Three Reasons You Won’t Keep Your Doctor Under Single Payer

Over Fourth of July week, liberal activists took solace in the results of a poll that they said demonstrates the popularity of a single-payer health system. The survey showed diminished support for a “‘Medicare for All’ [system] if it diminished the role of private insurers.” However, support rose by nearly ten points if pollsters described single payer as a system that “diminished the role of private insurers but allowed you to keep your preferred doctor and hospital.”

Staff for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) claimed the survey showed single payer “is wildly popular when you tell people what it would actually do.” That claim misses the mark on several levels. First, most individuals wouldn’t consider a 55 percent approval rating—the level of support for a single-payer plan that allows patients to keep their doctors—as evidence of a “wildly popular,” as opposed to mildly popular, policy.

More fundamentally, though, single payer has precious little to do with keeping one’s doctor. For at least three reasons, many patients will lose access to their preferred physicians and hospitals under a single-payer system.

‘Free Care’ Means People Will Demand More

Second, the Sanders legislation would virtually eliminate medical cost-sharing—deductibles, co-payments, and the like. As a result, individuals who currently have health insurance would use more care once it becomes “free.”

In their analysis of single-payer legislation, both the Rand Corporation and the liberal Urban Institute have estimated that induced demand would result in capacity constraints for health care supply. In other words, so many more people would clamor for “free” care that the system would not have enough doctors or facilities to treat them.

More Work, Less Pay

As I noted last year, single-payer supporters operate under the fanciful premise that doctors and hospitals will perform more procedures for less money. Nearly three-quarters of hospitals already lose money on their Medicare patients—and single payer would extend those Medicare reimbursement rates to all patients nationwide. A study earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that a single-payer system linked to Medicare payment levels would reduce hospitals’ revenue by $151 billion annually.

More Soul-Crushing Regulations

The federal government has already caused physicians countless hours of paperwork and grief. Thanks to requirements regarding electronic health records introduced in President Obama’s “stimulus,” an emergency room physician makes an average of 4,000 clicks in one shift. Rather than practicing their craft and healing patients, physicians have become button-clicking automatons, forced to respond to Washington’s every whim and demand.

The combination of more work, less pay, and added government intrusion under single payer could cause many physicians to leave the profession. For instance, the electronic records requirements caused my mother’s longtime physician to retire—he didn’t want to spend all his time staring at a computer screen (and who can blame him).

Some physicians could instead eschew the single-payer route, offering their services on a cash basis to wealthy patients who can afford to opt-out of the government system (provided the government will permit them to do so). Still other individuals may make alternative career plans, abandoning medicine even before they begin their formal training.

Here’s hoping that the American people never get an opportunity to discover the fanciful nature of Sanders’s promise that you can keep your doctor and hospital under single payer.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Inside the Federal Government’s Health IT Fiasco

Recent surveys of doctors show a sharp rise in frustrated physicians. One study last year analyzed a nearly 10 percentage point increase in burnout from 2011 to 2014, and laid much of the blame for the increase on a single culprit: Electronic health records. Physicians now spend more time staring at computer screens than connecting with patients, and find the drudgery soul-crushing.

What prompted the rise in screen fatigue and physician burnout? Why, government, of course. A recent Fortune magazine expose, titled “Death by 1,000 Clicks,” analyzed the history behind federal involvement in electronic records. The article reveals how electronic health records not only have not met their promise, but have led to numerous unintended and harmful consequences for American’s physicians, and the whole health care market.

Electronic Bridge to Nowhere

The Fortune story details all the ways health information technology doesn’t work:

  • Error-prone and glitch-laden systems;
  • Impromptu work-arounds created by individual physicians and hospitals make it tough to compare systems to each other;
  • An inability for one hospital’s system to interact with another’s—let alone deliver data and records directly to patients; and
  • A morass of information, presented in a non-user-friendly format, that users cannot easily access—potentially increasing errors.

The data behind the EHR debacle illustrate the problem vividly. Physicians spend nearly six hours per day on EHRs, compared to just over five hours of direct time with patients. A study concluding that emergency room physicians average 4,000 mouse clicks per shift, a number that virtually guarantees doctors will make data errors. Thousands of documented medication errors caused by EHRs, and at least one hundred deaths (likely more) from “alert fatigue” caused by electronic systems’ constant warnings.

Other anecdotes prove almost absurdly hysterical. The EHR that presents emergency room physicians 86 separate options to order Tylenol. The parody Twitter account that plays an EHR come to life: “I once saw a doctor make eye contact with a patient. This horror must stop.” The EHR system that warns physicians ordering painkillers for female patients about the dangers of prescribing ibuprofen to women while pregnant—even if the patient is 80 years old.

What caused all this chaos in the American health care market? One doctor explained his theory: “I have an iPhone and a computer and they work the way they’re supposed to work, and then we’re given these incredibly cumbersome and error-prone tools. This is something the government mandated” (emphasis added). Therein lies the problem.

Obama’s ‘Stimulus’ Spending Spree

In June 2011, when talking about infrastructure projects included in the 2009 “stimulus” legislation, President Obama famously admitted that “shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected.” Electronic health records, another concept included in the “stimulus,” ran into a very similar problem. Farzad Mostashari, who worked on health IT for the Obama administration from 2009-11, admitted to Fortune that creating a useful national records system was “utterly infeasible to get to in a short time frame.”

At the time, however, the Obama administration billeted electronic health records as the “magic bullet” that would practically eliminate medical errors, while also reducing health costs. Every government agency had its own “wish list” of things to include in EHR systems. Mostashari admitted this dynamic led to the typical bureaucratic problem of trying to do too much, too fast: “We had all the right ideas that were discussed and hashed out by the committee, but they were all of the right ideas” (emphasis original).

Meanwhile, records vendors saw dollar signs, and leapt at the business opportunity. As Fortune notes, many systems weren’t ready for prime time, but vendors didn’t focus on solving those types of inconsequential details:

[The] vendor community, then a scrappy $2 billion industry, griped at the litany of requirements but stood to gain so much from the government’s $36 billion injection that it jumped in line. As Rusty Frantz, CEO of EHR vendor NextGen Healthcare, put it: ‘The industry was like, ‘I’ve got this check dangling in front of me, and I have to check these boxes to get there, and so I’m going to do that.’’

The end result: Hospitals and doctors spent billions of dollars—because the government paid them to do so, and threatened to reduce their Medicare and Medicaid payments if they didn’t—to buy records systems that didn’t work well. These providers then became stuck with the systems once they purchased them, because of the systems’ cost, and because providers could not easily switch from one system to another.

David Blumenthal, who served as national coordinator for health IT under Obama, summed up the debacle accurately when he admitted that electronic health records “have not fulfilled their potential. I think few would argue they have.”

Electronic health records therefore provide an illustrative cautionary tale in which a government-imposed scheme spends billions of dollars but fails to live up to its hype, and alienates physicians and providers in the process. When the same thing happens under Democrats’ next proposed big-government health scheme—whether single payer, or some “moderate compromise” that only takes away half of Americans’ existing health coverage—don’t say you weren’t warned.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Do Democrats Want Obamacare to Fail under Donald Trump?

