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!


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