Weekly Newsletter: February 23, 2009

Orszag, Liberal Groups Support Health Care Rationing

Today President Obama will host a “fiscal responsibility summit” at the White House, followed later this week by a submission to Congress of his outline for the federal budget in Fiscal Year 2010 and beyond.  Press reports indicate that health issues will predominate both events, as entitlement spending in Medicare and Medicaid will serve as a focus of the fiscal summit, and health initiatives will be given a prominent place in the President’s budget proposals.

However, some Members may take a skeptical view of comments by Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag and others that health care can be reformed—and the entitlement crisis resolved—primarily through government rationing of health care goods and services.  While head of the Congressional Budget Office, Orszag prepared a report on comparative effectiveness research that advocated rationing’s beneficial effects—while alluding to its potential downsides for patients.  The December 2007 report asserted that such research “could …yield lower health care spending without having adverse effects on health.”  However, the report also admits that “patients who might benefit from more-expensive treatments might be made worse off” as a result of changes in reimbursement patterns.

Orszag’s view of health reform is shared by the left-leaning Commonwealth Fund, which last week released its own report outlining ways to generate savings within the health sector.  The largest chunk of proposed savings—$634 billion over ten years—would come from comparative effectiveness research and subsequent rationing of care.  The report asserts that “merely making information available” about the relative merits of treatments “is unlikely to produce” outcomes yielding sufficient savings—and therefore recommends that the new comparative effectiveness center help “to create financial incentives for patients and physicians to avoid high-cost treatments.”  The Fund proposes that the comparative effectiveness center—similar to the Council established in economic “stimulus” legislation signed into law last week—“make benefit and pricing recommendations to public insurance plans, including Medicare.”

While supporting the need to slow the growth of health spending, and entitlement spending in particular, some Members may be concerned by the implications of these recommendations, which would place government bureaucrats between doctors and patients, leading to denials of critical care.  Some Members may instead support alternatives that would slow the growth of health care costs through additional competition (both inside and outside Medicare), while preserving and enhancing a culture where patients and doctors—not insurance companies or government bureaucrats—determine the appropriate course of medical care.  Some Members may also support means testing for the Medicare Part D benefit—requiring Warren Buffett and George Soros to pay more for their prescription drugs—as an additional way to bring our entitlement obligations in line with projected future revenues.

The Outlook Ahead

The President’s address to Congress Tuesday night, coupled with his submission of a budget outline on Thursday, will commence a six-week period leading up to Congress’ Easter recess where health issues will remain prominent.  As indicated above, the budget may include additional provisions regarding comparative effectiveness research and rationing of health care, as well as proposed cuts to Medicare Advantage plans that have proved popular with seniors—particularly those with low incomes—in recent years.  At this time it remains unclear whether the President will use the budget submission to fulfill his statutory obligation to present Congress with Medicare funding reform legislation, as required by the “trigger” provisions inserted into the Medicare Modernization Act at the behest of House Republicans.

Hearings and other legislative activity are also likely to continue regarding comprehensive health reform; Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced his comprehensive bill on February 5, and Senate Finance Chairman Baucus—who pledged to introduce legislation early in the 111th Congress—may follow suit in short order.  The House may also consider legislation related to food and drug safety, as well as a bill (H.R. 1108 in the 110th Congress) giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to regulate tobacco products, funded by “user fees” on tobacco companies.  Particularly as many Democrats have harshly criticized the FDA for lax enforcement related to food safety matters, some Members may believe now is precisely the wrong time to distract the FDA from its current mission in order to have the agency regulate the tobacco industry—and the wrong time to burden working families with the second tobacco tax increase this year, on the heels of the 62 cent tax increase used to fund the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) expansion.

Weekly Newsletter: December 8, 2008

Obama Proposes Massive Government Spending on Health IT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly Newsletter: November 17, 2008

  • Baucus’ Plan Exposes Democrat Hypocrisy…

    Last Wednesday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) issued a 98-page report outlining his proposals for reforming the health care system. Although his introduction stated that the platform “is not intended to be a legislative proposal,” Baucus did state his hope that the ideas raised would become a starting point for discussions on comprehensive health care reform during the 111th Congress.

