Dr. Nick Riviera Explains Obamacare

Dr. Nick Riviera From ‘The Simpsons’ Explains Obamacare

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

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

Productivity Adjustments Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming to a Hospital Near You?

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Why Medicare Reform Can’t Wait

In an interview with “Good Morning America” on Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) cast doubt on the prospect for comprehensive Medicare reform on the congressional agenda in 2018: “There are some provider issues that we may be addressing as you know. Some providers in the Medicare field in some cases are getting overpaid. We want to make sure that’s being dealt with. But as far as you’re talking about beneficiaries, we’re not focused on that.”

Unfortunately, however, if Congress fails to address comprehensive Medicare reform, beneficiaries will miss out on significant savings in their pocketbooks, and taxpayers will miss out on the opportunity to slow the growth of the program’s expenses. This “win-win” proposition—seniors save money, as do taxpayers—could help the federal government solve its growing entitlement shortfalls, but only if Congress has the courage to act.

How Medicare Reform Would Work

To the uninitiated, premium support would transform Medicare into a program roughly akin to the federal employee health benefit plan, or the Obamacare exchanges established in 2014. Insurers, including traditional government-run Medicare, would bid against each other to offer the usual complement of Medicare services.

In each bidding area, whether a county, state, or region, officials would determine a “benchmark” bid—based on, for instance, the average of all plan bids, or the second-lowest plan bid. (Obamacare exchanges use the second-lowest plan bid.) Beneficiaries would receive a sum from the federal government to cover the cost of a benchmark plan in their area. If a senior selected a plan costing less than the benchmark amount, he or she would receive the difference in savings; conversely, if a senior selected a plan costing more than the benchmark, he or she would pay the difference in higher premiums.

New Report Shows Increased Savings

Compared to an earlier CBO report released in September 2013, the updated analysis shows greater savings from implementing premium support. In ten-year budget terms, the second-lowest bid option would save $419 billion, while the average bid option would save $184 billion—up from $275 billion and $69 billion, respectively, four years ago.

The October report cited several factors that put both upward and downward pressure on the amount of federal savings. In general, however, two factors stood out. First, Congress passed a law repealing the Medicare sustainable growth rate mechanism in 2015. That law increased projected spending in traditional fee-for-service Medicare, making it less financially competitive when compared to private Medicare Advantage plans.

Second, the Medicare Advantage plans have become more efficient, reducing their bids when compared to traditional Medicare. With plans already operating in a more competitive environment, the federal government could achieve greater savings by altering the bidding structure to harness that competitive environment.

Let’s Compare the Two Options

In general, while the second-lowest bid option would achieve greater savings for the federal government, the average bid option seems the likeliest to achieve the political consensus necessary to ensure its enactment. Setting a lower benchmark, as the second-lowest bid option would do in most if not all markets, would require more seniors to pay additional premiums, as more plans would exceed the benchmark.

To this conservative, the average bid option seems much more politically palatable. While any plan will result in confusion and controversy, one that will save both taxpayers and seniors money provides a strong incentive to transition to a new system. Congress can adjust the formula over time as needed, to reflect any difficulties in implementation and changes in our fiscal outlook. But the transition should happen—sooner rather than later.

Republicans Need to Combat ‘Mediscare’ Tactics

Of course, enacting Medicare reform involves overcoming partisan attacks and demagoguery—as the ads depicting Republicans throwing granny off a cliff so vividly illustrate. Democrats ran those ads against Ryan in the past, and no doubt will do so again the minute conservatives contemplate a serious effort to reform Medicare.

But conservatives—and Congress as a whole—have no choice but to reform entitlements. As previously noted, Medicare would already be financially insolvent but for Obamacare’s fiscal gimmickry—the accounting scheme that allows Medicare savings simultaneously to make Medicare solvent and fund Obamacare.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Self-Righteous Sanctimony from an Obamacare Hypocrite

Why would someone who never truly believed in repealing Obamacare attack others for wanting to keep it? Maybe because Mitch McConnell asked him to.

Avik Roy’s piece blasting Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) for “preserving every word of Obamacare” contains flawed logic on several fronts. Let’s examine that first, before considering the source.

Roy essentially argues that the 2015 reconciliation bill that Sen. Lee and others supported did not repeal or reform any of the regulations raising premiums, but this year’s Senate Republican bill did. The first point is accurate but misleading, and the second point inaccurate, at least from a conservative perspective.

