Exclusive: Inside the Trump Administration’s Debate over Expanding Obamacare

Last August, I responded to a New York Times article indicating that some within the Trump administration wanted to give states additional flexibility to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Since then, those proposals have advanced, such that staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) believe that they have official sign-off from the president to put those proposals into place.

My conversations with half a dozen sources on Capitol Hill and across the administration in recent weeks suggest that the proposal continues to move through the regulatory process. However, my sources also described significant policy pitfalls that could spark a buzz-saw of opposition from both the left and the right.

The Times reported that some within the administration—including CMS Administrator Seema Verma and White House Domestic Policy Council Chairman Andrew Bremberg—have embraced the proposal. But if the plan overcomes what the Times characterized as a “furious” internal debate, it may face an even tougher reception outside the White House.

How It Would Work

After the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional for states as part of its 2012 ruling upholding Obamacare’s individual mandate, the Obama administration issued guidance interpreting that ruling. While the court made expansion optional for states, the Obama administration made it an “all-or-nothing” proposition for them.

Under the 2012 guidance—which remains in effect—if states want to receive the enhanced 90 percent federal match associated with expansion, they must cover the entire expansion population—all able-bodied adults with incomes under 138 percent of the federal poverty level (just under $35,000 for a family of four). If states expand only to some portion of the eligible population, they would only receive their regular Medicaid match of 50-76 percent, not the enhanced 90 percent match.

The Internal Debate

The August Times article indicated that, after considering partial expansion, the administration postponed any decision until after November’s midterm elections. Since that time, multiple sources disclosed to me a further meeting that took place on the topic in the Oval Office late last year. While the meeting was originally intended to provide an update for the president, CMS staff left that meeting thinking they had received the president’s sign-off to implement partial expansion.

Just before Christmas, during a meeting on an unrelated matter, a CMS staffer sounded me out on the proposal. The individual said CMS was looking for ways to help give states additional flexibility, particularly states hamstrung by initiatives forcing them to expand Medicaid. However, based on my other reporting, I believe that the conversation also represented an attempt to determine the level of conservative opposition to the public announcement of a decision CMS believes the president has already made.

Why Liberals Will Object

During my meeting, I asked the CMS staffer about the fiscal impacts of partial expansion. The staffer admitted that, as I had noted in my August article, exchange plans generally have higher costs than Medicaid coverage. Therefore, moving individuals from Medicaid to exchange coverage—and the federal government paying 100 percent of subsidy costs for exchange coverage, as opposed to 90 percent of Medicaid costs—will raise federal costs for every beneficiary who shifts coverage under partial expansion.

The Medicare actuary believes that the higher cost-sharing associated with exchange coverage will lead 30 percent of the target population—that is, individuals with incomes from 100-138 percent of poverty—to drop their exchange plan. Either beneficiaries will not be able to afford the premiums and cost-sharing, or they will not consider the coverage worth the money. And because 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage, the partial expansion change will save money in a given state—despite the fact that exchange coverage costs more than Medicaid on a per-beneficiary basis.

Why Conservatives Will Object

I immediately asked the CMS staffer an obvious follow-up question: Did the actuary consider whether partial expansion, by shifting the costs of expansion from the states to the federal government, would encourage more states to expand Medicaid? The staffer demurred, saying the actuary’s analysis focused on only one hypothetical state.

However, the CMS staffer did not tell me the entire story. Subsequent to my “official” meeting with that staffer, other sources privately confirmed that the actuary does believe that roughly 30 percent of the target population will drop coverage.

But these sources and others added that both the Medicare actuary and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) agree that, notwithstanding the savings from current expansion states—savings associated with individuals dropping exchange coverage, as explained above—the partial expansion proposal will cost the federal government overall, because it will encourage more states to expand Medicaid.

For instance, the Council of Economic Advisers believes that spending on non-expansion states who use partial expansion as a reason to extend Medicaid to the able-bodied will have three times the deficit impact as the savings associated with states shifting from full to partial expansion.

Because the spending on new partial expansion states will overcome any potential savings from states shifting from full to partial expansion, the proposal, if adopted, would appreciably increase the deficit. While neither CBO nor the Medicare actuary have conducted an updated analysis since the election, multiple sources cited an approximate cost to the federal government on the order of $100-120 billion over the next decade.

One source indicated that the Medicare actuary’s analysis early last summer arrived at an overall deficit increase of $111 billion. The results of November’s elections—in which three non-expansion states voted to accept expansion due to ballot initiatives—might have reduced the cost of the administration’s proposal slightly, but likely did not change the estimate of a sizable deficit increase.

A net cost of upwards of $100 billion, notwithstanding potential coverage losses from individuals dropping exchange coverage in current expansion states, can only mean one thing. CBO and the Medicare actuary both believe that, by lowering the cost for states to expand, partial expansion will prompt major non-expansion states—such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina—to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

Who Will Support This Proposal?

Based on the description of the scoring dynamic my sources described, partial expansion, if it goes forward, seems to have no natural political constituency. Red-state governors will support it, no doubt, for it allows them to offload much of their state costs associated with Medicaid expansion onto the federal government’s debt-laden dime. Once CMS approves one state’s partial expansion, the agency will likely have a line of Republican governors out its door looking to implement waivers of their own.

But it seems unlikely that Democratic-led states will follow suit. Indeed, the news that partial expansion would cause about 30 percent of the target population to drop their new exchange coverage could well prompt recriminations, investigations, and denunciations from Democrats in Congress and elsewhere. Because at least 3.1 million expansion beneficiaries live in states with Republican governors, liberals likely would object to the sizable number of these enrollees who could decide to drop coverage under partial expansion.

Conversely, conservatives will likely object to the high net cost associated with the proposal, notwithstanding the potential coverage losses in states that have already expanded. Some within the administration view Medicaid expansion, when coupled with proposals like work requirements, as a “conservative” policy. Other administration officials view expansion in all states as something approaching a fait accompli, and view partial expansion and similar proposals as a way to make the best of a bad policy outcome.

But Medicaid expansion by its very nature encourages states to discriminate against the most vulnerable in society, because it gives states a higher match for covering able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities. In addition to objecting to a way partial expansion would increase government spending by approximately $100 billion, some conservatives would also raise fundamental objections to any policy changes that would encourage states to embrace Obamacare—and add even more able-bodied adults to the welfare rolls in the process.

Particularly given the Democratic takeover of the House last week, the multi-pronged opposition to this plan could prove its undoing. Democrats will have multiple venues available—from oversight through letters and subpoenae, to congressional hearings, to use of the Congressional Review Act to overturn any administration decisions outright—to express their opposition to this proposal.

A “strange bedfellows” coalition of liberals and conservatives outraged over the policy, but for entirely different reasons, could nix it outright. While some officials may not realize it at present, the administration may not only make a decision that conservatives will object to on policy grounds, they may end up in a political quagmire in the process.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Troubling Premise Behind the Latest Obamacare Lawsuit

On Thursday, a group of Democratic attorneys general received permission to intervene in a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and other Republican officials. That lawsuit, originally filed in February, seeks to strike down all of Obamacare.

The lawsuit forces me to distinguish between policy preferences and the rule of law. Strictly on the policy, I want to repeal Obamacare as much as the next conservative does. However, in this case, striking down the law through legal fiat would represent judicial activism at its worst—asking unelected judges to do what elected members of Congress took great pains to avoid.

John Roberts’ Logic

Last December, Congress set the individual mandate penalty to zero beginning in January 2019. As others previously argued, the action eliminated the basis on which the Supreme Court found the mandate constitutional. Thus, the lawsuit alleges, the court should strike down the individual mandate—and, consistent with the reasoning of four dissenting justices (Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito) in the 2012 NFIB v. Sebelius case—all of Obamacare with it.

Congress Has Spoken

There’s one major flaw with the lawsuit’s logic: While Obamacare did not contain a severability clause, Congress in its infinite wisdom last year chose to eliminate the mandate penalty—and only the mandate penalty. Severability tests the court established work to determine first and foremost “whether the provisions will work as Congress intended,” as the dissenters noted back in 2012.

Because Congress, in the time since Obamacare passed, quite clearly eliminated only the mandate penalty, it demonstrated its intent. Regardless of whether federal courts strike down the mandate—now an edict in law unenforceable by any penalty—as unconstitutional, they cannot, and should not, strike down any other portion of the law.

Anti-Democratic Principle

In essence, the lawsuit asks the federal courts to do what Congress decided last year not to do: repeal all of Obamacare. Rather than working to persuade Congress to go back, consider health care anew, and pass the full repeal lawmakers ran on for four straight election cycles, the litigants instead hope to nullify Obamacare through a deus ex machina intervention of five of nine justices on the Supreme Court.

As a matter of law, the court should do no such thing. Substituting the judgment of unelected judges for popularly elected members of Congress would further erode the institutions supporting the rule of law. The protests on both the left and right regarding last year’s health-care legislation would pale in comparison to any demonstration should five unelected judges now decide to strike down all of Obamacare, and with good reason.

Moreover, this apparent application of situational ethics—“conservatives” supporting judicial activism when it furthers their policy objectives—will only undermine future attempts to constrain legislating from the bench. When it comes to asking courts to strike down massive pieces of legislation, conservatives should be careful what they wish for, because they just might get it—not on Obamacare, but on other major bills they do support.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Exclusive: Congress Should Investigate, Not Bail Out, Health Regulators Who Risked Billions

What if a group of regulators were collectively blindsided by a decision that cost their industry billions of dollars? One might think Congress would investigate the causes of this regulatory debacle, and take steps to ensure it wouldn’t repeat itself.

Think again. President Trump’s October decision to terminate cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidy payments to health insurers will inflict serious losses on the industry. For October, November, and December, insurers will reduce deductibles and co-payments for certain low-income exchange enrollees, but will not receive reimbursement from the federal government for doing so. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade association, claimed in a recent court filing that insurance carriers will suffer $1.75 billion in losses over the remainder of 2017 due to the decision.

As Dave Anderson of Duke University recently noted, the “hand grenade” of stopping the cost-sharing reduction payments, “if it was thrown in January or February of this year, would have forced a lot of carriers to do midyear exits and it would have destroyed the exchanges in some states.” Yet Congress has asked not even a single question of regulators why they did not anticipate and plan for this scenario—a recipe for more costly mistakes in the future.

A Brewing Legal and Political Storm

The controversy surrounds federal payments that reimburse insurers for lower deductibles, co-payments, and out-of-pocket expenses for qualifying low-income households purchasing exchange coverage. While the text of Obamacare requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish a program to reimburse insurers for providing the discounts, it nowhere includes an explicit appropriation for such spending.

As the exchanges launched in 2014, the Obama administration began making CSR payments to insurers. However, later that year, the House of Representatives, viewing a constitutional infringement on its “power of the purse,” sued to stop the executive from making the payments without an explicit appropriation. In May 2016, Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled the payments unconstitutional absent an express appropriation from Congress.

The next President could easily wade into this issue. Say a Republican is elected and he opts to stop the Treasury making payments related to the subsidies absent an express appropriation from Congress. Such an action could take effect almost immediately….It’s a consideration as carriers submit their bids for next year that come January 2017, the policy landscape for insurers could look far different.

One week after my article, Collyer issued her ruling calling the subsidy payments unconstitutional. At that point, CSR payments faced threats from both the legal and political realms. On the legal front, the ongoing court case could have resulted in an order terminating the payments. On the political side, the new administration would have the power to terminate the payments unilaterally—and it does not appear that either Hillary Clinton or Trump ever publicly committed to maintaining the payments upon taking office.

