Tag Archives: physician reimbursement

Reforming Medicaid to Serve Wyoming Better

A PDF copy of this report is available on the Wyoming Liberty Group website.

Reforming Medicaid to Serve Wyoming Better

              In the past several years, Wyoming has accomplished several key changes to its Medicaid program. A series of reforms regarding long-term care, and other methods to improve care delivery and coordination, have stabilized the overall spending on Medicaid—and reduced expenditures on a per-beneficiary basis.

However, the commitment by both the new Administration and Congressional leaders to examine Medicaid reform closely presents Wyoming with the possibility to accelerate its current reform efforts. Seema Verma, the new head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and a former Medicaid consultant, has publicly committed to provide states with greater flexibility and freedom to innovate.[1] Likewise, legislation advancing fundamental Medicaid reform has begun to advance in Congress.

Whether through a block grant, per capita allotments, or enhanced waiver authority from the federal government, states like Wyoming can and should receive greater freedom to manage their programs, in exchange for a series of fixed federal payments. Upon receiving this flexibility, Wyoming can put into place additional reforms that will improve care for beneficiaries, encourage transitions to employment and employer-based health coverage where appropriate, reduce health costs, and save taxpayer funds. These reforms would modernize Medicaid to incorporate the best of 21st century medicine, help Baby Boomers as that generation ages into retirement, and alleviate the fiscal challenges Wyoming faces in managing its Medicaid program.

The Problem

Enacted into law in 1965, the Medicaid program as originally designed provided federal matching funds to states to cover discrete populations, including the blind, needy seniors, and individuals with disabilities. Over time, expansions of the program to new populations, and changes in the delivery of health care, have made the Medicaid program large, costly, and unwieldy for states to manage. A significant body of evidence demonstrates that, after more than a half-century, Medicaid is long overdue for a modernization.

Cost:    According to government-provided data, Medicaid now approaches Medicare for the title of largest taxpayer-funded health care program. According to non-partisan government actuaries, state and federal taxpayers combined will spend an estimated $595.5 billion on Medicaid in the current fiscal year—$368.9 billion by the federal government, and $226.6billion by states.[2] By comparison, the Congressional Budget Office projects that this fiscal year, Medicare will spend a net of $598 billion, excluding premium payments by enrollees.[3] Even as the Baby Boomers retire in the coming decade, Medicaid will stay on pace with Medicare when it comes to total expenditures—Medicaid spending will total an estimated $57.5 billion in fiscal year 2025, compared to an estimated $1.005 trillion in net Medicare spending the same fiscal year.[4]

On the state level, rising spending on Medicaid has crowded out other key state priorities like education, transportation, and law enforcement. While states often cut back on those other programs during recessions, Medicaid spending continues to grow in both good economic times and bad. For instance, for fiscal year 2017, states adopted a total of $7.7 billion in spending increases on Medicaid when compared to fiscal 2016—less than the growth of K-12 education spending ($8.9 billion increase), but more than spending on higher education or corrections (both $1.1 billion increases).[5] But in fiscal year 2012—as states recovered from the last recession—states sharply cut K-12 education ($2.5 billion decrease) and higher education ($5 billion decrease) to finance a massive increase in Medicaid spending ($15 billion increase).[6]

With program spending growing at a near-constant pace, Medicaid has grown substantially over the past several decades to become the largest line-item in most state budgets. In fiscal year 2016, Medicaid consumed an average of 29.0 percent of state spending from all fund sources, and 20.3 percent of general fund expenditures.[7] By comparison, in fiscal year 1996, Medicaid consumed 20.3 percent of state spending, and 14.8 percent of general fund spending—and in fiscal year 1987, Medicaid consumed only 10.2 percent of state spending, and 8.1 percent of general fund spending.[8] With program spending nearly tripling as a size of their overall budgets from 1987 through 2016, Medicaid growth has limited states’ ability to provide for other critical state priorities—or return some of taxpayers’ hard-earned cash back into their pockets.

Quality:            Unfortunately, many Medicaid programs suffer from poor access to physicians, high rates of emergency room usage, and poor quality outcomes. A New England Journal of Medicine survey using “secret shopper” methods found that two-thirds of Medicaid children were denied appointments with specialty physicians, compared to only 11% of patients with private insurance coverage. Moreover, those Medicaid patients that did receive appointments had to wait an average of more than three weeks longer than privately insured children.[9] Perhaps unsurprisingly, beneficiaries themselves think much less of Medicaid coverage due to their lack of access:

You feel so helpless thinking, something’s wrong with this child and I can’t even get her into a doctor….When we had real insurance, we could call and come in at the drop of a hat.[10]

Even supporters of Medicaid call an enrollment card nothing more than a “hunting license”—a card that grants beneficiaries the ability to go try to find a physician that will actually treat them.[11]

Because of the difficulties beneficiaries face in obtaining timely access to physicians, Medicaid patients often end up with worse outcomes than the general population as a whole. The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment—which compared outcomes for identically situated groups of uninsured individuals, some of whom enrolled in Medicaid and some of whom did not—concluded that patients who enrolled in Medicaid received no measurable improvements in their physical health than those that remained uninsured.[12] Moreover, the newly enrolled Medicaid patients increased their emergency room usage by 40 percent when compared to those who did not obtain coverage—and those disparities persisted over time.[13] Such results tend to bolster previous findings that patients with Medicaid coverage may end up with worse outcomes than uninsured patients.[14]

Impact in Wyoming:  A January 2015 brief by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and a 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Medicaid variations by state, provide helpful metrics comparing Wyoming’s Medicaid program to its peers. The Kaiser brief analyzed per-beneficiary spending in Medicaid for “full-benefit” patients—that is, excluding any partial benefit enrollees.[15] As the table below shows, as of 2011, Wyoming’s spending on aged beneficiaries led the nation—nearly double the national average—and its spending on individuals with disabilities ranked high as well.