In their quest to take back the House and Senate in November’s midterm elections, Democrats have received a bit of bad news. The Hill recently noted:

Health insurers are proposing relatively modest premium bumps for next year, despite doomsday predictions from Democrats that the Trump administration’s changes to Obamacare would bring massive increases in 2019. That could make it a challenge for Democrats looking to weaponize rising premiums heading into the midterm elections.

Administration officials confirmed the premium trend last Friday, when they indicated that proposed 2019 rates for the 38 states using healthcare.gov averaged a 5.4 percent increase—a number that may come down even further after review by state insurance commissioners. So much for that “sabotage.”

The messaging strategy once again illustrates the political peril of rooting for something—particularly legislation Democrats worked so hard to enact in the first place—to fail on someone else’s watch. Like officials accused of “talking down the economy” so they can benefit politically, Democrats face the unique task of trying to talk down their own creation, while blaming someone else for all its problems.

The Obamacare Exchanges’ Prolonged Malaise

While Obamacare hasn’t failed due to President Trump, it hasn’t succeeded much, either. Enrollment continues to fall, particularly for those who do not qualify for subsidies. Two years ago—long before Donald Trump had any power to “sabotage” Obamacare as president—Bill Clinton called Obamacare “the craziest thing in the world” for these unsubsidized persons, and their collective behavior demonstrates that fact.

A recent study from the liberal Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that, away from Obamacare exchanges, where individuals cannot receive insurance subsidies, enrollment fell by nearly 40 percent in just one year, from the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of this year. However, the rich subsidies provided to those who qualify for them—particularly those with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, who receive reduced cost-sharing as well—strongly encourage enrollment by this population, making it unlikely that the insurance exchanges will collapse on their own.

President Trump can talk all he wants about Obamacare imploding, but so long as the federal government props tens of billions of dollars into the exchanges, it probably won’t happen.

Good Reasons for Premium Moderation

Those premium subsidies, which cushion most low-income enrollees from the effects of premium increases, coupled with a lack of competition among insurers in large areas of the country, have allowed premiums to more-or-less stabilize, albeit at levels much of the unsubsidized population finds unaffordable. Think about it: If you have a monopoly, and a sizable population of individuals either desperate for coverage (i.e., the very sick) or heavily subsidized to buy your product, it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to break even, much less turn a profit.

As a recent Wall Street Journal article notes, insurers spent the past several years ratcheting up premiums, for a variety of reasons: A sicker pool of enrollees than they expected when the exchanges started in 2014; a recognition that some insurers’ initial strategy of underpricing products to attract market share backfired; and the end of Obamacare’s “transitional” reinsurance and risk corridor programs, which expired in 2016.

While some carriers have adjusted 2019 premiums upward to reflect the elimination of the individual mandate penalty beginning in January, some had already “baked in” lax enforcement of the mandate into their rates for 2018. Some have long called the mandate too weak and ineffective to have much effect on Americans’ decision to buy coverage.

It Could Have Been Worse?

Liberals have started to make the argument that, but for the Trump administration’s so-called “sabotage” of insurance markets, premiums would fall instead of rise in 2019. (Some insurers have proposed premium reductions regardless.) The Brookings Institution recently released a paper claiming that in a “stable policy environment” without repeal of the mandate, or the impending regulatory changes regarding short-term insurance and Association Health Plans, premiums would fall by an average of approximately 4.3 percent.

But as the saying goes, “‘It could have been worse’ isn’t a great political bumper sticker.” Democrats tried to make this point regarding the economic “stimulus” bill they passed in 2009, after the infamous chart claiming unemployment would remain below 8 percent if the “stimulus” passed didn’t quite turn out as promised:

In 2011, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) tried to make the “It could have been worse” argument, claiming that unemployment would have risen to 15 percent without the “stimulus”:

But even she acknowledged the futility of giving such a message to the millions of people still lacking jobs at that point (to say nothing of the minor detail that studies reinforcing Pelosi’s point didn’t exist).

There’s No Need for a Bailout

While the apparent moderation of premium increases complicates Democrats’ political message, it also undermines the Republicans who spent the early part of this year pressing for an Obamacare bailout. Apart from the awful policy message it would have sent by making Obamacare’s exchanges “too big to fail,” such a measure would have depressed turnout among demoralized grassroots conservatives who want Congress to repeal Obamacare.

As it happens, most state markets didn’t need a bailout. That’s a good thing on multiple levels, because a “stability” bill passed this year would have had little effect on 2019 premiums anyway.

That said, if Democrats want to make political arguments about premiums in this year’s elections, maybe they can tell the American people where they can find the $2,500 in annual premium reductions that Barack Obama repeatedly promised would come from his health care law. Given the decade that has passed since Obama first made those claims without any hint of them coming true, trying to answer for that broken promise should keep Democrats preoccupied well past November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Medicare’s Sustainable Growth Rate: Principles for Reform

A PDF of this Backgrounder can be found on the Heritage Foundation website.

Congress may soon revisit the issue of Medicare physician reimbursement payment. Much of the legislative discussion will focus on the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula. The SGR was enacted as part of the Balanced Budget Act in 1997 as a mechanism to update yearly Medicare physician reimbursements. Under that formula, the federal government computes an annual target for Medicare physician spending based in large part on annual changes in economic growth as measured by gross domestic product (GDP). Physician spending exceeding the growth in GDP in any given year will result in a proportional and automatic cut in Medicare physician reimbursement the following year.

In theory, the SGR was a major improvement over the volume control updates that Congress enacted in 1989. In practice, the SGR mandated deep and politically unacceptable cuts in future years’ Medicare payments. The reason: Physician spending routinely exceeded annual targets. It was quickly becoming clear that the SGR was unworkable. Since 2003, majorities in Congress have routinely blocked the fundamentally flawed SGR formula from going into effect because the applicable cuts would threaten seniors’ access to care. For 2014, the formula calls for a Medicare physician reimbursement cut of almost 25 percent. Not surprisingly, many policymakers have concluded that the SGR must be repealed or replaced.

A Chance for Real Reform. The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently released a revised discussion draft of legislation regarding physician payment,[1] on the heels of a statement of principles initially released by the House Ways and Means and the Energy and Commerce Committees in February.[2] Likewise, the chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee recently issued a request for “stakeholder” comment about the future of physician payment.[3]

While Congress’s immediate focus on the SGR is right and proper, it should not be shortsighted. The SGR is merely representative of a much larger problem: Medicare’s outdated system of administrative pricing, price controls, and inefficient central planning. This system both underpays and overpays doctors and other medical professionals, encourages cost shifting and gaming among providers, distorts the medical market, and undercuts the delivery of efficient and effective care. The overriding policy issue is whether Congress will view the SGR narrowly, as something to be “fixed”; or whether the debate can be the platform for a broader discussion of the need for a much better Medicare future, where administrative pricing is replaced by price competition, central planning is replaced by market-driven innovation, and the delivery of high-quality patient care is the product of the best professional judgment of members of the medical profession.