    In reviewing the report’s contents, some conservatives may note several glaring contradictions present within its pages:

  • The Baucus plan proposes tens of billions in unfunded mandates on states—requiring Medicaid programs to cover 7.1 million new low-income individuals, and further requiring 33 states to expand their State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) eligibility levels—at a time when Baucus and other Congressional Democrats allege that states’ “fiscal crises” require Congress to bail them out of their current obligations.
  • While expressing his support for cutting payments to private Medicare Advantage (MA), Baucus proposes to repeal a planned premium support project within Medicare, because he wants to bring payments to private insurers in line with traditional Medicare costs while opposing a link between Part B premiums and “how much [private] insurers’ costs differ from traditional Medicare.”
  • Senator Baucus, who at a health reform conference in June questioned Congress’ role in overseeing Medicare payments—“How in the world am I supposed to know what the proper reimbursement should be for a particular procedure?”—proposes numerous attempts to tie reimbursement to various actions by physicians (IT adoption, etc.) in the hope that these will achieve purportedly desirable health outcomes.

    …While Proposing More New Spending, Little Cost Control

    Many conservatives may also be concerned by the substance of the Baucus plan’s broader proposals. Similar in many respects to the less-detailed plan offered by President-elect Obama, the platform would expand the role of government in health care in significant, and historic, ways:

  • Expansion of Medicaid and SCHIP to millions of new individuals, as referenced above;
  • Health insurance subsidies for a family of four making $85,000 per year;
  • Repeal of the current five-year waiting period for legal aliens to become eligible for government benefits, increasing government spending on non-citizens;
  • Two new “temporary” entitlement programs, including a buy-in to the Medicare program for those aged 55-64, that many conservatives may be concerned will be anything but “temporary;”
  • A new publicly-run insurance option available to all citizens, whose low reimbursement rates would likely encourage providers to raise rates for private insurers, potentially leading to a “death spiral” of privately-provided coverage options;
  • A health insurance exchange representing another layer of regulation on the health insurance industry;
  • An individual mandate to purchase insurance, requiring the government to pass judgment on the adequacy of individuals’ coverage; and
  • Tax increases on businesses through a “pay-or-play” mandate that could in future years become an easy way for the government to pass off the cost of rising health care on the private sector.

    Just as worrisome to many conservatives are the lack of true cost-containment measures present in the Baucus proposal. Two of the plan’s prime savings targets—an expansion of the Medicaid drug rebate and one-sided cuts to Medicare Advantage plans—constitute little more than government-imposed price controls, which some conservatives may believe both ineffective and detrimental to new innovation.

    Some conservatives may believe that the true answer to reforming health care and slowing the growth of costs lies in harnessing innovation and competition. Implementing, rather than repealing, the Medicare premium support program would allow insurers to compete directly with Medicare to treat seniors in the most cost-effective manner. Additional means-testing for current entitlements would ensure that scarce government resources will go to those most in need of assistance—meaning that Warren Buffett and George Soros should not pay the same prescription drug premium as a senior making $20,000 per year. These efforts, coupled with initiatives to streamline costly state benefit mandates and other regulations, would expand coverage by slowing the growth of health costs, helping to ensure the future viability of our current entitlement programs.

Weekly Newsletter: November 12, 2008

Medicaid Bailout Once Again on Congressional Agenda

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

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

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

British U-Turn Illustrates Problems with Comparative Effectiveness

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

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

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

Weekly Newsletter: October 20, 2008

Hawaii Program “Crowded Out” by Rising Costs

Late last week, state officials in Hawaii announced a rapid end to a child universal health care program that had only been established earlier this year. The program, dubbed Keiki Care, was intended to provide coverage to children from families above the Medicaid eligibility threshold—which in Hawaii stands at 300% of the federal poverty level, or more than $73,000 for a family of four.

Despite a six-month waiting period incorporated into the program at the Governor’s insistence, state officials found that families were dropping private coverage in order to obtain health insurance through the government program, which featured co-pay levels—$7 per physician visit—lower than many private plans. As one official noted, “People who were already able to afford health care began to stop paying for it so they could get it for free.”