Yet Commissioners Stood Idly By

In the midst of this gathering storm, what actions did insurance commissioners take last year, as insurers filed their rates for the 2017 plan year—the plan year currently ongoing—to analyze whether cost-sharing payments would continue, and the effects on insurers if they did not? About a week before the Trump administration officially decided to halt the payments, I submitted public records requests to every state insurance commissioner’s office to find out.

Two states (Indiana and Oregon) are still processing my requests, but the results from most other states do not inspire confidence. Although a few states (Illinois, Utah, and California’s Department of Managed Health Care) withheld documents for confidentiality or logistical reasons, I have yet to find a single document during the filing process for the 2017 plan year contemplating the set of circumstances that transpired this fall—namely, a new administration cutting off the CSR payments.

In many cases, states indicated they did not, and do not, question insurers’ assumptions at all. North Dakota said it does not dictate terms to carriers (although the state did not allow carriers to re-submit rates for the 2018 plan year after the administration halted the CSR payments in October). Wyoming said it did not issue guidance to carriers on CSRs “because that’s not how we roll.” Missouri did not require its insurers to file 2017 rates with regulators, so it would have no way of knowing those insurers’ assumptions.

Other states admitted that they did not consider the possibility that the incoming administration would, or even could, terminate the CSR payments. North Carolina said it did not think the court case was relevant, or that cost-sharing reduction payments would be an issue. Massachusetts’ insurance Connector (its state-run exchange) responded that “there was no indication that rates for 2017 were affected by the pendency of House v. Burwell,” the case Collyer ruled on in May 2016.

Despite the ongoing court case and the deep partisan disputes over Obamacare, many commissioners’ responses indicate a failure to anticipate difficulties with cost-sharing reduction payments. Mississippi stated that, during the filing process for 2017, “CSRs weren’t a problem then, as they were being funded.” Minnesota added that “it was not until the spring of 2017 that carriers started discussing the threat [of CSR payments being terminated] was a real possibility.” Nebraska stated that “I don’t think that there’s anyone who allowed for the possibility of non-payment of CSRs for plan year 2017. We were all waiting for Congress to act.”

However, as an e-mail sent by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to state regulators demonstrates, federal authorities at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) stated their “serious concerns” with the Texas and New Mexico proposals. Federal law requires insurers to reduce cost-sharing for qualifying beneficiaries, regardless of the status of the reimbursement program, and CMS believed the contingency language—which never went into effect in either Texas or New Mexico—violated that requirement.

In at least one case, an insurer raised premiums to reflect the risk that CSR payments could disappear in 2017. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana submitted such request to that state’s insurance authorities. However, regulators rejected “contingent CSR language”—apparently an attempt to cancel the reduced cost-sharing if reimbursement from Washington was not forthcoming, a la the Texas and New Mexico proposals. The insurance commissioner’s office also objected to the carrier’s attempt to raise premiums over the issue: “We will not allow rates to be increased based on speculation about outcomes of litigation.”

Of course, had insurers requested, or had regulators either approved or demanded, premium increases last year due to uncertainty over cost-sharing reduction payments, they would not now face the prospect of over $1 billion in losses due to non-payment of CSRs for the last three months of 2017. But had regulators approved even higher premium increases last year, those increases likely would have caused political controversy during the November elections.

As it was, news of the average 25 percent premium increase for 2017 gave Trump a political cudgel to attack Clinton in the waning days of the campaign. One can certainly question why Democratic insurance commissioners who did not utter a word about premium increases and CSR “uncertainty” during Clinton’s campaign suddenly discovered the term the minute Trump was elected president.

However, at least some ardent Obamacare supporters just did not anticipate a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments. Washington state’s commissioner, Mike Kreidler, published an op-ed last October regarding the House v. Burwell court case. He did so at the behest of NAIC consumer representative Tim Jost, who wanted to cite Kreidler’s piece in an amicus curiae brief during the case’s appeal. But despite their focus on the court case regarding CSRs, it appears neither Jost nor Kreidler ever contemplated a new administration withdrawing the payments in 2017.

Congressional Oversight Needed

The evidence suggests that not a single insurance commissioner considered the impact of a new administration withdrawing cost-sharing reduction payments in 2017, a series of decisions that put the entire health of the individual insurance market at risk. What policy implications follow from this conclusion?

First, it undercuts the effectiveness of Obamacare’s “rate review” process. That mechanism requires states to evaluate “excessive” premium increases. However, the program’s evaluation criteria do not explicitly include policy judgments such as those surrounding CSRs. Moreover, the political focus on lowering “excessively” high premium increases might result in cases where regulators approve premium rates set inappropriately low—as happened in 2017, where no carriers priced in a contingency margin for the termination of CSR payments, yet those payments ceased in October.

As noted above, Montana’s regulators called out that state’s Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliate for proposing a rate increase relating to CSR uncertainty. The state’s insurance commissioner, Monica Lindeen, issued a formal “letter of deficiency” in which she stated that “raising rates on the basis of this assumption [i.e., loss of cost-sharing reduction payments] is unreasonable.” But events proved Lindeen wrong—those payments did disappear in 2017. Yet the insurer in question has no recourse after their assumptions proved more accurate than Lindeen’s—nor, for that matter, will Lindeen face any consequences for the “unreasonable” assumptions she made.

Second, it suggests an inherent tension between state authorities and Washington. Several regulators specifically said they looked to CMS’ advice on the cost-sharing reduction issue. Iowa requested guidance from Washington, and Wisconsin said the status of the payments was “out of our hands.” But given the impending change of administrations, any guidance CMS provided in the spring or summer of 2016 was guaranteed to remain valid only through January 20, 2017—a problem for regulators setting rates for the 2017 plan year.

Obamacare created a new layer of federal oversight—and federal policy—surrounding regulation of insurance, which heretofore had laid primarily within the province of the states. The CSR debacle resulted from the conflict between those two layers. Unless and until our laws reconcile those tensions—in conservatives’ case, by repealing the Obamacare regime and returning regulation to the states, or in liberals’ preferred outcome, by centralizing more regulatory authority in Washington—these conflicts could well recur.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it should spark Congress to examine state oversight of health insurance in greater detail. The fact that insurance commissioners escaped the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane—the withdrawal of CSR payments in January—and struggled through a mere tropical storm with payments withdrawn in October instead, had no relevance on their regulatory skill—to the contrary, in fact.

Unfortunately, Congress has demonstrated little interest in examining why the regulatory apparatus fell so short. The same Democratic Party that investigated regulators and bankers following the financial crisis has shown little interest in questioning why insurers and insurance regulators failed to anticipate the end of cost-sharing reduction payments. With their focus on getting Congress to appropriate funds restoring the CSR payments President Trump terminated, insurance commissioners’ lack of planning and preparation represents an inconvenient truth that Democrats would rather ignore.

Likewise, Republicans who wish to appropriate funds for the cost-sharing reduction payments have no interest in examining the roots of the CSR debacle. In September, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) convened a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee to take testimony from insurance commissioners on “stabilizing” insurance markets.

At the hearing, Alexander did not ask the commissioners why they did not predict the “uncertainty” surrounding cost-sharing reductions last year. HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) asked Kreidler, her state’s insurance commissioner, about regulators’ “guessing games” regarding the status of CSRs with regard to the 2018 plan year. But neither she nor any of the members asked why those regulators made such blind and ultimately incorrect assumptions last year, by not even considering a scenario where CSR payments disappeared during the 2017 plan year.

Alexander and Murray claim the legislation they developed following the hearing, which would appropriate CSR funds for two years, does not represent a “bailout” for the insurance industry. But the fact remains that last fall, when preparing for the 2017 plan year, insurance regulators dropped the ball in a big way.

Ignoring their inaction, and appropriating funds for cost-sharing reductions without scrutinizing their conduct, would effectively bail out insurance commissioners’ own collective negligence. Congress should think twice before doing so, because next time, a regulatory debacle could have an even bigger impact on the health insurance industry—and on federal taxpayers.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

How Graham-Cassidy’s Funding Formula Gives Washington Unprecedented Power

The past several days have seen competing analyses over the block-grant funding formula proposed in health-care legislation by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). The bill’s sponsors have one set of spreadsheets showing the potential allocation of funds to states under their plan, the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has another, and consultants at Avalere (funded in this case by the liberal Center for American Progress) have a third analysis quantifying which states would gain or lose under the bill’s funding formula.

So who’s right? Which states will end up the proverbial winners and losers under the Graham-Cassidy bill? The answer is simple: Nope.

While the bill’s proponents claim the legislation will increase state authority, in reality the bill gives unelected bureaucrats the power to distribute nearly $1.2 trillion in taxpayer dollars unilaterally. In so doing, the bill concentrates rather than diminishes Washington’s power—and could set the course for the “mother of all backroom deals” to pass the legislation.

A Complicated Spending Formula

To start with, the bill repeals Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and exchange subsidies, effective in January 2020. It then replaces those two programs with a block grant totaling $1.176 trillion from 2020 through 2026. All else equal, this set of actions would disadvantage states that expanded Medicaid, because the Medicaid expansion money currently being received by 31 states (plus the District of Columbia) would be re-distributed among all 50 states.

From there the formula gets more complicated. (You can read the sponsors’ description of it here.) The bill attempts to equalize per-person funding among all states by 2026, with funds tied to a state’s number of individuals with incomes between 50 percent and 138 percent of the poverty level.

Thus far, the formula carries a logic to it. For years conservatives have complained that Medicaid’s match rate formula gives wealthy states more incentives to draw down federal funds than poor states, and that rich states like New York and New Jersey have received a disproportionate share of Medicaid funds as a result. The bill’s sponsors claim that the bill “treats all Americans the same no matter where they live.”

Would that that claim were true. Page 30 of the bill demonstrates otherwise.

The Trillion-Dollar Loophole

Page 30 of the Graham-Cassidy bill, which creates a “state specific population adjustment factor,” completely undermines the rest of the bill’s funding formula:

IN GENERAL.—For calendar years after 2020, the Secretary may adjust the amount determined for a State for a year under subparagraph (B) or (C) and adjusted under subparagraphs (D) and (E) according to a population adjustment factor developed by the Secretary.

The bill does say that HHS must develop “legitimate factors” that affect state health expenditures—so it can’t allocate funding based on, say, the number of people who own red socks in Alabama. But beyond those two words, pretty much anything goes.

The bill says the “legitimate factors” for population adjustment “may include state demographics, wage rates, [and] income levels,” but it doesn’t limit the factors to those three characteristics—and it doesn’t limit the amount that HHS can adjust the funding formula to reflect those characteristics either. If a hurricane like Harvey struck Texas three years from now, Secretary Tom Price would be within his rights under the bill to cite a public health emergency and dedicate 100 percent of the federal grant funds—which total $146 billion in 2020—solely to Texas.

That scenario seems unlikely, but it shows the massive and virtually unprecedented power HHS would have under the bill to control more than $1 trillion in federal spending by executive fiat. To top it off, pages 6 through 8 of the bill create a separate pot of $25 billion — $10 billion for 2019 and $15 billion for 2020 — and tell the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator to “determine an appropriate procedure” for allocating the funds. That’s another blank check of $25,000,000,000 in taxpayer funds, given to federal bureaucrats to spend as they see fit.

Backroom Deals Ahead

With an unprecedented level of authority granted to federal bureaucrats to determine how much funding states receive, you can easily guess what’s coming next. Unnamed Senate staffers already invoked strip-club terminology in July, claiming they would “make it rain” on moderates with hundreds of billions of dollars in “candy.” Under the current version of the bill, HHS staff now have virtual carte blanche to promise all sorts of “state specific population adjustment factors” to influence the votes of wavering senators.

The potential for even more backroom deals than the prior versions of “repeal-and-replace” demonstrates the pernicious power that trillions of dollars in spending delivers to Washington. Draining the swamp shouldn’t involve distributing money from Washington out to states, whether under a simple formula or executive discretion. It should involve eliminating Washington’s role in doling out money entirely.

