spending to the growth of the economy plus one percentage point (GDP+1) in 2018 and succeeding years.  The White House proposal would reduce this target to GDP+0.5 percent.  This approach has two potential problems:

  • First, under the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent baseline, IPAB recommendations would not be triggered at all – so it’s unclear whether the new, lower target level would actually generate measurable budgetary savings.  (In August 2010, CBO concluded an IPAB with an overall cap of GDP+1 would yield $13.8 billion in savings through 2020 – not enough to make a measurable impact on a program spending $500 billion per year.)
  • Second, the Medicare actuary has previously written that the spending adjustments contemplated by IPAB and the health care law “are unlikely to be sustainable on a permanent annual basis” and “very challenging” – problems that would be exacerbated by utilizing a slower target rate for Medicare spending growth.

According to the Administration document, this proposal would NOT achieve additional deficit savings.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $72 Billion)

Medicaid Provider Taxes:  Reduces limits on Medicaid provider tax thresholds, beginning in 2015; the tax threshold would be reduced over a three year period, to 3.5 percent in 2017 and future years.  State provider taxes are a financing method whereby states impose taxes on medical providers, and use these provider tax revenues to obtain additional federal Medicaid matching funds, thereby increasing the federal share of Medicaid expenses paid while decreasing the state share of expenses.  The Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006, enacted by a Republican Congress, capped the level of Medicaid provider taxes, and the Bush Administration proposed additional rules to reform Medicaid funding rules – rules that were blocked by the Democrat-run 110th Congress.  However, there is bipartisan support for addressing ways in which states attempt to “game” the Medicaid system, through provider taxes and other related methods, to obtain unwarranted federal matching funds – the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities previously wrote about a series of “Rube Goldberg-like accounting arrangements” that “do not improve the quality of health care provided” and “frequently operate in a manner that siphons extra federal money to state coffers without affecting the provision of health care.”  This issue was also addressed in the fiscal commission’s report, although the commission exceeded the budget proposals by suggesting that Congress enact legislation “restricting and eventually eliminating” provider taxes, saving $44 billion.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $26.3 billion; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $18.4 billion.

Blended Rate:  Proposes “replac[ing]…complicated federal matching formulas” in Medicaid “with a single matching rate specific to each state that automatically increases if a recession forces enrollment and state costs to rise.”  Details are unclear, but the Administration claims $14.9 billion in savings from this proposal – much less than the $100 billion figure bandied about in previous reports this summer.  It is also worth noting that the proposal could actually INCREASE the deficit, if a prolonged recession triggers the automatic increases in the federal Medicaid match referenced in the proposal.  On a related note, the deficit plan once again ignored the governors’ multiple requests for flexibility from the mandates included in the health care law – unfunded mandates on states totaling at least $118 billion.

Limit Durable Medical Equipment Reimbursement:  Caps Medicaid reimbursements for durable medical equipment (DME) at Medicare rates, beginning in 2013.  The health care law extended and expanded a previous Medicare competitive bidding demonstration project included in the Medicare Modernization Act, resulting in savings to the Medicare program.  This proposal, by capping Medicaid reimbursements for DME at Medicare levels, would attempt to extend those savings to the Medicaid program.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $4.2 billion; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $6.4 billion.

Third Party Liability:  Removes exceptions to the requirement that Medicaid must reject payments when another party is liable for a medical claim, saving $1.3 billion.

Rebase Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital Payments:  In 2021, reallocates Medicaid DSH payments to hospitals treating low-income patients, based on states’ actual 2020 allotments (as amended and reduced by the health care law).  Saves $4.1 billion.

Medicaid Anti-Fraud Savings:  Assumes $110 million in savings from a variety of Medicaid anti-fraud provisions, largely through tracking and enforcement of various provisions related to pharmaceuticals.

Amend MAGI Definition:  Amends the health care law to include Social Security benefits in the new definition of Modified Adjusted Gross Income used to determine eligibility for Medicaid benefits.  As previously reported, this “glitch” in the law would make millions of early retirees – who receive a large portion of their income from Social Security – eligible for free taxpayer-funded benefits, and would discourage work by providing greater subsidies to those relying on Social Security, as opposed to wage earnings, for their income.  Saves $14.6 billion.

