Tag Archives: physician reimbursement

What You Need to Know about Invisible High Risk Pools

Last Thursday afternoon, the House Rules Committee approved an amendment providing an additional $15 billion for “invisible high risk pools.” That surprising development, after several days of frenetic closed-door negotiations and a study on the pools released Friday, may have some in Washington trying to make sense of it all.

If you want the short and dirty, here it is: Thursday’s amendment doesn’t resemble the model cited by pool proponents, undermines principles of federalism, relies on government price controls to achieve much of its premium savings, and requires far more taxpayer funding than the amendment actually provided. But other than that, it’s great!

Want more info? Read on.

The Amendment Text Does Not Match Its Maine Model

The legislative text the Rules Committee adopted last week bears little resemblance to the invisible risk pool model the amendment’s proponents have described.

In response to my article last week asking whether the invisible risk pool funding differs from Obamacare’s reinsurance program, supporters cited a blog post highlighting the way such a pool works in Maine. Under Maine’s program, insurers cede their highest risks to the pool prospectively—i.e., when individuals apply for insurance. Insurers also cede to the pool most of those high-risk patients’ premium payments, to help pay for the patients’ health claims.

Conversely, insurers participating in Obamacare’s reinsurance program receive retrospective payments (i.e., after the patients incur high health costs), and keep all of the premium payments those patients make. In theory, then, those two differences do distinguish the Obamacare reinsurance program from the Maine pool.

But there’s one other key distinction: The amendment the Rules Committee adopted last week doesn’t include the parameters of the Maine model. The original version proposed by Rep. Gary Palmer—the amendment language upon which the Milliman study was based—more closely tracked the Maine model. But the Rules Committee instead passed an amendment with generic language leaving much more discretion to the Trump administration. On Friday, Politico explained why:

The [Milliman] study…assumes that insurers would agree up front to surrender most of the premiums paid by high-risk enrollees, in exchange for protection against potentially costly claims down the line… Palmer included those specifics the first time he proposed adding a risk-sharing program to the [American Health Care Act], roughly two weeks ago. But they were stripped out of the final version presented Tuesday, and likely for good reason…Insurers likely wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about having that much skin in the game. Instead, the amendment essentially tells state and federal officials to sort out the details later—and most importantly, after the program is passed into law.

The federal pools may end up looking nothing like the Maine program advocates are citing as the model—because the administration will determine all those critically important details after the fact. Or, to coin a phrase, we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.

The Amendment Undermines State Sovereignty

As currently constructed, the pool concept undermines state sovereignty over insurance markets. Paradoxical as it may sound, the amendment adopted last Thursday is both too broad and too narrow. With respect to the invisible high risk pool concept, the legislation doesn’t include enough details to allow policy-makers and insurers to determine how they will function. As noted above, all of those details were essentially punted to the administration to determine.

But the amendment is also too narrow, in that it conditions the $15 billion on participation in the invisible risk pool model. If a state wants to create an actual high risk pool, or use some other concept to stabilize their insurance markets, they’re out of luck—they can’t touch the $15 billion pot of money.

Admittedly, the amendment the Rules Committee adopted last Thursday isn’t nearly as bad as the original Palmer amendment on invisible pools. That original amendment required all insurers to participate in the invisible pools “as a condition of doing business in a state”—potentially violating both the Fifth Amendment for an unconstitutional taking against insurers, and the Tenth Amendment by undermining states’ sovereignty over their insurance markets and business licensing.

In a post last week, I cited House Speaker Paul Ryan’s February criticism of Obamacare: “They’re subsidies that say, ‘We will pay some people some money if you do what the government makes you do.’” That’s exactly what this amendment does: It conditions some level of funding on states taking some specific action—not the only action, perhaps not even the best action, to stabilize their insurance markets, just the one Washington politically favors, therefore the one Washington will attempt to make all states take.

