Monthly Archives: May 2008

Policy Brief: SCHIP Crowd-Out

Background:  The State Children’s Health Insurance Program, established under the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 1997, is a state-federal partnership originally designed to provide low-income children with health insurance—specifically, those children under age 19 from families with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or approximately $40,000 for a family of four.  States may implement SCHIP by expanding Medicaid and/or creating a new state SCHIP program.  SCHIP received nearly $40 billion in funding over ten years as part of BBA, and legislation recently passed by Congress in December (P.L. 110-173) extended the program through March 2009, while providing additional SCHIP funds for states.

One concern of many conservatives regarding the SCHIP program relates to crowd-out—a phenomenon whereby individuals who had previously held private health insurance drop that coverage in order to enroll in a public program.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of H.R. 3963, a five-year SCHIP reauthorization which the President vetoed (and the House failed to override), found that of the 5.8 million children who would obtain Medicaid or SCHIP coverage under the legislation, more than one-third, or 2 million, would do so by dropping private health insurance coverage.

Administration Guidance:  In order to prevent policies that encourage crowd-out, and ensure that SCHIP funds are more effectively allocated to the low-income beneficiaries for whom the program was created, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), on August 17, 2007, issued guidance to state health officials about the way CMS would evaluate proposals by states to expand their SCHIP programs to include families with incomes above 250% of the federal poverty level (FPL).  Specifically, CMS included several steps which states should take before contemplating expansions above 250% of FPL:

  • Cost sharing requirements for state plans similar to those for private plans;
  • A one-year period of uninsurance for beneficiaries prior to receiving SCHIP coverage, to ensure that individuals and families are not dropping private coverage in order to receive benefits on government rolls;
  • Monitoring of child beneficiaries’ eligibility for coverage provided by non-custodial parents;
  • Assurance that states have enrolled at least 95% of children in families below 200% of FPL who are eligible for coverage under SCHIP or Medicaid;
  • Data that private insurance coverage for targeted populations has not declined more than two percentage points in the past five years; and
  • Regular monthly reporting of enrollment data monitoring crowd-out in state plans.

The guidance intended to maximize the use of state and federal SCHIP funding by ensuring that scarce resources are targeted at the populations for whom the program was originally created, and that government funds for health insurance are not merely replacing private dollars.  CMS later used the policies embodied in the August letter to reject New York’s application to extend SCHIP to children in families making up to 400% FPL—or nearly $85,000 per year.  New York and other states are suing the federal government to overturn CMS’ decision and allow further expansion of government-funded health insurance.

On May 7, 2008, CMS issued another letter to state health officials providing further clarification on the August 17, 2007 guidance.  The letter indicated that CMS would work with states to evaluate whether the states have effectively enrolled 95% of eligible children below 200% FPL before expanding their programs up the income scale.  It also noted that CMS does not expect states to apply the anti-crowd-out provisions—including the one-year waiting period for SCHIP coverage and cost-sharing requirements comparable to private insurance plans—for unborn children or children with family incomes below 250% FPL—approximately $53,000 for a family of four.  Most importantly, the letter noted that changes made to state procedures need not be applied to current enrollees—meaning that no child need be dropped off the SCHIP rolls as a result of CMS’ August 17, 2007 letter.

Recent Legislative Developments:  On May 15, 2008, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a legislative hearing on H.R. 5998, introduced by Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH).  The legislation would prohibit the Administration from implementing its August 17, 2007 guidance letter to states regarding SCHIP crowd-out.  Press reports indicate that during the hearing, advocates of the legislation argued first that it would negatively impact enrollment in the SCHIP program, and second that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and other experts have concluded that CMS violated the Congressional Review Act by promulgating its policy as a “guidance letter,” rather than issuing a formal rule using notice-and-comment procedures.  In response, Health Subcommittee Ranking Member Nathan Deal (R-GA) noted that the guidance process allowed for more flexibility in responding to any concerns raised by states than would a formal rule.

On the same day, an amendment by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) to nullify the August 17 letter was attached to the wartime supplemental spending bill at a Senate Appropriations Committee markup.  This SCHIP provision was added to legislative provisions overriding seven Medicaid anti-fraud regulations issued by CMS, which were also attached to the House version (H.R. 2642) of the supplemental spending bill.

Conclusion:  Most conservatives support enrollment and funding of the SCHIP program for the populations for whom the SCHIP program was created.  That is why in December the House passed, by a 411—3 vote, legislation reauthorizing and extending the SCHIP program through March 2009.  That legislation included an additional $800 million in funding for states to ensure that all currently eligible children will continue to have access to state-based SCHIP coverage.

However, many conservatives retain concerns about the significant expansions of SCHIP contemplated by House Democrats and their impact on reducing private health insurance coverage while increasing reliance on a government-funded program.  In this vein, the Administration’s guidance to states remains consistent with the goal of ensuring that SCHIP remains targeted toward the low-income populations for which it was designed.  Therefore, many conservatives will support the reasonable attempts by CMS to bolster the integrity of the SCHIP program while retaining state plans’ flexibility, and question efforts by Congressional Democrats—and states like New York—to encourage further expansion of government-funded health insurance financed by federal taxpayers.

For further information on this issue see:

Weekly Newsletter — May 19, 2008

Democrats Advance Provisions to Expand SCHIP to Wealthier Families

This past week, Democrats in both the House and the Senate took actions to block guidance from the Administration that would keep the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) on mission.  On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee held a hearing on legislation (HR 5998) that would override guidance issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) last August.  That guidance is intended to ensure first that individuals with private health insurance do not drop their coverage in order to join a government-funded program, and second that states target their SCHIP funds at the low-income families for whom the program was created before expanding their state health plans to cover children from wealthier families.