Moreover, per-beneficiary spending in Wyoming grew at a rapid, above-average pace for the aged and disabled populations. During the years 2000 to 2011, costs per beneficiary nationally grew by an average of 3.7% for aged beneficiaries and 4.5% for individuals with disabilities. By comparison, in Wyoming spending rose an average of 6.8%—again, nearly twice the national average—for aged beneficiaries, and an above-average 5.45% for individuals with disabilities during the same 2000-2011 period.[16]

   

Aged

Individuals with Disabilities  

Adults

 

Children

United States $17,522 $18,518 $4,141 $2,492
Wyoming $32,199 $25,346 $3,986 $1,967
Difference $14,677 $6,828 -$155 -$525
Wyoming Rank Highest 7th Highest 31st Highest 46th Highest

The 2014 GAO report provides additional context as to why Wyoming has relatively high levels of spending on aged and disabled populations.[17] Whereas the Kaiser report studied spending for the years 2000 through 2011, GAO analyzed spending for federal fiscal year 2008 only. However, like Kaiser, GAO also found that Wyoming’s per-enrollee spending on aged ($21,662) and disabled ($24,644) beneficiaries significantly exceeded national averages ($17,609 and $19,135, respectively).[18]

In addition to analyzing per-beneficiary spending by state, the GAO study also examined factors known to influence spending—and on these, Wyoming and its rural neighbors also ranked high. Wyoming ranked more than ten percentage points above the national average for the percentage of aged beneficiaries receiving long-term care services (48.7% in Wyoming vs. 37.7% nationally), and for the percentage of aged Medicaid enrollees ever institutionalized during the year (35.7% in Wyoming vs. 24.5% nationally).[19] Crucially, most of Wyoming’s neighbors—North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Colorado—also have percentages of aged seniors receiving long-term care services, and receiving institutional care, well above national averages, and in some cases higher than Wyoming. These data suggest that the difficulties of life in rural and frontier communities may result in above-average rates of institutionalization, as aged or disabled individuals cannot live far from care support structures.

The prior reports indicating high levels of spending on Wyoming’s Medicaid program do not consider the significant reforms the state has implemented to date. Efforts to increase the percentage of beneficiaries receiving home and community-based services, rather than institutional care, have driven the percentage of members receiving long-term care in the home above 50%.[20] As a result, spending on Medicaid has remained relatively flat from fiscal years 2010 through 2015. Per enrollee costs have actually declined over that period, particularly for the aged population.[21]

However, the Kaiser and GAO studies illustrate the challenges and the opportunities the Medicaid program faces in Wyoming. Despite the reforms put in place to date, spending on the aged and disabled population remains at comparatively high levels. While spending on aged beneficiaries has declined from $32,199 per enrollee in 2011 to $26,222 in fiscal 2015, even that lower level remains higher than the national per-beneficiary average in 2011 ($17,522).

But if Wyoming can build upon its existing Medicaid reforms to improve care for the aged and vulnerable population—coordinating care better, and ensuring that individuals who can be treated at home are not inappropriately diverted into institutional settings—then beneficiaries will benefit, as will taxpayers. If Medicaid enrollees receive better care, their lives will improve in both measurable and immeasurable ways. Likewise, simply bringing spending on aged and disabled beneficiaries down to national averages will drive millions of dollars in savings to the Medicaid program.

The Vision

Ultimately, the Medicaid program would work best if transformed into a block grant or per capita allotment to states. Under either of these proposals, states would receive additional flexibility from the federal government to manage their health care programs, in exchange for a series of fixed payments from Washington. The American Health Care Act, passed by the House of Representatives on May 4, contains both options, creating a new system of per capita spending caps for Medicaid, while allowing states to choose a block grant for some of their Medicaid populations.[22]

While fundamental changes to Medicaid’s funding formulae must pass through Congress, the incoming Administration can work from its first days to give states more freedom and flexibility to manage their Medicaid programs. Specifically, Section 1115 of the Social Security Act gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services the power to waive certain requirements under Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for “any experimental, pilot, or demonstration project which, in the judgment of the Secretary, is likely to assist in promoting the objectives” of the programs.[23]

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration  often refused or watered down Section 1115 waiver requests from Republican governors. For instance, the last Administration repeatedly refused requests from governors to impose work requirements for able-bodied adults as a condition of participation in the Medicaid program.[24] Ironically, Obamacare actually made the process of obtaining waivers more difficult; one section of the law imposed new requirements, including a series of hearings, that states must undertake when applying for a waiver.[25] In the years since, federal legislative changes have sought to streamline the process for states requesting extensions of waivers already granted.[26]

In the hands of the right Administration, waiver authority could provide states with a significant amount of flexibility to reform their Medicaid programs. Among the finest examples of such reform is the Rhode Island Global Compact Waiver, approved in the waning days of the George W. Bush Administration on January 16, 2009. The waiver combined and consolidated myriad Medicaid waivers into one comprehensive waiver, with a capped allotment on overall spending. Rather than considering the silos of various program requirements, or specific waivers on discrete issues, Rhode Island was able to examine Medicaid reform holistically—focusing on the big picture, rather than specific bureaucratic dictates from Washington.[27]

Given flexibility from Washington, Rhode Island succeeded in controlling Medicaid expenditures—indeed, in reducing them on a per beneficiary basis. Overall spending remained roughly constant from 2010 through 2013, while enrollment grew by 6.6%.[28] Per beneficiary costs declined by 5.2% over that four-year period—a decline in absolute terms, even before factoring in inflation.[29] Perhaps most importantly, an independent report from the Lewin Group found that the Global Compact was “highly effective in controlling Medicaid costs,” while “improving members’ access to more appropriate services.”[30] In other words, Rhode Island reduced its Medicaid costs not by providing less care to beneficiaries—but providing more, and more appropriate, care to them.

The Rhode Island example has particular applicability to Wyoming’s Medicaid program. Just as Wyoming spends above national averages on Medicaid care for the aged and individuals with disabilities, so too did Rhode Island have a highly institutionalized population prior to implementing its Global Compact. Moreover, Wyoming’s current system of discrete waivers—two (including one pending with CMS) under Section 1115, and seven separate long-term care waivers under Section 1915 of the Social Security Act—lends itself towards potential care silos and unnecessary duplication. Consolidating these myriad waivers into one global waiver would allow Wyoming to “see the forest for the trees”—focusing on overall changes that will improve the quality of care. Implementing a global waiver will also give Wyoming the flexibility to accelerate reforms regarding delivery of long-term supports and services to the aged and disabled population, while introducing new consumer-oriented options for non-disabled beneficiaries.

Specific Solutions

A block grant, per capita allotment, or waiver along the lines of Rhode Island’s Global Compact provides the vision that will give states the tools needed to reform Medicaid for the 21st century. Fortunately, states have experimented with several specific reforms that can provide more granular details regarding how a reformed Medicaid program might look. Proposals in documents such as House Republicans’ “Better Way” plan, released last year, and a report issued by Republican governors in 2011, provide good sources of ideas.[31] Both individually and collectively, these solutions can 1) improve the quality of care beneficiaries receive; 2) better engage beneficiaries with the health care system, and where appropriate, provide a transition to employment and employer-sponsored coverage; 3) reduce health costs overall; and 4) provide sound stewardship of the taxpayer dollars funding the Medicaid program.