Some conservatives may not be surprised by this development, and note that Hawaii’s experience should give policy-makers looking to expand public programs significant pause. Not only does expanding access to public programs for families making over $75,000 increase government spending, but below-market co-payment levels will only encourage individuals to over-consume health care, exacerbating the acceleration of health care costs plaguing the current system. At a time when the federal government faces Medicare obligations alone of nearly $86 trillion, conservatives may believe that the failed Hawaii experiment should remind lawmakers why the Democrat leadership’s call expand the SCHIP program to families making more than $80,000 per year will be neither cheap nor sustainable.

Read the Associated Press story here.

Medicaid Fraud Will Not Be Addressed by Bailout

Last month, the New York Times highlighted the case of Staten Island University Hospital, an institution with a history of questionable billing practices—and now one of the largest fraud settlements against a single hospital. This week the hospital agreed to return nearly $90 million to respond to claims of overbilling government programs as a result of two whistle-blower lawsuits and actions by federal prosecutors. The lawsuits and charges alleged among other things that the hospital deliberately inflated bed and patient counts in order to obtain reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid, and come after the hospital had reached two previous settlements—one in 1999 resulting in $45 million in Medicaid
repayments, and another in 2005 resulting in $76.5 returned to Medicaid—with state authorities regarding fraudulent billing activity.

Many conservatives may not be surprised by these repeated instances of fraud and graft within the program, given that a former New York state Medicaid investigator estimated that 40% of all Medicaid payments were fraudulent or questionable in nature. However, this episode may only strengthen conservative concerns that a proposed “temporary” increase in federal Medicaid matching funds (HR 5268) would do nothing to combat this fraud and abuse before spending additional federal dollars. Indeed, given that a single hospital has settled more than $200 million in fraud claims, some conservatives may wonder whether, if the Medicaid program had appropriate anti-fraud efforts in place, an additional $10-15 billion “bailout” for states would even be needed at all.

Also on Medicaid, last week the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released the first annual Medicaid actuarial report, which included long-term projections for Medicaid spending. According to the report, Medicaid spending is scheduled to double in the next nine years, reaching nearly $674 billion in both state and federal spending by 2017 and consuming a rising share of both national GDP and the federal budget. Many conservatives may view these figures as further evidence of the need for comprehensive entitlement reform to slow the skyrocketing growth in health costs, and believe that a temporary bailout would be counter-productive to the program’s long-term stability.

Read the article here. The CMS 2008 Actuarial Report on Medicaid is available here.

The RSC has prepared a one-pager highlighting the need for comprehensive Medicaid reform based on examples from several states; the document can be found here.

Medicare Forces People to Accept Costly Benefits

Earlier this month, several individuals filed a ground-breaking lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration. The suit would force both agencies to develop a process to allow individuals to renounce their eligibility for Medicare Part A, which governs hospital care. Under current regulations, while Part B (outpatient and physician care) and Part D (prescription drug coverage) are optional programs, individuals cannot waive participation in Medicare Part A once they apply for Social Security benefits. The plaintiffs’ proposed remedy echoes legislation (H.R. 7148) recently introduced by RSC Member Sam Johnson, which would grant individuals an explicit right to opt-out of Medicare should they choose to provide for their health care without relying on public funding.

Many conservatives may question the absurdity of the government’s position—spending taxpayer dollars to defend itself against individuals who want to forfeit their right to Medicare benefits, which would only save taxpayers money. At a time when Medicare faces unfunded obligations totaling $86 trillion, many conservatives may believe that the government’s time and money would be much better spent finding solutions to America’s entitlement obligations, rather than forcing individuals to accept benefits they don’t want—and costing taxpayers billions in the process.

Weekly Newsletter: September 22, 2008

  • Specialty Hospital Ban a Special-Interest Boondoggle Reports circulated late last week that restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals may be included in mental health parity legislation that could come to the House floor this week. While later press reports indicated that the specialty hospital provisions would be excluded from the mental health parity bill, legislative activity cannot be ruled out.