That same day, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) attached legislative provisions mirroring HR 5998 to the wartime supplemental appropriations measure.  The provisions were attached along with language similar to a House bill (HR 5613) that would suspend several Medicaid anti-fraud regulations.  Sen. Lautenberg’s home state of New Jersey—which extends government-funded health insurance to “low-income” families making over $70,000 for a family of four—is one that has taken legal action against CMS to block the SCHIP guidance.

Some conservatives may be troubled, but not surprised, by the Democrat attempts to ensure that states can expand their SCHIP programs up the income ladder—consistent with legislation that passed the House last year permitting “low-income” families with over $80,000 in income to be added to government rolls.  Given that the Administration has clarified the guidance to ensure that no child need be dropped off the SCHIP rolls as a result of the CMS policy, many conservatives would support the Administration’s attempts to keep the SCHIP program targeted on the populations for whom it was created, and oppose Democrat efforts to override these reasonable limits.

A Policy Brief on this issue can be found here.

Ways and Means Hearing Examines HSAs

Last week, the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee held a hearing analyzing the growth of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).  The Subcommittee heard testimony from the CEO of Alegent Health, a Nebraska-based health system that has implemented consumer-driven health care for its employees.  Since embarking on a consumer-driven model in 2005, Alegent has provided free preventive care and other incentives for healthy behaviors, while increasing price and quality transparency for its employees and patients alike.  The results have been impressive: 92% participation by employees in consumer-directed plans, with high contribution rates to HSAs from low-income employees, lower costs, and healthier workers.

Many conservatives may believe that Alegent Health represents a successful model of how the growth of HSAs and consumer-driven health care can reduce rising health care costs.  By empowering employees to take control of their lifestyle and health decisions, HSAs can encourage healthy behaviors that will reverse the growth of chronic diseases such as those linked to obesity, while incentivizing workers to accumulate real and portable savings that can be used to pay for health expenses.  Some conservatives may believe the testimony at the Ways and Means hearing provided a welcome example of HSAs’ effectiveness, and a reminder why Democrat attempts further to regulate this new form of health care should be viewed with significant caution.

A Policy Brief providing background on HSA enrollment can be found here.

Article of Note: Rationed Care Kills

From the United Kingdom comes a story in the Daily Mail by Sarah Anderson, an ophthalmologist fighting twin battles: to save her father’s life and against Britain’s National Health Service.  Her father’s kidney tumor could be treated by a new drug—but while the pharmaceutical has been approved for use in Europe for two years, Britain’s National Institute for Clinical Effectiveness (NICE) will not complete its assessment of the drug’s usefulness until January.  Until then, local NHS branches can refuse to provide the drug, leaving Anderson’s family to pay for their father’s treatment on their own, or face the inevitable consequences that will follow if he cannot obtain it.

Some conservatives may be concerned by this story’s cautionary tale, particularly in the context of efforts by Democrats to establish a similar “comparative effectiveness” institute under the aegis of the federal government.  Conservatives may not only believe that such an approach would put bureaucrats, and not doctors and patients, at the center of medical policy, but would also result in the types of costly delays and care rationing that put lives at stake.

Anderson’s ultimate verdict on her family’s dilemma is a sobering one with which many conservatives would agree: “If Dad should lose his life to cancer, it would be devastating—but to lose his life to bureaucracy would be far, far worse.”

Read the article here:

“How the NHS Is Letting My Father Die”

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/health/healthmain.html?in_article_id=565430&in_page_id=1774

Policy Brief: Certificate of Need Programs

History and Background:  In the 1960s, some health care policy makers began to believe that an excess supply of providers was having an inflationary impact on the price of health care.  As a result, several states, beginning with New York in 1964, enacted “certificate of need” (CON) laws giving state agencies the power to evaluate whether a new hospital or nursing home facility was needed prior to its construction.  Prompted in part by support from the American Hospital Association, 20 states enacted certificate of need laws by 1975.[1]

In January 1975, President Ford signed into law the National Health Planning and Resources Development Act (P.L. 93-641), originally sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA).  The Act provided incentives for states to enact approval mechanisms prior to the construction of major facilities. As a result, by 1980 all states but Louisiana had established CON programs.[2]  However, Congress enacted legislation (P.L. 99-660) repealing the federal law in November 1986, which in time led 14 states to abolish their certificate of need programs.  Nevertheless, 36 states and the District of Columbia maintain some form of restriction on the construction of new medical facilities absent a determination of necessity.

Changes within the Hospital Industry:  In the more than four decades since the first certificate of need program was established, the hospital industry has undergone numerous changes and consolidations that may be seen as undermining the original rationale for the certificate of need mechanism.  At the time certificate of need laws were enacted, most hospitals received cost-based reimbursement for services from both the federal government and private insurers.  This payment mechanism, when coupled with a perceived lack of incentives for consumers to become cost-conscious about their health care expenditures, led policy-makers to impose external restrictions on providers’ growth (in an attempt to slow the growth of health expenditures) due to a belief that they would fail to compete on price grounds.[3]  However, the intervening decades have seen a move away from cost-based reimbursement and toward prospective payment for procedures, along with greater incentives—higher deductibles, Health Savings Accounts, co-insurance, etc.—for consumers to demonstrate price sensitivity in health care.  Thus the economic conditions which led regulators to impose certificate of need restrictions have changed appreciably for both consumers and providers, which may prompt a re-evaluation of their usefulness and efficacy.