Delivery System Reform

With a Medicaid program based around fee-for-service medicine—which pays doctors and hospitals for every service they perform—Wyoming in particular would benefit from reforms that encourage greater value and coordination in health care delivery. As explained above, the state’s above-average spending on aged and disabled beneficiaries speaks to the way in which uncoordinated care can result in health problems for patients—and ultimately, greater expenses for taxpayers.

Promote Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS):         The Lewin Group’s analysis of Rhode Island’s Global Compact Waiver delineated many of the ways in which that state reformed its Medicaid program to de-institutionalize aged and disabled beneficiaries. Between the January 2009 approval of the waiver and the December 2011 report, Rhode Island achieved impressive savings from providing more coordinated, and “right-sized,” care to patients:

  • Shifting nursing home services into the community saved $35.7 million during the period examined by the study;
  • More accurate rate setting in nursing homes saved an additional $15 million in 2010 alone;
  • Better care management for adults with disabilities and special needs children saved between $4.5 and $11.9 million; and
  • Enrollment in managed care significantly increased the access of adults with disabilities to physician services.[32]

The results from the Rhode Island waiver demonstrate the possible savings to Wyoming associated with reform of long-term services and supports (LTSS)—savings that the Lewin report confirms came not from denying care to beneficiaries, but by improving it.

Other states have also taken actions to promote HCBS. Testifying before the Congressionally-chartered Commission on Long-Term Care in 2013, Tennessee’s head of Long-Term Supports and Services proposed several solutions, focused largely on turning the bias in favor of nursing home care toward a bias in favor of HCBS—to use nursing homes as a last resort, rather than a first resort.[33] Her proposals included a possible limit on nursing home capacity; converting nursing home “slots” into HCBS care “slots;” and requiring patients to try HCBS as the default option before moving to a more intense (i.e., institutional) setting.[34] Integrating these proposals into a comprehensive waiver would not only provide Wyoming residents with more appropriate care, it could also save taxpayers money.

Managed Care:            Wyoming could benefit by exploring the use of managed care plans to deliver Medicaid services to beneficiaries. Providing plans with a capitated payment—that is, a flat payment per beneficiary per month—would give them an incentive to streamline care. Moreover, a transition to managed care would provide more fiscal certainty to the state, as payment levels would not change during a fiscal or contract year.

In June 2014, a report commissioned by the Wyoming Legislature and prepared for the Wyoming Department of Health recommended against pursuing full-risk managed care, despite an admitted high level of vendor interest in doing so.[35] Three years later, Wyoming should explore the issue again, as both the Department of Health and medical providers in Wyoming have additional experience implementing other forms of coordinated care. The 2014 report notes that managed care plans have numerous tools available that could help reduce costs, particularly for high-cost patients, including data analytics, case managers, and quality metric incentives. Given the unique capacities that managed care plans bring to the table, it is worth exploring again the issue of whether full-risk plans could improve care to Wyoming beneficiaries while providing fiscal stability to the state.

While managed care could provide significant benefits to Wyoming, the state may be hamstrung by Medicaid’s current requirement that beneficiaries have the choice of at least two managed care plans. Given that Wyoming has only one insurer participating on its insurance Exchange this year, and a heavily rural population, this requirement may not be realistic or feasible. If approved by CMS, a waiver application could enable only one managed care plan to deliver care to rural Wyomingites.

Provider-Led Groups:              In addition to managed care products organized and sold by insurance companies, Wyoming could also explore the possibility of creating groups led by teams of providers to manage care delivery. Similar to the accountable care organization (ACO) model promoted through the Medicare program, these provider-led groups could provide coordinated care to patients, either on a fully- or partially-capitated payment model.

In recent years, at least 18 state Medicaid programs have either adopted or studied the creation of various provider-led organizations.[36] Adopters include neighboring states like Utah and Colorado, as well as southern states like Louisiana and Alabama. Whether a hospital-led ACO, or a group of doctors providing direct primary care to patients, these provider-led organizations would have greater incentives to coordinate care for patients, hopefully resulting in better health outcomes, and reduced spending for the Medicaid program.

Payment Bundling:     One other option for reforming delivery systems lies in bundled payments, which would see Medicaid providing a lump-sum payment for all the costs of a procedure (e.g., a hip replacement and associated post-operative therapy). Such concepts date back more than a quarter-century; a Medicare demonstration that began in the summer of 1991 reduced spending on heart bypass patients by $42.3 million—a savings of nearly 10 percent.[37] More recently, Pennsylvania’s Geisinger Health System helped bring the payment bundle model into the national lexicon, implementing a 90-day “warranty” on heart bypass patients beginning in February 2006.[38]

In recent years, government payers have increasingly adopted the payment bundle as a means to improve care quality and limit spending increases. Beginning in 2011, Arkansas’ Medicaid program worked with its local Blue Cross affiliate to improve health care delivery through payment improvement, and has implemented an episode-of-care payment model (i.e., a payment bundle) as one of its efforts.[39] Likewise, Medicare has moved ahead with efforts to embrace bundled payments—offering providers the option of a retrospective or prospective lump-sum payment for an inpatient stay, post-acute care provided after the stay, or both.[40]

A reformed Medicaid program in Wyoming could offer providers the opportunity to utilize bundled payment models as one vehicle to deliver better care. Ideally, Medicaid need not mandate participation from providers, as Medicare has done for some payment bundles, but instead help to encourage broader trends in the industry.[41] While not as dramatic a change as a move toward managed care, the bundled payment option may appeal to some providers as a “middle ground” for those not yet ready to embrace a fully capitated payment model.

De-Identified Patient Data:   In a bid to harness the power of “big data,” the federal government has made de-identified Medicare patient claims information available to companies that can analyze the information for patterns of care usage. Those initiatives have recently expanded to Medicaid, with one start-up compiling a database of 74 million Medicaid patients.[42] Wyoming could ask outside vendors or consultants to analyze its claims data for relevant patterns and trends—yielding valuable insights into the delivery of care, and potentially improving outcomes for beneficiaries. By releasing its own Medicaid data and encouraging companies to analyze it, Wyoming will encourage the development of Wyoming-specific solutions to the state’s unique health care needs.

Consumer-Directed Options

As part of a move towards modernizing Medicaid, Wyoming should adopt several different consumer-directed elements for its health coverage. These provisions would give beneficiaries incentives to act as smart shoppers, using ideas proven to lower the growth of health care costs. Providing appropriate incentives to beneficiaries will also make Medicaid coverage more closely resemble private health insurance plans—providing an easy transition for beneficiaries who move into employer-based coverage as their income rises.