That’s what Republicans promised when they said they would repeal Obamacare—to end the law’s spending, not work on “spreading the wealth around.” That’s what they should deliver.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Yes, Obamacare Really Does Disadvantage Individuals with Disabilities

My article last week regarding disability groups’ political and policy views prompted some comments and criticisms on Twitter. Rather than trying to explain detailed subjects in bursts of 140-character tweets, I considered it best to compile them into a longer-form article.

To summarize my prior work: Obamacare provides states with a greater incentive to expand Medicaid to able-bodied adults than to cover services for individuals with disabilities. States receive a 95 percent match this year (declining to 90 percent in 2020 and all future years) to cover the able-bodied, but a match ranging from 50-75 percent to cover individuals with disabilities, while more than half a million are on waiting lists to receive home or attendant care.

Many of the responses I discuss in greater detail below attempt to obscure two separate and distinct issues: The question of the amount of funding for programs versus the priorities within those programs.

As a conservative, I’m likely to disagree with liberals on the ideal size of many government programs, but I thought I would at least agree with them that individuals with disabilities should receive precedence within those programs. However, Obamacare actually tilted Medicaid’s preference away from individuals with disabilities, which makes disability groups’ silence on that front surprising.

There Is No Correlation Between Waiting Lists and Medicaid Expansion

The timeliest rebuttal comes from a story on a long-term care report none other than AARP released yesterday. Susan Reinhard with that organization—no right-wing conservative group, by any stretch—said that

Many states have struggled to expand home- and community-based options for Medicaid enrollees needing long-term care because that is an optional benefit. Nursing homes are mandatory under federal law. While states focus on Medicaid coverage for children and families — as well as non-disabled adults covered by the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act — adults with disabilities have received less attention. ‘Long-term care is a stepchild of the program and not a top focus for states,’ she said. (emphasis mine.)

That statement notwithstanding, several people cited two different analyses that compare states’ decisions on expansion to the able-bodied and their waiting lists for home-based care for individuals with disabilities. But each of those “studies” (based on only one year of data available) take an overly simplistic approach, and therefore don’t get at the core issue of the extent to which the skewed incentives Obamacare created have encouraged states to prioritize the able-bodied over those with disabilities.

A state’s decision to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied, or reduce its waiting lists for individuals with disabilities, depends on myriad factors. For instance:

  • A wealthy state with a greater tax base would have more resources both to expand Medicaid to the able-bodied and to reduce its waiting list of individuals with disabilities, while a poorer state with a smaller tax base might not have resources to do either;
  • A state with “bad” demographics (e.g., an older and sicker population), or higher costs for health and personal care services, might have more difficulty reducing their Medicaid waiting lists;
  • A state may face other fiscal pressures—controversy over school funding, a natural disaster, a pension crisis—that could affect overall Medicaid spending.

Numerous variables affect states’ budget choices, and therefore their Medicaid waiting lists. The “studies” controlled for exactly none of them. They examined whether a state expanded Medicaid and the total number of people on a state’s waiting list, and that’s it.

Moreover, under Obamacare, all states receive the same (higher) federal match to cover able-bodied adults—another change in policy (prior to Obamacare, all Medicaid match rates were based on states’ relative income) skewing the balance in favor of wealthier expansion states. Yet, as noted above, the analyses claiming no correlation between expansion and Medicaid waiting lists didn’t even attempt to control for these variables—or any other.

Therefore, in the absence of a quality study examining the issue, I’ll go with something far simpler: Common sense. If you’re a state that wants to spend more money on Medicaid, and you can do something (i.e., cover the able-bodied) that gives you 95 cents on the dollar, or something (i.e., reduce waiting lists for individuals with disabilities) that gives you 50 cents on the dollar, which are you going to do first?

I thought so. The incentives in Obamacare strongly favor coverage of the able-bodied over coverage for individuals with disabilities. And no number of crude analyses attempting to provide retroactive justification for this bad policy can hide that fact.

Waiting Lists Are Worst In Two Non-Expansion States

This comment reinforces the crudeness of the analysis being cited. All else being equal, as the second- and third-largest states in the Union, Texas and Florida would be expected to have a larger number of people on its waiting lists for home- and community-based services than a smaller expansion state like Connecticut. All else isn’t equal, of course, but did the analysts attempt to control for these kinds of factors? Nope. They examined raw waiting list numbers, rather than waiting lists as a percentage of the population.

But just suppose for a second that the commenters above are correct, and there is no correlation between expansion to the able-bodied and waiting lists for home-based care. That means that the greater incentives Obamacare gives to states to cover the able-bodied—and while the advocacy community might not want to admit it, Obamacare clearly does give states greater incentives to cover the able-bodied—didn’t affect state behavior, or decisions about whether to reduce disability waiting lists at all.

In that case, why has the disability community expressed such outrage about the impact of per capita caps or block grants on Medicaid beneficiaries with disabilities? If states make decisions without considering federal incentives—the point of the claims that there is no correlation between expanding Medicaid to the able-bodied and longer waiting lists for individuals with disabilities—then why also claim that “cost-shifting to states will force massive cuts in Medicaid services?” Why wouldn’t states shift around resources to protect individuals with disabilities—what the disability community claims that states did to reduce waiting lists even while expanding Medicaid under Obamacare?

There are really only two credible possibilities:

  • States are affected by incentives, therefore Obamacare—by giving states a higher match to cover the able-bodied—encouraged discrimination against individuals with disabilities; or
  • States are not affected by incentives, and therefore the per capita caps—which generate a comparatively small amount of savings in the House repeal bill—will have little impact, because states will re-prioritize their budgets to protect the most vulnerable.

It’s therefore worth asking why some appear to be trying to argue both sides of this question, and doing so in a way that neatly lines up with partisan lines—trying to ignore Obamacare’s skewed incentives, while roundly castigating the House Republican bill for incentives that will “force massive cuts in Medicaid.”

Republicans’ Bill Would Cut Program Helping People Live at Home

This is a true statement: Section 111(2) of the American Health Care Act, House Republicans’ “repeal-and-replace” bill, would sunset the enhanced match for the Community First Choice program on January 1, 2020. That option provides states with a 6 percent increase in their federal match for home- and community-based services, including to individuals with disabilities. But here again, raising this issue demonstrates the inherent disconnect between the incentives being offered to states, and the disability community’s responses to those incentives.

  • Obamacare provides states with a match ranging from 20-45 percentage points higher to cover the able-bodied than individuals with disabilities: “No correlation between expansion and waiting lists for individuals with disabilities!”
  • Obamacare provides states with a 6 percentage point increase for home-based services: A “huge change to improve HCBS [home and community-based services] care.”
  • The Republican alternative to Obamacare would reduce Medicaid spending for traditional (i.e., non-expansion) populations by a comparatively small amount: “Massive cuts to Medicaid services.”

Isn’t there a slight contradiction in these responses—both in their tone and in their logic? And isn’t it worth noting that these contradictions all happen to align perfectly with the natural partisan response to each of these issues?

This Is A Political Problem, Not a Policy Problem

Claiming that the greater federal match to cover able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities stems from a “political history problem” deliberately obscures its roots. This “history” did not take place half a century ago, at Medicaid’s creation, it took place in the past few years, as part of Obamacare.

When crafting that legislation, Democrats could have come up with other policy solutions that expanded Medicaid to the able-bodied without discriminating against individuals with disabilities in the process. They could have proposed increasing the federal match for coverage of individuals with disabilities, in exchange for states covering the able-bodied at the existing federal match rates. Congress enacted a similar type of “swap” in the Medicare Modernization Act. The federal government took over the prescription drug cost of Medicare-Medicaid “dual eligibles” in exchange for a series of “clawback” payments from states.

Democrats in Congress could have considered other ways to expand Medicaid without giving states a greater match to cover the able-bodied than individuals with disabilities. To the best of my knowledge, they chose not to do so. President Obama could have insisted on a more equitable Medicaid formula, but he chose not to do so. And the disability community could have pointed out this disparity to the president and leaders in Congress, but chose not to do so.

Agree or disagree with them, these were deliberate policy choices, not a mere historical accident.

How Can You Support Lower Funding While Complaining About Access?

The argument about lower funding levels misses several points. First, while the Congressional Budget Office has not released estimates of how much the per capita caps (as opposed to changes associated with scaling back Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion) will reduce federal spending, multiple estimates suggest a comparatively small amount of savings from this particular change—at most 1 or 2 percent of spending on traditional Medicaid populations over the coming decade.

Second, if given sufficient flexibility from Washington, states can reduce their Medicaid spending, rendering the discussion of “cuts” under the caps moot. Rhode Island’s Global Compact Waiver, approved in January 2009, actually resulted in a year-on-year decline of Medicaid spending per beneficiary. Moreover, the non-partisan Lewin Group concluded that Rhode Island’s waiver reduced that spending by improving beneficiary access and care, not by denying medical services.

Third, if caps on Medicaid are so harmful and damaging, then why did Obamacare cap spending on Medicare—and why did disability groups remain silent about it? Current law imposes a per capita cap on Medicare spending, one enforced by Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) of unelected bureaucrats.

What’s more, Obamacare imposes an annual inflation adjustment (gross domestic product growth plus 1 percent) likely to be lower than the inflation adjustment for disabled populations included in the House-passed bill (medical inflation plus 1 percent). Yet a critique of the Medicare payment caps or IPAB appears nowhere in the disability community’s 14 pages of comments regarding the bill that became Obamacare.

So the question to the disability community is obvious: Why does a Democratic proposal to impose per capita caps on Medicare raise no objections, but a Republican proposal to impose (potentially higher) per capita caps on Medicaid guaranteed to prompt “massive cuts in Medicaid services?”

Let’s Just Pay More for Everyone

This comment attempts to obscure the distinction between the amount of funding and the priorities for that funding. I might disagree with liberals about the overall level of funding for the program—not least because efforts like that in Rhode Island demonstrate the potential for Medicaid to become more efficient—but I should agree with them about the need to prioritize care for the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion goes in the opposite direction.

In thinking about the important distinction between overall program funding and priorities within a program, I’m often reminded of a speech that former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) gave on the House floor in September 2009: “At some point in time, my friends, we have to buck up our courage and our judgment and say, if we take care of everybody, we won’t be able to take care of those who need us most. That’s my concern. If we take care of everybody…then we will not be able to take care of those most in need in America.”

Yes, Hoyer’s speech discussed Medicare, not Medicaid, and he voted for Obamacare (and its Medicaid expansion) six months after giving it. But the speech raises an important point about the need to prioritize entitlements, one that the notion of giving higher reimbursement rates to all populations ignores.

That’s what’s wrong with focusing solely on the question on the amount of funding for a program. Reasonable people can (and will) disagree about where to draw the funding line, but it has to be drawn somewhere. “Solving” the question of funding priorities by increasing reimbursements for all populations—the equivalent of promising everyone a pony—will, by failing to choose wisely now, cause even tougher fiscal choices for generations to come.

Disability Groups Have More Important Priorities

Yes, I have worked with disability groups. For one, in 2013, I served on the Commission on Long-Term Care Congress created in the wake of the CLASS Act’s failure and repeal. We took many hours of public testimony from disability groups and others, and received dozens of other written comments—many from dedicated and passionate parents or caregivers of individuals with disabilities, and all of which I made a point to read. I won’t claim to have made disability policy my life’s work, but my jobs over the years have intersected with the disability community on several occasions.

By claiming that disability groups have “way more priorities than comparing their FMAP [i.e., their federal match rate],” this comment actually makes my point for me. The January 2010 letter by the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) setting out priorities for what became Obamacare was 14 pages in length, amounted to over 5,500 words, and included (by my count) 73 separate bulleted recommendations regarding the legislation. All that, and yet not one word on the bill prioritizing coverage of the able-bodied over individuals with disabilities? Frankly, the issue seems quite conspicuous by its absence.