In addition, a wave of consolidation within the hospital sector has attracted the attention of antitrust regulators, who have examined the impact of hospital mergers on health care.  As of 2001, nearly 54% of hospitals nationwide had joined a larger hospital system, with a further 12.7% working in looser affiliations.  Combined, two-thirds of hospitals nationwide (66.7%) participated in some form of network or system affiliation—more than double the 31% two decades previously, in 1979.[4]

In 2004, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) conducted a series of fact-finding hearings that culminated in a joint study analyzing the antitrust implications of health care policy, which featured several chapters specifically devoted to the changes within the hospital industry.[5]  Reports submitted to the panel cited the “extensive consolidation” within the health care industry, “at times creating virtual monopolies in geographic submarkets” that allowed hospitals to “exert greater leverage in managed care contract negotiations” while pressuring physicians to join a particular system.[6]  Other witnesses noted the way in which hospital systems attempt to include at least one “must have” hospital in each geographic market, which will allow the system to demand price increases.[7]

Both the FTC-DOJ report and other independent studies have noted the link between high levels of consolidation within the hospital industry and higher prices.  Best estimates indicate that hospital mergers tend to increase prices from 5-40%—while also resulting in decreases in quality.[8]  A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper found that, by resulting in a loss of consumer surplus of $42.2 billion over a decade (most of which went to providers), hospital mergers had the net effect of raising insurance premiums 3-5%, thus increasing the number of uninsured by almost 5.5 million life-years from 1990 through 2003.[9]

Effect of CON on Competition, Price, and Quality:  Conservatives who believe in free markets may not object to consolidation within the hospital industry, or any other industry, provided that no other external factor interferes with the operation of the economic market.  However, if the market has been distorted through public policy actions by legislators—as in the case of the 36 states and the District of Columbia with certificate of need laws—some conservatives may view such laws with caution, due to the potential negative implications which a state-granted oligopoly for existing providers may have on the ability of new entrants to improve the health care marketplace through innovative practices and techniques.

The same FTC-DOJ report that noted the correlation between hospital consolidation and rising prices also criticized the state certificate of need model as anticompetitive and not in consumers’ best interest.  Witnesses testified that the barriers to entry presented by certificate of need requirements impeded rapid implementation of new health care technologies, with significant adverse effects on overall health care spending—rising prices due to more limited access to care, and/or re-directing spending to other areas of health care (i.e. a restriction on development of new beds leading to increased investment in radiological or other equipment).[10]  The report concluded:

The Agencies believe that CON programs are generally not successful in containing health care costs and that they can pose anticompetitive risks….CON programs risk entrenching oligopolists and eroding consumer welfare.  The aim of controlling costs is laudable, but there appear to be other, more effective means of achieving this goal that do not pose anticompetitive risks.[11]

Because of the “serious competitive concerns” that outweighed the purported benefits, the agencies advised states to re-evaluate whether their certificate of need programs in fact serve the public good.

In addition to the impact of certificate of need programs on price and market penetration, the stubbornly high rates of medical errors and hospital-acquired infections may be symptomatic of quality control difficulties rooted in a lack of competition.  The 1999 Institute of Medicine study To Err Is Human estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die annually in hospitals due to preventable medical errors, creating a total economic cost of as much as $29 billion, and a November 2006 report utilizing data from a new infection-reporting regime in Pennsylvania found 19,154 cases of hospital-acquired infections in 2005 alone, representing an infection incident rate of more than 1 in 100 hospitalizations.[12]  With consolidation having eroded the breadth of competing hospitals in some markets, and state certificate of need programs presenting a significant barrier for potential new entrants, the prime driver of quality improvement within the hospital sector may be fear of litigation—a process which some conservatives may find economically inefficient and poor public policy.

The impact of certificate of need programs on quality improvements was illustrated in data from an October 2003 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study examining physician-owned specialty hospitals.  According to GAO, 83% of all specialty hospitals—and all specialty hospitals then under development—were located in states without certificate of need requirements.[13]  The FTC-DOJ study also cited the example of a Florida law enacted in 2003, which barred single-practice specialty hospitals while simultaneously eliminating certificate of need requirements for various cardiac programs at general hospitals.[14]  Some conservatives may therefore be concerned first that the innovation and quality improvements which physician-owned specialty hospitals have introduced are being denied to residents in many states due to certificate of need restrictions, and second that this archaic and bureaucratic mechanism has become a political football that existing facilities attempt to manipulate in order to maintain existing oligopolies.[15]

Security Impact:  The September 11 attacks and subsequent concerns regarding incidents of mass terrorism, bioterrorism, or pandemic outbreaks have raised the prominence of the need for “surge capacity” in the event of a major public health disaster.  Although such surge capacity need not be located within the confines of a hospital, specialized medical centers may play a significant role in any response to a large-scale incident.

On May 5 and 7, 2008, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held hearings regarding a potential lack of hospital surge capacity.[16]  Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) attempted to assert that the implementation of several proposed Medicaid anti-fraud regulations would compel hospitals to reduce or eliminate trauma centers whose services would be needed in the event of a major terror incident.  In response, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt noted that the need for proper public health capacity to respond to terrorist incidents should not impede the Administration from enacting reasonable controls to ensure that the Medicaid program meets its statutory goal of providing health care to low-income individuals, as opposed to serving as a bioterror response agency.