The ultimate policy objective, therefore, should be to transform Medicare into a defined-contribution (“premium support”) system, based on the free-market principles of consumer choice and competition—a system where medical services are priced through private negotiations between plans and providers, reflecting the true market conditions of supply and demand. In the meantime, as part of a transition to such a program, Medicare physician payment should be frozen at current levels for three to five years. Any additional costs to the taxpayer should be offset by savings from well-vetted reforms of the current program, plus a lifting of existing payment caps, a requirement for transparent pricing, and expanded options for doctors and patients.

A Crude and Clumsy Attempt to Break Spending

The SGR mechanism, as noted, links aggregate Medicare payment to changes in the general economy as measured by GDP. If spending exceeds the GDP target, the SGR adjusts physician reimbursements downward; if spending remains below target, the SGR increases physician reimbursements accordingly.[4]

By linking specific Medicare payments to the general performance of the economy, Congress established a fiscal target bearing little resemblance to the actual cost of medical goods and services. Other targets, such as the consumer price index (CPI) or the medical economic index, provide a clearer link to price inflation and general health cost growth. Moreover, the SGR’s explicit link to the size of the economy means that in economic downturns, the target—and thus physician reimbursement levels—will actually decline.

The fact that the SGR remains an aggregate spending target also presents a collective action problem for the Medicare program. Because the SGR targets physician spending as a whole, and not the spending patterns of individual physicians or physician practices, individual doctors have a strong incentive to maximize their own volume of services performed, and thus their own reimbursement levels.[5]

For all these reasons, Congress has consistently modified the SGR targets over the past decade. While the slowdown in health costs surrounding the move to managed care plans in the late 1990s prevented the SGR targets from being hit in the program’s first few years, spending soon exceeded the statutory targets. Although Congress allowed the SGR’s reimbursement cuts to take effect in 2002, in 2003 (and each year since) Congress overrode the statutory reductions with a series of freezes, or modest payment increases, in SGR target levels.[6]

The annual, albeit temporary, payment increases mandated by Congress since 2003 have resulted in a series of fiscal cliffs for physicians and the Medicare program. Because prior Congresses overrode the SGR targets only for short periods, doctors have faced the prospect of increasingly large reimbursement cuts should Congress not forestall the reimbursement cuts.[7] For instance, should Congress not act before January 1, 2014, the SGR will reset at its lower, statutory target, resulting in an immediate reduction in reimbursement levels of over 24 percent, with additional cuts in succeeding years.[8] According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), permanently freezing SGR target levels would cost $139.1 billion over 10 years[9]—a significant sum, but about half the $273.3 billion that the CBO estimated an SGR freeze would cost in July 2012.[10]

As a mechanism to contain costs, therefore, the SGR has fallen short. While physicians have received below-inflation updates in Medicare payment levels since 2003, evidence strongly suggests that doctors have compensated for these lower reimbursement levels by increasing the volume of services provided. According to data from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, while physician updates grew by less than 10 percent between 2000 and 2011, overall physician spending per beneficiary grew by more than 70 percent over the same period, largely because the volume of services provided to beneficiaries rose rapidly.[11]

However, as a mechanism to control overall spending on Medicare, the SGR has provided an impetus for re-examining spending priorities within other portions of the Medicare program. While generally ineffective at controlling physician spending, the annual SGR target has nonetheless forced Washington policymakers continually to re-examine overall Medicare spending, and encouraged continued debate on structural Medicare reform as well as generated intense discussion on incremental but meaningful reforms in the current program.

Members of Congress have generally insisted on paying for the annual “fixes” to the SGR, as such legislation would otherwise raise Medicare spending and increase the deficit. In 2009, the Senate considered legislation that would have permanently increased Medicare physician reimbursements without offsetting spending reductions.[12] When confronted with an unpaid “doc fix,” a bipartisan majority of 53 Senators rejected this legislation,[13] which would have increased federal deficits by $247 billion over 10 years,[14] and up to $1.9 trillion over 75 years.[15]

Over and above the basic principle that Congress should not increase Medicare spending at a time of record deficits, the SGR has provided a vehicle to enact modest reforms to the Medicare program on an annual basis. For instance, legislation addressing the “fiscal cliff” expanded Medicare competitive bidding to diabetes supplies, and enacted new anti-fraud measures, to help finance a one-year “doc fix” for 2013.[16]

When considering SGR legislation this year, Congress must balance the competing interests of the physician community and the Medicare program as a whole. While the SGR has not slowed cost growth, and the annual “doc fix” exercise has caused uncertainty for physicians, the Medicare program as a whole faces massive deficits—the Medicare trust fund lost $105.6 billion over the past five years, deficits that are expected to continue and accelerate as the baby-boom generation retires.[17] Simply repealing the SGR without fundamentally reforming Medicare would have significant unintended consequences for future taxpayers and beneficiaries alike.

More or Less Government Control Over Medical Practice?

Designing a replacement for the SGR formula brings with it many of its own problems. Proposals to replace the SGR with a system of reimbursing doctors based on quality measures—“pay for performance,” for example —will necessitate an even stronger role for the Medicare bureaucracy in dictating physician behaviors than the current flawed system.

Well before the creation of the SGR mechanism for updating reimbursement, Medicare physician payment has, over the past 25 years, been defined by the heavy hand of bureaucratic micromanagement. In 1989, Congress enacted a resource-based relative value system (RBRVS) for determining physician payments, which focused on determining the “right” payment for a particular service by calculating the cost of performing that service when compared to other services.[18]

Based on a “social science” measurement, the RBRVS attempted to quantify the “value units” of providing medical services, such as the time, energy, and effort that goes into providing a medical service, adjusted by geographic costs and malpractice expenses. A patient with a simple ear infection would require different amounts of a physician’s time than a patient with chronic heart failure, for example, and the RBRVS intended to compensate doctors “fairly” for each service. Organized medicine, particularly the American Medical Association, initially endorsed the new fee schedule as a way of redistributing income from high-priced specialists to lower-paid general practitioners.

In theory, the RBRVS was widely hailed by its proponents as a “scientific” answer to the perennial problem of physician payment.[19] In practice, the result has been a highly politicized process of rent-seeking, as lobbyists of different provider groups feverishly scrambled to secure higher reimbursements through the political process. However well-intentioned, the past quarter century has demonstrated the failure of the RBRVS as an accurate method of compensating physicians who participate in Medicare. Even as the federal government attempts to find the “right” price of every physician service, it has seemingly failed to remember the value of any of them. Unsurprisingly, the creation of more than 7,000 separate procedure codes has not ensured that nearly 850,000 Medicare providers are being compensated fairly for their services.[20] Indeed, the RBRVS has failed in one of its central goals: Created 25 years ago to help increase the relative value of allegedly underpriced primary care services, the RBRVS system has only exacerbated price disparities between primary and specialist care.[21]

In the aftermath of this failure, some in Congress have proposed a new system no less audacious—and no less reliant on the hand of government. Instead of the RBRVS method of pricing services partially based on the archaic labor theory of value—that compensation for physician services should be determined by the amount of time and resources put into the work—the new proposals attempt to quantify the “value” to patients of a particular service by measuring its “effectiveness.”