Health Opportunity Accounts:            In 2005, provisions in the Deficit Reduction Act created Health Opportunity Accounts.[43] The language in the statute called for several demonstration projects by states, who could offer non-elderly and non-disabled beneficiaries the choice to enroll in Health Opportunity Accounts on a voluntary basis. The Opportunity Accounts would be used to pay for medical expenses up to a deductible, at which point traditional insurance coverage would take over. While the Opportunity Accounts under the demonstration would function in many respects like a Health Savings Account (HSA)—the state and/or charities would fund the accounts, and beneficiaries could build up savings within them—they included a twist. Upon becoming ineligible for Medicaid, beneficiaries could access most of their remaining Opportunity Account balance for a period of up to three years, to purchase either health insurance coverage or “job training and tuition expenses.”[44]

By creating an HSA-like account mechanism, and giving beneficiaries the flexibility to use their Opportunity Account funds on job training or health insurance expenses upon becoming ineligible for Medicaid, the Opportunity Account demonstration promoted both smart health care shopping and employment opportunities for Medicaid beneficiaries. Unfortunately, in 2009 a Democratic Congress and President Obama passed legislation prohibiting the approval of any new Health Opportunity Account demonstrations— effectively killing this innovative program before it had a chance to take root.[45]

Thankfully, some states have continued to incorporate HSA-like incentives into their Medicaid programs. In the non-Medicaid space, HSAs and consumer-directed options have demonstrated their ability to reduce health care costs. A 2012 study in the prestigious journal Health Affairs found that broader adoption of the HSA model could reduce health care costs by more than $57 billion annually.[46] If extended into the Medicaid realm, slower growth of health costs would save taxpayers—in Wyoming and elsewhere.

The upcoming reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)—currently due to expire on September 30, 2017—gives Congress an opportunity to re-examine Health Opportunity Accounts. Regardless of whether lawmakers in Washington reinstate this particular model, however, account-based health coverage in Medicaid deserves a close look in Wyoming as part of a comprehensive reform waiver. Although the Opportunity Account mechanism was somewhat prescriptive in its approach, allowing beneficiaries to keep some portion of remaining account balances upon becoming ineligible for Medicaid represents an innovative and sound concept. Such a program could represent a true win-win: Both the state and beneficiaries receive a portion of the benefits from lower health spending—cash which the beneficiary can use to help adjust to life after Medicaid.

Right to Shop:              Thanks to several states’ reform of transparency laws, patients can now engage in a “right to shop” in many locations across the country.[47] The movement centers around the basic principle that consumers should share in the benefits of savings from choosing less expensive locations for medical and health procedures. Particularly for non-urgent care—for instance, medical tests or radiological procedures—variations among medical facilities provide patients with the opportunity to achieve significant savings by choosing a less costly provider.

Results from large employers illustrate how price transparency and competition have yielded savings for payers and consumers alike. A California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) program of reference pricing—in which CalPERS set a maximum price of $30,000 for hip and knee replacements—led to savings of $2.8 million ($7,000 per patient) to CalPERS, and $300,000 (nearly $700 per patient) in lower cost-sharing, in its first year alone. The program led hospitals to renegotiate their rates with CalPERS, which expanded its reference pricing program to other procedures the very next year.[48]

Other estimates suggest that the potential savings from transparency and competition could range into the tens of billions of dollars. One study concluded that reference pricing for a handful of specific procedures could reduce health spending by 1.6 percent—or nearly $10 billion, if applied to all individuals with employer-sponsored health coverage.[49] A separate estimate found that eliminating variation in “shoppable” (i.e., high-cost and known in advance) health services could reduce spending on individuals with employer health coverage by $36 billion.[50]

A reformed Medicaid program should look to bring these positive effects of “patient power” to Medicaid—by allowing consumers to share in the savings from choosing wisely among providers. The right to shop could work particularly well in conjunction with an account-based model for Medicaid reform, which provides a ready vehicle for the state to deposit a portion of savings to beneficiaries. Citizens have literally saved millions of dollars using the right to shop; tapping into those savings for the Medicaid program would benefit taxpayers significantly.[51] Moreover, by incentivizing all providers to price their services more competitively, right to shop will exert downward pressure on health costs—an important goal for our nation’s health care system.

Wellness Incentives:   Over the past several years, successful employers have used incentives for healthy behaviors to help control the skyrocketing growth in health care costs. For instance, Safeway used such incentives to keep overall health costs flat over four years—at a time when costs for the average employer plan grew by 38 percent.[52]

Many large employers have increasingly embraced the results of the “Safeway model,” offering employees incentives for participating in healthy behaviors. According to the most recent annual survey of employer-provided health plans, approximately one-third of large employers (those with over 200 workers) offer employees incentives to complete a health risk assessment (32%), undergo biometric screening (31%), or participate or complete a wellness program (35%).[53] Among the largest employers—those with over 5,000 workers—nearly half offer incentives for risk assessments (50%), biometric screening (44%), and wellness programs (48%).[54] The trend of employer wellness incentives suggests Wyoming should bring this innovation to its Medicaid program.

Even though Obamacare passed on a straight party-line vote, expanding employer wellness incentives represented one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement. Language in the law permitted employers to increase the permitted variation for participation in wellness programs from 20 percent of premiums to 30 percent.[55] Medicaid programs should have the flexibility to implement such changes to their programs without requesting permission from Washington—and Wyoming should incorporate incentives for healthy behaviors into its revised Medicaid program as part of a comprehensive waiver.

Premiums and Co-Payments:              In addition to more innovative models discussed above, a revised Medicaid program in Wyoming could look to impose modest cost-sharing on beneficiaries through a combination of premiums and co-payments. Applying cost-sharing to specific services—for instance, unnecessary use of the emergency room for non-urgent care—should encourage beneficiaries to find the most appropriate source of care. Reasonable, enforceable cost-sharing would encourage beneficiaries to take responsibility for their care, making them partners in the road to better health.

Transition to Employment and Employer-Based Health Insurance

In many cases, individuals on Medicaid can, and ultimately should, make the transition to employment, and to the employer-based health insurance that comes with many quality jobs. However, the benefits currently provided by Medicaid bear little resemblance to most forms of employer-based coverage. In conjunction with the consumer-directed options discussed above, Wyoming should implement other steps to encourage beneficiaries to make the transition into work, and encourage the adoption of employer-based health insurance.