Just Interview Someone From This Consortium

I received a series of tweetsculminating in a dramatic “Shame on you”—attacking me for not having contacted any members of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) prior to writing my piece. It is correct that I didn’t reach out to any CCD member groups before printing the article. I didn’t need to because I had already spent years working with them.

The charge that I never spoke to “ONE SINGLE CCD MEMBER” is false—and demonstrably so. For nearly four years, from the spring of 2004 until the end of 2007, I worked as a lobbyist for the National Association of Disability Representatives (NADR). During that time, I spent many hours in CCD task force meetings, interacting both directly and indirectly with CCD members. The commenter’s accusation that if I had reached out to CCD members, I would know about the lengthy adjudication process for many Social Security disability claims holds no small amount of irony—I handled those issues over a decade ago.

In reality, my time working with CCD members while representing the disability representatives prompted me to write my article last week. While attending CCD meetings, I saw firsthand how some meeting participants—several of which remain in their current positions and active in CCD activities—made offhand comments of a rather partisan nature. Not everyone joined in the political commentary, but several felt comfortable enough to make clear their partisan affiliations in open discussions, even if I and others did not.

Similarly, I recall how the disability community fought against George W. Bush’s idea for personal accounts within Social Security almost uniformly, and even before Congress and the administration had an opportunity to fully develop their proposals. At the time, my client, the National Association of Disability Representatives, took an agnostic view towards the personal account concept, focusing more on the specifics of whether and how it could work for the disability community.

For instance, NADR wanted to ensure that any personal account proposal would hold the Social Security Disability Trust Fund (separate from the Old Age and Survivors Trust Fund) harmless, and that people who spent time receiving disability benefits would not be financially harmed (e.g., lack the opportunity to save wage earnings in a personal account, yet have their retirement benefits reduced) for having done so.

By contrast, most CCD members opposed the proposal from the get-go, often coordinating with Nancy Pelosi, Sander Levin, and other Democrats for events and strategy meetings. Archives on the disability coalition’s website from that era appear incomplete, but a 2005 August recess “Action Alert: Efforts to Privatize Social Security Continue!” gives a sense of the message coming from most CCD members, and the organization as a whole.

At this point any liberals still reading might applaud the disability community for having come out so strongly against the Bush proposal. But that idea focused on the Social Security retirement system, not the disability program, and the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress wanted to engage with disability groups to ensure any reforms held the disability community harmless. So how did failing to engage them—choosing instead to oppose from the outset—help the disability community?

In truth, early and vocal opposition to personal accounts may have put the disability community at greater risk had the personal account proposal been enacted without disability groups’ technical expertise on how best to structure it. And given both the partisan comments I heard from at least some CCD members at CCD meetings, it’s worth asking whether partisan or ideological concerns—separate and distinct from the interests of the disability community—unduly or improperly influenced the organization’s collective judgment back then.

Their inherent contradictions in the current debate—remaining silent about Obamacare’s unfair Medicaid match rate disparity and Medicare payment caps, while strenuously objecting to Republican attempts to impose payment caps on Medicaid—reinforce those concerns about undue partisanship.

It isn’t always easy stating inconvenient truths—pointing out that laws one doesn’t like should be enforced along with every other law, or where policies proposed by lawmakers with whom one might ordinarily be aligned fall woefully short. But such truth-telling remains an essential ingredient to authenticity and credibility. As I argued last week, I don’t think the disability community has done that in this case. I wish they had.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Summary of Fiscal Year 2018 Budget

Late Monday afternoon, a document briefly appeared on the Department of Health and Human Services website as the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget in Brief. It’s unclear whether the document was a draft of the HHS budget, or merely a case of a staffer posting the official document online too early (our money would be on the latter). It also must be noted that other budget materials—the White House/Office of Management and Budget document, as well as supplemental materials from the Treasury and others—provide more detail and information not present solely within the HHS budget.

That said, based on the review of the document posted, the health budget seems in many respects functionally incoherent:

  • It proposes significant entitlement savings from Medicaid, over and above those included in Obamacare repeal, while proposing no direct savings from Medicare—a program that will spend more than $9 trillion in the coming decade, and which faces insolvency by 2028;
  • It grants states more flexibility with regards to Medicaid reform, while with respect to medical liability reform, it prescribes a solution from Washington—one that conservatives have argued is inconsistent with Tenth Amendment principles; and
  • It assumes $250 billion in savings from Obamacare repeal—more than the most recent estimate of the House legislation—a “magic asterisk” not likely to be achieved, but one on which the budget relies in order to achieve balance within a decade.

A summary of the document follows below.  We will have further information on the budget in the coming days, as more materials get released.

Discretionary Spending
While press reports in recent days have focused on the amount of “cuts” proposed in the President’s budget, it’s worth noting the HHS budget’s overall spending levels. When it comes to budget authority, the budget would spend $1.113 trillion in Fiscal Year 2018, which is a 1.24% reduction compared to the $1.127 trillion preliminary number for the current fiscal year, and a 0.54% reduction compared to the $1.119 trillion for Fiscal Year 2016.

Furthermore, the HHS budget actually increases the number of full-time equivalents (FTEs) within the Department—from 77,499 in FY16, to 79,505 in FY17, to 80,027 in FY18.

When compared to Fiscal Year 2017 amounts, the budget calls for the following changes in discretionary spending by major HHS divisions (tabulated by budget authority):

  • $850 million (31.0%) reduction for the Food and Drug Administration, as the Administration proposes increasing FDA user fees to compensate for reductions in taxpayer funding;
  • $449 million (4.2%) reduction for the Health Services and Resources Administration;
  • $55 million (1.1%) reduction for the Indian Health Service;
  • $1.3 billion (17.2%) reduction for the Centers for Disease Control;
  • $5.78 billion (18.2%) reduction for the National Institutes of Health;
  • $385 million (9.3%) reduction for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; and
  • $379 million (9.6%) reduction for the discretionary portion of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services program management account.

Food and Drug Administration:  As noted above, the budget envisions a “recalibration” of how to pay for FDA pre-market review activities. Specifically, the budget would increase industry user fees “to fund 100 percent of cost for pre-market review and approval activities” for brand and generic prescription drugs and medical devices.

Medicare Proposals (Total savings of $22.6 Billion, including interactions)

Medicare Appeals:  Proposes new mandatory spending of $127 million in Fiscal 2018, and $1.27 billion over a decade, to address the pending backlog of Medicare appeals.

IPAB Repeal:  Repeals Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), at a cost of $7.6 billion over a decade. While opposing Obamacare’s notion that a board of unelected bureaucrats should be empowered to make rulings lowering Medicare spending nationwide, some conservatives may also oppose efforts to repeal a spending constraint on our nation’s largest health care entitlement without any similar efforts to control the program’s large (and growing) outlays.

Liability Reform:  Achieves Medicare savings of $31.4 billion from medical liability reforms. The reforms would impose caps on non-economic damages, provide safe harbors for physicians based on following clinical guidelines, allow for the creation of health courts, provide for a three-year statute of limitations, eliminate joint and several liability, allow courts to modify contingency arrangements, and provide for periodic payments for large jury awards.

The proposal would yield total savings of $55 billion overall. The largest share of $31.4 billion would come from Medicare—in part because a portion of physician fees are based on medical liability insurance payments. Medicaid savings would total $399 million. Much of the remaining $23.2 billion would come from revenue interactions with the current exclusion from employer-provided health insurance—i.e., a lowering of health insurance costs and premiums resulting in workers receiving slightly less of their compensation as pre-tax health benefits, and slightly more of their compensation as after-tax cash wages.

While supporting the concept of liability reform generally, some conservatives may be concerned that the budget’s proposals violate the principles of federalism. States can enact liability reforms on their own—and many states like Texas have done so, without any mandates from Washington. Some conservatives may therefore view this proposal as an example of “big government conservatism” inconsistent with the Tenth Amendment.

Medicaid and Other Health Proposals (Total savings of $627 Billion)

The HHS document notes that “the budget includes a net savings to Medicaid of $627 billion over 10 years, not including additional savings to Medicaid as a result of the Administration’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.”

Medicaid Reform:  Assumes $610 billion in savings (again, over and above Obamacare repeal) from Medicaid reform, giving states the choice between a per capita cap or a block grant beginning in 2020. The document specifically notes that this proposal will allow states to promote solutions that encourage work and promote personal responsibility.

State Children’s Health Insurance Program:  Assumes a two-year reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The budget also proposes eliminating two Obamacare-related provisions—the increase in the enhanced federal match rate for SCHIP, and the maintenance of effort requirements imposed on states—in both cases at the end of the current fiscal year.

The budget would cap the level at which states could receive the enhanced federal SCHIP match at 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($61,500 for a family of four in 2017). Some conservatives would argue that this provision is one way to ensure federal funds are directed towards the vulnerable populations that need them most; guidance issued by the Bush Administration in 2007 provides other examples of potential policies to include.

Finally, the budget also proposes undoing an Obamacare change that required states to transition certain children off of SCHIP and into expanded Medicaid, allowing states to re-enroll these children into SCHIP.

On net, the SCHIP extension would save the federal government $5.8 billion over ten years, reflecting new costs to the SCHIP program ($13.9 billion), savings to Medicaid ($16.7 billion), and savings to other federal health programs ($3 billion).

Liability Reform:  As noted above, the budget assumes an additional $399 million in Medicaid savings from enacting liability reform.

Repeal of Obamacare
The budget assumes a net of $250 billion in savings from an Obamacare repeal/replace measure, savings accruing to both HHS and Treasury. Some conservatives, noting that the most recent score of Obamacare legislation showed a net savings of only $150 billion—with more new spending added since then—may question whether or not this assumption is realistic.

Donald Trump’s 47.5 Million Reasons to Support Obamacare Bailouts

Last Friday afternoon, Donald Trump caused a minor uproar in Washington when he signaled a major softening in his stance towards President Obama’s unpopular health-care law. “Either Obamacare will be amended, or it will be repealed and replaced,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal—a major caveat heretofore unexpressed on the campaign trail.

Why might Trump—who not one month ago, in a nationally televised debate, called Obamacare a “total disaster” that next year will “implode by itself”—embark on such a volte face about the law? Politico notes one possible answer lies in the story of Oscar, a startup insurer created to sell plans under Obamacare:

Oscar is about to have an unusually close tie to the White House: Company co-founder Josh Kushner’s brother Jared is posted to plan an influential role in shaping his father-in-law Donald Trump’s presidency. The two brothers in 2013 were also deemed ‘the ultimate controlling persons in Oscar’s holding company system,’ according to a state report.

Government of the People—Or of the Cronies?

In 2000, while contemplating a run for the White House, Trump told Fortune magazine: “It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” That previously expressed sentiment—of using political office for personal pecuniary gain—would not rule out Trump assuming policy positions designed to enrich himself and his associates.

That need might be particularly acute in the case of Oscar, of which Jared Kushner was a controlling person, and in which Josh Kushner’s venture capital firm Thrive Capital has invested. On Tuesday, the insurer reported $45 million in losses in just three states, bringing Oscar’s losses in those three states to a total of $128 million this calendar year. Bloomberg said the company “sells health insurance to individuals in new markets set up by [Obamacare,]” and described its future after last week’s election thusly:

Trump’s election could be a negative for the insurer. The Republican has promised to repeal and replace [Obamacare,] though he’s softened that stance since his victory. The uncertainty could discourage some people from signing up for health plans, or Republicans could eliminate or reduce the tax subsidies in the law that are used to help pay for coverage.

Replace “the insurer” with “Trump’s in-laws” in the above paragraph, and the president-elect’s evolving stance certainly begins to make more sense.