Pay for Performance or Compliance? Generally speaking, the new theory of pay-for-performance medicine attempts to determine physicians’ “value” and thus reimbursement through compliance with, and performance on, a series of metrics and guidelines determined by federal bureaucrats, medical societies, or a combination of the two. For instance, the House’s discussion draft discusses an “update incentive program” under which the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) would be required to publish a “competency measure set” of quality measures, and then “develop and apply…appropriate methodologies for assessing the performance of fee schedule providers” on those measures.[22]

The language in the House discussion draft—linking Medicare physician pay to compliance with government-established guidelines—accelerates a troubling trend reinforced by Obamacare itself. The national health care law, with 165 provisions affecting Medicare,[23] not only retains the SGR, but, like the SGR, it also imposes a hard cap on the growth of all Medicare spending. It creates an Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which will have the power to enforce the cap, and recommend even more Medicare reimbursement cuts for physicians and other medical professionals. It creates new institutions to change Medicare payment and delivery through administrative action, such as the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, with demonstration programs designed to end traditional fee-for-service (FFS) payments. Beyond these new institutions, the health law creates new Medicare “quality” programs and extends the Physician Quality Reporting Initiative (PQRI), which will enforce new bonus and penalty payments for physician compliance. As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported in its first evaluation of the statute, the new law “makes several changes to the Medicare program that have the potential to affect physicians and how they practice in ways both small and large, immediately and over time.”[24]

For example, Obamacare mandates a 2 percent reduction in Medicare physician payments for doctors that do “not satisfactorily submit data” to Washington officials,[25] and a 1 percent reduction for physicians who fail to follow bureaucrat-defined “cost” metrics.[26] In separate legislation also signed by President Obama, the Administration received the authority to reduce payments to physicians by a further 3 percent if they do not follow Washington-imposed guidelines for electronic health records.[27]

To their credit, the authors of the House discussion draft emphasize the role of medical specialty societies in determining quality metrics, thereby hoping to assuage concerns about federal bureaucrats’ direct involvement in the practice of medicine. This does not, however, solve the fundamental problem. The entire premise of a Medicare pay-for-performance regime—which is really a payment for compliance—directly contradicts the opening verbiage of the original Medicare statute:

Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize any federal officer or employee to exercise any supervision or control over the practice of medicine or the manner in which medical services are provided, or over the selection, tenure, or compensation of any officer or employee of any institution, agency, or person providing health services; or to exercise any supervision or control over the administration or operation of any such institution, agency, or person.[28]

The threshold question is this: Should government officials “exercise any supervision or control” over the practice of medicine? It matters not whether some physicians choose to comply with Washington’s mandates on their practices, or whether some leaders of some specialty societies see value in serving as arbiters of some new Medicare pay-for-performance structure. Under the original Medicare statute, all physicians should have the freedom to practice medicine using their own professional judgment in treating a patient, without meddling—whether in the form of new federal mandates, “quality” metrics, or other bureaucratic criteria—from either the federal government or its intermediaries.

The flaws in Medicare’s pay-for-performance approach have been well defined elsewhere.[29] The myriad regulations and mandates that such criteria spawn interfere in the practice of medicine, placing an invisible barrier amid the already attenuated relationship between doctor and patient. Worse, the one-size-fits-all methodologies imposed by Washington-enforced mandates directly contradict the great promise of the growing movement toward personalized medicine.[30]

Despite its inherent flaws, a bureaucracy-driven compliance regime remains a shibboleth of leftist health policy analysts who believe that a new system of federal micromanagement can fix the flaws of the old one. Former Senator Tom Daschle (D–SD), President Obama’s first choice for Secretary of HHS, wrote in 2008 that government interference in medical care was not the problem, it was the solution:

We won’t be able to make a significant dent in health-care spending without getting into the nitty-gritty of which treatments are the most clinically valuable and cost effective. That means taking a harder look at the real costs and benefits of new drugs and procedures.[31]

Obamacare epitomizes this governing philosophy of administrative control, giving the Secretary almost 2,000 separate orders with which to micromanage the health care system.[32] Members of Congress who rightly criticized Obamacare for granting the Secretary nearly unprecedented discretionary authority over the financing and delivery of medical care should be greatly concerned with enacting SGR replacement legislation that would further expand the Secretary’s control.[33]

Principles for Congressional Action

As it has since 2003, Congress likely will consider legislation later this year addressing the deep cut mandated by the SGR formula. Absent changes in current law, a cut of nearly 25 percent will take effect on January 1, 2014.

Based on the proposals released to date, leaders on key committees intend to use this year’s legislation to construct a permanent replacement for the SGR, with a new reimbursement model heavily focused on quality metrics. The goal of securing a higher quality of services for taxpayer dollars is clearly laudable. But Congress should remain mindful of the consequences of additional intrusion in the doctor–patient relationship, and of the fact that the SGR constitutes merely one piece of a larger entitlement structure in need of fundamental reform.

When considering Medicare physician payment legislation, Congress should:

  • Reject any provisions that micromanage the doctor–patient relationship. Whether under the name of pay-for-performance, clinical guidelines, or quality metrics, programs emphasizing physician compliance with government-imposed standards are inconsistent with the original intent of the Medicare statute, which safeguards the professional independence and integrity of the medical profession and sacrosanct character of the doctor–patient relationship. Placing additional authority in the hands of government bureaucrats to dictate the practice of physicians undermines these principles as well as patient trust.
  • Restore balance billing and the right to private contracting. Consistent with a return to free-market principles, Congress should remove the current statutory prohibitions on balance billing—when doctors bill patients for the part of the health-service charge not reimbursed by Medicare—while also repealing the oppressive restriction that prohibits doctors who engage in any transactions with beneficiaries outside Medicare’s parameters from receiving Medicare reimbursements for two years.[34] Keeping the heavy hand of government out of the doctor–patient relationship requires removing regulatory restrictions that prevent senior citizens from engaging physicians on financial terms that both find fair and advantageous. When coupled with transparency guidelines ensuring that seniors clearly understand the prices and the terms of these contractual arrangements, balance billing and private contracting can remove many of the financial pressures imposed by Medicare’s top-down, government-dictated pricing system.
  • Insist that fundamental, long-term SGR reform be paired with fundamental, long-term Medicare reform. Experts on all sides of the political spectrum agree that the flawed SGR mechanism should be replaced. The best replacement for the SGR and the entire system of current Medicare financing lies in a defined-contribution (premium support) system that fundamentally reforms and enhances the entire Medicare program. In the short term, Congress can take several important incremental steps to re-structure the traditional Medicare program as part of a transition to a premium support system.[35] However, Congress should not attempt to enact a fundamental change to the SGR coupled solely with incremental reforms to the larger Medicare program. To do so would remove an impetus for the major structural reforms that Medicare needs in order to ensure its solvency for future generations.