    Advocates of a specialty hospital ban state that restricting physician ownership will slow the growth of health care costs and improve the solvency of the Medicare program. However, a look at the record of the Democrat-controlled 110th Congress shows little attempt to control the growth of health spending or solve Medicare’s long-term funding shortfalls:

  • Democrats rejected an attempt to make wealthy seniors pay $2 per day more for prescription drug coverage—which would save Medicare $12.1 billion over ten years;
  • Democrats rejected reasonable reforms to the current medical liability reform system that would eliminate the need for defensive medicine practices that raise health care costs—saving the federal government more than $6 billion over ten years;
  • Democrats could not pass structural reforms to the current system of Medicare physician payments—choosing instead to pass a budgetary gimmick that will give physicians a 21% reimbursement cut in January 2010.Given these actions—and an impending floor vote on a bill (HR 758) that will likely increase health care costs by billions of dollars—conservatives may question why Democrats have passed up attempts to save Medicare more than $12 billion by charging billionaires like Warren Buffett more for their prescription drugs and instead remain fixated on saving one-tenth that amount by eradicating a free market for physician-owned facilities.

    Part of the answer may lie in the lobbying activities of entities like the American Hospital Association— which spent nearly $20 million last year alone, and nearly $153 million over the last decade, on federal lobbying activities. Despite the fact that, by one measure, specialty hospitals represent less than 1% of total Medicare hospital spending, traditional hospitals continue their attempts to eradicate this potential source of competition—going so far as to draw a rebuke from Health and Human Services’ Inspector General for “misrepresent[ing]” the IG’s conclusions in a document sent to Congressional staff. Despite— or perhaps because of—these deceptive lobbying practices, some conservatives may support efforts to maintain free markets in health care, and oppose any further efforts by Congressional Democrats to pass a specialty hospital ban.

Medicaid Fraud Will Not Be Addressed by Bailout

Last Tuesday’s New York Times highlighted the case of Staten Island University Hospital, an institution with a history of questionable billing practices—and now one of the largest fraud settlements against a single hospital. This week the hospital agreed to return nearly $90 million to respond to claims of overbilling government programs as a result of two whistle-blower lawsuits and actions by federal prosecutors. The lawsuits and charges alleged among other things that the hospital deliberately inflated bed and patient counts in order to obtain reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid, and come after the hospital had reached two previous settlements—one in 1999 resulting in $45 million in Medicaid repayments, and another in 2005 resulting in $76.5 returned to Medicaid—with state authorities regarding fraudulent billing activity.

Many conservatives may not be surprised by these repeated instances of fraud and graft within the program, given that a former New York state Medicaid investigator estimated that 40% of all Medicaid payments were fraudulent or questionable in nature. However, this episode may only strengthen conservative concerns that a proposed “temporary” increase in federal Medicaid matching funds (HR 5268) would do nothing to combat this fraud and abuse before spending additional federal dollars. Indeed, given that a single hospital has settled more than $200 million in fraud claims, some conservatives may wonder whether, if the Medicaid program had appropriate anti-fraud efforts in place, an additional $10-15 billion “bailout” for states would even be needed at all.

Read the article here.

Weekly Newsletter: September 15, 2008

Medicaid: More Spending Does Not Equal Reform

Today, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt will be addressing a conference on Medicaid reform in Washington. The symposium comes at a time when some want Congress to pass legislation (H.R. 5268) providing more than $10 billion in Medicaid spending to states as a way to “fix” the program’s problems. However, many conservatives may believe that policy-makers should not use additional spending as a way to shirk from their duties to reform what is often an outmoded model of care.

In the past few years, several states have embarked upon novel and innovative reforms to improve the quality of care provided in the Medicaid program. Most recently, Rhode Island submitted a waiver application to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), asking for flexibility to revamp its program. Notable elements of this reform proposal include:

  • Incentives to promote wellness and prevention, including consumer-directed accounts and Health Savings Accounts (HSAs);
  • A shift to home and community-based care instead of a traditional nursing home setting for elderly populations;
  • Incentives to purchase long-term care insurance, so as to eliminate the need for Medicaid long-term care financing;
  • Competitive bidding for durable medical equipment; and
  • A novel financing model that ensures that total Medicaid expenses will rise by up to 5% per year.

