Monthly Archives: May 2015

Obamacare Increasing Government Bureaucracy

Even as federal regulators take steps to constrain administrative spending by private health insurers, government overhead on health coverage has soared.

In a Health Affairs blogpost published Wednesday, David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler use actuarial estimates from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to project that between 2014 and 2022, national spending on private insurance overhead and government administration will rise by $273.6 billion related to the health-care overhaul.

The authors both favor single-payer health insurance; Mr. Himmelstein co-founded Physicians for a National Health Program, an advocacy organization directed to that end. They close their piece by saying that “In health care, public insurance gives much more bang for each buck.”

Yet overhead in the public sector is growing much faster than in the private sector.

Mr. Himmelstein and Ms. Woolhandler combine two categories of spending—government administration and the net cost of private insurance (i.e., overhead)—to reach their estimates of administrative costs. Combining the two categories masks significant differences. While private insurance overhead is projected to rise at an average annual rate of 8.2% between 2014 and 2022, government administration is projected to rise at a 22.7% annual rate—nearly three times as fast. That’s consistent with my 2012 analysis, which noted that federal actuaries projected double-digit increases in spending on government administration for three of the first four years of Obamacare implementation (2011, 2012, and 2014).

This week federal regulators proposed extending medical-loss ratio requirements—a price control on overhead spending—to Medicaid managed-care plans. Meanwhile, several state-run insurance exchanges face financial difficulties, with structural challenges to their ability to attain self-sufficiency while limiting their charges on consumers to only a small share of premiums. The growing spending on bureaucracy reported in Health Affairs suggests that regulators should perhaps focus first on increasing efficiency and reducing government’s own costs before issuing more requirements on the private sector—such as the 653-page regulations issued Wednesday—that attempt to pass them on to consumers.

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

An Exchange Death Spiral?

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the legality of insurance subsidies in 37 states that use the federal HealthCare.gov site. Some states have discussed creating their own exchanges in the wake of the court’s decision, but those may not be fiscally sustainable.

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Covered California, the Golden State’s exchange, “is preparing to go on a diet,” cutting its budget 15% for the fiscal year beginning July 1 because of lower-than-expected enrollment. Earlier this month, Hawaii’s state exchange prepared plans to shut down this fall amid funding shortfalls. Hawaii’s exchange had technical problems that have impeded signups since its launch, but Covered California has had relatively few computer glitches. During the HealthCare.gov rollout problems in 2013, columnist Paul Krugman held up California as a model of efficiency:

What would happen if we unveiled a program that looked like Obamacare, in a place that looked like America, but with competent project management that produced a working website? Well, your wish is granted. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you California.

Mr. Krugman called California “an especially useful test case,” saying that “it’s huge: if a system can work for 38 million people, it can work for America as a whole.”

But that model has run into financial distress. After slashing its spending, Covered California achieved a balanced budget for next year by utilizing $100 million in federally provided start-up funds. The Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general and at least two U.S. senators have questioned whether exchanges are using start-up funds to plug holes in their budgets—a practice prohibited by law and one the senators called a “short term fix” in a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Using federal funds may help Covered California next year—but it will leave a multi-million-dollar hole in its budget the following year, leading to another round of belt-tightening.

The spending cuts—particularly a 33% reduction to marketing and outreach next year—will have an impact. As one report noted, “With enrollment growing more slowly than expected, a big cut in marketing might result in continued difficulties reaching target markets.” In other words, a spending cut next year could result in lower-than-expected enrollment—and budget crunches—in future years. Covered California could raise the $13.95 per policy monthly fee to generate more revenue—but that would also raise premiums, potentially driving away customers.

Before the exchanges opened, some worried about a disproportionate number of sick patients driving up premiums–and driving out healthy enrollees. A related phenomenon could be happening in state-run exchanges: in which few sign-ups result in a combination of cuts to outreach programs and/or higher monthly fees, discouraging enrollment and starting another round of the spiral. It’s possible that California’s experience could be a useful test case of that proposition—and a cautionary tale for those states contemplating their own exchanges.

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

Obama Administration Wants to Break Law Obama Signed

As spring turns to summer, the House and Senate will work on the 12 annual appropriations bills that fund the federal government. The backdrop to this work? The president who signed the Budget Control Act into law four years ago wants to exceed the spending levels the legislation prescribed.

In a recent blog post, Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan made clear that the administration opposes the spending levels. Mr. Donovan wrote that “sequestration was never intended to take effect: rather, it was supposed to threaten such drastic cuts to both defense and non-defense funding that policymakers would be motivated to come to the table and reduce the deficit through smart, balanced reforms.” However, because the congressional “supercommittee” formed in 2011 did not reach agreement on entitlement and/or tax changes to reduce the deficit, automatic reductions were triggered on discretionary spending, with separate caps on defense and non-defense appropriations.