When it comes to the 2015 reconciliation bill, Republican leaders made a strategic choice—as current White House adviser Paul Winfree noted just after the election—not to litigate with the Senate Parliamentarian whether and what insurance regulations could be repealed under the special budget reconciliation procedures. Conservatives such as myself have argued that, while that 2015 bill represented a good first step—demonstrating that reconciliation could be used to dismantle Obamacare—lawmakers needed to go further and repeal the regulations outright.

It’s unclear from his piece whether Roy knew of this strategical gambit back in 2015, or knows, but doesn’t want to admit it—and to be candid, both could be true. The article contains the following statement of “fact:”

Senate rules require that the reconciliation process can only be used for fiscal policy—taxing and spending—not regulatory policy. To boot, reconciliation can’t be used to change Medicare or Social Security. [Emphasis mine.]

The first part of this argument does not follow: He’s claiming that reconciliation cannot be used for regulatory policy, while also arguing that the bill currently before the Senate—which is a budget reconciliation bill—would make massive changes to Obamacare’s regulatory apparatus, such that it warranted Lee’s support.

The second part of this argument is flat-out false. While the Senate’s “Byrd rule” prohibits changes to Title II of the Social Security Act (as per 2 U.S.C. 644(b)(1)(F) and 2 U.S.C. 641(g)), Congress can—and does—make major changes to Medicare under budget reconciliation. For instance, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997—a bill considered under budget reconciliation—included over 200 pages of legislative changes to Medicare, including major changes to Medicare managed care (then called Medicare+Choice) and the creation of the infamous Sustainable Growth Rate Mechanism for physician payments. Roy has previously argued that lawmakers could not make changes to Medicare under budget reconciliation—he was wrong then, and he’s wrong now.

So why should anyone believe the procedural and tactical arguments of someone who 1) never worked in the Senate and 2) has repeatedly made false claims about the nature of the budget reconciliation process? Answer: You shouldn’t.

Back to the arguments about the Senate bill’s regulatory structure. Roy claims that the bill currently being considered would make significant modifications to those regulations. But from a conservative perspective, the bill doesn’t attack some of the costliest drivers of higher premiums—specifically Obamacare’s guaranteed issue regulations. Moreover, it doesn’t actually repeal any of the regulations themselves, choosing instead to modify or waive only some of them.

If a bill can modify regulations under the budget reconciliation procedures, it can repeal them too—moderate Senators just lack the political will to do so. If you’re like me—a supporter of federalism who doesn’t believe Washington should impose a regulatory apparatus on all 50 states’ health insurance markets—then you might find the Senate bill did not sufficiently dismantle the Obamacare framework to make it worth your support. It appears Sen. Lee also came to that conclusion.

Now it’s worth examining why the article specifically attacks Mike Lee. The piece fails to note until the 16th paragraph of a 19-paragraph story that other Senators came out and opposed the bill as well. Continued concern from moderates—who didn’t want to repeal Obamacare—made it obvious that the bill was going to die—but no one wanted to deliver the coup de grace. Sen. Lee finally came out and did so, along with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS). It’s disingenuous for Roy to claim, as he does for most of the piece, that Senator Lee was solely, or primarily, responsible for killing the bill.

Why might he make such a claim? Jonathan Chait may have sniffed out an answer several weeks ago, when Roy made a winking non-admission admission that he had worked with Senator McConnell’s office on drafting the Senate bill. Given that fact, and the way in which Senate staff promised to “make it rain” on moderates by giving out “candy” in the form of backroom deals, it’s reasonable to ask whether Roy coordinated his attack on Senator Lee with Senator McConnell’s office—and was promised anything for doing so.

Nearly three years ago, Avik Roy published a piece claiming that “conservatives don’t have to repeal Obamacare” and that “there are political benefits to implementing the plan without repeal.” Last night, Roy didn’t even attempt to explain on Twitter how he could reconcile those prior statements with his purported support for Obamacare repeal. Yet now he wants to attack Mike Lee for not sufficiently supporting repeal? It’s a disingenuous argument.

When it comes to Roy’s flip-flopping on repeal, his factual inaccuracies, or his not-so-secret ties to Senate leadership on the legislation, when evaluating his attack on Mike Lee, conservatives would be wise to consider the source.