Conclusion

Congress once again appears poised to grapple with a problem of its own making—namely, the SGR formula for physician reimbursement. Members in both the House and Senate have solicited proposals for alternatives, and have committed to considering SGR proposals this year.

However, when constructing alternatives to the SGR, Congress should heed the lessons of experience. The system of administrative pricing for Medicare physician payment, in effect for nearly 25 years, has proven cumbersome, bureaucratic, and unworkable. Moving further in the direction of pay-for-performance medicine, as some proposals have suggested, would merely substitute medical societies for the role currently played by omnipotent government bureaucrats, attempting to impose one-size-fits-all medical care from Washington.

Conversely, while the SGR has not succeeded in its initial goal of containing Medicare physician spending, the perennial “doc fix” bills have forced Congress to enact changes in the Medicare program, many of which constituted real progress in reforming entitlement spending. Completely repealing or replacing the SGR, without first ensuring fundamental reform of the entire Medicare program, would actively subvert attempts to make the program sustainable for future generations.

The SGR debate presents Members of Congress with both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity lies in enacting reforms that can expand market forces in Medicare and enhance the program’s viability. The challenge lies in resisting the siren call that yet another form of federally micromanaged health care can succeed when all past iterations have failed. Seniors and future generations should hope that Congress chooses to embrace the opportunity and rise to the challenge.

 



[1] House Energy and Commerce Committee discussion draft of Medicare physician payment legislation, June 28, 2013, http://energycommerce.house.gov/sites/republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/files/BILLS-113hr-PIH-SGRreform.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[2] House Energy and Commerce Committee and Ways and Means Committee joint framework for Medicare physician payment reform, “Overview of SGR Repeal and Reform Proposal,” February 7, 2013, http://energycommerce.house.gov/sites/republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/files/20130207SGRReform.pdf (accessed July 11 2013).

[3] News release, “Baucus, Hatch Call on Health Care Providers to Pitch in and Provide Ideas to Improve Medicare Physician Payment System,” U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, May 10, 2013, http://www.finance.senate.gov/newsroom/chairman/release/?id=fba99c75-981f-4917-9836-ae49d47453a1 (accessed July 11, 2013).

[4] Mark Miller, “Moving Forward from the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) System,” testimony before the Finance Committee, U.S. Senate, at a hearing on “Advancing Reform: Medicare Physician Payments,” May 14, 2013, p. 2, http://www.finance.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/MedPAC%20SGR%20testimony%20with%20attachments_SFC_5%2014%202013.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[5] Ibid., p. 3.

[6] The full list of statutory adjustments to the SGR conversion factor enacted by Congress since 2003 can be found in amendments to the United States Code, 42 U.S.C. 1395w-4(d)(5) et seq.

[7] Beginning with the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006 (P.L. 109–432), Congress provided that temporary payment increases overriding the SGR cuts would not be used in setting the SGR targets for future years—thus ensuring a “cliff” when the target re-sets at the lower level.

[8] The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has estimated a preliminary SGR conversion factor update of 24.4 percent for calendar year 2014. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Estimated Sustainable Growth Rate and Conversion Factor for Medicare Payments to Physicians in 2014,” April 2013, p. 8, Table 5, http://www.cms.gov/Medicare/Medicare-Fee-for-Service-Payment/SustainableGRatesConFact/Downloads/sgr2014p.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[9] Congressional Budget Office, “Medicare’s Payments to Physicians: The Budgetary Impact of Alternative Policies Relative to CBO’s May 2013 Baseline,” May 14, 2013, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44184_May_2013_SGR.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[10] Congressional Budget Office, “Medicare’s Payments to Physicians: The Budgetary Impact of Alternative Policies Relative to CBO’s March 2012 Baseline,” July 31, 2012, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/43502-SGR%20Options2012.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[11] Miller, testimony before Finance Committee, U.S. Senate, Figures 1 and 2, p. 4.

[12] Medicare Physician Fairness Act of 2009, S. 1776 (111th Congress).

[13] Senate Roll Call 325 of 2009, October 21, 2009, http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=111&session=1&vote=00325 (accessed July 11, 2013).

[14] Congressional Budget Office, cost estimate for S. 1776, October 26, 2009, http://cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/106xx/doc10674/s1776greggltr.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[15] Andrew Rettenmaier and Thomas Saving, “How the Medicare ‘Doc Fix’ Would Add to the Long-Term Medicare Debt,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2695, November 13, 2009, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2009/11/how-the-medicare-doc-fix-would-add-to-the-long-term-medicare-debt.

[16] American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2013, Public Law 112–240, Sections 636 and 638.

[17] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2013 Annual Report of the Boards of Trustees of the Federal Hospital Insurance and Federal Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Funds, May 31, 2013, p. 58, Table II.B4, http://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/ReportsTrustFunds/Downloads/TR2013.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[18] Section 6102 of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1989, Public Law 101–239, established a Medicare physician fee schedule based on the RBRVS, effective in January 1992.

[19] Robert E. Moffit, “Back to the Future: Medicare’s Resurrection of the Labor Theory of Value,” Regulation (Fall 1992), pp. 54–63.

[20] Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, Report to the Congress: Medicare Payment Policy, March 2013, p. 79, http://medpac.gov/documents/Mar13_EntireReport.pdf (accessed July 11, 2013).

[21] Ibid., p. 95.

[22] House discussion draft, pp. 3–5.

[23] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2013 Annual Report of the Boards of Trustees of the Federal Hospital Insurance and Federal Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Funds, p. 2.

[24] Patricia A. Davis et al., “Medicare Provisions in PPACA (P.L. 111–148),” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress No. R41196, April 21, 2010, http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/11-148_20100421.pdf (accessed July 12, 2013).

[25] Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Public Law 111–148, Section 3002(b).

[26] Ibid., Section 3007.

[27] American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Public Law 111–5, Section 4101(b).

[28] 42 U.S.C. 1395.

[29] Richard Dolinar and Luke Leininger, “Pay for Performance or Compliance? A Second Opinion on Medicare Reimbursement,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1882, October 5, 2005, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2005/10/pay-for-performance-or-compliance-a-second-opinion-on-medicare-reimbursement.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Tom Daschle, Scott Greenberger, and Jeanne Lambrew, Critical: What We Can Do about the Health Care Crisis (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008), pp. 172–173.

[32] Michael Leavitt, “Health Reform’s Central Flaw: Too Much Power in One Office,” The Washington Post, February 18, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/17/AR2011021705824.html (accessed July 11, 2013).

[33] For further information on the HHS Secretary’s powers, see John S. Hoff, “Implementing Obamacare: A New Exercise in Old-Fashioned Central Planning,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2459, September 10, 2010, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/09/implementing-obamacare-a-new-exercise-in-old-fashioned-central-planning.

[34] Section 4507 of the Balanced Budget Act, Public Law 105–33.

[35] Robert E. Moffit, “The First Stage of Medicare Reform: Fixing the Current Program,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2611, October 17, 2011, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/10/the-first-stage-of-medicare-reform-fixing-the-current-program.