Work Requirements:               Fortunately, the Trump Administration has indicated a willingness to embrace state flexibility in Medicaid—which with respect to work requirements in particular would represent a welcome change from the Obama Administration.[56] A requirement that able-bodied Medicaid beneficiaries either work, look for work, or prepare for work through enrollment in job-training programs would help transform state economies, as even voluntary job-referral programs have led to some impressive success stories. In the neighboring state of Montana, one participant obtained skills that helped her find not just a job, but a new career:

“I think it’s a success story,” [Ruth] McCafferty says about the [Medicaid] jobs program. “I love this. I’m the poster child!”

McCafferty is a 53-year-old single mom with three kids living at home. Seven months ago, she lost her job in banking, and interviews for new jobs weren’t panning out.…

The jobs component of [her Medicaid coverage] means she also got a phone call from her local Job Service office, saying they might be able to hook her up with a grant to pay for training to help her get a better job than the one she lost. She was pretty skeptical, but came in anyway…

Job Service ended up paying not just for online training, but a trip to Helena to take a certification exam. Now, they’re funding an apprenticeship at a local business until she can start bringing in her own clients and get paid on commission.

“I’m able to support my family,” [McCafferty] says. “I’ve got a career opportunity that’s more than just a job.”[57]

Ruth McCafferty is not the only success story associated with Montana’s Medicaid Job Service program. Five in six individuals who participated in the program are now employed, and with an average 50 percent increase in pay, to about $40,000 per year—enough in some cases to transition off of Medicaid.[58] Unfortunately, however, because the program is not mandatory for beneficiaries, only a few thousand out of 53,000 Medicaid enrollees have embraced this life-changing opportunity.[59]

In December 2015, the Congressional Budget Office noted that Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion will reduce beneficiaries’ labor force participation by about 4 percent, “creat[ing] a tax on additional earnings for those considering job changes” that would raise their income above the threshold for eligibility.[60] Rather than discouraging work, as under Obamacare, Medicaid should encourage work, and a transition into working life. Imposing a work requirement for Medicaid recipients, coupled with appropriate resources for job training and education, would help beneficiaries, taxpayers—and ultimately, Wyoming’s economy.

Flexible Benefits:         Particularly for non-disabled adults and optional coverage populations, Wyoming should consider offering a more flexible and limited set of insurance benefits than the standard Medicaid package. Congress moved down this route in 2005, using a section of the Deficit Reduction Act to create a set of “benchmark” benefits that certain populations could receive.[61] However, the “benchmark” plan section limits eligibility to certain populations, and excludes provisions permitting states to impose modest cost-sharing for beneficiaries.

As part of a comprehensive waiver, Wyoming should request the ability to shift non-disabled beneficiaries into “benchmark” plans. Moreover, the waiver application should include provisions for modest cost-sharing for beneficiaries, and make those cost-sharing payments enforceable. Receiving authority from Washington to customize health coverage options for non-traditional beneficiaries would give the state the ability to innovate, and tailor benefit packages to beneficiary needs and fiscal realities.

Premium Assistance:               Premium assistance—in which Medicaid helps subsidize premiums for employer-sponsored health coverage—could play an important role in encouraging the use of private insurance where available, while also keeping all members of a family on the same health insurance policy. Unfortunately, however, current regulatory requirements for premium assistance have proven ineffective and unduly burdensome. All current premium assistance programs require Medicaid programs to provide wrap-around benefits to beneficiaries.[62] In addition, two premium assistance options created by Congress in 2009 explicitly prohibit states from using high-deductible health plans—regardless of whether or not the state funds an HSA to subsidize beneficiaries’ medical expenses in conjunction with the high-deductible plan.[63]

As part of its comprehensive waiver application, Wyoming should ask for more flexibility to use Medicaid dollars to subsidize employer coverage, without providing additional wrap-around benefits. In addition, the state’s application should require non-disabled adults to utilize premium assistance where available—another policy consistent with maximizing the use of private health coverage.

Preventing “Crowd-Out”:        Many government-run health programs face the problem of “crowd-out”—individuals purposefully dropping their private health coverage to enroll in taxpayer-funded insurance. Prior studies have estimated the “crowd-out” rate for certain coverage expansions at around 60 percent.[64] In these cases, coverage expansions enrolled more people who dropped their private coverage than previously uninsured individuals—a poor use of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.

States like Wyoming should have the ability to impose reasonable restrictions on enrollment as one way to prevent “crowd-out.” For instance, ensuring enrollees do not have an available offer of employer coverage, or only enrolling persistently uninsured individuals (e.g., those uninsured for at least 90-180 days prior to enrollment), would prevent individuals from attempting to “game the system” and ensure efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Program Integrity

Estimates suggest that health care fraud represents an industry of massive proportions, with tens of billions in taxpayer dollars lost every year to fraudulent activities.[65] Medicaid has remained on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) list of “high-risk” programs since 2003 “due to its size, growth, diversity of programs, and concerns about the adequacy of fiscal oversight.”[66] In its most recent update, GAO noted that improper payments—whether erroneous or fraudulent in nature—increased from a total of $29.1 billion in fiscal year 2015 to $36.3 billion in fiscal 2016—an increase of nearly 25 percent.[67]

A reformed Medicaid program in Wyoming would use flexibility provided by the federal government to strengthen programs and methods ensuring proper use of taxpayer dollars. Because any dollar stolen by a fraudster represents one dollar not used to help the patients—many of them aged and vulnerable—that Medicaid treats, policy-makers should work diligently to ensure that scarce taxpayer funds are used solely by the populations for whom Medicaid was designed.

Verify Eligibility and Identity:            A 2015 report by the Foundation for Government Accountability provides numerous cases of ineligible—or in some cases deceased—beneficiaries remaining on state Medicaid rolls:

  • Arkansas identified thousands of individuals not qualified for Medicaid benefits in 2014, including 495 deceased beneficiaries;
  • Pennsylvania removed over 160,000 individuals from benefit rolls in 2011, including individuals in prison and million-dollar lottery winners; and
  • In Illinois, state officials removed over 400,000 ineligible beneficiaries in one year alone, saving taxpayers approximately $400 million annually.[68]

In the past two years, Wyoming has taken decisive action to crack down on fraud. The eligibility checks begun in mid-2015 removed several thousand ineligible individuals from the Medicaid rolls.[69] Moreover, Act 57, passed by the state legislature last year, introduced a new comprehensive program to stop fraud.[70] By verifying eligibility and identity upon enrollment, monitoring eligibility through quarterly database checks, and prosecuting offenders where found, Act 57 should save Wyoming taxpayers, while ensuring that eligible beneficiaries can continue to receive the health services they need.[71]