Pimp My Obamacare Bailout?

It’s an ironic statement, given that government documents reveal how Oscar—and thus Trump’s in-laws—have made claims on Obamacare bailout programs to the tune of $47.5 million. Those claims, including $38.2 million from reinsurance and $9.3 billion from risk corridors, total more than Oscar’s losses in the past quarter. The $47.5 million amount also represents a mere fraction of what Oscar could ultimately request, and receive, from Obamacare’s bailout funds, as it does not include any claims for the current benefit year.

Given that most of the things Trump should do on Day One to dismantle Obamacare involve undoing the law’s illegal bailouts, it’s troubling to learn the extent to which a company run by his in-laws has benefited from them. Following are some examples.

Reinsurance: Administration documents reveal that during Obamacare’s first two years, Oscar received $38.2 million in payments from the law’s reinsurance program, designed to subsidize insurers for the expense associated with high-cost patients. Unfortunately, these bailout payments have come at the expense of taxpayers, who have been shortchanged money promised to the federal Treasury by law so the Obama administration can instead pay more funds to insurers.

In 2014, when Oscar only offered plans in New York, the company received $17.5 million in Obamacare reinsurance payments. In 2015, as Oscar expanded to offer coverage in New Jersey, the insurer received a total of more than $20.7 million in reinsurance funds: $19.8 million for its New York customers, and $945,000 for its New Jersey enrollees.

While reinsurance claims for the 2016 plan year are still being compiled and therefore have not yet been released, it appears likely that Oscar will receive a significant payment in the tens of millions of dollars, for two reasons. First, the carrier expanded its offerings into Texas and California; more enrollees means more claims on the federal fisc. Second, Bloomberg quoted anonymous company sources as saying that part of Oscar’s losses “stem from high medical costs”—which the insurer will likely attempt to offset through the reinsurance program.

While the Obama administration has doled out billions of dollars in reinsurance funds to insurers like Oscar, they have done so illegally. In September, the Government Accountability Office ruled that the administration violated the text of Obamacare itself. Although the law states that $5 billion in payments back to the Treasury must be made from reinsurance funds before insurers receive payment, the Obama administration has turned the law on its head—paying insurers first, and stiffing taxpayers out of billions.

I wrote last week that Trump can and should immediately overturn these illegal actions by the Obama Administration, and sue insurers if needed to collect for the federal government. But if those actions jeopardize tens of millions of dollars in federal payments for the Kushners, or mean the Trump administration will have to take Trump’s in-laws to court, will he?

Risk Corridors: Oscar also has made claims for millions of dollars regarding Obamacare’s risk corridor program, which as designed would see insurers with excess profits subsidize insurers with excess losses. In 2014, Oscar was one of many insurers with excess losses, making a claim for $9.3 million in risk corridor payments.

However, because Congress prohibited taxpayer funds from being used to bail out insurance companies, and because few insurers had excess profits to pay into the risk corridor program, insurers requesting payouts from risk corridors received only 12.6 cents on the dollar for their claims. While Oscar requested more than $9.3 million, it received less than $1.2 million—meaning it is owed more than $8.1 million from the risk corridor program for 2014.

CMS has yet to release data on insurers’ claims for 2015, other than to say that payments to the risk corridor program for 2015 were insufficient to pay out insurers’ outstanding claims for 2014. In other words, Oscar will not be paid its full $9.3 million for 2014, even as it likely makes additional claims for 2015 and 2016.

However, Oscar yet has hope in receiving a bailout from the Obama administration. In September, the administration said it was interested in settling lawsuits brought by insurance companies seeking reimbursement for unpaid risk corridor claims. The administration hopes to use the obscure Judgment Fund to pay through the backdoor the bailout that Congress prohibited through the front door.

As with reinsurance payments, a President Trump should immediately act to block such settlements, which violate Congress’ expressed will against bailing out insurers. However, given his clear conflict-of-interest in protecting his close relatives’ investments, it’s an open question whether he will do so.

Cost-Sharing Reductions: Like other health insurers, Oscar has benefited by receiving cost-sharing subsidies—even though Congress never appropriated funds for them. In May, Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed with the House of Representatives that the Obama administration’s payments to insurers for cost-sharing subsidies without an appropriation violate the Constitution. Although the text of the law requires insurers to reduce deductibles and co-payments for some low-income beneficiaries, it never included an explicit appropriation for subsidy payments to insurers reimbursing them for these discounts. Despite this lack of an appropriation, the Obama administration has paid insurers like Oscar roughly $14 billion in cost-sharing subsidies anyway.

Here again, Trump should immediately concede the illegality of the Obama administration’s actions, settle the lawsuit brought by the House of Representatives, and end the unconstitutional cost-sharing subsidies on Day One. But given his close ties to individuals whose insurance model is largely based on selling Obamacare policies, will he do so? To put it bluntly, will he put the interests of Oscar—and his in-laws—ahead of the U.S. Constitution?

Ask Congress for More and More Money?’

In general, health insurance companies have made record profits during the Obama years—a total of a whopping $15 billion in 2015. But while insurers have made money selling employer plans, or contracting for Obamacare’s massive expansion of Medicaid, few insurers have made money on insurance exchanges. That dynamic explains why Oscar, which has focused on exchange plans, has suffered its massive losses to date.

However, as Trump rightly pointed out just one short month ago, the answer is not to “ask Congress for more money, more and more money.” He should end the bailouts immediately upon taking office. Duty to country—and the constitutional oath—should override any personal familial conflicts.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Freedom and Empowerment Plan for American Health Care

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

The Problem of American Health Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Conservative Alternative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Principle #1: Lowering Health Costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Principle #2: Protect the Most Vulnerable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Principle #3: Portability and Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[48] Ibid., p. 8.

[49] Ibid., p. 8.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legislative Bulletin: H.R. 6331, Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act

Order of Business:  The Democratic House Leadership has indicated that the House will likely vote to override the President’s veto of H.R. 6331 today, July 15, 2008.  The vote on H.R. 6331 is to either sustain or override the President’s veto.  For additional information on the process in the House regarding vetoed bills, please see the “Process for a Vetoed Bill” section below.

Process for a Vetoed Bill:

  • The House and Senate pass an identical bill.
  • The President vetoes the bill and sends a veto message to the House.
  • The Speaker “lays a veto message before the House on the day it is received…When the message is laid before the House, the question on passage is considered as pending.”
  • Consideration of a vetoed bill (a privileged matter) generally takes precedence over other floor matters (it can interrupt other floor business), except in certain specific instances: a motion to adjourn, a question of privilege under the Constitution (such as a blue-slip resolution), and unfinished business with the previous question order (such as a bill with the previous question ordered to passage on the day before, but the House adjourned before voting on passage of the bill).
  • If the House does not wish to proceed immediately to reconsider the bill, three motions are in order:

1)     motions to lay on the table (if passed, a motion to take it from the table is in order at any time);

2)     motions to postpone consideration to a day certain (it becomes unfinished business on that day); or

3)     motion to refer to committee (a motion to discharge is highly privileged and in order at any time).

  • If none of the above three motions are offered, the House proceeds to debate the override question under the hour rule and then votes on the question of overriding the veto.
  • If the veto is sustained, the bill is referred to committee. Since the bill has been rejected (when the veto was sustained), a motion to take the bill from committee is not privileged.

The Vote on H.R. 6331—Sustaining the Presidential Veto:  When a vote is requested on a vetoed bill, the question is:  “Will the House, on reconsideration, pass the bill, the objections of the President to the contrary notwithstanding.”  Thus, it is as if the bill is up for normal consideration again, only the threshold for passage is now 2/3 of those votingIf a member opposes the bill and voted NO when it was originally considered and passed, then he would vote NO again (still opposing the bill, thereby voting to sustain the President’s veto).

Summary:  H.R. 6331 eliminates for six months a reduction in Medicare physician payments scheduled to take effect on June 30, 2008, freezing payment levels for the balance of 2008 and providing a 1.1% increase in fee schedule levels for 2009.  H.R. 6331 also reduces payments to and modifies the structure of privately-run Medicare Advantage fee-for-service (FFS) plans that have shown significant growth in recent years.

Medicare:  H.R. 6331 contains many provisions that would alter Titles XVIII (Medicare) and XIX (Medicaid) of the Social Security Act as follows:

Coverage of Preventive Services.  The bill would create a process for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to extend Medicare coverage to additional preventive services under Parts A and B, and would waive the deductible with respect to the initial physical exam provided upon a beneficiary’s enrollment in the Medicare program.  CBO scores this provision as costing $5.9 billion over eleven years.

Mental Health Parity.  The bill would reduce over five years the co-payment for outpatient psychiatric services to 20%, consistent with the co-payment rate for physician visits under Medicare Part B.  CBO scores this provision as costing $3 billion over eleven years.

Marketing Restrictions on Private Plans.  The bill would impose restrictions with respect to the marketing tactics used by private Medicare Advantage and prescription drug plans.  The bill would eliminate unsolicited direct contact to beneficiaries, restrict the provision of gifts to nominal values, require annual training of agents and brokers licensed under state law, and impose related marketing restrictions.  No net cost.

Low-Income Programs.  H.R. 6331 would extend the Qualifying Individual program under Medicare and Medicaid for eighteen months, through December 2009, at a cost of $500 million.  The bill would also expand eligibility for enrollment in the low-income subsidy program by altering the asset test for the Medicare Savings Program, and engaging in further outreach to beneficiaries eligible for participation but not currently enrolled.  Other provisions in this section would codify current guidance eliminating the Part D late enrollment penalty for individuals eligible for low-income subsidies, and require the translation of the enrollment form into at least 10 languages other than English.  Total cost of these provisions is $7.7 billion over eleven years.

Hospital Provisions.  The bill includes several hospital-related provisions, including the extension of rural hospital flexibility program, new grants for the provision of mental health services to Iraq war veterans in rural areas, new grants to certain critical access hospitals, a re-adjustment of target payment amounts for sole community hospitals, a new demonstration program for integrating care in certain rural communities, and the reclassification of certain hospitals.  Total cost of these provisions according to CBO is $600 million over eleven years.

Physician Services.  The bill makes several adjustments to physician payment rates, including the following:

Conversion Factor:  The bill would extend the 0.5% update to the conversion factor for physician reimbursements, currently due to expire on June 30, 2008, through the end of calendar year 2008, effectively freezing payment levels for the balance of the year.  For 2009, the conversion factor will be 1.1%.  The bill also provides that the adjustments made for 2008 and 2009 will be disregarded for the purposes of computing the sustainable growth rate (SGR) conversion factor in 2010 and future years, which would necessitate a 21% reduction in reimbursement levels in 2010.

Quality Reporting:  H.R. 6331 would revise and extend existing quality reporting language to provide a 1.5% bonus payment in 2008, and 2.0% bonus payments in 2009 and 2010, to those physicians reporting selected quality data measurements.  Cost of both the quality reporting and conversion factor provisions is $6.4 billion over six years, and $4.5 billion over eleven.

Electronic Prescribing:  The bill provides bonus payments for physicians who participate in electronic prescribing and report relevant quality measures—2.0% in 2009 and 2010, 1.0% in 2011 and 2012, and 0.5% in 2013.  Physicians not participating in the electronic prescribing program will receive reimbursement reductions of 1% in 2012, 1.5% in 2013, and 2% in 2014 and thereafter.  Saves $1.4 billion over eleven years.

Other provisions:  With respect to physician services, the bill also revises a medical home demonstration project, extends the floor for Medicare work geographic adjustments under the physician fee schedule through December 2009, imposes accreditation requirements on the payment of diagnostic imaging services, and increases payment levels for teaching anesthesiologists.  H.R. 6331 also includes a requirement for the Secretary to report to Congress on the creation of a new system of value-based purchasing for physician services.  Total cost of $1.9 billion over eleven years.