Pediatric Research Bill: Obamacare’s Road to Rationing?

A PDF of this Issue Brief is available on the Heritage Foundation website.

Later this month, the House of Representatives could consider legislation regarding pediatric research.[1] Legislation regarding this issue (H.R. 1724) was first introduced in April, and a new version of the bill (H.R. 2019) was introduced in May.

Although largely similar, H.R. 1724 would require the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to provide a justification for any existing grants studying health economics, and would prohibit new grants until “a federal law has been enacted authorizing the National Institutes of Health to use funding specifically for health economics research.”[2] Press reports indicate that H.R. 2019 excludes the restrictions included in H.R. 1724 “in order to please Democrats who favor the research.”[3]

This is a mistake. The House should ensure that H.R. 1724’s proposed restrictions on health economics research remain in any NIH-related legislation that comes to the House floor. To do otherwise would provide tacit approval to Obamacare’s road to government-rationed health care.

Proposed Restriction a Necessary Protection

The provision omitted from H.R. 2019 would have instituted an important and necessary protection on taxpayer-funded research on cost-effectiveness in health care. In recent years, the federal government has funded numerous such studies. For instance, a June 2011 Government Accountability Office report examining projects funded by the “stimulus” highlighted NIH grants studying the cost-effectiveness of various medical treatments, including:

  • “A Comprehensive Model to Assess the Cost-Effectiveness of Patient Navigation,”
  • “Cost-Effectiveness of Hormonal Therapy for Clinically Localized Prostate Cancer;”
  • “Clinical and Cost-Effectiveness of Biologics in Rheumatoid Arthritis,” and
  • “Cost-Effectiveness of HIV-Related Mental Health Interventions.”[4]

Liberals Favor Cost-Effectiveness Research

Setting aside the wisdom of using taxpayer funds to examine the cost-effectiveness of various treatments, such research could eventually be used to deny patients access to certain kinds of care. Quotes from key policymakers reveal how some would use cost-effectiveness research as a way for government bureaucrats to block access to treatments that are deemed too costly:

  • Former Senator Tom Daschle (D–SD), President Obama’s first choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services, wrote in 2008 that “we won’t be able to make a significant dent in health-care spending without getting into the nitty-gritty of which treatments are the most clinically valuable and cost effective. That means taking a harder look at the real costs and benefits of new drugs and procedures.”[5]
  • In a 2009 interview with The New York Times, President Obama argued that “the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here.… There is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place.”[6]
  • Former Medicare Administrator Dr. Donald Berwick, in his infamous 2009 interview, strongly argued in favor of taxpayer-funded cost-effectiveness research when stating that “the decision is not whether or not we will ration care—the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open.”[7]

Lawmakers have already expressed their desire to use cost-effectiveness research to restrict access to certain treatments. A report prepared by the House Appropriations Committee in 2009, discussing “stimulus” funding for the types of projects highlighted above, noted that thanks to the research funding, “those items, procedures, and interventions that are most effective to prevent, control, and treat health conditions will be utilized, while those that are found to be less effective and in some cases more expensive will no longer be prescribed.”[8]

Road to Rationing

Although research comparing the relative merits and costs of medical treatments may sound appealing, past experience has demonstrated that such research can, and often is, used as a blunt tool by governments to restrict access to certain kinds of care. At a time when genetic advances have opened the door to personalized medical treatments, Obamacare has moved health policy in the opposite direction, expanding the federal bureaucracy in an attempt to micromanage the health care system.[9]

Imposing the restrictions on cost-effectiveness research included in H.R. 1724 would represent a good first step in restoring the balance between federal bureaucrats and patients.

 



[1]Daniel Newhauser, “Mindful of Previous Defeat, Cantor Pushes Bill to Increase Pediatric Research,” Roll Call, June 10, 2011, http://www.rollcall.com/news/mindful_of_previous_defeat_cantor_pushes_bill_to_increase_pediatric-225436-1.html?zkPrintable=true (accessed June 13, 2013).

[2]The Kids First Research Act of 2013, H.R. 1724, § 4.

[3]Newhauser, “Mindful of Previous Defeat.”

[4]U.S. Government Accountability Office, HHS Research Awards: Use of Recovery Act and Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Funds for Comparative Effectiveness Research, GAO-11-712R, June 14, 2011, http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d11712r.pdf (accessed June 13, 2013).

[5]Tom Daschle, Scott Greenberger, and Jeanne Lambrew, Critical: What We Can Do about the Health Care Crisis (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008), pp. 172–173.

[6]David Leonhardt, “After the Great Recession,” The New York Times, April 28, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/magazine/03Obama-t.html (accessed June 13, 2013).

[7]Biotechnology Healthcare, “Rethinking Comparative Effectiveness Research,” June 2009, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2799075/pdf/bth06_2p035.pdf (accessed June 13, 2013).

[8]Helen Evans, “Comparative Effectiveness in Health Care Reform: Lessons from Abroad,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2239, February 4, 2009, note 3, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2009/02/comparative-effectiveness-in-health-care-reform-lessons-from-abroad.

[9]Kathryn Nix, “Comparative Effectiveness Research Under Obamacare: A Slippery Slope to Health Care Rationing,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2679, April 12, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/04/comparative-effectiveness-research-under-obamacare-a-slippery-slope-to-health-care-rationing.

Rep. Mike Pence Op-Ed: The Morality of Health Care

“What it’s supposed to do for people doesn’t get done in reality.”

The speaker criticizing this government program wasn’t talking about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, or failing inner-city schools. Instead, the chief operating officer of a Bronx health clinic was criticizing Medicaid, a program that in theory provides health care coverage to more than 50 million Americans.

In his budget blueprint, President Obama promises $1 trillion in new health care spending to expand the Medicaid program — and create a new government health insurance program — with many of the flaws of the current one.

Even as the White House convenes a health “summit” designed to build support for yet more entitlement spending, it’s important to remember that our current entitlements often neglect the poorest and most vulnerable Americans.

Investigations by the New York Times in 2005 confirmed the often-cited problem that a Medicaid insurance card doesn’t guarantee quality care. In fact, it doesn’t guarantee care at all.

The report cited Medicaid as paying $24 to specialists in New York City for an office visit — not nearly enough to cover physicians’ true costs. Not surprisingly, few specialists decide to participate in Medicaid, so patients must wait — and wait and wait — to receive care.

Meanwhile, the New York Medicaid program’s spending ranks highest in the country, likely because 40% of Medicaid spending goes to questionable or fraudulent claims, according to a former state investigator.

The overall picture is one of a dysfunctional Medicaid program struggling to meet the health care needs of the poorest Americans. Yet these systemic problems are rarely mentioned when talking about health care reform.

While Democrats talk about the “moral imperative” of covering all Americans, few words have been spoken for those who have a public insurance card — but no access to care.

Consider the case of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old Maryland boy, who died in 2007 when a tooth infection spread to his brain. A simple extraction costing under $100 could have saved his life — if his mother had not had to wait five months for Deamonte and his brother to receive treatment under Medicaid.