Asset Recovery:            A 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report raised concerns about whether Wyoming’s Medicaid program is appropriately protecting taxpayer dollars. GAO concluded that Wyoming ranks second in the percentage of Medicaid beneficiaries (20.6%) with additional private health insurance coverage, and third in the percentage of Medicaid beneficiaries (26.02%) with additional public health insurance coverage.[72] By comparison, GAO concluded that only 13.4% of Medicaid beneficiaries nationwide had an additional source of private insurance coverage—meaning Wyoming has a rate of additional private coverage among Medicaid beneficiaries roughly 50 percent higher than the national average.[73]

As with the concept of crowd-out—individuals dropping private coverage entirely to enroll in Medicaid—discussed above, Medicaid should serve as the payer of last resort, not of first instance. If another payer has liability with respect to a Medicaid beneficiary’s claims, the state has the duty—both a statutory obligation under the federal Medicaid law, and a moral obligation to its taxpayers—to avoid incurring those claims, and seek to recover payments already made when it is cost-effective to do so.

Asset recovery can take several forms. Improving recovery for third-party liability claims could involve participation in electronic data matching between Medicaid enrollment files and private insurer files; empowering any managed care organizations contracted to the Medicaid program to adjudicate third-party liability claims; and prohibiting insurers from denying third-party liability claims for purely procedural reasons, such as failure to obtain prior authorization.[74] As part of these efforts, Wyoming should have the freedom to hire contingency fee-based contractors as one means to stem the flow of improper payments to health care providers.

Long-term services and supports represent another area where Wyoming can take steps to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent on the vulnerable populations for whom Medicaid was designed. The state can and should utilize existing authority to recover funds from estates, or impose sanctions on individuals who transferred assets at below-market rates in their efforts to qualify for Medicaid.[75]

Conclusion

             In the past decade, Wyoming has made numerous reforms to its Medicaid program. The state has begun to re-balance care away from institutional settings where possible, and has implemented several programs to improve care coordination. These changes have helped stabilize Medicaid spending as a share of the budget, and reduce spending on a per-beneficiary basis.

However, given freedom and flexibility from Washington—flexibility which should be forthcoming under the new Administration—Wyoming can go further. This vision would see additional reforms designed to keep patients out of intensive and costly settings—whether the hospital or a nursing home—and an exploration of managed care options. Beyond the aged population, Wyoming would implement consumer-driven principles into Medicaid, giving beneficiaries greater incentives to take responsibility for their own care, and the tools to do so. And many recipients would ultimately transition out of Medicaid entirely, using skills they learned through Medicaid-sponsored job training programs to build a better life.

This vision stands within Wyoming’s reach—indeed, it stands within every state’s reach. All it takes is flexibility from Washington, and the desire on the part of policy-makers to embrace the vision for a modern Medicaid system. With a comprehensive waiver, Wyoming can transform and revitalize Medicaid. It’s time to embrace the opportunity and do just that.

 


[1] Letter by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma to state governors regarding Medicaid reform, March 14, 2017, https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/sec-price-admin-verma-ltr.pdf.

[2] Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “2016 Actuarial Report on the Financial Outlook for Medicaid,” https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/financing-and-reimbursement/downloads/medicaid-actuarial-report-2016.pdf, Table 3, p. 15.

[3] Congressional Budget Office, January 2017 Medicare baseline, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/recurringdata/51302-2017-01-medicare.pdf.

[4] 2016 Actuarial Report, Table 3, p. 15; CBO January 2017 Medicare baseline.

[5] National Association of State Budget Officers, Fiscal Survey of States: Spring 2016, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Reports/Spring%202016%20Fiscal%20Survey%20of%20States-S.pdf, Table 11: Fiscal Year 2017 Recommended Program Area Adjustments by Value, p. 16.

[6] National Association of State Budget Officers, Fiscal Survey of States: Spring 2011, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Fiscal%20Survey/Spring%202011%20Fiscal%20Survey.pdf, Table 11: Fiscal Year 2012 Recommended Program Area Adjustments by Value, p. 13.

[8] National Association of State Budget Officers, 1996 State Expenditure Report, April 1997, https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/SER%20Archive/ER_1996.PDF, Table 3, p. 11.

[9] Joanna Bisgaier and Karin Rhodes, “Auditing Access to Specialty Care for Children with Public Insurance,” New England Journal of Medicine June 16, 2011, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1013285.

[10] Vanessa Fuhrmans, “Note to Patients: The Doctor Won’t See You,” Wall Street Journal July 19, 2007, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB118480165648770935.

[11] Statement by DeAnn Friedholm, Consumers Union, at Alliance for Health Reform Briefing on “Affordability and Health Reform: If We Mandate, Will They (and Can They) Pay?” November 20, 2009, http://www.allhealth.org/briefingmaterials/TranscriptFINAL-1685.pdf, p. 40.

[12] Katherine Baicker, et al., “The Oregon Experiment—Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes,” New England Journal of Medicine May 2, 2013, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1212321.

[13] Amy Finklestein et al., “Effect of Medicaid Coverage on ED Use—Further Evidence from Oregon’s Experiment,” New England Journal of Medicine October 20, 2016, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1609533.

[14] Scott Gottlieb, “Medicaid Is Worse than No Coverage at All,” Wall Street Journal March 10, 2011, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704758904576188280858303612.

[15] Katherine Young et al., “Medicaid Per Enrollee Spending: Variation Across States,” http://files.kff.org/attachment/issue-brief-medicaid-per-enrollee-spending-variation-across-states-2, Appendix Table 1, p. 9.

[16] Ibid., Appendix Table 2, p. 11.

[17] Government Accountability Office, “Medicaid: Assessment of Variation among States in Per-Enrollee Spending,” Report GAO-14-456, June 16, 2014, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/664115.pdf.

[18] Ibid., Appendix II, pp. 40-41.

[19] Ibid., Appendix VII, pp. 53-54.

[20] Wyoming Department of Health, “Introduction to Wyoming Medicaid,” p. 31.

[21] Ibid., pp. 11, 14.

[22] Section 121 of H.R. 1628, the American Health Care Act, as passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on May 4, 2017.

[23] Section 1115 of the Social Security Act, codified at 42 U.S.C. 1315.

[24] Mattie Quinn, “On Medicaid, States Won’t Take Feds’ No for an Answer,” Governing October 11, 2016, http://www.governing.com/topics/health-human-services/gov-medicaid-waivers-arizona-ohio-cms.html.

