Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Litmus Test for Elected Officials

by Brian Klepper and David C. Kibbe

Six months ago, who could have imagined that a large percentage of rank-and-file Americans would support the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) against special interests’ rigging of the American dream? So why not go to the next step? Why not pointedly ask political candidates, “Will you take money from lobbyists?” and “If elected, what will you do to stop special interest influence?”

Most Americans are deeply disturbed by this issue. In a recent Time Magazine poll of people familiar with the OWS protests, 86 percent thought that “Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington.” Gallup found that 68 percent of Americans think corporations should have less political influence.

These trends didn’t just happen. They resulted from special interests’ vigilant attention to legislative possibility, lubricated by the exchange of money for votes. Influence peddling is now so accepted in American politics that the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) has established a lobbying data base, Open Secrets. But making lobbying contributions transparent hasn’t slowed the torrent of money that re-shapes law and wealth distribution.
Since 1952, the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) represented by corporate taxes has plummeted from 6.1 to 1.0 percent, while the percentage represented by employment taxes has skyrocketed from 1.8 to 6.3 percent. Meanwhile, a just released Congressional Budget Office study confirmed that the top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of the nation’s after tax income over the last 30 years.

CRP’s numbers show that 13,000 lobbyists contributed $3.5 billion in Congress in 2010. Considering that Congress influences the flow and distribution of a $15 trillion national economy, these investments promote unfair advantages extremely cost-effectively. Politicians from both parties fund their campaigns with the money, shrug off the system’s financial conflicts, and apparently avoid thinking too hard about the consequences.

The intensifying ability of the powerful to buy America’s lawmakers’ votes is the greatest threat to the America that most of us grew up believing in. It is why the rich have gotten much richer, why large, profitable corporations pay no taxes, why health care costs have continued to explode, and why Americans’ social mobility is at an historic low. America has many difficult problems, but lobbying and the way we finance elections are among the deepest, facilitating many others.

Voters can facilitate rapid change by holding their representatives accountable. Asking our political candidates who they think they’re working for would be a simple but powerful way to bring America back into balance.

Brian Klepper, PhD is a health care analyst and the Chief Development Officer for WeCare TLC Onsite Clinic. David C. Kibbe, MD, MBA is Senior Advisor to the American Academy of Family Physicians and an industry advisor on health information technologies.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Paul Ryan and Ron Wyden Blow the Medicare Reform Debate Wide Open!

House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) have embraced a Medicare reform plan that in concept borrows heavily from one championed by former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici and former Clinton budget chief Alice Rivlin.

Specifically, Wyden and Ryan are proposing to alter the earlier Ryan Medicare plan by:
  1. Continuing to offer the traditional Medicare plan—Ryan would have eliminated it—in addition to a range of private Medicare plans offered by health insurers.
  2. Tying federal Medicare premium support to an amount equal to the second lowest cost Medicare plan—public or private—available to seniors in each market. Ryan would have set a flat premium support amount in year-one and increased that only at the rate of inflation.
  3. Instituting a series of consumer protections and medical underwriting rules designed to protect seniors.
  4. Instituting an annual cap on what the federal government could pay for Medicare at an amount equal to the increase in the nation’s GDP + 1%—Ryan would have capped annual increases in the federal premium support amount at the increase in the consumer price index.
On this blog I have been arguing that the risk for health care costs rising too quickly should not be borne entirely by seniors--that the stakeholders who really run the system should be most accountable. And, that is what the Wyden-Ryan plan would do: "Any increase over that cap will be reflected in reduced support for the sectors most responsible for cost growth, including providers, drug companies, and means-tested premiums,” their plan states.

The Wyden-Ryan plan would begin in 2022.

Under Wyden-Ryan, if Medicare costs increased at a rate greater than the cap, the Congress would have to determine where to make reductions in spending—they could not directly cut senior benefits. Just what would force them to do that is unclear.

The new Wyden-Ryan Medicare policy proposals accomplish an elegant combination of key progressive and conservative health care reform principles. Their proposal also produces an enormous political bombshell on the eve of the 2012 elections.

Wyden and Ryan also propose to improve the under-age-65 employer health insurance market by allowing businesses with fewer than 100 workers to move to a defined-contribution model without tax penalties—something that is very similar to the earlier Wyden-Bennett health reform plan.

An Elegant Policy Compromise
Republicans have supported a defined contribution approach to Medicare reform. Already, House Republicans have voted in favor of the first Ryan proposal. That proposal would eliminate the traditional Medicare plan and replace it with a premium support system, or voucher, with which to buy from a range of private Medicare offerings. Any annual increase in the value of the premium support under the first Ryan plan would be capped at the rate of annual inflation as defined by the consumer price index—health care costs have consistently risen at much faster levels.

On this blog, I have been very critical of that proposal because it would shift all of the risk for the adequacy of any future federal premium support entirely onto the shoulders of seniors.

Democrats generally believe in the current Medicare plan, that seniors should be guaranteed a defined Medicare benefit and that the government pay a fixed portion of all Medicare costs as it does now—a defined benefit plan.

The problem is that the defined benefit Medicare plan we now have, and the government’s guarantee to pay most of its costs, is literally bankrupting the country.

So, something has to give.

What is elegant about the Wyden-Ryan compromise is that they have proposed a hybrid plan—it contains significant elements of both a Republican defined contribution and a Democratic defined benefit approach.

Republicans get an affordable cap on what the federal government would spend on Medicare—that growth would be no more than GDP+1%—and they would get a program built on a free market platform where consumers would have the incentive to maximize their premium support by shopping for the plan that best met their needs.

Democrats would get a plan that still contained the traditional government-run Medicare plan as one of the options and they would have a plan where all seniors were guaranteed a federal premium support level good enough to buy at least the two lowest cost Medicare plans available in their community—albeit maybe not the traditional Medicare option.

If there was ever a place for Republicans and Democrats to compromise on Medicare reform this is it. It is an elegant compromise—a hybrid—of both defined benefit and defined contribution principles.

The Political Bombshell
Frankly, the way Washington normally works, I would have expected this kind of compromise a year from now—after the 2012 elections.

But if an idea like this is ever going to make it into law, the right thing to do is to get it out there now so that the coming election debate over Medicare has all of the good ideas on the table.

Maybe a good sign is that both sides are claiming victory. Ezra Klein at the Washington Post says, "But the secret of these types of premium-support platforms is that they are, in essence, a vindication of the Affordable Care Act." The Wall Street Journal is out with an editorial on Thursday claiming the Wyden/Ryan proposal is a Republican victory “because it shows that the serious entitlement debate is taking place within the camp of choice and incentives, not the Obama status quo.” Nice try guys.

But politically, it is unavoidable to conclude that Ryan has given all of those Republicans in the House, who have already voted for his first Medicare plan, a severe case of heartburn—not to mention all of those Republican presidential candidates who have made the first Ryan Medicare plan a virtual litmus test for who really is a conservative Republican.

To say Ryan’s first Medicare plan was controversial and a huge political risk is a pretty big understatement. And, many Republicans, particularly in the House, unconditionally embraced it.

But, here is what Ryan said in Politico on Wednesday:
“If you wait and allow the political paralysis to stop us from fixing and saving this program then you’re not going to be able to grandfather people. Then you’re not going to have severe disruptions in seniors lives that would just be, I think, morally wrong because we see this problem coming. What Ron and I are trying to do is to prepare the ground for a consensus to be accomplished as soon as the politics allow it to happen.”
Can’t disagree with that logic—that bipartisan logic, in fact.

But what does that do for all of the House Republicans who stepped out on that risky Medicare limb for Ryan and now have to defend their vote on the eve of an election? A vote that would have “killed Medicare as we know it?” Or, those Republican presidential candidates who couldn’t wait to out do the other candidates with their zealous support of it?

Gingrich and Romney embraced the Ryan Medicare plan—albeit with the key modification that the Ryan plan should keep Medicare as one of the options. Smart on their part. But Ryan goes a lot further than that in his bipartisan proposal with Democrat Wyden by, among other things, increasing the rate at which premium supports—and therefore the federal entitlement—would increase and by creating a defined benefit Medicare floor in the new proposal as well as conceding consumer protections to Wyden (make that more regulation than most Republicans would like to see).

Democrats may now be mourning the loss of the first Ryan plan they thought was a big fat political target going into 2012. But, by coming on board with Wyden, Ryan has all but conceded his first proposal wasn’t politically acceptable. Democrats who said they would never alter the Medicare entitlement, an unrealistic promise in the face of the debt crisis, can't be happy a leading progressive has found a way to do it.

Democrats jumped all over Gingrich’s original rejection of the Ryan plan, when he called it “right wing social engineering.”

You have to believe they are now going to have a better time jumping on all those Republicans who voted for, or have unconditionally supported, that first Ryan plan now that that key parts of that idea have been abandoned by its author.