In addition to agreeing with the Secretary’s assertion that the distinction between public health preparedness and implementation of Medicaid anti-fraud regulations saving $42 billion over a decade is a false dichotomy, some conservatives may also believe that a better way to increase “surge capacity” in 36 states and the District of Columbia would involve a repeal of certificate of need restrictions.  Rather than maintaining bureaucratic regulations that prevent construction of health care facilities of critical importance in a mass-casualty incident—or jeopardizing existing physician-owned trauma centers by enacting new restrictions on physician ownership, as House Democrats have proposed—conservatives may believe that a better alternative would allow free markets to innovate and create new medical centers should capacity for trauma units or other segments of care be lacking in a particular market.

Conclusion:  Proposals to expand the government’s role in health care have frequently been criticized by conservatives as the first step towards rationed care.  However, some conservatives may use the certificate of need model to argue that 36 states and the District of Columbia already ration health care, by limiting the ability of new entrants to provide medical services to their citizens.  For instance, the recent decision of the Michigan Certificate of Need Commission to limit the number of new radiation facilities in the state may have an adverse impact on cancer patients seeking access to a novel form of treatment.[17]

With a McKinsey group study noting that hospitals account for 50% of the excess spending in American health care relative to other countries, some conservatives may argue that the hospital industry in particular warrants the additional innovation and reduced costs which new entrants can provide.[18]  Congress itself recognized this fact in 1980 by passing legislation (P.L. 96-499) making ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs) eligible for Medicare reimbursement, believing that new ASCs could perform certain medical procedures more cost-effectively than general hospitals.[19]  Yet the exhaustive FTC-DOJ study, as well as related literature, have documented the ways in which state-based certificate of need laws have undermined market-based efforts at cost control—by resulting in less competition, higher prices, and a diminished emphasis on quality that new market entrants can elicit.  In addition, the changed environment of a post-9/11 world raises questions as to whether states with certificate of need programs are denying to their citizens facilities that could be of critical importance in a public health crisis.  Viewed from these perspectives, the certificate of need model may look less like an effective mechanism to contain the growth of health care costs than an outdated shibboleth that ultimately harms the citizens whom it was designed to protect.

Some conservatives may believe that the nearly 100,000 deaths annually due to preventable medical errors constitute proof positive that the certificate of need model should be permanently dismantled, and that the billions of dollars in hospital expenditures made by the federal government may warrant a federal role in persuading recalcitrant states to do so.  This fiscal year alone, the federal government will spend at least $27.1 billion on payments to hospitals not directly attributable to patient care—including Medicare and Medicaid disproportionate share hospital payments, and graduate and indirect medical education costs.[20]  Some conservatives may therefore support policies intended to link some or all of these payments to states’ repeal of certificate of need laws, in the belief that the abolition of such measures will improve competition, drive down prices, and enhance the quality of health care nationwide.

For further information on this issue see:



[1] “Certificate of Need State Laws 2008,” (Washington, DC, National Council of State Legislatures, updated May 8, 2008), available online at http://www.ncsl.org/programs/health/cert-need.htm (accessed May 11, 2008).

[2] Cited in Improving Health Care: A Dose of Competition (Washington, DC, Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission Joint Report, July 2004), available online at http://www.ftc.gov/reports/healthcare/040723healthcarerpt.pdf (accessed May 11, 2008), p. 301.

[3] Ibid., pp. 302-303.

[4] Ibid., pp. 133-134.

[5] Background information, agendas, and transcripts for the hearings can be found online at http://www.ftc.gov/bc/healthcare/research/healthcarehearing.htm (accessed May 12, 2008).

[6] Cara Lesser and Paul Ginsburg, “Back to the Future?: New Cost and Access Challenges Emerge,” (Washington, DC, Center for Studying Health System Change Issue Brief No. 35, February 2001), available online at http://www.hschange.com/CONTENT/295/ (accessed May 11, 2008).

[7] Cited in Dose of Competition, p. 138.

[8] William Vogt and Robert Town, “How Has Hospital Consolidation Affected the Price and Quality of Hospital  Care?” (Princeton, NJ, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Research Synthesis Project No. 9, February 2006), available online at http://www.rwjf.org/pr/synthesis/reports_and_briefs/pdf/no9_researchreport.pdf (accessed May 12, 2008), pp. 8-10.

[9] Robert Town et al., “The Welfare Consequences of Hospital Mergers,” (Cambridge, MA, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 12244), available online at http://www.nber.org/papers/w12244.pdf?new_window=1 (accessed May 13, 2008), Tables 8-10, pp. 48-50.

[10] See ibid., pp. 301-306.

[11] Ibid., p. 306.

[12] Institute of Medicine, To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System, summary available online at http://www.iom.edu/Object.File/Master/4/117/ToErr-8pager.pdf (accessed March 1, 2008); Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, Hospital Acquired Infections in Pennsylvania, available online at http://www.phc4.org/reports/hai/05/docs/hai2005report.pdf (accessed March 1, 2008).

[13] “Specialty Hospitals: Geographic Location, Services Provided, and Financial Performance,” (Washington, Government Accountability Office, Report GAO-04-167), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04167.pdf (accessed May 11, 2008), pp. 20-21.

[14] Cited in Dose of Competition, p. 146, note 116.

[15] The Center for Responsive Politics notes that from 1998 through March 2008, the hospital and nursing home industry spent more than $610 million on federal lobbying alone, placing it ninth among 121 industry categories.  Data available online at http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php?indexType=i (accessed May 12, 2008).

[16] Information about the hearings can be found at http://oversight.house.gov/story.asp?ID=1929 (accessed May 10, 2008).