Ryan was right to criticize the Obamacare insurance subsidy system as “not freedom.” The same criticism applies to the invisible pool funding—it isn’t freedom. It also isn’t federalism—it’s big-government, nanny-state “conservatism.”

The Pools’ Claimed Benefits Derive From Price Controls

Much of the supposed benefits of the pools come as a result of government-imposed price controls. The Milliman study released Friday—and again, conditioned upon parameters not present in the amendment the Rules Committee adopted Thursday—models two possible scenarios.

The first scenario would create a new insurance pool in “repeal-and-replace” legislation, with the invisible pools applying only to the new market (some individuals currently on Obamacare may switch to the new market, but would not have to). The second scenario envisions a single risk pool for insurers, combining existing enrollees and new enrollees under the “replace” plan.

In both cases, Milliman modeled assumptions from the original Palmer amendment (i.e., not the one the Rules Committee adopted last Thursday) that linked payments from the invisible risk pools to 100 percent of Medicare reimbursement rates. The study specifically noted the “favorable spread” created as a result of this requirement: the pool reduces premiums because it pays doctors and hospitals less than insurers would.

Under the first scenario, in which Obamacare enrollees remain in a separate market than the new participants in “replace” legislation, a risk pool reimbursing at Medicare rates would yield total average rate reductions of between 16 and 31 percent. But “if [risk pool] benefits are paid based on regular commercially negotiated fees, the rate reduction becomes 12% to 23%”—about one-third less than with the federally dictated reimbursement levels.

Under the second scenario, in which Obamacare and “replace” enrollees are combined into one marketplace, premiums barely drop when linked to commercial payment rates. Premiums would fall by a modest 4 to 14 percent using Medicare reimbursement levels, and a miniscule 1 to 4 percent using commercial reimbursement levels.

Admittedly, the structure of the risk pool creates an inherent risk of gaming—insurers could try to raise their reimbursement rates to gain more federal funds from the pool. But if federal price controls are the way to lower premiums (and for the record, they aren’t), why not just create a government-run “public option” linked to Medicare reimbursement levels and be done with it?

The Study Says This Doesn’t Provide Enough Money

According to the study, the amendment adopted doesn’t include enough federal funding for invisible risk pools. The Milliman study found that invisible risk pools will require more funding than last Thursday’s amendment provided—and potentially even more funding than the entire Stability Fund. Under both scenarios, the invisible risk pools would require anywhere from $3.3 billion to $17 billion per year in funding, or from $35 billion to nearly $200 billion over a decade.

By contrast, Thursday’s amendment included only $15 billion in funding to last from 2018 through 2026. And the Stability Fund itself includes a total of $130 billion in funding—$100 billion in general funds, $15 billion for maternity and mental health coverage, and the $15 billion specifically for invisible risk pools. If all 50 states participate, the entire Stability Fund may not hold enough money needed to fund invisible risk pools.

Remember too that the Milliman study assumes that 1) insurers will cede most premium payments from risk pool participants to help finance the pool’s operations and 2) the pool will pay claims using Medicare reimbursement rates. If either or both of those two assumptions do not materialize—and insurers and providers will vigorously oppose both—spending for the pools will increase still further, making the Milliman study a generous under-estimate of the program’s ultimate cost.

Let States Take the Reins

All of the above notwithstanding, the invisible high risk pool model could work for some states—emphasis on “could” and “some.” If states want to explore this option, they certainly have the right to do so.

But, as Obamacare itself has demonstrated, Washington does not represent the source and summit of all the accumulated wisdom in health care policy. States are desperate for the opportunity to innovate, and create new policies in the marketplace of ideas—not have more programs foisted upon them by Washington, as the Rules Committee amendment attempts to do. Moving in the direction of the former, and not the latter, would represent a true change of pace. Here’s hoping that Congress finally has the courage to do so.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Repealing “Son of Obamacare”

The election of Donald Trump brings conservatives an opportunity to repeal a misguided piece of health care legislation that cost hundreds of billions of dollars, will blow a major hole in our deficit, has led to thousands of pages of regulations, and will further undermine the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship.