But that analysis focuses on the partisan politics that are sure to follow in this town.

I will suggest that this proposal represents something above all of that.

Who is the winner here?

Bipartisanship. This compromise carefully recognizes and balances important principles from both sides toward a solution to a major problem and I hope people who really want to fix things will appreciate that.

This is a good day for the country—and we haven’t had one in a while.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Super Committee Failure—What’s Next?

The stock market today was shocked, simply shocked, that the Super Committee didn’t come up with a debt deal.

I don’t know why. Republicans can’t vote for more taxes unless they're willing to get “primaried” from the right and risk losing their seat. Ditto for Democrats who would face the same punishment from their base if they voted to change the sacred defined benefit entitlements without at least getting tax concessions from the Republicans.

Obviously, neither side has a lot of statesmen in their ranks who would actually be willing to compromise.

In this hyper-partisan environment, where both parties are effectively in the control of their far left and far right bases, it is simply not possible for any meaningful bipartisan compromise.

Some time ago on this blog, I said that we wouldn’t get any meaningful effort to deal with the federal debt and entitlement challenge until there was a bond crisis—when investors would no longer be willing to lend to the U.S. government at reasonable rates without our first getting our unsustainable debt under control. Right now the U.S. government is borrowing about forty cents of every dollar it spends!

We are now watching just such a bond crisis force government into action. But it isn’t our government—it’s happening before our eyes in Europe.

Ironically, and it’s a huge irony, U.S. government bond prices continue to rise and interest rates continue to fall because as bad as our problems are, Europe looks worse. But with the latest American failure to govern, how long will that last? The flight to American “quality” that is propping up our deficit spending is as irrational and unsustainable as any of our other recent economic “bubbles.”

To fix the American debt crisis we will need to fix our entitlement problems. To do that, there will have to be major changes to the biggest entitlement driver—health care costs in Medicare, Medicaid, and even federal employee benefit costs.

As long as we have a divided government we are stalemated—not only over what to do with Medicare and Medicaid but over what we will eventually do about implementing the Affordable Care Act as well.

All of this will now effectively be on hold waiting for the results of the 2012 elections. If the outcome of those elections continues to be a divided government it is hard to see how we’ll have a solution even after 2012—short of an American bond crisis forcing things to change.

I can’t realistically see a Democratic sweep in the next election—that they recapture the House and hold the Senate and the White House.

But it is possible that Republicans will win all three. That would end the deadlock and likely mean the effective repeal of the Affordable Care Act (at least 51 votes in the Senate could gut it), as well as serious efforts toward the Republican “solution” to the entitlements and the under-age-65 health insurance market along the lines of the Ryan defined contribution proposals.

It is also possible that Obama could be reelected and have to face a Republican House and Senate—and even more political confrontation with a Republican Congress sending a Democratic President their health care and debt fixes. Maybe, after the election, both sides would be willing to deal. Maybe not, the current political environment that abhors compromise would have to change dramatically.

Layer on top of all of this the sharp cuts the defense and homeland security budget will now get because of the debt deal fallback provisions—defense will have to sustain $600 billion in cuts. I don’t consider myself a deficit hawk but it is hard to see how these defense cuts can be implemented. Combat forces are already at half of 1990 levels and the defense budget spending is already on its way to the lowest level as a percentage of GDP since 1940.

That the defense cuts are unsustainable likely means the Congress will find a way to reverse them and make the federal debt situation even worse than it is today.

This country is facing one of the greatest domestic political and economic challenges in its history—our debt level as a percentage of GDP is double what it was at the end of the Great Depression! The modern economic way of life we have become accustomed to is literally hanging in the balance. But our political institutions are now clearly unable to confront the problems. The 2012 elections could finally give one side or the other the ability to confront these issues in a way that is starkly different than the way the other guys would have. Or, the election could just give us another divided government still unable to deal with the growing crisis.

More stalemate would leave only one outcome I can foresee—a global U.S. bond crisis that would literally stop the federal government in its tracks and the entire American economy with it. Such a sobering crisis could well force political moderation and compromise—hopefully before it was too late.

The 2012 elections are a big deal. But it will likely take even more—lots of something we haven’t seen in a long while—statesmanship.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Romney Jumps on the Waiver Bandwagon--And Creates Even More Uncertainty Over the New Health Care Law

Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney has pledged to end “Obamacare.” Upon taking office, he would immediately begin the process by granting the states waivers from having to implement it:
“I’ll grant a waiver on Day One to get repeal started. On Day One, granting a waiver for all 50 states doesn’t stop it in its tracks entirely. That’s why I also say we have to repeal Obamacare, and I will do that on Day Two, with a reconciliation bill [requiring only 51 votes in the Senate] because as you know, it was passed by reconciliation with 51 votes.”
Romney appears to be on thin ground in making his waiver promise and his promise to use reconciliation to stop "Obamacare" could lead to chaos in the market and among consumers.

The waiver promised is based on a provision in the law authored by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). Wyden’s provision was designed to allow states to petition the feds to opt out of the new health care law by taking the federal money that was going to be spent in their state under the Affordable Care Act and draft a comprehensive plan of their own that covered at least as many people as well as the Affordable Care Act would have.

Here is the provision straight out of the Affordable Care Act:
"(1) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary may grant a request for a waiver [to a petitioning state]...only if the Secretary determines that the State plan...will provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as the coverage defined [by the new health law] and offered through Exchanges established under this title as certified by Office of the Actuary of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services based on sufficient data from the State and from comparable States about their experience with programs created by this Act and the provisions of this Act that would be waived; [that the state] will provide coverage and cost sharing protections against excessive out-of-pocket spending that are at least as affordable as the provisions of [the new health care law] would provide; [and] will provide coverage to at least a comparable number of its residents as the provisions of [the new health care law] would provide; and...will not increase the Federal deficit."
And, in any event, this waiver provision in the law will not take effect until 2017. How Romney could use this waiver provision to stop the law in its own tracks on its primary effective date of January 1, 2014 is not at all clear.

Romney is arguing that this language is written in a way that would give his Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary the ability to just grant a waiver to the states to skip most of the law!

For example, the Romney camp is suggesting that the requirement to provide coverage to a comparable number of people doesn’t refer to how many people are covered but instead allows them to interpret that as just making a comparable number of health insurance plans available in the market.

Say what?

It is possible that a Romney administration could try to delay implementation of critical parts of the law from the scheduled January 1, 2014 implementation date. With so much of the implementation of the law up in the air waiting for a Supreme Court ruling and the 2012 election results, it is not out of the question that there will have to be delays past 2014, no matter who is president.

But if Romney tried any delays intended to derail the law, I would have to believe that about every liberal and progressive group in America would instantly be in front of about every federal judge in the land—likely with success.

Romney has also argued that he would use the Senate budget reconciliation process to repeal the new health law, “on Day Two.” Presuming the Republicans continue to control the House, and have a simple majority in the Senate, as well as the White House, they can do lots of damage to the law with the 51 votes needed to pass a budget reconciliation bill. But a budget reconciliation bill would have to apply only to the budget-related elements of the new law—such as the premium subsidies. That procedure could also kill the individual mandate, Medicaid expansion, money for the insurance exchanges, and the employer mandate.

Key non-budget elements of the bill—such as the insurance underwriting reforms—would take 60 votes to repeal—a big stretch for the Republicans most likely to capture Senate seats in the low 50s. Even with a couple of Democratic defections, it would be very difficult to get to 60-votes for a full repeal.

So, Romney and Republican majorities could create a scenario where any budget items, like premium subsidies, would be stripped from the law. But non-budget items, like the insurance reforms granting coverage to all comers, would remain in effect. The impact of that kind of situation would be sizeable for the insurance risk pool where insurance companies would have to take all comers but have little growth in the number of people they would insure.

And, don’t look for Democrats to come to the rescue of the insurance industry in this kind of scenario. They would use every bargaining chip they had to try to preserve the law Romney has promised to kill.

In trying to keep his promise to kill the law, Romney could end up creating a chaotic environment driven by enormous uncertainty over just which parts of the new health care law would be implemented--for consumers, health care providers, and insurers.

Doesn’t that make you feel better?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Ryan Health Care Proposals—Not Your Congressman’s Health Plan

Update: The New Wyden-Ryan Plan - Paul Ryan and Ron Wyden Blow the Medicare Reform Debate Wide Open!

In a speech at the Hoover Institution today, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) argued again that his proposal to reform Medicare, and now his tax credit proposal for replacing the Democratic health care law for those under-age 65, would guarantee to citizens “options like the ones members of Congress enjoy.”

His proposals would not give people the guarantees members of Congress, and all other federal employees for that matter, now enjoy.

This is not a small point.

Previously on this blog, I have argued that many of the defined contribution reform proposals, Ryan’s included, should be faulted for putting all of the future risk of health care costs on beneficiaries.