Other Part B Adjustments.  The bill would make several other adjustments to the Part B program, among which are an extension through December 2009 of the exceptions process for Medicare therapy caps (costs $1.2 billion over eleven years), the inclusion of speech-language pathology services as a service for which providers can bill Medicare directly ($100 million cost), the establishment of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation programs ($500 million cost), a repeal of the transfer of ownership with respect to oxygen equipment, repeal of a competitive bidding demonstration project for clinical laboratory services coupled with other adjustments for lab services ($2 billion savings), increased payments for ambulance services ($100 million cost), payment clarification for clinical laboratory tests made at critical access hospitals ($300 million cost), and increased payment limits for federally qualified health centers treating Medicare patients ($100 million cost).

Kidney Disease and Dialysis Provisions.  H.R. 6331 makes several adjustments to the end-stage renal disease program, including new coverage for kidney disease education services, a 1% increase in dialysis reimbursement rates for 2009 and 2010, and a requirement that the Secretary develop a bundled rate payment system for renal dialysis by January 2011, to be phased in over four years, that includes payment for drugs and tests related to dialysis treatment for which Medicare currently reimburses providers separately.  Costs $1.5 billion over eleven years.

Delay of Durable Medical Equipment Competitive Bidding.  The legislation would terminate all Round 1 contracts for Medicare durable medical equipment made pursuant to the initial round of competitive bidding completed this spring, and would direct CMS to re-bid Round 1 at some point during 2009.  Future rounds of competitive bidding would also be delayed, with Round 2 taking place during 2011, and competitive bidding in rural areas and smaller metropolitan areas being delayed until 2015.  The approximately $3 billion cost of the delay would be paid for by an across-the-board reduction of 9.5% for all supplies scheduled to be subjected to competitive bidding.  In addition, the bill would require the CMS contractor to notify suppliers missing financial documentation related to their bids, extend disclosure and accreditation requirements to sub-contractors, and establish an ombudsman within CMS to respond to complaints from suppliers and individuals about the competitive bidding process.

Medicare Advantage Provisions.  H.R. 6331 would cut Medicare Advantage payments, primarily through two adjustments.  The first would phase out duplicate payments related to indirect medical education (IME) costs at teaching hospitals.  Currently, IME costs are incorporated into the benchmark which Medicare Advantage plans bid against, even though Medicare also makes IME payments to teaching hospitals in association with hospital stays for Medicare Advantage beneficiaries.  The Administration incorporated this proposal into its Fiscal Year 2009 budget submission to Congress.

The bill also would repeal “deeming” authority language for private fee-for-service plans within Medicare Advantage, which currently can reimburse providers at the traditional Medicare rate and “deem” these providers part of their network.  Instead, H.R. 6331 would require private fee-for-service plans to adopt physician networks in areas where at least two other types of coordinated care plans (e.g. Health Maintenance Organizations Preferred Provider Organizations, etc.) operate.

Preliminary data from CMS indicate that the provisions in H.R. 6331 would result in private fee-for-service plans losing their “deeming” authority in 96% of counties in which they currently operate, potentially resulting in loss of beneficiary access to a type of Medicare Advantage plan which has experienced significant growth in recent years.  The Congressional Budget Office confirms that the provision would reduce both Medicare outlays and enrollment in the Medicare Advantage program.  In a Statement of Administration Policy on the Senate bill (S. 3101) incorporating these provisions, the Office of Management and Budget opposed the changes as a “fundamental restructuring” of this segment of the Medicare Advantage program that would result in beneficiaries losing access to the enhanced benefits which Medicare Advantage plans provide.  The IME provision and the deeming language collectively cut Medicare Advantage by $12.5 billion over six years, and $47.5 billion over eleven years.

H.R. 6331 includes several other provisions relating to Medicare Advantage plans, including an extension of and revisions to plans for special needs individuals (costs $500 million over eleven years), garnishment of the remaining funds left in the Medicare Advantage stabilization fund (saves $1.8 billion over eleven years), and two studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) regarding Medicare Advantage quality data and payment formulae.

Pharmacy Provisions.  The bill makes changes to the Part D prescription drug program, most notably requiring “prompt payment” by drug plans to pharmacies for prescriptions within 14 days for electronic claims and 30 days for all other claims, at a cost of $700 million over eleven years.

Release of Part D Data.  The bill would permit the Secretary to utilize Part D claims data from private plans in order to improve the public health as the Secretary determines appropriate, and would further allow Congressional support agencies to obtain the data for oversight and monitoring purposes.  No net cost.

Medicare Improvement Fund.  H.R. 6331 would establish a Medicare Improvement Fund to allow the Secretary to make enhancements to Medicare Parts A and B, and appropriates funding from FY2014 through FY2017 to fund such efforts.  Costs $24.2 billion over eleven years.

Federal Payment Levy.  The bill would expand the federal payment levy—which provides for the recoupment of taxes owed the federal government by private contractors—to Medicare provider and supplier payments.  Saves $400 million over eleven years.

TMA and Title V Extension.  H.R. 6331 would extend for twelve months (until June 30, 2009), both the authorization for Title V programs (abstinence education programs), and the authorization for Transitional Medical Assistance (Medicaid benefits for low-income families transitioning from welfare to work).  TMA has historically been extended along with the Title V Abstinence Education Program.  Regarding the Title V grant program, in order for states to receive Title V block grant funds, states must use the funds exclusively for teaching abstinence.  In addition, in order to receive federal funds, a state must match every $4 in federal funds with $3 in state funds.  Costs $1 billion over eleven years.

Other Extensions.  The bill also adjusts the federal Medicaid matching rate for foster care and related services provided by the District of Columbia, and extends certain other provisions, including Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments, TANF supplemental grants, and special diabetes grant programs.  Total cost of $1 billion over eleven years.

Additional Background on Senate Legislation:  H.R. 6331 closely resembles legislation (S. 3101) originally introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).  At least one circulating draft of H.R. 6331 includes “Sense of the Senate” language, despite the fact that the bill is ostensibly an original House measure.  On June 12, 2008, the Senate by a 54-39 vote failed to invoke cloture on a motion to proceed to consideration of S. 3101.

Despite sharing similar language, H.R. 6331 and S. 3101 differ in a few respects.  The House bill excludes cuts to reimbursement of oxygen supplies and power-driven wheelchairs included in the Senate version, instead incorporating the federal payment tax levy and other provisions to compensate for the lost budgetary savings.  In addition, H.R. 6331 includes legislation (H.R. 6252) introduced by Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) and Ranking Member Dave Camp (R-MI) to postpone competitive bidding of durable medical equipment.  Chairman Baucus had attempted to add these provisions to his Senate legislation, but was unable to persuade enough Senate Republicans to support cloture in order to allow him to do so, largely because Republicans objected to the Medicare Advantage cuts envisioned by his legislation.

Additional Background on Medicare Advantage:  The Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 made several changes to the bidding and payment structure for private Medicare Advantage plans to deliver health care to beneficiaries.  As currently constructed, plans receive capitated monthly payments that are subject to risk adjustment—so that plans caring for older, sicker beneficiaries receive higher payments than those with healthier populations.  In order to determine the capitated payment amount, plans submit annual bids to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  The bids are compared against a benchmark established by a detailed formula—but the comparison against the benchmark does not directly allow plans to compete against each other, or against traditional Medicare, when CMS evaluates plan bids.

In the event a plan’s bid is below the annual benchmark, 75% of the savings is returned to the beneficiary in the form of lower cost-sharing (i.e. premiums, co-payments, etc.) or better benefits, with the remaining 25% returned to the federal government.  If a plan’s bid is above the benchmark, beneficiaries pay the full amount of any marginal costs above the benchmark threshold.

Most Medicare Advantage plans use rebates provided when bidding below the benchmark to cover additional services over and above those provided by traditional Medicare, and in so doing reduce beneficiaries’ exposure to out-of-pocket costs.  A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in February 2008 documented that in most cases, beneficiaries receive better benefits under Medicare Advantage than they would under traditional Medicare.  The GAO study found that beneficiary cost-sharing would be 42% of the amounts anticipated under traditional Medicare, with beneficiaries saving an average of $67 per month, or $804 annually.[1]  These savings to MA beneficiaries occurred because plans dedicated 89% of their rebates from low bids to reduced cost-sharing or lower premiums.  The remaining 11% of rebates were used to finance additional benefits, such as vision, dental, and hearing coverage, along with various health education, wellness, and preventive benefits.[2]  Due in part to the increased benefits which Medicare Advantage plans have provided, enrollment in MA plans is estimated to rise to 22.3% of all Medicare beneficiaries in 2008, up from 12.1% in 2004.[3]

Some independent studies have suggested that Medicare Advantage plans incur higher costs than the average annual cost of providing coverage through traditional Medicare, though estimates vary as to the disparity between the two forms of coverage.  However, to the extent that MA plans in fact receive payments in excess of the costs of traditional Medicare, this discrepancy remains inextricably linked to two features of the Medicare Advantage program—the increased benefits for beneficiaries, and the complexity of the MA plan bidding mechanism.  Because of the problems inherent in the statutory benchmark design, plans have little incentive to submit bids less than the cost of traditional Medicare, as plans that bid above the costs of traditional Medicare but below the benchmark receive the difference between traditional Medicare costs and the plan bid as an extra payment to the plan.[4]

Some conservatives would also argue that a discussion focused solely on Medicare Advantage “overpayments” ignores the significant benefits that MA plans provide to key underserved beneficiary populations.  Medicare Advantage plans have expanded access to coverage in rural areas.  Moreover, the disproportionate share of low-income and minority populations who have chosen the MA option suggests that the comprehensive benefits provided are well-suited to beneficiaries among vulnerable populations.  Data from the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey demonstrate that almost half (49%) of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries have incomes less than $20,000, and that 70% of Hispanic and African-American Medicare Advantage enrollees had incomes below the $20,000 level.[5]

Additional Background on Medicare Physician Reimbursements:  Under current Medicare law, doctors providing health care services to Part B enrollees are compensated through a “fee-for-service” system, in which physician payments are distributed on a per-service basis, as determined by a fee schedule and an annual conversion factor (a formula dollar amount).  The fee schedule assigns “relative values” to each type of provided service.  Relative value reflects physicians’ work time and skill, average medical practice expenses, and geographical adjustments.  In order to determine the physician payment for a specific service, the conversion factor ($37.8975 in 2006) is multiplied by the relative value for that service.  For example, if a routine office visit is assigned a relative value of 2.1, then Medicare would provide the physician with a payment of $79.58 for that service.  ($37.8975 x 2.1)

Medicare law requires that the conversion factor be updated each year.  The formula used to determine the annual update takes into consideration the following factors:

  • Medicare economic index (MEI)–cost of providing medical care;
  • Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR)–target for aggregate growth in Medicare physician payments; and
  • Performance Adjustment–an adjustment ranging from -13% to +3%, to bring the MEI change in line with what is allowed under SGR, in order to restrain overall spending.

Every November, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announces the statutory annual update to the conversion factor for the subsequent year. The new conversion factor is calculated by increasing or decreasing the previous year’s factor by the annual update.

From 2002 to 2007, the statutory formula calculation resulted in a negative update, which would have reduced physician payments, but not overall physician spending. The negative updates occurred because Medicare spending on physician payments increased the previous year beyond what is allowed by SGR.  The SGR mechanism is designed to balance the previous year’s increase in physician spending with a decrease in the next year, in order to maintain the aggregate growth targets.  Thus, in light of increased Medicare spending in recent years, the statutory formula has resulted in negative annual updates.  It is important to note that while imperfect, the SGR was designed as a cost-containment mechanism to help deal with Medicare’s exploding costs, and to some extent it has worked, forcing offsets in some years and causing physician payment levels to be scrutinized annually as if they were discretionary spending.