Think I’m talking about Obamacare?

I am — but I’m not just talking about Obamacare.

I’m also talking about the Medicare and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA), which passed last year (with a surprising level of Republican support) and contains many of the same flaws as Obamacare itself.

Just as Republicans are preparing legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, they also need to figure out how to undo MACRA.

Last month, the Obama administration released a 2,398-page final regulation — let me say that again: a 2,398-page regulation — implementing MACRA’s physician reimbursement regime.

In the new Congress, Republicans can and should use the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval revoking this massive new regulation. They can then set about making the changes to Medicare that both Paul Ryan and Donald Trump have discussed: getting government out of the business of 1) fixing prices and 2) micro-managing the practice of medicine.

MACRA’S FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED, STATIST APPROACH

Since the administration released its physician-payment regulations — nearly as long as Obamacare itself – some commentary has emphasized (rightly) the burdensome nature of the new federal regulations and mandates.

But the more fundamental point, rarely made, is that we need more than mere tweaks to free doctors from an ever-tightening grip exercised by federal overseers. After more than a half century of failed attempts at government price-setting and micro-management of medical practice, it’s time to get Washington out of the business of playing “Dr. Sam” once and for all.

In fact, even liberals tend to acknowledge this occasionally. In a May 2011 C-SPAN interview, Noam Levey of the Los Angeles Times asked then-administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Donald Berwick why he thought the federal government could use Medicare as it exists to reform the health-care system:

In nearly half a century of federal-government oversight, the federal government hasn’t succeeded in two really important things: Number one, Medicare costs are still growing substantially more quickly than the economy; and number two, that fragmented [health care] system . . . has persisted in Medicare for 46 years now. . . . Why should the public, when it hears you, when it hears the President say, “Don’t worry, this time we’re going to make it better, we’re going to give you a more efficient, higher-quality health care system,” why should they believe that the federal government can do now what it essentially hasn’t really been able to do for close to half a century? [Emphasis added]

Dr. Berwick didn’t really answer the question: He claimed that fragmented care issues “are not Medicare problems — they’re health system problems.” But in reality, liberal organizations like the Commonwealth Fund often argue Medicare can be leveraged as a model to reform the entire health care system — and that is exactly what MACRA, in defiance of historical precedent, tries to do.

When a 2012 Congressional Budget Office report examined the history of various Medicare payment demonstrations, it concluded that most had not saved money. A seminal study undertaken by MIT’s Amy Finkelstein concluded that the introduction of Medicare, and specifically its method of third-party payment, was one of the primary drivers of the growth in health-care spending during the second half of the 20th century.

After five decades of failed government control and rising costs driven by the existing Medicare program, the solution lies not in more tweaks and changes to the same program.

The answer lies in replacing that program with a system of premium support that gets the federal government out of the price-fixing business entirely.

The notion that the federal government can know the right price for inhalation therapy in Birmingham or the appropriate reimbursement for a wart removal in Boise is a fundamentally flawed and arrogant premise — one that conservatives should whole-heartedly reject.

Unfortunately, most critics of MACRA have not fully grasped this. A law that prompts the federal bureaucracy to issue a sprawling regulation of nearly 2,400 pages cannot on any level be considered conceptually sound.

Believing otherwise echoes Margaret Thatcher’s famous maxim about consensus politicians and conviction politicians: Some analysts, seeking a consensus among their fellow technocrats, push for changes to make the 2,400-page rule more palatable. But our convictions should have us automatically reject any regulation with this level of micro-management and government-enforced minutiae.

THE NEED FOR COMPREHENSIVE REFORM

It bears worth repeating that, in addition to perpetuating the statist nature of Medicare, MACRA raised the deficit by over $100 billion in its first ten years — and more thereafter — while not fundamentally solving the long-term problem of Medicare physician-payment levels.