But in separate letters regarding the House’s first two spending bills, Mr. Donovan wrote that “the President has been clear that he is not willing to lock in sequestration going forward, nor will he accept fixes to defense without also fixing non-defense.” Largely because of these broad disagreements over spending levels, the administration issued veto threats on the first two appropriations measures.

Ironically, President Barack Obama now opposes a policy outcome—the “sequester” spending levels—that he introduced: Multiple fact checkers have confirmed that it was administration officials who proposed the sequester mechanism during debt-ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011. These histories directly contradict the president’s statement in an October 2012 debate with Mitt Romney that “the sequester is not something that I’ve proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed.”

The administration can say that it did not propose the sequester mechanism. It can also say—with more accuracy—that sequestration was an action-forcing mechanism that was never intended to take effect. But neither argument changes the fact that the Budget Control Act remains the law of the land. The specter of Mr. Obama vetoing spending bills—potentially setting up another government shutdown this fall—because they fail to nullify an act that he signed into law could present an optics problem for his administration.

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

Is Controversy over Mammograms Looming?

The issue of mammogram coverage is about to return to the Washington agenda.

draft recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force last month echoes a similar recommendation made in the fall of 2009. Namely, the task force recommends mammogram screening every two years for women ages 50 to 74 but does not recommend universal screening before age 50: “The decision to start regular, biennial screening mammography before the age of 50 years should be an individual one and take patient context into account.”

That contradicts guidelines issued by the American Cancer Society and other groups for women in their 40s and is part of a long-standing debate about whether the benefits of early detection and treatment offset the costs, including false positives and additional radiation exposure.

Obamacare moved that debate from the clinical realm into the policy world by giving the task force jurisdiction over which preventive services insurers must cover. The law references the task force more than a dozen times. Any preventive service the task force grades “A” or “B” must be covered by private insurers, Medicare, and Medicaid without cost-sharing such as co-pays or deductibles. Because the draft recommendations give a “B” grade only to biennial screening between ages 50 to 74, insurers would not be required to cover mammograms for women younger than 50 or screenings more frequent than the every-two-years regimen recommended by the task force.

When the task force issued its recommendations during the fall of 2009—at the height of the Obamacare debate—critics of the bill questioned the task force’s role in the proposed regime. Sarah Palin wondered whether cutting costs played a role in the recommendations, and a group of Republican congresswomen called them a “slippery slope” on the way to rationing. Then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a statement and said that the task force had no policy-making role—statements belied by the text of the bill before Congress.

In the end, the law explicitly instructed the Department of Health and Human Services to disregard the controversial 2009 guidelines, reverting instead to a prior series of recommendations that allowed for annual coverage of mammograms for all women 40 and older. If, however, the task force re-issues the same recommendations later this year—as its April draft suggested–that would supersede all its prior reports, again raising questions about coverage of annual mammograms.

A bipartisan group from Congress has already written to HHS, asking that the draft mammogram recommendations be disregarded. Congress may in time take more explicit action to overrule the task force. But the controversy in 2009 showed that the final recommendations issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force are not likely to go unnoticed—in Washington or around the country.

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

Obamacare in a Nutshell

In 2011, analysts were speculating that Assurant Health might exit the insurance business, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week. So the recent news that Assurant’s parent company was looking to “sell or shut down” the insurance carrier by year’s end was not a total surprise. The issue now is whether its demise holds larger lessons about Obamacare’s impact on insurance markets.

One analyst called Assurant, which reported operating losses of nearly $64 million in fiscal 2014 and $84 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2015, a “casualty” of the law. The Affordable Care Act “required health plans to cover a package of basic benefits and required health insurers to spend at least 80 cents of every premium dollar on medical care or quality initiatives,” the Journal-Sentinel reported. Simply put, the law made health insurance more like a regulated utility—with plan designs, benefits, and overhead costs strictly regulated.

Obamacare supporters generally argue that these regulatory changes eliminate the potential for customer confusion or the sale of “substandard” insurance products. But further Journal-Sentinel reporting underscores a complication of that approach:

Finding a buyer for Assurant Health could be difficult. Unlike companies such as UnitedHealthcare or Anthem, which focus on larger employers, Assurant Health does not have the size in any one market to negotiate contracts directly with hospitals and doctors. It instead typically pays a monthly fee to other insurers to access their networks, potentially increasing its costs.

By standardizing insurance offerings—reducing or eliminating carriers’ ability to create niche markets through innovative product designs—Obamacare heightened the focus on insurers’ provider networks. Those companies that have the market clout to demand lower reimbursements from doctors and hospitals can moderate premium increases—winning more market share in the process. But smaller insurers that don’t have that clout may find themselves squeezed—and other carriers could face a similar fate to Assurant Health.