[17] Andrew Pollack, “States Limit Costly Sites for Cancer Radiation,” New York Times May 1, 2008, available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/01/technology/01proton.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&8br=&oref=slogin&adxnnlx=1210543656-RJG4oNSF434Dh4b52KfeFA&pagewanted=print (accessed May 11, 2008).

[18] Cited in Regina Herzlinger, Who Killed Health Care? America’s $2 Trillion Medical Problem—and the Consumer Driven Cure (New York, McGraw-Hill, 2007), p. 62.

[19] Cited in Dose of Competition, p. 148.

[20] Congressional Budget Office March 2008 baselines for Medicare and Medicaid, available online at http://www.cbo.gov/budget/factsheets/2008b/medicare.pdf and http://www.cbo.gov/budget/factsheets/2008b/medicaidBaseline.pdf, respectively  (accessed May 12, 2008).

Weekly Newsletter — May 12, 2008

War Supplemental Attempts to Override Medicaid Fiscal Integrity Regulations

News reports surfaced in recent days that House Democrats will attempt to attach to the wartime supplemental appropriations bill provisions of legislation (H.R. 5613) that would impose moratoria on several proposed regulations issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to restore fiscal integrity to the Medicaid program.  Other reports also suggest that much of the increase in Medicaid spending on anti-fraud oversight, inserted into the legislation at the behest of Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Joe Barton (R-TX), will not be included in the appropriations measure.

In addition to the concerns many conservatives may have about unnecessary domestic spending provisions being attached to a bill funding troops in harm’s way overseas, some conservatives may also be concerned by congressional actions to block regulations that respond to more than a dozen Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports released since 1994 highlighting the various ways states have attempted to “game” the Medicaid program and increase the amount of federal matching funds received.  The history of these abuses has prompted the Administration to threaten a veto of any measure attempting to block CMS’ attempts to restore the fiscal integrity of the Medicaid program.

Reports also suggesting that the Senate version of the supplemental may attempt to pay for part of the costs associated with the Medicaid regulations by enacting additional restrictions on physician-owned hospitals.  Some conservatives may therefore be concerned that Senate Democrats are attempting to override critical regulations to restore integrity to the Medicaid program—and paying for the moratoria by enacting bureaucratic restrictions that will stifle an important source of innovation in health care.

Documents on the federal-state Medicaid relationship can be found here, here, here, and here, and a Policy Brief on physician-owned hospitals can be found here.

Ways and Means Hearing Scheduled on HSAs

This Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee will hold a hearing designed to undermine the growth of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).  The hearing comes on the heels of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report requested by Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) that Democrats used to assert that HSAs are nothing more than a tax shelter for wealthy individuals.

Some conservatives may be strongly skeptical of the Democrat conclusions, particularly as the GAO report utilized tax data from a year when the number of HSA policy-holders was one-sixth its current level.  In addition, many conservatives may applaud the data demonstrating that individuals are building real savings in their HSA accounts to use for health expenses—money that consumers, not insurance companies or government bureaucrats, can control and spend for health care needs.  These data on the amount of savings accumulated by HSA holders fly in the face of statements by Subcommittee Chairman Stark that HSAs are “woefully inadequate” as a means to provide health care coverage.

What is clear is that HSAs have proved tremendously popular in the four years since their introduction.  America’s Health Insurance Plans recently reported that more than 6.1 million individuals are covered by HSA-eligible insurance, and that enrollment in HSA plans had increased by 35% during 2007 alone.  Given the widespread adoption of this new consumer-directed product, and its impact on reducing the growth of health care costs, many conservatives may object to any Democrat proposals to eliminate HSAs or make them unattractive through unnecessary bureaucratic regulations.

A Policy Brief providing background on HSA enrollment can be found here.

Articles of Note: Washington’s Other Health Care Mess

Two articles in The Washington Post in the past week highlighted growing opposition to a measure designed to provide universal health care in the District of Columbia.  The proposed program, similar to one enacted in Massachusetts two years ago, would impose an individual mandate on all individuals to purchase health insurance coverage, and would expand public insurance subsidies for those individuals not eligible for current government-run health care programs.

Much opposition has centered on the new taxes necessary to finance the expansion of government-run health care—a doubling of the District’s tobacco tax, a new tax on Health Maintenance Organizations, and an increase in taxes on all health insurance premiums.  The health insurer with whom the District had expected to contract for the program has also expressed reservations about its willingness to participate.

Advocates of the District’s health care plan face the same obstacles that have plagued the Massachusetts experiment: unpopular new taxes that can stifle economic growth, an individual mandate that can prove difficult to enforce, and few controls on spiraling health care costs that form the root cause of many access and coverage shortcomings in the current system.  Some conservatives would therefore advise District leaders that, rather than establishing a new entitlement program with unknown future obligations, policy-makers would be best advised to reform health care markets to create the kind of consumer-oriented innovations that can slow the growth of health care costs, thereby increasing affordability of coverage.

Read the articles here:

“Speakers Express Division on Bill to Mandate Health Care Coverage”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/02/AR2008050203468_pf.html

“Provider, Doctors May Pull Out of Program”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/05/AR2008050502281_pf.html

Weekly Newsletter — May 5, 2008

Democrat Attacks on HSAs Miss the Mark

This past week, Democrats attempted to use a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to cast aspersions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).  The Democrats who requested the GAO report—which analyzed data from HSA contributions made in 2005—asserted that the study proved that HSAs are nothing more than a tax shelter for wealthy individuals.