[25] Section 10201 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148, created a new Section 1115(d) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1315(d)) imposing such requirements.

[26] Section 1115 (e) and (f) of the Social Security Act, codified at 42 U.S.C. 1315(e) and (f).

[27] Testimony of Gary Alexander, former Rhode Island Secretary of Health and Human Services, on “Strengthening Medicaid Long-Term Supports and Services” before the Commission on Long Term Care, August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.org/ltccommission/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Garo-Alexander.pdf.

[28] Ibid., p. 4.

[29] Ibid., p. 4.

[30] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation of Rhode Island’s Global Waiver,” December 6, 2011, http://www.ohhs.ri.gov/documents/documents11/Lewin_report_12_6_11.pdf, p. 3.

[31] House of Representatives Republican Task Force, “A Better Way—Our Vision for a Confident America: Health Care,” June 22, 2016, http://abetterway.speaker.gov/_assets/pdf/ABetterWay-HealthCare-PolicyPaper.pdf, pp. 23-28; Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, “A New Medicaid: A Flexible, Innovative, and Accountable Future,” August 30, 2011, https://www.scribd.com/document/63596104/RGPPC-Medicaid-Report.

[32] Lewin Group, “An Independent Evaluation.”

[33] The author served as a member of the commission, whose work can be found at www.ltccommission.org.

[34] Testimony of Patti Killingsworth, TennCare Chief of Long-Term Supports and Services, before the Commission on Long-Term Care on “What Would Strengthen Medicaid LTSS?” August 1, 2013, http://ltccommission.org/ltccommission/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Patti-Killingsworth-Testimony.pdf.

[35] Health Management Associates, “Wyoming Coordinated Care Study,” June 27, 2014, http://legisweb.state.wy.us/InterimCommittee/2014/WyoCoordinatedCareReportAppendices.pdf.

[36] National Academy for State Health Policy, “State ‘Accountable Care’ Activity Map,” http://nashp.org/state-accountable-care-activity-map/.

[37] Health Care Financing Administration, “Medicare Participating Heart Bypass Demonstration,” Extramural Research Report, September 1998, https://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/Reports/downloads/oregon2_1998_3.pdf.

[38] Reed Abelson, “In Bid for Better Care, Surgery with a Warranty,” New York Times May 17, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/17/business/17quality.html?pagewanted=all.

[39] State of Arkansas, “Health Care Payment Improvement Initiative—Episodes of Care,” http://www.paymentinitiative.org/episodesOfCare/Pages/default.aspx.

[40] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Bundled Payments for Care Improvement Initiative: General Information,” https://innovation.cms.gov/initiatives/Bundled-Payments/.

[41] On December 20, 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that participation in new cardiac and orthopedic bundles would be mandatory for all hospitals in selected metropolitan statistical areas beginning July 1, 2017; see https://www.cms.gov/Newsroom/MediaReleaseDatabase/Fact-sheets/2016-Fact-sheets-items/2016-12-20.html. Both lawmakers and provider groups have suggested that CMS is imposing too many mandates on providers and exceeding its statutory and constitutional authority; see http://tomprice.house.gov/sites/tomprice.house.gov/files/assets/September%2029%2C%202016%20CMMI%20Letter.pdf.

[42] Steve Lohr, “Medicaid’s Data Gets an Internet-Era Makeover,” New York Times January 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/09/technology/medicaids-data-gets-an-internet-era-makeover.html.

[43] Section 6082 of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, P.L. 109-171, which created a new Section 1938 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1396u-8).

[44] The statute provided that, upon a beneficiary becoming ineligible for Medicaid, 25 percent of state contributions to the Opportunity Account would be returned to the state, but the beneficiary would retain 100 percent of any other contributions to the account, along with 75 percent of state contributions.

[45] Section 613 of the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009, P.L. 111-2.

[46] Amelia Haviland et al., “Growth of Consumer-Directed Health Plans to One-Half of All Employer-Sponsored Insurance Could Save $57 Billion Annually,” Health Affairs May 2012, http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/31/5/1009.full.

[47] Josh Archambault and Nic Horton, “Right to Shop: The Next Big Thing in Health Care,” Forbes August 5, 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2016/08/05/right-to-shop-the-next-big-thing-in-health-care/#6f0ebcd91f75.

[48] Amanda Lechner et al., “The Potential of Reference Pricing to Generate Savings: Lessons from a California Pioneer,” Center for Studying Health System Change Issue Brief No. 30, December 2013, http://hschange.org/CONTENT/1397/1397.pdf.

[49] Paul Fronstin and Christopher Roebuck, “Reference Pricing for Health Care Services: A New Twist on the Defined Contribution Concept in Employment-Based Health Benefits,” Employee Benefit Research Institute Issue Brief No. 398, April 2014, https://www.ebri.org/pdf/briefspdf/EBRI_IB_398_Apr14.RefPrcng.pdf.

[50] Bobbi Coluni, “Save $36 Billion in U.S. Health Care Spending through Price Transparency,” Thomson Reuters, February 2012, https://www.scribd.com/document/83286153/Health-Plan-Price-Transparency.

[51] Archambault and Horton, “Right to Shop.”

[52] Steven Burd, “How Safeway is Cutting Health Care Costs,” Wall Street Journal June 12, 2009, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB124476804026308603.

[53] Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust, “Employer Health Benefits: 2016 Annual Survey,” September 14, 2016, http://files.kff.org/attachment/Report-Employer-Health-Benefits-2016-Annual-Survey, Exhibit 12.20, p. 227.

[54] Ibid.

[55] PPACA Section 1201, which re-wrote Section 2705 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 300gg-4).

[56] Quinn, “States Won’t Take Feds’ No.”

[57] Eric Whitney, “Montana’s Medicaid Expansion Jobs Program Facing Scrutiny,” Montana Public Radio November 21, 2016, http://mtpr.org/post/montanas-medicaid-expansion-jobs-program-facing-scrutiny.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Edward Harris and Shannon Mok, “How CBO Estimates Effects of the Affordable Care Act on the Labor Market,” Congressional Budget Office Working Paper 2015-09, December 2015, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/workingpaper/51065-ACA_Labor_Market_Effects_WP.pdf, p. 12.

[61] Section 6044 of the Deficit Reduction Act, P.L. 109-171, codified at Section 1937 of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1396u-7.