    Many conservatives may support these and other similar reform initiatives proposed by states, as one way to slow the growth of health care costs and thereby reduce America’s unsustainable entitlement spending. Moreover, some conservatives may believe that time on the legislative calendar debating a Medicaid bailout should instead be used to discuss these types of comprehensive structural reforms to the program—so that the poorest beneficiaries are not subjected to more of the same from a government health system that does not work for many.

    The RSC has prepared a one-pager highlighting the need for comprehensive Medicaid reform based on examples from several states; the document can be found here.

    Cautionary Tales from Across the Pond

    This past week, a British think-tank published a paper that spoke the heretofore unthinkable: the policy group Reform advocated replacing the single-payer National Health Service with a voucher-based private health system. Under the proposal, individuals would receive a £2,000 voucher to purchase private insurance—injecting competition into a health system previously dominated by government, and bringing with it the potential to slow the growth of costs while achieving better value through improved care.

    The Reform proposal comes on the heels of several disturbing developments regarding the National Health Service last month. One survey found that a quarter of cancer specialists are purposely keeping their patients “in the dark” about treatment options—in order to avoid upsetting those patients when they find out the NHS will not pay for their treatments. Several weeks earlier, the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE)—Britain’s comparative effectiveness institute—adopted a policy of refusing to pay for four kidney cancer drugs, even though the pharmaceuticals made “significant gains” in survival times, because NICE did not believe the drugs were cost-effective.

    Conservatives may not be surprised by any of these developments—as the rationing of care frequently leads to demands to reform or abolish the governmental bureaucracies that deny life-saving treatments to patients. Some conservatives may also believe that the type of changes advocated by Reform with respect to the National Health Service, if applied to Medicare, could allow seniors a wide range of options to receive their health care, while achieving cost-savings through competition that could slow the growth of skyrocketing health and entitlement costs.

    Read the BBC News article: “Doctors ‘Keep Cancer Drugs Quiet’”

    Article of Note: The Hospital-Industrial Complex

    An article in the Wall Street Journal last month revealed the continuance of a troubling trend: hospitals using their monopoly power to raise prices for consumers—helping to contribute to the growth in health care costs. Consolidations in recent decades—coupled with state certificate-of-need laws that provide government-sanctioned exclusivity in most states—have allowed regional hospitals to tighten their grip on many markets, and the Journal article tells the tale of Carilion Health System in southwest Virginia:

  • Colonoscopy prices four to 10 times higher than a local clinic;
  • Neck CT scans more than double the price of an imaging center;
  • A significant spike in regional health insurance premiums to the highest level in the state; and
  • Over $105 million in net income achieved by a non-profit hospital over the past five years.

One local businessman called the area a “one-market town…in terms of health care,” noting that the hospital “has the leverage”—and the article demonstrates that its impact on both physician practices and the insurance premiums paid by thousands of Virginians has been significant.

The piece comes at a time when the hospital industry is attempting to eradicate one of its few remaining sources of competition, by asking Congress to place a ban on the development of physician-owned specialty hospitals. Some conservatives may oppose this measure as a high-handed approach by Washington policy-makers to interfere with free markets, further solidifying existing hospitals’ monopolies, and stifling the type of innovation in health care that new entrants like specialty hospitals can create to slow the growth of health care costs.

Additionally, conservatives may note a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Inspector General from this April, which publicly rebuked several hospital trade associations for making “several statements that misrepresent our findings and draw[ing] several conclusions that we did not make” in a white paper to Congressional policy-makers on the need for a specialty hospital ban. Some conservatives may therefore be highly skeptical of claims from self-interested parties exhibiting monopolistic tendencies, who have made deceptive and misleading statements to Congress to advance their claims—and apparently lack the integrity to apologize for doing so.

Read the article here: Wall Street Journal: “Non-profit Hospitals Flex Pricing Power

Weekly Newsletter: September 8, 2008

The Outlook Ahead

Congress returns from its annual summer vacation today with several health-related issues on the agenda for the month of September. Specifically, additional Medicaid funding could be included in economic “stimulus” legislation, and a massive expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) could come up for another vote. Finally, an agreement-in-principle that negotiators reached on mental health parity legislation could receive a final vote if disputes surrounding the bill’s pay-fors can be resolved.