Ryan’s Medicare plan would create a premium support system for seniors. The premium support amount would increase each year by the rate of basic inflation, even though health care costs have historically increased much faster. Seniors would then take this premium support payment to the market and buy their own private health insurance policy. Another recent Medicare reform proposal by the health care industry would increase a similar health care premium support payment each year by the rate of increase in the gross domestic product (GDP) +1%.

In both cases, neither insurers nor health care providers would have any of the risk, and therefore responsibility, for keeping costs under control. The entire burden for the adequacy of these premium support payments would be with the beneficiary. If health care costs rose faster than these premium supports, tied to these indexes that have always trailed health care inflation, too bad for the beneficiary. Any excess cost is borne by the individual.

Ryan and his colleagues would argue that this is just what we need to create—a market so robust we can finally begin to control costs. Beneficiaries struggling to make their health care dollars stretch would seek out those health insurance plans that really did control costs. From his speech at the Hoover Institution today:
“The growth of these [health care] defined contributions should be capped, to reduce the inefficiencies that have led health-care costs to spiral out of control.”
As I have said before, after more than 20 years of defined contribution health insurance experience in the market there is no evidence this will occur. The Ryan school of health care thought argues that, “By putting the power into the hands of individuals, we can let competition work in health care just as it does everywhere else.”

I am continually amazed at those who argue the health care market can work, as Ryan put it today, “as it does everywhere else.” They are right that the health care system is too much driven by third-party pay and its beneficiaries have historically had too little incentive to be prudent buyers. But the health care market is also a one driven by complex science, major and legitimate philosophical differences about treatment choices, and enormous supply-side powers.

In short, grandma, or you or me for that matter, is no match for the American health care system.

That aside, Ryan is wrong when he says his plan is just like the plan members of Congress have. These schemes to cap health care premium support are fundamentally different from the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan (FEHBP) that members of Congress enjoy.

From the federal employee handbook:
“The [federal employee health insurance] premiums for your enrollment are shared by you and your Federal agency or retirement system. The government pays the lesser of: 72% of the average total premium of all plans weighted by the number of enrollees in each, or 75% of the premium for the specific plan you choose.”
So, the federal government guarantees to Congressman Ryan, all of his Congressional colleagues, and all federal employees, that it will pay for at least 72% of the average cost of the health plans offered to and selected by federal workers—no matter how much the cost of the program rises over the years.

Ryan’s proposal would make no such guarantee.

I am not arguing that the federal government must guarantee that everyone should have 72% of his or her health care costs underwritten by the federal government year after year—or by anyone else for that matter. Nor am I arguing that defined contribution health care should not be part of any solution.

What I have consistently argued on this blog is that everyone—individuals, health care providers, and insurers—must all have some skin in the game in order for us to have the systemic change needed to finally reform our health care system.

The problem I have with the Ryan plan, and those plans similar to his, is that they give beneficiaries 100% of the risk and then just tell them to trust the market. If costs grow faster than the inflation indexes that underlie these premium supports, as they always have, tough luck.

For the Ryan plan to really be effective, and fair, he and the others proposing this kind of solution must put the same kind of responsibility on everyone else—particularly the most powerful in the health care system.

More, I will suggest that hospitals, doctors, drug companies, and insurers have the potential to affect the cost of health care far more than your grandmother will ever have.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Health Leadership Council Medicare Proposal: Too Much Responsibility on Beneficiaries and Not Enough on Providers

The Health Leadership Council (HLC), a coalition of CEOs from many of the leading health care companies, has created a list of Medicare reform recommendations for the Super Committee tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in budget savings.

As we begin the national debate over what to do about Medicare's unsustainable costs, I will suggest that the HLC proposal gives us one, of what will have to be many, outlines for discussion.

Their recommendations include:
  • Creating a new Medicare Exchange, beginning in 2018, where beneficiaries would have the choice of private Medicare plans as well as the traditional Medicare plan. The HLC proposal would be a defined contribution program much like the Republican Ryan plan but would differ from Paul Ryan’s in a couple of key ways. First, in the HLC proposal traditional Medicare would continue to be one of the options. Second, the annual increase in the beneficiary support premium would be more generous—the HLC is proposing an annual premium support increase equal to GDP plus 1%.
  • Gradually increasing the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67—starting in 2014.
  • Reforming Medicare’s cost sharing structure by increasing deductibles and co-pays as well as requiring high-income beneficiaries to pay the full cost of Medicare Part B.
  • Implementing medical liability reform including a cap on non-economic damages, a one-year statute of limitations, and a “fair share” provision that would limit damages commensurate with responsibility for the injury.
The HLC estimates that its recommendations would generate savings of $410 billion over ten years—about a third of what the Super Committee is charged with finding.

The HLC’s suggestions have merit but, I will suggest, make the same fundamental mistake the Republican adopted Paul Ryan proposal made: They put all the onus for Medicare savings on the beneficiary—not the providers and not the insurance companies.

No Medicare reform proposal can be enacted if it does not protect Medicare beneficiaries by assuring them that it can achieve affordable costs.

The HLC would create a Medicare premium support based upon the average cost of a Medicare plan—and then increase that by GDP+1% in each subsequent year. That makes sense—the beneficiary support starts where costs are at inception and then increases by a factor (GDP+1%), which is reasonable for beneficiaries and providers and sustainable for the country.

In fact, I will suggest, that any final Medicare reform proposal will likely contain a cap of GDP+1% both because it gives the country an affordable objective and because it preserves spending at current levels plus a reasonable rate of growth.

But the problem with the HLC proposal is just what risk and responsibility does it transfer to health care providers and insurers? If the government premium support isn’t enough, providers can just demand more from insurers, and insurers in turn can just make up the difference by increasing premiums for seniors. There is certainly some upward limit on what people can pay, but the tension will always be to shift costs to the beneficiary as costs escalated.

More, the system would almost certainly become even more tiered than it is today. The Medicare option could easily look more and more like Medicaid as those able to afford better coverage fled to the more expensive private plans and those unable to pay the free market increases would have no alternative but the Medicare fee-for-service plan that stayed viable by paying providers less—and as a result looked more and more like Medicaid.

The HLC’s suggestion to increase the eligibility age for Medicare beginning in 2014 is a non-starter. The Congress might end up increasing the Medicare eligibility age at some point. But it won’t be done for people nearing retirement age—who have done their retirement planning presuming an age-65 eligibility. The Super Committee must come up with savings in the 10-year budget window—and that is too soon for any Medicare eligibility age change.

There is also growing evidence that pushing back the retirement age simply shifts costs to the pre-retirement market at an even higher cost than what it costs for Medicare to cover these beneficiaries.

The HLC's means testing recommendations call for more cost sharing as a strategy to focus seniors attention on cost control. As a concept, this makes sense and could well be part of any final Super Committee plan--but it all depends upon the details.

The HLC’s tort reform ideas are far too incremental—they call for capping payments on what is a fundamentally flawed system. Why not fix the system rather than Band-Aid it? Proposals for health courts and no-fault resolution that emphasize data collection and quality improvement would have been more the kind of proposals I would have expected from the HLC.

The Health Leadership Council’s recommendations do create a structure that gives seniors more incentives to purchase the most efficient health plans, put a reasonable limit on what our country can spend on the Medicare entitlement, and recognize that more cost sharing, particularly for higher income beneficiaries, and a later eligibility age, will ultimately be part of the solution.

But just what are all the insurance companies and drug companies that are part of this group willing to do to put some of their “skin” in the game?

For those convinced that just putting the market in charge will control costs and produce affordable premiums, a recent post: Inconvenient Facts for Both Republicans and Democrats—Neither Side’s Health Care Proposals Are Supported By Past Performance

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Debt Super Committee—Will We Get a Deal?

It’s back to work in Washington, DC and all the attention is now on the Super Committee and their goal of cutting spending by at least $1.2 trillion over ten years.

If the committee fails to come up with a plan that passes the Congress, there would be $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts. The health care special interests have reason to hope they will fail—the fallback cuts would only impact Medicare providers in a small way—2% in provider cuts—and not directly impact beneficiaries or Medicaid generally. Any Super Committee deal would likely be more far reaching if for no other reason than to protect the defense budget from the huge cuts the fallback would require.

But the fallback would not solve any of the systemic problems the health care entitlements face and only prolong the inevitable day of fiscal reckoning.

Even a $1.2 trillion reduction—$2.1 trillion with the additional $915 billion reduction in discretionary spending that was part of the deal—is only a down payment on solving America’s fiscal woes—we face a $10 trillion budget shortfall over the next ten years.

Will the Super Committee succeed? That’s the big question in Washington.

Many believe it cannot succeed because all of the fundamental policy differences between conservatives and liberals remain while many in both parties think failure and taking the issues to the next election makes political sense.