[62] Joan Aiker et al., “Medicaid Premium Assistance Programs: What Information Is Available about Benefit and Cost-Sharing Wrap-Around Coverage?” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured Issue Brief, December 2015, http://files.kff.org/attachment/issue-brief-medicaid-premium-assistance-programs-what-information-is-available-about-benefit-and-cost-sharing-wrap-around-coverage; Joan Aiker, “Premium Assistance in Medicaid and CHIP: An Overview of Current Options and Implications of the Affordable Care Act,” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured Issue Brief, March 2013, https://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/8422.pdf.

[63] Section 301 of the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009, P.L. 111-3, codified at 42 U.S.C. 1397ee(c)(10)(B)(ii)(II) and 42 U.S.C. 1396e-1(b)(2)(B).

[64] Jonathan Gruber and Kosali Simon, “Crowd-Out 10 Years Later: Have Recent Public Insurance Expansions Crowded Out Private Health Insurance?” Journal of Health Economics February 21, 2008, http://economics.mit.edu/files/6422.

[65] “Medicare Fraud: A $60 Billion Crime,” 60 Minutes October 23, 2009, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/medicare-fraud-a-60-billion-crime-23-10-2009/.

[66] Government Accountability Office, “High-Risk Series: An Update,” Report GAO-15-290, February 2015, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/668415.pdf, p. 366.

[67] Government Accountability Office, “High-Risk Series: Progress on Many High-Risk Areas, While Substantial Efforts Needed on Others,” Report GAO-17-317, February 2017,  http://www.gao.gov/assets/690/682765.pdf, p. 579.

[68] Jonathan Ingram, “Stop the Scam: How to Prevent Welfare Fraud in Your State,” Foundation for Government Accountability, April 2, 2015.

[69] Wyoming Department of Health, “Introduction to Wyoming Medicaid,” p. 13.

[70] Enrolled Act 57, Wyoming Legislature, 63rd Session.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Government Accountability Office, “Medicaid: Additional Federal Action Needed to Further Improve Third Party Liability Efforts,” GAO Report GAO-15-208, January 2015, http://gao.gov/assets/670/668134.pdf, Appendix II, Table 3, pp. 27-28.

[73] Ibid., Figure 1, p. 10.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Kirsten Colello, “Medicaid Financial Eligibility for Long-Term Services and Supports,” Congressional Research Service Report R43506, April 24, 2014, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43506.pdf.

A PDF copy of this report is available on the Wyoming Liberty Group website.

CBO Reveals Its Bias

Since the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its analysis of the House-passed health-care bill just before Memorial Day, conservatives have questioned CBO’s assumptions on several fronts—most notably scorekeepers’ almost dogmatic belief that an individual mandate holds the key to enticing tens of millions of Americans to purchase health coverage. But the CBO report revealed another key issue—the budget office’s inherent bias towards liberal cost-saving solutions rather than conservative ones.

That bias stems from one conclusion: Under the bill, a “few million people [CBO didn’t provide a more specific number] would buy policies that would not cover major medical risk.” In these cases, “the policies [purchased] would not provide sufficient financial protection to meet CBO’s definition of insurance coverage,” and “would not provide enough financial protection in the event of a serious and costly illness to be considered insurance.”

At first glance, it seems reasonable for CBO to, when analyzing legislation, determine whether individuals scored as having “insurance” actually possess coverage meeting that definition. However, that position looks more questionable when the budget office acknowledged in a December blog post the administrative and other difficulties in arriving at a uniform definition of private health insurance, which the office did not quantify—either in December or in its score of the House bill.

More importantly, though, at no point has CBO attempted to quantify whether and to what extent Americans—particularly those in government programs—are under-insured due to their inability to obtain medical treatment. Largely due to poor reimbursement levels for physicians and hospitals, some participants in programs like Medicaid may have great financial protection in theory, but little access to care in practice.

Conservative Versus Liberal Goals For Health Care

At the risk of stereotyping, conservatives often prefer less-comprehensive insurance—coverage largely for catastrophic expenses, with patients paying for many routine expenses out-of-pocket. Right-leaning analysts believe that by making costs explicit to patients—to use the wonky phrase, giving patients “skin in the game”—they will make smarter health care choices. By contrast, liberals generally make costs and tradeoffs opaque, supporting generous coverage of most medical procedures, while reducing costs to government through lower provider reimbursement levels often not visible to patients.

Obamacare provides an excellent example of the contrast. Two months after the law passed—while attempting to deflect the criticism that Democrats took money from Medicare to pay for Obamacare—Nancy Pelosi noted that the law included “no change in guaranteed benefits.”

But in reality, the vaunted “Medicare guarantee” that Pelosi and liberals purport to defend doesn’t exist. The law guarantees that the federal government will pay seniors’ doctors and hospitals for treating them, but it doesn’t guarantee that seniors will actually get seen by a doctor.

In government programs, low reimbursement levels can make treatment hard for patients to obtain. At a briefing on “under-insurance” several years ago, an official who used to run one state’s Medicaid program acknowledged the access problem in government programs, admitting that “a Medicaid card [is] a hunting license…a chance to go try to find a doctor.”

Obamacare Made A Bad Situation Worse

On provider reimbursement, Obamacare made a bad situation worse. The nonpartisan Medicare actuary considers a series of payment reductions included in the law so Draconian—by 2040, half of all hospitals, and 90 percent of home health agencies, would be unprofitable—that they will not go into effect, “to ensure Medicare beneficiaries continue to have access to health care services.”

CBO has acknowledged the limitations on access created by Obamacare. In 2014, it noted that the new Exchange plans created that year had lower physician reimbursement levels and narrower provider networks than most employer plans. It has also estimated last fall that, thanks to the Medicare payment reductions included in Obamacare, up to half of all hospitals nationwide could be operating in the red by 2025—which could harm access to care, not just for seniors but all Americans.

However, CBO has not attempted to quantify the effects of these reimbursement reductions on the end-users—patients. It seems somehow perverse that a state Medicaid program could reduce payment levels to such absurdly low levels (99 cents, perhaps?) that no doctor or hospital would treat those patients, yet these individuals would continue to be classified as “insured” by the budget office, while those whose private coverage exceeds CBO’s not-publicly-defined thresholds for “acceptable” insurance would not be.

Some critiques of CBO’s work on the House health care bill appear opportunistic. Protesting that many fewer Americans than CBO projects will drop coverage upon repeal of the individual mandate, without acknowledging that such a scenario would likely obliterate the budgetary savings in the House legislation, seems incongruous at best. But a budget office that examines only one side of the “under-insured” coin—Americans who face high out-of-pocket costs, but not those who cannot access care—likewise seems out of whack. Republicans in Congress should press CBO to quantify both sides of this important health-care issue.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

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.