However, some conservatives may be strongly skeptical of these conclusions, particularly as the report utilized tax data from a year when the number of HSA policy-holders was one-sixth its current level.  In addition, many conservatives may applaud the data demonstrating that individuals are building real savings in their HSA accounts to use for health expenses—money that consumers, not insurance companies or government bureaucrats, can control and spend for health care needs.

What is clear is that HSAs have proved tremendously popular in the four years since their introduction.  America’s Health Insurance Plans reported Wednesday that more than 6.1 million individuals are covered by HSA-eligible insurance, and that enrollment in HSA plans had increased by 35% during 2007 alone.  Given the widespread adoption of this new consumer-directed product, and its impact on reducing the growth of health care costs, many conservatives may object to any Democrat proposals to eliminate HSAs or make them unattractive through unnecessary bureaucratic regulations.

A Policy Brief summarizing the HSA reports can be found here.

Leavitt Speech Highlights Need for Entitlement Reform

Last Wednesday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt used a speech at the Newseum to advance the cause of Medicare reform, outlining some over-arching principles to guide policy-makers looking to curb the spiraling growth of federal entitlements.  In his speech—and a subsequent briefing before RSC Members and staff—he compared the federal government’s looming entitlement obligations as a whirlpool threatening to consume growing amounts of the economy, and advocated for increased competition in Medicare Parts A and B as one measure to stem the spiraling costs.

Many conservatives will support Secretary Leavitt’s call for comprehensive reform, and seek an immediate solution to the problems plaguing Medicare.  This year’s Medicare trustees report placed the program’s total unfunded obligations at $86 trillion—which will provide some conservatives with a strong impetus to use all available legislative mechanisms to advance the cause of Medicare reform.

Policy Briefs highlighting the Medicare “trigger,” the President’s proposed legislation, and other options for comprehensive entitlement reform can be found here and here.

Genetic Non-Discrimination Act Passes Overwhelmingly

Last Thursday, the House by a 414-1 vote passed the Senate amendments to the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 493), sending the bill to the President’s desk.  The compromise language negotiated between Senate sponsors and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) had previously passed the Senate on a 95-0 vote.

The compromise language corrects several issues of concern to conservatives.  Insurers and employers will be prohibited from discriminating against individuals on the basis of fetal genetic information, ensuring that individuals will not feel pressured into aborting their unborn children.  In addition, existing policies on insurance underwriting for diseases already manifest in individuals will be maintained, and entities subject to existing privacy regulations under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) will not be subject to a new regulatory regime.  Lastly, the compromise language improved a conservative concern that employers will not be subject to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) tribunals or lawsuits for decisions they make in their capacity as an insurer for their employees.

A Legislative Bulletin on the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act can be found here.

Policy Brief: HSA Enrollment

This week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a study requested by Reps. Henry Waxman and Pete Stark with additional data on take-up and enrollment in Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).  In addition, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) released a new report reflecting enrollment in HSAs as of January 2008.  In response to these two reports, the RSC has prepared the following document rebutting criticisms propounded by the Democrats who requested the GAO study, and summarizing the news released by AHIP about HSAs’ growing popularity.

Democrat Criticisms Based on GAO Report

Criticism:  Because contributions to HSAs are significantly exceeding withdrawals from the accounts, Health Savings Accounts can therefore be considered a “tax shelter.”

Response:

  • The GAO report found that in 2005, tax filers contributed $754 million to HSAs, while withdrawing $366 million, or about half the total contribution figure, to pay various expenses.
  • The point of HSAs is to allow individuals to save money tax-free for health care expenses.  Therefore, many conservatives would view the net $388 million in savings as positive news—because that money is being saved to pay for long-term and catastrophic health care expenses, rather than being used on high-cost, first-dollar insurance coverage with benefits that individuals may never use.
  • GAO also cited various employer surveys noting that employers are placing $600-800 annually in their workers’ HSAs to pay for health expenses.
  • Some conservatives may believe that, had total withdrawals nearly equaled total contributions, Democrats would instead be objecting that individuals are not saving enough funds in their HSAs to cover unexpected health expenses under a high-deductible health insurance plan.

Criticism:  Because HSA account holders reported higher incomes than other tax filers, HSAs are being used primarily by wealthy individuals and families.

Response:

  • The data in the GAO study leading to this conclusion reflect information from tax year 2005—when there were just over one million covered lives in HSAs.
  • Since the point in time captured by GAO, Health Savings Accounts have grown nearly six-fold, and now encompass more than six million covered lives.
  • The small sample size available in 2005 may have incorporated a disproportionate number of holders of Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs), who converted their accounts into HSAs upon their creation in early 2004.  Because MSAs were only available to self-employed individuals and small business owners—who would have higher incomes than the general population—it is perhaps unsurprising that the incomes of these “early adopters” would be higher than all tax filers.
  • However, eHealthInsurance, an online broker of health insurance policies nationwide, has released a report based on its sales of HSA policies in 2005, which found that 45% of HSA-eligible plan purchasers earned less than $50,000 annually—and 41% of HSA purchasers had not previously had health insurance coverage in the prior six months.
  • Because the data on “all tax filers” included both Medicare and Medicaid recipients—many of whom have significantly lower incomes than the average tax filer, and none of whom are eligible to make HSA contributions—the GAO report did not provide an “apples-to-apples” comparison of the incomes of those individuals who purchase HSAs and those who choose other forms of private insurance.
  • The GAO report did not provide context on the relative incomes for individuals who use other tax-favored accounts, such as those for college savings.  Without that contextual data, it is difficult to determine whether and how HSAs are being improperly used when compared to similar tax-favored savings vehicles.