Three Concerns with the Obamacare Replacement Act

On Wednesday, Politico reported that the House Freedom Caucus, an influential group of House conservatives, was considering whether to give its official endorsement to Sen. Rand Paul’s Obamacare Replacement Act (S. 222). The report indicated that word from the Freedom Caucus about an endorsement could come as soon as next week.

To this conservative health policy analyst, this development raises some serious concerns. Although not as objectionable as the Collins-Cassidy Patient Freedom Act, Paul’s legislation contains several features that, if widely embraced by conservatives, could lead to strategic and policy missteps going forward.

1. Doesn’t Repeal Obamacare

However, the bill does not repeal either of Obamacare’s new entitlements—the subsidies for exchange health insurance, and the massive Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied—leaving in place nearly $2 trillion in spending over the coming decade. Likewise, the bill does not repeal any of the Obamacare taxes used to fund that spending, except those associated with the individual and employer mandates.

Paul’s office may view the bill as a successor and complement to the reconciliation bill that Congress passed, but President Obama vetoed, in 2016. That bill would have repealed the law’s entitlements (after two years), and its tax increases (effective immediately), but not its regulations. Paul’s office might argue that his bill repeals the critical portions of Obamacare not included in last year’s reconciliation bill—the major insurance regulations—while providing a replacement vision to go beyond repeal.

But that position assumes last year’s reconciliation bill will be the starting point for this year’s discussion—and it may not be. Politico reported Tuesday evening that Republicans were having difficulty figuring out how to square Medicaid reform with Obamacare’s massive Medicaid expansion. Likewise, some Republicans have discussed not repealing the law’s tax hikes. On these controversies, the Paul bill, by omitting any provisions relating to the entitlement expansions and tax increases, contains a deafening silence.

2. Tax Credit Slippery Slope

The Paul bill does provide tax credits for health coverage, but largely of the non-refundable kind, an arcane but important difference. Paul’s bill provides a $5,000 tax credit to individuals who contribute to Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), but only to the extent such individuals have income tax liability. The Paul bill does include a refundable tax credit for health insurance premiums, but the refundable portion of the credit only applies up to the limit of an individual’s payroll taxes paid.

Many Republican health reform plans would offer refundable tax credits to individuals in excess of tax liabilities, which represents pure welfare/outlay spending—the government issuing “refunds” to people with no net income or payroll tax obligations. By contrast, the Paul bill would ensure that credits only apply to individuals with actual payroll and income tax obligations.

However, this critically important distinction will likely be lost on many members of the press—and perhaps members of the Freedom Caucus themselves. “House Freedom Caucus Endorses Tax Credits” will blare the headlines. Having endorsed tax credits once, the pressure on Freedom Caucus members to then go further and endorse the House leadership plan for refundable tax credits will be immense. Put simply, the slippery slope to endorsing a major spending package in the form of refundable tax credits starts with the Paul bill.

3. Budget-Busting Health Care Giveaways

Apart from the fiscal implications of the tax incentives, are these tax cuts smart tax cuts? Evidence suggests they may not be. Economists on all sides of the political spectrum believe that the current uncapped exclusion for employer-provided health insurance encourages over-consumption of health insurance, and thus health care. Rather than reining in this tax incentive as one element of pro-growth tax reform, Paul’s bill goes in the other direction, creating two new uncapped tax incentives for health insurance.

As a medical doctor, Paul has shown little inclination to rein in health care spending. He voted for budget-busting Medicare physician payment legislation in 2015 that raised the deficit by more than $140 billion in its first decade alone, while failing to solve the long-term problems it purported to address. He has also previously proposed budgets that included minimal savings to Medicare, despite long-running deficits within Medicare.

But with health care already consuming nearly one-fifth of our economy, and our national debt approaching $20 trillion, does the solution to these problems really lie in creating new, uncapped incentives for tax-free spending on health care and health insurance?

Therein lies but one of the Paul bill’s problems. While ostensibly promoting market-oriented solutions, the legislation contains several strategic trip-wires that could contaminate any attempt to repeal Obamacare, or enact a conservative alternative. Members of Congress should tread cautiously.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Is Medicare Spending Increasing?