Since 2003, Congress has chosen to override current law, providing doctors with increases each year, and level funding in 2006.  In 2007, Congress provided a 1.5% update bonus payment for physicians who report on quality of care measures; however, Congress also provided that the 2007 “fix” would be disregarded by CMS for the purpose of calculating the SGR for 2008, resulting in a higher projected cut next year.  The specific data for each year is outlined in the following table.

Year Statutory

Annual

Update (%)

Congressional “Fix” to the Update (%)*
2002 -5.4 -5.4**
2003 -4.4 +1.6
2004 -4.5 +1.5
2005 -3.3 +1.5
2006 -4.4 0
2007 -5.0 +1.5***
2008 -10.1§ 0.5 (proposed)

* The annual update that actually went into effect for that year.

** CMS made other adjustments, as provided by law, which resulted in a net update of – 4.8%; however, Congress did not act to override the -5.4% statutory update.

*** The full 1.5% increase was provided to physicians reporting quality of care measures; physicians not reporting quality of care received no net increase.

  • The Tax Relief and Health Care Act signed last year provided that 2007’s Congressional “fix” was to be disregarded for the purpose of calculating the SGR in 2008 and future years.

Because the Tax Relief and Health Care Act (P.L. 109-432), signed into law in December 2006, provided that 2007’s Congressional “fix” was to be disregarded for the purpose of calculating the SGR in 2008 and future years, the 10.1% negative annual update for 2008 will be restored once the December 2007 legislation expires on July 1, 2008, absent further Congressional action.  In addition, H.R. 6331 includes a similar provision noting that the “fix” proposed would be disregarded for the purpose of calculating the SGR in 2010 and future years, resulting in a projected 21% reduction in fee schedule levels in January 2010.

Additional Background on Durable Medical Equipment:  In addition to providing coverage for outpatient physician services, Medicare Part B also helps pay for durable medical equipment, prosthetics, orthotics, and supplies (DMEPOS) needed by beneficiaries.  Currently, Medicare reimburses beneficiaries for supplies using a series of fee schedules, which are generally based on historical prices subject to annual updates or other adjustments.  Medicare finances 80% of the actual costs or the fee schedule amount, whichever less, with the beneficiary paying the difference.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) estimates that about 10 million individuals—or about one-quarter of all beneficiaries—receive medical supplies under Part B in a given year, at a cost to Medicare of approximately $10 billion annually.[6]

In recent years, some conservatives have raised concerns that the prices on the Medicare fee schedule for DMEPOS were in excess of market prices.  In 2002, testimony by the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General revealed that the prices paid by Medicare for 16 selected items of durable medical equipment were higher than prices paid by Medicaid, the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) plans, and consumers purchasing directly from retailers.  The Inspector General projected that using the lower prices by other payers for these 16 common items alone would have saved Medicare more than $100 million annually.[7]

In response to the above findings, Congress in the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) of 2003 (P.L. 108-173) enacted cuts in the fee schedule levels for the 16 specific items studied by the Inspector General’s testimony, while creating a new competitive bidding process for DMEPOS suppliers in Section 302 of the law.  This nationwide program followed on the heels of three demonstration projects, authorized under the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, established during the period 1999-2002 in Florida and Texas.  The pilot programs demonstrated the ability of competitive bidding to reduce the costs of DMEPOS by an average 19.1%—saving the federal government $7.5 million, and $1.9 million in reduced beneficiary co-payments—while maintaining beneficiary access to required items.[8]

In addition to a program of competitive bidding for DMEPOS, the MMA also established a new accreditation process for suppliers designed to review suppliers’ financial records and other related documentation to establish their status as bona fide health equipment suppliers.  A November 2007 CMS estimate indicated that 10.3% of payments to medical equipment suppliers were improper—a rate of questionable payments more than double those of other Medicare providers.[9]  Coupled with the new competitive bidding program, the accreditation mechanism was intended to eliminate “fly-by-night” DMEPOS suppliers from operating within the Medicare program, and thus was included in the anti-fraud title of MMA.

In recent months, the competitive bidding program has come under criticism due both to procedural concerns as to how the bidding process was conducted—several of which CMS is working to address—and broader concerns as to whether the program will adversely affect beneficiary access to supplies and/or DMEPOS suppliers, particularly small businesses, whose bids were priced unsuccessfully.  Some conservatives may question the need to delay the competitive bidding process, particularly on the latter grounds.  CMS provided specific opportunities for small businesses to participate in the DMEPOS competitive bidding process, resulting in approximately half of firms who accepted winning bids having revenues of less than $3.5 million.  These small business opportunities occurred in the context of a market-oriented bidding mechanism that, when fully implemented, will save taxpayers approximately $1 billion annually—and will provide additional savings to Medicare beneficiaries in the form of reduced co-payments.  In addition, the accreditation mechanism established by Section 302 of MMA provides a quality check previously lacking for DMEPOS purchases and suppliers.

Cost to Taxpayers:  A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score for H.R. 6331 was unavailable at press time.  However, a CBO estimate on a similar bill (S. 3101) introduced and considered in the Senate noted that that legislation would increase spending on physician and related services by $19.8 billion over six years and $62.8 billion over the 2008-2018 period.  These spending increases would be offset by spending cuts in other health spending, primarily Medicare Advantage plans.  Overall, S. 3101 was projected to reduce direct spending by $5 million over the six- and eleven-year budget windows.

Committee Action:  The bill was introduced on June 20, 2008, and referred to the Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means Committees, neither of which took official action on the legislation.  The House passed the bill under suspension of the rules on June 24, 2008 by a 355-59 vote, and the Senate passed the bill by voice vote after invoking cloture by a vote of 69-30 on July 9, 2008.

Possible Conservative Concerns:  Numerous aspects of H.R. 6331 may raise concerns for conservatives, including, but not necessarily limited to, the following:

  • Government Price Fixing.  By making alterations in physician and other Medicare fee schedules, H.R. 6331 would reinforce a system whereby Congress, by adjusting various reimbursement levels, permits the government, rather than the private marketplace, to set prices for medical goods and services.  Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus admitted some disquiet about this dynamic—and Congress’ lack of expertise to micro-manage the health care system—at a health care summit on June 16: “How in the world am I supposed to know what the proper reimbursement should be for a particular procedure?”[10]  Yet H.R. 6331, based on legislation Chairman Baucus himself introduced, would retain the current system of price-fixing—while repealing a competitive bidding demonstration project for clinical laboratory services and delaying a competitive bidding program designed to inject market forces into the purchase of durable medical equipment and supplies.
  • Budgetary Gimmick.  Because language in H.R. 6331 stipulates that the conversion factor adjustments in the bill shall not be considered when determining future years’ SGR rates, physician reimbursement rates will be reduced 21% in 2010—an action which, given past trends, many observers would consider highly unlikely.  Therefore, some conservatives may be concerned that this language is designed to mask the true cost of the physician reimbursement adjustments included in the bill, creating a budgetary gimmick that future Congresses will feel pressured to remedy.
  • Undermines Medicare Advantage.  H.R. 6331 includes several provisions designed to “reform” private fee-for-service plans operating within Medicare Advantage that would reduce their payments by $47.5 billion over eleven years, effectively ending their “deeming” authority, and requiring virtually all private fee-for-service plans to contract with health care providers.  Some conservatives may be concerned that these changes would undermine the effectiveness of the Medicare Advantage program, which has grown in popularity among seniors due to the benefit enhancements that private coverage can provide.
  • Creates New Medicare Fund.  The bill would establish a new Medicare Improvement Fund, which would receive $19.9 billion for the “enhancement” of traditional Medicare Parts A and B during Fiscal Years 2014-2017.  Some conservatives may consider this account a new “slush fund” that will be used to finance further expansions of government-run health programs, rather than to bolster Medicare’s precarious financial future.
  • Release of Part D Data.  H.R. 6331 would authorize the Secretary to utilize Part D claims data from private health plans for any use deemed by the Secretary as relating to the public health, and would further authorize Congressional support agencies to utilize the same data for oversight purposes.  Some conservatives may be concerned that these wide-ranging provisions could lead to the public release of private and proprietary information related to the claims and bidding practices of private health plans providing prescription drug coverage under Part D, and could be used to initiate “fishing expedition” investigations at the behest of Democrats philosophically opposed to having private entities provide coverage to Medicare beneficiaries.
  • Delays Competitive Bidding.  H.R. 6331 would delay the first round of competitive bidding for durable medical equipment, and would nullify contracts signed by CMS for the first round of bidding this spring.  Re-opening the bidding process could prejudice entities who won their bids earlier this year, while potentially reducing savings to the federal government by allowing suppliers to bid more strategically in a re-bid scenario.  Some conservatives may be concerned that the delay contemplated by H.R. 6331 would allow a new Administration to take steps undermining the competitive bidding program through the regulatory process, and/or allow a new Administration and a future Congress to make the “temporary” delay permanent and abolish competitive bidding outright.

Administration Position:  Although a formal Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) was unavailable at press time, reports indicate that the Administration opposes the legislation and will likely issue a veto threat on the bill.

Does the Bill Expand the Size and Scope of the Federal Government?:  Yes, the bill would expand eligibility for participation in the Medicare Savings Program.

Does the Bill Contain Any New State-Government, Local-Government, or Private-Sector Mandates?: No.

Does the Bill Comply with House Rules Regarding Earmarks/Limited Tax Benefits/Limited Tariff Benefits?:  An earmarks/revenue benefits statement required under House Rule XXI, Clause 9(a) was not available at press time.

Constitutional Authority:  A committee report citing constitutional authority is unavailable.

 

[1] Government Accountability Office, “Medicare Advantage: Increased Spending Relative to Medicare Fee-for-Service May Not Always Reduce Beneficiary Out-of-Pocket Costs,” (Washington, Report GAO-08-359, February 2008), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08359.pdf (accessed May 19, 2008), p. 23.

[2] Ibid., pp. 17-20.

[3] Department of Health and Human Services, “HHS Budget in Brief: Fiscal Year 2009,” available online at http://www.hhs.gov/budget/09budget/2009BudgetInBrief.pdf (accessed May 19, 2008), p. 58.

[4] The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) has alleged that the formula-driven benchmarks themselves exceed the cost of traditional Medicare.  See Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, Report to the Congress: Medicare Payment Policy (Washington, DC, March 2008), available online at http://www.medpac.gov/documents/Mar08_EntireReport.pdf (accessed May 9, 2008), Table 3-3, p. 247.

[5] America’s Health Insurance Plans, “Low Income and Minority Beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage Plans,” (Washington, DC, AHIP Center for Policy and Research, February 2007), available online at http://www.ahipresearch.org/PDFs/FullReportAHIPMALowIncomeandMinorityFeb2007.pdf (accessed May 19, 2008), p. 3.

[6] Cited in Government Accountability Office, “Medicare: Competitive Bidding for Medical Equipment and Supplies Could Reduce Program Payments, but Adequate Oversight Is Critical,” (Washington, Report GAO-08-767T), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08767t.pdf (accessed June 9, 2008), p. 3.

[7] Testimony of Janet Rehnquist, Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, before Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, and Education, June 12, 2002 hearing, available online at http://www.oig.hhs.gov/testimony/docs/2002/020611fin.pdf (accessed June 16, 2008).

[8] Testimony of Thomas Hoerger, Senior Fellow, Research Triangle Institute International, before House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, May 6, 2008 hearing on Durable Medical Equipment Competitive Bidding, available online at http://waysandmeans.house.gov/hearings.asp?formmode=printfriendly&id=6906 (accessed June 9, 2008).

[9] Cited in Government Accountability Office, “Medicare Competitive Bidding,” pp. 10-11.