Others worry that the fallback cuts to defense are so great that outcome has to be avoided and the committee just has to be serious about finding a solution. Add to that the political consequences of failure with voters, who watched the debt ceiling talks and are more disgusted than ever before. The latest polls say the voters are now looking to “throw the bums out” no matter which party they’re in if they don’t grow up and start solving problems.

With federal health care costs being the biggest deficit driver the Super Committee has another impossible challenge. No one wants to cut the Medicare benefits of current retirees or those who will retire in the near-term. But the Super Committee has only a ten-year budget window that it has to work within. How do you reduce Medicare spending between now and 2021 but not hurt a current retiree or someone whose plans for retirement assume Medicare benefits won't change?

My sense is that if we see another messy political stalemate in the Super Committee the next election will be about throwing the incumbents out—Democrat and Republican. I am hopeful both sides understand they need a deal, or the 2012 political consequences will be dire for anyone now holding a federal office.

But, as I said during last summer’s debt ceiling debate, just exactly how both sides, which have been so intransigent, can find a way to compromise isn’t clear to me.

One scenario for what could will happen suggests that the Super Committee will not be able to come to an agreement, the $1.2 trillion fallback trigger's automatic cuts would take effect, and the impact of that trigger, primarily on defense, would be so bad that the Congress would be forced to revisit the entire deal in 2013––after the election. Think of the annual Medicare physician Sustainable Growth Rate fiasco but every year for the whole budget until a consensus in the country can develop about how to permanently fix this.

But more failure at reaching a deal will only make the voters more mad then they already are--if that is possible.

Some have suggested the real solution is to "go big"--agree to a real longer-term solution that begins the process of entitlement reform that is inevitable. While "going big" is arguably the right thing to do it would also mean a "great compromise." Something both the far left and the far right would find anathema in this hyper-charged 2012 election environment. A grand compromise would likely mean more taxes and deep entitlement cuts--something that members of Congress aren't likely to do for fear of retribution from their respective base with the primary season just months away. Can you imagine what the Tea Party would do during primary season to any Republican who voted for a tax increase? Or, what the left would do to a liberal that "sold out" the entitlements?

Another scenario, suggested by a report last May from the Committee for a Responsible Government, details almost $1 trillion in a wide variety of smaller scale common ground budget cuts already proposed by both Republicans and Democrats. This list illustrates that there might be a means to eek out $1.2 trillion in savings and avoid having to deal with the most controversial ideas--tax increases and at least far reaching entitlement reform.

The Super Committee has an almost impossible job in front of them. Any "go big" and systemic solutions I can think of would appear to be politically impossible. Maybe they can kick the can down the road one more time. Maybe not.

What a mess.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rethinking the Value of Medical Services

by Brian Klepper and David Kibbe

One of American politics’ most disingenuous conceits is that health care must cost what we currently pay. Another is that the only way to make it cost less is to deny care. It has been in industry executives’ financial interests to perpetuate these myths, but most will acknowledge privately that the way we value and pay for medical services is a deep root of America’s health care cost explosion.

When the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale (RBRVS) became the framework for Medicare payment nearly twenty years ago, it equated a medical service’s “value” with four categories of physician work inputs: time, mental effort and judgment, technical skill and physical effort, and psychological stress. The assessment process, handled from the outset by the American Medical Association’s (AMA) secretive, specialist-dominated Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), delineates and quantifies a service’s inputs in terms of its Relative Value Units (RVUs) which, with a monetary multiplier, define its worth.

In 1989, RBRVS’ lead architect, William Hsaio, confidently suggested that the process would be rational and reliable:
We found that physicians can rate the relative amount of work of the services within their specialty directly, taking into account all the dimensions of work. Moreover, these ratings are highly reproducible, consistent, and therefore probably valid.
But Dr. Hsaio did not anticipate that special interests would capture the process and manipulate it to financial advantage. Twenty years after RBRVS was adopted, “mental effort and judgment” has been hijacked to favor specialist physicians and hospitals, primary care has been stifled, and the relative value system has become a study in caprice and distortion.

Getting Values Wrong

The resulting inconsistencies in how we value services are breathtaking. For an unexceptional example, compare the reimbursements for a moderately complex primary care office visit for an established patient (CPT 99214) with an ophthalmologist’s 10-15 minute cataract extraction with implantation of an intra-ocular lens.

A primary care office visit can be classified as a 99214 if it requires 25 minutes of face time and has two of three components: a detailed history, a detailed examination or medical decision-making of moderate complexity.

Keep in mind that, in primary care, new signs and symptoms must be weighed against the whole of medicine. Is a persistent cough a bronchial infection, tuberculosis, lung cancer or something else? The variation across patients is staggering as well. Primary care doctors typically see conditions ranging from sprains and hernias to infectious diseases and vascular ailments, and must be a specialist in dealing with this complexity. In 2011, Medicare pays $111.36 for a 99214.

By contrast, specialist physicians in many disciplines face less patient variation, at least compared to primary care doctors’ experience, but their work may have more “wow.” Cataract removal, a 50 year old procedure that has been highly refined and automated, immediately improves sight, a dramatic impact. Many ophthalmologists operate “focused factories,” processing an assembly line of 20 or more cataract patients. With pre-screened patients and a controlled clinical environment, the risks are relatively predictable, the mental demands limited and the work repetitive. For cataract extraction, Medicare currently reimburses the ophthalmologist $697.12, and requires a $139.24 patient co-payment, for a total of $836.36.

In other words, relying on the RUC’s assessment using RBRVS, Medicare values the ophthalmologist’s work 7.5 times more than the primary care specialist’s. The valuation assumes that the complexity and skill required in the two encounters are heavily weighted toward the ophthalmologist, though it could be reasonably argued that the mental effort, judgment and skill required by the primary care doctor are greater.

But there is a more serious flaw in the approach. RBRVS bases value on the demands of physician work, but ignores the actual benefit to the patient or society. It doesn’t consider whether the service followed evidence-based guidelines (and whether it was appropriate or even necessary) or whether the hoped for health outcome was achieved.

We need both primary care specialists and procedural specialists. The policy questions are whether one should be valued at so much more than the other, and whether we need more procedural specialists than primary care doctors, or the opposite as other developed nations have settled on. The way we pay for services should reflect our decisions. But also, we need a payment approach that is fair, consistent, transparent and more congruent with modern notions of value.

The flaws in our medical services valuation and payment system create incentives for unnecessary and unnecessarily complex services that expose patients to gratuitous risk (and sometimes, harm), and that artificially increase cost for purchasers. This one mechanism is largely responsible for taking the health care industry and the larger economy to the edge of an economic precipice.

What Should CMS Do Now?

Against the intensifying national economic crisis, CMS could immediately and substantially reduce unnecessary cost by revamping this system. It should aggressively identify and reassess over-valued specialty services, while re-valuing primary care. Equally important, the definition of value must be broadened beyond physician work inputs to quantitative measures of impact, efficacy and efficiency, using the plentiful evidence now available in both clinical encounter and financial claims data.

Adjusting the current approach to payment will be opposed by procedural specialists and powerful health care interests that have fed for decades off the specialty-based largess. But ultimately, it would serve their interests and those of the American people by stabilizing a system wildly out of control.

Klepper and Kibbe have been frequent contributors to this blog

Brian Klepper, PhD is a health care analyst, consultant and commentator. He is Managing Principal of Healthcare Performance Inc., a business development practice based in Atlantic Beach, FL, and Chief Development Officer for WeCare TLC, LLC, an onsite clinic firm based in Longwood, FL.

David C. Kibbe, MD, MBA is well known as an innovator and independent thought leader in the fields of primary care EHR technology and consumer health IT in the United States. HIs writings have had a strong influence on the "modular approach" to EHRs, and to the development of Clinical Groupware. A co-developer of the ASTM Continuity of Care Record standard, or CCR, that utilizes XML for computable health information exchange, he is an experienced clinician who practiced medicine in private and academic settings for more than 15 years. Dr. Kibbe has taught informatics at the School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and founded two health care IT companies.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Debt Deal: There Will Be Blood on the Floor on November 23rd

The debt deal is finally done. But it really isn’t an agreement on what cuts will be made, just the process that will be used to make them.

The real work is left to the Congressional appropriators for the first $917 billion and for a super-committee of Congress for the second $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in ten-year cuts.

That second tranche is where health care will make its contribution. The super-committee has to make its decisions by November 23rd and, as a practical matter, the Congress can only accept what the super-committee decides or face the consequences of the automatic $1.2 trillion fallback cuts.

When it comes to health care and the super-committee, all federal health care spending is on the table—–Medicare, Medicaid, the new law, benefits, and provider payments.

Since the budget window for the deal is ten years, it is not likely that any changes will be made to entitlement eligibility—such as delaying the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67. It just wouldn’t be fair to tell a 60-year-old their Medicare eligibility age is being raised. But we could see more means testing of Medicare premiums.