The Department of Health and Human Services released a report this month highlighting the slowdown in Medicare spending growth in recent years. The administration says that Obamacare has led to slower growth in overall health spending, which in turn has made Medicare more sustainable. Another government document suggests that Medicare spending may be accelerating—but even if it isn’t, demographic trends will create pressure on the program in the coming years.

The HHS report compared Medicare growth rates from 2000 to 2008 with rates from 2009 to 2013, and found that $316 billion was saved over the latter period. The calculation includes Medicare savings for the year before Obamacare was enacted, which indicates that the law cannot be fully responsible for the slowdown. Some reports have suggested that much of the slower growth in health spending has stemmed from lingering economic weakness, though studies and experts differ on this point.

But in the week before this report was published, HHS undercut its message by acknowledging that Medicare spending has accelerated in recent months. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services initially proposed a payment decrease for Medicare Advantage plans in 2016, but its final call letter proposed a payment increase, which it attributed to recent spikes in Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) spending:

The 2.5 percentage point increase from the Advance Notice to the Final Notice comprises 1.9 percentage points of additional FFS spending through 2015, an underlying additional FFS trend rate of 0.6 percent for 2016, and 0.1 percent for the assumption that Congress will enact the pending [“doc fix”] legislation….Initial information from Medicare actuaries suggests that contributing factors behind the change from the preliminary growth rate include higher than expected spending on impatient hospitalizations and some intermediary services such as therapy, rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers.

In other words, Medicare Advantage plans did not cut payments for the upcoming year because Medicare’s actuaries have observed an uptick in spending for traditional Medicare. It’s possible, then, that the trend of slower spending growth highlighted in the HHS report may have ended.

Even if the growth in Medicare spending stops, demographic trends in the coming decades will still force a re-examination of the program. The onslaught of retiring baby boomers—an average of 10,000 per day for two decades—will define our fiscal future for the next generation. Whether or not growth in Medicare spending remains slow for years to come—and some trends suggest that it won’t—federal policy makers still have good reason to prioritize right-sizing of entitlement programs.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

House “Doc Fix” Bill Makes Things Worse, Medicare Analysis Finds

Proponents of the “doc fix” legislation the House passed before Congress’s Easter recess have argued that it would permanently solve the perennial issue of physician reimbursements in Medicare. But an analysis by Medicare’s nonpartisan actuary all but cautions: “Not so fast, my friends!

The estimate of the legislation’s long-term impacts by Medicare’s chief actuary is sober reading. The legislation provides for a bonus pool that physicians can qualify for over the next 10 years but applies only in 2019 to 2024. The budgetary “out-years” provide for minimal increases in reimbursement rates. Beginning in 2026, physicians would receive a 0.75 percent annual increase if they participate in some alternative payment models or a 0.25 percent annual increase if they do not. Both are significantly lower than the normal rate of inflation.

Such paltry increases could have daunting effects over time. “We anticipate that payment rates under [the House-passed bill] would be lower than scheduled under the current SGR [sustainable growth rate formula] by 2048 and would continue to worsen thereafter,” the report said. By the end of the 75-year projection, physician reimbursements under the House-passed bill would be 30% lower than under the SGR. Critics have called the current system unsustainable, but over time the House bill’s “fix” would result in something worse.

The actuary said that the inadequacies of the House-proposed payment increases “in years when levels of inflation are higher.” Under the House-passed bill, physicians would receive a 2.3% increase in reimbursements over a three-year period. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the inflation rate was 11.3% in 1979, 13.5% in 1980, and 10.3% in 1981. If high inflation returned, doctors could effectively receive a pay cut after inflation.

While physician groups are clamoring to avoid the 21% cut that would take effect this month if some sort of “doc fix” is not enacted, the House’s “solution” could result in larger real-term cuts in future years. Medicare’s chief actuary explains the results of these reimbursement changes over time:

While [the House-passed bill] addresses the near-term concerns of the SGR system, the issues of inadequate physician payment rates are ultimately greater….[T]here would be reason to expect that access to physicians’ services for Medicare beneficiaries would be severely compromised, particularly considering that physicians are less dependent on Medicare revenue than are other providers, such as hospitals and skilled nursing facilities.

In sum, “we expect that access to, and quality of, physicians’ services would deteriorate over time for beneficiaries.”