Criticism:  Many individuals who take out HSA-eligible plans are never opening Health Savings Accounts—leaving them vulnerable to high expenses in the event of a health care emergency.

Response:

  • The GAO study quoted various studies stating that 42-49% of HSA-eligible plan enrollees had not opened an HSA.
  • However, the study confuses the difference between covered lives in an HSA-eligible plan and the number of accounts opened.  For many reasons, the two numbers will never be equal, or even nearly equal—dependent children covered on their parents’ HSA-eligible plan cannot open their own account, and some spouses may choose to operate a shared account rather than two distinct ones.

Growth of Health Savings Accounts

Both the GAO study and the report released by AHIP this week confirm that Health Savings Accounts have appreciably grown in popularity since their introduction in 2004.  Relevant points include the following:

  • The number of HSA covered lives has grown from 438,000 in September 2004 to more than 4.5 million in January 2007—and 6.1 million in January 2008.
  • The growth in enrollment from January 2007 to January 2008 represents a 35% increase in the number of HSA covered lives in a single year.
  • Of the nearly 1.6 million newly covered lives, almost half were in the small group market—a particularly compelling statistic, given the difficulties many small businesses have in offering health insurance to their employees.
  • States such as Louisiana and Minnesota, along with the District of Columbia, are seeing HSA-eligible policies approaching 10% of all enrollment in private health insurance.
  • HSAs provide quality health insurance above the high deductible—the average lifetime maximum benefit exceeds $3 million for many policies, and anywhere from one-fifth to one-third of policies have unlimited lifetime maximum benefits.
  • The average HSA account balance is $1,382—significant savings that can be used to pay for health expenses.

Conclusion:  Despite the comments released by the Democrats who requested the GAO study, many conservatives will be pleased by much of the data in the report.  The study demonstrates that individuals and families are compiling real savings in their Health Savings Accounts—money that may otherwise have been sent to an insurance company to pay higher premiums for benefits that they may never have used.  Instead, consumers are creating savings to pay for catastrophic health care expenses, and becoming wiser shoppers when purchasing incidental medical goods and services, which will help to slow the growth of health care spending.

The dramatic and continued increase in HSA adoption over the past four years demonstrates the resonance which this new concept has had on individuals and families alike.  The significant growth in HSA adoption among small businesses—where many of the “working uninsured” are employed—and the contributions made to HSAs by a strong percentage of employers indicate their widespread popularity as a means for businesses to control the growth of health care spending while empowering their workers to make better health decisions.  For these reasons, many conservatives will continue to support actions that allow HSAs to grow and thrive, while opposing actions by Democrats—either through legislative fiat or unnecessary regulatory burdens—to undo this critical health care innovation.

Legislative Bulletin — Senate amendments to H.R. 493, Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act

Order of Business:  The Senate amendments to the bill are reportedly scheduled to be considered on Thursday, May 1, 2008, subject to a closed rule that provides for one hour of general debate on the Senate amendments and waives all points of order against the amendments (except those arising under PAYGO).

Summary:   H.R. 493 would prohibit the use of genetic information by employers in employment decisions and by health insurers and health plans in making enrollment determinations and setting insurance premiums.  The specific provisions of the bill as amended by the Senate are summarized below.

  • Amends the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the Public Health Service Act, and the Internal Revenue Code to prohibit a group health plan, and a health insurance issuer offering group health insurance coverage in connection with a group health plan, from the following:
    • Adjusting premium or contribution amounts for the group covered under the plan on the basis of genetic information;
    • Requiring an individual or a family member to undergo a genetic test;
    • Requesting, requiring, or purchasing genetic information for underwriting purposes; and
    • Requesting, requiring, or purchasing genetic information with respect to any individual prior to that individual’s enrollment under the plan or coverage in connection with their enrollment.

The bill allows for certain research exceptions to the above prohibitions.

  • Defines an individual or a family member for purposes of this Act as:
    • The fetus inside of a pregnant mother; and
    • Any embryo legally held by the individual or family member (with respect to assisted reproductive technology).
  • Defines genetic test as: “an analysis of human DNA, RNA, chromosomes, proteins, or metabolites, that detects genotypes, mutations, or chromosomal changes.”  The definition does not include the following:
    • “An analysis of proteins or metabolites that does not detect genotypes, mutations, or chromosomal changes; or
    • “An analysis of proteins or metabolites that is directly related to a manifested disease, disorder, or pathological condition that could reasonably be detected by a health care professional with appropriate training and expertise in the field of medicine involved.”
  • Imposes a penalty against any plan sponsor or group health plan for failure to meet requirements with respect to genetic information in connection with their health plan.  The penalty would be $100 each day in noncompliance with respect to each participant to whom such failure relates.  Under certain circumstances, the penalty could not be less than $15,000 per participant.  In addition, the Secretary could waive the penalty under certain circumstances.
  • Prohibits a health insurance issuer in the individual market from doing the following:
    • Establishing rules for the eligibility of any individual to enroll in individual health insurance coverage based on genetic information;
    • Adjusting premium or contribution amounts for an individual on the basis of genetic information concerning the individual or a family member;
    • Imposing any preexisting condition exclusion based on the basis of genetic information, with respect to their coverage;
    • Requesting or requiring an individual or family member to undergo a genetic test;
    • Requesting, requiring or purchasing genetic information for underwriting purposes; and
    • Collecting genetic information with respect to any individual prior to the individual’s enrollment under the plan.
  • Prohibits an issuer of a Medicare supplemental policy from the following:
    • Denying or conditioning the issuance of a policy and from discriminating in the pricing of the policy of an individual on the basis of genetic information;
    • Requesting or requiring individuals to undergo genetic tests; and
    • Requesting, requiring, or purchasing genetic information during underwriting.
  • Directs the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to modify its NAIC model regulations to mirror the above prohibitions required by this Act.
  • Directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to revise the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) private regulations to be consistent with provisions in this Act, affecting the use of genetic information.
  • Prohibits employers, employment agencies, and labor organizations from the following:
    • Refusing to hire an employee or discriminating against an employee because of genetic information related to that individual;
    • Limiting, segregating or classifying employees in any way that would deprive or adversely affect the status of the employee due to their genetic information; and
    • Requiring or purchasing genetic information, except in certain circumstances.
  • Requires employers, employment agencies, and labor organizations to maintain any genetic information about employees or members as confidential, subject to certain exceptions.
  • Provides for remedies with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against employers who engage in discriminatory employment practices with respect to their employees’ genetic information.