Obamacare standardizes offerings in the name of increasing competition, but doing so could end up reducing competition by creating an environment in which large insurers compete with large hospital and doctor networks in a battle of health-care oligopolies. Supporters of the law have worried about this for years—and Assurant’s impending closure appears to give more reason to do so.

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

The Case for Testing Medicare Premium Support

The House-Senate budget conference report released last Wednesday included several interesting nuggets. Among the most surprising was the lack of explicit language endorsing the concept of premium support reforms to Medicare. Conservatives have voiced support for premium support for years—most notably in the entitlement reform proposals from then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan—but legislative progress has been limited.

More than a decade ago, Section 241 of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 established a comparative cost-adjustment program for Medicare to allow privately run Medicare Advantage plans to compete directly against traditional government-run Medicare. The demonstration allowed Part B premiums for seniors enrolled in traditional Medicare to vary: If private Medicare Advantage plans bid below the cost of traditional Medicare in an area, Part B premiums would rise; but if traditional Medicare could provide care more efficiently than private Medicare Advantage plans, Part B premiums would fall. The statute limited the variation to 5% of the Part B premium, and the demonstration to no more than six metropolitan regions. It was designed to encourage seniors to choose the most efficient coverage, regardless of whether that option was private or government-run—generating premium savings for seniors and budgetary savings to the federal government.

Congress intended to start the demonstration in January 2010, with the experiment running through December of 2015. But the Obama administration never attempted to implement the program, and Section 1102(f) of the reconciliation bill used to pass Obamacare in March 2010 repealed the program.

While the recent “doc fix” legislation included an expansion of Medicare means-testing and other modest reforms, there were no provisions regarding premium support. A demonstration such as that passed in 2003—but never implemented—might point the way toward greater long-term structural impact on Medicare, even if it generated paltry short-term savings. There is policy and political value to testing its potential for success—and dampening hyperbolic rhetoric.

With premium support something of a political lightning rod, the lack of legislative proposals to test it—or otherwise—suggests an unwillingness to engage. Those who voted for past budget plans that included it are likely to take flak regardless; there are benefits to taking steps to make the policy case.

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

A House Budget Response to King v. Burwell

While the Supreme Court weighs King v. Burwell–the lawsuit questioning the federal government’s authority to provide financial assistance to people who buy insurance in the 37 states using federally operated insurance exchanges–many have focused on potential responses to the outcome. Language in the budget resolution unveiled this week appears to lay the groundwork for the House of Representatives to address this ruling through budget reconciliation procedures.

Section 2002 of the budget conference report lays out special procedures for budget reconciliation in the House. That section instructs the House Budget Committee chairman to use the Congressional Budget Office’s March 2015 budgetary baseline “if the estimates used to determine the compliance of such measures with the budgetary requirements included in this concurrent resolution are inaccurate because adjustments made to the baseline are inconsistent with the assumptions underlying the budgetary levels set forth in this concurrent resolution. Such inaccurate adjustments made after the adoption of this concurrent resolution may include selected adjustments for rule-making, judicial actions, adjudication, and interpretative rules that have major budgetary effects and are inconsistent with the assumptions underlying the budgetary levels set forth in this concurrent resolution.”

Simply put: This language allows the Budget Committee chairman to disregard the potential budgetary impacts of “judicial actions” and “adjudication”—such as a Supreme Court ruling in King v. Burwell—that take place after a budget is adopted. CBO is directed to do likewise.

Here’s how it might work. After the court’s ruling in King v. Burwell is issued, CBO would probably update its spending estimates to reflect any fiscal implications arising from the ruling. In the summer of 2012, the Supreme Court’s ruling in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius made Medicaid expansion optional for states; CBO said three weeks after the ruling that this change would reduce projected spending on the law by $84 billion over 10 years.

If the court strikes down federal insurance subsidies, CBO is likely to reduce its spending estimates for the health-care law, to reflect fewer people receiving subsidies, and could also reduce its revenue estimates because fewer people receiving subsidies would eliminate the employer and individual mandate penalties in many cases. Once CBO revises its baseline, any legislative action restoring prior spending levels—whether as a temporary transition to prevent dislocation for those who purchased coverage through the exchanges, a block grant to states providing additional flexibility, or a permanent extension of subsidies—would ordinarily be scored by CBO as increasing both spending and the deficit.

But the language in the budget resolution would allow the House Budget Committee chairman to revert to the pre-King baseline—meaning that legislation designed to address the ruling would not be scored as a spending increase and could be scored as a spending cut, when compared to the spending baseline currently in effect.

The resolution applies these special procedures only in the House; other procedural hurdles could apply in the Senate. But the inclusion of this language in the budget suggests that the House leadership wants to address any King v. Burwell ruling legislatively—and do so through budget reconciliation.

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