It is possible that the super-committee could deal with real systemic health care reform—–particularly in the way we pay providers. But I doubt it. The committee isn’t going to have a lot of time to take up so complex a matter as systemic health care payment reform given that they will have to deal with hundreds of billions more in cuts from lots of federal programs. I don’t see the committee as having the expertise, will, or the time to tackle real health care reform.

The real potential for cuts will be to provider reimbursement.

So, all of those provider organizations that thought they scored big by limiting their contribution during the health care reform debate are likely be on the defensive in ways they could not have imagined 18 months ago.

Physicians, facing a 29.5% Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) fee schedule cut on January 1, 2012, need to be really worried. That 29.5% cut is part of the existing budget baseline from which the super-committee needs to cut hundreds of billions more—much less find tens of billions of dollars to put these doc cuts off again. Hospitals who got off with a $150 billion contribution to the Affordable Care Act have to be in the bull’s eye this time. Drug companies are a particularly juicy target for liberals who don’t like them and conservatives who wish the Part D program had never been passed. Medicare Advantage insurers have recently been reporting record profits—not something you want to be doing when the Congress is looking for lots of cash.

While there is a 2% cap on any cuts that could occur to Medicare in the $1.2 trillion default trigger, there are no limits to what the super-committee can cut. As an order of magnitude, it looks to me like the cuts Medicare will have to eventually sustain from the super-committee will have to approach to the cuts the program saw under the new health care law--largely because of the impact the SGR formula has on the baseline the committee will have to use.

Medigap insurers could also be at risk. A proposal to reduce first dollar Medigap coverage continues to hang-on and would likely at least be on the super-committee’s table. Its $50 billion value is just too big to ignore. But that is offset by how unpopular such direct cuts to millions of Medigap policyholders would be.

I would not be surprised to see the super-committee take a hard look at reducing Medicaid spending by giving the states more flexibility and less money.

The debt ceiling formula the Congress and the President just agreed to is a particular problem for the physicians. They are the ones who agreed to support the new health care law (the AMA anyway) without getting a fix to the Sustainable Growth Rate dilemma. Now, the debt deal seals the physician fee baseline at a level that presumes the 29.5% fee cuts are in effect. It is from this point that the super-committee has to start its work.

Given how reluctant Congress has been to cut the docs in past years, just how the heck are they going to accomplish net Medicare cuts and take care of the docs this time?

And just think of the impact big provider cuts could end up having on health care cost trends as providers attempt to shift the impact of these cuts to the entire health care system--just as health care cost trend has finally been slowing down.

If you thought we had a tense few weeks over the debt ceiling, you had better clear your calendar for the weeks leading up to the November 23rd super-committee deadline. The debt deal was only about process, this next big fight is going to be about real and significant cuts and there will be be some significant blood on the floor when it is over!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

We Are Reaping What We Have Sown—The Debt Standoff

On this blog a month ago, I said the politicians were starting to scare me with the apparent eagerness of some to actually take the government to default to make a political point.

For weeks we have heard political leaders on both sides tell us there would be no default.

But the two sides have so backed themselves into opposite corners that they have left no opportunity to meet in the middle. Democrats say they have to have a tax increase, or failing that no cuts to entitlements. Republicans say absolutely no tax increases and they need to see entitlement cuts.

This only gets fixed if somebody capitulates. The consequences for any side doing that might be the loss of their own base going forward.

There isn’t any middle ground here because there is no middle ground left in Washington, DC. The last few elections have seen the replacement of “moderates” by evermore far right or far left senators and representatives. This process has only been exacerbated by the gerrymandering of Congressional districts to ensure they were safe for either side but at the same time leading to their coming under the control of party activists pushing their representatives either far left or far right. It also hasn't helped that each side is so certain of their cause and only has to dial their favorite channel to be assured of that.

Yet, ironically, the last three elections have been decided by where independent voters have gone—not by the far left or the far right.

Obama and his leadership can’t afford to offend their base and Boehner and McConnell can’t afford to offend theirs. Boehner’s biggest problem right now is not Nancy Pelosi, it is his Tea Party wing that, as of this writing, is so far denying him the votes he needs for his debt limit proposal. Already, a few of the Tea Party folks are whispering that they need to get rid of Boehner because of his latest debt proposal.

Both sides also believe a standoff helps them in the next election. I don’t think it helps anybody. My sense is that the first Wednesday of November 2012 neither side will have the votes to unilaterally drive their agenda through.

Many on both sides have recently argued that compromise is what has gotten us into our fiscal problems (and that might be right) and that compromise is now the wrong thing to do. But it will be impossible for either side to "fix" things their way unless they come to dominate the Congress and capture the executive branch--something that is mighty hard to do in the American political system.

The fact is no progress can be made in a divided government without compromise.

But leaders on both sides are all confidently telling us a debt limit deal will get done.

I will tell you that all over corporate America companies are thinking through their liquid cash positions and getting any borrowing done before August 2nd.

I suggest you also be ready just in case.

It looks like we are on the way to reaping what we have sown--not just this month but for some time to come until both sides finally come to the conclusion they will have to work together.

Earlier post: The Debt Ceiling Debate—Some of These People Are Nuts

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Awful Dichotomy Between Health Care Politics and Policy

Amy Goldstein has an important article in today’s Washington Post detailing the place Don Berwick, the Medicare and Medicaid administrator, finds himself in.

It is all but certain he will have to leave his post at year’s end, when his recess appointment expires, because the Senate will not confirm him for a lack of Republican support.

Berwick is one of the most respected health care experts in the country—his career has been dedicated to improving quality first and with that the cost of care. With the new law giving his agency more opportunities to experiment with new approaches and the ability to more quickly implement the things that work, he was the ideal choice.

But with the Democrats ramming the law through without a political consensus to support it, Berwick also became the political whipping boy for opponents to pile on. That he has been willing to point to the things that work in places like Britain only gave the political opportunists plenty of red meat to throw into an already red hot ideological debate.

In my mind, the great frustration in health care is that we really aren’t so far away from being able to make the system far better than it is—in both its quality and its cost. To test and perfect the best ideas we need to be willing to try new things—many of which won’t work but can form the basis of finding out what does work.

His proposed Accountable Care Organization (ACO) rules were a disaster and he should have known better. But there is also no reason why that failure can’t lead to a better outcome—if finding the right answer is what we are all ultimately interested in.

But, particularly in this red hot political environment made more red hot by one side always more willing to jam their ideas down the other side’s throat—whether that be a new health care law or a debt ceiling solution—people like Berwick get caught up in the bigger political fight.

My sense is that a Republican President, as much as a Democratic one, could have as easily appointed Don Berwick CMS administrator.

People say Don Berwick’s failing is that he is a “political neophyte.” It is the reality that once you get to Washington having the right answer isn’t enough—you have to be able to get it through the system. What does it say about Washington when a first class expert speaking what he sees in good faith as “truth” is seen to be naïve and can be quickly dismissed for “having a record on rationing care?”

But Don Berwick never had a chance in an environment where trying to find the right answers takes a back seat to scoring political points.

With health care costs and the nation’s debt crisis now coming to a place where change is unavoidable, we can’t afford this toxic take no prisoners political environment much longer.

In fact, August 2nd might be the day it all comes home to roost.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Debt Ceiling Debate—Some of These People Are Nuts

I don’t know about you but the politicians are starting to scare me with their inability to make progress in the federal debt limit discussions. Worse, is the apparent eagerness of some to actually take the government to default to make a political point.

I know a lot of conservatives say missing the August 2 deadline isn’t a big deal but I think it is.

The 2011 deficit is projected to be $1.6 trillion, or about $133 billion a month.

Said another way, the 2011 federal budget is $3.8 trillion. But federal revenues are only about $2.2 trillion—a gap of $1.6 trillion.

That means that 40 cents of every dollar the U.S. government spends in 2011 has to be borrowed!

We have hit the $14 trillion cap on federal borrowing. If it isn’t raised by about August 2, the federal government can’t borrow anymore and it will have only 60% of the money it needs to continue to function.

Most of the press reports have put the failure to be able to borrow more in the context of not being able to redeem the debt coming due and spooking the financial markets. That is a big deal.

But another big deal here is that the Treasury would have only 60% of the money it needs to pay the bills. This isn’t simply a matter of paying higher interest to rollover old debt--the feds couldn't issue the new debt they would need for the current month's deficit. Without raising the debt limit, the government would not be able to borrow the money it needs to fund the monthly budget shortfall of about $133 billion—40 cents of every dollar it needs to spend in 2011.

The good news is that the 60 cents on the dollar the federal government would have from its revenue stream could pay for things like Social Security benefits and keep funding the troops in the field.

But, who wouldn’t get paid because the federal government would have to immediately cut the budget by 40%? Might the government suspend payments to hospitals and doctors and to Medicare Advantage insurers?