Many conservatives may be concerned about the Medicaid spending provisions (H.R. 5268), which would provide more than $10 billion in aid to states without providing any “stimulus”—as federal spending would merely supplant state outlays. At a time when the federal government’s budget deficit stands at least eight times the size of states’ combined budget deficits, conservatives may question why the federal government should be asked to bail out states facing fiscal difficulties much smaller by comparison.

Just as important, many conservatives may be concerned that this giveaway to states would not be accompanied by any substantive reforms to a Medicaid program that often fails to provide adequate care to the vulnerable patients it was designed to serve. In many cases, bureaucratic obstacles discourage providers from participating, resulting in limited access and months-long waits for beneficiaries, while fraud remains a persistent problem in several states. Some conservatives may believe that time on the legislative calendar debating a Medicaid bailout should instead be used to discuss more comprehensive structural reforms to the program—so that the poorest beneficiaries are not subjected to more of the same from a government health system that does not work for many.

On SCHIP, many conservatives may retain concerns about a significant expansion of the program— which, according to an Congressional Budget Office score, would now cost significantly more than the $35 billion expansion (H.R. 3963) vetoed by the President last fall. At a time of economic uncertainty for many Americans, conservatives may not support a substantial increase in federal tobacco taxes, which would be borne primarily by working-class families, as a way to increase the government’s role in health care. In addition, many conservatives continue to support Administration guidance designed to ensure that states enroll poor children first before expanding their SCHIP programs to wealthier families, and oppose any efforts by Congressional Democrats to repeal this important principle.

In addition to the concerns that some conservatives may have regarding the increases in insurance premiums caused by mental health parity legislation, conservatives may also be concerned about the way in which the bill’s more than $3 billion price tag will be financed. During House consideration of a mental health parity bill (H.R. 1424) in March, many conservatives objected to provisions—restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals, and increased drug rebates demanded from pharmaceutical companies—that undermined free markets in health care and expanded government price controls. The mental health bill is currently attached to tax extenders legislation in the Senate, which remains deadlocked over unrelated disputes; if the impasse over tax provisions continues, it remains unclear which direction or form the mental health legislation may take.

The RSC has prepared two new Policy Briefs, providing an update on SCHIP enrollment statistics and analyzing the premium support provisions within SCHIP.

Uninsured Numbers Show Need for Entitlement Reform

During the recess, the Census Bureau released its annual report on income and health insurance coverage during 2007. The report found that the number of uninsured declined by 1.3 million in 2007 when compared to the previous year, due largely to a 2.8 million increase in the number of Americans receiving coverage under various public programs, particularly Medicaid and Medicare.

Some conservatives may believe the significant growth in the number of Americans receiving government-run health insurance coverage provides another reason to re-examine entitlement spending and reform the health care system. In particular, market-based health reforms have the potential to slow the growth of health costs that threaten both America’s fiscal future and the financial well-being of many families.

The RSC has released an updated Policy Brief analyzing the new Census data, as well as a new Policy Brief highlighting the impact of illegal immigrants—who constitute as much as one-fifth of the uninsured in America—on the health care system.

Cooking the Books

During the recess, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Inspector General released a report criticizing the auditing process undertaken by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) with respect to the integrity of purchases of durable medical equipment (DME). The report stated that CMS’ guidance to the external auditors hired to examine DME claims failed to implement a rigorous level of scrutiny, and that as a result the level of questionable claims was significantly higher than CMS had first reported. Responding to the IG report, Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) said that “to look better to the public, [CMS] cook[s] the books;” he called the agency “incompetent.”

However, three weeks earlier Mr. Stark himself made dubious claims with respect to Medicare reform and President Bush’s tax relief. During debate on the resolution (H.Res. 1368) turning off the Medicare “trigger” mechanism, Mr. Stark claimed that extending the Bush tax relief would cost $100 trillion over 75 years—about three times’ Medicare’s unfunded obligations over that period—such that forgoing an extension of the tax relief provisions would somehow end Medicare’s long-term financial difficulties. However, a report by the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities cites the 75-year cost of the tax relief as $13.6 trillion—less than one-seventh the number cited by Stark in debate—and explicitly states that Medicare and health costs pose a greater threat to the nation’s fiscal solvency than the President’s tax relief. Asked repeatedly to provide a source of information justifying Stark’s statement, Ways and Means Committee staff could not substantiate his comments, or provide an explanation for the $86 trillion higher figure.