More than a decade ago, after President Bush and a Republican Congress passed the costly Medicare Modernization Act (MMA), creating the Part D prescription-drug entitlement, conservatives argued even after the law’s passage that the new entitlement should not take effect. If the MMA was “no Medicare reform” for including only a premium-support demonstration project, conservatives should likewise reject MACRA, which includes nothing – not even a demonstration project — to advance the premium-support reform Medicare truly needs.

Any efforts focused on building a slightly better government health-care mousetrap distract from the ultimate goal: removing the mousetrap entirely. In his 1964 speech A Time for Choosing, Reagan rejected the idea “that a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves” — and Republicans should do the same today.

In the context of health care, this means not debating the details of MACRA but replacing it, sending power back to where it belongs — with the people themselves.

Last week’s election results give the new Congress an opportunity to do just that, by disapproving the MACRA rule and moving to enact comprehensive Medicare reform in its place. After more than five decades of the same statist health care policies, it’s finally time for a new approach. Here’s hoping Congress agrees.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Hillary Clinton’s Obamacare “Fix”

In a recent interview with the Des Moines Register, Hillary Clinton outlined several elements of Obamacare that she said she would seek to change as president. Her proposals illustrate how the fiscal impact of the law could increase significantly from what was expected when the legislation passed in March 2010.

Among the things Mrs. Clinton cited was “how to fix the family glitch.” In short, if an individual qualifies for “affordable” health insurance through an employer, that person’s family will not qualify for federal insurance subsidies–even if the employer does not offer family coverage or if family coverage is unaffordable for the household.

Supporters of the health-care law may call this a “glitch,” but it is far from an unintended consequence. This provision has worked exactly how Congress wrote it into the Affordable Care Act. As I noted in an earlier Think Tank post, the Joint Committee on Taxation outlined the specifics behind this policy in a footnote on Page 33 of a 157-page summary of the law released the week of its passage. While some congressional Democrats have attempted to argue since then that the provision, as codified by the Internal Revenue Service, was “simply incongruent” with the text, or a “wrong interpretation of the law,” the legislative history indicates otherwise. The provision may have harsh consequences for affected families, but its inclusion was deliberate.

When Congress considered the legislation in 2010, the bill needed to adhere to President Barack Obama’s September 2009 pledge that it would “cost around $900 billion over 10 years.” But to keep the total cost of insurance subsidies—the “gross cost of coverage provisions” in Table 4 here—under $1 trillion, lawmakers made numerous tough choices. For instance, Congress delayed the start of subsidized insurance from January 2013 to January 2014. Congress increased Medicaid payment rates to improve access—but let that increase expire after two years. To pay for higher levels of upfront spending on insurance subsidies, Congress included provisions that slow their growth after 2019—a back-dated reckoning that future Congresses, and families, will have to contend with. And Congress passed—whether lawmakers knew it or not—the “family glitch” provision.

As I wrote in January, undoing all these fiscal constraints will cost money. Mrs. Clinton and other supporters of the law have wish lists of enhanced benefits, but proposals to pay for this new spending have been scarce. Moreover, to the extent that skeptics have likened Obamacare to a subprime mortgage—with “teaser” provisions passed in 2010 and a balloon payment still to come—the long lists of additional spending proposals, with few instances of budgetary restraint, will reinforce those comparisons.

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

“Doc Fix” Bill Makes Things Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying for the Medicare “Doc Fix”

House members are working on legislation to provide a permanent repeal of provisions capping Medicare reimbursements to physicians. As past debates have shown, failure to identify spending cuts to offset the pay increase to doctors would significantly impact seniors’ Medicare premiums.