In an instant, federal spending would decrease by 40%--leaving lots of bills unpaid. In turn, those who didn’t get paid couldn’t pay their bills. This would cascade through the economy like an economic tsunami in short order. Can you imagine the impact on a hospital that gets half of its revenue from Medicare and Medicaid if its government payments were frozen? Or, the impact on a health plan that is heavily invested in the Medicare Advantage business? A health plan could become technically insolvent and under state control in a matter of a few weeks.

There are lots of people in Washington that seem to be either eager to make a political point at the real risk of precipitating an incredible financial crisis or they are playing a very cynical game of chicken.

People wouldn't be so foolish to let this get to such a place? Hey, the Dodgers declared bankruptcy today!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Inconvenient Facts for Both Republicans and Democrats—Neither Side’s Health Care Proposals Are Supported By Past Performance

I call your attention to Ezra Klein’s column in the Washington Post this morning.

In it he cites data that has been out there for a long time but Ezra puts some perspective on it that never occurred to me before.

Examining the Kaiser Family Foundation brief, “Health Care Spending in the United States and Selected OECD Countries” he points out, “Our government spends more [as a percentage of GDP] on health care than the governments of Japan, Australia, Norway, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Canada, or Switzerland.”

The data would seem to indicate that even our single payer government-run American health care programs, Medicare and Medicaid, cost way more than similar health plans in these nations.

The argument is often made that we should adopt a single payer—or perhaps a “public option”—health plan in the United States in order to control costs and cover everyone. But it would appear that even those programs in America are way too expensive when compared to similar programs in other industrialized nations.

As for the Republican market-based approach, Klein also points out that those programs have been ineffective at cost control. House Republican Paul Ryan often cites the Medicare Part D drug benefit as proof his proposals to privatize Medicare would work better than what we have. But as Klein points out, Part D premiums have risen 57% since 2006 and the program is on track to see nearly 10% growth in annual costs over the next decade.

And, the existing private Medicare Advantage program “ended up costing about 120% of what Medicare costs.” That’s a new data point for me. However, I do know that Medicare Advantage insurers in recent years have been paid at least 13% more than traditional Medicare.

My takeaway from all of this is that neither side has the answer to bringing America’s health care costs under control.

Liberals think that a single payer, or at least a “public option,” is the best hope and point to Europe and Canada as proof of that. But, as a percentage of GDP, the cost of our already government run health care plans rivals many of those nations' entire government spending on health care.

Republicans argue we need to move entirely toward market-based solutions. But with two big market-based Medicare programs already operating, neither Part D nor Medicare Advantage has come close to demonstrating affordable cost growth.

But both Republicans and Democrats do have something in common—each is offering supposedly painless solutions. For the liberals, just put the government in charge and we will magically have affordable health care for everyone. For the conservatives, just put the market in charge and we will have a solution.

Painless solutions might be politically attractive, but the data indicates they will not get the job done.

Recent post: What It Will Take to Bring America’s Health Care Costs Under Control––We Have to Change the Game

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Earth to Republicans: You Are In Big Political Trouble Over the Ryan Medicare Plan

Update: The Wyden-Ryan Medicare Plan - Paul Ryan and Ron Wyden Blow the Medicare Reform Debate Wide Open!

It should now be clear to Republicans they are in trouble over the Ryan Medicare plan.

Yesterday, they lost a seat in a solid Republican New York House district. Their candidate had benefited from lots of money and House leadership attention. The big issue was the Ryan Medicare plan.

All month, Republican Presidential candidates have been walking a tightrope over the Ryan plan--don't embrace it but don't criticize it either for fear of offending the base who will drive the primary outcomes next year. You only had to watch the Gingrich implosion to see what happens if you fall off that tightrope.

Next the Senate will take up the Ryan budget. Senate Democrats can’t wait for a vote on it and are making the Ryan Medicare plan the central issue. Already, at least three Senate Republicans have said they will not vote for the House budget over the Medicare issue. Leader McConnell, sensitive to its political vulnerability, has told Senators they are free to vote their conscience on this one.

Apparently, Republicans don’t understand that they didn’t win the 2010 elections so much as the Democrats lost them. Their fixation on appeasing the right wing of their party misses the critical point that it is independent voters who make the difference in winning or losing an election.

In 2006 and 2008, independents went Democratic. In 2010, they abandoned the Democrats for the Republicans out of concerns for where the Dems were taking the county—not the least over health care.

But an apparent arrogance among Republicans that their 2010 victory was more about them than a rejection of the Democrats quickly led the House to pass Ryan’s budget and Medicare plan with all but four Republican votes. They seemingly never considered the possibility that dismantling Medicare, as we know it, needed to be pre-sold to voters. Now, those House Republicans are hanging out on one giant limb the Democrats can’t wait to cut off in the next election.

That House vote has put Republican presidential candidates and Republican Senators in a really tough spot: Keep independent swing voters happy by backing way from the Ryan plan but offend the Republican base, or support the Ryan plan by giving those House members now out on that limb political cover for their ill considered vote and suffer their own longer-term political consequences?

Ryan’s Medicare plan has been called courageous and farsighted. It may be more foolish and hardly good policy.

Readers of this blog know of my criticisms of the Affordable Care Act particularly over its lack of cost containment—the fundamental health care issue we face.

Ryan’s Medicare plan is poor politics and it is poor policy.

It is poor politics because it is nothing but a cost shift strategy. It is poor policy because it is nothing but a cost shift strategy.

It is hardly courageous. Apparently Republicans have no more courage to face the cost issue—and the politically powerful provider community—than Democrats do.

Now, for those of you ready to criticize these comments for my “lack of understanding of defined contribution health care policy,” please read this first: Defined Contribution Health Care—The Conservatives' Silver Bullit

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Lightweight Romney Health Plan

Mitt Romney has outlined his new health plan. He outlined five key steps in an op-ed in USAToday. Here is a summary:
Step 1: Give states the responsibility, flexibility and resources to care for citizens who are poor, uninsured or chronically ill.who are poor, uninsured or chronically ill.

Step 2: Reform the tax code to promote the individual ownership of health insurance.

Step 3: Focus federal regulation of health care on making markets work…For example, individuals who are continuously covered for a specified period of time may not be denied access to insurance because of pre-existing conditions. And individuals should be allowed to purchase insurance across state lines, free from costly state benefit requirements. Finally, individuals and small businesses should be allowed to form purchasing pools to lower insurance costs and improve choice.

Step 4: Reform medical liability. We should cap non-economic damages in medical malpractice litigation.

Step 5: Make health care more like a consumer market and less like a government program. This can be done by strengthening health savings accounts that help consumers save for health expenses and choose cost-effective insurance.

It looks to me like his health care outline is more intended to make conservative Republicans happy then to really propose ways to reform America’s health care system.

There isn’t one new idea here and it all comes straight from the 2010 Republican campaign playbook.

I have a number of questions:
  1. We all seem to agree that the biggest problem is the cost, and therefore the affordability, of health care. Where’s the cost containment in his plan?
  2. He talks about giving states the “resources” to take care of the uninsured and the poor. Just what resources, how much money, and where will that money come from?
  3. He wants to reform the tax code to permit individual ownership of insurance. But the real premium support most working Americans get is from their employer. When an employer provides health insurance it does so by paying an average of 70% of the cost–worth about $9,000 for family health insurance today. The health insurance tax benefit is worth perhaps 20% of that cost for most workers. How does Romney intend to make an individual system as effective in supporting the purchase of health care? How much support is he willing to provide and where will the money come from?
  4. He proposes guaranteeing insurability for those who are continuously covered. But to be continuously covered, an individual has to be able to afford the insurance. How will he assure consumers not just have access to insurance but also affordability?
  5. He proposes allowing people to purchase insurance across state lines so that they have access to lower cost insurance. Just which state has low cost and affordable health insurance?
  6. He proposes that individuals and small business be able to form purchasing pools to lower costs and improve choice. Presumably, the only difference from these pools and those now offered by insurance companies are that his pools would be exempt from state benefit mandates. How would he protect the existing small group and individual markets from “cherry picking” as the healthy would be enticed to leave the existing state-regulated pools while the sick remained where they could get more comprehensive coverage?
  7. He proposes medical malpractice reform. Experts generally believe the kind of reform he is proposing would lower the country’s health care bill by about $60 billion a year. However, that is only about 3% of our annual costs. What other cost containment proposals does he have?
  8. He says that his market reforms, such as expanding Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), will drive down costs. HSAs, in various forms, have been around for 20 years–since 2004 in their present form. Yet the free market has only embraced HSAs as a very small part of the system—about 10% of the market. Why does he believe the tinkering with their plan design he is proposing will quickly make them a significant part of the market or make them more affordable?
  9. What about Medicare? The Romney op-ed in USAToday doesn’t even contain the word, Medicare. His speech in Michigan today only made a passing reference to the Ryan Medicare plan, while promising a plan of his own in the future.
  10. What about Medicaid? He briefly mentions block grants for the states. But how much money would he give the states compared to what they have now?
It looks to me like Romney’s newest health care plan is more about embracing the conservative Republican “free market” campaign talking points list of aging health care ideas in order to prove his bona fides in the primary states, more than it is a serious health care reform proposal.