Testifying before Congress about this tragedy, a case worker who helped Deamonte’s family criticized a culture “that clearly condones gross underperformance” at both the state and federal levels and has become “accepted and widespread.”

It is a culture that required Deamonte’s mother plus a lawyer, three call center workers and a call center supervisor to schedule a single dental appointment.

It is a culture that lets a dentist in Brooklyn bill Medicaid for many patient visits in the same day, yet turns away a poor teenager three times without even asking her to fill out a Medicaid application.

It is a culture that fails the poorest and most vulnerable in our society and a culture that money alone will not fix.

Democrats and the president have focused on increasing federal Medicaid spending as an economic “stimulus.”

Providing $90 billion in new federal Medicaid spending without reforming the program, as the recent “stimulus” bill did, will not ensure better coordination of beneficiary care, will not create an administrative bureaucracy more responsive to patients and providers, and will not crack down on fraudulent spending that squeezes state and federal budgets alike.

A better way exists, and that is fundamental reform. One building block of reform would focus on a major inequity in the tax code. That code says individuals whose employers can’t afford to provide coverage — like Deamonte Driver’s mother — must use after-tax dollars to purchase health insurance.

That means that many hardworking people least able to afford insurance premiums must pay 30% to 50% more for coverage. Fixing this inequity in our tax code would let more individuals purchase their own policies.

When combined with insurance reforms that provide access to chronically ill people, and reforms that let state Medicaid dollars supplement private insurance premiums, many more people will have quality insurance coverage.

Unfortunately, our Democratic colleagues have blocked states’ efforts to test innovative ideas that would provide the improvements Medicaid needs — reforms designed to ensure coverage people can use, not just an empty promise of care.

Republicans see a better way.

Our party recently formed a task force to craft a proposal that would ensure true reform of our health care system, including proposals to improve the health or lives of those many Americans who need it most.

Our Democrat friends may be well-intentioned. But their plans would expand a failed government culture that has neglected the poor Americans it is supposed to serve. Throwing more taxpayer money at a structurally flawed program is not an audacious hope. It is a false one.

This post was originally published in Investor’s Business Daily.

Rep. Stearns Op-Ed: Medicaid for Millionaires

“We shouldn’t have to do that, because they should know better.”

So said President Obama in explaining why the Treasury—quite rightly—forced Citigroup to cancel the purchase of a $50 million corporate jet after the banking firm accepted tens of billions in federal bailout dollars. But he could well have been talking about his Democratic colleagues in Congress, who seem perfectly willing to give the former executives of these firms generous federal health benefits—even though they too should know better.

Consider the case of Henry Waxman, a Democrat who has represented Beverly Hills in Congress for over 30 years. Last fall, as Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he led hearings on the financial crisis, and criticized companies for taking “massive risk. When the bottom fell out, senior management walked away with millions of dollars, while shareholders and taxpayers lost billions.”

Fast forward to this year and a new Congress, where Mr. Waxman assumed the Chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee, on which I sit. As Chairman, Waxman wrote major health-related sections of the economic “stimulus” legislation which Congress is currently considering. The proposal Mr. Waxman presented to the Committee spent more than $100 billion on various health spending projects, and created two new federal entitlements—one expanding Medicaid to individuals receiving unemployment compensation, and the second providing subsidies to individuals who choose continuation coverage from their former employers.

But for the new entitlements, there was a massive loophole. Because the bill explicitly prohibited income or asset tests from being applied to people receiving the new health care entitlements, anyone who recently lost their job—including the former CEOs who Mr. Waxman said last fall “walked away with millions”—could receive free or subsidized health care courtesy of federal taxpayers. At a time when all Americans are struggling to make ends meet, I viewed these uncapped subsidies as a poor use of taxpayers’ hard-earned money—and an unnecessary expansion of government to boot.

So when our Committee met to consider the “stimulus” legislation, I offered an amendment to the legislation to make sure that individuals with income over $1 million who elected continuation coverage from their former employers would not receive federal subsidies to pay for that coverage. Chairman Waxman accepted my amendment, and said he would “try to find a way to structure” the subsidies so that wealthy executives wouldn’t be eligible for subsidies they really shouldn’t need.

But several days later, when Democrat leaders introduced the version of the “stimulus” legislation that the House was actually going to vote on, my amendment was stricken from the bill. The omission wasn’t because a cap on the federal health subsidies was unworkable—Congressional tax advisers told a Senate committee an income-based cap was feasible to implement. No one was able to give me a straight answer as to why my amendment wasn’t included in the final bill—Speaker Pelosi actually put out a press release saying my amendment had been accepted as part of the “bipartisan” debate, when in reality my amendment and those of two of my other Republican colleagues had been unceremoniously dumped behind closed doors.

This incident raises a couple of key questions—one procedural, the other political. First, how bipartisan is it to accept an amendment one week, only to remove it without explanation or cause the next? Second, now that they control Congress and the White House, are Democrats so insistent on expanding the federal government’s role in health care that they want to provide subsidized coverage to the same fired executives they have so recently blamed for causing our current economic crisis?

In the end, the final “stimulus” product included an income cap so that taxpayers’ funds won’t be to subsidize the health insurance of Bernie Madoff and other similar characters. But it begs the same point President Obama raised when talking about Citigroup’s desire for a new corporate jet: We shouldn’t have to tell Democrats not to give federal health benefits to millionaires—because they should know better.

This post was originally published at RedState.

Weekly Newsletter: December 8, 2008

Obama Proposes Massive Government Spending on Health IT

This weekend, President-elect Obama proposed as one of the five components of an economic “stimulus” package new government spending to promote a health information technology infrastructure nationwide. While Saturday’s speech contained no specific dollar amounts or proposals related to health IT, his campaign platform previously committed to spending $50 billion over five years “to move the U.S. health care system to broad adoption of standards-based electronic health information systems.”

While supporting the more widespread adoption of health IT as one way better to manage care and control cost growth, some conservatives may be concerned by both the scale and timing of the Obama proposals. Conservatives may note that the federal government did not need to spend money to develop a nationwide network of ATM machines, for example, and question the need for the significant federal expenditure on health it—particularly if it comes with additional “strings attached” that would result in further federal intervention in the practice of medicine. Instead, some conservatives may support efforts to provide regulatory relief to physicians—including medical liability reform and changes to the “Stark” laws on physician self-referral—that would empower physicians in the private sector to finance their own health IT purchases without the need for more federal spending.

Some conservatives may also be concerned by the implications of the process outlined by the President-elect. Congress has spent many years considering health IT legislation without finding consensus on a way forward, but the timeline envisioned by the incoming Administration would see the years-long impasse brought to a conclusion within a matter of weeks. Conservatives may be concerned that such a rushed process may include provisions advanced by various liberal interest groups—including onerous privacy restrictions that impede efforts to coordinate care, a private right of action related to security breaches likely to breed costly lawsuits, and a patchwork of state and federal laws creating regulatory uncertainty for providers—that may only serve to raise costs and inhibit health IT adoption.