Flexibility on Benchmark Plans:  Proposes some new flexibility for states to require Medicaid “benchmark” plan coverage for non-elderly, non-disabled adults – but ONLY those with incomes above 133 percent of the federal poverty level (i.e., NOT the new Medicaid population obtaining coverage under the health care law).  No savings assumed.

“Pay-for-Delay:”  Prohibits brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturers from entering into arrangements that would delay the availability of new generic drugs.  Some Members have previously expressed concerns that these provisions would harm innovation, and actually impede the incentives to generic manufacturers to bring cost-saving generic drugs on the market.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $2.7 billion; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $8.8 billion.

Follow-on Biologics:  Reduces to seven years the period of exclusivity for follow-on biologics.  Current law provides for a twelve-year period of exclusivity, based upon an amendment to the health care law that was adopted on a bipartisan basis in both the House and Senate (one of the few substantive bipartisan amendments adopted).  Some Members have expressed concern that reducing the period of exclusivity would harm innovation and discourage companies from developing life-saving treatments.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $3.5 billion; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $2.3 billion.

FEHB Contracting:  Proposes streamlining pharmacy benefit contracting within the Federal Employee Health Benefits program, by centralizing pharmaceutical benefit contracting within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  Some individuals, noting that OPM is also empowered to create “multi-state plans” as part of the health care overhaul, may be concerned that these provisions could be part of a larger plan to make OPM the head of a de facto government-run health plan.  OMB now scores this proposal as saving $1.6 billion; when included in the President’s budget back in February, these changes were scored as saving $1.8 billion.

Prevention “Slush Fund:”  Reduces spending by $3.5 billion on the Prevention and Public Health Fund created in the health care law.  Some Members have previously expressed concern that this fund would be used to fund projects like jungle gyms and bike paths, questionable priorities for the use of federal taxpayer dollars in a time of trillion-dollar deficits.

State Waivers:  Accelerates from 2017 to 2014 the date under which states can submit request for waivers of SOME of the health care law’s requirements to HHS.  While supposedly designed to increase flexibility, even liberal commentators have agreed that under the law’s state waiver programcritics of Obama’s proposal have a point: It wouldn’t allow to enact the sorts of health care reforms they would prefer” and thatconservatives can’t do any better – at least not under these rules.”  The proposal states that “the Administration is committed to the budget neutrality of these waivers;” however, the plan allocates $4 billion in new spending “to account for the possibility that CBO will estimate costs for this proposal.”

Implementation “Slush Fund:”  Proposes $400 million in new spending for HHS to implement the proposals listed above.

Questions for Secretary Sebelius on IPAB

Today begins a double-header of IPAB-related hearings in the House; Secretary Sebelius will be testifying before the House Budget Committee this morning, and before the Energy and Commerce Committee tomorrow morning.  In advance of these hearings, we’ve prepared a list of possible questions surrounding IPAB – Obamacare’s board of unelected bureaucrats – that the Secretary’s testimony may help resolve:

Fiscal Impact

  1. Both the Congressional Budget Office and the Medicare trustees agree that the Medicare program is running permanent deficits and will never come into balance absent reform.  Given this dire fiscal situation, exactly how long will IPAB extend the solvency of the Medicare program?

Transparency

  1. You recently wrote in a Politico op-ed that “contrary to critics’ contentions, the board’s work will be transparent, independent, and accountable to Congress and the President.”  Where in the statute is the requirement that IPAB’s bureaucrats conduct a public process, and solicit public comment, prior to issuing its recommendations?  Put another way, is there anything prohibiting IPAB members from negotiating backroom deals regarding their recommendations, similar to the “rock-solid deal” the Administration struck behind closed doors with Big Pharma?
  2. In May the Administration proposed requiring state Medicaid programs to obtain public comments before reducing provider reimbursement levels.  Why is the Obama Administration imposing public comment requirements on state Medicaid programs, but not imposing a similar requirement on its controversial IPAB?