Legislative language has yet to be released, but press reports have indicated the outlines of a potential agreement between House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The proposal is expected to permanently repeal the sustainable growth rate (SGR) mechanism established in 1997 for setting physician payments and overall physician spending within Medicare. After only a few years, spending began to exceed the SGR spending targets, prompting Congress to pass a series of bills—known as the “doc fix”–adjusting the targets upward for short periods.

In general, Congress financed these short-term doc fixes by reducing spending elsewhere in the budget. More than $165 billion worth was covered this way. But lawmakers used two statutory mechanisms to lower the cost of these short-term spending bumps and promised to recover the remaining costs in the future. Each time it has come up, Congress has kicked the proverbial can down the line.

When it comes to physician payment, the agreement being negotiated by the congressional leaders is expected to do two things: First, it would fill in the shortfall from repeated budgetary gimmicks. Maintaining flat payment rates for the future, rather than letting the SGR cuts take effect, would cost $137.4 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. This would not be paid for but would be absorbed into the deficit. The second part of the agreement, which provides for modest increases in physician payments in the coming years, would have a net cost of $37.1 billion, according to CBO. This increase in spending would be paid for.

One ramification of the proposed $137 billion increase in deficit spending: Seniors would fund a significant portion. As CBO noted in its 2009 score of an earlier, unsuccessful SGR repeal bill: “Beneficiaries enrolled in Part B of Medicare pay premiums that offset about 25 percent of the costs of those benefits. . . . Therefore, about one-quarter of the increase in Medicare spending would be offset by changes in those premium receipts.”

The House Republican leadership is well aware of the premium effects of an unpaid-for SGR repeal. When then-Speaker Pelosi brought an unpaid-for SGR repeal bill to the House floor in November 2009, then-Minority Leader Boehner called it an “absolute train wreck,” because it “forces seniors to pay higher premiums.” All but one House Republican voted against the legislation—largely because it did not include spending cuts to pay for the repeal.

It remains unclear how many House Republicans today might change their position from 2009, or what their public justification for doing so would be. What is clear is that any unpaid-for legislation would have a fiscal impact on America’s seniors as well as the federal budget.

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

Who’s Going to Pay for This Obamacare Wish List?

I wrote in this space last June that supporters of the president’s health-care law had not made many specific suggestions about how to amend or otherwise change the Affordable Care Act. Last week, the advocacy group Families USA attempted to change that, releasing its “Health Reform 2.0” agenda of how to expand on Obamacare. But the paper also raises an important question for the law’s supporters—including presidential candidates running in 2016: How to pay for the myriad promises that liberal groups want to add to the health-care agenda?

The Families USA paper includes a full—and costly—wish list of new spending programs related to the law, including:

* Fixing the “family glitch,” in which families are ineligible for federal insurance subsidies if one member of the family has an offer of “affordable” employer-sponsored health coverage;

* Extending funding for children’s health insurance, a program that Obamacare funded only through September;

* Increasing federal cost-sharing subsidies—raising the amount of subsidies, currently provided to families with incomes under 250% of the federal poverty level, so as further to reduce deductibles and co-payments, and potentially raising the income cutoff for subsidies;

* Making permanent an increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates included in Obamacare that expired on Dec. 31, 2014;

* Extending coverage to immigrant populations (the report does not specify whether such coverage should also apply to the undocumented); and

* Increasing federal premium subsidies. Amending the current subsidy set-up in this way would necessitate two changes to current law, both of which would require an increase in federal spending. Congress would need to repeal the provision, set to kick in after 2019, scheduled to reduce the subsidies’ annual rate of growth; then lawmakers would have to pass the subsidy increase that Families USA advocates.

The proposal also contains numerous mandates on insurance plans—for instance, to cover adult dental care, all forms of pediatric care, and expand access to provider networks. These would come at a cost, raising insurance premiums for individuals and families—and raising costs for the federal government as well, related to the 87% of exchange participants receiving premium assistance subsidies.