The RSC has released a Policy Brief outlining issues related to health IT implementation, which can be found here.

Baucus Wouldn’t Pay for Health Reform Until After Medicare’s Bankruptcy

Just before Thanksgiving, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) spoke with reporters about the comprehensive health reform white paper he released earlier in November. Discussing the possibility floated by some Democrat leaders that Congress should waive pay-as-you-go
requirements for any comprehensive health care overhaul advanced in the 111th Congress, Baucus noted his expectation that such legislation would not be fully paid for in the short-term, but that after a decade “the bulk of the up-front investments will be offset by cost savings and reductions.”

Some conservatives may note an inconvenient truth associated with this statement: In one decade from now—by the time Sen. Baucus envisions actual cost savings from comprehensive reform—the Medicare Part A Trust Fund will be exhausted. The latest Medicare trustees’ report predicted an insolvency date for the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund of 2019—and that date could be moved forward if the current economic slowdown results in an expected decline in payroll tax receipts. If the cost savings from any comprehensive reform legislation will not materialize for a decade, as Sen. Baucus predicted, millions of seniors may face difficult health care choices when Medicare becomes insolvent.

Conservatives may therefore believe that, before even considering whether to expand government programs like the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) or create new health care entitlements, Congress should first work to preserve America’s current entitlements. Failure to do so could unleash a fiscal catastrophe that dwarfs the current economic turmoil, and jeopardize the health care of millions of seniors—not to mention America’s financial security.

Weekly Newsletter: November 12, 2008

Medicaid Bailout Once Again on Congressional Agenda

This Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a Subcommittee hearing on various ways to “stimulate” the economy during the current downturn. Witnesses are expected to focus on both additional federal spending, in the form of an enhanced federal Medicaid match and higher funding for the National Institutes of Health, as ways to promote economic growth.

Some conservatives may be skeptical of the effectiveness of both approaches. An enhanced federal Medicaid match would merely substitute federal dollars for state spending, and provide a perverse disincentive for states not to undertake structural Medicaid reforms. Higher NIH funding would similarly lack any short-term “stimulative” effect, as long lead times to evaluate and conduct research trials would likely preclude any impact on economic growth for years. With some experts predicting the federal deficit this fiscal year could top $1 trillion, conservatives may question whether and why Congressional Democrats are attempting to enact all manner of increased federal spending under the guise of economic “stimulus.”

The RSC has prepared a new one-pager articulating 10 reasons why conservatives may oppose a Medicaid bailout for states; the document can be found here.

British U-Turn Illustrates Problems with Comparative Effectiveness

Last Tuesday, the British Department of Health announced a reversal of a ban on “top-up” payments within the National Health Service (NHS). Previously patients who wished to use their own money to purchase drugs not deemed cost-effective by the NHS needed to forfeit their right to basic NHS care. The Government’s reversal will allow patients purchasing their own therapies to maintain their right to NHS care under certain conditions. In addition, the report proposed to raise the National Institute on Clinical Effectiveness’ (NICE) cost-effectiveness threshold for certain drug therapies, potentially allowing British patients access to some cancer drugs which the NHS had previously refused to pay.

Conservatives may view both these developments as illustrative of the premise that comparative effectiveness research may not yield the potential savings its adherents claim. Practical political concerns, sparked by an outcry from the British public over rationed health care, prompted the Government’s reversal of measures designed to save NHS funds. Given that efforts to tie Medicare reimbursement and coverage decisions are likely to prompt the same response from the American public as it did in Britain, some conservatives may argue that market-based reforms to Medicare, rather than government-imposed rationing, would have a more beneficial and long-lasting effect at slowing the growth of health care costs.

The RSC has previously issued a Policy Brief analyzing comparative effectiveness research in greater detail; the document can be found here.

Top Ten Conservative Concerns with a Medicaid Bailout

  1. States Already Received a Medicaid Bailout. In June 2008, the wartime supplemental blocked the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from issuing six regulations cracking down on state transactions designed solely to increase the percentage of Medicaid spending paid for by the federal government.  Some may view the $1.6 billion moratoria on these anti-fraud regulations as a bailout in its own right, and question why states are asking for yet more relief from the federal government.
  2. Discourages States from Fighting Fraud. In September, New York State announced a record $90 million settlement from one hospital related to improper and fraudulent billing practices—the third such settlement from the same hospital in a decade.  Providing additional federal matching funds may provide a perverse disincentive for states not to recoup Medicaid dollars by pursuing anti-fraud cases vigorously.
  3. States Not Reforming Their Medicaid Programs. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that only eight states have taken advantage of language in the Deficit Reduction Act to alter their Medicaid benefit packages or introduce modest cost-sharing.  Given the structural deficiencies in many state programs—fraudulent activity, long waits for specialists, and un-coordinated care—conservatives may view a “blank check” for more state Medicaid spending without new accountability or reforms as a disservice to both the federal taxpayer and the needy beneficiaries which the program is designed to serve.
  4. Rewards States for Improper Budgeting. An Urban Institute study notes that lost revenue creates a significantly larger impact on state budgets than increased costs due to enrollment increases in programs like Medicaid.  Some conservatives may therefore view a Medicaid bailout as rewarding states who failed to project revenues accurately and/or build up adequate “rainy day” reserves.
  5. Provides No Stimulus. Because increasing the federal Medicaid match only substitutes federal spending for state dollars, even Keynesians may find it difficult to justify such a measure as providing economic “stimulus.”
  6. Medicaid Increases Private Insurance Costs. A recent study from actuaries at the consulting firm Milliman found that low reimbursement rates for public programs including Medicare and Medicaid resulted in a 12% increase in private insurance costs, as providers charged private insurers more for their services.  Some may therefore view an increase in Medicaid enrollment financed by this bailout as potentially placing additional strain on the private insurance system due to sizable cost shifting from public to private plans.
  7. Earmark for Michigan Automakers. H.R. 5268 includes language disregarding “extraordinary employer pensions” as income.  According to CMS, only one state would fall into this category—Michigan.  Some conservatives may view this provision as an authorizing earmark.
  8. Flawed FMAP Formula Encourages States to Overspend. While the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) matching formula was originally designed to provide greater assistance to poorer states, an independent analysis of CMS data indicates that states with higher concentrations of poverty actually have lower per-capita Medicaid spending—exactly the opposite result of FMAP’s intended goal.  Some conservatives may therefore be concerned that an additional FMAP bailout will do nothing to reverse this disparity, and may exacerbate it.
  9. Medicaid Spending Only Continues to Grow. An American Enterprise Institute study found that during the 1994-2000 boom years, Medicaid spending grew faster than both GDP and state revenues.  Some conservatives may therefore question whether states were irresponsible in expanding their Medicaid programs during flush economic times, and whether the federal government should reward such behavior.
  10. Exacerbates Entitlement Shortfalls. At a time when unfunded obligations for Medicare and Social Security exceed $53 trillion, some conservatives may be concerned by the impact of increasing Medicaid spending—and the federal deficit—on our ability to respond to this crisis with reforms to slow the growth of health care costs.