[10] Quoted in Anna Edney, “Bernanke: Health Care Reform Will Require Higher Spending,” CongressDailyPM June 16, 2008, available online at http://www.nationaljournal.com/congressdaily/cdp_20080616_8602.php (accessed June 16, 2008).

Durable Medical Equipment

Background:  In addition to providing coverage for outpatient physician services, Medicare Part B also helps pay for durable medical equipment, prosthetics, orthotics, and supplies (DMEPOS) needed by beneficiaries.  Currently, Medicare reimburses beneficiaries for supplies using a series of fee schedules, which are generally based on historical prices subject to annual updates or other adjustments.  Medicare finances 80% of the actual costs or the fee schedule amount, whichever less, with the beneficiary paying the difference.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) estimates that about 10 million individuals—or about one-quarter of all beneficiaries—receive medical supplies under Part B in a given year, at a cost to Medicare of approximately $10 billion annually.[1]

In recent years, some conservatives have raised concerns that the prices on the Medicare fee schedule for DMEPOS were in excess of market prices.  In 2002, testimony by the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General revealed that the prices paid by Medicare for 16 selected items of durable medical equipment were higher than prices paid by Medicaid, the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) plans, and consumers purchasing directly from retailers.  The Inspector General projected that using the lower prices by other payers for these 16 common items alone would have saved Medicare more than $100 million annually.[2]

In response to the above findings, Congress in the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) of 2003 (P.L. 108-173) enacted cuts in the fee schedule levels for the 16 specific items studied by the Inspector General’s testimony, while creating a new competitive bidding process for DMEPOS suppliers in Section 302 of the law.  This nationwide program followed on the heels of three demonstration projects, authorized under the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, established during the period 1999-2002 in Florida and Texas.  The pilot programs demonstrated the ability of competitive bidding to reduce the costs of DMEPOS by an average 19.1%—saving the federal government $7.5 million, and $1.9 million in reduced beneficiary co-payments—while maintaining beneficiary access to required items.[3]

In addition to a program of competitive bidding for DMEPOS, the MMA also established a new accreditation process for suppliers designed to review suppliers’ financial records and other related documentation to establish their status as bona fide health equipment suppliers.  A November 2007 CMS estimate indicated that 10.3% of payments to medical equipment suppliers were improper—a rate of questionable payments more than double those of other Medicare providers.[4]  Coupled with the new competitive bidding program, the accreditation mechanism was intended to eliminate “fly-by-night” DMEPOS suppliers from operating within the Medicare program, and thus was included in the anti-fraud title of MMA.

Implementation:  CMS previously announced that, pursuant to the Section 302 requirements, Round 1 of the DMEPOS competitive bidding process would begin on July 1, 2008 in ten Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs): Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Kansas City, Miami, Orlando, Pittsburgh, Riverside, and San Juan.  A further 70 MSAs will be included in the program in 2009, with more expected to be included in subsequent years.

The three-year bids for the first round of MSA sites were submitted in September 2007; CMS notified winning bidders, and accepted contracts from winning bidders, earlier this spring.  Based on the Round 1 bids, CMS has indicated that the Medicare program and beneficiaries will save an average of 26% in the 10 categories of DMEPOS open to competitive bidding—ranging from a 14% savings on negative pressure wound therapy pumps and supplies to 43% savings on mail-order diabetic supplies.  When fully implemented, CMS estimates that competitive bidding will save the Medicare program approximately $1 billion per year.

Concerns Raised:  The introduction of DMEPOS competitive bidding has not been without controversy, and concerns raised by suppliers and other interested parties have generally fallen into two categories.  Some suppliers have raised specific concerns about the way in which CMS’ contractor conducted the Round 1 bidding process.  Many of these concerns have focused on a lack of communication from the contractor to the suppliers, resulting in some suppliers’ bids being rejected for lack of proper financial documentation without the suppliers having an opportunity to provide further information or clarification.  CMS has indicated that approximately 16% of all bids submitted were rejected solely due to a failure to meet proper qualification criteria; by contrast, 61% of all bids submitted were priced outside the winning range.

In response to the concerns raised regarding qualification criteria, CMS has utilized a twin-stage process of review for Round 1 suppliers who raised protests about the way the contractor conducted the bid process.  Both the contractor and CMS have taken steps to re-examine the documentation submitted during the review process, and in some cases, CMS has allowed those suppliers with winning bids who failed to meet accreditation or related requirements due to a lack of communication from the contractor to participate in the Round 1 location areas.  In addition, CMS has extended the accreditation deadline for suppliers participating in Round 2 bidding, and will also seek input from the Program Oversight and Advisory Committee established under the MMA for ways to refine and improve the DMEPOS competitive bidding process for subsequent bidding rounds.

The second group of concerns are broader in scope, and go to the heart of the competitive bidding program itself.  Concerns in this line include the potential impact on suppliers, particularly small businesses, who were not successful on pricing grounds.  Some policy-makers have also questioned the lack of scrutiny given to subcontractors not subject to the same accreditation requirements as DMEPOS contractors.  Lastly, other groups have questioned whether competitive bidding will lead to the sale of lower quality supplies and equipment to beneficiaries, as well as whether beneficiaries will be able to obtain access to DMEPOS equipment in instances where the winning bidders in an MSA had not previously serviced the area in question.

Some conservatives may question the need to delay the competitive bidding process on these grounds.  CMS provided specific opportunities for small businesses to participate in the DMEPOS competitive bidding process, resulting in approximately half of firms who accepted winning bids having revenues of less than $3.5 million.  These small business opportunities occurred in the context of a market-oriented bidding mechanism that, when fully implemented, will save taxpayers approximately $1 billion annually—and will provide additional savings to Medicare beneficiaries in the form of reduced co-payments.  In addition, the accreditation mechanism established by Section 302 of MMA provides a quality check previously lacking for DMEPOS purchases and suppliers.

While transitioning to a new system can create logistical difficulties, the staged implementation process will ensure that beneficiaries in a limited number of areas—only one-quarter of whom receive DMEPOS supplies in a given year—will experience the transition to a competitively bid environment this year.  This phased-in approach stands in contrast to the January 1, 2006 implementation of the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, where tens of millions of beneficiaries received new coverage at a single point in time—with logistical obstacles, though significant, relatively minor on a percentage basis.

Legislative Status:  On June 12, 2008, House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) and Ranking Member Dave Camp (R-MI) introduced H.R. 6252, the Medicare DMEPOS Competitive Acquisition Reform Act.  The legislation would terminate all Round 1 contracts made pursuant to the round of competitive bidding completed this spring, and would direct CMS to re-bid Round 1 at some point during 2009.  Future rounds of competitive bidding would also be delayed, with Round 2 (featuring an additional 70 MSAs) taking place during 2011, and competitive bidding in rural areas and smaller MSAs being delayed until 2015.  The estimated $3 billion cost of the delay would be paid for by an across-the-board reduction of 9.5% for all DMEPOS scheduled to be subjected to competitive bidding.  In addition, the bill would require the CMS contractor to notify suppliers missing financial documentation related to their bids, extend disclosure and accreditation requirements to DMEPOS sub-contractors, and establish an ombudsman within CMS to respond to complaints from suppliers and individuals about the DMEPOS competitive bidding process.

While competitive bidding language was not included in the Medicare legislative package (S. 3101) on which the Senate failed to achieve cloture last week, Finance Committee Chairman Baucus and Ranking Member Grassley have discussed incorporating language delaying the competitive bidding process into their competing packages covering an adjustment to Medicare physician reimbursement levels.

Implications of Delay:  Despite the contracting problems that have led some contractors to raise legitimate process concerns about the implementation of the first bidding round, some conservatives may still be concerned about the implications of the proposed legislative delay, particularly if coupled with a mandate that CMS re-bid the first round of DMEPOS bidding.  Re-opening the bidding process could prejudice entities who won their bids earlier this year, while potentially reducing savings to the federal government by allowing suppliers to bid more strategically, having had experience with the winning range of bids during the initial round.

In addition, some conservatives may be concerned that a delay of more than a few months would result in a new Administration being charged with implementation of competitive bidding, which could allow for further opportunities to undermine the program through the regulatory process.  Chairman Stark has indicated his desire to abolish the competitive bidding program altogether, paid for by the across-the-board cut in DMEPOS reimbursement levels currently being contemplated—so it is entirely possible that a new Administration and a future Congress could decide to make the “temporary” delay permanent and abolish competitive bidding outright.

Conclusion:  The debate surrounding DMEPOS competitive bidding finds many medical suppliers—some with understandable concerns about a lack of communication from the bidding contractor, others merely disappointed in not achieving a winning price for their bid—seeking redress from Congress for a bidding mechanism Congress established with the intent of creating arm’s-length transactions between the agency purchasing goods (i.e. CMS) and private suppliers.  Yet the alternative to a competitive bidding system where markets set prices for DMEPOS involves arbitrary reductions to inherently arbitrary fee schedules enacted by policy-makers with little proficiency in the minutiae of the myriad health care services for which the federal government acts as a payer.  As Senate Finance Committee Chairman Baucus conceded at a health care summit: “How in the world am I supposed to know what the proper reimbursement should be for a particular procedure?”[5]

For this reason, some conservatives may object to Congress’ frequent attempts to litigate these types of disputes, and may view the controversy surrounding DMEPOS competitive bidding as emblematic of larger problems with the current entitlement system.  In the myriad debates which it is perpetually pressured to referee—from the sustainable growth mechanism (SGR) to reimbursement levels for hospitals and nursing homes to the levels of epogen provided to kidney dialysis patients—Congress’ firsthand expertise is as limited as its jurisdiction is absolute.  The end result has frequently been an imbalance of attention paid to various reimbursement “crises,” with only secondary consideration given to the longer-term health and solvency of the underlying entitlement programs (i.e. Medicare and Medicaid) in question.

Some conservatives may believe that the lesson from these past and current controversies is that Congress has a poor track record in adjudicating provider-related disputes.  Many may find a better solution in a premium support mechanism that would convert Medicare into a system similar to the Federal Employees Benefit Health Plan (FEHBP), in which beneficiaries would receive a defined contribution from Medicare to purchase a health plan of their choosing.  In addition to ensuring long-term fiscal stability by confining the growth of Medicare spending to the annual statutory raise in the defined contribution limit, a premium support mechanism would result in reimbursement decisions being made by private insurance carriers, obviating the need for Congress to micro-manage provider payment levels.  Such a solution would provide a meaningful reform to the underlying problems that have erupted most recently in the DMEPOS competitive bidding controversy, by saving providers from the whims of Congress—and saving Congress from itself.

 

[1] Cited in Government Accountability Office, “Medicare: Competitive Bidding for Medical Equipment and Supplies Could Reduce Program Payments, but Adequate Oversight Is Critical,” (Washington, Report GAO-08-767T), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08767t.pdf (accessed June 9, 2008), p. 3.

[2] Testimony of Janet Rehnquist, Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, before Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, and Education, June 12, 2002 hearing, available online at http://www.oig.hhs.gov/testimony/docs/2002/020611fin.pdf (accessed June 16, 2008).

[3] Testimony of Thomas Hoerger, Senior Fellow, Research Triangle Institute International, before House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, May 6, 2008 hearing on Durable Medical Equipment Competitive Bidding, available online at http://waysandmeans.house.gov/hearings.asp?formmode=printfriendly&id=6906 (accessed June 9, 2008).

[4] Cited in Government Accountability Office, “Medicare Competitive Bidding,” pp. 10-11.

[5] Quoted in Anna Edney, “Bernanke: Health Care Reform Will Require Higher Spending,” CongressDailyPM June 16, 2008, available online at http://www.nationaljournal.com/congressdaily/cdp_20080616_8602.php (accessed June 16, 2008).