Membership

  1. Your Politico op-ed notes that “economists” will comprise some of the “health experts” appointed to IPAB.  Why do you believe economists are qualified to pass judgment on health care treatments?
  2. According to the statute, a majority of IPAB members must not be “individuals who are directly involved in the provision” of health care services.  Do you believe it’s appropriate that a majority of IPAB’s members must be bureaucrats rather than doctors and nurses who treat patients firsthand?
  3. Why hasn’t the President nominated his appointees to IPAB yet?  The statute gives the board $15 million in mandatory funding, beginning in October.  If the President believes IPAB is such a good thing, why hasn’t he nominated members promptly, so the board can be up and running in short order?

Rationing

  1. You have claimed that IPAB “is expressly prohibited from making recommendations that ration care.”  Where exactly in the statute is the term “rationing” defined?
  2. Where in the statute is there a prohibition on IPAB making recommendations that could reduce access to breast cancer treatments – say, mammograms?  What about diabetes treatment and prostate cancer screenings – are there any provisions in the law that explicitly state IPAB cannot reduce access to those treatments?
  3. Last week the New York Times editorial board wrote that “A prime driver of our escalating health care costs is the advance of medical technology and the understandable desire of patients and doctors to adopt the latest treatment.  Sooner or later, as the nation struggles to contain health care spending, we may need to devise measures to determine whether very high-priced drugs provide enough medical benefit to warrant paying the bill.”  Do you agree?

Judicial Review

  1. If someone believes that IPAB has in fact rationed care, what redress does that person have to challenge the board’s decisions, seeing as how the board’s recommendations are exempt from judicial or administrative review?
  2. For nine years you served as Executive Director of the Kansas Association of Trial Lawyers, whose mission statement is “to uphold and advocate for the right of the individual for redress of grievances and access to the courts.”  How is your support for IPAB – which blocks access to the courts for any beneficiaries harmed by the board’s recommendations – consistent with the mission statement of the organization you headed for nearly a decade?
  3. In 2009 President Obama stated that he was “not advocating caps on malpractice awards…which I personally believe can be unfair to people who’ve been wrongfully harmed.”  If that’s still the President’s position, why does IPAB cap damages for people wrongfully harmed at ZERO – by never allowing them to file legal action at all?
  4. If the IPAB will not harm seniors and Medicare beneficiaries, why does the statute prohibit lawsuits against its recommendations in the first place?
  5. Would the Administration support repealing the provision prohibiting judicial review of IPAB’s recommendations?  Why or why not?

Other “Expert” Recommendations

  1. Your Administration has defended the IPAB on the grounds that independent experts should be called upon to make recommendations “to help Medicare provide better care at lower costs.”  The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission – a panel of experts similar to IPAB – recently came out in support of requiring co-pays for home health visits, on the grounds that a modest co-pay would encourage appropriate use of home health care.  Does the Administration agree with the recommendations of the MedPAC “experts?”
  2. Likewise, the President’s own Fiscal Commission supported restructuring Medigap insurance to “constrain over-utilization and reduce overall spending.”  Does the Administration agree with this recommendation of the “expert” panel the President himself appointed?

Broader Applicability

  1. Do you believe Members of Congress should follow, and/or be subject to, IPAB’s recommendations?  Will you do so yourself?
  2. Do you believe IPAB supporters who claim to support “experts” making health care choices should use their own independent resources to buy out of a rationing regime if IPAB restricts access to needed services and treatments?
  3. Does the Administration plan on running ads featuring Andy Griffith informing Medicare beneficiaries that their health care will be determined in part on the recommendations of a board of unelected bureaucrats?  If not, why not?

House Republican Budget

  1. You recently received Three Pinocchios from the Washington Post for making “outrageous” assertions and “ present[ing] a highly inflammable comment as a statement of fact” about the House-passed budget, comments for which the Post said you “should be ashamed.”  Do you agree with the Post’s characterization of your allegation that “there’s no question” patients would “die sooner” under the House-passed budget?  If not, why not?  Do you still stand by your original comments?
  2. You’ve previously testified before Congress that you have in fact read all of Obamacare.  Therefore, can you please explain the language on page 111 of the statute regarding the inflation adjustment mechanism for Obamacare premium subsidies in the years after 2018, and explain how exactly this inflation adjustment mechanism differs from the inflation adjustment mechanism for Medicare premium support payments included in the House-passed budget, which you said would cause seniors to “die sooner?”