While specific cost estimates for these proposals are unavailable, they are likely to be substantial. Cost concerns meant that the children’s health insurance program received funding for just a two-year extension in Obamacare. Likewise, the Medicaid reimbursement bump was so expensive—$8.3 billion—that lawmakers financed it for only 2013 and 2014 as part of the law. And Families USA’s proposed changes to the subsidy regime could cost far more: a 2011 study found that fixing just the “family glitch” could increase spending by nearly $50 billion per year.

In other words, a liberal group has proposed spending hundreds of billions—at minimum—on expanding Obamacare programs. And other than some suggestions about using government-imposed price controls—“direct intervention in pricing may ultimately be necessary”—the Families USA report contains precious little on paying for these expanded entitlements. It may have answered the “What?” when it comes to proposed “fixes” to the law, but it did not answer the “How much?” And as the law remains divisive, and federal debt continues to rise, the latter question must remain on the public agenda for some time to come.

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

Brookings v. Dartmouth on Health Costs

The Brookings Institution released a study last week that could turn the debate over health spending on its head. While many health analysts—including several key advisers to the administration during the debate over Obamacare—believe that variations in physician practice patterns could represent the key to unlocking a more efficient health system, the Brookings paper questions the degree to which such variations even exist.

At its core, the debate boils down to a difference in two econometric models, both of which attempt to explain geographic variations in spending— for instance, why Medicare spends so much more per patient in Miami than in Minneapolis. Researchers affiliated with the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care previously found what they consider large, unexplained variations in health spending. Their research—which examines data from individual Medicare beneficiaries, controlled for health status—led them to conclude that differences in physician behavior may account for much of the unexplained spending variations.

The Brookings study, however, uses a different model, one that examines spending data from the state level, and controls those state data using average health attributes in that state, rather than using data from individual Medicare beneficiaries. This state-based model explains much more of the previously unexplained geographic variation in spending, arguing that states with similar demographics have similar spending levels. As a result, the Brookings paper concludes—contra­ Dartmouth—that “geographic variation in health spending does not provide a useful way to examine the inefficiencies of our health system.”

It’s unclear who has the more accurate model, and why. While Brookings’ state-level model incorporates data from both Medicare and non-Medicare beneficiaries, the Dartmouth research focuses just on Medicare patients—and may therefore be skewed by traits particular to the Medicare program, or Medicare beneficiaries, that do not apply to the population as a whole.

The debate over spending variations has profound policy implications. Former Obama administration official Peter Orszag, who has cited Dartmouth research in his writings, believes that variations in physician practice patterns—doctors performing too many tests, for instance—lie at the root of the unexplained variations in spending.  Mr. Orszag and others used this theory to inform many policy choices related to Obamacare, which included a variety of carrots and sticks that attempted to change physician behavior and reduce spending variations.

The Brookings study undermines the basis of the Dartmouth thesis, and one of the reasons why Obamacare’s adherents believe the law will ultimately reduce health costs. Despite its arcane details, the debate between Dartmouth and Brookings will have profound real-world consequences for our health system in the coming years.

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

Who Would Pay for This Medicaid Expansion?

Even as states continue to debate the costs of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, some in the medical field are proposing new commitments for the program.

Last week Politico reported on a letter to Congress by several physician groups asking that increased reimbursements for primary-care physicians participating in Medicaid be extended. Low reimbursement levels in many states have led to low physician participation in Medicaid. The budget reconciliation bill passed just after Obamacare in March 2010 included payment increases for primary-care physicians participating in Medicaid—bumping up reimbursements to Medicare levels. But only two years’ worth of payment increases, in 2013 and 2014, were funded.

With the temporary bump expiring soon, physician groups have asked for this provision to be extended for at least two years and be expanded in scope; under the broadened provision, obstetricians and gynecologists would qualify as primary-care physicians eligible for the higher payment levels.