The House “doc fix” legislation involved increasing the deficit by $141 billion, purportedly to solve the flaws in Medicare’s physician reimbursement system. But Medicare’s actuary thinks this legislation will make the long-term problem worse. When will Congress figure out that if you’re in a fiscal hole, it’s best to stop digging?

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

In House “Doc Fix,” An Unconservative Approach to Insurance Reform

The “doc fix” legislation that the House passed Thursday would add $141 billion to the deficit and make some structural changes to Medicare. Some of those changes aim to make Medicare more solvent by reducing the growth of program spending, a conservative goal, but it would achieve this by liberal means: prohibiting the sale of certain types of insurance policies.

The issue involves Medigap supplemental insurance, which pays for beneficiary cost-sharing (deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance) not covered by the traditional Medicare program. The most popular Medigap policies cover the Medicare Part B deductible, along with other forms of cost-sharing. Studies have shown that these types of policies—which allow seniors to visit medical providers without any out-of-pocket costs—encourage beneficiaries to over-consume care, raising taxpayer spending on Medicare.

The House legislation responds to this by making some types of Medigap coverage illegal. It would prohibit the sale or issuance of any policies that insulate beneficiaries from the Medicare Part B deductible of $147. This provision would apply only to new beneficiaries and only after Jan. 1, 2020; it would not take away health insurance plans for seniors currently enrolled.

In contrast, the Obama administration’s budget plan took a more conservative approach to this problem. It proposed a “premium surcharge for new beneficiaries beginning in 2019” choosing first-dollar Medigap coverage. Under its approach, insurers could still offer, and seniors could still purchase, insulating Medigap insurance—but they would have to repay taxpayers for additional Medicare spending engendered by their generous supplemental coverage. The president’s budget did not go so far as to apply this to today’s seniors, but it would be easier to extend this premium surcharge concept to existing Medicare beneficiaries; they could keep their existing insurance and would have to make taxpayers whole.

Medigap supplemental insurance is hardly a free market. Over and above state regulation of plans, the federal government has prescribed benefit packages for many years thanks to Medigap’s interactions with Medicare. But it’s striking that policy makers in the House decided the best way to reform this insurance market was to ban certain types of insurance outright, as opposed to implementing changes to ensure that Medicare does not lose money from seniors’ overconsumption of care.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

If House “Doc Fix” Bill Adds $141 Billion to the Deficit, Can Medicare Survive “Reform?”

The Congressional Budget Office has released its score of the Medicare “doc fix” legislation scheduled for consideration Thursday in the House. Among other things, the score provides some sense of the difficulty in enacting reforms to improve Medicare’s solvency.

CBO projected that the bipartisan legislation to repair Medicare’s physician payment structure would add $141 billion to the deficit. As I wrote in an earlier post, Congress paid for temporary patches in the past in part by cutting spending and in part by planning on bigger payment reductions in future years. While the legislation’s prospective increases in payment levels would be paid for, the future payment reductions already on the books would not be covered, thus raising the deficit. That unpaid-for increase in Medicare spending would also raise the basic Medicare Part B monthly premium by $10 monthly in 2025, CBO concluded.

The bill would make two structural changes to Medicare. CBO found significant savings—more than $34 billion—from reduced subsidies for higher-income earners. But the legislation’s reforms to Medigap supplemental insurance produced comparatively paltry savings: $400 million over a decade. The smaller savings is a result of legislators delaying the Medigap changes until 2020 and watering down the proposed cost-sharing required of Medigap enrollees.

CBO analyzed the bill’s costs and fiscal impact in its second decade, but the budget scorekeepers did not say the bill would reduce the deficit in the budgetary “out-years.” Compared with current law, the bill would increase the deficit, the agency said. And when compared to “freezing Medicare’s payment rates for physicians’ services,” CBO said, “the legislation could represent net savings or net costs in the second decade after enactment, but the center of the distribution of possible outcomes is small net savings.” In other words, even if one considers the scheduled reductions in future payments budgetary gimmicks that will never happen–and thus that they should be disregarded–the bill might not reduce the deficit, and if it did the budgetary savings would be very small.

Medicare needs more than very small savings to remain viable for the long term. The program’s Part A trust fund has run deficits of more than $120 billion over the past six years. And Medicare’s problems will only increase: Urban Institute projections indicate that a married couple earning average wages that retires this year will receive more than three times as much in benefits—$427,000—over their lifetime as they have paid in Medicare taxes. If the price of reforming Medicare is raising the deficit by $141 billion, how much more “reform” can Medicare withstand?