Weekly Newsletter: July 28, 2008

Tobacco Bill Coming Soon

This week the House could consider legislation (H.R. 1108) granting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to regulate tobacco, possibly under suspension of the rules. The bill would establish a new center within FDA to regulate tobacco products and assess tobacco companies more than $5 billion in “user fees” over the next ten years to pay for this regulation.

Some conservatives may be concerned by the regulatory regime the bill would establish, which would require an agency charged with promoting food and drug safety to regulate a product inherently unsafe and unhealthy. Some conservatives may also object to the multiple layers of regulation the bill would create, by leaving intact the Federal Trade Commission’s ability to regulate tobacco advertising and distribution and providing only limited pre-emption against additional state-based regulations and restrictions. Some conservatives may question whether the highly prescriptive restrictions in the bill— including advertising limitations on the use of color advertising and regulation of the font size of tobacco disclaimer warnings, all of which raise significant constitutional questions about their free-speech implications—constitute good public policy, particularly as the Congressional Budget Office estimates that H.R. 1108 will reduce smoking levels by only 2% over 10 years.

Lastly, some conservatives may object to provisions in the bill that could prompt an international trade dispute. Last week, HHS Secretary Leavitt wrote to Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Barton about H.R. 1108, observing that, because the bill prohibits all tobacco flavorings except menthol, foreign countries which manufacture clove or other flavored cigarettes may take action against the United States for providing unfair and disparate treatment for a particular type of manufactured cigarette. As press reports indicate that H.R. 1108 may be considered under suspension of the rules, some conservatives may be concerned by the lack of procedural opportunities available to address this disparity, such that the United States can live up to its obligations under international free-trade agreements.

A Policy Brief on H.R. 1108 (as reported by the Energy and Commerce Committee) can be found here.

Democrats Ignore Medicare Funding Warning

Last week Democrats responded to the Medicare trustees’ finding that the Medicare program faces significant future funding shortfalls—by resolving to ignore the problem. The resolution concerned a provision inserted into the Medicare Modernization Act at the behest of the RSC, which provided for the President to submit, and Congress to consider under expedited procedures, legislation to remedy Medicare’s funding problems when the program is projected to consume more than 45% of its funding from general revenues (as opposed to the Medicare payroll tax and beneficiary premiums). The Democrat majority’s action turned off this funding “trigger” for the balance of the 110th Congress, preventing those who believe in entitlement reform from taking action to force a House floor vote on Medicare reform legislation.

Many conservatives may be disappointed by the actions of Congressional Democrats, which prevented the President’s reasonable and modest proposals for Medicare reform—means testing that would make wealthier individuals like Warren Buffett and George Soros pay $2 per day more in Part D prescription drug premiums and liability reform to reduce the costs associated with defensive medicine practices— from receiving a vote in Congress. Many conservatives may believe that solving Medicare’s $86 trillion in unfunded obligations—and a Hospital Trust Fund scheduled to be exhausted in little more than a decade—will not be helped by Democrats’ apparent eagerness to ignore the problem. However, when Democrats like Florida’s Alcee Hastings note that “the perceived problem with Medicare funding has already been addressed,” many conservatives may be concerned that this lack of awareness will only hasten the day when Medicare’s funding shortfalls jeopardize the viability of the program—and wonder what policy-makers will tell their senior constituents when it does.

There are RSC Policy Briefs related to the Medicare trigger: Legislative Background; Talking Points on Trigger; Questions for House Democrats; Size of Medicare Program; White House Trigger Bill; Medicare Trustees Report

Article of Note: Fuzzy Math

Last Wednesday the New York Times reported on the many financial discrepancies surrounding the health care plan of Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). While Sen. Obama has been consistent in saying that his health plan would save every American family $2,500 per year, many observers have come to question the factual basis for a “best guess” assertion by his advisers early last year. Independent estimates, including those by the Congressional Budget Office, have questioned whether the savings from such initiatives as health information technology and chronic care management will materialize, particularly in the four-year timeline Sen. Obama has promised—such that even a statement by Obama’s own advisers backtracked from any assertions that the purported savings would materialize by a date certain.