The proposal raises several questions, including whether states would cover any of the cost of extending the increased payments. The federal government fully funded the first two years of payment increases, but federal debt is now more than $17 trillion. Washington may decide that states should pay for some of what amounts to an average 73% increase in primary-care reimbursement levels.

States considering whether to expand their Medicaid programs under Obamacare, and whether the federal government will honor its fiscal commitments for that program’s enhanced match, would be wise to watch the debate around this reimbursement bump. As with other costly Obamacare “fixes” for which advocates have not yet outlined budgetary savings, they could one day be on the hook for more than they bargained for.

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

The VA Scandal and Medicare

The federal government adjusts its payment policies, the health-care system tailors its practices to meet those new policies, and a variety of unexpected—and perverse—consequences result.

This isn’t just one aspect of the VA scandal. It also describes the effects of physician payment policies in Medicare.

In the case of the Department of Veterans Affairs, decisions to tie performance bonuses to patient waiting times apparently resulted in attempts to manipulate the appointment system. Incidents reported in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and New Mexico illustrate how compensation and bonuses drove decisions about patient care. The New York Times reported that one Albuquerque whistleblower alleged:

“Clinic staff were instructed to enter false information into veterans’ charts because it would improve the data about clinic availability. . . . The reason anyone would care to do this is that clinic availability is a performance measure, and there are incentives for management to meet performance measures.”

In Medicare, the sustainable growth rate (SGR) mechanism established in 1997 placed an overall cap on physician spending, with an eye toward cutting payments in future years if Medicare spending exceeded the defined thresholds. But this measure, ostensibly to cut costs, only pushed the problem elsewhere. Doctors have responded to the prospect of cuts in reimbursement rates by increasing the volume of services provided. Physician spending per beneficiary increased more than 70 percent from 2000 to 2011, while reimbursement rates grew only 11 percent in the same period. Congress routinely acts to undo the projected reimbursement cuts, and the SGR has not appreciably reduced Medicare’s overall costs.

So how do these stories tie together? Clearly, health-care systems respond to incentives set by the federal government. But Washington has not proved nimble enough to avert the unintended consequences of those responses. While Gen. Eric Shinseki’s resignation as secretary of veterans affairs may stanch the political bleeding for the Obama administration, the underlying problems go far beyond one man—and even the VA. Both issues will take big-picture thinking, and actions, to repair.

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

Survey: Doctors May Not Participate in Exchange Plans

A recent survey covering more than 1,000 physician practices confirms what many experts had feared—many doctors will not participate in Obamacare’s exchanges.

The survey was conducted by the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), a trade group representing multi-physician medical practices. The results are in, and they’re unambiguous:

  • A majority (55.5 percent) of practices believe the exchanges will have an unfavorable, or very unfavorable, impact on their practice.
  • Fewer than three in 10 practices (29.2 percent) definitely plan to “participate with any new health insurance product(s) sold” on an exchange, with a majority (56.4 percent) still uncertain.
  • Of those not participating in the exchanges, the top concern, listed by 64 percent of practices, was “concerns about the administrative and regulatory burdens related to these products.”
  • More than two in three practices said that reimbursement rates for exchange plans are somewhat lower (36.2 percent) or much lower (33.2 percent) than “average payment rates from all commercial payers in your area”—and these lower reimbursement rates likely explain the lack of robust commitment by physician practices in participating in exchange plans.

The study’s results are even more surprising given the source of the study. MGMA represents many integrated physician practices, including famous practices like the Mayo Clinic. The Obama Administration has held out these types of integrated practices as the prototype for the accountable care organization (ACO) model created in Obamacare. Yet these practices, which the Administration views as part of the future of health care, along with many other doctors and hospitals, may decide not to participate in Obamacare exchange plans.

Giving millions of Americans an insurance card that does not provide access to care represents an empty promise, not health “reform.” It’s one more reason why Congress needs to stop this unworkable law and focus on better reforms that can actually help patients.

This post was originally published at the Daily Signal.