I doubt even the “Tea Party” Republicans, it is meant to please, will buy it.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Neither the Republicans Nor the Democrats Want to Face the Provider Cost Problem But Both Want to Dump the Problem on the Consumer

A key piece of Paul Ryan’s deficit reduction plan is to change Medicare as we know it. It appears his bold Medicare premium support proposal is failing to gain traction--it is dead as part of any deficit reduction deal this year. Worse, his Medicare proposal looks to be giving Democrats lots of political ammunition for the 2012 elections.

What lies at the heart of Ryan’s Medicare difficulties is that he would all but abandon future seniors (those now under age-55) to a health care system whose age-adjusted premium support would increase each year only at a rate equal to the increase in the consumer price index while their health care costs would likely continue to increase far faster.

Simply, Ryan just shifts the future burden of uncontrolled Medicare health care costs from the federal government to the senior. That will solve a big part of our federal deficit problem but hardly help people.

Yes, he offers a defined contribution health care solution with the promise of invigorating the markets and making costs lower. But we have had a form of Medicare premium support and private competition for years (Medicare Advantage) and there isn’t a lot of evidence the market can get the cost control job done on its own. (See: Defined Contribution Health Care—The Conservatives' Silver Bullet)

The Democrats have had a field day scaring people over the Ryan proposal because, quite frankly, the Ryan plan gives them a lot of legitimate ability to do so. I guess the definition of a terrible policy proposal is one your opponents can successfully attack without having to mislead people.

But Ryan isn’t the only one guilty of trying to put consumers into a health care system that limits federal spending by shifting the excess cost burden from the government to the consumer.

I call your attention to Jim Capretta’s recent column at Kaiser Health News. Here is a key paragraph:
Ryan's critics have focused particular attention on his plan's indexation of the Medicare "premium support credits" to the CPI in the years after 2022, suggesting that this idea is somehow beyond the pale. But this is sheer hypocrisy on their part because the indexing of government-financed premium credits below cost growth is in the president’' plan too, and yet not a complaint has been heard about that from its advocates. That's right. After 2018, if the aggregate governmental cost of premium credits and cost-sharing subsidies provided in the state-run exchanges exceeds about 0.5 percent of GDP (a condition that the Congressional Budget Office says will be met), the recently-enacted health law requires the government's per capita contribution to health plan premiums in the exchanges to rise more slowly than premiums. The administration actuaries interpret the law to mean that the government's contributions toward coverage will rise with GDP growth after 2018. CBO appears to have a different interpretation. Still, under all interpretations and projections, it's clear that the exchange credits in the new law will not keep pace with expectations of rising health costs. And that's exactly what the president is now saying is so wrong with Ryan's Medicare plan.
In fairness, Capretta also makes the broader point that he believes the Ryan plan would create the rigorous competition Medicare needs to control costs.

But in my mind, the real issue here is that both Ryan and the Democrats have made the same mistake.

Both are mostly avoiding the fundamental health care problem in the first place—chronic escalation in costs much higher than either GDP growth or the consumer price index. Neither side has offered a bold plan designed to change the current fee-for-service provider payment incentives that just keep fueling these unaffordable costs. Neither side seems either willing or capable of taking on the provider.

But both are willing to control future federal spending by dumping the excess health care cost problem on the consumer.

I don’t think we are going to have a real health care debate in this country until the voter/consumer/patient comes to understand the long-term threat they face from health care costs that show no sign of abating and they demand that the politicians aim for a solution not on their backs but on the backs of the people sending them these bills.

Recent post: What It Will Take to Bring America’s Health Care Costs Under Control––We Have to Change the Game

Sunday, April 24, 2011

There Aren't Enough Rich People To Pay For Medicare And Medicaid!

I hear more and more of my progressive friends arguing, in the context of deficit reduction, that we should be raising taxes before getting aggressive about reducing the cost of Medicare and Medicaid -- as well as Social Security.

To a point, I agree.

This country is in such a hole that it is senseless to deny that at least some new taxes will be needed to pay for all of the nation's bailouts and accumulated debts.

For instance, progressives would like to end the $1 trillion cost over ten years of the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year.

I also believe that ending those tax cuts is necessary.

But if you're looking to better understand the budget policy choices we face, I highly recommend the March 2011 Congressional Budget Office study, "Reducing the Deficit: Spending and Revenue Options." The CBO prices out about all of the budget options.

Here's a chart from that study:

It says that federal revenue, as a percentage of gross domestic product , has averaged 18 percent since the 1970s -- a level that sustained both economic growth and a big government pretty well. At least, until entitlement costs, for which health care is one of the main drivers, started to skyrocket.

If you believe that it is appropriate to pay what we now pay for health care in this country, then yes, we will need lots more taxes. But, on the other hand, why would you raise taxes to pay for something everybody says has a cost that is unnecessarily sky-high? Wouldn't the solution be to fix the cost problem?

Raising taxes is not going to solve the problem of out-of-control entitlement costs. Even huge tax increases on the rich won't get the job done.

After the 1990s combination of the hot economy and President Bill Clinton’s tax increase, federal revenue as a percentage of GDP rose to about 21 percent -- high by historic standards. Then the policies of President George W. Bush came along and dropped that share to about 16 percent -- low by historic standards, and arguably either boosting the economy or helping to create the economic bubble and big deficits. The Great Recession then further pushed federal revenue to a modern-era low -- about 15 percent.

According to the CBO, federal revenue will again rise to the Clinton-era level of about 21 percent of GDP -- but that is when the two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts expires for everybody.

Looks to me like those who argue the Clinton-era taxes were too high are right. Looks to me like those who argue the Bush-era tax cuts are unsustainable are right. Looks to me like those who argue that our current deficit is partly driven by lower revenue because of the recession are right.

To keep federal revenue at the apparently reasonable historic level of about 18 percent of GDP, we probably do have to give back at least some of those Bush tax cuts -- but it should not be necessary to end the Bush reductions that benefitted the middle class. And, we should also expect that some part of this revenue shortfall would be solved when the economy gets back on track.

If all of these steps were taken, it appears that we would be on the way to striking the right balance.

But, for those who think the deficit problem can be solved by just taxing the rich, let me point out another piece of startling information backed up by the CBO's study of policy choices. Replacing the 10-year, $1 trillion Bush tax cut for those people making more than $250,000 a year with a combination of lower income and capital gains taxes would still be worth $1 trillion! As the CBO options paper points out, that works out to an average of about $100 billion a year during each of the next 10 years.

That is a lot of money -- but not compared to the 2011 deficit that is estimated to be $1.6 trillion. Or the many $1 trillion deficits still to come.

Even if we were to raise the top rate to 45 precent for people making at least $1 million a year, and 49 percent on incomes of $1 billion, we would raise only $900 billion over the next decade, according to Citizens for Tax Justice -- again only a small part of the projected deficits.

So, raising taxes on rich people, by itself, hardly makes a dent.

What is making a dent -- really a fiscal train wreck -- is the out-of-control cost of our entitlements, particularly the health care entitlements.

Here is another chart based upon CBO numbers (that appeared in the recent Ryan Budget proposal:

This chart shows the impact the entitlements -- particularly Medicare -- will have on the federal budget if federal revenue were to hold at the historic level of about 18 percent of GDP. Anything above the black line is a deficit.

Now, remember, this is just entitlement spending. The rest of the federal budget -- interest on the debt, defense spending and every other department and agency would have to get loaded on top of this mountain!

Folks, we can't tax our way out of this mess.

There aren't enough rich people to do it.

This column first appeared at Kaiser Health News.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Budget Fight: It Will Be A Long Hot Summer, and Fall, and Winter…

The good news is that Democrats and Republicans are finally seriously engaged over the country’s fiscal crisis.

And, each side is presenting a starkly different course for the voters to choose from.

When it comes to the health care entitlements, Republicans want to cut the health care entitlement benefits and therefore ease the pressure on federal spending.

Obama wants to largely leave the programs in place and raise taxes--about $1 in tax increases for $2 every dollars in cuts.

Neither touches Social Security. Obama wants to make cuts to the Pentagon's budget—the Republicans don't.

The solution Republican House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) has presented for controlling Medicare and Medicaid costs is almost entirely a cost shift strategy. While I would agree that means testing and defined contribution approaches to making health care consumers more cost conscious should be part of the solution, this is about all Ryan is proposing.

I worry that Ryan and the Republicans are just sticking future seniors with the problem—uncontrolled health care costs—without doing anywhere near enough to create a more cost effective health insurance and delivery system for them to have a chance of finding affordable health care.