Additional Background on Senate Amendments:  On March 4, 2008, 11 Senators, led by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), sent a letter to Majority Leader Reid and Senate HELP Committee Chairman Kennedy outlining remaining conservative concerns regarding passage of the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA).  A summary of those concerns, along with the ways in which the compromise language addressed the issues raised in the March 4 letter, follows below.

  • Title I imposes requirements on health plans regarding insurance coverage, while Title II imposes requirements on employers regarding employment and related hiring decisions.  Earlier drafts of the bill did not include language clarifying that group health insurance plan sponsors may not be subjected to the more expansive remedies provided by Title II, which provides for rulemaking by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and remedies before the same body and, ultimately, federal courts.  This “firewall” provision was incorporated into the Senate agreement, which should ensure that the broader remedies available in Title II will be used only against employers who violate their employees’ civil rights, not for employees seeking to litigate group health plan disputes.
  • The Senate agreement maintained language in the original House-passed bill ensuring that entities covered under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy regulations can continue to communicate medical and genetic information consistent with the HIPAA statute without facing a separate and potentially conflicting regulatory regime under GINA.
  • The Senate agreement also includes clear language excluding “manifested” diseases from GINA’s provisions.  In general, health plans can receive information about whether an individual has a manifested disease, and these facts can be used during the underwriting process for individual and small group coverage in some states.  By maintaining current law clarity, the agreement’s language would maintain long-established underwriting processes for already-occurring health conditions—while providing protections for genetic information for diseases not yet manifest in patients.
  • Lastly, as a result of efforts by the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, the Senate agreement maintained language in the House-passed bill extending GINA protections to any fetus carried by pregnant women or any embryos held by individuals or family members.  Maintaining this language ensures that families will not have an economic incentive to abort their unborn children, fearing that they could be discriminated against due to results from prenatal testing.  Groups such as Family Research Council and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops have endorsed the compromise Senate language for this reason.

To the extent that concerns still remain regarding the GINA language, they revolve primarily around the strength of the “firewall” language, and the lack of a general-purpose “business necessity” exemption for companies that may find a legitimate need to utilize genetic information for a reason not expressly authorized within the statute.  Some business groups also question whether and to what extent genetic non-discrimination legislation is necessary, particularly as insurers are currently prohibited from such discrimination.  Nevertheless, the significant progress made on the concerns outlined by Sen. Coburn and his colleagues outweighed any lingering concerns, leading the Senate to approve the bill by a 95-0 vote.

Legislative History:  H.R. 493 was introduced on January 16, 2007, and referred to the House Committees on Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means.  The Education and Labor Committee held a mark-up and reported the bill, as amended, by voice vote on February 14, 2007.  The Energy and Commerce Committee held a mark-up and reported the bill, as amended, on March 23, 2007.  The Ways and Means Committee held a mark-up and reported the bill, as amended, by voice vote on March 21, 2007.  The bill was passed on April 25, 2007, by a vote of 420-3.  On April 24, 2008, the Senate passed the bill with an amendment by a 95-0 vote.

Cost to Taxpayers:  According to CBO, enacting H.R. 493 “would increase the number of individuals who obtain health insurance by about 600 people per year, nearly all of whom would obtain insurance in the individual market.  The bill would affect federal revenues because the premiums paid by some of those newly insured individuals would be tax-deductible.” As such, CBO estimates that the bill would reduce revenues by less than $500,000 in each year from 2008 through 2017, by $1 million over the 2008-2012 period, and by $2 million over the 2008 through 2017 period.

In addition, CBO states that “the bill’s requirements would apply to Medicare supplemental insurance, which would affect direct spending for Medicare.”  However, CBO estimates that the bill would have no significant effect on direct spending.  Finally, CBO estimates that H.R. 493 would result in discretionary costs of less than $500,000 in FY 2008, and $2 million over the FY 2008 through FY 2017 period.

Does the Bill Expand the Size and Scope of the Federal Government?:  Yes, the bill grants authority to the Secretaries of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury to promulgate regulations and engage in enforcement activities with respect to the Title I provisions relating to health insurance coverage.

Does the Bill Contain Any New State-Government, Local-Government, or Private-Sector Mandates?:   Yes.  According to CBO, the bill would “preempt some state laws that establish confidentiality standards for genetic information, and would restrict how state and local governments use such information in employment practices and in the provision of health care to employees.”  In addition, CBO explains that the bill “contains private-sector mandates on health insurers, health plans, employers, labor unions, and other organizations.”  In both cases, however, CBO does not believe that the cost of the mandates would exceed thresholds established in the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act ($66 million and $131 million in 2007, respectively, adjusted for inflation).