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Will “Doc Fix” Include a Compromise on Children’s Health Insurance?

Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee issued a news release Saturday expressing concern about provisions for children’s health insurance in the Medicare “doc fix” bill taking shape in the House. Media coverage of the children’s health program has largely focused on the length of the extension: Senate Democrats want a four-year extension, while a summary of the House agreement released Friday has a two-year reauthorization. But there are other, fundamental policy disagreements.

The disagreements are rooted in a letter issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in August 2007. Congress was due to reauthorize the children’s health insurance program that fall, and the letter applied two principles to state programs: It targeted resources first toward families making less than 200% of the federal poverty level (now $48,500 for a family of four). If states wished to expand children’s health insurance to families with incomes greater than 250% of the federal poverty level, they had to first cover at least 95% of children in the lowest income group. The letter also instructed states to take steps to ensure that children and families were not dropping private, employer-provided coverage to enroll in taxpayer-funded programs.

Democrats reacted to the letter by refusing to vote on President George W. Bush’s nominee for CMS administrator in the Senate. The Democratic-controlled Congress passed legislation expanding children’s health insurance October 2007 and January 2008, but President Bush, viewing the bills as inconsistent with the policy goals his administration had outlined, vetoed the measures. House Republicans sustained his veto on both occasions.

Upon taking office, President Barack Obama ordered his secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, to rescind the August 2007 memo. In February 2009 congressional Democrats enacted the children’s health insurance program expansion that had previously eluded them. Many Republicans believe the program should be targeted toward the lowest-income families, as it was initially designed. Draft reauthorization language issued by the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month would focus “funding on low-income families” to “address concerns about crowding out private coverage and subsidizing upper-middle-class families,” according to a summary.

The bipartisan deal to amend Medicare’s “doc fix” includes a two-year reauthorization of the children’s health insurance program, but policy details of that extension haven’t been released. Unless Republicans and Democrats can agree on a compromise—which eluded Congress and the Bush administration in 2007-08—one party may have to renege on policies it has adhered to for years. There are questions about the fiscal sustainability of the “doc fix,” but the philosophical questions may be no less difficult.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Is the “Doc Fix” Bill Fiscally Sustainable?

Last month, in writing about how the president’s budget would forestall changes to entitlements for several years, I said that while the budget “would include some modest changes to Medicare benefits, the overall document postpones most of the fiscal pain until after President Barack Obama leaves office.” The same might be true of bipartisan Medicare legislation that addresses physician payments.

House leaders filed “doc fix” legislation Thursday afternoon, but they have not yet released the legislative language surrounding the parts of the bill that would be paid for. A summary circulating among lobbyists in Washington suggests as one of the “pay-fors” a Medicare Advantage timing shift—a budget gimmick that would shift plan payments into a future fiscal year, masking overall Medicare spending levels.

The document also discusses more substantive changes to the Medicare program: Federal Part B and Part D subsidies would be reduced for individuals with incomes greater than $133,000. And first-dollar coverage for new beneficiaries purchasing supplemental coverage—which studies have shown encourages seniors to over-consume care–would be limited.

These changes may start to address Medicare’s structural shortfalls, but they seem relatively paltry next to some of the Obama administration’s budget proposals. The president’s plan proposed increasing the Medicare Part B deductible and introducing home health co-payments—actions that could reduce incentives for over-consumption of care and crack down on fraud, a particular problem in the home health program. But while the president’s proposed changes would not take effect until 2019, the House proposal would delay them one additional year, until 2020.

Demographics will define our fiscal future for the generation to come. The Congressional Budget Office noted this year that Social Security, health programs, and interest payments represent 84% of the increase in federal spending over the coming decade, largely because an average of 10,000 baby boomers will retire every day. Yet the House legislation could end up exempting from any structural reforms the more than 16 million individuals forecast to join Medicare by 2020.

Unsustainable trends will, at some point, give out. As I wrote last month, putting dessert before spinach by kicking tough choices to future political leaders might lead to short-term political gains but could also produce long-term fiscal and political pain. And when the fiscal reckoning occurs, voters are not likely to look kindly on those who created the problems.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.