I worry less about the Republican proposal to block grant Medicaid payments to the states. While this is just another cost shift strategy that limits federal spending at the expense of the states, at least the states have the ability (and then the incentive) to implement Medicaid cost containment policies--state by state--that give them the chance of actually reducing costs and delivering affordable care. States also have to balance their budgets every year--a real incentive the feds don't have!

The President said all of the right things about health care in his budget and debt speech yesterday. But this President has been saying the right things, while telling us we can’t kick the entitlement can down the road any longer, since he took office. And, then he just kicks the entitlement can down the road.

The only promising health care proposal I heard from the President yesterday was his proposal to strengthen the Medicare Cost Board (the IPAB), which the Affordability Act created last year. But even that was far more tepid a proposal than it needs to be. He would only sharpen the trigger—invoking the Board if spending began to exceed GDP growth by one-half a percent rather than the current one percent. What he really needed to do was expand the breadth of its powers, to include things like the benefit structure, and to get it working sooner—it now can’t impact health care spending before 2015—2020 for hospitals.

Neither the Republicans nor the President have done anything near enough in their proposals to counter the chronic unsustainable rise in health care spending that is just going to continue without systemic change to the way providers and insurers are paid.

Republicans pretty much just shift costs to seniors and the states. Obama pretty much just shifts the costs of these unaffordable programs to the “rich” through bigger taxes.

I doubt Ryan's Medicare cost shift strategy has much of a chance politically. The President will have all he can do to keep both Democrats and Republicans, under pressure from the provider special interests, from repealing the Medicare cost board as it now exists.

Whatever the political outlook for either side, we are about to see another budget and deficit showdown/crisis around Memorial Day—this one over raising the debt ceiling.

The two sides couldn’t have more different approaches to the problem—but neither really have solutions.

When the two sides get past what will quickly become the debt ceiling crisis—likely no more smoothly than they did the recent government shut-down crisis over the 2011 budget, then it will be on to the 2012 budget fight and the same stark differences and lack of real health care solutions.

This summer's debt limit, and the fall's 2012 budget confrontations, will be herculean fights.

Too bad these fights won’t be over how to solve the problem.

More on the Republican Health Care Proposal: The “Path to Prosperity”—Where’s the Health Care Cost Containment?

On controlling costs: What It Will Take to Bring America’s Health Care Costs Under Control––We Have to Change the Game

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What It Will Take to Bring America’s Health Care Costs Under Control––We Have to Change the Game

Last week, I posted that I was disappointed in Paul Ryan’s health care budget proposal because it lacked cost containment ideas other than the usual conservative reliance upon the market and defined contribution health care.

In my last post, Why ACOs Won’t Work, I argued that the latest health care silver bullet solution, Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), are just a tool in a big tool box of care and cost management tools. But, like all of the other tools over the years like HMOs and IPAs, they won’t be used as they were intended because everybody—providers and insurers—can make more money in the existing so far limitless fee-for-service system.

How do you make the American health care system efficient?

You change the game.

You can’t let the $2.5 trillion health care industrial complex any longer make money just getting bigger. The new game has to be one that only pays out a profit for results—better care for a budget the country can live with. There are lots of tools available to do that. ACOs, capitated HMOs, disease management, enormous data mines, electronic patient data systems, and so on.

How do you change the game?

Generally, it will have to be an unavoidable policy imperative that will have to make the giant and powerful health care industrial complex shift to a more efficient and sustainable platform. They gotta have a reason that is unavoidable.

There must be no other choice for them but to play the game differently with new rules that make profit possible only if they make quality care affordable for America.

And, it has to be a policy change. As I have said here before, the conservative notion that the market can, by itself, accomplish this is every bit as naive as the liberal argument we just need a government payer to make things instantly better. There is no evidence in the under-65 market or in Medicare Advantage that the market can do it by itself. There is also no evidence that the giant single payer system we now have—Medicare—has done it.

I also have no illusions about how hard this will be—that recent history is evidence that accomplishing such a game changing policy is all but impossible. The recent health care debate and the lack of cost containment in the Affordable Care Act (I wouldn’t have called it that), makes that clear. Even as this country faces annual deficits of over a trillion dollars and an accumulated $14 trillion dollar debt there is no appetite for real health care solutions—witness the Ryan plan and the Congress’ inability to tackle the Medicare doc payment mess.

Just look at the one thing in the Affordable Care Act that might at least begin to put us on a path to affordable care—the Medicare Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). It would take policymaking for Medicare payments out of the hands of the Congress starting in 2015—2020 for hospitals—and put those decisions with an independent expert board.

But already one Republican and Democratic “deficit hawk” after another is trying to kill the IPAB before it even starts mostly because the health care industrial complex wants it dead. These politicians argue these are decisions that should be left to elected officials. You might also find it interesting to know that the Republican leading the charge for the repeal of the IPAB, Representative Phil Roe (R-TX), received $91,000 in campaign contributions from providers in the last election cycle—double that of the next category of givers on his list (contractors).

A couple of years ago, I suggested a way to get the attention of the health care industrial complex and change the game was to tie the tax deductibility of health insurance offerings to that network of insurers, doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and other providers’ ability to meet cost targets (the Affordability Model). Either control costs or lose the tax incentives for consumers and employers to buy your services and therefore your ability to compete for business. That would get their attention.

That would change the game.

So, if in the face of all of these recent failures to really tackle costs, is there any hope policymakers will be able to give us a game changer?

I will remind you of a post I did last fall. In it I quoted former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. When asked if he thought we could ever implement the kind of tough budget medicine called for by the Deficit Commission chairs he replied, “The only question is, is it before or after a bond market crisis.”

This country is headed for a health care budget. The only question is will it be forced on us just before or just after the bond crisis. Just before or just after the rest of the world tells us they aren’t going to subsidize this American fiscal mess—largely driven by our health care costs—any longer.

Then the question will be about whether we have the sense to rationally manage that health care budget with all of these tools we have been developing for 20 years or will the politicians, in the midst of a real crisis, just impose expedient and arbitrary (as in ration care) budget solutions?

I hope the path we will then take is to change the game in a rational way.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why ACOs Won’t Work

First, I think Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) are a great idea. Just like I thought HMOs were a good idea in 1988 and I thought IPAs were a good idea in 1994.
The whole notion of making providers accountable for balancing cost, medical necessity, appropriateness of care, and quality just has to be the answer.

But here’s the problem with ACOs: They are a tool in a big tool box of care and cost management tools but, like all of the other tools over the years like HMOs and IPAs, they won’t be used as they were intended because everybody—providers and insurers—can make more money in the existing so far limitless fee-for-service system.

I see the $2.5 trillion American health care system as a giant health care industrial complex. It just grows on itself and sucks in more and more money. Why not? The bigger it gets the more money we give it.

How do you make it efficient? You change the game. You can’t let it any longer make money just getting bigger. The new game has to be one that only pays out a profit for results—better care for a budget the country can live with. There are lots of tools available to do that. ACOs, capitated HMOs, IPAs, disease management, enormous data mines, Electronic Patient Data Systems, and so on.

But, here’s the rub. There isn’t a lot of incentive for payers and providers to do more than talk about these things and actually make these tools work. Right now they can just make lots more money off the fee-for-service system. They demand more money and employers and government and consumers are willing to just dump more money into the system. Sure they complain about it but they just keep doing it.

On the heels of the “Patients Rights Rebellion” (or maybe better titled the Provider Rights Rebellion) in the late 1990s, a CEO of one of the biggest health plans told me, “We’ve had it. We tried to manage care. Actually got results. Then consumers and employers and the politicians all sawed the limb off on us. Screw it. Back to fee-for-service. We can make more money doing that and not take all of this heat. They won’t admit it but that is what they [patients, employers, and politicians] really want.”

ACOs won’t succeed in the near term any more than capitated HMOs and IPAs accomplished anything in their day because there is no reason—no imperative—for the health care industrial complex to want them to succeed.

Here’s a flash for the policy wonks pushing ACOs: They only work if the provider gets paid less for the same patient population. Why would they be dumb enough to voluntarily accept that outcome?

Oh, there will be some providers—particularly hospital administrators—who can’t wait to build an ACO but probably more because they want another excuse to corner the primary care docs as a marketing channel for their growing system. But spend millions to develop an ACO so they can get less money? Only in the policy wonk netherland does that compute.

The only people on the ball when it comes to this ACO idea are the anti-trust lawyers and with good reason.

In my next post, I will talk more about how we might change the game so that these tools can work.

Update October 2012
POLITICO Pro Health Care's team leads an interactive conversation focusing on the role and future of ACOs and their impact on providers and patients featuring Dr. Donald Berwick, former President and CEO, Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and former administrator, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; Joseph F. Damore, FACHE, Vice President, Premier Inc.; Bruce M. Fried, SNR Denton; Karen IgnagniPresident and CEO, America's Health Insurance Plans; Robert Laszewski, Health Policy and Strategy Associates.
Link to the video here


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