Many conservatives may be skeptical of Sen. Obama’s claims, particularly as the liberal Commonwealth Fund released a report in December with a menu of options for savings that would by their estimates achieve a total reduction in spending of only 6% in 10 years. Some conservatives may also be concerned that, in an attempt to reduce health care costs—whether by 8%, 6%, or some lesser amount— Sen. Obama would rely first and foremost on imposing price controls on physicians, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and insurance companies, along with rationing care through a government-controlled comparative effectiveness institute. Many conservatives may believe that such bureaucratic restrictions would in the long run prove far more effective at growing the size of government than slowing the growth of health care costs.

Read the article here: New York Times: “Health Plan from Obama Sparks Debate

Weekly Newsletter: July 21, 2008

Resolution Would Block SCHIP Funds from Being Targeted to Poor Children

Last week, a group of Senators introduced a Resolution of Disapproval (S. J. Res. 44) designed to nullify guidance put forward by the Administration regarding state efforts to expand government-funded health insurance coverage to higher-income children. The guidance, issued last August and revised this May, provides a list of steps states must take in order to expand coverage to children in families making over 250% of the federal poverty level (approximately $50,000 for a family of four), and to ensure that states do not encourage families to drop private insurance coverage in order to obtain coverage through a government program.

Many conservatives may be surprised and disappointed by this resolution, which if successful would effectively give states a disincentive to reach out and enroll poorer-income children if children from wealthier families can be more easily found and enrolled in government-funded coverage. Particularly as the Administration has issued clarifying guidance noting that no child need be dropped off the SCHIP rolls while states implement this new policy, some conservatives may question why Democrats would prefer to extend government-funded health insurance to families making $80,000 or more, while neglecting to ensure that poorer children receive first preference for SCHIP enrollment.

An RSC Policy Brief on the Administration’s SCHIP Guidance can be found here.

Medicaid Bailout for States Receives Committee Hearing

This week the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a Subcommittee hearing on legislation (H.R. 5268) designed to provide a temporary increase in the Medicaid matching rate provided to states. News reports suggest that the Democrat leadership may attempt to attach similar provisions to a second “stimulus” package being considered by the Congressional majority.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this legislation—which was proposed, and rejected, during negotiations over the first “stimulus” bill passed in January—would not provide any “stimulus” at all, instead substituting federal Medicaid spending for state dollars, at a significant cost to the federal budget deficit. Given an Urban Institute study suggesting that lost revenue—and not increases in Medicaid enrollment—generates a measurably larger impact on state budgets during economic downturns, some conservatives may view H.R. 5268 as providing a bailout to states, which did not engage in proper budgetary planning, that will only encourage “moral hazard” among states with flawed revenue projection models.

The legislation being considered also includes provisions designed to disregard “extraordinary pension contributions” for purposes of calculating each state’s Medicaid match rate. Because the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has noted that Michigan—home to full Committee Chairman John Dingell—is the only state that would benefit from such a change, some conservatives may consider this provision an authorizing earmark and object to its inclusion.

An RSC Policy Brief on Medicaid matching formulae can be found here.

Documents of Note: Democrats Defend Entitlement Spending on the Wealthy

Last Wednesday, RSC Chairman Hensarling submitted an op-ed to the Washington Times discussing Medicare legislation recently enacted over the President’s veto. The article noted that the Democrat-constructed bill pits groups of low-income seniors against each other—by adding subsidies for some, while taking away access to Medicare Advantage for millions—all the while doing nothing to make billionaires like Warren Buffett and George Soros pay $2 per day more for prescription drug coverage.

Read the op-ed here.

And as Congress once again may consider SCHIP-related legislation, some conservatives may find the colloquy between Rep. Mike Burgess (R-TX) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Dingell from last October enlightening. In it, Chairman Dingell admitted that states can choose to disregard tens of thousands of dollars of income from families applying for SCHIP—thus making families with six-figure incomes potentially subject to government-funded health insurance for “poor” children.